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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Won Over by a Brunch : Pinot's interpretation of the classic American meal is marked by rich, wonderful cooking.

April 16, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I realize this puts me in the minority, but I don't quite get the concept of brunch. Most of my friends adore the idea of sipping champagne from tall flutes, scooping away at runny omelets and gobbling up chocolates on a Sunday morning, even if it means drifting off into a carbohydrate-induced stupor afterward. Personally, I can wait all the way till after, oh, 3 p.m.--maybe even 4 p.m.--for dinner, even on a Sunday.

But occasionally a place forces me to rethink my objections, and Pinot is one such. Pinot, for those who don't know, is Joachim Splichal's terrific new Studio City bistro, elegant and austere by night, comfy and full of ambient light by day. The restaurant occupies the site of the former La Serre, but patrons of the old La Serre won't recognize the place. The rooms have been tastefully redone with tiles, mirrors and mahogany, and there's even a bar for standees, as you'd find in France.

At dinner, Pinot serves homey peasant fare like tongue and oxtail, prepared in the best tradition of the authentic French bistro. Recently, Splichal and his high-energy chef, Octavio Becerra, surprised customers by opening the place for Sunday brunch. They perceived a brunch dearth in the Valley, especially for those looking for something more interesting than smoked fish at the local deli.

But who would have guessed that these guys would go so American on us in the process? I mean, is this Joachim's Pancake House? Well, not exactly, but expect wild berry skillet cake, banana buckwheat pancakes with walnut butter and even brioche French toast. This is wonderful cooking, if not what anybody would have expected, and desperately rich at times, putting us all right back in the Barcalounger when we return home.

After settling in with a Pinot cocktail (sparkling wine and raspberry puree in a flute), a basket of the flakiest croissants in town and good muffins (such as the dietarily curious bran muffin with cream cheese), you'll be ready for Pinot's interpretation of the classic American brunch.

But first, just to clear up any confusion, this is emphatically not a buffet. It's a two-course meal, with the price determined by the entree. During the appetizer course, anyway, you don't even have to think about prices.

Among those appetizers, light brunchers might choose the mosaic of fresh fruits with passion fruit juice. It's a gorgeous bowlful of citrus fruits, berries, kiwi and sliced banana. Spiced seafood cakes in fried leek and caper sauce are tiny and tangy, mostly made of crab but a whitefish binder makes them denser than ordinary crab cakes.

Splichal is known to be a magician with the potato, so it's no wonder his creamy potato tart is the meal's superstar, crisp and creamy at the same time, topped with bits of cooked smoked salmon. Field greens with goat cheese beignet are a novelty, thanks to the volcanic puff pastry fritter that erupts when cut open. Not to worry--the beignet spews herbed goat cheese, not hot rock.

For the main course, only one of us ordered a pancake dish--the banana buckwheats--and it turned out to be my favorite dish, a stack of puffy round cakes slathered in butter and pure maple syrup.

Crab hash with poached eggs and herb Hollandaise is an intriguing idea, since the soft crab meat makes the perfect textural companion to diced potato, but the six of us scarfed it all up so quickly I can't actually remember how it tasted. Think of Pinot's frittata Espanola as a delicious round omelet of spinach, tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and cheese. Nothing remarkable, in a way, but flawless.

Smoked salmon with scrambled eggs is another dish worth ordering; it comes with a bagel, but the combination of soft, sweet salmon and custardy eggs with Provencal herbs bears little resemblance to the lox, eggs and onions found down the boulevard at Art's. Roasted baby chicken with baked polenta and grilled eggplant is more generic, but it's really flavorful, practically the best thing here.

Desserts have to be ordered a la carte. After all this, you'd have to be slightly crazy to order the silky smooth classic chocolate creme brulee , the addictive sweet warm walnut tart and homemade coffee ice cream or the soft, melt-in-the-mouth decadent chocolate cake, served warm. But hey, we've got all Sunday to recover. Fire up the Barcalounger, Ma.

Where and When Location: Pinot, 12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Suggested dishes: creamy potato tart; field greens with goat cheese beignet ; banana buckwheat pancakes with walnut butter, $14; crab hash with poached eggs and Hollandaise, $22; roasted baby chicken with baked polenta, $18.50. Hours: Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Price: Brunch for two, $30 to $60. Full bar. Valet parking, $2.75. All major cards. Call: (818) 990-0500.

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