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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Monty's Remains True to American Classics

Steaks are still king at the cottage-style eatery with a snazzy piano bar and outstanding appetizers.

May 02, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in the days when Los Angeles had lots of red-booth-and-white-linen steakhouses like Monty's, customers reveled in 32-ounce Porterhouses and onion rings the size of small Hula Hoops.

These days, with meat, fat and alcohol under medical attack, you're considered backward if you want charred steak and single-malt Scotch. A good many people now actually come to Monty's expecting healthful fish and low-fat sour cream for their baked potato . . . and what's worse, they get them.

These people are missing the point of Monty's. Between 5 and 7 p.m. on weekdays, it hosts a free happy hour feast of oysters, beef, fried chicken and pizza. If you come, you'll find at least six guys at the bar who are built exactly like "Cheers" star George Wendt.

I have a soft spot for Monty's, because the Westwood branch was the very first big-time L.A. restaurant I ate at, and the same meal I had there in the '70s is still available. Oh, you'll have to sift through a menu full of chicken won ton, pesto oysters and tiramisu to get to your steak and potatoes, but it's there: good American food in a classic steakhouse setting.

If you haven't been to the Westwood or Pasadena Monty's, you won't know that the Woodland Hills restaurant is the most attractive of the three. It's like a rustic cottage, with each of the small dining rooms revealing its own character. There's a display case filled with cuts of meat, and boxed produce in the main room.

Off to one side is a snazzy piano bar, where the gossamer tones of pianist Ronnell Bright are heard. (Bright is a prodigious musician who adds riffs inspired by Oscar Peterson and Rachmaninoff to the standard lounge-lizard repertoire.) Behind the front podium is the main bar, where stools are at a premium any night of the week.

I'm coming back soon for another order of clams Casino or possibly shrimp Monty. Not long ago, I would have laughed out loud if you told me I was going to like either of these dinosaurs, but they're both terrific.

The clams are Little Necks, six to an order, stuffed back into their shells with bread crumbs, bacon, garlic and peppers, then baked. Shrimp Monty is bacon-wrapped shrimp in garlic butter, with a surprise stuffing of minced green herbs.

Monty's meats (and fish too, for that matter) are mesquite-broiled. I personally like the taste of mesquite, but it is penetrating and mesquite's hot flame does tend to dry food out. It works very well with Monty's peppered salmon and the rack of spring lamb. The lamb loses its fattiness and gets an irresistible flavor.

I'm somewhat less enamored with the steaks and pork ribs. Monty's serves oddly sweet and peppery ribs sold to the restaurant by Noonan's, a well-known local producer. They may be mesquite-grilled, but they aren't nearly as tender as the baby backs at gas-barbecuing places such as Tony Roma's.

Monty's steaks are a little bit dry. They'd be very dry if it weren't for the fact that they're all prime beef, indicating the highest degree of fat marbling in the meat. A steak loses an average 25% of its weight in cooking, more if it's being cooked well done. That's no problem if you order something like Monty's prime peppered 28-ounce Porterhouse, which only a trencherman can finish, anyway.

My 12-ounce top sirloin, which had shrunk to about nine, was perfectly fine with me. One dinner guest, who considers himself a steak expert, rated it a shade better than Stuart Anderson's.

Among the side dishes, Jim Davis taters are delicious diced potatoes, tossed in a pan with chopped onion. The sauteed mushrooms are fried in butter with a splash of wine and a dash of herbs.

If you've come this far, you might as well go all the way and have dessert. The dense lemon pound cake, topped with strawberries and whipped cream, goes down like pure ballast. There's a triple-fudge chocolate cake with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and warm chocolate sauce that should capsize all but the sturdiest appetites.

The wine list is loaded with well chosen, hard-to-find and reportedly healthful California reds. It is a jewel, in case the surgeon general is listening.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Monty's.

* WHERE: 5371 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills.

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

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $48-$86. Suggested dishes: clams Casino, $7.95; shrimp Monty, $11.95; rack of lamb, $24.95; top sirloin, $16.95 (12-ounce)/$19.95 (16-ounce). Full bar.

* FYI: Valet parking. All major cards.

* CALL: (818) 715-9736.

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