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Lasher's is memorable for its succinct menu of American dishes. Good food, simply made, says it all.

May 15, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Lasher's bills itself as an American restaurant. There was a time when any self-respecting restaurateur would not have made this claim. But chefs have begun treating our culinary heritage with respect, and it's now worthy of boasting.

Lasher's is a cozy, romantic restaurant in a green and white clapboard bungalow. One side of the property has been turned into a patio framed by a densely planted herb garden. Next to the broad stone front steps is a burbling fountain. Just below the eave is the restaurant's insignia--an ornate, lime-green neon "L"--so that casual passersby will realize this is no ordinary house.

Indeed it is not. The main dining room clearly was the living room when this was a private residence and easily could pass for one still, with its flowers, wainscoted walls and wood-burning fireplace. Two smaller dining rooms undoubtedly were bedrooms. They achieve a more relaxed formality, making good use of light pastel colors and soft lighting.

You wouldn't expect such a restaurant to have a pretentious menu, and Lasher's doesn't. Owner Ray Lasher, former mai^tre d' at Gilliland's in Santa Monica, believes in good products and a straightforward approach to cooking them. His chef, CIA graduate David Hurd, carries out the boss' wishes to the letter.

The only downside is a lack of variety. Beyond a few salads and a killer clam chowder, there are only three appetizers and fewer than a dozen entrees.

These limitations haven't deterred the local dining crowd, though. Lasher's is one of the toughest tables in Long Beach. Reached by telephone, Lasher seemed almost apologetic for the sudden success. "I'm . . . surprised by the response," he remarked sheepishly.

He needn't be. His prices are reasonable, and the food has been good consistently from the start.

At lunch, the best place to dine is the patio, alongside the thyme, peppermint and rosemary. Lunch also is a good time to come; everything is less than $12. A cup of the smoky New England clam chowder--a chunky version loaded with bacon, celery, chopped clams and potato chunks--is a steal at $1.95, and a basket of La Brea Bakery rolls and bread is included.

Those same good breads raise the sandwiches above the ordinary. The delicious turkey sandwich, served on a rosemary roll, is full of hand-carved white meat with giblet gravy and a tart, homemade cranberry sauce. The salmon BLT is a nice piece of wood-grilled fish topped with bacon and tartar sauce on a sesame-seed bun. The All American burger is juicy, charbroiled sirloin on toasted ciabatta bread, smothered with sharp Cheddar.

The seductively curt dinner menu can be scanned in seconds. Beginnings, as the first courses are called, include crab cakes, roasted garlic, a few salads and an invention the chef calls St. Thomas shrimp.

The St. Thomas shrimp are doused in garlic, lemon juice, chopped tomatoes and perhaps a little too much red pepper oil. If you find them too spicy, a tip: The mound of lumpy mashed potatoes on the side dilutes the heat without putting it out altogether.

Maryland crab cakes is a mild misnomer because the cakes are made of snow crab meat from Alaska, but there is a hint of Old Bay seasoning in them. They come on a lovely bed of greens with three mayonnaises: red pepper, home-grown basil and a light garlic aioli.

The roasted garlic appetizer is a whole head of nearly perfect cloves, sweetly caramelized, paired with a clump of herbed California goat cheese and brought with toasted slices of ciabatta.

The buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad uses ripe tomatoes and a creamy, intense balsamic vinaigrette. Lasher's house salad is dressing and fresh baby greens, thinly sliced cucumbers, a heap of sprouts and excellent hothouse tomatoes.

There is little art and less artifice in the entrees, but most manage to satisfy. The chef makes meatloaf with cranberry glaze on top and bottom. The meat is ground sirloin, and the chef lets it rest before serving it, the way a grandmother would with Sunday roast.

Oven-roasted turkey is thick slices of skinless breast with a light herb stuffing. Napa Valley chicken, the biggest seller, reminds me of dishes at hotel banquets. It's a sauteed chicken breast stuffed with a mixture of spinach, mushrooms and a tad too much goat cheese.

The best fish is salmon, regular Pacific or the more assertive Atlantic salmon, which shows up occasionally as a special. There are three steaks: a slightly tough culotte steak, a fatty but flavorful New York and a faultless herb-marinated tenderloin. All entrees come with fresh vegetables (recently they've often been delicate spears of green asparagus) and either lumpy mashed potatoes or a rice pilaf cooked with chicken broth.

The desserts are certainly American. The best, hands down, is Key lime pie, a glorious, sweet-sour custard on a buttery graham flour crust. This version is made with the juice of real Florida Key limes, and if you've never understood why there's so much shouting about Key lime pie, taste this one and you'll know. There also is a fluffy New York-style cheesecake, a frothy chocolate mousse torte and a pretty bland apple pie.

I like Lasher's, but that part hurts. You'd think a place as American as this would have apple pie down pat.

Lasher's is moderately priced. Beginnings are $3.50 to $8.95. Main courses are $11.95 to $18.95.

BE THERE

* Lasher's, 3441 E. Broadway, Long Beach. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Brunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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