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RESTAURANTS : French a l'Orange : Sophisticated, Complex Cooking at Unpretentious Prices in Newport Beach. Mais Oui!

March 26, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

Imagine a sweet yellow house with small-paned windows trimmed in white, two tall trees out front, a diminutive dining room with just nine tables. Where the cooking is French and the small menu changes every few days, where the saucy, red-headed patronne pours glasses of Sancerre behind the zinc bar brightened with a bouquet of flowering plum branches. Where, as you give your name, waiters rush by with baskets of freshly baked rolls, fragrant with yeast. And from the open windows comes the faint tang of salt breeze.

Daydreaming about the south of France? Mais non : thinking about the south of California and Aubergine, a lovely new restaurant on a quiet side street of the Balboa peninsula.

On a first visit, despite the wait for a table, I was completely charmed. The one-page wine list showed some creativity and personality. And the menu had enough engaging dishes to make dinner decisions a delicious exercise. When the first things out of the kitchen are those irresistible dinner rolls, it is a very good sign. The waiter is back bearing a tiny ameuse - gueule , one night a postage stamp of puff pastry topped with a slice of lamb loin, another a dab of tuna tartare on a raft of toast. In the kitchen, glimpsed through French doors, chef Tim Goodell and assistants work at a steady, furious pace.

"My husband does all the breads and the pastries, too," Liza Goodell will tell you. She may forget to mention that she is also a cook. One night she may still be in her whites when you arrive; another evening, she's all dressed up, playing the part of maitre d' and as fiercely protective as the patronne of any small restaurant in France. The two met when they worked at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco; they moved back to his home, Orange County, in 1991. While working at several south county restaurants, the Goodells looked for a space to open their own place and finally found it in this little house, a former florist's shop.

The menu is ambitious, offering sophisticated French-California cooking at prices that put some of the fancier, more pretentious places in Orange County to shame. One night the soup was stony-green French lentils laced with duck confit, lardons and vegetables, just the thing to take the edge off the damp. The house-smoked salmon stacked with corn waffles is an earthy, well-conceived dish. So is the comforting duck estouffade , duck braised with wrinkly morels and sweet young turnips, perfect with an intensely flavored 1992 Ridge Mataro Evangelo ($23).

Only a few months old, the restaurant is still finding its way. Occasionally, a dish turns up that doesn't work, like the warm goat cheese napoleon (which no longer is on the menu) or the rabbit wrapped in pale potato strings, soggy with sauce. Lightly smoked grilled sturgeon is a wonderful piece of fish, but it is paired with a sweet, strangely granular foie gras in Port sauce.

Tim Goodell's desserts are so good that some customers have been stopping by late, just for the final course. Instead of the usual tarte tatin and creme brulee , he turns out an enticing pain d'epices , an individual spice cake served with a sticky, burnt-sugar caramel sauce and pan-roasted apples. I loved the trio of lemon desserts, which includes a warm, pecan-crumbed lemon cake. Ditto for the dark chocolate bread pudding laced with nuts and surrounded by mocha and chocolate sauces patterned like tortoiseshell.

But the best introduction to the Goodells' cooking is the six-course tasting menu (available nightly during second seating for $48). One night it began with a delicate salmon and sturgeon tartare with an edge of smoke and sweet, stacked with waffled potato chips. Then came beautifully sauteed sweetbreads with shallot confit and a lovely balsamic vinegar sauce to play against the bland richness of the sweetbreads. Setting down the next course, Liza Goodell explained that it was a Santa Barbara fish called louvar. Onion confit and a splash of bright purple wine reduction was a good contrast to the firm white fish. By this time, the couple at the next table had already cried uncle halfway through their main course. We had three courses to go.

The rare loin of lamb with a plateful of white beans in a juicy broth fragrant with fresh rosemary and delicious, coarsely textured lamb-fennel sausages was so good, I almost wished I had an a la carte portion. But then I wouldn't have had room for the two dessert courses: a silky gratin of strawberries and rhubarb topped with balls of blood orange, lemon and Calvados (apple brandy) sorbets, and an individual chocolate souffle that goes straight to the top of the short list of the year's best desserts. Heavy, deeply chocolaty, it was the texture of pudding at the center, topped with a dollop of straight cream. No wonder everyone tends to linger at the table.

It's easy to see that the Goodells have more experience in the kitchen than in the front of the house. When reservations back up, no one thinks to offer a glass of wine or an apology, something that would go a long way toward soothing ruffled feathers. But it's impossible to stay grumpy for more than a minute or two; the young staff is welcoming and enthusiastic. At the end of the evening--a very long evening--Tim Goodell leans against the bar sipping a glass of wine. Liza Goodell walks customers outside and chats for a few minutes. Tired, pleased and proud, as they well should be, they close the door and finish setting the tables for the next day.

Aubergine, 508 29th St., Newport Beach; (714) 723-4150. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Parking in small lot or on the street. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $45-$66. Six-course tasting menu, $48 per person. Corkage, $15.

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