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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Food That Feeds the Heart : Elegant cuisine and a romantic setting are a charming twosome at Brandywine.

March 03, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

WOODLAND HILLS — History buffs may recall Brandywine as the name of a Delaware creek where a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters were roundly defeated by the British in 1777. In 1995, the name also belongs to an intimate Woodland Hills dining room, a little charmer specializing in luxury fare such as seared foie gras and rack of lamb carved at table side. The name may have revolutionary overtones; the cooking, though largely competent, does not.

Romance, not revolution, is the theme. Brandywine is nearly the ideal spot for a dinner-time tryst. (As a result, celebrity-watchers may want to drop in. On my last visit, I spotted Charles Durning in one back booth and an elegantly dressed Nichelle Nichols--Lieutenant Uhura, for die-hard Trekkies--in another.)

You can rule out an entirely quiet tryst. Although Ventura Boulevard west of Topanga Canyon is quite tranquil after sunset, a good deal of background rumble is provided by Greek-born owner Chris Flessas, the man dressed in a handsome designer suit (in contrast to Brandywine's waiters; they're all clad in formal wear) who greets every customer like a long-lost friend. His booming voice can be heard regaling each table with extensive descriptions of the dishes listed on the restaurant's old-fashioned blackboard menu.

Altogether, this is an old-fashioned, special-date sort of place. The tables are dressed with pink cloths and fresh carnations, and five of the booths, usually taken by hand-holding couples, are partially obscured by lace curtains. The lighting consists of a low-wattage chandelier, a few candles and the occasional gas flame from a cooking stand. A classical guitarist, circumspect in his repertoire, plucks away discreetly in a corner by the front door. In short, every day is Valentine's Day at Brandywine.

The start of an evening here is delightful. Let Flessas talk you into the refreshing house aperitif: raspberry-flavored champagne with one sweet berry hidden at the bottom of the flute. Soon afterward, he will carve you a few complimentary pieces of the buttery, pepper-crusted salmon that's cured on the premises.

Flessas' wife, Margaret McWilliams, does most of the cooking, rich, heavily sauced stuff in the Continental tradition. One side of the blackboard is devoted to appetizers, the other to the rather pricey main dishes.

*

The appetizers are generous, so generous they may sate your appetite. You won't go far wrong with the Caesar or spinach salads, served for two and mixed at table-side in enormous bowls. I've tried the traditional onion soup, which would have been fine had the broth not been tepid (a neat trick, given that the Gruyere cheese topping had been broiled to a dangerous sizzle).

Grilled eggplant salad, a throwback to the early '80s, is pieces of cooked eggplant and tomato with chunks of melted goat cheese and a green flurry of deep-fried spinach on top. Spicy rock shrimp come in the obligatory garlic-white wine sauce, while the flavor of a somewhat limp mixture of sauteed wild mushrooms is rather overwhelmed by Marsala sauce. Spinach ravioli stuffed with a delicate ricotta filling swim in a veritable lake of sage butter. Beautifully seared fresh Sonoma foie gras is accompanied by farfalle pasta mixed with raisins and walnuts, a somewhat goofy idea.

The beautiful rack of lamb with garlic potatoes, which Flessas carves with a flourish into four double-thick chops, has to be the star entree. And at $29, it deserves to be.

Thin-sliced Muscovy duck breast can be had with an eccentric spicy blueberry sauce, something you see at times in terminally hip Italian restaurants. I couldn't resist the overkill of having veal Oscar--thin veal scallops, bearnaise sauce, asparagus spears and a fresh crab leg--on the same plate with a juicy filet mignon. The steak was delicious, though it looked a bit shabbily dressed for its company. A mushroom cap garnish just doesn't draw the eye alongside the regally appointed veal Oscar.

Even Brandywine's simpler items can hardly be classed as austere. The chef's subtle chipotle pepper cream sauce goes well with deftly grilled scallops. Grilled ono, a Hawaiian relation of the tuna, is crowned with a buttery herb sauce. Chicken citron, the blackboard's plain Jane entree (two lemony chicken breasts), comes with a whole lot of capers and butter.

McWilliams is a talented dessert chef. I'm wild for her lemon walnut torte, a wonderfully eggy lemon suspension atop a world-class crumbly crust. The warm chocolate tart with white chocolate sauce is soft and fudge-like; crisp, chewy homemade coconut chocolate cookies come with the chef's own walnut ice cream.

But the most original touch is the dessert called almond joy. By taste alone I couldn't tell whether these coconut bars covered with warm chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream were homemade or straight out of a candy wrapper. Frankly, after all the foie gras and veal Oscar, I'd have settled for a plain old Hershey's bar.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Brandywine, 22757 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Suggested Dishes: Grilled eggplant salad, $10; spicy rock shrimp, $10; filet of beef and veal Oscar, $25; rack of lamb with garlic potato, $29; lemon walnut tart, $5.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $68 to $90. Beer and wine. Parking lot in rear. All major cards.

Call: (818) 225-9114.

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