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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

French Versatility

Signature Grill blends Parisian flair with eclectic array of regional dishes.

October 01, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What is that on top of my fish?" asked the surprised Parisian, suspiciously eyeing his entree at Signature Grill.

"Portabello mushrooms," I explained to my friend. Only then did it occur to me that these mushrooms look rather strange when cut into long, thick slices.

Up to that point, my friend had been quite comfortable with the fast pace and noisy patio seating we had encountered at this striking new restaurant. But explaining the finer points of California cuisine to someone who has never experienced a dish such as swordfish with pineapple, portabello mushrooms and herbal curry sauce can be a daunting task.

Ironically, Signature Grill's chef, Eli Tordjman, is a Frenchman who began his career in Paris. Because of that, there are a few fairly classic French dishes on the restaurant's eclectic menu, such as a rustic lamb shank with couscous, a delicious steak au poivre and a textbook chocolate souffle that has to be ordered at the same time as the entrees.

Not that you'd ever mistake this stretch of Ventura for the Boulevard St. Michel. The most sought-after tables at Signature Grill are on the outdoor patio, where you sit around a torch-like fire. Or try the bright, modern dining room, where you'll watch the chefs do their thing in a snazzy display kitchen.

Wherever you sit, you're bound to get a crash course in California cuisine. Signature Grill has one of the most eclectic menus on the Valley side of Mulholland Drive, though it doesn't all work. I do like the Signature Caesar, even if a purist would grumble because the endives and radicchio get in the way of the romaine. Still, the mix of greens is appealing and the dressing assertive.

A watercress salad mixes romaine with this tangy, mildly bitter green, plus Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and Dijon mustard vinaigrette. It's a tasty salad, but also one that will fill you in a hurry. This is one of the few restaurants that gives you three, rather than two, crab cakes to an order. They're firmly packed with a nice ocean tang. My favorite appetizer is sauteed mushrooms and artichokes in a rich garlic and white wine butter sauce.

The entrees are a different matter. This being Sherman Oaks, pasta is inevitable, but not necessarily Italian pasta. A palatable if untraditional yakisoba is made with spaghetti instead of buckwheat flour noodles with prawns, Asian greens, fresh ginger and a powerful hit of soy sauce.

Spaghetti Acropolis is a mushy mix of pasta, lamb stew, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, pine nuts and a dark rosemary brown sauce. Whew! I told you this place was eclectic.

Salmon Osaka is a nice fried fish in a seaweed tempura batter, served with roasted eggplant and Japanese rice. The appealing sea bass Bogart is supposed to recall the movie "Casablanca," I guess because it includes green olives, roasted bell peppers and Moroccan couscous.

I didn't care for the grilled chicken saltimbocca, because the thick chicken cutlets were topped with little prosciutto and too much cloying Marsala wine sauce. The best dish the restaurant serves might be filet au poivre, a tender filet mignon with mashed potatoes, asparagus and a peppercorn demi-glace.

Things settle down at dessert. That chocolate souffle isn't as light as the one at your favorite Paris brasserie, but it's not heavy either, and little pots of good chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream dress it up.

The dessert called Lady Astor is a thick Bavarian cream in a Florentine cookie. Signature Grill also does one of the Valley's best profiteroles, pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and served with more of that good chocolate sauce. Now there's a signature for you.

BE THERE

Signature Grill, 14755 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. All major cards. Suggested dishes: Signature Caesar, $6.50; salmon Osaka, $15.95; filet au poivre, $18.95; chocolate souffle, $6.50. Call (818) 788-5200.

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