A funny thing happened on the way to the rave review I was putting together on Bistango, the new restaurant in Irvine. I went back.
Bistango is the latest restaurant to join the crop of visual stunners that have been springing up in Orange County (Prego, El Torito Grill and the like). For my money, this is the most beautiful of the bunch.
The design borders on brilliant, with sleek, high-tech lines that extend space effortlessly, a deliciously low trompe l'oeil ceiling paneled with what appears to be inverted gray plastic lounge chairs, a gorgeous bar fashioned from an immense, impeccably polished slab of blue-gray granite and enough chic furniture to fill a showroom in Milan. Full credit goes to Michael Carapetian, a London-based architect with offices in Los Angeles. This is his first local restaurant, and it's an auspicious debut.
It also doesn't hurt that the restaurant is on the ground level of an office building that calls itself "The Atrium," one of those John Portman clones with artistic intentions, seemingly to dwarf the Grand Canyon. Walking into the building's vast lobby (which the restaurant's patio faces) is almost a religious experience.
So far, so good. The initial impression may have impaired my judgment, but I have to say that nearly everything went well on the first visit. As soon as my party was seated, complimentary champagne was offered in celebration of the holiday season, and the striking menu (the front cover is a photo of that amazing ceiling) was brought. The waiter, a young, punkish type who looked as if he had been plucked right out of a frat house, obviously lacked experience, but his enthusiasm more than made up for it. Even chef Eugenio Martignago's cuisine, while nowhere near as grandiose as the surroundings, seemed delightfully original and intelligently conceived.
We began with three appetizers: sauteed crab cakes with pink grapefruit and mache lettuce, homemade duck sausage with polenta and sun-dried tomatoes and a carpaccio of veal and beef with arrugula and Parmesan. All three were right on the money. The duck sausage was juicy and fragrant with spices, well balanced by a crispy square of polenta which, for once, was neither too mushy nor too hard. Carpaccio came out ice cold, almost like sashimi in a fancy Japanese restaurant, and the crab cakes were served sizzling hot, beautifully offset by the salad and the pink grapefruit.
Our pasta course was delightful. Linguine with clams had the added bonus of curried oysters, still in the shell. Tender half-moon ravioli were stuffed with sweet minced chicken and leeks and served in a rich reduction of cream with sun-dried tomatoes; these had Oriental overtones reminiscent of dim sum .
Things faltered ever so slightly when the main dishes arrived. The John Dory was interestingly topped with papaya and pine nuts, but an above-average lamb loin came sitting on soggy parsley pancakes.
Desserts were all a delight (the pastry chef here is truly accomplished), and the three of us left the restaurant glowing with satisfaction.
But things were different three nights later, on a Saturday. We felt it the minute we walked in the door. No one greeted us with smiles, and we had to walk to the dining area and track down the maitre d' before we got a table. The waitress was confused, befuddled and unable to answer the smallest question about the food. Even worse, she seemed incapable of getting the food out of the kitchen before it was completely cold. Our duck sausage pizza was the only dish that came to the table hot.
Pappardelle with lamb sauce and wild mushrooms had a gluey sauce that stuck the pasta together. Norwegian salmon with a wonderful corn risotto and grilled shrimp with Pommery mustard and poblano chili relleno may have been good, but who could tell? They were just too cold to have much taste.
Main courses, like Perhaps our waitress was not entirely to blame. How well could you move around in a busy restaurant with high heels and a tight-fitting, highly suggestive uniform? Look around the room and you will see that despite the progressive cuisine, Bistango remains backward on a few social points.
Bistango is a new restaurant, and no one expects instant perfection. But I'd like to know how investors can pour so much money into a restaurant and then turn their backs on inconsistency. Maybe they've all been too busy admiring the lobby.
Anyone familiar with the original Bistango in Los Angeles, by the way, would instantly notice that the two restaurants have little in common. Bistango, which is slang for bistro, was originally conceived as a casually elegant spot for pizzas, French country dishes and spectacular ice cream desserts (the latter displayed on a huge colored menu). The new restaurant is decidedly less casual. And here there is an Italian slant to the menu, thanks to the skills of head chef Martignago, an Italian who is a veteran of the original Bistango and of Bocca. If it weren't for the names, you'd never put the two together.
BISTANGO 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine
Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.
A meal for two (food only), $50-$75.