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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Reviving Food Favorites : The Smoke House still serves its retro Monte Cristo sandwich and hearty, old-fashioned chateaubriand for two.

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

BURBANK — "Jam with a hot sandwich!" gasped my lunch date, goggling at the strawberry preserves that accompanied her authentic Monte Cristo. We were at the venerable Smoke House in Burbank.

Oui , mademoiselle , jam. Picture three pieces of deep-fried French toast, layered clubhouse-style with sliced turkey, white sauce, ham and melted cheese, served with jam (well, it is made from French toast, right?), and you're looking at a Monte Cristo sandwich. Talk about retro. I hadn't seen one of these in ages, though I served hundreds of them in the early '70s, back when I was a waiter in San Francisco.

A meal at the Smoke House feels appropriate--and perhaps might even serve as an object lesson to a few of our trendier spots--in this fallback season of American institutions. The nation has sprung sharply right, and it may be part of the national spirit that this clubby spot appears to be busier than ever.

The darkish dining rooms are strung with Christmas lights for the holiday season, and I can report that service is as solicitous as it was 15 years ago, when I last ate here with any regularity. The food is just as I remember it, too--maybe even better.

Appetizers include thick-battered fried onion rings that crackle when you bite them; very tender baby back ribs served with a smoky barbecue sauce; gooey, lightly floured fried cheese, topped with a rich marinara sauce; a classic shrimp cocktail; a dish of wonderful sauteed mushroom caps sprinkled with Parmesan and doused with a wine sauce. You can get the above-mentioned separately or all together on the combination plate.

Lunches run to sandwiches, salads, meats and a few seafoods. The one I can't resist is the prime rib sandwich, a delicious hunk of roasted prime rib served open-face on a slice of soggy buttered toast in a puddle of meat juices. Smear it up with some of the creamy horseradish--smooth as a sauce mousseline , pungent as a shot of Tabasco.

When you order Oriental chicken salad here, you get a huge glass bowl filled with marinated chicken breast, mixed greens and a few handfuls of wispy fried rice noodles, all in a sweet-sour dressing. On a rather contemporary note, there's a swell Southwestern chicken sandwich composed of grilled chicken, avocado and a spicy house salsa on French bread.

The beer batter shrimp, however, is a sort of retro tempura, from a time before chefs got the notion that batter frying can be light. The four enormous shrimp come wrapped in tangy batter parkas nearly an inch thick.

Most people who come in the evening can't resist ordering a full basket of the oily, cheesy Smoke House garlic bread. It's tasty, but watch it--eat more than one piece and it turns into a real appetite killer.

This is one of the only restaurants in town where you can get that old-time L.A. steakhouse classic, chateaubriand for two. It's a huge tenderloin broiled on a plank, surrounded by a sort of retaining wall of Duchess potatoes. The meat is exemplary.

I have to complain about something our waitress did, though; something that would surely have been a no-no when this dish was in its heyday. We ordered our meat medium rare, and after she had sliced it at the table, we noticed it was beet-red in the center. "That's no problem," she said cheerily, and then proceeded to take the already cut pieces back to the kitchen for further cooking. In the old days, I dare say, the waitress would have peeked inside before carving, or broiled up an entirely new cut.

Stuffed filet of salmon " en plank " is another old-fashioned dish. Here a good hunk of fresh salmon is stuffed with spinach and crab meat and covered with a respectably rich bearnaise sauce.

Only the homemade carrot cake, however, would make me take a journey back to the restaurant's dessert tray. Most of the other items on the tray look and taste tired: cheesecake with refrigerator burn, commercially made pecan pie, apple pie in a flaccid crust.

Oh, well. You can always go for the strawberry jam.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Smoke House Restaurant, 4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank.

Suggested Dishes: Combination appetizer plate, $8.95; prime rib sandwich (lunch) $10.95; Monte Cristo (lunch), $7.95; barbecued baby back ribs, $16.95; fish and chips, $12.75.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner 4 to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 3:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $28 to $65. Full bar. Valet parking in lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 845-3733.

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