PICNIC PERFECT : A Where and What Guide to Eating Out--Ants Optional

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

You don't need a wicker basket, barbecue grill or lazy afternoon to enjoy a summery picnic. Most of Orange County is prime terrain for outdoor eating. Unlimited food choices and interesting locations make informal picnicking an easy alternative to dining in, anytime.

These five possibilities go one step beyond peanut butter sandwiches, ants and that favorite grassy hill. Use them as hints to plan picnics on your own, and remember to put a daub of sun block on the more sensitive spots.


The setting:

If you're feeling solitary, how about a quintessentially Pacific Rim picnic of Japanese bento eaten in the lush, strangely compelling California Scenario sculpture garden? This Japanese rock garden is sandwiched between the El Torito Grill and Bank of the West buildings in the South Coast Plaza area. It is the creation of famed Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

In Japan, it would be considered shitsurei --a rudeness--to eat lunch in a formal garden such as this. But this is America, and no one seems to mind. Grab a bench and unpack your lunch. You'll sit behind a white concrete wall, 40 feet high, shielded from the outside world. Cascading waters turn traffic noises beyond the wall into relaxing white noise.

The motif is a jigsaw of contrasting elements: solitary, irregular rock masses jutting from a sandstone floor, flowering cacti on a dome shaped knoll, a stainless steel fountain surrounded by Rockville granite, a 30-foot waterfall, a redwood path called Forest Walk. Eating here is uplifting, almost spiritual. It's also ideal for reading or meditation.

The grub:

Japanese bento are nearly perfect for neat, efficient and delicious outdoor eating. These small, square lunch boxes are a national passion in Japan, eaten in train stations on park benches and at sporting events.

Ebisu Market in Fountain Valley is a favorite local purveyor of Japanese bento and snack foods. It sells a wide variety that includes unagi (eel), mixed sushi bento, onigiri (savory filled rice triangles) and assorted donburi (large rice bowls with tasty toppings).

For me, one unagi bento and a small package of onigiri make a good lunch. This particular bento is a small, bubble-top plastic container filled with rice, Japanese pickles and tender, delicious sea eel, glazed with a sweet salty brown sauce that seeps down and flavors the rice, all the way to the bottom of the container.

You can get wooden chopsticks from the front counter at Ebisu Market at no charge, but you won't need them for the onigiri, Japanese finger food. These onigiri come in three flavors: salted plum, smoked salmon and burdock root. If you can handle dessert, stop by Bon Marche French Pastry, next to the market, and take along a slice of their creamy cheesecake and a cup of their fresh brewed coffee.

California Scenario, South Coast Plaza Town Center, Costa Mesa. Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight daily. Admission: free.

Ebisu Market, 18930-40 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-2108; Bon Marche French Pastry, 18932 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-7573. Both open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Picnic for one: about $9.25. Approximate driving time between the two spots: 15 minutes.


The setting:

Newport's Cliff Drive Park is far from the madding crowd, in this case the relentless stream of tourists and fun-seekers a mile or so below on the ever busy Balboa Peninsula.

Newport can be overbearing in the summer, but this lovely, sunny spot is perfect for a quiet lunch for two. Indeed, it is almost too quiet. The park extends over two levels, layered with dense shrubbery toward the bottom, nearly bare by the picnic area at the top.

The park's lower level has rather sophisticated slides and other childlike diversions. The picnic area employs traditional, wooden tables--peeling paint and all. Look for it where Cliff Drive curves around toward Santa Ana Street. Despite spare facilities, a distinct lack of shade and a partially obstructed ocean view, there's a lot to like up here. You'll find grills and a water fountain adjacent to the tables, plus some lovely Newport homes in view.

The only distraction might be the twittering of a bird or the occasional roar of an engine as a car whooshes around the curve of Cliff Drive nearest to where you are sitting. To get to Cliff Drive Park, turn east on Riverside, opposite the China Palace restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway, and make a left on Cliff, following until the park comes into view.

The grub:

Farmer's Market at Atrium Court is certainly Orange County's snazziest indoor market, overflowing with boutique snacks, terrific cold cuts and cheeses and beautifully stacked fresh produce.

A companion and I filled a picnic basket with bread, cold cuts, cheese, composed salads and fruit for a very reasonable price, spread it out simply in the park and feasted. We started with the incredible, crusty baguette from Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery, adding a quarter pound each of white meat turkey breast, San Daniele prosciutto and smoked mozzarella.

