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Five Cheers for a Prime Experience : The Best of Beefy Old England at Five Crowns

August 17, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Two stone lions guard the front entrance to Corona del Mar's venerable Five Crowns, a Tudor-style mansion draped in ivy. The grounds are ablaze, in deepest summer, with red and yellow flowers. The effect is powerful enough, for a brief instant, to transform East Coast Highway into a lane in rural England.

England is known for stolid, bland cooking, but thankfully, Five Crowns goes the British Isles one better in that department. The restaurant is part of the Lawry family, owners of Tam O'Shanter and Lawry's, the Prime Rib in Los Angeles. Like those restaurants, the specialty at Five Crowns is prime rib, served in a variety of cuts, with a delicious creamed spinach and a crusty popover-like Yorkshire pudding.

Many customers order the prime rib, overlooking the restaurant's other dishes. They may not realize that Five Crowns is quite versatile, with an appealing menu that looks toward California from a Continental perspective. Crab cakes, arugula and frisee salad, succulent lamb tenderloin and juicy rotisserie chicken are only a few options to the vaunted roast beef, and most dishes are executed with grace and care.

Everyone I've brought here has been impressed with the restaurant's meticulous design. The foyer is lovely, with tapestry-covered chairs surrounding a roaring fireplace, portraits of hunting dogs, copper pots and rustic wooden beams, as if a classy Gloucestershire public house had materialized in Southern California.

There are nine dining rooms in which to sup, some named after notable figures from English history such as Nelson and Shakespeare, others named the Greenhouse or Crown Room. A curmudgeon might pronounce these rooms fusty, but few would quibble with the obvious charms.

The Crown Room has a wrought-iron chandelier, high-backed tapestry chairs and a high, arching ceiling. The Greenhouse, entered through French doors, is a charming patio laden with ferns and pink-clothed tables. The Nelson Room is up a narrow staircase, an attic boasting the luxurious intimacy of an English men's club antechamber.

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Service is proper, formal and efficient. Unlike Five Crowns' sister restaurant Tam O'Shanter, where waitresses relay orders to the kitchen by means of a hand-held computer, Five Crowns insists on a more personal approach. One evening, our waitress introduced herself as Miss Witkowski, later saying with a wink, "But you can call me Cheryl." The uniforms recall a Henry Fielding novel, red skirts and little white bonnets. One of my guests thought the bonnets made the women look like walking versions of Yorkshire pudding.

The restaurant also has a large wine cellar, though the management is conservative about selling wines. Most regular customers know about the captain's wine list, a secondary list that has to be requested. The list is a treasure trove of top-notch imported and California wines, at reasonable prices.

An '84 California Cabernet from Chateau Montelena sells for $45, marked up slightly from retail, if you could find it in a local wine shop.

After you've chosen a wine and nibbled on a piece of distinctively heavy (and oddly out of place) Swedish limpa bread, you're ready to tackle the menu.

The appetizer list is limited, but appealing. Crab cakes can be absolutely first rate when cooked to a crisp brown crunch, all high-quality crab meat and hardly any cracker meal. (Sometimes, they are slightly sogged in oil.) Pride of the Crowns salad is bibb lettuce with fat walnuts, bacon, Gruyere cheese and good, herbed croutons, a far more interesting choice than a run-of-the-mill hearts of romaine with Stilton dressing.

I wouldn't forgo this onion soup, based on one of the beefiest stocks I've ever tasted, with a coverlet of tangy melted Gruyere and a few too many croutons. Porcini mushroom ravioli with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and virgin olive oil are a nod to the modern era. The dough is thick and the mushroom filling tends to overwhelm both the pasta and the sauce. The ravioli don't quite taste Italian, but they are pleasant enough.

Prime rib is the restaurant's undisputed star. I've actually had better luck with my cuts at Five Crowns than at the vaunted Lawry's, the Prime Rib in Los Angeles. (For those who may not know, that restaurant recently moved across the street on La Cienega Boulevard, after more than 50 years at the original location.)

There is no silver cart at Five Crowns, just great beef. Have a slab prepared to any degree of doneness or thickness: the traditional cut, big enough for most people; Henry VIII, an extra thick portion, or perhaps the English cut, in thinner slices to heighten flavor.

Acceptable rotisserie chicken is nicely crisped, yet not at all dried out. There's also a hearty roast duckling with a tart compote of prunes and apples, like what you would get in a Danish country inn. Beefsteak Neptune is a prime butterflied filet mignon with crab legs, asparagus and sauce Bearnaise--more Danish-inspired fare. (The prototype, veal Oscar, originated in Copenhagen.)

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