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RESTAURANTS

September 06, 1985|RUTH REICHL

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: A new Irvine Ranch Market opened this summer in the Atrium Court of Newport Beach's Fashion Island (714/760-1100) and it may be an early clue to a new direction for supermarkets. For this emporium is more than a store--it is a sort of vast food fantasy that offers patrons an opportunity to go grazing for groceries. You enter the pink neo-modern structure and discover yourself walking across tiled marble floors to tables clustered around a fountain, airly overlooked by an atrium and surrounded by the most astonishing collection of food stalls.

Hungry customers stroll around, supping while they shop. Although the emphasis is on quick consumption, this is not your run-of-the-mill fast food. The hot dogs are only 24% fat and wrapped in gold. The popcorn is gourmet. Greens are groomed at the salad bar, coffee dispensed from the espresso stand and wines are sold by the glass. The pastries come from Max au Triangle, the ice cream is handmade at Eiger. There are noodles and dumplings from the Mandarette, soft tacos from La Salsa, focaccia from Il Fornaio. Sweet young women walk around offering to fetch beer and Perrier for people too tired to make the trip.

But despite the high quality of all the edibles, by the time you've fought for your food, juggled your plastic forks and looked around for someone to clean off a table, you might as well be eating at the circus. This is not a place to dine--it's a high-class amusement park whose theme happens to be food.

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