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Hidden: three kitchens too many?

THOUGH the wall beside the parking garage elevator still wears a caricature of the gov in his muscle-bound movie star days, Schatzi, his Main Street Santa Monica restaurant, is no more. Yep, terminated. In its place is a new restaurant and lounge called Hidden from the owners of Via Veneto up the street.

Bamboo screens "hide" the restaurant at the back of a courtyard it shares with a cigar shop, but the sound of revelers on the patio leaks out into the quiet, almost deserted cityscape as you approach the beefy security at the door. Past the maître d's desk is a sprawling indoor-outdoor restaurant where the concept -- four cuisines, four kitchens -- reads like a high-end food court.

Hidden's design is a smart update that makes the most of the outdoor area. A trio of spacious cabanas takes up one corner; next comes a patio framed by bamboo and palms and outfitted with lipstick-red acrylic chairs and a platform furnished with sofas and coffee tables. Directly across the walkway is a sushi bar, farther on is the indoor-outdoor bar and at the very end, a dining room with a vaulted white brick ceiling, a massive crystal chandelier and banquettes backed by gold brocade panels. Got it?

Decisions, decisions

THE menu is just as confusing, offering four different cuisines from four different kitchens and four different chefs: Japanese (mostly sushi and sashimi), Spanish tapas, Vietnamese fusion cuisine and Neapolitan-style pizza. Think of it. You can have a bowl of pho while your buddy bites into a California roll and your girlfriend nibbles on peppers stuffed with tuna or mini Kobe beef tacos.

But deciding what to eat can be more chore than pleasure. "Where? Where?" my friends bleat as someone suggests a dish and the others flip back and forth through their menus looking for the description. It doesn't help that waiters not so subtly urge you to hurry it up. Instead of a pleasurable exercise, ordering becomes protracted and frustrating. The menu and concept are just too complicated.

What to do? The simplest strategy is to immediately order up a platter of charcuterie and a bottle of Chianti Classico or Nebbiolo d'Alba. That should keep everybody from starving while deciding on the rest of the menu. Because the wine list is one of those progressive ones, with wines grouped according to flavor characteristics, ordering wine too can take a while. (Still, if you have the patience, you can uncover a handful of relatively interesting bottles.) The wine may take a while to get to your table too. Sometimes the server can't find the bottle or shows up with the wrong one.

One night we don't get a table in the patio (again), but we do get one outside between the sushi bar and the main walkway, with heat lamps to warm us. So-and-so sat there last night, the hostess tells us, citing an actress I've never heard of. In that case, we're determined to love it too especially now that we have a front seat on the action. A woman sashays past us, her huge "It" bag held in front of her like a shield. A novice hipster nervously introduces himself to the manager, while a conga line of college-age kids shuffles toward the bar.

At one point the manager runs out and tells everyone to look -- look! Get ready for a pizza-tossing demonstration! The music starts, and a stocky guy heads down our way to demonstrate the flamboyant art of pizza tossing. It turns out he's a three-time winner of the acrobatic category of the World Pizza Championship (an annual competition in Salsomaggiore, Italy).

He puts on quite a show, flipping dough in the air, catching it with his upraised fists again and again until what began as a plate-sized disk grows large enough to double as a tablecloth. Next, he's tossing more dough, over his shoulders, down his spine, under his legs. We can only say wow when he gets three disks going at once. It's amusing for a while but goes on too long.

Meanwhile, we polish off a charcuterie plate supplied with supple jamón serrano, various salame, bresaola and speck. This selection is decent, but the meats are under-furnished with bread. Primed by the show, we're ready for pizza.

From more than two dozen mostly traditional options, we try a Margherita, always a good test, and one called scarola topped with braised escarole, olives and anchovies. The crust, a bit under-baked, has good flavor, but the products for the toppings are inferior: cheap salty anchovies, mediocre cheese, et cetera. It would take so little to dramatically improve the pizzas. It's simple: Just buy better ingredients. Who knows, though, if superior pizza tossing skills has anything to do, really, with making great pies?

The $250 pizza

ON another visit, I notice the category battuta (extra thin) at the very bottom of the pizza menu. It has just two choices, one of which is the "Hidden" topped with sautéed langoustines and curry and served with a flute (yes, just one) of Dom Pérignon for $150. Is this ridiculous or what? Not as much as the $250 version made with crème fraîche, lobster carpaccio and osetra caviar. Is this for real? I mean Nobu Matsuhisa and Lee Hefter at Spago have been known to garnish dishes with osetra, but that kind of money would get you an entire meal, not just an extra-thin pizza.

