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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

A Bit Bucolic : Caribou's cuisine is uneven, but its woodsy setting delights.

June 12, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sportsmen's Lodge is that hotel at Coldwater Canyon and Ventura boulevards, the one designed like a hunting lodge (stone pillars, Craftsman lamps that look as if they were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) with charming landscaping--a waterfall, duck pond and foot bridges. Now that summer is almost upon us, nowhere in this part of the Valley provides as pleasant an alfresco dining experience as its restaurant, Caribou.

This place is not as rough-hewn as Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas; after all, we're in Studio City. During Sunday brunch (the best time to eat here), easy-listening music plays loudly on the indoor sound system, rather a clash with the woodsy setting.

When it's cool enough, sit outside, and angle for a table shaded by a canopy of greenery. Try to overlook the Disneyesque log railings and you'll find it one of the prettiest settings anywhere.

The kitchen is not nearly as delightful. Caribou is between executive chefs at the moment and the cooking is inconsistent. Take the appetizer of big portabello mushrooms, grilled and served like a sliced-up steak (though cold, in a a creamy basil vinaigrette on a bed of greens). Nice idea, but their texture is strangely flaccid.

The best salad is the one topped with pungent, full-flavored Maytag blue cheese. There are pizzas, too, such as the thin-crust California pizza: shrimp, diced chicken and a pale yellow blanket of processed cheeses. It's the sort of comfort food you'd eat at a Boy Scout picnic, and I enjoyed it for all the gooey cheese.

In keeping with the hunting lodge theme, several of the entrees are game. There's a tough mesquite-grilled buffalo steak wrapped in Sonoma bacon and stuffed with poblano chiles. The roasted venison is farm-raised and won't remind you of anything obtained in the wild, but it's worth a try. You get a mammoth portion marinated in olive oil, garlic, vodka and juniper berries. I quite liked it, but not the unappealing canned pear garnish.

Cedar-planked salmon is a hefty chunk of fish with a nice, woodsy flavor. The best steak is probably a center cut New York rubbed with herbs and garlic. Among the homemade desserts, be aware that the magnificent-looking strawberry shortcake, a tower of biscuits shaped like a Mesoamerican ziggurat, wastes all those delicious fresh strawberries by layering them into a stiff, artificial-tasting topping.

The Sunday champagne brunch is an altogether different matter. This is a big-time brunch spread, with everything from a smoked fish table to a build-it-yourself omelet bar. I wish they wouldn't keep the bagels in the steam table, but let one cool and then top it with some delicious herbed cream cheese, cooked cedar-smoked salmon or top-quality lox.

The springy waffles and good challah French toast are made fresh, ready to be topped with strawberries, blueberries, cinnamon apples, pecans and real maple syrup.

Carnivores should head over to the carving and entree station for sliced steak (with fresh mushroom or Bearnaise sauce), a nicely smoky maple-glazed ham, baked lemon herb chicken, oven-roasted turkey (with a giblet gravy and a tangy orange-cranberry compote) and the inevitable roast baron of beef. The latter is rather tough and not as good as the other choices.

Kids will love the ice cream bar, which features cookie crumbs, chopped nuts, five sauces and, for once, real whipped cream. The house champagne is Mission Blanc de Blancs, not bad. A flute or two will enhance the illusion that you have actually escaped the city, at least until the check arrives.

BE THERE

Caribou at Sportsmen's Lodge, 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri., dinner 5-9:30 p.m. nightly. Dinner for two, $48-$72. Full bar. Valet or lot parking. All major cards. (818) 984-0202.

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