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Plane Decor, Down-to-Earth Menu : Nieuport 17 Plays It Safe on the Ground

May 19, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"I earned these wings," says our waitress, referring to a small gold flier's insignia on her navy blue lapel, which signifies her status as a full-fledged waitress. Aeronautics is the theme at Nieuport 17; courtly, dapper Bill Bettis, who has operated this Tustin bastion of Continental cuisine for more than 25 years, is a former Navy pilot.

As if you couldn't guess. Nieuport 17's walls are thick with beautifully framed drawings and photographs of famous fighter planes. Indeed, the restaurant's name (which is something of a pun, since it's on Newport Avenue) refers to a biplane used by the kaiser's imperial forces in World War I.

Bettis has constructed his restaurant carefully, giving it the swank, stately charm of an exclusive officers' club. The exterior recalls a Franche-Comte manor house, all white turrets and ivy trim. The main dining room--one of four--is a collage of rich wood paneling, empty wine bottles propped up on sideboards, deer antler chandeliers and fresh flowers. There are plush semi-circular booths to sink into, or high-backed tapestry chairs for those who prefer to dine upright.

Nieuport 17 moved to this location at the corner of Irvine Boulevard about four years ago after 20-odd years nearby in Santa Ana. The faithful (these dining rooms are brimming with regulars) seem to have followed, which is impressive. It is no small feat pleasing the gentry of Tustin Hills, Newport Beach and surrounding communities, which make up the heart of Bettis' clientele.

Service is impeccable; this crowd would hardly settle for less. One is greeted by name in civilized fashion at a proper podium, then whisked at speed to one's table. Once seated, no one is left to linger long. The elapsed time from podium to cocktails in this restaurant might just be Orange County's shortest.

Once it is time to open up the thick, leather-bound menus, things begin to take on a rather familiar glint. This is a menu that plays it safe in the extreme: mostly steaks, seafoods and the usual complement of salads and accompaniments. The good side of this is that dishes are prepared competently, if not altogether with passion. Judging from the response, that's the way Bettis' customers want it.

Main dishes come with a choice of one of the fine daily soups ( albondigas , perhaps, or a smooth green pea potage with homemade croutons) or salad, either a wilted spinach with bacon, chopped egg and a light, non-cloying vinaigrette or a more conventional (and less compelling) tossed green. Since soup or salad is included, appetizers are sort of an indulgence, which perhaps explains why the list is somewhat truncated.

The best of the lot has to be beef steak tartare. It's a proper tartar of top-grade minced sirloin mingled with capers, eggs, chopped onions and a dash of Worcestershire. Grilled buttered toasts, served alongside, punctuate the luxuriousness of this old-fashioned dish.

There's a shrimp cocktail of four extra-large shrimp in a standard red cocktail sauce; shrimp escadrille is the same in a more interesting remoulade sauce that you could think of as Thousand Island with horseradish. You could order a gutsy, anchovy-heavy Caesar salad a la carte for $6.50, but since you get salad with an entree, it would only make sense if you're dining light, with no main dish.

Entrees can be Australian lobster tails, king crab legs, fresh fish, a variety of steaks prepared different ways and even a couple of veal dishes. People who have had the Southern fried chicken that Lousiana-born chef James Lane prepares on Sunday evenings report it's terrific. I can't say that about any of the main entrees I've tasted, but none was objectionable.

For instance, a pan-fried filet of sole came up buttery but slightly dry, although it must be said that our waitress did attempt to guide me toward charbroiled swordfish. Roast chicken morel is a boneless breast of chicken that tastes as if it has been poached, positively smothered with delicious morels and then blanketed with a bland, vinegar-punctuated brown stock.

The menu is dominated by beef dishes, the best of which has to be the prime rib--superbly marbled roast beef served with a delicious, puffy Yorkshire pudding. The rest are steaks. The blackened rib eye, probably the most tender on the menu, truly hits the spot. The spices have been crusted onto the surface of the tender meat.

But the pepper steak is served with a very bland green peppercorn sauce. And then there's the roast braten Vienna, a New York steak prepared "Austrian-style with thin slivers of onion and pickles atop a delicious paprika sauce," according to the menu. What I tasted was a steak topped with onions but no pickles, in a creamy, rose-colored sauce no more than kissed with paprika.

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