The dapper lounge in Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza typically fills to capacity during two nightly happy hours. I understand why. Good deals abound on splendid cocktails, solid wines, and interesting appetizers, making this a pet destination for post-work decompression. A chipper, polished staff keeps the mixed crowd feeling happy and welcome.
But I gladly skip the buzzing canteen during a series of visits to the serene, casually chic dining room, because I’m drawn even more to the work of executive chef Seakyeong Kim. Promoted in the wake of inaugural chef Amar Santana’s exit to launch his own shop, Kim has been at the helm for about a year. To label the transition a smooth one is an understatement. Sure, the modern American menu retains Charlie Palmer’s trademark refinement, but Kim adds a progressive spin all his own.
His lusty blackened pork loin landed on our list of “50 Dishes to Try Before You Die” in December, but his remarkable salad of ripe melon, ricotta walnut butter, silky prosciutto, and pickled onion crescents is just as satisfying. I want both dishes again pronto, as in tomorrow. But oft-changing menus are another Charlie Palmer custom, so the next day’s lineup is certain to lose and gain choices as Kim and the season see fit.
Escargot dumplings are an imaginative starter. They’re delivered in a bamboo steamer, the soft pastry packets enclosing juicy snails in pools of herb butter that flood the palate at first bite. What a fine departure from the usual garlic-and-puff-pastry treatment. Scottish salmon Cobb salad also riffs on a classic, this time switching out chicken and bacon for blackened salmon and smoked ham. Avocado and hearts of palm stay in the mix, and buttermilk dressing ties it together with a lighter hand than the traditional Roquefort vinaigrette. Like most Cobbs, this could be a light meal on its own. Ahi tartare is a menu regular, and Kim’s take is lusciously minimalist with tart Granny Smith apples and apple-wasabi-tobiko.
Yes, I’m a pushover for dynamic menus that continually shuffle in new items, especially from a kitchen of this caliber. Maybe the crispy veal sweetbreads with bacon and braised kimchi falls out of rotation, but that loss is quickly assuaged by the arrival of pork belly with squash puree, salsify, and ginger-huckleberry pork jus. Plus, the carte’s range is wide enough to indulge diners who have no patience for exotica—gotta have that aged New York strip with your own pan of truffled mac ’n’ cheese on the side? Both are triumphs of get-down, feel-good feasting.
Entrées tend toward the hearty, even when seafood is the star. Pan-sizzled scallops double up with a swell shellfish risotto. A thick, white filet of red drum bass gets an earthy basting with thyme, and teams well with lively ratatouille, garbanzos—some fried to a crunch—and whiffs of saffron. Charlie Palmer’s passion for pork is well-known, so of course there’s always a tempting troupe of pig dishes. A colossal apple-infused pork shank, tender and toothy by turns, gets polished support from quince compote, musky chanterelles, and braised kale.
Veggie lovers need not fret or feel forgotten; Kim answers your call with imaginative grace. Beet salad with blood orange, fennel, and pumpernickel croutons, or chopped grilled seasonal vegetables with Israeli couscous are delicious. But his astounding cauliflower and truffle panna cotta—oh my. Dressed with American caviar, tangerine foam, and a pinch of microgreens, it’s a dish worth calling ahead for since it’s not a menu mainstay.
On my way out, I pass the animated lounge scenesters. They look perfectly happy juggling their small plates and pricey handbags as they squeeze together to make room for a just-arrived friend. I can’t help but hope this crowd contains some astute diners ready to graduate to the dining room, where the booze is full price, but the fare is fully, fabulously realized.
Melon, ricotta walnut butter, and prosciutto salad; Scottish salmon Cobb salad; escargot dumplings; Granny Smith apple ahi tartare; pan-seared scallops; thyme-basted sea bass; crispy veal sweetbreads with braised kimchi; pork belly with squash puree; apple-infused pork shank; aged New York strip steak; truffled mac ’n’ cheese; cauliflower-truffle panna cotta.
Booth No. 54 backed by soaring glass panels, or any spot on the south wall’s banquette.
Lunch, $10 to $38. Dinner: starters, $10 to $18; entrees, $29 to $40; desserts, $10. Late night, $8 to $18. Sunday brunch, $35.
Happy hour is twice nightly: 4 to 7, and 9 to midnight.
3333 S. Bristol St. Costa Mesa 714-352-2525 charliepalmer.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.