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Gordon Biersch's Beer Essentials

Crisp brews and a hearty, eclectic menu are this pub's recipe for success.

September 24, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gordon Biersch, the swank alpha male of the brew pub world, combines two late-'80s phenomena that have proved their staying power: the grazing menu and the microbrewery.

The first Gordon Biersch opened in Pasadena. The branch in Orange, Orange County's first (more are planned), is the eighth in a chain that includes San Jose, Las Vegas and Honolulu locations.

The GB formula for success is straightforward. The beers tend to be light and crisp, like many premium German lagers. The menu is eclectic: trendy appetizers, wood-oven pizzas and hearty main courses from all over the map.

The Orange GB is an impressive, cavernous, industrial-looking structure. The floor is stained cement. Sleek hanging lights snake down from the high ceiling. Behind enormous glass doors stand huge stainless steel fermentation tanks. You may feel you're on a guided tour of a European mega-brewery.

Meanwhile, the shiny, inlaid-maple tabletops are reminiscent of expensive acoustic guitars. If you choose to sit at one of the foam-cushioned booths, your shoes will dangle a couple of feet off the floor.

This restaurant is hip enough to offer a nice list of wines by the glass, but even better is the complimentary beer sampler, available for the asking, which reflects considerable confidence in the product. Taste all five and you'll probably find one you like and order it with your meal.

The five tastes are poured into tall, narrow glasses, and they're likely to include a crisp, golden Pilsener, not unlike Corona; Martzen, a hoppy Oktoberfest-style lager; Dunkles, a sweet, unfiltered dark beer; Hefeweizen, a refreshing wheat beer, and my choice, Blond Boch, 7.2% alcohol with a rich caramel finish.

Food is also taken seriously here, and the menu has a remarkably wide variety of dishes. One starter I like very much is rosemary-marinated lamb skewers with sweet chile glaze, because the meat is tender and the glaze has an aromatic suspicion of Thai influence.

Gordon Biersch garlic fries are also delicious, and a great idea. You really taste the garlic in these light, crisp fries, which are also available with sandwiches and one or two main courses.

The kitchen is far from perfect, though. One lunch, I got a platter of the most rubbery fried calamari in recent memory. Too bad--the dipping sauce was a good, spicy marinara.

The pan-roasted black mussels in garlic and parsley broth turned out to be equally rubbery green-lipped New Zealand mussels. The grilled baby back riblets in Marzen beer barbecue sauce taste all right, but those I got weren't riblets but full-sized ribs, served lukewarm.

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I certainly can't find much fault with the pizzas and sandwiches. One day I had a wonderful rotisserie ham and melted Cheddar sandwich, positively bursting with thin slices of moist, juicy, smoky ham.

Another day, I chose the Pilsener beer-battered fish sandwich with horseradish mayo and tartar sauce on an onion roll, a quantum improvement over the fast-food fish sandwiches I eat in a pinch.

The pizzas, finished in a wood oven, are made from homemade dough, and the crust has a mild sourdough tang. Without doubt the best is the one with wild mushrooms, grilled leeks and Fontina cheese with white truffle oil: an inspired topping, though I wouldn't have minded a little more Fontina. Another good one is also vegetarian: zucchini, yellow squash, rosemary potatoes, tomatoes and roasted red peppers.

The main dishes are a trip around the world. The menu has a more extensive gumbo list than most Cajun restaurants in our part of the world: crab, shrimp, oyster and seafood, plus one made with chicken and andouille sausage. The gumbos are tasty and substantial, heavily spiced and enriched by a dark roux.

The same main ingredient choices (crab, shrimp, etc.) are available as pan roasts that are less spicy than the gumbos. The pan roast I tasted, the crab model, was mushy but palatable.

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There are also Chinese dishes, such as a good sweet-and-spicy chicken stir-fry made with vegetables, peanuts and big chunks of chicken and served with fragrant basmati rice.

The grilled sausages with sweet and sour red cabbage turn out to be skillfully grilled bratwurst, knockwurst and mettwurst, and you can't get much more German than that.

Moroccan spiced lamb sirloin is good, tender meat powerfully spiked with cumin and paired with a comforting warm potato and onion gratin.

Two entrees I wouldn't order a second time are the excessively sweet, barbecued salmon and a doughy, insipid goat cheese ravioli with portabello mushrooms, pine nuts and rosemary brown butter.

Predictably, there is a large dessert selection. I rather liked the lemon souffle cake with marinated strawberries and almond snaps, served in a souffle dish. It has a texture that is about halfway between a mousse and a cheesecake.

Pass up the cloying chocolate cake and try the warm apple bread pudding, which is served with appealing cinnamon whipped cream and an irresistible crushed pecan caramel sauce that the menu calls sticky bun sauce.

Not much has been left to chance here, and I expect Gordon Biersch to stick around for quite a while.

Gordon Biersch is moderate to expensive. Starters are $2.95 to $8.95. Salads are $4.25 to $11.95. Main courses are $8.95 to $21.95.

BE THERE

* Gordon Biersch, 1623 W. Katella Ave., Orange. (714) 288-0115. 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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