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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

Three Thumbs Up for Trilogy

Restaurant has a new and and talented American chef, and everything is A-OK in Irvine.

July 22, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A palisade of giant bamboo rings Trilogy's patio. Go ahead, walk out into this finely dramatic space. It's uncommonly pleasant to sit here surrounded by a wall of bamboo and contemplate the glass-and-steel urban jungle that is Irvine's Koll Center.

Trilogy's interior is also pretty slick. As you enter through large glass doors, you immediately encounter a hostess at a well-placed lectern who will ask whether you've come for dinner or just to schmooze at the sleek, minimalist bar.

Either way, you can't lose. This place went through a handful of changes after Bistro 201 moved out five years ago. Trilogy itself, the latest occupant, took its sweet time before landing on terra firma, but things finally appear to be A-OK.

The restaurant recently hired talented American chef Jim Strasbaugh away from the Ritz-Carlton's Club Grill, and he's tamed what had been an erratic, though wildly creative, menu. The sign out front still proclaims "creative American cuisine," but don't be misled. This chef uses classic technique and relies on classic ingredients.

Someone has tamed the room a bit as well. Oh, it still has those chic high-backed banquettes upholstered in what you'd swear was designer fabric from a Milan textile house. But the tables, still arrayed a comfortable distance from each other, are now suavely set with anthuriums and good quality stemware.

The clientele is mixed: You see men in suits and women in evening wear, and you also see a totally casual crowd in beachy silks and cottons. However they dress, nearly everybody partakes of the drink list's stirring collection of small-batch Bourbons, single-malt Scotches and premium vodkas. In short, this is one of O.C.'s more grown-up restaurants, and it ever so much looks the part.

All this suits Strasbaugh's grown-up cooking style. About the only remnant of the original menu concept (where many dishes had three elements, paying homage to the restaurant's name) is the three spreads provided for the good house olive and sourdough breads: three small dishes of whipped butter, sweet mashed garlic and a frothy white bean puree. All are subtly inviting.

The appetizers are equally inviting. One dish Strasbaugh brought over from the Club Grill is his wild-mushroom spring roll. It's a sumptuous creation of shiitake, oyster and other mushrooms inside a crisp egg roll skin, served on top of an intensely flavored veal glaze.

He also presents Prince Edward Island mussels, about two dozen of them, in a shallot herb broth with crunchy homemade bread sticks. These tender, briny mussels remind me of the mou^les you get in the south of France.

One evening the chef seared pieces of Canadian foie gras to a crackling texture in a rich raspberry vinaigrette, then set them on a pancetta-laced frisee salad; it was an inspired idea. He always keeps some buttery slices of Scottish smoked salmon around to serve with toasted dill bread and a dense caviar cream.

The soups and salads retain some of the former menu's daring quality. I had to be talked into ordering a baby chicory salad with grapefruit and a Campari liqueur dressing, but that pairing of bitter and sweet went surprisingly well with the chicory's own contrasting flavors.

The best of the soups is a green vegetable gazpacho stocked with chunks of shelled lobster meat and topped with a swirl of creme frai^che. I'm less enthusiastic about the chef's take on corn chowder, prepared with a touch of Anaheim chile and a few rock shrimp. This is a filling, extremely creamy chowder, and I wish it were a lot less rich.

For one thing, I'd like to be able to save some room for the entrees, such as the grilled loin of Sonoma lamb, served with a couscous salad and a rich, gamy sauce. It's simply a great piece of meat left to speak for itself.

Chilean sea bass is rarely as good as it's cracked up to be, but this version is perfectly fine, if you don't mind a pistachio nut crust (which does keep the flesh moist).

Our waiter pushed the seared Baja prawns, but I found these large prawns to be on the bland side, although I did like the accompanying linguine, which was tossed with tomatoes and caper berries. The veal paillard with truffled mashed potatoes and a white Port jus is a dish that needs some reining in; truffle oil has its uses, but surely not masking the flavor of a perfectly good piece of meat.

There are two reliable pasta entrees. The Dungeness crab ravioli has nicely chewy pasta, a smooth crab meat filling and a touch of cheese baked onto the surface. The porcini mushroom cannelloni is a soul brother to those good wild-mushroom spring rolls.

Strasbaugh makes his own desserts, something that's becoming rare in better local restaurants. He also happens to be good at it.

The trilogy of sorbets (aha--so they haven't abandoned the concept after all!) are fruity mango, penetrating raspberry and intriguingly perfumed blackberry cabernet. The white chocolate pistachio mousse, light and pretty, comes on a mango "carpaccio" with a colorful raspberry sauce.

I've saved the best for last. The specialite de la maison is chocolate pecan toffee mousse, and it's a masterpiece. The crust is ground pecans, brown sugar and a soupcon of flour, the filling a caramel-flavored chocolate mousse light enough to float, and the entire affair is bathed in a buttery hot caramel sauce.

Mmmmm. This is one thing on the menu I'd actually like to have three of.

Trilogy is expensive. Starters are $9.25 to $10.95. Entrees are $14.95 to $32. Desserts are $6.25.

BE THERE

Trilogy, 18201 Von Karman Ave., Suite 150, Irvine. (949) 955-0757. Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. All major cards.

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