"What's in a name," wondered Shakespeare. If he were alive today, his editor would ask him to print a retraction.
Names are meaningful today--especially when it comes to restaurants. When I hear the word mister in the name of a restaurant, I just assume something like Taco or Donut is going to follow.
But Mr. Stox, for those who may not know, is an Anaheim restaurant--not the title of a children's book about insider trading--and it's a grown-up one at that, nearly 20 years old. The name is merely an abbreviation of Fahnestock, the surname of the original owner. Current owners Chick and Ron Marshall, two brothers with degrees in hotel and restaurant management, saw no reason to change it when they bought Fahnestock out in 1977.
It's impressively successful, attracting a conservative crowd that likes to dress for dinner, thank you. It has a world-class wine list that has been twice singled out by The Wine Spectator as one of the 10 best in America.
It has outstanding service, with a team of waiters and waitresses that's knowledgeable, courteous, charming and efficient. And it has a sophisticated menu that, while by no means daring, occasionally summons up flashes of creativity. The restaurant takes itself very seriously--it even publishes its own newsletter.
From the outside, Mr. Stox is an old Spanish mission-style hacienda, but inside it's another clone of "gourmet dining rooms" you find in Las Vegas casinos: walls full of oil paintings no one can recognize, booths with padding a foot thick and lighting even Abe Lincoln couldn't read by. This month, however, there is a saving grace.
Christmas decorations are up--poinsettias, little potted plants of frosted pine, wreaths and bells hung about the walls. These are nice touches and a hint of the good things you'll find on the menu. Somebody up there does have a little imagination.
Chef Scott Raczek has a straightforward approach to cooking, and he's been given more than usual to work with. For one thing, the Marshalls have added a mesquite broiler in recent years; for another, the restaurant grows its own fresh herbs. That should give you a clue about what to order. Simplest things are best here.
Raczek's black bean soup may rate as the best I've ever had. It's a pureed version, with a healthy nose of cumin, and it's swirled with sour cream and a tomato pepper salsa. The texture is unusual, smooth and rough at the same time, and the taste is remarkable; it just lingers on the palate. I could have eaten two more bowls.
Another thing I couldn't stop eating was a plain old shrimp salad. When this is on the menu in one of those Las Vegas dining rooms, you can always expect one of the big four dressings (French, Thousand Island, etc.), iceberg that has lost its crunch and prawns as limp as Chinese noodles. Not here. The Mr. Stox shrimp salad has a delightful mustard vinaigrette, chopped, mixed greens with plenty of crunch and fresh, butterflied prawns that must be three ounces apiece. Terrific.
I also liked Raczek's use of the herbs picked in the restaurant's back garden. Before superchefs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck came down the pike, fresh herbs such as dill, basil and rosemary were about as common as poison oak in a restaurant like this. Now they pop up in every other dish. Pesto potatoes, with a sauce made from fresh basil, accompany many of the dishes. Rack of lamb is basted with rosemary, and the flavor permeates every bite. Even dill gets into the act, in the simple butter sauce served with sauteed halibut.
When the chef gets fancy, though, it's hit and miss. One of his signatures is a timbale of asparagus and carrot mousse, which looks suspiciously like a stand-up version of yin-yang soup from Chinese temple cuisine but which tastes unmistakably French. It's an unqualified success. Then, he ruins a beautiful piece of fresh sole with a spinach mousse that's spongy and nearly inedible. Mesquite-grilled duck breast on wilted spinach with a sesame oil dressing is sheer delight. Cook a breast of pheasant on the same grill and you need a hacksaw to cut it. Go figure.
Don't leave without thumbing through the gigantic wine list, which makes "War And Peace" look like a dime novel. All the great Bordeaux and Burgundies are here--Cos d'Estournel, Chateau Lynch-Bages, Gevrey-Chambertin--snuggled away in the restaurant's wine cellar.
Who orders these expensive wines? "Oh, out-of-towners on expense accounts," owner Chick Marshall said wistfully. Wouldn't it be nice if ordinary folks could afford wines that are $300 a bottle? But it's a good read.
Prices at Mr. Stox are about what you'd expect after you see the harpist in the dining room. (She plays on Sunday and Monday nights). Appetizers start at $4.95 and run to $9.95. Seafood runs from $12.95 (for the orange roughy) up to $18.50 (for Hawaiian ahi ). Meat and game are from $12.95 through $22.50. An uninspiring selection of desserts begins at $4.25.
MR. STOX 1105 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim.
Open for dinner every day and lunch Monday to Friday. All major cards.