I don't know if I've ever encountered anything in Orange County as beautifully plated as the abalone panna cotta at Anchor Hitch. It was stunning. Picture a bowl of cereal milk with four gorgeous lobes of uni hovering above it as though they were in a synchronized-swimming competition. Then imagine that showered with glistening orange orbs of salmon roe, surrounded by strategically placed leaves of green and decorated with tiny red flowers inserted so precisely into the frigid lake of jellied cream that tweezers had to be involved. Someone cared for this dish, knew that the ingredients of uni, geoduck clam and abalone—ocean treasures as coveted as ambergris—deserved a few extra minutes of primping and preening.
The first bite opened taste buds I never knew existed. In the background was the savory, almost salty panna cotta; in the foreground, the persistent crunchy chew of clam, the creaminess of sea urchin and the subtle sweetness of abalone. All of it mixed, exploded and melted in my mouth. It was then that I took stock of not only who made this dish—the bespectacled young chef working behind a glass partition directly aft of the bar—but also his mentor. If you've heard anything about chef Michael Pham, you know he once worked at LA's Providence as a protégé of Michael Cimarusti, who's arguably the most respected seafood chef on the West Coast.
I've eaten at Providence enough to conclude that Pham definitely learned the art of plating from Cimarusti. But for now, it's harder to say whether this young Padawan is really trying to emulate his Jedi master. Pham certainly knows how to cook seafood. He can bake a mean oysters Rockefeller with loads of butter without it ending up too rich or heavy. And he can properly sear albacore to whiten just the outer ring while the center remains red, raw and cold. But my impression of Pham's food was that it's designed to be more accessible than Cimarusti's.
That albacore—which he plates on a slab of sheet rock with a dramatic line of tobiko down the middle—was nothing more than a sushi-bar dish upgraded with a thick garlic-infused cream sauce as addictive as Zankou Chicken's toum. And if you order the hamachi chipotle ceviche, you'd find that it is, for all intents and purposes, really just poke. This is not to say it wasn't good. In fact, it's probably one of the best I've eaten in OC. Pham dressed his cubes in a fruity cream-based sauce that reminded me of Tahitian poisson cru, which is basically poke made with coconut milk. But if you'd ever eaten poke before the recent rice-bowl trend Pokinometry started, you'd recognize that it used to be done just as Pham does it: surrounded by wonton chips.
The salmon-skin chip and dip was yet more proof that the young chef aims to please the common man of South OC rather than members of the James Beard committee. Here, he mashed avocado into a guacamole with grapes in it, then provided paper-flat glassy sheets of baked salmon skin in lieu of tortilla chips. Though the salmon skin was excessively greasy and essentially nonexistent of flavor when I ate it with the guac, I still appreciated the germ of a great idea.
One of the most popular items is the uni pasta, a dish every Asian-fusion chef who dabbles in seafood has in his Google Docs. Though I liked it, it was more because the ramen noodles had a fantastic chewiness, and less because the uni gravy was soupy rather than saucy.
If you're a baller who doesn't so much care about cost, there's a $120 seafood tower, but to order it in a food hall at a sedate suburban mall seems inappropriately spendy, especially if you didn't arrive in a stretch limo. The rest of us should ask the waiter if there are specials on the oysters, which get discounted by half when Pham's trying to clear out his inventory. One night, I was lucky to score half a dozen mineral-rich Shigokus from Washington for $8.
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Pham's best dish was his tom yum agnoletti, a plate of ravioli patiently stuffed with shrimp, covered in a cream sauce that had whiffs of lemongrass, and topped with a head of foam that would've had Cimarusti shed proud Top Chef tears. It's perfect in every detail: texture, flavor, presentation and originality. If cooking prowess is the same as the Force, then this dish was Pham lifting the X-Wing out of the swamp.
Anchor Hitch, 27741 Crown Valley Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (626) 757-3471; eatanchorhitch.com. Open daily, 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.