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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Papashon Shines and So Do Its Dishes

The spacious Encino version is 'very L.A.,' with lots of East Asian flavors. But some of the cooking is too complex.

February 15, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It's very L.A. in here," intoned a friend from Northern California, eyeballing the warm wood paneling, soft lighting and beautiful hand-blown seashell vases. Well, of course. The Encino edition of Papashon is even more L.A. than its Pasadena prototype.

The name combines those of owner Ramon Papa and executive chef Sean Sheridan, and the concept is a combo, too. Imagine feet planted solidly on the Pacific Rim, a body buoyed up by comfortingly quirky California dishes and a head way up in the clouds, filled with strange ideas.

This large, spacious restaurant is actually the third Papashon (the second opened in Beverly Hills a few months ago). By comparison with the Pasadena original, it seems downright lush. The floor is carpeted in broad gold and gray checks; there's a huge open kitchen gleaming with glass and stainless steel.

The appetizers are heavily tilted toward East Asia, particularly Thailand, China and Japan. Grilled Hong Kong spareribs are worth trying, though I do have my own bone to pick with them.

The menu refers to them as "tender marinated pork ribs with new potatoes in an Indochinese sauce." What came to my table were beef ribs, which I normally don't fancy. Luckily, they were delicious, the meat practically falling off the bone into a sticky-sweet dark soy sauce.

Crispy shrimp toast with persimmon dipping sauce is unusual in the extreme. If you've had only the usual sort of shrimp toast, you won't be prepared for the broad hints of chopped basil in the mousse-like shrimp topping or the almost medicinal sweetness of the dipping sauce.

Crispy won ton and mirin mustard sauce is a '90s version of Trader Vic's crab Rangoon, and that's a fine thing to be. These five fried won tons, with their crab and mascarpone cheese centers, are properly crunchy and creamy, and nicely offset by an Asian coleslaw of daikon radish and julienned carrot.

The most intriguing starters are the Japanese-inspired poisson cru and tiger shrimp salad. For the poisson, strips of tuna and salmon are woven together on the plate with tosaka seaweed and a vinaigrette based on Maui onions, with tiny caviar-topped toasts alongside them.

Papashon's tiger shrimp salad is the most beautiful dish the restaurant serves, a palette of red and green Thai curries. Pretty, but the strong flavors clash a bit too much for me.

The tiger shrimp salad is an example of the trouble with some of Papashon's dishes: too many things going on at one time. Another is the baked almond-crusted salmon, served atop a mound of garlic mashed potatoes, sprinkled with sweet peppers (in three colors) and seasoned with coriander pesto and an artichoke beurre blanc to boot. It's monumental, and monumentally silly.

But the best dish I've eaten here was dead simple: a medium-rare New York steak, exquisitely charred, served with snappy French green beans and a heap of golden-brown fries.

And you can't lose with the straightforward oven-roasted lemon ginger chicken, either. The bird is subtly, not overpoweringly, infused with lemon and ginger, and the accompanying Chinese vegetables--snow peas and bean sprouts--are a clever inspiration.

*

The rest is a mixed bag. The vaunted Long Island duck comes in an overly reduced sauce of sun-dried cherries. Roasted rack of lamb is competent but with not nearly as much lamb flavor as one would hope (it comes with basil-flavored mashed potatoes that are interesting for a few bites).

For vegetarians, there are grilled vegetables with shiitake mushroom won ton, a quiet little plate where East meets West without much fuss. Tell the kitchen to serve the won tons on the side so the vegetable juices don't make them soggy.

Papa is too savvy an owner to monkey around with desserts, especially when he has a resource like the talented pastry chef Javier Alcala. Papashon's baked chocolate is a cloudy souffle waiting to be enhanced by a deliciously rich chocolate sauce, and a delicate apple tart baked in filo with cinnamon ice cream comes atop a picture-perfect pool of hot caramel sauce.

A list of California chardonnays, pinots and cabernets keeps most of its prices below $25, with an intelligent list of dessert wines and single-malt Scotches available to top off your evening.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Papashon

* WHERE: 15910 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

* WHEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

* FYI: Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Suggested dishes: poisson cru, $10; Hong Kong spareribs, $9; New York strip, $20; lemon-ginger chicken, $16.50; desserts, $6-$7.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $42-$68.

* CALL: (818) 783-6664.

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