Instant Ritz

Some indigenous peoples of the Southwest dwelled in cliffs. The Spaniards and Mexicans who came later used clay and straw to shape adobe bricks. Our own medium is the strip mall. They are everywhere in Orange County, as common as asphalt and just as ugly—proof we're hicks whose limited appetites span everything from frozen yogurt and doughnuts to auto parts and Christian books.

But restaurants increasingly achieve with these tilt-ups what the Japanese have with gift wrap. Consider Capriccio Italiano's remodel: located in a Mission Viejo strip center, the 15-year-old ristorante has shed the signs of impermanence —the acoustic ceiling tiles, the standard-issue white walls, the harsh fluorescent glow—for the gravity of good wood, thick carpet and dramatic lighting. You might be in any big-city restaurant, except for the sprawling parking lot outside separating you from Stein Mart and a bowling alley. Miles away in Huntington Beach, there's Ristorante La Fontana; outside, it's Beach Boulevard, but inside, it's Milan. Zov's Bistro in Tustin is an architect's delight of glass, rock and light.

We could cite many other examples of High Strip Mall, and now we can add Saratoga Grill. It's just 10 months old, but upgrades make Saratoga Grill seem as if it has been here forever—and we mean that in the best possible way.

The restaurant commands one corner of a shopping center just outside Coto de Caza, where at night, the guarded gate is so bleached with probing light it seems the suburban equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie. Walk beneath the awning outside the Grill, through the heavy wood doors and into the modest foyer, and you might remember the Willa Cather character who, stepping inside New York City's Waldorf, discovered his "chief greediness lay in his ears and eyes." There's a cozy bar on your right and just ahead an impressive glass-and-rich-wood wine closet. There's thick carpet underfoot, swagging valances above windows overlooking a park and hills, and a general horsiness about the place. "Saratoga" is apparently a reference to the New York track; the walls are hung with racing posters and portraits of English hunters astride long-nosed steeds. Even the execrable LeRoy Neimans look less execrable hanging beneath crown molding on walls ragged with paint the color of the surrounding hills. The pianist—when he isn't playing the freaking Carpenters—is soothing. The place is like instant Ritz.

Downsides? Saratoga Grill is in Coto, practically a helicopter ride from most of the county; and despite the fact that a majority of diners dressed up to match the prices, a few fogies arrived in Leisure World formalwear—Terminator glasses, sweats, white socks and running shoes.

But all that—and prices that run around $25 for entrées and $7 for salads or soups—is overshadowed by food and service rarely equaled in Southern California. The menu is beautifully simple: steaks, seafood and a couple of pasta dishes to go along with appetizing appetizers. We started with a caesar salad; too frequently, the caesar tastes like something scraped from the railings of the Balboa pier, but not this garlicky wonder. The house spinach salad is a sweet-and-sour surprise. But the high point in an evening with several culinary peaks was the soup du jour, a black-bean soup that proved a Rorschach test for everyone at the table. Variously described as beefy, rich, tangy, substantial, smoky and hearty, it was the best any of us had encountered.

These were followed by fabulous entrées—the Saratoga filet, a grilled steak as tender as the sacred heart of Jesus; a fruity chutney atop a grilled pork rib the size of three chops that might have persuaded Gandhi to cave in; braised veal served over polenta and risotto and redolent of rosemary; and pasta arustica, a pepper-rubbed chicken breast grilled, sliced and dumped over penne in a Marsala cream sauce.

It was the kind of evening that reminds you of the virtues of eating out—not just that someone else is doing the dishes, but also that it's unlikely you could ever cook this way. We chased dinner with rich, dark coffee, shared a very good flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sauce, and reflected on the fact that Saratoga Grill is a good place to show others that you have more than money and taste; that even after all the Moons Over My Hammies, you still have taste buds.

Saratoga Grill, located at 31911 Dove Canyon Dr., Trabuco Canyon, is open Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. (949) 888-8477. Dinner for two, $75, food only. Full bar. Major CREDIT CARDS.


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