Ammo, a small, sleek cafe on Highland Avenue, is like a pyramid scheme. Recently, a friend took me there for lunch. When I returned several days later, bringing another friend, I found the person who first took me is back with someone else. The next time I go to Ammo, most of us are there again, with even more people in tow. I have yet to go to Ammo without seeing familiar faces. It would be embarrassing to have my Ammo infatuation so widely observed -- except that everyone else seems equally besotted.
Ammo has been around for three years as a catering company, a take-away kitchen, a tiny breakfast ’n‘ lunch spot. Only recently has the cafe annexed and remodeled an adjacent storefront and opened for dinner. And now, all of a sudden, it seems like the only place to eat in Hollywood. Chef-owner Amy Goldenberg (“Ammo” was her childhood nickname) is a self-taught and astute restaurateur who brings a Northern Californian sensibility to her kitchen, serving fresh, high-quality ingredients in straightforward, mostly Mediterranean preparations.
The new dining room has a certain Zen simplicity, with wall-length banquettes, lots of pale wood, boxy paper lamps and a Thermopane vista of Highland Avenue. But the room’s hard surfaces can get unpleasantly noisy when full. (When, oh when, will this trend end?) At breakfast, Ammo is part espresso bar, part minimalist coffee shop: There‘s the conceptual opposite of Denny’s Grand Slam, two cup-poached eggs come with daubs of pesto, thin sheets of reggiano and a scattering of chunky roasted potatoes. Cereal lovers will appreciate the “bruleed” steel-cut oatmeal or Ammo‘s own chewy granola. Ten-grain pancakes are topped with caramelized apples and served with real maple syrup.
Ammo bustles at lunch, hosting a cheerful cross-section of Hollywood: young, hip, gay, and not-so-young, or hip, or gay.
All the soups are delicious: potato leek; a fresh green pea pureed soup with foamed creme fraiche; a puree of white corn with a dollop of pesto. Composed salads, too, rank far above average, thanks to the use of quality produce, herbs and bright citrusy dressings -- although the dressing can be too light. The most popular seems to be the proverbial grilled chicken salad, but this one is upgraded with skinny little green beans and olives and new potatoes. I love the never-a-dull-bite French lentil salad with roasted beets, chives, arugula, crunchy pepitas and just enough goat cheese.
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Housemade raviolis broadcast freshness, as if somebody just picked the asparagus and spring garlic, gave them a quick chop and tucked them with ricotta cheese into some nice, chewy noodle. In fact most of the food here tastes like it’s been made by a terrific home cook with an extensive home garden -- and this is almost true: Goldenberg trades with her favorite local farmers. Penne with roasted red and yellow tomatoes and fresh mozzarella doesn‘t sound exciting, but it’s a delicious pasta: You can taste the hot sun in the sweet tomatoes, the fresh sweet milk in the cheese. The vegetable lasagna with squash, spinach, corn and mushrooms has that same earthy juice and brightness. Ammo reminds us that the point of truly good, fresh, quality ingredients is that they are the best versions of themselves.
People I know eat dinner at Ammo for the tuna tartare alone, the raw, smooth fish chopped with avocados, chives and a squirt of lemon juice on crostini. I myself like the butter lettuce salad, with grapefruit and golden beets and curds of a good, sharp feta. Others swear by the field green salad scattered with crispy potato threads and Gorgonzola. Curiously, while dinner entrees may be the least interesting items on the menu -- a grilled ahi on deliciously minted white beans; a good-not-great beef or turkey burger (the turkey, while flavorful, can be bouncy) -- dinner is still my favorite meal at Ammo. The room is quieter and candle-lit, the service is more attentive. One night a terrific white asparagus baked with Gorgonzola was as good as any white asparagus I‘ve had this season. A special tuna papardelle was a little fishy, a little bland, demonstrating that not all dishes are consistently good on all days.
Desserts may be the strongest reason yet to try Ammo. A fresh peach rustic tart is startlingly good -- the fresh peaches have extraordinary flavor and perfume. The ice cream sandwich is a classy remake of a classic: Two intensely bittersweet chocolate cookies contain rich, housemade espresso ice cream in a pool of just-salty-enough caramel: All are helpless before it. The lemony ricotta cheesecake can be too dry. But the cookies are superior: I don’t even like white chocolate, but am obsessed with the chewy, dark chocolate cookies with white chocolate chunks.
1155 N. Highland Ave.; (323) 871-2666. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Mon.--Sat.; weekend brunch. Lunch reservations recommended. Lunch entrees, $8--$12; dinner entrees, $12--$20. Recommended dishes: French lentil salad, grilled chicken salad, soups, pastas, tuna tartare, ice cream sandwich and cookies. Beer and wine soon. Takeout and local delivery ($2) available. AE, MC, V.