They said Le Chardonnay had this exciting menu of California Regional Cuisine, whatever we're supposed to believe that means (aha, loin of lamb with chicken mousse--that's a Tuolumne County dish, I believe?), and its own variety of spa cuisine called Light and Lean. It is the duty of this column to investigate any healthful cookery that claims it won't put your mouth to sleep, and besides, I'd always heard Le Chardonnay was one of the best restaurants in Newport Beach, so I went for lunch.
Uh-oh. This was a non-vintage Chardonnay. The Light and Lean dishes were the most boring sort of diet food: plain grilled swordfish and total-blank endive and tomato salad. At spa prices, one has the right to expect more.
Still, it's a glamorous room with slate-blue walls and magenta ceiling lights; they served a terrific (non-Light and Lean) chicken soup with lots of chicken in it, and I noticed there were two pre-show set dinners served from 6 to 7:30, thoughtfully designed for patrons of the Performing Arts Center. I give points for all this, so I went back for dinner.
This time, either the rush and bustle of serving theatergoers or possibly an aerobics workout inspired by the spa cuisine must have worn everybody out because service was as slow as continental drift. It was half an hour before bread and butter were on the table simultaneously (we spent 10 minutes looking at a plate of butter with nothing to spread it on), and after that, courses came at about 45-minute intervals. Nearly an hour and a quarter had passed before the appetizers arrived, two hours before the waiters whisked the silver cloches off our entrees, and close to three before we got the check.
As for the food: What is going on at Le Chardonnay? This is a famous place, after all, but the dishes were phenomenally uneven, as if three or four chefs were taking turns. To start with the best ones, there was a very good, though hardly unique, appetizer of warm asparagus tips in rice vinegar and smoked sesame oil, topped with julienne carrots and green onions. Pretty good shrimp cocktail on an artistic scatter of julienne radicchio and, I guess, spinach leaves, with a pleasant and unusual sauce tasting like sour cream with garlic (the waiter seemed to call it cognac sauce). Rather good smoked salmon in an avocado sauce, topped with thin-sliced onions.
Forty-five minutes later, we got a remarkable "roast duck confit ," which, according to the dictionary, ought to be duck preserved in a crock under a layer of melted fat. It tasted like duck cured with salt and maybe a little sugar, like a ham, quite salty but unusual and delicious. Then we got a rather safe but enjoyable dish of capon breast and lobster chunks in bearnaise sauce. The trouble was we had actually ordered another chicken dish entirely, a Light and Lean skinned chicken breast with figs. There are times when you have to give up. It was 10 o'clock by then and we dared not guess how long we'd be if we demanded our chicken with figs, so we ate the capon.
All of this was pretty good, nothing you'd kick off your plate but still nothing to explain Le Chardonnay's exalted reputation.
However, there were some mediocre dishes. For instance, a clumsy and mawkish dish of sea bass in sweet lime and ginger sauce, duck and Virginia ham with pasta came in something oddly resembling American macaroni and cheese sauce, and a cold soup of dried tomatoes was hard to tell from plain tomato sauce.
And there were dishes where the kitchen was positively sabotaging itself. Casserole of snails and mixed wild mushrooms was maddeningly insipid from a lack of salt (no salt shaker on the table, of course, in the haute cuisine tradition), and you can't tell me a restaurant that serves roast salt duck is leaving the salt out of its mushrooms on health food principles. The saffron fettuccine with seafood was staggeringly bland--where was the saffron, and anyway, how did the tiny shrimp get so dry? (Hold on, there might be an explanation for this one after all, if it's the same fettuccine listed among the Light and Lean dishes at lunch.)
The desserts, unfortunately, couldn't save the meal. There was a nice pear tart with shortbread-like crust, a couple of simple-minded apple tarts distinguished by whether kiwi slices or raspberries had been placed on top, a cakey chocolate souffle. Better than most of the desserts were the chocolate truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries they bring out at check time.
I repeat, what is going on at Le Chardonnay?
This is a formal place, complete with sorbets between courses and a harpist, and jackets are required for gentlemen. At lunch appetizers and sandwiches are $7.50-$9, entrees $12-$14 (the spa cuisine menu equivalents are $4.50-$9 and $12.50-$16). At dinner, appetizers are $3.50-$9 and entrees $14-$25 (spa: $12.50-$16). The pre-show set dinners are $14.95 and $18.95.
LE CHARDONNAY Registry Hotel,
18800 MacArthur Blvd.,
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner daily. All major credit cards accepted.