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NOTHING COMPARES TO LEILA'S; STOREFRONT CAFE BRINGS IMAGINATIVE COOKING TO CONEJO.

Byline: Larry Lipson Restaurant Critic

The new Leila's in Oak Park brings a breath of fresh culinary air to residents in the Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura area.

A small, 40-seat storefront cafe in a new shopping mall, Leila's brings imaginative cooking to the 'burbs, creating and presenting dishes unlike those of any other restaurant in the entire San Fernando, Conejo and Simi valleys.

Peyman Afshar sold his Tribeca restaurant in Portland, Ore., allowing him to open Leila's, named after his 4-year-old daughter.

He convinced his Tribeca chef, Sebastian Carosi, and even one of his waiters to accompany him to the suburbs of la-la land where the sophisticated, traveled dwellers of Oak Park, North Ranch and other affluent neighborhoods would, hopefully, appreciate the trio's creative culinary and service efforts even more than those Portland rubes did.

Handsome, custom-hewn natural wooden furniture that includes a raised community table used for waiting customers gives the dining room a fresh and inviting look.

A completely open kitchen brings the whole cooking involvement to within the closest possible proximity to the restaurant's dining clientele.

And that clientele had, for the most part, better be fruit fanciers and owners of adventurous palates.

Leila's kitchen, it appears, loves to flavor dishes other than desserts with fruit. And it works.

On the current menu - it's changed every few weeks - pomegranate and orange are effectively used in a beef satay recipe ($7) that's accompanied by a tiny, well-seasoned portion of shiitake mushrooms and soba noodles.

Then, from the salad opportunities, small, dried apricots stuffed with goat cheese and a strawberry vinaigrette dressing enhance the Scarborough Farm greens plate ($5).

Strawberries show up in a pan-seared king salmon offering ($18), lemon is utilized in a roasted half-chicken dish ($14) and the house halibut creation ($16) comes with a tropical fruit salad.

But the signature dish here may end up being the grilled Hawaiian ono ocean-fare entree ($17). It's a gratifying - though I would have preferred it a tad undercooked - piece of fish served on peppery caramelized pineapple with a piquant, vinegared sauce flavored with tangerine and a dried Hawaiian plum called li hing moi.

So much for fruit.

You'll find that coffee at Leila's has entirely new meaning.

It's used to flavor beef.

Who would have thought that Kona coffee would make a New York steak taste so good?

Leila's sliced Kona steak ($19) not only has remarkably enjoyable taste and texture by itself, its accompaniments - a zingy ginger-enhanced demi-glace, lovely purple Peruvian mashed potatoes and a delicious dollop of wilted spinach - add to its potential stardom.

And for those who like the kind of hearty, long-cooked beef recipe that hardly anyone at home finds time to do anymore, one of the most popular items here is chef Carosi's six-hour braised beef ($12) flavored with espresso coffee and Chianti wine.

The rich-tasting torn (or shredded) braised beef arrives on thick, curly cavatappi pasta and is decorated with crispy shallots. Very nice.

For starters, I like the stuffed pasilla chile ($7) served with a velvety mole sauce. Inside the pepper you're likely to discover goat cheese, rock shrimp, rice, corn and chorizo sausage.

Another impressive beginning comes via Leila's warm brie cheese plate ($7) delivered with grilled bread, roasted garlic and a pasty dark daub of sun-dried tomato.

Mashed potatoes are favored here. They're paired with the salmon, the steak and a passable rendition of crawfish cakes ($15).

Yukon mashed potatoes also show up, these as a bed for another hearty, homey effort of slow-roasted, balsamic-flavored lamb shank ($16), a robust and satisfying dinner plate adorned with candied garlic and grilled asparagus.

If you still have room for dessert, go for the espresso coffee-infused, ice-cream profiteroles ($6) swathed in caramel and hot fudge.

And yes, surprise, surprise, you'll actually find some intriguing fruity things on Leila's short dessert list.

THE FACTS

The restaurant: Leila's.

Where: 752 Lindero Canyon Road, Oak Park.

When: Open for dinner only from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Recommended items: Blistered pasilla chile, pomegranate and orange beef satay, oven-warm baby brie, hearts of romaine, six-hour braised beef, slow-roasted balsamic lamb shank, sesame and coriander-flavored Hawaiian ono, Kona coffee grilled New York steak, double espresso profiterole.

How much: Starters from $5 to $8, entrees from $10 to $19, desserts $6 each. Wine and beer. AE, MC, V.

Wine list: Thoughtful, one-page compilation of around 50 labels, only six at $20 and under, but 29 at $30 and under. Top priced are Ferrari-Carano's '95 cabernet and Cakebread's '96 merlot at $53 each. Fourteen offerings by the glass are $4 to $7. Look for a handful of well-chosen Oregon wines, too. Numerous bottles are displayed standing up, though. Corkage: $7.

Reservations: Taken for parties of six or larger. Call (818) 707-6939.

Our rating: Four stars for food; Three stars for service; Three stars for wine.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Chef Sebastian Carosi, left, followed owner Peyman Afshar south from Portland, Ore., when the latter opened Leila's in Oak Park.

Michael Owen Baker/Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Restaurant Review
Date:Jul 9, 1999
Words:850
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