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COVER STORY : THE VALLEY'S TOP 20 RESTAURANTS : Despite a damaging earthquake and a tough economy, dining choices are more eclectic than ever.

October 28, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

It's been a tough year for Valley restaurants and restaurant-goers, what with the earthquake, a down economy and a perceived dip in creativity and enthusiasm. Many of our favorite restaurants-- Il Mito, East India Grill (renamed Akbar Grill this week), Art's and Cafe Cordiale--suffered severe damage. (Art's, a perennial member of this list, reopened just last week, and Cafe Cordiale has yet to reopen.)

There are bright spots. Posto and Pinot remain exemplars; they should become honorary members of this list. And a few more successful Westside restaurants--Tribeca, Delmonico's and the Ca' Brea spinoff Ca' del Sole--crossed Mulholland and joined the community.

For this, the third annual Top 20 Restaurants in the Valley, I've changed the list considerably from last year, partly because I've been disappointed in a few of the places included on the previous list, partly because a few new restaurants inched their way in. I'm delighted to say that the Valley has not one but two excellent Chinese restaurants now, both included here, and more eclecticism than ever. There's also more good Italian food than ever, as evidenced by the presence of La Pergola, and an absolutely top-notch sushi from the hand of a man named Nozawa.

Who knows what 1995 will bring?

(Inexpensive is less than $10 per person, moderate is less than $22 a person and expensive is more than $23 a person.)

1. Posto

It's been a very tough year for Posto owner Piero Selvaggio. The man lost a house in the Malibu fire and a staggering amount of wines from his Valentino restaurant during the earthquake. This hasn't prevented Posto from making further strides. Luciano Pellegrini's rustic cooking is better than ever; he has added an incredible pasta menu to complement the wonderful, bargain-priced list of Italian wines. I'd come back any time for the addictive Parmesan chips called frico , even if Pellegrini didn't craft miracles out of wheat flour, olive oil and salt. See if you can talk him into making you his crab pancake.

14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 784-4400; reservation recommended. Expensive.

2. Pinot Bistro

At present, this is the Valley's only polished bistro. Chefs Octavio Becerra and Michael Otsuka were trained by the masterful Joachim Splichal, owner of Pinot, Patina and downtown's Patinette; their menu is a symphony of Mediterranean, California and creative elements. Come for items like spiced seafood cakes or brioche French toast at the exquisite Sunday brunch, original sandwiches or light spa cuisine at lunch. Dinner can be an epiphany: crispy whitefish, beef tongue with bone marrow or carmelized onion tart with marinated salmon.

12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 990-0500; reservations recommended. Expensive.

3. Ca' del Sole

Our brightest new entry, a modern bastion of Italian cooking, occupies the site that once housed the legendary Maison Gerard. You won't recognize the place now, with all soft yellow brick, Venetian carnival masks, richly hued woods. Chef Antonio Tommasi has proved himself on the other side of the hill at such restaurants as Locanda Veneta and Ca' Brea. Here, he's added Venetian rarities to his resume, baccala di San Pietro , fish hash with potato and capers; pomodori appassiti , baked San Marzano tomatoes; a cuff link-shaped pasta called gemelli , and a magnificent stewed duck. Beats paying a gondolier.

4100 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 985-4669; reservations recommended. Moderate to expensive.

4. Cinnabar

Glendale's best restaurant is a blend of Pacific Rim and California, filtered through '90s elegance. The bar's centerpiece is a Chinese antique that once graced L. A. Chinatown's Yee Mee Loo; the dining areas have pastel colors and lots of Asian art. Proprietor Alvin Simon is an old pro, head chef Hisashi Yoshiara an artist with a strong sense of the visual. Taste Yoshiara's sea scallops wrapped in shredded potato, free-range veal in a classically rich brown sauce, applewood-smoked salmon and wonderful vegetarian creations.

933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 551-1155; reservations recommended. Expensive.

5. Cha Cha Cha

The quake never slowed the pace at Encino's lively Cha Cha Cha. Two days after the Jan. 17 temblor, many locals were acting like party animals on the Titanic, downing tropical drinks, platters of Jamaican jerk pork and black bean tamales as if nothing had ever happened. Mambo gumbo is a great soup of okra, shredded chicken and spices; camarones negroes are jumbo shrimp in a dark, spicy sauce. Desserts alone are worth a visit--the best banana cream pie in the Valley, and an ice cream flying saucer made from a coconut macadamia nut cookie and rich vanilla bean ice cream.

17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-3600; reservations recommended. Expensive.

6. Sushi Nozawa

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