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PICNIC PERFECT : A Where and What Guide to Eating Out--Ants Optional

July 14, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County

You don't need a wicker basket, barbecue grill or lazy afternoon to enjoy a summery picnic. Most of Orange County is prime terrain for outdoor eating. Unlimited food choices and interesting locations make informal picnicking an easy alternative to dining in, anytime.

These five possibilities go one step beyond peanut butter sandwiches, ants and that favorite grassy hill. Use them as hints to plan picnics on your own, and remember to put a daub of sun block on the more sensitive spots.

Urban

The setting:

If you're feeling solitary, how about a quintessentially Pacific Rim picnic of Japanese bento eaten in the lush, strangely compelling California Scenario sculpture garden? This Japanese rock garden is sandwiched between the El Torito Grill and Bank of the West buildings in the South Coast Plaza area. It is the creation of famed Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

In Japan, it would be considered shitsurei --a rudeness--to eat lunch in a formal garden such as this. But this is America, and no one seems to mind. Grab a bench and unpack your lunch. You'll sit behind a white concrete wall, 40 feet high, shielded from the outside world. Cascading waters turn traffic noises beyond the wall into relaxing white noise.

The motif is a jigsaw of contrasting elements: solitary, irregular rock masses jutting from a sandstone floor, flowering cacti on a dome shaped knoll, a stainless steel fountain surrounded by Rockville granite, a 30-foot waterfall, a redwood path called Forest Walk. Eating here is uplifting, almost spiritual. It's also ideal for reading or meditation.

The grub:

Japanese bento are nearly perfect for neat, efficient and delicious outdoor eating. These small, square lunch boxes are a national passion in Japan, eaten in train stations on park benches and at sporting events.

Ebisu Market in Fountain Valley is a favorite local purveyor of Japanese bento and snack foods. It sells a wide variety that includes unagi (eel), mixed sushi bento, onigiri (savory filled rice triangles) and assorted donburi (large rice bowls with tasty toppings).

For me, one unagi bento and a small package of onigiri make a good lunch. This particular bento is a small, bubble-top plastic container filled with rice, Japanese pickles and tender, delicious sea eel, glazed with a sweet salty brown sauce that seeps down and flavors the rice, all the way to the bottom of the container.

You can get wooden chopsticks from the front counter at Ebisu Market at no charge, but you won't need them for the onigiri, Japanese finger food. These onigiri come in three flavors: salted plum, smoked salmon and burdock root. If you can handle dessert, stop by Bon Marche French Pastry, next to the market, and take along a slice of their creamy cheesecake and a cup of their fresh brewed coffee.

California Scenario, South Coast Plaza Town Center, Costa Mesa. Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight daily. Admission: free.

Ebisu Market, 18930-40 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-2108; Bon Marche French Pastry, 18932 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-7573. Both open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Picnic for one: about $9.25. Approximate driving time between the two spots: 15 minutes.

Suburban

The setting:

Newport's Cliff Drive Park is far from the madding crowd, in this case the relentless stream of tourists and fun-seekers a mile or so below on the ever busy Balboa Peninsula.

Newport can be overbearing in the summer, but this lovely, sunny spot is perfect for a quiet lunch for two. Indeed, it is almost too quiet. The park extends over two levels, layered with dense shrubbery toward the bottom, nearly bare by the picnic area at the top.

The park's lower level has rather sophisticated slides and other childlike diversions. The picnic area employs traditional, wooden tables--peeling paint and all. Look for it where Cliff Drive curves around toward Santa Ana Street. Despite spare facilities, a distinct lack of shade and a partially obstructed ocean view, there's a lot to like up here. You'll find grills and a water fountain adjacent to the tables, plus some lovely Newport homes in view.

The only distraction might be the twittering of a bird or the occasional roar of an engine as a car whooshes around the curve of Cliff Drive nearest to where you are sitting. To get to Cliff Drive Park, turn east on Riverside, opposite the China Palace restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway, and make a left on Cliff, following until the park comes into view.

The grub:

Farmer's Market at Atrium Court is certainly Orange County's snazziest indoor market, overflowing with boutique snacks, terrific cold cuts and cheeses and beautifully stacked fresh produce.

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