RESTAURANT REVIEW : Tasty Food in a Stable Situation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're looking for real men in this town, look no further than the Equestrian Bar and Grill at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. They will be the ones in cowboy hats standing around the bar, or the ones chowing down on tostada salad or the restaurant's enormous, one-pound T-bone steak. Chances are they won't be eating quiche, and never mind that more than one of them is probably an accountant.

The teaching chefs at the Los Angeles International Culinary Institute--they are the ones who will be cooking your food--were too cagey to put anything like quiche on this menu, although there are more than a couple of surprises. I would call this an all-American menu with international flair, composed mostly of salads, sandwiches and stand-up entrees.

The atmosphere is all-American, too. It's a cheery, informal room dominated by a painting of (what else?) a horse jumping at an equestrian event. Tables are covered by pink oilcloths, and service is performed by a somewhat shaky team of waitresses, clad in pink blouses and cute little aprons. Practically every table offers a view, through French doors, of the adjacent stables.

Starters consist mainly of good soups and small salads, but the one bona fide appetizer, a terrific chile relleno, kind of makes up for the lack of choice. The kitchen dredges a whole Anaheim chile in yellow cornmeal, then stuffs it with spicy goat cheese and deep-fries it to crispness. The yellow tomato salsa served under it is delicious.

The best salads are actually salad entrees--too big for individual starters, really, but wonderful to share. Grilled vegetable and artichoke salad is my favorite: grilled green and yellow peppers with slices of baby lamb, chunks of imported feta cheese and a few vinegar-mad artichoke hearts. The oversized tostada salad comes with good smoked turkey, beans, avocado and a sharp vinaigrette the menu calls Ortega dressing. Caesar salad with bay shrimp sounds like a good idea, but the dressing is overly bland and creamy.

Sandwiches, popular with this lunch crowd, tend to be generous. What the menu calls its German sandwich board has to be one of the best bargains in town: a huge plank of cold cuts--Black Forest ham, smoked turkey, German blood sausage, liverwurst and assorted garnishes, accompanied by slices of two-tone pumpernickel bread. The good grilled chicken sandwich is fashioned with bacon, avocado and cheese, and there is an unusual open-face sandwich of Black Forest ham on toasted country rye, topped with Swiss cheese and two fried eggs.

But what really impresses me are the entrees, labeled specialties of the house. They offer terrific value. Best among them, for my money, is the one called hot-smoked Indian salmon steak, a man-sized chunk of alder-smoked salmon sitting atop a spicy green tomato salsa.

Next would be the fresh lamb shanks, bone in. You need a blacksmith's appetite to finish these meaty hunks of tender lamb braised in an aromatic gravy made with tomato, shallot and . . . do I detect cinnamon and clove? This sauce tastes almost Middle Eastern.

The roasted half-chicken rests on a delicate corn pancake and swims in a dish of creamed salsify, a root vegetable that tastes strangely like oysters. The sea is suggested even more strongly in the firm grilled swordfish smeared with a two-olive puree and in the baked Alaskan halibut with a pecan crust.

The only culinary disappointment comes in the form of fettuccine with lobster and broccoli, advertised as having a mushroom cream sauce. This pasta is flaccid and gluey, the lobster rubbery and the sauce dominated by an unexpected inclusion of red pepper.

Service can be a bit daunting, although we should consider that this is, after all, a school. One evening a request for bread was ignored completely. Another visit, a dish of roasted chicken came out after everyone else had finished the entrees, and it was not deleted from the check.

Luckily, desserts are so good it is impossible to hold a grudge. For example, there is an old-fashioned banana split loaded up with chopped nuts and whipped cream, and an authentic strawberry shortcake, flaky biscuit and all, tasting like one straight out of a Fanny Farmer cookbook.

The best dessert in the house is bound to make a hit with the real men in your group, an ultra-fudgy hot chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream. I actually had a blacksmith at my table, and that's exactly what he opted for. Then, probably just to reinforce the mystique, he had seconds.

Suggested dishes: chile relleno, $6.50; grilled vegetable and artichoke salad, $10; hot smoked Indian salmon steak, $13, fresh lamb shanks, $9.75; hot chocolate brownie, $3.50.

Equestrian Bar and Grill, 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 840-1320. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Parking lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, $25-$45.

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