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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Val’s Has Classically Inspired Decor, but the Food Is Generic

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The waiter at Val’s looked stumped. “He’s either Swiss or Swedish,” he volunteered finally, in response to our question about chef Otto Cloetta. Then he broke into a broad grin. “Swiss, Swedish--what’s the difference?”

Now, I don’t want to be picky, but a waiter in one of our more serious restaurants would never get off that easy. I mean, there are quite a few places in this town so finicky about detail that waiters are required to memorize everything from the chef’s astrological sign to what is on the bottom of the stockpots.

The thing is, Val’s wants badly to be in that company. It has elegant, three-star decor and a team of hotly solicitous white-jacketed waiters. But Cloetta (psst: he’s Swiss), a workmanlike chef who cooks a few highly respectable dishes, doesn’t produce anything imaginative enough to make people stand up and take notice. His food is merely standard Continental, generic in the extreme.

And that may account--in part at least--for the waiter’s indifference. I’m still not sure why he thought of Sweden, though. Cloetta does a tasty smoked salmon and a mean gravlax, but the menu calls them Norwegian and Danish, respectively.

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Perhaps it wouldn’t matter in more modest surroundings, but Val’s is so classically pretty that one expects the full treatment. You enter through a mini-Parthenon of four Greek columns firmly planted in the sidewalk, and pass through a charming foyer, where a hostess greets you and escorts you to your table.

The main dining room looks exactly like something you’d find in France: a large white space filled with shrubs and flowers, divided by an imposing marble balustrade running through the center. A huge crystal chandelier and framed watercolors of sepia-colored Grecian urns add splendor. You sit on rust-colored banquettes or oval-backed French provincial chairs. A Mozart piano concerto is invariably tinkling in the background.

I’d advise starting a meal here with one of those salmon dishes, particularly the gravlax. Gravlax--literally, “buried salmon"--is cured on the premises, as it would be in any of our local restaurants. The news is that the curing is done by Cloetta himself, and he gives it a firm texture and a sweet, slightly herbal flavor reminiscent of juniper berries.

Other appetizers worth noticing are a heavily reduced mussel soup and a good saffron risotto. Saffron is actually more pronounced in the soup: It’s a hearty orange color--a thick potage, really--with three or four plump mussels prominently placed in the center of the bowl. The risotto is not quite as intense but a pleasure nonetheless, made from delicately flavored arborio rice generously mixed with large prawns and rings of calamari.

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Beyond those, the appetizer pickings are pretty slim: canned goose liver pate, mealy sliced tomatoes and an insipid creation called Val’s special cole slaw, made of carrot, avocado, egg and bacon. It’s a sort of poor man’s Cobb that just doesn’t work.

The main dishes don’t inspire much comment, other than that they average something over $20 at dinner time. Virtually everything is grilled, roasted or sauteed, coupled with conventional sauces and uniform vegetable garnishes that usually amount to carrots and snow peas.

I didn’t try the only nouvelle-looking dish on the menu, roast pheasant breast with blueberry sauce, because it just didn’t sound appealing. Roast chicken with herbs, however (a mere $18), is decidedly run of the mill, slightly overcooked with a crisped skin. Any herbs that may have been sprinkled on during the cooking process have completely lost their aroma by the time it arrives.

I must say that the chef acquits himself reasonably well with the more conventional sauces, though. Good, plump medallions of veal come in an intensely flavored morel mushroom sauce, and a luncheon entree the house calls minute steak has a rich brown shallot sauce. And Cloetta has a deft hand with seafoods too, as with the Lake Superior white fish. It’s a simply grilled fish drizzled with a healthy dose of lemon butter, satisfying in the way that only something simple can be.

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The pretty homemade desserts are gaudily laid out on a pastry cart that is wheeled to the table the moment the dinner plates have been removed, but their looks are the best part. Chocolate euphoria (promising name) turns out to be a somewhat nondescript multilayered cake in a raspberry coulis. The serviceable creme brulee and the slightly gluey tarte tatin are average at best.

The best dessert by me is caramel custard--also known as flan--with a deep, dark caramel sauce underneath. France claims this dessert, as does Mexico. Mexico, France, what’s the difference?

Suggested dishes: Danish gravlax, $12; mussel soup, $7; Lake Superior whitefish, $19; medallions of veal, $23.

Val’s, 10130 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake, (818) 508-6644. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$75.

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