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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Upscale Grill Packing In The Crowds

September 11, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

At first glance, Savannah Grill may seem stuck in an unfortunate corner of Fashion Island, all off by its lonesome, but somebody knew what he was doing.

Look around the corner. Aha--there's the Irvine Ranch Market parking lot! No wonder Savannah Grill is always crowded, from the distinctly upscale bar to the lowly counter seating (where, as a matter of fact, you have a terrific view of the display kitchen, and since this is strictly a grill there's a lot to watch). Savannah Grill may be a restaurant in a shopping center, but it is not, except possibly late in the afternoon, a place to idly drop into without a reservation.

As noted, the "grill" part of the name is precise: Among the meats, everything, but everything, is grilled. The Savannah part is a little harder to figure, unless the occasional Southern drawl indicates an ownership situation. This is very much California stuff, with eclectic marinades, sauces and side dishes.

So we have a chicken marinated in tamarind juice--a sort of compromise between Southern barbecue and some sort of tandoori chicken, tart and exotic but heavily smoked. A rib-eye steak, thick and tender, is also smoked and accompanied by a baked garlic head and a patty of polenta faintly flavored with rosemary (there's nothing more California than inventing quasi-Provencale, quasi-Italian dishes). Grilled prawns with a sweet but unhackneyed barbecue sauce that must use mild dried ancho peppers. Duck marinated in citrus. A barbecued Provimi veal chop.

Among the surprises are a thick hamburger with a super-charcoal flavor that comes with red onion, lettuce, tomato and some hot yellow pickled peppers--but no mustard or catsup unless you remember to ask, and you might not with a major burger like this. The grilled rabbit is a surprise because it is unexpectedly tender--indeed, practically mushy. It must be marinated within an inch of its metaphorical life.

Basically the entrees are reliably good and occasionally of unusual interest (one may harbor a tiny doubt as to whether this rather smoky grilling really is the most desirable thing to do to a chop of delicate white Provimi veal). Some of the best things, though, are among the appetizers and side dishes, and perhaps understandably. Since all the entrees are straight grilled meat, the menu needs as many side dishes and other distractions as possible.

There's an unusually good appetizer of baked goat cheese that goes surprisingly well with its exotic accompaniment of fresh peach chutney. A skewer of pork and chicken with three chutneys (peach, apple and cilantro) comes in a luscious and even more exotic, rather Thai, curry-flavored peanut sauce. For that matter, the "Chinese chicken salad" is suspiciously Thai as well, complete with puffy thickets of fried rice noodles, shreds of raw carrot and another peanut sauce.

Crisp, dry onion rings. Quick-fried julienned vegetables. Potato skins that are crisper and rather less stodgy than usual, like big, flat french fries with skin (the fries themselves, I have to say, are variable, sometimes rather limp and oily).

There's always a tendency to put a twist on the ball, even with the plain mixed green salad--it's sprinkled with sharp grated Asiago cheese and glazed pecans. Speaking of twists, there is, of all things, a steak appetizer, though by no means the best of them: a sliced piece of New York steak in a sort of cilantro vinaigrette.

I can see why the place is crowded. There are only a couple of duds on this menu, but I have to say the red and black beans are among them. The sour cream topping does a little to save these watery, overdone beans and the tomatillo sauce a little more, but the basic impression is dull and a little bitter. I love grilled eggplant, but it always needs something-- generally something tart--and this one comes with a bland "red pepper pesto" (boy, I can't wait for people to get tired of calling any pureed sauce a "pesto") that does not serve.

The desserts are wonderful. The "apple cobbler" is actually an apple brown betty (look it up--crunchy topping of cinnamon, brown sugar and bread crumbs), but it's a pleasure to see that homely dessert in a restaurant. The ganache torte is really savage, essentially dark chocolate candy on a little bit of crust in a rich rum butter sauce. Black top sundae is vanilla gelato (not ice cream, mind you; very vanilla) in a chocolate topping that semi-hardens. The caramel flan, I must say, is essentially for fans of "eggy" custard.

Prices are in the upper-mall range. Specials on the insert menu may run higher, but on the regular menu appetizers are $3.25 to $8.95, sandwiches $5.95 to $6.50 and entrees $8.95 to $17.95. Side orders run $1.25 to $4.50 and desserts $3.95 to $4.50.

SAVANNAH GRILL

545 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach

(714) 759-0404

Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, for dinner nightly; Sunday brunch. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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