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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Taste of Europe : Switching from French to Italian has not changed the place's Mediterranean feel, but the menu is still in transition.

February 17, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

WOODLAND HILLS — Piacere--formerly Lautrec--has evidently decided it wants to be Italian rather than French. Fine with me. Of course, that might mean it's time to remove the print of Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" that hangs at the front. How about a nice Tintoretto, or perhaps a Modigliani?

Either way, this elegant-looking operation gets my vote as the most European restaurant in the West Valley. The patio, a brick-floored courtyard dominated by a huge pepper tree, is peaceful and charming in a rustically Mediterranean manner. The upper level is set off by a burbling stone fountain.

Another appealing thing is the way the outdoor tables are sequestered from nearby Ventura Boulevard. One of the building's outer walls (the one on the side of the patio nearest the interior dining rooms) is composed of tastefully weather-beaten redwood paneling. The landscaping is all broadleaf trees and lush gardens of beautiful wildflowers.

Since perfect patio weather is still a few weeks away, you'd probably want to dine indoors for now, huddling up near the stone fireplace. The interior is warm and comfy, set off by crisp linens. Classic floor-to-ceiling columns rise from a field stone floor, and the long, wooden bar is framed by a glittery mirror. The only thing to complain about, decor-wise, is the abundance of dime store poster art. The beige walls would look better if they had been left bare.

Proceedings get off to a reasonable start. Every diner gets a dish of moss-green Ligurian style pesto, an assertive but delicious dip well-suited to the assortment of fresh-baked breads that arrives soon after you sit down. Also in the bread department, there are pizzas, cooked in a wood oven visible from most of the dining room. They have medium-thin crusts and toppings ranging from the creative to the mundane.

What do you mean by "creative," Max? Well, maybe the escargot , oregano and garlic butter pizza. No one at our table would consent to order it. I chickened out myself.

We did try the barbecued chicken pizza, which works well because of the subtle use of barbecue sauce (in contrast to the California Pizza Kitchen prototype, which is indiscriminately smeared with sauce). This pizza puts smoked Gouda cheese, red onion and cilantro to good use, although a crispier crust would bring these flavors out even more. The sausage pizza, though, falls flat. The culprit is a bland veal sausage, aromatic with sweet spices; German at heart, and out of tune with tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Considering the restaurant's recent Italian shift, the appetizer list remains most eclectic. It actually includes tuna sashimi, straight from your neighborhood sushi bar. There are Louisiana-style crab cakes too, and they happen to be very good, served on a bed of mixed greens with a buttermilk-based tartar sauce wanna-be.

When we come to the Italian appetizers, there's trouble. Piacere's bruschetta is a doughy focaccia bread with an overly acidic tomato and basil topping. The beef carpaccio is garnished with good arugula and pungent shavings of Parmesan cheese, but the meat is mushy, sliced unpleasantly thick and overrun by a miniature army of capers.

Many, but not all, of the pastas are homemade, so ask. The capellacci-- hat-shaped ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta--are wonderfully light and would be delicious if not for a diluted asparagus sauce. The lobster ravioli, stuffed with minced lobster and sea scallops, don't suffer such a fate. They too are light, with a pleasant lobster cream sauce.

The rigatoni are fresh and chewy, though I have no use for the flaccid porcini mushrooms in the sauce. Meanwhile, one of the menu's best items, homemade linguine with clams and garlic white wine sauce, is being deleted soon. Go figure.

In short, neither the entrees nor the desserts have become true Italian nationals just yet. Piacere is serving richer, continental-style fare, marked by an occasional foray into retro. Last time I asked, the sauce du jour on the roasted boneless duck was apricot; New York steak comes with either wild mushrooms or a green peppercorn sauce.

The single entree an Italian might want to claim is the nicely charred chicken breast, served with vegetables a la griglia and a pile of good french fries. Authentic or not, do try the sauteed Mexican shrimp, plump and garlicky in a delicious sauce, with terrific yellow rice to mop up with.

Piacere's desserts are presented grandly on a big tray. The best one is a crusty almond cookie with slices of caramelized banana, all drenched with a rich caramel sauce. There's a good creme brulee with assorted berries, a nice dish of ice cream profiteroles with chocolate sauce.

Yep, these are pretty desserts all right, pretty as a picture. Renoir himself might have painted them. But definitely not Modigliani.

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WHERE AND WHEN:

Location: Piacere, 22160 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Suggested Dishes: Louisiana crab cakes, $9.95; lobster ravioli, $7.95; barbecued chicken pizza, $8.95; sauteed Mexican shrimp, $16.95.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $38 to $64. Full bar. Street parking. All major cards.

Call: (818) 704-1185.

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