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Tasty Fare in a Homey Setting : At Shane, Wild Is Out, Delicious Is In

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

Superstar Wolfgang Puck (whose South Coast Plaza pizza cafe will be reviewed in next week's OC Live!) has spawned an entire generation of young American chefs. One is Michael Kurland, who trained with Puck at the '70s celebrity hangout Ma Maison while Kurland was still in high school. Kurland is now executive chef at Shane in Newport Beach. He's the one wearing a baseball cap.

Shane--formerly Barbacoa--is the latest project from West Coast Restaurant Ventures, the Orange County-based company responsible for such standouts as Diva, Bistro 201 and Topaz Cafe. Some of you may recall that the colorful David Wilhelm was a major player with this company before his recent well-publicized departure. Barbacoa, which preceded Shane at this location, was one of Wilhelm's notable failures. With a bizarre, tropically themed menu and a quasi-psychedelic decor, Barbacoa was clearly too wild for the staid Newport Harbor crowd. Shane, oddly enough, may be too sedate.

But Kurland should take care of that problem in time. Now that the long, sleek room has been warmed up considerably (it's been redone in soft beiges and polished woods), there is time for him to redefine the menu. Kurland is chef and part owner of another Shane, located in Los Angeles and technically named Shane Hidden on the Glen, and there you find things like smoked cod and horseradish on pizza, rosemary and lime on chicken and the occasional Asian influences on the menu.

It's different here. Despite the fact that Kurland's background includes a stint with Kazuto Matsusaka at Chinois on Main and Italian cooking experience at a Melrose Avenue trattoria called La Pasteria, he is still a bit cautious in terms of strutting his stuff.

The subtitle of the restaurant is "An American Grill," and so far, Kurland and West Coast Restaurant Ventures are sticking to their guns. Their small, concise menu reads like a short list of hip '90s dishes: crab cakes, Caesar salad, designer pizza, light pastas, mesquite-grilled meats. Don't look for any surprises on this menu, because you won't find them.

Following the current wisdom may well turn out to be the wise course. It's homey in here now, thanks to soft lighting, well-spaced tables and panoramic windows, which afford a close-up view of yachts, Lido Island and the whole Newport lifestyle. The crowd is considerably older now, too. Barbacoa tried to be a nightclub, featuring cutting-edge electric bands on weekends. Think of Shane more as a supper club. What you hear now is likely to be '50s cocktail music played by a jazz trio.

One eating strategy is to start off with hearty, filling dishes like Kurland's warm spinach salad or Maryland crab cakes, then finish with a pasta. Another would be to start light, with house salad, a light soup or half a pasta, and then progress to one of the peerless home-smoked and grilled meats.

The menu tells us that the warm spinach, hot bacon and goat cheese salad speaks for itself. Indeed it does. This is just a wonderful salad: savory, not sweet, thanks to an adult vinaigrette dressing chock-full of smoky bacon; robust from an intelligent clump of half-melted goat cheese atop the fresh hot greens. Good, flaky crab cakes have a buttery tang. You can enrich them further by daubing them with a bit of Kurland's unctuous saffron aioli mayonnaise.

If I were beginning a meal here with one of those starters, I would surely choose the chicken risotto as my main course. This may be the best dish in the restaurant: arborio rice laced with porcini mushrooms, a pile of sweetly smoky chicken mixed in and a grated Parmesan topping. Another possibility would be the delicate vegetarian ravioli, stuffed with an airy souffle of spinach and ricotta.

But if I had a craving for ribs, chicken, lamb or salmon, I'd start more modestly. There is, for instance, a flavorful white bean soup that draws much of its strength from chopped tomatoes and aromatic herbs, and a house salad of baby mixed greens enlivened by balsamic vinegar and whole-grain mustard dressing.

The menu has three pizzas, too, from the bready school of pizza making. One is a conventional cheese, tomato and basil pizza, but the other two are mildly eccentric--a cheese-less version with grilled vegetables and a spicy BBQ chicken pizza sweetened by a residue of barbecue sauce and caramelized Bermuda onion.

Kurland smokes his meats in a wood smoker, finishing them on a grill fired by mesquite embers. Mesquite tends to make foods dry, but I like the quality. One evening I had a great chunk of Norwegian salmon, another I had the best baby back ribs yet served in Orange County. Kansas City BBQ brisket of beef is a popular item, but the beef needs to be a touch more tender. New York steak and wood-fired baby lamb rack are both fine, though. Further, the accompaniments--such as festive-looking cole slaw, crisp shoestring french fries and sloppy creamed corn--are all first rate.

Ditto the five desserts. The creme brulee is properly rich, the warm flourless chocolate torte has a fudgy center and the Mexican chocolate brownie is firm-textured, bittersweet and intense. Kurland's peach cobbler is definitely nouvelle; the peaches come fanned out on the plate.

Then there is the kind of dessert young American chefs relish, mother's homemade cookies. Picture a plate of cutup chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, a veritable swimming pool of runny chocolate sauce and two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream. Then be thankful that "mother" is a thirtysomething blond guy in a baseball cap with Wolfgang in his resume.

Shane is high-end moderate. Starters are $3.95 to $8.95. Pizzas are $9.95. Main courses are $11.50 to $19.50. Desserts are $4.95.

* SHANE

* 3333 W. Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 631-0111.

* Dinner only, Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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