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Shell Game
Don’t let Crustacean’s glitzy reputation scare you away from the fun, inventive fare at AnQi

Let’s just say my visit to Helene An’s Crustacean in Beverly Hills was memorable for the wrong reasons. I was just out of college and wanted to impress a date with an expensive dinner when I saw the restaurant on a show called Travel Cafe. The program—produced and hosted by local news reporter Chuck Henry as an excuse to do anything but report the news—had essentially been a half-hour-long commercial for Crustacean. And it worked on me.

There was a meandering koi pond set beneath the flooring and a touted secret kitchen, which was protected behind metal—a room to which only An family members privy to the proprietary recipes have access. And then there were the name-dropped celebrities: Dennis Rodman was said to love the place, which, in retrospect, should have been my first hint of danger.

Like I said, I was young and stupid. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But after being ignored by the wait staff because we didn’t look like Hollywood casting agents or anyone of particular importance in Beverly Hills society, we left unsatisfied and poorer. My trust in Henry would be forever tarnished.

So when it was announced that Crustacean would open a restaurant called AnQi at South Coast Plaza across from Charlie Palmer’s at Bloomingdale’s, I shuddered. The first details I heard about it were less than inspiring. There would be a fashion runway, featuring pouty models decked out in costumes more apropos for Queen Amidala, which all but confirmed that this joint would be as hype-driven as its Beverly Hills predecessor (not to mention the latter Star Wars trilogy). On our food blog, I reminded people that Little Saigon was less than a few exits away on the 405.

This advice, as it turns out, was unnecessary. First of all, AnQi—with such menu items as chorizo corn dogs—is not a Vietnamese restaurant. It is minimally inspired by one. But, most important, AnQi is not Crustacean: The prices are discounted by half, and the waiters look to be dedicated professionals, not aspiring Brad Pitts looking to score their next audition.

The main difference is accessibility. The airy restaurant has a series of removable, sheer, wood panels separating it from the Bloomingdale’s hallway. During lunch, a few panels are slid open, to reveal the noodle bar. The square, exposed kitchen—with two busy cooks surrounded by stacks of metal steam baskets and boiling pots—seems out of place next to the luxe department store a few steps away.

During lunch, AnQi does serve pho, featuring the thickest slices of brisket I’ve ever seen swimming in what’s supposed to be the humblest of noodle soups, but I still wouldn’t recommend it—unless you’re amenable to the $9 price tag, that is. I’d skip the dumplings, too, not because they’re overpriced, but because they’re undercooked, with a tough, chewy skin that is too thick by half.

In fact, I say skip the noodle bar entirely and go to the real restaurant during dinner. Here, the food slowly began to erase the bad, lingering memories of my Beverly Hills meal—and also instilled hope that, despite the failures of both Yujean Kang and Martin Yan in years past, an Asian concept can work at South Coast Plaza.

To my knowledge, unlike at Crustacean, there is no secret kitchen here. Though the garlic noodles—tasting like they had been soaked in butter for hours—made the cut, Crustacean’s roasted Dungeness crab has not yet crept into AnQi’s repertoire. It is not missed. If there is a recipe that should be kept under lock and key, it is the one for the braised wagyu short rib, a glistening, unctuous hunk of premium cattle that tastes a little of the guajillo chile and soy as advertised, but mostly of good, fall-apart-tender beef. Around it, strips of charred poblano chiles assert their presence, and a crispy wasabi potato cake makes a mockery of short-order hash browns.

There’s also the chicken breast, which, prior to being seared under a brick, is done sous-vide—a cooking method you are all too familiar with if you watch Top Chef, but that here produces a delicately soft, moist white meat unlike any I’ve ever had.

Then there are the aforementioned chorizo corn dogs as an appetizer—three morsels the size of cocktail wieners with a mushy, spicy, piggy center surrounded by a deep-fried, tempura/corn-batter crust. This and another appetizer of salmon tartare—which is set on cucumbers, crowned by a quail-egg yolk mixed into the fish tableside upon service—are playful in the way they flaunt AnQi’s un-Asian-ness. Meanwhile, a quivering cut of sweet pork belly stuffed inside a pristinely steamed Chinese bread bun brings it back into the fold.

So, what would Chuck Henry and Dennis Rodman think? Well, they’d love this place, too. Not that you should care.

AnQi at Bloomingdale’s at South Coast Plaza, 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-5679; www.anqirestaurant.com. Call for hours and reservations. Appetizers, $7-$12; main entrées, $12-$32. Full bar.

 

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