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The Tried and True Scale New Heights at Summit House

July 22, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Go ahead and think of Summit House as a monument to old money, but it's actually a lot hipper than it first appears.

After breaking ground in 1989, proprietor Gary Parkinson conceived his restaurant as a Santa Fe-style establishment. Then, like any shrewd businessman, he did his homework and discovered that the fiftysomething Fullerton crowd around these hills still prefers a more traditional supper.

Not that this is bad news. Though closer to Lawry's The Prime Rib than to the trendy Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, Parkinson's lofty Tudor-style chalet has lots of raw appeal. And a Southwestern spirit lurks beneath the surface.

The beamed, elegant dining room is offset by a gleaming all-copper kitchen equipped with a mesquite-fired rotisserie and grill. Furthermore, the dining room's centerpiece is a rustic ceiling-high stone fireplace. It's something like the one at the Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel.

The view atop Bastanchury Road can't compete with the South Rim, but it will do. On a clear night, all of North County unfolds from these panoramic windows, and taking it all in is a comfortable proposition. Seating is at thickly cushioned (yes, they are leather) booths or in plush tapestry chairs. The lights twinkling down below extend well past Anaheim Stadium.

Summit House is also a large, imposing place. There are opulent banquet rooms, an outdoor terrace for balmy evenings, a gorgeous ballroom that seems to be a popular spot for weddings. The only things to quibble over are a few oddly placed Chinese vases (which clash a bit with the English decor) and the demeaning uniforms worn by the waitresses--scandalous barmaid outfits like the ones you only see in Vegas these days. (The waitresses, for the record, are all seasoned and efficient pros.)

The menu is mostly composed of old chestnuts: Cobb salad, rack of lamb and, of course, prime rib. But there are enough pleasant twists--things like mesquite-rotisseried turkey and John Dory with a macadamia nut crust--to divert those who want something different. Old pro Christian Redouin, once chef at the late, lamented Ambrosia in Newport, is in charge here. He's added a little twinkle of his own to many of these recipes.

My favorite meal here happens to be lunch, despite the generally hazy view before the sun goes down. That's the best time to order the restaurant's nearly exemplary Summit Cobb: diced turkey, pancetta, chunky tomato, avocado, just the right amount of blue cheese and a balanced vinaigrette, all mixed together tableside in a great wooden salad bowl. I say nearly exemplary because the salad's one flaw is its principal ingredient, iceberg lettuce. It's crisp enough, but someone in the pantry has chopped it nearly to mulch.

Other lunchtime dishes are just plain fun--a velvety, delicious chicken-and-leek pot pie with a flaky top crust, terrific fish and chips fashioned from cold water cod, a leftover prime rib roast beef hash with poached egg and sauce Bearnaise that practically requires a treadmill test afterward.

Pity that mesquite-roasted turkey isn't on the dinner menu, because it's a bit heavy for lunch. All that good stuffing, full-flavored, grainy-textured gravy and homey mashed potatoes notwithstanding, this is a giant portion of sliced turkey. The mesquite tends to dry out the meat a bit. If that's all right with you, you are going to love this dish. The wood gives the turkey a sweet, seductively herbal flavor. Forget Thanksgiving.

Dinner is a more formal affair. Gentlemen wear jackets ("strongly suggested," says the management), and ladies often come in evening clothes. Prime rib, rotisserie chicken, John Dory and mesquite-broiled swordfish are available at both lunch and dinner. They are all quite fine.

This menu has appetizers such as heavily dressed but tasty salads; crisp, flaky Chesapeake crab fritters; a hearty cabbage, leek and potato soup made with lots of Stilton cheese, and something called Blue Point oysters Redouin. Why any California chef would use Blue Points from the East Coast as a foil for sauteed spinach, grated Parmesan and Cognac-peppercorn sauce is beyond me. We have better oysters here on the West Coast. Perhaps this crowd is unfamiliar with our newer seafood restaurants, where Skookums and Malpeques reign at the oyster bar.

There is a great rack of lamb and smoked double pork chop, but I'd pass on entrees such as salmon Wellington and roast duckling. The lamb comes with an engaging sauce of citrus, mint and the surprise inclusion of marigold--shades of Tbilisi and the Caucasus. This mesquite-broiled pork chop is my favorite dish on the entire menu--thick, terrific and simple. It doesn't even need the sun-dried tomato and cranberry relish that Redouin throws in for good measure.

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