Restaurant chefs are nobodies. At least, that's the tradition--nowadays a few of them do get to make television commercials. Even today, though, if a restaurant tells you the chef's name, it's usually because he's the owner. And menus that reveal a pastry chef's name are as rare as, oh, alligator-owning vice cops.
Brace yourself. The grand new Four Seasons Hotel in Fashion Island sports a restaurant called the Pavilion where the menu lists not only the chef's name (Monte Derksen, for your information) and the pastry chef's name (Jean-Claude Berger) but even the sous chef at every meal. Are we living in a New Age or what?
In short, although the Pavilion is an opulently handsome place in the hotel-restaurant mode--high ceilings, soothing beige color scheme and so on--it doesn't want to be just another fancy hotel dining room. It's a major bid for the Four Seasons to start out with a restaurant to be ranked with places like Antoine's and JW's, and to my way of thinking, it's a success. This is a high-powered kitchen, offering among other things possibly the most intriguing dessert list in the county.
At first glance the food may look like the return of nouvelle cuisine in the sense of tiny portions of exquisite food made of exotic ingredients. Probably the careful, semi-Japanese plate arrangements are to blame. In fact, the portions are a little better than nouvelle -size and the ingredients aren't so exotic: skinny Oriental long beans, the occasional sprig of dill and a definite taste for wild thyme and morel mushrooms. What we have here is lively, accomplished cooking in reasonably classical style relying on richly reduced meat juice for most sauces.
If I had to grade the dishes, nothing I've had would get less than B+. Among the appetizers, the A dishes would include three caviars on tiny potato pancakes set off with an artistic smear of sour cream, a neat little salad of artichoke heart and goat cheese slices and crisp fried scallops with little bits of bacon and green olive. The real flag-waver, an unquestionable A+, is hot veal pate in pastry with a thick tide of meat glaze around it. By comparison with these dishes, the squab salad (slices of deboned squab arranged fanwise--the only easy-to-eat squab I've ever had) and the crab fritters with bits of corn and sweet pepper in them were merely memorable.
The dinner entree that most struck me was swordfish with fresh thyme accompanied by a most delicious potato galette, that elegant sort of potato pancake. There was also a terrific lobster ragout, with tiny pea, carrot and potato balls in a sweet cream sauce with smoky morel mushrooms. I also wouldn't say no to another helping of roast veal filet with a pile of delicate kidneys and a fleet of morel mushrooms, or the veal chop with ratatouille, or the little rounds of beef tenderloin.
Most amazing of all was lamb tenderloin with turnip pancakes (like potato pancakes but sweeter, with a flavor that at first seems like an herb) on a bed of braised fennel. The amazing thing was that it came in meat glaze. In many a restaurant there is basically one meat stock (veal, which abides mildly with just about anything), but here the meat glaze tasted distinctly of lamb. For once, a restaurant takes tender, exquisite lamb and doesn't eradicate the lamb flavor as much as possible.
The menu lists a certain number of "spa cuisine" or gourmet health food items that will give you a 600 calorie, low-salt meal if you stick to starred appetizers and entrees (and skip the desserts). Those I've tried were quite good. The four-leaf salad, sprinkled with a couple of pine nuts, has one of the most perfectly balanced vinaigrette dressings I've ever had.
As for the desserts: thanks, Jean-Claude. It's been a long time since I blew more than 10 minutes trying to make up my mind over dessert. The chocolate hazelnut torte is a marvel, but how can you pass up the little apricot- and rhubarb-filled turnovers in a thick fresh apricot sauce? Or the fresh apricot tart with a sort of almond custard foundation, or warm Anjou pear tart? This is not a dessert menu that plays it safe with nothing but chocolate, obviously. Deep-fried prunes with Frangelico cream sauce may not have a name to conjure with for a lot of people, but it is possibly the best dessert.
This is a top-drawer restaurant and it charges top-dollar prices. At lunch appetizers are $3.50 to $9.50, soups and salads $8 to $12 and entrees $7.50-$15. At dinner appetizers are $8 to $12 and entrees $17.50 to $26. Desserts are $4.
THE PAVILION Four Seasons Hotel,
690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
Open for breakfast and dinner daily, for lunch Monday through Friday; Sunday brunch. All major credit cards accepted.