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Serious Disney Dining

May 06, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The idea, I guess, seemed irresistible, and the group of happy, sated diners launched into a quavery "M-I-C . . . K-E-Y . . . M-O-U-S-E" as it left Napa Rose. A stone's throw from Disney's California Adventure, this new restaurant in the entertainment company's Grand Californian Hotel is the resort's bid for the brass ring.

Like the new Las Vegas, the new Disney wants to impress with its cuisine. Joachim Splichal, the Brennan family of New Orleans, even La Brea Bakery have all launched restaurants at the new Downtown Disney, while inside the park, Puck's Avalon is the single serious restaurant. Of the Disney-owned restaurants, Napa Rose is the only one that offers real competition to the chef-owned kitchens.

When I invite my mother and her girlfriends for lunch, these ladies-who-merrily-lunch have already scoped out the place before I arrive. They're a-goggle. They show off the hotel's towering lobby, a la Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel, tarted up with Craftsman-inspired lampshades in cartoon-bright colors. Massive light fixtures dangle overhead, and a huge stone fireplace complete with roaring fire is set into an alcove larger than most living rooms. I'm just surprised management hasn't provided a flurry of snowflakes for atmosphere. The Disney tie-ins abound. When the pianist sits down, the sounds of "When You Wish Upon a Star" issue from the grand.

Manager/maitre d' Michael Jordan gives everyone an expansive welcome, but I notice that even he has to wear his first name emblazoned on a tag. Friendly down-hominess rules at Disney. We're seated at a half-moon booth just in front of the busy open kitchen. Overhead, a mural of California wine country unfurls. But its style and saturated colors clash with the amber egg-shaped light fixtures and the MacIntosh-inspired chairs. I'm sure the designer never envisioned people draping their jackets over the tall, skinny backs. You do, though, have the luxury of a dining room quiet enough for talking.

The chef is Andrew Sutton, hired straight from Napa Valley's Auberge du Soleil, a resort renowned for its view. Here, outside the windows we can glimpse the mass of Grizzly Peak and the occasional flash of the monorail as it speeds toward the park.

I reach out and touch the pink-and-copper rose in a vase on the table. "Yes, it's real," says our server. It looks too perfect to be real, but it is.

The roses embroidered on the waiters' vests are a little hokey, but what do you expect from the creators of Snow White? Napa Rose's staff has been schooled to recite the specials in luscious detail for folks unfamiliar with the intricacies of California cuisine. The good thing is that their enthusiasm still shows. Our server describes how pizza dough is cooked in their special ovens, then topped with smoked salmon, capers and a drizzle of dill cream. Sold. We fall for the grilled grape leaves filled with Laura Chanel goat cheese, too. Served with a head of roasted garlic and a peppery tomato sauce, the idea is to take a dab of this and that and spread it on bread.

We've already demolished the shards of lahvosh sprinkled with Parmesan and herbs, even though it's rather heavy on the oil. But there are still some crusty little rolls from La Brea Bakery left, along with a dusky olive bread.

A special filet of beef is grilled with rosemary and set on a bed of proper risotto--firm at the core, creamy on the outside. Just for science, my mother, who doesn't normally like ravioli, orders the ravioli. "These aren't those fat, chewy things," she crows. "These are wonderful!" For me, though, the taste of truffle oil, even more prominent on the shredded duck confit garnish, makes them somewhat less than wonderful.

There's a grilled shrimp and spinach salad strewn with corn and dressed with a light hand, and a delicious chicken breast with artichoke and fingerling potatoes served in a splash of broth. I'm impressed by a lovely piece of sole coated in bread crumbs and fried in butter. It's sauced in a light beurre blanc punctuated with capers and quartered grapes that add a nice touch of acidity.

A couple of dinners at Napa Rose only confirm my lunch experience. All in all, Sutton and his crew are turning out respectable California cuisine of the hotel variety, with a few flashes of something more. Just taste his seared rock scallops, meaty and sweet, set off by a swath of lemon lobster sauce perfumed with vanilla. His Portobello mushroom cappuccino with a light cap of steamed thyme froth is astonishingly intense in flavor and light of texture. Prime rib of pork from the rotisserie is as thick as a brick, a formidable piece of meat with a handsome caramelized crust. Among the more conservative choices, mustard-crusted rack of lamb and filet of beef with a polished Cabernet "essence" are both tender and perfectly cooked.

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