Venison Benison

Photo by Jessica CalkinsMy, the news is grim these days, what with Operation Reelect Bush underway in Iraq and the War on Civil Liberties here at home. It's almost enough to put me right off my dinner and send me to the barricades alongside hordes of candle-waving, Kumbaya-singing peaceniks! Almost. Last week, this wide-waisted wordsmith intended to join a local group of Birkenstocked anti-warriors and light a taper for the cause, but my appetite dictated otherwise. Slave to my salivary glands, I resolved to emulate the prophet Isaiah's words: "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die." Though, admittedly, ol' Isaiah was actually damning us Epicureans with our own sentiments.

Determined to dine as if each repast were my last, I made a beeline for Costa Mesa's Turner New Zealand Restaurant, near South Coast Repertory. In a long, Romanesque space formerly filled by Lugano Cucina, this New Zealand nosherie serves as a trs elegant showcase for its namesake gourmet line of seafood, beef, veal, lamb and venison. All of it is imported from the land that gave us the breathtaking backdrop for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

I'd heard nothing but raves about owner Noel Turner's elegant seven-month-old eatery, and though I knew it would cost me a sizable chunk of my paycheck, I was determined to discover if reality lived up to the legend. Allow me to assure you it does. Every aspect of my dining experience was worth the price paid, from the obsessively attentive service to the meal itself.

With offices in Germany, New Zealand and Newport Beach, Turner is world-renowned for providing hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and seafood to chefs at such posh venues as the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. Mr. Turner himself, a scrappy chap as shy as a pack of charging dingoes, demurely bills his restaurant as serving "the finest, freshest, safest, cleanest quality product available on this planet!"

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With that build-up, you nearly expect the waiters to plop a bloody slab of cow on your plate. There's more to the preparation than that, but product is king at Turner, and the less affectation the better. For example, my lady friend and I had the Turner calamari for an appetizer. Lightly fried and as chubby as a child's fingers, they tasted best with a squirt or two of lemon, eschewing altogether the accompanying dip.

Choosing an entre was difficult. Turner lamb is supposed to be nonpareil, but I went with the Turner venison rib chop, eager to try Turner's free-range, grass-fed variety. My double cuts were thick and tender, not at all gamy—more like lightly peppered beef. Yet I must confess I missed the gaminess a bit.

These came with spears of crisp asparagus and a side of curried potatoes. Much atavistic glee was derived from cutting a piece of venison and sliding it through the potatoes and leftover Grand Marnier butter sauce from the rib chop. Afterward, it was all I could do not to start gnawing on the bones like some mad British bulldog.

My companion had Turner king salmon with crispy skin, served with sauted leeks, saffron potatoes and a citrus shallot confit. She remarked that the high quality of the salmon must be due to New Zealand's pristine waters. I'm sure Mr. Turner would concur. She drank one of the many New Zealand wines listed, a fruity sauvignon blanc named Brancott Marlborough, while I limited myself to one glass of Crosspoint, an unobtrusive California cabernet that went well enough with my viands.

Small touches added to the visit. I would have gladly absconded with a suitcase of their olive rolls. And I devoured the best Caesar salad of my life there: a perfect combination of fresh romaine tossed with a bare minimum of dressing and one long crouton. Even the bottled water, Norwegian Voss, in its futuristic, silver-capped tubes, was exceptional.

I did feel the occasional pang of conscience as I dug into my rum-chocolate torte, a little brown mound with crme anglaise, warm strawberries in syrup and a crowning raspberry. But what's a sybarite to do? When you die, you'll regret the meals you didn't eat.

Turner New Zealand, 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 668-0880; Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $104, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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