Like a fallen dowager or a dry-docked cruise ship, Chez Cary retains a veneer of greatness. When the restaurant first opened its doors more than 20 years ago, it was hailed almost immediately as Orange County's preeminent place to dine. Today, in an era when casual dining and ultramodern food trends seem to draw all the attention, there is a tendency to pass over this type of place-- hauteur , bluff and contrived elegance no longer being in fashion.
That is a great mistake. There are many compelling reasons to dine at Chez Cary, even if the acceptable, high-blown cuisine served there is not among them. It is a restaurant that any serious restaurant-goer should experience at least once.
When I first called to make a reservation, I thought the person who answered the telephone sounded snobbish. "Chez Caree," she said, pronouncing the restaurant like the French pronounce Paris. "Oh no," I muttered to myself, "not another pretentious continental restaurant." What I didn't realize was that they make every effort to live up to the image.
Upon entering, I received a little gold matchbox engraved with the name I used to make the reservation. My guests received an individual welcome. We were immediately led to our table in the main dining room, which absolutely reeks of red velvet and crystal--a palace of soft, subdued lighting.
We seated ourselves on plush chairs, the high-backed swivel variety with heart-shaped tops, and marveled at the little rose petals carefully placed under every wine glass on the fine linen tablecloths. Service plates are a highly polished sterling. Strolling musicians provide a soft, classical backdrop for the hushed conversation filtering throughout the room. My friend's wife said that she felt like she was in old Vienna.
While a ballet of tuxedoed waiters, service carts and fire-breathing copper pans raged on around us, we were handed giant, leather-bound menus and an even more outsized wine list. "Where are the prices?" queried my wife.
"Ladies' menus don't have prices in a restaurant like this," I told her (Gloria Allred take note).
The captain didn't expect us to order one of the $2,000 Bordeauxs from the cellar, but he did look a bit disappointed when we chose non-alcoholic wine, so we finally compromised and ordered a bottle of Riesling.
Food isn't bad at the Chez, but it doesn't dazzle like the surroundings. When we opened the menus, we were struck by the variety--and even more so by the scale. There are appetizers like Beluga caviar ($55.75 an ounce) and entrees like Dover sole ($33.85). At prices like these, the earth should move. What we got was a mild aftershock.
Foie gras truffe de Strasbourg ($29.75) looked irresistible, but it didn't turn out that way. Orange is not France, to be sure, but there are ducks and geese in California, and they all have livers at one time or another. What you get at the Chez is a captain scooping out a tiny, imported porcelain container onto a plate dotted with aspic, some garnishes and a few toast points. This is cruise ship fare; it tastes fine, but why the show? Fresh foie gras is worlds apart, even when it's from local purveyors.
Another mild letdown was a spinach salad flambe with hot bacon dressing, prepared Benihana-style at the table with a flamed flourish. Too much sugar was used, and the spinach was a bit gritty. When the waiters are as well trained as the chefs, that's when I'll feel confident with table-side cooking. Until then, it's a safer bet to have it done in the kitchen.
Other appetizers were more impressive. Escargot Murat, a special that evening, is a round of French bread embedded with a snail and glazed with Hollandaise. It's wonderful. And everyone was pleased by a sauced mixture of morels, cepes and chanterelles poured into a pastry cup. It was nearly as regal as the dining room.
Main courses are nearly always dished up at the table, again in cruise-ship style, and ones we tried had a uniform richness that matches the house concept of fine dining. Bouillabaisse Marseillaise had none of the ingredients that a real Marseillaise would use, but rather American marks of luxury like lobster and crab. Despite being misnamed, it was pleasant. The saffron broth was flavorful. Supreme de vollaille Bourgeoise , a breast of capon in a sauce with bacon, onion and carrots, was delicious but far too creamy for even the most indulgent of the bourgeoisie. A nicely prepared veal chop was a bit fatty but otherwise just fine.
Only a New York-cut pepper steak exceeded expectations: tender, juicy and complemented with a mound of wild rice. I can't imagine how this dish could have been better.