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dineLA October 2009: Ivan Kane's Cafe Wa s

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So, a coupla chicks walk into Ivan Kane's Cafe Wa s to check out their dineLA dinner...

Well, they aren't just chicks--they're chicks who love to talk about, eat, critique, and take photos of food. At around 10 o'clock on a Friday night they'd be S.O.L. trying to get a seat inside the cozy eatery at Sunset & Vine, but during a recent weeknight dinner service they had what boiled down to their pick of the tables in the main dining area. Perched in a booth on the upper level of the room (whose walls, if you can lean in closely, are papered with a pattern of anthropomorphic French poodles) they can see...and be (unintentionally) seen.

But first comes the menu. Here the dineLA menu is in the spotlight, and the server enthusiastically explains how the prix-fixe three-course dinner is priced and what options are her favorite. Although she admits she's pulling a double-shift she's full of pleasant and upbeat energy, and she takes some time to point out highlights from the regular menu, as well as help us pick out some drinks. From the cocktail menu we selected the Canton Classic (Canton ginger liqueur, Lemon juice, Mint leaves, Over ice. Mint. Lemon twist; $9.00), which was undoubtedly one of the best choices we made of the evening, as it was refreshing, not cloyingly sweet, and a welcome counterbalance to some of the heavier flavors of the food we tasted.

In addition to the three courses, Cafe Wa s provides diners with an amuse bouche as a bonus to the $34 dineLA dinner. Two bites on small plates were delivered to our table in a blur, and it took our server a few moments to catch up to us so she could explain what had been dropped off in front of us. One was a date stuffed with blue cheese wrapped in bacon, which had a different reaction out of each of us; while my co-hort was able to swiftly cut the morsel in two for easier management, on my end the thick, grisly bacon adhered to the date with a glue-like sauce that did not yield to my knife, and once it made its way into my mouth I nearly choked on the stringy, chewy strands. The second bite was some tuna tartare on a chip, which was far more pleasant, particularly the chip, which had a bewitching texture that was both as satisfying as a hearty, crunchy chip and as light as air.

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For the appetizer course, neither of us could resist choosing the grilled shrimp cocktail, and not necessarily because it came with a shot of vodka as part of its overall deconstructed take on the fine-dining American classic. Arriving on a long wooden plank (finally somewhere besides the table where we could rest our pieces of buttered bread pulled from their paper sack, since bread plates were not offered us) were three plump, robust shrimp accompanied by a shot glass of pearlescent vodka rimmed with spices, and a cocktail sauce granita on the side. Tasted alone, the icy sauce was a bit much, but worked nicely with the shrimp, which despite being chilled, retained the charred taste of the grill. The vodka shot, however, didn't pay off to have the advertised "Bloody Mary" effect, no matter how we sipped it (including with closed eyes, whispering "Bloody Mary" like a ghost story mantra). It was, sadly, a bit like if you've ever swam in a pool on board a cruise ship and swallowed a gulp of the water, which--surprise!--is salt water. Shudder.

And speaking of shudder--no, make that shutter. Remember, the diners in question like to not only eat and talk about food, but they also like to photograph it. And a camera in action at the dinner table can attract some attention. Once upon a time, the ol' "Oh, I just like to take photos of everything I eat" line was enough to quench the appetite of curious waitstaff who witnessed a table-top shutter session. But on this particular evening, it seems that didn't suffice. Caught not mid-snap, however, but mid-bite, during the app course we were approached by a well-dressed man who arrived at our table and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Ivan Kane." Oh. Or... uh oh?

Kane, who didn't fish for info from us at all, including even our names, was happy to talk with us about his restaurant, and to mention the fun they have in putting on special events and menus, like Thanksgiving. While it seemed he wanted to give the impression it was the norm for him to introduce himself to diners, we noticed he didn't visit any other table in the room for the duration of our meal, and, alas, didn't return later to check on us as promised, since following the shock of his appearance we'd actually had time to think about some questions relevant to our still-undeclared dineLA mission. A curious interlude, indeed.

But back to the mission. We each sampled a different main course; short rib for one, bouillabaisse for the other. In front of me was the fish stew, which held the promise of abundant seafood in an aromatic broth. The seafood, including rich bites of lobster, was enjoyable, but any impulse to soak bread in the broth was immediately curtailed by the fact that the broth was so uncomfortably over-salty that I took to tapping off any excess liquid from each piece of seafood and fingerling potato I extracted from the bowl. The short rib held more of a mystery at our table, as we tried to pick out the distinct, sharp flavor in its sauce. Considering the restaurant's Big Easy-esque vibe, Chicory seemed likely, but when we asked our server she returned from the kitchen with a less complex verdict: No coffee in the sauce, it's just a veal demi-glace. Which, unfortunately means it was a burnt veal demi-glace, since that bitter note was undeniably strong.

Dessert had been one of the reasons we felt called to Cafe Wa s in the first place. Three words: Lavender Creme Brulee. Equally as tempting were the Pumpkin Beignets. Both came with a tiny cup of ice cream; with the Creme Brulee it was a rose flavor, and with the Beignets it was coffee. The floral notes of the Creme Brulee and rose ice cream were more pleasing to the palate of my dinner companion, who has a fondness for floral gums. For me, it was a bit too much like taking a lick off the assorted contents of Great Aunt Agnes' dressing table; rose sachets and lavender lotion. The beignets were as mysterious as the preceding short rib, only not because of what was there, but what wasn't. Hello, pumpkin? Hello....? Not a single note of the fall gourd vegetable in the dense, cinnamon-sugar dusted squares. How could that be?

But it was. Cafe Wa s, all in all, seemed to leave us singing the blues and not its praises when it came to their dineLA menu. But LAist has sung its praises before--(you can even check the Press section of their website)--when they first opened and invited folks over, and later when they debuted their cocktail menu. And so it's cocktails we'll focus on for now, since, in addition to lovely service, that seems to be their forte...

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