STAR-SPANGLED FOOD

Compiled by Steven Smith

American food used to be easy to define; everybody knew it meant hot dogs and hamburgers and the occasional peanut butter sandwich. Not anymore. A new wave of American restaurants has embraced everything from Maryland crabcakes to Southwestern tacos, Cajun gumbo to California pizza. The restaurants listed below may be very different, but each one of them is true red, white and blue. AMERICA (425 Martingdale Way, Newport Beach, (714) 833-0080). America--the restaurant, of course--is a pleasant, casual sort of place, serving healthy portions at reasonable prices. And who couldn't have fun in a room dominated by the copper-green head of Miss Liberty? The pizzas come from a mesquite-fired brick oven, and for fun at your table you can indulge your power fantasies by making calls on a cordless phone. The service can be flaky, and some plates over- and under-done, but some dishes, like breast of free-range chicken with a buttery crab filling, are outstanding. The individual-size pizzas are very good. Most menu items are fish (daily selections), and are competently grilled with plenty of mesquite flavor. Lunch, Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25-$40. CAFE CORDIALE (14015 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1985). There is a lot to like about Cafe Cordiale. The service is pleasant, and the place is certainly pretty--all soft pastels, pink and blue neon, tasteful prints on the walls. There are decent wines by the glass, and the prices are extremely reasonable. Salads tend to be good, the pasta adequate. Most of the fish (broiled swordfish, sauteed salmon, sole) and meats (veal piccata, marinated lamb) would be better if cooked less. But desserts will leave you with a good taste in your mouth: there's a chocolate mousse concoction, embellished with whipped cream and raspberries and ladyfingers, that is irresistible. Lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $20-$40.

DOWNTOWN GRILL (16925 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 986-6660). Tiled, streamlined, with bare beams and innards exposed, done up in fun colors--flamingo pink and black--this recent addition to the Valley resembles a sophisticated New York grill. The restaurant is professional, and the key dishes (hamburgers, pasta and pizza) have been honed over the decades at the older Hamburger Hamlet restaurants (to which this belongs). Appetizers are cleverly experimental--duck sausage wrapped in grape leaves with Zinfandel sauce, Thai lamb with peppers and ginger. Chicken paillard is a terrific main course, moist and flavorful. Gaucamole is served in a molcajete , the Mexican grinding stone, at the table. The shoestring potatoes are crisp and light, the coffee wonderful. And give the chocolate pecan pie a try--it's divine. Dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Full bar. Dinner for two, $20-$30. HAMLET GARDENS (1139 Westwood Blvd., (213) 824-1818). Another Hamburger Hamlet, but this time gone upscale and nouvell e--an '80s look of weathered brick walls, terra-cotta tile floors, and sky-high ficus trees--and you have Hamlet Gardens, the fanciest link in Hamburger Hamlet Inc.'s chain. Like the gorgeous but impersonal decor, the cuisine is aggressively tasteful but not always tasty. Despite some pleasant appetizers, entrees are less than exciting: Roasted chicken from the rotisserie could be juicier; the Wienerschnitzel is dull. Best are the Dover sole, grilled just this side of doneness, fresh and tender, and the French fries and fried onion rings. Desserts are superb, and the pizza with pesto, prawns and sliced red onions is so good it alone deserves a return visit. Lunch, Mon.-Sat.; dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, $50-$80.

MARYLAND CRAB HOUSE (2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 450-5555; also at 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 783-CRAB). And CHESAPEAKE CRAB HOUSE (15023 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-0066). Three chances to pretend that you are on the Chesapeake Bay. Blue crab is the specialty at all of them, served on big platters and also prepared in soups, salads, sandwiches and hot crab dishes. There are steamed spiced crabs, crab cakes, soft-shelled crab, served sandwich style on white bread and delightful deviled crab. Of the three, the Encino branch of the Maryland Crab House proved to be our favorite. Maryland (Santa Monica): Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. MC, V. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25-$40. Maryland (Encino): Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. MC, V. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25-$40. Chesapeake: Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. All major credit cards. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $30-$45.

PARTNERS AND COMPANY (1836 Hyperion Blvd., Silver Lake, (213) 661-0711). There's a nice lightness here that goes beyond the airiness of the attractive peach dining room. No waiters will recite the menu as if it were the Ten Commandments; they are more likely to play it for laughs. The tone is refreshing, especially given the care with which the food is cooked. One unusual dish is the "Japanese pizza," a concoction filled with salmon and squid that is unlike anything you've eaten before. It's an oddly tasty dish, halfway between a crepe and an omelet. For the more conservative, there are delicious sandwiches, a fat hamburger and a lobster roll topped with gently cooked lobster mixed with homemade mayonnaise. Dinners, which feature straightforward dishes like sliced turkey with a pudding of corn and wild rice, or spicy fried chicken, or grilled tuna, are in the $9-$13 range, and that includes a salad. Lunch, Sun.-Fri.; dinner nightly. MC, V. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $20-$40.

PATOUT'S (2260 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 475-7100). This soft and pretty Cajun cafe seems filled with the spirit of the bayou. The swirling wallpaper of leaves . . . the Mardi Gras music . . . the Louisana-born chefs and busboys . . . these elements combined make the air feel very Southern. Be warned: This is heavy food that stays with you for a while, and the portions are immense. Of the fish plates, the crawfish is a particularly irresistible version of Cajun popcorn, and from the Atchafalaya swamp come meaty and spectacular frog's legs. The gumbo here is the real thing--the roux is dark, the flavor is smoky and each spoonful tastes slightly different. Even better is the shrimp and crab stew, a thick swamp of a soup that is dark, rich and wonderful. The menu changes daily, but you'll usually find Redfish Eugenie (pan-fried redfish with a sauce made of crawfish and cream). Lunch, Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Service bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $30-$60.

SONORA CAFE (445 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, (213) 624-1800). Sonora's trendy menu of upscale enchiladas offers an unusual mix of "American Southwest" cooking, promising a blend of "traditional techniques, regional ingredients and a desire for creativity." Yet some of their best dishes owe almost nothing to our friends around the southern border: the tequila-marinated salmon tastes French; the grilled turkey breast in pomegranate and juniper berry sauce is pure Americana. The chef has conjured up some wild and fanciful dishes, like crab and wild mushroom enchiladas in chipotle cream sauce, that prove brilliant flavor combinations. The little blue corn-bread madeleines--rich, crunchy and positively addictive--are another imaginative idea. The crowd is stylish, the decor cold but beautiful. Lunch, Mon.-Fri.; dinner, Mon.-Sat. All major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, $30-$64.

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