We had a wonderful meal at Charlie Palmer the other night. We had not been back for dinner in several years and were delighted and impressed with the complex and delicious creations of chef Seakyeong Kim, who took over the kitchen about two years ago.
You enter this elegant dining room across a dramatic glass bridge and are confronted with a wall of wine bottles three stories tall. Off to your right is a large lounge/bar area that is constantly abuzz (or louder).
The main dining room has a lofty ceiling, beautiful wood floors, contemporary chandeliers and tall, transparent panels adorned with images of leafless trees — altogether handsome but not at all stuffy.
We had a guest with us for dinner and decided that we would focus on the small plates so that we could get a wide range of dishes to sample. As we made our selections, we enjoyed a little amuse bouche of asparagus puree that hinted at the quality to come.
We began with very tender octopus and peewee potatoes with a pesto green grape emulsion (green in this case meant unripe), so it was tart and savory. Then there was a celery root puree, smooth as silk with sweet cream. Kalamata olives provided a final salty finish. Each element was delicious on its own but together created a symphony of flavors.
The gracious and very well-trained staff was extremely helpful in explaining in detail each of the intriguing dishes and their many components. Unlike with many chefs these days, Kim's complex array of elements in the dishes was not for showing off; each played an integral part.
Fava bean cannelloni was stuffed with pureed fava beans and ricotta salata, lazing in poultry jus with earthy morels and crispy lardons on the side and a one-hour poached egg resting on top.
We must admit that we were unfamiliar with a one-hour poached egg and were expecting something dry as shoe leather. Au contraire. It was magnifique. It is cooked in an emersion circulator at a low temperature (145.5 degrees) and comes out as a perfect egg, except that it has an unbelievably creamy texture and the yolk is still runny, so it makes a luscious sauce for the dish. It was brilliant!
Next to arrive was a squid ink risotto with shrimp and one big clam on top. The rice itself was black from the squid ink and extravagantly rich with both creamy mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses. The risotto was rimmed with a stripe of red sauce that turned out to be spicy Asian XO sauce (the XO means "extra special" and is derived from the label put on extra-old brandy).
It may have been the best risotto any of us had ever tasted.
Small, plump mussels were tender and sweet, braised in beer that had been punctuated with lemon grass and a red Thai curry sauce that provided a lively bit of heat. Grilled bread came on the side for dunking in the vibrant broth.
This feast of flavors was extended by yet another superb dish, veal sweetbread. The single giant sweetbread coated with cocoa dust was cooked to perfection and served with salty capers, a spicy puree of unripe grapes, golden raisin sauce and mustardo (spicy mustard seed and candied fruit condiment) coulis. On the side were Tuscan kale and a silky, creamy cauliflower puree.
Last but hardly least was dessert, roasted strawberry Napoleon. It was more than that. The base was a thin layer of rich brown butter cake topped with an unctuous vanilla tarragon Bavarian cream, a crunchy layer of phyllo dough enlivened with black sesame seeds, hibiscus coulis and roasted strawberries. Gilding the lily, it was served with olive oil ice cream (tastes like vanilla).
The only glitch in this delightful evening was the table of 20 young girls celebrating something very loudly on our right and a table of fellows fresh from the lounge and way more than tipsy on our left. Our very knowledgeable and helpful waitress assured us this was not the norm.
Barring the noise, I would say the meal was a plethora of riches.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 3333 Bristol St., South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa
When: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lounge open 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers: $10 to $17
Small plates: $8 to $14
Entrées: $31 to $44
Bottles: $36 to $1,585
By the glass: $8 to $35
Corkage fee: $25
Information: (714) 352-2525 or http://www.charliepalmer.com