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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Jury's In At Santa Ana's American Court House

June 06, 1986

The Old American Court House is a visual stunner. It's a re-creation of a 19th-Century courthouse, complete with cupola and decorated with antique prints and soothing post-Colonial furniture.

The restaurant belongs to the movement, of which the Cajun rage is only a part, to return to American cuisine.

It says something about what's going on here: to wit (that's courthouse talk), several things at once.

On one hand, there is such indubitably American stuff as peach cobbler, barbecued ribs and Cajun food. Then there is stuff that sounds as though it might be traditional, being based on favorite American ingredients, such as duck with black cider sauce or maybe lobster Savannah (which contains cilantro). Then there are dishes flagrantly of European origin that can be considered American by virtue of the melting pot, such as chicken breast with truffle sauce. Finally, there are dishes, such as salmon tournedos with candied orchids, that could have come from the moon.

In other words, this is a remarkably ambitious restaurant--or, I should say, two restaurants. Upstairs is the Supreme Court (fancier, with strolling violin and guitar duo); downstairs is the Library (a little less grand). Each has a different menu. The menus are rather large, too, but I have done my best to scratch the surface.

The biggest dose of American tradition comes at lunch in the Library, when every week a different State of the Union is represented by a menu of regional dishes. This was where I had the soft-shell crabs with pecans (pretty good), passed on the lobster Savannah and ended with peach cobbler (a fancified version with rosettes of whipped cream, but made with fresh peaches and rich, crumbly crust). If any is left over from lunchtime, some of these dishes may show up among the specials at dinner.

The most American dishes on the Library dinner menu are a more complicated story, however. Very good conch fritters (conch--pronounced "conk"--is rather like abalone) in a lively cocktail sauce savage with horseradish and green peppercorns. Wonderful sauce on the ribs--apricot flavored, with the consistency of apple butter--but the ribs themselves were the toughest I've had in years. And although it's sort of charming to see peas and carrots and corn niblets at a fancy restaurant, they tended to be overdone (not boiled to death in the American tradition, just held under a heating device too long). And It would be even nicer to see less hackneyed home-style vegetables such as sliced beets (grown-up ones) with butter and real succotash.

A high-minded restaurant with an American theme ought to do well by Cajun food, but, alas, we have another phony gumbo here. Gumbo is supposed to be based on fowl or seafood or both, but the usual phony gumbo is braised beef with bell peppers and shellfish. The Court House is aware that browned flour (roux) is an essential ingredient in gumbo, but they use it to make a rich beef gravy to hold the fish. Where are the bell peppers, the celery, the okra? For shame.

When it comes to the hybrid dishes, I've had some surprising ones--some of them surprisingly good. Sizzling catfish with sweet potato chips (they aren't crisp like white potato chips, but they are tasty) was positively Chinese--gashed, flavored with fresh ginger and deep fried--but it had been floured American-style with cornmeal and was served with a sauce of fresh medium-hot red pepper that had a trace of fruit flavor. Sea bass in saffron butter sauce topped with sesame and crushed red pepper was as good a sea bass as I've had.

The most uniformly good dishes were the rather European ones (the Supreme Court specializes in these) such as chicken filets in truffle-flavored port sauce, scallops in lime butter with julienne carrots and celery, salmon on angel hair pasta. (This last was supposed to be black pasta--colored with molasses--but they had run out. The Court House was out of a surprising number of things--crayfish with poached quail eggs and truffle vinaigrette, wilted spinach with sweetbreads, calf's liver with red onion marmalade--which may mean they're very good.) The prices vary by menu. Library prices: lunch appetizers $3.95 to $6.95, lunch entrees $8.50 to $13.95; dinner appetizers $5.50 to $10.95, dinner entrees $9.50 to $15.50. Supreme Court prices: lunch appetizers $4.75 to $6.50, lunch entrees $9.25 to $12.75; dinner appetizers $5.75 to $9.25, dinner entrees $12.25 to $22.95.

THE OLD AMERICAN COURT HOUSE

2 Hutton Centre Drive, Santa Ana.

(714) 545-1776.

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch, dinner (Library only). All major credit cards accepted.

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