There's something a little schizophrenic about the Oak Tree West delicatessen / restaurant. This place could satisfy the most discriminating deli connoisseur. Yet someone who has never been to an authentic Jewish deli could eat at Oak Tree West and not even notice that this is the real thing.
Here is a jewel of a deli, opulently disguised in pinky beige florals to resemble a fancy upscale coffee shop. In the menu, traditional deli dishes such as smoked fish platters, cheese blintzes and potato pancakes have been buried in an offering of more than 200 meals that include such distracting categories as "A Bit of Italy," "The Mexican Fiesta" and "Savory Stir Frys."
My advice is to skip the international foods, and don't even bother with the salads. Stick to the standard deli items, because that's what they do best here. Besides, food like this is rare outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Try the cabbage soup, for instance. A wonderful concoction--with plenty of sweet and plenty of sour. It even contained raisins. My dining companion pronounced it "just like my Polish grandmother's." Another classic, the restorative matzo ball soup ($3.25), was everything I expected it to be, packed with chunks of chicken and carrots and a big tasty matzo ball.
Nova lox were pale and fresh, flown in from New York--along with the cheesecake--according to the deli manager. The lox came on a light, chewy bagel (baked locally), with sweet onions and ripe tomatoes. It was a lovely meal.
Another deli standard, chopped liver--made from chicken livers, not beef--was sweet and tasty. Alone it was perfectly delectable. However, layered with pastrami (hot, tender, thickly piled), Swiss cheese, tomatoes and Thousand Island dressing, in a killer sandwich called the "pastrami whami" ($8.95), it was sensational.
Roasted chicken, succulent and moist, made another fine meal. It came with a sage and mushroom stuffing, vegetables and a selection of potatoes. Potato pancakes--heavily textured with matzo meal--turned out to be a homey choice. It's no wonder that people start arriving at 3 p.m. for early-bird specials that include a meal like this one for $6.95.
Oak Tree West offers a staggering array of 18 kinds of hamburgers and chicken burgers that are worth investigating. The one I tried, the cutesy-named "Madrid Kid," had great slabs of Ortega chilies, onions and Jack cheese and was simply delicious.
Like the rest of the food here, the hamburger was awesomely oversized. In fact, as I looked over at the appetizer of humus (about a month's supply), the giant sandwiches, the big dinners and the humongous salads, I thought I could be in the cast of a movie called "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at the Deli."
I'm fond of delicatessens where the waitresses hand over personal insults with the platters, but I quickly acclimated to the friendly, efficient service here. I especially like the touch of bringing fresh glasses of ice tea or lemonade to the table, instead of just refilling the old ones.
As might be expected, the breakfasts also come in a rich array of possibilities. And after you've made up your mind among a dozen kinds of waffles, pancakes and French toast, 18 varieties of omelets, and 20 ways of serving eggs, be prepared for even more choices.
Do you want tomatoes, cottage cheese, home fries or fruit? And how about toast, bagel, English or homemade muffin?
This is the kind of place where you need a good night's sleep just to tackle the menu.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Oak Tree West, 3955 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village. 496-4453. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday 6:30 a.m to 9 p.m., Friday 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mastercard, Visa, American Express. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $16 to $33.