For many years, the Spanish Kitchen on Beverly Boulevard was a mystery, the Los Angeles version of Miss Havisham's dust-grizzled, spider-webbed, clock-stopped digs in Great Expectations. Back in 1961, the restaurant — which was once a kind of earlier version of El Coyote — was open one day, closed the next, and for years its tables remained set with cloths, silverware, sugar, salt and pepper shakers — as if at any moment, the closed sign might be flipped over and life would flood back in. At least, that's the myth. (In truth, the owner closed down to take care of her ailing husband.) The alluring, anachronistic signage and prime commercial address inspired many inquiries and some half-hearted attempts at reconditioning. Only recently, however, did two businesses — Prive Salon and Ona Spa — move in. Prive retained the famous horizontal sign, somehow erasing all but the letters SPA . . .
In this city of reinvention, the Spanish Kitchen has recently been resurrected, or at least its name and an approximation of its signage has. On La Cienega, where the Shark Bar used to be, a new Spanish Kitchen has been set-dressed and opened for business. The space is impressive, full of tile work, wrought iron, colored-glass lamps, and other Mexican design motifs. It's a big theme park of a restaurant with a deeply corporate soul that gleams through in all the canned light and the pressed acoustic tile ceiling (designed to look like pressed tin). But the young people — blonds in low-slung pants and thick belts, young men in rumpled linen or slick silk — crowd into booths and float around the bar, even if the overall ambiance is largely that of a big hotel lobby.
I stopped in for dinner one night on an impulse. I had dressed up but my friend Natalie was in casual gear, jeans and a bad-hair-day baseball cap. I assume this was the reason that, in an all but empty restaurant, we were taken to a far, far away corner where it took forever for a waiter — and, eventually, our food — to find us.
Opening the menu, though, I was heartened to see that the Spanish Kitchen's chef was Hugo Molina, who cooked for years at Pasadena's Parkway Grill, then opened his own critically applauded eponymous Cal-eclectic restaurant (which closed several years ago almost as mysteriously as the former Spanish Kitchen did). That these two lost culinary legends were being resurrected together seemed potentially serendipitous.
Alas, nothing about the Spanish Kitchen proved serendipitous. The service was weak — overstaffed, unsynchronized, bumbling, forgetful and neglectful. (One waiter wandered off before taking everybody's order at the table!) And Molina's Mex-eclectic food was overwrought, under-realized and inattentively prepared.
The cooking suffered from a heavy-handed murkiness — too much sauce, too much of everything actually. The avocado and papaya salad with spiced pecans was sodden with a very sweet honey-lime dressing and the house salad was downright stewed in an also very sweet lemon vinaigrette.
Molina's chile poblano en nogado, a celebratory Mexican classic, was a poblano chile with a weird leathery egg casing stuffed with sweet pork and served in a rich walnut sauce; I've had versions that transcended the high calorie count of the dish, but this was not one. And speaking of gratuitous calories: I wished that the huitlacoche quesadilla wasn't deep fried. Better was a duck tamale, the rich dark meat buffered by moist masa, and doused in pipian or pumpkin seed sauce; for once the sweetness was calibrated, beguiling.
Entrées, or platos grandes, were theatrically presented. A lobster tail was pried out of its shell and then served atop it — yet it was still curiously, intransigently, attached to the shell so you had to cut it there on its uncertain perch, a puzzling and awkward process. The meat itself was overcooked and drenched in what was called a "crema de coco black pasilla cream sauce," but which seemed to me to be a classic lobster sauce somewhat thicker and a bit spicier than usual, which I liked a lot.
Certain dishes were just fine: the filet mignon, for example, was a decent cut that came with garlic mashed potatoes and a puddle of black huitlacoche sauce and a few green beans and carrots — though at $29 it should have been a stand out. Pollo a la parilla, an excellent succulent breast simply grilled and served with a pleasant, mild serrano-orange sauce, Spanish rice, and tomato-flecked white beans, was good, if dull. But the puerco en barbacoa, a banana-leaf packet of heavily sauced, shredded pork was too sweet and rich and oddly unfulfilling. The rack of lamb, ordered rare, came well-done, dry — and lukewarm!
Desserts, like the entrées, were overproduced and underwhelming. Caramelized bananas had just been sugared and hit with a blowtorch, so instead of that great deep caramelization, the warm slices had a glassy stick-to-your-teeth coating. Flanbrulée de café was two custards, one smooth and squat, the other more like sweet scrambled eggs, neither particularly interesting. The pineapple turnover was better — crusty and good with melting ice cream. Best of all, however, was the delicious house coffee.
All told, with its ambitious décor and kitchen, this Spanish Kitchen seems to have taken little but the name from its namesake. I'm sure the other was no culinary star, but I also doubt that it was anywhere near as expensive. The space itself seems destined to house a series of trendy hangouts for the well-heeled. Or, as one friend remarked, eyeing the big room with its mural of Mexican clichés: "It's nice for the young people who have no taste."
The Spanish Kitchen, 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 659-4794. Dinner Sun.-Tues. 6 p.m.-midnight, Wed.-Sat. 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Entrées, $17-$35. AE, D, DC, MC, V.