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Recession Takes Bite Out of the 'Tuxedos'

February 06, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The recession has hit the "tuxedo" restaurants hard, and the mood is glum. These high-priced, clubby relics of generations past--dimly lit rooms that specialize in retro cooking and formal, gracious service--are often front-line victims of economic downturn.

But this time, it may be more than that. The rise of small ethnic restaurants and more price-conscious upscale dining rooms has sent this genre into a tailspin, and a full recovery seems unsure. Last week I visited two such restaurants. They certainly had their differences, yet one similarity was painfully obvious. Empty tables.

Matteo's in Corona del Mar is an offshoot of a restaurant in Westwood owned by Matty Jordan. Jordan (formerly Giordano) is from Hoboken, N.J., and one of his claims to fame is having a boyhood friend named Frank Sinatra. Matty's son, Michael, owns the Orange County Matteo's, basically no different in form or spirit from the Westwood operation.

Entering this crimson-and-black palazzo, you hear the dulcet tones of Ol' Blue Eyes himself. The walls are splotched with oils and watercolors, some of which hang down low enough to bump you in the head. You sit--make that sink--in the thickly cushioned luxury of black-leather banquettes, perhaps wondering, if you're a baby boomer, why almost everyone else in the restaurant is old enough to be one of your parents.

This is tasty food, though, and the people who eat here sing its praises unremittingly.

Look at all this garlic, oil, marinara sauce and breading--it's a throwback to the southern Italian style that once had America in its pocket. Does it make your mouth water? Oh, sure. Is it up to date? No, but that's precisely the appeal.

Sauteed artichokes with scampi sauce look like whole fried potatoes, with a flour coat and an overcoat of minced garlic. Baked clams are individual shells loaded with bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and garlic, where you dig for the clam just as you would on a beach in Maine.

Tasty peasant-style soups such as the hearty minestrone get their body from pasta, beans and an intensely perfumed broth swimming with nicely cooked vegetables. The salads (e.g., hearts of romaine) come smothered with creamy Roquefort dressing.

In the tuxedo-Italian tradition, pasta is a mere sideline. Instead of making an entree of linguine, lasagna or rigatoni (enormous platters, drowning in richly flavorful sauces), almost everyone here orders the giant plates of veal or chicken, served with mountains of cooked vegetables and bowls of al dente spaghetti topped with a meaty sauce Bolognese.

Among the dozens of veal and chicken permutations involving prosciutto, mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, fried potatoes, garlic, marinara sauce, butter, onions and Marsala wine, you can pretty much find one that fits your specifications. Chicken rollettini is a half dome of pounded chicken breast filled with sauteed onions, peppers, mushrooms, spinach and cheese. It's really quite delicious, too, even if it looks like a deflated basketball. Veal cutlet Matteo turns out to be a huge piece of prime veal, smothered in a rich tomato sauce and crowned with a giant hunk of fried eggplant.

For serious (read: insatiable) eaters, there are hearty peasant dishes too: braciole (rolled, stuffed beef), fried pork chops, osso buco. Sausage and peppers make a model of Mt. Etna, piled high with an overflow of addictively crispy cottage-fried potatoes. This is, no kidding, a big plate of food. If it were any bigger, they could do one of those eat-it-all, get-it-free promotions.

Matteo's is expensive. Pastas are $10.50 to $21.95. Entrees are $14 to $22.95. Selected complete dinners are $21.95 to $23.95.

Colors are considerably more muted at La Grotte, a restaurant once preeminent in downtown Long Beach. The restaurant first opened its doors in 1976, intimate and removed from the world--actually below ground, as the name implies (grotte is French for cave). In 1989, however, it moved to a handsome ground-floor location in the ultra-modern Arco Center, a peach-colored room distinguished by dark woods, elegant booths and low-pitch acoustics. Business has been disappointing ever since.

Chef Andre Angles is a disciple of Roger Verge, whose Moulin de Mougins in southern France is one of Europe's most celebrated restaurants, and somehow you'd think Angles's menu would be more distinctive. Mostly, though, it's solidly crafted classic French, with a section labeled "innovative cuisine" reserved for such dishes as fresh foie gras with raspberry vinegar and lamb loin in a pastry shell with port wine sauce. Sorry, M. Angles, but these dishes are hardly anything new.

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