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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Miller's Acorn: Italian-American a la Roadhouse : Macho Dining for Garlic Lovers

February 12, 1988|J.D. GOLD

Imagine a Midwestern-style roadhouse, the old-fashioned kind that's just seedy enough to be intriguing, just far enough out of town to make the journey something of an adventure. After dark, the place--you drive along a twisty road, above an inky lake, past cabins, through woods--seems halfway to Sheboygan, though it might be only 15 minutes from Warner Center. The roadhouse's wooden sign is brightly lit; its parking lot is filled with late-model domestic sedans, none of which has a "Baby on Board" sign in the rear window.

Paneling is dark wood. Booths are upholstered in bright Leatherette. Groups of neatly dressed couples, who look as if they'd gone to high school together, sip Michelob and talk about basketball. Half the men have mustaches like Chuck Norris; half the women have Geraldine Ferraro wedge-cut hair. Hardly anyone is drinking wine: The choice of wines on the regular menu is limited to white or red, although a slightly expanded list is available on request. And though New Age music blasts over the sound system, nobody eats seared tuna or chanterelle pizza here.

Although its name, Miller's Acorn, might lead you to mistake it for a relic of a hippie diner--Spahn Ranch is just down the road--the place has your basic roadhouse menu, serving barbecued ribs, thick steaks and dense, masculine Italian food for guys unafraid of garlic. Crude but perky flower arrangements dress each table, and a fireplace lightly perfumes the dining room with wood smoke. The steep-roofed wooden structure wouldn't look out of place at a ski resort and is handsomer by far than the sort of squat, cinder-block bunkers that pass for roadhouses in this part of the state.

You are led to a table and brought a basket of crusty, commercial bread with a golf ball of whipped butter like the ones you see at pancake breakfasts. Dinners come with soup or salad, and other appetizers are the usual things: shrimp cocktail like every other shrimp cocktail you've ever had, half a dozen large ones stuck face-first into horseradish-spiked catsup; good Manila clams steamed in broth that is thick with chopped garlic; a half-order of ribs.

The Acorn salad--chopped egg, bacon, lettuce, a few oddly grainy slices of potato--has no acorns in it, none that you can find anyway, and is dressed with something resembling a creamier version of the stuff that binds German potato salad. Soups--vegetable, tomato rice--are tasty enough, though not exactly subtle: They taste like canned soups doctored with cream and fresh herbs, even if they are made at the restaurant.

A delicious tang of chimney smoke flavors the air outside the way it does around the world-class steak houses in the Santa Maria Valley upstate. Unfortunately, the smoke doesn't seem to make its way into the New York steaks and filet mignons the way it does in those places: The steaks here, though accurately grilled, are bland, with little of the animal richness you expect from a superb piece of meat. Better are the sweet baby back ribs, which are crisp, greaseless and as suffused with smoke as the steaks are not.

Most people seem to order one or another of the place's man-size Italian-American specialties (Miller's Acorn could be described as the backwoods equivalent of Little Joe's) and, afterwards, take away enough doggie-bagged food to feed Fido for a week. Although all the Italian-inflected dishes taste the same, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Cioppino-- a melange of large shrimp, whitefish filets and a lobster tail in a tomato broth that contains what you imagine to be half a pound of garlic--is served over linguine in a salad bowl as large as a sink. The "House Special" is the same thing, but with a hot, milky cheese soup in place of the tomato broth. Fettuccine comes in a similar cheese sauce; shrimp "scampi"--nice, large crunchy ones--are also served over linguine, with a sauce that is somewhat like the garlic broth the clams came in earlier.

Come hungry, eat a lot. And have a square of the wonderful homemade bread pudding for the road.

Miller's Acorn, 23360 Lake Manor Drive, Chatsworth (818) 888-2099. Open for dinner Tuesday - Sunday. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$40.

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