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Tantalizing Tastes of Past Months Make Memories to Savor : BACK FOR SECONDS

January 06, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

I won't say I haven't eaten well during the past several months, but recent dining trends in Orange County and nationally have moved kitchens away from smashing individual effort. In a sluggish economy, the money is in volume, which explains why Wolfgang Puck is looking to his pizza cafe concept and why top chefs everywhere are concentrating on spiffy mall locations and franchise consulting jobs.

This may also explain why my latest "best dishes" list is perhaps less compelling than past ones, seen annually at this time.

Italian food is everywhere at the moment, as are good concept restaurants such as La Salsa, Benita's Frites and Sfuzzi, places where I did some of my most enjoyable eating in recent months. And thank heaven for those small ethnic cafes, which provide welcome relief to the sameness in great numbers of our restaurants.

So once again, with no particular rhyme, reason or order, a list of favorite foods:

Hot white chocolate and raspberry souffle: With all the good things executive chef John Sharpe prepares at his eclectic, exuberant Topaz Cafe, it seems a bit odd to single out a dessert as his crowning achievement. Thing is, though, this is the one dish--a puffy, elegant cloud of rich dessert flavors--that I keep coming back to in my fantasies.

Eaten at lunch, it's enough to make you swoon for the rest of the afternoon.

Topaz Cafe, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. (714) 835-2002. Hot white chocolate and raspberry souffle, $5.95.

Pizza quattro formaggi: Steven Singer is another corporate genius; indeed, the 20 Sfuzzi locations nationwide all abound with his upscale Italian creations.

In Costa Mesa, head chef Susan Kaitz puts out wonderful pizzas, all of which are served on porous earthenware platters that keep the thin crusts appealingly crisp. Her four-cheese pizza ( quattro formaggi ) isn't available every day, but when it is on special, it is a knockout, literally drooling thin rivulets of pungent imported cheeses.

Sfuzzi, Triangle Square Mall, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa. (714) 548-9500. Pizza quattro formaggi, $8.95.

Champon: Ramen is the garlicky, carbo-happy staple of the average Japanese businessman's diet--long, thin noodles slurped up from huge bowls.

Champon is the characteristic dish of Nagasaki: a Portuguese inspired bowlful of salted Ramen noodles with shrimp, pork, squid, vegetables and squiggly fish cakes.

Ebisu Ramen's version tastes exactly like one you would eat in Nagasaki. The only difference is the price; here, about half what you'd pay in Japan.

Ebisu Ramen, 18924-A Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 964-5993. Champon, $5.75.

Pork chops glazed with balsamic vinegar: Laguna's elegant and pricey Sorrento Grille has built a reputation on simple, sumptuous Italian dishes made from high-quality ingredients. The restaurant's thick pork chops glazed with a light coating of balsamic vinegar have a faintly sweet, wistfully herbal flavor, and the porcini-infused mashed potatoes they sit on are sheer heaven.

The only thing this dish will lighten, though, is your wallet.

Sorrento Grille, 370 Gleneyre St., Laguna Beach. (714) 494-8686. Pork chops glazed with balsamic vinegar, $21.95.

Jujeh shekemi: You won't find jujeh shekemi on the menu at Bahar, a Corona del Mar Persian restaurant, but if you're lucky, you'll persuade co-manager Sohila Rastegar to venture into the kitchen and prepare some for you. (It's been known to happen.)

This festive dish is basically chicken stuffed with walnuts, raisins and barberries, a specialty from northern Iran near the Caspian Sea. It's the one chicken dish I know of that combines meat, fruit and nuts with consummate skill.

Bahar, 2640 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. (714) 640-1515. Jujeh shekemi, $12.95.

Chicharrones en chile rojo: Everything, from the thick, pulpy juices to the fragrant, fluffy rice, is terrific at Ivan Calderon's Taco Mesa, a Costa Mesa food stand where Mexican cuisine scales new heights here in Orange County. But the homey chicharrones en chile rojo, a dish from dieter's hell, shows Calderon's true colors.

It's stewed bits of pork skin in a smoky red sauce, about as far from Mexican hamburger stand food as you can get.

And it is delicious.

Taco Mesa, 647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. (714) 642-0629. Chicharrones en chile rojo, $4.95.

Kitfo: Michael Belay broke new ground last spring when he opened Ras Dashen, the county's first Ethiopian restaurant.

Ethiopian cuisine is one of the cooking world's true oddities: highly spiced dishes eaten on injera, a spongy millet bread.

Kitfo is similar to steak tartare : buttery, hand-chopped beef with spices that render it the color of dark stained wood. But be warned, the dish is fairly hot, from a mixture of chilies, rue seed, caraway, cardamom and ginger, calling cards of the east African kitchen.

Ras Dashen, 12549 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove. (714) 638-4260. Kitfo, $5.99.

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