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Napa Valley in Costa Mesa?

May 30, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A business park in Costa Mesa would seem to have little in common with the romantic California wine country. But step inside the low-slung building that houses the Robert Mondavi Wine & Food Center, and you could well be in the Napa Valley.

Here are sun-washed rooms, striking art works, bouquets of vivid flowers, floors paved with Arizona flagstone in subtle desert hues. The mood is carefree, like a resort.

But the intent here is all business. Mondavi opened the center in October, 1989, to establish a presence in Southern California, the largest wine market in the United States. The center is the headquarters of Mondavi's Southern California sales force; business firms and other organizations reserve rooms for meetings, meals and seminars that impart expertise in wines.

"We are very much after the corporate market," says Peter Korzilius, center director since November. "There's hardly a corporation of major importance that is not represented in Orange County." Korzilius is a former food and beverage director at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (now the Regent Beverly Wilshire) and teaches in the hotel management school at Cal Poly Pomona.

The center regularly schedules wine tastings, cooking classes, charity benefits, art shows and programs designed around celebrity chefs. Upcoming events include a black-tie dinner featuring three vintages of Opus One this Saturday, an herb garden picnic June 8, a class on cooking American food June 13, a wine tasting June 18 and the final session of a course on entertaining with wine and food June 25.

The center seats 200 for dinner, can accommodate as many as 400 for a reception, or serve lunch, brunch or dinner for as few as eight. Menus are designed by chef Rosanne Ruiz, who came to the center from the Sorrento Grille in Laguna Beach. She emphasizes fresh, light, natural dishes that complement the wines. And she makes a point of using local products, such as Orange County-grown strawberries and Santa Ana sourdough bread.

She and her staff work in an 850-square-foot professional kitchen equipped with an overhead mirror that turns the cooking area into a classroom.

Dining is by reservation only. There is no walk-in trade, no shop stocked with T-shirts, bottle openers, posters, or other wine paraphernalia--and no tasting room where drop-ins can sidle up for a few sips of Chardonnay and Cabernet. What the center calls its tasting room is an airy lounge with tiny footprints of some prehistoric animal embedded in the flagstone floor.

The coolly elegant style set by the Mondavi winery in Napa Valley is mirrored in its Southern California satellite with plain white table linens and china in the dining rooms, masses of flowers inside and out, imposing statues of St. Francis of Assisi and even the heavy Mission-style light fixture that hangs in the tasting room. Robert Mondavi is always present--not in person but in a large photo mounted on the wall in a hallway. He's shown in the proud posture of a matador, modeling a jacket covered with wine corks.

Rootstock for a vineyard was planted last year and grafted to the varietals in March. But don't expect any Orange County appellation wine. The vines will be for demonstration only.

What follows are some of Ruiz's recipes, which she recently prepared for a wine seminar and luncheon at the center. She served the pan-fried oysters as an appetizer, and the zucchini-and-potato pancakes as a side dish with roast leg of lamb with Cabernet sauce. Before sending out the peach cobbler (which she topped with vanilla bean ice cream), Ruiz served Black Diamond Cheddar cheese paired with warmed walnuts.

Mondavi wines--a 1989 Woodbridge Chardonnay, 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and 1989 Moscato d'Oro--were, of course, on the table.

PAN-FRIED QUILCENE OYSTERS

8 Quilcene oysters

Flour

1 egg, beaten

3 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

Mixed greens

Citrus Dressing

Shuck oysters. Dust oysters in flour, dip in egg and roll in panko. Saute in olive oil until golden brown. Toss mixed greens with Citrus Dressing to taste. Arrange on 4 salad plates. Top each with 2 oysters. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Other large Pacific Northwest oysters may be substituted for Quilcenes.

Citrus Dressing

Juice of 2 oranges

Juice of 2 limes

Juice of 2 lemons

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Combine orange, lime and lemon juices in saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced to half. Place in bowl and slowly whisk in olive oil. Season to taste with Kosher salt. Makes about 1 cup.

ZUCCHINI-AND-POTATO PANCAKES

2 zucchini

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 egg

3 tablespoons flour

Salt, pepper

1/4 cup peanut oil

Grate zucchini and potatoes together. Add egg, flour and season to taste with salt and pepper. Form into 8 pancakes 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Heat peanut oil in skillet over high heat. Saute pancakes in single layer in skillet until golden brown on each side. Makes 4 servings.

PEACH COBBLER

5 peaches, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Nut Topping

Combine peaches, sugar, flour and cinnamon. Place in 11x7-inch baking dish and cover with Nut Topping. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 40 minutes or until topping is golden brown. Makes 8 servings.

Nut Topping

1 cup flour

6 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed

6 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped pecans

Blend flour, brown sugar, butter and nuts until consistency is similar to oatmeal.

Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deanne

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