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Uncover South Coast's Hidden Trove

July 01, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition

The South Coast Plaza area is chockablock with hidden treasures and wonderful places to eat. Santa Ana's Discovery Museum and a sheltered rock garden known as California Scenario are two of the better local attractions. When seen one after another, they make for an interesting contrast between the area's past and future.

11 to noon: The Discovery Museum and its main attraction, a Victorian mansion called Kellogg House, are hidden away in a mostly industrial section of Santa Ana. Every year, the museum and its grounds attract more than 20,000 school children and bunches of curious locals.

The gated grounds are breathtaking, embroidered with orange, lemon and grapefruit trees, home to a cluster of turn-of-the-century buildings.

The buildings--a Carriage House, Maag House (being restored) and Kellogg House, the onetime home of surveyor Hiram Clay Kellogg--weren't always here. (They were actually transplanted to this location on flatbed trucks.) A lovely gazebo area is used for weddings and special events. Occasional teas are served in the complex's rose garden.

But it is Kellogg House you want to see, a beautifully restored home filled with antiques and curiosities. The best way to visit is to pick up the self-guiding pamphlet in the entry hall and follow the itinerary. You'll see an old Victorian parlor complete with a working pump organ, a billiard room and such items as a stereoscope, Victrola and a crank telephone, all of which retain mechanical functions and popular standing with visiting kids, who tinker with them incessantly.

An upstairs children's room has an old-fashioned Tic Tac Toe game board, a tiny sewing machine, handmade quilts and a four-poster mahogany bed. The master bedroom is now used as a textile exhibit area. After the tour, you can visit an herb garden and the Harvard Street Gift Shop, located on the grounds.

Noon to 12:15: It will take you about 15 minutes by car to reach Anton Boulevard, next to South Coast Plaza, stopping place for both California Scenario and a rustic Italian lunch. The most direct route takes you south on Fairview Road to MacArthur Boulevard, then right on Bristol Street to Anton.

12:15 to 1:30: Many people have expressed disappointment that Il Fornaio Cucina Expressa, an upscale Italian cafeteria experiment, has been converted to a sit-down restaurant, Il Fornaio Rosticceria. I am not one of them.

Sit at one of the tables exposed to the outside, partially hidden behind iron mesh curtains, for one of the best lunches in the county. Meats are spit roasted here and they are great: anitra (plump Petaluma duck), maiale (pork loin served with Italian bacon, sage and Tuscan beans), leg of lamb or, for a departure, costolette Milanese , a pan-fried veal chop large enough to cover the plate.

The inside room retains its sleek, narrow elegance, and all the Il Fornaio traditions remain: great bread and bread sticks, snappy service, terrific desserts. Try mattonella , a frozen mascarpone with ladyfingers and espresso that puts tiramisu to shame.

1:30 to 2: After lunch, walk across the street and enter the narrow passage between El Torito Grill and the Bank of the West buildings. That will bring you to California Scenario, one of the most compelling outdoor rock gardens anywhere.

Isamu Noguchi, one of America's most gifted sculptors, is responsible for this strange granite and sandstone landscape.

The inspiration is unmistakably Japanese--spare, simple, and transcendental. But the environment is pure California--modern and dramatically abstract.

The motif is composed of a jigsaw of contrasting elements: solitary, irregular rock masses jutting from a sandstone floor; flowering cacti on a dome-shaped knoll; a stainless steel fountain surrounded by Rockville granite; a waterfall rising 30 feet in a triangular pilla; a redwood path called forest walk, and a miniature mountain lined with wildflowers.

Like gardens you find in Tokyo, this is a quiet place to reflect on man's relationship to nature, in the middle of an urban sprawl. White concrete walls 40 feet high shield it from the outside world, creating a timeless calm. A symphony of cascading waters make the traffic noises beyond the wall almost relaxing.

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