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Warming Up to Summer Appetites

People-watching at Felix, with Splashes of romance.

May 22, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Summer is just around the corner, and our choicest warm-weather dining spots are filling up like hourglasses turned upside down.

Orange County has a wealth of places with splendid ambience for a summer meal. One is Felix Continental Cafe, at Plaza Square in downtown Orange. Sit on plastic furniture on the brick sidewalk, and Monterey pines tower directly above you. The scent of Cuban roast pork and black beans will waft by your table.

This place is as much a scene as it is a restaurant. Families and friends gather here to sample an enormous variety of snacks. And unless you are one of the unfortunate few crammed into the tiny, lurid-pink interior, you can enjoy superb people-watching in Plaza Square, with its tranquil Midwestern small-town feel--it's as compelling as the food.

You eat well and spend little at Felix. Although the staple of Cuban cuisine is rice and black beans, the repertoire includes terrific roasted meats and side dishes. The best item here is pierna de puerco, wonderfully moist roasted leg of pork, redolent of garlic and bitter oranges. Right behind that is the roasted chicken Cubano, similarly perfumed, with crisp skin you just can't stop eating.

The deliciously filling arroz a la Cubana is a rice pilaf mixed with pork, pork sausage and chicken. Empanada Gallega de pollo is a big old square of chicken pie: The twist is that the filling is laced with Mediterranean olives, and the crust kneaded from spicy cornmeal. Almost every main course is garnished with fried plantains. They're manna from Havana.

By all means, sample a few appetizers first. My favorite is croqueta de pollo y jamon--fat, lightly breaded croquettes of chicken and deviled ham. One more that's sure to please is tamal con puerco, the Cuban version of the tamale, with a filling that features pork, fried onions and olives.

For dessert, don't miss the amazingly rich and moist tres leches, a venerated cake that uses three kinds of milk--condensed, evaporated and whole--in the batter. And if you don't like the way Felix brews espresso, Diedrich's Coffee is next door.

Felix Continental Cafe is inexpensive. Appetizers are $1.25 to $5.95. Entrees are $6.95 to $11.95.

*

Another great summer dining spot is Splashes, the Surf and Sand Hotel's sea-level restaurant in Laguna Beach. The view is spectacular this time of year: Outside the windows, waves lap up on the shore just inches from your table. In the evening, it's unspeakably romantic--a candle-lit restaurant with waves softly breaking outside. Needless to say, reservations are a must.

Indeed, Splashes gets my vote as the most dramatic place to dine on the entire south coast. So maybe we'll forgive it for an often erratic kitchen and incredibly greedy corkage fees ($20 a bottle if you bring a domestic wine, $30 for an import).

The decor is splashy: a red stone floor, lots of blond wood, sea-blue plate-glass tables. The menu changes daily, and a recent one was appropriately vernal: beef carpaccio with arugula, shaved Parmesan and a heavy-handed mustard dressing, and an innocuous house salad of mesclun greens, trace elements of leeks and fresh fennel with a nice balsamic vinaigrette.

One appetizer that scored with everyone had a long-winded title: "Wild mushroom saute over three-cheese polenta finished with white truffle oil and marjoram." It had a nice balance of flavors.

But a salad of smoked chicken, watercress, ruby grapefruit, scallions and toasted brioche tossed with sherry walnut vinaigrette was obscenely salty. The waitress looked unimpressed when we told her. "It's usually made with smoked trout," she told us. Oh.

The entrees can be complicated, a slight clash with the serene setting. Ahi tuna is grilled "Amalfi style," meaning it comes with crisply fried zucchini and mint, and the whole thing is doused with basil and pepper-infused oil. I ate the fish, left the rest. But there's an excellent 12-ounce rib-eye steak with horseradish, a great piece of meat, and a restrained version of panzanella salad: arugula and bread cubes soaked in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Roasted duck with spiced dried fruit compote and fresh polenta sounds good on paper, but the duck itself was flaccid and flavorless. I'd have liked the rigatoni with Japanese eggplant ragout, red chiles, smoked mozzarella and extra-virgin olive oil a whole lot better if there hadn't been so much tomato sauce. Odd that in a restaurant where dish descriptions read almost like recipes, this sauce was not mentioned.

The desserts are imaginative and lively, such as a fudgey double chocolate marquis with caramelized bananas and chocolate ganache, an impressively full-flavored double apricot Napoleon and a warm berry and apple cobbler, though the last is technically a crumble, not a cobbler, with an oatmeal streusel topping.

For those smart enough not to bring their own wine, the restaurant has a first-rate 60-bottle wine list and access to the bigger list used upstairs in the Towers, the hotel's penthouse restaurant.

Sip your wine slowly. It's so pretty here that you'll wish you could linger clear to September.

Splashes is expensive. Starters are $6 to $9. Pizzas are $10.50 to $12.50. Entrees are $12.50 to $23. Desserts are $6.

BE THERE

* Felix Continental Cafe, 36 Plaza Square, Orange. (714) 633-5842. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. All major cards.

* Splashes, 1555 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 497-4477. 7-11 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily. All major cards.

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