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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Catering to Different Crowds : Nancy's Healthy Kitchen is a dieter's delight. But if you crave calories, try pastas and pastries at L.A. Gourmet.

October 07, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

Nancy's Healthy Kitchen is a cheery little cafe that fancies itself a high-style, low-fat restaurant. It's brightened up with ivy-colored wallpaper and dis plays of prettily wrapped specialty foods. The clientele is athletic, robust and heavily female, more often than not turned out in workout garb.

Now, fat-free cooking is an established feature of the '90s, and I like the idea. What I argue with is an irrational insistence to make indulgence conform to New Age standards. Here's an example: At Nancy's front counter, I heard a customer remark to one of the chefs, "I've got to find a way to make really decadent desserts low, low calorie."

There's the rub. Why not be content with fresh fruits or raw vegetables, leaving lasagna and glazed chocolate muffins to the Rabelaisians among us? That customer's mentality could be what leads a business such as this one to attempt the impossible--credible vegetable lasagna and glazed chocolate doughnuts. The lasagna comes off dry and austere, and the doughnuts have a flavor that a friend compared to soap. My feeling is, you want a muffin? Eat a real muffin.

And if you want health food, eat some of the really tasty dishes here, such as delicious air-fried potatoes, which are not trying to mimic decadence. The air fries showcase the best in modern technology, cutting back on fat without sacrificing flavor. These ridged potato chunks char slightly on the outside edges, soften on the inside and retain a crisp skin. For a real treat, try a basket with a side of buttermilk-based ranch dressing. No wonder takeout customers practically line up to buy these potatoes.

The salads are good, too, low-fat as nature intended them to be. Chinese chicken salad is made with shredded lettuce, chicken breast, snow peas, scallions, sesame seeds, fat-free sesame chips and a low-fat sesame ginger dressing. The dilled potato salad is delightfully fragrant.

The turkey Reuben is made with low-fat cheese, good sauerkraut and spicy turkey pastrami, then grilled oil-free on a non-stick grill. Baked potatoes are another good bet, either plain or stuffed with turkey chili and low-fat dressing.

But I'll pass when it comes to Nancy's Styrofoam-textured muffins or any of the low-fat cookies or biscotti. They feel like straw in the mouth, and worse, make me yearn for a nice hot fudge sundae.

*

You might have trouble spotting L.A. Gourmet Baking Co. & Restaurant. It sits in a strip mall near the corner of Nordhoff Street and Topanga Canyon Boulevard, but the overhead sign you see driving up reads "Pastries by Hormoz." The sign is not in error, but it is nonetheless confusing.

I'd describe the restaurant as a neighborhood Italian joint with an attached bakery (Hormoz is the baker). But this place is also a nightclub, with live jazz and good vocalists such as David Whitfield performing on weekends for no cover, even if the candle-lit, plant-filled interior recalls a '60s cafe more than a sophisticated night spot.

The restaurant's food is slightly more focused than its concept, if less unexpected. Chef Ricardo Reynoso has been around--he worked at Malibu's Tra di Noi and Beverly Hills' Rangoon Racket Club--but what he does here isn't particularly creative. Only the lead appetizer is a real eye-catcher, and that's because it's beluga caviar at $30 an ounce. Could it be on the menu because pastry chef Hormoz is a native of Iran, home to the beluga sturgeon?

Reynoso's menu is mostly pastas, entrees and a few salads. The garlic bread has a twist, having been baked with a topping of pesto and tomato sauce in addition to the usual garlic rub. Fusilli alla salmon is an uninspiring but reasonable bowlful of pasta spirals with smoked salmon in a dilled tomato sauce. Better is the penne alla melanzana , short pasta tubes with eggplant, mushrooms, spinach, garlic and a healthy dose of mozzarella.

Entrees include costolette di maiale (pork chops in a somewhat busy apple-walnut-mushroom sauce), a workmanlike breaded veal Milanese and a butterflied New York steak with aromatic herbs. Dinners come with salad, vegetable and potato, and the portions tend to be large.

On the way in you pass a giant dessert case, and you are bound to be seduced by something. The selections are too numerous to mention, but you can expect things like tiramisu, chocolate cake, tarte tatin and many others, all baked on the premises by Hormoz himself. The desserts are fine, though none impressed any of us particularly. I'd say they impress the locals, though, because L.A. Gourmet Baking Co. & Restaurant fills up with a vengeance on weekends.

Or maybe it's the music.

Where and When

Location: Nancy's Healthy Kitchen, 17620 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: Chinese chicken salad, $5.95; turkey Reuben, $4.95; air fries, $1.75; baked potato, $2.50.

Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Price: Lunch for two, $12 to $17. No alcohol. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 380-6877.

*

Location: L.A. Gourmet Baking Co. & Restaurant, 21830 Nordhoff St., Chatsworth.

Suggested Dishes: Garlic bread, $3.95; penne alla melanzana , $10.95; bistecca alla aromatics, $13.95; desserts, $3 to $5.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $24 to $38. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. All major cards.

Call: (818) 882-7600.

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