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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Bright Lights, Big Menu at Cou Cou

March 18, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I took my accountant to lunch at the Cou Cou Grill. He had once lived in La Canada and not only remembered that the Cou Cou Grill used to be Reflections, but that it used to be the Chef's Inn, all dark wood and low ceilings, a serious place to drink. "I drank so much here one night," he said, "I forgot I was with my wife, went home and went to bed without her."

Reflections, a spin-off of Pasadena's Parkway Grill, brightened up the ambience. The Cou Cou, on the other hand, is more than a bit silly in terms of decor. The circular beamed ceiling is now exposed, painted white and lit with skylights. Throughout the dining room and bar, the wallpaper is busy, busy, busy, the color scheme hot pink and indigo. There are big stuffed dolls set here and there, and decorative wheeled toys, and a stuffed gorilla stuck up there in the rafters.

With early bird specials, and theme nights such as Mariachi Night and Lobster Bakes, the Cou Cou also reminds me of country clubs I have known. At any rate, one can't imagine losing track of a spouse here: It's far too well-lit.

Local families with their well-dressed, well-behaved children can be seen at the Cou Cou, along with dates and older couples and business folk. La Canada Flintridge, one of L.A.'s more soignee suburbs, is also the home of Kevin Costner and countless Trojan engineers. Bruins, who may have slipped in for dinner after a game at the nearby Rose Bowl, should be easy to spot: They'd be the ones giving the natives nervous sidelong glances.

*

The Cou Cou's food is not only better than most country club fare, it's pretty good in general--if you don't order the shrimp. Even the salad bar has its virtues: The lettuce could be a bit fresher, but after you've piled a chilled plate with various beans, peppers, sprouts, bacon bits and cheeses, a good-natured man tosses it for you. This is a nice touch; somehow, a tossed multiple-ingredient salad is instantly more appealing and integrated than the standard mixed-food group heap. There's the usual selection of dressings--the Italian has capers, an interesting twist--and you can choose rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar. With some playing around, you could conceivably make yourself a pretty good salad.

Another house specialty is guacamole made at the table. A good ripe avocado is chopped and mashed in a molcajete ; salt, lime juice, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos are added upon request. Our guacamole chef was a bit heavy-handed with the salt--he literally threw in a hefty spoonful--but otherwise turned out a fresh, juicy and delicious mash, jalapenos on the side.

Crab cakes are unusually good: crisp, with plump hunks of sweet claw meat embedded among the standard shred. The dip served with them, a chile-heated mayonnaise, is so good, we used it to enliven five tasteless boiled shrimp served in the cocktail. Shrimp were also tasteless in a scampi sauce with remarkably bland polenta.

Entrees are divided between a standard, permanent menu of old favorites, and a monthly menu of Abraham Figueroa's "chef's special creations." Monthly menus can have a theme--there was a German month, recently--and popular items, like a salmon en croute and so-called "honey-stung" baby-back ribs can evolve into permanent offerings.

Items from both the monthly and permanent menus are sound in design and execution. A simple grilled slab of halibut is juicy, satisfying. The waiter talked a friend of mine into trying the salmon en croute rather than the plain salmon steak. I was dubious, but the waiter was right: The fish, wrapped in puff pastry, was moist and not, as I feared, overcooked.

I ordered a mixed-game plate with one rather tough, though tasty, and disconcertingly pink wild boar chop and one tender, succulent, appropriately rare venison chop. My favorite item on the plate, however, was the vegetable: mashed "potato 'n' turnip."

Rotisserie chicken, perhaps because it was ordered late in the evening, was so dry, it was like eating string.

The end of dinner here is disappointing: Creme brulee with tasteless blueberries has a peculiarly weak custard, as if it had been made with skimmed milk. A mango sorbet is syrupy and freezer-burned. Decaf coffee is as weak as tea.

* The Cou Cou Grill, 734 Foothill Blvd., La Canada Flintridge, (818) 790-5355. Lunch and dinner 7 days. Full bar. Parking in lot. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$62.

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