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Last Bistango Is Garish, but Shows Taste in the Kitchen

July 11, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Edition.

No one can deny that the Atrium, a stunning edifice of polished blue slate that blends in gently with the sky, is one of Orange County's most important works of architecture. Twin towers, 10 stories high, face each other across a lobby containing more than 1 million cubic feet of empty space.

Space is at a premium at ground level, though, where an imposing restaurant named Bistango dominates the scene. Owner John Ghoukassian has extended the seating area of his restaurant well into the atrium lobby, in order to make the atmosphere more like that of a cafe. His original concept at the Bistango he co-owned in Cannes, France, was for it to be part restaurant, part cafe. Likewise at its more recent incarnation on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. His Orange County Bistango has been open since 1987.

But the restaurant is more gallery than cafe at present. Almost 100 sculptures, photographs, airbrush paintings and Impressionist oils have been hung on its yellow canvas walls, themselves an indoor version of Christo's "Running Fence," which snakes its way through the premises.

Most of these works are for sale, too, in conjunction with Susan Spiritus Gallery in South Coast Plaza and other artists' representatives. It's a winning idea, but one that many will find, in light of the restaurant's ultra-modern look, something of a sensory overload. I'm reminded of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, a converted train station cluttered with art and sculpture covering five centuries of French genius. You simply don't know where to look first.

Architect Michael Carapetian's design just doesn't need the competition. Bistango remains, after four years and competition from many pretenders, the boldest visual statement made by an Orange County restaurant. The rough slate floor, the immense blue-gray granite bar, the chic Italian furniture and deliciously low-slung, gray, plastic ceiling make the room exotic enough for a James Bond adventure. Forests of lush tropical plants, oversized white canvas umbrellas over tables and the sound of rushing waters--from lobby fountains just beyond the restaurant limits--add lush sensuality.

The cooking has always been sensuous at Bistango as well, but never as good as it is today. Ghoukassian's cafe-style menu, revolving around designer pizzas, creative pastas and grilled meats and seafoods, has undergone a series of changes since original chef Eugenio Martingnago's tenure.

A young Austrian import named Paul Gstein handles cooking chores now, and his food is a delight. I recently had a superb lunch at Bistango that started with a wonderful variation on salade Nicoise (with a piece of perfectly charred ahi on top), progressed to green and white tagliarini with Santa Barbara shrimp, fresh basil and tarragon, and ended with a plump little poussin, the bird stuffed with goat cheese and spinach in a shiitake mushroom butter sauce.

This food stands up nicely to the restaurant's bold design, but owner Ghoukassian, ever the innovator, recently took a bold step. He brought in Jonathan Waxman, one of America's most interesting young chefs, to consult with Gstein and overhaul the menu completely. The result is an ambitious interpretation of California cuisine, a style usually not found this far from West Hollywood or Santa Monica.

Those familiar with Waxman's career will not be surprised. His roots are in Santa Monica, specifically as a onetime chef at Michael's, a restaurant that has produced some of the best young talent in the country. Waxman's New York restaurant, Jams, enjoyed critical success for quite some time, and he is now poised to open a new place in the Napa Valley. I'm an unabashed fan, and I'm predicting that Orange County eaters will share my enthusiasm soon.

Waxman's food, like Bistango's decor, tends toward the busy, so it's an appropriate marriage. His dishes are almost never simple, with many flavors and colors and yet, magically, almost everything works.

Take his shrimp and scallop pizza with corn, bacon, tomatoes, green onion and rosemary, which sounds a little like sensory overload itself. It isn't. All the ingredients have similar, but slightly different, textures, and the sweetness of the seafood and corn is offset wonderfully by the salty, crunchy bacon and the pungency of fresh rosemary.

Smoked chicken salad with watercress, endive, radicchio, walnuts and goat cheese is another example of dancing textures. The smoked chicken has a delicious aftertaste, and the vegetables were all made for each other.

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