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Orange County's Royal Purple

July 25, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A friend who moved back to newport Beach after 30 years in the Midwest called to tell me he'd gone to see the re-release of Orson Welles' "The Third Man" (a film he first saw at the same theater 50 years ago), and along the way he'd walked past a French-California restaurant on 29th Street. He wondered if I knew it.

Did I know it? Aubergine, I told him, just happens to be one of the brightest stars on the Southern California dining scene and certainly Orange County's top restaurant right now. After a yearlong hiatus, it reopened in March with a new look (elegant) and a new format (prix fixe only). Set in a vintage beach cottage a block from the water, it used to be a fairly casual place where regulars waiting for a table leaned against the tiny zinc bar with a glass of Sancerre or Chardonnay. True, it was sometimes a squeeze getting to your seat, but chef-owner Tim Goodell's food was so beguiling that nobody minded.

Now Aubergine, which means eggplant in French, has gone uptown with a stylishly understated decor. The restaurant's new image--polished mahogany and glass cabinets with silver knobs, comfortable chairs upholstered in chenille, exquisite porcelain and glassware--is more Manhattan sophisticate than laid-back beachcomber. The enlarged dining room features widely spaced tables and, with the new small patio, the restaurant now seats twice as many people. The chef's table, looking onto the kitchen, can seat six if you don't mind the glare.

When Goodell and his wife, Liza, opened the restaurant in 1995, most people ordered a la carte: There were few takers for Goodell's extraordinary tasting menu. It took time, but finally he's found the audience for his passionate cooking, and he and his wife, who also trained as a chef and runs the front of the house, make every effort to give guests a singular dining experience. They send out enticing amuse-gueules before the first course. They still bake their own breads. Ingredients are all the best available, including line-caught fish and Maine diver scallops, free-range birds, Colorado lamb, farmhouse cheeses and, often, produce from Chino Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe.

Goodell cooks what he likes and what interests him, constantly thinking up yet another way to showcase, say, black sea bass or Oregon rabbit. The hit of one evening's meal is a French canning jar filled with gently poached and chilled duck foie gras. Spread on perfect hot toast, the cool foie gras is irresistible.

Aubergine's new format offers three- and five-course menus and a set nine-course chef's tasting menu. On the smaller menus, which change frequently, I have several favorites. I love Goodell's spring pea soup ladled over a dollop of creme fra 5/8che and slices of intensely fragrant black truffle, and his Peeky Toe crab set off by the tart sweetness of a blood orange ponzu and ripe avocado. Monkfish cooked on the bone, paired with roasted cipolline onions, is as substantial and full-flavored as red meat. Wild turbot with white asparagus is tempting, too, served in a puddle of parsley-flecked brown butter. Goodell is even better with meat: Savoy cabbage leaves turn squab breast into a lovely grandmotherly dish. Fallow venison is gorgeous and gamey, perfectly suited to a slightly sweet rhubarb essence and a "confit" of pig's trotters.

The cheese course pairs handcrafted cheese with a salad or homemade fruit marmalade. And no one should ever consider skipping dessert, especially when Goodell is serving his warm chocolate souffle cake with prune Armagnac-dosed ice cream or his fragile mille feuille stacked with luscious strawberries and cream.

The best way to experience Aubergine may be to enjoy the nine-course tasting menu. One night, it begins with two amuse-gueules: first, a dab of satiny tuna tartare with finely minced shallots spread with chive creamlike frosting on a cake, and then a soft-boiled egg in its shell, the deliciously runny, gold yolk topped with cream and a lashing of pink peppercorn gastrique.

Next comes an updated salad a la Greque: diced cucumbers and ripe tomato concasse with a sprinkling of briny feta. Drizzling it all with a finely nuanced 25-year-old balsamic vinegar is inspired. Afterward, I don't want to relinquish a single bite of the Belgian white asparagus poached with pork belly that's been slow-roasted to a melting tenderness and strewn with fresh English peas and Oregon morels. But I do in order to taste my partner's foie gras au torchon, a lobe of fattened duck liver wrapped in a linen towel and poached just until it's pink. Served chilled, it comes in thick slices with a buttery brioche and a Sauternes gelee.

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