The Costa Mesa of North County
Photo by Joy BastToo much "American cuisine" is all kitsch and gimmick—consider the Claim Jumper with its miner-49er theme and outrageously large portions of merely adequate food that tempt you to commit the deadly sin of gluttony and the far deadlier sin of stupidity: paying extra for so much waste.
I could provide countless similar examples, and it angers me that I can because beneath the Applebee's takeover of the suburbs you'll find the bones of true American cooking: quality, taste and restraint.
In these parts, only a few restaurants take American food seriously, with Long Beach's Shenandoah Café setting the standard. Close behind is the Cedar Creek Inn, which has three OC locations, my favorite of which opened in Brea last year.
The various Cedar Creeks (others are in Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano) offer similar menus featuring prime rib, rack of lamb and homemade desserts, but each location is distinctive. While the Laguna branch is a warm, charming neighborhood place on the edge of the old village, the Brea restaurant is set in an office park. It's a big, cool space with long flagstone walls; high, exposed roof beams; and ruddy earth tones, looking much like an updated '50s ski lodge.
The folks at Cedar Creek Inn take their cooking seriously, treating such rock-ribbed dishes as pot roast with near gourmet flair. In doing so, they demonstrate one of the strengths of American cooking: the distinctive use of ingredients and techniques we borrowed from other cuisines. This explains how Brie-and-pecan-stuffed chicken breast fits seamlessly on the menu with scampi and prime rib.
The entrées cut a wide swath, with seafood choices such as Norwegian salmon, ahi, herb-crusted halibut and swordfish and meaty fare—New York steak, pot roast, beef medallions and an oddly named prime rib of pork, which is really an elaborate pork chop.
In most restaurants, an all-over-the-map menu should set off alarms; few places get one thing right, much less two or three. But there are no worries at Cedar Creek, where each plate I've tried (even the prime rib of pork) is prepared with quality and flair.
Examples: the Brie-and-pecan-stuffed chicken breast comes with a creamy pear-sage sauce that draws out the fine, nutty flavor of the pecans. The large butterflied scampi is served with capers and diced Roma tomatoes. And the pot roast—with its red cabbage, crisp potato pancakes, creamed horseradish and chewy beef smothered in thick, rich gravy—is a tribute to hearty northern Midwest German-American cooking.
But this stuff isn't cheap. Main dishes run from $19 to $29. To offset that, Cedar Creek offers an à la carte menu and a nice selection of entrée salads.
On a recent visit, my wife and I compared our two favorite dishes at another fine American restaurant, the Daily Grill in Irvine, with those at Cedar Creek. I got the meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and she the cobb salad.
The Daily Grill version of meat loaf and mashed potatoes is straight-on meat and potatoes—no infusion of extra ingredients, just the basics. Cedar Creek's is a little jazzier—their meat loaf is filled with a mix of spinach, mushrooms, red peppers and spices that adds a flavorful punch. (The salty beef gravy helps too.) The creamy mashed potatoes have a touch of garlic, and the carrots and green beans come on the side with a dollop of sweet potato puree. It's a great American meal.
And hats off to Cedar Creek for making a real cobb salad, meaning it's a finely chopped hash of turkey, tomato, avocado, bacon, egg, blue cheese and romaine in a creamy vinaigrette dressing. Just like at the Daily Grill, it's the real deal. However, my wife thought it had too much bacon; I felt the blue cheese overwhelmed the subtle dressing. Still, it's a darn good salad. The Soviet judge gives it a 9.65.
You'd be remiss to pass on Cedar Creek's homemade desserts. I say go with the Tollhouse pie, a devilish goo of dark chocolate and pecans in a flaky crust topped with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream. Sure, it's overkill, but you can easily share it among four people.
Brea takes a lot of heat for its shortage of distinctive restaurants. But with the addition of Cedar Creek Inn in the renovated downtown, dare I say that Brea, with its big mall and arts pavilion, is making a mad push to become the Costa Mesa of North County?
Cedar Creek Inn, located at 20 Pointe Dr., Brea, is open Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 255-5600. Full bar. Dinner for two, $45-$65, food only. All major credit cards accepted. Also located in San Juan Capistrano, (949) 240-2229, and Laguna Beach, (949) 376-3108.
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