Amazing Lamb at Santa Ana's Bistro 400

Music to Your Palate
An amazing lamb and a side of Moldy Peaches at Bistro 400

I wasn't going to order the lamb, but when our server proclaimed it as “hands-down the best thing we do,” how could I not? Cut into meaty teardrops, the caper-and-rosemary-crusted rack was broiled to a burnt-brown exterior with a core of crimson tenderness. I dragged each cutlet through the shimmering puddle of olive oil gathered on the plate before eating it bare-handed. But our server was only half right; the lamb made my meal, but it was a song that made my night.

Specifically, it was a cover of the Moldy Peaches' “Anyone Else But You,” sung by a goateed Asian guy with a James Taylor-like delivery, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist whose face was obscured by a thick tousle of hair. Had I been at a concert, I would've held up a lighter. But this was Bistro 400, a cozy restaurant in the shadow of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in downtown Santa Ana, where the two gents had a gig that night. So instead, I sipped my drink and slouched in my chair while I digested the lamb.

This, I thought, was as perfect a Saturday evening out as I've ever had.

We started dinner earlier, in a nearly empty room, grabbing a pair of seats near the performers as they were warming up. An appetizer of Bistro 400's G bread began our meal. For the dish, hearty baguettes were sliced lengthwise, toasted with a layer of Parmesan and doused with a garlicky cream sauce. We noticed that the longer the bread soaked up the liquid, the better it tasted. It was after our second bite that the guys belted out the first of many songs, complementing every course better than anything a sommelier could ever serve.

As we moved on to our Bistro Salads, they did Sinatra. Our heads swayed to the jazzy rhythm as our mouths munched on forkfuls of balsamic-dressed baby greens, dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, almonds and feta.

But it was my date's shrimp and scallop fettuccini that temporarily brought us out of our music-induced trance. Tangled up in the noodles was the sharp, lip-tingling hotness of chiles. We knew it wasn't going to be just a boring plate of pasta—after all, this was the same kitchen that produced a searing, Cajun-rubbed sugarcane shrimp skewer we had the night before. Still, I didn't think fettuccini would make me sweat.

Yet another surprise was the creamed spinach that was completely devoid of cream. As deeply green as saag paneer and as coarse as oatmeal, the side dish ate cleanly since it wasn't laden with fat. It became the perfect partner to an unctuous, braised osso bucco smothered in tomato sauce and onions.

Though no side dish could've saved the pan-seared Delmonico steak they called the Judge that I had on a previous visit. The verdict was clear: It was guilty of being a poorly seasoned, tough piece of meat.

Thankfully, the success of the lamb and the live music exonerated the restaurant from its steak crime. All I cared about was what to have for dessert—and what song our crooner was going to sing next.

We skipped a temptingly named chocolate Vesuvius for the fried Bananas Foster, in which a banana and some cheesecake were deep-fried inside a crepe. The dessert went down like a sweet chimichanga—decadent even before it was deep-fried, but now doubly so. We ate the last of it as our duo wrapped up another set and more people started to trickle in.

The new arrivals sat on the linen-covered tables, chatted at the bar underneath the brass chandelier, and milled outside on the patio, where twinkle lights sparkled in the trees.

As they were just starting their Saturday night, we were winding down ours, leaving with a doggie bag and still humming, “You're a part-time lover and a full-time friend/The monkey on your back is the latest trend/I don't see what anyone can see in anyone else but youuuuu.”

Bistro 400, 400 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-9821; Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Check website for a schedule of acts. Dinner for two, $60-$100, food only. Full bar.

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