RESTAURANT REVIEW : Back in the U.S.A. : Montanas Bar and Grill replaces French bistro L'Express with a refreshingly American menu.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

French is out and American is in. So say the culinary seers of upper Cahuenga Boulevard.

Stroll into the building that once housed the French bistro L'Express and you'll observe the trend. The site now houses a refreshingly American bistro called Montanas Bar and Grill. Amazingly, not a bit of chic has been lost in the transition, though you'll have to order that espresso sans croissant.

Montanas Bar and Grill (not affiliated with Cafe Montana in Santa Monica) isn't what you'd term a daring restaurant, but a solidly competent one. Everything coming out of this kitchen is at least modestly successful; some items border on terrific. The menu is composed mainly of comfort foods such as potpie, meatloaf and California-style grilled dishes, plus several good pizzas and pastas. (Pastas and entrees are available in half portions, by the way--a good idea.)

The room has been thoroughly renovated in what you might call Late Grunge style, punctuated by hints of both the Pacific Rim and your local swap meet. Enormous pillars dominate the room, offsetting a black, T-bar ceiling that suggests an unfinished disco. You'll sit on straight-backed wooden chairs and dine at wooden tables. Throw in a bare cement floor, lots of red brick plus two floor-to-ceiling ficus that give off an ersatz tropical flair, and you get pure casual chic, circa 1994.

The new restaurant retains the all-glass front that was a trademark of the old L'Express, and it adds to the illusion of spaciousness. Incidentally, it seems that everyone wants to sit near these windows. I can't fathom why. The view is hardly a doozer, just a panorama of the auto dealership across the street.

The appetizers are hearty and good. I didn't try the nachos du chef, but I do acknowledge that the dish has one of the great names of our time. For the record, the nachos are topped with guacamole, salsa, melted Cheddar and sour cream. I did have the mini-rack of baby backs, glazed with an oddball fruit-flavored barbecue sauce. The meat is so tender you can't help but like them.

Montanas makes some of the best Buffalo wings I've had in Los Angeles. The chicken is tender, the sauce complex and hot, the Ranch / blue cheese dressing creamy and cooling. The restaurant's crab cakes have a finely minced texture that a purist would object to, but these crusty cakes are undeniably tasty and the accompanying lemon butter sauce would please the most demanding chef saucier.

The shrimp and chicken spring rolls have flavorful fillings and a spicy Thai-style dipping sauce, but they'd be better if they were less doughy. There's a workmanlike Chinese chicken salad that could use more sesame oil in the dressing, and a chopped salad that's fresh and clean-tasting, though perhaps with too much cheese and not enough turkey and ham.

The hard-working waitresses are not afraid to make recommendations. One insisted that we try a goat cheese pizza, and earned her stripes in one shot. It's terrific: the crust perfectly crisp, the topping designed with a good balance of spinach, goat cheese and fresh tomato, and everything sprinkled with lightly browned pine nuts.

The pastas are chewy and interesting. Smoked chicken spaghetti is rich with fresh peas, smoky chicken breast, cut-up mushrooms and garlic, in an intense broth.

Most entrees come in half portions, and they're probably sufficient unless you come really hungry. One that understandably is not sold by halves is turkey potpie, a stupendous version with a crusty pastry hat. The filling is like a rich mushroom veloute loaded with chunks of soft turkey meat.

The meatloaf, smothered in a rich brown gravy alongside a hill of creamy whipped potatoes, is of the grainy country-style type. Pork chops come with the same thick gravy and a choice of potatoes.

Oddly, Montanas desserts are both less simple and less enthusiastic. I found a hazelnut torte to have a stale flavor, and the chocolate mousse cake was mushy and insipid.

The best dessert bet is actually a throwback to L'Express: a flat, crusty apple tart served with a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. It's nearly perfect, and an ideal companion for the restaurant's good espresso. French may be down on this stretch of Cahuenga, but it is not, dare we say, completely out.


Location: Montanas Bar and Grill, 3575 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City.

Suggested dishes: Baby back rib appetizer, $5.25; smoked chicken pasta, $5.75 (half portion) / $9 (full); meatloaf, $5.25 (half) / $8.50 (full); turkey potpie, $7.95.

Hours: Breakfast 8-11 a.m. Monday-Friday, 9-11 a.m. Saturday-Sunday; lunch 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; dinner 4:30-11 p.m. daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $15-$38. Full bar. Valet parking in structure ($2 with validation.) All major cards.

Call: (213) 850-6220.

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