You can't blame David Wilhelm for being proactive. With OC's once-meteoric housing market in a slump and its citizenry mired in rising debt, the restaurant mogul—the closest we get to Wolfgang Puck—had to make some changes quickly. His repertoire of upscale restaurants needed an overhaul amid the shrinking of wallets and declining sales. The verdict from hired-gun marketers and focus groups: make it less upscale. Or at the very least, re-brand so it doesn't seem so expensive, so uppity, so "special occasion," so . . . French.
Wilhelm heeded their suggestions. At least two of his French 75 restaurants will drop the damning prefix to become Bistro 75. And Chat Noir, the most thematically Gallic of his restaurants, recently met a quick end worthy of Marie Antoinette. Stripped from its perch as the crown jewel of Wilhelm's properties, it has been rechristened the Savannah Supper Club, in reverence to his more successful (and more American) Savannah Chop House.
Although the sultry, much-revered Moulin Rouge interior-design scheme endures, almost everything on its dossier that's pronounced with an accent got a close-up view of the guillotine. Along with former head chef Yvonne Goetz (who defected long ago to helm a new restaurant at the District in Tustin), the burgundy escargots and the gratin dauphinois are history. In their place are fried oysters and mac and cheese. The ax for Chat Noir's crispy frog's legs came equally swiftly, the thinking being that no true, red-blooded American would order that over Savannah's lobster fritters.
The Lousiana crab cakes, though, should've been on the menu all along. An example to which all crab cakes must aspire, this new item features a thin-as-floss, crispy-fried cornmeal crust that surrenders with a nudge to reveal an abundant treasure trove of creamy crab meat.
Some of the menu updates teeter on the absurd, almost as if they came from the flag-waving "freedom fries" side of the aisle. What was once "steak au poivre" now goes under the moniker "10-ounce prime flatiron steak," doused with a peppercorn sauce made from no less than Laird's AppleJack, an All-American apple brandy produced in New Jersey and sipped by none other than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. What happened to the cognac? You're a traitor for asking. Of course, the dish comes with fries now, not pommes frites.
They were lazier in rehashing the "plateau de fruits de mer." It's been anointed as "The American Seafood Tower," but all the components are identical, down to the champagne Mignonette and Louis sauces.
Other items were given a reprieve and left to exist without a focus-grouped pseudonym. Some even got an upgrade. The caesar salad, an invention first conjured in Tijuana (ah, that explains why it was spared), is now grilled, the licking flames wilting the whole leaves of romaine with a slight scorching. The stalks still crunch as they should, while a drizzle of bacon grease, splashes of balsamic, roasted pumpkin seeds and a tomato relish replace the typically insipid dressing and ho-hum croutons.
Chat Noir's roster of steaks, previously modest with four filet mignon options, is now crammed with more red-meat choices in true American fashion. Two filets remain, joined by chops, barbecue pork ribs, New York sirloin, even a cheeseburger. The smoked, sea salt-roasted prime rib is the most welcome addition: an enormous slab served bloody but not bleeding, with au jus (yes, they still call it that), a horseradish-infused whipped cream and mashed potatoes.
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Their pepper-crusted rare ahi steak—overly brown, unattractive, with a gummy risotto and a muddled port-wine jus—would've done better with a daintier (dare I say French?) touch in its presentation.
Order the special duck course, though, and you'll discover an unapologetically rustic French supper. This is the perennial Wilhelm staple of duck three ways, an entrée presented in a linear progression from the overcooked to the raw. There's a confit of leg, some rare slices of breast and a blubbery seared nugget of foie gras. At Savannah, this dish and the high prices persist, proving the adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Need more evidence? The chocolate soufflé is still around, its title untouched by marketers. I guess "American poofy chocolate cake" just doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi.
The Savannah Supper Club, 655 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6647; www.culinaryadventures.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Sun., 4-8 p.m. Dinner for two, $100, excluding drinks. Full bar.