Photo by Jeanne RiceLegend holds that a black cat could be the devil himself in disguise or at least a necromancer's familiar. And though I cannot vouch for the veracity of such wives' tales, there is something downright satanic about Chat Noir, David Wilhelm's latest addition to his "Culinary Adventures" family of restaurants. The windowless, ebony façade with its red lighting and large pewter door handle fashioned to resemble a Siamese feline look as if they were designed by Aleister Crowley himself. The interior represents a triumph of decadence, the sort of place Mick Jagger's man of wealth and taste might choose to while away his evenings contemplating the brisk trade in souls.
The establishment is divided into three distinct areas. Stage left, a large, candle-lit lounge with an impressive black-and-red mural of jazz musicians evokes the Paris of Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt. Beyond, an immense covered patio is warmed by a huge fireplace surrounded by low couches and tables—the perfect spot for a little late-night grope.
In the middle of the building sits an open kitchen, directly behind a Grand Salon with playful Cirque-like décor. On Chat Noir's "right bank" are two maroon dining rooms with wine-colored carpeting; deep, burgundy-leather booths; and tables draped in white. A ceiling of dark, wooden beams featuring small, amber chandeliers imbues these chambers with a fuzzy, dreamlike atmosphere.
The walls sport vintage advertisements from fin-de-siècle France, continuing a theme seen in Chat Noir's logo, modeled on the famous art nouveau poster created by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen. Images of Pierrots drinking absinthe and elegant women caressing their skin with beauty creams carry over into the next room, a study in mint green. My companion and I were seated near this viridescent space in the second maroon room.
Initially, I was surprised by the menu's relative brevity and its reliance on such standards as rack of lamb, filet mignon, sea bass and so on. But what Chat Noir's bill of fare lacks in innovation, it compensates for in execution. Ordering escargot seems a bit cliché on your first visit to a new restaurant (this one opened Oct. 17), but I was glad I did: Chat Noir's snail starter is probably the best I've had in the county. Each basil-fed gastropod shared its place on the escargot dish with a langoustine and miniature chunks of Black Forest ham. The garlic butter they were bathed in was thick and rich—not at all the crusty stuff I've experienced elsewhere. I wasn't as impressed by my other appetizer: slices of smoked salmon stacked on a cylindrical potato cake with chives and crispy onions. In competition with the escargot, it waxed mediocre, I'm afraid.
But my main course of three-way duck was beyond compare. This consisted of seared canard foie gras perched atop sliced duck breast. The breast was fanned out on a leg and thigh, which in turn lay on a spread of mushrooms and roasted-potato cubes. Served in an orange-caramel dressing with Mandarin Napoleon cognac, it offered one of those rare, nearly perfect dining experiences where smell, sight and taste conspire to produce ecstasy.
A small carafe of David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir 2000 ($15) provided adequate accompaniment to the fowl, as well as to my companion's filet mignon, which came with a side of très skinny pommes frites. The filet mignon was suitably tender and savory, but the choice of sauces—béarnaise, peppercorn or Roquefort—did not meet with my beloved's approval as she detests anything creamy or spicy. We both felt it gauche to request a bottle of A-1, though that would no doubt have made the little lady as happy as Christina Aguilera with a new rhinestone thong.
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(Caveat emptor: like many high-falutin' eateries these days, Chat Noir's bottled H2O is Norwegian Voss. Voss comes in a trendy, ersatz shampoo container, but Evian, though less exotic, still tastes better.)
We ended with a dessert of profiteroles stuffed with espresso ice cream and served in a large martini glass of chocolate sauce and whipped cream. My grunts of pleasure gave way to sighs as I followed these with a "black cat," Italian Lavazza coffee spiked with Kahlua Especial and Romana Black Sambuca. Satanic or not, if they serve these in Hell, just where do I sign, Mr. Wilhelm?
Chat Noir, located at 655 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Thurs.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.-midnight. (714) 557-6647. Full bar. Dinner for two, $120, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
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