The rumors about a recession must be grossly exaggerated. My proof? The new Rex.
When we say Rex, we refer to Rex Chandler's new dining palace in spiffy Fashion Island. This establishment is not to be confused with Mauro Vincenti's Rex (in full, Rex, Il Ristorante) in downtown Los Angeles, although comparisons are inevitable.
The restaurants certainly share more than just a common name. Both recall the elegance of '30s cruise ships, awash in Art Deco appointments. Both have dress codes (jackets for men) and attract some of the best-dressed patrons in the entire state.
In short, both have decidedly upper-class pretensions. But the newer Rex seems even more self-indulgent than its big city counterpart, a monument to opulence built in a time when most businesses are (at least according to rumor) trying to tighten their belts.
Altogether, it's almost atavistic in its splendor. What other restaurant can you name that boasts a live orchestra, a black granite dance floor, velvet drapes and an individual light dimmer at every booth? And what other restaurant would think of having a man in a white tuxedo greet guests individually on the sidewalk, announcing them as if they were attending a formal ball?
Credit Chandler for that. The man is first and foremost a showman, as anyone who has dined at the original Rex (still open, renamed 21 Oceanfront) can attest. He developed this restaurant at the behest of the Irvine Co., which evidently gave him a lot of rope. Rex is crammed to the rafters with splashy, pupil-expanding art and generously staffed with a team of beautifully groomed waiters. Somebody must have spent a fortune.
The construction costs alone must have been staggering. Everywhere you look there is etched glass, rich wood and elegant furniture. Considering this, the prices--among the highest in Orange County--do not seem unreasonable.
But do you get your money's worth at this restaurant? My first reaction to that is, as the old saying goes, if you have to ask, you can't afford to eat here. But let's assume you can.
To me, the problem is that Rex simply does not go all the way with the total-luxury concept. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is slightly more expensive, for example, but it provides little extras such as complimentary appetizers and petits fours that add flair and elegance. Rex does not.
And service here can be oddly unprofessional. The very first dish I bit into at this restaurant, a lobster and shrimp cake appetizer, had a surprise ingredient: a big piece of lobster shell. When I showed it to the waiter, he stiffened, and replied: "I'll tell the captain."
"Why not tell the kitchen?" I asked.
"Oh, we're not allowed to talk with the kitchen," he explained. (After some discussion, the dish was taken off the bill.)
Chandler took a gamble when he hired chef Eugenio Martignago to stir things up in the kitchen. Martignago acquired a following when he cooked at Bistango in Irvine, and will no doubt do the same thing here. I just wonder whether his style isn't a bit too progressive for a restaurant that feels like prewar Berlin. Only time will tell.
Take his sauteed fresh foie gras with glazed daikon, port wine and black truffle sauce. I recently had similar dishes with caramelized foie gras and root vegetables in France and Germany, and Martignago's was the equal of any. But do you see anyone eating this kind of dish as you walk through the restaurant? I didn't on any of the occasions I was at Rex. Virtually everyone had cautiously ordered a salad--all the same salad, so far as I could tell.
If you want to begin with something simpler than the foie gras, why not the carpaccio of salmon, ahi and swordfish? They're three good roughhouse chunks of fish (though they could stand a little more pounding), and the captain douses them liberally with virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Another fine appetizer is the creamy and intense abalone chowder, which is dished up grandly from a tureen.
Among those salads, the wild mushroom salad with mixed greens is huge, and the (rather pedestrian) Caesar has good herbed croutons. Rex salad is mixed baby greens with bay shrimp, feta, sweet onions and Greek olives. My own choice would be mixed baby greens with a warm goat cheese terrine.
There are also a couple of pasta appetizers, such as saffron linguine with Manila clams. I found it tasty--and suspiciously like something I'd eaten at Bistango--though the pasta was cooked a stage beyond al dente. (The main dishes, too, have a tendency to come up slightly overcooked; bear that in mind when you give the captain your order.)
Martignago's entrees, it must be said, tend to be busy and even downright cluttered. To take one case, John Dory comes brushed with an olive paste called tapenade on one end of the filet and a similar red pepper "tapenade" on the other, all floating in a lime, papaya and pine-nut sauce. That overwrought combination, I dare say, is one whose time has not yet come.