The Hobbit Is Orange County's Precious
The Hobbit is from a dying breed, a group of the proud and expensive that once included La Vie en Rose, the Arches, and the Riviera at the Fireside—places that had their heyday when eating out was still called dining, men were required to wear dinner jackets, and the cost per person was about the same as a ticket to Disneyland. But even among those, the Hobbit is distinguished. Instead of succumbing to changing attitudes about what it meant to be a restaurant in the new century, it forged on. It even recently remodeled. The Hobbit's longevity may have something to do with its business model. It has always offered a prix fixe, even before pop-ups made them cool again. And it does so to full houses, one seating per night, five nights per week since 1972.
It makes eating at the Hobbit less like sitting down at a restaurant and more like being invited to a dinner party at an old country house. The seven courses will take up your entire evening. Don't plan anything else or bring anyone you wouldn't want to be with for four hours. It's something you plan on at least a month in advance. Not only that, but the OpenTable reservation system requires a credit-card deposit. So before you even park your car there, you've already made a significant investment.
Your evening begins around 6. As you approach with your date on your arm, co-owner Debra Philippi pulls the door open. She takes your name and has you ascend a tight flight of stairs to order a cocktail inside one of a pair of rooms, where you assume the previous occupant's children slept. Promptly at 7, an announcement is made to descend to the wine cellar, an honest-to-goodness subterranean space with wall-to-wall bottles. The purpose here is twofold: to have a pre-dinner consultation session with the sommelier and to graze the plates of hors d'oeuvres. You try to not fill up on the goose-liver pâté smeared on tiny toasts, the caviar-topped half-moons of cucumber, the molded steak tartare and shots of soup in espresso cups, but there are more than a dozen different bites, and servers keep pouring more champagne into your flute.
Just as you're on the verge of stuffing yourself, you're invited back upstairs to take a seat at an assigned table. It's in one of two dining rooms, both of which remind you of the scene inside the Haunted Mansion in which the ghosts twirl and dance at their own merry dinner party. You notice the butter has been sculpted into a rose. You pluck one of the petals, spreading it on a crusty dinner roll—a piece of bread so delectable you press a wetted thumb against the fallen crumbs.
The first entrée from chef/owner Michael Philippi is a fish course—rock shrimp and leek encased inside a tart made of phyllo. As you take your fork to it, the parcel rustles and crinkles as though it were burnt parchment, mimicking the shrimp's natural shell. Then comes some duck breast shaved thinly into silken pink slices. The meat drapes a tangle of soba, but it seems to pair better with just the chili-and-ponzu-flavored broth than the noodles. A salad with Lolla Rossa red lettuce arrives shortly after. The dew drops of sharp Roquefort dressing rest on the leaves similar to marbles on a game of Chinese checkers. But it's the oven-dried fleck of crispy prosciutto you save for last.
At this point, the clock strikes a quarter to 10. So your legs don't atrophy, there's an intermission. It allows the wait staff to reset the tables and for you to take a walk through the place. Though you are invited to tour the kitchen, no guest seems to want to venture there, nor does the kitchen staff seem to want you around. They've still got the main course to prepare.
A sorbet is offered, and then the main course arrives at a quarter past 10. Tonight, it's a filet mignon paired with various preparations of vegetables and a cheesy potato gratin. You notice the medium rare is redder than expected. And the three puddled sauces that accompany the steak—a Béarnaise, a Bordelaise and a tomato concassé—infringe into one another's territory and flavor. An alternate course of Scottish salmon can be had for a $7.25 upcharge. Though it's served atop Beluga lentils and a tangy beurre blanc, the fish is absent the crisp pan sear you almost require when you order it in a restaurant. But if the main courses on this night seem more hotel-wedding banquet than à-la-minute bistro, it's still a spared-no-expense wedding.
As you dip for a spoonful of dessert, a rich boca negra as dense as butter, you realize you've reached critical mass. You also notice no one else at your table has finished more than half. It would seem this final course is merely a formality—a signal that the huge check is coming and that it's nearly midnight. You pay the bill gladly, a little sleepy from the wine but intoxicated from the evening, the same as all guests who've dined at the Hobbit since Watergate broke.
This review appeared in print as "The Precious: The Hobbit is newly remodeled but still the same after all these years."
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