Photo by Jessica Calkins There's something vaguely bovine or maybe equine about the stampede of humanity that begins around 10 every night at Irvine's estimable Chanteclair Restaurant. Sensibly suited gray-haired execs and their wives finish their dinner, down one more wine glass, and hastily clear out of what's been their favorite French restaurant for the past 30 years. They're trying to avoid rubbing elbows with the masses already lining up outside, those people whom the long-timers dismiss as "those people": youthful clubbers covered in bling-bling jewelry, baroque tattoos peeking out of shirt sleeves and pant seats, everybody's head topped by unruly spiked or streaked hair. The kids ramble in a little after the 10-hour, drawn to an after-hours party kicked off by Chanteclair's unlikely new owner, Altan Aksu, famed promoter of clubs Raw and Live. The ensuing rowdiness nearly dims the sheen of the precious Zagat survey listing that has kept Chanteclair thriving in its industrial-park location.
But Aksu wants it all—his Zagat listing and his nightclub sleaze, too. Aksu purchased the place in October and proceeded with a quickie remodel, closing Chanteclair for a couple of weeks in January. It's still a work in progress, like a faded dowager's face made up for Mardi Gras. Green rope lights, the type best known for advertising a cheesy naughtiness, surround the exterior—not the best illumination choice for a serious restaurant. Inside, Aksu makes a bid for youth by doubling the size of the main bar and hanging a disco ball from the ceiling of something called the Garden Room. These touches, though, can't mask an essential remaining frumpiness from the old Chanteclair scheme that would make the Queen Mother feel right at home: reproductions of fox-hunting paintings in the bathrooms, roaring fireplaces in every room, never-read books (such as International Library of Famous Literature Volume XVII) lying around. The business execs might appreciate this design, but younger patrons merely yawn between ogling one another.
Lucky for Aksu (and business partners Philip Reynolds, Owen Gonzales and Scott Murphy), no one seems to care. The kids line up 20-deep for stiff drinks, jiggle to hip-hop spun by DJ Kid Jay, and cheer on one-time events like a recent hair-styling contest sponsored by Costa Mesa's Crew Salon.
Aksu hasn't lost the suits, either—they're the ones who book Chanteclair for evening company parties as well as the tender mercies of three-martini lunches.
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Both coffin dodger and whelp alike enjoy a sterling menu prepared by executive chef Yves Fournier, one in a long line of dazzling Chanteclair chefs that includes Pascal Olhats. Fournier maintains Chanteclair's multiyear tradition of Zagat listings with such items as his eponymous filet mignon, a dish that drips with enough blood to qualify as a Red Cross donation. Also lustrous is the steak Diane, a perfect compromise between no-frills meat fans and nuance-demanding foodies: a heady burst of beefy flavor snaps through the meat, complemented by a wonderful sauce consisting of cognac, wine, mustard and chicken broth. You figure dancers might sneak this sauce onto the floor for some lubricated fun.
Fournier also offers options for the steak contrarian: sautéed foie gras, buttered escargot and a peppy pecan salad. Take a dive into Chanteclair's seafood section and emerge with the mahi mahi, covered with a divine crust of sun-dried tomatoes and shitake mushrooms, the texture of the fish alternating between a buttery interior and a lemony béarnaise sauce. If complexity isn't your game, try the straightforward shrimp scampi, surrounded by a vegetable medley of lightly grilled peppers, cucumbers and garlic. Almost every entrée comes with a bed of garlic mashed potatoes that's heavy enough on the garlic to ward off the most fearsome plagues but still conversant enough with surf and turf to fit with every meal.
Desserts at Chanteclair can be a wonder, too. A tangy lime sorbet or a classic crème brûlée are the perfect goodnight kisses no matter where the night takes you. And the nights here are limitless, whether it's bumping with the sweaty hellions or leaving with the dinner crowd to await another day of being Masters of the Universe. The choice is yours.
CHANTECLAIR, 18912 MACARTHUR BLVD., IRVINE, (949) 752-8001; WWW.CHANTECLAIR.ORG. OPEN MON.-SAT., 11:30 A.M.-3 P.M. & 5:30-9 P.M. CALL FOR AFTER-HOUR PROMOTIONS. FULL BAR. DINNER FOR TWO, $70, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED