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Boring Surprises : City Club chef dresses up American menu in some unexpected ways.

June 11, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The soaring, rectangular atrium of the Doubletree Hotel Anaheim in Orange is one of the most impressive local dining places. The main dining area, now called the City Club, is distinguished by a ceiling nearly three stories high, with one wall a backdrop for a giant, circular swatch of art.

The City Club has several gigantic ferns housed in huge caldron-like vases. Most of the elegantly dressed tables afford a prime view of a calming outdoor garden, visible through the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows. The garden, almost too beautiful for a hotel, is landscaped with running water and a white wedding cupola.

In short, this lobby-level room is an oasis, surrounded by a desert of industrial high-rises such as the UCI Medical Center. So more's the pity that this restaurant has taken so long to find its bearings. I've never dined here when the room was even remotely close to full.

A few reasons are obvious. This room is trying hard to be formal, but it opens up onto the lobby bar, where a rowdy bunch watches sporting events on a big-screen TV. The last time I dined here, the Stanley Cup semis were being broadcast at a high decibel level. Sorry, but "he shoots, he scores," is not most people's idea of intimacy.

The parking policy has turned off more than a few of my guests. The restaurant validates, but the front desk doesn't seem to know anything about that. One of my guests was angered at having the attendant demand a $5 parking fee when the price should have been $2. These petty objections do not help build a client base.

That said, the City Club is the best concept yet to surface in this hotel. It bills itself as an American grill, and the menu is small and put together well. And, because new American cuisine invariably includes a variety of ethnic influences, expect several surprises.

Chef Jim Boring's menu covers a lot of ground: California, Asia, Cajun Country and Europe. His starter called grilled risotto cakes is clever and delicious. The little cakes are tender and chewy, and the endive, pancetta bacon and sage butter garnish makes them explode with flavor.

Stuffed mushrooms Florentine are more Milwaukee than Florence, because a good Wisconsin cheddar dominates the spinach in the stuffing. The starter I don't recommend is cheese and vegetable strudel. It's a doughy cylinder filled with a bland mixture of goat cheese, mushroom and sun-dried tomato.

A couple of the soups and salads are downright inspired. Corn and conch chowder, the house specialty soup, has a nice balance of two very different ingredients. Warm duck confit salad is a meal in itself: frisee, greens, a big piece of salty preserved duck, a couple of hearty potato pancakes and a nicely restrained raspberry citrus dressing.

City Club Caesar, however, is anemic, needing the muscle that ingredients such as anchovies or a good dose of Worcestershire would provide. Wild rice soup, a special one evening, had good flavor but came to the table as thick as a bowl of porridge in a Dickens novel.

When the restaurant opened, management was pushing its Angus beef selections, served on sizzling steel plates. But businessmen complained that the sizzle was ruining their shirts, so now you get these same excellent steaks, filet mignon, New York and rib eye, on an ordinary dish. All cuts are top quality, lightly seasoned and topped with herb butter.

The other entrees can be quite imaginative. I didn't expect to like sauteed medallions of quail because the menu description seemed over the top. The medallions are sauteed in chestnut flour with peppered blueberry balsamic sauce, served on a sweet potato and shiitake mushroom hash. But the components complement one another, and the quail is superb: rich, gamy and distinctive.

Wok-fired penne is also quite good, tossed with Italian sausage, rapini, tomatoes, chicken and red pepper flakes. Good grilled lamb chops are accentuated by the side dishes, tequila chiles, soft polenta and a thyme goat cheese sauce. Cajun shrimp are delightful, lightly sauced fresh Gulf shrimp, big ones, in a light beer sauce made with pepper, rosemary, garlic and paprika.

The City Club has a few side dishes a la carte. Twice-baked herb potato is stuffed with a cheesy mixture of potatoes creamed with cheese, sour cream and chives, a nice accompaniment for steaks. Baked creamed spinach is good and goes well with just about anything.

After the main dishes, the waiter will roll over a dessert cart with two or three choices, none compelling. There might be a workmanlike slice of cheesecake big enough for Godzilla, or the restaurant's tiramisu, in reality chocolate mousse in a parfait glass with two ladyfingers.

Still, the bottom line is that the Doubletree Hotel Anaheim might finally have found the fine dining concept that works for them. They shoot, they score.

The City Club is expensive. Appetizers are $6.50 to $9.95. Soups and salads are $3.75 to $12.95. Main dishes are $16.95 to $26.95.

BE THERE

The City Club in the Doubletree Hotel Anaheim, 100 The City Drive, Orange. (714) 634-4500. Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner daily, 5-10 p.m. All major cards.

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