Parking at Chat Noir is exceedingly easy. There is valet, for starters, which costs only $5. For this paltry sum, your car will bask in the company of such vehicular luminaries as a pride of Porches, one yellow Lamborghini, a bevy of 500-series BMWs and Lexuses of all shapes and sizes. If you are cheap or poor… well, you should not eat at Chat Noir. But if you must, you can save $5 and the humiliation of owning the only late model Subaru in the valet lot by continuing on Anton Blvd past a business park or two toward the multi—level garage. Here you will discover many floors of free parking. It is this copious free parking, along with a surprisingly interesting wine list, which may be the most compelling reason to dine at Chat Noir. It’s not that the place is terrible, or anything. It’s simply that it’s not very good. Case in point: When you sit down, the hostess asks you to select either a white or a black napkin. Given the many choices one most address in today’s fine dining establishments (Sparking water, still or tap? Salad before the main course or after? Ahi seared raw or mostly raw?), can’t we leave it up to the hostess to pick a napkin color? After our party of four survived the gauntlet of napkin options, we were presented with an amuse bouche of lobster bisque served in a shot glass. I am always suspect of amuse bouches and other things that come to me without my asking for them first. If an amuse bouche is good, I can forgive a restaurant their bravado. And they should always be good, since this is the first thing issued from the kitchen and can be considered an indication of the meal to follow. Well, we were in for a bumpy ride. A lobster might have given its life in order to make this bisque, but you could have fooled me. It tasted so strongly of smoked paprika and bacon… they might have called it bacon bisque. But, of course, I can see why they didn’t do that. What I can’t understand is why the butter that accompanies the nicely crusty bread comes with a paper film covering it. There is a paw print on the paper… a jaunty allusion to a black cat, but putting wax paper on the butter was a little too reminiscent of Howard Johnson’s to be jaunty. No, it was just plain cheesy. Cheesy, too, was the over-dressed Ceasar salad ($9), an ample serving of bite-size romaine covered with cheese. No anchovies were in evidence (the chef obviously has an aversion to fish, I’m thinking), and the croutons were soggy and tasteless (though they had been hyped on the menu as containing both garlic and thyme. Psha! The Salade Grillee ($9) issued to one of my tablemates was the very same salad as my Ceasar, only the leaves of romaine were served mostly whole after having been cooked, for some unfathomable reason, on a grill. At least they did not charge anything extra for the grilling (or the additional “e”). The Endive, Watercress and Arugula Salad ($9) was the best of the bunch, containing the aforementioned lettuces as well as a nice smattering of thinly sliced apples, sort of candied walnuts and bleu cheese. No one ordered the Basil Fed Escargots ($12), which is shame because I would have liked to pontificate more on the pretensions of listing the animals’ diet before it becomes part of yours. Although grass-fed beef is a menu staple, so I take that back. I would also have taken back the half-dozen oysters ($12), if I had been the one who ordered them. They were not cold, not fresh and not even honored with a varietal name. And so… on to the main event. I had the Sea Bass, served with a couple of baby Yukon golds, some slimy spinach and a bunch of beurre blanc sauce and topped with shavings of fried onions not dissimilar to the stuff that comes from a can. This time, the fish was fresh, and nicely cooked, with a crispy skin and a moist interior, but the sauce was so utterly cloying, it all but obscured the fine fish. I cannot recall the price, but it was too much. The 3-way Duck ($29) sounds naughty, though it was not nearly as risqué on the plate, consisting of one badly confitted duck leg, an unappetizing slab of duck foie gras sautéed to a deep and over-cooked brown and served with a too-sweet raspberry sauce, and a duck breast, seared, thinly sliced and fanned out prettily. The Steak Frites ($34), in this case a Kobe Flatiron, was topped with a thick peppercorn sauce, totally unnecessary for a nice piece of beef, and this one was. The fries were good, thin and crispy and coated with flakes of green herbs. One constant theme of the place is a ton of sauce. It is no secret to chefs in France that poor ingredients can be dressed up in a rich sauce to good effect… or to bad effect, depending on whether you’re the restaurant owner or its customer. At Chat Noir everything was drowned and overdone. The side dish of spinach served, apparently, in its own cooking water, was wet and slippery to the point of making it almost impossible to harness with a fork. Even the chocolate soufflé suffered from too much sauce, in this case a chocolate one that tasted like Herseys. The soufflé itself was not at