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Once upon a time, most local World War veterans knew two things about Nieuport 17: It was a French biplane fighter (circa 1916), and a mighty fine restaurant. After 41 years on the front lines of dining, first in Santa Ana and then in Tustin, Nieuport 17 is getting timely reinforcement from businessman Cameron Irons, a new partner to venerable founder Bill Bettis. One of Orange County’s landmark tables, Nieuport 17, in its present location since 1990, is as classy as ever, but its aging fan base needs an infusion of younger patrons if the stately venue is to survive.
Gentle changes are occurring, but in baby steps. Only the most seasoned regulars will notice that the Barnstormer Bar—one of Central County’s most inviting and civilized lounges—now offers early and late happy-hour deals. No mention is made of longtime chef James Lane’s retirement after 41 years. Marco Colin is top toque now, but new menu items hide so well beside the many classics—steak tartare, wilted spinach salad, tournedos of beef—that I enlist our agreeable waitress to ferret out what’s new. When she starts by mentioning the escargot, tuna tartare, and iceberg wedge salad, it’s clear Colin is not leading a culinary coup. In fact, chef emeritus Lane is consulting to tighten up trademark recipes lest they stray from the dishes loyalists revere.
One signature starter, fried eggplant with a zippy rémoulade, is a plate piled high with skinless cubes of eggplant, crunchy from a delicate breading—in crushed Ritz crackers! Toothpicks sprout from the top layer, making for easy dipping of these golden bites with their mild, creamy interiors. Iceberg wedge salad with bacon crumbles and tomatoes—a whippersnapper on this menu—is a ho-hum rendition; fresh, tangy blue-cheese dressing is its best feature. Onion soup gratinée remains a constant, but its listless broth lacks character and aroma. Though the barely warm, cottony dinner rolls are as unexciting as ever, I’ll always appreciate those fat pads of sweet butter that accompany.
Seafood choices are traditional and reliable. Sea bass with sesame ginger sauce is the rookie on a roster that includes day-boat scallops, poached salmon with Hollandaise, and catch of the day. Filet of sole is delicious, lightly dredged in flour, sautéed until the edges are crisp while the center stays moist. Sides are well-executed and the choices varied—most entrées include two from a selection that includes glazed carrots and zucchini Provençal. I’m partial to the thinly sliced whole potato baked in butter and the fluffy rice with a whisper of saffron.
Beef is an ever-popular player here. Steak tartare, a traditional take on the chopped rare delicacy, is still one of the best around. Beef stroganoff and filet mignon medallions are menu mainstays. So is the sliced New York with creamy green peppercorn sauce, but the swanky sauce outclasses the tame steak. Although cooked beautifully medium rare, it’s strangely lacking in flavor. A 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye, and a strapping 10-ounce filet are new to the menu.
Elaborate desserts aren’t the style here—but two house-baked pies deserve their esteemed reputation: an old-timey fudge and a fluffy Lemon Sour Cream. An admirable apple pie appears only on Sundays as part of a terrific weekly fried chicken dinner special, a tradition only regulars know about. Other weekly insider specials include German pot roast on Tuesday, lamb chops on Thursday, and beef Wellington on Friday.
Also unchanged are the handsome Bavarian hunting lodge surroundings, bedecked with game trophies, flickering fireplaces, and formidable antler chandeliers. Toss in one of the Southland’s most impressive collections of aviation artifacts displayed throughout the 180-seat space and the result is a singular dining destination that lures top guns and eager fans of aviation history. Service is patient and obliging. Many staffers have logged decades; my last waitress notes this is Year 28 for her.
Continental is fast-disappearing as a dining classification, though several O.C. restaurants still cling to it. Nieuport 17 is one, but winning new customers’ hearts, minds, and appetites is a ceaseless battle. Adding vigor to both the menu and the handsome bar is a smart tactic for luring younger diners.
At the risk of rattling its loyal following, Nieuport 17 should speed up those maneuvers to continue flying high.
Fried eggplant, steak tartare, wilted spinach salad, filet of sole, fried chicken, fudge pie, Lemon Sour Cream pie.
Lunch, $9 to $30; dinner, $12 to $49.
Live piano nightly, and jazz combos every other weekend.
HAPPY HOUR REDUX
Discounts on drinks and tavern menu in the bar: 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday; and 9 p.m. to midnight Saturday.
13051 Newport Ave.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.