YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Breakfast Here Takes the Pancake

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

D anese al formaggio? For breakfast? What is Orange County coming to?

Well, it's only the Italian name for a cheese Danish. Still, you get the feeling that the young and restless servers at Il Fornaio Cucina Expressa are snickering behind their smiles when you try to pronounce it.

As Danishes go, this buttery, dense little square isn't bad at all, filled with a rich, smooth filling that would make anybody's cardiologist grimace. But don't get all worked up just yet, because the handsome, successful crowd that files in here for breakfast more or less ignores the good pastry and finger-sized cookies that this chain does so well in favor of more Spartan fare like avena calda (that's oatmeal) and pane tostato (wonderful toast made from hearth-style bread).

This new, upscale cafeteria--and that's what it is, really, in spite of the impressive architecture and '90s Italian menu--serves three squares a day, but breakfast is definitely my meal of choice in here.

You can come any time, actually, for a cup of terrific espresso or a tall tumbler of pulpy, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. But breakfast is the only meal at which you can have goodies like yogurt with seasonal berries or the house granola, a sticky-sweet homemade version weighted down with golden raisins and slivered almonds. (And if you plan to come for one of the other meals here, you're going to want a low-fat breakfast.)

Were I about to chop down a tree, I'd consider hot breakfast items like torta di frittata or frittelle allo sciroppo d'acero. The frittata is a butter-happy slice of Italian-style quiche, and it's heavenly, a golden puff of potato, leek and grated Parmesan.

The other dish is just a molto trendy way to say pancakes with maple syrup--but what impressive pancakes they are, light as a feather and topped with a huge chunk of sweet butter and pure maple syrup.

Look up from your latte and you are bound to be impressed by the way this place looks, too.

The timeless Euro-trash elegance is characterized by vaulted windows, a cathedral ceiling and that beige-and-deep-brown color scheme that is all the rage these days. Tables are squeezed in throughout the long, rectangular dining room.

However, I'm afraid the combination of the high ceiling and the narrow table area makes this room feel like a giant miter box (there's also a less intimidating patio area, which features morning sun and plenty of fresh air). I also wish they wouldn't play heavy metal music before 9 a.m., but by the looks of this crowd, that puts me in the minority.

Wherever you choose to sit, this is how it works in here: You order your food, most of which is already on display, from a long line. Then you place it on your tray and slide it all down to the cashier, whereupon one of the servers takes over, carrying the assembly to the table you request, which is already set for your convenience. Did I mention that you have to pay first? A minor detail.

After breakfast, you're bound to get hungry for lunch, because while you were eating, the chefs were busy putting all the panini (sandwiches) and noontime salads on display, and they look great. (A lot better, I might add, at 9 a.m. than at 9 p.m., when the bloom is distinctively off most of them.)

There are some eye-catching salad classics. Insalata di mare is a seafood salad containing squid, shrimp and fish, together with fresh vegetables and green olives. I'd call the insalata di Cesare a muscular sort of Caesar, with big croutons, a strongly flavored anchovy dressing and an aggressive sprinkling of Parmesan on the romaine.

I wasn't bowled over by my panzanella, but I must admit I ate it later in the evening. It's a Tuscan salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with sweet basil, olive oil and more enormous croutons . . . maybe too enormous. They sop up the oil and moisture like sponges, rendering this salad almost unpleasant.

At dinner, the big draw for me has to be the roast duck and chicken from the mesquite oven. The birds are so smoky they almost leave the scent in your clothes. This anitra (duck) is almost rose pink by the time you get it, and even though the skin is chewier than it needs to be, the meat needs no excuses; it's simply terrific. The chicken rotates slowly on a rotisserie, and it, too, has a sensationally smoky finish, and this time the bonus of really crisp skin. As if that weren't enough, both birds come with a generous side of good stewed potatoes.

Los Angeles Times Articles