The hottest tables in Orange County were once to be found in hotel dining rooms.
But our recent explosion of upscale restaurants has knocked the hotel off the summit of local eateries, and as a result hotel dining now seems tired. "You're eating in a hotel tonight?" a Newport Beach businessman asked me just the other day. "I'm glad you didn't ask me to come along."
It turned out his reaction was premature, however. It's still fun to dine in a hotel restaurant if it's the right hotel restaurant--such as JW's at the Anaheim Marriott.
JW's retains some of the grandeur that hotel dining rooms once exuded (although the antique books decorating the shelves are glued on). Maitre d' James Conway and his staff offer some of the area's most polished service, and chef John McLaughlin, a seven-year veteran of this kitchen, hasn't lost one iota of his creative flair. McLaughlin's tenure is the real dazzler. In the volatile world of the hotel chef, you count longevity as you would a dog's age. Seven years is practically a lifetime.
The interior is another constant. JW's is a labyrinth of little rooms decorated in the spirit of an 18th-Century French manor house, and it still manages to charm the socks off you. The same surfeit of gilded mirrors, elegant crockery, plush tapestry chairs and lace tablecloths make the atmosphere here seem immediate, and those hokey anachronistic touches so out of step with the '90s work their magic as well--the matchbooks embossed with the name on your reservation waiting for you at your table, the long-stemmed roses for each lady in your party, the live harp music.
What you eat is anything but anachronistic, however. McLaughlin is nothing if not a creator, and he's been playing with this menu for as long as anyone can remember, changing it constantly. He is without a doubt one of the county's most interesting chefs, a man who never seems to run out of ideas.
The problem, alas, is that there are a few that don't work. These dishes are beautiful to look at, but they are somewhat lacking in intensity. McLaughlin doesn't go in for stocks and meat reductions the way more conventional chefs do, so it must be said that the effect of his visual presentations is seldom matched by what registers on the palate.
Among the cold hors d'oeuvres, wild mushroom terrine layered with Sonoma foie gras, for example, makes a riveting appearance on the plate, but it can be on the bland side in the mouth.
The crisp zucchini blossoms stuffed with Gorgonzola and the smoked salmon ravioli with smoked vegetable sauce have their flaws too. The zucchini dish consists of three large deep-fried blossoms with a pungent filling that oozes like molten lava when the blossoms are cut, but it is a touch too oily and tends toward limpness. The ravioli are properly firm and well-conceived, but there just isn't enough flavor to satisfy.
When it comes to salads, though, McLaughlin is practically a maitre cuisinier. His smoked chicken salad with pine nuts, asparagus and mushroom in an almond oil vinaigrette is a perfect dish--a warmed mound of harmonious ingredients full of sweet, smoky flavors and contrasting textures. His lobster salad with artichoke hearts, sliced avocado and roasted peppers--with its delicate little chunks of lobster meat arranged artfully around the rest of the ingredients--shows further inspiration in its fragrant hazelnut oil dressing.
His entrees aren't inspirational, but they do show occasional flashes of brilliance. There is a wonderful fresh abalone dish made with baby abalone the chef has flown in from California's Central Coast. It rates an unqualified rave. Four or five pieces of sauteed abalone come in a lime, ginger and diced tomato sauce that I'd call McLaughlin's best, and the meat couldn't be more tender.
Roasted loin of wild boar with garlic sauce and garlic mashed potatoes is one of his signature dishes; it's been on his menu as long as I can remember. The meat here is from central Texas, and it's exotic and gamy. McLaughlin slices his boar aiguillette style and smothers it in a rich brown sauce that is easily his most intense. It's a great dish.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about other things. A tart of large sea scallops with caviar might be wondrous but for a soggy pastry on the bottom and a slightly acid beurre blanc on top. The perfumes of Santa Barbara prawns, about the best obtainable, don't jump out as they should, in spite of a good Dijon mustard and sweet corn sauce. And McLaughlin's roast rack of lamb Provencal, with a light crust of herbs and mustard, would be exactly the right dish for a dining room like this--if its flavors were somewhat more concentrated.