all terrible. It was fashioned with Scharffen Berger chocolate, which made me homesick for the Bay Area. In fact, the entire dining experience made me homesick for the Bay Area. Walking the very short distance back to my car on the warm, windless night, I recalled the many hours I had spent over my years in SF circling around the Mission trying to park within hiking distance of Delfina. And I was sad. About that wine list? It includes some gems, and the prices are fair. This is saying a lot, considering. We had a few glasses of the Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc ($8) and a bottle of the 2001 Château Pallieres Gigondas ($45). It is rare to see a wine list in Orange County with a decent selection of the French stuff. Francophiles will find something tasty at Chat Noir to drink, even if the food leaves you listless. Got any tips on the foodie scene down here? Post your comments! —Elisabeth Schriber Chat Noir 655 Anton Boulevard Costa Mesa, CA 92626 (714) 557-6647
I had the great fortune to accompany Gary on his most recent trip to Champagne. Of the all the producers we visited; all our direct imports, two grand marques and some others, with the limited amount of space I have been given, two producers illustrate what I learned about Champagne, De Meric and Leclerc Briant. . Interestingly both are NMs but their scale of production is smaller than some RMs. As a small negociant, De Meric does not own any of their own vines. They get their fruit from growers whom they feel do everything right. In their caves they have barriques, foudres and stainless steel tanks, all of which are used to impart their own particular characteristics. They also use partial malolactic fermentation. What does this give to their wines? Complexity! You get broader wines with texture from the various oaks, more vinous and varied fruit tones, minerality, toastiness and creaminess—great champagne. This just describes the De Meric “Sous Bois” Brut ($27.99). In the Catherine de Medici, take the above description and increase the intensity and length. Leclerc Briant for me is all about vineyards. We stood above the the “Clos de Champion” ($29.99) tasted chardonnay from “Chevres Pierreus” ($29.99) and then visited “la Coisete,” a vineyard located within the city of Epernay, and right behind Pascal Leclerc Briant’s house. Because of its unique chalky soil, it is planted solely to chardonnay. Yes, we will be getting this very unique Blanc de Blanc in! Leclerc Briant farms biodynamically and has been working organically since the late ’60s. It was great to hear his insights to the politics of the CVIC, farming and terroir. As always you can get a great deal of information about these wines from Gary, or stop by the city store, and I will gladly chew the Champagne fat with you! —Kirk Walker
The Traveller was restless. He had traversed the countryside in an attempt to find the perfect place: to plant vineyards, to find contentment, to live. He passed by myriad wondrous hues of green, admired the vast yellow carpets of flowering blooms that seemed to reflect the sun back into the sky. He rested in shady nooks of stone, drank at percolating brooks unknown, squinting at the broken mirror as he quenched his thirst. He found beauty but not perfection. Each night the Traveller rested his face to the stars. They seem perfect, he mused. These stars gave hope to the Traveller that he would find what he was seeking. He slept with his dreams tracing the night sky. Each day was filled with the many small things that make up a life, but the Traveller was focused on his quest. He tasted the wares of the wine properties that dotted the hillsides like wildflowers, and noted the irony that no wine was completely perfect. Maybe his dream was folly. Was perfection only a way to gauge the imperfect, existing only in the abstract and nowhere else? A cloudy darkness descended. Despite no compass of stars to illuminate, the Traveller found a smooth, leafy bed and closed his eyes… The morning was as brilliantly clear as the peal of a church bell on a winter morn. The Traveller ambled to his feet, the mist of dreams disappearing from his eyes. But these eyes he could not believe. It was perfect. This land- the vineyard, the birds and animals. The fruit trees and the brook. The untilled pasture. All perfect! “Lovely, isn’t it?” The Traveller turned to the voice, and the woman that belonged to it. “Yes, it is,” said the Traveller. “I would like to offer whatever you wish for it. I would like to make it mine.” “Well, you can make it yours, and stay as long as you like. I’ve been here only a short while, but I know I’ll stay forever. But it is not for sale,” she said with laughter in her eyes. “Do you wish to stay?” “Yes, I would like that very much.” The Traveller turned away and waved his hat in an arc. “What do you call this piece of land?” The woman smiled. “Heaven, of course.” Until you get there, enjoy the beauty of the now. And nothing is perfect. Goodbye Patrice. —Joe Zugelder
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