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Restaurants | First Impressions

A More Elegant Aubergine Returns--and the Owner Is Cooking

April 22, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

After a yearlong hiatus, Aubergine, the lovely French restaurant in Newport Beach, is back. The charming beach cottage has had such an elegant make-over you'll hardly recognize the place. The door is opened by a well-turned-out maitre d'. And there seems to be twice as many waiters as before. It's larger and more comfortable, too, and now there's a small patio out back for outdoor dining. Most importantly, chef-owner Tim Goodell is back behind the stoves and his wife, Liza, is a warm presence in the front of the house.

With the reopening has come a change in format. Aubergine now offers only prix-fixe menus: a choice between three-, five-, or the piece de resistance, a nine-course menu, which, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, no one had yet had the courage to attempt. Since not everyone at my table felt ready to take on nine courses, we went for the five-course menu instead. Within each course are enough choices that each of us could try something different. Good thing, too, because how often do you find a menu with so many dishes you're longing to taste?

Before we ordered, though, came an ameuse gueule, or palate teaser: a single sweet prawn cloaked in kataif (the Middle Eastern pastry that looks something like shredded wheat) on a heavy glass plate. To mention only a few of the highlights that came after: spring pea soup ladled over a dollop of creme frai^che and a slice of seductive fresh black Perigord truffle, the Maine Peeky Toe crab salad with blood orange sauce, and a marvelous sliced veal heart "confit" with an earthy fingerling potato and haricots verts salad in a mustardy vinaigrette.

Monkfish cooked on the bone with applewood-smoked bacon and cippollini onions is impressive, as is a gorgeous chop of Scottish fallow venison in a haunting rhubarb essence. But the truly spectacular dish is rabbit sirloin wrapped in bacon and served with its roasted kidney and seared foie gras.

Portions, I should point out, are small enough that you are satiated at the end of the meal, yet not stuffed--fortunately. Because then comes the cheese course, and dessert followed by mignardises, that array of diminutive chocolates and pastries that mark the finish of a formal French meal.

I can't wait to go back, and soon, to take on the nine-course menu.

BE THERE

Aubergine, 508 29th St., Newport Beach; (949) 723-4150. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only. Prix fixe menus only: three-course $55 per person; five-course $75 (there's a vegetarian version as well); nine-course chef's tasting menu $90. Parking in small lot and on the street.

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