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O.C. Eats

Meaty and Sweety

The bungalow serves its steaks hearty and martinis colorful.

September 07, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The issue with martinis is no longer whether they're shaken or stirred, or even whether they're gin or vodka. Today the au courant martini drinker wants to know: What flavor is it?

There are a lot of martinis out there. Take the selection at the Bungalow, the toniest steak and martini spot on the Orange Coast. Many of its martinis are made from fruit bases, such as lemon (and pink lemonade), apple and orange. There's even a chocolate one.

The martini lifestyle requires a classy atmosphere and fine food, both of which the Bungalow provides in abundance. But whatever Prime steak or fresh seafood you dine on, the preferred method to start the evening here is with a chilled martini in hand.

Which brings up that flavor question again. When I go to this Corona del Mar restaurant, I often struggle over my choice. When I'm feeling conservative, I get a classic gin martini; I've also enjoyed the apple martini, which provides quite a pucker with its sour flavor. But for my wife, the choice is simple: the excellent Cosmopolitan, that tart red vodka concoction made popular by repeated appearances on HBO's "Sex in the City," though once in a while she'll have the Lemon Heaven martini.

These libations certainly establish a proper mood for feasting extravagantly in one of the county's more expensive restaurants--$23 for sea bass, $29 for rib eye and $30 for rack of lamb. With these excellent cuts of seafood and meat, professional service, creative appetizers and a strong wine list--the Bungalow is worth what it charges. Real quality costs, and that's what you get here--usually.

Especially with steak. The heart of the menu is the steaks, which are all aged U.S. Prime corn-fed Midwestern beef, about the best you can throw on a grill. The Bungalow's pride and joy is its pound-and-a-half bone-in rib eye, and it also serves a Porterhouse and the two steaks a Porterhouse can be subdivided into, filet and New York strip.

The rib eye is a good choice for first-time Bungalow visitors. Because it's one of the most flavorful cuts of steak, it tastes rich and hearty without having to be seasoned with salt, pepper or steak sauce (on request the Bungalow waiters will grudgingly bring sauce to your table in a small cup).

I must say, though, that the last time I ordered the rib eye, somebody, the waiter or a line chef, fumbled the ball. I asked for the steak medium rare, but only half of it had the proper warm pink center. The other half was well done.

On weekends, chef Tom Shields shows some flair with special steaks prepared with different sauces and glazes. On one recent Friday night, he topped a 12-ounce filet with ground pepper, pomegranate demiglaze and rosemary, and served grilled nectarines on the side. The tart, peppery treatment meshed with the meat's husky flavor, and the nectarine added an explosion of sweetness. It was an inventive dish, showing that there's more than meat and potatoes to this steakhouse.

I particularly like what Shields does with his rack of lamb. He takes a meaty cut of four ribs, rubs on a mint demiglaze and tops it with herbed bread crumbs before roasting. A tangy plum sauce joins it on the plate. Shields adds entertaining touches to two old standards: He treats pork tenderloin to a mango-apricot glaze and marinates chicken breast in a cilantro-lime mix.

Shields also uses a sweet or sweet-sour element in his seafood dishes, such as an orange-ginger glaze on the grilled Atlantic salmon and a tart Asian dipping sauce for the blackened ahi.

The moist Chilean sea bass comes in a hazelnut crust, but it's the smoky chipotle beurre blanc sauce that makes all the difference.

The Bungalow also is one of the few places to list a full Australian lobster tail on its menu. While the market price for a one-pound tail runs a steep $55, this grilled, sweet shellfish dipped in drawn butter remains an exceptional pleasure.

Among the appetizers, the seafood selections make a good choice. The meaty crab cakes are rare in Orange County for actually having a distinct crab flavor, and the massive cold prawns (served in martini glasses, of course) feature a hearty horseradish sauce. Particularly interesting is the spicy Thai calamari: Impeccably fresh, deep-fried and lightly crisp, it's covered with a zippy pepper-peanut sauce.

But there are also a few missteps along the way in the appetizer department. The grilled artichoke appetizer is served with an uninteresting dip that reminded me of low-fat mayonnaise, and my choke was overcooked and dry. Overall, the salads lack the inventiveness and quality of the rest of the menu, and the one with a creative approach--spinach with walnuts, feta cheese and strawberry vinaigrette--is hopelessly sour and difficult to eat.

I've mentioned the unevenly cooked steak, and I've found other problems, such as a lemon martini with the rim dipped in salt, not sugar. A martini is not a margarita, and you don't expect this sort of bungle at the Bungalow.

However, at its best, the Bungalow succeeds at being far more than a mere steak and martini spot, and this is quite an achievement, since those steaks and martinis are so very good.

The Bungalow is moderate to expensive. Martinis $7, appetizers and salads $4.95 to $12.95, main dishes $16.95 to $29.95.

BE THERE

The Bungalow, 2441 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. (949) 673-6585. Open for dinner Sunday-Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.

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