Visual decadence, and lots of cheese…

Jacob Ellenhorn, Arts Editor

When you see “26,”  a new dairy restaurant on Pico’s kosher restaurant row, you immediately understand that owner Geoffrey Ghanem  places considerable value on the visual aspects of his restaurants. A veteran restaurateur, Ghanem also owns the acclaimed Shiloh’s steakhouse.

At “26,” the building design, the interior of the restaurant space, and even the restaurant logo are fresh and contemporary.  Without a doubt, 26 finally combines two seemingly untenable achievements: kosher and chic dining.

But unfortunately, the visual decadence belies the mediocre food.  My experience at 26 was a bit like going out with Natalie Portman and discovering that she was more like Ke$ha than Audrey Hepburn.  The sexy vibe that greets you at 26 just wasn’t enough to counterbalance the ho-hum food and lackadaisical service.

Our family celebrated my grandmother’s 87th birthday at 26 on Dec 25.  We were the only guests at 6 p.m., but that didn’t last long.  The restaurant was filling up quickly and the vibe was thrilling.  By the time we left at around 10:30, every table was filled and hopeful diners were still piling into the restaurant.

26 offers an impressive wine list and boasts that it has a full bar.  My parents tested these claims.  My father ordered a Baron Herzog Syrah while my Mom ordered her signature drink, a mojito. Mom told our waiter that the mojito was just perfect — neither overly sweet nor too alcoholic.

Measuring approximately 30 inches high, the menu is massive. Chef Katsui Tanabe’s menu is overwhelming and left me to wonder what happened to simplicity.  There are at least 12 different pizzas to choose from including “gefilte” (seriously). The menu needs to be tapered and focused.  There is no place for both a mac n’ cheese and a pad thai.

My usually decisive parents were absolutely befuddled at the expansive menu.  My mom abdicated her decision to my father.  He ordered three appetizers for our party of 10: fondue, baked figs and calamari.  Before you start gasping, the calamari was not squid.  At 26, calamari is shitake mushrooms that are breaded and presumably fried. It turned out to be my sister’s favorite appetizer.  The breading was light yet crispy and perfect for dipping into a spicy tomato-based sauce that came with it.

The fondue, melted cheese for dipping bread and fruit, was fun to eat.  The Ementhal cheese had a nice flavor but the apple slices were mealy and did not hold up well in the thick cheese.  The adults claimed they liked the baked figs, but I doubt it, since they left two of the four fig halves on the plate.

It took a while for our entrees to arrive.  There was a misunderstanding and my grandmother’s order arrived way after everyone had finished eating theirs.  When her “cheeseburger” entree finally arrived, it was nothing more than a mishmash of sauteed veggies held together by cheese, cheese and more cheese.

I ordered the salmon, which was served with garlic fries and sauteed spinach.  The salmon was dull and had a fishy taste. The french fries, though, were sheer perfection. Since I don’t eat spinach I can only comment that it was a brilliant emerald green.

My mom ordered a sea bass fillet, which was accompanied by mashed potatoes.  She loved the dish after it was reheated.  I tried some of my Dad’s mushroom risotto and was quite impressed by its creaminess.

My cousin, sophomore Amiad Davis, ordered pizza and commented that there was just too much cheese.  I also noticed that its crust was rather charred.  Perhaps the chef needed to overbake the crust so that it could actually hold up all the cheese.

I can tell you this:  I am torn.  The majority of my family was willing to look the other way with regard to the service.  They really loved the cooking.

But I just didn’t think the experience was as good as it looked.  I was looking for the flavor of the food to reflect the décor: clean, simple, and full of character.

I was impressed by the exposed ceiling rafters and the walls treated with a technique called Venetian plaster, which forced them to a glossy sheen. The tufted white leather banquettes were very elegant as well. If the food on my plate couldn’t hold my attention, at least the decor did.

For those Kosher diners who haven’t yet discovered 26, expect a unique experience and be prepared to pay for it.  Appetizers start at around $9, while an entree can set you back $25 .  26 will not disappoint you, but you will notice that simplicity, which for me is synonymous with elegance, is missing.