Have you ever noticed that South Coast Plaza’s Nordstrom wing has a distinctive aroma of freshly pressed linen? To me, it smells like opulence and wealth. It is in this rarefied air that a new, highly anticipated French restaurant takes residence in Marche Moderne’s old spot on the highest floor. As with all French restaurants before it, Knife Pleat comes with a pedigreed chef whose training and experience can be traced to other famous French chefs as though he were a prince on the United Kingdom’s royal family tree.
Chef Tony Esnault is a protégé of Alain Ducasse, who I discovered was an apprentice for Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine. I’m sure if I went back far enough on the time line, it will eventually lead to Escoffier. But Esnault is a seasoned pro. Read any profile, and you’ll know about the Michelin stars he earned with Ducasse as well as his successes in LA with Spring and Church & State, he and wife Yassmin Sarmadi’s most recent restaurant endeavors. Both made Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants List. Spring placed sixth.
It was natural he’d end up in the most exclusive wing of the toniest mall in Orange County. About the only surprise was that he decided to name his restaurant after a fashion term, not himself. He certainly could’ve gotten away with it. His next-door neighbors are his fashion muses Christian Louboutin and Oscar de la Renta; in both stores, the less you see on the shelves, the more you pay. Esnault’s restaurant is their food analog.
When I ordered one of his signature plates, a so-called “vegetable mosaic,” it resembled something that had been prodded and preened for the catwalk. It was almost too artsy to eat—a perfect circle of color made up of tomato, zucchini, watermelon radish, kohlrabi, green bean and carrot. Beneath the precisely cubed vegetables was mashed eggplant. Surrounding it were dribbles of herb vinaigrette and porous flecks of rye chips so impossibly delicate it would be futile to try to use them as scoops. But as I ate it, I was a little disappointed. It’s not that each component of the mosaic wasn’t perfectly cooked; it was. It’s just that what my mouth tasted didn’t reconcile with what my eyes saw. Instead, what I got was effectively a $19 side dish that reminded me of baba ghanoush, minus the pita bread.
An even bigger sticker shock came with the langoustine, which I thought was already exorbitant at $32 for an appetizer. This was before I realized that the edible parts of the shellfish consisted of only two tails, each no bigger than a cocktail-sized jumbo shrimp. Admittedly, the quality of the meat was top-notch. It was like a lobster with all the sweetness but none of the rubberiness. And the foamy coconut-and-lemongrass espuma was lovely. So were the mangos carefully threaded through decorative holes on the radish and cucumber. None of it, however, could keep me from trying to suck the head as though it were a Cajun crawfish in a vain attempt to justify the price I paid.
When Esnault’s main courses came out, these quibbles slowly disappeared. The branzino was a bona-fide meal, complete with fingerling potatoes as starch and a tomato-and-yellow-bell-pepper sauté that accompanied a good portion of a pan-seared, crispy-skinned fish. It was a great dish prepared well, an upscale version of escabeche. But it was also a good deal as it cost a mere $2 more than the langoustine appetizer.
The most impressive entrée, however, was the Crescent Duck. The dish featured two distinct preparations of the water fowl: The breast, cooked rare, wiggled like a water balloon, and the leg confit was engineered into a compressed, boneless rectangle of shredded meat topped with a layer of the skin. Around it, Esnault placed dots of sauce and the fruitiest-tasting cherries I’ve ever eaten. Both countered the duck’s richness, as did the bitter Swiss chard, rhubarb and turnips. I looked around at my fellow diners on the al fresco patio and decided it was bad form to lick the plate.
As I moved on to dessert—a big bowl of vanilla panna cotta topped with a transcendent passion-fruit coulis—I noticed some customers were celebrating birthdays. The rest were just here for another meal out on the town. I wondered quietly if they were nose-blind to that fragrance I noticed earlier. Or have they already taken for granted that South Coast Plaza doesn’t reek of Cinnabon or Auntie Anne’s like other malls, where the only French thing you can get is McDonald’s fries?
Knife Pleat, 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 852-3974; knifepleat.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 5:30-8:30 p.m. Appetizers, $15-$32; entrées, $28-$58. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.