Chef Ross Pangilinan Leaves Leatherby’s to Open Mix Mix

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 Vision, talent and guts. That’s what it takes for a chef to leave a highly respected restaurant to plunge into the hazardous waters of restaurant ownership. Count award-winning chef Ross Pangilinan as one of those brave souls. In December he opened Mix Mix Kitchen Bar, a globally inspired restaurant and bar in Downtown Santa Ana (in the location previously occupied by Little Sparrow). The restaurant’s name, Mix Mix, pays tribute to halo-halo, the ice cold Filipino dessert that is “mixed;” the two “M’s” honor his children, Madeleine and Maddex.

The Group
For seven years he was executive chef at Leatherby’s Café Rouge at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, racking up rave reviews and loyal fans. Working in the kitchen at Leatherby’s, he was part of the Patina Restaurant Group, the large collection of eateries founded by respected chef Joachim Splichal. The group boasts around 60 locations from coast to coast.

Pangilinan’s work history with the group goes back further than his long Leatherby’s gig. He spent more than two years as sous chef at Patina, the group’s flagship Los Angeles restaurant. He was an important part of the team when the restaurant was awarded the prestigious Michelin star. He also worked with Florent Marneau at the now-shuttered Pinot Provence, also a Patina-owned restaurant. Marneau, another daring executive chef who dreamed of ownership, eventually left and opened the critically acclaimed Marche Moderne in South Coast Plaza.

Pangilinan said he was happy at Leatherby’s. In those years, many joyous, life-changing events took place. He married. He and his wife had two children. He enjoyed good benefits. He felt comfortable, too.

Mix Mix Filipino Ceviche

Mix Mix Freedoms
He smiled when I asked why he wanted to own his own restaurant, his mahogany-hued eyes narrowing a bit, his hands peacefully at rest on the table.

“I wanted a new challenge,” he says. “I knew it was time for me to either do my own thing, or stay (at Leatherby’s) for the next 20 years.

“I knew it would mean less time for my family, but I’m making the best of my time off. Sunday we are only open for brunch, and Mondays we are closed.”

Being a chef-owner offers more menu flexibility, he said in an enthusiastic tone. He is free to cook dishes he loves without interference. Many restaurant corporations are strict about having menu items based on analytics. The numbers have to hit a certain profitability factoring in the ingredient costs and the labor.

With that freedom, he classified his Mix Mix dishes as “seasonal global eclectic,” adding that it is difficult to pin down a description because the menu frequently changes.

Soft Egg Raviolo

“For me, my menu is everything,” he said. “It’s everything I have learned and made; it is like a highlight reel of me. It’s not really Filipino, not really American. It’s more international. For example, I saw beautiful baby octopus, lobsters, and clams at the market this morning. I served them today with arugula gnocchi and a pepperoncino tomato broth.”

The Place
More on the menu later, but first I wanted to know about physical changes he made to the restaurant. He said he looked at locations in Costa Mesa and Fullerton, but the restaurant already being built out influenced his decision, along with the it having a preexisting liquor license. The appealing neutral colors and furnishings are in contemporary bistro style and create a just-right backdrop to his colorful dishes.

“We made some cosmetic changes: new chairs, painted, and created a bigger window into the kitchen to open the pass. And we made the chef’s counter,” he said. The expanded counter seats seven and has a view of the kitchen. Here, guests can take in the six-course “Oui Chef” tasting menu ($65), overseeing the final steps of each concoction and hearing the chef’s descriptions, details, and ingredient secrets.

The staff wears shirts that showcase the “Oui Chef” motto, words that keep him inspired and moving forward to create new and delicious offerings.

Mix Mix Tropical Verrine

Spot-On Dishes
Eat in the dining room, or dine in the bar. There are snacks, small plates, entrees, and desserts. Order a la carte or choose one of the three options for prix fixe menus. The cuisine is so scrumptious—it is tempting to repeat the same dishes on subsequent visits. But try them all.

A sample:

Organic Trumpet Mushrooms: Small trumpet mushrooms tossed with oil are cooked to perfection in a perforated pan sat atop a hot grill. The holes in the pan help to sear the little darlings without making them greasy. Topped with herbaceous gremolata made with chives, garlic, parsley, lemon juice and chili flakes yields a lovely brightness.

Crispy Duck Leg

Filipino Ceviche: It’s the cane vinegar and coconut lime dressing that give this dish Filipino roots. It’s gorgeous on the plate and the palate. Yellow fin tuna pairs with avocado, pork cracklings and Thai chili.

Soft Egg Raviolo: The inspiration for this delectable dish harkens back to his time in the Patina kitchen. This large disk of stuffed black pepper pasta showcases herbed ricotta, guanciale (luscious cured hog cheek or jowl), Parmesan and brown butter. And of course, a soft-cooked egg.

Crispy Duck Leg: Seasoned with a hint of Szechwan pepper, the crisp-on-the-outside meat is teamed with mushroom risotto, blackberries and cider jus.

Tropical Verrine: A twist on the Filipino halo- halo, the coconut panna cotta base is topped with an irresistible crown of passion fruit gelée, candied kumquat slices, lychees, mango, pineapple, and macadamias. Divine.

Mix Mix Kitchen Bar is at 300 North Main Street in Santa Ana. 714-836-5158

Reservations: opentable.com

Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.

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