Sunday, January 30, 2011

AnQi - 01/29/2011

3333 S Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-5679

Molecular Gastronomy in Orange County? I could hardly believe it when Gayot included AnQi on its list of Top 10 Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants in the US. Not to slight Orange County but the area isn't known for being on the forefront of culinary innovation and to find such a meal, at a trendy mall-based fusion noodle house no less, simply beggars belief.

AnQi is part of the An Family restaurants which includes Crustacean in Beverly Hills as well as Thanh Long, purportedly San Francisco's first Vietnamese restaurant. Much has been written over the years about the An family's journey from Vietnam to the States and whatever one thinks of their food, it is hard not to admire the family's determination. Forced to flee their life of privilege after the Fall of Saigon, the An Family went from bona fide royalty to displaced refugees. Today the An women own a growing collection of six restaurants in San Francisco and the LA/OC area. Daughter Elizabeth manages both Crustacean in Beverly Hills and AnQi. "Mamma" Helene still remains active in the "secret kitchen" preparing the An family signature Garlic Noodles and Roasted Garlic Crab, but with so many establishments she delegates much of the day to day responsibilities.

The the man behind the magic at AnQi is Chef de Cuisine Ryan Carson. I had hoped to find out more about Chef Carson, but apart from heading the kitchen at Ambrosia Restaurant there is little information available online about Chef Carson's pedigree. Fortunately a brief pre-dinner chat helped to settle many of my concerns. Chef Carson trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and his resume includes stints at Gary Danko, Jardinière, as well as Napa Rose. I was less concerned that he developed his molecular gastronomy techniques through experimentation once I saw that he had a solid foundation from which to build on.

01: Champagne & Caviar - nicolas feuillatte champagne gelee, american sturgeon caviar, white chocolate fizzy
Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne
Chef leads off with this because it encapsulates everything the meal is supposed to be: playful, elegant, and exciting. Leading off with the bold salinity of the caviar, the dish quickly evolves as the vinous flavor of the champagne coupled with the sweet chocolate takes over. The fizzy makes itself apparent on the finish leaving a soft lingering effervescence on the tongue.

02: AnQi Beet - sweet & sour salt
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
The next course is supposed to be a play on the AnQi logo and looks eerily like the Beet Tumbleweed at Bazaar and Minibar. Both preparations have a similar potato chip like savor but this had a markedly denser more satisfying texture and the sour salt provided a very welcome added wrinkle.

03: Kumamoto Oyster - soy mignonette, yuzu lemonade 'cloud', citrus pop rocks
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Conceptually brilliant but I recommend adding a fork when serving this course as I had a bit of difficulty getting the oyster out of the shell. As a result I got the sweetness of the cloud and pop rocks without the oyster's brine for balance. On my second try I was able to enjoy the dish more fully, the vibrant oyster is elevated by the acidity of the citrus elements and the gentle sweetness of the mirin mignonette.

04: Hiramasa Crudo - avocado silk, sweet & sour tangerine veil, jalapeno-cucumber emulsion, frozen beet
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Chef Carson considers the Hiramasa his signature dish, the first dish he created that incorporates molecular techniques. I've found with crudo too often the fish gets lost among the other elements here the integrity and flavor of the fish are apparent throughout. The dish flows gracefully between the disparate flavors though I thought the jalapeno-cucumber was the most impressive accompaniment, vegetal refreshing with the barest hint of burn.

05: Lobster Summer Roll - compressed mango, vietnamese herbs, elderflower gelee, pickled rose petal
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Despite the lobster being lost, the dish is superb, exuding a graceful freshness and levity balanced by the creamy heft of the sauce. The inclusion of a completely aromatic element drew immediate comparisons to Alinea. Pouring the hot rose water onto the petals heightened the soft floral fragrance that tied together nicely with the herbs.

06: Ahi Tuna Nicoise - white anchovy romesco, crispy haricot vert, 64C quail egg, olive 'gushers'
Summerland Viognier
Full marks on the deconstructed Nicoise. I thought Carson took a risk going with well-done tuna but he pulled it off; the sous vided fish was beautifully moist with a ham like smokiness, a very strong core for the other elements. The romesco provides a rustic piquancy while the dense gelled egg and haricot vert tempura give the dish a textural twist. The olive spheres and smoked tomato added a lushness, potent and brash, but still true to the classic Nicoise.

07: "Looks Like Tartare" - compressed watermelon, mango 'egg yolk', dehydrated capers
Summerland Viognier
Chef's whimsical side was on full display here. The mango being especially impressive mimicking the runny texture of an egg perfectly. With melon out of season, the flavor of the melon was subdued which paired nicely with the nuanced ginger and mint in the broth as well as the savory counterpoint of the capers.

08: Kurabota Pork Belly - kimchi consommé, freeze dried banana, wasabi peanut butter powder, yuzu-truffle
Summerland Viognier
This is the restaurant's take on salt and pepper pork. The belly is firmer than I expected but true to its salt and pepper origins rather than a more tender braised style pork. The kimchi consommé is utterly sublime, its light tangy funk cuts through the heft of the pork. The wasabi peanut butter added a pleasing stickiness and sweet nuttiness to the finish.

09: Foie Gras Torchon - cherry-yuzu gel, 'instant' ginger-pineapple brioche, bacon dust, chinese celery
Summerland Viognier
The best foie gras since the Torchon at The French Laundry buttery smooth and creamy but not overwhelming even on its own. The accompaniments were superb as well, fantastically savory bacon dust, tangy cherry-yuzu, and crisp celery. Though I would have liked a dryer bread, the microwaved instant brioche provided a spongy base for the liver.

