The place is owned by a chain of Mexican restaurants, but it looks like an Olde English tavern (waitresses in mobcaps) crossed with a steakhouse (lots of brass railings) and maybe a little bit of fern bar. So now what? So now its kitchen hires Claude Koeberle, formerly of Les Anges in Santa Monica and the 30th Street Bistro in Newport Beach, as consultant on what has become a weekly changing menu.
OK, listen carefully. Imagine the El Cholo chain's newborn beacon of nouvelle cuisine in a remote corner of La Habra, about eight blocks from the county line. It's a mighty peculiar location for an ambitious restaurant, particularly one that has taken such an unexpected turn as the Cat and the Custard Cup, which, if memory serves, used to be known for Aylesbury Duckling and Yorkshire Filet Tidbits.
There is a price for the Cat and the Custard Cup's history and location, and it is that C&CC sometimes dares not to have the courage of its new convictions. One day at lunch my waitress guardedly warned me that the Cajun sausage was, uh-oh, spicy. In fact it was pretty mild, served in a light and fresh-tasting sauce of meat glaze mixed with diced raw tomatoes, and I figured she must have just faced a customer who found the whole thing quite savage.
The appetizers--formerly known as the "Fore Dishes"--tend to change less than the rest of the weekly menu, and some of the olde C&CC Fore Dishes are still there, such as bibb lettuce salad and cream of sorrel soup. To get a sense of how much things have changed, though, look at the best appetizer of last week's menu: \o7 pancetta \f7 and \o7 shiitake \f7 salad. It was really delightful: warm, unsmoked bacon mixed with marinated mushrooms in a light vinaigrette on sweet and tender lettuces.
One of the regular appetizers that seems to remain from menu to menu is a delicious and extremely rich chunk of goat cheese fried in almond breading and served with a buttery sauce of sweet sun-dried tomatoes. This particular item might not be unusual by Newport Beach standards, but once in a while there's a real moonwalk--such as figs in raspberry sauce with prosciutto in a dill cream dressing and walnuts on the side. I must say I found it extremely peculiar, but in a strange way the sweet/salty contrast of the raspberry and the ham worked, though I have reservations about the dill.
The rest of the appetizers tend to be a good bit safer, like salmon (smoked on the premises) with a sweet mustard dill sauce. The soups are a definite weak point, the cream soups being positively bland and the onion soup merely the usual American restaurant variety, namely a sort of melted cheese sandwich (Swiss and mozzarella) floating on beef broth with a couple of onions in it.
The changing weekly entrees have included a very good lamb filet in mild tomato cream sauce made more interesting with the bitter-sweetness of dried ancho peppers. Another good one was filet of beef with crisp, unbreaded fried onions, essentially that classic Danish dish \o7 bof med log, \f7 long a specialty of Los Angeles' Scandia. A mild dish of duck with apple slices came sprinkled with red peppercorns (one of the few cases when I've positively enjoyed that peculiar spice). Chicken breast in a mild red bell pepper cream sauce came on surprisingly satiny fresh fettuccine.
I see I keep using words like \o7 mild\f7 . Some of the entrees, like some of the appetizers, have been closer to bland, to my taste--the salmon in a "red pepper pesto" and the shrimp with spinach and saffron butter were scarcely in a sauce at all. I suppose Rome wasn't built in a day, nor Aylesbury torn down.
Still, any shortcoming is forgiven at dessert. I was positively staggered by the rich rum-raisin sauce that came with a thin-sliced apple tart on a thin pastry crust. They should try this on bread pudding, if La Habra will catch onto the current bread pudding rage. There have been some exquisite chocolate desserts: an elaborate crown of sponge cake filled with chocolate mousse; a chocolate charlotte made with what must be fresh ladyfingers, spongy and faintly crunchy with sugar crystals.
The homemade ice cream varieties have included an intriguing chocolate chip, which was flavored, though strictly non-alcoholic in itself, with Jack Daniels. The only one of the desserts that misses for me is the \o7 creme brulee. \f7 I've had it twice, and both times it was runny--technically a sort of \o7 creme anglaise brulee, \f7 if you follow my drift.
This is becoming a chef's restaurant. The chef, Roberto Chavez, has his name proudly on the menu, as does the very promising dessert chef, Lorie Worrel.
\o7 The Cat and the Custard Cup, 800 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra; (714) 992-6496 or (213) 694-3812. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner daily. Full bar. Parking in lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$65.