"We've been California-ed out," says the former owner of Los Angeles' famous (though defunct) Ma Maison, who predicts a return to steak and apple pie. I quote him in case anybody doubted my claim last week that a return to American food is under way, but I actually think he's off-base. It's not a simple return to American food--it's nothing less than the Californianization of America.
Case in point. The other day I was cruising through downtown South Laguna, ordinarily an uneventful way to kill 45 seconds, when I was brought to a full stop by the sight of a huge sign in front of a former pizza house: "Savories Cafe, American Cuisine," it said. There were about four American flags waving in the immediate vicinity.
As I was looking through the menu for ham steak and chicken pot pie, I unexpectedly came on the words "Executive Chef Mr. Michael Watren." Yes, Michael Watren, the heavy hitter who recently left Morrell's in Irvine. It develops that Savories was opened by Bill Bown, who had been Watren's boss back in Denver for eight years. He had grown bored with retirement in Laguna and decided to start another restaurant at the same time Watren became available.
The original idea was apparently sort of what I had expected from the name of the place, a high-class American-style restaurant with fresh mashed potatoes and real gravy. Watren, though, is a superstar, and even if he could be content with traditional dishes, the fans who have followed him from Bernard's in Los Angeles to La Palme in Newport Beach and Morrell's in Irvine probably would not be. Maybe we need a new hyphenated-American term for the result: Californian-American. In any case, it is some of the slickest cooking in Orange County.
There are indeed some traditional things here (though for now no ham steak or chicken pot pie): A relish tray of sliced carrots, green onions and both California and Greek olives. Luscious cheddar rolls with a little up-to-date hot pepper in them. Rice cooked in broth with celery (one of my mother's specialties, I'll have you know). Salad Romano (possibly there is some little joke going on here, having to do with the romaine lettuce or the sprinkling of Parmesan--or is it Romano--cheese) with, for good or ill, one of those sweet orange French dressings of the consistency of hand lotion.
Soft-shelled crabs fried with toasted almonds is a pretty traditional dish, and turkey breast with ground pecans in the breading might well be (though not the sophisticated sauce of mustard-tinged meat glaze). After this, though, the appetizers and entrees (eight regular entrees, three daily changing ones) tend to be a walk on the inventive/eclectic side.
A few are distinctly ethnic, such as onion soup, though I've never had one so meaty in France--chicken and beef broth cooked down practically to a sauce, sweet from browned onions. It seems rather a sinful idea, eating gravy. What made it most exotic, at least for an onion soup in this country, is that there was no thick cake of cheese on the little piece of French bread.
There are a couple of Italian touches in the California Cuisine manner, such as Parmesan-breaded sea bass with tomato and basil butter sauce. On special one night I had veal shank with mushrooms, braised in wine like osso buco but with a topping of cheese (perhaps the very cheese that had thought itself spared from a fate in onion soup).
And then others of perhaps a number of nationalities at once, or just an imaginary multinational cuisine of Watren's own invention; to put it another way, flat-out California Cuisine. Pork tenderloin with honey and sesame seed could pass for a sort of European pork teriyaki, and swordfish steak with lime marination is perhaps a sort of grilled version of seviche-- in any case a very lively tasting swordfish. But when we're talking about warm wheat noodles with jicama, snow pea pods and sesame soy dressing, we've got to be talking about the Golden State.
It's at dessert time that Savories becomes indubitably American. Cinnamon apple pie--rather loud with the cinnamon, probably a pie designed to be accompanied by ice cream. Very good, eggy bread pudding with real whipped cream served in a glass coupe as if it were an ice cream dessert. A genuine hot fudge sundae with jumbo pecans, reason in itself for a lover of fountain treats to come here. For people who can get sensible around dessert time, there's a good, tart lemon ice served with fresh fruit.
Watren made his reputation in hotel restaurants, and I have referred to his style at Morrell's as Hotel Nouvelle. I don't know whether he considers working in this Californian-American mode a hardship, a challenge or a dream come true, but by me it's a great success. Long may it wave.
Prices: appetizers, $3.75 to $4.75; entrees, $9.75 to $14.25; desserts, $3.50.
SAVORIES CAFE 31796 Coast Highway, South Laguna
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. American Express accepted.