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Iva Lee's $25 Three-Course Meal Is a Down-Home Bargain

Southern-food connoisseurs will find little fault in the restaurant's home cookin'.

Editor's note: Reservations for Iva Lee's are full from 7 p.m. on for this evening, New Year's Eve, according to the restaurant's Web site.

There sure isn't enough Southern food in South Orange County, but at least I can say there's great Southern food in O.C.'s southern-most city.

Now, that might've been a whole lotta "South" for your mouth, but then again, so is a meal at .

It nails Southern hospitality soon after you're seated when heart-shaped cornbread arrives, piping hot, to your table.

And while it tugs at your heartstrings with the starter, it yanks at your hunger pangs with entrées that range from Tennessee meatloaf ($16.95) to filet mignon ($29.95).

The menu gussies up Southern classics and creole dishes alike; highlights include Cajun scallops with slab bacon cracklings, creamy grits and Southern vegetables ($26.95) and the grilled pork chop with brown sugar pecan glaze and whipped sweet potatoes with braised ham hock collard greens ($19.95).

However, the best deal you'll find in this glowing, red-velvet-hued dining room is chef Christopher Starr's three-course dinner, which runs $25. The prix-fixe menu provides for a starter, entrée and dessert for a few dollars over (or under in some cases) what most entrées in the restaurant cost.

Diners get the choice of starting with either the Bourbon French onion soup or soup du jour or one of three salads (Brie beignet, baby spinach or wedge). 

The onion soup's broth abandons beefiness for the cleaner, lighter flavor of onions, which is a plus if you like onions but a minus if you enjoy the typical beefiness of French onion soup. Better was the soup du jour, a luxurious bowl of nutty butternut squash soup topped with creamy goat cheese and smoky bacon.

Iva Lee's wedge salad is a generous hunk of iceberg lettuce smothered in a mustardy remoulade and studded with boiled eggs, small shrimp and capers. Though the shrimp were small, the tangy dressing and crisp salad made the dish.

Entrées are limited on the prix-fixe menu to four choices: jambalaya; blackened red snapper; Tennessee meatloaf; and dry rubbed barbecue chicken. The meatloaf stands above the lot. The slabs of beef have just the right texture and not too fine of a grind. The richness of the meat is enhanced by earthy mushrooms and a Worcestershire-spiked gravy that coats everything with a glossy sheen.

Conversely, the jambalaya is slightly underwhelming—light on spice, mellowed out too much by tomato, and the pieces of shrimp and scallops are, again, too small. Instead of several smaller pieces of seafood, I would prefer a smaller number of bigger shrimp and two or three bigger scallops instead of baby versions of each protein. 

For a sweet finish, you get a choice of any of Iva Lee's desserts, which include choices such as pumpkin cheesecake with caramel drizzle, vanilla sugar beignets with Café du Monde crème anglaise and chicory coffee crème brûlée. 

I shared with a fellow diner the brûlée, flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-bean ice cream and blackberry sauce and the N'Awlins bread pudding with Jack Daniel's whiskey sauce. 

The bread pudding, served with a cold whiskey crème on the side, is packed with raisins and bursts with cinnamon punch—a great winter dessert that will warm you through and through. The chocolate cake is velvety, like a dense fudge or creamy ganache. The brûlée, laced with chicory, is the epitome of coffee flavor. 

While personal preferences may influence my opinions of each dish, there's no arguing that on flavor, Iva Lee's gets it right most of the time. If you're looking for a unique break from California coastal cuisine, head to San Clemente for a real taste of the South.

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