Patty the Bunny

Heather XDecades ago, my friend's father joined the Dutch army. As part of the training, each soldier had to raise a baby bunny and give it a name. My friend's father named his Cruyff, after the Ajax Amsterdam soccer-club superstar. Cruyff spent his days in a large pen with other rabbits of the unit, doing the things rabbits do.

Cruyff grew plump and furry. My friend's father groomed Cruyff, fed him, bathed him, occasionally shared a cot with him—and, one winter morning, purposefully broke the rabbit's neck with his hands. That night, the young Dutch cadet prepared rabbit stew for his fellow enlistees. It needed salt.

I remembered this story as I dined at the Wild Rabbit, a well-kept restaurant located on two levels of Costa Mesa's Back Bay Center shopping plaza. The place lured me with the promise of rabbit, a meat unfairly maligned in this country. It's not the taste of rabbit—dusky, a bit sweet and usually bathed in sumptuous sauces—that repulses people; it's the creature's cuteness. Postindustrial America has never warmed to the idea of eating mammals they could keep as pets, and so we leave the rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs and deer to ethnic and upper-crust eaters.

This is the same combination you encounter at the Wild Rabbit. The owner is Bunny Bowers—yep, her real name. Originally from Thailand, she also runs a Wild Rabbit in Redlands (since 1993) but opened her Costa Mesa eatery in February. Business is a bit slow right now, thanks to massive construction on Irvine Avenue, but regulars dine at least two and three times a week.

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Bowers designed her newest locale with the Balboa Bay Club set in mind. To enter, you must climb two flights of stairs. Inside, you sit in individual booths with flowers, mirrors and lace. Warm, low lighting casts soft shadows across the faces of visitors. Bowers—always charming, always dressed in a tuxedo—takes orders, serves wine and brings out each course. It feels like the English countryside, it does.

A casual diner may believe the menu is unimaginative, given the august surroundings. A glance initially confirms those suspicions: most of the Wild Rabbit's entrées veer between lunchtime Americana (sandwiches and hamburgers) and such supper-club standards as steak Diane, salmon Provençal and beef Wellington. But Bowers expands on these dishes without compromising their integrity. The flame-broiled pork tenderloin, classically marinated with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, also comes with a dab of sweet soy ginger sauce. She includes a bracing sweet-and-sour sauce alongside the usual honey mustard and ketchup for the sturdy, flavorful beer-battered fries.

And Bowers sneaks in some Asian-inspired appetizers amongst the calamari and fried zucchini, as well: Thai pork sausages bursting with herbs, Thai egg rolls fried to a light crunch, and a sour roughy soup with celery and tomato that has a zip reminiscent of tom kah yah. For such a small restaurant, the Wild Rabbit displays as much panache as the trendiest cooks down the coast in South County's mega-resorts.

Everything shines at the Wild Rabbit, but I will forever return for the rabbit. I munched on the Bubba Chicken sandwich on my first lunch visit: a tantalizing combination of grilled crab cake and a luscious breast of chicken. It was tasty—until I realized there was a rabbit burger on the menu. I'd never had bunny in patty form, so I decided to return for dinner.

But the rabbit burger wasn't on the dinner menu; Bowers had replaced it with a full platter of the little critters. It arrived as three long, pale, grilled strips that snaked in and out of a bed of sautéed onions, bell peppers and tomato bits. The vegetables were moist, sweet and plentiful—memorable but nothing extraordinary. No, innovation came via the rabbit: chewy and aromatic with light brushes of thyme seasoning. The soy-ginger marmalade spread across the plate's perimeter added spice.

I offered a slice to my dining partner. It was probably a mistake to have told her the story of Cruyff a few minutes before; she declined, insisting her peppercorn-crusted Australian rack of lamb was filling enough. I persisted. Finally, she knifed off a small portion of rabbit and chewed. An uneasy smile spread across her face. "Wow," she said, before adding, "Well, this guarantees I'm going to hell." We continued eating, and I muttered a quick prayer to Cruyff, apologizing for the pleasure of his flesh.


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