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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Eclectic but Stylish : The crowd at Alley Grill in Sherman Oaks is unapologetically uptown, and so is what comes out of the kitchen.

June 04, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alley Grill is definitely a big-city restaurant, but of the type you'd expect to find a good distance from any main street.

Owner Ted Wasserman is a 20- year veteran of the local restaurant wars (he was involved in the Old World Restaurants, among others), and the man's experience shows. He's turned a large, simple space into an economically stylish one. It reminds me of the kind of experimental theaters you see popping up in industrial neighborhoods far from tourist centers. I half expect performance artists to jump out from behind the walls while I'm eating.

The front dining room is framed by mock shattered windows and bars, the type of set design you'd use to depict a Bronx basement inhabited by drug kingpins. The walls kind of dispel that image, though. Imagine walls the color of canned tomato bisque, and you've got the picture.

The restaurant's larger dining room, in the rear, exudes a different type of cool. It's tres avant-garde back here, a veritable gallery of conceptual art, sculpture and splashy colors. Diffuse overhead track lighting makes it Bohemian, so it is no wonder that the nicotine freaks are shunted back here, the restaurant's smoking room, if you will.

It's rare to find these airs of casual sophistication on this stretch of Ventura Boulevard, a contrast that adds to Alley Grill's charm. Tables are covered in butcher paper, with a civilized amount of space between them. The crowd here is unapologetically uptown, and so is what comes out of the kitchen.

Let's call this food California eclectic, with touches of Cajun, Caribbean, Mexican, Italian and Pacific Rim. Starters might be anything from Louisiana blue crab cakes to a distantly Mediterranean grilled eggplant, though it's possible to go the designer pizza or shared salad route. I haven't had better crab cakes in years: four little discs of dense, spicy crab meat, blackened perfectly on all sides. They'd be great even without the pink Cajun tartar sauce, which could in theory be used to touch up these walls. (The colors really do match.) With the sauce, they beat any crab cakes in town.

Grilled eggplant comes up perfectly cooked, but the dish ends up exposing the kitchen's one weak point: sauces. The chewy slices of eggplant would be much better without the lame roasted red bell pepper sauce they come smothered with. The Cajun tartar sauce isn't bad, but many other sauces lack zip, odd when you consider how much flavor Alley Grill's salad dressings and grilled dishes have.

Salads such as spinach and feta, Caesar and Alley Cobb, for instance, are meal-size jumbos, spilling out of giant glass bowls and chock-full of surprises. The spinach salad takes off using pine nuts and pancetta bacon, offset by a delicious balsamic vinaigrette. Praise from Caesar is praise indeed--a muscular, strongly flavored version with tortilla croutons and freshly grated Parmesan. The Cobb salad has about as much minced chicken, bacon, avocado and tomato as the law allows. And I like the idea of a creamy Gorgonzola dressing sitting in for the more familiar Roquefort.

Crisp, thin-crust pizzas make the perfect complement for these salads. I've had a well-fashioned pie made with sun-dried tomatoes and a healthy amount of goat cheese, and an ultra-rich one sporting lime marinated chicken, red onions, avocado and salsa.

But the grill is definitely where the best food is prepared here: big, meaty entrees with lots of spice. New York pepper steak is killer, and not only because it is a good piece of steak. This version is topped with a savory mixture of grilled onions and crackling pancetta, all the better to mix with the aromatic cracked peppercorns that coat the steak.

Jamaican barbecue lamb chops turn out to be two double-thick chops marinated in jerk spices, cooked to an exquisite pink should you forget to tell the waiter how you like it. Free-range chicken is simple but manages a certain elegance in these hands anyway. The chicken is grilled and bedded on lightly dredged fried onions, then brushed with a piquant roasted chili butter. I'm less impressed by the Thai barbecue shrimp. They're big all right, partially blackened in the shell, but the sweet-hot dipping sauce alongside is boring.

Desserts are solid, in more ways than one. None of the dense cakes off the restaurant's pastry tray are made in the restaurant, but Wasserman shows good taste in terms of what he brings in. A few well-chosen cheesecakes come from the Cheesecake Factory. There is a wonderful, deep chocolate brownie, even a banana bundt cake drizzled with caramel across the top.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Alley Grill, 14058 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Suggested Dishes: Louisiana blue crab cakes, $7.50; spinach and feta salad, $7; New York pepper steak, $16; Jamaican barbecue lamb chops, $16.

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Price: Dinner for two, $25-$40. Full bar. Valet parking in rear. All major cards.

Call: (818) 986-4450.

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