Two of Orange County’s top restaurants, the Dining Room at Dana Point’s Ritz-Carlton and Randell’s in Santa Ana, have undergone wholesale changes during the past few months. The Dining Room has switched to an original new format under the guidance of Frenchman Fabrice Canelle (former executive chef Boris Keller has moved on to Nashville, Tenn.), and Randell’s now has Steve Palmer behind the stove cooking up Cajun and California specialties.
The new format at the Dining Room is one I’ve never seen before. In an attempt to make the restaurant more affordable, customers pay for how much they eat, as opposed to what they eat. In this new pricing structure, any two courses are $35, three are $42, four are $48 and five are $53--you pay exactly the same amount for the lobster or, say, noisettes of Colorado lamb wrapped in eggplant as you do for heart of Bibb lettuce with aged red wine vinegar or a simple consomme . Given the choices, almost 30 items nightly, I can’t imagine consomme being a hot item these days.
As for the food itself, those who remember Canelle’s brief tenure in this dining room a couple of years back will be pleased to learn he has matured greatly as a chef. Canelle’s food is delicate, colorful and full of whimsy, but stays near the borders of classical sensibility. He favors fresh herbs and underlying hints of aromatic spice, and often adds surprise ingredients to dishes.
A warm salad of finely minced new potato with duck confit, for instance, is laced with the flavors of citrus; zucchini flowers stuffed with herbed goat cheese is enlivened by the flavors of sweet garlic and rosemary. Sauteed duck foie gras comes on a bed of cabbage and porcini, pungent with the essence of sherry vinegar. Maine lobster is roasted in the shell with a fresh herb coulis and a light souffle made from the lobster coral. Roasted free range chicken is prepared with a crust of pistachio nuts and sweet basil, a New Age galantine enveloped in a rich brown sauce.
Any dinner at the Dining Room is drop-dead elegant, of course. The sterling silver service is changed with every course, the waiters scarcely miss a beat. My last dinner there began with two wonderful amuse-gueules --a spoonful of minced smoked salmon topped with ossetra caviar, a single quail egg in a brioche crust--and ended with homemade petit-fours and truffles.
I should mention a few desserts--Canelle’s crusty apple tart served warm with a dollop of Calvados-flavored creme fraiche, his classic poached pear in red wine and the cloud-like raspberry souffle, served with a raspberry coulis and a silver goose neck’s worth of creme Anglaise. Just remember that these desserts count as courses.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is very expensive. The prices are given in the above text.
Randell’s is primarily known as a jazz and blues club, but it also happens to be a first-rate place to dine. The restaurant’s namesake is blues guitarist Randell Young (who can be heard performing here on Friday and Sunday evenings), and his restaurant has a spare, blue-black Deco motif, with terrific acoustics. Noise doesn’t penetrate back to the rear of the L-shaped dining area, so it is possible to have a conversation even when the musicians are jamming up front. Randell’s is also entirely nonsmoking, which might make it unique among jazz clubs.
Lunches and dinners are better than ever right now. Executive chef Steve Palmer is a protege of both David Wilhelm and Alan Greeley, and he puts his own spin on whatever he cooks. Palmer’s menu of the moment is a combination of Cajun, Italian and California dishes, augmented with frequent specials. At lunch, expect things like a homey Georgia-style red beans and rice with chunks of spicy sausage, thin-crust pizza with a delectable barbecued chicken topping, fresh Dungeness crab cakes or something original like confetti oysters. Dinners are tilted toward Louisiana, though pastas give the Cajun specialties a run for their money with the nighttime crowd.
Barbecued chicken pizza has become a cliche, but a tangy sauce laced with cilantro and red onions and a great crust makes this one special. Palmer’s crab cake is simply one of the best around. It tastes of the sea and its light breadcrumb and butter coating is delicious. Confetti oysters are coated in cornmeal and fried crisp, then put back in the shell with a colorful chipotle -chili remoulade sprinkled with diced red and yellow peppers.
Apart from Bayou St. John in Seal Beach, the Cajun boom has faded almost completely in these parts. Perhaps Randell’s Louisiana sausage and chicken jambalaya, seafood gumbo or something the menu calls Natchitoches shrimp--Gulf shrimp marinated in lime served with an avocado salsa--will help revive the style. This is great, peppery jambalaya, a chunky version with added collard greens. The real file (sassafras root) gumbo is full of shrimp, scallops and redfish.
Palmer is also comfortable with the Italian genre. His good al dente pastas, thick minestrone soup and tender scampi ravioli are the equal or better of those you’ll find in any local Italian dinner house.
Randell’s is moderately priced. There is no cover charge for entertainment, a steal. Lunches are $4.95 to $11.25. Dinners are $10.95 to $18.25.
* THE DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON
* 33533 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point.
* (714) 240-5008.
* Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.
* All major cards accepted.
* Three Hutton Center Drive, Santa Ana.
* (714) 556-7700.
* Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
* All major cards accepted.