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A Simply Delicious Menu at Puck Cafe

January 13, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Wolfgang Puck just might be America's most famous chef and food personality at the moment. His cherubic face has been seen on "Good Morning America" and countless other TV shows, on frozen pizza boxes and in photographs with movie stars--everywhere but on those posters in the post office.

When super-agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar died recently, much attention was focused on Spago, Puck's flagship West Hollywood restaurant, because Lazar always held his legendary post-Oscar bashes there.

Barbra Streisand's concert at the MGM Grand in Vegas brought Puck even more publicity, because directly across the lobby from the showroom, a new Wolfgang Puck Cafe is serving upward of 1,500 people a day.

And this is relevant to us, because Puck has recently taken that particular act to South Coast Plaza, where one of these dizzyingly colorful cafes just opened.

You might wonder how this easygoing Austrian guy became a cultural icon. Let's say it's a combination of timing, skill and savvy. Puck is a classically trained chef who worked mostly in France before being "discovered" here, but he's also a creator with a gift for knowing exactly what we like.

He's an excellent trainer and motivator, too. In the short space of 10 years, Puck has turned out dozens of hot chefs, arguably more than anyone else in the food world.

The menu at Wolfgang Puck Cafe, largely salads, pizzas and pastas, includes dishes from his big-time restaurants. The trick is that almost every item is simple and popular--Puck's greatest hits, if you will--but at prices far below what you'd pay at Spago, Chinois on Main or Granita. (The catch: Don't count on running into Julia Roberts or Steven Spielberg.)

I've been eating here for nearly two months now, and I have yet to discover a single bad dish.

Barbara Lazaroff, Puck's wife and partner, designed the cafe's look, which could be described as Op Art with an attitude (or alternatively, as a friend in Newport Beach puts it, as a rich housewife's mall fantasy).

Both the walls and floor are done in colorful broken tiles, like flotsam collected by an intergalactic beachcomber. Conde Nast-type illustrations hang proudly over many of the scrunched-up booths, each one emblazoned with the Puck name.

You'll enter passing the open kitchen, where good breads and pizzas will be baking in an oven fired by wooden logs. The impatient can grab a seat at the cafe's three-seat counter, a frenetic spot always crowded with cooks, servers and bus persons. It's quieter out on the cafe patio, under parasols that look remarkably similar to the covers on Puck's frozen pizza boxes.

The best tables, though, are at the rear of the cafe, near the entrance to Bullock's. From there, you can watch everything: the shoppers, the kitchen and a good deal of frantic eating.

Come at lunch and nearly everyone will be digging into Chinois chicken salad--finely shredded, piled high and doused with a subtly spicy soy, sesame oil, honey and mustard dressing.

Another big favorite is the chopped vegetable salad, a small mountain of carrot, celery, white corn, green beans, onions and tomatoes, so pretty to look at that you'll feel guilty eating it. I'm clearly in the minority, but I prefer the spicy Asian shrimp salad to either. It gets its kicks from julienned shiitake mushroom and carrot, plenty of crushed peanuts and wonderfully tender sauteed shrimps.

It's hard to resist the pizzas, since you smell them baking every minute you are in this cafe. I'm a sucker for the pepperoni, because the thick-sliced pepperoni sausage the cafe uses is about the most flavorful I've had.

The vegetarian calzone is a gastronomic Christmas stocking stuffed with spinach, wild mushrooms, roasted garlic, thyme, sweet peppers and whole-milk mozzarella that comes drooling out of its pizza envelope right on schedule.

The smoked salmon pizza, invented at Spago as kind of an ethnic joke, is really delightful. The pizza's cracker-thin crust is smeared with a thin layer of red onion slices and a fresh dill cream, then blanketed with smoked salmon. (Get it? It's lox and bagels with a pizza instead of a bagel.)

The pasta orders are big enough to split. I'm told the most popular is Barbara's (for Puck's wife) fettuccine, made with Louisiana shrimp, fresh vegetables and a tomato curry sauce, but there are two others I'd order first. One is Grandma Puck's linguine with chicken Bolognese (hardly what you'd expect from southern Austria). This is a rich pasta with a ragu of minced chicken finished with cream, and you probably won't finish it. The other is wild mushroom tortellini, big ones swimming in butter, garlic, Parmesan and fresh herbs.

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