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A Manly Place to Refuel

Speedway's racy spin on dining includes big portions and ubiquitous car imagery.

January 22, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Dick Marconi is the co-owner of an automotive museum in Tustin and obviously knows the car thing inside out. So when he opened a sports bar and restaurant here, he named it Speedway and made it doubtless the raciest (as it were) in the state.

The original plan called for the building to have the sleek lines of a race car, but city fathers apparently balked. What we have looks more like an ultramodern car dealership--so much for dreams--but it's still overwhelming.

Formula One cars are parked both outside and inside the steel-and-glass building. The bar table tops are made from chrome racing wheels, and the napkin and silverware holders are Eibach springs. There's a mind-boggling array of fancy auto parts, accessories and racing posters. The huge bar section sports an arcade filled with video racing games--and 80 TV screens.

The effect is like being in a Formula One pit--minus the deafening noise. This must be about the most relentlessly masculine restaurant around. My wife pointed out that there wasn't a single plant or flower in the place, something the excited little boy in me hadn't noticed.

James Bond undoubtedly would love the decor, but he'd be miffed by the little things. Every time I've dined here, there's been a shortage of busboys, so the overworked waiters have to clear the tables. The kitchen doesn't operate on all cylinders, either. There is an executive chef, but he was absent three of the four times I ate here. To judge by what I had, his presence is clearly missed.

Most of the food, however, is straight up and well conceived. Credit for that goes to Alan Greeley, chef-owner of the Golden Truffle. Greeley, a racing enthusiast, was hired as a consultant when business stalled. His imprimatur is now on several dishes, such as the creative egg rolls, comforting pot roast and authentic strawberry shortcake.

The menu is mostly American with occasional touches of South America and the Pacific Rim. Everyone starts with a basket of hot French bread and a side dish of chimichurri, a flavorful Argentine dipping sauce made from olive oil, parsley and garlic.

The best appetizers, hands down, are the egg rolls ("roll bars" on this menu) and the crab cakes, both similar to versions served at the Golden Truffle. The egg rolls are stuffed with a fragrantly spiced mixture of minced chicken and vegetables and handsomely presented--cut at 45-degree angles and garnished with a "spaghetti" of beets and carrots. The golden brown crab cakes are light and flaky and go wonderfully with a mayonnaise-like Dijon mustard sauce served on the side.

Watch for the black flag if you choose any of the other appetizers, though. Turbo-style chicken wings (buffalo wings) are spicy but soggy. The artichoke and spinach dip, served in a huge crock flanked by a pile of multicolored tortilla chips, is oily and insipid.

The pizza I'd choose would be barbecued chicken, though the dough on ours was a bit undercooked. It's topped with Gouda, red onions and lots of white-meat chicken. A nicely conceived pasta--"down force" farfalle with sweet Hawaiian prawns--had potential but spun out disastrously. The pasta had a good sun-dried tomato cream sauce, but the four prawns--giant things, cooked in the shell--were done to mush.

You'll probably have better luck with the good-tasting, homey entrees. Most of the portions are ridiculously huge, and they're cooked in traditional ways. The old-fashioned pot roast comes in an iron skillet in a rich gravy laced with big chunks of carrots and onion. The meat is nicely tender, and there must be a pound and a half to a serving.

Roasted rosemary chicken is an entire 2-pound chicken. Yes, it's the whole glorious bird, juicy meat and appealingly crisp skin, set on a moat of buttery mashed potatoes. The baby back ribs are a full slab, as moist and tender as can be, slathered with a sweet hot barbecue sauce, and they come with a mountain of French fries and a side of rather pasty creamed corn.

I didn't care for the tomatoey jambalaya, which was distinctly more Italian than Cajun, complete with an entire Italian sausage joining the chicken breast amid the bland rice. The charbroiled king salmon was dauntingly fishy. "Monster" meatloaf, two unappealing gray-brown slabs about the size of Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes, were over-perfumed with sweet spices.

The desserts are big, brash and over the top. The great old-fashioned strawberry buttermilk shortcake is a huge, flaky buttermilk short biscuit topped with fresh whipped cream and a scandalous helping of sliced strawberries. The hot fudge brownie sundae consists of a warm brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, high-octane hot fudge and more whipped cream. There's a good creme bru^lee too, not much different from what you'd get in one of our better French restaurants.

What Speedway needs now is some work in the pit and a few more experienced drivers on the team. With all the money being spent here, you'd think that a few more people involved would have understood the restaurant business as well as the automotive industry.

Speedway is moderate to expensive. Pastas are $8.95 to $14.95. Entrees are $9.95 to $17.95. Desserts are $4.95 to $5.95.

BE THERE

Speedway, 353 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (714) 675-5900. 11 a.m.- midnight Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday. All major cards.

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