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Disciplined Continental Cuisine With Surprises

October 09, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

The J.J. of JJ's Bistro in Dana Point also owns Gandhi, an Indian restaurant; Newport Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant, and Chuck's Steak House of Hawaii (Tustin), which I somehow imagine sprinkling pikake blossoms on the T-bone and throwing in a complimentary carton of poi with your doggie bag. With the Bistro, J.J. Shah has decided it's time to go Continental.

Roberto Samayoa is prominent in his own right, having cooked at such places as the Beverly Hills Hotel and Gemmell's. Put J.J. and Roberto together and they spell a pretty little restaurant in pastel green and pink where moderne etched mirrors oddly coexist with quaint wooden chairs that look to have been carved by the Seven Dwarfs. The welcome sea air of Dana Point seeps in through the windows, and on weekend nights and at Sunday brunch there are the sounds of an electronic clavichord, if you like that sort of thing (myself, in a tiny restaurant like this I'd sort of prefer them to waft in from another room).

The cuisine is Continental, but of a rather disciplined sort. There's no corps de ballet flaming every entree at table side (though the Caesar salad does get tossed with the staginess of a Benihana chef, complete with juggling act), nor are dishes habitually oversweetened. Indeed, the duck du jour--usually a chef's way of turning an entree into dessert--tends to be on the tart and refreshing side, if the kiwi version is anything to judge by.

The menu has some pretty little surprises, such as the asparagus al dente: a little bundle of perfectly done asparagus, tied with a green onion "string" and served in a sort of thin hollandaise with chives, artfully decorated with rosettes carved out of carrots. Ramekins of snails are a nice variation with little bits of ham in with the garlic butter.

In short, this is a better-than-average Continental restaurant. The food generally has a light, clean taste. At lunch, there's a wonderful dish of green and yellow fettuccine with breast of chicken in a mustard cream sauce, made quite interesting by the tart-sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes. The cream sauce on the darne of salmon printanier ("printanier," indeed--where are the spring vegetables?) has a lively touch of Dijon and whole-seed mustard. I liked the New York steak, grilled and served in a sauce of meat glaze with an understated flavoring of mustard and cognac.

However, the sauces, good as they are, tend to be rather a lot like each other, in the Continental tradition. We're in big danger of getting creamed and hollandaised to death. How did the hollandaise sauce with chives on the special appetizer of lobster in puff pastry (very good lobster, by the way, all claw meat) differ from half a dozen other sauces? Apparently, the one that came on the gulf shrimp "creole" (explained by my waiter as "practically the same as provencale, but creamier") has some tomato in it. You could have fooled me.

Likewise, like a lot of Continental restaurants, J.J.'s has a real conflict about keeping up with the fashion for spicy food. The chicken paprikas in champagne is a chicken breast rolled with a spinach stuffing (go explain that part to a Hungarian) in much the same sauce we've had elsewhere with just about enough paprika to give it a pink tinge. It has this timidity in common with the so-called spicy sauce on the "Creole Fettuccine" at dinner--the prawns are sweet and crunchy, but the sauce is positively cowardly.

Still, things are altogether pretty agreeable. My only problems have been with a chicken marsala with curiously underdone mushrooms, and the "pear glazed" medallions of veal. These come in a cream sauce flavored with pear brandy, it says here, but the dominating flavor, most oddly, is clove.

The soups are quite old fashioned, the soup du jour tending to be a thickened vegetable puree. Cold cream of cucumber soup, interestingly flavored with what must be cooked cucumbers (a very old-fashioned idea indeed), is so thickened that it stands up a quarter of an inch in the spoon. It's delicious, but just try drinking a soup like that according to Miss Manners.

The desserts, likewise, are mostly pastries of solid ancestry. The best I've had is a sharp lemon tart with European tart pastry, the most daring a sort of tarte tatin with filo crust (they call it "baked apples," a fair enough way of describing tarte tatin) which struck me as faintly over-caramelized. The rest were the usual critical-mass chocolate cake, a respectable raspberry tart with pastry cream, and home-made cheese cake with a peculiar almond graham cracker crust that seems to have lost faith in almonds--the bottom crust tastes as if it were sprinkled with creme de noyau.

At lunch, appetizers are $2.25 to $4.95 and entrees $5.25 to $7.25. At dinner appetizers run $2.50 to $4.95 and entrees $8.50 to $16.95.

JJ'S BISTRO 24501 Del Prado, Dana Point. (714)240-7944 Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, for dinner Turesday through Saturday; Sunday brunch. All major credit cards accepted.

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