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A NORTHERN LIGHT : Sumptuous Salmon, Chilled Herring, Great Bread, Rich Desserts--and Good Music

September 11, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Heat wave. The mercury has pressed past 100 by the time we scurry across the shimmering asphalt of South Coast Plaza Village to mercifully cool Gustaf Anders.

The minimalist setting is black and white, relieved by touches of lemon yellow. Tall, spindly birch branches lean against white walls. Bouquets of startling gold lilies center each table. Chairs are upholstered in leather--and comfortable. Across the room, paintings of blue and green recall icy fiords. As we sit down, Chet Baker's gentle, quavering trumpet drifts into "Let's Get Lost."

First comes freshly baked bread, warm from the oven: wonderful little Swedish country bread or onion-walnut rolls, so good I wolf down two before we order. There's also a basket of Swedish limpa redolent of orange and anise, dark pungent pumpernickel and jagged pieces of stiff handmade knackerbrod , a rye crisp bread encrusted with caraway.

In Sweden it is crayfish season, so we start with the day's special, a huge celebratory platter of the crustaceans simply boiled with dill and spices and chilled on a platter of shaved ice. Silky filets of Icelandic herring cured in an Absolut Citron and lemon-spiked brine play exquisitely against slender rings of red onion, warm boiled potatoes and salty, yellowish Vasterbotten cheese. Cut thicker, the house-pickled allspice herring is sharp and vinegary. This is great hot weather eating.

When maitre d' Gustaf Magnuson and chef Anders Strandberg met in Stockholm and decided to open a restaurant together, both agreed they wanted to do as much as possible themselves. Ten years and three moves (they started out in Pacific Beach, by San Diego) haven't dampened their enthusiasm for the idea. They still bake all the bread, cure the herring and salmon and make their own desserts and ice creams. All this is second nature to Strandberg, whose mother, Meta, is a well-known Swedish cookbook author. His respect for materials is evident in such simple fare as a sardine sandwich: fragrant limpa spread with sour cream and crisp cucumber slices, the rich, oily fish arranged in a silvery fan on top.

We've contentedly nibbled away for hours; by now, we are the only customers in the restaurant. A few bites of the dense saffron-and-raisin ice cream, so loaded with saffron threads it is beyond opulent, and we are ready to face what remains of the sweltering afternoon.

At night the room feels even more sleek and sophisticated. The lilies look like gold stars against the snowy linens. Tables are set discreetly apart. The mood is quiet, soothing.

Satiny house-made gravad lax with toast points is as good as it gets. A too-dry wild-rice pancake is heaped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and golden caviar. For me, the definitive appetizer is Strandberg's traditional sugar-and salt-cured North Atlantic salmon. Subtly sweet and salty, the marbled fish is sliced thinly and served very cold, with a side dish of creamed dill potatoes. This I could eat every other night.

Strandberg handles seafood with exceptional finesse. Chilled Dungeness crab salad makes a refreshing summer entree with streamers of zucchini in a bright-tasting tarragon dressing. Arctic char, its skin crisped, its delicate pink flesh perfectly cooked, is cooled with an orange-herb vinaigrette. The sumptuous smoked Norwegian salmon, cut in thin sheets and draped on the plate, golden caviar spooned into every crevice, is simply fabulous.

Root vegetables are a recurring theme, with beets an optional ingredient in steak tartare. Beef Lindstrom, a sort of Swedish meatloaf kneaded with capers, pickles and beets, sounds odd, and the beet-stained meat looks even odder, but it is surprisingly good, especially so with decadent, delicious whipped Yukon gold potatoes. Strandberg only misses with chicken in too much of an overly strong, sweet balsamic-vinegar-and-garlic sauce.

The partners' intelligence and taste is also reflected in the well-priced, thoughtfully chosen wine list, which includes the lovely, vanilla-scented '92 Kistler Durell Chardonnay, $36, and the supple '91 Mondavi Pinot Noir reserve, $37.

For dessert, I have to have the extravagantly large slice of Swedish princess cake. Smeared with strawberry jam and pastry cream, the yellow cake is crowned with an improbably tall layer of whipped cream and pale green marzipan.

Gustaf Anders' cooking is refreshingly different, the service disciplined and professional. It's rare to find a restaurant where so much thought has been given to the entire dining experience. Gustaf Anders would be a knockout anywhere; we're lucky to have it here.

*

Gustaf Anders, South Coast Plaza Village, Bear Street side, Santa Ana; (714) 668-1737. Closed Sundays at lunch only. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$102. Smoking permitted on the patio. Corkage , $10.

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