"What's better: the chicken roulade from the dinner menu, or the fried chicken from the lunch menu?" I asked the Mr. G's hostess who answered the phone and took my reservation.
"The fried chicken," she answered. "Definitely the fried chicken."
When I arrived and was seated in the bistro—which, by far, has the grandest dining room on Balboa Island—I asked our server the same question and got the same answer.
"The fried chicken," she said. "Definitely the fried chicken."
In retrospect, our server might have been the same person I spoke to on the phone, but, dear readers, the fried chicken was not better than the chicken roulade.
It looked promising at first: A drumstick, a thigh, an entire wing and what looked like half a breast were huddled together at the center of one of those fancy square plates made of slate, flanked by a sculpted mound of salt, two artfully arranged wedges of lemon and a few cloves of roasted garlic. But I should've taken the pile of arugula sprinkled on top as my first clue. No good fried chicken I've ever had has ever needed arugula.
Biting into my first piece—a thigh—I realized this was not good fried chicken. While the breading—which slipped off the bird as I was transferring it to my plate—was practically a salt lick, the meat was flavorless, slightly underdone and greasy. Worse, without the breading, the chicken's worst attribute revealed itself immediately: the rubbery, floppy, unrendered skin. And in my opinion, when it comes to fried chicken, there's no greater cardinal sin.
I left the restaurant discouraged. I still had one more trip planned, and if the server/hostess was right about the fried chicken, it wasn't looking too good for Mr. G's.
Added to this was that the meatball appetizer was chewy and the apple-crisp dessert tasted as though it had been reheated. It didn't help that visions of Pirozzi's heavenly meatball and Farmhouse's marvelous hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp were still fresh in my brain.
A few days later, while looking over the menu at dinner, I told my date I was considering the filet mignon.
"You're not going to try the roulade?" she asked.
She and I both knew I had to. So I did. But when it arrived, I still had reservations. The plating was certainly pretty. It came on the same thick slab of slate as the fried chicken, decorated to the nines with edible flowers, a gorgeous dollop of squash purée and drizzles of thick-as-syrup demi jus. The chicken itself also looked striking. It was sliced into six equal-sized pieces, each meaty hunk covered by what appeared to be roasted skin rendered to the thinness of parchment.
Then I tasted it. And, dear readers, the roulade wasn't just better than the fried chicken—it was one of the best chicken dishes I've had this year. There was an understated elegance to it, something I wouldn't have expected from chicken, and it proved once and for all that this lowliest of proteins can still yield unexpected dividends if you treat it with respect and cook it properly.
It didn't matter if you prefer dark meat over white or white over dark; Mr. G's roulade was a chicken dish that possessed the best properties of both. More important, compared to the bumbling Keystone Cops execution of the fried chicken, this was a surgical military strike.
Mr. G's had other triumphs that night. The halibut—perfectly pan-seared and riding a wave of avocado mousse—came with the genius touch of cara cara orange segments to brighten it. And as soon as I saw it, I knew the tagliatelle I ordered for the table was worth the $28 investment. The bowl was practically overflowing with lump crab meat. But even without the crab and its buttery sea urchin sauce, the tape-wide noodles seemed alive, with a chew that can only come when the pasta is freshly made.
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You might be tempted from the pictures on Yelp to try the celery root soup that has a floating island of a crème fraîche espuma and the deviled eggs, which are topped with caviar. Both are fine, especially if you intend to take pictures for the review site or your own Instagram. Those dishes are quite photogenic for that purpose. You should know, however, that the burrata served on the cross section of log with grilled bread, tangerines and prosciutto may be the best Instagram-ready dish. But, above all, it's a bargain, fun to eat and the one dish aside from the roulade that you needn't ask the server about. Just order it!
Mr. G's Bistro, 305 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 675-6193; mrgsbistro.com. Open Tues.-Sun., noon-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$90, food only. Beer and wine.