Quick, name a restaurant that’s good-looking, casual, and where most every reasonably priced dish is a triumph. Coming up blank? That‘s likely because L.A. is full of places that can’t pull off this particular hat trick, places where good-looking frequently means overweening, casual can translate as lax, and great food necessitates busting the bank or revisiting a cheapie-but-goodie joint. Cinnabar, a small, airy restaurant that exudes neighborly appeal despite its no-zone location -- sandwiched between auto dealerships on Brand Boulevard‘s Boulevard of Cars -- has both the grace and skill to be just about all things to all people looking for a good meal.
Which is not what got me into Cinnabar’s door in the first place. That credit goes to the bar, an intricately carved wooden shrine transported from a defunct Chinatown bar called Yee Mee Loo. In the cool of the evening, with slatted blinds blocking the tumult of traffic outside, and gigantic upturned paper parasols and tropical foliage imparting a Saigon circa 1960 effect, Cinnabar was by far the best bar I knew of in Glendale. Which meant that for years, while I knew there was some sort of dining going on in two adjoining rooms, I was simply too carried away by the atmosphere, the drinks and the Billie Holiday pouring from the old jukebox to investigate. Then several people told me that Cinnabar, which opened in 1993, had a new chef, and that I must stop in and actually eat.
They were right. Chef Damon Bruner is doing some interesting and often magnificent things with Pacific Rim fare. Looking over the dinner menu, I get that giddy feeling of wanting to try everything, and am only sorry it‘s not a Friday or Saturday, when we can indulge in the tasting menu. Who wouldn’t want to sample crispy lobster roll with grilled tomato dipping sauce, gravlax Napoleon, an intermezzo of Northern Pacific Oyster with sake granita, roasted filet mignon with foie gras medallion, and warm apple pie with Wisconsin Cheddar? Cinnabar understands, and accommodates by offering many of its entrees in half-portions.
We begin with yellowtail mille feuille, very fresh raw cubes sluiced with a sharp wasabi-soy vinaigrette, tucked between crisp fried won ton skins and top-hatted with a crunchy, black-sesame-studded tuille. The excellent sizzling calamari salad is a gigantic plate piled with tender calamari, with chopped peanuts for crunch and a fluff of fresh cilantro for zing, all suffused with a limey, chile-hot dressing. For a shared starter, we try an entree of bouillabaisse, a dish I normally shy away from, having suffered through too many poorly prepared olios. Among Bruner‘s accomplishments, count his acuity with shellfish -- the shrimp in this lemongrass and lime-leaf broth are so perfectly cooked, so delicate and juicy, they pop when I bite into them.
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We order half-portions of five entrees. Perhaps it’s our overfamiliarity with pan-fried versions, but we find the crispy tempura soft-shell crab somewhat odd; while the body can support the singular flavor of tempura batter, the long, spiky legs cannot, tasting too much like fry. We also detect a slightly heavy hand, or perhaps a heaviness of concept, with herb-crusted halibut, which is overpowered by rosemary, sauteed garlic and shiitake mushrooms, a few too many strong co-stars for the mild milk-white fish to work with. Much better are Colorado lamb chops, charbroiled with hoisin, purple and soft in the center, their gaminess nicely matched with sweet smoked-red-pepper relish and a yolk-yellow puff of garlic custard potatoes. The pan-roasted venison chop arrives in a crust of black and Szechuan peppers and a red-wine garlic sauce so good, we dab up the dribs with our fingers. Filet mignon is just a tad rich for summertime, its thick mustard-wine sauce better suited to December, or perhaps a T-bone.
Any nitpicking about entrees is obliterated by dessert, made in-house. While chocoholics may find it hard to resist the double-chocolate walnut truffle torte (or the chocolate cherry pecan pie, with cherry ice cream), they should go straight for the beguiling ”chocolate air cake on a drunken cloud“: Dense yet spongy, rich though not at all cloying, with lots of Grand Marnier--spiked whipped cream laced with tart raspberry puree, this is an astounding dessert. The individual lemon tart is properly puckery, its rim studded with sugared pistachios.
Leaving Cinnabar, we run into the tall, broad, exceedingly handsome chef Bruner. When I ask him when he started cooking here, he rears back his head and laughs. ”I‘ve been here five years,“ he says. Oops.
933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 551-1155. Open Thurs.--Fri. for lunch, nightly for dinner. Starters, $5--$14.50; entrees, $13--$23.50. Full bar. AE, D, MC, V.