Culinary Giant Charlie Palmer Fires Up the Burner at His First California Restaurant

Recession? What Recession?
Charlie Palmer fires the burner at South Coast Plaza

If there's a barometer to gauge when not to open a credit-limit-breaching, forget-the-mortgage kind of restaurant, Charlie Palmer has chosen to ignore it. The man—a culinary giant among giants—already has three restaurants in New York, two in Las Vegas, and now even a planned luxury hotel. So while it may seem foolhardy that he's opening his first California venture at South Coast Plaza as other businesses fold and consumers clamp down on unnecessary spending, Palmer forges ahead. After all, God doesn't sweat what happens on the anthill.

One step into his sleek eatery, which is set inside Bloomingdale's, and you're convinced the place and its clientele are recession-proof. Swing open the heavy glass doors emblazoned with his initials and look down to see a floor illuminated like a fashion runway catwalk. Look up, and your eyes follow a vertigo-inducing tower of wine bottles that reaches from the cellar to the ceiling.

Then there's the service. Although they hand you a tablet PC (yes, a freakin' computer) with a searchable wine list, a well-coifed sommelier still comes around to offer his services. Not counting him, a total of three different staff members attend to you throughout the meal. The first is your server, the person you actually order from. Then there's the guy whose job it is to offer you bread at regular intervals. The most attentive employee, however, is the gentleman who pours water and keeps your table spotless between courses. Leave behind a crumpled napkin, and he replaces it with one that's pressed and folded. Drip sauce on the linen, and he comes bounding out with a cloth to cover the stain.

Before the meal begins, there's a complimentary amuse bouche. On this particular night, it's a blue-cheese custard with a stone-fruit preserve—three ingredients that no sane cook would think to utter in the same breath, let alone mix together in a shot glass. But surprise! Who knew that the salty, the sweet, the sour and the funky could meld into such an electrifying mouthful?

For a first course, you see choices ranging from a $10 watercress-and-wax-bean salad to a $24 Hudson Valley foie gras. But somewhere in the middle, the crisp pork belly begs to be ordered. The dish is unapologetically literal. You are given three rectangular slabs of lukewarm pork fat, each jiggly and dense with a stripe of rind rendered as crunchy as a kettle-cooked potato chip. Beating back the richness are tiny cubes of warmed melon, pickled onions and aged sherry vinegar, but no one's kidding anybody—you're still eating pure pig blubber, a thrill that leaves you buzzed from its dietary recklessness.

Then you move on to the main courses. Their buttery opah is enormous, drawing a dollop of edamame purée that reminds you of Gerber-brand mashed peas. The Pacific sea bass gets a soy-flavored broth and a tart puddle of milled fruit. But it doesn't distract from the fish's best quality: the shimmering, papery crispness of its skin.

Duck breast is seared, served bloody-rare in thick stumps, and drizzled with a dark, sweet reduction as sugary and sticky as syrup. Just as tender, but less gamy, is the flatiron steak, which sits on two sauces designed just for it: a ginger jus and a rich, brown liquid made from the beef drippings. Both complement a cut of meat that's as effortless to slice as it is to chew.

Being the type of restaurant it is, starches and veggies are, of course, only offered à la carte. Some are more successful than others. The spinach is immaculate, clipped of its fibrous stems and flavored with a light touch of parmesan. But the fried rice is a gummy, unattractive mess that, on one visit, tasted inexplicably of freezer burn.

For dessert, you may gravitate toward the praline tart, which is not a tart at all, but rather one of those dessert “deconstructions.” The praline exists in crumbles, disembodied and disconnected from a cookie that would've been its pie crust. It's joined by other unrelated components, such as fudge, a honeycomb, ice cream and the smallest bananas you've ever seen. Even those who cannot easily afford dinner at Charlie Palmer would probably hail the $10 dish as a work of creative genius.

Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's, South Coast Plaza, 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 352-2525; Open for lunch Mon.-Sun., 11:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $75-$100, food only. Full bar.

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