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COVER STORY : The Top 20 Restaurants in the Valley

October 23, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't long ago that the Westside restaurant community snickered at the thought of fine dining on our side of Mulholland Drive. Today, they are watching us like hawks.

Dining in the Valley has been steadily on the upswing for quite some time, while some Westside businesses are slumping. People living here once routinely planned evenings in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Now, that's hardly necessary.

Additions like Cha Cha Cha, Posto and Pinot--just opened by Joachim Splichal of Patina fame, a man many consider the preeminent chef in Los Angeles--are giving Valley dining an entirely new image. If Pinot (in the former La Serre location) and these others continue to succeed, more first-rate chefs, and owners, are sure to follow.

Selecting the Valley Edition's first top 20 restaurants took a bit of gerrymandering. The occasional pick in Glendale and the Antelope Valley indicate that these places are not only terrific, but that our community is expanding. Balance was also a factor in this list. The Valley has many fine delis, for example, but because Art's is still first among equals, it is the only one singled out for praise. Ditto for Chinese, with the spotlight on Mandarin Deli. The price for dinner per person without wine is as varied as the restaurants and ranges from inexpensive (less than $15), to moderate ($15 to $30), to expensive (more than $30).

1 POSTO: Piero Selvaggio took a bold step when he opened his controversial Posto last fall. Some find his strikingly modern L-shaped dining room noisy. Others are unsure about his soothing, rustic fare, authentic Italian cooking with peasant overtones. All that aside, this is a superbly conceived affair, a truly grown-up restaurant. Chef Luciano Pellegrini's dishes, frico , addictive Parmesan cheese chips, ribollita, a thick Tuscan soup, homemade sausages and beef brasato (stew) al Barolo with polenta croutons, capture the spirit of Italy with grace and skill. The restaurant's encyclopedia-thick wine list, a Selvaggio calling card, is loaded with great selections for less than $30.

14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 784-4400. Expensive.

2 CHA CHA CHA: Six years ago, Toribio Prado knocked the Lower Melrose crowd on its ear with his colorful Caribbean fare. Now, his newest venture is doing the same in Encino. This restaurant is the ultimate sugar shack, a color-spasmed Disney ride serving incredibly delicious dishes with names like mambo gumbo, crispy jerk pork and Carioca chicken. Outrageous desserts, like Hilary's frozen candy bar, layers of cookie, caramel, pistachio, raspberry and chocolate mousse. Prepare yourself for silly drinks, and some serious partying. Yeah, mon.

17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-3600. Moderate.

3 PINOT: One visit to this homey bistro, opened on the site that once housed La Serre, will make you wonder why there aren't more of these places. L.A. wonder boy Joachim Splichal and executive chef Octavio Bercerra have created a menu of country-style dishes you simply want to eat: endive salad with Roquefort and walnuts, fabulous duck confit, oxtail ragout with basil gnocchi, beef tongue and sumptuous home-style desserts. Prices are more than reasonable for cooking at Splichal's level. The room, warm, comfortable and elegant, recalls old New England and '20s Paris.

12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 990-0500. Expensive.

4 SADDLE PEAK LODGE: This most rustic of local area restaurants is a refurbished lodge nestled securely in the Santa Monica Mountains, and there's nothing else like it between here and the Rockies. The specialty is game--anything from wild boar chops to bison steak--but '90s-style salads, elegant pastas and more are available from a menu that spans the decades. Sit upstairs in the library room or outside at weekend brunch. Also, remember to reserve well in advance. Rustic, judging from the crowds here, is chic nowadays.

419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. (818) 222-3888. Expensive.

5 CAKES AND COMPANY: Ken Frank protege Mitchell Frieder is chef at this homey cafe, the High Desert's best restaurant. Jamaican jerk chicken, cassoulet, rosti potatoes with sour cream and golden caviar and a wondrous dish called Grandma Emily's deep Southern pan-fried chicken are just part of an amazingly versatile configuration of good foods. Wife Susan does the pastries. Fabulous pancake breakfasts, too, cornmeal johnnycakes, airy, sour cream pancakes called Heavenly Hots and Frieder's multigrain Company cakes, all served with real maple syrup.

858 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster. (805) 948-2253. Moderate.

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