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Roxbury Is the Hot New Place to Be

May 20, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

Totally hot! There really are no other words to describe Roxbury, the new supper club/nightclub in Santa Ana's Hutton Centre. It's a branch of the celebrity hangout by the same name in West Hollywood, and a slick, self-assured operation that works on almost every level, as you realize the moment the parking valets swoop down on your car.

The huge, labyrinthine mansion that houses it has been home to a succession of unsuccessful restaurant (the last occupant being the ill-fated Hubert's), but the jinx stops here. The only trace of Hubert's left is an enormous crystal chandelier that dominates the dining room. The building has been completely redone at a cost of more than $2 million, so perhaps it is anticlimactic to say that this place looks like a million. Anyway, it does.

Just look in any night around 11 p.m., if you can get past the ropes where people line up outside. This is Studio 54, the Fillmore West and a David Wilhelm food fantasy all rolled into one. Wave after wave of gorgeously dressed hard bodies brush by you in the halls, on the staircases and in the bar and disco.

About the only refuge from this crush of humanity is the pale magenta Art Deco-style dining room, which club manager Harold Herrmann has filled with oils by (get this) Russian modernist painters, to offset the palm fronds and \o7 faux\f7 -Caribbean chairs.

On weekends, when the crowd is so massive that just getting close to the front door seems an impossible quest, the dining room fills right up. But come on a Wednesday or Thursday evening around 9 p.m. and you'll find a surprising number of empty tables here. Only the semi-private booths, trimmed in crimson velvet, are tough tables on those nights, although the disco swells up by 10 p.m.

How can this be? Maybe Roxbury already has such a rep as the all-time place to impress a date that a lot of people don't realize this kitchen is as accomplished as almost any in Orange County. Its \o7 au courant \f7 but simple menu was put together by managing partner David Wilhelm, of (needless to point out in Orange County) Bistro 201, Diva and Zuni Grill fame.

The chef is Thomas Tran, opening chef for Wilhelm at Kachina in Laguna Beach, and brother, can this man cook. Tran has held on to a few exotic dishes--the sort of thing he cooked during his tenure at Kachina--and they deserve top billing.

One is a gooey barbecued duck quesadilla that four people can share as an appetizer. Another is the eye-opening Rasta pasta: linguine, chicken, olives, and chilies nearly as hot as the upstairs bar.

But this is an eclectic menu designed for an eclectic crowd. Naturally, there are pizzas, everything from the tempting barbecued chicken pizza with radicchio, smoked mozzarella and grilled onions to the deliciously light vegetarian pie topped with mushroom, artichoke, pepper, tomatoes, grilled eggplant and pungent Pecorino cheese.

And there are plenty of pastas, though none to top the Jamaican stunner mentioned above. Fettuccine with Gorgonzola cheese and mushrooms is too rich to finish. Angel hair is one of the few dishes that get a traditional treatment--tomatoes, basil, arugula, garlic and EVO. (We're supposed to figure out that EVO stands for extra virgin olive oil. Get it?)

Wilhelm's vaunted "small plates" (appetizers) run to things such as coconut shrimp and Caesar salad. The shrimp is a real hoot, with a thick candy-like crust, tangerine sauce and something called spicy cashew coleslaw. His Caesar salad is the masculine type: big leaves, an anchovy-heavy dressing, croutons fashioned from bread baked with rosemary and Parmesan cheese.

The "big plates" (main dishes) truly live up to their name. These are monster portions, big enough to make most of Roxbury's tightly clad fashion plates reconsider what they are wearing.

The Southern fried chicken, served with great lumpy mashed potatoes and a thick cream gravy, is absolutely irresistible. Tran uses large boneless chicken breasts, batter-fried to a deep, spicy golden brown. I had a native of Baton Rouge present to pass judgment on the New Orleans gumbo on red beans and dirty rice, and she gave it high marks. It's a mildly spiced version chock-full of \o7 boudin \f7 sausage chunks, pork riblets and stewed okra.

Perfectly grilled salmon is topped with frizzled onions and a warm Santa Fe-style relish. There's a prime filet mignon with bearnaise sauce and great french fries, though I can do without the excessive brown \o7 demi-glace \f7 that Wilhelm-influenced kitchens insist on embellishing steaks with. About the only thing I've run into here that I haven't liked, in fact, is the mesquite-smoked duck, sweetened up to dessert levels with Jamaican rum sauce and glazed bananas.

Speaking of dessert, the small but appealing dessert list is full of wonderful things.

Hot apple crisp with a Cheddar cheese crust tastes like something you'd get at a church supper, the caramelized apples densely packed under a brown sugar cheese crust. Buttermilk cheesecake is wedded to a light raspberry sauce and gets a dollop of real whipped cream. The warm flourless chocolate mousse cake swims in a hazelnut-flavored \o7 creme Anglaise.\f7

After dinner, book a table upstairs in the VIP Room for after-dinner drinks and big bowls of cappuccino. Or work off the dinner in the downstairs disco, or take in the live band in the nightclub area. The night is young and, baby, so are you.

Roxbury is moderate to expensive. Appetizers, pastas and pizzas are $5.75 to $14. Big plates are $13 to $17. Desserts are $5.

* ROXBURY

* 2 Hutton Centre, Santa Ana.

* (714) 662-0880

* Open for dinner 7-11 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Club open till 2 a.m.

* All major credit cards accepted.

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