Rex of Newport has reopened after a lengthy remodeling, and if you're an old-timer with this place, what you'll want to know about is the new dining room. It's slick-looking, basically in the same gaslight era-style as the rest of Rex--painted globe chandeliers, satin wallpaper on the ceiling, dark wood--but cleaner and sharper. There's actually a bracing subtext of Art Deco in the polished angular beams that crisscross the windows--large windows that make the place a little too light and airy to be properly Victorian.
It's a romantic environment with this subtle mix of massiveness, daintiness and luxury, and you see couples sliding close and cuddling, helped by the fact that it feels safe and wholesome here, too. It's non-smoking, for starters. Smokers must dine in the old-time room with the bar and the nude paintings that Rex is famous for (they're misty, dreamy studies, a bit in the style of Renoir).
If you're an old-timer, that's about all that need be said. The menu is virtually unchanged, basically high-quality seafood in a faintly continental style at fairly extravagant prices. It's a menu that has its old-timers in mind. Certainly no sleek restaurant school course on menu development would recommend that a fancy restaurant give its dishes names such as "abalone ala Alley West" (the name of the progenitor of Rex, a humbler place that was located in the alley behind the current restaurant) or "abalone ala Luby-Do" (named for a customer).
It's not a menu full of surprises, that's for sure. Shellfish plate, bouillabaisse, fried squid, shrimp cocktail--you could almost write it yourself. You probably couldn't get these raw materials, though, not unless you went fishing for them, because Rex seems to cultivate its own sources. Early one evening as I was coming in for dinner, I overheard somebody who sounded like a fisherman come in to tell the maitre d' of some special catch. The gentleman in the boots and jeans and the gentleman in the dark suit were both getting wide-eyed in excitement over fish.
So among the cold appetizers we have assorted clams and oysters and shrimp cocktail (make that "prawn shrimp cocktail") with a horseradish sauce. On the hot side we have linguine with clams in an impressively garlicky clam broth (this is not a restaurant that's squeamish about its garlic), oysters Rockefeller, clams (or oysters) casino, also fairly garlic-laden, and so on.
The most appealing appetizer is the fried soft-shell crabs. You find soft-shells all over the place these days, but this is the best version I've had in California: fried to a faintly crisp brown and scattered with capers. One appetizer that strikes me as weird, though, is the scampi in garlic butter, which certainly involves garlic and butter but also some unannounced tomato, parsley, hot pepper and, I guess, saffron. I don't have anything against a single one of these ingredients, but the combination of somewhat astringent peppers (and saffron?) with the butter, which shows up mostly as a rich aftertaste, is surprisingly awkward.
The entrees are all very good. There's a wonderful thick swordfish steak bursting with flavor; slightly sharp hollandaise sauce comes on the side. The massive bouillabaisse is rather heavy on shellfish--I don't think I saw anything in it that had ever had fins and a tail--with an excellent saffrony broth colored with tomato. In case you've been wondering what "abalone ala Alley West" is, it's pounded abalone steak with hollandaise.
Above all, there's terrific live lobster, sweet and flavorful with drawn butter (although you can also find a little hollandaise among the vegetables). They're serious about lobster here. The one originally ordered didn't turn out to be up to standard when it was done, so they apologetically cooked another one, and Rex Chandler cracked the replacement personally for us as penance.
A remarkable thing about a seafood restaurant like this--one right down on the shore with ocean view and all--is the quality of the few red meat dishes. The "peppered steak" is very tender and beefy, and the rack of lamb--one of those decorous models with papillotes (frills) on the rib ends--is remarkably moist.
So much for the good news. Now the hard fact: Rex is pretty pricy, especially for its raffish beach location. At lunch, appetizers run $3 to $5 and entrees $4.25 to $20.50. At dinner, the appetizers are in the $5.95-$8.50 range, but entrees go from $17 to $30, and that's not counting the lobster, which bears the fateful words "market price." The desserts--a somewhat narrow choice that includes a good buttery chocolate mousse with a little mint and a nice tart cheesecake--run $3.50 to $5.
REX OF NEWPORT 2106 W. Ocean Front, Newport Beach (at Newport Pier)
Open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards accepted.