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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Tasty Spanish Dish Falls a Little Flat in Newport Beach

In Spain, where you can find them lining bars from San Sebastian to Seville, tapas are a colorful way of life, salty little dishes suited expressly to the cocktail hour; stuffed olives, roasted peppers, giant anchovies, bite-size chorizo, whole sardines, spicy chunks of liver and whatever else the chef feels like putting out. In America, where you’re lucky to get even guacamole after a hard day’s work, the very mention of tapas is liable to cause more confusion than anticipation.

Now, Bouzy Rouge Cafe in Newport Beach is making an attempt to change all that, with a new menu offering a full page of tapas. Bouzy Rouge has always been a trend-setter--owner Tony Hermann claims to have imported America’s first Cruvinet wine preservation system for the restaurant’s wine bar--but this time the restaurant may be in over its head. For while it remains one of the area’s most European, most eccentric and most enjoyable dining spots, it falls sadly short in its new venture.

Most of the dishes are either too contrived, too complicated or too creamy. Besides, having them brought to the table just doesn’t feel right. Eating tapas is supposed to be a social event, and that is a large part of what makes them so irresistible. There’s nothing exciting about eating an anchovy by yourself--unless you happen to be a tuna.

In fairness, this isn’t really Hermann’s fault. In cities such as New York, where tapas restaurants such as the Ballroom pack them in night after night, restaurateurs do not have to contend with laws forbidding them to have unrefrigerated food set out for public consumption. Orange County does forbid it, so Bouzy Rouge is limited to waiter service. Appetizers may be ordered at the bar, but they cannot be displayed to arouse drinkers. Write your congressman.

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It may be due to this unfortunate restriction that Bouzy Rouge has ignored simplicity and tried to make the new dishes more self sufficient. Few stand up. By ordering the tapas sampler, a large platter with food enough for three or four, you get an interesting cross section of the tapas menu and also many of its better selections. Just about everything on this eye-catching plate is good, especially a lamb sausage, which has been liberally spiked with cumin and glazed with veal juices, and a cocotte of mushrooms and escargots, drenched with a garlicky vinaigrette. Flanking them are excellent marinated vegetables that have a pungent, roasted flavor and olives the size of small tangerines, much like you find in Spain. But that’s the best of it.

The other tapas, which were most unlike tapas, left me cold. The clams casino were weighed down by a mixture of bread crumbs, spinach, bacon, walnut shavings and freshly grated Parmesan cheese; getting through all that to spear them with a cocktail fork made you feel as if you were at the beach digging for the creatures. A wedge of fried herb Brie was rolled, toasted, fried and smothered in a creamy puree; how else could you get three kinds of oil at the same time? Something called Portuguese escabeche of mahi-mahi was almost entirely without taste, except for a sour avocado sauce served on the side. And, but for a pleasantly run-of-the-mill pate, none of the other appetizers I tried were much better. Sorry, but the concept just needs more work.

Good thing Bouzy Rouge has so much else going for it. Like the charming, French provincial atmosphere, with gaslit tables and flea market decorations on its dark and rustic walls. Like the abundance of non- tapa things to eat: assorted fondues, excellent grilled meats and interesting Middle Eastern pizzas. Considering the cafe’s overdose of eclecticism, things could be a lot worse.

This eclecticism becomes a virtue when you start thinking about wine. And Bouzy Rouge is one outfit that thinks about wine a great deal. In fact, the minute you walk in the door, you see a rack holding wine maps and copies of The Wine Spectator. The same Wine Spectator, incidentally, honored Bouzy Rouge by naming its wine list as one of the top 100 lists in the nation. That list runs from New Zealand white to Champagne red (the Bouzy Rouge for which the restaurant is named, in fact). It includes many of Europe’s better wines, as well as the requisite rash of rare Californians.

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And many of the wines may be ordered by the glass, from a separate list that changes monthly. This is a fine, flowery tome brimming with enthusiasm and overstatement. November’s Chateau Chevre, for instance, is described as “a lush robe of spicy Cassis fruit which goes down singing softly on the palate.” Under Charles Shaw’s Beaujolais Nouveau is written, “Chuck Shaw who smuggled Gamay cuttings out of France beats the Beaujolais barons at their own game.” (But, I say, only if their game is smuggling.) All featured wines are honored with these essay-like descriptions.

Enjoy these etherea at the Bouzy Rouge’s clubby, 10-stool wine bar, which comes close to re-creating the atmosphere of its French counterparts. It’s no great shame that the bar isn’t filled with tapas anyway, because the cafe works better in French than in Spanish. Prices are very reasonable and almost always a good value. Wines by the glass are from $2.95, and generally no more than $7.95. Tapas run from $3.50 up to $6.95., main dishes from $7.95. There is a dessert tray with prices starting at $2.50.

BOUZY ROUGE CAFE 3110 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach.

(714) 673-3440.

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Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All major credit cards accepted.


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