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Star-spangled Food

November 16, 1986| Compiled by Steven Smith

American food used to be easy to define; everybody knew it meant hot dogs and hamburgers and the occasional peanut butter sandwich. Not anymore. A new wave of American restaurants has embraced everything from Maryland crabcakes to Southwestern tacos, Cajun gumbo to California pizza. The restaurants listed below may be very different, but each one of them is true red, white and blue. AMERICA (425 Martingdale Way, Newport Beach, (714) 833-0080). America--the restaurant, of course--is a pleasant, casual sort of place, serving healthy portions at reasonable prices. And who couldn't have fun in a room dominated by the copper-green head of Miss Liberty? The pizzas come from a mesquite-fired brick oven, and for fun at your table you can indulge your power fantasies by making calls on a cordless phone. The service can be flaky, and some plates over- and under-done, but some dishes, like breast of free-range chicken with a buttery crab filling, are outstanding. The individual-size pizzas are very good. Most menu items are fish (daily selections), and are competently grilled with plenty of mesquite flavor. Lunch, Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25-$40. CAFE CORDIALE (14015 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1985). There is a lot to like about Cafe Cordiale. The service is pleasant, and the place is certainly pretty--all soft pastels, pink and blue neon, tasteful prints on the walls. There are decent wines by the glass, and the prices are extremely reasonable. Salads tend to be good, the pasta adequate. Most of the fish (broiled swordfish, sauteed salmon, sole) and meats (veal piccata, marinated lamb) would be better if cooked less. But desserts will leave you with a good taste in your mouth: there's a chocolate mousse concoction, embellished with whipped cream and raspberries and ladyfingers, that is irresistible. Lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $20-$40.

DOWNTOWN GRILL (16925 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 986-6660). Tiled, streamlined, with bare beams and innards exposed, done up in fun colors--flamingo pink and black--this recent addition to the Valley resembles a sophisticated New York grill. The restaurant is professional, and the key dishes (hamburgers, pasta and pizza) have been honed over the decades at the older Hamburger Hamlet restaurants (to which this belongs). Appetizers are cleverly experimental--duck sausage wrapped in grape leaves with Zinfandel sauce, Thai lamb with peppers and ginger. Chicken paillard is a terrific main course, moist and flavorful. Gaucamole is served in a molcajete , the Mexican grinding stone, at the table. The shoestring potatoes are crisp and light, the coffee wonderful. And give the chocolate pecan pie a try--it's divine. Dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Full bar. Dinner for two, $20-$30. HAMLET GARDENS (1139 Westwood Blvd., (213) 824-1818). Another Hamburger Hamlet, but this time gone upscale and nouvell e--an '80s look of weathered brick walls, terra-cotta tile floors, and sky-high ficus trees--and you have Hamlet Gardens, the fanciest link in Hamburger Hamlet Inc.'s chain. Like the gorgeous but impersonal decor, the cuisine is aggressively tasteful but not always tasty. Despite some pleasant appetizers, entrees are less than exciting: Roasted chicken from the rotisserie could be juicier; the Wienerschnitzel is dull. Best are the Dover sole, grilled just this side of doneness, fresh and tender, and the French fries and fried onion rings. Desserts are superb, and the pizza with pesto, prawns and sliced red onions is so good it alone deserves a return visit. Lunch, Mon.-Sat.; dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, $50-$80.

MARYLAND CRAB HOUSE (2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 450-5555; also at 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 783-CRAB). And CHESAPEAKE CRAB HOUSE (15023 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-0066). Three chances to pretend that you are on the Chesapeake Bay. Blue crab is the specialty at all of them, served on big platters and also prepared in soups, salads, sandwiches and hot crab dishes. There are steamed spiced crabs, crab cakes, soft-shelled crab, served sandwich style on white bread and delightful deviled crab. Of the three, the Encino branch of the Maryland Crab House proved to be our favorite. Maryland (Santa Monica): Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. MC, V. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25-$40. Maryland (Encino): Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. MC, V. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25-$40. Chesapeake: Lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun. All major credit cards. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $30-$45.

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