Tax Shelters, Riding Crops and Grand Marnier

Photo by Tenaya Hills "Not another French restaurant in Dana Point!" exclaimed my sable-haired puss-in-boots, the illustrious Madame X, when I informed her that we would be taking our evening meal at Gemmell's on Golden Lantern Street, near the harbor. "I'm going to turn into a baguette before it's all over."

I should explain that milady and I have a most civilized arrangement: I bring her with me on my alimentary outings, and she reddens my ample buttocks with a leather riding crop from time to time. We both benefit from this charming relationship, though she occasionally grows weary of French cuisine, which I adore nearly as much as seeing her towering over me in thigh-highs.

After regaling her with tales of owner Byron Gemmell's expertise in sauces—he's the chef at Atrium (his day gig) and was once the saucier at L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills, she relented. Quicker than you could say "Venus in Furs," we were in South County, land of sea breezes, botox injections and black BMWs.

Past Gemmell's classy, wrought-iron doorway, one enters a patio covered by a royal blue awning, and then on to an expansive dining room furnished with circular tables and upholstered, balloon-backed chairs, both blue and red. The walls are pale yellow with white trim, upon which hang two types of garish paintings: pseudo abstract-expressionist stuff that could pass for Mark Rothko on lithium, and country kitsch still-lifes of flowers and birdhouses. Christmas lights adorn the doorways as well as some of the potted plants scattered throughout.

Our appetizers were memorable: a feuillette,puff pastry with shrimp in the middle, placed in an herb butter sauce with shallots and parsley; and a mousse of duck liver surrounded by minced aspic and sprinkled with cognac. I adored both, but was partial to the paté, as is my wont. Madame X, however, favored the feuillette. As the Gauls say, chacun a son gout.

My ever-dominant diva decided on French onion for her soup, while the lobster bisque piqued my interest. My mistress declared hers to be thick and rich, far better than what she gets at Hamburger Hamlet. As for my bisque, it was as dense as porridge, the color of pumpkin stew, and so satisfying I would have licked my bowl clean even if not ordered to do so by She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Then came the main course, which for Madame meant the special, a fillet of Dover sole with a sauce of lemon butter, shallots and Chardonnay. This she consumed with generous swigs from her glass of Raymond Sauvignon Blanc, Napa ($7). I can always tell she's enjoying herself (and getting a bit tipsy) when she starts calling me "my little lard muffin," as she did this night.

My entrée was New York steak bathed in a creamy beige sauce of brandy and peppercorns. The steak was accompanied by a broad assortment of veggies: cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, potatoes, and so forth. A little bit of everything, as it were. My fave was a small patty of vegetable mousse, layered with puréed carrot on top and zucchini on the bottom. A goblet of garnet-hued Indigo Hills Cabernet, North Coast ($8) eased all this through my esophagus, while simultaneously filling my porthole with a bouquet of blackberry, vanilla and oak.

As we awaited our Grand Marnier soufflé, we amused ourselves by listening to two tax accountants at a nearby table discuss ways of hiding their clients' moolah from the feds, with one boasting of his ability to "keep every dime away" from those dreaded IRS agents by means of various, and apparently legal, financial acrobatics. For a moment I considered introducing myself as an IRS auditor and watching both of these blowhards mess their britches, but then our soufflé came, piping hot and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

We added so much crème anglaise to Chef Gemmell's creation that it nearly tasted like bread pudding! Suffice it to say, not one morsel survived our two-pronged assault. With a large cup of coffee and melodious Irish music playing on the stereo, it made for a splendid end to the evening. Madame, despite her initial misgivings, was so sated she put off my spanking until the next day. But it was worth the wait. Why, I can barely sit to write this review, my backside is so sore from that birching!

Gemmell's, 34471 Golden Lantern St., Dana Point, (949) 234-0063. ( Dinner for two, no drinks, $100. Open 7 days, lunch 11a.m.-2:30p.m.; dinner, 5p.m.-10p.m. Beer and wine. Major cards.


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