Imagination Unleashed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might assume Tangerine Grill and Patio is your basic hotel restaurant--after all, it's in the recently opened Anabella Hotel across from Disneyland. But the restaurant is independently owned and has higher ambitions than feeding weary tourists.

It serves California cuisine with a fair number of Southwestern flourishes, and its best items are very good.

With its vaulted ceilings, clay tile floor, exposed beams and tall potted plants, the spacious room nicely evokes the tranquillity of California missions, which is the motif of the hotel. The patio, sheltered by an awning, is attractive as well.

One of the better appetizers is the eggplant tapenade and roasted garlic hummus. The smoky eggplant comes with toasted baguette. As the menu warns, the hummus packs a pungent wallop of garlic, but its intensity is balanced by the addition of a generous amount of pureed parsley. As a result, this particular hummus is hearty and flavorful. Like most of the appetizers, it's enough for at least two.

The duck filling in the Petaluma duck crepes is pleasingly chewy, although a bit overwhelmed by a sharp (but good) tomatillo salsa that's amped up with enough habanero chile to activate your tear ducts.

The salads are particularly good. Tangerine serves one of the best capreses I've had in a long time. The buffalo mozzarella is notably fresh and flavorful and has an airy density.

The two-color Caesar salad also puts a winning spin on the theme with the addition of crisp radicchio di Treviso to the customary romaine. In the soup department, what was billed as tortilla soup is really a chicken and rice affair with no tortillas in evidence. (For the record, the stock is hearty and full-bodied.)

The entrees range from good to excellent. Grilled chicken breast is a cliche, but the chicken Tangerine is certainly distinctive. It's four good-sized slices of chicken breast that have been marinated in (as you might guess) tangerine juice, along with garlic and, judging by its tangerine-orange color, annatto. For white meat, it's moister than usual.

The accompanying black beans are nothing special, and the ones I had were actually a tad undercooked, but I did like the side of "green rice," which was redolent of dill and fresh Provencal herbs.

By itself, the crisp peppered half duck would merely hold its own; the duck is of good quality, but it's neither all that crisp nor peppery. However, it's elevated by the unusual dipping sauce of caramelized tangerines and onions that strike a complex balance of sweet, sour and bitter.

A particularly good entree is the double center cut pork chop, which is slathered with a cranberry bourbon sauce before grilling. This sort of preparation is often better in theory than practice; the meat usually comes out tasting as if it's cooked in jam. But in this version, the sweet-tart flavor of the cranberries plays well against the astringency of the bourbon, and the glaze reduces to a succulent, gossamer-thin crust. It comes with a side of pleasingly tangy puree of smoked yams fragrant of citrus.

Seafood is given its due as well. The grilled mahi-mahi, a nightly special I was served on my second visit, was very good: crisp on the outside, flaky and moist within, and came in a subtle lemon-butter sauce with capers.

I can't say as much for the regular menu's chile lime Grand Marnier shrimp. The shrimp are plump and tender, but the sauce is overdosed with habanero chile and a peculiar screaming high note of lime juice. Like those duck crepes, it'll have you mopping your forehead (and I speak as an inveterate chile head).

But the chef d'oeuvre here is the Santa Maria strip steak. It's marinated in a citrus-garlic mixture of some kind that I can't quite deconstruct, but the result is stunning. The meat is finely marbled, and the soft backbeat of garlic and citrus really unleashes its flavor.

The entrees come with various sides of mashed potatoes, black beans and rice, but there is an alternative list of vegetable side orders.

I particularly liked the spinach. The menu refers to it as "skillet seared," but it's really sauteed in good olive oil with garlic, and the fresh greens benefit from this unfussy treatment. Similarly basic but delicious is the medley of San Joaquin grilled vegetables, marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The desserts are consistently delightful. Try the frozen tangerine Italiano, an excellent sorbet spooned into a hollowed tangerine. It's imported from Italy, but it tastes as fresh as if it were made on the premises.

Tangerine Grill is moderate to expensive. At dinner, appetizers are $5.50 to $12.95, salads $4.50 to $12.50, entrees $19.95 to $31.95.

* Tangerine Grill and Patio, 1030 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 772-1186. Daily, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.

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