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Getting There Is As Much Pleasure As Eating There

April 07, 1985|RUTH REICHL

Saddle Peak Lodge, 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. Reservations advised: (818) 340-6029. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday and soon for Sunday brunch. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, $40-$85 (food only).

At first, it is so dark it is almost eerie, but when your eyes adjust you can make out the silhouette of the mountains all around you. The night is clear, the air so sleek and cool that when you roll down the car window and stick your head out to see the stars you expect to hear the brisk crackle of breaking glass. Look up and the sky is high and wide, filled with the light of distant planets. The air smells like leaves and bark and pine needles; just breathing it makes you feel healthy. As you get closer, the drive turns into such a pleasure that by the time you get to the Saddle Peak Lodge a TV dinner would taste like ambrosia.

This stretch of rural road so close to home is but the first of what turn out to be a series of surprises. You may feel that you're lost in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, but when you finally get to the restaurant and pull into the parking lot, it is absolutely stuffed with cars. Light comes streaming invitingly out of this isolated lodge, and when you pull the door open you are greeted by great gusts of warmth and conviviality.

The place itself is extraordinary looking--a sort of country fantasy, part cabin, part castle. It's all stacked logs and open fires, willow furniture and mounted trophies; to make the place even homier, some of the walls are lined with books. Cozy though it seems, the restaurant goes on forever, climbing across three levels and stretching in all directions.

Despite its rural airs, the Saddle Peak Lodge is not quite casual. You know this as soon as the elegant man with the European accent starts to lead you to your table; it is instantly clear that this will not be the place for chicken-fried steak. Then he hands you the menu--it's huge--and you see the size of the prices--large--and you begin to understand that although this may be country, it is country with class.

"People are getting tired of French froufrou," says Rolf Nonnast, who devised the menu. (You may remember him as one of the owners of La Couronne in Pasadena.) "So we are trying to revive old American dishes, to present food in a natural manner. We're going back to basics." Salmon carpaccio with a spicy dressing of yogurt, horseradish and mustard? Duck marinated in soy, sherry ginger and wild mountain honey served with wild rice griddle cakes? Game hen stuffed with mushroom puree and foie gras served on a bed of fried parsley? If these are basic, I've clearly been missing something.

The truth is that despite the inclusion of a few down-home dishes (ranch pork chops, baby back ribs, even chili), this menu is one of the most unusual, interesting and least basic I've come across in quite some time. And it all sounds so good that it is almost impossible to figure out what to eat. How do you choose between chicken on a bed of stewed truffle and leeks or broiled quail with cheese corn crepes? Good luck.

What is basic is the size of the portions. Basic enough to supply a normal person's needs for two or three days. An appetizer of salmon cured in vodka and tarragon was easily enough to make an entire meal, and a salad of endive and watercress with walnut croutons and goat cheese was equally large. Both were wonderful. That salmon carpaccio--raw slices of fish rolled up like sushi surrounding a pool of tangy dressing--should not be missed. In fact, the only appetizer I found disappointing was fresh sauteed duck liver which was served on a bed of mache that had been positively swamped by a dressing made of hazlenut oil and raspberry vinegar.

The entrees are even larger. Mesquite broiled ground buffalo was so immense that everybody at the table burst out laughing when it arrived. Served on a bed of sauteed peppers, shiitake mushrooms and onions, it was a major disappointment; we were expecting it to be a bit gamy, but in fact it had almost no flavor at all. The dark black "lacquered duckling," on the other hand, was a delightful duck--the flavors of the marinade had permeated both the flesh and the deliciously crunchy skin. The wild rice griddle cakes with their topping of black currant jam were a perfect accompaniment. Someone has thought carefully about what flavors will bring out the best in each dish; wine-poached pears, for instance, were the perfect foil for the lean slices of loin of venison. Their softness contrasted perfectly with the toothiness of the meat, while their piquant sweetness underscored the taste of the game.

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