"It's not a real restaurant," I was told. What was it, then? Showley-Wrightson has been serving lunches for 4 1/2 years, and now it's serving dinners. Ordinarily that would fool me.
But I understand, I think. In Orange County, a real restaurant--an ambitious restaurant--is expected to look grander than this. The decor isn't much more than a few shelves of imported mustard and an old French butcher's signboard on the wall. The big visual thrill is to sit out front under an arcade and watch the timeless ebb and flow of cars in the El Rancho Market parking lot.
This simple style is probably explained in the self-description, "a source for fine food." Showley-Wrightson is not essentially a restaurant but a sort of gourmet one-stop. Apart from serving meals and selling baked and takeout goods, it has always done a substantial catering business in the Eastbluff area, a semi-isolated neighborhood between Jamboree Road and Upper Newport Bay. The catering aspect seems to be responsible for the style of cooking, which in its own way makes Showley-Wrightson something other than a "real restaurant."
Caterers are a breed apart from chefs. A restaurant can figure people will be content to take what's on the menu, but a caterer has to customize a special menu for a client who is likely to think that every item ought to make a splash. Caterers have to be virtuosos who can cook haute cuisine, American food and every conceivable ethnic style plus the latest fashions the client may have read about. They have to be able to calculate all this stuff to their customers' palates too, and to tame the peculiarities, especially when several ethnic styles are being served at once, but not tame them too far. It's a game of inches, and of bulging recipe files.
This background shows at Showley-Wrightson. Homemade stocks, cakes, pates, Italian breads. A dozen or so salads at lunch, and sometimes unusual oils and vinegars in the dressings. Good wines, reasonably priced (nobody checks wine labels at a reception, so caterers tend to have a very practical view of wine value). Above all, a virtual flaunting of virtuosity--a menu that changes entirely (well, almost entirely) for every meal, every day, and might offer Cajun, Italian, Indonesian and French dishes at the same time.
Sure enough, it's not a "real restaurant," but a sort of catered affair where you bring your own affair. To put it another way, it can be tricky to make a logically conceived meal out of selections available here, but Showley-Wrightson is great for grazing. So let's graze, bearing in mind that these are samples from an ever-changing menu.
Breads. Really very good, usually a mixture of fresh rolls, simple Tuscan-style white bread and smashing focaccia-- pizza dough topped with cooked onions and olive oil. Better not even try the focaccia if you expect to eat much of anything else.
Pates. I had a good chicken liver model, with brandy in it, I expect, and a terrine of light, crumbly pork with pistachios. Whole-seed mustard, cornichons (gherkins) and endive on the side, of course.
Salads. The ordinary dinner salad has pine nuts in it and a nice sharp vinaigrette. The dozen or so lunch "salads" may include pan-fried vegetables and potatoes with chili and cheese as well as more traditional ideas like romaine with marinated mushrooms, green onions and Romanian feta.
Pastas. There's always at least one, even if it's just an appetizer or a salad. I had a rather good semi-Italian, semi-Chinese dish of fettuccine with smoked chicken, red peppers, asparagus and zucchini in oil, a little less smoky and a bit hotter than I expected. If you want Parmesan on your pasta, by the way, they give you a covered bowl of it for the duration of the meal, better in every regard than merely getting to say "yes" or "no" to a waiter who ladles the Parmesan out for you.
Entrees. A very respectable bouillabaisse with tomato and saffron broth. A non-traditional Indonesian sate (not little chunks on a skewer but a flattened breast that tastes of charcoal) in one of the best peanut sauces I've ever had, garlicky, peppery and sweet. Lamb chops, daringly rare, in meat glaze. Cajun catfish, breaded with cornmeal and hot spices, served with a paste of crushed pecans in a mysterious beige sauce, a little sweet with a maple or fenugreek aroma. How Cajun it was I can't say, but it was fun to eat.
In fact, everything here seems to be fun to eat, though a couple of items are just a bit too catered-lunch for my taste, like potted shrimp or a sort of cake of layered cream cheese and pesto. Altogether, this is a valuable little non-real restaurant. Prices seem to hover in the $7.50-9.50 range at lunch and $9.50-$15 at dinner.
SHOWLEY-WRIGHTSON 2531 Eastbluff Drive, Newport Beach
Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, for dinner Tuesday-Friday. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted.