My first thought: Why is this enchanting patio empty? My second thought: I hope no other lunch diners show up because I want this lush quietude all to myself and my guest. In this setting, it’s effortless to converse quietly, and better yet, to focus on the glorious cuisine at newcomer luxury destination Knife Pleat.
This is only week three of lunch service, so it feels like a secret, one that’s certain to dissolve with the holiday shopping crush upon us. Open since June, Knife Pleat replaces Marché Moderne on the penthouse floor of South Coast Plaza. The 80-seat setting is radically transformed, a clear signal this French arrival is wholly apart from its predecessor. Soft colors, fluted marble columns, and an eye-catching chandelier add modern attitude to the room’s subdued elegance.
An extreme makeover seems necessary given the operators, chef Tony Esnault and partner Yassmin Sarmadi, are new to O.C. though acclaimed in Los Angeles. Esnault is a veteran player in the Michelin star constellation, both on his own and beside mentor Alain Ducasse. This must be the first O.C. restaurant to be helmed by a chef with Monte Carlo’s Louis XV, New York City’s Essex House, and Adour at the St. Regis on his resumé. South Coast Plaza is wise to create a striking home for this lofty team.
But back to lunch. Delicate butter lettuce salad is unexpectedly huge. It’s an entire head of the ruffled jade greens, seemingly disassembled for painting with its sherry vinaigrette and pink smidgeons of pickled shallot then reassembled for presentation. It’s simple, yet exalted. Salad Monegasque (think Niçoise salad, but elevated) is the finest version I can remember, precisely composed squares of seared ahi, intense olives, egg, green beans, coins of soft fingerling potatoes, and just a couple of good anchovies. Opting to pay $2 for a petite loaf by Bread Artisan is a wise move since the Normandy butter that comes with it is the work of Rodolphe Le Meunier, France’s rock star of butter and cheese. Those who resist paying for bread don’t realize what wonder awaits.
Expect no compendiums here; menus are tailored as tight as a couture gown. But the concise selection does change incrementally. Esnault is a disciple of the seasons. Recently, white truffles from Alba and saddle of venison were on offer, as was wild Alaskan halibut. And while the halibut will be gone by now, one of his most beloved dishes, Legumes de Saison, is year-round because it relies on various vegetables of the moment, and in California, farmers harvest all year. Esnault teases out the best from each player, be it a baby turnip, tender artichoke heart, kaleidoscopic radish, or dainty peapod.
This romance with vegetables is emblematic of Esnault’s style. Light, graceful, precise. Never stodgy and always plated with great visual élan. Cassoulet is typically a rib-sticking comfort stew, a la grandma. Here, it’s more a chunky soup of al dente celery crescents, hollows of tiny pickled onions, and creamy tarbais beans, all crowned with perfect cherry tomatoes. It’s otherworldly. Ingenious escargot ravioli is lighter still, with weightless, fresh pasta encasing each snail floating in a black garlic mushroom broth.
Indulgent desserts by Germain Biotteau include seasonal confections; say, a tart of fresh fig quarters or timeless treat like the Louis XV, an intricate chocolate affair. Love caramel? Find an ally to share the fantastical golden dome that shatters to reveal VSOP cognac mousse, almond cake, and quenelles of ice cream.
Service is courtly, almost prim. Sarmadi is an elegant presence in the dining room, chatting with diners and sometimes fetching Esnault from the kitchen for a fleeting meet and greet. So far, the crowd aligns with those who shop luxury boutiques and don’t flinch at paying $125 for half an ounce of the chef’s golden reserve caviar selection or $280 for a 2013 Robert Chevillon “Les Cailles.” Corkage here is an off-putting $40, a deterrent to all but serious collectors. The 3 percent “kitchen appreciation” charge is another friction point. The menu states the upcharge is “an effort to increase pay” for the culinary crew, though you can ask that it be removed. How awkward. I say increase the pay, raise menu prices by 3 percent, and be done with it. Who wants to make business decisions on behalf of staffers while dining? The policy seems almost tone-deaf, given these diners likely can afford the increase.
Too many new restaurants play it safe with dishes we see everywhere, not even tweaked to feel semi-original. Or look to a franchise that repeats cuisine created by outsiders. So it’s a joy when a brand-new restaurant feels, well, utterly new. Plus, basking in the glow of all that Michelin starlight is a bonus that never gets old.
3333 S. Bristol St.
5 BEST DISHES
➜ Salad Monegasque
➜ Vegetable mosaic
➜ Escargot ravioli
➜ Duck cassoulet
➜ Louis XV dessert
Lunch, $15 to $36; Dinner, $15 to $58; Sunday afternoon tea, $52 per person
A knife pleat is a sharply creased fold, typically in a series, facing one direction.