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Making a virtue of simplicity

At Canele in Atwater Village, chef Corina Weibel focuses not on what's in fashion but on what's in season.

December 13, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

IT must be fate.

Every time I drop in to Canele (and drop in is the only way to go since the 3-month-old Atwater Village restaurant doesn't take reservations), I end up sitting at the communal table in the front window. Twice it was because there was no other table available and my friends and I didn't want to wait.

But now I tend to gravitate to one end of the broad farmhouse table set with vases filled with herbs. I like sitting down to dinner without feeling locked into a tiny two-top. Sometimes you see familiar faces. But mostly you don't and that's a big part of the appeal -- the sense of a shared experience with new acquaintances.

Someone will wonder what it is you're eating or ask for a recommendation. Someone else will lean close conspiratorially and tell you to order the heirloom tomatoes with olives, cucumbers and feta. I do. And it is delicious and surprisingly generous for $9.

Because the communal table sitters tend to be a self-selected group, people are often more sociable and they linger. Over wine. Over coffee. Over the beguiling buena chica cheesecake.

From this comforting wooden table on the sidelines, you can take in the entire scene at Canele. Waiters rushing about, baker's linens tied around their waists as aprons. Line cooks banging pots and pan-searing up a storm, and, in the middle of it all, chef and co-owner Corina Weibel, cool and collected.

From my seat, too, I can watch the neighborhood crowd into the workaday space that was once, before a paint job and a cleanup, the long-running Osteria Nonni. In fact, in tribute to Nonni, Weibel has kept its aglio olio on the menu for the stalwarts who lament the Italian spot's passing.

Weibel has been working as a caterer for the last five years, but before that, she cooked at Campanile and then Lucques. (Could that be where she got the idea for the hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-remember name, which refers to a small fluted pastry from Bordeaux?) Her business partner is Jane Choi, who got her front (and back) of the house experience at the frenetic French bistro Balthazar in New York. It's a good combination of skills.

But Canele is no Balthazar or Lucques. It's modest in scope and ambition, more a great neighborhood restaurant than the kind of scene that gets mentioned in the trades or gossipy blogs. Good thing too. Because this is the kind of place where you don't have to worry whether your outfit passes muster. It's pretty much come as you are and kick back over a homey bowl of soup or a plate of roasted beets with fennel and goat cheese.

Given Weibel's background, it's no surprise that the menu displays a certain California-Mediterranean bent. And why not? It's the cuisine that makes sense in Southern California. Her food isn't based on what's in fashion, but on what's in season.

And though the cooking at Canele isn't as polished as that at L.A.'s top Mediterranean spots, it is honest and it is very good. Weibel doesn't necessarily have her sights set on the stars. She seems like she just wants to feed people well. And that, after all, should be a restaurant's mission, but too often other things become more important. Not at Canele.

Clean and fresh

I love her farmers market salad of freckled lettuces dressed with creme fraiche and finely minced shallots. This is the way a simple green salad should taste, especially when the kitchen has access to such fresh produce. I like the way she uses celery root in a salad too. She doesn't load up the julienned root with mayonnaise as in a celery remoulade but instead dresses it in a piquant sherry vinaigrette that allows the fresh grassiness of the celeriac to shine.

Here's a cook who goes for the clean and fresh flavors almost every time, in dishes like this one or her bright-tasting salad of seared calamari drenched in lime.

Although this is a restaurant where you could eat often, at first there wasn't much shift in the menu from week to week. As much as I enjoy the bright zap of that calamari, I don't want to eat it every time. But on a recent visit, Weibel has not just one or two, but several excellent specials, which signals a change. The kitchen is more confident, ready to take on some new dishes.

This night, she is serving a wooden board of jamon serrano with a couple of Spanish cheeses and a lovely handmade quince paste that sets off the nutty quality of the cheeses. Oddly, though, the ham itself doesn't have much flavor.

We can't pass up the steamed littleneck clams, which you can order either as an appetizer or a main course. We order the larger size to share among three as an appetizer. The portion is generous and the clams absolutely delicious, with plenty of juices to soak up with an otherwise undistinguished baguette.

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