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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Style of Its Own : The new Crocodile Cafe in Burbank adds some snap to the standard offerings of pizza, pasta and salad.


BURBANK — Gregg Smith isn't a household name like Wolfgang Puck, but maybe this chef's time is coming. Smith is the man most responsible for the very good Crocodile Cafe chain, which has just opened its newest--and flashiest--branch. (There are five.)

When Smith opened Parkway Grill in Pasadena in the '80s, many critics called it a Spago clone. But Smith is no clone. He was the one, not Puck, who first opened a casual version of his California Cuisine dinner restaurant. Crocodile Cafe was jammin' on Lake Street for years before the first Wolfgang Puck Pizza Cafe opened.

There's a puzzle here, though. Smith is an innovator in his own right, so why, one wonders, does he insist on patterning so much of his style after Puck? This newest Crocodile, a big, breezy place with an open kitchen and lots of brick, exposed ducts and conceptual art, is shameless enough to have copied the concept of a pizza oven covered with colorful broken tile, which originated with Puck's designer and wife, Barbara Lazaroff. Children, children!

I've actually been enjoying Crocodile Cafe since it first opened in 1987. I once lived around the corner from the original restaurant and ate there almost every week. The company's executive chef, Hugo Molina, has refined his menu with great skill. Today, his menu abounds with good dishes, even though many of them are complicated.

Much of what this restaurant does reads like a California Cuisine cliche: pizzas, pastas, salads. But many of these creations have original spins and twists, and they magically seem to work. A simple salad of romaine lettuce and ranch dressing, for instance, is wonderful when (get this) grilled over oak embers and sprinkled with chile-coated pecans. The menu lists something called "almost cheeseless" pizza. It has no more than a kiss of Parmesan and mozzarella, which nicely offsets the pungency of sun-dried tomatoes and the medicinal sweetness of fresh pesto.

The appetizers have a distinctly Southwestern air. Take the soft chicken tacos with good guacamole, sauteed Roma tomatoes, red onion and cilantro, or the one called roasted chile poblano relleno , filled with a fiesta of smoked corn, mushrooms, cilantro and other green herbs in a delicious roasted tomato and pasilla pepper sauce.

All pizzas and calzones are wood-fired in an Italian pizza oven. You'll see the chefs twirling the dough in the air, just as in the movies.

Sometimes they do not twirl it long enough. A four-cheese pizza eaten one day came out a bit thick and doughy, and the surfeit of gooey cheese made it appear less attractive than the standard here. Barbecued chicken pizza, however, is always great.

If I were coming for a quick lunch, I'd grab one of the sandwiches, especially the oak-wood burger. This is one of the San Fernando Valley's greatest burgers, a third of a pound of smoky chopped beef. Have it with Cheddar cheese and grilled onions, at no extra charge. The smoked ham and chicken sandwich appears a bit precious, smeared as it is with avocado and chipotle mayo on a jalapeno-Cheddar roll. But it all comes together in rich harmony.

Not everything works this well. In an attempt to make this a quintessentially Californian sort of place, a few Asian-inspired recipes rear their little heads. But these Chinese pot stickers are insipid noodle pockets filled with minced shrimp and vegetables. Chicken salad with spicy peanut dressing tastes good for a few bites, then cloys.

With few exceptions, I've had better luck with large plates and pastas here, such as fettuccine with grilled chicken and roasted pasilla chile.

As long as you like the taste of oak, you are going to like the grilled meats, which include chicken, pork tenderloin and marinated flank steak. The last is especially good: oak-grilled beef, sliced thin. The side dishes are borracha salsa, smoky frijoles charros, guacamole and flour tortillas. I'd put this dish up against Mexican grill food anywhere.

And the menu certainly does not let up when it is time for dessert. Most of the pastries come from Pasadena's very good Old Town Bakery. Pear cinnamon cake has layers of butter cream and spice cake. A gooey brownie sundae soars on hand-whipped cream.

Where and When

Location: Crocodile Cafe, 201 N. San Fernando Road, Burbank.

Suggested Dishes: Oak-wood grilled romaine salad, $6.95; roasted poblano relleno , $4.95; smoked ham and chicken sandwich, $6.75; barbecued chicken pizza, $8.75; marinated flank steak, $8.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, till 11 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, till midnight Friday and Saturday.

Price: Lunch for two, $18 to $35. Full bar. Four-hour parking in adjacent structure. All major cards.

Call: (818) 843-7999.

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