The Cellar is what my parents used to call an “occasion restaurant”: a place to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, any fancy night out on the town. It is definitely not the place to go with Joe and the boys after bowling.
The food at the Cellar--and in most restaurants of this type--is what I call Grand Hotel Generic. Quality and consistency, the two iron pillars of the restaurant business, keep a faithful watch over this kitchen. Imagination does not.
Visit one to the Cellar was on a Thursday evening. We arrived at 8:15 and were led to the main dining room where the quiet table we requested was waiting. The maitre’d followed behind us and smartly pulled the table for my female companion with casual expertise.
At first glance, the dining room--seemingly designed by someone whose credits might include the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland--appears to be a lighted cave decorated with wine casks, statuary and chandeliers. We were ushered into a corner and wedged against a bulbous, amber-colored stone formation from where we had an unobstructed view of the underground bird sanctuary, complete with stuffed birds. What with the dim lighting, velvet chairs, marble lanterns, prints of famous museum pieces (Mona Lisa, for example), unctuously charming waiters and surfeit of Old-World Gemutlichkeit , I half expected air-raid sirens to sound. That, or at least the voice of Marlene Dietrich in a chorus of “ Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss .” The music we got instead was soft jazz.
Wine is taken very seriously here. The maitre’d makes a big ritual out of bringing you the thick, leather-bound wine list and when you open it to page 1, you see that the list has been splattered with various awards. Now I don’t know about your accountant but most take a dim view of $200 Bordeaux wines. Know your way around this list--it’s what I’d call a trifle overpriced.
A few good values include Chardonnays--for example, ’85 Cuvaison for $24.50, ’85 Silverado for $24.75, and Cabernets, such as ’81 Lakespring for $24.75. Bargains can also be found in German whites and Italian reds. This is one of the most extensive lists around. Take your time with it.
The food may be a trifle expensive too, but mostly it is worth it. Our appetizer, a plate of homemade pate, was as good as you get in a first-rate French relais . Two large slices of grainy, richly flavored country pate came flanked by a homemade chicken-liver mousse, garnished with endive, tomato and tiny cornichons.
The salad course, salade nouvelle d’epinards (translated on the menu as “an exciting and very unusual spinach salad”), inspired only curiosity. Maybe the restaurant’s Disney-minded designer also wrote the description, which smacks of more fantasy. The salad was fine, but if you’ve ever had a spinach salad in one of these generic restaurants, then you’ve had this one.
Meanwhile, my companion squeezed her eyes shut to better taste the Armagnac in her shellfish bisque a l’Armagnac. The Armagnac might have been someone else’s fantasy. I certainly couldn’t taste it.
Things took a sharp upturn from there. Grenadin de veau Florentine (veal with spinach) was tender and beautifully sauteed in two rich sauces strongly flavored with veal stock. And saumon frais du nord , the familiar cut of Norwegian salmon, came delicately poached in a tarragon beurre blanc.
We finished with a perfect chocolate souffle. My companion remarked that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had one so light. Neither could I.
The second visit came on a busy Saturday, and this time we were seated side by side on a cushy leather banquette. I started with a slice of the cold seafood terrine--scallop in a salmon mousse with a tomato concasse. This was a bit on the heavy side, like high-class gefilte . At the same time, my companion picked at a humdrum watercress salad with a few slices of mushroom underneath. As I said, no imagination.
This is one restaurant at its best with the more-complex traditional dishes. Ordering ready-made items, such as smoked salmon, caviar and salads, misses the point. The chef here can cook. See that he does.
Main dishes of lamb and pheasant were both wonderful. The roasted pheasant came nestled against a bed of wild rice, and the currant jelly underneath had just the mildest touch of sweetness to offset the aroma of fresh game. Lamb was even better, in a lip-smacking herbed sauce that enhanced its natural juices. Garnishing both dishes was a finely crafted carrot puree, and the very first broiled tomatoes I have ever liked, topped with bread crumbs Provencale. The scalloped potatoes, however, tasted as if they came straight from hotel school.
Desserts were again standouts. The house torte (sponge cake topped with chocolate ganache with a praline-cream filling) looked like Boston cream pie might in Vienna--if it had a creamy hazelnut filling. And the Napoleon, lightly dusted with sugar and filled with sliced strawberries in custard, was terrific.
This is a menu filled with standbys: tournedos, chateaubriand, lobster, coquilles St. Jacques, broiled fish. You’ve had most of it before. The good news is that in this restaurant, you’ll want much of it again. But these restaurants seem to be a dying breed. It was only a short time ago that it seemed they were everywhere. Just think. Nowadays, to eat this kind of food, you almost have to go underground for it.
Expensive. Appetizers are $4.75 to $8.75, with caviars up to $45 per oz. Entrees are $18.75 to $24.75, with seasonal prices for fresh fish and shellfish.
At Villa del Sol, 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton
Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday
All major cards accepted