Francine and Jaime Alba met on a movie set, so it's delicious that their latest restaurant looks like one--say, an Italian village set at the Disney Studios, if such a thing exists. It definitely isn't named for some French Impressionist painter. "Sisley" is just a cute spelling of Sicily, Francine's family background.
The property takes up the entire first floor of a Sherman Oaks high-rise. This space has been Anna's and more recently, the ill-fated Balducci's, but I predict a longer run for Sisley. This is the Albas' third Sisley, and for starters, they've made the room quite pleasant. My guests were immediately struck by the soft lighting and the great window views from nearly every table. There's lots of space between tables and you can have an actual conversation here, even when the restaurant is full.
Nice design may bring customers in once, but it takes a good kitchen to bring them back. Sisley's executive chef is the very accomplished Michael Rosen, formerly chef de cuisine at Maple Drive. His gargantuan menu includes not only familiar Italian comfort foods but more fashionable dishes such as champagne risotto, lamb shanks and gnocchi.
I'm still a fan of two starters that I first tasted at Sisley #2, in the Valencia Town Center. One is a light, Japanese-inspired tuna tartare garnished with olive oil, coarse salt, capers and olives. The other, the mundane-sounding broccoli Palermo, is broccoli sauteed with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes until somewhere between crunchy and tender.
I'm less thrilled with Sisley's take on bruschetta. It starts out with a plate of crisp, herbed focaccia bread; so far, so good. But the topping of diced Roma tomatoes with basil and a balsamic vinaigrette is sitting in a heap in the middle of the plate. The two components are tasty but putting them together is cumbersome.
Sisley's pizzas are bready and filling, generally with thick toppings. My two favorite are barbecued chicken (red onions, cilantro and a nice barbecue sauce with plenty of chicken breast) and the Brooklyn, basically a sausage and pepperoni pizza jazzed up with onions, roasted peppers and basil. The menu also has a special section of large, thin-crusted pizzas.
At lunch, the restaurant sells lots of salads and even more Italian sandwiches (panini). The Gorgonzola salad is a pungent mixture of romaine, mushrooms, sliced onions and Roma tomato with a handful of walnuts and exactly the right amount of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. One top-notch panino is Papa John's meatballs, filled with light, flavorful meatballs and rich marinara sauce.
Pastas are cooked al dente and served in monstrous portions. The best one might be the pillow-soft gnocchi, dressed with sage butter and pesto. The fettuccine carbonara comes with the traditional huge hunks of Italian bacon, coddled eggs, Parmesan, green onions and cream.
Among the main dishes, I'd gladly return for the roasted chicken or the meaty lamb shanks. The chicken is cooked to a lusty char over an open flame, and the meat is tender and juicy. The lamb shanks (two to an order), braised in a green peppercorn sauce, are meltingly tender and served with hearty garlic-mashed potatoes.
Sisley also excels with desserts, which Chef Rosen makes on the premises. Three of the best are a creamy pumpkin cheesecake, a tart lemon meringue pie and a meltingly fudgy chocolate crinkle cookie.
Sisley, 15300 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. Dinner for two, $25-$40. Suggested dishes: tuna tartare, $7.90; Gorgonzola salad, $7.55; Papa John's meatball panino, $7.55; gnocchi, $9.95; lamb shanks, $14.85. Full bar. Valet parking in structure. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. (818) 905-4444.