Santa Ana Savoring

Jason Kordas: Friend of Bill's. Photo by Kathleen Smith

Jason Kordas has cooked for President Bill Clinton and catered events at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, but you wouldn't know it from sitting in his new restaurant. On a recent Friday night, the place was deserted. The jazz band just arrived, but after setting down their instruments next to the grand piano, the three musicians made a beeline toward the bar and didn't budge from their stools the whole night. Save for our waiter and a few busboys, there was no one to play for.

Instead, prerecorded music echoed in the cavernous room, bounced from the high ceilings and the red-brick walls, enjoyed only by us. Those who would've known about Jason's—workers in the Ronald Reagan Federal Building across the street—had hightailed it out of town at sundown, presumably to have dinner somewhere else. Such is life for Kordas' month-old eatery, at least until some people realize that evenings in downtown Santa Ana aren't as scary as they might think, or that you can have a meal here that rivals the fine-dining restaurants of Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

Shunning the "global cuisine" trend, Kordas wisely keeps disparate cultures on his plates. Hollandaise, Moroccan spices and sesame oil are used, just not together. The menu plays like a list of greatest hits, with tastes refined from his 26 years in the catering business. Call it wedding food, if you must, but Korean kalbi beef, a traditional Spanish tortilla and oysters Rockefeller function like post cards from around the world. And that's just his appetizers.

Take the Cham Lam-Thai: deep-fried ground chicken and pork wrapped around balls of shrimp and skewered on sticks to be dipped in a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce and shotgunned with crushed peanuts; the kind of hors d'oeuvre that disappears first at cocktail parties.

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His Seven Seas soup eats like a meal. Diced red tomatoes, cilantro, and enormous chunks of grilled fish and shrimp fight for wiggle room in a flavorful consommé better known elsewhere in Santa Ana as caldo siete mares. There's no doubt it's Mexican-inspired; he even offers plenty of tortilla chips to munch on between sips.

Opt for this soup instead of the rich but ordinary clam chowder. Or better yet: order Jason's signature salad, a thrilling set of Bibb lettuce, tart apples, caramelized onions and candied pecans, sucker-punched by tangy gorgonzola.

For entrées (as those on a tight wedding-banquet budget will attest), chicken is cheapest. Jason offers six choices, from a roasted breast to a rustic, fall-off-the-bone coq au vin. It's a parade of poultry, with the bastilla as the grand marshall.

Bastilla is a pie, but in the same way a Kobe beef filet is a steak. For this Moroccan favorite, in place of traditional pigeon, shredded Cornish game hen is mixed with slivered almonds and encased in a flaky, buttery crust made of phyllo dough. It's as wide as a Frisbee and thick as a romance novel. Sprinkles of sugar and cinnamon dust the top of the pastry, and after the first forkful, you're hooked. You wouldn't think you'd love something that tastes like a curried chicken turnover crossed with a churro, but trust me: you will.

Phyllo is also wrapped around the escolar, but with less finesse. The subtleties of the mild fish only revealed itself after we freed it from its crunchy corset. Salmon is naked by comparison, pan-seared to a brown and crispy crust and served with a thick puddle of lemon-zest dill sauce. The prime rib-eye steak is slathered in garlic butter.

To end your night in the city, share a carrot cake. It's an ultra-moist, not-too-sweet, four-layer stack of pulverized carrots, walnuts and pineapple, separated by a frosting made of cream cheese. The giant wedge is intimidating at first, but when you end up fighting for that last morsel, it won't be large enough. To keep things amicable, get two, or supplement it with the tuxedo cake, a tiramisù-like dessert that substitutes chocolate ganache for the cocoa, custard for the mascarpone cheese.

We did just that on our next visit, when we also found that, finally, we weren't alone—there were at least three other parties. And get this: They were eating on Jason's sidewalk patio . . . at night! Do right by their example, folks, because there's nothing to fear in downtown Santa Ana but fear itself.

Jason's Downtown Restaurant and Wine Cellar, 416 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 347-1120; Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $80, excluding drinks. Full bar.

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