Farmer's Market sells composed salads for $3.79 per pound, packed in bubble-top plastic containers. We chose simply: half red potato salad, half the market's creamy homemade Caesar. A few Nicoise olives, French cornichon pickles and bottled sodas later, we had ourselves a magnificent outdoor lunch. Dessert was a half-pound of cold, crisp, Rainier cherries--luscious, sweet yellow red cherries from the state of Washington. Next time, I'll try building a meal around Silverton's pungent olive bread, a few of the market's rich pates and the amazing white peaches available in July.

Farmer's Market at Atrium Court, 401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (714) 760-0403. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Picnic for two: about $18. Approximate driving time between the two spots: 10 minutes.


The setting:

Who among us doesn't crave an occasional meal on the beach, even when the coastline is wall to wall with surfer boys and beach bunnies?

If you don't like a big crowd, head for the county extremes, sleepy San Clemente or underappreciated Seal Beach. Seal, unlike neighbors Huntington Beach (to the south) and Long Beach (to the north,) is rarely busy, even on hot summer Saturdays. The stretch of beach just north of the pier is possibly the least overrun of all our beaches. Locals aim to keep it that way.

Anchor yourself by a long stone jetty at the northern end, from which Long Beach Marina-based pleasure craft head out onto open ocean. Next to it, and near the corner of Ocean Avenue and First Street, is a long, soft stretch of white sand, just past a public parking lot (which closes at 6 p.m.). At low tide, there should be well over 300 yards of beach from the public parking area, where the sand starts, to the water's edge.

You'll sit somewhere in between sea birds and avid windsurfers. Sunsets can be especially spectacular--ruddy, glowing red, infused with calm. The only mild drawback is an occasionally gusty wind. To counter that, park your blanket on the leeward side of one of the beach's many lifeguard towers.

The grub:

"Let us pack your picnic basket," says a sign in the window of Belmont Shore's Shenandoah Cafe. Indeed, you should.

This resolutely American cafe, open 11 years, specializes in regional American foods and does so in grand style. Proprietors Rick and Jill Wilson serve anything from Louisiana-style chicken gumbo to Dakota pork loin, a specialty of Sioux Falls, S.D. Furthermore, the accompaniments--yeasty rolls, apple fritters and great lumpy mashed potatoes with country gravy--are divine.

The cafe won't really pack your basket, though. Order dinner to go, and they will pack up their food in plastic boxes, which leak if you are not careful. My wife and I went for two of the better dishes Shenandoah prepares, country fried pork chops and Texas-style beef brisket. The pork is center cut and makes a perfect match for these mashed potatoes. The flaky, remarkably lean brisket is cut into thin strips, blackened slightly by grill marks.

You could almost make a meal on the delicious breads included. The yeast rolls are the soft, old-fashioned type, slightly sweet, while the apple fritters are round, dusted with sugar and properly doughy. You'll get a big salad with fat croutons and ranch dressing as part of the deal, plus a choice of side dishes: spicy rice, sauteed veggies or smoky beans. For dessert, try the German butter cake, a pudding-like confection drizzled with apricot puree.

Shenandoah Cafe, 4722 East 2nd St., Belmont Shore (Long Beach). (310) 434- 3469. Open for dinner only, 5 to 10 p.m. daily.

Picnic for two: about $30. Approximate driving time between the two spots: 10 minutes.


The setting:

Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre is Orange County's version of the Hollywood Bowl--with better picnic grounds. But it should be noted that picnicking is only allowed at the venue when classical music is on the bill, not when rock concerts are featured. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra's seventh summer season at Irvine Meadows continues with concerts through Sept. 24.

After purchasing event tickets, a must before entering the grounds, you encounter a long, snaky road leading up to the stadium, nearly all of which is bordered by green lawns and grassy knolls.

You'll have plenty of competition, but don't panic; it is not necessary to jump on the first spot you find. I prefer to picnic as close to the stadium as I can get, especially if I do not bring my own drinks. (Drinks are sold near the stadium, but the concessions do not provide covers, making it dicey to carry them long distances back to your blanket.)

The best area is up near the top, a wonderful grassy lawn surrounded by a food court area with stalls for Ruby's, Del Taco and California Pizza Kitchen. The one problem with this spot is that often it is cordoned off and unavailable. In that case, areas just below the upper lawn make good alternatives.

