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Mark Norris Capitalizes On the Comfort-Food Craze With Crispins

Comfort Shrewd
The stick-to-your ribs entrées and homey desserts mostly shine at Mark Norris’ well-conceived Crispins, but the service isn’t up to mom’s standards just yet

Judging by how the phrase “comfort food” gets bandied about on the Food Network and Top Chef, I’m amazed it took this long for a restaurant to capitalize on it, at least in Orange County. Crispins in San Clemente does just that. The building has the words installed in block letters almost as big as its name, which would be visible from the 5 freeway if it weren’t facing the wrong way.

Owner Mark Norris is not stupid. Even before the business papers gushed about the genius of Subway’s recession-priced $5 footlongs, this “comfort food” restaurant seemed to be Norris’ exit strategy from his last venture, White Horses. The latter was a cozy bistro, well-regarded for its cuisine (it won our Best Restaurant award back in 2007) but also known for its high prices. Norris probably saw the writing on the wall. So when an old Baker’s Square location was available, Crispins moved in. It’s the anti-White Horses—a place made for families with budgets, not deep-pocketed suitors looking to woo dates with candle-lit suppers.

There’s a computer-gaming area to occupy unruly children, a strip of green lawn outside with a few toys, and a main room that’s freshly painted, if a little too plainly, with a coat of soothing green. The Xeroxed paper menus mention PB&J on the “Comfy for the Kids” section, but there’s also a full bar with draft beer.

If “comfort food” is supposed to mean anything outside your mom’s house, it’s diner fare. Nary a mouthful of the pot roast didn’t satisfy: soaked with gravy, slow-cooked to shreds, and served with a heap of mashed potatoes and julienned vegetables whose crunchy snap suggested they were cooked with respect. And despite the drier-than-average stuffing that accompanied the open-faced turkey sandwich, the ample portions of the succulent breast meat were smothered in gravy, flanked by jellied cranberry sauce and even more mashed potatoes. Since an array of flat-screen TVs was tuned to football, eating the meal at Crispins has the same effect as noshing at a relatives’ house on Thanksgiving, minus the relatives.

But it’s not all about homey grub. There’s a decent Thai satay appetizer, complete with cucumber pickles and a thin but surprisingly spicy peanut sauce. I also had the German-sausage plate, which included a bratwurst and another wiener of unknown origin, both beauties fire-roasted till their natural casings burst from the heat. I slathered each forkful with dabs of coarse-grain mustard and chased it with their homemade red-cabbage sauerkraut, a warm, wonderful and, um, comforting side dish that was thankfully more sweet than sour.

Burgers are hand-formed to a third-pound girth. Though they tend to overcook the patties and seem to dispense with mayo or saucing of any sort, the burgers are basic, tasty and rustic.

Breakfast is, so far, a little uneven. We requested that the eggs on all three plates be done medium-well, but only one was cooked correctly. The rest bled yolk as soon as we put a fork to them. But then there was the immaculate corned-beef hash: finely diced, as crimson as pastrami, and bursting color from the red and green bell peppers.

Sausage gravy thick and hearty enough to use as spackle drowned an unseen biscuit in a white, sausage-freckled deluge. But the smoked salmon on the Eggs Tayside and the country ham were too salty for the dishes in which they were featured.

Hash browns were of the chunky-cubed variety, crusty and nicely burnt where starch met griddle. They used it as a substitute for a side of grits I was expecting, but which they ran out of—a fact I discovered after I asked if they had forgotten my grits. This was further confirmation of a lamentable pattern I saw with the service. On a prior evening, we ordered the apple pie but were brought the apple crisp instead. When I made them aware it wasn’t what we asked for, our server said, “We’re out of the apple pie. This is the apple crisp. Is that okay?”

The next day, during a lunchtime visit, we asked the same waitress what exactly was in a brownie sundae. “I don’t know,” she said. There was no offer to find us an answer, no “Let me check.” She then suggested that the brownie à la mode was a better choice. Was it better? Is Crispins’ going to be Norris’ next successful venture? I don’t know.

Crispins, 610 Camino de los Mares, San Clemente, (949) 480-0800. Open daily. Call for hours. Breakfast, $3-$8; lunch, $5-$9; dinner, $5-$13. Full bar.

 
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