Lingering Amid Lace

When I called Cafe Royale in Irvine to inquire about the restaurant's size and ambiance, the captain who answered responded, "We are small, quiet and intimate."

It's true. This is a spot to linger and enjoy one another, spend the evening. The pace is leisurely; we waited 40 minutes between salad and entree.

The restaurant also is surprisingly elegant. Tucked as it is in a neighborhood shopping center between a camera shop and a store for runners, would you expect to find a dining room with lace tablecloths, continental cart service and captains in formal attire? It's a pretty little 35-seat restaurant with peach walls, sparkling chandeliers, wine drapes and roses for women on Friday and Saturday.

The prices also are a surprise: $10.95 to $18.95 for full dinners. Better yet, early dinner pasta specialties range from $6.95 to $9.95 and include rigatoni mozzarella and seafood fra diavolo, a zesty 14-ingredient sauce served over pasta with two generous pieces of sea bass fillet.

Live Up to the Promise?

At these prices, can Cafe Royale deliver fare that lives up to the promise of the setting? Yes and no.

The salad with blue cheese dressing, tossed for us at the table, for instance, has no discernible blue cheese. You might, however, like the wilted spinach salad, prepared tableside for two, if you lean toward brown sugar sweetness, a profusion of sliced red onion, with diavolo sauce and Dijon adding zest.

The clam chowder delivered much potato and little clam. The gratin of onion soup materialized only as a quick sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, while the broth was flavorful but too salty.

Fortunately, things got better. Capers, mushrooms and a nicely balanced white wine and lemon sauce enhanced a fork tender veal scaloppine piccata. Fresh sea bass, poached in the oven with wine, was petite in size but big on tenderness. It would have benefited from a squeeze of lemon, although there was none on the plate.

Scallop medallions on the menu did not register with us as minced scallop patties, and owner John Vaswani now avoids confusion by billing this dish as "scallone." Actually, it is quite good: tender, full of flavor and finished either meuniere or amandine.

Crisp but Not Raw

Vegetables are so beautifully cooked--crisp but not raw--that my dining partner termed them the best part of the meal.

Another evening, I discovered chicken Jerusalem, a richly appealing combination of tender boneless breast of chicken with artichokes in a sour cream sauce. Trout, flawlessly boned by the captain, was impeccably prepared with a piquant caper sauce. And at our request, the chef obligingly substituted butter sauce for marinara on our rigatoni.

Other dinner favorites here are the veal Francaise: scaloppine in a light egg batter with Parmesan cheese and parsley sauteed and served with a sauce of shallots, white wine, lemon, chicken stock and a touch of bordelaise. Chicken Angelo begins with a similar egg wash, is sauteed quickly and served in a sauce of shallots, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, sweet cream Sherry and white wine. The menu also suggests steak tartare, prepared tableside; duck with cherry or mandarin orange sauce; tournedos Oscar and roast rack of lamb bouquetiere.

Desserts highlight the flambeed: bananas foster, cherries jubilee and peach Monte Cristo a la Royale with almonds, brown sugar, butter, orange and lemon plus several liqueurs and brandy. Peach melba is nicely done, and of the pastries, which are brought in, I tasted an undistinguished chocolate mousse cake with ladyfingers and a highly satisfactory raspberry cheesecake.

Cafe Royale serves only wine from a list of three dozen imports and 22 California labels.

Cafe Royale, 15435 Jeffrey Road, Irvine, (714) 552-2851. Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Accepts MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Lot parking.

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