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California Broiler Charts Course That's Familiar but Enjoyable

August 29, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Take away the hotel lobby art, the gaudy canvas umbrellas hanging upside-down from the ceiling, and the butcher-paper-on-oilcloth table covers at the new California Broiler, and what do you have? A breezy, even nautical place suspiciously reminiscent of a Chart House.

No real mystery here.

California Broiler is owned by John Creed, onetime CEO of the Chart House, who split from that company to start his own restaurant and chose to do it on the site of an old Chart House property, a spacious wood-and-steel beach shack that faces the toniest part of Long Beach Marina. Creed even recruited two former Chart House managers.

The new formula works surprisingly well. In spite of its banal name, California Broiler gets almost everything right, from starting things off with fresh loaves of La Brea Bakery bread right on through to dessert, where a sensational hot date pudding leads the parade.

California Broiler looks like just another spinoff of the grill concept, with its salad bar and its gas-fired barbecue (hardwood chips are added for smoking). It's ultra-casual. Many of the baby boomers who come here walk across the channel bridge from Seal Beach. Families come too--more, certainly, than the Chart House attracted.

The big change is on the table. These guys weren't kidding when they named their appetizer section Gotta Have One. Who could resist, for instance, roasted Gilroy garlic with the works, especially when there's good bread to eat it with? The roasted garlic is accompanied by tiny timbales of warm goat cheese, chopped black Nicoise olives, a salty sun-dried tomato pesto and little toasted slices of La Brea bread. The idea is to squeeze a clove or two onto a slice of toast and then, using the toppings, create the canape of your dreams.

Grilled Castroville artichoke pays tribute to a town just up the road from Gilroy. I wish they'd remove the choke, but the grilled vegetable is a delicious snack, with its unctuous sun-dried tomato aioli sauce. The peppered Gilroy garlic mushrooms are button mushrooms sizzling with garlic butter; they'd work better as a side dish for steak than as an appetizer.

Another appetizer--which, curiously, is not available as an entree--is barbecued baby back ribs. You get a half rack, about five meaty ribs, slathered in a tangy, mesquite-flavored sauce, alongside a mountain of sweet potato fries. Hats off to anyone who can eat an entree after this appetizer.

The Green Room is what California Broiler calls its small but attractive salad bar. Rather than relying on dozens of composed salads, it offers fresh, colorful vegetables and a few well-chosen dressings. Make your own Caesar with romaine, anchovies, shaved Parmesan, crunchy croutons made on premises and a thick, pungent Caesar dressing. Fresh peas, sliced mushrooms, artichoke hearts and fluffy tabbouleh go well with crisp lettuce, ripe tomato and thinly sliced red onion. The Green Room is optional, but at only $1.95 additional with an entree, it's mandatory from where I sit.

Not counting pastas, the menu lists fewer than a dozen entrees: swordfish, halibut, salmon, shrimp, a few steaks and two chicken dishes. The unusual Los Olivos ranch chicken is my favorite entree--it's something you'd be more likely to find in Barcelona than Long Beach. The chicken is grilled, then dusted with chili powder and baked with red wine, green olives and slivered almonds.

The steaks are another success story. They're lean cuts infused with the taste of wood smoke, so who cares that they weren't cooked over an open flame? Watermelon steak is sliced top sirloin with barbecue sauce. Teritop is the same steak, not sliced, but bathed in soy, ginger and sugar, tasting like something from a Japanese teppan restaurant. With your steak come inviting sides: a pan-roasted mixture of julienne squash, carrot, tomato and onion, and a scoop of mashed potatoes with the skins mixed in.

The fish entrees are just OK. Mojave sizzling shrimp is basic garlicky scampi, in lots of peppery melted butter--a dish for sopping up with bread. Catalina swordfish could be more moist, but a tart mango-pineapple fruit salsa improves the dish considerably. If there is anything to shy away from, it is the pastas, consistently mushy and too heavily sauced.

You can wash everything down with microbrews such as Ace Fermented Pear Cider, brought to the table ice-cold in a whopping 22-ounce bottle, or beers with catchy names--Red Tail Ale and Bear Country Hefe, to name two of the more dependable choices.

The homey, filling Palm Desserts include Imperial Valley fruit cobbler, an apple crisp with a sweet streusel topping; Half Dome, a warm brownie sundae with lots of whipped cream; Mudslide With Rocks, a pie with an inch-thick chocolate cookie crust and a filling of coffee ice cream; and that wonderfully moist, nutty date pudding cake, called the Blind Date.

I see the concept. Both a blind date and this engaging restaurant have the potential to turn into something big. Could a second California Broiler be far behind?

California Broiler is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95 to $5.25. Entrees are $8.95 to $15.95. Desserts are $2.95 to $4.95.

* CALIFORNIA BROILER

* 215 Marina Drive, Long Beach.

* (310) 430-0272.

* Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Visa and MasterCard.

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