I was attending a wedding reception at a storied LA hotel when a chef friend and I started to talk about the food we were eating. We lamented that despite the grandeur of the venue, the entrées had the markings of food cooked en masse. The filet mignon exhibited a pallor and sponginess, without the bold, caramelized searing that makes a great piece of steak pop.
We agreed it came down to the nature of feeding a lot of people at once. Like gravity and taxes, there was no getting around it. Unless someone were insane enough to hire one chef for every patron so each order could be fired à la minute, no plate offered at a hotel banquet hall or cruise-ship dining room could ever hope to match the food served at a steakhouse, bistro, or proper restaurant.
The same applies to pre-theater, prix fixe menus. A few weeks before the wedding, I had the prix fixe meal at Silver Trumpet, the restaurant at the Wyndham at Costa Mesa. It offered a reasonably priced three-courser for $35, loosely themed that night to fit the Blue Man Group performances occurring at the Segerstrom Center across the street. But something was off with a few dishes. A rushed and an oven-warmed character marked some of the food, as though the primary goal was to get it all out quickly so the guest wouldn't miss the curtain going up. Though well-seasoned, the broccoli-and-cheddar soup seemed over-reduced to the consistency of guacamole. A classic combination of arugula, sliced pickled beets and goat cheese sang the right notes, but not in harmony—the salad would've been better if incorporated instead of separated into its constituent pieces.
Silver Trumpet at the Wyndham Orange County, silvertrumpetrestaurant.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
For a main course, no one asked me how I wanted my steak cooked; when it arrived somewhere around medium-well, it came burnished with a hardened, bitter outer crust and a chew I can only charitably describe as less than effortless. A side of roasted cauliflower and crushed tomatoes seemed disjointed from the beef, and the split green beans had gone limp. Though just a few degrees shy of overdone, the salmon had the requisite pan-seared outer crispness and came riding on a mosh pit of pastina pasta—playful, bubble-like pellets that were fun to rake up. Dessert featured ice cream with a chocolate waffle and a wonderful peanut brittle that became the highlight of the night. But after the meal, I knew I had to come back, order à la carte, and hope Silver Trumpet's prix fixe suffered because it was designed to efficiently feed the theater crowd, just as hotels need to satiate a ballroom full of wedding guests.
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Ordering off the regular dinner menu, I finally saw Silver Trumpet's food as it should be: beautiful as the windowed view overlooking a shimmering manmade lake, as well-executed as any Laguna Beach bistro and, at times, even creative. A chicken noodle soup started with a dry bowl of tooth-tender carrots, zucchini, pencil-thin asparagus, penne pasta tubes and bits of char-roasted chicken; the invigorating broth wasn't introduced until it arrived at the table, poured from a separate vessel. An appetizer of shellfish had three clams, three meaty mussels and three curled balls of shrimp in a tomato-based sauce chunky with chorizo and white beans, which made the dish more substantial than an equal portion of bouillabaisse or cioppino. Then there was the short rib bourguignon, a supple sheet of meat that blanketed a potato purée base, the beef melting on sight and becoming a dish you scoop up like stew. At once rich and delicately yielding after what I assume to be hours in a pot, the obvious question crossed my mind: why not this dish for the prix fixe? Would it not have been ready and waiting anyway?
The grilled hanger steak was also markedly better than the prix fixe cut of beef. This time, it was cooked to medium as I requested, with a sweet, smoky char I could smell even before I even took a fork to it. It was served with a potato—and not just any potato, but a crunchy-skinned, twice-baked spud that looked like a miniature tree stump waiting to burst a creamy middle imbedded with good bacon and gilded with gobs of melted Cheddar cheese. Even better was its counterweight: an arugula salad dressed with just enough vinaigrette and shaves of Parmesan that cleansed the palate for the next mouthful of meat and potatoes. This is the pre-theater dinner you should eat; the first act can wait.
This review appeared in print as "Silver Lining: Silver Trumpet is great for pre-theater meals, just stick to its regular menu."