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Continental Drift

photo by Christine Haberstock
THE VALLEY HAS ALWAYS MOVED AT ITS own pace. For years, while the Los Angeles restaurant world exploded with innovation -- celebrity chefs, hybrid menus, a new focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients -- the high-end restaurants in the San Fernando Valley remained staunchly "Continental." The sole was stuffed, the sauces were creamy, and for years after the first L.A. Starbucks, cappuccino was still an after-dinner drink with a snort of brandy and a head of whipped cream. Change has been slow, but it has been steady, until today a number of topnotch restaurants can be found in the 818 area code.

Over the years, I've watched with interest the evolution of a unique Valley-style restaurant, a kind of compromise between culinary conservatism and contemporary tastes, restaurants that honor both the Valley's age-old love of bargains and big portions and new ideas about food presentation. Midrange in price, with modest décor and friendly staff, these indigenous Valley institutions include Out Take Café and Cafe Bizou, Joe Joe's and Paul's Cafe. Almost all offer a $1 soup or salad with any entrée, and include on their menus what must rank as the Valley's favorite entrée -- crispy whitefish.

It seemed as if there couldn't be enough of these modest places. They opened up sometimes within tomato-throwing distance of each other without putting a dent in each other's business. So when some of the Cafe Bizou - Paul's Cafe crew teamed up with some veteran Out Takers, the results seemed guaranteed.

Asiatique Bistro, in Studio City, just a few blocks west of Out Take, is the offspring of this union, and time will tell how it matures. At present it is both new and listless. Although all these restaurants have little décor to speak of, this room itself is a throwback to the '70s, with philodendron being trained up trellises (threaded with silk ivy until the real plants take over). The menu will not be unfamiliar to the Bizou/Paul's initiates: the usual entrées, including pork loin, duck, steak, rack of lamb and (of course) crispy whitefish. As the restaurant's name would suggest, most entrées have at least a whiff of Asia in the prep -- but never so much of a whiff as to stray from the tried and true. To Out Take regulars, the bill of fare is downright boring.

Still, I had good food at Asiatique. The red-grapefruit - fennel salad on baby spinach -- such a good idea -- has a fine juicy citrus dressing, but only the tiniest amount of limp shaved fennel -- it's not white truffle, for heaven's sake. Crab cakes are crisp enough on the outside, mushy within, which delighted others at my table, but I prefer mine springy with chunks of crabmeat. If you didn't read the menu, the lobster-and-spinach crepes, with long skinny carrot strips and leeks, are such a mélange as to be unrecognizable ("What are we eating again?" asked a friend), but the flavors were actually great.

Entrées tend to the traditional square meal: protein, vegetables and starch. Rack of lamb is truly tender and tasty. The roast chicken breast is well-seasoned and moist, but its sun-dried fruit sauce has a telltale rankness of too many conflicting flavors. A traditional Chinese striped sea bass comes with arugula and a light but tasty mystery sauce (it was said to be salmon-caviar sauce and may well have been). In short, the basic ingredients were good, but the attempts to gild them were just that.

The service was full of glitches: food brought to the wrong table, and to the right table but the wrong customer; requested silverware forgotten; long lapses between waiter sightings.

Lunch made the glitches at dinner seem symptomatic of larger problems. Asian chicken salad had a hoisin so bland it was offensive, and the scallop-and-orange salad was similarly wan, with tiny, overfishy scallops. The soup was a bland vegetable purée that made us worry where leftovers went -- even the buck price tag didn't redeem it. Grilled salmon was a limp, pale slab: not good. A shrimp stir-fry might've been more appetizing had the shrimp been de-veined. Perhaps the cook wasn't in. A perfect rice pudding and a chocolate mousse gratuitously flavored with peach did little to mitigate our disappointment.

Care and passion, those two invisible yet vital components in any successful restaurant, have not yet been added to this enterprise, which feels like somebody's investment opportunity and nobody's pet project.

 

12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 761-7505. Open Tues. - Sun. for dinner, Tues. - Fri. for lunch. Entrées $10.95 - $15.95. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, DC, MC, V.


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