The New Times
Ever try doing your job after getting socked again and again? Welcome to my week.
As many of you know—and if you haven't heard: surprise!—the Weekly has weathered muchos defections in this young year. First came the resignation of founding editor Will Swaim, quickly followed by Commie Girl Rebecca Schoenkopf and music editor Chris Ziegler. Then managing editor Ellen Griley quit; staff writer Dave Wielenga was next. Office manager Ofelia Rua. Even two interns. And just last Friday, features editors Steve Lowery and Theo Douglas decided to jump ship, along with design gods Matt Frazier and Patt Buchanan. Each left for their own reasons, namely, the start of a new alt-weekly in Long Beach. The losses will nevertheless sadden many of you, perhaps even enrage you.
Feel what you must. Write your angry letters to the (yet-to-be-named) editor. Engage in conspiracy theories. Ponder Lowery's final missive: "OK, I'm gone, I know I'll see you all around, until then Best Friends Forever, Have a Bitchen Summer, Class of '79 Rules." And when you're ready to drown your sorrows in decadence, visit Leatherby's Café Rouge.
Café Rouge comes courtesy of the Patina Group, the consortium owned by celebrity chef Joachim Splichal that's behind some of Los Angeles' finer eateries and the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel's much-esteemed Pinot Provence. The restaurant is as sleekly understated as its home, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Wood and glass are the dominant motifs in the dining room, giving Café Rouge the ambience of an art gallery. The kitchen is tastefully hidden from view; the bar is large and stocked. Soft jazz is the soundtrack, a disappointment considering the great classical pieces being performed next door.
This austerity extends into Café Rouge's menu—and that's not necessarily a good thing. There are only eight choices for entrées, along with a six-course tasting menu that consisted of different fish slices on the night I visited. If I wanted sashimi, I'd have visited a sushi restaurant. And you can find most of the entrees and appetizers —roasted chicken breast, scallops, New York steak, Caesar salad— available at any number of two-star restaurants; the only difference between those and Café Rouge being the exotic toppings and exorbitant prices.
That said, Café Rouge redeems itself with a care for intense flavor found at few other restaurants. Consider the pork belly appetizer. I fully expected a tiny cube of the fatty cut upon ordering it. I was wrong—out came two cubes, each of them rather big. The top of each cube was as crispy as bacon and glistened with the luscious fat found just below. Something called liquefied potatoes topped the dark-brown masses; though gooey, it possessed the power of a thousand spuds.
Ultimately, the pork cubes were little more than glorified chicharrones, but they were regal, allowing each layer to reveal its flavors in your mouth rather than immediately drowning you in piggy bliss. The slices of bright-orange, juicy melons on the side were the proverbial frosting on the cake—sweet upon sweet.
A similar conundrum occurred with the beef tenderloin. I tend to favor my cow as a patty or burnt into charcoal, so the appearance of an oddly brown strip of steak disturbed me. Mashed potatoes were on the side, and long-stemmed flowered broccoli were on top. It seemed like a B-grade assignment for a culinary school undergrad. Again, Café Rouge rescued itself with the flavor: verdant for the broccoli, hearty potatoes, and a tenderloin almost as succulent as liver (that's a good thing, liver haters).
Café Rouge is already succeeding, but Spichal needs to be more adventurous if he wants this restaurant to rise in Orange County's culinary atmosphere. The desserts, while delicious through and through, are surprisingly mundane. Seriously: apple crisp? Chocolate prepared three different ways? Crème brulee? When I spend a cool hundred on a meal, I don't want to end it with a taste of See's—and I like See's.
Then again, maybe I'm just grumpy while writing this. But that, too, will pass. New writers will grace our pages in the coming weeks, talented guys and gals. You'll pine for the past, and be skeptical of the Weekly'spresent and future. I don't blame you. But the show, as Café Rouge's neighbors know, must go on.
LEATHERBY'S CAFÉ ROUGE, 615 TOWN CENTER DRIVE, COSTA MESA, (714) 429-7640; OPEN 11:30 A.M.-2 P.M., DINNER, 5 P.M.-10 P.M. daily. DINNER FOR TWO, $44-$160, EXCLUDING DRINKS AND $8 FOR PARKING (EVEN WITH VALIDATION—SHEESH!) FULL BAR.
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