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RESTAURANTS

Landmark Location, Tasty View : An Eye-Opening Menu at Windows on the Bay

March 02, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

The stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Newport Boulevard and Bayside Drive has a faded glory, like a broad avenue in the capital of some once-great empire.

Several restaurants have failed here of late: the ill-fated Malee's, a concept restaurant called Sand Dancer Grill, the short-lived Shane. Just down the street, the Arches (O.C.'s oldest restaurant) and the ever-popular Margaritaville are thriving, but even these survivors must have been shocked when the local showpiece, Cano's, went into bankruptcy last year.

Now the former Cano's has reopened as Windows on the Bay. The restaurant boasts a prime location facing Newport Harbor, still looking for all the world like a casino somewhere in the Caribbean, circa 1930. With its sprawling off-white facade and grove of palm trees planted right outside the front steps, Windows on the Bay oozes tropical languor; it would make a perfect locale for a Naomi Campbell photo shoot. Tearing it down would be nothing short of sacrilege.

Playing the part of cultural savior is one Scott Shuttleworth, a young San Diego entrepreneur who bought the property at a bankruptcy sale (along with Corona Cafe, another restaurant once owned by Larry Cano). I suppose we who appreciate local color should be grateful. It isn't every day a landmark like Cano's is salvaged and resuscitated without being violently altered.

Now the question is, will it float?

Shuttleworth, who also owns a popular La Jolla restaurant called Kiva Grill, has preserved the integrity of his new acquisition by doing essentially nothing to improve it. The front steps are still chipped and badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. The blue Spanish tiles in the foyer have a dull patina. The dining room, with its high-backed rattan chairs and white plaster arches, seems designed so that even a whisper will reverberate off the ceiling.

But it still has those famous windows--giant glass plates that open onto a spectacular view of yachts and moorings, synonymous with the good life, genus Southern California. The food? Why would you even ask?

Er, but since you did ask: Shuttleworth has brought in a young executive chef named Craig Connole, and the man has a few good ideas. Connole's menu hints at the Cal-Italian craze that faded a few years back but finally works its way back to American standards: Cobb salad and roast prime rib of pork, a classic Reuben sandwich at lunch. Sure, there are dishes like blackened sashimi, baked Brie pizza and Oriental-style duck, but hey, this is the '90s. Basically, this is solidly familiar fare that sometimes even manages to be fun.

Sometimes. I wouldn't call Connole's cooking slapdash, but a few of his dishes can use more polish. For instance, does the chef ever taste this Asian chicken salad when it's brought out of the kitchen with a sugary dressing completely devoid of Asian flavorings such as sesame, soy or ginger? And what about the fillet of grilled white sea bass, astride a pool of cool basil cucumber vinaigrette? Surely someone should have noticed, from its total inability to flake when pierced, that the fish lacked freshness.

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But on the bright side, you might start with the spicy ravioli. They're filled with cotija cheese and roasted peppers and come in a pleasant tomato-cilantro coulis; the flavors aren't nearly as busy as you might guess. Or try the vine-ripened tomato salad. It's almost a stunner because of the delicious, perfectly ripe tomatoes. I just wish there were more of them, and less of the oily roasted eggplant that also takes up space on the plate.

I'm less sure about Northwest Coast salad, essentially a Caesar with little bits of smoked salmon substituting for the anchovies. Although I like all the components, I somehow find the combination of Parmesan cheese and smoked fish unsettling. Salmon is put to fine use, though, in the pappardelle , where the broad noodles are a good foil for the fish. It doesn't hurt that the dish is embellished by asparagus and a subtly lemony sauce. In fact, the flavors work on all fronts.

Reserve even higher praise for the roast prime rib of pork. I hesitated to order it when I read the menu description--something about a Calvados and honey glaze--fearing it would be hideously sweet. It isn't. The sweetness is understated, the pork is beautifully browned.

The prime Angus New York steak is charcoal-grilled, topped with a smooth herb and Zinfandel sauce and garnished with crispy leek straws. Great stuff.

I'd go back to the drawing board, though, on the oven-roasted Shelton Farms chicken breast. Here, a tasty-enough chicken gets treated to a rather bland tomato, cream and tarragon sauce.

You can tell you're near the water when dessert time comes. Where else but the beach would you find an ice cream pie named Nutty Buddy, or a chocolate peanut butter ice cream bar? I'm not crying foul, but fellas, my inner kid does not crave one of these guys served on a daub of creme Anglaise and strawberry coulis, as they come here; it's not inner-kid food anymore that way.

The adult in me, at least, still has a soft spot for a tall, cool Bay Mary, and enough nostalgia to order a Hibiscus, an eye-opening elixir of champagne and cranberry juice. The memory of Cano's may be fading, but the Newport Beach culture lives on.

Windows on the Bay is expensive. Appetizers are $5 to $9. Pastas are $9 to $14. Entrees are $12 to $18.

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* WINDOWS ON THE BAY

* 2241 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 722-1400.

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5 p.m.-1 a.m. daily; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

* All major cards.

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