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A French Accent

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A geography buff might assume a restaurant named Odessa specialized in Russian food. A trivia expert could narrow the field to the southern Ukraine, where the city of Odessa is situated.

Way wrong. Odessa, an ultra-chic Laguna Beach restaurant named for former Los Angeles Laker star Norm Nixon’s grandmother, mixes soul food and classic French cuisine.

Nixon has already tasted restaurant success with the Melrose Avenue restaurant Georgia, which he co-owns along with his choreographer wife Debbie Allen and other celebrity investors. Here, he’s got a whole mouthful of success.

Odessa, which just opened several weeks ago, is the restaurant of the moment among Laguna Beach night crawlers, the hottest place to hit town since Mark’s, and the word is spreading. There’s standing room only most nights, and no sign of a letup.

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The dining room is best viewed at opening hour, 5:30 p.m.--the only time it isn’t overwhelmed by a crowd. That’s when it is easiest to notice the elegant appointments: cream-colored wall paneling, tastefully framed charcoal drawings, shiny parquet floor, stone fireplace, room dividers of sheet metal cut out in floral patterns.

Chef Timothy Dean trained in Washington at the famous (now closed) Jean-Louis at the Watergate. His mentor there, Jean-Louis Palladin, championed southwestern French cooking, which runs to foie gras, duck confit and similarly un-Laguna ingredients, but don’t expect Dean to have ventured much duck fat on this menu. You will find foie gras and truffles, which Dean sneaks into ravioli and even mashed potatoes, but you’ll also be plied with traditional Southern foods filtered through French sensibilities. Bon appetit, y’all.

Unfortunately, the marriage doesn’t always work. A few dishes are so richly presented you begin to long for more simple versions. Both the smothered pork chops and fried chicken come finished in a rich demiglace meat reduction, which is just overkill. And barbecued baby back ribs with pumpkin risotto and shaved Parmesan? I rest my case.

When Dean is on his game, though, he proves to be one of Orange County’s best young chefs. His warm spinach salad is dressed with an unusual mix of tastes that wakes up your palate with a jolt: lightly fried chicken livers, shallot confit and an herbed bacon vinaigrette. Sweet potato gnocchi with smoked Gouda and grilled calamari sounds a bit bizarre, but the pasta melts in your mouth and the smokiness of the cheese plays nicely off potato’s natural sweetness.

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Still, you just shouldn’t over-Frenchify Southern food. The waiters make a big show of ladling the New Orleans gumbo from an enormous white porcelain terrine into a soup dish stocked with half a blue crab, but I’m put off by its food-processor texture and the fact that it tastes as if the andouille sausage was added at the last minute. The shrimp, corn and okra fritters with green tomato aioli have a similar problem. The corn and okra fritters are bland; they might have been better if the shrimp were part of the fritters, as the menu might lead you to believe (they have clearly been grilled separately).

Odessa does a good job with fish. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass with melted leeks and coconut coulis has all the components in correct Laguna Beach synergy. The herb-crusted catfish is perfectly cooked in a fragrant, almost ethereally light crust, though the vegetable risotto and Gorgonzola coulis serve more to distract from the flavor of the fish than anything else. Perhaps the best example of what Dean can do is the scallops, pan-seared along with roasted portabello mushrooms, black truffles and a deft touch of balsamic vinegar.

If you’re feeling adventurous, there is barbecued meatloaf, a grainy terrine-style slab blanketed with a cloyingly sweet red sauce. Fried chicken comes in the form of three gigantic breasts in an unapologetically crunchy batter, but the true star of the plate is the mouth-watering collard greens, tender and redolent of smoked pork.

I’d avoid the grilled Angus New York strip with fried green tomatoes, candy yam mousseline and shallot sauce. It’s a good piece of meat, and the fried green tomatoes would probably make Kathy Bates stand up and cheer, but the yams are mushy and sugary and the plate is overdosed with demiglace. (This is the single brownest plate of food in memory.)

Watch out for the amazingly light but deceptively filling baking powder biscuits, served with warm honey butter almost the minute you are seated. Eat two of them--it’s easy to do--and you’ll ruin your appetite in a hurry.

Desserts are rather French. Sometimes there is a nice chocolate marquise, more or less a free-standing mousse wrapped in a ribbon of chocolate. Even the very buttery double-crusted cobblers--there are always blackberry, peach and apple versions--are really like warm French tarts. There are delicate sorbets too, generally mango or raspberry.

Service is top-notch, and there is an eclectic, well-put-together wine list with a few bargains ('93 Markham Merlot, $34) and a few non-bargains ('94 Mugneret Echezeaux, $100). But I am really burned up by the whopping corkage fee, $20; that’s an awful lot to pay for drinking your own wine, and not even from decent stemware.

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I wonder what Odessa herself would say to a $20 corkage. That’s a tradition that could really use a dose of Southern sensibility.

Odessa is high-end moderate to expensive. Soups, salads and appetizers, $6-$11; main dishes, $9.50-$22.

BE THERE

Odessa, 680 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 376-8792. 5:30-10 p.m. daily. All major cards.


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