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RESTAURANT SPECIAL

Dive Into the Top 40!

There are the main courses, but don't forget the sides.

April 28, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Instead of the expected dark and clubby room, Ruth's Chris in Beverly Hills is a light, airy space with polished wood wainscoting, sleek leather booths and vases of orchids. Here, where handsome, well-aged steaks arrive in a sweet sizzle of butter, the real stars are the Porterhouse, the New York strip and, when it's offered as a special, the richly marbled T-bone. While adhering to the traditional steakhouse format, the virtue of Ruth's Chris menu is that most of the sides are actually edible: onion rings as big as bracelets, hearts of lettuce with the house mustard garlic dressing, good creamed spinach, sauteed button mushrooms, French fries as crispy as requested. If, after tucking into one of these enormous steaks, you're still game for dessert, choose the tender bread pudding. An outpost is scheduled to open in Irvine in the fall.

224 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-8744. Entrees, $18 to $25, potatoes and sides a la carte.

Saddle Peak Lodge

Until the owners hired back Josie Le Balch as chef at the wildly romantic Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, the kitchen had just been going through the motions. Presentation was lackluster, and the menu was, frankly, boring. But now Le Balch is bringing the kitchen up to date, seeking out new sources for ever-more-exotic game (rack of kangaroo, anyone?). And while she hasn't totally rewritten the menu, her return is evident in the spiffed-up plates, the fresher execution of Saddle Peak classics and, most of all, specials such as the salad of sauteed Oregon wild mushrooms on arugula and blood oranges. While improving the game menu, Le Balch is also broadening the restaurant's appeal, adding flavorful fish like Virginia wild striped bass and wild sturgeon. Her imaginative hand is evident at brunch: mesquite-broiled ham with eggs and pumpkin flapjacks, and the handmade sausages (spicy buffalo, rabbit and pork). And to rescue the moribund dessert situation, a pastry chef will be on board soon.

419 Cold Canyon Rd. (at Piuma Road), Calabasas; (818) 222-3888. Entrees, $15.50 to $27.50; weekend brunch, $22.50.

Shiro

Who would guess that this modest storefront restaurant in South Pasadena is one of the toughest weekend reservations? Hideo Yamashiro's customers are passionately devoted to his sizzling catfish with ponzu sauce and his plush salmon mousse and shrimp ravioli in a rich shiitake sauce, so much so that they resist any changes to his one-page menu. Come back in six months or a year, and you'll find basically the same dishes, all perfectly and consistently executed. Try the tuna sashimi or carpaccio with shaved Parmesan and fresh arugula or the lightly peppered tuna steak in Champagne sauce. And for dessert, don't pass up deep-fried won tons layered with poached pear and raspberry sauce or a fresh peach baked in Grand Marnier with strawberries, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

1505 Mission St., South Pasadena; (818) 799-4774. Entrees, $14 to $18.

Spago

Spago may soon trade its longtime locale, overlooking the Sunset Strip, for the Bistro Garden's tony digs. Imagine eating Wolfgang Puck's casual California cuisine in a courtyard garden in Beverly Hills. It would be, well, very California. Meanwhile, Spago is still packed every night. Drop in (if you can get a reservation) for one of Puck's uptown pizzas covered with duck sausage and shiitake mushrooms or the famous off-the-menu smoked salmon and creme frai^che version. The ebullient Austrian-born chef knows exactly what will please his customers: crispy Mandarin quail in a sweet orange-ginger sauce, lobster spring rolls, roasted duck with cracked black pepper sauce and sauteed pears. And with Eric Karpf and Francois Kwaku-Dongo back, the kitchen is running like clockwork. But if you really want to see what Puck's flagship restaurant can do, ask the kitchen to create a special menu for your table.

1114 Horn Ave., West Hollywood; (310) 652-4025. Entrees, $18.50 to $28.

Valentino

Piero Selvaggio makes each of his three Italian restaurants a personal statement, but none is closer to his heart than Valentino, where he greets every guest warmly at the door. The service is exceptionally gracious, and the wine list, particularly rich in Italian varieties from up-and-coming producers, is phenomenal for its breadth of selection and fair prices. And Angelo Auriana's menu of superb, understated Italian cooking has something for every taste: classic beef carpaccio, big plates of pasta, meaty veal chops or sweetbreads in Marsala. But I'm convinced the best experience here is the chef's "extravaganza" or Selvaggio's made-to-order series of small courses. The latter might begin with miniature sweetbread profiteroles and little bundles of field greens bound with an anchovy filet. After that, maybe a taste of chalky sheep's milk ricotta just arrived from Italy that morning, then heavenly gnocchi sauced with truffle butter, followed by fusilli Norma in a light tomato sauce and an elegant mixed grill of quail, lamb and venison.

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