We visit Ambrosia, Mai-Kai, and Istanbul to Serve up Three Reviews
Some folks have been crowing about Ambrosia's pizza for 30 years, as long as the restaurant has been in business — so the huge "Best Pizza!" sign on the door reminds anybody within squinting distance. Not much has changed at Ambrosia in all that time, least of all the bizarre and ugly décor: bad thrift-shop art crowds every square inch of wall space; the mismatched furniture wasn't chic even in the '70s. Go for the pizza and skip the mediocre Italian menu — your pizza will come to the table sizzling hot enough to sear the roof of your mouth, a good, old-fashioned American pie reminiscent of early Pizza Hut. With its nicely browned, chewy, doughy crust, soft and custardy in the thickest parts, dried flecks of oregano and canned mushrooms, this pie is neither New York style nor bubbly, blackened Neapolitan. But at $12.95 for a medium, it's a rare bargain and a nostalgic trip back in the time machine. And on the basis of weird factor alone, Ambrosia knocks the pizza chains out of the park.
The Mai-Kai is easy to love. It's not that its oversized tiki cocktails and lobster pango-pango are anything to write home about. It's just that you can't set foot in the place without succumbing to a deep enchantment: You've entered a waking dream world, part Blue Lagoon, part Monkey's Paw. Maybe because it's dark as a cave; or because you're never more than ten feet from running water; or because the cocktail waitresses are dressed in Barbarella-era bikinis; or because, as you grope your way through room after room lit by jewel-colored lanterns, there's a kitschy-surreal surprise around every corner. What most people are looking for is the Polynesian dance and fire-eating shows, which are fun, for sure. And the Mai-Kai's daily happy hour in the bar, with half-price food and drinks, is fair game for any bargain-hunter. By the time you finally make your way out to the winding, torch-lit path in the garden, you're feeling as intrepid and remote as Henry Morton Stanley trailing Livingstone through the Congo.
The city's oldest Turkish restaurant has been in this same dinky location for 19 years, a small room that opens to ocean breezes and classic views of kids flying kites on the beach. And Istanbul hasn't changed a thing from the plastic chairs to a menu of kebabs and Turkish pizza (except maybe the big flat-screen showing reruns of Turkish soccer matches). Istanbul introduced Hollywood's Broadwalkers to foods that must have seemed exotic at the time: tripe soup and pan-fried calf liver cubes, yogurt drinks, and borek. But these days, Istanbul has competition not only down the beach, with Armenian and Greek restaurants, but also from excellent Turkish places like A La Turca in downtown Hollywood. On a recent visit, both the smudgy old menu and the kitchen staff seemed tired, and the mediocre food ran the gamut from watery yogurt and soggy pizza to skewered beef and sliced lamb that were clearly the cheapest cuts money could buy. Even a glass of red wine (they no longer have Turkish bottles) was undrinkable. Two decades is a long time to keep slogging away at it; sometimes you need more than great views to stay inspired.
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