Rediscovery: AnQi by Crustacean

If they’re canny enough to survive 18 months, most new restaurants are noticeably better for it. In the case of AnQi, it was a thorny matter of adjusting success in San Francisco and Beverly Hills to suit Orange County’s fine-dining scene, a landscape that proves surprisingly sovereign to many industry veterans who are new to these parts.

Today’s AnQi is more grounded and assured than the swanky, self-conscious newcomer that premiered in late 2009. In its place is an upbeat wait team in sync with the kitchen, and a room growing ever busier. These days, AnQi draws regulars from an upscale crowd that can walk to Charlie Palmer, Marché Moderne, or Capital Grille from a single parking space at South Coast Plaza.

The once rambling menu is a more compact and coherent list of Cal-Viet cuisine. Those clacking acrylic binders remain, but the carefully edited pages within make it easy to assemble a meal of tantalizing dishes by master chef Helene An and chef de cuisine Ryan Carson (formerly of now-closed Ambrosia). Most of the items that fell flat when I reviewed AnQi in May 2010 have been replaced with menu choices that vary from esoteric to expected.

Helene “Mama” An’s famous roasted Dungeness crab is in the expected category. Eagerly awaited also applies; it’s served only on Tuesdays when An rules the restaurant’s “secret kitchen” where family recipes are guarded with care. This is the dish that built, and still fuels, the An family dynasty, which today includes Thanh Long and Crustacean in San Francisco, Crustacean Beverly Hills, and AnQi. Restricting crab availability does ramp up the vibe on Tuesday, when the expansive, graceful room hums with eager diners, and every other table amasses a glistening heap of orange shells. At $48, the sweet-savory crab is a hedonistic spurge so worthy (see “50 Dishes,” Page 79) that we share it as an appetizer. It’s paired with the celebrated garlic noodles, the curly tangle that makes a delicious starchy foil for the sumptuous crab. Spicy beef tongue tacos in crispy wonton cradles reach for newer territory and they’re terrific nibbling—unctuous braised tongue, creamy Hass avocado, faintly brined beets, and flecks of peppery fresh rau ram herb amuse with every bite. You will want more.

House-steamed bao buns, hugging pate-like chicken rillettes, are another exuberant starter, with five-spice slaw for juicy crunch against fluffy cloud-white bread. Golden roasted game hen, fragrant with gingery turmeric, is crispy skinned and plenty juicy for infusing sweet potato cubes. Fire-seared lamb chops are perfectly medium-rare, cut thin enough to dispatch in a few bites. Curry sizzled in butter flatters the lamb and its mates: shitake mushrooms, young potatoes, firm broccolini, and red piquillo peppers.

Desserts can vary, but my posse still raves about the jewel-hued cubes of compressed melon alongside mango sorbet tangy with yuzu salt. And since many of the painstaking cocktails have a sweet bias, they too are worthy coda for sugary endings.

Founder Elizabeth An is the dynamo behind an enterprising roster of gambits that keep AnQi buzzing. Pressed for time but hungry for soulful sustenance? Try a steaming bowl of pho at the noodle bar alcove. Run with the happy hour pack? Check out “Red Hour” after work for exceptional cocktails at deep discounts. “Fashionably Late Fridays” brings in guest deejays for a 9 p.m.-to-2 a.m. chill session in the lounge with discounted drinks. The new Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. makes poached eggs on kimchi fried rice a tempting carbo load.

Molecular gastronomy is another AnQi touchstone and, though pricey, the experience is an enthralling duet by Carson and Mama An. Presented in a Zen-gorgeous private room, the parade of convention-busting dishes is unforgettable, and unique in our territory. When an eight-course meal (expandable by request) begins with Champagne gelée served atop the upturned base of a crystal flute, it’s clear a fantastical evening is ahead. The quivering gelée block made from Nicolas Feuillatte brut has a topknot of sturgeon caviar and a base that’s a small disc of white chocolate with a fizzy finish. Yes, it’s all to be eaten as one bite that renders you mute while you process the fracas on your palate. Incredulity marks nearly every course, right up to a chocolate dessert with popcorn ice cream.

The awkward stage is over. Sultry but centered, this South Coast Plaza star is striding with aplomb, ready for her close-up.

Best Dishes
Spicy beef tongue tacos, chicken rillette bao bun, lamb chops, roasted game hens, roasted crab, garlic noodles, noodle bar pho, compressed melon dessert, molecular prix fixe menu, signature cocktails.

Tapas, $11 to $18; large plates, $24 to $37; brunch, $11 to $18; noodle bar, $8 to $19; signature cocktails, $14.

Best Table
Table 20 for a great view of the main room.

Don’t Miss
During “Red Hour,” get half off signature cocktails, $5 beers, $7 wine, bubbly, and sake; 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, and after 9 p.m. Fridays.

South Coast Plaza
3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa
Three-and-a-Half Stars

Photograph by John Cizmas

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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