Photo by Joy WeberTakes a special kind of kook to appreciate the artichoke. Sure, gourmands of yore celebrated the thistly plant for its aphrodisiacal powers: proper manners prohibited women from consuming the vegetable until Catherine de Medici professed her obsession for artichoke and thus broke through the millennium-old artichoke ceiling in the 17th century.
But most everyone else considers the artichoke the booger-eater of the vegetable kingdom. Pliny the Elder called it "one of the earth's monstrosities," and the California Department of Food and Agriculture is inclined to agree: the agency includes artichoke on its "A" list of destructive weeds that threaten California's natural habitats. The beautiful Starr Ranch Sanctuary in South County is waging a scorched-earth offensive to eradicate what its website (www.starrranch.org) describes as the "invasive plant species." And the artichoke's most enduring claim to fame among the hoi polloi, of course, is that it makes your tinkle smell funny.
But James D'Aquila doesn't care about Californian biodiversity concerns or bizarre urine scents—he loves the artichoke. And through his year-old Wild Artichoke Restaurant in Yorba Linda, he hopes to convert you too.
D'Aquila's cult of artichoke greets diners as soon as they enter the restaurant and encounter a large, impressionistic painting of an artichoke bulb lying on a table. Other artichoke paintings adorn the Wild Artichoke, illuminated with sort of soft lighting that was designed to please aging screen goddesses. Once seated, waiters soon place upon your table an alluring dip, with spinach leaves draped around steamed artichoke hearts and mixed with warm cream—a rustic but somehow regal use of the maligned vegetables. It's ideal to spread upon the accompanying bread: a fluffy herbed rye baked that morning. Even before this, D'Aquila frequently emerges from the kitchen and asks patrons how their dinners are coming along. Most don't answer—good manners still maintain that talking with your mouth bulging with bread is déclassé.
While the restaurant's motto "Food prepared from the heart, with the soul in mind" is cumbersome (it's like a New Age math problem) not to mention the wretched synthesizer-drenched racket that passes for music—all of D'Aquila's culinary creations are fabulous, simply fabulous. Start with the chicken soup, elevated beyond broth, chicken chunks, and veggies into something that could simultaneously cure a thousand colds and weeping souls. Return to the namesake artichokes, now appearing in the Artichoke Napoleon—a puff pastry in which sautéed artichokes assume the luxuriousness of truffles—or the simple Wild Artichoke salad, nothing more than artichokes tossed with various vegetables and sprinkled with bitter balsamic vinaigrette.
D'Aquila's beloved artichokes pop up in nearly every plate, either as a buttery accompaniment or as an uncooked adornment. Lori's Farfalle, for example, is a jutting pasta mass that proves why Californian cuisine deserves its pricey notoriety. Named after D'Aquila's wife and befitting her beauty, the dish features fat farfalles dancing around sliced baby artichokes, eggplants—roasted to bring out the fruit's natural smokiness—and smoked mozzarella. The sauce used to spread around it suggests touches of tomato, basil, and cream, decadence heated to a simmer.
Even better is a rosemary New York steak that shows D'Aquila's skill in adding class to simplicity. The beef itself is great—grade-A meat covered with big pepper flakes and best prepared medium-rare. While grilling the steak, D'Aquila spreads upon it a Boudreaux-derived sauce that at first tastes better suited for a glass but quickly asserts itself as the best accompaniment to meat since A-1.
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When finally presented, you might think your order was misinterpreted; burying the steak is a crop of chewy shiitake mushrooms, green beans, squash slivers, toasted artichoke leaves, and the occasional corn kernel or two. Eat the veggies with the meat, digging into the sidebar buttered mashed potato scoops (although they deserve a more refined title than mashed because their sculpted shape suggests a coral reef smuggled from the South Seas). The artichokes stand at attention to the side, content with not starring—this time.
Trust the waiters on wine selection. Sip the vintage, nibble on your entrée, and when D'Aquila emerges to check up on you, simply nod your head in gustatory approval. He'll understand and race back into the kitchen, back to his beloved artichokes.
The Wild Artichoke, 4973-A Yorba Ranch Rd., Yorba Linda, (714) 777-9646. Open Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 5 p.m.-9 p.m. www.thewildartichoke.com. Dinner for two, $30-$50, excluding drinks. Wine. All major credit cards accepted.