Editor’s note: Restaurant critic Merrill Shindler returns with his annual recap of the region’s best eats. In the days ahead, he’ll cover French, Lebanese, brunch and seafood. Today, it’s the best Italian food. Look for all of his stories here: www.dailynews.com/author/merrill-shindler
It’s been nearly three years since Covid changed the way we did … everything! We limited in-person gatherings, discovered the questionable pleasures of binging on Hulu, Netflix and HBO Max. And we drenched ourselves in Purell. That’s pretty much the way we lived most of 2020 and all 2021.
But not so much this year. Slowly, bravely life has returned to something akin to normal. And so has our relationship to restaurant dining.
Previously, I’ve written about the best takeout, which evolved into the best outdoor dining as we slowly began to emerge from our hidey-holes. But now, fully vaccinated and completely boosted, with a KN95 mask in a convenient pocket, we’ve begun, boldly, to return to indoor dining – and to the places that didn’t make the full transition from the dining room to takeout and then street-side seating. (I’m sorry, but a properly cooked filet, served in a Styrofoam box, never quite cut it!)
And so, now that we’re celebrating the glorious rebirth of indoor dining, it’s time to highlight the restaurants I’m looking forward to going to for birthdays and anniversaries, for graduations and memorials, and for holiday get-togethers.
This is the time to leave the Nikes at home, ditch the Levi’s and actually dress like what a grownup is supposed to dress like. Joggers are fine for In-N-Out, but at these restaurants I want to look respectable. I may even wear a sports jacket—if the moths have left me anything worth putting on.
Best Italian food
The Oaks at Lakeside
16817 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 747-217-4002, www.theoaksatlakeside.com
The Oaks at Lakeside is a sanctuary from the world, a haven of respite, a nearly Zen experience. I wonder if there are parties who come for lunch—and wind up staying for dinner. Once you’re seated by the lake, the 24/7 worries of CNN seem to fade like the morning mists. If there were a string quartet playing in one corner, it would fit just right. (There is live music. But the soundtrack is more likely to feature The Beatles than Bach and Beethoven.)
These days, The Oaks at Lakeside is managed by veteran GM Donato Ricci, who has a quarter-century in the restaurant business to his credit. His executive chef is Neno Mladenovic, who spent 32 years cooking Italian for an endless array of celebrities at the legendary Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. For three decades, his pastas were devoured by the makers and shakers of Hollywood. And now, at The Oaks at Lakeside, he’s making them for the rest of us. We should be duly honored.
The setting is classic, and decidedly old school, the trees overhead both cooling the space, and perfuming it with green sweetness. At The Oaks, life is good. And so is the food – even if the roots of the cooking have moved from one side of the world to the other. And sometimes, not all that much.
Show up for brunch on weekends, for instance, and the menu is less Italian than it is at dinner. There’s an Italian omelet of sausage, mozzarella and marinara sauce. But it’s served with a choice of hash browns or potatoes O’Brien. And there are lemon ricotta pancakes; Ricotta is an Italian cheese after all. There’s a fine burrata salad. Eggs Florentine as well. But otherwise, this is a brunch of huevos rancheros, bagels & lox, buttermilk pancakes and a house burger—all the usual suspects.
Come for dinner, and the cooking flips from one continent to another. The appetizers run to steamed clams, mozzarella doused in marinara, fried calamari and shrimp scampi. The burrata salad – a wonderful dish, and an easy addiction – reappears, before the menu moves to the chicken Milanese and chicken marsala, the two veal scaloppinis, the lobster ravioli and homemade lasagna.
There are dots next to about a third of the dishes, designating them as “crowd favorites” – a curious notion, for it suggests that the dotless dishes are without friends, and only on the menu out of a sense of pity.
Frankly, I like them all – the dotted chopped salad as much as the undotted iceberg wedge, the dotted chicken parmesan as much as the undotted hunter’s chicken (with onions, mushrooms and bell peppers in marinara), the dotted grilled portobello mushrooms as much as the undotted sautéed whitefish.
A meal here makes me as happy as any Italian feast this side of the Atlantic.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]
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