KEEN ON GREEN : Some of the Freshest Food Ideas Are Made in This Shade (and There's Not a Shamrock in the Bunch)

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

St. Paddy's Day may be Friday, but I've forsworn green corned beef, green beer, green bagels and any other faux Irish food this particular holiday weekend.

That doesn't mean I won't be hankering for anything shaded green. This most pleasing, most appetizing of colors is more often than not what breathes life into a drab meal. Why else would tables the world over brighten dishes of brown food with sprigs of fresh herbs such as parsley, dill and mint? And why else would mint-scented gums and mouthwashes be the popular choice for sweetening our collective breath?

"Eat your vegetables" is a well-traveled parent's mantra; we know full well that green vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Greens is the name of one of my favorite restaurants, a Tassajara Zen vegetarian establishment at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Green is associated with money, health, youth--as in the expression, "still a little green." In fact, most of us couldn't do without a little green on the table. Luckily, we don't have to.

Salad is the first thing that springs to mind when green is mentioned in the context of eating. But you probably have that covered on your own. What's more intriguing is to explore the world of green foods through dishes not immediately associated with the color. These dishes are as green in their character as a plate of spinach leaves before the hot bacon dressing.

So here is a menu of greenery that even Kermit can love, because I'm leaving frog legs to another story. Try not to go overboard with these dishes, because many are deceptively rich. And excess is bound to make even the hardiest feel a little, er, green.

Chile Verde

You can always tell a great Mexican restaurant from the chile sauces. Red, green or deep brown, sauces should have plenty of smoke and fire but no more than a glint of bitterness.

Such are the sauces at La Perlita, Santa Ana's longstanding Mexican superstar, whose name means "the little pearl." There's an abundance of green in any Mexican restaurant, from guacamole to the shredded cabbage and lettuce that fills out a plate. But the green of glory at La Perlita is chile verde, a green-tinted dish that is all stewed pork and a delectable tomatillo and green chile sauce.

This most grandmotherly of Mexican dishes is prepared Chihuahua style, meaning the pork has been cut into uniform-size chunks, in a grainy sauce flavored with dry spices. Owner Humberto Huerta hails from that northern Mexican state, and his narrow restaurant--with its live guitar music, dusky ambience and homey cooking--is about as authentic as it gets. Ask for a plate of jalapenos if you really want to spice things up. The peppers have a dull, almost translucent green color, but they liven up a dish as well as more colorful condiments.

La Perlita, 1307 S. Main St., Santa Ana. (714) 543-9033. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Chile verde, $6.75.

Saag and Makki Roti

When most Indian restaurants refer to saag on their menus, they are taking advantage of the common American ignorance of Hindi. In India, saag is the cooked version of greens from the mustard plant, and in north India, the vegetable is traditionally pureed with spices and eaten with a corn flour flat bread called makki roti . Nearly every one of our Indian restaurants eschews the mustard green, substituting the more familiar spinach.

Maharaja in Orange is different. This charming, artfully designed restaurant is unafraid to serve the slightly bitter, dark green vegetable just as it is done in dhabas (roadside cafes) all over the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh states of India. Maharaja's saag is finely pureed, redolent of ginger, cumin and other spices. It comes hot, in a metal dish, and you spoon it up onto the wedges of roti to eat by hand. As you leave the restaurant, you should not be surprised to discover telltale green stains on the tips of your fingers.

Maharaja, 421 N. Tustin Ave., Orange. (714) 633-7252. Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Saag and makki roti, $8.95.

Fried Green Tomatoes

After the movie of the same name came out, many Southland restaurants jumped on the bandwagon and began serving fried green tomatoes, a Southern staple previously unseen in the Western states. Three years later, the dish has virtually vanished from these parts.

At least Johnny Reb's Southern Smokehouse has no intention of removing the dish from its menu, and for that we can all be thankful. This Long Beach roadhouse has the best Southern-style cooking around. It is well worth a spin across the county line.

These tomatoes come four slices to an order--plump, slightly underripe and dredged in cornmeal flour, pan-fried in grease and topped with a liberal amount of crumbled bacon. You'll burn your tongue if you don't let them cool, so while you wait, try a few of the Southern-style barbecued meats and trimmings that draw crowds here: excellent baking powder biscuits; dense corn bread; tender baby back ribs, and a spicy seafood gumbo. Wash everything down with a slow-brewed Dixie beer from New Orleans. The beer only comes in one color.

Johnny Reb's Southern Smokehouse, 4663 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach. (310) 423-7327. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Fried green tomatoes, $3.25.

Parsley Salad and Princess Cake

Gustaf Anders, Orange County's wonderful Scandinavian restaurant, has two distinctive green dishes, one a trademark salad, the other a celebrated Swedish dessert.

