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O. C. LIVE | RESTAURANT REVIEW

P.J.'s Abbey: Divine Look, Earthly Flaws

May 02, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — P.J.'s Abbey is a restaurant, espresso bar and bakery, all in what once was a Baptist church. The building is 105 years old, and the Mead family, which acquired the property in 1992, has taken great pains to bring it to its present breathtaking condition.

The building's beautifully restored pine and redwood walls were stripped and caulked. The original steeple was replaced. The tongue-and-groove wood floors, once dull with age, were polished to a glossy sheen.

Despite the addition of four enormous chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling and the replacement of pews by tables, P.J.'s Abbey retains an ecclesiastical majesty. Two towering, stained-glass windows spill diffuse light into the center dining area. Outside, Orange's historic Almond Street makes visions of small-town America dance in your head.

It's fitting that the Meads conceptualized this as a family restaurant. Entire families are coming here now--as, of course, families have been coming for the last hundred years, though for a different purpose--and the feeling of continuity is reassuring.

This is also kid-friendly restaurant; the host hands every small child a packet of crayons and a child's menu complete with a small coloring book. The menu, too, has something for everyone: soups, smoothies, snacks, pizzas, salads, sandwiches, small plates and hearty main dishes.

If you've guessed that the food lacks a unifying style, one gold star. The menu includes seared ahi tuna Nicoise, meatloaf, roasted garlic bruschetta, popcorn shrimp and hummus. It's doubtful that any kitchen can do equal justice to such a range of cuisines, and the cooking here is best described as erratic.

Austrian bratwurst and top sirloin stay close to form. Other dishes--particularly the rather salty meatloaf with Ortega chilies--put eccentric spins on familiar themes.

The pizza is evidently made from unleavened dough. The thin crust is brushed with olive oil and garlic. The toppings--prosciutto, chopped fresh tomato, goat cheese and wild mushrooms, to name just a few--are appealing in this context.

Roasted garlic with bruschetta gets a zesty tapenade accompaniment. You smear the baked garlic onto toasted slices of country white bread, then add a daub of olive paste. The popcorn shrimp are quite oily but otherwise not bad, thanks to a tempura-style batter well matched to the spicy cocktail sauce.

The hummus is grainy rather than smooth and does not include olive oil (a common, though not obligatory, ingredient in hummus). My problem with it is that you can't taste the garbanzos because of the aggressive lemon flavoring.

The sandwiches are mostly OK. They include good burgers with fries, grilled chicken on a poppy-seed roll with ancho-chile mayonnaise and Havarti cheese melted onto a toasted baguette with Black Forest ham. There is trouble with the main courses, though. Blame that on erratic preparation, overdoses of salt and a distressing amount of overcooking.

The chicken pot pie begins with promise; the first thing you taste is a rich, flaky crust. The filling, however, features large, unwieldy chunks of chicken, virtually no vegetables and a bland, floury sauce. Our steak was overcooked beyond recognition, and every one of the pastas was mushy. The best of the entrees is probably the moist, sweet boneless Idaho trout in a crisp cornmeal crust.

Many of the breads and desserts are made in the bakery attached to the restaurant. Try the eggy bread pudding, an intimidatingly large square served with a good whiskey sauce. I had a bad experience with the chocolate mousse, nicely presented in a tall parfait glass but stiff with age.

The bakery's Danish pastries are especially good, and a variety of espresso drinks such as caramel latte and mocha au lait would be perfect for a kaffeeklatsch in the late afternoon. That's also when the place is at its most beautiful, with the sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows.

I can't conclude without mentioning the problems with the service. Every time I have visited, this dining room has been in disarray. There are not enough people on the staff, which means a long wait for even minimal attention.

Furthermore, the waiters are painfully inexperienced. One of them, though not particularly busy, allowed empty dishes to stack up at our table--literally, one dirty dish sitting on top of another--simply because the busboy didn't have time to clear them; a knowledgeable waiter would have pitched in and removed the dishes himself. Another waiter brought us our soup with the main course, which is inexcusable.

Perhaps the owners will read this and hold an employee meeting, but if they do, they might consider that people who live in stained-glass houses shouldn't throw stones. On my last visit, a computer breakdown resulted in a good deal of confusion and delay. When I asked to speak with a manager, I was told none was available.

I visit scores of restaurants that represent an investment of time, money and care, and I'm always surprised when they're done in by something as simple as an overworked busboy, a manager who disappears when you need him most or a stingy payroll. During those trying moments, though, P.J.'s Abbey does offer a special kind of solace: the chance to fold your hands, look up to the stained glass windows and pray for divine guidance.

P.J.'s Abbey is moderately priced. Sandwiches are $4.95 to $6.75. Pizzas are $5.25 to $7.25. Small plates and sides are $1.75 to $6.50. Main dishes are $9.75 to $14.95.

* P.J.'S ABBEY

* 182 S. Orange St., Orange.

* (714) 771-8556.

* 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

* All major cards.

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