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

The Buzz Cut

Young diners are served with energy and a mostly Sharpe touch.

May 06, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chef John Sharpe already caters to museum-goers at Topaz Cafe in Santa Ana's Bowers Museum of Cultural Art; to theatergoers at Costa Mesa's Diva; and to lovers of Asian cooking at Aysia 101 in Newport Beach. Now he takes on a very different and equally challenging demographic: young people.

Buzz is his vehicle, and, brother, does this place make an impression. The cavernous, two-story restaurant occupies the site of the former Warehouse in Newport Beach. Decor has been pared to the basics, punctated by exposed ducts, wooden beams and soaring pillars. It's what I'd call a cross between Zen and beachy.

The prime harbor property faces part of the Newport Sailing Club, and panoramic windows look out onto a maze of pleasure craft. Diva lights resembling remote microphones snake down from a ceiling more than 20 feet high, to hover just above an open, centrally located bar.

The best tables are by the windows, minimalist slabs of raw wood flanked by simple wooden chairs. Service is performed by an attractive, energy-charged team clad in Buzz T-shirts tied in the back to expose a little skin. The sound system is loud and assertive, and on most evenings, after 10 p.m., a live band performs.

Music is hardly the only diversion. The second-floor mezzanine is a game area, taking a page from industry up-and-comers such as Dave & Buster's and Gameworks. Not everyone comes here to eat.

Those who do will encounter one of Orange County's more creative menus. The concept is grazing, that is, small dishes representative of a dozen cuisines.

Sharpe has long been a proponent of American Southwest cooking, but he also likes to experiment with Asian flavors. As it happens, those are the most reliable genres at Buzz. The kitchen, in fact, can be erratic.

Chips, dips and cold appetizers are the menu's natural starting points. Japanese eggplant and kalamata olive dip is a creamy purplish puree close in spirit to tapenade. It is good enough, but the presence of eggplant is not strongly felt. Fire-eaters might want to try Rasta corn chips with fire-roasted habanero salsa prepared with a macho dose of the blistering Mexican chilies.

What distinguishes curly fries is a deliciously smoky chipotle-flavored catsup. Seared ahi and cucumber salad is fine, though some might find the English-style cucumbers, diced and mixed with fresh ginger and a cloying honey mustard, overly sweet for the fish. Avoid fresh oyster slammer, an oyster served in a shot glass with salsa and tequila. The one we ordered did not taste fresh.

As to salads, the Caesar is fairly classic, and the portion is huge, topped with a great heap of grated Parmesan and a large handful of garlicky croutons. Thai Twist Chicken Salad features an abundance of smoky chicken strips and even more nappa cabbage, plus peanuts and glass noodles, but it's offered in an unpleasantly watery and sour vinaigrette.

An entire page of the menu is devoted to what's called extreme taste, but the dishes are much tamer than they sound. Smoked chicken hush puppies are fine, but you don't really taste chicken. Grilled baby lamb chops--four chops with a dollop of eggplant dip and a Kermit the Frog-colored mint-yogurt sauce--are under-seasoned.

The best dish from this section is Jamaican jerk chicken wings, six big meaty wings crusted with peppery spice. They're grilled to blackness and served with a celery salad and a thick blue-cheese dressing. Another good choice is pork carnitas and sweet corn pudding. This is a familiar, fork-tender plateful of beautifully browned, pulled pork, along with a nice tomatillo sauce and mashed sweet corn.

Too bad those few are exceptions. Steamed Manila clams, from the menu's skillet section, would have been acceptable in a vaguely Thai-style bath of lemon grass, ginger and garlic. But the addition of cooked spinach and tomato somehow made the sauce bitter. Crispy catfish battered with buttermilk and cornmeal was mushy. A better choice is the grilled salmon, a nice piece of fish on a bed of fragrant jasmine rice.

If some Buzz dishes seem overly exotic, consider the "pipeline," a giant, tube-shaped burger on a sesame-seed bun with sliced tomatoes and red onions. (Mine was burned first time around, but the remake was fine.) The best sandwich is probably the Cuban wrap, which combines good barbecued pork, black beans, jalapen~o jack cheese and red cabbage slaw to palate-pleasing effect.

Desserts are a kick; they certainly aren't subtle. Apple pizza skateboard is pizza dough smeared with hot caramel sauce, topped with cinnamon-flavored apples and scads of fresh whipped cream. It comes to the table on a surfboard-shaped wooden plank about 18 inches long. Not bad.

Chocolate thunder cake is a standard, but richly flavored, chocolate layer cake with a thick frosting studded with chocolate chips. Nothing special here. But banana Bundt cake with vanilla ice cream, hot caramel sauce and a bananas Foster sauce is pretty good. And the Buzz sundae--layers of pound cake, berries, syrups, nuts, whipped cream and ice cream--is big enough to have almost anybody buzzing for days from the sugar rush alone.

Buzz is moderately priced. Chips, dips and cold appetizers are $1.69 to $7.95. Extreme tastes are $4.95 to $7.95. Desserts are $3.95 to $8.95.

BE THERE

Buzz, 3450 Via Oporto, Newport Beach. (949) 673-4700. Daily 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. All major cards.

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