Bill (Gustaf) Magnuson will tell you that his old La Jolla customers still drive up to Santa Ana to eat the restaurant's unique, delicious parsley salad. It comes piled high on a plate, a melange of fresh, sweet sprigs, sun-dried tomatoes, finely minced garlic, shaved whiskers of Parmesan cheese and a light basil vinaigrette. It's one of the best and most original salads on any Southland menu, and definitely among the greenest. It and a few of the restaurant's elegant house breads make a perfect springtime lunch.

Princess cake is truly one of the most regal of all European desserts, with layers of genoise (eggy sponge cake), pastry cream, fruit jam (usually raspberry), a mound of whipped cream and a pale green marzipan frosting. The cake, viewed whole, is dome shaped. Chef Ulf (Anders) Strandberg makes one to beat any you'll find in a Swedish teahouse. Enjoy a generous slice of this indulgence with a cup of the restaurant's peerless espresso.

Gustaf Anders in South Coast Plaza Village, corner of Bear Street and Sunflower Avenue, Santa Ana. (714) 668-1737. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to midnight Friday and Saturday. Parsley salad and slice of princess cake, $8 each.

Soba

Say "green noodle," and most of us think of spinach linguine, a staple of the new generation northern Italian restaurant.

I think of soba.

Soba are long, grayish-green noodles made from buckwheat flour. (The flour is green from the husks that have been ground up with the grain.) These noodles are good for you, delicious and a big part of the soul in Japanese cookery. They can be addictive when prepared by a specialist.

Anaheim's Yoshimi Soba has soba in 20 styles, just like you find in yatai (street stalls) all over Japan. My favorite way to eat these noodles is cold, in a popular summer dish called zaru soba. Here, the noodles are arranged on a bamboo mat, then served with a dipping sauce and a handful of chopped green onion.

Tororo soba sees the noodle paired with slimy grated yam paste and a quail egg. Tempura soba is a tasty soup where battered, deep fried fish and vegetables swim in a salty brine already packed with the light, nutritious noodles. Tamago toji is partially cooked egg and vegetables, a Japanese egg-flower soba soup. Experience the other 16 variations, and the bet is that you'll end up hooked, as I did.

Yoshimi Soba, 10424 Knott Ave., Anaheim. (714) 761-8750. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday; lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday. Soba dishes, $4 to $6.50.

Duck Confit With Green Cabbage

No O.C. chef is more unpredictable or more talented than Alan Greeley of the Golden Truffle in Newport Beach. Greely is capable of serious culinary flights of fancy, anything from spicy Thai chicken with samba noodles to any of a number of Caribbean dishes that have become his calling card, such as the heady, searing Jamaican jerk chicken salad.

One busy lunch recently, Greeley served an unusual--and unusually green--dish based on duck confit. Confit is meat or poultry rendered in its own fat with a healthy amount of salt, resulting in a tender, preserved product that is more flavorful than its roasted equivalent.

No dish I've had recently has looked any greener on the plate. Think of this eccentric creation as the world's greatest corned beef hash, substituting duck for the beef and all wrapped up in a wilted green leaf of Napa cabbage. The duck is mixed with partially mashed boiled potato and placed inside the folded cabbage leaf.

Greeley is highly whimsical, and he is always changing his format, so there is no guarantee that the dish will take exactly the same form when you order it. He did indicate that he would keep duck and green cabbage on his menu, but look for it in another form: When a menu is printed this week, the dish will be called duck machaca, and there will be black beans in place of the potato.

Golden Truffle, 1767 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach. (714) 645-9858. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Duck with green cabbage, $12.95.

Sea Bass With a Thyme Crust

It's appropriate that, in this Pisces month, we finish up with a piece of green fish. Pascal Olhats has made a dish called sea bass with a thyme crust his signature. After several years it remains my favorite dish in this casually elegant French restaurant.

Olhats is rather proud of the fact that he places a little green on every plate he serves, whether it be sprigs of chervil or rosemary, crushed herbs from Provence or the occasional green sauce reduction.

The "crust" (what Olhats calls a crust is really more of a topping) on this fresh, flaky, white-fleshed fish is made up of thyme and parsley bound together with buttery bread crumbs. Underneath the fish is a light, cracked tomato garnish known as a concasse, and the whole thing sits on a fumet (fragrant sauce) made from cream, scallop juice and pounded shrimp.

The components work magic. Thyme is said to promote good humor according to French folk wisdom, while parsley is a natural breath sweetener. When eaten with a good piece of fish, this savory green crust brings to mind the grandeur of French cooking--and the peaceful green of summer. Even in wintry March.

Pascal, 1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach. (714) 752-0107. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

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