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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Topanga Dining That's Upscale but Not Fancy

Willows is attracting a local following with such offerings as baby rack of lamb, wild mushroom ravioli and seafood pasta Diablo.

November 07, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Up in Topanga Canyon, you can easily imagine yourself in some bucolic corner of Northern California where the '60s never ended. No other area in the Southland has so much lovingly maintained village atmosphere or so many mom-and-pop country stores partially hidden by trees.

Nice though all this is, Topanga had a somewhat stagnant restaurant scene until last year. That was when a contractor named Steve Carlson--together with his wife, Leslie--decided to open a homey but upscale restaurant, and built it from the ground up.

The result is an attractive beige clapboard house called Willows, which looks as much like a home on Cape Cod as the popular local hangout it has become.

The main dining area, its peach-colored walls deepened by the reddish glow of a roaring fire, is decorated with lots of handsome etchings, which appropriately depict mountain vistas. The tablecloths are forest green, and beyond the wood-framed windows there is a primeval--for L.A. anyway--forest, a relaxing feast for the eyes.

Altogether, Willows is like a less ritzy version of Saddle Peak Lodge on Cold Canyon Road in Calabasas. Both places are wonderfully restful and romantic spots to dine, but Willows doesn't get nearly as fancy in the kitchen. The menu limits itself to a modest selection of popular California and American dishes. Here, the reach rarely exceeds the grasp.

Everyone starts with a basket of warm sliced egg bread, not unlike a Jewish challah, and helpings of whipped garlic butter. A close look at the menu reveals that it isn't quite as extensive as it first appeared. A few of the appetizers, such as the wild mushroom ravioli or the shrimp scampi, are merely smaller portions of entrees. I ordered the scampi as an appetizer and got five fat, delicious shrimp in a garlic-happy butter sauce.

One appetizer not available as an entree is chicken satay, three wooden skewers of broiled white-meat chicken with a gluey spiced peanut butter sauce. The chicken is good, properly charred and tender, but the sauce reminds me of the grainy peanut butter you get in a health food store--except for the snootful of ginger thrown in at the last second.

Nova salmon is a better bet. You get a generous portion of buttery smoked salmon on toast points with chopped onion, capers and lemon.

*

Entrees are generous servings at dinner house prices, averaging around $15. Soup or salad can be added to the entree price for an additional $3, but you'll need to be hungry if you're going to tackle the extra course.

In fact, some of the entrees are simply too much for one person to finish. Baby rack of lamb Francaise, for instance, is three double-thick pan-fried lamb chops, bones pointing skyward, arranged around a dense pile of garlic mashed potatoes. As if that weren't enough, the chops and potatoes are blanketed in a thick Dijon mustard sauce.

Wild mushroom ravioli, which I had as an entree, would probably work better as an appetizer. The pasta is perfectly al dente and the filling of mushroom duxelles is smooth and exotic, but it comes in a heavy parsley, cream and button mushroom sauce. It was a bit too much for me after one or two ravioli, and the entree portion is huge.

Penne with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic is fine, though. Again the pasta is nicely al dente, and here the components are skillfully chosen. Another good choice is seafood pasta Diablo, a bowl of linguine with salmon, shrimp and a sneakily spicy cream sauce.

Chicken piccata is big hunks of chicken breast in a workmanlike lemon caper butter sauce, all served over a mound of rice. No complaints, really, though the meat for piccata is usually cut into smaller pieces than here.

Willows makes most of its desserts, notably the moist, dense layer cakes. The lemon mist cake is like a rich, tart Bundt cake with butter cream frosting.

Both the chocolate cake and the Key lime pie are richly appealing, and in season, Willows serves fresh strawberries with Cointreau and hand whipped cream. Strawberries notwithstanding, of course, a drive up rustic Topanga Canyon is never really out of season.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Willows of Topanga Canyon.

* WHERE: 137 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

* WHEN: Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $38-$57. Suggested dishes: wild mushroom ravioli appetizer, $6.50; shrimp scampi appetizer, $9.95; penne pasta, $9.95; lemon mist cake, $3.45.

* FYI: Full bar. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* CALL: (310) 455-8788.

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