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Oasis in Sea of Fast-Food, Chain Eateries : Oak-Solid Selection at Mira Mesa Restaurant

An oak grows in Mira Mesa.

To be more specific, there is a new restaurant in the Mira Mesa Mall called The Oak Room.

The place would not be especially interesting in neighborhoods more generously endowed with formal dining rooms. But in Mira Mesa, which has the reputation of being a veritable congeries of fast food joints and prepackaged chain eateries (Stuart Anderson’s, Seafood Broiler, Shakey’s--you name it, Mira Mesa has it), The Oak Room is news.

Set against this unprepossessing landscape, the restaurant looks like either a lonely outpost or a distantly glowing beacon, depending upon one’s point of view. Its two dressy dining rooms (richly paneled in oak, as might be expected) do seem out of place amid the stainless steel and Formica of the surrounding fast fooderies, but there is something quite inviting about the home-baked breads, careful soups and respectable entrees.

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The servers, who all seem to be graduates of the “Hi, my name is . . . " school of waiting tables, are being weaned from their former bad habits and given a veneer of professionalism by proprietor Gary Mueller.

A long and winding road brought Mueller to Mira Mesa. Upon leaving his native Denmark (this birthplace explains the tasty gravad lax appetizer that heads the menu) in 1950, Mueller traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he opened a supper club. Later, he moved to this country and variously worked as cook and maitre d’ at a list of famous places, including the Stork Club in New York and the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. In 1964, he built the noted Chez Cary in Orange, and more recently opened--and closed--the sumptuous but ill-starred Ambrosia in Costa Mesa. Several months ago, an acquaintance who owns the Mira Mesa Mall invited Mueller to take over an empty space, and Mueller, having inspected the neighborhood and found it virtually devoid of his sort of operation, decided to move in.

If it seems somewhat surprising to find a man of Mueller’s background in these relatively modest surroundings, he himself seems rather surprised. In an interview, Mueller’s tone occasionally took on the melancholy notes of another Dane, Hamlet, and the restaurateur at times did indeed sound like a discouraged prince in exile.

“You can build a palace, but if you can’t staff it, you don’t have a restaurant,” remarked Mueller, who complained that he spends more money advertising for help than he does paying his utility bills. He also cited difficulties with local food suppliers. “You have to fight the purveyors here,” he said. “They try to sell you frozen soups and frozen vegetables and other garbage. You can’t make good food from inferior ingredients.”

Mueller also discovered, the hard way, some of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the San Diego restaurant-going public. “I put a nice steak a la minute on the luncheon menu, and didn’t sell one for three days running. When I changed the listing to ‘small luncheon steak,’ I sold plenty,” he said.

But Mueller need not sound so discouraged. He has a comfortable, attractive establishment and a pleasant menu that, although it could use some expansion in the entree department, offers a good choice of satisfying dishes. Mueller also was careful to set prices a little lower than he might have liked, to compete with the chain restaurants in the area.

As mentioned earlier, the noted gravad lax of Scandinavian cuisine heads the menu. The technique for this dish is simpler than the flavorful result would seem to indicate; thin slices of fresh salmon are layered with salt, sugar, dill and a touch of aquavit (Scandinavia’s preferred firewater), and left to cure in the refrigerator for several days. When the flesh has softened to velvet and the flavor has intensified to a teasing piquancy, the fish is served coated with a sweetish, dilled mustard sauce. (The earliest method for preparing this dish called for interring the fish in a deep hole for a relatively lengthy stretch of time, a practice of which modern health departments would not approve.)

The rest of the menu features those basically simple French and French-inspired dishes that generally fall under the heading of “Continental cuisine.” The pate maison, made on the premises rather than purchased from a supplier, as is the usual case, is well-presented and has a good flavor, although it might have a creamier texture. Other appetizer choices include shrimp in a cream sauce flavored with sherry and garlic, snails in herbed butter, and fettuccine Alfredo. The alternative of starting with a soup can be recommended on the basis of a particularly nice cream of asparagus recently featured as the evening’s special soup.

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Mueller’s grander restaurants specialized in the sort of flashy display that today largely has gone out of style. The Oak Room avoids this sort of thing, with one exception, the spinach salad, which is prepared at table with a degree of showmanship that P.T. Barnum would not find excessive.

The fixings for this salad are wheeled to the table on a cart, at the center of which a frying pan filled with bacon is sizzling over an open flame. Worcestershire sauce, sugar, vinegar and oil are added to the bacon, heated, and then strained over the greens, which wilt when tossed with the hot mixture. The bacon is then flamed with brandy and mixed into the greens (the meat is candied by this process, which sounds somewhat shocking in theory but is quite nice in the eating). After a final sprinkling with chopped egg, the salad is served to the guests, who should appreciate its mildly pungent flavor and its simple, old fashioned goodness.

The seafood entrees all are drawn from classic French cuisine. This list includes sole Marguery (in lemon butter, with a garnish of bay shrimp); salmon poached in reduced fish stock, served with a tomatoed sauce bearnaise; and broiled swordfish garnished with capers.

Meat choices are similarly simple, and among the selections are breast of chicken garnished with fruits and a stock-based cream sauce and a roast duck in bing cherry sauce. What distinguishes The Oak Room’s meat entrees is the stock pot that simmers constantly in the kitchen and provides the basis for the smooth brown sauces that moisten the breaded pork loin and the pepper steak.

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The pork, first sauteed to a crisp brown, is finished with a rich sauce that incorporates sliced mushrooms and a good shot of Port. It is rare to find pork on a restaurant menu, but pleasing to find it in such a tasty, satisfying preparation. Green peppercorns add spice to the sauce that enlivens a broiled sirloin steak; in this case, the brown sauce elaborated from the stock is also smoothed with a bit of cream.

Two other likeable entrees were the veal Oscar, a competent rendition of the classic combination of sauteed veal scallops, asparagus, crab and sauce bearnaise, and a daily special of sauteed beef medallions finished with a reduced red wine sauce and snippets of artichoke heart. A well prepared selection of vegetables garnished all plates.

The desserts at present are simple, although one suspects that Mueller would gladly add a few flaming creations if he were given any encouragement in this direction. For the time being, the homemade hazelnut torte, which is rich with chocolate, should more than satisfy the average sweet tooth.

THE OAK ROOM

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8280 Mira Mesa Blvd. (in the Mira Mesa Mall)

549-4499

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Credit cards accepted.

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Dinner for two, with one glass of house wine each, tax and tip, $30 to $45.


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