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THE GALLIVANTING GOURMET: Blue Coral has it all: elegance, fine food, service

Most restaurants have a parking lot, but how many parking lots have a restaurant (or three)? In Fashion Island, clumped in the middle are Roy’s, Fleming’s and Blue Coral. Within a few short steps, you can satisfy most of your high-end food hankerings as easily as you can your fast-food fantasies in a food court at the mall. At Roy’s there is Asian fusion, Fleming’s features steaks and Blue Coral, of course, is fish.

After The Hard Rock Café next door served its last burger, the Fleming’s group saw a prime opportunity to cover almost all the bases by opening a sister restaurant serving seafood.

The radically transformed space has a tranquil, almost undersea feeling with its blue glow and soft lighting. As you walk in, you are immediately dazzled by the enormous, blue, hand-blown glass fixture, which hangs from the ceiling. Then, imagine if you will, disorienting but beautiful, Brobdingnagian wooden floor lamps, 12-feet tall with linen shades, giving off a warm sensual illumination. Behind the bar, a wall of vodka bottles shimmers with blue backlighting. The large room is divided into a central space, booths and tables. An open kitchen anchors one end and a bar the other. A large outdoor patio features lush landscaping, a fountain and a fire pit.

As we were seated in a honey-colored wooden booth, we noticed the walls were covered in iridescent mosaic tiles in — guess what color? Although there is a lively bar scene, we felt cozy and insulated. The acoustics are well-designed so there is no deafening din. Conversation is required!

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From the presentation of the menus on, the service was exceptionally gracious and friendly. Terry’s outfits are almost always black, so she was most appreciative when the server, Jennifer, flourished a black napkin, a thoughtful gesture provided by some restaurants these days. While we examined the menu, the obligatory bread basket appeared but its contents were an extremely pleasant surprise: biscuits, just out of the oven; and oh, what biscuits they were, perhaps the best we had ever tasted! They were tender and delicate with a light crusty exterior and wonderful flavor. They didn’t even need the accompanying honey butter. Life always presents us with challenges and this one was to refrain from eating the entire basket before even ordering dinner.

Wherever we dine these days, crudo (a term we had never even heard until a few months ago) seems to be popping up everywhere. This Italian version of sashimi has appealed to contemporary, creative chefs who have moved on from the classic drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil to endless inventive variations. Appearing here is velvety yellowtail, Elle’s favorite sashimi fish, dressed in fresh blood orange vinaigrette, topped with a bit of sea salt and finished with chopped Serrano chilies. Every bite was bursting with fruity, tart, spicy flavor. We found it refreshing and delicious; these jaded eaters were delighted with something new. It was accessorized with a perfect little salad of micro-greens, chopped cucumbers and lightly pickled shaved red onions

The hot appetizers were all old favorites: calamari, baked goat cheese, crab cake, steamers and the granddaddy of them all — oysters Rockefeller. If it wasn’t for Jennifer’s enthusiastic recommendation, we never would have ordered yet another crab cake.

This one earned its name by being full of fresh, sweet, lump crabmeat. Dusted with flour and fried, it had a very light crispy coating. Although it had lots of delicate crab flavor, it needed some zip, which we thought the accompanying aioli would provide. Alas, it was bland. The requisite garlic had been left behind. Providing too much flavor was the side of apple, pecan and blue cheese slaw. This might have been a good idea, but the balance was off. There was little or no dressing, and the blue cheese overwhelmed everything else.

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The entrées are divided into “fins,” “shells,” “land and air” but it seemed foolish to order a steak in a restaurant called Blue Coral, although the Kurabuta pork shank, slow cooked with cider demi-glace and served with apple chutney, did sound appealing. If you are only there under duress because it’s your mother-in-law’s birthday and she insisted on a fish restaurant, you could have a prime New York strip or a filet mignon. (This is, after all, a part of the Fleming’s steakhouse group.)

Fish and seafood selections include the usual suspects, but the sauces are varied; some are classic, like béarnaise beurre blanc and hollandaise, and some are inventive, such as mojo verde marinade with roasted lemon and citrus chile drizzle.

Once upon a time, “fish in papillote” was the ultimate gourmet offering in fancy French restaurants. Why it fell from favor, we have no idea but we were very pleased to see it restored to prominence at Blue Coral. It’s a lovely, healthy way to cook fish as it keeps it moist and requires as little fat as you care to use. You may order it here with sea bass or barramundi.

Our barramundi arrived dramatically in a puffed parchment paper parcel. When split open, the aroma wafted up on a breath of steam, fragrant with lemon and leeks. The sweet, mild flavored fish with its delicate texture, lounged on a bed of sautéed leeks, resting in a light lemony beurre blanc, a compelling combination.

Side dishes must be ordered separately. There are three choices of vegetables, a mushroom risotto, white truffled mashed potatoes, fries and the house specialty, lobster mac ’n’ cheese.

Peanut butter mousse cake, cheesecake with berry mousse, molten chocolate cake and sliced mango with pistachio gelato, raspberry coulis and white chocolate chunk cookies compose the desserts. We chose the latter and yummed up the pistachio gelato, but the cookies tasted stale and when we complained, our very professional waitress whisked them away, apologized and took the dessert off the bill, leaving us with a good taste in our mouth.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Blue Coral

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WHERE: 451 Newport Center Drive (949) 856-2583

WHEN: Sunday through Thursday: 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday through Saturday: 5 to 11 p.m.; Lounge closes one hour later

PRICES:

Appetizers: $8 to $18

Entrées: $19 to $46

Desserts: $7 to $10

WINE:

Bottles: $26 to $76

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By the glass: $6.50 to $19

Corkage Fee: $20


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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