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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

Simple American Food with Local Flavor

November 15, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

From San Vicente Boulevard, just where it curves to meet Wilshire Boulevard, the windows of Woodside beckon. Through them, you can glimpse the flurry of activity at the open kitchen, brick walls hung with huge landscapes and a still life in burnished fall colors, friends gathered around wooden tables. The 5-year-old restaurant seems a world away from the trendier restaurants of affluent Brentwood. Woodside is a real neighborhood hangout, the kind of place for a relaxed meal. Or a date. Or dinner with your mom.

Founded by Lawrence Casperson, who owns Kings Road Cafe in West Hollywood, the restaurant has a new hands-on owner, Noel Ampel, and an enthusiastic new chef, Dean James Max, who moved back to the West Coast, where he had worked at Savoy Brasserie in San Francisco before joining Mumbo Jumbo in Atlanta. While Ampel and Max have wisely kept the ambience and spirit of the original Woodside, the food has steadily improved. Most of the staff has stayed on, too, including one of my favorite waitresses in L.A., a woman who never forgets a face and who can recite the delights of every dish. (She also wears very cool ties.)

One recent night, as the waitress hands out the menus, we can't help but notice a wonderful aroma in the air. When she explains that the kitchen has just fried a batch of squid, we tell her to bring it on. Happily, the squid tastes as terrific as it smells. Fried in fresh oil to a light gold, it comes with a lime cilantro dipping sauce that's dosed with very sweet (too sweet, actually) rice vinegar. I prefer the squid plain.

There are many other appealing first courses as well: A big bowl of glossy black mussels in a seductive lemongrass broth that cuts the richness of the plump, tender mollusks. Caesar salad made with hearts of romaine, salt-cured anchovies and crunchy croutons. Blue crab salad topped with a flurry of "microgreens" and ringed by a curry vinaigrette. House-cured salmon draped over a crisp potato pancake spread with creme fra 5/8che. But my favorite appetizer is a special of pan-seared fresh sardines served with a carrot and nappa cabbage slaw. And Max's Caprese is one of the best in town, made with heirloom tomatoes, good milky mozzarella and a chiffonade of fragrant sweet basil.

Soups are much more than the token and boring nondairy vegetarian puree of the day. The restaurant serves interesting and delicious potages. I'm especially fond of the vichyssoise, more leeks than potatoes, swirled with cream and garnished with four feather-light puffs of fried dough.

Since the beginning, Woodside has offered comforting, ungimmicky American cuisine with flavors that complement each other naturally. Now that Max is making good use of organic produce from the 19-acre gardens at the Veterans Administration property across the street, the vegetables shine more than ever. One of the best dishes I've ever had here is the splendid veal porterhouse. Sauteed on the bone and faintly pink, it arrives in its juices with pearl onions and fresh English peas, the restaurant equivalent of great home cooking. Chicken breast, not always my first choice, is surprisingly juicy and flavorful. It's lavished with baby carrots, asparagus spears, green beans, fabulous red chard and tender herb-flecked spaetzle.

Occasionally, Max makes a misstep. Rack of lamb one night is overwhelmed by a strong reduction. Filet of beef is just as disappointing here as it is most places--too much like a hotel dining room dish made with flavorless, albeit tender, beef wearing a tangle of fried carrot threads. And the grilled stuffed pork chop (on Woodside's menu since Day One and a favorite with regulars) can sometimes be too salty from the prosciutto and fontina stuffing. Woodside's chicken pot pie is an odd version: chunks of chicken, carrots, potato, mushrooms--and eggplant--swimming in too much thin, cream-enriched gravy and topped not with a luscious pastry crust but a lid of puff pastry that just gets soggy.

Lunch is quieter than dinner, and the room is lovely in the autumn light. You can find some of the best bets from the dinner menu, such as fried calamari, along with a couple of pasta and risotto dishes. If you want a light lunch, there's the French butter pear salad--a heap of endive, rocket, even a little radicchio, with fat matchsticks of pears, nuggets of Gorgonzola and pecans roasted with spices. Chopped salad takes full advantage of the vegetables at the VA gardens. It's a mountain of romaine and other lettuces with marinated grilled peppers, zucchini, eggplant, haricots verts and whatever else the gardens offer that day, topped with crumbled bacon and feta and tossed in a sprightly Kalamata olive vinaigrette.

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