Photo by Curt Norris
Watch the plates that go by during Bistango’s busy lunchtime service. Most likely you will notice the dominance of the Irvine eatery’s longtime favorite midday salad, Bistango’s California Chicken Salad. Piled generously high, the mix is textually intriguing and dense.
It’s a colorful tangle of cubed chicken breast and thin-sliced cabbages, carrots, pea sprouts and green onions. The rainbow of components is bound with an irresistible Asian-themed dressing filled with sweet-sour perks. Sesame oil offers a side note of alluring nuttiness, while a just-right portion of Sriracha brings a hint of heat. A garnish of crisp fried wontons provides additional crunch and sweetness.
I was delighted when Timothy Doolittle, executive chef at Bistango, offered to share the salad’s recipe while taping a video with me in my home kitchen. Doolittle honed his skills working with celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse before taking over the Bistango kitchen one and a half years ago.
Articulate and skilled, his talent was obvious as he worked his way through the preparation. Soon after, I learned that he was leaving the restaurant to establish his own restaurant consulting business on his home turf in Kansas City, Missouri. His CY Hospitality company will provide design and conceptual work, as well as menu development.
In a phone interview, I asked him what his fondest memory will be of Bistango. Almost instantly, he said that would be every minute he spent with founder-owner John Ghoukassian.
He explained that Ghoukassian just turned 80 and still spends more time at the restaurant than he does; his spirit and work ethic are undeniable.
When asked about dishes that he contributed to the menu that will endure after his departure, he spoke about seasonal entrees, such as his seared scallops with cauliflower puree and roasted cauliflower served with Spanish almonds and raisins cooked in brandy. And his basil-crusted salmon accompanied with ratatouille.
Sweet soufflés at Bistango are his favorite. He described them as nostalgic desserts that most restaurants no longer offer; instead those other eateries take an easier, more foolproof approach to bringing finale razzle dazzle.
His secret talent: Vintage motorcycle repair. He owns Triumph motor cycles from the 60s and 70s, and collects the parts needed for restoration. With a laugh, he confessed that he frequently ends up walking.
Most important kitchen advice: There is always time to do things the right way.
Favorite veg: He loves potatoes, revealing that he knows at least 100 ways to cook them. If he adds gratin potatoes as a side dish to an entrée, he knows it will increase sales.
Drink of choice: Pastis 51, the anise-flavored spirit and apéritif from France.
Bistango is at 19100 Von Karman, Irvine. 949-752-5222
Bistango California Chicken Salad
Yield: 2 servings, plus leftover dressing
Oil for frying such as grapeseed or peanut oil
4 wonton sheets, cut into thin strips
1 knob peeled fresh ginger, about 6-inches long, chopped
4 shallots, chopped
6 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
3/4 cup Dijon mustard
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons Asian (roasted) sesame oil
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 cup Champagne vinegar
2 1/2 cups canola oil or peanut oil
Salad (make quantities to suite your preferences):
1/4 head napa cabbage, halved, cored, thinly sliced
1/8 head red cabbage, quartered, thinly sliced
1/4 cup pea sprouts (or microgreens or watercress)
1 large carrot, peeled, cut into thin matchsticks
4 green onions, trimmed, cut crosswise into rounds
Cilantro leaves, or micro-cilantro leaves, to taste
1 (6-ounce) chicken breast, boned, skinned, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons salted, roasted cashews
- Prepare wontons: Heat enough oil to fry wonton strips on high heat. Add wonton strips and fry until golden. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
- Prepare dressing: In a blender, place ginger, shallots, Srirasha, mustard, garlic, sugar, sesame oil, soy and vinegars. Whirl until ground into a paste; remove paste, leaving about 1/4 of it behind in the blender. Add 1/4 of oil and whirl until blended. Repeat, adding 1/4 of the paste and 1/4 of the oil. Repeat two more times (all paste and oil should be used). Taste and make adjustments if needed.
- In a large bowl, toss all salad ingredients with enough dressing to coat the leaves. Leftover dressing can be refrigerated well sealed for up to 7 days. Divide between two large plates or large shallow bowls. Garnish with wontons.