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A Tale of Two Restaurants: Same Location but Different Worlds

November 14, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Gaucho Grill and Eagle Creek Cafe, located side by side at the Park Place shopping and office complex, couldn't be more different. One specializes in low-fat "enlightened foods," the other in meat, Argentine cowboy-style. Judging by the turnout on a recent Saturday night, healthful Eagle Creek Cafe is proving the tougher sell.

Eagle Creek's door is framed by giant logs, creating the effect of a mountain hideaway. The pastel interior is pleasantly done in stone and wood. The slogan "Eat smart, play smart and live smart" is emblazoned in big letters on the wall, and the menu lists the calorie count for every dish; none has more than 8 grams of fat.

I must say I haven't been knocked out by what I've eaten here, but very few restaurants bring off the low-fat concept with much dazzle. You have to accept a degree of blandness in exchange for certain health benefits. Still, that doesn't excuse a rice pilaf with no seasoning, much less outright sins such as over-salting.

The cream of broccoli soup is really a puree of broccoli, carrots, onions, red potatoes and celery with no dairy content. It isn't half bad, though it might be better with a sprinkle of spice.

The salads are generally mixed and/or exotic greens with flavorful low-fat or fat-free dressings on the side. The tuna Nicoise is albacore, red baby potatoes, poached green beans and olives on a bed of spinach, all in a nice garlic vinaigrette with feta cheese crumbled over. The Thai sesame dressing is unctuous, despite being fat-free, and has good flavor. The fat-free ranch dressing would be better for moistening the air-"fried" potatoes than sugar-heavy catsup.

The entrees need more work. I liked the flavor of the roasted vegetable lasagna--pasta, roasted peppers, eggplant, zucchini and spinach baked in a thick, spicy tomato sauce--but the dish was so overcooked it was turning into mush. The sea bass, rubbed with lemon and paprika, was nicely fresh but also should have been cooked a few minutes less. There was so much soy sauce on the chicken yakitori it was inedible.

No problem with the delightfully airy cheesecakes--creamy, crumb-crusted confections, lemon- or pumpkin-flavored, which contain a mere 250 calories per slice.

Eagle Creek Cafe is a sensible alternative for the health-conscious and will be more appealing when the kinks are worked out.

Eagle Creek Cafe is inexpensive. Soups are $2.75 to $3.25. Salads are $2.95 to $5.95. Entrees are $5.50 to $6.95.

* EAGLE CREEK CAFE

* 3041-A Michelson Drive, Irvine.

* (714) 852-4690.

* 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

*

Gaucho Grill makes no health claims, although it uses only fresh ingredients, never frozen or with preservatives. The concept started as an Argentine grill on Sunset Boulevard several years ago. Today it is a chain with nine locations, including this one, Orange County's first.

The place has enjoyed good crowds almost since it opened in early September, perhaps an indication that Americans are not giving up on red meat quite yet. It has definite visual appeal too. The walls are brick halfway up and beige stucco from there to the ceiling, creating the effect of a sort of bohemian cantina.

There's an enormous open grill groaning with steaks, beef short ribs (asado de tira), huge split chickens, a variety of sausages and a few organ meats. You get a snootful of sizzling meat aroma the moment you enter. Even though the Gaucho Grill's cooking can be inconsistent, it smells downright intoxicating to committed meat eaters.

Whatever you order, you get a basket of bread and a dish of chimichurri sauce, a sort of oily vinaigrette spiked with parsley, oregano, garlic and hot pepper. I've seen Argentines smear it on literally everything they eat.

The appetizer list is headed by grilled mixed appetizers: morcilla, mollejas, chorizo and a short rib. Morcilla is a fat, dark blood sausage with a crunchy skin and heavy aromatic spicing. Mollejas are sweetbreads, crisp around the edges and not quite fork tender. The short rib reminds me of the kalbi in a Korean restaurant, minus the garlic. The best of the litter is the chorizo, which is a country-style pork sausage, nothing at all like a Mexican chorizo.

I like the salads. Salad completa is like a chopped Greek salad--goat cheese, olives, tomatoes, lettuce and fat croutons. Add some chicken and subtract the olives and you have the delicious Gaucho chicken salad. At $6.95, it's a bargain: two people can share it.

The chicken and steaks are likewise excellent values, as are several main dishes. Milanesa is a steak crusted with bread crumbs and garlic--more or less an Argentine chicken-fried steak. Medio pollo al carbon is a half chicken on the bone, black from grill marks and a pungent spice rub. It could give any local chicken chain a run for the money. The best steak is costilla, a tender rib eye that rates as a steal at $8.95.

A variety of sides complement the meats. Arroz de Buenos Aires is a rice pilaf with grilled peppers and onions. Porotos Provenzal is a pile of white beans simmered with garlic, parsley and onions, served cold; it may be something you have to have grown up eating to love.

Gaucho Grill is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2 to $7.95. Salads and sandwiches are $3.25 to $6.95. Grilled items are $6.50 to $11.95.

* GAUCHO GRILL

* 3041-B Michelson Drive, Irvine.

* (714) 251-9111.

* Lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

* Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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