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[Chef Change] At Cafe Rouge, dinner is the show

Chef Mark Gold, who most recently ran the kitchen at Cafe Pinot downtown, is turning out some terrific food. Who knew he could cook like this?

February 07, 2007|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • CONTEMPORARY: The dining room at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is modest in size by L.A. standards. But the Asian-French menu is a standout.
CONTEMPORARY: The dining room at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge, at the Orange… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

I can't believe it. At 8 o'clock on a Friday night, four of us are the sole guests at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge, the new restaurant at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Twenty minutes later, two tables are filled. Total. Considering that this is one of the brightest new restaurants to open in Orange County in years, I'm floored. It's chic and tres moderne, even a little sexy, with a curved glass facade, sleek high-sided booths and a petite bar. South Coast Plaza is only a couple of blocks away, and plenty of other nearby restaurants are packed.

Come at 6 p.m., though, and it's a different story -- not the early bird special, exactly, but concert-goers dining before a performance at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The crowd is dressed up, excited, festive. But as soon as the tasteful chimes ring out, they're gone, like a flock of wild parrots, to their seats, and this new restaurant from the Patina Group, which owns Pinot Provence around the corner, is left languishing.

I hope not for long. Because the chef, Mark Gold, who most recently ran the kitchen at Cafe Pinot downtown, is turning out some terrific food -- well worth a detour whether or not you're attending a performance at the arts center. Who knew he could cook like this? The California-French fare he produced at Cafe Pinot was fine for that downtown spot, but what he's doing at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge (hereafter referred to as Cafe Rouge) is stronger and more original. Given the opportunity, the 42-year-old chef, a graduate of the the New England Culinary Institute, has turned up the heat from a slow simmer to a rolling boil.

For The Record Leatherby's Cafe Rouge: In the review of the Leatherby's Cafe Rouge restaurant in the Feb. 7 Food section, Ralph W. Leatherby was described as the founder of Ralph's. In fact, the late Leatherby, an arts donor for whom the restaurant is named, was the founder of UniCare Insurance Co.

At the new cafe, named for arts donor and Ralph's founder Ralph Leatherby, Gold seems to have been given carte blanche to buy the best ingredients available. And he's making the most of it. By keeping his menu small, he's able to be flexible and cook to the moment. For a chef without his own restaurant, it's got to be a dream job. And he's rising to the occasion with smart, modern food that's equally at home in French, Californian and Japanese idioms.

Something special

BEFORE you order, the waiter usually gives a little speech outlining what's particularly enticing that night. He or she will tell you, almost in passing, what the chef has brought back from the market that day. It could be Atlantic cod, specially selected scallops from Maine, or Kobe tenderloin just in from Japan. He shows you what he's got, and then he shows you what he can do with it. Who wouldn't bite?

One day it's a special giant calamari that Gold has cut into rings the size of bracelets and deep-fried in panko crumbs. The squid is incredibly sweet and tender with an intriguingly delicate taste of the sea, positively aristocratic compared with the usual bland calamari most restaurants serve. And pairing it with a swirl of udon noodles flavored with fresh ginger and a flash of hot pepper is fresh and appealing. He lets the ingredients speak for themselves.

True Kobe beef from Japan is offered another night as a $15 supplement to the tasting menu, or a la carte at $25 per ounce. But unlike at Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse Cut, where there's an 8-ounce minimum, here you can order as much or, more importantly, as little as you like. We're certainly not going for an 8-ounce steak, but one of us splurges on 4 ounces of the fabled beef. It's tenderloin, and just like its name, butter tender, with a distinct, loose grain and a light, ineffably beefy taste. Though it's extremely rich, it's not nearly as heavy as corn-fed prime. Beef of this quality doesn't need a sauce, nor anything that would cover the flavor of the meat. Gold's Kobe wears the merest slick of a high-grade Japanese soy sauce, which is much more delicate and nuanced than the typical soy. Garnished with lightly browned slices of garlic, 4 ounces is just about perfect, enough to give each of us a very satisfying bite or two.

There are times when you just want to sit back and let the chef bring it on with a tasting menu. But other times you may feel like having a first course and a main. At Cafe Rouge, you can have the best of both worlds: If there's something on the tasting menu that catches your fancy, you can usually order it a la carte.

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