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

The Fare May be Lighter, but the Ritz Remains an Institution

May 27, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the subject turns to Continental cuisine, no one deserves the title of Keeper of the Flame more than Hans Prager, owner of the Ritz at Fashion Island Newport Beach.

Prager has single-handedly kept the genre healthy at his landmark restaurant. It is in this glittering, ostentatiously decorated establishment that retro favorites like lobster bisque, escargots en crou^te, veal Oskar and harlequin souffle continue playing to an appreciative audience.

These customers still dress properly for dinner as well, thank you.

"I have one thing to say about this restaurant," said my Generation X niece, looking over the crowd as if it had just dropped in from another universe: "Diamond tennis bracelet."

But times are changing. Prager no longer puts in 16-hour days at the restaurant, and it is rumored that he will retire this year. Perhaps with this in mind, he recently brought in veteran chef Jean-Pierre Lemanissier, a master of both classic and nouvelle French cuisine, to oversee the kitchen.

Other subtle changes have also taken place. Only the waitresses in the bar--not those in the dining room--wear hot pants as part of their uniforms, a change made after the female employees voted on the subject. Last year the restaurant opened a lovely outdoor garden room, an idyllic setting for lunch on a glorious Newport spring afternoon. And many of the newer dishes, while consistent with the owner's singular vision of luxury, show a preference for lightness and moderation.

The Ritz certainly has a unique ambience. The main dining room, lined with gilded mirrors and black leather booths, is called the Escoffier Room, because a portrait of the legendary turn-of-the-century chef hangs on the rear wall. The Piano Room, often used for private parties, is graced by elegant portraits of nude women.

The busy bar is filled with lithographs by French artist Guy Buffet, and it's a nice place for a boisterous business lunch. It is in this room that Prager has inscribed his philosophy--literally, in golden letters on the wall--"It's my life. I live it. I love it. Critics be damned." Yes sir, I hear you.

The Ritz carousel ($14.50 per person, only served for two or more) is something you should experience once in your life. It is an enormous Lazy Susan brimming with luxury foods; delicious aquavit-cured gravlax, buttery smoked sturgeon, huge prawns, briny Dungeness crab legs, a smooth goose liver pa^te, real Parma ham, shelled Maine lobster claws, creamy marinated herring and a nice steak tartare.

Some of the humbler appetizers are also quite good. "Those Ritz Eggs" are served in the shell, scrambled with chives and finely minced smoked salmon, then topped with a generous spoonful of Russian caviar. I'd like the dish even better if the eggs had a more custard-like smoothness, but the shot of ice cold Cristal vodka that accompanies the dish is just right.

The fried oysters are light and crisp in their crust of Japanese style bread crumbs (panko), and the seaweed slaw and wasabi-tinted cocktail sauce strike graceful notes of harmony. Norwegian King salmon three ways--smoked, cured and tartare--will be slightly monotonous except to real salmon-lovers; all three preparations taste similar.

But the lobster bisque, colored by lobster coral and tiny bits of lobster meat, is silky and smooth. And one of my favorite salads here is just about faultless, the Boston Bibb lettuce and Belgian endive with crumbled Roquefort and candied walnuts in a restrained balsamic vinaigrette.

The main dishes fall into two categories, what the menu calls "everyday classics" and a long list of daily specials. It is with the specials that Lemanissier is making his presence felt. One evening he made pot au feu, served in a gleaming copper kettle.

Pot au feu is a fundamental glory of French cuisine, the essence of good farmhouse cooking. But nothing is too simple at the Ritz. What came to the table was a gorgeous, clear soup brimming with exquisitely tender pieces of boiled beef, chicken, leeks, carrots and potatoes . . . plus the impossible richness of veal sweetbreads and goose foie gras. The dish was wonderful; I personally would have preferred the rustic pot au feu you might get at a French farmhouse, minus foie gras or sweetbreads.

Other specials have included a surprisingly peasanty Bavarian sauerbraten lunch, served with crisp potato pancakes, red cabbage and a gingersnap gravy and a delicious dinner of broiled center-cut swordfish steak, served on a grilled portabello mushroom cap with an artichoke bearnaise.

Not everything I've eaten here has entirely pleased me, though. I find the hoisin glaze used on the roast duck in the duck salad to be cloying. The pan-seared veal scaloppine didn't have much flavor. Many of the sauces tend to be excessively reduced, masking the fine quality of the steaks and chops with which they are served.

*

On the short-but-sweet dessert list, the standouts are a creamy strawberry Napoleon (a stack of buttery wafers layered with cream and fruit), the famously feathery harlequin souffle (half Belgian chocolate and half Grand Marnier) and a variety of good sorbets.

There is also a superbly eclectic wine list that includes a variety of ports, dessert wines and fine spirits, as well as some of O.C.'s best coffee drinks at the finish.

Now couldn't Prager change that sign to read "Critics be darned"?

The Ritz is very expensive. Appetizers are $8.75 to $14.50. Soups are $5.75 to $6.50. Salads are $6.95 to $9.50. Entrees are $18.50 to $34.

BE THERE

The Ritz, 880 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 720-1800. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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