No institution in the culinary world is less lovable than the office-building cafeteria, that entrepôt of damp salads, soggy muffins and nipple-topped Arrowhead water priced like splits of fine champagne. The “cooks” are apt to be baffled by such challenges as slicing bagels or buttering toast.
You could recognize an office-building cafeteria with your eyes closed, from the funk of stale coffee and overcooked tuna melts, the scrape of metal spatulas on a grill and the drone of gossiping temp workers, which may be why these cafeterias are often hidden away in windowless corners on high floors.
One occasionally hears of some business or another treating its cafeteria as an amenity rather than as a utility, with sushi stations, pasta made to order, and gardenfuls of fresh fruit attractively arranged in baskets, but still — nobody eats in an office cafeteria by choice. I once worked for a company whose Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria was in no way less spectacular than Guggenheim Bilbao, but even sinuous titanium walls and $80,000 glass panels failed to disguise the dismal nature of the enterprise, which was to keep employees tethered to their desks for as many hours a day as possible. When lunchtime came around, the building emptied out into local bistros, salad bars and chili parlors that may not have been designed by Frank Gehry or have featured guest shots by famous chefs, but in some real way managed to feed the soul.
Which brings us, I guess, to Lemon Moon, a glamorous new restaurant next to a gym in a sleekly modern media office complex on the Westside, a restaurant with soaring ceilings, sculpted blond wood, and a lighted marquee as dramatic as any in Los Angeles. The architect, Stephen Jones, designed Spago Beverly Hills among other restaurants, and is well-known for his ability to coax out the glamour from restaurant spaces located in airports, bowling alleys and Kuwait. The chefs who co-own the place, Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta, are boyhood friends who ran the excellent JiRaffe together before Citrin split off to open Melisse, which is probably one of the half-dozen best French kitchens in town.
Lemon Moon is grand enough to be a major restaurant, the kind of place where the maitre d’ is on a first-name basis with Yohji Yamamoto and the reservationist gives you a choice between 5:45 or 10. It is, instead, a stab at an ultimate office-building cafeteria, with streamlined service, relatively healthy food, plenty of takeout options, and a simplified menu wide enough to cater to every imaginable diet, ethnic whim or religious persuasion.
When you wander into Lemon Moon, you grab a paper menu from a stack near the register, wait in line to order, pay, and find a table — preferably outside, on the pleasant patio. The waiter bearing your food will eventually find you.
If you’re not communing with Dr. Atkins at the moment, you should probably start with a crisp, thin-crusted square of flatbread, patterned on the kind of carta di musica you find at the best bakeries in Rome, topped with herbed cheese or thin-sliced potatoes. Panini of ham and cheese or turkey with caramelized onions are served on rolls that are rather too soft for their intended purpose; but the cheeseburgers on similar rolls, made with profoundly aged prime beef, are luscious, among the best in L.A. Kim Boyce, a former pastry chef at Campanile, acts as a consultant to chef Danny El Maleh, who makes cupcakes and cheesecakes and big chocolate cookies for dessert.
As you might expect, there is a small specialty in big salads, including their version of a salad niçoise with white slabs of grilled albacore tuna; a peculiar barbecued-chicken salad with corn and tortilla chips; and a decent version of the inevitable Chinese chicken salad — even Langer’s serves one now — with a fine tangle of fried rice noodles and a vinegary dressing enriched with Chinese plum sauce. The marinated-steak salad is a curious hybrid, leaning one way with its peppery Japanese vegetation and flavors not unlike those found in seaweed salads, the other with a dressing that is fairly close to a Vietnamese fish sauce.
But the heart of the restaurant is probably the big deli case of prepared salads, a farmers’ market–driven, multiethnic congeries of rock-shrimp ceviche, Israeli salad, farfalle with spiced walnuts and hummus, and Korean-style bean-sprout salad nearly as diverse as Los Angeles itself. The chef of record, El Maleh, who comes to Lemon Moon from Melisse, is a half-Japanese, half-Moroccan guy raised in Israel and grounded in classical French technique, which means that the hijiki salad and the cumin-intensive eggplant chermoula, the couscous with grapefruit and the roasted mushrooms with polenta have a certain authority whether they veer toward authenticity or not.
Citrin and Lunetta are obviously capable of greater things — things which, not incidentally, you can taste at their other restaurants; but at Lemon Moon they aim for no less than increasing the sum of human happiness. If necessary, Lemon Moon is willing to get you in and out in 20 minutes, deliver your lunch or wrap anything up to go, so that the happiness may extend even to your desk.
Lemon Moon, 12200 W. Olympic Blvd., (310) 442-9191, www.lemonmoon.com. Breakfast and lunch Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–3:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Food for two: $11–$24.