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RESTAURANTS : Venus Is Awaiting Discovery : Treasures You'll Find There Are Light but Substantial

June 08, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Venus at the Spa is an Italian restaurant where olive oil, salt and sugar are used sparingly but flavor is not sacrificed. Everyone I've brought here has raved about the cooking.

However, the general public has yet to discover this latest project from Salvatore Cesareo and Massimo Navaretta, owners of nearby Amici. Maybe it's just too hard to find, sequestered as it is in a tree-lined plaza between the Performing Arts Center and South Coast Rep. From outside the building, you might not even see its sign--Venus shares its lobby (as well as part of its name) with a health club known as the Spa.

'Tis a pity. Venus at the Spa is simply a great find. You sense this the moment you enter the Spa's swank marble lobby. Walk down a long, sleek hallway to a rotunda; at one end there is a blond wood door. It opens onto the restaurant--an art-filled room with a marble counter, a casual open kitchen and fewer than a dozen tables.

There is a souvenir-sized statue of Venus, goddess of love to Frankie Avalon and other ancient Italians, on every table. The statues may look plastic, but their core material is marble dust; Cesareo bought them in Florence. The food served here is oddly like these statues: light but substantial and very Italian.

Italian cuisine is a natural basis for spa food. In Italy, where grilled vegetables and moderately sauced pastas are commonplace, the diet is generally high in complex carbos, low in protein and only as fatty as one's propensity with a bottle of olio d'olivo extra vergine .

Most of the dishes at Venus respect that notion. On a side table, you'll spot two tall bottles--the kind of sleek relics that Catherine de' Medici would have used to store her dire potions in but here filled with balsamic vinegar and good-quality olive oil.

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First to arrive at your table is a basket of home-baked country white bread, rustically dusted with flour, along with the oil and vinegar. Pour sparingly. The kitchen certainly will.

I couldn't taste any oil in an appetizer of North Coast scallops and clams, steamed in a garlic brodetto flavored with lemon grass. The dish is austere but delicious. Three tender scallops are placed in a soup bowl, surrounded by flavorful small clams flecked with chopped onion and garlic.

At the antipasto bar, you get a healthful but rather Spartan platter of barely salted steamed vegetables: white beans, carrots, finely diced potatoes and, usually, zucchini.

I prefer the grilled vegetables, which are the same as the antipasto vegetables (minus the beans), but cut in bigger pieces. And perhaps it's cheating, but the garnish of shaved Parmigiano cheese and the few drops of extra-virgin olive oil are what make the dish work for me.

At first I didn't go for the pizzas, which are ultra-thin, practically unleavened crusts topped with an ethereal tomato coulis and a mere sprinkling of fresh mozzarella. But with shrimp, asparagus and garlic (the best topping offered here), the idea makes perfect sense.

Pastas are listed in a section of the menu with the rather portentous name "Pasta: The Spring of Life." Anyway, they're all quite good, and don't offend the staff by asking for them to be prepared al dente --they come that way automatically.

My favorite pasta is farro spaghetti with fresh vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil and garlic.

Farro , called spelt in English (by health foodies, that is--the correct name is emmer), is Triticum dicoccum , an ancient variety of wheat. It has a fine flavor and lots of vitamins, and would be more common except for a clinging husk that makes it harder to mill than regular wheat. Here, it is made into thick spaghetti and tossed with sliced carrots, onions, zucchini and yellow peppers.

Bow tie pasta ( farfalle ) comes in a sauce made from asparagus, bell peppers and tiny bits of smoked salmon. Angel hair pasta, ubiquitous at spas across the continent, can be had two ways. The simple way is to have Venus' take on checca , a topping of chopped raw tomatoes and garlic and the surprise substitution of cilantro for basil.

The other option is avocado, shrimp, lemon juice and jalapen~os, a quirky combination that actually succeeds.

Fish and more is the menu's last--and priciest--section. From the Mediterranean comes the filet of sea bass with scallions, olives and chopped tomatoes, a salty dish by nature but less salty here than at most places. Poached filet of king salmon comes topped with more julienne vegetables in a fragrant lemon and dill broth. The de rigueur ahi steak pays homage both to Japan, with a sweet and pungent ginger and horseradish sauce, and to China, with a side dish of mustard greens.

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Meat eaters will find breast of free-range chicken roasted with rosemary, thyme and garlic, served with roasted potatoes. There is even some red meat: a sliced roasted leg of lamb with mustard seeds and thyme. The lamb is tasty, but for the $16.95 price tag, it's a skimpy portion.

You might want to secure a membership at the Spa before you bite into the desserts.

Mascarpone cream with blueberries comes in a lovely goblet, alongside a plate of amaretto cookies. Fresh seasonal fruit, assorted berries or peaches, is served with a Champagne zabaglione sauce. A wonderful caramel apple crepe comes atop a swirl of chocolate and zabaglione sauces, and it is doubtful this is on anyone's diet.

Venus at the Spa is moderate to expensive. Salads are $5.95 to $10.95. Pizzas are $6.95 to $10.95. Pastas are $6.95 to $13.95. Fish and more are $12.95 to $19.95.

* VENUS AT THE SPA

* 695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

* (714) 546-5313.

* Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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