Valley's Top 10 Dining Picks Include Cajun, Korean and Teutonic Fare

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is bound to be controversy surrounding this year's top 10 list. Maybe I should have asked the writers from the Letterman show for assistance.

In the end, I had a tough time deciding on at least half the entries. There is little room for uncertainty on a list this short, and several restaurants that I hold in high esteem just could not be included.

Four of the restaurants chosen, Posto, Pinot Bistro, Saddle Peak Lodge and Sushi Nozawa, could conceivably be retired as honorary members; they have remained the best examples of what they do for several years now.

Then there was the decision to leave out a place like Cafe Bizou in favor of JoeJoe's, a newcomer that moved in a few blocks down the boulevard. Bizou remains a fine choice for fair-priced French California cooking. But for me, JoeJoe's deserves a special nod, because it makes more interesting choices in the kitchen.

I'm actually pained that our best Chinese or Thai restaurants are not more worthy of mention, though restaurants such as Bamboo, Talesai and even Yang Chow are occasionally pleasing.

I haven't found much creativity or consistency in our Asian restaurants, and until they use better quality ingredients, not much to champion, either. So once again, bon appetit, and a wish that 1997 brings both prosperity and a wealth of diverse new eating experiences for everyone.

One: POSTO

Chef Luciano Pellegrini never ceases to amaze me. During the course of any year, his aggressively intellectual take on modern Italian cooking results in many surprises. Posto's owner is Piero Selvaggio, also known for his restaurants Valentino and Prini on the Westside. But thanks to Pellegrini, this is Selvaggio's most experimental restaurant, and when things hit here, they hit big.

Take my last lunch orchestrated by Pellegrini. The first course was pure simplicity: Dungeness crab legs drizzled with a few drops of aged, ambrosial aceto balsamico, after which came an exquisite risotto with shaved white truffles on top.

That was followed by roasted quail with foie gras, then a delicious cut of venison in a Barolo reduction. Dessert was creme brulee laced with cooked chestnuts, which transformed the blandly rich dessert into one with unusual body.

Like any American restaurant, Posto is given to fits of being erratic and diffident. Yes, I brook the occasional complaint from friends, when things do not turn out quite as wonderful as I said they would. But I have never heard those words from anyone who requests a menu in advance, or who puts himself in the chef's hands, a practice common to people dining in our top Japanese restaurants. Good cooking is often spontaneous, and Posto thrives on spontaneity.

* 14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 874-4400. Expensive.

Two: PINOT BISTRO

The rich get richer. Pinot Bistro is the Valley's only true American bistro, and its popularity hasn't waned one bit. This is still the Valley's numero uno power lunch spot, the place to see studio bigwigs with their copies of Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and the Hollywood Reporter stacked up next to their crispy risotto cake and roasted farm chicken with French fries. It is also the place to crowd in with Ladies Who Lunch, the Valley Edition.

Owner Joachim Splichal has been a busy boy in 1996. (He has just opened Pinot at the Chronicle in Pasadena, extending his Pinot empire.) But happily, chef-in-residence Octavio Becerra still does his thing most days, and it usually works like a charm.

At a recent lunch, the kitchen put out a matchless scallop near-carpaccio with sea salt, celeriac and Belgian endive, followed by bacon-wrapped monkfish with fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

The menu reads like a list of '90s culinary buzzwords: warm goat cheese and elephant garlic tart, roasted chicken salad with mushrooms and potatoes, lamb osso buco. The rich Americana decor is warm and inviting. The sleek leather banquettes in the main dining room might just be the most comfortable seating on Ventura Boulevard.

* 12969 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-0500. Expensive.

Three: SADDLE PEAK LODGE

Take a drive in the country to visit Saddle Peak Lodge, set in the bucolic hills exactly halfway between the Ventura Freeway and the Pacific Ocean. This is one of the more venerable settings for any Los Angeles-area restaurant. The hunting lodge-style building is more than 50 years old and is rumored to have been a bordello during the '40s.

But the restaurant has never been so good as it is now. Second-generation chef Josie La Balch is the daughter of French parents who learned her trade at Ma Maison and L'Ermitage, before achieving stardom at Santa Monica's Remi.

La Balch cooks food that befits a country lodge: wild game, fish and whatever else she can get in season.

Reached by telephone, the chef confided that she is actively seeking less ranch-raised and more wild and exotic foodstuffs.

