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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Putting 'Men' in Menu : Breakin' Bread Bistro's name and decor are precious, but the cuisine--much of it in the rugged steakhouse genre--is hearty and good.

February 12, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My Westside friends looked askance when I invited them to Breakin' Bread Bistro. The name is pretty kittenish, I admit, and they assumed that the food would be artlessly playful.

The thing is, it isn't. I confess that BBB does resemble one of those ladies' luncheon spots where Waldorf salad and chicken divan still enjoy a blush of popularity. It's tiny and appointed with frilly curtains, cushy banquettes, oil lamps and pink tablecloths. But much of the food prepared by chef Jaime Arellano is of the rugged steakhouse genre: Caesar salad, two-inch lamb chops, even stuffed calamari in a garlic-rich marinara sauce. That may be why pictures of hyper-male actors such as Joe Don Baker and Telly Savalas grace the restaurant's gray clapboard walls.

Most of the entrees come with a first course of a good cream soup, such as broccoli or asparagus, but for a small surcharge, the waitress will bring you a cup of the beefy, salty-sweet onion soup gratinee or that tasty, coarsely chopped Caesar.

Arellano also prepares a dynamite appetizer with the fancy-schmancy name of mushrooms Monegasque ("in the style of the principality of Monaco"). Think of this dish as escargots for people who don't like snails. The chef stuffs mushroom caps with a mixture of garlic, tomatoes and bread crumbs, then bakes them in a small casserole dish filled with garlic butter, so it's like a dish of escargots with mushrooms standing in for them. It's wonderful.

The menu appetizers are more of the same: lightly breaded artichoke hearts in the same garlic butter the mushrooms are cooked in, gooey mozzarella marinara, a ruddy and relatively oil-free garlic bread.

There is no shortage of pasta dishes, most of them intended for real trenchermen. Pasta feta, dubbed a house specialty on the menu, is fettuccine in a creamy Gruyere cheese and wine sauce, including a choice of seafoods such as scallops, cockles, mussels, calamari and clams.

Angel hair al pesto (but not al dente-- it's likely to be slightly overcooked) comes with a sauce made with home-grown basil (home-grown, that's what the menu says), and there is a simple version of linguine with clam sauce, red or white.

R otelli Sorrento, one of the few light pastas, is still reasonably substantial thanks to a topping of ricotta, Parmesan and a good, thick marinara sauce.

It's the meat dishes that I'll remember about this restaurant, though: the thick broiled lamb chops, the good veal piccata and veal Marsala, even the calf's liver and onions sauteed in garlic butter. One excellent dish you rarely see on menus these days is veal short ribs. These riblets--five or six flavorful nuggets of tender meat (almost beyond tender)--are seared, almost blackened, then baked in an eccentric peach-apricot sauce that is, I'm glad to report, less sweet than one might fear.

Osso buco , occasionally on special here, is another treat. The chef braises the oversized veal shanks to falling-off-the-bone tenderness in a rich mushroom marinara sauce. The shank is served over linguine and the marrow inside the bone tastes ambrosial. One disappointment is BBB Cajun chicken, a boneless breast sauteed in garlic, lemon butter and cayenne pepper. It's altogether pretty ho-hum, and the chicken tastes as if the pepper were thrown on at the last minute.

Almost everything comes with some good side dish such as spinach souffle, buttered carrots or delicious red-skinned potatoes cut into small pieces. In short, what you'd expect at any steakhouse worthy of its red and white booths.

Desserts, however, are almost precious enough to justify the image conjured by the restaurant's name. A rich ginger cheesecake with a raspberry sour cream topping; dark and white chocolate mousse served in parfait glasses topped with whipped cream; a devilishly sweet devil's food cake with white chocolate chips and mocha frosting.

Best among them would be the six-layer pineapple-mandarin orange cake with topping of pineapple whipped cream. It's a dense, pungent tea cake that would be perfect with a steaming pot of Earl Grey.

Where and When Location: Breakin' Bread Bistro, 12747 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Suggested dishes: mushrooms Monegasque, $7; veal short ribs, $19.50; rotelli Sorrento, $9.50; six-layer pineapple-Mandarin orange cake, $5. Hours: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Price: Dinner for two, $35 to $55. Beer and wine. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 761-6010.

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