Do the duck
Do the duck
Jonathan Ho

Jaqu's in Huntington Beach Wants to Be Everything to Everyone—And It Just Might Be

Everything to Everybody
Memo to David Wilhelm: Jaqu’s m.o. just might have saved you from bankruptcy

Times are tough, especially for restaurateurs. Just ask David Wilhelm, who recently resigned from the company he founded. His Culinary Adventures—which boasted French 75 and other top-shelf brands—filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago, despite a proactive move in ditching his fine-dining ethos for a more mainstream bent. His Chat Noir got rebranded as Savannah and started serving down-home Southern vittles. Then, one of the French 75s was made over into a more bourgeois Wilhelm’s Chophouse. Unfortunately, with the bankruptcy, that last nugget contributed to an unintentional bit of irony: The Chophouse just shut its doors, the first to be chopped.

Need more proof of how bad it is out there? Witness the scene last month, when police officers stood guard outside Blanca, Newport Beach’s upscale crudo bar, while repo men ripped out equipment from its kitchens. They were acting on behalf of two suppliers who claimed the restaurant hadn’t sufficiently paid their bills.

With news like this, it makes one wonder how a new contender called Jaqu’s can be so confident in reworking the space vacated by Davio’s of Huntington Beach. Do they know something the Wilhelms in the biz don’t?

Their uniformed chefs work in a well-lit and well-equipped kitchen visible from the dining room. There are four sparkling plasma screens, each competing with you and a live musician for your date’s attention. Crispy lavash triangles and a sliced baguette are brought out in bowls that could pass for stained-glass masterpieces. The fancy plates and silverware would command the top spot in any bridal registry. And when you can’t possibly eat another bite, they package your leftovers in custom-made paper tote bags. They’re still a long way from one-upping Charlie Palmer (after all, Target and Popeye’s Chicken are also in the parking lot), but every cent is spent with the intent to impress.

So far, it seems to be paying off. On a recent Friday night, Jaqu’s (pronounced “Jack’s”) had a waiting list and a bar full of people. One side of the restaurant was blocked off for a private party, while the other hosted a group of twentysomethings sipping cocktails and laughing while on a girls’ night out. At the bar, guys in jeans and T-shirts eyed the women from across the room.

If there’s something to be learned from Jaqu’s busy evening, it’s this: Be everything to everybody. Pass yourself off as a fancy restaurant if you must, but be as casual and friendly as a sports bar.

Their menu reflects this strategy. Appetizers range from raw oysters to sliders. Both are offered at similar prices, but it’s the sliders that are the crowd-pleasers. Stuffed into sturdy potato-starch mini-buns with goat cheese, tomatoes, watercress, horseradish aioli and fried onion strings, the bite-sized Angus patties function as a teaser for the Kobe burger—a buttery gut bomb best eaten with the wonderful homemade potato chips.

Those who opt for the Fanny Bay oysters will find them shucked fresh, but two out of the half-dozen I tried contained shell fragments, which interrupted what should’ve been an effortless pleasure. The spinach-and-artichoke dip is more dependable, so long as you make sure no greenery gets stuck in your front teeth before you carry on with dinner conversation.

Main courses are divvied up into homemade pastas, salads and proteins. Though the pastas will satisfy the budget-conscious, instead of settling for undersalted spaghetti and meatballs, I recommend spending an extra $4 on the chicken marsala. That dish could stand up against Batali.

If your urge is to splurge, consider the steak, poultry or seafood, but skip the pancetta prawns. The grilled shrimp were too few in number, and mine were slightly overcooked. Instead, do the duck breast, a dish that rightly capitalizes on the bird’s crispy, rendered skin. Ask for the mashed potatoes and their garlic-flecked broccoli as sides, and what you’ll get is a meal that shames the duck dish at Charlie Palmer.

Best of all, you get to choose the sauce they dribble over the meat. I opted for the blood-orange reduction, but there were three others I could’ve taken. The steaks are even more customizable, with five saucing possibilities.

It’s anyone’s guess whether doing such a thing would’ve helped Wilhelm—but maybe, just maybe.

Jaqu’s, 16334 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-8328; Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$40, food only. Full bar.


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