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Cuts at 201 Make Bistro a Cut Above

March 24, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

There are crowds at Bistro 201 again, now that it has lowered its prices and moved closer to its bistro roots. This Irvine showpiece restaurant has never lacked style. Now it's even a fiscally sensible place to dine.

You enter it through a long, sleek cocktail lounge that uses a classy, zinc-topped bar as its centerpiece. The main dining room is comfortably daring: high ceiling, beige marble floor, inlaid walls in earth tones, soft Diva lights perched above lush booths of raw silk. Beyond it, there's a lovely outdoor patio.

The patio actually isn't being used at the moment, which is a pity, but perhaps it will open soon.

Bistro 201 has a strategic location adjacent to Koll Center, making it a logical choice for Orange County's power lunchers. It's great people-watching territory. A large percentage of the customers come decked out in their best Zegna or Armani fashions, to see and be seen--and more importantly, to do a little impromptu networking.

The art of eating is equally serious business here. The restaurant remains the jewel in the crown of West Coast Restaurant Ventures (owners of Diva, Topaz Cafe and Zuni Grill, among others). Co-founder and creative force David Wilhelm has parted company with it, along with previous chef Alec Lestr (a protege of Los Angeles' kitchen-meister Joachim Splichal). That has put this kitchen back into the hands of the company's executive chef, the well-traveled and immensely capable John Sharpe.

Sharpe immediately reduced prices by 25%, pruning much of the haute cuisine element that Lestr brought to the menu during his tenure. "Irvine is not Los Angeles," he says, "and Bistro 201 is not Patina." What all this means is more homey foods such as beef brisket on a bed of mashed potatoes and fewer of the luxury seafoods, the labor-intensive creations and the exotic dishes that Sharpe says didn't catch on.

The appetizers have definitely gotten simpler. There are delicious Fanny Bay oysters from the Pacific Northwest in a light mignonette sauce with a small chunk of chicken sausage. The sharp and muscular Caesar salad is garnished with tangy sourdough croutons, and you can get fat grilled shrimp served on a mushy polenta tinged green with a pungent pesto sauce. A creamy tapenade of olives--a fixture here since Day One--is among the most habit-forming spreads anywhere, and the various house breads are perfect foils for it.

One of the best dishes is a filling pasta called rustic noodles--twisty, egg-rich helixes that fall somewhere between sheet-like pappardelle and corkscrew-shaped fusilli. They are dressed up with smoked chicken, mushrooms and fresh herbs, emphasis on the word smoked . I find the powerful smokiness pleasing, but not everybody will.

Many dishes grace both the lunch and dinner menu. The one difference: no sandwiches at dinner. The sandwich list includes a tempting turkey club on homemade bread and the bistro burger. The latter, a patty of top-grade meat about twice the size of anything served in local hamburger emporia, is one of the county's thickest and juiciest.

Salads such as the one with grilled rare ahi tuna are big lunch favorites, too. And a trencherman's appetite is required for the smoked-chicken Cobb, another lunch standby. Sharpe prepares it with a scandalous amount of cooked chicken, crumbled bacon, blue cheese, diced avocado and chopped tomato.

The entrees are generally hearty, though few remind me of anything served in an actual Paris bistro. Steamed clams and crisp roast chicken come closest. The clams are served in a soup bowl, mingled with leek, garlic and the homey mashed potatoes that the restaurant made its reputation with. The good roast chicken gets a similar treatment with garlic sauce and mashed potatoes.

I've had fine fish here, such as flaky, tender roasted sea bass in a light whole-grain mustard sauce and a rather esoteric salmon creation in a potato crust that recalls chef Splichal's influence up in Los Angeles. In the poultry division, this kitchen afflicts duck with a sun-dried sour cherry sauce, taking a perfectly beautiful bird and turning it into something halfway between main course and dessert. (I wish someone around here would have the wisdom to serve duck with grown-up flavorings like olives or turnips--preferred in rural France--instead of these endless sweet sauces.)

The official dessert list remains spectacular, if slightly more haute than bistro law strictly allows. You can still get a good chocolate souffle here, a fudgy puff steaming with melted Belgian chocolate. Sharpe has the good sense to top it with nothing more than chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and the combination is excellent. The hot apple tart with caramel sauce is another model of a dish, and the creme brulee is positively silken.

At lunch, I like to have a homemade sorbet, or possibly the warm brioche and raspberry pudding . . . if I don't have anything else to do for the entire rest of the afternoon, that is. This just might be the world's richest bread pudding. Everything doesn't have to make sense in a sensible restaurant, and this ultra-rich dessert, thankfully, is one of the things that doesn't.

Bistro 201 is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $3.75 to $7.95. Pastas are $8.25 to $10. Entrees are $9.75 to $16.95. Desserts are $3.50 to $6.25.

* BISTRO 201

* 18201 Von Karman Ave., Irvine.

* (714) 553-1122.

* Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.

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