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RESTAURANTS : NEW GAME PLAN

I once loved going to Saddle Peak Lodge, driving the winding roads through the Santa Monica Mountains, breathing in the heady scent of pines and marveling at the canopy of stars overhead. One of the first places in Southern California to specialize in game, the Calabasas restaurant felt like a remote campsite even though it’s just 25 minutes from downtown Santa Monica and a half-hour from parts of the Valley. On weeknights, when Malibu Canyon Road was nearly deserted, you could always count on the parking lot to be jam-packed. Over the years, though, the 85-year-old institution’s rustic setting had become a bigger draw than the old-fashioned food. Things are looking up now that there’s been a changing of the kitchen guard.

Josie Le Balch, who started her cooking career at Saddle Peak in the late ‘80s before moving on to run the kitchen at Remi in Santa Monica, is back and, slowly but steadily, she’s injecting a once-staid menu with new culinary verve. So far, she’s made only minor changes--adding a dish here and there, reworking descriptions and introducing her own nightly specials--but the difference is dramatic. These days, plates look better, sauces have more finesse, the cooking is more precise.

A special appetizer one night of lobster mushrooms in puff pastry shows what Le Balch can do. It’s a heap of glorious mushrooms, still slightly firm, served in a rich yet delicate brandy-cream sauce. A taupe potato-leek soup is smooth and subtle, tilted more toward the leek than potato. And the game pate that I remember sometimes tasting of too long a stay in the refrigerator, is this time finely marbled, its wild flavor beautifully balanced with the seasonings.

A special of antelope loin--incredibly tender and rare slices of meat that taste like a wild roast beef--is the best dish of the evening. Flying Bar E Ranch pork chops--fat, juicy ones with light puffs of corn fritters--run a close second. Two thick blocks of rare, gamy venison loin come with crisp, golden potato pancakes and a delicious poached pear. When a big guy at my table wants to order Texas black boar chops, the waiter tells him several times that the portion is very petite. It is, but the little chops are also wonderfully wild-tasting, paired with a rosy Indian peach and squiggly spaetzle noodles. Tender barbecued apricot-glazed baby back ribs come with terrific Boston-baked beans, slow-simmered with plenty of molasses and the salty tang of bacon.

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Le Balch offers a slew of side dishes, too, such as good creamed spinach with a dose of Pernod and a sumptuous wild rice, a tweed of dark and light grains studded with fresh walnut pieces. Her potato and onion tart is great and looks like a flower of potato petals with a center of sweet, translucent onion. Skip the mundane twice-baked stuffed potato.

On the dessert front, cherries jubilee has been replaced by “warm brandy cherries over vanilla bean ice cream,” which is more or less the same dish but with better ice cream. Lemon souffle tastes like bites of citrus-flavored cloud. Pecan pie is loaded with nuts and, for once, not too sweet. And the wacky chocolate taco--a sort of chocolate cookie filled with gooey white-chocolate mousse and mixed berries--is still there to love or hate. Yet the dessert menu remains dated and could use an overhaul.

Service is mostly very good. One night, when we opt to share appetizers, our waiter, instead of just setting them in the middle of the table, divides an order of the satiny vodka-cured salmon, beautifully garnishing each plate with vivid green tarragon sauce. He then serves us each a small portion of the “Saddle Peak Kick-Ass Chili,” circling the table to proffer chopped onion, sour cream and grated cheese. All this without our needing to ask.

Saddle Peak’s dark, cozy bar has guns mounted over the fireplace, tall twig stools with leather seats, a few fishing poles stacked in a corner and a basket of shiny red apples. The cavernous main dining room, romantically lit with hurricane lanterns, is dominated by a huge stone fireplace. Bent-willow armchairs are pulled up to generously sized tables sequestered in the shadows. “This is the way Montana should look,” says a friend from the Midwest, gazing up at the high, open-timbered ceiling, the massive beams wrapped in rawhide. A legion of stag heads, moose heads--anything with horns and antlers--stand watch overhead.

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Along with Michael’s in Santa Monica and the Bel-Air Hotel, the restaurant also boasts one of the Los Angeles area’s great outdoor dining spaces, a broad terrace set along a garden of cactus and juniper with views of the mountains beyond. Reserve a table under the sun-dappled arbor or big canvas umbrellas for brunch, a three-course prix fixe menu that offers lots of choices. Among the best: a tall wedge of rich wild mushroom and onion pie laced with cream, mesquite-broiled ham with eggs and pumpkin flapjacks, or a plate of three kinds of handcrafted sausages (spicy buffalo, rabbit and pork) with eggs and fried potatoes.

Saddle Peak’s wine list is all California, except for the obligatory French Champagnes, and it’s evenly divided between whites and reds. Though there’s a decent selection of Chardonnays and other white varietals, if you’re ordering game, you’re going to want to drink a full-bodied red wine. And what better cuisine to show off California’s best reds? The wine list here is a little behind the times, however, weighted heavily toward young California Cabernets from long-established wineries. For the most part, it doesn’t reflect the great new wines coming from the new generation of winemakers.

Given the quality of LeBalch’s dinner specials, where she has more of a chance to show off her skills, I’m looking forward to seeing what else she’ll do once she totally rewrites Saddle Peak’s menu. Judging from the initial changes she’s made--basically fine-tuning existing dishes, Saddle Peak’s kitchen seems to be coming out of its long hibernation at last.

SADDLE PEAK LODGE

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CUISINE: American and game. AMBIENCE: Rustic stone hunting lodge replete with huge fireplaces, stag heads and old books; outdoor dining on a broad terrace. BEST DISHES: game pate , crispy potato and onion torte, pork chops with corn fritters, tenderloin of buffalo, Texas black boar chops, lemon souffle , warm pecan pie. WINE PICKS: Ridge York Creek Zinfandel, 1992; Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, 1991. FACTS: 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas; (818) 222-3888 and (310) 456-PEAK. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Dinner only. Brunch Saturday and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $48 to $90; brunch, $19.75 per person. Corkage $15. Valet parking.


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