If you prefer to picnic inside the stadium, head for the lawn area above the fixed seats, where as many as 4,582 people can find a spot to lounge on blankets they bring. No chairs are allowed up there, but seating is on an incline, so you should be able to see the stage--with a pair of binoculars.

Rules here state that no alcoholic beverages, bottles or coolers may be brought inside the stadium, but the rules relax somewhat with regard to what you may bring onto the grounds. If you do take drinks in a cooler, plan to carry the cooler back to the car before entering the stadium.

Gates open for picnicking at 6 p.m., with Pacific Symphony concerts beginning at 8 p.m.

The grub:

I've long been a fan of Richard Jones Pit Barbecue, because I love their pressure-smoked, hickory-flavored meats. The Fountain Valley store is the closest of the three local ones (others are in Fullerton and Anaheim Hills) to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. They wrap their meats in foil before putting them in snap-top plastic boxes, ensuring that they will be hot and juicy when you are ready to eat.

You can feed a family of six on two of Richard Jones' family packs. Each rib pack combines two pounds of fall-off-the-bone-tender baby backs, two pint side dishes and six hunks of chewy sourdough bread. The chicken pack gives you a whole chicken plus the same extras. They throw in napkins, barbecue sauce and utensils. We added six ears of buttered corn, also foil-wrapped, and they were crisp and sweet when unpacked.

The meats are terrific, shot through with the unmistakable taste of hickory, and side dishes like a finely chopped slaw and saucy beans can't be faulted. Desserts can be ordered a la carte at around $3.25 apiece, and include a fudgy chocolate layer cake, a spicy, fresh tasting peach cobbler and creamy cheesecake with a thick, graham cracker crust.

Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (714) 855-6111.

Richard Jones Pit BBQ, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley. (714) 963-9664. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m, daily.

Picnic for six: about $38. Approximate driving time between the two spots: 30 minutes.


The setting:

How about a back-country picnic in a beautiful, little-known regional park? If that prospect appeals to you, Santiago Oaks Regional Park has to be perfect.

Despite the fact that this 350-acre park has been open to the public since 1976, it remains one of our least known, most dramatic regional parks. The park is a prime bird-watching location, with more than 130 species ranging from herons to owls, and there is abundant wildlife in the more remote regions. The lower portion is dominated by majestic live oak trees, a grove of which frames the shaded picnic area.

If you are a hiker, there are plenty of hiking and self-guided nature trails to explore here. If you are not, count yourself lucky; the picnic area is a robust, one-minute walk from the parking lot.

You'll pass a grove of fragrant orange trees and a pretty gazebo, then cut through a clearing. The barbecue area has swings for children, 35 tables and six barbecue pits. As fire danger tends to be high here during summer months, this is the only area of the park where it is permissible to barbecue. You'll also want to watch your fingers. Santiago Oaks Regional Park has a thriving community of poison oak.

The grub:

Mattern Sausage is a European deli less than five miles from the park. It is operated by Willi and Anni Mattern, sausage makers extraordinaire, and it is simply a great place to stock up on items for a sophisticated picnic.

Two couples intent on an old-fashioned weenie roast can try the Mattern's bratwurst, bockwurst or spicy Hungarian sausage, all of which are well suited to a charcoal fire. Bratwurst is a grainy sausage made from pork, veal and spices, and it browns up crisp on an outdoor fire. Bockwurst are more delicate, white sausages, mostly veal, with a mild flavor. Wilder palates should cotton to Hungarian sausage, a red sausage that literally spits out garlic and paprika when grilling.

Accompany these meats with some of Mrs. Mattern's homemade German potato salad, her sweet pungent sauerkraut and some German rolls, crustier than ordinary French rolls. (She sold more than 1,000 of these rolls on Fourth of July weekend, she says.) The deli sells Hausfrauenart German pickles, in the jar, for $2.95, and terrific spicy mustard from Kuhne, also imported from Germany.

Two pounds of sausage should yield eight links. There's also Weihenstephan German beer, world renowned and great ice cold on a hot summer day--but those will have to stay in a cooler locked in the trunk of your car. Intoxicants of any kind are forbidden in all county parks, a lamented, but understandable, rule of nature.

Santiago Oaks Regional Park, 2145 N. Windes Drive, Orange. (714) 538-4400. Open 7 a.m. to sunset daily. Parking: $2 per vehicle.

Mattern Sausage Inc., 4327 E. Chapman Ave, Orange. (714) 639-6563. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, till 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Picnic for four: about $22 (without beer). Approximate driving time between the two spots: 10 minutes.

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