RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Bistro That Caters to the Cravings of Night Owls

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're a night owl tired of having nothing to choose from at 2 a.m. but chili burgers and chicken fried rice, you're going to think Truly Yours in Tarzana is manna from heaven.

This truly eclectic bistro and bar keeps marathon hours--open until 2 every night, and 3 on weekends--and serves a mind-bending variety of foods in the process. Where else in the Valley can you eat jambalaya and beluga caviar in the wee hours, then finish off with Bavarian chocolate cream cake? Surely there is someone out there who wants to.

Whoever that is will have the added raison d'etre of a room that is really quite handsome. Most diners sit under an A-frame beamed ceiling, with black lacquer fans rotating languidly overhead. (Avoid the less lively back room, which feels like an entirely different restaurant.)

There is a roaring fireplace, lots of colorful art and tables topped in blond wood, giving off a muscular, outdoorsy aura. The interlocking black vinyl place mats atop them are almost exactly like the ones at Kate Mantilini.

That's no coincidence. Chef Lance Katcher opened Kate Mantilini as the restaurant's executive chef in 1986, then did brief stints at Victor Hugo and Carnegie Deli before taking over this dining room.

It's a spirited one too, with a young, fun-loving crowd that loves to nosh and nibble. You can join right in at the zinc-topped bar for one of the 25 varieties of beer available, or contend with them for the few sought-after patio tables. You'll get an earful of disco music while you wait.

And wait. And wait. Because if you come here at peak hours, the restaurant is truly slow. One evening we arrived at 6:30, and despite the fact that our reservation was honored promptly, it may as well not have been. We didn't get our main courses until 8:15. The waiter ended up telling us that the entrees would be complimentary--cold comfort because we missed our movie. A manager never even showed up to offer an explanation.

Perhaps all the success has gone to Truly Yours' head. The place is nearly always full, and the feedback has been impressive. It's easy to see why. Chef Katcher is nothing if not versatile; this must be the most extensive menu in town.

There is something for everyone on it, encompassing just about any cooking style you can think of. Beverly Hills combination salad is like flying around the world on a lettuce leaf. For less than $10, you get a mammoth bowlful of Caribbean shrimp salad, Greek salad, Caesar salad and Thai-style grilled chicken salad. It's easily a meal for three.

The first-rate crab cakes come in a yin-yang of spicy cocktail sauce and creamy remoulade. The baked oysters are classy too, available either Rockefeller-style with spinach or in a creamy champagne sauce with leeks.

There's even caviar--indeed, five caviars, ranging from $6 to $52 an ounce. Unfortunately, they're served with a clunky setup that will make you wish you had started with something else.

And the starters just scratch the surface. There are original pasta dishes, such as wild spicy mushroom and asparagus over angel hair (a combination Katcher also offers with Caesar salad), and more conventional ones such as linguine with clams and pasta primavera. At lunch I tasted a special, blackened crab pasta with a poppy seed lemon sauce, that was a roaring success. Pastas are mostly al dente , by the way, and well-fashioned.

By now you've guessed that there are a wealth of entrees, from just about anywhere. The daily selection of fresh fish is prepared in any of 15 styles the menu lists (the wildest of which is Jamaican-banana and pineapple, flamed with rum). A misnamed Basque beef stew is all carrot, rosemary and chunky beef over a pasta the menu calls "pipe rigate" (think of it as penne ).

The duck breast is good and crunchy, coated with sesame and served alongside stir-fried vegetables and rice. Alas, the lead entree, jambalaya, doesn't have much flavor in spite of a wealth of ingredients. And chicken Scapariello, boneless chicken with sherry, shallot, garlic and herb sauce, is a house favorite, but I wasn't thrilled with it.

Lighter appetites will find a large selection of omelets, sandwiches and snacks. Try the apple and cheddar omelet with Tillamook cheese and Granny Smith apples, or the chicken with roasted peppers on garlic toast.

The chef's wife, Dawna, makes the pastries, all of which are above average. My favorite would be the fresh squeezed lemon-lime pie, a variation on key lime with a superthick graham flour crust. Chocolate Bavarian delice is a multilayered cake with the Bavarian cream between the layers, topped with a scandalous amount of whipped cream, then enrobed in dark chocolate.

If you can eat one of these at 3 a.m., my hat is off to you. Hope you plan to car-pool in the morning.

Suggested dishes: crab cakes, $6.95; Beverly Hills combination salad, $9.95; linguine with clams, $10.95; apple and cheddar omelet, $5.95; fresh squeezed lemon-lime pie, $3.25.

Truly Yours, 18588 Ventura Blvd . , Tarzana, (818) 996-3131. Lunch and dinner 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Parking lot in rear. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$50.

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