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Less Is Less

The House Restaurant inhabits an older, hard-used, still handsome Craftsman home on Melrose just east of Vine, which makes it a viable, less pricey alternative to Pinot Hollywood and Les Deux Cafes. Formerly inhabited by Fabiolus, an easy-on-the-budget Italian canteen, the House has been renovated -- walls bathed in a soothing sage gray, woodwork enameled in cream, windows judiciously papered so as to admit light and obscure the grim, trafficky stretch of avenue. Tables clutter a former living room, dining room and parlor. On chilly nights, a fire blazes. Wine glasses twinkle on white linens. When the seats fill, the din is deafening.

Chef Scooter Kanfer is the Los Angeles restaurant scene’s equivalent of a high-end script polisher; after honing her chops at Spago, Granita and Chinois, she‘s spent much of the last decade amping up the dishes in many a just-opened kitchen, including One Pico at Shutters and Fred Eric’s Vida (where she was the pastry chef responsible for reinventing the Pop-Tart). She helped the Hollywood Hills Cafe rock and set Larry Nicola‘s Nic’s in Beverly Hills on its feet. Now, she‘s the House’s chef--co-owner -- a hyphenate! -- with partners Dana Caskey and Rich Occhiuto. Her food is seasonal high-Americana -- she‘s not above reinventing spoon bread, macaroni and cheese, the lettuce wedge, steak, pan-fried chicken or cocoa.

The photocopied, all-lower-case, one-page menu depends on the seasonal produce market. One night wild mushrooms are scattered throughout, starting with a beef-rich broth and compellingly gamy wild-mushroom soup. There they are again in the nightly spoon bread, the one flat trope. Tiny cast-iron frying pans hold the eggy cornmeal custard, in this case with a few mushrooms baked in; the doll-size pan is cute, but the flavors are dull, the texture like watery bread or overbaked flan.

Grilled endive, slippery with crisp charred tips, is well matched with goat cheese, grapes and a pomegranate vinaigrette. “A little picnic” is a plate of pate, a small scattering of mixed olives and caper berries. One wishes the bread -- from a local bakery -- were better.

Entrees shine. Lamb tenderloin, roasted rare to order, is served sliced and tender on a white-bean puree. A juicy pork rib chop, plump as Gone With the Wind in paperback, is stuffed with caramelized apples, fennel and fragrant rye bread, and served with fresh sweet potatoes. Pan-cooked chicken, buttermilk mashed potatoes and sauteed bitter greens share a puddle of sharp, concentrated, wine-spiked reduction that recalls the clear, loud flavors Wolfgang Puck encourages at Spago. Cote du boeuf is 18 ounces of excellent marbled meat, mineraly at the bone and plump with juice thanks to a brilliant, near-blistering, but inspired use of sea salt -- amazing!

A Sunday-night prix fixe dinner, even at $30 per person, proves more slapdash, with the House strengths (i.e., the entrees) and weaknesses (namely the service and portion size) clearly on display. We sit for many minutes in a half-empty room before we spot a waitress, and again as long before she greets us. When she finally takes our order, she takes it with her around the room as she visits each table. The first food, so long in coming, is small, scant appetizers and boring bread -- a two-tone, tasteless rye. Not until entrees assert their excellence -- a delicately crisped sauteed skate wing in a Meyer lemon sauce, and a beautiful pot-roasted brisket -- does our unease begin to dissipate. Then, dessert is pitifully small: a scant demitasse of butterscotch pudding with whipped cream.

At lunch, we encounter the same sweet, bad service and, despite the obvious presence of Kanfer and another chef, some cooking gaffes. There are cold pockets in the otherwise excellent macaroni and cheese. Grilled romaine hearts are indifferently strewn with a greasy saute of mushrooms and onglet (hangar steak). The asparagus salad sports four hard stalks the size of hot dogs, which are difficult to cut with dull silver plate and impervious to the good, grainy mustard dressing. Billed as a “large plate,” this pretty $12 salad would gratify only the strict dieter.

But nowhere are the portions more meager than in the desserts. The intensity of the “baked hot chocolate” (a demitasse of souffle-like custard) and the variety on the cookie plate compensate -- once -- for the lack of heft. The time I try “this ain’t no Pop-Tart,” the “farmers market fruit dessert of the day,” it‘s a thin chocolate tart with thinly sliced cooked pears, a jarring, high-minded flop. (That night every dessert item includes chocolate.) “How now brown cow,” vanilla-cream custard with a sunken dollop of ganache, is good and too small. The prix fixe butterscotch pudding, at lunch a few days later, comes in a larger bowl, but without whipped cream. Why such austerities?

At this time, when strikes impend and portfolios are shrinking like spinach in steam, a $60 lunch for two, even including tip, should be a marvelous interlude -- and not leave one hungry for more.

5750 Melrose Ave.; (323) 462-4687. Open for lunch Tues.--Fri., dinner Tues.--Sun. Entrees $16--$28. Beer and wine. Parking in lot and on street. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.

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