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VALLEY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE / Culinary Countdown

Valley's Top 10 Dining Picks Include Cajun, Korean and Teutonic Fare

December 26, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is bound to be controversy surrounding this year's top 10 list. Maybe I should have asked the writers from the Letterman show for assistance.

In the end, I had a tough time deciding on at least half the entries. There is little room for uncertainty on a list this short, and several restaurants that I hold in high esteem just could not be included.

Four of the restaurants chosen, Posto, Pinot Bistro, Saddle Peak Lodge and Sushi Nozawa, could conceivably be retired as honorary members; they have remained the best examples of what they do for several years now.

Then there was the decision to leave out a place like Cafe Bizou in favor of JoeJoe's, a newcomer that moved in a few blocks down the boulevard. Bizou remains a fine choice for fair-priced French California cooking. But for me, JoeJoe's deserves a special nod, because it makes more interesting choices in the kitchen.

I'm actually pained that our best Chinese or Thai restaurants are not more worthy of mention, though restaurants such as Bamboo, Talesai and even Yang Chow are occasionally pleasing.

I haven't found much creativity or consistency in our Asian restaurants, and until they use better quality ingredients, not much to champion, either. So once again, bon appetit, and a wish that 1997 brings both prosperity and a wealth of diverse new eating experiences for everyone.

One: POSTO

Chef Luciano Pellegrini never ceases to amaze me. During the course of any year, his aggressively intellectual take on modern Italian cooking results in many surprises. Posto's owner is Piero Selvaggio, also known for his restaurants Valentino and Prini on the Westside. But thanks to Pellegrini, this is Selvaggio's most experimental restaurant, and when things hit here, they hit big.

Take my last lunch orchestrated by Pellegrini. The first course was pure simplicity: Dungeness crab legs drizzled with a few drops of aged, ambrosial aceto balsamico, after which came an exquisite risotto with shaved white truffles on top.

That was followed by roasted quail with foie gras, then a delicious cut of venison in a Barolo reduction. Dessert was creme brulee laced with cooked chestnuts, which transformed the blandly rich dessert into one with unusual body.

Like any American restaurant, Posto is given to fits of being erratic and diffident. Yes, I brook the occasional complaint from friends, when things do not turn out quite as wonderful as I said they would. But I have never heard those words from anyone who requests a menu in advance, or who puts himself in the chef's hands, a practice common to people dining in our top Japanese restaurants. Good cooking is often spontaneous, and Posto thrives on spontaneity.

* 14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 874-4400. Expensive.

Two: PINOT BISTRO

The rich get richer. Pinot Bistro is the Valley's only true American bistro, and its popularity hasn't waned one bit. This is still the Valley's numero uno power lunch spot, the place to see studio bigwigs with their copies of Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and the Hollywood Reporter stacked up next to their crispy risotto cake and roasted farm chicken with French fries. It is also the place to crowd in with Ladies Who Lunch, the Valley Edition.

Owner Joachim Splichal has been a busy boy in 1996. (He has just opened Pinot at the Chronicle in Pasadena, extending his Pinot empire.) But happily, chef-in-residence Octavio Becerra still does his thing most days, and it usually works like a charm.

At a recent lunch, the kitchen put out a matchless scallop near-carpaccio with sea salt, celeriac and Belgian endive, followed by bacon-wrapped monkfish with fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

The menu reads like a list of '90s culinary buzzwords: warm goat cheese and elephant garlic tart, roasted chicken salad with mushrooms and potatoes, lamb osso buco. The rich Americana decor is warm and inviting. The sleek leather banquettes in the main dining room might just be the most comfortable seating on Ventura Boulevard.

* 12969 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-0500. Expensive.

Three: SADDLE PEAK LODGE

Take a drive in the country to visit Saddle Peak Lodge, set in the bucolic hills exactly halfway between the Ventura Freeway and the Pacific Ocean. This is one of the more venerable settings for any Los Angeles-area restaurant. The hunting lodge-style building is more than 50 years old and is rumored to have been a bordello during the '40s.

But the restaurant has never been so good as it is now. Second-generation chef Josie La Balch is the daughter of French parents who learned her trade at Ma Maison and L'Ermitage, before achieving stardom at Santa Monica's Remi.

La Balch cooks food that befits a country lodge: wild game, fish and whatever else she can get in season.

Reached by telephone, the chef confided that she is actively seeking less ranch-raised and more wild and exotic foodstuffs.

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