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NOTHING SUBTERRANEAN ABOUT CELLAR’S QUALITY

Safe. Safe from the clamor of the world, the hustle and bustle, the hurly-burly and all that. Right down underground, in fact, in a dark, cozy, sound-absorbent vault of a room. You can just about sink down in one of the big banquettes and decide never to get up, at least not until you grow moss as these cave-like walls seem to have done.

This is the Cellar--a real cellar with real structural arches holding up the ceiling, as well as some cosmetic additions to make the place look carved out of living rock. It’s intended as a haven where life is kind and meat is tender and coat and tie are obligatory.

This is not a place where you go to experience the cutting edge of innovation, any more than you’d take an ocean cruise to study break dancing. The menu is conservative French/Continental, and if founder Louis Schnelli (who recently sold the place to a friend) is said to have gone to France to study nouvelle cuisine a few years back, I suspect the changes he wrought in the menu were unobtrusive. The kitchen may use less butter and flour than it once did, but the French/Continental effect is unaltered.

The new owner--Ernest Zingg, like Schnelli a Swiss--recently brought in a new chef who has worked at places like Lasserre in Paris and Ma Maison in Los Angeles. At least for the time being, he, too, is leaving the menu French/Continental. The only dish that seems different from its printed description is the sweetbreads, which come in demiglaze rather than the menu’s madeira cream sauce.

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This is the sort of thing that goes on here: chicken liver mousse, faintly pink and sweet from port wine, imposingly served in a swan constructed of choux pastry and garnished with tart, chopped aspic and a dollop of celery root salad. Good plump snails, served rather simply in a little pot of butter, mushrooms and parsley. A seafood salad of big fresh shrimp and a lot of calamari (some baby octopus too, I’ll wager) comes with a mild cream dressing.

This last comes with a garnish of some sort of sprouts cuddled in radicchio leaves which pleases the eye without contributing much to the dish. This is an item that makes me think that unless chef Maupuy has radical changes planned for this menu, the Cellar is better off sticking to its tradition.

There’s a salade nouvelle (the waiters push it) that does not strike me as a very light-footed bit of innovation. It’s merely spinach salad with bacon and rice vinegar--scarcely a daring move--topped with two pieces of crab meat. I found it rather salty to boot.

Sticking with the old-fashioned dishes is safer. The roast duck is superb. It comes in an orange sauce saved from the usual cloying sweetness by the addition of lime juice, and the bird is really beautifully roasted. I don’t believe I’ve ever had duck skin with such a succulent, just-under-crisp texture.

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Pheasant is also beautifully cooked and comes with a very nice raisin and orange liqueur sauce. I kind of wish they’d serve it on something other than wild rice, just for the sake of variety (the duck also comes on wild rice), but it certainly works well.

When I go to restaurants of the Cellar’s persuasion, I constantly have to remind myself that there are a lot of people who don’t seem to share my taste for robust, highly differentiated tastes. They will, perhaps, go into ecstasies over two dishes that left me a little cold.

One is veal topped with apple slices in a cider and apple brandy sauce; the other is roast lamb filets with rosemary, served with severe simplicity in nothing but unreduced meat juices. To the people who like this kind of thing, both dishes will be triumphs of delicacy, but to me they are like a conversation with someone who never disagrees--particularly the lamb, which is so mild it scarcely tastes like lamb at all.

Entrees tend to come with simple, artful garnishes of vegetables. One night, a waiter told me that a mound of thin strips of vegetables was ratatouille, that Provencal dish of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant; it seemed to me mostly zucchini with only the faintest pink trace of tomato in it.

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Another night there was a fairly vivid ratatouille, strong on the tomatoes but the waiter didn’t know whether this was ratatouille. Perhaps the new chef is asserting himself gradually.

Desserts are not terribly numerous but very good. There’s often a huge napoleon--a good three inches high, most of that being a white chocolate filling with strawberries--and one night the fruit tart turned out to be a nice-textured version of tarte tatin, that French way of serving baked apples on top of a crust.

It ought to be noted that the wine list here is very shrewdly selected, with more California and fewer European wines than I had expected, the latter in a decently wide price range.

Appetizers run $4.50 to $11.95, entrees $18.50 to $24. The seafood part of the menu includes some items listed without prices, but this is not necessarily a fast track to bankruptcy; one night the Norwegian salmon with dill turned out to be the lowest-priced item on the menu.

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THE CELLAR 305 N. Harbor Blvd. (in the Plaza at Villa del Sol), Fullerton

(714) 525-5682

Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. All major credit cards accepted.


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