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The Path to Enlightened Pad Thai 

Thursday, Mar 13 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

A FEW YEARS AGO, CALIFORNIA TUSCAN WAS SO UBIQUITOUS IN THIS town, you couldn't toss a tomato without hitting some sparely sauced pasta or chicken roasted with rosemary. But the pizza-pasta-insalate wave seems to have run its course; and while no single trend has replaced it, the opening of Buddha's Belly — where Rosti once stood on the corner of Beverly and Gardner — does seem indicative of the times.

I was not in a hurry to try Buddha's Belly — the name struck me as silly and a bit embarrassing. And then there are the religious overtones. I mean, could there ever be a pan-Middle Eastern restaurant called Mohammed's Mouth? Or an all-Indian called Ganesha's Gut? Or a pan-Western Jesus' Craw?

But stepping into the prettily redesigned space on a Thursday evening, and finding it full of lively, neighborhood creative types, I was pleasantly surprised. The place is tasteful, relaxed and expertly done: whimsical, outsized, Thai-silk lanterns hang from the ceiling; table tops are a lovely thick wood; booths are upholstered in gorgeous fabrics scrawled with elegant Chinese characters. And bamboo is everywhere: on the silverware dispensers, the picture frames, pressed between plexiglass for an unusual room divider — there's even real, green bamboo screening the pergola outside and an elegant "bamboo room" in the back, for private parties of up to 50 people. Buddha's Belly is so handsomely designed, and the welcoming, arms-up, belly-thrusting Buddha presiding at the front door is so cheering, and the place so bustling, my misgivings about the name decreased.

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The wait staff are bright and helpful. From my seat I see a table of beautiful young people of different ethnicities, most of them Asian, which seemed almost emblematically in keeping with the tone of the place. The food is pan-Asian, after all: You'll find many of the most popular Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, most of which are updated for today's urban American palette. Of course this means that they're both somewhat authentic and somewhat, well, adjusted. Each dish feels carefully conceived, perfected, somewhat systematized — all ready for franchising. As one friend said of the cooking, "It's a few plexiglass bamboo screens away from authentic."

Take the nabeyaki seafood pot. Nabeyaki in most Japanese noodle houses is the mother of all udon soups. Served in a cast-iron pot, it is the most garnished soup with vegetables and tempura shrimp and fish cake and a raw egg that cooks in a clear, boiling broth. At Buddha's Belly, it's a thicker miso broth already spiked with lots of red pepper; the vegetables are augmented with seafood (hot-pink-edged fish cake, scallops, green mussels, and salmon) and there's no floating, freshly cracked egg. All in all, the Buddha's Belly version is both amped (the spicy, thick broth, all that seafood) and denatured (no politically incorrect raw egg). It ain't bad — except for rubbery mussels — just a little busy.

Starters — and all the dishes — are beautifully presented. Big semi-spherical leaves of iceberg are heaped beside crisp, white rice noodles and a mix of chicken, water chestnuts and pine nuts for fill-your-own lettuce cups. Albacore tuna and avocado spring rolls are deep-fried, crusty without and melting within; gimmicky but good. A gingery and refreshing Thai beef salad is inauthentic only because the quality of meat is far better than what you'd get on the streets of Bangkok.

One wonders how three steamed dumplings or three potstickers could be worth $4.95 and $4.50, respectively, but these are monster versions — a kind of irradiated dim sum — with wonderful, thick, chewy skins and ample, juicy filling; though I wish the pot stickers had a bit more stuck-to-the-pot crispness, and that they came with some chili and vinegar and not just the orange-spiked ponzu. On the other hand, the pad Thai is terrific: not too sweet and studded with chicken, shrimp and fried tofu, with bean sprouts, peanuts and lime to add as you like — the only thing I wanted was more green, some scallions and cilantro.

We had a big laugh when the tofu steak — a tasty and tender cut of tofu — is served with a serrated steak knife (a bit of punning irony, we think, until it is clear that these are the only knives on the premises). A decent version of that ever-popular Cal-Asian staple, miso-marinated black cod, comes in a beautiful, three-compartment, lacquered box with sushi rice and cool cucumber salad. The real steak, a grilled sirloin, is a lean, deeply soy-soaked cut that seemed more marinated than actually cooked; it was served on a bed of grilled vegetables — potatoes, caramelized onions, seared red pepper — in a lake of sweet ponzu. A little too much sugar there.

Dessert, then, doesn't seem so necessary, which is good, because the coconut tapioca pudding is also too sweet and bland, and the hot sesame buns are heavy with oil. Still, we linger and sip tea and watch as sake loosens up the big table of pretty young people nearby. Soon they are as raucous and exuberant as the fat Buddha appears by the door. Leaving, we rub his boulderlike belly and leave a few cents at his feet for luck. Maybe the restaurant's name won't prove so silly after all. We'll see.

Buddha's Belly, 7475 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-8588. Lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. until 11 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. Valet parking in the evenings. Takeout. Entrées, $6.50-$14.50.

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