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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Making the Right Choice : * Tribeca in Encino offers an eclectic menu, but the kitchen is probably best at preparing American grill items.

March 18, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

ENCINO — Tribeca stands for Triangle Below Canal (Street), the Manhattan neighborhood where struggling artists rub elbows with movers and shakers from New York's financial district. It's also the name of a popular Beverly Hills restaurant, which has opened a branch in Encino's Courtyard Shops.

It picked a struggler's sort of location. The previous occupant, Broadway Deli, lasted only a couple of months here. Tribeca's owners have refurbished this long, narrow space with translucent amber lampshades, odd-looking floral print upholstery and lots of stained oak, but the concept does not feel finished.

The main dining area (separate from the bar, where about half the seating is located) has a quaint structure: tables out in the middle of the room flanked by booths on one side and an odd series of purely decorative French doors on the other.

As for the spacious bar area, it's still struggling with the question of whether it's really a bar or a dining room. The area is attractively done, but the table arrangement--about 20 undersized tables furnished with handsome, hard-backed chairs--is a problem. It isn't quite comfortable or romantic enough for a fine dining establishment, so the main dining area fills up first, often leaving patrons literally on the outside looking in.

To judge from the menu, Tribeca wants to be many things. It's an easygoing pizza and pasta place; no, it's an upscale American grill; no, it's a casual restaurant for salads and sandwiches.

In practice, what you eat here is likely to be a function of the time of day. At lunch, everyone seems to be eating entree salads such as tuna Nicoise and Caesar with grilled chicken, or nibbling on sandwiches like blackened turkey loaf and salmon melt. In the evening, people go for things like crab cakes, shrimp melts and pizzas, perhaps finishing off with a pasta or something from the grill.

One appetizer that defies any equation for this restaurant is the California roll of marinated salmon. It's Osaka-style sushi, essentially, meaning that the fish is wrapped around the outside of the rice roll. And it's quite well done, too--four big pieces served with a pile of fresh ginger and cucumber.

The miniature Maryland crab cakes that made the Beverly Hills Tribeca famous are delicious as well, if on the salty side. They come two to an order: tiny, crisp and golden brown, atop a wonderful Creole remoulade sauce.

The bubbly-crusted appetizer-size pizzas are fine as long as they don't come to the party overdressed. Spicy chicken pizza, for instance, adds black beans, jalapenos and white corn to the mix and would be better off with fewer ingredients. So would the barbecued chicken pizza, which is mostly chicken and barbecue sauce.

The sandwiches, made with good fresh breads (Tribeca has its own bakery), also tend to have one ingredient too many. Salmon melt, for instance, includes avocado, and sun-dried tomato sauce on a dill roll, with sliced cheese melted over the salmon, cheeseburger fashion. Whew.

The kitchen is probably at its best during the evening, when it cooks up solid American grill items. I've had an absolutely terrific piece of swordfish, wonderfully firm and tender, just slightly browned with a sauce of Roma tomato, basil, olive oil and capers.

Blackened anything has become a cliche, but Tribeca's blackened prime rib is different. It's a revelation--juicy and complex, crusted with a symphony of hot spices.

And by all means save room for Tribeca's desserts. I challenge anyone to choose between the unusual pear shortcake, the tart plum cobbler with crunchy streusel topping and vanilla bean ice cream, or the bittersweet cappuccino creme brulee.

Or my favorite, banana cream pie with a brownie crust. Getting through one of these is no struggle at all.


Location: Tribeca, 17401 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: Miniature Maryland crab cakes, $8; barbecued chicken pizza, $9; grilled swordfish, $15; blackened prime rib, $17; desserts, $5.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday; weekend brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Price: Dinner for two, $32-$58. Full bar. Valet parking in rear. All major cards.

Call: (818) 386-1339.

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