Reservations recommended at Encino Grill, or you'll have to wait for the delectable lamb
It was Friday night, the joint was jumping, and I had neglected to make reservations. (To be honest, stubbornly refused was more like it.) The result of this inattention to Encino Garden Grill's stealth popularity was a 45-minute wait in the lounge, which turned out to be both the catalyst for some very pleasant conversation with affable strangers and an opportunity to peruse the wine list.
The list is a telling indicator of Encino's attitude. Headed "20 @ $20," it consists of, you guessed it, 20 wines, and the fact that they're all priced equally, despite modest variations in retail cost, removes the pressure of dollar-based snobbery. These are not fancy wines, but they are very well-selected, offering stylistic choices that range from South Africa's crisp and citrus-melon-flavored Sincerely sauvignon blanc to Australia's burnished-leather and pepper-plum rich SHW shiraz/sangiovese, with side trips to California, France, Italy, and Argentina along the way. A uniform $6 per glass tab encourages further exploration.
The menu isn't as gently priced, but since my previous experiences had been at lunch, I was genuinely surprised at the breadth of the offerings. The expectation was that proprietor Daniel Brooks' menu would reflect his former partnership in now-defunct Luna Blue. Italian undertones do linger, but the French chef of four months, coming from Lyon by way of Mexican beach resorts and L'Etoile, seems to have exercised a potent influence as well, and not just in the escargot and paté appetizers.
Though perhaps somewhat overdressed, the scallop carpaccio with chipotle vinaigrette was a tap dance of flavors, made all the more interesting texturally by crunchy sunflower seeds. A plate of duck breast smoked over jasmine tea and apple wood was fascinating in its individual parts - the duck subtly perfumed, the accompanying salad in a Parmesan super-tuile adequately fresh and varied enough to stand up to a raspberry chipotle vinaigrette - but odd in its juxtapositions.
The tender, five-spice calamari with a spicy garlic dipping sauce managed to rise above the marinara presentation that has become a cliché, but having been introduced earlier to the dipping sauce with the fried wonton skins - which ring a clever change on chips and salsa - we were disappointed to see it, or a kissin' cousin, again. An intermezzo house salad with a no-holds-barred jalapeño ranch dressing was right on the edge of too much of a good thing. Adding black pepper is a mistake.
We sent back an entrée order of phyllo-wrapped pork tenderloin for reheating, but that was the only obvious misstep of the evening. The tenderloin had been substituted for a pork chop that was no longer available, and you should hope this happens to you. Moist, tender, and more flavorful than lean-bred pork often is these days, the pastry-wrapped cylinders were both handsome and toothsome. Equal care had been lavished on the accompanying chard, carrot, and sweet-potato sides.
And now for the real rave: New Zealand lamb chops coated with bread crumbs, sesame seeds, and Dijon mustard. They were sensational. We gnawed them to the bone and beyond, and could have eaten more without a whimper. They were spectacular with the SHW and the Moroccan couscous, pineapple chutney, red bell pepper, and onion. The combination is a little busy (and a goat-cheese sauce, if present, was overwhelmed), but since the components are all so good, we'll forgive the confusion just this once. Plate presentation is generally ambitious and needs only a little editing to be truly top-notch.
In no hurry to leave (diners at the two large tables that had preceded us obviously felt the same way), we settled back for dessert and coffee. The reed and keyboard duo that had entertained at just the right decibel level all evening had left, but a terrific mother-in-law-made pineapple upside-down cake compensated nicely. The cajeta-topped cheesecake that followed was less interesting, but a sip or two of Strega Sambuco capped the evening with class. Next time I'll make reservations, though who knows who or what we might miss in the lounge. It's a tough call. •