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| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Historical Perspective

The new restaurant at the Bowers Museum has an exotic name, but nondescript menu.

Tangata, Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. (714) 550-0906.


"I'd say ol' Don Juan liked his brandy," Paige says.

We are at the Bowers Museum staring at a copper still shaped like an onion but the size and girth of a washing machine. The imbiber in question is Don Juan Forster, an early California rancher who, according to the plaque next to the still "had a reputation for producing fine liquors." It doesn't say whether Don Juan also had a reputation for drinking these fine liquors.

The still, called an alambic (or alambique in Spanish), is beautiful in its simplicity. Just a large, round pot--the chauffe-vin--with a swan's neck tube coming out of the top.

It seems odd that more is not made of Don Juan and this odd little still. Part of the problem with museums, as far as I'm concerned, is gazing at historical items that seem no more important than the junk most people put out in yard sales every week. Except here the castoffs are antiques. And what makes the antiques interesting is the story behind them. Like Don Juan's alambic.

"His name wasn't really Don Juan," I tell Paige, who wonders why a museum would exhibit a brandy still. "His real name was John Forster. He wasn't Spanish or Mexican, he was British."

From Liverpool, I tell her. An opportunist. A sailor who eventually ended up in San Pedro, where he was a shipping agent until he married a woman named Ysidora Pico, who was the sister of the governor of California. Because of that connection, he ended up owning several ranches, including most of what is now Mission Viejo and Camp Pendleton.

He also owned Mission San Juan Capistrano for 20 years. Until Abraham Lincoln took it away from him and gave it back to the Catholic Church. The Mission is also where Don Juan (he changed his name after marrying Ysidora) probably kept his copper alambic. A still perfected in Cognac, France, 400 years ago and still required for any brandies from that region labeled Cognac. An item just as rare, back then, as a grand piano built in Paris, and just as difficult to transport.

The fact that Forster bought such a still and had it shipped over from Europe shows the wealth and power he once held in Orange County.

"How come the museum doesn't say anything about all that?" Paige asks.

"Probably there are too many stories for them to tell," I say. "But they are here."

Afterward we have lunch in the museum's new cafe, Tangata, which replaced Topaz after it closed in September. I had heard, after Topaz closed, that the museum had a contest with its employees to name the new restaurant, which is run by famed chef Joachim Splichal and his wife, Christine. I wonder who came up with Tangata, a Maori word that means "people"?

"Who are the Maori?" Paige wants to know as she sips on a pink lemonade.

The restaurant is very busy with a mixture of casually dressed couples, here to see the museum exhibits, and hunched-over business people constantly interrupted by the odd cacophony of cell phones.

"The Maori are the original people who lived in New Zealand."

Paige looks around the restaurant, which is pleasant and peaceful, if a bit nondescript. The most distinctive features are the brown pods, like giant lily pads, floating beneath the ceiling, holding halogen lights extending from thin black arms. Like insect legs.

There is no art in the cafe. Nothing to suggest that you are at a cultural museum or even a restaurant with a fanciful name. And the menu, which I'd heard described as "international tapas-style cuisine" seems as nondescript as the interior: chicken quesadilla, grilled Atlantic salmon, burger and fries, shrimp linguine.

Paige digs into her chicken Cobb salad, sips her lemonade, looks around a bit more.

"They should have called it the Alambic," she says. She sits back in her chair and butters a piece of warm rustic bread. "They could have brought that still in here. That would have been cool. Then people would want to know why the restaurant was called the Alambic and the waiters could tell them about the brandy still and Don Juan, what's-his-name?"


"Whatever. They could tell them about this British guy and how he used to own half of Orange County and it'd be really interesting, don't you think?"

She's right, of course. Name the cafe after a magical brandy still, shaped like an onion, owned by an Englishman from Liverpool who married the governor's sister and bought Mission San Juan Capistrano. A man who, in the mid-1800s, owned more land in California than anyone. A man who created a town named after himself and offered free land to English and Danish settlers, who refused to take him up on his offer so the land eventually became Camp Pendleton.

A cafe with a name that had a story to tell.

The Patina Group--Joachim's restaurant partnership--also operates Pinot Provence at the Westin South Coast Plaza. I wonder if he would ever consider serving enchiladas there? Or perhaps chile verde?

Probably not.

So why shrimp frittata or angel hair pasta in a restaurant with a Polynesian name at a museum known for its collection of Californian and Southwestern art?

It's a mystery to me.

"Perhaps," Paige suggests as we finish our lunch, "this guy--"


"Perhaps Joachim should spend an afternoon at the museum. Or better yet, at Mission San Juan Capistrano."

Unlikely, I tell her.

"Why not?"

"He's probably too busy opening new restaurants like Tangata."

Lunch only, Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

David Lansing's column is published on Saturdays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is

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