The shrimp crunched. They didn't just offer a little resistance to the teeth, they crunched like celery. You could practically hear people chewing them.
The maitre d' said they were from Santa Barbara, and possibly this was just a magically fresh batch. The real question was: Were these astonishing shrimp, in their rather sweet tomato-ginger sauce, an early clue to Antoine's new direction?
A serious question, you see. Antoine, perennially ranked as one of the two or three top restaurants in Orange County, has just changed its menu. In keeping with the practice of the Meridien Hotel chain, the menu has been written with the consultation of a famous chef back in France, and the kitchen is being run by a man who was sent to study with him.
This practice does not, it must be said, amount to giving us a visit to a famous French restaurant without the travel expense, because the menu does not necessarily bear a lot of resemblance to the menu of the chef's restaurant. However, Jacques Maximin, the old guiding spirit from abroad, was at least well known to Americans who follow food. The new menu is by Gerard Vie, who is less famous for his restaurant (Les Trois Marches, Marseilles) than for his past as chef for Prime Minister Georges Pompidou.
So what do we have, aside from the occasional shrimp that crunches? The most distinctive feature is the use of vegetable juice. An entree of lobster and sole comes in a sweet, salmon-colored sauce flavored with carrot juice, and tenderloin of veal comes in "a light celery juice." They're both enjoyable dishes; the carrot sauce is not, as one might fear, mawkishly sweet (a little chervil helps). However, the veil of the heavens is not exactly rent, either, particularly in the case of the surprisingly beefy veal, which bears a dollop of strong red wine sauce that could drown out a dozen light celery juices.
Very fine food, mind you; Antoine still keeps its place at Orange County's top rung. On the whole, though, this is not a menu with a strongly marked personal style, and that may be intentional. Patrons of the old Antoine can go back expecting to find much that is the same, particularly the emphasis on lavish ingredients: caviar, truffles, and, above all, Antoine's remarkable foie gras. Fans of the old menu's foie gras terrine will find the new one much like it, essentially a solid mass of rich, delicate duck livers.
If anything, the new menu seems to scatter around even more caviar on the appetizers than the old--for instance, on the islands of whipped egg white that float on the cold lobster bisque. To me, the most impressive of the appetizers was the one with the quaintly self-deprecating name meli-melo (hodgepodge), a mixture of fresh and smoked salmon, with the smoked definitely prevailing, in melted butter sprinkled with tiny caviar.
So it's still easy to have a meal of old-fashioned luxury here, served by particularly serious and knowledgeable waiters. The kitchen is masterful about all sorts of things--the flan of foie gras has a texture of unearthly richness and lightness, the scallops with truffles and sauteed endives are all but indescribably plush.
Curiously, though, the thing I kept finding going wrong was . . . salt and pepper. The venison came with a fairly traditional garnish of red cabbage and juniper berries, startlingly dosed with black pepper. I'm no tenderfoot when it comes to spices, but it made me sit there and meditate for a couple of seconds with my mouth open.
The most appealing entree was a thin filet of turbot on a bed of cepe mushrooms, surrounded by thin potato slices--someone ungenerously called them soggy potato chips, but they were delicious; crispness is not all--but when the waiter compared the fascinating cepe- flavored wine sauce to soy sauce, it was in saltiness as well as flavor. The "swimming lobster" (homard a la nage), accompanied by ravioli with a luxurious filling of pureed carrot and zucchini, was swimming in a broth with a faint and unusual flavor of ground ginger and so much salt I wondered whether it had been poached in seawater.
A little saltiness; well, you can just take a little less of the sauce. An overspiced mound of red cabbage; a little more serious.
The only thing that struck me as unredeemable was still a minor thing: the stodgy concoction of overdone vegetables bound with some kind of white sauce that came with the really superb duck breast in honey and cider vinegar meat glaze.
About half the desserts are chocolate concoctions, the best being a chocolate and mocha mousse dominated by the pure coffee flavor of the mocha. I happen to think the non-chocolate items are really better, such as an exquisite apple ice in a hollowed-out apple with a cider sauce, or the frozen banana mousse in custard sauce.
Antoine is not a restaurant for a casual meal. Bring your wallet. Appetizers run $6 to $16 and entrees $20 to $25. Desserts are all $6.50.
ANTOINE Hotel Meridien, 4500 MacArthur Blvd.,
Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards accepted.