Anaheim, California, tasted on May 4, 2004 — A trip to
Southern California with the kids does not afford many opportunities
for higher end dining. That doesn't mean that you can't get high
quality low end food, just that you're usually restricted to that
end of the spectrum. On this night however we got babysitters. The
fact that we were willing to leave our children with a babysitter
who we'd never met and was recommended by the hotel sitting service
indicates one of two things. Either our cavalier attitude towards
the welfare of our children, or our singular focus on getting as
many high quality dining experiences as possible. And of course,
it's possible it indicated both.
Aubergine, located in Anaheim not too far from where we were
staying, came highly recommended and that's where we went.
I really do hate to be late for a reservation. I
feel that it's rude. While I've never worked at a restaurant it's clear
to me after many years of observing them that trying to keep people
moving through the dining room at a leisurely pace while making sure all
the seats are filled as often as possible is an incredibly difficult
task. It's made all the more difficult when customers are not too
concerned about when they arrive (or even if they show up at all). It's
even worse when you're the last reservation of the night as you ended up
being the long pole for everyone working in the restaurant. Every minute
you're late is another minute they have to stay that night. And sure
enough we arrived at Aubergine five minutes late. Believe me, even
though it was only five minutes I felt bad. We'd been driving around the
area trying to find the restaurant and had trouble locating it. And when
we walked in the first thing I did was apologize.
Normally I really don't mention service much when I
write. And the truth is because I'm willing to put up with almost any
level of service if the food is really really good. It's when the food
is bad that all of a sudden I start to notice things like service,
price, decor, etc. But quality of food is really 95% of what I care
about. And yet, the reaction of the hostess to our arrival does bear
mention. She listens to my apology and then gives us a super long super
snotty look while she looks at her watch and then looks back at us. We
even got a couple of lecturing words on being late.
I have to take a moment to ask, what was the point of
this? I understand if they wanted to be hardcore and say that we'd
missed our opportunity. I might think it an extreme reaction to being
five minutes late, but I would understand they were following their
rules. But in fact, the seated us and served us. So what was the point
of the lecture and shitty look? I think it was just to try and make us
feel bad, which as you know is really the way you want to start off a
meal. It's not like we weren't contrite about being late. I understand
them either serving us or not serving us, but having the hostess trying
to make us feel bad seemed unnecessary. And frankly, given how nice
everyone else was to us the rest of the evening, I'm going to assume she
was an anomaly. A mean-spirited, small-minded anomaly. And to be fair,
maybe she was just having a super crappy day. Still, it made an
impression. OK. Enough of that. Now on to more important things, like
Things started off with an amuse of
Blood Orange and Foie Gras Terrine with Aged Balsamic. This was a
fantastic start to the meal. The gelee had a deep caramel focused dark
blood orange flavor spiked with three gorgeous stripes of nutty, rich,
deeply flavored foie gras. The balsamic had a deep flavor as well but
was almost light compared to the blood orange and foie gras flavors.
Very nice acids in this dish. I barely even noticed the distracting
frisee cause everything else was so good. (Though, while we're on the
topic, why does anyone who can make a terrine as wonderful as this one
feel the need to "adorn" it with a blob of frisee? I blame customers who
think that if they see food that looks spare and simple they think
they're getting ripped off.)
A small dish of
Crab Salad followed. It was super light with some tones of fresh
citrus. Everything was super clean tasting and enjoyable. A nice
contrast from the terrine. The other crab we had was also delicious. A
Crab Cake which was not the least bit heavy and had a tiny kick on
the finish. Our alternative
Foie Gras (this time sauteed) was also very enjoyable and well
After our crab and foie gras courses we moved on to a
Corn Soup. The lovely sweet flavor of the corn was accented by smoky
bacon. Essentially perfect. It helped that there was a small pile of
niblets and other additional goodness.
I thought I knew where we were, but then came the
Seafood Stew. I often don't view chefs who flit from one culinary
tradition to another as adventurous... typically their food comes off as
random. However when the seafood stew with its Thai and Southern Indian
flavors came out I was surprised but pleased. The spice, cilantro, and
coconut flavors were delicate and super present and generally very
enjoyable. So who cares that we shifted gears... the dish was excellent.
Kira aren't big fans of sweet breads. I think
it's sort of a traditional aversion to non-traditional meats. And it's
not like I'm the offal master so I'm not in a huge position to judge.
That said, for whatever reason, I do love well-prepared
sweet breads and these were goregeous. Resting on some lovely lima
beans, there was a fine grain seasoning on the surface of the sweet
breads. The dish was super savory with a super juicy inside as well.
Even Kira enjoyed it.
Rabbit (with its little bones sticking out) was great. It had a
smokey flavor permeating the juicy and delicate meat. The foie gras
pastilla added extra smoke flavor. The crunchy shell of the pastilla was
also enjoyable texture-wise.
Pork was fine but not super interesting. That said the polenta had a
nice cheesy flavor and the bacony cubes were great. It's difficult to
find a dish with a nice cheesy starch and cubes of bacon that I'm not
going to find a way to enjoy. The
however, was excellent. It had a peppery flavor and was cooked well. Not chewy
like some lobster can be.
The crunchy vegetables were a nice complement. We were stuffed, but
managed to pound our way through some
yummy desserts as well.
All in all (weird watch incident aside) we had a pretty
great meal at Aubergine. There are a lot of restaurants doing this style
of food in the U.S. right now. Haute cuisine with the regional American
touch. And frankly, it can be hard to stand out. But Aubergine wormed
its way into our hearts in its own quiet way. They didn't have to use
any crazy ingredients, or pull any tricks, they just focused on making
each dish super high quality with deep flavor. And that's really all
anyone can ask for.
It turns out that this is a bit too late (an unfortunate
side effect of the delay we've had in posting reviews).
Aubergine is being sold, but the owners are opening a new
restaurant. Perhaps the owners will bring what we found enjoyable about
Aubergine to their new venture.