The Blind Pig: Off-Broadway
My buddy Chris and I are old-school: Instead of Twitter or Instagram, we still text food pictures to each other. Random times during the week, our phones will chime on receipt of another sumptuous food shot of what the other was eating at that very moment. My photos are usually of whatever new joint I was reviewing; his pics usually hail from a South Orange County restaurant I had no idea existed, since he lives in what I consider the county's hinterlands, a territory I rarely traverse unless he tells me there's something worth traversing it for. It was like that for Urban Kitchen and the Embarcadero, two eateries I tried only after Chris sent pictures of his meal along with his approval.
But this time, it was different. I was at a place I knew the South County-restaurant Magellan hadn't been. The Blind Pig was the new home of Joshua Han, the young talent who was previously Amar Santana's sous chef at Broadway. When I was seated, I snapped a picture of the menu and sent it to Chris. He replied immediately.
"The chorizo ravioli looks tasty. Where's that place at?" he asked.
The Blind Pig, 31431 Santa Margarita Pkwy., Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 888-0072; theblindpigoc.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $30-$80, food only. Full bar.
"Directly across the courtyard from Pizza e Vino!" I exclaimed.
"Aah! Over by the lake," he wrote back. "Good area."
"Yes! We're sitting outside with a view of the water!" I typed, realizing I was starting to sound just like a Facebook humblebrag. But it was indeed lovely. The sun had just disappeared below the trees, the warm breeze that blew past smelled of jasmine, and the remaining drops of light shimmered on the water. It was the perfect place to dine under a twilight sky. Had my date and I sat inside next to the bar on the couches, or the long communal table that cut down the middle as though it were a mess hall, we would've missed a scenic panorama I previously thought possible only in Newport or Laguna.
Then our dinner of small plates began. When the tuna tartare came, I sent a message and photo of it to Chris, except I mistyped it as "Tina" instead of "tuna."
"Ha! Tina Tartare sounds like a porn name!" quipped Chris.
I chortled and showed the message to my lovely companion. She rolled her eyes, but it was a sensual dish, with the minced pink flesh sculpted so it slinked across a crystal plate, naked save for thin ribbons of ginger-pickled carrots covering some of her parts, white pearls of puffed rice worn as though jewelry, and layers of avocado panna cotta applied as though makeup. The entire plate was thrilling: the raw tuna melting like soft-packed snow, and the puffed rice kernels crackling loudly like boots marching on gravel.
Then came the pork-belly dish that sat on rafts of well-made French toast triangles drizzled with syrup. The belly was cut into matchbox-thick pieces, crisped up and smoked to taste like the bacon it would've been destined to become. But the plate was what it was: breakfast served as dinner—and the best dish so far.
But then my gusto in texting a play-by-play of my meal began to wane. Not only was I realizing I was paying more attention to my phone than my date, but there were also fewer and fewer things to rave about. The mac and cheese relied on its micro-diced pickled-celery topping for flavor more than its cheese; and the mac itself—hollow tubes with holes large enough to put my index finger through—was undercooked, the raw flour taste still not boiled out of the pasta and its texture a few minutes shy of al dente.
When I ordered the chicken-liver mousse, I hoped it'd be akin to the liver terrines Santana did so well at Broadway. Han went a different route, slathering the pinkish-gray organ meat paste on top of a cold biscuit. I couldn't decide what I disliked more: the muddiness of the mousse or the stale denseness of the biscuit beneath it. The spot prawns served over quinoa was less disappointing, but the starch left a slightly unpleasant bitter aftertaste and wasn't helping the sweet shrimp, which were already desperately trying to shed themselves of their dull, tempura-like coating.
After seeing my output of photos and text commentary slowing, Chris volleyed with a few of his own. He was texting from Oklahoma City on business and was raving about a duck confit he just ate.
"That's more than I'd expect of OKC!" I replied to him.
"Yeah, I was impressed! :)"
I texted back. "I wish I could say the same about the Blind Pig. :("
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