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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Savor the Country Setting : Caribou's relaxing atmosphere offers tranquillity and peace. The dishes are diverse, even though American classics dominate the menu.

July 02, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life

"The Lodge Is Back," reads the banner draped over the front entrance, and who can disagree? Probably no one who dines at the recently opened Caribou, a place that breathes new life into that durable Valley institution, the Sportsmen's Lodge.

Despite a suburban address, it's quite exurban in here--as exurban as the Lodge actually was some decades ago, when the Valley was still country. The hotel, several large function rooms and the newly renovated main dining room sprawl over a large parcel beginning on the northeast corner of Coldwater Canyon and Ventura boulevards, but once inside the grounds, you'd swear you were in a mountain resort. Suddenly you feel cool and tranquil, thanks to a maze of duck ponds, little bridges, waterfalls and chirping birds.

The environment is intended to distract visitors from the smog and commercial morass nearby, and for me, it works. Whenever I'm here, I angle for an outside table shaded in green trees, one of the prettiest settings in Los Angeles.

Inside, Caribou looks like, well, a smoke-free hunting lodge: stone pillars, a parquet floor, plenty of rustic tranquillity. Inside or out, you will eat creatively rustic dishes here, in a radical departure from the staid banquet-room fare that sustained Lodge guests down through the years.

I don't wish to imply that everyone is thrilled by the changes. I overheard a few customers, evidently unused to dishes like fire-roasted bell peppers, smoked duck and barley soup and pecan-crusted catfish, express longing for the prime rib and vanilla ice cream menu this place once reveled in.

But personally, I'm delighted. Consulting executive chef Raimund Hofmeister has the tony Century Plaza and a local culinary academy on his resume. He's a master architect who puts out tasty, colorful plates. Hofmeister and talented chef Lance Toro call their dishes "lodge cuisine," by which they appear to mean American classics cooked on wood fires. Mostly the dishes are the sort of thing we like to eat these days--lighter, more full-flavored fare, offset by creative twists.

The appetizers may be tinged with Mexico and Italy, but most of them remain American in spirit. One of the triumphs is grapevine Portobello mushrooms, where the large mushrooms are grilled and sliced up to look like steak. The mushrooms come cold in a basil vinaigrette, alongside tender bufala mozzarella cheese and baby greens.

The fire-roasted bell peppers are also terrific. The chef mesquite-roasts red, yellow and green peppers, then serves them simply with fresh California goat cheese and mesclun greens.

Salads are made from '90s greens such as arugula, radicchio and Bibb lettuce, topped with goodies like Maytag bleu cheese or even oven-roasted pecans. If you really want the creative stuff, try something like grilled Japanese eggplant salad, made with chilled eggplant in a tangy dressing with the catchy name of lime-thyme. Among the soups, which change weekly, you might find a finely honed smoked duck soup, consisting of a brunoise of summer vegetables perfumed with smoky duck and pearl barley, or a tortilla soup, magically mixing avocado, cheddar and chili seasonings.

The entrees are slightly less consistent. Mesquite grilling can dry out a trout, but even when it doesn't, the Southwestern vegetable "salsa" underneath, loaded with cumin, is bound to seem like a silly idea with the mild-flavored trout. Fish lovers will be better off with the pecan-crusted catfish, a delicious pan-fried filet in a rich crust. The garnish, a succotash-like medley of squash and black-eyed peas, is hard to resist but finishing the plate will require major effort.

One expects game from a lodge, and Caribou delivers. Mesquite-grilled buffalo steak, wrapped up with Sonoma bacon and stuffed with poblano chilies, is a mere novelty. Have the more flavorful filet mignon instead.

Barbecue beef brisket is advertised as fork-tender, but ours was tough and stringy. The Texas wild boar chops would be a better choice. They're broiled over hickory as well as mesquite, then smeared with an oddball juniper berry sauce, Indian peaches, red cabbage and homemade spaetzle--a side dish Hofmeister definitely understands.

Save room for dessert. A few of the choices are positively spectacular, and very much in the American grain. Strawberry shortcake would seem to be a dish that leaves room for artistic license, but not this version. It's old-fashioned perfection, a stack of four round layers of homemade sponge cake, tiered with sliced fresh strawberries, whipped cream and a fresh strawberry sauce. The fruit cobbler is on the sweet, with a brown sugar crust and side scoop of vanilla ice cream.

And no one can resist the Georgia chocolate pecan pie, a fudgy slice that tastes exactly like it sounds. That one is pure country, which seems fitting. By dessert time at Caribou, you've already left the big city far, far behind.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Caribou at Sportsmen's Lodge, 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Suggested Dishes: grapevine Portobello mushrooms, $8; mixed baby greens with Maytag bleu cheese, $6; pecan crusted catfish, $17; Texas wild boar chops, $25; strawberry shortcake, $7.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5-9:30 p.m. nightly.

Price: Dinner for two, $35-$60. Full bar. Valet and lot parking. All major cards.

Call: (818) 984-0202.

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