Art by Christine HaberstockVERMONT IS THE NEW RESTAURANT where Sarno's once was on Vermont Avenue near Hollywood Boulevard. Vermont, I think, is a terrific name for a restaurant. I love it. It's been a long time since I actually loved a restaurant's name. I was crazy for Lavande when I thought it was Levant. Vermont is perfectly pitched, apt, inoffensively ironic, irrationally appealing — in short, Vermont is just right.
And most everything else about this fledgling restaurant is just right. The space is airy, beautifully open, with arching white columns, beveled glass, blond wood, comfy banquettes, a big, gorgeous rug as you walk in the door. White tablecloths are set with wine glasses. Tall palm trees provide a semipermeable privacy. Vermont will go either way, casual or classy; you can dress up or go in jeans. It has that elusive quality of the quintessential Los Angeles restaurant: contemporary in details, Chandleresque in ambiance.
And the price is right. (Entrées range from $12.95 to $17.95.)
And the cooking ain't half bad, either.
A friend from Chicago came to L.A. and ate in all the hot new spots, and even the lukewarm ones, and encountered countless culinary disappointments and insults to his wallet. I sent him to Vermont. He understood that Vermont did not pretend to be anything more than a decent neighborhood restaurant — but given its promise and delivery ratio, he claimed it fed him one of the best meals in town. His complaints were 1) the salade lyonnaise (“Michael's favorite salad” says the menu) didn't need two poached eggs, and 2) the two owners went on a bit in their excitement about the restaurant. (They do.)
Vermont is comfortable, he said. Attractive. Affordable. And kind to strangers.
So what's the catch?
No catch, really.
The menu is a compendium of everything the average midscale restaurantgoer eats these days. Appetizers seem as though they came off a What's Hot list — onion soup, braised endive, that salad with the extraneous egg, steamed mussels, etc. The entrée choices consist of three fish dishes and one dish each of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and vegetarian. Okay, so it's a little old hat: caesar salad and pepper-crusted seared-rare tuna. Do people still eat this? I'd love to see a zinger or two, just for the heck of it — feijoada, moussaka, octopus — something off the beaten-to-death path.
The food itself has its high points and neutral points, but thus far, no low points. Onion soup is truly excellent, although the submerged sheet of melted Gruyère lacks the allure of the browned and blistered versions in little crocks. And the “Michael's favorite salad” (frisée, bacon, poached eggs, a warm sherry vinaigrette) I ordered had just one egg. My favorite salad, however, is the one with arugula, shrimp and avocado, with a bright, lemony dressing.
The first few tastes of the seared pepper-crusted tuna threw me: It seemed bland, and oddly matched with a coriander-infused reduction. But I kept taking bites, and slowly the mild tuna, the crunchy pepper and that mellow green sauce pulled together. Black cod, also seared and lightly cooked, has a great springy flakiness; its faint sweetness is
nicely echoed in the caramelized onion sauce, and the accompanying shiitake-mushroom ravioli is delicious.
The pork-loin dinner has a homecooked robustness; the “rustic” mashed potatoes are terrific, rich, and full of flavor and solace. The enormous braised lamb shank will bring out the carnivore within — it looks like some great joint roasted over a caveman's fire — although I don't think Paleolithic man ate his meat on
carrot risotto with baby vegetables. As
predictable as it has been, the menu is
already being tweaked — a good sign. Chilean sea bass has replaced black cod in the same preparation; a pistachio-crusted chicken breast replaced a simple, very good grilled half-chicken.
The dessert selection also reads like a judiciously wrought Top Hits list: vanilla custard with caramel sauce, a dense and dazzling flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, a lovely lemon tart, homemade ice creams and sorbets.
Indeed, Vermont's appeal is the tried-and-trueness of every detail: The owners have done — and continue to do — their homework with admirable diligence and intelligence. I don't begrudge them their enthusiasm. They've aced the basics right out of the gate. The next challenge is to start surprising us.
1714 Vermont Ave.; (323) 661-6163. Open for lunch Tues.Fri. and for dinner Tues.Sun. Entrées $12.95$17.95. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: arugula, shrimp and avocado salad; onion soup; lamb shank; fish.