"I haven't forgotten that we're celebrating a birthday tonight!" our server exclaimed after we finished our dinner. He'd been extremely attentive all evening, but now he was back at our table with a surprise treat. Whatever it was, it was contained inside a big mixing bowl swaddled in a towel. Billowing white clouds spilled from the brim as though "Thunderstruck" was about to start. And when he lowered the vessel to our eye level, we saw it: bite-sized morsels of meringue floating in liquid nitrogen.
Then, the real show began. Our server fished out one of the meringues from the bowl with a slotted spoon and placed the morsel on my 5-year-old niece's open palms. "Toss it back and forth in your hands for a few seconds, and then eat it," he instructed.
She did as she was told, rocking the pink confection between her tiny fingers. When she finally put it in her mouth and started chewing, a plume of white vapor spewed from her nostrils as though they were NASA rocket boosters. She shrieked with delight. The whole table clapped. I captured the magical moment on video.
The server then went around so that all of us could get the chance to try it ourselves. And when we did, for the few seconds that the super-cooled, lightly sweet cookies caused smoke to come out of our noses, we ourselves became giddy 5-year-olds. It was, by all accounts, the most fun we've had at a South Coast Plaza restaurant—the highlight of a relaxed, informal dining experience I never thought I'd have inside the same room in which I once ate foie gras at Charlie Palmer eight years ago.
Now that it's a Holsteins Shakes & Buns—a burger-and-milkshake restaurant from a Vegas-based group that has another one like this at the Cosmopolitan—my dinner was called El Caliente, a thick burger with pickled jalapeños and crunchy chicharrones shoved into it. And to drink, instead of Sauternes with notes of apricot, I gulped a tall, icy glass of Cherry Coke. The only thing missing was a jukebox.
Though Holsteins' giant, pop-art canvases of a cartoon pig frolicking in a cow costume abolished the stuffiness of the restaurant that came before it, the new place did keep Charlie Palmer's layout pretty much the same. It preserved not only the illuminated tile catwalk near the entrance that always reminded me of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video, but also the tower of wine bottles that stretched from basement to ceiling.
Noticeably absent these days, though, was the old-money crowd. Instead, Holsteins' target market is not just South Coast Plaza's Chinese spenders who'd order the pork belly bao buns appetizers for $8.88, but also the new economy's next Mark Zuckerbergs who may have the cash for a filet mignon yet would rather go out to have a really good burger.
These burgers range from $12 to $16 for hefty patties cooked to any specified temperature, topped with everything from nori furikake to potato chips. Always included in the price: thin and reedy battered fries, which can be substituted for house-made onion rings for an upgrade fee.
There's also a decent list of salads, including a gigantic Cobb that took two of us to finish, and a mock "guacamole" that used hummus and artichokes and was served with tortilla chips so fresh and hot no one noticed the guac didn't have a trace of avocado in it.
But it wasn't until I returned for happy hour that I tried the best thing to eat with those chips: an excellent oven-baked dip that tasted exactly like Buffalo chicken wings. Also on special during that time: an exemplary poutine topped with braised beef and real cheese curds, with a stout-based gravy served on the side. I also finally discovered the alcohol-spiked milkshakes, Holsteins' most fun-filled item outside of the liquid nitrogen meringues.
They existed in flavors from Candy Cane to a fruity vegan shake made with coconut sorbet. Though you could leave out the booze, I found that the alcohol—whether it's the marshmallow vodka in the Campfire Smores shake or the Frangelico in the Nutella Crunch—was essential in cutting through the richness. The Nutella Crunch, by the way, was particularly scrumptious, one of the best "Bam-Boozled" shakes I tried. Before I knew it, I sucked up the last remaining dregs of whipped cream from the bottom of my soda-fountain glass.
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It was then that I realized how dangerous Holsteins' shakes were. It wasn't because of the alcohol (which can hardly be tasted or felt), but because all milkshakes are mostly ice cream. So no matter how young-at-heart Holsteins made me feel, those calories were still going to affix themselves somewhere permanent on my middle-aged body. Whatever: My tryout for American Ninja Warrior can wait.
Holsteins Shakes & Buns, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 352-2525; holsteinsburgers.com/orange-county. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $25-$65, food only. Full bar.