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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

It's A Restaurant That Can Be Good Company

October 30, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

If restaurants were people, Trees would be an artist, but not the shaggy bohemian kind. It would be a well-off painter who could do whatever he pleased, even if that meant nothing grander than exquisitely decorated Easter eggs for his friends.

He might not go down as prominently in art history books as the shaggy avant-gardist, but he would probably be a lot better company. And Trees really is good company, a congenial converted bungalow with warm ruddy-peach walls, a fireplace in each room, and an agreeably odd unroofed area with some . . . well, some trees growing in it, like a sort of giant glassed-off terrarium in the middle of the restaurant.

The food it serves has an offhanded and sometimes even witty quality. It's eclectic, high-class fun food, exquisitely decorated Easter egg food: a little Oriental, a little Mexican, quite a bit of comfortable Americana, all filtered through a nouvelle Franco-Italian sensibility.

Among the appetizers are spring rolls, but not just any spring rolls. This being Orange County, they are loyally made Vietnamese rather than Chinese fashion, wrapped in lettuce and all ready to dip into some fish sauce. They are remarkably good--far better than the spring rolls you find in actual Vietnamese restaurants, where the cooks tend to fry their spring rolls rock-hard. These are incredibly light and crisp in texture, and the fish sauce is authoritative, even a little fierce with pepper.

On the Mexican side, there is an appetizer drolly named "New York steak sandwich a la Tex-Mex." This is a New York steak grilled and cut up into little slices, nouvelle cuisine-fashion, sauced with a little chile-flavored butter. The "sandwich" part of the name is covered by the presence of tortillas, chopped tomatoes and refried black beans.

The American dishes are Trees' strongest suit. Wonderful smoked trout, served with mustardy mayonnaise for an appetizer. Meat loaf--doubtless the best meat loaf in any Orange County restaurant--a light and loose-textured model, surprisingly flavored with caraway, accompanied by meat reduction gravy and honest fresh mashed potatoes.

Regional American dishes are done remarkably well. The Maryland crab cakes are free of the bland, stodgy quality that so often infects Californian attempts at crab cakes. These at Trees really taste Southern, sweet and hot and crabby. It's surprising to find chicken Rochambeau on the menu--though maybe the real surprise is that, with the current Louisiana food craze, this traditional New Orleans dish hasn't already showed up on our menus. It's one of several dishes they go for in New Orleans that are more or less cousins of eggs Benedict: chicken breast and strong, thin-sliced ham on toast with mushrooms and two sauces, red wine sauce around the base and bearnaise on top.

Of course, there are fashionable Italian touches: carpaccio, a pleasant but somewhat neutral pasta with shrimp in sherry cream sauce. I suppose veal medallions saute fuerte fit in here too, though the name presumably refers to the slices of Fuerte avocados that accompany the veal. The dish comes with a decent Marsala cream sauce.

I also want to mention the excellent lamb chops, tiny sweet ones that I had as part of the mixed grill (I hope they're the same lamb chops that have their own listing on the menu), and to mention a terrific special appetizer of breaded oysters with a dashing cilantro sauce. Also, I'm afraid, I want to say a word about the surprisingly dull Thai fried chicken, and that word is "pass." It's indistinguishable from the tiredest sort of Cantonese stir-fried chicken with limp carrot slices, except for a perfunctory bit of lemon grass.

The desserts, most of which change all the time, tend to the American side. I've had a good cheesecake with a remarkably tart sour cream topping (or was it yogurt?) and an irresistible apple-raisin pie with home-made crust accompanied by a couple of balls of home-made vanilla ice cream. The best dessert, however, which your check lists as "apricot mousse" and the waiters refer to as "the Signature Dessert," is up-to-date American French: a fried waffle-pattern cup holding three balls of frozen apricot mousse (rich and mild) in a pool of raspberry sauce glamorously decorated with a spider's web of creme anglaise.

Appetizers are $6 to $8, and salads, a couple of which would serve as entrees, run $5 to $13.50. The entrees have a surprisingly wide price range, $10 (the meat loaf) to $23 (the veal). Desserts, $4 to $7.

TREES RESTAURANT

440 Heliotrope Ave., Corona del Mar

(714) 673-0910

Open for dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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