Entering Kutsi, I look up to see a constellation of starburst light fixtures and hanging bulbs. The tile work and the dining room’s adjacent Day of the Dead-themed gallery, with its glamorously gowned skeletons, are impressive, and there’s a pretty patio along the Second Street Promenade. Owner Jannett Mendoza designed it all, transforming the Santa Ana space left vacant by Memphis at the Santora.
On my visits, co-chefs Anthony Tzorin, 20, and Roberto Gutierrez, 35, are at the helm. Both worked at Tortilla Republic in Laguna Beach under Anthony’s uncle, Chris Tzorin, who recently was named Kutsi’s executive chef. My experiences predate his arrival.
Over the course of several visits, the food at Kutsi alternates between very good and disappointing, and the service fluctuates wildly, too. Let’s assume the more-experienced Chris Tzorin will bring welcome stability.
I urge him to keep the bean dip dotted with cotija cheese, set out at every table. It’s addicting. And the first dish we order has us giddy. The chorizo clams starter—sautéed clams in a bright-orange chorizo cream sauce with toast points—earns our rapt attention, and we leave nary a droplet of the crema.
Also transporting is a dish on the tapas list modestly described as Mexican grilled sweet corn: ideally charred elote, coated with a Sriracha mayo, dusted with queso seco and topped with pretty microgreens. The plate is drizzled with an avocado salsa, and it’s a showstopper.
Calamari Tricolor shares the tapas list with that superb grilled corn. Then, culinary whiplash! Though purportedly sautéed (fried on a more recent menu), the seafood is flaccid, even waterlogged. Its not-so-spicy “spicy cream sauce” seems more French than Mexican. We try to order it on another occasion, but the restaurant is out of it.
The split personality continues. Among the soups, the Tarasca is a delight, its tomato-based broth enhanced by ancho chile, avocado, epazote, cotija cheese, and slivers of fried tortilla. But the Pozole Verde de Pollo is thin and innocuous, its “shredded” chicken is actually large, dry chunks. When we try the chicken pozole on a later visit, however, the broth’s herbal, chile, and tomatillo flavors are front and center, enhanced by added garnishes of avocado, cabbage, and onion. Alas, the chicken is still dry.
Kutsi is all over the map in more ways than one: The menu indicates the region that inspires each dish. The chorizo clams treatment is Oaxacan, for example, and the sweet corn and the Tarasca soup hail from various cities in Michoacán.
For consistency, consider the street tacos. The chicken, topped with cabbage and Sriracha crème fraîche when we have it, is excellent, showcasing slow-roasted thigh meat with an ideal char. The kitchen should use this chicken in the pozole. The tamarind-marinated steak taco, with elote pico and guacamole, is tasty, too.
When we request hot sauce for the shrimp taco, our waiter says, “Tapatio. That work?” But in addition to the bottled sauce, he brings back a house-made habanero concoction, noting, “This is the good sauce.” In fact, it’s splendid.
Best among the main dishes is a pistachio-crusted flatiron steak in a toothsome mole sauce, served with jalapeno whipped potatoes and a drizzling of chimichurri. The seafood relleno—a pasilla pepper generously stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and crab and finished with a diablo sauce—satisfies but is more filling than fascinating. The carnitas would be tasty enough were the pork not so dry, a trait shared by the duck in the sopes starter.
Kutsi initially touted Mexican wines. On the night we inquire, only two are available, though both prove pleasing. New general manager Bree Lundy, who also is beverage director and sommelier, has moved toward a Latin wine list, with labels from Baja, Argentina, Chile, and Spain.
She also has revamped the cocktail lineup. Many of the restaurant’s original unremarkable margaritas are gone. The new list includes a Cadillac, featuring a float of the Spanish liqueur Cuarenta y Tres, and it’s a winner.
Given the name, we imagine the Mezcal Fashion, with bitters and orange peel, pays homage to an Old Fashioned. But the first time we try it, it’s sweet. The next time we order it, the sweetness is gone, and the tribute to the classic is fitting.
As Lundy circulates among the tables, she stops at ours to suggest an Orchata Café cocktail—chocolate liqueur, Chila ’Orchata Cinnamon Cream Rum, and coffee—from, she says, a new dessert and after-dinner-drink list she’s putting together.
The cocktail is delicious. Though not overly sweet, it could serve as dessert. It also pairs perfectly with the Maria Bonita Pastel. This dessert is difficult to describe, unless you can imagine a cookie-layered, dos-leches, key lime custard cake with raspberry sauce, but it definitely ends our experience on a high note. Listening to the flamenco guitarist who plays on weekends, sipping on this cocktail, nibbling this lovely pastry, it’s suddenly a perfect evening on the promenade. Recalling our other high notes here, I imagine how, despite all the changes and missteps, Kutsi could emerge as one of the luminaries in the DTSA dining firmament. The appointment of Chris Tzorin seems like a step in that direction.
201 N. Broadway
BEST DISHES Mexican sweet corn, chorizo clams, steak mole, Maria Bonita Pastel
PRICE RANGE Starters, soups, salads, and tacos, $8 to $12; tapas, $10 to $14; entrees, $15 to $24; desserts, $8 to $11
FYI Dozens of little nooses over the bar seem Day-of-the-Dead genius; in fact, they’d once held mezcal dispensers, used to fill patrons’ shot glasses.
Photos by Anne Watson