To me, Gemmell's is . . . well, Lillian Gish. I know this sounds odd, particularly since Byron Gemmell does not personally seem at all Gish-like, but somehow his restaurant is, like that pearl of the screen, dainty, shrewd, faintly frail, deservedly confident and a tiny bit oblivious, as if it had spent decade after decade aging gracefully.
This is an unusual impression for a restaurant to give, particularly when the staff is--on the whole-- fairly young for a major restaurant. It must be due in part to the look of the place. Like many other restaurants, Gemmell's is designed to suggest the dining room of a French home, but somehow it's neither cozy nor glitzy. The wallpaper is pearly and understated, and the proportions of the room seem old-fashioned, maybe an inch or two smaller in dimensions than you expect.
It feels very much like the formal dining room in a real home, probably an old ancestral property that is being kept up out of family tradition. I get the feeling that a surprising number of things might rattle if I hit the wall.
This style must reflect a great deal of self-assurance on Byron Gemmell's part. You might also conclude that this guy is sure of himself from the sign outside: Cuisine Unique. It's not a very informative sign, though. What could Cuisine Unique be? Is it wildly experimental? Do the entrees come in boats carved out of pumpkins?
It turns out to be remarkably conservative. This kitchen likes to serve things on beds of spinach and make mousse out of vegetables. It likes to make pommes souffles, those elaborately achieved hollow potato chips--likes them enough to serve them with every entree. Terrines are accompanied by chopped aspic, little sour gherkins and pickled onions. Tomatoes are peeled before they're added to a salad, and the whole thing is sprinkled with fragments of truffle.
The kitchen likes foie gras, and one of the best appetizers is foie gras wrapped in a lightly browned cabbage leaf, wonderfully buttery goose liver (with no sauce; nothing else on the plate but a little mound of salt and a little mound of pepper). Another appetizer is scallops in puff paste with a very attractive wine and cream sauce. There is also usually another puff paste appetizer in the same style as a daily special.
The very best of the appetizers, hands down, is the salmon smoked on the premises. A tiny bit on the salty side, it has a very pleasing texture and an impressive smokiness. I could easily make a meal of nothing else.
Several of the entrees mention fruit or sweet wine in their names, and ordinarily this is where you would expect to find a restaurateur staking his claim to cuisine unique. The uniqueness here is how understated in every case the fruit element is. Chicken with raspberry (served at lunch) is a deboned drumstick stuffed with forcemeat and a bit of rice--nothing shocking here--and served in a thick meat glaze. The raspberry element, apart from the single raspberry that sits atop the drumstick, is remarkably underplayed, amounting to a pleasant tartness in the sauce and an extremely subtle raspberry aroma.
Pork noisettes come with baked pear slices (on the tart side) and meat glaze flavored with pear brandy, in a similarly chaste style. The best of the entrees is homard au sauterne, evidently a sweet sauterne this time--whether it was a French sauternes I can't say, but it is a very attractive sauce and despite its bit of sweetness, not something that would shock Escoffier.
And so the menu goes. Squab on noodles with a butter-enriched meat glaze flavored with basil, breast of capon topped with more foie gras, veal scallops in cream sauce with Grand Marnier and white grapes. All excellent, a little lighter than the traditional haute cuisine (no flour-thickened sauces) but basically solid, conservative haute cuisine as interpreted by a very talented chef who is not just going through the motions. I wish he would either get rid of that sign or think of something a little more specific than Cuisine Unique for this attractive and, in its subtle way, quite stylish cooking.
The only complaint I've ever had about the food here is the inconsistent attitude toward salt--just about none in cream of broccoli soup and maybe a shade too much in the pureed potato. I have a serious complaint about the service, though. The waiters are oblivious to you, and it's unusually hard to get their attention. I don't think I've ever seen so many waiters' backs.
This is a high-ticket room. Appetizers and salads run $5.50-$14, entrees $16-$28 and desserts $4-$5.50. At lunch, appetizers and salads are $5-$7.50 (not counting a seafood salad at $9) and entrees (on the light side, including several omelettes) are $7.50-$12.
3000 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner Monday through Saturday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.