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Accents Are on Atmosphere, Desserts, Wines

August 15, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — When Le Meridien changed ownership and became Sutton Place Hotel about a year ago, many of that hotel's employees were retained, particularly in the food and beverage department. One casualty, though, was Antoine, the renowned French restaurant. There are no immediate plans to reopen Antoine at Sutton Place.

That leaves the hotel with two places to dine. There's Calypso, out by the swimming pool, and, shouldering the hotel's fine dining tradition, the vast atrium lobby restaurant Accents, formerly Cafe Fleuri.

The atrium, which is entered through an art-filled hallway, is more than four stories high. The new management has made it posher than ever with tropical rattan chairs, enormous potted plants and more than a dozen illuminated umbrellas. This grandiose room is lovely at lunch, when light spills in through the patio windows and bounces off all the white canvas umbrellas, imparting an outdoor effect. Only the soundtrack--incessant elevator music played at a volume impossible to ignore--keeps the ambience from being thoroughly pleasant.

The kitchen faces thornier problems. Accents' menu has a slight French accent but also lists dishes representing the Pacific Rim, the American Southwest and Continental cuisine. This diffuse approach isn't necessarily bad--provided a kitchen can handle it.

Monday through Thursday you have the option of lunching at the rotisserie buffet, which features spit-roasted chicken and meats carved to order, such as leg of lamb and tri-tip sirloin. They're all good when not overcooked. A fine salad buffet is served on the side.

But if you order a la carte at lunch, you're in terra incognita. The Japanese "odds and ends" pot is a strange idea based on a soup that doesn't taste remotely Japanese. The broth is served in a large glass bowl set on a plate where seven items--soba noodles, two chopped meats and four vegetable garnishes--have been arranged. The idea is that you put some or all of these extras into the rather insipid beef bouillon.

*

Then there are some dishes I'd have to describe as misleadingly named. The tandoori shrimp salad, for example, is all right in itself. It's a plate of greens arranged on a mound of couscous, the whole thing garnished with rock shrimp. But can anybody say these shrimp have been anywhere near an Indian clay oven? They look boiled to me.

And how dare anyone list a hot pastrami sandwich on the menu without mentioning that it's grilled? I'm not expecting that a hotel restaurant will have a counterman on hand to carve pastrami in the classic deli manner, but to finish pastrami on a grill, stuff it between slices of grilled rye bread--with lettuce! and a mayonnaise-based sauce!--borders on sacrilege.

At dinner, the food is even more unpredictable. Chilled organic tomato soup is served in an attractive parfait glass, garnished with a stalk of celery as if it were a Bloody Mary. Pretty to look at, less than delightful to taste. It's a watery concoction better suited to the juicer at a health bar, with almost no ripe tomato flavor.

Duck confit braised in a cabbage purse is a classical take on a French peasant dish of shredded duck meat preserved in its own fat, the meat served inside a leafy green pouch. This is an attractive dish, made more appealing with roasted shallots and a delicious relish based on minced potatoes. It's a pity that, as I had it, the meat was dried out and a little sour.

The most dependable appetizer is a smooth, buttery pa^te called panache of foie gras and free-range chicken with Port wine aspic. Dungeness crab and vegetable "lasagna" is better described as a timbale of crab meat with a center layer of sliced carrots, the whole thing topped with a thin crepe. It would be fine by itself, but for some reason the "lasagna" is served in another of Accents' broth-filled bowls, obscuring the crab flavor.

The entrees tend to be simpler. Order the filet mignon if you like your beef on the sweet side, because this one is served with both a vanilla sauce and a sweet potato puree. Rack of lamb is for the sweet tooth too. The thinly carved slices come in a syrupy fig sauce with a sun-dried fruit couscous on the side.

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Baked Chilean sea bass is one of the best dishes in the house and shows that someone in the kitchen can really cook. This is a moist chunk of fish, skillfully wrapped in a scalloped potato crust and garnished with red caviar. The grilled scallops in white Port sauce aren't bad either, though the black angel hair pasta they come with is bland and pasty and would be better left out.

There is no doubt that the pastry chef is talented. The desserts are presented inside various cookie shells and colorful houses of pastry. They are easily the best things to order at Accents.

Light, eggy souffles such as Grand Marnier and raspberry are brought to the table piping hot, ready to absorb a thick creme anglaise topping. A light French-style cheesecake comes with a fruit coulis; a fudgy flourless chocolate cake is served hot with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream.

One more bit of good news is the wine list, one of Orange County's best, well-stocked with domestics and imports once the property of Antoine. Too bad Accents didn't inherit much else.

Accents is expensive. At dinner, soups, salads and appetizers are $4.25 to $18. Entrees are $16 to $22.50. Desserts are $5.50.

* ACCENTS AT SUTTON PLACE HOTEL

* 4500 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach.

* (714) 476-2001.

* Breakfast 6:30-11 a.m. Monday-Friday, 7-11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily.

* All major cards.

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