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Shades of Gray Richly Color the Menu at Club Grill

October 22, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The Club Grill has the odd distinction of being the "other" dining room at Dana Point's Ritz-Carlton. This is a hotel, remember, that calls its principal restaurant The Dining Room, rather pointedly implying something like that slogan, "Everything else is just a light."

Forgive me for the plebeian analogy. Because we are, I reiterate, at the Ritz-Carlton, Orange County's bastion of swank. In any of this posh hotel's dining rooms, Evian water is poured free of charge, and the lowly Miller Lite competes with 25-year-old single-malt scotches and after-dinner drinks with pedigrees like the '80 Madeira d'Oliveira--the '80 from 1880 , that is: 40 bucks a snifter.

Like most rooms in this hotel, the Club Grill harks back to a gentler, more refined era, although with charms not as authentically Victorian as the Madeira. It actually feels like the '30s in here--pre-war England, let us say, at some kind of exclusive men's club.

One dines amid flickering lights and genteel music, dressed to the nines. (Gentlemen, your jackets, please.) Waiters sport black ties, of course, and do everything possible to make their charges feel important. They address guests formally, for example, and even crumb the table between courses.

As one might suspect, the room's theme is equine, suggesting the hunt: little bronze steeds perched atop room dividers, oil paintings of dappled horses running free in grassy meadows. And it's dark in here too--lots of earth tones and rich wood hues, intimately romantic, so dark it takes a flashlight to read the menu.

Chef John Gray is only 25, younger than a number of the single-malt scotches. He started in the hotel pantry six years back but quickly blossomed under the watchful eye of the hotel's capable executive chef, Christian Rassinoux.

Many dishes on Gray's short but engaging menu are grill standards: a gaudy table-side Caesar prepared from a wooden cart, a beefy French onion soup complete with Gruyere cheese crouton, New York steak flamed with cracked peppercorn and Armagnac. Taste a few of his more personal statements, though--his white bean soup, say, or an original version of escargots-- and it is easy to understand why Rassinoux singled him out for stardom.

Gray's escargots are listed with the appetizers, but this is such an altogether luxurious preparation that the dish must be shared, unless you're willing to choose a light second course to follow. Nearly a dozen chewy, flavorful snails come astride roasted red peppers inside three filo pastry cornets--a beautiful presentation. The cornets are stacked one atop the other, drizzled with melted goat cheese, all soaking up a pool of dark, rich wine sauce. Wow.

I'm also a fan of his white-bean-and-lentil soup. This is as smooth and silky as any bean soup has a right to be, but it's not a rich soup and not quite intense enough on its own. A side cruet of garlic oil makes an ingenious complement, rounding it out almost perfectly. Now, someone in the kitchen should have the good sense to do away with this giant show-off bowl. In this thing, the soup cools much too quickly.

Smoked vegetable ravioli in lobster essence is another Gray specialty, though I would have liked it better without the superfluous flavors of the pungent St. Andre cheese alongside. No Italian would call this thing ravioli--two sheets of pasta filled with a brunoise of carrot, zucchini and other light vegetables--but in the formless world of nouvelle Americana, anything goes.

Start lighter with a steady but uninspiring warm salad of julienned spinach, tomato, smoked duck and pancetta, or something like marinated duck carpaccio with apple vinegar, walnut and hazelnut oils, the latter starred to indicate that it is a spa selection, with reduced calories, sodium and cholesterol. All restaurants in this hotel have spa selections on the menus, and the idea is admirable. Many of Gray's entrees favor extreme richness, and this way, the two courses can be balanced.

Richest of all might be a dish with a '90s buzzword for lightness, ahi, as its principal component. Gray's charred rare ahi comes in the form of two huge steaks seared with Cajun spices, not very overpowering of themselves. But consider that underneath the ahi is an oyster fried rice that must be 60% oyster, and alongside, thickly battered tempura vegetables. Get ready to swoon.

Roasted air-dried duck is so sweet it's a little cloying. It's a reasonably juicy, crisp skinned bird, fanned out on the plate, topped with Szechuan peppers and kumquats, of all things. Gray gets eccentric on us at times too. Look at his spring lamb chops--perfectly normal before they hit the grill, but served with a pickled blueberry bourbon demi-glace.

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