It was not love at first sight between the Mustard Seed and me.
A reader suggested I visit the small corner café on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz, and, obediently, I did. Readers and friends have suggested many a great restaurant to me — and many a horror. The Mustard Seed was no horror, but neither was it particularly beguiling. Walls were a mottled ochre — let’s say an aged-mustard yellow. The floor was concrete. The air was stuffy and warm; fans spun overhead, but to no apparent effect. And the acoustics! Somehow, Spanish pop ballads on the sound system, our neighbors’ boring conversation and our own inconsequential chit-chat simultaneously played at the same volume. I tried to talk to my friend, but my mind kept following the romantic guitar, or the stream of banalities at the next table.
I don’t remember what was so tedious about that adjacent conversation, but I do remember exactly what we ordered and ate. I had quiche Lorraine with a green salad; the quiche had a perfect, silken, rich, trembling custard, cubes of good ham and a buttery crust. My friend ordered the spinach quiche, also exceptional yet entirely different: good cheese, a hint of nutmeg, lots of spinach. It had been so long since I’d had an excellent quiche, I’d forgotten it even could be excellent. Surprise.
“Good quiche,” I told a few people about the Mustard Seed, but didn’t hurry back.
A few weeks later, friends and I settled on the Mustard Seed for breakfast. One of them was tired of Fred 62; the other of La Belle Epoque. This time I thought we might sit outside, but the sidewalk tables on busy Hillhurst were even less appealing than the café’s close, reverberative interior. (The three or four tables along Clarissa Avenue, the side street, are clearly the best real estate in the place.) Breakfast — eggs, toast, coffee, the usual — was just right. I had quiche, of course.
The Mustard Seed is owned by professional caterers; most of the food comes from their central kitchen elsewhere in the city. At the café, a cook assembles sandwiches and salads, and heats the soup and quiche. The cafe’s young, friendly wait staff are all as pleasant and unruffled as Buddhists: There are no big deals at the modest Mustard Seed.
I returned for a few late breakfasts and lunches in just such a desultory manner (“Well, there’s always the Mustard Seed” “We can always go to the Mustard Seed”). On each visit I faced the room with some dismay and, whenever I could, nabbed a side-street table. But it was convenient and easy and rarely crowded. It reminded me, in fact, of a small-town café in the Midwest, only with much better and more interesting food. In addition to sandwiches, salads and soup of the day, there are several dazzling oddments, my favorite of which is a big, warm torta rustica with slippery roasted peppers, grilled vegetables, eggs and wantonly melting cheese in a decadent pastry crust.
In fact, at some point, in meal after meal, I would notice that something I was eating was really very good. The weird pale-green cilantro lavash used for the juicy chipotle chicken wrap was actually subtly aromatic, pleasurably chewy. The quesadilla, with smoked chicken and caramelized red onions, goat and jack cheeses, packs a lot of flavor and juice. The egg salad is on an especially excellent, seed-studded, multigrain bread. And the beautifully grilled salmon slathered with a spicy remoulade on pumpernickel is one of the better sandwiches in town. Something is always several degrees better than the plain looks of the place and the low prices suggest. The only item I don’t like is a pesto-and-leek tart; the flavors are murky, and the visual appeal of gray-green leeks decidedly low.
Salads and desserts are always changing. One day, there’s a cubed beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts; the next, a chicken curry. Such rotation is fine for salads, but not for desserts. When, oh when will those huge lemon-custard-filled cupcakes return? Or that dense, not-too-sweet, perfect cheesecake with the brilliant ground-nut crust?
I don’t know when, exactly, the Mustard Seed began coming to mind as a first choice or preference, but it has. Just yesterday, I realized I’d gone through some kind of conversion with the place: I’d been in the room for an hour, and I’d forgotten to be annoyed by anything. The walls were still that awful yellow; and those same slacker fans were languidly whapping overhead, and a rogue halogen track light left afterimages on my retina every time I looked up, but somehow, these quirks had lost the power to rankle. Only fondness can explain it.
1948 N. Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 660-0670. Open for breakfast, lunch and early dinner, Tues.–Fri. 9 a.m –8 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Entrées $5.75–$8.95. BYOB. AE, MC, V. Suggested dishes: chipotle chicken wrap, grilled salmon sandwich.