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European Cooking With True Brits

SOCAL STYLE: Restaurants

May 17, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Ventura Boulevard is fast becoming the proving ground for Southern California's young chefs, many of whom have honed their skills in establishments in downtown L.A. or on the Westside and now want to try their hand as restaurateurs in the Valley, where real estate is more affordable. Among the newer faces on the scene are Neil Rogers and Phillippe Gris, who opened Cafe Bizou in a tiny storefront in Sherman Oaks in 1995. (It soon moved down the street to grander quarters.) And Thomas Munoz, who helped launch Joe Joe's in Sherman Oaks as an offshoot of Joe's Restaurant in Venice two years ago and has recently bought out his mentor, Joe Miller.

Now comes Perroche, a promising new place in Studio City, just east of Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The two young owners, Grady Atkins and Stuart Barker, are Brits with solid restaurant backgrounds. Atkins, 27, has cooked in London, Boston and Hong Kong, and was last executive sous-chef at The Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel. Barker, 30, who runs the front of the house, was a chef, too, and has managed restaurants in London and Hong Kong.

The fledgling restaurateurs have made do with what is basically a small storefront, putting together the decor with very little money. They obviously couldn't afford to get rid of the red vinyl booths left over from a previous restaurant, but they've spruced up the boxy room with canvases of Provence's lavender fields, a wall painted in a harlequin pattern and a huge iron chandelier as big as a wagon wheel. And the tiny bar is decorated with mixed flowers spilling from a vase with "Perroche" spelled out in mosaic.

The restaurant is named after an herbed goat cheese from a farm in Kent, England, that sounds French and thus leads you to think Perroche is a French restaurant. It is and it isn't. The cuisine, if you call and ask, is described as French, Italian and British country cooking. This last bit might be a little alarming because British cuisine, however much it has improved in recent years, in this country still conjures up visions of the dreaded toad in the hole or smelly steak and kidney pie. Not to worry. The new British cooking incorporates appealing influences from France and Italy and is at last cause for celebration instead of trepidation.

As the economy here improves, far too many restaurateurs remain wary of trying something new or exciting, rarely taking the risk to open anything other than cookie-cutter concept restaurants. So it's especially heartening to find a small place like Perroche that's brave enough to adopt a unique point of view.

The menu is limited to a handful of appetizers and an equal number of main courses that change every two weeks or so. It's not overly ambitious, and wisely so. With a small staff, no restaurant could offer a yard-long list of dishes without compromising on ingredients or preparation. Narrowing the choices means Atkins can provide what's fresh and in season each night. And he's confident enough in his tastes to propose very personal dishes, not just the usual suspects you see elsewhere in the Valley.

Most nights he turns out extremely polished cooking. To start, there's a lovely parfait of velvety pink chicken livers reminiscent of Julia Child's classic chicken liver mousse, which has sadly fallen out of fashion. The parfait is ethereally light, kissed with a little cream and butter, and delicious. I also recommend the smoked trout appetizer, big flaky chunks of fish presented with boiled potatoes and a fluffy horseradish cream strewn with chives, as well as the potato and sweet garlic soup laced with sliced new potatoes, plump garlic cloves and the bracing green of parsley. Even the house salad is more sophisticated than most: baby cos (romaine) leaves tossed with a handful of capers, a touch of grated parmesan and snipped chives in a light olive oil. Perfect one night; not so perfect another. I'm less fond of the brandade, which is so delicate that you can scarcely taste the salt cod.

The al dente tagliatelle is impressive for its rich yet balanced cream sauce, studded one evening with chunks of Portobello mushrooms

and English peas and, on another, with artichoke hearts. Atkins does a nice job with fish, too. If you see them on the menu, try the Atlantic or wild salmon in an unusual coriander and lentil sauce. Or the thick, beautiful piece of halibut served on a bed of stewed leeks in a light Dijon mustard sauce. The best entree by far is the Kendor Farm roasted young chicken--as juicy and flavorful a chicken as you'll find anywhere. I could eat it once a week. Short loin of beef, chewy and tasty, is not your royalty cut but nicely grilled with deep charred stripes. Also good is the pork loin coated with mustard and bread crumbs, country cooking straight from the wilds of France.

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