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Born Again

Brio Tuscany Grill is Reinvented as an Italian Steakhouse--With Mouth-Watering Results

February 15, 2001|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remaking a restaurant is generally a sign of hubris or desperation. For the owners of Brio Tuscany Grill, a little bit of the first and a whole lot of the second were involved when they decided to overhaul a place that to a casual observer would have seemed to be doing fine.

Actually, it wasn't. When Enzo Scognamiglio and Nino Chirico bought Brio in the summer of 1999, the swank Dana Point restaurant was best known for its cocktail scene and late-night entertainment. The menu had grown inconsistent, and with new high-end competitors such as Scott's Seafood set to move to the area, Scognamiglio and Chirico decided to reinvent Brio as a high-quality place to dine without losing the sophistication and night-life appeal.

"We wanted people to come for the food and stay for the entertainment," Scognamiglio said. "Not the other way around."

So they turned Brio into an Italian steakhouse, grounded in the regional cuisine of Tuscany with a few wild cards thrown in.

The Brio duo have ample experience in the high-end beef game. Previously they ran The Madison, the steak manse on Long Beach's hopping Pine Avenue. After a couple of visits, I'd say Chirico, who serves as head chef, hasn't lost his touch with the prime filets.

Brio's signature steak is its Porterhouse fiorentina. It's a fine piece of aged Black Angus beef to begin with, but the marinade--garlic, parsley, basil, rosemary and pepper--adds a wonderfully aromatic flavor. This is a flavorful steak, though technically misnamed; in Tuscany fiorentina is not marinated. It's priced at $26.95, which is not out of line with comparable steaks at other top-line steakhouses.

And it is a big steak: 24 ounces. It's a good item to share, and I can report that the leftovers are just as good with scrambled eggs the next morning.

Aside from a rib eye, the remaining steak choices feature the two sides of a Porterhouse, the filet and New York strip. The 12-ounce strip comes three ways: marinated, with roasted garlic herb butter or topped with Gorgonzola cheese. The first two are excellent, but the third suffers from the overwhelmingly pungency of the bleu cheese. The two sizes of filet mignon (8- and 12-ounce) are covered with a sweet reduction of scallions, garlic and Barolo wine.

With these top-quality choices, Brio would rate highly just as a steakhouse. But there's much more on the menu, most of it Northern Italian.

The antipasti didn't really excite me. They're the standard stuff: bruschetta, carpaccio, buffalo mozzarella with tomato, breaded calamari, sauteed mussels and clams, none of which is prepared with any distinction. I did enjoy the light, crisp Maryland crab cakes, $11.95 for two 4-inch cakes.

Instead of antipasto, you might order the house salad of baby greens with toasted almonds, strawberries, feta cheese and balsamic dressing. Chirico also shows a fine way with soup on a rich crab and lobster bisque with a hint of sherry.

Another good way of starting a meal is with half orders of pastas. As an entree, the ravioli al salmone is seven ravioli, but if you ask, the kitchen will scale it back to four as an appetizer. The homemade ravioli are packed with fileted salmon with a touch of dill and covered with a dill cream sauce.

Another pasta worth trying is farfalle granchio, bow-tie pasta mixed with crab meat and a flavorful lobster sauce (a combination Chirico seems to love). There are 11 other pasta dishes on the menu, many of them complex creations of meats, seafood, vegetable, herbs and creamy sauces.

The risottos, however, don't share this trait. The vegetable risotto, in particular, is heavy and bland and will leave you longing for something more interesting.

That is easily found among the entrees. Apart from the steaks, there's a wide selection of veal, lamb, pork, fish and chicken dishes. The chop choices include a thick 16-ounce veal chop, a double-thick pork chop and three Colorado lamb chops. In the last, the lightly gamy flavor of the lamb goes nicely with the mustard and rosemary crust and the sauce, a balsamic reduction. The lump of bland mashed potatoes that comes with them is disappointing, though.

*

These same mashed potatoes come with all the seafood dishes, sorry to say, but otherwise you will find some interesting selections on this part of the menu. The thick swordfish salmoriglio features a tangy vinaigrette touched with parsley and citrus juices. The Chilean sea bass comes in a pistachio crust with a citrus beurre blanc sauce.

As you finish dinner and move on to dessert--and don't pass on the boozy tiramisu or the lush zuccotto of chocolate and vanilla mousse and sponge cake topped with Ghirardelli chocolate--the entertainment portion of the evening begins. The long, curved bar starts to fill with slick-looking South County hipsters sharing glances over trendy cocktails. Live music accompanies this scene Tuesday through Saturday, and before long, the dance floor begins to fill.

So although the kitchen closes between 10 p.m. and midnight, the party goes on here until closing time. Brio revamped itself as a restaurant, but some things obviously have not changed.

Brio is moderate to expensive. Antipasti range from $3.95 to $12.95, pastas from $8.95 to $15.95, pizzas from $9.95 to $12.95 and entrees from $10.95 to $29.95.

* Brio Tuscany Grill, 24050 Camino del Avion, Dana Point. (949) 443-1476. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Live music and dancing Tuesday-Saturday. Full bar.

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