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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

An Admirable Return to the Basics

October 04, 1990|DAVID NELSON

Every so often, Broadway revives one of the great 1950s musicals and swaths the Great White Way with a warm, all-American glow quite unmatched by the icy spectaculars of the 1980s.

The new Nancaro's Restaurant & Elephant Bar in Rancho Bernardo rather nicely revives the family restaurant of the '50s and '60s. The homey, old-fashioned plates contrast refreshingly with the chic but austere offerings of contemporary eateries. We're not talking gourmet here, but simple, carefully prepared fare that can seem just the ticket on a casual evening out.

Nancaro's occupies renovated premises that formerly housed Jeremiah's, a steak-and-seafood place that had a long run on West Bernardo Drive. The new decor takes a sort of Stanley and Livingstone theme that reaches its apogee in the bar--obviously intended as a watering hole for the mid-20s set--but calms down in the dining room, a reasonably comfortable space outfitted with dark woods, a good deal of decorative brass, and occasional prints of hunters on safari. Overall, the style is rather that of an upscale coffee shop, a comment that quite neatly describes the tone of the menu as well.

This is not the sort of place at which one thinks of dining in courses, although there are such starters as fried zucchini coins, an artichoke-zucchini dip served with tortilla chips, the inevitable stuffed potato skins, and a couple of soups. The menu announces that everything is freshly prepared, a claim repeated by the servers and witnessed by the soups, which do seem simmered from fresh, quality ingredients. An old-fashioned chicken noodle was fragrant with bay leaves and crowded with celery, carrots, onions, noodles and chunks of chicken.

To a degree, the menu takes a something-for-everyone approach by offering Cobb, shrimp and chicken salads; assorted "gourmet" burgers; a list of sandwiches that, besides the usual club and french dip offerings, includes oak-broiled mahi-mahi on a buttered, toasted bun; a stir-fry of chicken with sesame seeds that seems to be stretching things a bit, and fettuccine with and without chicken.

Just as fried chicken is virtually impossible to find outside chain-operated fried chicken coops, such simple pleasures as deep-fried shrimp have vanished from all but the humblest menus. Nancaro's serves them freshly breaded and crisply finished, on a platter heaped with french fries, good cole slaw and toasted "cheese" bread; these garnishes repeat on most plates. This is obviously simple, straightforward cooking, but it can be very satisfying and this restaurant does it well.

There are such things as prime rib, Cajun blackened chicken (one of Nancaro's few, misguided bows to trendiness) and teriyaki sirloin, but the specialty platters hold much more interest. One that sounds particularly hearty takes its name from Kansas City and consists of a ground beef steak, broiled over oak and topped with grilled onions, mushrooms, cheese and tomato. The St. Louis platter offers a full rack of barbecued pork spareribs, and the smokehouse platter a rather tasty barbecued chicken breast topped with smoked ham, bacon and cheese; the garnish includes stewed, cinnamon-scented apples. All plates include more than enough food, and overall the restaurant seems to offer its customers good value for their money.

Desserts take the theme of generosity to an almost absurd extreme and will generally feed two or three with ease. The list follows Nancaro's general mood and includes a massive mud pie, an apple-walnut cobbler served hot under a crunchy topping and a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream, and thick malts backed by a metal container that holds a second malt--the serving amounts to at least a quart, not including the four or five inches of whipped cream that crown the glass.

NANCARO'S

17051 W. Bernardo Drive, Rancho Bernardo

Calls: 487-7181

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.

Cost: Meal-sized items from $5.75 to $16.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $40. Credit cards accepted.

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