Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Hobbit - 01/25/2018

2932 E. Chapman Ave
Orange, CA 92869
(714) 997-1972

Located in a re-purposed 3 story house, The Hobbit was founded by Howard and Beverly Philippi who took over the space in 1972 and built one of the longest lived fine dining institutions in Orange County. As one might expect the name is a nod to Tolkien, as the founders were enamored of the leisurely lifestyle of the fictional race and hoped to capture a little of their joie de vivre in their restaurant.

Today their son Michael Philippi runs the restaurant and though the menu has evolved somewhat with the time, the format has remained largely unchanged. The restaurant offers a single 7-course menu that begins in the wine cellar before diners move onto their own tables where they are served seafood, a light meat, and a salad. A short intermission follows giving diners a chance to stretch their legs or hobnob with the chef before returning for sorbet, the main entrée, and dessert.

The evening officially kicks off at 7:00PM with champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the wine cellar. This provides guests the opportunity to casually peruse the 1,000+ bottle wine cellar and select bottles for the meal all while enjoying the plethora of small bites and a glass bubbly. Personally my favorites were the steak tartare and the puff pastry stuffed with cheese, gruyere I think, and some sort of cured meat. For those who might be overwhelmed by their choices, the sommelier, Amy Cody, and her team are there to provide recommendations.

2012 Marcassin, Marcassin Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay
2004 Heitz, Martha's Vineyard, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
In addition to having one of the most one of Orange County's finest cellars, The Hobbit's prices are among the most reasonable, with a number of bottles at or below retail. We opted to pick up a bottle of 2004 Heitz to go along with a 2012 Marcassin from my own cellar. The Marcassin was elegant and nuanced, with honeysuckle, soft white flowers, loads of citrus, stone fruit, and surprisingly little oak; a fresh and ethereal vintage that paired nicely with the Salmon, salad, and Halibut. The Heitz couldn't have been more different, with a deep nose redolent of dark fruit, earth, mint, and eucalyptus. The herbal elements bring an element of balance that keeps the wine from being too brooding.

Herb Roasted Salmon - Israeli Couscous, Blood Orange Beurre Blanc
I've never been a huge fan of cooked salmon particularly when the fish is cooked through. Still the dense texture worked well with the buttery heft of the sauce. The Beurre Blanc was definitely the highlight of the dish simultaneously providing buttery richness and a contrasting citrus twang.

Petite Veal Osso Bucco - Po Valley Black Rice, Veal Jus
The meal got heavy in a hurry with tender round of braised veal. The preparation features a classic base of rich meaty jus with moderating elements of dense forbidden rice and a smattering of fresh mirepoix vegetables that added both succulent highlights and a hint of bitterness. Sucking on the hollow bone yields a small morsel of heady marrow to finish the dish.

Arugula & Endive Salad - Fuyu Persimmons, Candied Pecans, Crispy Prosciutto
I thought it was odd to serve salad after the osso bucco, but timing aside, the salad was quite enjoyable. The bitterness of the greens is deftly kept in check by the persimmons and candied pecans. The prosciutto is fried to an intense crisp that provides a potent salinity to dress the rest of the dish.

Following the salad, we took a 20 minute intermission. The guests were asked to retire to one of the upstairs rooms or the patio as the staff reset the tables for the entrée

Sorbet - Orange
When we came back to the table, we were presented with a dollop of sorbet made from fresh oranges. The cool mild citrus was a nice pick me up 2.5 hours into the meal.

Filet of Beef en Crôute
The basic entrée was reminiscent of a Beef Wellington. Though I typically find filet bland, I thought this cut had enough meaty flavor particularly when coupled with the mushrooms. The thin ring of dough has a heady butteriness that compliments the simple richness of the beef. The roasted potatoes, carrots, and radishes were classic accompaniments, but it was the almost jellied slab of squash or yam, loaded with maple sweetness, that completed the dish.

Fresh Pacific Halibut - Baby Bok Choy, New Year's Black Eyed Peas, Ginger Sauce
The alternative main was a perfectly cooked filet of halibut. Texturally everything was spot on, but the flavor was a bit flat and one dimensional as the ginger sauce was unfortunately muted. A splash of citrus or some spice might have worked better..

Almond Cake - Housemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Fresh Strawberry
The dessert was a moderately dense almond cake. The flavor and texture was reminiscent of a butter cake with a whiff of almond. With the addition of vanilla and tangy strawberry, the dessert is basically an extra bold strawberry short cake.

The "contemporary continental" menu is perhaps a bit dated but the spot-on execution made the meal solidly enjoyable. At 4 hours for 7 courses, the pacing was a bit slow for my liking though I'm glad I finally made it out to The Hobbit for a dining experience from a bygone era.

With a single prix fixe menu, strict dress code, and flourishes like the wine cellar tour and intermission, The Hobbit offers an intimate dining experience that feels out of place in an era of gastropubs and share plates. Still I can see how the experience could appeal to the Orange County dining crowd. I mean, the place is still going strong after 46 years and regularly books up weeks in advance; so they must be doing something right.

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