The Gossiping Gourmet: Inventive, savory food at Savoy

Hotel restaurants are notorious for high prices and mediocre food, but there are exceptions, and we've found one just across the San Diego (405) freeway from South Coast Plaza.

What was once a decidedly unattractive Holiday Inn has been transformed into a handsome, modern boutique place called the Hotel Hanford. Surprisingly, its Savoy Restaurant & Lounge has delicious, inventive food at reasonable prices.

The restaurant, bar and lounge are all in a large room right off the lobby. There is also a small outdoor dining patio and several private dining rooms for groups. The area is tastefully decorated in tones of gray and black with a contemporary feel.

Chef David Fune has created an interesting menu, blending cuisines from the Savoy region, where France, Italy and Switzerland come together.

The appetizers are mostly designed for sharing or a light meal. Consider venison macaroni and cheese with Gorgonzola, cheddar and sour cherry demi-glace, or fried calamari with harissa marinara.

We began with the Mediterranean nosh, served in a lovely four-part glass plate with a delicious spicy, slightly sweet hummus; a flavorful, subtle, lentil purée with garlic; an assortment of good olives; and a strange fourth item that was just called mozzarella (but was unlike any we've encountered). They were little balls of very dry cheese with an unpleasant vinegary taste.

We loved scooping up the two excellent dips with the thin wedges of olive oil brushed piadina in place of pita. Piadina is an Italian flatbread, which also provides the base for their pizza selections.

The chef's creativity is apparent in the Bonneville piadina, which is flatbread with fingerling potatoes, spicy savoy cabbage, Nueske's bacon, cheddar, onion marmalade, arugula and garlic cream sauce.

We went for the simpler preparation of taleggio and forest mushrooms. We asked for it extra crispy, and it was. The crust had just the right amount of tasty cheese that balanced but did not overwhelm the generous helping of earthy, wild mushrooms.

As good as it was, the pappardelle was even better. It was one of the best pastas we've had in a long time.

The thin wide noodles are housemade and were cooked to a perfect al dente texture. The dish was a composition of sweet, seasonal English peas and their tendrils, salty slivers of coppa ham, large shavings of pecorino and crunchy marcona almonds, all in a light butter sauce.

The stroke of genius was the quail eggs, whose soft yolks spilled out onto the pasta and added creamy richness. It was a dynamite combination — homey and sophisticated at the same time.

We were intrigued by the entrée named "chicken raclette" because raclette is a classic Swiss dish made with cow's milk cheese; it's served melted, accompanied by boiled potatoes and pickled gherkins or onions. In this case, the raclette referred to the little boiled potatoes covered with melted cheese that were served with the chicken.

The entire dish was a strange mélange of ingredients. The menu describes it as "free-raised chicken breast with savoy essence, sauce béarnaise, braised savoy plus fennel, raclette fingerling potatoes and organic orange 'fruitlab'-infused apricot."

What arrived on the plate was a crispy airline chicken breast brushed with savoy essence (a sweet glaze). The vegetables were braised cabbage and fennel, the above-described potatoes, and a drizzle of béarnaise.

What overwhelmed the plate was a plethora of small, dried apricots and Bing cherries that been infused in a very sweet orange liqueur called Fruit Lab. The concept might have worked if there had just been less fruit.

The bird was tasty (if a bit overcooked) and the vegetables were good. There were just too many elements in the dish.

The apple crème caramel lacked apple flavor. The custard was thin and the sweet, ground almond topping added an unpleasant texture. Next time we'll go for the "snicker" cake or the artisan "kit kat."

We walked away pleased and surprised at finding a new place to dine before attending a performance, a movie or a day of shopping.

If You Go

•What: Savoy Restaurant & Lounge at the Hotel Hanford; (714) 557-3000 or

•Where: 3131 Bristol St., Costa Mesa

•When: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

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