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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Accent Is on Comfort at Aussie-Style Steakhouse

Nothing jumps out as brilliant, but bet the barbie on Outback for quality and quantity with down home, Down Under charm.

August 08, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's barely 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the new Outback Steak House in Northridge is already jammed to the rafters. As usual.

It's part of a giant chain that began in Tampa, Fla., less than 10 years ago. Today, there are well over 300 Outbacks in 36 states; pretty impressive numbers for a middle-priced steak chain.

What's the secret? I'm guessing friendliness, fair prices, reasonable quality and consistency. There are few brilliancies or glaring flaws in an Outback meal. And let's not forget that none of the ingredients are frozen and everything's made on the premises, from the crisp "Aussie chips" (French fries) to the hand-whipped cream on desserts.

The restaurant has a clubby feel and a pronounced Australian motif: pictures of "Crocodile Dundee" star Paul Hogan, quaint Aussie signs ("No Sleeping on the Bar"), faux-Aboriginal crafts and sundry paraphernalia suggesting cultural encounters Down Under. When you arrive, two or three waitresses come over to hold the door open for you, and a friendly, casual air carries over throughout the evening. The waitresses kid with the customers and even sit down with them in the comfy wooden booths, a la Ed Debevic's, when they come to take orders.

The house specialty drink, Wallaby Darned, is rather like a Bellini slush (peaches and champagne, semi-frozen) with rum mixed in. Aussie-tizers are indulgent appetizers, the best being (of course) grilled shrimp on the barbie, half a dozen perfectly grilled fresh shrimp with a horseradish-spiked remoulade.

Walkabout Soup is a sweet, creamy onion soup topped with melted cheese--delicious at first, then a bit cloying. Bloomin' Onion is billed as an Outback original from Russell's Marina Bay. It's a whole deep-fried onion--it looks like an otherworldly flower with dozens of golden brown petals.

Steak is really what Outback does best. Rockhampton rib eye is a fine, fatty 14-ounce piece of beef, and ours came medium rare, exactly as ordered. I had the Melbourne, a thick 20-ounce Porterhouse with a wonderful tenderloin portion. At $12.95, the best value is the Outback special, a 12-ounce center cut from the sirloin. All meats are choice grade, cooked on a griddle, and I can only think how much better they would be if they were cooked over mesquite or hardwood.

Non-steak entrees are much less consistent. Ribs on the barbie comes in a generous rack, with those first-rate Aussie chips. The menu says the meat is smoked and grilled, but ours had the flat, bland taste of meat that had been precooked and merely finished on a grill. Chicken on the barbie employs the chicken tender, to my mind a backward step for civilization. Chicken tenders are hunks of white meat breast with no bone and little or no flavor. Even a lively barbecue sauce can't rescue this dish from mediocrity.

The Jackaroo chops, two 8-ounce center-cut pork chops served with a spicy cinnamon apple compote, are better. Veggie pasta Pemberton is overcooked penne pasta flavored with garlic and herbs, piled up in a casserole dish with char-grilled yellow peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and sliced portobello mushrooms.

You won't go far wrong with the cheese-heavy Caesar salad, but make sure to ask them to go light on the dressing, which has a pungent appeal, but only in moderate quantities. The firm, relatively small baked potatoes can be loaded up with bacon, cheese, chives and sour cream. In addition, all meals come with something called bushman bread, a dark, crusty loaf with a mild sweetness, served piping hot.

The mammoth desserts include Chocolate Thunder From Down Under (a huge brownie sundae) and cheesecake Olivia--named, one assumes, for Australian-born Olivia Newton-John--which is in the New York style. Cinnamon Oblivion is a pecan-studded ball of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream covered in cinnamon apples, caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream, finally strewn with a liberal helping of buttery cinnamon croutons. Our waitress insisted we have the Cinnamon Oblivion, and I have to say, good on you, mate. Eat a whole oblivion and you'll have no worries--and enough calories to sustain you on one mighty long walkabout.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Outback Steak House.

* WHERE: 18711 Devonshire St., Northridge.

* WHEN: Dinner 4-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday, 3:30-11 p.m. Saturday, 3:30-10 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $29-$47. Suggested dishes: grilled shrimp on the barbie, $6.45; Rockhampton rib eye, $15.95; the Melbourne, $17.95; Cinnamon Oblivion, $4.45.

* FYI: Full bar. Parking in lot. All major cards.

* CALL: (818) 366-2341.

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