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O. C. LIVE | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Extravagant Behavior Befits Diva

June 06, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Diva is an indulgent mistress.

With apologies to Cecilia Bartoli and Kiri Te Kanawa, I refer not to any opera singer but to a restaurant, one that has been a mainstay of the South Coast dining scene for more than five years.

Last year, Diva was acquired by chef John Sharpe and his company, West Coast Productions, owners of Kachina, Bistro 201 and Topaz Cafe in the Bowers Museum. Sharpe is an Englishman who cooked in Switzerland, Italy and at Los Angeles' L'Ermitage before settling in Orange County. He is schooled in the classics, but much of what he does at this restaurant cheerfully lays waste to the recent "rule of three" (i.e. no more than three ingredients in a dish).

On average, he doubles that number at Diva. Take the restaurant's new menu. Ultimate meat and potatoes Act II consists of a filet mignon smeared with Bearnaise sauce plus lamb and veal tenderloin atop a rich demi-glace and three types of potato.

Diva remains a stylish restaurant for a stylish crowd. The purple and beige room features an open kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows, a huge gilded mirror above the center booths, a handsome zinc bar, paintings by hot local artists and a number of those nifty little electric halogen lights that hang from stretched wires. Come on Thursday evenings and you'll hear blues pianist and singer Paula Prince. Fridays through Sundays, there is a jazz piano trio.

The first act on this menu is a complimentary basket of toasted brioche and a smooth olive tapenade; it makes a delicious beginning. After this come the appetizers, called small plates, though they wouldn't fit many people's definition of small.

One is a buttery, full-flavored Norwegian salmon smoked by Michel Blanchet, longtime chef at L'Ermitage. The fish comes with lovely little violet potatoes. Another good appetizer is asparagus wrapped in dried beef (which reminded me of a salty Swiss bundnerfleisch), grilled and served with a shallot confit. The asparagus snaps with freshness when you bite in.

The ahi tartare Napoleon is a tower of three potato gaufrettes separated by layers of peppery, sweetly spicy ahi tuna tartare. Unfortunately, the flavor of the fish is masked by a mustardy dressing, and the picture is further confused by the papaya relish that comes with it. Fried Pacific oysters, served over spinach leaves with chipotle mousseline, could have been created in the same spirit. The delicate Fanny Bay oysters it uses could stand on their own in terms of flavor. They don't much benefit from the thick breading or the oily chipotle dipping sauce.

But some dishes work fine, for all their complication. The large plate called spicy penne pasta with rock shrimp, chipotle sauce, corn, peppers and cilantro (that's the name) is a terrific holdover from Diva's early days. All the ingredients work together; the fresh corn kernels add a dimension of crunch that makes it fun to eat.

Ahi towers is a vertical presentation: two filets of blackened ahi stacked like a house of cards, with a rich gratin of broccoli, lima beans and other vegetables in the middle. Underneath it all is a bed of sweet corn (somebody here loves corn) and a tart tomatillo sauce.

And then there is the killer vegetable plate, a napkin ring-shaped deep-fried potato cylinder stuffed with red and green oak leaf lettuces, surrounded by green beans, grilled polenta, sauteed wild mushrooms, yellow squash and a whole steamed artichoke, the entire shebang dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Whew!

*

One of the restaurant's best new ideas is a venison shank sliced through, osso buco-fashion. The meat is tender and gamy, the bone filled with marrow, the sauce a surprisingly subtle port wine reduction. Poached salmon with Champagne sauce and caviar is about as close to traditional French cooking as you will get here, provided the salmon isn't badly overcooked. Mine was.

If it's American food you're after, come at lunchtime, when the kitchen turns out juicy, smoky half-pound burgers topped with Cheddar cheese (or, more exotically, Stilton), even a fine Cobb salad.

At my last lunch here, I ordered Asian salad with chicken pot stickers, sesame oil dressed greens surrounded by five doughy little pasta pockets. It was OK, but the burgers were better.

Desserts are indulgent enough for a diva.

Allow about 20 minutes for one of the cruiserweight souffles, say the white chocolate and Grand Marnier model, served with giant bowls of strawberry whipped cream for you to spoon into the center. Spiced apple columns (which also require 20 minutes' notice) are essentially hot crepes filled with a cinnamon apple compote. Good thing they come with homemade vanilla ice cream and a buttery caramel sauce, because both the crepes and the filling are jammy-sweet.

Save room for the smooth, creamy hazelnut ice cream that the kitchen makes daily, and the good cappuccino. They prove once again that simpler is often better.

Service is slick and efficient, and the eclectic wine list has been compiled by maitre d' Nic James. Terrabianca's '90 Campaccio ($40) is one intelligent option. It's a velvety Tuscan red wine fit for a diva, whether in good voice or straining to reach the high notes.

Diva is moderately expensive. Lunchtime, small plates are $3.50 to $11, large plates $7 to $12. At dinner, small plates are $3.50 to $9, large plates $7 to $19.

* DIVA

* 600 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 754-0600.

* Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 4:30-9 p.m. Sun.; 5-9 p.m. Mon.; 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Thur.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

* All major cards.

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