"Everything is so camouflaged these days," she laments, as she explains why wild sturgeon, which has yellowish fat under the skin, is so much more flavorsome than the farm-raised product.

Look for dishes such as Scottish pheasant braised in a light vegetable stock and served in a copper terrine, Virginia striped bass seared skin-side-down in olive oil and herbs, and even caribou leg, marinated in red wine and juniper berries. Sunday brunch, mostly comforting American fare, is terrific.

* 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. (818) 222-3888. Expensive.

Four: SUSHI NOZAWA

Japanese restaurants come and go, but no one on this side of the hill can match the standard set by the temperamental, steady Nozawa-san, eminence grise of Valley sushi masters.

The Times Sunday Magazine recently featured a review of Ginza Sushi-Ko in Beverly Hills, where dinner ranges upward from $250 per person. The reviewer concluded emphatically that the experience was worth every penny, and I do not disagree. But let's face it, not all of us can afford that kind of luxury.

That is not to say it is fair to compare Sushi Nozawa to Ginza Sushi-Ko. That's rather like comparing a great Burgundy to the latest $20 boutique darling from Napa County. But just as Ginza Sushi-Ko is for Marvin Davis-sized expense accounts or once-in-a-lifetime rites of passage, so is Nozawa for once-a-week devotees who know a good deal when they see one.

Taste his creamy uni, his peerless (for the price) toro and his fine cuts of yellowtail, Spanish mackerel and eel, and dissent seems impossible. As always, the best way to eat here is omakase, which loosely translated means that you get on board and leave the driving to the chef.

* 11288 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 508-7017. Moderate.

Five: CAFE N'AWLINS

This late inclusion has to qualify as Surprise of the Year, a five-table cafe in downtown Burbank that serves the best gumbo I have ever tasted.

The chef is a man named Mark Antoine Foster. Foster is a native of New Orleans, where he was introduced to Cajun cooking by none other than Paul Prudhomme himself. He has also cooked in such world-famous establishments as Court of Two Sisters and Commanders Palace.

Now picture this gumbo, the color of cafe au lait from a thick flour roux, butter and file, powdered sassafras root. It is filled with shrimp, crab meat and spicy sausage and it's sneaky hot, with a long lingering kick after a few spoonfuls.

Gumbo is just the start of a feast here, which might include the city's best shrimp Creole, incredible blackened fish, the chef's unctuous and delicious red beans and rice, buttery Louisiana crab cakes and amazingly rich desserts, like sweet potato pecan pie with cream whipped to order. Get them while they last, because Foster often runs out of his more popular dishes.

The Cajun craze may be long past, but a chef with this kind of talent shouldn't be missed.

* 122 N. San Fernando Road, Burbank. (818) 563-3569. Inexpensive.

Six: OUT TAKE CAFE

Out Take Cafe has a terrific buzz. It's a small cafe with great food that is always full. All pastas are homemade, salads with entrees are $1 extra, and hot herbal teas are served in wonderful Bodum plunger pots, which causes customers to linger far longer than management wishes.

It's not that they are inhospitable. There are a limited number of seats here and a seemingly unlimited number of people waiting to eat. I've never once come in when there wasn't a wait at the narrow, crowded counter, with a team of chefs cooking away. And I always have fun watching these chefs, as they turn out dishes like potato vareniki, Dungeness crab cakes and the most beautiful braised lamb shank in the city, a deep brown behemoth garnished with an off-white celeriac puree.

The menu is eclectic and intelligent at Out Take Cafe, but the reason the restaurant deserves a place on this list is its pricing structure. The lamb shank, for instance, which easily feeds two, is only $10.95, unheard of for this quality. Terrific roast chicken with mushroom risotto is even cheaper at $10.50.

Beware of the noise here, and the tendency of servers to put the check down before you've had a chance to order dessert. Even if this offends you, at these prices you'll probably be back.

* 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 760-1111. Moderate.

Seven: JOE JOE'S

It is almost axiomatic that when an L.A. chef becomes anything close to a household name, he opens more restaurants.

Joe Miller of Joe's in Venice has known some success, but has managed to show restraint, intelligence and has kept two feet on the ground. JoeJoe's in Sherman Oaks is the best new Valley restaurant of the year. It is sensibly priced and charming, and the kitchen puts food you want to eat on their plates--no mean feat these days.

