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Great Setting, Good Soups, Frustrating Pasta and Other Stuft

June 27, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Edition. and

It's beautiful in Rancho Santa Margarita, a planned community in a canyon high above Mission Viejo. Just breathing the fresh, cool summer air justifies the long drive from practically anywhere.

But the pristine views and virgin forests have company now, in the form of golf links carved out of the wilderness and model homes by the hundreds. As you drive up the road, you see grandiose Spanish names--Casafina, Serabrisa, Alicante--on signs labeling the various patches of prefab housing.

Dove Canyon, for the present, is about as far as you can go without a Land Rover or an A-frame Kelty backpack. It has been developed with a vengeance like the rest of the area, but at least you can still smell the oak and sycamore trees when you get out of your car. And the garlic, of course--Robert Douk has opened one of his Stuft Noodle restaurants here.

The new Stuft Noodle, a sprawling pink Italian-style villa, has a great view of the entire landscape. The large, L-shaped dining room is probably the most beautiful spot from which to watch the sunset. Looking west out the arched windows, you have the peculiar feeling of being in a remote mountain resort that happens to have clumps of condos sprouting up all around it.

The restaurant is nicely appointed, but it has its own odd contrasts. All the tables are indirectly lit from above, giving the room a graceful, romantic appeal. But if you look up, you see an office space ceiling--little squares of white composite material bordered by cheap-looking aluminum moldings.

You sit in cushy booths upholstered in Euro-modern blue fabric, or on straight-up chairs in the same design, at tables spotted with napkins of a robin's-egg shade of blue that is startlingly garish against the pink tablecloths. Cute little ceramic cruets of balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil sit on all the tables.

The menu is basically the same as the one at the Newport Beach Stuft Noodle, with a few minor changes. It's huge--one of Orange County's biggest Italian menus--and a bit old-fashioned, given the current trend toward smaller portions and lighter ingredients. The good news is that sometimes the food is surprisingly good.

The appetizer gnocchi Gorgonzola, to name one. Gnocchi are those little pasta pillows made from potato and wheat flour, which vary, depending on the skill of the chef, as much as Aunt Sadie's matzo balls. The Stuft Noodle's gnocchi are tiny, about the size of Tootsie Rolls, and indisputably the lightest and fluffiest ones around. Even without the creamy, punchy Gorgonzola sauce, they are practically drowned in, they would be a treat.

Carpaccio al Firenze is another good way to begin a meal here, although there is room for improvement. Carpaccio is one dish that is only as good as its ingredients, and this kitchen uses excellent filet mignon, generously blanketed with fresh imported Parmesan. I will say, though, that the olive oil could be greener, and they really ought to cut down a little on the capers.

Soups hold up nicely, as well. The solicitous waiters will try to sprinkle fresh Parmesan on practically everything you eat here, but don't let them do it to your soup, especially if it is pasta e fagiole. This Roman-style pasta and bean soup is done with flair, full of mushrooms and soft cooked pasta, but it tends to be a bit salty, and the addition of cheese puts it up on Sodium Summit. The minestrone, a model thalt does not include beans, is a light broth chock full of celery, carrot and herbs and withstands the onslaught of the Parmesan much more handily.

The pastas can be a little frustrating, despite good ingredients and reasonable cooking techniques. They tend to be over-sauced and loaded up with things that overwhelm them, as if they wouldn't be pleasing enough on their own. Polenta Siciliana is smothered in a thick tomato sauce with chicken and roasted peppers, and the two minuscule squares you do get look and taste hopelessly lost underneath. Rigatoni with duck sausage has the same problem. It has far more mushrooms and cream sauce and sausage than pasta, and though tasty, the dish is excessively rich.

You run into this phenomenon with main dishes too. Pollo Valdostana is a nice piece of chicken in a lemon basil sauce that doesn't need the salty flood of sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto and mozzarella cheese that accompanies it. Lombata di vitello porcini, the classic veal chop with porcini mushrooms, is cooked in so much sauce you'd swear it was stewed instead of broiled. Even veal piccata, normally a fail-safe dish, cannot escape this fate. It's inundated in a gluey sauce that has enough cornstarch in it to cook a Chinese dinner.

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