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Maximal flavors in a minimalist setting

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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Naming a restaurant Temple implies a certain confidence in one‘s ability to provide tranquillity. Playing against type, by situating the restaurant in an old Googie diner, appeals to the L.A. pop preference for anything-goes transcendence. But Korean food with “Brazilian overtones”? That might be taking a bigger bite than can be properly chewed.

The building, the former Beverly Hills Cafe on La Cienega Boulevard, has been stripped of its cartoon contours and decorated in cool, minimalist grays and blacks, with lighting fixtures that resemble gently undulating sea vegetables. The front bar, with floor-to-ceiling windows and artfully placed orchids, provides its young habitues with a pretty place to drink apple martinis and wait for a table.

And wait they must on a Saturday night, as Temple appears to be a destination restaurant for dining scenesters. While the aesthetics are soothing, the dynamics are vigorous, with waiters bustling between tables snug up against one another, and patrons running the gauntlet from bar to dining room to patio.

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“Haven’t you been given menus?” asked our maitre d‘, 10 minutes after we’d been seated. Once this was righted, we were immediately brought a long, narrow tray holding tiny dishes of vegetables: lightly sweet-and-sour ruffles of daikon; throat-searing kimchi; bean sprouts tossed simply with vinegar and sesame oil.

The starters looked so good, we ordered with abandon. The spicy calamari salad was a mound of lime-bright baby greens tossed with a ginger vinaigrette and topped with very crisp fried O‘s of calamari, slivers of sauteed Japanese eggplant and fried rice sticks. Pumpkin and kabocha squash soup was plush and honey-sweet, made buttery with a scattering of crushed pine nuts. The crab cakes were marvelous, the flaky interiors sharpened with kimchi, and topped with a frazzle of fried beet. Rock-shrimp dumplings were less successful, the dough stiff, the shrimp bland, but the soy-steeped seaweed salad alongside was fresh, peppery and bright.

We had yet to detect any Brazilian influence, and didn’t get it with the entrees. Beef sam bap was strips of sirloin, a little gray, meant to be draped over small balls of sticky rice, swiped with garlicky Korean miso sauce and eaten wrapped in butter-lettuce leaves. While the presentation was pretty, none of the parts evinced much flavor, making for a wan and rather messy whole. Braised short ribs were a triumph, meaty and full of flavor, swimming in a luxuriously thick goo of red dates and soy that had so thoroughly saturated disks of daikon and chestnuts that they were stained dark and tasted like sugar beets. Korean kimchi stew was a big bowl of bright-orange, chile-infused, very salty broth, bobbing with rather large, thin slices of pork, soft tofu and kimchi.

With the exception of the beef sam bap, the flavor of every dish was intense; perhaps too intense. There was nothing subtle about this food; it was either sweet or hot or salty or a combination of all three, and I drank every liquid on the table by the time we were delivered complimentary shot glasses of sweet “cinnamon water.” And yet, as we polished off a banana spring roll, deep-fried and served with a sugary coconut ganache, we realized that the 45 minutes we thought we‘d spent on dinner was actually two hours, and that time had passed agreeably. We were further heartened -- perhaps shocked is a better word -- to see that, while we’d dined like Lucullus, we‘d spent a mere $90, for three.

My friend asked if I’d return for dinner; I told her I thought not, though Temple was so pretty, it might be a nice place to meet for lunch. As if divining my thoughts, Temple recently opened for the midday meal. And while I can‘t say it delivers on the promise of its name, it may be serving up exactly what its up-to-the-minute clientele is looking for: food that packs a pow, if not authentic power.

14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 360-9460. Open for lunch Mon.--Sat. 11:30 a.m.--2:30 p.m., and for dinner Mon.--Sun. 6--11 p.m. Full bar. AE, Disc., MC, V.

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