By now you're already familiar with steam-kettle cookery. You've sat at the bar at Ritter's Steam Kettle Cooking in Santa Ana or Huntington Beach and marveled at the retro tech in which rows upon rows of small stainless-steel vessels are connected to a series of pipes and–by some miracle of science that would take Bill Nye to explain–heat is pumped into them without fire or electricity. Though novel, it's not a new concept. Other restaurants have used them to cook for nearly a century. But unless you've been to Vegas' Palace Station, where a restaurant called Oyster Bar has been simmering Cajun stews in steam kettles for years, Ritter's was your first exposure.
Now comes Kettlebar, a carbon copy of Ritter's, which is itself a carbon copy of Oyster Bar. It uses the same kind of kettles to make the same kind of Cajun/Creole stews.
It uses them not just because they're supposed to be more energy efficient than traditional cooking methods, but because the kettles are now inextricably linked with made-to-order pan roasts, jambalaya, étouffée and gumbo. Plus, they look cool.
This is actually Kettlebar's second restaurant in OC–and the first significant food tenant at the Union Market at the District in Tustin. And it might be just the kick in the pants the food hall needs to get things truly rolling. As I ate there one night, more than a couple of passers-by stopped in their tracks when they saw the kettles in action through the window. A few even went in, sidled up to the counter and ordered the most popular dish at these kinds of places: the pan roast, a silken gravy concoction of tomato and cream that always reminds me of Indian tikka masala more than it does anything New Orleansean.
You have your choice of protein, everything from the $16 base model of chicken and sausage to the $26 bowl with nothing but lobster. All start the same way: with a pat of butter thrown into the kettle with tongs, followed by the meat, a splash of brandy, then ladles of the thick, preprepared simmering sauces the chefs keep at arm's length. Seconds later, the whole thing begins to bubble and boil as though volcanic magma. If you opted for the house pan roast, a handful of snowy crabmeat gets dropped in during those last few seconds before the brew is tipped over by a lever and poured into a bowl. To finish it, your cook deposits an ice-cream-scooped dome of rice in the center and hands it to you. As you eat it, with the aromas of cayenne and paprika encircling your head, he flushes the kettles with water from a spigot and scrubs them clean with a metal scouring pad. Soon, the process starts again.
In reality, what you witness here at the counter–in this air-conditioned dining room that looks as tony as Seattle's most expensive oyster bars–is the last few glorious feet of the marathon. All the hard work and flavor was done hours before, when those base sauces were made, then honed with spices in an unseen kitchen. Still, even when the cook's function out here is as a glorified reheater, missteps happen. When I ordered the clam chowder, I strained to taste any actual clams in a soup that was mostly skin-on potatoes and bacon. But when the two twentysomething girls next to me ordered the chowder, their bowl came with actual clams still on the shell.
The best dish at Kettlebar comes from the real kitchen. The garlic noodles, twirls of spaghetti drenched in garlic-butter and tossed with a flurry of dry spices, is so good it deserves its own restaurant. You can have it upgraded with shrimp or clams for $6 more, but it's perfect just by itself, a bridge between carbonara and Chinese-Peruvian tallarín saltado.
Someone at Kettlebar also seems to know his way around a deep fryer. The soft-shell crab is flawless, with just enough breading to cover the crustacean in crispness, but not so much it muffles the meat. If you prefer land-based critters, the hot wings are also done well: fried and served rippling-hot with a dry dusting of spices that could prove caustic if you inhale them the wrong way. If only because of its intriguing-sounding squid-ink sauce, most people end up ordering the calamari. But the calamari is just calamari, and the sauce is anticlimactic. If you discount its crude-oil darkness, the flavor is indistinguishable from bottled Thai sweet-and-sour. You should instead get the beignets or the Nisqually oysters, which are especially creamy right now and a perfect foodstuff that requires no fancy steampunk gear to prepare–just something long, pointy and wonderful.
Kettlebar, 2493 Park Ave., Ste. 41, Tustin, (714) 258-8160; www.kettlebar.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. Full bar.