This is a simple cream and beige room with white tablecloths, wooden chairs and walls displaying illustrations from children's books, elements that together add up to elegant unpretentiousness.

Miller's longtime sous chef Tom Munoz is behind the stove, and he plies his customers with fare such as gnocchi of eggplant and dried tomatoes with braised lamb shanks; tuna tartar with cucumbers; whitefish with potato scales; wild rice, carrots, spinach and red wine sauce; and old-fashioned roast beef on mashed potatoes. No entree is more than $15, a no-lose proposition.

Don't miss JoeJoe's simple, satisfying desserts, like coconut cream pie with mango sauce. The wine list is small and well chosen, with virtually all selections under $30.

* 13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-8280. Moderate.

Eight: MATTERHORN CHEF

There weren't many interesting restaurant openings in the Valley this year outside of JoeJoe's, except for a newcomer called Matterhorn Chef. Perhaps many of you remember this place as Hoppe's Olde Heidelberg, and those who remember Hoppe's with fondness will be pleased to know that it is still possible to get sauerbraten, jaegerschnitzel and other Teutonic standbys here.

But Swiss-born chef Ueli Huegli, formerly of Adriano's of the Glen Center in Beverly Glen, has brought the fun back to this boisterous place by turning up the volume, turning up the lights and hanging hundreds of tiny Swiss banners across the ceiling.

And he's enlivened the kitchen too, with such fare as flaedli suppe, a mildly reduced beef consomme with diced pancake; the Swiss cold cut known as Buendnerfleich, an air-dried beef; a moist, fragrant pike deep-fried in a crisp batter; and several game dishes.

You still start, as at Hoppe's, with an old-fashioned relish tray, the type once nearly universal at Los Angeles dinner houses. And you end a meal on a sweet note, by ordering the thin crusted apfelstrudel, served with warm vanilla sauce poured all over it.

* 13726 Oxnard St., Van Nuys. (818) 781-4330. Moderately expensive.

Nine: CHO EUM

The best Asian food I had in 1996 was not Chinese, Japanese or Thai, but rather Korean, in a sunny but nondescript cafe without so much as even an English sign to advertise its name.

Cho Eum has none of the lacquered furniture, copper table hoods or flower displays you find in chic Korean barbecue houses like the downtown Seoul Jung or Pasadena's gorgeous new Arirang. What they do have is great home-style Korean dishes. The restaurant's 40-item menu is bilingual, but only easy to navigate for those who already have a familiarity with this piquant cuisine.

No. 12, for instance, is called beef and mountain herbs over rice, but is really a sizzling stone crock containing rice, minced beef and a rainbow-colored array of marinated vegetables topped with fried eggs.

No. 9 is soon dae soup, a sensationally delicious blood sausage soup made with clear noodles and sliced beef tendon. Or how about No. 33, the buckwheat noodles known as naeng myon, wonderful handmade noodles in a spicy red sauce.

As in all Korean restaurants worth their salt, main courses are accompanied by an array of savory side dishes known as panch'an. And here, where panch'an are anything from creamy potato salad to tiny black soy beans marinated in sugar, there isn't the slightest hint of adulteration to accommodate the American palate.

* 17621 Sherman Way, Van Nuys. (818) 708-0099. Inexpensive.

Ten: CA' DEL SOLE

Ca' Del Sole is a beautiful roadhouse with a prime location near the studios, so no wonder it is a local darling. The valet parking is a zoo during the holidays, the dining room is crammed with office parties, and the walls--soft yellow brick hung with unadorned pottery and antique Italian playing cards--look even more festive with Christmas lights strung across the wood-beamed ceiling.

The restaurant belongs to a family that includes Locanda Veneta, Ca' Brea and Il Moro, respectable dinner houses supervised by the able, gifted Antonio Tommasi.

But despite the restaurant's beautiful design and unimpeachable pedigree, I waffled at the prospect of including it here. Food can be inconsistent. And service is smug and hurried whenever the restaurant gets busy.

You'll feast on creative fare like polpettini d'aragosta e granchio con cannellini e lenticchie, delicious lobster and crab cakes sauteed with white Tuscan beans and green lentils. Rustic soups include an old-fashioned broth of chicken, potatoes and spinach, and pastas like mezzalune di zucca, half-moon shaped ravioli with pumpkin, are hard to resist.

Try anything roasted, and make sure to peruse the fine wine list, loaded with boutique Italian selections.

* 4100 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 985-4669. Moderate.

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