Gossiping Gourmet: Hotel chefs' creativity is best in the starters

Hotel restaurants are often quite pricey and the food is frequently mediocre. With a few exceptions, like the Montage, locals tend to dine elsewhere. However, the Californian at the Hyatt in Huntington Beach is a surprising contradiction to this popular assumption. This huge, imposing hotel overlooking the ocean boasts a restaurant that has very tasty food at reasonable prices, while daytime diners have the benefit of a spacious terrace, complete with towering palms, gurgling fountains, large fire pit and a beautiful view.

On a chilly evening, the capacious dining room offers a roaring fire and cozy upholstered armchairs. The décor is "classic hotel" patterned carpets, potted palms and traditional-style furnishings.

Our first clue that dinner was not going to be run-of-the-mill was the presentation of the best focaccia we have had in years. Actually house-made, rather than just house-warmed, the hot bread came in two varieties, garlic and olive rosemary. Both had a real crust and a dense chewy interior, and both had excellent flavor, one with subtle garlic overtones and the other with robust green olives and a pretty sprig of pungent rosemary.

Good bread always puts us in a good mood, as did the very generous pour of our well-priced glasses of wine. Sipping and munching as we looked over the menu, we noticed that it, like the décor, is fairly traditional, but on a more careful reading, we were pleased to see some creative touches such as the appetizer of chili spiced lamb chops, served with Greek yogurt and sumac; while the green salad is embellished with dried cherries, toasted pumpkin, seeds, pickled red onion and a honey, white truffle vinaigrette.

We warmed up with chicken tortilla soup. The charming presentation featured a bowl with a tangle of thin, crispy tortilla strips, avocado, pico de gallo and slices of roasted chicken. The server then poured the hot broth from a ceramic carafe, so that the chicken was not overcooked and the chips remained crunchy. The thickened soup had a wonderful flavor that left a lingering heat on the tongue without being too spicy.

Our enjoyment continued with the mushroom ravioli, which may be ordered as an appetizer or entrée. These plump packets were perfect, amply stuffed with a subtle mixture of savory mushrooms and ricotta in very refined pasta dough; it was thin with great texture. They were smothered in a buttery wild mushroom ragout that was absolutely luscious. The addition of a generous slathering of truffle oil didn't hurt either, nor did the shavings of Parmigiana Reggiano on top.

What made the pan-seared scallops something out of the ordinary was the sweet corn hash with tiny, diced potatoes and chopped porcinis. This interesting combination made a richly flavored accompaniment, somewhere between refined and rustic. The scallops had a serious crust, yet were moist inside. A red wine and balsamic reduction swipe on the plate tasted somewhat burnt, but it was superfluous in any case.

The catch of the day was swordfish, and it was the only disappointing dish of the evening in that it was bland and uninteresting. A simple piece of grilled fish was paired with some broccolini and an over-salted avocado risotto, creamy but not distinctive. The fish was made more palatable by the fresh herb garnish, but the dish paled in comparison to what had come before.

Unable to face yet another molten chocolate cake, we opted for apple tart. The puff pastry was quite good, but the apples themselves had very little flavor. The caramel was a bit too light to compensate for the pallid apples, and the vanilla ice cream was just ordinary.

Our advice is to put together a dinner from the amply portioned selections from the starter menu. That's where the creative hand in the kitchen seems to be best expressed, while the prices are moderate, particularly for a hotel restaurant.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

The Californian

Where: Hyatt Regency, 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach


Breakfast and lunch: 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday

Dinner: 6 to 10 p.m. daily


Appetizers: $6 to $13

Entrées: $16 to $32

Desserts: $6 to $8


Bottles: $30 to $230

Half bottles: $20 to $24

By the glass: $8 to $18

Corkage fee: $15

Information: (714) 845-4776 or http://www.huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com

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