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Yankee Discovers New England Cooking in La Habra

August 19, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

I grew up on the Massachusetts coast, practically weaned on Yankee foods such as baked beans, codfish cakes and Indian pudding. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all these dishes and more are available in sleepy landlocked La Habra at an excellent new restaurant called Bay Colony.

It probably understates the case to say these hearty, sometimes heavy-handed dishes are a fish out of water in these parts. Sure, we're a coastal area, but our warm, placid weather and fuzzily defined seasons do not really complement the foods of the Northeast, where specialty dishes are generally specific to certain times of the year.

Bay Colony (it's the 17th-Century name of Massachusetts) occupies the site of what was until recently a dark, clubby wood-trim-and-black-leather prime rib house called Trapper's Inn. And despite the menu's reference to "true New England decor . . . lush cranberry and gray colors accentuating pine walls," this large, rather nondescript dinner house gives no external clues to its being the best and most authentic New England-style restaurant on the West Coast.

Indeed, when you walk through the rear door next to the parking lot, you might even think you are in the wrong place. The first few steps take you through a dimly lit, rather generic-looking tavern area, where a few locals are shooting pool or watching ESPN on an overhead TV at the long bar. But then you come to a sequestered small dining area behind a hostess lectern, and that's where the action starts.

Now you are in the domain of chef Kenneth Golden, a hale fellow from Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Golden is a lawyer by trade, and he has turned a lifelong passion for cooking into a second career. He's also enormously extroverted, a man who likes to come out of the kitchen in his whites and regale customers with anecdotes about New England.

When Golden brought out our live Maine lobster for display, its claws bound in bright yellow tape, he launched into a story about his cousin's lobster boat. With the fried Ipswich clams came a partially opened clam and a verbal treatise about how to cut off the membrane for easy frying. Before we began eating the Yankee pot roast, Golden mused about a woman who fussed about too much clove in the marinade. Just name it. Golden has a story about it.

Because his man-size dinners come with both soup and salad, it seems a bit indulgent to order an appetizer. Nonetheless, there is one not to miss. Bay Colony's clam fritters are thin, crunchy dollar-sized griddle cakes, and uncommonly delicious. The salty tang of fresh chopped clams permeates the eggy batter, and there is a creamy homemade tartar sauce with which to smear them.

I also love something the menu calls Portuguese salad, although I'm hard-pressed to remember seeing the dish in any of the Portuguese restaurants I used to frequent back in New Bedford and Somerville. The salad is a delicious combination of crumbly linguica sausage, garbanzos, fresh fennel and oil-marinated red peppers. It's a great mix of flavors . . . and about the lightest thing you are going to eat in here.

The clam chowder is made with cream and butter--hardly "lite" ingredients, but I will say this chowder is light on the palate. In most California seafood houses, clam chowder is a bowl of paste with an occasional chunk of canned clam or boiled potato bobbing around in it. Golden uses fresh Ipswich clams, lots of potato, plenty of fresh cream. The test of a chowder is to dip your spoon in it: If the spoon comes out clean, you're eating the real thing.

My favorite of the main dishes comes from the lunch menu, though I must confess it's because it's a dish my mother often made. I refer to turkey croquettes, which are tasty, simple mounds of minced turkey, cream and spices, eaten with a rich mushroom gravy and homemade mashed potatoes. And just so you'll know I'm not sentimentalizing, I freely confess that Golden's are even better than the ones my mother made.

Codfish cakes and Boston baked beans, an entirely familiar combination to native New Englanders, are done with style here. The cakes are buttery, rich with flaky cod and mashed potatoes, the beans rich with molasses and maple syrup. Something called Maine scrapple (a new one on me), consisting of salmon and cornmeal fried into a square cake, is definitely heavy enough for a fisherman after a day on the water.

Favorite Yankee fish dishes such as flounder and Boston scrod (the latter is not a type of fish but rather a term meaning "young fish") get dusted with cracker crumbs and broiled. Alternatively they may, like the meaty Ipswich clams (the long ones with the soft belly still attached), be coated with cornmeal and cracker crumbs and deep fried.

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