Champagne Curiosity

Photo by Joy BastI'm constantly looking for experiences that allow me to transcend my class. Not that I'm poor or anything: I was born solidly middle class, son of a termite exterminator, and, despite the financial limitations of a freelance lifestyle, solidly middle class I remain.

Still, I often wonder what it might be like to be rich. In that pursuit, I've sought out high-class, top-o'-the-line material goods that, with a little scrimping, still fit my budget. It used to be that dining out could satisfy this champagne curiosity. But the past few cycles of wealth concentration have dampened the appeal of dining above one's station. Once-friendly service people now size you up just like car salesmen—by the cut of your clothes or the kind of wristwatch you're wearing —and treat you accordingly. And the recent splurge in wealth—"new money," as old money likes to call it—seems to have paralleled a general decline in the quality of high-class restaurants. Those of us who've always equated money with taste aren't so sure anymore, especially judging by the success of expensive-though-mediocre restaurants that inexplicably remain popular with the Ferrari set.

Thankfully, none of this seems to be true at the Golden Truffle, certainly one of Orange County's best—and longest-standing—restaurants. The Golden Truffle's not cheap. A plebian entrée like homemade bratwurst with a ham hock and sauerkraut will set you back $14. But it will probably be the best bratwurst you've ever eaten. Macaroni and cheese is only $8, but for $10 more, they'll add truffles.

Chef/owner Alan Greeley has been dubbed a maverick by the folks at the Zagat survey—and rightfully so. Impossible to categorize, the Golden Truffle is a seafood restaurant, a French bistro, a Pacific Rim establishment with heavy Asian influence, and a down-home joint that serves up pot roast, grits and chicken livers. On the night I was there, a kangaroo steak was among the offerings.

The place is modest in size, and most of the décor is utilitarian: live seafood tanks, wine racks and display cases. One wall is hung with awards dating back to 1987, and an outdoor patio shaded by hanging plants lets you survey the traffic on Newport Boulevard.

I went alone to the Golden Truffle one Saturday evening and, as a single, expected the bum's rush. Instead, I was greeted warmly and given a seat inside near the entrance where I could survey the other diners. I expressed interest in the sweetbreads and asked if the chef would do the four-course prix fixe for one. Of course, said the kindly waiter.

First came a towering pair of handrolls in which a tempura-fried soft-shell crab lay among slices of peppers, carrots and avocado. Next was a circle of delicate sashimi swimming in fine oil and balsamic vinegar, topped with tender mache and grated ginger. I'd expressed an interest in the Presidio pinot noir, but to get me started, the waiter brought me gratis a half-glass of Leapfrogmilch, a Riesling-like white wine from the Frog's Leap vineyard.

Just when I thought this would be an evening of Asian influences, the meal took a sudden turn with pan-fried, melt-in-your-mouth sweetbreads in a delicate gravy, maybe the best I've ever had, something the spicy pinot noir complemented wonderfully. I had told the waiter I wasn't much for desserts, and he had passed this on to the chef. My final course was slices of prime angus loin steak heaped on delicious mashed potatoes in a wild mushroom gravy, capping off the best meal I've had in the past few years. Let them eat cake? Not here. I left feeling like a million bucks.

The Golden Truffle, located at 1767 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, is open for lunch, Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; and dinner, Tues.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m. (949) 645-9970. Four-course prix fixe, $45 per person. Beer and wine. Amex, MC and Visa accepted.


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