Monday, April 12, 2010

Reopened Off Vine Needs One More Facelift for Perfection

Off Vine has been a beloved cornerstone of Hollywood since it opened in 1989. Shuttered for two years after a raging fire almost consumed the adorable, quaint converted craftsman home, it returned triumphantly in March with a renovated interior and a new upstairs dining area available for dinner or private events. Unfortunately, they decided to give everything a facelift except the menu which is a tragic blunder, especially considering how much they have going for them.

Walking into the restaurant one drizzly Sunday night, you’re enveloped by cozy, hearth-like warmth. Candles lighting the small, white linen-covered tables decorated with small vases of Ranunculus lend to the glowing comfort. It feels as if you’ve been whisked from Los Angeles and transported to a lovely home in the south of France. Make no mistake; Off Vine is a home run if you’re looking to make a good first impression on a date.

But, sadly, ambient radiance isn’t enough to make Off Vine a success. While brunch on the restaurant’s charming patio is legendary, it could be argued that it’s a lot easier to make enjoyable pancakes than a good crab cake. Chef and co-owner Tony Hernandez seemingly hasn’t altered the menu since the restaurant’s opening in the late 80s, and, if he has, he kept the same MC Hammer era sensibility.

One evening’s soup of the day, a triumphant, smooth, earthy and well balanced vegetable puree, was a winning way to start a meal, but it was soon forgotten as dish after dish emerged from the kitchen, each clunkier and more misguided than the next.

Mini crab cakes arrived drowning in a roasted red pepper, caper and dill sauce that had to be scraped from the small, unimpressive, tepid cakes. Considering Hernandez’s overzealous affection for condiments, it’s shocking that the de rigueur mixed green salad that accompanies the crab arrived totally undressed. We’re talking fully nude lettuce without even a tickle of lemon juice or salt.

The wild mushroom salad with Limestone lettuce and Belgian endive in a citrus vinaigrette didn’t fare much better. The mushrooms, a blend of less than wild crimini, seemingly reconstituted chanterelle and out-of-place shitake, were far too salty, while the lettuce, which was reminiscent of iceberg, was off-puttingly bitter.

Things seemed to be turning in the right direction with a comfortably spicy, marinara-drenched penne tossed with turkey sausage, eggplant, onions and roasted red peppers, Hernandez’s most relied upon ingredient, but the arrival of a highly recommended fish special annihilated any hope of a 180.

Every fish dish at Off Vine is served with broccoli soufflé, green beans and carrot puree. The meat dishes, similarly, come with all the same trimmings except the carrots are swapped for mashed potatoes. Though it sounds like an embarrassment of riches when described by your server, it ends up being an explosive, underwhelming jumble on the plate. The “soufflé” amounts to little more than over cooked, egg and cheese-studded broccoli while the carrot puree resembles tasteless baby food. Only the green beans hit the mark. Perfectly cooked to an al dente crisp, garlic, pepper and melted butter make the beans the plate’s highlight.

Served alongside the seabass and shrimp special, the three side dishes did nothing to erase the face that the seabass was underseasoned and poorly cooked, the shrimp were overcooked and rubbery, and the entire plate felt unsettlingly like fancy hospital food, right down to the sad, wrinkled orange slices used as garnish.

Mercifully, just when all hope seemed to be abandoned, the raspberry soufflé, one of Off Vine’s crowning achievements according to the server, arrived. Piping hot from the oven, you are invited to douse your soufflé with Chambord before plunging a spoon into the fluffy sweet cloud that was indeed exemplary. Scraping a lightly caramelized edge from the side of the ramekin, you can’t help but wish that more dishes on the menu had this level of expertise.

Despite a solid soup to start and a redemptive soufflé to end, Off Vine serves food with the best of intentions, but without the greatest execution. After their recent resurrection, one can only hope that they’ll consider a menu renaissance as well and rise, once again, like a phoenix from the ash.

Off Vine Restaurant
6263 Leland Way
Hollywood, CA 90028
(one block south of Sunset, just east of Vine)

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