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Three Forks Chop House: It's prime territory

WATCH as prime, aged meats -- steaks from the Midwest, Wagyu beef from Australia, true Kobe from Japan, Colorado lamb chops -- sizzle over an olivewood and charcoal fire. A waiter trots by with someone's "tomahawk," a 23-ounce dry-aged Nebraska rib-eye with a foot-long bone sticking out like a handle, and all heads swivel to follow its progress across the room -- a restored 1920s citrus packing plant, with high timbered rafters. The glassed-in grill is at the back.

This is the new Three Forks Chop House in Claremont, and it's a pretty exciting spot. There's game, sourced from all over the West, meats sourced from farms that raise animals in a sustainable way and beautiful produce from local growers. Cured meats, rustic sausages and mozzarella are all made in-house by chef Eric Osley, who's focused and passionate about what he's doing, turning out food that's both rustic and sophisticated. Global influences and a page of more ambitious "compose plates" add zest to a well-thought-out menu.

The restaurant is an event for locals and worth a drive for those of us who live farther away.

One of several tenants at the Packing House on the edge of Claremont Village, Three Forks is owned by Mark and Mick Bollinger, who have kept the original worn floorboards and added leather banquettes along the walls, which are decorated with landscape photos of Montana, where the brothers have spent many summers. The name comes from the town where their grandfather was born, and the idea was to bring a little of that Montana spirit to Southern California.

When Three Forks opened, a friend who teaches at one of the colleges in town clued me in, so one day after a visit to Claremont's renowned California native botanical garden, I decide to grab a quick lunch. While my friend and I are waiting for our order to arrive, a stream of locals wanders into the bar. Each in turn looks around and asks to see the menu. Some make a reservation for later; a few sit down for a bite right then and there -- after our orders arrive, and they get a good look at our plates.

Custom-tailored burgers

AN heirloom tomato salad features brilliant red slices that taste like real tomatoes. Chop salad is a diverting mix of butter lettuce and radicchio with fennel, chickpeas and olives adorned with ribbons of soppresata, diced house-made mozzarella in a spunky red wine vinaigrette. The burger comes on a soft brown bun with all sorts of do-it-yourself options. We keep it simple and add just the smoked paprika aioli. But you could custom-tailor it with various cheeses, bacon, greens, etc. The burger is delicious, the beef hand-formed to a thick, juicy patty. It comes with a small copper saucepan heaped with golden fries showered with parsley and garlic.

A graduate of California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, chef Osley was chef and instructor there for six years, has worked with a number of chefs in L.A., and at one point was part of the development team for Heston Blumenthal at the much-lauded Fat Duck in England. Chef de cuisine Chris Franken worked with Osley at CSCA.

Among the dinner appetizers, the house-cured wild salmon served with tender potato blini, domestic sevruga caviar and crème fraîche flavored with salty-tart preserved lemon stands out. I also enjoyed the deconstructed shrimp cocktail of Gulf white shrimp poached in a vodka bouillon perfumed with kaffir lime. It's served with baby celery leaves, fresh horseradish and a cocktail sauce that tastes just like a Bloody Mary. But with this chef, influences can come from pretty much anywhere.

On the warm side of the appetizer selection, you can get a very decent bouillabaisse with all the right elements -- including baby octopus and langoustines -- served with rafts of smoked paprika toasts. Seared diver scallops come with an excellent corned beef hash and braised red cabbage. The combination is unexpected but compelling enough that I'd almost consider ordering it as a main course.

Sausage to share

IF you're looking for a first course to share, get the plate of house-made sausage, a trio of three very different sausages -- a fat veal bratwurst, a wild-boar sausage flavored with fennel and Medjool dates and a duck sausage dotted with cherries and pecans. Meat eaters, dive in. But if I could have just one appetizer, I'd go with the spiced rabbit feuille de briques, a Tunisian-inspired turnover stuffed with shredded rabbit cooked in sweet spices and served with a pineapple and date chutney on the side.

Grilling the steaks, chops and other cuts over that wood and charcoal fire gives the meat a wonderfully fragrant smoky edge. It's all USDA prime and most is aged at least three weeks. Buffalo from Colorado and wild boar from Texas are both free-range and grass-fed beef from Montana will come onto the menu in early December, as soon as it's aged enough.

