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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Healthy Comfort Food : * Gourmet Grub chef and owner Mindy Lymperis cooks simple and unpretentious dishes.

September 03, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life.

It is a balmy Wednesday evening and there are, including my table, only three parties on the newly remodeled terrace of Encino's Gourmet Grub. A radio food critic is seated right behind me, reveling in a plate of homemade turkey meatloaf. Another couple is schmoozing it up with chef and owner Mindy Lymperis as they pick through a pair of trendy mesclun salads. Everyone within earshot is talking about how delicious this food is.

Other than a new green carpet and some other minor fixes, this place hasn't changed much since it was Drew's American Cafe. Lymperis bought it lock, stock and barrel from the former owners; she got a noisy, plant-filled outdoor patio facing Ventura Boulevard and several more private tables situated in a quirky, L-shaped dining room.

Gourmet Grub comes as one of the season's major surprises, though, and not only because the name seems so inauspicious. Restaurants using the word gourmet are bound to arouse suspicions. (I mean, if you've got it, why all the swagger?)

But Lymperis says she likes the name, and she is, after all, the boss. What's more, Lymperis ran a successful business in Brentwood called L. A. Gourmet. She is hoping that name recognition will lure some of her former clientele over the hill to Encino.

I almost believe that it will. Lymperis is a third-generation restaurateur from Detroit, where her family owns a chain of steakhouses. She works a room by pure instinct, relaxing and flattering customers.

Her cooking talents were sharpened during her years as a personal chef for the Pointer Sisters, George Carlin, Dudley Moore and Barbra Streisand--a calling that encouraged her to develop recipes low in fat, sodium and cholesterol. Today, she cooks lots of simple and unpretentious grub, sort of healthy comfort food.

Pork loin and New York steak are trimmed of excess fat and served with light sauces. Potatoes, whipped up with Butter Buds, don't lose anything but calories in the translation.

Lymperis and her crew also bake up a spate of homey desserts daily: scrumptious chocolate cinnamon crumb cake, chocolate chunk bread pudding and peach-blueberry cobbler. They're all on the light side, but no one in his right mind could call this stuff diet food.

At lunch, try the grub club, possibly the San Fernando Valley's best sandwich. Lymperis chastised me for having it on rye. ("It's better on sourdough," she will tell you.) It's got to be a foot high: a three-decker piled up with thin slices of oven-roasted turkey breast, thick country bacon, lettuce, tomato, provolone cheese and, best of all, slightly caramelized sauteed onions. Wow!

For her Chinese chicken salad, Lymperis uses a dressing she admits to adapting from a sesame oil-based commercial dressing. This slithery dressing embellishes a bed of crisp lettuce, Mandarin orange, crisp noodles, sesame seeds, diced green onions and chopped, blackened breast of chicken. Pastas--fettuccine, angel hair and penne-- come with good low-fat sauces such as tomato-basil-garlic, mushroom or vegetarian. She buys tempura-battered French fries, but even they taste pretty good, thanks to careful frying and an interesting seasoned-salt topping.

Dinners are more relaxed, the one flaw being long waits between courses. Lymperis is introducing a steady stream of new dishes, intending to expand her menu gradually. In the meantime, solace yourself with her great turkey meatloaf, Cajun blackened chicken and New York steak, all of which can be turned out with no oil, butter or salt.

It's wonderful, grainy turkey meatloaf, about four slices. She makes it from white breast meat, egg whites and sauteed veggies, and finishes it with a light turkey gravy. It's a natural for those good whipped potatoes.

The pork loin is nearly as light. The stuffing of apples, raisins, bread and mushroom reminds me of Jewish holiday food; it is sort of ironic that the foil is white meat pork.

There is a thick Cajun hot sauce (heavy on the Worcestershire and Tabasco) for a tender New York strip. Salmon is served blackened or baked with a feathery lobster sauce; a health-conscious pasta primavera gets about 10 different vegetables and a bath of extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Gourmet grub, hmm, I like it.

Where and When Location: Gourmet Grub, 16260 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Suggested Dishes: grub club, $7.95; turkey meatloaf, $8.95 (a la carte), $11.95 (dinner); stuffed pork loin, $12.95 (a la carte), $15.95 (dinner). Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Price: Dinner for two, $25 to $40. Beer and wine only. Parking in side lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (818) 501-8051.

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