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Food Holds Its Own in Company of a Beautiful Diva

March 18, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"It's wonderful," said the stylishly dressed hostess at Diva, leading us through a crowd to our table. "Things haven't been this hot since Christmas week."

Diva is still hot, all right--so hot that even a recent Thursday lunch managed to be overbooked. Diva has rather an attitude about itself, too, the very name being a play on words involving the fashionable little electric lights hanging on wires (known as Diva lights) that are scattered throughout the room and the exalted divas of Opera Pacific who sing at the nearby Performing Arts Center.

Most people know already that Diva is one more feather in the cap of David Wilhelm, undeniably Orange County's superstar restaurateur. But don't expect to find Wilhelm toiling away in the restaurant's fully open kitchen, assembling any of the dishes he helped to create. He's frantically busy at the moment, opening the hot new Roxbury supper club that shot down the freeway from West Hollywood to Santa Ana this month, plus running half a dozen other restaurants around here.

By sheer coincidence, the man actually walked into Diva while I was having lunch one day, ostensibly to check on his charges. Perhaps his staff works more diligently when he is present, because that lunch was the best meal I had in the restaurant all week.

With or without Wilhelm's presence, though, this is probably the most stylish room in all of Orange County. During the evening, when the lights of affluence illuminate the surrounding high rises, the place literally glows with success. As seen from just outside through the floor-to-ceiling windows, this dining room has a faintly purplish tinge--a royal purple, worthy of the well-heeled customers celebrating themselves inside.

The L-shaped dining room is designer elegant, with appointments such as a huge, self-conscious gilded mirror in the room's center, a swank zinc-topped bar and more than a smattering of decorative art. (There are even works of art in the men's room, for heaven's sake, in this case abstract paintings by local artist Heidi Von Kamm.) Furthermore, Diva's menu is crammed full of dishes that might be called vain, dishes that show off most of the hottest trends and trendiest ingredients.

Take a '90s pasta, penne , and add rock shrimp, fresh corn, sweet peppers, cilantro, tomatoes and garlic. The chewy pasta is terrific, the sauce a great blend of ingredients. It's a show-offy Southwestern sort of dish that absolutely demands your attention.

All Wilhelm restaurants have elements of Southwestern cooking running through the kitchens. One wishes there were more, too, because a few of his dishes attract the wrong kind of attention. Grilled filet mignon sandwich with green peppercorn sauce tells you up front not to expect anything as plain as a beach shack steak sandwich, but nothing prepares you for the fact that the meat will be crowned with bearnaise sauce and smothered with onion rings, obscuring the whole concept of a steak sandwich with green peppercorn sauce.

In fact, many of Diva's dishes would be better if one or two components were removed. Warm spinach salad with corn, mushrooms and spicy-honey vinaigrette is already busy enough. But if you have it, as I did, with crispy grilled duck and wild rice polenta, you may quickly tire of it. (And never mind the fact that the duck could be crispier or the polenta more tender.)

That's why I like to go against the grain at a Wilhelm restaurant and order the simpler, less recherche things, since they are often the ones I enjoy most. It's an open secret that, for example, all his restaurants prepare a mean burger, and Diva is no exception. (This one is smoky and juicy. It is listed as cheeseburger with Roquefort or Cheddar on the lunch menu; have it with Cheddar.)

Caesar salad with Parmesan toast, available at lunch or dinner, is a fine example of the genre, fresh greens with a tangy, muscular dressing. Another good dish is the delicious thyme-scented chicken, which comes on a bed of wonderful, yielding mashed potatoes and just a bit too much sweet garlic sauce. If the chicken skin were a bit crisper, this dish would be a smashing success.

Diva also does a good job on fish. Dishes like "rare ahi towers on vegetable cassoulet, fresh corn puree and tomatillo sauce" and "peppered filet of salmon with roast potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and rosemary pesto" are delightful to eat, even if they are a bit exhausting to read. The salmon, especially, makes spare use of essentially simple ingredients, and the moist fish flakes off onto your fork on contact.

Meat dishes, such as that steak sandwich, haven't made nearly as good an impression on me. Perhaps I've been unlucky, but my lamb loin came out of the kitchen with a baked-on sauce, and I find the Muscovy duck with wild rice polenta, sun-dried cherry and black peppercorn sauce overly sweet and strange.

The good news is that the management clearly aims to please. If you so much as whisper a complaint about what you are eating in a Wilhelm restaurant, the waiter will try to help you find something you like better.

That's never a problem at dessert. Diva's warm brioche and berry pudding is a bread pudding for the gods: soft, eggy, buttery and even complex from the addition of boysenberries. Allow 20 minutes for one of the kitchen's excellent souffles , and hope they are serving the white chocolate and Grand Marnier souffle on the day you go.

Oh, and eat up while it's still hot. This is a hot sort of place.

Diva is moderately expensive. At lunch, small plates are $3.50 to $11, large plates are $7 to $12. At dinner, small plates are $3.50 to $9, large plates are $7 to $19.

DIVA

The Plaza Tower Building, Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

(714) 754-0600.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; for dinner nightly, 5 p.m. to midnight.

All major cards accepted.

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