That tomahawk has to be one of the best rib-eyes I've had in recent memory. Thick and juicy, with lots of deep, beefy flavor, it's enhanced by a fleur de sel and a sharp black peppercorn blend.

Almost every cut I tried had good flavor. You don't have to wonder whether you're eating beef or pork or lamb. Some cuts, such as the 32-ounce Porterhouse, have acquired a slightly gamy flavor that may not be to everyone's taste. You can order anything -- Delmonico steak, Colorado lamb chops, double pork chop, half a wood-roasted Jidori chicken -- with your choice of special salt or rub, too, such as volcanic black sea salt from Hawaii, deep ocean salt from Japan or a Montana dry rub. The Niman ranch double pork chop is a terrific buy at $26, as delicious as anything I had here, especially with a rub of grains of paradise (fleur de sel) and black pepper.

Sides include those irresistible skinny fries and a garlicky aioli for dipping or a lovely gratin of potatoes with caramelized fennel, Gruyère cheese and onions. In the vegetable kingdom, you can't go wrong with heirloom rainbow carrots, corn roasted with chiles in the wood-fired oven, or sautéed oyster mushrooms and chanterelles.

Something about this contemporary chophouse is reminiscent of Craft, Tom Colicchio's New York (and now Century City) restaurant. But the hard-working kitchen staff also turns out half a dozen "composed plates," to show what they can do.

Roast elk with spiced parsnip purée and lobster mushrooms is sauced with a splash of sweet tart pomegranate reduction that complements the gentle flavor of the elk. Smothered buffalo tenderloin comes with blue cheese butter, potato fennel gratin and a whole grain mustard sauce. This side of the menu tends to be more hit or miss than the grill items, with sometimes too much going on in one plate.

Farmers market menu

SUNDAY nights Osley and crew cut loose with a four-course prix fixe farmers market menu that offers several choices in each course, all for a very reasonable $40. One night the main course is a handsome beef Wellington. More recently, you could have found crispy John Dory with capers and Marcona almonds or house-cured corned beef with braised ruby cabbage. Just don't come hoping for a steak: On Sunday nights, they're not on. Only the farmers market menu is served.

Wines less than $30

THE wine list offers 36 wines by the glass, and it roams both New and Old worlds about as widely as the menu does. You can also find a number of wines less than $30, a rarity on wine lists these days, as well as sought-after wines such as Seasmoke Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills and several vintages of Opus One.

For dessert, go straight for the rustic tart from the wood-burning oven. It was white peaches the first time I went, with a ball of vanilla ice cream on top. This month it's heirloom apples. Venezuelan chocolate soufflé was a little floury the one time I tried it. Oops, I see I missed pear Tatin with Ceylon cinnamon ice cream. I just may have to go back.

As young as it is, Three Forks Chop House already has a distinct sense of place. It's an easygoing tribute to the West with a menu that melds the chophouse with California cuisine in a way that makes sense. I can't thank my friend enough for sending out the alert.

Three Forks Chop House

Rating: ** 1/2

Location: 580 W. 1st St. (at Indian Hill Boulevard), Claremont; (888) 933-6757; www.threeforkschops.com.

Ambience: Rustic chophouse in one corner of a restored citrus packing plant in Claremont Village gets a real college-town crowd for steaks, chops and game cooked over a hardwood fire in full view of the dining room.

Service: Earnest and helpful, aiming to please.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $8 to $18; cuts and chops, $20 to $80; composed plates, $24 to $36; starches and grains, $8; vegetables, $9; desserts, $7 to $11.

Best dishes: Chop salad, shrimp cocktail, house-cured wild salmon with potato blini, spiced rabbit feuille de briques, diver scallops with corned beef hash, house-made sausage plate, rib-eye tomahawk chop, Niman Ranch double pork chop, burger, pommes frites, potato pave, wood-roasted corn, wood-oven baked white peach or apple tart.

Wine list: Respectable, wide-ranging list for a young restaurant with a number of wines under $30. Corkage fee, $20 (waived if you purchase a bottle from the list).

Best table: A corner banquette, or one on the broad wrap-around porch.

Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; for dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; for brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for farmers market prix fixe supper 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

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.

virbila@latimes.com

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