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Summer Splash: Eats | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Rustic Redesign

Hungarian eatery gets new name and lightens some of its richest dishes.

May 22, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Valley's premier Hungarian restaurant has undergone a name change: The rustic, homey Hortobagy now calls itself Laszlo's Cuisine. The cooking has changed too, and has become a more personal statement by Budapest-born chef-owner Laszlo Bossanyi.

The most immediately noticeable thing Bossanyi has done is translate the entire menu from Hungarian to English. No longer do you see tongue twisters like disznotoros (farmer's plate) or rantottvelo (breaded veal brains) on the menu. (To some of the regular Hungarian customers, this seems to be as shocking as the abandonment of Latin in the Mass.)

But do not think Laszlo's has lost any of its Central European charm. This is still a restaurant where you hear the lilt of Hungarian, Yiddish, Romanian and German, with English running far behind. The decor is still fussy and folksy: carved wooden wainscoting, red tablecloths, lots of Hungarian folk paintings. And the food, though lighter than before, is still a long way from the Pritikin diet.

I always try to start a meal here with a bowl of chilled cherry soup, about the only soup in the Valley garnished with whipped cream. It's thick and creamy, made with sour cherries imported from Hungary. Some people are put off by the Pepto-Bismol pink color but it tastes wonderful. It's a sort of adult milkshake with notes of sweet and sour.

The spicy, beet-red goulash, brought to the table in a miniature kettle, is a symphony of chunky beef, potatoes and paprika. The matzo ball soup (for the record, that would be grizgaluska leves in Hungarian) features a rather dense, eggy dumpling in a chicken broth with carrots and onions.

Chicken soup Ujhazi style is noodles, fava beans and an entire sliced chicken leg in rich chicken stock. Hungarian bouillabaisse is a fine soup of sea bass, noodles and vegetables.

Bossanyi has taken the delightful turoscsusza (fettuccine with cottage cheese, sour cream and crisp bacon) off the new menu, but the half a dozen starch courses remain formidable. In its place is duck liver risotto, a dish taken from the famous Gundel restaurant in Budapest. The rice is on the dry side for a risotto, but why quibble? This is a wonderful dish: minced duck liver, fresh peas and flavorful rice steeped in chicken broth.

The best pasta is the chewy chicken ravioli, poached in a light paprika sauce.

Don't miss the disarmingly simple chicken paprikas, stewed with onions, pepper, tomatoes, sour cream and paprika. I liked it better the old way, with the chicken fried in lard before stewing, but this lighter version makes a strong case for healthier Hungarian cooking.

If you insist on the numbingly heavy stuff, though, no problem. The farmer's plate consists of a pair of grilled sausages (the spicy pork sausage kolbasz and the fat liver sausage hurka), plus pork steak, red cabbage and home-fried potatoes. Even more excessive is the restaurant's wooden platter for two, a huge stack of breaded veal, pork, beef and liver.

If I were choosing red meat, I would order Esterhazy rostelyos from the specials board. (There is no English name, but if you want to try your hand at impressing the staff, say ess-tair-ha-zee rosh-teh-yohsh.) This is a grilled steak smothered with red peppers and onions, but the marinated meat has a slightly sour, pungent flavor and a long finish. On the side, try another dish from the board, tokfozelek, cooked squash in a dilled cream sauce.

If you think what's come before sounded rich, get a load of dessert. The incredible chestnut puree is a maze of light brown squiggles atop a sea of whipped cream. Seven-layer chestnut torte is a genoise cake layered with a rich chestnut mousse, topped off by a layer of pure chocolate.

From a wine list filled with oddments from Hungary's Lake Balaton region, the standout is a light, fruity Muskotaly ($16), which goes beautifully with most of these dishes. Also available by the glass or bottle is the famous Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji aszu, with richly floral overtones. It's said to have, ahem, medical value.

BE THERE

Laszlo's Cuisine; 11138 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Dinner for two, $25-$39. Suggested dishes: chilled cherry soup, $3.80; tokfozelek, $3.50; Esterhazy rostelyos, $11.95; chicken paprikas, $9.95. Beer and wine. Limited parking in rear lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. (818) 980-2273.

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