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O. C. LIVE

One Gentleman From Verona

July 11, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thee White House Restaurant has a conspicuous extra letter in its name, perhaps to distinguish it from a more famous edifice in Washington. (Of course, the location would be kind of a giveaway too--a busy, unappealing, industrial stretch of Anaheim Boulevard.) Built as a private residence in 1909, this white Colonial-style structure has been a restaurant since the early '80s.

Bruno Serato acquired the property in 1987 and settled, after a brief flirtation with California cuisine, on a distinctly northern Italian menu. Serato is a Verona native who was educated in Paris, and it's clear the present concept suits him. If you come for dinner, he'll be the well-tanned fellow in designer clothes working the floor in a mixture of French, Italian and English.

In fact, the restaurant attempts to be even more international than that. As a close neighbor of the Pond, Anaheim Stadium and, of course, the Happiest Kingdom of Them All, this elegant establishment attracts an eclectic clientele of athletes, aesthetes and tourists. Menus are available in Japanese, Russian, Spanish and French. (The regular menu is in Italian and English.)

And even though the restaurant is old-fashioned in terms of interior design, Thee White House has one eye on the future. It is one of the few O.C. restaurants to have its own Web site (www.proclaim.com/oc/whitehouse.htm).

The ambience suggests an antebellum bed and breakfast somewhere in Dixie, making it a welcome escape from the neon glitter of Anaheim's motels and family restaurants. In a nice touch, napkins are topped with tiny paper bow ties, the restaurant's trademark.

The tables, all draped in white linen, are situated in four intimate, interconnected dining rooms. The center and largest room is punctuated by a white stairway and fireplace. The predominant wall colors are ivory and peach, offset by hanging garlands of silk stargazer lilies and roses. The lights are kept low--so low that you may request a flashlight to read the menu. I did.

The cuisine, from the hand of CIA alumnus David Libby (in this case, the Culinary Institute of America) is better described as progressive than cutting-edge. Take the polenta con granchio: a large wedge of corn meal mush containing shreds of Dungeness crab, perched on a pool of lemony beurre blanc. An Italian visitor might just poke at this object in amazement, but I like it. The sweetness common to the crab and the cornmeal allows the ingredients to blend effortlessly.

Take another novel appetizer--carpaccio di tonno, a standing tower of Hawaiian ahi streaked with a balsamic vinaigrette. It's a good effort, but the fish is sliced fairly thick (carpaccio is supposed to be razor-thin). If the chef had used sea bass or yellowtail instead of the more cliched ahi, this creation might stand even taller, as it were.

The chef is rather playful with pastas. Tortelloni with three sauces--not on the menu, but it's been a special every night I've come here--consists of three large, chewy ravioli-like pastas filled with a mixture of Fontina and mozzarella cheeses. Each is set atop its own subtly flavored sauce: fra diavolo (a spicy tomato-based sauce), porcini and tomato beurre blanc. The effect is wonderful, though the Fontina cheese is perhaps a little strong for the other flavors.

Another good pasta is the delicate vegetarian ravioli, stuffed with a mushroom duxelles and garnished with grilled leeks.

One of the most powerful pastas is gnocchi al Gorgonzola. Thee White House is one of the few O.C. restaurants that does gnocchi right. Usually these potato dumplings come out heavy and glutinous, but here they're properly light and melting. Still, the pungent cheese sauce is so rich most people stop after half a dozen or so.

Occasionally, the kitchen's flowery style throws you. Pasta fagioli is a traditional Italian soup of beans and short tube pasta. This version is loaded with sausage, making it a hearty main dish disguised as an appetizer. Filetto di tonno is advertised as pan-seared and sesame-coated. You might not guess from that bland description how thick the sesame coating is--it would be better to call it a crust, and it quite overwhelms the fish.

But generally speaking, there are few such missteps. Gamberi all'aglio showcases succulent tiger prawns, grilled with whole cloves of garlic and arranged on a bed of nicely cooked angel-hair pasta. Costolette d'agnello al forno is roast rack of lamb--cooked perfectly rare, on demand--served with a reduction of lamb stock flavored with caramelized garlic. A grilled veal chop is treated to a wild mushroom demi-glace deftly scented with sprigs of thyme.

Even the misleadingly named anatra arrosto turns out for the best. From the name, you'd expect roast duck, Italian style, but it's actually a typically French confit of duck leg and grilled duck breast in a soothing raspberry ginger sauce.

*

Be sure to save room for dessert. I'll go out on a limb and proclaim that Libby makes the best and lightest souffle I have eaten in this area. It's infused with a little Grand Marnier and comes with creme anglaise, chocolate ganache and fresh whipped cream. (I prefer it without any of the sauces--it's that good.) You can also get ice cream-filled profiteroles, a fine raspberry tart and other pastries (which change daily), all served from an ornate wrought-iron cart.

Service is warm, efficient and highly professional. The wine list features a broad range of California and imported wines, including highly prized "super Tuscans" such as Sassicaia, '92, and several good Chiantis.

Thee White House is expensive. Antipasti and salads are $6.50 to $12. Entrees are $17.50 to $26.

* THEE WHITE HOUSE

* 887 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim.

* (714) 772-1381.

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily.

* All major cards.

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