Santa Ana Revival at the North Left

The North Left is what replaced the Crosby, which closed abruptly earlier this year in the wake of a tragic beating death that occurred outside its doors. But for all intents, the North Left is the same restaurant Phil Nisco, Chris Alfaro and Marc Yamaoka opened some six years ago, even if it doesn't look like it. Yes, the boom boxes are gone, and the tagger graffiti in the restroom has been painted over. And where there were DJ turntables, there's now a couch and an animal-skin rug. It no longer has the vibe of a rebellious teenager's bedroom. Instead, it has embraced a hunting-lodge motif that even your waitress admits is “more grown-up.” But look into its eyes and deep into its soul, and you realize the North Left is still the Crosby, the trailblazing restaurant and bar that led the way for others of its hipster kind.

The Crosby was constantly adjusting its menu and reinventing itself, so the North Left is just another evolutionary step. Aron Habiger remains the cook, still wowing you with some dishes and leaving you scratching your head with others.

But almost everything Habiger serves now seems to aim for extra-credit points. The Starving Artist grilled cheese you may remember having at the Crosby a few years ago? Gone. The simplest dish these days is the fries, served in a pail with homemade ketchup and a garlic-spiked aioli. Even here, Habiger has done something special with the potatoes; there's not a brown spot anywhere. Each spear is eerily perfect and blond. And with each bite you encounter a crispy crust that yields to an interior creaminess that's almost liquid. Curious, you ask one of the servers how they're made. He confirms what you suspected: The potatoes are par-fried, then frozen, then fried again.

The most noticeable change is in food presentation. The North Left favors wood for plating: cutting boards, chopping blocks and honest-to-goodness rounds cut from a once-living tree. The most dramatic uses are for the “share” plates that start at $36 for the chicken, $40 for the pork and $55 for the steak. The pork plate arrives on a tree cross-section with the bark still attached, resembling something you'd slide into a den of lions. Five thick pieces of loin are roasted to a snowy whiteness and served alongside a beige pile of carnitas Habiger used to stuff into his tortas. He calls it a “confit” these days, but you know carnitas when you taste it, and Habiger's is so good you wish there were some salsa to be had instead of the bourbon barbecue sauce and peach marmalade he plopped around the platter.

If you want carnitas but don't want to commit the $40, there's the boar, which is also essentially carnitas, except packed into hockey pucks, seared, and served with beans and some of the best cooked cabbage you'll ever have. Habiger also does an excellent sea bream, which resembles a camp-cooked, whole roasted fish until you realize all the bones have been removed and the head detached. The fish is served on a cutting board with sauce spirals, singed cauliflower and pickled onions.

Then there are the scallops, which Habiger cooks well but overpowers with a salty mix of chorizo and corn. He adds popcorn for texture, but that's not even the most beguiling part of the dish. He finishes by drizzling olive oil all over the chopping block. The oil is promptly absorbed by the wood and becomes nothing but a weird-looking grease spot. Another head-scratcher: Habiger carefully removes the fibrous skin from the asparagus he serves with his crispy salmon belly dish, sous-viding the spears in Wagyu beef fat for what's possibly the best asparagus of your life—but then he uses what seems like the nearly inedible asparagus skin shavings for a salad.

Habiger is faultless with other vegetables. There's a lively bowl of green garbanzo beans that sparkles with salt, garlic, chile and mint. And you won't encounter a more thoughtful mushroom dish than the one in which he smokes maitakes, sautés the scallop-like rounds of king oyster mushrooms in Wagyu beef fat, and ties the whole thing together with a shiitake espuma, a foamy wonder out of Top Chef.

But apart from the cosmetic and Habiger's ante-uping meals, what's really new at the revived restaurant is Ashley Guzman, the pastry chef, who immediately announces her Filipina roots with what's possibly the first halo-halo served in downtown Santa Ana. Yes, the Crosby may be gone, but its soul remains in this reincarnation, and with that halo-halo, it's even sweeter.


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