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Vegetarians Could Grow to Like It Here

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

In our neck of the woods, the label "great vegetarian restaurant" is usually a contradiction in terms, unless you're talking Asian.

I've introduced my vegetarian friends to piquant South Indian fare at Madhu's Dasaprakash in Cerritos, to creative Vietnamese at Vien Huong (now closed) in Westminster and to quirky Buddhist temple cooking at Vegetable Delight in Chatsworth, where the chef uses sleight of hand to create mock squid, shrimp and duck out of gluten, nuts and yams. But so far, nothing around here has compared with say, Greens in San Francisco, a restaurant that succeeds strictly on the basis of great produce and sound recipes.

Now we can throw an engaging little place called the Last Mango in Newport into the blender. On the surface, the Last Mango has everything going for it: a catchy name, a sunny Newport Beach location and an intelligent menu of appealing vegetarian favorites, from thin-crust pizzas and tangy Middle Eastern dips to wonderful, elegant pastries at dessert.

The restaurant belongs to Lloyd Itano, and perhaps it is no coincidence that an Asian connection surfaces here as well. (Itano is Japanese American, and his kitchen puts out a mean miso soup.) However, though the front page of Itano's menu refers to Buddhist cooking tradition, this is no temple restaurant. Only a couple of items (a soybean-based meatloaf and a mock-chicken curry) actually attempt the illusion of meat, and the restaurant shamelessly peddles a line of nutritional drinks from a company called Sunrider.

Something intangible has been bringing me back to the Last Mango again and again. I'm not sure whether it's the delicious art in the back dining room (sensuous paintings of tropical fruits), the soothing jazz filtering in over the sound system, the quiet decor of white wood and straw carpeting, or the orchids and other plants that seem to flood this sky-lit room with oxygen. I only know that this is one of our area's most relaxing places to sit, and that I feel healthier leaving than entering.

But is the food great? Well, not quite.

You can get off to an interesting start with compana, a trio of dips with their own type of sensuousness. The menu describes them as whole roasted garlic, tapenade and creamy Gorgonzola spread, so I had to blink when the latter two turned out to be something else. The Gorgonzola spread came out as a creamy hummus, and the tapenade tasted of sun-dried tomatoes, rather than olives. Still, all three dips were certainly good, as was the focaccia garlic toast, a sensational accompaniment.

Even better here are the thin-crust pizzas, which taste as if they have been finished in a wood oven. I could do without the bizarre-texture soybean "chicken" on the BBQ "anti-pollo" pizza, but this vegetarian take on barbecued chicken pizza is great anyway because of the Molto Buono barbecue sauce, mozzarella, smoked Gouda, red onions and cilantro.

The rest of the pizzas are closer to masterpiece standard. Pizza Funghi arrosti gets a flurry of oyster and shiitake mushrooms along with roasted garlic, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. It's as delicious as nature intended.

The salads are conducted without fanfare (despite their rather quaint names) and hit some sweet notes. "Caesar's Caesar" has a zesty dressing that would satisfy all but the most resolute anchovy lover, as well as great focaccia croutons and a healthy topping of shaved Romano cheese. "Bearing Fruit" is a poached pear, fanned out and surrounded by chopped romaine, watercress, walnut halves and a sprinkling of Gorgonzola, all sprinkled with an appealing pear-balsamic vinaigrette.

"The Gilded Mango" is basically Chinese chicken salad without the chicken. It's greens, jicama, red onion, mango, snow peas, cucumber and red bell pepper on the usual bed of rice noodle, mixed up with an oddball sesame-mango dressing.

At lunch, most people not ordering a salad go for a sandwich, such as "big mock," a patty of sprouted grains on (what else?) a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion and special sauce. Funny name, but in my opinion the Big Mac doesn't deserve to be emulated. Besides, this particular mock burger patty reminds me of straw.

The "meatloaf" sandwich is an improvement. If I wanted meat, I'd go get a burger, but you'd be hard pressed to tell that this isn't an actual slab of cold meat loaf--the flavor and texture are that close.

At dinner, the entrees are more what you expect of a vegetarian restaurant. The Punjabi curry with paneer almost works. This is a hearty mixture of stewed carrots and potatoes, along with onions, peas and the cubed farmer's cheese known as paneer in India. The flaw is that the curry flavoring tastes as if it was thrown in at the last minute, instead of being grated and ground in, spice by spice, as the pot simmered.

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