AnQi arrives with all the buzz of a Hollywood A-lister. Its famous sister is celeb-friendly Crustacean in Beverly Hills. It’s run by the An family, which has a storied restaurant lineage from here to San Francisco. And it moved into one of South Coast Plaza’s swankiest locations. All that’s missing are the paparazzi hovering at the entrance.
The dazzling space exudes that conscious stylishness you expect at hip haunts. Demure hostesses in slinky nhieu ao dai by Vietnamese designer Calvin Hiep greet guests in the sleek foyer, ushering diners past the backlit bar to tables in the main room. The ceiling soars, the high-end sound system pulses with cool tracks, and everywhere you look, visual drama. Hanging louvered panels create airy, gently swaying walls that don’t quite reach the floor. Elegant silk bolsters in saturated hues pop against high-texture neutrals on floors, tables, and banquettes. A brushed-metal half-wall the size of a car anchors the 60-seat lounge, revealing red flames behind a narrow, off-center fireplace window.
It’s a haute design scheme awash in tasteful Zen chic, a fresh breath for fashionable fine dining. The staff is more elegantly turned out than the guests. Waiters wear black, and managers in dapper suits wear earpieces and hustle about with the gravitas of Secret Service agents. The impression is that an urbane, important crowd is expected. If VIPs are present, I don’t notice. But we never feel out of place. Rather, it’s the crew that often acts a bit lost.
My first test drive is a midweek dinner, and the scene is fairly mellow. We start with signature cocktails that are mostly sweet, and pricey at $14. One, the Rickshaw, a modern sidecar that deftly mixes Maker’s Mark, Patrón Citrónge, and fresh citrus into a vibrant elixir, arrives in a stubby martini glass with a bright-orange stem and sparkly brown-sugar rim. Sai-Mej-Rita is another delight—a shimmering mix of Herradura Blanco, pressed watermelon, spicy jalapeño, and a flurry of sugar crystals. Little did we realize those delightful drinks would be the high point of our meal.
Before ordering, we ask if there are any killer desserts we should include in our plan. The waiter mentions a molten chocolate lava cake that requires at least 20 minutes to prepare, but assures us he’ll ask again when it’s time to put in the order. Scanning the compact roster of Asian tapas, I search in vain for savory nibbles that might complement our cocktails. I order salt-and-pepper fried potatoes (technically a side dish), which turn out to be several tawny new potato quarters too chunky and piping hot to be finger food. No matter, we wait out the cool-down phase with an order of hamachi sashimi and the bigeye tuna taco.
These dishes, with their dainty portions and careful presentations, are hardly street food—they’re modern and precise. Yet they don’t taste half as thrilling as they look or sound—pearlescent hamachi is scrupulously fresh, but its delicacy is masked by vibrant kiwi, raspberry, and white ponzu sauces, and its accompanying jalapeño slices are out of place. A tiny corn crisp is the “tortilla” in the tuna taco, a fusion creation subbing green papaya, tomatillo, and jalapeño for crunchy “salsa,” and sweet chili oil for hot sauce. It’s one of the better tapas of the night.
By accident, we’re brought the salt-and-pepper fried calamari, which we’re urged to enjoy despite the snafu. They’re loaded with flavor from the heavily seasoned breading, but the breading also overpowers the mild calamari. Sun-dried tomato aioli adds another flavor, but not much sparkle. We ask about chef Helene An’s signature large plates, and order two endorsed by our waiter: the “famous” warm lobster mango salad, and a tuna confit with ginger noodles. I don’t know why restaurants label a dish famous—since it usually comes off as a sales ploy or a setup for overly high expectations. What arrives is a room-temperature mix of ripe mango slices and tender lobster meat crowned by two tail shells that at one time contained far more meat than is on our plate. Flavors are good, but there is no synergy. Tuna confit is as unctuous as any confit should be, but the “special sauce” is hard to detect over the roasted garlic; a modest tangle of ginger noodles provides welcome variation. A side order of broccolini, while steamed nicely al dente, looks forlorn in its runny pool of garlic-sesame sauce.
Suddenly, our waiter sets a single frosty glass of sauvignon blanc in the middle of the table, explaining that it’s “compliments of the house.” This is odd because two of us have nearly finished our glasses of red wine and no one has ordered white all night. We wonder if this is a regift of a bar blunder.
Dessert menus arrive. When we inquire about the missing nudge for the molten chocolate dish, our waiter says we’ll have to wait half an hour for it, but that he’ll put in our order right away if we wish. We don’t wish. Instead, we pay up and cross the hall to Charlie Palmer, where we drop $60 on three superb desserts and after-dinner drinks.
My best meal at AnQi comes from the noodle bar—the casual counter surrounding a small kitchen right off the walkway to Bloomingdale’s. The food is flavor-packed and filling, and like everything at AnQi, the setting is lovely, the prices high. Rich beef pho, steamy and hearty, is large enough to share. Crispy rice rolls please with a filling of chicken, black mushrooms, and jicama that meshes well with a lemon-chili oil dip. Shrimp dumplings are nice, if unremarkable. The famed garlic noodles are creamy, chewy, and delicious—but the serving is skimpy for $10. Once again, two of the best items are cocktails: Lavender Mojito, a sprightly romp with Flor de Caña rum, muddled blackberries, mint, and lavender soda water. Molecular Mary is a tease in a shot glass: two watermelon marbles stacked in vodka infused with tomato, celery, and Tabasco.
We return for happy hour when the prices are discounted, but the roomy lounge is empty. Service is attentive, but the banh bao (steamed dumplings) with braised pork belly are disappointing. Folded like tacos to hug a credit-card thin slice of pork belly, the feather-light white buns easily eclipse the pork, dainty shreds of scallion, and gossamer crescents of Granny Smith apple. A puddle of ginger-hoisin is barely there. Filet mignon summer roll with a pale wasabi foam is another exercise in faint flavors, and the bland crispy chicken drumettes need far more of their bright, spicy sambal sauce.
Exquisite and coy, this impressive newcomer plays awfully hard to get. Finding the key to AnQi’s heart is a challenge. Here’s hoping the critical months ahead sharpen the focus on food—which would definitely add to the value of this ambitious venue.
AnQi by Crustacean
Noodle bar pho, bigeye tuna taco, crispy rice rolls, garlic noodles, signature cocktails.
Tapas, $7 to $12; large plates, $16 to $35; noodle bar, $7 to $12; signature cocktails, $11 to $14.
Discounts on selected drinks and tapas: weekdays, 4 to 7 p.m. AnQi after hours, 9:30 p.m. until midnight, with happy hour pricing and a disc jockey.
At Helene An’s “chef’s table,” as many as 18 dine privately on customized menus that can include sake-tasting and molecular gastronomy.
Look for a Mother’s Day fashion show when models strut the 60-foot glass catwalk in the dining room.
South Coast Plaza, Bloomingdales
3333 Bristol St.
Published May 2010
Gretchen Kurz is an Orange Coast contributing editor / Photograph by Winnie Ma