On the off chance it might turn out to be fabulous, I establish that the pizza in question has indeed been ordered before. Joking that the $250 model is gold-plated and comes with a set of car keys, our server tells us the same pizza costs $1,000 in New York. Interesting. Where? "I can't remember the name," he says. "It's a restaurant where some of our investors go," he answers. (He must be referring to the Luxury Pizza from Nino's Bellissima in New York, which is topped with lobster and several types of caviar.) I decide to go for it.

What arrives is so unassuming, it's a real shock. There it is, a thin-crusted pizza dough, very pale in color, topped with a smear of crème fraîche, some rounds of lobster carpaccio and some measly dabs of caviar. That couldn't possibly be an ounce of osetra, could it? He points to the jar of caviar sitting in a bowl of ice. Maybe there's more inside? I pick up the lid to discover that's all it is -- the lid. And the pie is uncut. Back to the kitchen it goes with the admonition not to lose a single fish egg.

We each take a slice. The crust is cracker-like, and though the lobster carpaccio is good, I'm not really getting a luxurious hit of caviar. And for $50 a slice for five people, I would expect something magnificent. This feels mingy in every way. And we feel like fools for ordering it.

Different destination

MOVING on to the Japanese section of the menu, we order fluke sashimi and wild salmon sashimi. The sliced salmon is suitably fatty, scribbled over with an orange sauce that tastes like a mixture of tahini and miso and is quite awful. The fluke is in rags. It looks like it's been sliced with a serrated knife -- five bites for $18 served with a thatch of scallions and a ponzu sauce for dipping. The spiciness in the "spicy" hamachi roll consists of a bowl of scorching red hot sauce, enough to service 500 sushi rolls. And it tastes suspiciously like Thai red chile sauce straight out of the bottle.

Spanish tapas offer the most variety of any of the menu categories -- but the quality is just as uneven as the rest of the menu. Charcuterie and cheeses (a tapas subcategory) are a safe bet, though, and mini-meatballs made with beef and mushrooms go well with a Zinfandel or Merlot. Tiny fried whitefish are acceptable, but fried zucchini flower with anchovies and mozzarella is a sodden mess. New potatoes with crème fraîche, caviar and chives are OK, so are the black "muscles" in spicy tomato sauce. But baby cuttlefish cooked in spicy tomato broth tastes like something from a can. Olives ascolane, olives stuffed with meat and then fried, are an inept version of something that can be really good.

The Vietnamese menu offers some relief with an acceptable pho, which features thinly sliced sirloin floating in the lean broth. Another good bet is the shrimp and shaved artichoke salad -- hands down the best dish I tried at Hidden. Drenched in lime, the salad is wonderfully refreshing and light. Crispy whole red snapper arrives with the flesh cut off, the bones and the fish head and skeleton curled around the plate.

The fish is not really crispy as advertised, and the sauce tastes more like Chinese sweet n' sour sauce than the tamarind mentioned in the description. Disappointing. Shaken beef, cubes of beef sautéed with garlic and shallots, could feed you in a pinch, but it's far from a superlative version.

That night, even though we're seated in the quieter (relatively) dining room, the sound level ratchets ever higher until we can no longer hear each other over the din. What can it be like outside? We find out as we leave: deafening. Hidden may be hot, but for how long? It may be all right for a drink, but the confusing concept, lame cooking and general ineptness make Hidden a no-go zone for anybody who cares about food.

virbila@latimes.com

Hidden

Rating: Satisfactory.

Location: 3110 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 399-4800.

Ambience: Sprawling restaurant and lounge with private cabanas, a DJ, outdoor bar and garden-patio, plus a more elegant dining room. The concept: four different kitchens and cuisines in one restaurant -- Japanese, Spanish tapas, Neapolitan pizza and Vietnamese.

Service: Earnest and pleasant, but not very professional.

Price: Pizza, $12 to $250; tapas, $6 to $34; charcuterie and cheese selections, $12 to $26; sushi and sashimi plates, $15 to $22; Vietnamese dishes, $9 to $28.

Best dishes: Margherita pizza, charcuterie and cheese plates, pho, shrimp and shaved artichoke salad, coconut flan.

Wine list: A progressive list with wines organized by flavor profile. Corkage fee, $25.

Best table: One in the garden patio.

Details: Open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m., dinner from 6 p.m. to midnight, daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $7.

To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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