We looked at her clam chowder, a lump of something in a large porcelain bowl, sans broth.
It was pretty, to be sure, a work of food art befitting the reputation of Bill Bracken, a chef with a résumé of five-star restaurants, the latest of which is Island Hotel (formerly Four Seasons) in Newport Beach.
But was my lovely dining partner's clam chowder edible? We couldn't distinguish clam from vegetable. And where was the damn broth? We suspiciously eyed the young waiter as he approached with a pitcher—the broth, it turned out. He poured it into the bowl and the pale lump melted.
She dipped a spoon into the bowl and sipped. “This isn't how we make chowder where I'm from,” she told the waiter (she's from distant Irvine). “But this is amazing.”
Clam chowder, like quesadillas or fried chicken, is a meal that rarely survives efforts to glam it up. But Bracken's is creamy, tingling, and redolent of ginger and other glorious secrets.
The clam chowder is an apt metaphor for Pavilion: showy to the point of ostentatious, but with the substance to warrant the flash. The dining room, for instance, a vast space heavy on the flowers, booths, snappily dressed waiters and mirrors, seems as imposing as the board room of its parent, the Irvine Company. But the waiters warmed the room with their knowledge and smiles.
The opening off-the-menu snack, a cube with a texture between cornbread and tofu, seemed like fusion run amok, topped with apple and pico de gallo bits and a dot of soy sauce on the side. Inside my mouth, the flavors—sweet, hearty, salty—comforted my palate like pancakes.
Bracken's menu is part Asian, part European and part American, but all innovation. The hard copy is designed to mimic the stanzas of a song—pretentious New Age crap, I thought. But the menu ends with a teasing threat to diners: please turn off your cell phone while he prepares soufflés. Ballsy but self-deprecating: Bracken is a good man.
After those initial hesitations, our dinner proceeded splendidly. My appetizer of pan-seared scallops came drenched in an English pea sauce that looked like something you'd see beneath the grizzled mug of an Okie in a Margaret Bourke-White photo. But the sauce features sweet, earthy nuances, wonderfully complementing the tart scallops. Only three scallops came with the serving, but the veal rib-eye was the size of an ottoman, a thick, juicy cylinder of soft meat topped with furry mushrooms. Luscious carrot and white potato chunks soaked in the Chardonnay-tinged sauce—alongside exotic Peruvian purple potatoes; their nutty skins were delightful.
I managed to steal bites from my dining partner's Thai-style snapper, moist and buffered by a pasta filled with more of those English peas, but now puréed. I wish I could remember more about the snapper, but she ate most of it and distracted me between bites with talk of canoodling afterward. By then we were both besotted by a fine dry Bordeaux.
The evening ended with Bracken's soufflé, fragrant even from across the room, with a rich taste that suggested something like two sticks of butter. We were about to sip on Fonseca port wines aged 10 and 20 years (the difference was negligible, both of them tasting wonderfully of butterscotch and oak) when my cell phone rang.
“I'm going to report you to the chef,” my dining partner laughed, as I tried to muffle the trilling Motorola with a pillow. The infernal thing finally silenced, we clinked our ports, toasted Bracken's wit and commenced the canoodling. Don't worry, chef: our noise was minimal.
PAVILION, LOCATED IN THE ISLAND HOTEL, 690 NEWPORT CENTER DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-0808. OPEN DAILY, 6:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M., 6 P.M.-10:30 P.M.; SUNDAY BRUNCH, 11 A.M.-2 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $80-$150, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.