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Irvine Farmers Market a Foodies Mecca

October 25, 1986|CHARLES PERRY | Perry writes on restaurants for the Orange County Edition of The Times.

Oh, there is a sort of Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in Los Angeles. It's on the ground floor of the Beverly Center and you can watch the foodies wander through the aisles, checking out the gorgeous produce. That's about all there is for them to do.

Pity. The Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in Newport Beach--coincidentally located on part of the original Irvine Ranch--has more scope. How many markets advertise "Sunday brunch with quiet music by the fountain" (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., $8.95 adults, $5.95 children)?

Making an Entrance

The best place to park is in the eastern quarter of the main Fashion Island lot and look for a sign for Atrium Court. Passing through its stately semi-Romanesque entrance hall, you'll gradually become aware of the echoes of a growing din. It's coming out of the floor.

You realize you're on a circular balcony looking down at a seething mass of humanity. That's the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market down there: not merely a place to buy upscale foods but a scene, a foodie Be-In.

Most of the market floor is under an ordinary ceiling like any market, but this populous hub is under the dome of the atrium, which is three stories up. It's clearly designed to draw people in: brightly lit (the moth-to-the-flame effect), and baited with chairs and a fountain. There's even a grand piano, and sometimes along with the gentle splashing of the fountain, you hear piano stylings.

Snacks and Wine

Of course people don't just shop and go home. They buy snacks, they get a taco made with a blue corn tortilla from the La Salsa stand and a glass of wine. You aren't limited to what they sell at the food stands. You could go to a gourmet convenience-food delicatessen, which is run by Michel Blanchet of Los Angeles' L'Ermitage, and get an Italian salad or frittata or chicken paupiette with tangerine slices, and borrow some tableware from the salad stand.

You could even buy a loaf of French bread shaped like a stylized stalk of wheat, slice it open with a knife bought from the kitchenwares department and stuff it with Virginia ham, a hothouse tomato and cheese from a vast display. In effect, this is a gourmet cafeteria with all the food of the world awaiting your pleasure.

Everybody comes. There are a lot of success-dressers at lunch on weekdays, often at the wine and beer bar, the sushi bar, the espresso bar. But there are families, too. People are licking frozen yogurt cones. Some talk shop or gossip. Others stare in puzzlement at some bottled condiment or oddball cooking utensil they apparently decided to buy when they were wandering through the displays and the shopping fit was on them.

Fresh and Hot

You see, everything is right here. Fresh muffins and cookies, candied apples, Italian gelati. Look, a whole stand of mustards. A dozen kinds of pate. A tank of live lobsters. Sushi to go, ready-to-fry chicken fajita mix. Roasted coffee beans impregnated with the flavors of various liqueurs. Who would have believed it?

And look at the chocolates. Oh-oh, there's the Lindberg Nutrition Center and the frozen-yogurt stand giving us disapproving vibes. But hey, in a few minutes we may feel like being healthful.

The people who come here aren't necessarily articulate about the attraction of the place. "It's neat," or "I just came for some diet frozen dinners" are as much of an explanation as you may get. Deep-thinkers can see, though, that they're here for intellectual reasons. It's the California Philosophy: Life is a supermarket; pick what you like and pass on the rest. Here beside the fountain, hedonism need not be lonely.

Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, 24 Fashion Island, Newport Beach; (714) 760-1100.

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