Chimayo Grill at Fashion Island is a pet project of Taco Bell CEO John Martin. But the name derives from an expanse of sacred red New Mexico dirt, and it's definitely not a drive-through taco stand.
Restaurant consultant David Wilhelm is responsible for Chimayo's striking design and menu, and probably also for the early success. This latest of Wilhelm's many Southwestern-themed restaurants is a well-conceived amalgam of everything he has done before. Irvine's cave-like Zuni Grill (now gone) targeted a family market; Kachina, still flourishing in Laguna Beach (though Wilhelm is no longer associated with it), is a stunning small restaurant. Chimayo Grill attempts to be for everyone.
Wilhelm has obviously been given carte blanche to reanimate this sprawling space--which has been Zeppa, Tootsie and more recently Slade's--with original and provocative motifs. The exterior is all adobe pastels, the shades of red, orange and purple you see in a desert sunset. The mysteriously lit terra-cotta interior is a showcase for totems and other unusual artworks by Wilhelm's brother, Robert, as well as for a hallucinatory painting by Jane Laroche, who claims to channel coyotes.
The cool, catacomb-like bar is lined with authentic ceremonial masks from the Southwest. The main dining room has a burning hearth and what the designers call a cowl ceiling: dozens of round, rough-hewn beams of unfinished wood dropped below an exposed skylight. If you can arrange to be seated at one of the three semicircular booths, you will luxuriate on black leather upholstery, leaning against colorful designer cloth backing. Everyone eats with oversized metal flatware off earth-tone plates.
Wilhelm has once again tapped Thomas Tran, the talented chef who opened Kachina, to head a kitchen for him. Tran's cooking--colorful, multi-textured and sometimes a bit over the top--is generally first-rate. Here in Newport, where Baja and Taos are as familiar to a lot of people as Anaheim, the tanned, tastefully dressed clientele is blase about pumpkin-crusted chile relleno and red braised pork with \o7 posole\f7 ; they've seen it all before. If this were New York, they'd be tearing down the front door to get in.
Southwestern cuisine is an amalgam of influences, starting with the Franco-Mexican synthesis created by the brilliantly eccentric chef John Sedlar (currently cooking up a storm at Santa Monica's Abiquiu), refined by the likes of Mark Miller (of Santa Fe and Las Vegas' Coyote Cafe and Washington's Red Sage) and intelligently packaged by people like Wilhelm himself.
The menu's appetizer, soup and salad section fairly brims with derivative ideas. The aforementioned pumpkinseed chile relleno is gussied up with a sweet red pepper sauce the menu calls pesto, a clever recognition ploy. The current fusion-cuisine climate is stroked by a clever dish Wilhelm has dubbed rare \o7 ahi \f7 tortilla rolls with wasabi, arugula and red chile infusion. Shrimp and sweet potato tostadita with papaya and red onion salsa is actually a delicate basket of fried sweet potato, overflowing with lightly breaded rock shrimp.
Don't miss side-by-side roasted tomato and sweet corn soups. Served in one soup plate, it's a pretty, yin-yang pattern of yellow and rust, and the sweet, indulgent flavors of corn markedly contrast with the sharp, smoky tomato essence. Tortilla soup with rotisserie chicken and green chile polenta is a mild disappointment; I like tortilla soup as it is served in Mexico, a light broth full of chicken and corn strips. Tran's monochrome version is spicy but ultimately tiresome, a Bloody Mary mix gone wrong.
The salads scarcely skip a beat. Buttermilk-fried chicken salad with bread and butter pickles, tomatoes, red onions and blue cheese ranch dressing, a lunchtime favorite, is a gaudy mix of New Orleans and the ranch. There is a Southwestern Cobb made with mesquite-smoked turkey, and also a fine black bean tostada. Even the humble house salad is a crowd-pleaser, a medley of garden greens and tiny nuggets of toasted dried corn.
Entrees, which the menu calls Southwestern specialties, are large plates overflowing with energy. But where did those Southwestern cliff dwellers get salmon, I wonder? (Bartering with the Tlingits on Home Shopping Club, I guess.) Anyway, Chimayo Grill does right by salmon, wrapping it in a corn husk with \o7 poblano \f7 pesto and roasted red pepper salsa. Good herb-roasted rotisserie chicken can be had with a pile of salty fries or Wilhelm's homemade-style lumpy mashed potatoes.