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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : Splashes' Chef Shows He Can Make Some Waves of His Own

June 13, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Edition. and

Take away the designer chairs of unstained wood and the dining tables composed mainly of thick blue-tinged glass, and Splashes gives the impression of a beachfront art gallery between exhibits.

It's the sort of room almost no one can resist: small and cozy, and perched no more than 15 feet above the pounding surf of Laguna Beach. That itself is reason enough for a meal here. Watching and listening as the waves roll in at Splashes is one of the most relaxing and irresistible attractions Orange County has to offer. No designer or chef anywhere could upstage that.

But that doesn't stop them from trying. Designer James Northcutt has refurbished the Surf & Sand Hotel that houses the restaurant, giving it a stylish Mediterranean look infused with stunning California overtones. This lower-level dining room is dominated by blond wood in the form of dozens of little windows exposing the sea. The room really does hang right out over the ocean, and after sunset the hotel floods the beach with indirect lighting for your viewing pleasure. All this makes the view even more panoramic, perhaps, than Nature herself intended. I'd call Splashes the most dramatic place to dine on the South Coast.

Other elements, minimalist in the spirit of a millionaire's beachfront living room, add to the glamour--a ruddy stone floor, two palm fronds placed in a corner by the entrance, tropical flowers in brick-red stone pots on every table, a few off-white fans twirling languidly overhead for pure effect, and a wood-burning fireplace defiantly throwing off heat.

If all of this is too much of a controlled environment for you, or if you're a smoker, try to finagle one of the six outside tables situated in the two partly enclosed areas on each side of the dining room. (Because the main dining room is so small, the city of Laguna Beach insisted on designating it a nonsmoking room.) The sea feels even closer out here, and somehow looks more inevitable. It's like having a beachfront meal at a resort when you know that you have to go back tomorrow.

Those who sit outside at the far end of the dining room will notice a huge canvas umbrella draped over a side wall. You might call this an inside joke; the umbrella is identical to the ones that shade the patio tables at Citrus up in Hollywood, probably the most celebrated California-French restaurant in the country. This is no coincidence--Chef Jack Kenworth is a protege of Citrus' Michel Richard, and indeed much of his food recalls his mentor's.

Kenworth combines his own creativity with French, California and Mediterranean influences to create a menu in keeping with the spirit of Northcutt's design. His basil and goat cheese terrine is a page from Richard's book, alternating layers of red pepper puree and goat cheese wrapped in a roasted eggplant skin. It's one of the best things he does.

His grilled Belgian endive is another appetizer that works well. Quite unsubtly, he wraps the endive in a large piece of crisped-up pancetta, sandwiching in some strong-flavored fontina and serving it all in a puddle of shallot vinaigrette. With the Italian bacon and cheese flavors, it's a powerful dish, and not characteristic of his style at all, but I'm crazy about it.

Not all of the starters enjoy this kind of success. Couscous crab cakes seem dry and grainy, arranged on the plate with a cucumber-mint chutney that tastes self-consciously exotic. The spicy white bean salad with prosciutto and arugula combines three of my favorite foodstuffs anywhere and manages to lull me halfway to sleep anyway. His pizzas, which change nightly, tend to be bland and overcooked.

But there are a lot of things to like here, and Kenworth's clam corn chowder--a chunky, intensely flavored soup that fights off the chill of the sea--is one of the best. It's bright yellow with saffron, and the essence of clam really comes through. Soft chunks of potato and crunchy niblets of corn add winning contrast. Just make sure the chef himself is in the kitchen the night you order it--I had it twice, and on his night off I was disappointed.

In fact, I'd always want to know whether Kenworth is in the kitchen when I eat at Splashes. I tried duck with ginger kumquat sauce and polenta on his night off, a big mistake. Someone forgot the polenta altogether, and the duck was so overdone I couldn't eat a bite.

Fortunately, though, he's there almost every evening, and when he is a lot of dishes shine. Roast lamb cassoulet is one. It's a soup bowl full of beans with slices of lamb tenderloin fanned out on top. Ah, but what beans! They're flageolets, the delicate French white beans, in a complex stew with bits of pancetta, a tomato-based stock and sweet fresh tarragon. Perfectly sauteed scallops with linguine in a basil and Asiago cheese sauce is another marvel. The sweetness of the scallops is perfectly countered by the tart, herbal fragrances in the pasta.

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