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Couscous, Bang Bang

Perhaps it‘s the locals’ involvement in the visual and performing arts (and the just-scraping-by that often comes with it), but the dining scene in Silver Lake often reflects a preference for good looks or personality over commendable cuisine. Enter Chameau, a small and fetching French-Moroccan restaurant whose subtle decor and well-thought-out menu make me hope for a new neighborhood place with as much substance as style.

Chameau (which means ”camel“ in French) has been open since July, but on a Tuesday night a friend and I are spooked to find that we‘re literally the only people there. We’re about to seat ourselves when a young waiter with WB-network looks and an ingratiating smile leads us to a snug corner table. The room is simple and warm, with blond walls and noninsistent music. Presented with a basket of sourdough breads and ramekins of oil-cured olives and mild versions of tapenade and skordalia (a puree of potatoes, bread crumbs, garlic and herbs), I‘m certain we’re in for a good meal -- until our waiter, whom I‘ll call Waiter, takes up residence tableside and delivers a 15-minute synopsis of his life, beginning with his script deal, which he landed because of his Matrix-like ability to discern good from evil, which began when an Indian healer blessed his pregnant mother’s belly, which has led to his careers as a yoga teacher and enlightened being.

”I work as a waiter to, you know, keep humble,“ he adds.

I hastily ask for a menu.

We begin with a sublime baked-squash soup, silky-rich, sweet with cinnamon, with a smoky smack of cumin hitting the back of the throat, and a vertical salad composed of baby spinach leaves atop julienned endive mixed with yogurt and black olives, accompanied by what turns out to be a tepid slice of fried Brie.

My entree, perfectly pan-roasted sea bass, comes with a tagine of tiny-dice squashes and onions, sauteed with pomegranate molasses and spiked with about $6 worth of pine nuts. My friend‘s cavatelli, a spiral pasta I find a tad chewy, is tricked up with too many delicious-but-not-together items: grilled shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, what the menu calls ”milk cheese“ (I’d say Parmesan) and a distracting sparkle of cilantro.

After several requests for the dessert menu, Waiter recites the offerings: ”Pumpkin cheesecake, this banana creme brulee that has, like, cinnamon sugar on top all bubbly, it‘s really good, and a chocolate cake we bake in the oven.“

I cut into the world’s smallest bundt cake, three inches in diameter, watching it ooze its molten Valrhona center over a scoop of caramel ice cream. My friend adores the cheesecake, which tastes like the baked-squash soup made solid, which is to say, delicious.

Waiter wouldn‘t know.

”I don’t eat dairy or meat,“ he says, explaining how humans are not meant to digest them. He‘s dismissive when I suggest this might not be the best post-prandial remark in a nonvegan restaurant. ”That’s okay,“ he says. ”You guys have already eaten.“

When I return that Friday with two friends, I‘m spooked again, this time because the place is packed, and Waiter is the only one working the room. I sense impending disaster, and sure enough, after 30 minutes we have yet to receive menu, bread or the offer to open our bottle of wine. (Chameau is BYOB.) When Waiter sits with four bodybuilders one table over, laughing with his head thrown back, one friend announces that she can’t take it, and leaves. I don‘t blame her. It is another 30 minutes before we order.

When my generous starter of 18 mussels

with saffron broth arrives (and rather quickly -- the timing problems are not in chef Adel Chagar’s kitchen), I beg for bread, as everyone knows the best part of mussels is sopping up the broth. Or maybe not: While the small mussels are nicely cooked, the pungent broth smells inescapably like wet dog. My remaining companion shares his chicken bestila, a darling puff of phyllo filled with spiced chicken and almonds and dusted with powdered sugar. And all is almost forgiven when I bite into the merguez sausage tucked beneath my entree of lemon-glazed chicken, which comes with a large mound of couscous nonpareil, studded with currants; I‘d like a whole bowl of this, please. But my friend’s medium-rare beef tenderloin arrives medium-well, and stringy. And that lump of what looks like dirty snow plowed to the side of the road? Purple potatoes, mashed without anything flavorful. The baby vegetables -- thimble-size beets, zucchini smaller than a pinkie -- are crisp and pretty, but cannot make up for the low-frequency hysteria in the room: patrons pleading for water, a neighbor asking for our spare set of silverware.

After three months, this part of the restaurant‘s operation ought to be under control. What is the point of making good food -- and the food at Chameau is, for the most part, among the best in the area -- if you can’t get it into people‘s mouths?

Our enlightened Waiter senses there’s something wrong, though nothing he can‘t put right. ”I’m a healer,“ he says. ”I can come to your house and do some bodywork for you guys.“

2520 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 953-1973. Open Tues.--Sat. for dinner only, 6--11 p.m. BYOB. Starters, $7.50; entrees, $17.50; desserts, $6.50. AE, CB, Disc., MC, V.


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