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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Lalo and Brothers, Then and Now, Caters to the Unjaded Palate

February 26, 1988|J.D. GOLD

When I was 24 and new to the business of reviewing, I thought Lalo and Brothers, then freshly opened, was about the best restaurant around. In that smart, clean-lined dining room, I tasted foie gras for the first time, scallops with their roe attached and the ugly, musky Mexican fungus called huitlacoche that smells even better than truffles.

It was the first place I ever tried Armagnae, the first place I ordered Acacia Chardonnay, the first time I was asked to evaluate any restaurant more serious than a noodle shop. Now, a few years and perhaps a thousand restaurant meals later, I still remember every nuance of that meal as if I'd eaten it last night. I kind of wish I had eaten that meal last night--Lalo and Brothers distinctly caters to the unjaded palate.

The pleasant dining room is still candle-lit and hangar-size, and Hockney prints still stand sentinel in the restrooms. Spiffy middle-aged Encinans still raise their voices just a little when they want to be heard over the tinklings of the cocktail pianist; waiters who wouldn't look out of place at an after-hours dance club still stride purposefully past expensive plants between ritual incantations of the day's specials, their noses in the air. The menu still lists a standard range of the "California-style" two-comma dishes--you know, (adjective) (noun), with (adjective) (noun), and a coulis of (noun); plug in your favorite buzzwords of the day (blue corn, primavera, even Cajun)--that should be familiar by now to anyone who's visited any postmodern grand cafe anywhere in the world.

"Is this delicious?" a Jona-clad woman near us asked her waiter.

"Our chef here is very good," he said.

There's a decent version of angel-hair pasta with tomato, garlic and basil, which is the spaghetti and meatballs of the '80s, good-enough Caesar salad with tepid fried oysters where the croutons should be, and crab cakes that are crisp and inoffensive. You can have mesquite-grilled swordfish or tuna or steak and can nibble carefully made pastries for dessert.

Lalo and Brothers is, in fact, one of the half dozen or so restaurants on this side of the hill that is good enough to be evaluated by the standards one would use to judge Spago, or Citrus or St. Estephe--it's vastly better than most radicchio bunkers on the Boulevard. Still, nothing is overwhelmingly delicious; nothing I ate in my three meals here last week was anything I'd order again.

Duck ravioli were squares of dried-out pasta awash in a treacly swirl of orange and candied garlic sauces, the good flavor of the pureed duck all but drowned in sugar. Blue corn taquitos, nicely crisp and yielding and stuffed with moist chicken were ruined by guacamole made from blatantly unripe avocados. "Won-ton cigars" were tough little egg-roll skins stuffed with good Scottish smoked salmon and deep-fried too long--the cheapest scraps of lox would have been rendered just as thoroughly inedible. Bland nopales salad was spiked with chunks of marinated ahi tuna that did nothing for the cactus and nothing for us; lentil soup had al dente lentils with a weird, waxy texture, like a bowlful of little candle drippings, and tasted like a medicinal tincture of tarragon.

Simple dishes are best here: grilled swordfish, seared salmon, grilled shrimp and scallops (skip the sticky pasta underneath). I liked a crisp-skinned roasted chicken stuffed with creamy goat cheese like ravioli and served in a buttery tomato sauce, and a heap of sauteed sweetbreads that was filmed with dusky mushroom essence.

One night, we were strongly warned away from ordering a special of "buffalo Rossini"--we wanted it because it sounded like a dish from "Fellini's Satyricon." The waiter assured us that the grilled prime rib was more of a bargain (if a $24 entree could be called a bargain of any sort) and the piece of meat, dusted with the usual Cajun spices, was gargantuan, the size of a small lap dog at least, and very good. It came with French-fried yams, which weren't great, and "token vegetables," which turned out to be one baby carrot and one tiny sprig of broccoli--if the chef ever gets tired of the restaurant business, he can always go into copywriting.

As you might expect, desserts are the sorts of things set on ornately swirled sauces: little huts made of mousses and ladyfingers, fresh berries set in pretty pastry cones, sorbets in cookie shells, and a "death by chocolate" mousse cake that had succumbed to rigor mortis by the time we got to it. The hot apple turnover is crisp, light and altogether exemplary of its type.

Lalo and Brothers, 17237 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 784-8281. Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $45-$75.

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