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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Quirky Continental Style Survives Move

July 11, 1986|CHARLES PERRY

The Great Transition has been effected. Picasso's has moved from the art colony hurlyburly of Laguna Beach to creative seclusion in Dana Point. I say creative, because that's what Picasso's calls its style of cooking: Creative Continental, a reasonable way to describe a quirkish, sometimes even quaint brand of continentalism.

The new Picasso's is in a grand location at the Dana Point Harbor Pavilion, which is no shopping center but a deluxe coterie of boutiques including a grown-ups' kite shop. Several more restaurants are setting up here, but Picasso's dominates the scene, standing apart from the other buildings as if they were so much backdrop and scenery.

This may be the grandest restaurant technically located in Dana Point (the far grander Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton claims to be in Laguna Niguel). It's a yellow-painted wooden structure rather in the turn-of-the-century beach pavilion style with windows on three sides through which Dana Pointers wave at their friends. And it's pretty big; just how big, you might discover if you come at it from the wrong direction and walk practically all around the building looking for a door without a "Use Next Door" sign.

Inside there's a bar and two dining rooms. The more formal of the two is available only to diners with reservations. The less formal has walls papered in a banana tree print of a sort that adorned boudoirs in the Fifties. Sandwiched between these two domains like a bubble is a private octagonal room (it has windowed doors, though, so you can wave at your friends).

The food at Picasso's has a judicious air. Each of the entrees, for example, is prepared or sauced in a way quite distinct from each of the others--one thinks not of Pablo Picasso but of the Renaissance painters who filled their landscapes with a fisherman here, a man hoeing a field there, a woman going to the well, a pilgrim on the road.

This is admirable in its way, and the Creative part of Creative Continental may be here. Or it may be in the variations on standard continental dishes. These are not always happy: fried cheese is common enough and fried brie is not unheard of, but the Picasso's version (a big thick rectangle with a nice crust) comes with kumquat preserves on the side. This is one of those leaps of the imagination that almost make it--brie and kumquat almost catch each other in midair, but the sweet-sour flavor of the preserves does not go with the cheese.

Mostly things hew closer to continental custom. Among the appetizers, which appear not on your menu but on a table card, the best is shrimp in bacon with a tart cream sauce. Another good one is a somewhat sweet pate, and there is a very good carpaccio (the beef sliced so thin it falls apart on your fork) that is only odd for being served on a lettuce salad with a fiercely sharp dressing. Escargots come in a creative sauce of tomato, onion and garlic under a conventional puff paste.

Among the entrees, the best are fairly conservative, like scampi in shallot cream sauce or a nice thick veal chop fried with olive oil and fresh sage--not very long on sauce but with a pure veal flavor that's really delightful. Lamb with mint sauce--apparently gravy spiked with English-style vinegar mint sauce--is a little vague, like the veal forestiere, but pleasant for all that. Duck with tamarind sauce is surprisingly good, the tamarind making for a tart sauce that may change the minds of people who are accustomed to thinking of duck as an foretaste of dessert.

But creativity can miss the mark. Fettuccine with pecan pesto is an appealing dish at first bite--a pesto without basil, dominated by the taste of pecans, it's rich and delicious. It is terribly heavy, though, and halfway through you'd give a dollar for the refreshing herbal flavor of basil. And it's hard to be charitable to the chicken breast sauteed with three citrus juices. There must be people who like this kind of thing, but I think this dry breast with a sweetish sauce is a variation on the Chinese Water Torture where you are beaten senseless with marshmallows.

At dessert there are two terrific chocolate cakes. The white chocolate is a sort of frozen or ice cream cake; the dark chocolate is a huge slab, a skyscraper or Brown Cliffs of Dover of chocolateyness. Chocolate pecan torte is a sort of high-class brownie and there's a decent creme caramel. Unfortunately, the homemade ice cream, though it has a clean and honest homemade texture, is unaccountably salty. Or hey, maybe it really is homemade, hand crank, rock salt and all.

Prices: At dinner appetizers are $4.50 to $7.25 (not counting one of the caviar and champagne), soups and salads $3-$3.50, entrees $8.50-$18.50. At lunch, where some of the dinner items appear along with a range of salads, appetizers run $3.50-$7.25, entrees $5-$7.50.

PICASSO'S

24961 Dana Point Harbor Drive (end of Golden Lantern), Dana Point

(714) 661-7282

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly; Sunday brunch. All major credit cards accepted.

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