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Fireside Theater Comforting Still

Neither Riviera's flambe personality nor its menu changed much when the landmark's location did.

November 12, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A gas lantern guards the entrance to Riviera at the Fireside in Westminster. How apropos. This restaurant, an Orange County institution, is a keeper of the flame for the fading glory of Continental cuisine.

The original Riviera lasted 28 years in South Coast Plaza before surrendering its lease. The operation has been transferred, lock, stock and barrel, to a large building of its own fronting the San Diego Freeway.

Most of the old crew of chefs and waiters has moved along with the management. The restaurant's stock in trade remains salads tossed table-side, flambeed steaks and flamboyant desserts such as strawberries Romanoff, and no Orange County restaurant does them better.

The dining room is campy in the extreme. There are huge sprays of silk flowers, paintings that would look equally at home in Disneyland's Haunted House ride and lots of cushiony high-backed booths, upholstered in black vinyl.

It's rather dark but hardly gloomy. Just when you're lapsing into a quiet conversation, bam!--a salad goes up in flames at the next table, as bright as a retro rocket.

The men at work include tuxedo-clad waiters Patricio and David, who have, between them, set more fires in their 20-year-plus careers than anybody you'll ever meet.

Watching David mix a steak tartare or Patricio flame a bowl of Bibb lettuce is simply great theater. Even if the food were not good (and it generally is), I would come back for the show.

All meals begin with a complimentary appetizer tray of liver pa^te, ratatouille Nicoise, herbed cottage cheese and assorted olives. Whew! Don't come if you're mildly hungry.

The best of the appetizers is steak tartare, served for two or more. Here's what happens: A cart stocked with raw sirloin and a host of other ingredients is wheeled to your table. The waiter mixes the beef with Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, capers, chopped onions and spices, binding it all with a coddled egg. Served on crisp rye bread toast points, this concoction, for sheer flavor, puts most sashimi to shame.

Another flamboyant starter is wilted Bibb lettuce in a tart, unreasonably rich hot bacon dressing. It's pretty good, but I'm not thrilled about the faintly charred taste flaming brandy imparts to lettuce. The spinach salad--wilted by the same delicious dressing--is more appealing; the leaves are less delicate and stand up nicely to the heat.

French onion soup gratinee is a good, beefy broth topped with a bionic-strength crouton and a thick blanket of melted Gruyere cheese. Veal-stuffed tortellini comes in an incredibly rich cream sauce laced with pesto. You can even start with a platter of fresh crab legs, clams and Blue Point oysters. East Coast oysters are fine, but they are one more anachronism about this place in an age when we have learned about Skookums, Malpeques and all the other terrific West Coast oysters.

The entree list is again dominated by the rich and the retro. Example: a crack version of veal Oscar--pounded thin and garnished with crab legs, asparagus and a classic bearnaise sauce about the consistency of yogurt. The excellent poached salmon is daubed with a correctly lemony hollandaise.

A nice piece of broiled whitefish can be served with lemon or any of the sauces chef Richard Bergsten so deftly prepares or, amazingly, plain.

Still, I had a pang of nostalgia when I ordered it. The old Riviera served this dish with the more delicate and delicious sand dabs. The manager told us sand dabs are too hard to buy consistently nowadays.

When I asked about the pepper steak flambe au cognac, my waiter swelled with pride. "We're famous for our pepper steak," he said. Do order it if one of the old pros is making it, even if it doesn't turn out to be the tenderest, trimmest New York cut around. The sauce, laced with cream and cognac, is a real kick.

*

Not everything here inspires nostalgia, though. I didn't much care for duckling a l'orange because it tasted as if the duck had been cooked in a frying pan, not in an oven, as duck should be. And my London broil was tough, with an overpowering whiff of mustard shooting though the accompanying cream sauce.

Riviera at the Fireside doesn't have a huge complement of desserts, but the ones you'll remember are appropriate for any third act of a big production.

Crepes Suzette (for two) are flamed in a copper pan at your table. The sauce--mostly butter, sugar and a fistful of liqueurs--is sheer perfection.

The kitchen ran out of strawberries the night I wanted strawberries Romanoff, so raspberries were substituted. The berries were mixed in a grand show and presented in a parfait glass, dressed in a wonderful rose-colored cream laced with Chambord and brown sugar.

The third dessert to consider is crepe Riviera, a thin pancake rolled around an eggy chocolate mousse, under a yin-yang of vanilla and chocolate creme Anglaise.

After dessert, there are retro coffee drinks such as cafe Diablo, a grown-up Starbucks cafe mocha with cognac, Grand Marnier and rum. This too can be set afire if you ask.

But save the energy. You'll be burning off plenty after a meal here, the minute you hit the StairMaster.

Riviera at the Fireside is very expensive. Hors d'oeuvres are $7.50 to $12.50. Salads are $4.50 to $12. Entrees are $14.50 to $25.50.

BE THERE

Riviera at the Fireside, 13950 Springdale St., Westminster. (714) 897-0477. Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner 5-10 Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major cards.

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