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It’s Hard to See the Trees for the Forest

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

“I feel like I’m at a clearinghouse for trendy dishes,” remarked a friend as he eyeballed the menu at Trees.

I think I can explain his sentiments. Chef-owner Russell Armstrong is as comfortable whipping up meat loaf with mashed potatoes as he is stir-frying Thai-style chicken with sweet rice; his style is eclectic in the extreme. But Armstrong is also savvy enough to offer eight entrees in the under $10 range, a disappearing trend that rarely fails to draw attention.

A pity his location isn’t as conspicuous. The restaurant is sequestered on a Corona del Mar side street that looks yanked right out of a small town. And once you’ve found the street, you may miss the entrance, which is somewhat overshadowed by--you guessed it--the presence of several large trees. If you call, the person at the other end of the phone will tell you to look for the Port Theatre. I recommend you use the Kentucky Fried Chicken, on PCH directly in front of the restaurant, as your touchstone.

Inside, the small-town intimacy is intensified. You step through a foyer decorated with branches that have been strung with tiny lights, directly into a maze of little dining rooms. All of these rooms are softly lit, with stucco walls that have been painted in pastel colors. The front room, moss green in color, has a high, arching ceiling and is the most extroverted. Just beyond it is a smaller, salmon-colored room with a cozy fireplace.

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Some might insist that Armstrong’s diverse parade of dishes is typical of the new American cuisine, where such items as meat loaf and roast turkey share center stage with regional specialties. But take a closer look at this menu, and you’ll find unmistakably Oriental touches, not to mention Italian and, let’s say, Viennese. Well, don’t be dazzled. You are on safest ground in this restaurant when you stick close to home.

The appetizers should persuade you of that. Armstrong’s black bean chili--served with fingers of golden, crumbly corn bread--is just about the best dish on the menu. The chili comes in an individual-sized crock with shredded yellow cheese (usually Tillamook Cheddar), purple onions and jalapenos waiting patiently on the side. It’s a subtle chili, rich with finely ground meat, and the tastes of cumin, red pepper and (could that be?) ginger sneak up on you with every spoonful.

But order a few of the chef’s Oriental-inspired appetizers, and you had better be prepared for eccentricity. Blackened tuna sashimi won’t satisfy many purists. These mini-slabs have been seared around the edges, slightly overcooked, and honored with a flavorless soy sauce for dipping. Ironically, both Trees’ famous spring rolls and a dish Armstrong calls pot stickers in spicy citrus sauce are found in the menu’s highlighted house specialty box. Neither comes close to the chili, which is relegated to the appetizers and salads section.

The spring rolls are mostly ground meat, formed into dense cylinders inside a Vietnamese-style lettuce leaf wrapper. They’re tasty, all right, but spring vegetables (properly the main component of a spring roll) are noticeably absent, and the egg roll “skin,” typically made from eggs and flour, is thin to the point of being undetectable. The pot stickers, on the other hand, aren’t even tasty. They come three to an order, drenched in a pungent, orange-based sauce that is overwhelmed by ginger.

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This ginger fixation carries over to our own shores, taking up residence in such unsuspecting dishes as meat loaf. Someone in the kitchen (not Armstrong, with whom I did not speak) insists that there is no ginger in this meat loaf but admits that one of the components is Chinese five spice. He must not know that five spice is in large part ginger, and I sure taste it in this meat loaf.

But a lot of people seem to love this lean, mean meat loaf, which is served with sensuously lumpy mashed potatoes and a blanket of russet colored gravy. Oddly, this American standby seems more Oriental to me than the chef’s Thai fried chicken, a bland dish that reminds me of American chop suey.

I have had firm, nicely flavored Maryland style crab cakes here (at $18.95 easily the most expensive thing on this menu), and a spate of other creations, with mixed responses. Watch out for the Wiener schnitzel with lingonberries. The berries are nice and tart, but the schnitzel is heavily breaded and unpleasantly oily.

Homemade smoked trout ravioli, stuffed with ricotta as well as trout, is one of the many bargain dishes I can recommend, but I’d like them a whole lot better without the thick marinara sauce underneath. A dish called “His trout,” priced only $1 higher, gets an even more enthusiastic nod. It’s a simply grilled, full-flavored fish that has been rubbed all over with Parmesan and green onion.

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Armstrong’s desserts are an all-American affair. There is good filtered coffee to go with the signature dessert, three creamy scoops floating in an almond tuile cookie that he calls Trees frozen apricot mousse. You can go for the flourless chocolate raspberry torte, the rich homemade vanilla ice cream, or the firm creme caramel if you like, but I’m having “Joy’s mom’s pecan rum cake.” It’s a bundt cake, essentially, but the twist here is that it has been soaked in a butter rum sauce just after emerging from the oven. It’s as rich as the world of food that Armstrong dabbles in.

Trees is moderately priced. Appetizers and salads are $3.95 to $6.95. Main course dishes are $6.95 to $18.95. Desserts are $3.50 to $6.

* TREES

* 440 Heliotrope Drive, Corona del Mar.

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* (714) 673-0910.

* Open for dinner only, 5 p.m. through midnight daily.

* All major cards accepted.


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