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O. C. LIVE

A Prime Example

Good-Looking Bungalow Sells the Sizzle and the Best Cuts of Steak

November 28, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CORONA DEL MAR — In Orange County, at least, the traditional American steakhouse is back with a vengeance. Think about all the bad-mouthing of red meat over the last decade or so, then check out the crowds at Arnie Morton's or Five Crowns.

Or at this handsomely masculine place, Bungalow. Outside, the parking valets are wheeling Bimmers and Audis around the lot. Inside, the swank bar is elbow-to-elbow with a self-consciously retro crowd of fashionable Corona del Marites and others who would fit right in at a Georgetown soiree or on the quarterdeck of the Titanic. The wait for tables at Bungalow is more than an hour on peak nights.

Is this all it takes to be a smash--a sign out front promising steaks, fresh fish and martinis?

No, you've got to do a very good job on a couple of things. Bungalow is easily the year's best-looking new restaurant, and the steaks, all beautifully marbled USDA Prime, are faultless.

Owners Mark and Cindy Holechek are veterans of the O.C. restaurant wars, having owned Waters in Irvine, but even they seem surprised at the way the restaurant has taken off since it opened in September.

"We had no idea it would be this big of a hit," Cindy Holechek said over the phone. "But obviously we're thrilled."

Still, these things rarely happen by accident. When the Holecheks heard that the old Mezzaluna was on the market, they snapped it up and enlisted the Hatch Design Group, the Costa Mesa company responsible for the renovations at Antonello in Santa Ana and the striking Chimayo Grill in Fashion Island, to redo it completely.

Hatch transformed it into a turn-of-the-century craftsman-style California bungalow. The curved protrusions of Honduran mahogany sticking out from under the eaves are called kickers. (You see a lot of kickers on those old craftsman bungalows in Pasadena.)

The best tables are upstairs at scallop-shaped booths upholstered in mohair. They may be a lurid shade of burgundy red, but these are booths you can really sink into, and each polished mahogany tabletop is handsomely lighted by a rectangular lantern of wrought iron and shell. One wall is dominated by a gaudy fresco, a jumble of colors and letters. Downstairs, in what was Mezzaluna's pizza room, the appointments are just as plush, though the buzz is distinctly more subdued.

Before you eat at Bungalow, you are probably going to drink. The idea of featuring martinis was inspired, now that martinis are terminally hip again, the rage from South Beach to TriBeCa--not to mention being tangentially relevant to the whole retro concept.

These martinis come in thick, conical glasses with long, elegant stems, and in a number of variations. There's a delicious classic gin martini made with Bombay Sapphire gin, a whisper of dry vermouth and olive.

Your hard-core martini-lover would stop there on the ground that the nouveau versions showing up are abominations. But I found I liked the cosmopolitan martini--Absolut Citron vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice and a squeeze of fresh lime--though I admit that it tests the limits of what a martini should be (and that the word "Citron" is kind of a sore spot here in O.C.). I even liked the hideously named Spicy Tini: Absolut pepper vodka tinted pink with tomato juice and garnished with a spear of pickled asparagus.

Bungalow's appetizers, which range from ordinary to excellent, are basically evolved bar dishes. Mixed-grill sticks are skewers of beef tenderloin, chicken and shrimp--not nearly as interesting (nor as well spiced) as some of the martinis.

The jumbo Baja shrimp cocktail is big, fresh shrimp served with a Kentucky bourbon barbecue sauce and a sweet mustard dip. The whole roasted mushroom caps ooze Sonoma Jack cheese mixed with chopped bacon and spinach. The best appetizer, a slightly blackened grilled artichoke, is served with a fine ginger mayonnaise dipping sauce.

A full range of steaks is available, all accompanied by either scalloped potatoes with Gruyere cheese or mashed potatoes. The rib eye is the most flavorsome cut of meat served here, but the porterhouse for two is also terrific; it's an enormous cut of tender, juicy meat. Even the least expensive steak, the top sirloin, is flavorful.

If beef isn't your thing, there is roasted rack of Colorado lamb, served with fresh herb mashed potatoes.

The seafoods I've tasted have been lackluster. The king crab legs were fresh enough but oddly dry, a disappointment at $29.95 for a pound and a half of legs.

Fresh blackened "rare" ahi comes cut in strange little squares crusted with sesame, seared on the edges, raw in the middle. They're served with a soy ginger dipping sauce. The next time I want a dish like this, I'll go to a Japanese restaurant such as Kappo Sui in Costa Mesa or Taiko in Irvine.

Desserts include a flaccid homemade apple strudel and a chocolate souffle cake topped with ice cream. The latter is something like a cross between a brownie and hot chocolate pudding. There is also a nightly selection of cigars--the smoke of choice at the moment, of course--and after-dinner drinks, including cognacs, ports, sherries and, natch, a brace of single-malt scotches.

Yep, the livin' is easy here on the good ship Corona del Mar. But remember to dress for the occasion. Now that steak's fashionable again, you'll have to be fashionable too.

Bungalow is expensive. Martinis are $5.95 to $6.95. Starters are $5.75 to $9.95. Prime steaks are $16.95 to $27.95. Poultry, fish and seafoods are $13.95 to $39.95.

* BUNGALOW

* 2441 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar.

* (714) 673-6585.

* Open 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday (bar is open nightly until 2 a.m.).

* All major cards.

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