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Plantation Party

Jamaican-theme drinks set the mood for imaginative eats at Trocadero.

July 16, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Trocadero in Irvine has a name that conjures the glamour of Paris in the '30s. Sounds right--retro is the stock in trade of owners Mark and Cindy Holecek, who recently scored big with Bungalow, a Corona del Mar steakhouse specializing in premium martinis and American comfort foods.

Forget about Paris supper clubs, though. The theme at this nifty new University Center restaurant is a Jamaican plantation. The dining room skylight is framed by enormous bamboo rods. Lush tropical plants soar halfway to the ceiling, past walls of primitivist paintings. Each booth has enough headroom for an NBA center.

If you prefer, you can sit under huge canvas umbrellas on an enclosed patio, where you can escape the ear-splitting jazz soundtrack. The patio is not only quieter but also exposed to breezes, which are especially delightful on a warm evening.

Many of Bungalow's most popular drinks appear on Trocadero's menu (why mess with success?). As at Bungalow, martinis come in thick, conical glasses with long, elegant stems. The classic is delicious--and the well gin is upgraded to Bombay Sapphire for only $1 extra. I love the Cosmopolitan too: Absolut Citron vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice and a squeeze of fresh lime.

The menu also features what it calls Island Drinks--tall, silly punches garnished with mixed fruit and a paper umbrella. Mojo Juice is a blend of vodka, Chambord, peach schnapps, Bacardi 151 and tropical juices. Another good one is Tropical Storm: vodka, gin, rum, triple sec, blackberry brandy and banana liqueur.

I predict the young Ecuadoran chef, Erick Hidalgo, is going places. He was previously head chef at Bungalow, and he supervised the kitchen at Twin Palms in Newport Beach under the direction of well-known chef Michael Roberts.

Hidalgo's cooking is comforting and straightforward, and he manages to sneak in a few imaginative ideas without causing a ruckus. His wonderfully spicy bay shrimp ceviche, for instance, is served in a coconut shell with fried green banana chips protruding from all sides.

One of Hidalgo's best appetizers is a fire-roasted artichoke. Instead of the usual mayonnaise-based sauce, he offers a delicious Asian sesame-ginger dipping sauce. Even his homemade potato chips are distinctive. These chips, brought to the table piping hot in a cloth-lined wicker basket, are lightly dusted with Cajun spices.

The pizzas are cooked in a wood oven, and the two I tried were as good as you can get. One was a Mediterranean pizza topped with a cumin-spiked chicken sausage, a restrained sprinkling of feta cheese and fresh basil. The other, bonfire chicken, comes with red onions, cilantro, chicken breast and a sweet spicy barbecue sauce that pops up quite often on entrees here.

I quite like that barbecue sauce on the baby back ribs, which are served with a scoop of deliciously lumpy mashed potatoes and fried onion strings. I'm less fond of it when it's mixed into the tender meatloaf, where its flavor overpowers the meat. And I don't like the sauce at all on the cilantro and basil barbecued salmon, because it obliterates the taste of the fish.

The steak is a delicious skillet-roasted tenderloin topped with a bit of Stilton cheese. I'm also fond of the wood-roasted chicken.

There is a good selection for lighter meals: sandwiches, pastas and salads. I can recommend the barbecued chicken salad with cilantro and Parmesan cheese. In my book, the best choice on the sandwich list is the BLTA: applewood-smoked bacon, sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, crisp lettuce and possibly just a trifle too much artichoke, all on a crusty, freshly baked bun.

Another good sandwich choice is the catfish po' boy. The fried fish, in a cornmeal crust, comes on a bun smeared with that sun-dried tomato mayonnaise.

The penne with grilled chicken, a generous portion, comes with a nicely piquant chipotle pepper sauce. Angel hair pasta is served al dente with fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and quite a bit of feta cheese, which lifts this dish above the run of the angel-hair-pasta mill.

*

Perhaps because of all the fancy drinks, Trocadero's menu isn't long on desserts. Still, the ones it lists work very well, thank you.

Erick's Key lime pie--lime-flavored custard (properly yellow, not dyed green with food coloring) in a flaky crumb crust--is served with two big dollops of hand-whipped cream. Sweet, fruity tropical sorbets, three scoops to an order, run to flavors such as mango, passion fruit and coconut.

There is an indulgent chocolate souffle cake--that warm, fudgy, nearly flourless sort that is just about mandatory at any new upscale restaurant. But I'm no cynic. For the record, it's almost as hard to resist as a tall drink with fruit and an umbrella sticking out of the top, and the state troopers doubtless would be happier if you chose it to end your meal, rather than another Tropical Storm.

Trocadero is moderately priced. Island cocktails are $5.75. Starters are $3.75 to $7.95. Pizzas are $7.50 to $8.50. Main plates are $9.75 to $16.95.

BE THERE

Trocadero, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine. (949) 854-5599. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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