By Keith Plocek
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Photo by Tenaya HillsPeering into the women's restroom at Svelte, Corona del Mar's newest see-and-be-seen eatery, I felt as though I was taking a guided tour of the Louvre, foolishly nodding and contorting my face into what I hoped would give the appearance of genuine interest—perhaps even discerning appreciation. To be sure, it was a restroom—there was the deep, golden sink; the ornate, polished faucet; even a plush courtesy chair, all framed by the room's soft red glow—but I was puzzled: It was still a bathroom, was it not? Turning toward Bastien, the maitre d'—who just minutes before had proclaimed, "Wait until you see our restrooms!"—I managed an awestruck smile, praying it would cover up what I figured to be my bourgeois befuddlement.
It seemed that to fully appreciate Svelte's eclectic décor—an at times over-the-top mix of Old World charm and questionable New World nouveau riche-ness—required a refined, well-traveled aesthetic sensibility I haven't yet attained. But while I remain a few years—and husbands—shy of the jet-set strata, Svelte's food proved deliciously accessible—no feigning necessary!
Fresh from a harrowing rush-hour drive on a warm summer evening not too many Tuesdays ago, I met with Bastien and head chef Troy Furuta—formerly of Pascal—to sample from their unabashedly decadent menu. Perhaps sensing my early-evening fatigue, a waitress from the restaurant's phalanx of fresh-faced beauties recommended the Rush Hour Sveltini, a signature cocktail. The tangy concoction of Stoli Cran, Cointreau, fresh lemon and orange-berry juice finished with Red Bull (hence the name) relaxed me: now I was ready to jump into what I presumed would be exquisite food beyond my elementary palate. I started with the tuna Toro tartar—served with avocado mousse, slivered scallions, gaufrettes (hoity-toity potato chips) and soy-yuzu vinaigrette—and an unforgettable truffle-scented Angus beef tartar buffered by a side of crunchy pommes frites. Raw meat and fish had never appealed to me before, but these squishy-salty balls of goodness converted me to the joys of uncooked flesh. Equally appetizing and not nearly so intimidating were portobello-mushroom vegetable rolls and an heirloom-tomato salad, the latter a tasty summer dish featuring an array of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese drizzled with what could stand to be slightly less lemony lemon oil.
Gulping down the remains of the Rush Hour, I followed suit with a London Calling Sveltini and prepared to dig into the mac-'n-cheese skillet and cast-iron-seared Pacific wild King Salmon. Although the cocktail, which features Bombay gin, wasn't quite what I had expected—I was looking for, I don't know, something more gloomy?—all was forgiven as soon as I plunged past the skillet's baked three-cheese (Wisconsin asiago, Sonoma jack and New York state Cheddar) veneer. The macaroni was understandably cheesy but also bold with garlic, herbs and fleshy tomatoes. At $20, it was about $18.50 more than I'd ever paid for mac 'n cheese, but it was damn worth it.
The significantly lighter King Salmon, garnished with buttery asparagus spears, was a little easier on the arteries but took a mighty stab at my heart with its Normandy butter emulsion. (Also worth trying is the bacon-wrapped filet mignon with Cognac-peppercorn jus, or if you feel like taking life into your hands, the messy, breathtaking burger "de Luxe," a giant Kobe beef patty—them cows are massaged with sake! And forced to guzzle beer! The life!—topped with sweet caramelized onions.)
The silliness surrounding the bathroom episode now a fading memory, I agreed with a newfound confidence to the waitress' final suggestions and ordered yet another Sveltini—this round: the White Lotus, a lethal, creamy froth of Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, Stoli Razz and Kahlua. As an apt accompaniment, I opted for a chocolate souflette over the Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée. A dessert unto itself, the Lotus perfectly complimented the piping-hot souflette's fluffy texture, cooling my mouth after each paradisiacal chomp.
By the time Bastien dropped by the table at the night's end, I was drunk with delight—okay, and with Sveltini sauce, too—at the completion of my culinary journey. Shooting him an honestly awestruck smile, I realized that a bathroom may well always be just a bathroom, but at Svelte, everything is worth raving about.Svelte, 440 Heliotrope, Corona Del Mar, (949) 723-9685; www.svelte.cc. Open daily, 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Full bar. Dinner for two, $60-$100, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
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