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Peachy Savannah

Southern comfort is humble in Laguna Niguel.

July 09, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What were they thinking, those guys who brought us Chimayo Grill and French 75, with Savannah Chop House in Laguna Niguel?

It's not as if the chop house concept--steaks, chops and American comfort foods in a swank setting--hasn't been done. It seems odd that David Wilhelm and chef Thomas Tran have chosen to do it where the Yankee Tavern tried and failed.

Of course, they're going for Southern, rather than Yankee, comfort foods, which may be a better bet. We are, after all, seeing a wave of "Gone With the Wind" mania.

The hilltop property has been renovated in a comfortable, masculine style. Picture a hunting lodge with stuffed game heads mounted just below its high-beamed ceiling and soaring floral displays, in Brobdingnagian vases, on the sideboards. The bar, with its high-backed leather chairs, big-screen TV and fireplace, looks like a posh gentleman's club.

The vast main dining room has a view of the kitchen through French windows, but you can't see the chefs at work--the stoves are almost obscured by the dozens of copper saucepans suspended from the kitchen side of the windows. No one has been able to tell me whether any of those pots are used for cooking.

Anyway, the food is straightforward, and the more humbly conceived dishes can be seductively comforting.

One delicious appetizer is smoked salmon pastrami, served with Savannah slaw, warm pumpernickel toast and mustard. The featured component is thinly sliced smoked salmon with a nice woody finish, and the cheese-topped toast complementing it is crisp and good.

I also like the grilled artichoke appetizer: four artichokes, cut in half, with a pleasing Creole remoulade that could be described as a mayonnaise-based sauce with a little red pepper.

But the crab cake on fried green tomato, watercress and country dill pickle sauce seems like a stretch. The crab cake is terrific: flaky and tangy. But with a fried green tomato and a wad of watercress, the tastes don't come together, and the salty pickle sauce is plain jarring.

American comfort foods and Southern specialties rate their own sections of the menu. The best dish among the Southern specialties is Mama's gumbo, described as a "take no prisoners" version. It's well stocked with shrimp, scallops, fish, smoked sausage and a good deal of rice and tastes quite good. But if the "take no prisoners" title implies that the dish is spicy, I would disagree.

In the same section you find Savannah shrimp: four Gulf shrimp stuffed with crab meat, lightly breaded and baked. The stuffing takes up more space than the shrimp, and few will finish everything on this plate. On the plus side, the side dishes served with the shrimp--mashed potatoes and Blue Lake green beans--are excellent.

The American comfort foods can be even more filling. Honey-buttermilk fried chicken comes with the same potatoes and beans plus a thick, thyme-infused cream gravy, but the chicken is too heavily breaded.

Revisited Stroganoff is a recipe bound to invite controversy. It's made with filet mignon, crimini mushrooms and a good deal of . . . fresh corn. My main objection to it was simply that it wasn't what I was expecting (corn stroganoff?). FYI: The simplest thing in this section, the herb-roast chicken, is just about impeccable.

*

When do we come to the chop house part, you ask? Don't worry, there's beef and plenty of it. Perhaps my favorite cut is the voodoo steak, a skillfully blackened top sirloin served with a spicy Creole sauce. I took the menu's advice and ordered mine rare and was pleased.

I've also had a pleasant, if unremarkable, filet mignon with Bourbon peppercorn sauce and a chopped steak (priced far lower) with the same rather oily sauce.

If you like big onion rings, grab the chopped steak. It comes with a heap of huge rings in buttermilk batter, each big enough to collar a small dog.

The grilled double-cut hickory smoked pork chops are very tender and very smoky, and they taste cured, like slices from a country ham. If you're expecting the more usual sort of pork chop, this dish may not be for you.

The best fish is probably grilled salmon basted with the restaurant's own mahogany barbecue sauce. I do like the sauce on salmon, but I was surprised to find it seemed too sweet for ribs, another one of the menu's many options.

The desserts are as indulgent and comforting as anyone has a right to expect. Heading the list is pecan pie crumble sundae, a rich, ingenious concoction of ice cream and dark fudge sauce cloaking soft, warm pieces of fresh-baked pecan pie. The peach and cherry crisp comes to the table warm, with an almond oatmeal crunch topping, and I would have liked it even better if I'd found some cherries among the peaches.

There is also a rich, dense vanilla bean and raspberry creme bru^lee. When was the last time you ate in a restaurant where the creme bru^lee was the austere dessert choice? Not since "GWTW" was first shown, I'll bet.

Savannah Chop House is expensive. Appetizers are $4.50 to $10.95. American comfort foods are $11.95 to $13.95. Steak and chops are $14.95 to $27.95. Desserts are 4.95 to 5.95.

BE THERE

Savannah Chop House, 32441 Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel. (949) 493-7107. Dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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