An Opulent Newport Pavilion With Food That Just Gets By

Grand hotel dining is a two-edged sword; an inherent lack of intimacy and personal style is balanced by extra pampering and richness of choice. Only a handful of these establishments are bold renegades that carve a Z with the blade.

The Pavilion in the Four Seasons Newport Beach is one that makes a noble attempt to be a swashbuckler, and it's not readily apparent why success proves so elusive. This is one of those restaurants with everything--luxurious appointments, thoroughly professional service, a first-rate, big-ticket wine list and an imaginative chef, Bill Bracken, who changes his menu with the seasons. So what's the problem?

The dining room, for openers, is not to everyone's taste. I'd call it a paragon of classical elegance, but some might describe it as stuffy. The color scheme is a soft beige, deepened, if anything, by discreet lighting and an array of movie set accouterments: china-filled hutches, a brandy cart lined with crystal decanters, floor plants as tall as redwoods and Doric columns as thick as sequoias.

Then there is the textbook service, also in the classical manner. Everything proceeds swimmingly, from the moment the parking attendant greets you as an old friend and you stride across the opulent, marble floor of the lobby to the restaurant entrance. The maitre d' greets you warmly at the podium, and a couple of the captains follow to your table, poised to pull chairs and stretch napkins on cue. "Sirs" and "madams" are thrown around like Nolan Ryan fastballs.

A civilized interval ensues, after which that heavyweight wine list is brought. Soon after you are plied with an impressive selection of breads: seven-grain, pepper brioche, sourdough and a sweet one made from zucchini. Then comes a tiny plate of amuse-gueules, which could be anything from salmon mousse in a pastry boat to a croustillion of imported cheese. This may not be exciting stuff, but there's nothing to fault, either.

And that's basically the problem with this food. Bracken's current spring dinner menu certainly sounds exciting, an adventurous combination of nouvelle, California and spa dishes. But generally, what you get is fairly tame.

There are starters such as lobster won-tons in a ginger dipping sauce served on a beautiful Japanese lacquer tray, salads like beefsteak tomato with a "floral" of baby lettuces in warm goat cheese dressing and main courses such as flame-broiled Kansas City strip loin with spicy fried onion rings, black beans and red chili. But few of these dishes meet expectations.

The won-tons, for example, make a fairly neutral impression. The outsides are not crisp enough, and the finely minced filling masks, rather than enhances, the taste of the lobster. The beefsteak tomato is hollowed and crammed full of tasty lettuces, but a garnish of strangely uncooked shimeji mushrooms and a pool of bland, runny dressing underneath make the dish rather blah. And the meat, though beautifully prepared and presented, is strangely lacking in taste, despite a spate of good ingredients to enjoy it with.

Among other starters, the cold poached shrimp is another letdown. The Op Art design on the plate commands your attention, but the shrimp, bland and bleached-looking in a brash orange-dill mayonnaise, lose it just as quickly. (The crockery, incidentally, from the French china service plates to a stunning array of ultra modern serving dishes, is an unexpected delight.)

Spinach and goat cheese ravioli with rosemary and oven-dried tomatoes does somewhat better, although the pasta is a bit chewy for my taste and the perfumes of the rosemary a bit too strong. But there are some bright spots, such as the many good soups and salads, a number of which are starred to indicate low calorie, fat and cholesterol levels.

A starred chicken and blue corn tortilla soup is one, a delightful broth filled with strips of tortilla, little bits of chicken and an aromatic tarragon finish. It's nothing at all like a tortilla soup from Mexico but manages to be a soulful bowlful in its own way. Asparagus, endive and green beans with smoked tomato vinaigrette, also starred, is made with the endive serving as taco shells. It packs plenty of flavor in a small package and a surprise wallop in the dressing.

There's no such luck with main courses. The starred pan-roasted veal chop with Crimini mushrooms, one of the simplest dishes on the menu, gets by on content alone. It's a fine piece of meat, alive in its own juices, and the mushrooms taste fresh and delicious.

But stuffed Shelton chicken with roasted garlic potatoes (starred), despite a delicious wedge of chopped potato, does not get by. The chicken is boned and hollowed, then stuffed with a mushroom and vegetable mixture and sliced. The presentation is gorgeous, but the tastes are somewhat muted.

The same is true of the grilled Pacific swordfish with fried cabbage and ginger-thyme sauce, a bed of tasty cabbage bearing a flat filet of fish that lost its character somewhere between the sea and the table. I do give the chef high marks for his sauteed sea scallops on braised green cabbage with sweet corn sauce, however. It's a wonderful concept, and the scallops, plump and juicy, are full of flavor.

When it's time for dessert, pastry chef Michelle Neve shows off her flair for the dramatic. Her chef's sampling of souffles (raspberry, chocolate and Grand Marnier) is wonderful--exquisitely airy puffs in tiny timbales topped with rich sauces. White chocolate and peanut butter crunch is one dish that is better than it sounds, a rich suspension halfway between candy and pastry. And an alternative dessert, fresh strawberries on orange yogurt shortbread with a strawberry coulis, cuts a swath of flavor across your palate that even Zorro would envy.

Pavilion is expensive. Starters are $7.50 to $58 (for Beluga caviar and buckwheat blinis). Soups and salads are $6 to $8.50. Main courses are $24 to $31. Desserts are $6.50.


* Four Seasons Newport Beach, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach.

* (714) 760-8073.

* Open for breakfast Monday through Friday 6:30 through 11 a.m.; lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. through 2 p.m.; dinner daily 6 through 10:30 p.m.; brunch 10:30 a.m. through 2 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.

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