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McCharles House: Tea, Homey Meals

May 28, 1987|BEVERLY BUSH SMITH | Smith is a free-lance restaurant reviewer in El Toro

Picture a lovingly restored 1885 Victorian cottage shaded by colossal, century-old eucalyptus with hollyhocks growing along a white fence. Now, wouldn't that be a perfect spot to serve afternoon tea?

The Heredia family (Audrey, Carlos and five offspring) thought so, but they didn't stop there. At the McCharles House in Old Town Tustin they offer lunch and dinner as well as tea.

Divided into five cozy dining rooms, the house reflects its era with wood floors, Oriental rugs, flowered wall coverings and upholstery, old clocks and touches of brass and glass. And the food is homey--if you think in terms of a best and most versatile cook in town. Indeed most of the dishes are Audrey and Vivian Heredia's adaptations of favorite family recipes.

The McCharles House serves dinner Thursday through Saturday only. Call ahead to learn about the three entrees which vary from day to day. There may be stuffed pork chops with praline-baked apples, raspberry-glazed rock Cornish game hen with nutted wild rice, "portly" chicken, lamb chops with mint and garlic butter and pot roast with glazed vegetables. And on Friday there's a fresh fish, such as albacore or huachinango Veracruzano .

The plentiful dinners look handsome, arranged one night on a bed of greens, another on a huge chard leaf. Vegetables, which often vary with the entree, are cooked with care. (I could have made a meal on perfectly cooked fresh green beans with browned-in-butter almonds.)

I found chicken dijonaise (bone-in breast) rich and flavorful with a sauce and a baked salmon steak nicely finished. Another night, lemon and cilantro enlivened the chicken breast and lean, tender pork chops glistened with mushrooms.

First-rate soups vary from a meaty black bean or a pasta soup with fusilli and Italian sausage, to chicken chiapas, a tomato-based soup with the heat of chiles and the cool of a sour cream topping. The house salad, though over-dressed one evening, is an attractive display of greens, tomato (or orange) slices, beets and onion rings.

At lunch, served Monday through Saturday, the McCharles House salad sampler introduces you to all six salad specialties. That means paisley wild rice with plumped golden raisins and bits of ham, chicken with cilantro and red kidney beans, artichokes and curried rice, zesty tri-color pasta, blanched vegetables in dill-mayonnaise and purple cabbage-carrot slaw punctuated with caraway. At $10.75 it's probably enough for two.

You also may order the individual salads, six different sandwiches or half a sandwich with a cup of soup.

The McCharles House Victorian afternoon tea includes a tea sandwich assortment, McCharles scones, madelines, dessert and tea for $8.95.

I have only two small disappointments with the McCharles House. First, the ambiance calls for a wonderful homey bread--freshly baked mini-loaves, Parker house rolls, corn bread or hot biscuits--rather than the cold, nondescript rolls now served.

Second, the desserts look so good, I do wish they didn't tend to dryness. An apple cake, not too sweet and loaded with huge chunks of tender apples is almost wonderful but needs a dab of cream for moistness. The coconut cake's macaroon-like frosting doesn't quite compensate for the bready texture of the cake. Pecan squares were a battle to cut with a fork. Flavors, however, are terrific.

Service, which extends to the patio on nice days, is excellent, and there's a small selection of wines available by the glass and bottle.

McCharles House, 335 C St., Old Town, Tustin; (714) 731-4063. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, from $6 to $7 average; afternoon tea, Monday through Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m., $8.95; dinner Thursday through Saturday, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., from $14 to $16. MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner reservations suggested. Lunch reservations for six or more. Lot parking available.

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