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The slinkiest spot in town

September 02, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

We're speeding down the freeway to Costa Mesa and what an O.C. friend has assured me is the hottest restaurant in Orange County.

He must be right, because when I called to make a reservation a few days before, the reception had all the tiresome 'tude of the restaurant of the moment. If we wanted a table, we'd have to pony up a credit card number with the understanding that if we were no-shows, we'd be charged $25 per person.

Please. On a Monday night?

Needless to say, expressing incredulity didn't get me anywhere. I gave up my credit card number.

Besides, I had every intention of showing up. I wanted to see this latest entry in the exotic-themed lounge pageant. Moroccan divans on the outdoor patio? Flat-screen monitors in the VIP nooks? I'm there.

But where, on the almost deserted second level of Triangle Square in Costa Mesa, is Sutra Lounge? Over there, where a skinny guy is setting out a dauntingly long length of velvet rope, without a soul, except us, in sight. It's half past 8.

Torches flame in the walls. A weathered wooden Buddha looms over the hostess station, and I immediately fantasize liberating it in an early morning raid. What's a nice guy like Buddha doing in this den of iniquity?

Sutra Lounge is about as sinister, though, as the new Las Vegas, all packaged pose. The color scheme is crimson, black and gilt. The bar is red. Women servers slink around in black lowriders, belly-baring tops and enough tattoos to suggest biker girls and bondage.

The dining room, it turns out, is almost an afterthought in this huge sprawling space with satellite rooms and nooks galore, including a private dining room that looks as if it came from the "Bluebeard's Castle" set.

The hostess who seats us asks nervously, "You know you have only an hour and a half to eat, right?" Well, no, we didn't. After 10, she explains, the tables switch to bottle service -- and a minimum of $250. It's hard to believe there's going to be a crush. At this point the bar is more full than the dining room.

Whatever. We get busy ordering. As exotic fare goes, the menu is fairly timid, but we order up a slew of appetizers: candy-sweet barbecued ribs (that taste as if they were cooked days before), bland vegetable spring rolls with a filling of cabbage and carrots, shrimp doctored with jalapeno and garlic and stuck with skewers to make it easier to eat while wielding a cocktail.

Steamed chicken cilantro dumplings are the one thing that might get a thumbs-up -- for their spunky chicken filling, not for the overcooked wrappers or the sugary dipping sauce. I have to try the salad described as "arugula tossed with precious peaches, prosciutto and an aromatic pomegranate vinaigrette." How could I resist? It's not terrible, but it's awfully sweet.

The kitchen comes out with our main courses in a hurry. None seems destined to win big fans.

Grilled Kobe beef filet mignon is not exactly a steal at $50 and is a wimp in terms of flavor. Grilled pepper steak is possibly a better idea, because it combines wasabi and black peppercorns in the sauce, but I'd hardly call it "fiery." The five-spice barbecued chicken is serviceable.

But with the scene around us gradually coming to a boil, food is hardly the point.

A little before 10, the girls start arriving in droves. Silhouetted against the lights, they prance like ponies, back and forth across the room, pretty colored cocktails in hand. On the flat screens, Alex Trebek's solemn mug on "Jeopardy!" is replaced by swirling psychedelic patterns, and across the room, personnel whisk away tables to clear a dance floor. Lights in acid colors search the walls, cutting through the crowd. Every five minutes, the volume on the music -- dancehall reggae -- ratchets higher.

Our time is running out. Dessert? Well, maybe another time. The room is visibly filling. It's the hour when the ice bucket cometh. Next to us, a group of studiously turned-out guys takes over a table, living it up as a comely blond waitress mixes drinks from their bottle of pricey vodka. People begin to table-hop. Cellphones bleat.

We make our way upstream, toward the exit. And now I see the need for that velvet rope. There are about 400 guys outside, hair jelled or slicked or gone wild, depending on the look they're going for, hoping to pass muster -- and the velvet rope.

The girls, they just prance on in.

*

Sutra Lounge

Where: Triangle Square, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa

When: Dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday. Club begins at 8 p.m.; cover charge after 10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking.

Cost: Appetizers,

$8 to $15; salads, $9

to $16; main dishes,

$19 to $50; desserts,

$7.50 to $11.

Info: (949) 722-7103

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