10: Misoyaki Black Cod - furikake rice cake, pickled garden vegetables, encapsulated foie gras miso soup
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
As played out as Black Cod is, I've always enjoyed the fish. This is one of the best preparations ever, flaky yet supple and oleaginous without being overly heavy. The sphere of foie gras miso adds an umami richness that helps balance the sweetness of the fish while the tart pickled vegetables are a perfect palate cleanser for such a weighty dish.

Intermezzo - concord grape sorbet with thyme jelly and lemonade foam
Superbly refreshing the sorbet and foam are tangy, tart, and bracing coupled with a savory exclamation from the thyme.

11: Jidori Chicken Roulade - himalayan black truffles, oyster mushrooms, ginger, chinese mustard jus, hazelnut brittle
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
The sous vided chicken was in a word: faultless. The meat is utterly moist and tender steeped with the aroma of rich truffle butter and finished with a subtle multifaceted herbaceousness from the ginger and mustard. The hazelnut brittle added a sugary crunch reminiscent of a roasted chicken glaze.

12: Filet Mignon Confit - burnt carrot, shiitake mushroom demi-glaze, savoy cabbage, wasabi 'tater tots'
Hall Cabernet Sauvignon
The beef was a bit firmer than I expected but with an extremely fine grain, the mild flavor of the filet lent itself extremely well to the dark musk of the shiitake. While the fried wasabi gnocchi was delicious, it didn't fit quite right with the filet mignon.

13: Heirloom Melon Gazpacho - compressed heirloom melons, orange 'soup', yuzu salted mango sherbet
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
Light fruity and vibrant, the melon soup was the first in a line of dessert courses from Chef David Rossi. Countering the fresh soup is the yuzu salted mango giving the dessert a savory mango lassi like weight.

14: Elderflower Parfait - pink rose meringue, flowering thyme gel, pomegranate 'caviar', jasmine frozen yogurt
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
Chef Rossi described the dish as "floral" and he was dead on. The airy parfait tasted of pure elderflower which the thyme and pomegranate built upon. The concentrated herbal aroma of the jasmine was the perfect finish to the brightly floral medley.

15: "Not Your Average" Carrot Cake - raisin coulis, curry crème anglaise, saffron meringue, cream cheese ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
This was one of the best carrot cakes I've ever had, easily on par with the Commis' Carrot Cake in a Jar. The cake is thoroughly spiced but lacks the cloying sweetness I so detest in carrot cake. The raisin coulis adds a ripeness and weight while the cream cheese ice cream provides a nice light counterpoint.

16: Chocolate Twist - hazelnut praline, star anise-orange gel, popcorn ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
The final dessert consisted of two strands of flexible chocolate ganache. In keeping with the molecular theme of the meal I think it should be renamed Chocolate double helix but twist sums things up nicely. What drives this course is the way the chocolate and popcorn play off each other, the lightly salted ice cream brings out the nuanced complexity in the ganache.

Molecular Gastronomy in Orange County? Yes it does exist and it is absolutely scintillating; without hesitation or reservation, the best meal I've had in Orange County. Rather than get caught up in using molecular techniques for their own sake, Chefs Carson and Rossi thoughtfully construct a slate of dishes that dazzle and amaze; each and every dish offering a symphony of sensation without compromising flavor or integrity of the food.


Sam C. said...

Good pic and post dude. But I guess Kevin beat ya.

Epicuryan said...

Damn Sam. That was a fast comment. Indeed, Kevin has superhuman endurance when it comes to blogging. I on the other hand got a good nights sleep.

Charlie Fu said...

sad I couldn't make it. Looks good. I'll definitely have to gather the peoples to check it out

Epicuryan said...

We missed you Charlie. Let me know when you get your group together I wouldn't mind a return visit

Anonymous said...

"Looks Like Tartare" is strait out of the Under Pressure book by Thomas Keller.

sygyzy said...

I thought this was going to be Vietnamese MG. But it's just MG. Not complaining but just a bit confusing.

Epicuryan said...

Good Catch, I suppose if you are going to study sous vide cooking Keller isn't a bad place to start.

The main restaurant is a Vietnamese European fusion. This is sort of a side project for the chef, a way to showcase some of his abilities. From what I read elsewhere, Elizabeth An likes the avant garde aspect of molecular gastronomy.

Komal Mehta said...

The question is where are the rest of the posts from that night!

Such a fun meal, despite that horrible cocktail!

Epicuryan said...

Honestly after Kevin gets his up why bother?

hong said...

Anqi prides themselves that it's a sexy place where beautiful come to meet and eat...but the food is not VN Cuisine. Even my Caucasian friends states that it gives VN food a bad name. If you're wanting tasty good VN food, better head to Little Saigon that is 10 minutes for some amazing food for about 80% less the price you would pay at Anqi. For example, Anqi list a Vietnamese sandwhich for $10 and it doesn't come close to the traditional Vietnamese Sandwich at cost $1.75 all over Little Saigon.

Epicuryan said...

I agree with you completely, AnQi places a premium on the ambiance and there are much better and cheaper places for authentic Vietnamese food.

However, the molecular dinner that I wrote about and that I called the best meal in Orange County, doesn't pretend to be Vietnamese at all and is a completely different experience from the main dining room.

A Mouth Full said...

Wow, I think I'm going to have to try the prix fixe menu next time. Great photos

Anonymous said...

I agree with hong and the chef is just a copy cat and no originality. Not empress with Carson.

Epicuryan said...


I can't speak for the regular menu as I've never had it. This review is for the molecular tasting menu which is not Vietnamese by any means.

diggz said...

Wow great food..does anyone have the recipe for the Hiramasa Crudo ..looks awsome ;Live in South Africa so a visit is a bit out of the way..

Epicuryan said...

Unfortunately I don't have a recipe for the crudo. If you did ever make it out to California at least you have something to look forward to.