Difficulties in Translation
Photo by Anne Fishbein
"WHAT KIND OF RESTAURANT IS THIS?" ASKS Wendy as she scans the menu at the new Tangier on Hillhurst.
I too scan the menu. Caesar salad, tuna carpaccio, steak frites. But then there's a chicken curry. A lamb shank. Drunken duck. "Looks like the usual California hodgepodge," I say.
"Then why is it called Tangier?" says Wendy.
Indeed, the dining room looks very much as it did six months ago, when the Los Feliz Inn, a jazz and dinner club, occupied the premises. Gray booths, carpet, tasteful. Oh, there's a Persian carpet in front of the hostess station. And the front door has been clad in pure copper. Still . . . I look back to the menu -- no couscous, no tagine, not a preserved lemon in sight.
I turn the menu over. There's another list of dishes under the heading "On the Hip Side." BBQ ribs, fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs. Oh dear. Don't the owners know that labeling something On the Hip Side is about as unhip as you could get? But then I see that the confusing typeface actually reads, "On the Flip Side."
We order, and the bread arrives, French rolls with very salty butter that's redolent of refrigerants. Not a promising start. But appetizers raise our spirits: The "feta cube," fried slices of feta cheese with warm grilled tomatoes and a basil leaf, is quite tasty; it's like something a good home cook might make up for a dinner party. The shrimp "Titus" -- named, our waiter tells us, for Titus Andronicus -- is hard, overboiled shrimp tossed with chunks of avocado and lots of chives in a creamy rémoulade-type sauce and served in a long-stemmed glass (a mistake: It looks like meat chunks in mayonnaise). Why this shrimp is named for a Roman general who made a pie out of his enemies is unclear -- especially since shrimp Titus has the same benign vibe as the feta cube, and seems another semisuccessful invention of some well-meaning, decent home cook. On the other hand, beef carpaccio, seared at its edges and presented with horseradish cream and a small arugula salad, seems like regular ol' California fine-dining fare.
Our entrées have less panache than the appetizers. My New York steak, with its sweet balsamic shallot sauce, is unremarkable but not unpleasant, the accompanying "frites" just so-so. The cup of ketchup proves unequivocally that whatever else it may be, Tangier is not a French bistro; in France, you'd be sneered out of the café for even requesting any condiment but moutarde.
Lamb shank "Tangier," slow-braised in a dense stew, has the spice and earthiness we expected of a restaurant so named. Too bad it comes with overly slick mashed potatoes.
The savory fish pie (not, I notice, named for Titus Andronicus) gives us our first strong suspicion about what kind of restaurant Tangier really is. This is a disk of puff pastry filled with creamed seafood, and it tastes like something my mother used to make in the 1960s out of Sunset magazine. It also looks very much like a pasty, those savory turnovers usually found in England.
The dessert menu clinches our suspicions. Chocolate mousse with "99 Flake"? Brandy snaps with golden syrup? Oranges with Gran Marnier and Devonshire cream?
"It's English!" crows Wendy. "I knew it!"
Cadbury's 99 Flake is a crispy chocolate confection often stuck in ice cream in the British Isles. Brandy snaps are crisp tuile cookies curled into rolls, filled with dreamy Devonshire cream and drizzled with mild golden syrup. The whole sliced orange, impaled on a spike of amber crystallized sugar and sprinkled with liqueur, is served with more dollops of thick, mouth-coating D cream -- another simple, beguiling, housewifely invention. But hey, Twinkies would be heavenly with enough Devonshire cream on 'em.
Tangier's owner, it turns out, is one William Annesley, a charming Brit, who spent years as a private chef before creating this restaurant and club. Apart from the menu, there's plenty of justification for the name Tangier. After eating, we stroll through the rest of the building -- which during our meal has become quite the happening club. A patio is full of plants and smokers. The bar and lounge area, and a huge, beautiful backroom, are all outfitted in lush Moorish detail -- Moroccan tapestries and cut-metal lamps, cushions, beguiling cavelike lighting. On a Friday night, as a disc jockey maintains a steady bass throb, the rooms fill with glamorous adults. It feels like a party in a home, a posh home, or palace, in, well, Tangier.
On a Sunday, we stop in again for dinner. Tangier has a special Sunday-night menu -- many items from the Hip-I-mean-Flip side, plus roast and fish specials.
Fish and chips is what it is: The deep-fried battered cod is moist and good enough, but the fries are still so-so, and not much helped by the ketchup and malt vinegar. The chicken curry, very spicy and full-flavored, is studded with golden raisins, and makes one diner very happy. "They should stick to this kind of more Tangier-ish sort of thing," she says.
But I love the most British plate of all: Tonight's roast is leg of lamb. Cooked perfectly pink, it comes with lovely creamed leeks, roasted parsnips, mint sauce and minted peas. The perfect Sunday supper.
2138 Hillhurst Ave.; (323) 666-8666. Open daily for lunch and dinner, and Sunday for brunch. Entrées $12.75$24.75. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V.
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