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RESTAURANTS

Like It Off the Wall? Here's the Place for You

December 25, 1987|Max Jacobson

Dover's at the Doubletree Hotel in Orange has one of the most stunning pieces of wall art I've ever seen in a restaurant: a giant, multicolored mural I've been told is supposed to be a Japanese kite. Maybe it would be less of an eye-catcher if it weren't being flooded with disco lighting or if it weren't hanging from a wall three stories high. Take it away and Dover's is just another restaurant with a 35-foot ceiling.

It's a huge, plush place filled with stonework, ceramics, a gem exhibit and a multitude of other attempts at meaningful aesthetics. If they ever decide to take the tables out, they can consider charging admission.

The problem is that there is no sense of continuity to the design. It reminds me of the newly opened Musee d'Orsay in Paris, where every conceivable art form is lumped together under an even more gigantic ceiling--impressive at the start, distracting at the finish. It might not be so distracting were it not a metaphor for the kitchen as well.

Chef Steve Lancaster has put together a menu that tries to be all things for all people, as hotel restaurant chefs often do. It's a confusing menu and as equally prone to failure as to success.

If there is a theme to it at all, it involves the thin connection between the name Dover's and seafood (Dover sole, get it?) The restaurant serves several nightly specials featuring fresh fish, items that get top billing on a printed insert. Beyond that it's anybody's guess what kind of a restaurant Dover's is.

Appetizers are as eclectic as you'll find anywhere. At the top of the regular menu is the tartare section, featuring Carpaccio, steak tartare, and a wonderfully silky but rather tasteless salmon tartare, an enormous portion you're supposed to spread on toast rounds and sprinkle with capers. Eaten plain, it's a kind of adult baby food.

Then there are cold appetizers, exhibits from the crab claw/shrimp cocktail school of design. Crab claws were unavailable on two visits, so I tried the shrimp, which come sitting on two sauces, a cocktail sauce with bite and a mustard sauce without. It's one of those dishes you enjoy but can't remember the next day.

That certainly can't be said about any of the hot appetizers. Some of them are sensational, and some are just plain bad. Seafood sausage is in the first category, boudin -like slices caressing a bed of smoothly sauced, al dente green and white linguine. Lamb ribs sound enticing, but when you bite in you understand why you've never seen them on a menu before. Despite an intelligently temperate sweet and sour sauce, the ribs are gristly and unmanageable. What next, quail ribs?

Because the sauce was tasty, though, I was tricked into trying some of the dishes that reflect Lancaster's attempts to be a Pacific Rim chef--something called California won ton and stir-fried shrimp with fresh noodle and Oriental vegetables. The won ton are stuffed with crab and spices, then deep-fried and plopped down on a sauce of cilantro and ginger cream. Maybe you can eat deep-fried things with cream sauces, but I certainly can't. Even fried chicken with cream gravy would have seemed lighter.

The stir-fry made an even bigger plop. All the ingredients were good, but the simplest of them, sugar, was poured in with abandon. Sugar is an integral part of Oriental cooking, but this dish was so sweet that nobody could eat it.

The Pacific overtures aren't a total loss, however. Lancaster's jasmine tea-poached salmon, set into a sauce of fresh orange and scallop cream, is extraordinary. The flavor of the tea is subtle, but you taste it immediately, like catching the scent of a wildflower you can't see. The essence of fresh orange is an inspired touch.

By now you can see that this menu is without rhyme or reason. It is graced with lots of game dishes and eccentric combinations. A campfire sampler of grilled boneless quail, hickory boar sausage and river salmon smoked on the premises is plated with the meat, game and fish, sauced with black currant chutney, veal glaze and a garlic cream, respectively. It might have been nice to know what they tasted like on their own, particularly since they are all so distinctive. A fresh fish sampler comes with five sauces. Maybe our palates deserve more credit. If these foods can stand up on their own, then why not let us taste them?

I feel as if I've been a bit hard on this restaurant because the kitchen has excellent potential. It's never the dunce who gets criticized at school; it's the underachiever. Steaks and chops are excellent. Side dishes are bountiful and imaginative. But just when the restaurant has won you back into its good graces, a worm appears in the apple. There's no reason, for example, for a restaurant that makes its own ice cream (which is wonderful) to serve a dreary selection of desserts brought in from the outside.

Dover's also offers spa cuisine at lunch and dinner, which is low in calories, fat and carbohydrates.

The restaurant is semi-dressy, and there is piano music in the evening.

Prices are a bit high for the inconsistencies you are likely to experience, but looking about the museum-like atmosphere, it's hard to imagine how they could be less. Appetizers start at $4.50 and run to $9.95. Salads are $4. Dinners, which include a choice of Caesar salad or an excellent conch chowder, begin at $13.95 for a mesquite broiled chicken and can reach $25.95.

DOVER'S The Doubletree Hotel, 100 E. The City Drive, Orange.

(714) 634-4500.

Open daily for lunch and dinner. All major credit cards accepted.

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