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As Bastion of Good Taste, Hearty Bob Burns Endures

August 26, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Bob Burns Restaurant hits nearly all of the right notes, and so what if we've heard the song so many times before.

The Fashion Island Newport Beach location, one of three (the others are on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica and in the Warner Center, Woodland Hills), remains under the guidance of Beth Burns, daughter of the eponymous Bob.

The original restaurant stood at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood. He opened it back in 1957, during the halcyon days of red meat and Caesar salad. It's no mean feat that three of his restaurants are still with us.

This bastion of the California/Continental cooking style--a style many newer restaurants misunderstand--might be better than ever. Some might call Bob Burns a relic, but if so, it is one that has been polished constantly like a prized trophy.

Don't worry about getting a dish with too much sauce, too many ingredients or too little flavor at a Bob Burns restaurant. I don't crave this style of food often, but the next time I do, I'm heading straight here.

The design conjures images of a dank Scottish castle. (But just images--don't worry, leave the windbreaker in the closet.) Whole sections of the walls are composed of jagged stones; flood-lit portraits of dour, kilted Scotsmen hang under giant wooden beams.

Half the restaurant is designated for smokers: the room with the piano player and the soft lighting. The other, more atmospheric, dining room is dim and sunken and lined with grand semi-circular black leather booths. Apart from being one of the more romantic local dining spots, Bob Burns gives off an aura of luxury. Those are fresh flowers and crisp linens on your table, not to mention real silver-plated tableware.

Heavy foot traffic at Fashion Island means this restaurant is generally a hot spot at lunchtime. Service is nothing if not snappy, performed by a team of seasoned, professional waitresses sporting tight collars and tartan bow ties. The minute you finish a plate, someone comes by to spirit it off. The minute you run out of bread or a beverage, the basket or glass is magically replenished.

You can certainly call the lunch menu thorough. Sandwich lovers can feast on a thick, juicy prime rib sandwich, while lighter eaters can have entree-size salads.

The backbone of the club sandwich is terrific, meaty apple-wood smoked bacon, Bibb lettuce and tarragon mayonnaise, but the sandwich is chock full of grilled chicken and sliced avocado as well. The restaurant's longtime chef, a man named Jesus Llamas, appears to be a big fan of the tarragon plant, since he uses it to distraction in his unusual (and unusually generous) Cobb salad, a salad further punctuated by peeled, chopped cucumber.

The warm Colorado lamb salad is big enough for two: an enormous pile of mesclun greens, pine nuts, fat croutons topped with slivers of Montrachet goat cheese and five or six tender medallions of lamb. Bay shrimp salad is loaded with avocado, smoked bacon and tiny flavorful shrimp, offset by fresh chunked tomatoes and perfectly cooked spears of green asparagus.

It would be easy to make a meal of the cheesy, anchovy-powered Caesar salad or the rich, beefy onion soup that are included as starter courses with entrees, lunch or dinner.

I suspect no red-blooded Scot would be caught dead ordering corned beef and cabbage, but Burns' is as tasty a version as I've had anywhere. The thick, lean slices of corned beef glisten with freshness and fall apart easily, resting on cabbage cooked al dente like fine pasta.

The sauteed calf's liver is embarrassingly bountiful: grilled sweet onions, apple-wood-smoked bacon, braised spinach, homey mashed potatoes and a large, thinly pounded slab of beautiful pink liver. It's a real show-stopper. I've also had great sauteed sand dabs here, a fine sizzling rib-eye steak and good grilled duck breast in a red wine balsamic vinegar reduction.

Appetizers such as gravad lax or tomatoes with bufala mozzarella are also around to tempt you, though they may be a bit too much at lunch. Chef Llamas cures his own salmon for the gravad lax, and gives it a sweetly smoky flavor--which you can mute, if you wish, with a creamy dill sauce. The tomato salad is the height of simplicity with an extra-soft cheese, but what makes this dish work is the dressing, a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

Petrale sole is grilled, then served in a lemon butter dill sauce; grilled Norwegian salmon is done winningly in a pink peppercorn and sweet basil reduction. This kitchen has a way with fish; it's always done perfectly. (Sand dabs, a special one evening, came dipped in egg, abalone-style, and lightly pan-seared--perfectly delicious--but they also had a light saffron cream sauce that proved too much of a good thing.)

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