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Let Them Eat Cake : Co-owned by sophisticated duo Mitchell and Susan Frieder, the Lancaster eatery is probably Antelope Valley's best restaurant.

March 04, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

LANCASTER — People are eating better and better these days in the Antelope Valley, in no small part due to Mitchell and Susan Frieder, co-owners of Downtown Cakes and Company.

Chef Mitchell once cooked with Ken Frank at Hollywood's much-praised (and much-missed) La Toque; baker Susan formerly worked for the Il Fornaio chain of bakeries. Together this sophisticated pair run what is probably the Antelope Valley's best restaurant.

The woodsy, high-ceiling cafe, illuminated during the day by a central skylight, looks bigger than when I first visited it nearly three years ago, because the bakery section has been transformed into a banquet and function room. (The baking--mostly breads, cakes and cookies--is now done in the enlarged kitchen.) In those days, of course, it wasn't Downtown yet, but just plain Cakes and Company.

At dinner, when Mitchell Frieder cooks a mixture of creative specialties and simple American fare such as fried chicken with biscuits, the restaurant is patronized mostly by people from the neighborhood. At lunch and brunch, the meals I feel really define this restaurant, the place can get quite busy.

So brunchers should come early on Sunday, because the place fills up fast. What the brunch menu calls company hash is one reason; it may be off limits to a Weight Watcher, but it's one of the most delicious ways I know of to start a day. Imagine a finely minced homemade corned beef hash, pan-fried to a crunchy brown, topped with two delicately poached eggs and served with homemade bread, apricot jam and big pieces of melon, grapefruit and orange.

Brunch also features fluffy oatmeal, flecked with bits of dried apricot and what appear to be swollen currants. There are wonderfully light pancakes called heavenly hots, which get their fluffy texture from plenty of sour cream in the batter. One of my more moderate friends has made an entire brunch out of the pear and walnut salad, which balances the fruits and nuts with green and red leaf lettuce, crumbled blue cheese and lots of smoky bacon. I have found myself stoking up on the Frieder's sizzling patties of country sausage and baking powder biscuits.

At lunch (weekdays plus Saturdays), the sandwiches and main dishes are solid, but the best things to eat are probably the appetizers. They include a colorful version of humus, flooded with tahineh sauce and served with chopped cucumber and tomato and spiced wedges of pita toast. The Asian-inspired pot stickers, with their light minced chicken-and-vegetable filling, are delicate and exotic. From the other end of the map comes a Swiss-style potato cake ( rosti ) topped with sour cream and golden caviar.

Those sandwiches come in all shapes and sizes, on a variety of breads baked right here. A slice of peppery meatloaf is served on whole wheat with onions and barbecue sauce. An unusual grilled prawn sandwich garnishes the prawns with rosemary onions, shredded lettuce and scallion mayonnaise, all on a homemade baguette. This is one of the few places in the vicinity where you can get a cheese steak: five ounces of top sirloin with melted cheese, served on a buttermilk roll. There's even plain old turkey, but the meat is baked on the premises, rather than sliced off a processed turkey roll.

You'll also find pastas, pizzas, a fish du jour and several saute dishes on the lunch menu. The most interesting entree is probably prawns del rey , sauteed in a spicy, smoky tomato sauce redolent of Southwestern spices and roasted pepper. The best pasta is penne with rosemary, spinach, capers and Bulgarian feta.

You knew there were going to be desserts from the name of the restaurant, but you probably never guessed at the variety of them. The more serious desserts include a crusty blueberry cobbler topped with a baking powder biscuit; California cake, which is spongecake with a lemon curd filling and a rum butter cream frosting; and chocolate death--a chocolate layer cake with chocolate mousse and a chocolate glaze frosting. One of my Antelope Valley friends prefers the classic strawberry tart, where sliced strawberries rest on a circular crust topped with rich vanilla cream.

And there are always homemade biscotti , chewy pumpkin cookies and various shortbreads on hand to accompany your espresso. Metrolink passengers may want to buy their cakes to go, to help down their coffee on that long train ride into the Basin.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Downtown Cakes and Company, 858 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster.

Suggested dishes: company hash, $6.75; heavenly hots, $5.50; pot stickers, $4.50; pear and walnut salad, $5.75; rosti with caviar and sour cream, $7.95.

Hours: Breakfast 7:30 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays; lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Brunch 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays.

Price: Breakfast for two, $10-$15. Beer and wine only. Street parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (805) 948-CAKE.

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