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Elegance Presides Over Eclectic Fare at Capistrano's Egan House

June 13, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — South County long has been a mecca for sun-splashed Mexican beach fare such as fish tacos, and arguably a haven for good pizza. It has taken a restaurant called Egan House to bring a measure of elegance to the local dining scene.

The building, once the residence of a stern 19th century judge (named Egan, of course), recently was acquired by Gary Pittario and his mother, San Juan Capistrano native Barbara Crickett. Together, they have enriched the mostly brick structure with interior design fit for a turn-of-the-century judge: parquet floors, cream-colored walls and beautiful moss-green wicker chairs. The soft, rich light is cast by brass-rimmed globes in the ceiling.

As you enter, you pass a mirrored bar area before being guided into one of the restaurant's three dining rooms. Two of them are on the first floor--small, intimate rooms of four or five tables. You mount a banistered staircase to reach the larger upstairs room, which has a distinctly more cloistered feel.

No matter where you sit, the tables are dressed in white linen and decorated with vases of fragrant rosemary and lavender sprigs. This may be the most comfortable restaurant to open in San Juan Capistrano in a decade, and it definitely is the most attractive.

The chef at Egan House is Paul Squiccirini, who ran the kitchen for several years at Laguna's Sorrento Grill. Squiccirini is an old hand at Mediterranean dishes with distinctly Italian grace notes, but Egan House is no Italian restaurant. The menu is eclectic, and for every Italianate dish like fried calamari and pasta fagioli, there are creations like mushroom-rosemary Napoleon and heady, homemade duck sausages spiked with cumin.

The pasta fagioli is a rich tomato broth loaded with white beans, short macaroni and prosciutto, making it fairly faithful to Roman tradition except for an odd tendency (currently all too common in restaurant kitchens) to undercook the beans. Yes, there is bruschetta, too, but it clearly is nontraditional. Here are crisps rather than slices of grilled bread, rubbed with garlic and olive oil, topped with tiny yellow and red tomatoes.

Calamari fritti are pieces of nicely fried squid in a corn flour crust, served with a nice lemon aioli dipping sauce on the side. The Dungeness crab cakes are sensational, easily the best dish on the Egan House menu. These smallish golden solid crab meat discs, two to an order, are rolled in crunchy Japanese panko bread crumbs. They have an intense crab flavor and they'd be just fine by themselves, but they're enhanced by a delicious chipotle mayonnaise.

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Among the lighter dishes on the menu is grilled asparagus embellished by an assertive Valencia orange hazelnut vinaigrette. The mushroom-rosemary Napoleon is enjoyable to taste but messy to eat. Imagine a ziggurat of puff pastry squares, layered with sauteed spinach and a duxelles of wild mushrooms. When you invade the stack with your fork, the whole thing crumbles.

Squiccirini was adept at pastas during his tenure at Sorrento Grill, and he has provided his fans with a little continuity here. Few restaurants in our area serve decent gnocchi, the tricky Italian potato-flour dumplings. Egan House does. Its light, meltingly tender gnocchi are served with a pesto sauce rich with pine nuts.

Penne with chicken is a memorable mix of Blue Lake green beans, fresh basil, good olive oil and roasted pieces of chicken. And even a cliche like capellini with prawns turns out to be more interesting than you'd expect, thanks to the pancetta wrapped around the jumbo prawns and the judicious use of watercress in the sauce.

A bacon-wrapped pork loin, with a balsamic vinegar and onion relish, failed to impress me: The meat was tough and gristly. But everything else I've tried here has scored a bull's-eye. Mixed grilled sausages, for instance, turned out to be seductively spiced sausages made of pork, duck and chicken (the chicken version being notably lean and smooth-textured).

Garlic roasted chicken is half a boneless free range chicken roasted under one of the house's original 113-year-old bricks. The chicken, surrounded by a pile of sauteed fresh artichoke, is tender and juicy.

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One evening there was an excellent duck risotto, cooked slowly so that the dish retained not only the duck essences but the texture of good Arborio rice. Another evening there was Arctic char, a firm fish with light orange flesh and a taste similar to salmon. The kitchen had the good sense to serve it simply broiled without yielding to the temptation to create an exotic sauce.

The desserts aren't spectacular, but a few are solid and pleasurable. The house specialty is a chocolate Grand Marnier souffle, but for some reason it was unobtainable on the evenings I dined there. So I had to content myself with almond parfait, a frozen confection akin to a high-fat ice cream laced with chopped nuts, and a too-dense wedge of something called berry brown Betty, really a rich blackberry pie.

Service is attentive at Egan House, and owner Pittario has put together a well-chosen list of distinctive, reasonably priced wines. Try the '93 King Estates Oregon Pinot Noir, a good value at $25, or the Italianate Atlas Peak Sangiovese '92, $28, one of the new breed of California wines.

Egan House is expensive. Appetizers are $4.95 to $7.95. Pastas are $9.95 to $16.95. Entrees are $13.95 to $22.95.

* EGAN HOUSE

* 31892 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* (714) 488-0409.

* 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 4 to 10 p.m. daily.

* All major cards.

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