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RESTAURANTS : French Cuisine at Its Lofty Best in Wine Cellar

Fernand Point, who died in 1956, was the most influential chef of his time and arguably the greatest to live in this century. Point’s restaurant, La Pyramide, in Vienne, France, was the temple of gastronomy during the master’s day, and it produced many of the chefs who are today’s giants of French cuisine: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros. His influence is immeasurable. It is also a lot closer than you may realize.

The Newporter Resort has engaged the services of one of Point’s star pupils, Jean Banchet of Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill., to develop the menu for its Wine Cellar restaurant. The resort reopened in November after a $25-million face lift, and the Wine Cellar, under the direction of executive chef Ted Gray, is now serving a series of prix fixe dinners that have been designed by Banchet. There are six menus in all, five courses each, and they rotate on a weekly basis. If there is better haute cuisine in this area, I certainly don’t know about it.

The design of the restaurant is disarmingly simple; an actual cellar walled in unfinished brick. Some may find it a bit confining; I find it reminiscent of small-town Bratstuben or a typical rathskeller in Bavaria. The Louis XV chairs and fancy linens did little to take my mind off the beer hall image.

Despite the presence of some rather distinguished-looking English oak paneling and an ornate brass chandelier, I would say the dining room is a bit ordinary for the haughty presence of Banchet, and certainly for Point’s ghost. Furthermore, the maitre d’, who greeted us by name at the door, is a charming Czech, the personification of Central Europe gemutlichkeit .

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It’s no matter that he’s not a Frenchman, though, because any vision of Rhinemaidens and roast geese vanish as soon as you get down to business. France is written all over these recipes, no matter what week you visit.

Here’s how the menus are structured: You may choose between two appetizers, but the second and third courses are fixed. There are three main courses a choix each week, and two desserts. It is a perfect menu for couples, because two can sample virtually everything on that week’s menu. (Passing the plates back and forth is almost never done by the French, but then, this isn’t France.)

Menu V, which will appear again from Feb. 23-27, was being served on my first visit. Its appetizers, a gamy, interestingly textured rabbit pate , and a confit of duck salad with wild mushrooms and a very proper vinaigrette, are good solid dishes, especially the confit, but nothing worth fainting over. Chef Gray had told me that pates are Banchet’s babies, so I was mildly let down. Anywhere else I would probably have been delighted.

The second course, scallop ravioli with sorrel sauce, was the evening’s best. The scallops had been cut up into large pieces, and the ravioli prepared al dente , with a sauce both silken and devastatingly subtle. It’s the kind of dish that’s been done often, and until you eat this version you may never know what you are missing.

Also superb are Banchet/Gray’s sorbets, served in deco-style frosted glass tulips. Sorbets here are flavored delicately, and that evening’s selection, fresh orange and vodka, added just the right balance. The texture of these ices is fine and so smooth that you could shave them with a straight razor. They would be wonderful on a hot summer day.

Main dishes that night were a tender veal steak in a superb sauce of morels, and a lightly breaded red snapper in brioche crumbs with a watercress sauce. I honestly never thought snapper could be elevated to such heights. The breading was inspired, and the sauce made me wonder why watercress isn’t always served with snapper. The veal was fine, but I wish my companion had let me talk her into the dish that got away that night, saddle of venison with a confit of chestnut. When I spoke to the chef on the telephone, I asked him what he thought was the best dish from all the six menus. “The venison,” he replied without missing a beat. Naturally.

Desserts at the Wine Cellar are terrific, because Banchet brought his own pastry chef along for the consultation. Menu V serves a papaya clafouti (a custard cake) here with a brulee top and a passion fruit sauce, and also a raspberry cake with a custard cream sauce. The clafouti is a knockout.

I really looked forward to a return visit. It would have broken my heart to miss another ringer like the venison. On this visit they were serving Menu I, and although the appetizers were far better, I’d rate it just below Menu V.

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We started with a real three-star dish--a mille-feuille of foie gras and artichokes in aspic--the stuff legends are built on. The duck liver and artichoke were layered in alternating strips of aspic, and the browns and greens made for a breathtaking palette of colors. The aspic was probably the best I’ve ever had. The other appetizer, an excellent salade frisee aux lardons (curly endive with warm bacon and a crust of warmed goat cheese) seemed almost pedestrian by comparison.

A second course of hot asparagus feuillete with morel sauce was eaten without much notice, although my friend remarked that it was a bit salty. Pink champagne sorbet followed without much fanfare, another finely crafted ice.

Main courses from Menu I include roast turbot with rosemary butter, and a filet broiled with marrow, snails and red wine sauce. Of the two, the latter was the better: the sauce could not have been improved upon, and the combination of flavors worked extremely well. The turbot was a fine choice, too; the rosemary gives the fish real character.

I’d love to go back for all six menus. Incidentally, chef Gray considers Menu VI, next offered from March 1-5, to be the best of the six. It features three-salmon salad, stuffed sole in champagne sauce, grilled squab with green cabbage and creme brulee Jean Banchet. Even Point, himself, would show up for this one.

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The price for these dinners is $45 per person.

THE WINE CELLAR

At the Newporter Resort, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach.

(714) 644-1700.

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Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted.


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