My first job in California was in San Francisco at Alexis, a now-defunct bastion of Continental cuisine, famous for its entrees flamed in brandy. According to the conventional wisdom down at Local 2, it was a reliable place for card-carrying members of the waiters union to find work in a pinch: The temperamental owner was known to hire several times a week.
Of course, he fired folks just as often, and after my own unplanned departure, I swore I'd never set fire to an order of bananas Foster again.
Now, with the opening of the Continental down here in Santa Ana, I'm back in the genre on the other side of the flambe table and enjoying myself immensely.
Hans Prager's famous Ritz has kept Continental cuisine alive and breathing in Orange County, but not since the days of Ambrosia and Chez Cary has a local restaurant gotten so much out of steak Diane, duck a l'orange and cre^pes Suzette. Meet the new keeper of the Continental flame: Fred Jurjis, a onetime employee of Swissair.
Jurjis has taken over the building that once was home to a restaurant called Ancient Mariner, and he has performed a yeoman-like job of renovation.
Above the stunning marble floors are antique tapestries, glorious crystal chandeliers, floral French wallpaper and a high, arched ceiling. The tables are adorned with crisp linens, flickering candles and delicate pink roses. Classical music plays gently in the background.
A meal gets off to a modest start: You'll be brought a basket of hot rolls and curls of fresh, sweet butter, then offered a cocktail or the wine list. Appetizers such as asparagus Dijonnaise or pepper gravlax are far more intelligent choices than fritella de zucchini, which is just plain old zucchini sticks under a fancier name. The asparagus has lots of snap and flavor and is punctuated by an understated mustard cream sauce that gives the house bread a nice raison d'e^tre . The pepper gravlax may not rival the version at Gustaf Anders, but it is sweet, smooth and elegant in its own right.
Entrees include the option of either soup or salad--a difficult choice as both are done extremely well here. The soup is most often pureed spinach and mushroom, a substantial yet light-on-the-palate potage with a leafy, outdoorsy perfume. (A workmanlike French onion is available for $3.50 extra.) The garden salad is impressive, too: mesclun greens, a subtle balsamic vinaigrette, chopped tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, sliced cucumbers and a few halved walnuts. When components are as fresh as these, it is striking how little is required to please.
Only a few dishes actually are prepared on the gueridon (that little stand for cooking things table side) at the Continental, and I must confess to having experienced feelings of guilt when ordering them.
Jurjis, though, quickly dispelled the negative feelings. He seemed genuinely delighted to make our steak Diane, and even more delighted when he saw how pleased we all were with his creation.
Jurjis takes three medallions of tender beef tenderloin and makes a huge deal out of sauteing them in butter with shallots, onion, mushrooms, parsley and wine sauce. Just before serving, he executes the coup de gra^ce , flaming the entire pan by splashing brandy into it and using the flame on the cart for ignition. It's a great show, and even if you find this kind of thing corny, the beef is superb.
I don't know of anyplace else around here where you can get crown roast of lamb--a side of rib chops arranged in the shape of a crown, bones sticking skyward. The meat is sauced in a rosemary Cognac au jus; a carved tomato, stuffed with fresh peas, keeps it company. A purist might complain that the kitchen's so-called duck a l'orange is merely roast duck splashed with Grand Marnier and covered with a few orange slices. I won't. Inauthentic, perhaps, but it's a tasty, well-cooked bird.
Another entree that won favor was German pepper pork chops, two thick chops piled high with stewed peppers and mushrooms. For seafood lovers, king salmon is broiled and then blanketed with a light lobster dill cream sauce. Those nostalgic for prewar richness can cotton to King Oscar II--veal medallions topped with crab meat, bearnaise sauce and asparagus.
Accompaniments for the entrees include either roasted potatoes and cheese-topped vegetables, or a basmati rice pilaf that pays homage to Jurjis' Armenian background.
The best dessert, for my money, is delice a la neige, a simple custard, eggier and more delicate than a standard flan, with homemade caramel sauce and French vanilla ice cream. Poire Belle-Helene is a poached pear with ice cream and a warm chocolate sauce.
Otherwise you can flame out on cre^pes Suzette, which Jurjis will make on a dessert cart that he rolls up to the table. The crepes make a good show, even if the pancakes don't seem to have been cooked to order and the slightly bitter orange sauce might have been more judiciously employed on the roast duck.
Just remember to proceed with caution. Two flambes in one evening is more than most of us can take.
The Continental is expensive. Appetizers are $4.50 to $6.50. Entrees are $14.50 to $18.95. Desserts are $4 to $6.50.
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* THE CONTINENTAL
* 301 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana.
* (714) 542-6900; also (800) I-FLAMBE.
* Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. daily.
* All major cards.