So Cal-Asian 

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002

After two years at the fashionably hip Linq, chef Andre Guerrero has paired up with Saddle Peak Lodge’s former general manager, Michael Lamb, to open Max Restaurant in the Valley. Max is just west of Fulton on Ventura, at the same address where JoeJoe‘s used to be. JoeJoe’s was Cal-French, bright and incredibly noisy, with framed illustrations from children‘s books on the wall. Now, you’d never recognize the space; it‘s been completely overhauled by designer Christopher Keith. Max is named for Guerrero’s youngest son, but everything else about it is thoroughly adult.

Max is also very taupe -- taupe being a cool, grayed brown, the brown of cappuccino, and mice. Taupe appears in many shades in Max, from a barely brown beige trim to deep mocha walls around the bar. Taupe is a quiet color, and it makes for a calm, even sedate room. The floors are now carpeted, and the ceiling has been cleverly baffled, presumably to vanquish the boomeranging noise that made eating at JoeJoe‘s such a trial.

Eating at Max is not a trial. The service is friendly and professional, if a bit overly attentive. On my first visit, six or seven different staff people stopped by to ask that dreaded and fairly meaningless question, the litany of the new restaurant: Are you okay? But they seemed to truly want to know -- and we were okay. The only thing that wasn’t okay was the fact that we were constantly interrupted with the question.

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Andre Guerrero comes from a big food-loving Filipino family in Glendale; he started out cooking at his family‘s Cafe Le Monde there. He moved on to the Biltmore, Alice’s Restaurant in Malibu and Brio in Tarzana, then opened his own restaurant, Duet, in Glendale. I have always been fond of Guerrero‘s food -- he likes big, clear flavors, and is one of the few Cal-Asian fusion chefs who doesn’t muddle the mix.

Guerrero really grasps the purpose of appetizers, which is to pique the taste buds, drum up interest and excitement for the meal. Thai lemongrass and coconut soup, with a bracing wallop of fish sauce and delicate little chicken and mushroom dumplings, really wakes up the senses -- I wouldn‘t mind it for an entree, either. The ahi towers appetizer is a slab of seared sushi-grade tuna on a crunchy-chewy risotto cake that’s then topped with wasabi-flavored green tobiko (tiny fish eggs), a compendium of small delights. Lumpia, the skinny deep-fried Filipino egg rolls stuffed with shrimp and pork and served with a sweet chile sauce, are everything we humans love -- salty, crisp, sweet, hot -- and they come with a refreshing, mildly astringent Asian slaw. Salads are less interesting, they can‘t help but be. The caesar is delicious, with its Parmesan ”crisps,“ and the ”carpaccio of beets“ with warm feta is just fine. But I don’t get the sour, almost pickled chunks of warm apple in the arugula, radicchio and romaine salad.

Once our taste buds are at full attention, out come the entrees. The ”trio of pork“ is one of the more satisfying entrees I‘ve encountered in recent years. The three different preparations are (1) tender, juicy hunks of grilled garlic pork on crunchy, lightly sauteed pea sprouts, (2) the more toothsome, succulent bacon-wrapped tenderloin on mushrooms, and (3) the dreamiest, most slippery and rich braised pork belly (fresh bacon) on a bed of nubbly little lentils -- all of it so smart and precisely prepared.

Nothing else really measures up to the pork trio for sheer interest, although my second favorite entree is the Indian coriander-masala-crusted cod that comes with pakora, or chickpea-battered vegetable fritters, and lemon-cashew basmati rice -- again, Guerrero amps the flavors and nails the textures. The skewered white-meat ”Hawkers chicken“ was tasty, with a sweetsalty marinade, but dry both times I ordered it. That’s what comes of trying to class up what‘s essentially street food; dark meat would’ve retained more moisture. But the wok-sauteed filet mignon with Chinese steak sauce and asparagus and a potato-mushroom concoction is a thoroughly successful take on a standard meat ‘n’ potatoes entree, and the half-chicken, boneless, with spinach and mashed potatoes, is huge with flavor (thanks to preserved lemon) and really doesn‘t need those gratuitous scoops of black-olive tapenade.

Dessert chef Jan Purdy may make her Italian plum buckle too dry and sweet, but her humble-sounding baked Asian pear is a miracle. Served with pear and mascarpone sorbets, it’s a study of that hybrid fruit‘s virtues: a delicate, mild flavor, and a sexy, slippery, but ever so slightly grainy texture.

Linq’s clientele may find Max a bit grown up, even staid, but it may be just the place to take their parents out for dinner. Max is also a good central meeting place between points east (Monrovia, Pasadena, Glendale) and points west (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pac Pal). Bear Max in mind. It‘s good to have Guerrero and friends back in the Valley.

13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-2915. Open weekdays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch. Entrees $14.50--$24. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V.

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