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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Comfy but Not Consistent : The Black Cow Cafe gets creative with coffee selections, but fails to deliver on several entrees and desserts.

June 30, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

MONTROSE — How now, Black Cow.

Of course, we refer to Black Cow Cafe, the Montrose espres so bar and restaurant. You can recognize the place at a glance--it's the one where the sidewalk tables are draped with oilcloth dappled brown and white for the sake of bovine aura. Inside, you find a spiffy brick-walled dining room on one side, a casual espresso bar on the other. Both sides stay fairly busy morning, noon and night.

And why not? The Cow steams up a mean latte, and on a cool summer morning, with light breezes wafting in from the San Gabriel mountains, an outside table facing Honolulu Avenue is one of the Southland's great places for sipping a cup of joe. Later in the day, the dining room is an eccentrically charming place to eat: plant-strewn, cooled by folksy wrought-iron ceiling fans, one of its walls adorned by a giant sheet-metal coffee cup.

The Black Cow's style is what you might call late 20th-Century Americana. Most of the dishes coming out of this kitchen are conceived of as comfort food. Chile relleno and fresh Dungeness crab cakes are two of the best, and you won't go far wrong with the garlic chicken or roast pork loin. But some of the Black Cow's entrees and most of its desserts tend to be, as it were, spotty.

To the coffee side first. Purists look down on flavored coffees, and I'm not a fan of them myself, but the cafe's creative coffee drinks do have a stubborn appeal. I found the caramel latte , in particular, surprisingly attractive; it's a lightly sweetened blend of steamed milk and espresso flavored with a buttery caramel syrup.

On a sizzling day, I'd also recommend the frozen Mexicali. This tall, cool drink is a blend of espresso, cinnamon-flavored Mexican chocolate, fresh orange juice and frozen yogurt. Have it topped with some thick whipped cream.

At dinner, come in a gregarious frame of mind, prepared to sit elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors. A patient frame of mind will help too, because service is more eager than well-organized, and the restaurant has been busy and confused each time I've visited.

You'll be tempted to munch on the complimentary herb-crusted focaccia when the bread is still hot from the oven. Go for it; as the bread cools down, its pull-off carpet of herbs becomes progressively less appealing. I had a similar disenchantment with Black Cow chili, a thick, three-bean model with a mild, pleasant finish. It's delicious for the first few minutes, but gets extremely filling as you approach the bottom of the bowl.

So thank goodness for the crab cakes. Fresh Dungeness crab is great this time of year, and Black Cow Cafe's golden-crusted masterpieces are virtually nothing but flaky crab meat and butter. The stuffed chile relleno also has a bit of seasoned crab in the filling, along with some jalapen~o-flavored Jack cheese. The chile itself, a mild pasilla , has a crisp corn crust and is served doused with a roasted tomatillo sauce, making it about as avant-garde as anything gets in Cow Country.

From this point of the menu on, it's back to basics: sandwiches, stuffed potatoes and solid, familiar entrees. The Black Cow cheeseburger is fairly standard, juicy chopped sirloin in a puffy sesame seed bun. The stuffed potatoes--made with extra-large Idaho spuds (I haven't seen anyone finish one)--come with toppings such as chicken a la king, beef stroganoff and the house chili.

The oven-roasted pork loin and roasted turkey are both trencherman portions, filled out with stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy, but otherwise they're very different. Though the stuffing is made on the premises, the turkey is definitely not in the home-made style: It's bland, soulless white meat sliced from a roll.

The pork, on the other hand, consists of four thick, tender slices tasting of a red wine and rosemary marinade. Oddly, the home-made stuffing tasted better on the pork.

Other entrees include a good New York steak (with sauteed mushrooms and onions, creamy potatoes au gratin and a side of chili), a dependable garlic-roasted chicken brushed with olive oil and a sourish Cajun meatloaf, which suffers from an overdose of Tabasco.

The cafe's pastries are beautiful to see, but I find the mixed fruit cheesecake, the chocolate-lined banana cream tart and the lemon meringue pie all unpleasantly sugary. The peach cobbler is a slight improvement.

I say, skip them all and have one of the crunchy biscotti with a hot caramel latte. It's frothy, satisfying, unassailably moo food. I'd drink it until the cows come home.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Black Cow Cafe, 2219 Honolulu Ave., Montrose. Suggested Dishes: Stuffed chile relleno, $5.95; crab cakes, $6.95; oven-roasted pork loin, $10.95; New York steak, $12.95; caramel latte , $2.50 and $3.50. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday; 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Dinner for two, $23 to $32. Beer and wine. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 957-JAVA.

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