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RESTAURANTS : Randell's Pastas Sound Good, but Go With the Creole

August 27, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

The idea of a supper club seems to be contradictory. Restaurants with live entertainment rarely dazzle you with their fine food.

Randell's doesn't exactly punch holes in the stereotype, but the story only begins there. Drive down the Costa Mesa Freeway near MacArthur Boulevard, and you are bound to be struck by the sight of an enormous banner proclaiming "Pasta and Jazz." If that sounds hot to you, your instincts are right on target.

The banner doesn't tell you, though, that this is one smart-looking place. The restaurant, which occupies the bottom level of a South Coast Metro skyscraper, Three Hutton Centre, has a strikingly spare Art Deco motif in blue and black.

It's a smart-sounding place, too. Probably because owner and namesake Randell Young is a blues guitarist, Randell's has fabulous acoustics. The restaurant's carpeted walls absorb sound while the dining room's long, narrow shape bends and deflects it. As a result, the music comes through loud and clear, but you can also have a conversation.

I find this a comfortable room. It's true that the color scheme is extremely dark, but the black tablecloths shimmer in the diffused light, and the blue-black fabric chairs have high, arching backs you can sink down into. The best tables are lined up along a series of floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows facing out onto a man-made lake. You can see the stage from any of them, but you are also far enough away from it to have an intimate, relaxing evening.

The three-level stage is positioned by the restaurant's entrance, so jazz-lovers can drop in without disturbing the diners. The ensemble musicians position themselves on the two lower levels, and the top level is a drum platform highlighted by a back-lit block of glass which throws light directly onto all the performers.

Just don't plan on lighting up yourself. Believe it or not, this is a jazz club where smoking is strictly prohibited. The New Age is coming sooner than you think.

So far, so good. The chef is Michelangelo Bergini, an Argentine of Italian descent. Bergini has his strong points, but no matter what the banner implies, pasta is not one of them. I prefer his vegetables and the entire menu of appealing, offbeat Creole specialties.

One of Bergini's good appetizers is called Randell's supreme. The menu describes this thin-sliced cold cut as rolled flank steak stuffed with red peppers, egg, carrots and spinach, and it's suspiciously close to an Argentine specialty called matambre (which means "kill hunger" in Spanish.) The slices are served atop a highly ordinary side salad of wilted lettuce with a choice of the standard dressings.

Instead of the salad, ask for a cup of Bergini's good minestrone. (Soup or salad comes with all entrees.) I've already said this chef is good with vegetables, and this all-vegetarian soup might be the best thing here. It's a rich red broth laced with oregano and loaded with red and green beans, pasta and chunks of tomato. High rollers might prefer beluga Bergini ; it's Russian caviar with iced Stolichnaya. The menu informs you it is Randell's personal favorite, and I'll vouch for the combination myself.

But on to the pastas. I have a definite bone to pick with Bergini's linguine alla puttanesca, which is supposed to be a powerful Neapolitan dish made with olive oil, anchovies, capers, whole olives and garlic. This menu description disclaims anchovies, but the other components, allegedly minced into a nondescript sauce, are almost undetectable.

Ravioli and tagliatelle at least don't make any promises they can't keep. Bergini's ravioli are a carnivore's dream dish, dense pasta pillows with skin as thick as Jewish kreplach and a finely chopped meat filling, all smothered with a light, meaty Bolognese sauce. He stuffs them with spinach or cheese as well. Tagliatelle alla principessa are thin noodles in a thick marinara sauce, with a dollop of fresh pesto smack in the middle. The combination would have been a pleasant surprise, but the noodles, like most here, come up mushy.

The Creole dishes are the best entrees, but you can expect a few of the usual Italian restaurant war horses. Melanzane alla Napoletana is just a fancy name for what most of us know as eggplant Parmesan, even if this eggplant is layered with mozzarella. The marinara sauce is just fine, but the eggplant isn't. It's coated in a thick breading which absorbs oil the way these walls absorb sound.

Scampi Carlucci are large shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce, and this time the dish comes up short because the shrimp have no flavor. So thank heaven for New Orleans, which the menu kindly tells you is responsible for Creole cooking, described here as a mixture of French, Spanish, American Indian, African and Italian (pardon me?) cuisines.

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