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Photo by Tenaya HillsThe maitre d' couldn't have been more than 23. His black suit was wrinkled and about two sizes too big. His hair could've used some gel. But his smile was genuine. He pulled out the chairs for both misters and madames without prompting or pretension. He laid the menus gently on the table and brought out tall, chilled glasses of lemonade. And he said, "Enjoy" with the grace of a father about to give away the bride.
My charming companion and I were at 50 Forks, the student-run restaurant of the Art Institute of California's Orange County campus. It's the final test for the school's culinary arts students before they can graduate with a bachelor's degree, the classroom where years of theory and strategies get flambéed and presented to salivating, discriminating eaters who grade by pats to the gut and big tips. It's also one hell of a restaurant, with great, inventive platters, and its more than affordable—probably the only place in the county where you can dine like Newport Beach at Santa Ana prices.
Chefs-in-training control every aspect of 50 Forks. Throughout the year, they rotate from waitressing duties to cooking the meals to preparing new takes on American cuisine to ringing the cash register to washing dishes to even designing 50 Forks' open kitchen: behind a glass wall so that diners can peer in while the young men and women finish their in-class homework—your meal. Such a design might seem cruel and almost laboratory-like. But seeing the dozen or so students at work will reinvigorate your work ethic: their mini-waltzes around each other in the cramped kitchen, the red berets of some and poofy hats of others, the earnest smiles stretching each person's face are the marks of people who love life and job.
3601 W. Sunflower Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92704
Region: Santa Ana
Since students run 50 Forks, there is a natural inclination to be more forgiving when it comes to any faults, but I could only, truly find one: our waitress forgot to bring out a new set of cutlery after each course. Everything else impressed. Consider the salads—a perfectly executed Caesar's for the madam, an ahi Nicoise for me. When the waitress noticed I couldn't pronounce the latter correctly, she phonetically mouthed it for me aufrançois.Such kind service—plus she didn't chortle at my twisted tongue like my charming companion did. The salad itself—raw, pepper-crusted chunks of ahi tuna coupled with pungent olives, roughage doused with a bracing dressing and a side of a bright orange, luscious sauce—delighted. And filled.
I was in a meat mood during our lunchtime visit, so I quickly settled on the steak—a grand hunk of medium-rare flesh balanced over a mound of elegant potatoes au gratin welded together by a light, delicate cheese sauce. My charming companion, meanwhile, couldn't decide what she wanted for her entrée and thus asked our student-waitress. "You haveto try the shrimp and risotto," she replied with enthusiasm. "I alwaysget it." Again, the waitress passed our rigorous test: the three shrimp were as big as prawns and grilled lightly and tenderly. It was the cylindrical cone of risotto, though, that was the true revelation. I've never favored risotto—just too bland. 50 Forks' rendition, however, was creamy without turning the rice into dairy products like so many other risotto Chernobyls. The plump, fragrant rice grains also proved a hearty companion to the house bread—a steaming, herbed loaf baked like a three-leaf clover, the better to tear into three fluffy pieces.
Okay, one more failing grade for 50 Forks: it's rather inaccessible—open only during school hours (and then only for two-hour lunch and dinner slots) and available only by appointment. And its view is the parking lot of the Art Institute—not exactly a wonderful vista. But with a sheet of three bad marks against a slew of gold stars, the 50 Forks gang deserves all the A's they undoubtedly receive. And when you walk out the door, and the rumpled maitre d' wishes you a great day, you remember what makes dining out so damn wonderful.
50 FORKS, LOCATED INSIDE THE ART INSTITUTE OF CALIFORNIA ORANGE COUNTY CAMPUS AT 3601 W. SUNFLOWER AVE., SANTA ANA, (714) 429-0918. OPEN MON.-WED., 11 A.M.-1 P.M. & 6-8 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $24-$40, EXCLUDING DRINKS. NO ALCOHOL. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.