A restaurant that's as sensitive to senior citizens as is Calesa in Santa Ana ("This table is closest and also lightest," said the maitre d' to my 87-year-old guest) scores a lot of points with me. But I found much more to like at this rather elegant restaurant, whose "around the world cuisine" accents the foods of Spain and the Philippines.
Exploring these specialties, we began with gambas al ajillo , shrimp sizzling in a casserole in a well-balanced sauce of garlic, olive oil and jalapeno. Other appetizers range from calamari en casserole topped with fresh onion rings and lemon wedges to fresh oysters with Calesa's garlic, vinegar and oil sauce.
Calesa's paella is a must. You may have an all-seafood version ($24.50 for two) or the Valenciana ($22.75 for two). The latter proved first-rate, aromatic with saffron and piquant with lemon. A generous catch of mussels, clams and shrimp mingles with fluffy rice, chicken, pork, Spanish sausage and peas--more than enough for two.
Lengua estofado , fork-tender slices of ox tongue with fresh mushrooms, was another winner. Its delicate wine sauce was accented with tart olives.
The soups of the day--clam one evening, curried chicken another--were flavorful but a bit thin, short on chicken and clams. The entrees are served with a choice of house salad or soup.
However, the a la carte sopa de mariscos met the menu's promise of "a deluxe soup . . . prepared in the authentic Spanish manner." Mussels, clams, crab and shrimp enhanced a harmonious simmering of whole tomatoes, vegetables and saffron paste. A huge serving, it's a good buy at $4.25.
And the desserts. A rich, satin-smooth caramel flan was surpassed only by another sweet, sans rivale , definitely "without rival," its layers of rich, chewy, nutty goodness alternating with butter cream.
Calesa also offers a reasonably priced selection of 20 wines, plus full cocktail service.
The sense of sureness on our first visit, both in the kitchen and service, seemed to reflect owners Mario and Nenuca Benitez's 20 years as restaurateurs in Manila and Baguio, the Philippines. Both Mrs. Benitez and the maitre' d', her son, Fil, came to our table to ask specific questions about our meals. Two other sons, Marlo and Anton, tend the kitchen.
Thus, our encore experience surprised us with its shortcomings. The fresh Hawaiian tuna was far from tender. The onion rings on the Calesa broil were cold, with all the flavor and texture of cardboard. Our server, neither as knowledgeable nor as caring as our Filipino waiter of the previous evening, ignored our comments on the wine's dark color and off flavor.
However, onions pushed aside, the Calesa broil became a pleasant dish, finished with a peanut sauce reminiscent of Thai satay . Other beef favorites include bistec Manila, slices of grilled sirloin smothered with onions, and salpicado , tenderloin cubes in an olive-garlic sauce.
The "around the world" offerings vary from fettuccine Helena (clams, mussels, crab meat in special tomato sauce) to crab-stuffed tiger prawns with light cheese sauce and charbroiled swordfish with salsa verde.
But to me, Calesa's greatest draw lies in the Spanish and Filipino dishes so uncommon in Orange County. I was pleased to learn that chicken adobo with coconut sauce, and lumpia (egg roll, served fresh and fried) are now on the menu. At noon, all Calesa dinner appetizers are available, plus the sopa de mariscos at $3.85. There are seafood, chicken and fruit salads, burgers and such entrees as ratatouille and hot pot Magellan, a tenderloin casserole.
The restaurant's name, by the way, pays homage to the ornate, two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriages which still add romance to the streets of Manila.
Calesa, 2106 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 541-6585. Lot parking. Reservations. MasterCard, Visa, American Express cards accepted. Dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. , Monday through Saturday; lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. , Monday through Friday. Lunches from $4.25 to $7.75, dinners from $7.25 to $16.25.