By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The name’s a little pretentious, but the food is good,” explained my friend, Philip, after suggesting that we meet at Literati Café in West Los Angeles. I was aware of both facts, having visited years before and had a decent meal at the small café next to a more formal restaurant. I remembered the place as having a self-consciously artsy coffeehouse atmosphere but solid cooking, and I didn’t mind going back at all.
When I got there, I was in for a shock. The larger restaurant was gone, and in its place was a greatly expanded version of the café, now brightened up and serving a larger menu. After reassuring myself that I was indeed in the right place, I did what I do when I’m early for a lunch meeting – study the menu and pump servers for information about what is best. The menu part was easy, as it is on a chalkboard above head height and easily visible. The part about the servers was more difficult, because the place was a hive of activity even at 10:30 on a midweek morning.
The emphasis here is on health-conscious but flavorful food, most made with organic and local produce. Had I been feeling particularly virtuous I might have had a smoothie, but I wasn’t and decided to make a meal of items from their appetizer list.
Philip arrived and we joined the line, but when we got to the front I discovered that the starters I had chosen aren’t served early in the day. (The menu is on a chalkboard, so indicating this to diners wouldn’t seem to be a problem, but nobody thought to do it.) On a whim I asked if the “famous crispy chicken” really is both famous and crispy, and the woman at the register assured me that it was one of their best items. I was sold and asked for it to be served with a side of fries, while Philip ordered a simple egg and bacon breakfast that was offered with an organic green salad instead of potatoes.
Philip’s order arrived first, a standard breakfast well made – the eggs were over-easy as he likes, the bacon was crisp as advertised, with a well-varied salad with fresh tomato and hot wheat toast. There were no innovations, nor do you want any when you order one of these.
My meal delivered a surprise with the very first bite – this chicken was hot! Not only hot from the fryer, but “oh-my-gosh-this-is-spicy hot,” with what tasted like Indian seasonings dancing in my mouth. I happen to like spicy fried chicken a lot so I found it delightful, but it would have been nice to have been warned – my wife who doesn’t enjoy highly seasoned food would have found it inedible. The chicken was served with a small portion of guacamole, which was a great idea, and some hot sauce, which was inexplicable – I like spicy food but couldn’t imagine adding hot sauce to this. I will be back again to order it because it was great, and just as crispy as advertised, but I’ll warn any spice wimps that this is not the dish for them.
I liked that chicken so much that I came back the very next day for lunch, this time deciding to try their half-sandwich and cup of soup combo. I decided on turkey chili and a sandwich of asparagus spears rolled in turkey breast with Swiss cheese on whole wheat. Having had the spicy chicken the day before I braced myself for a very hot chili, but it was mild and a bit thin – disappointingly so, since I like my chili thick and spicy. It was more a turkey and bean soup with a dash of chili in the broth, and it just didn’t have the body and depth of flavor that even a mild chili can achieve after long cooking.
The sandwich, on the other hand, was excellent – I don’t know who came up with the idea of rolling thin-sliced turkey around lightly cooked asparagus and using it as sandwich meat, but it certainly works. It was served on good whole grain toast and was quite a meal – if this was really half a sandwich I’d be hard pressed to eat a whole one.
Literati has an atmosphere that actually does fit the name – the place is frequented by a young and artsy crowd and has a lively ambiance, and the caffeine flowed freely at the tables on all sides. It’s a bright, cheery place that is capable of some fine dishes, and I’ll be back to try more of their menu.
Literati is at 12081 Wilshire Blvd., in West Los Angeles– valet parking in rear lot. Open 7 a.m. – 11 p.m. midweek, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. weekends. Beer and wine served, wheelchair access good, children welcome. Website at literaticafe.com. 310-231-7484.