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| Sunday Brunch

A Jewel in a Quaint Setting

Tea and Scones Are Not the Only Stars at Teahouse on Los Rios

October 22, 2000|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you've ever put on a tea party for a captive audience of teddy bears, you're a good candidate for brunch at the Teahouse on Los Rios. This charming, flower-covered cottage in the historic district of San Juan Capistrano is a good place to play mad hatter and savor a scone or a spot of tea.

It's not hard to leave your troubles behind when you enter this fairy-tale setting of old-fashioned furnishings, lace doilies, vintage hats and china teapots. Flowering vines and rustic tables lure most customers to the porch, which overlooks the restored homes and gardens of the quaint Los Rios district.

The Teahouse is the culmination of a dream for Claudia Niccola and her husband, Allan, who renovated the circa 1920s Rodman Home, moved a Victorian house beside it and transformed both into their home and restaurant in 1997.

It was Claudia's love of tea and its rituals that led her to persuade her husband that opening a teahouse was a good idea.

And they've been living their dream ever since.

Along with daily lunches and afternoon teas, the teahouse offers a champagne Sunday brunch that reflects the English teatime theme established by the Niccolas. Baked eggs, scones, clotted cream and lemon curd are on the Sunday a la carte menu, along with garden frittata, a quiche with hash-brown crust, sausage puff, waffles and an assortment of salads and lunch dishes from the daily menu.

A huge selection of teas--from fruity to herbal and Indian--and a variety of delicious scones are the key attractions at the teahouse. Tea is served in English bone-china teapots and accompanied by silver strainers. Scones (blueberry, raisin, lemon and cream when we visited) come with an excellent herb butter, clotted cream or jam and are the reason many customers keep coming back. But don't bother asking for the recipe; Claudia says it's a tightly held secret.

Of the seven brunch entrees, we liked the sausage puff (crumbled sausage in an eggy cheese souffle), the garden frittata (broccoli, mushrooms and onions in a baked omelet) and the thick, crusty waffles with maple syrup. One of the most popular dishes is the cheese quiche with crunchy, hash-brown crust.

A less successful item is the English dish of baked eggs--hard-cooked under a heavy cheese layer--which could have used more flavor and less cooking. Of the lunch items, the Chinese chicken salad is a standard combination of lettuce, vegetables and chicken topped with canned, crunchy noodles, but the chicken curry is a creative mix of chicken and sauce accompanied by coconut, nuts and raisins.

Desserts the day we visited included delicious bread pudding, lemon curd tart and fudge sundaes. They were perfect with our peppermint tea.

But a visit to the teahouse is about more than the meal. It's a chance to linger in a garden setting where the waiters don't rush you. If it takes you two hours to sip your tea, that's OK.

"With the fast pace of life, we wanted to create a setting where friends and family could gather and take time to celebrate being together," says Claudia. "Everything we do reflects our motto: 'Building relationships one cup at a time.' "

*

The Teahouse on Los Rios, 31731 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-3914. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Prices range from $5.95 to $8.95.

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