Chanteclair is a French country inn that landed, as if by magic, across the street from the John Wayne Airport a few years back--a beautifully designed theme restaurant of almost otherworldly beauty. The operative word, however, is "almost."
You enter through a welcoming sitting room where you can relax in very civilized fashion on one of the elegantly upholstered sofas until your table is ready. From there, a dapper-looking captain guides you to one of the many charming dining areas, each done in a different motif.
For lunch you might want to book a table in the atrium, a plant-filled room flooded with a soft radiance from the overhead skylight. With its pink tablecloths, green-cushioned chairs and all those plants, this room is so lush and exotic that Henri Rousseau could have painted a jungle scene there.
At dinner time you may want to sit in the Grand Salon, positioned smartly at tables decked in proper white linen, surrounded by Louis Quinze blue-and-white wallpaper. Prop yourself up on the noble, high-backed chairs, and feel resplendent. For a moment, you'll think you're in the royal catbird seat.
But the moment passes quickly. No matter how dapper the waiters or how idyllic the setting, you've come here to eat, and that is something which, at present, you're not likely to do well at Chanteclair.
There's really no good excuse, either. The restaurant recently passed into the hands of the W. R. Grace Corp., which also owns the El Torito restaurants. Grace has made at least one smart move in retaining the services of Byron Gemmell, the talented chef who until recently was turning out some of the county's best foie gras and sauces at the now-defunct Gemmell's in Costa Mesa. Gemmell is a classically trained fellow (his teacher was none other than the late master chef Jean Bertranou of West Hollywood's L'Ermitage) and his capability is beyond reproach. That's why it's annoying to report that this restaurant has such a long way to go.
Gemmell isn't really doing the cooking, you see. Grace has been using him in a supervisory capacity, as a trainer and consultant. And so far, it looks as if his talents are being wasted. The menu hasn't changed much since Gemmell came aboard (although I'm told changes are planned). Meanwhile, the cooking doesn't nearly measure up to anything with which this chef has been associated in the past.
One has to wonder how the corporate yoke weighs on Gemmell's neck here. It felt pretty heavy around mine when I was eating the food, especially during my last lunch. A friend and I began with a terrible Caesar salad, inexplicably priced at nearly $10 (at dinner, a better Caesar is mixed tableside for $6.50). The salad was warm, the greens were limp and there was no discernible taste of cheese or anchovy. I sent it back to the kitchen.
What my friend ordered wasn't much better: a mealy lobster bisque with a watery little dollop of creme fraiche on top. If the atrium hadn't been so comfortable and relaxing, we might just have packed it in right there. Instead, we nibbled on a shrimp salad doused with a vinaigrette that tasted slightly stale.
Next came sauteed shrimp and scallops in sweet red pepper sauce and grilled lamb T-bone chops with ratatouille and rosemary polenta. What the dapper captain didn't tell us was that the lamb chops also came in a sweet red pepper sauce--the same sweet red pepper sauce as the shrimp! And an unpleasantly bitter sauce at that.
Dinner was somewhat better, although far from memorable. One appetizer, a simple enough conceit of ahi charred rare, was ill-treated by an insipid orange-ginger sauce. Another, a game bird and pistachio pate , had the stamp of high-speed food processor all over it: A uniformly mixed loaf, it had the texture of Spam. The only appetizer that worked well was quail with wild mushroom mousse. Basically a delicate duxelles of the sort Gemmell used to do at his namesake restaurant, the mousse was beautifully offset by a good, fresh piece of grilled quail.
The main dishes we tried, though, mostly lacked style. The class of the field was sea bass, a perfectly cooked piece of fish in a tomato-Chardonnay reduction, redolent of herbs and saffron. The firm and buttery fish had a mysterious flavor distantly reminiscent of North Africa. One would have sworn it had been prepared in a different kitchen.
Crispy duck and sweetbreads, however, were more symptomatic of the restaurant's flaws. The first-rate Muscovy duck breast had been crisped to a frazzle, then smothered in a sticky-sweet cherry sauce. The sweetbreads, blessed with an excellent sauce of balsamic vinegar, tomato and basil, were themselves sinewy rather than meltingly tender, as if they had either been stored too long or hadn't been quite choice sweetbreads to begin with.