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A Rising Star

March 04, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

In the Studio City storefront recently vacated by that gem of a neighborhood restaurant, Perroche, Thomas Munoz, late of Joe Joe's in Sherman Oaks, has launched Emmanuel. Though it's hard to spot at night among the neon clutter of Ventura Boulevard, Emmanuel An American Bistro is worth seeking out for its homey, modestly priced bistro fare. Valley restaurants, like all suburban restaurants, have a tough time of it. The lower the prices, the better the chance of survival, as the success of Cafe Bizou, Joe Joe's and Chez Paul's must signal to every fledgling restaurateur.

To keep the tab down, though, means finding a low-rent space, making do with a smaller staff, having the chef/owner cook most of the shifts and spending little on decor and promotion. With those limitations, even a dedicated chef will most likely end up with a neighborhood place rather than a dining destination. That's probably just fine with everybody in the neighborhood, which includes, of course, everyone who works at the nearby studios.

Munoz is cooking dinner every night and, as of a few weeks ago, late breakfast and lunch, too. His sensibility is much like that of Joe Miller's of Joe's Restaurant, the Venice establishment where Munoz worked before Joe Joe's. His cooking is in the saucy California-French vein, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and an appealing quality-to-price ratio. Like Joe's and Joe Joe's, Emmanuel offers two four-course prix fixe menus (here at $30 and $38) in addition to the a la carte menu. Any of the prix fixe dishes can also be ordered a la carte.

Diners who go the fixed-menu route have two choices for each course, except dessert. The $30 option, for example, starts with either a heap of greens garnished with crisp bacon strips and soft nuggets of goat cheese or a less interesting mixed green salad with jicama and red onions. Soup du jour might be a soul-soothing potato and roasted-garlic soup smoothed with a touch of cream, or something as banal as a carrot-ginger puree. Instead of soup, you could get deftly cooked capellini in a biting tomato-red pepper sauce that gives these delicate noodles some character.

As an entree, choose between a beautiful piece of fresh salmon--slow-roasted to an almost custard-like consistency--or thinly sliced roast beef set on mashed potatoes with artichokes and a sharp balsamic vinegar sauce. Munoz, unfortunately, tends to be heavy-handed with the vinegar. The beef is delicious, and the mashed potatoes have a fine creamy texture, but the vinegar takes this dish out of the running for red--or any other--wines.

The more expensive menu has pricier ingredients, such as foie gras, scallops and venison. I've never much cared for salmon tartare, but Munoz mixes it with diced raw tuna, adds sliced Japanese cukes for crunch and tosses it all in a finely nuanced ginger dressing. Grilled scallops are set off by bacon, watercress and sliced ripe mango, to good effect. And his Chilean sea bass is as compelling as Patagonian tooth fish gets, crisped on the top, set down on garnet roasted beets and green beans in a light nage, or broth.

A la carte entrees are all less than $20 and generous in portion, making Emmanuel inexpensive enough for a weekday supper. Among the first courses, try the round wild mushroom ravioli in a splash of chervil broth. It's modeled after the flying-saucer-shaped ones Joe Miller has been turning out for years. Or take the watercress salad embellished with beets, pears and hazelnuts. For entrees, the rib-eye is a great bet, and well-matched with a rich gratin of potatoes laced with the French blue cheese Fourme d'Ambert.

Desserts aren't as strong as the rest of the menu. Creme brulee tends to come out grainy, as if it has been thickened. Also missing is that seductive contrast between the cool, rich (relatively unsweetened) creme and the crackling burnt-sugar crust. The chocolate souffle is more a molten cake than a souffle. Baked to order, that, or the individual lemon tart, is probably the best choice.

The menu has hardly changed since Emmanuel opened a few months ago, although Munoz offers at least one special most nights, with more on the weekends. He is either playing it safe or has to develop a larger repertoire of more personal dishes.

Still, for these prices, Emmanuel is a good deal. Munoz and his staff are trying hard to give everyone a quality experience. Small touches count, like the complimentary amuse-gueule. Waiters are welcoming and helpful, acting as maitre d' and manager rolled into one. If you care about wine, you can ask for the larger wine glasses, and the waiter will likely remember that you like drinking from those the next time you come.

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