Orange County

Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza

Times Restaurant Critic

Dear Mr. Palmer: I've recently dined at Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza several times and I'd like to suggest that before planning further expansion of your empire, you might want to get your new Southern California restaurant onto a more secure footing.

This place is in dire need of some TLC.

The Costa Mesa venue adds a touch of class to the sprawling mega-mall, and its location adjacent to Bloomingdale's, but not exactly inside the department store, works well. The restaurant's lounge is a great addition to the South Coast Plaza scene, and highly entertaining. Here's a real-life glimpse of the housewives of Orange County, marching in with suitcase-sized, bling-encrusted purses and label-conscious shopping bags. The bartender happens to make a perfect Manhattan, which makes Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's ideal for a shopping break, even if you don't stay for lunch or dinner.

The dining room feels spacious and luxe with those sleek white leather chairs and touches of whimsy -- quirky lights, woven panels and photos of wild horses -- to lighten the tone.

The Next Vintage Wine Shop off the bar is a wonderful feature too. It's a treat to step into the glassed-in wine room to choose a bottle or two from the traditional bound list or from the novel electronic flat panel that allows you to search by vintage, varietal or region. Prices are reasonable for the wines on offer and, because it functions as the restaurant's wine list, the shop is able to stock some unusual, highly allocated bottles as well.

Wine service under the direction of sommelier Christopher Coon is excellent. If you ask for a suggestion, he doesn't push the most expensive wines but chooses something unusual and relatively affordable. It's fun to play around with the wireless eWinebooks too. I love the way you can search for wines in various ways, add any that grab your interest to your virtual basket and then decide which one you'd really like to drink with your foie gras torchon or crispy pork belly. And every bottle is priced at just $25 over retail.

Service is attentive and personable, and the restaurant is certainly not short on staff.

The problem, Mr. Palmer, is the kitchen.

You've put a young, enthusiastic chef, Amar Santana, in charge of this large, ambitious restaurant and don't seem to be giving him the support and feedback he needs. If you were, the food would be more up to the standard you've set at your restaurants in New York and Las Vegas. I understand the same chef has either opened or worked at several of your other properties. I can only think that you must have been more hands-on there. I feel for him, I really do. It all seems to be on his shoulders. But he needs a mentor to tell him when things work and when they don't.

He wants to make his own charcuterie, for example, which is admirable. You've provided him with an aging room for his cured meats, but why not send him somewhere to learn how to make charcuterie and sausages? On his own, searching for a way to be original, he's way off the mark. That may be because he doesn't have enough experience of the real deal.

His pâté is too fine in texture, too pink and, frankly, looks like a piece of Spam. It doesn't have much taste either. Rillettes (usually duck or goose or pork cooked slowly in its own fat) are unrecognizable as such, more like a mousse in texture and made from an oddball combination of pork, foie gras and beef, which have no business being together if this is the result. If the combination worked, I'd be the first to cheer, but this is not going anywhere. Other cured meats in the handmade charcuterie selection are either too salty or overly spiced. And the green beans and pickles (another good and generous idea) that come on the platter with the charcuterie are so vinegary, they kill every wine on the table.

An otherwise lovely watercress and wax bean salad with toasted pine nuts and pecorino cheese is doused in far too much vinegar too. Other dishes are overbearingly salty. A huge bowl of wild mushroom soup puréed to the consistency of guacamole comes crowned with a dollop of peanut sabayon. The flavors are interesting, but this soup needs to be served in a tiny espresso cup. No one could possibly eat this much mushroom sludge.

I did enjoy the classic foie gras torchon, a chilled round of silky duck liver with a delicious pineapple chutney. Crispy pork belly with warm melon and sherry vinegar is a beautiful dish too. They seem to have issued from a different kitchen.

On my most recent visit, I tried a new dish that sounded odd -- Hawaiian ono Rossini. Still, the chef might be able to pull it off, right? The fish, a close relative of king mackerel, came out looking like a hat from the flamboyant Parisian designer Philippe Model -- a tall, asymmetrical pedestal of the ono with a piece of half-raw foie gras on top, feathered with summer truffle shavings embellished with truffle oil. The effect is best left unsaid. Quail in pancetta bondage is another dish that disappoints. The quails resemble bird mummies and don't have all that much taste.

After eating my way through much of the menu, I can say that the best main courses are the two steaks, especially the simple, perfectly cooked prime flat iron. Charred and rosy pink at the center, it has a wonderfully deep beefy flavor and comes with a delicious sake-glazed turnip in a ginger jus. With an order of fries served in what looks like a miniature silver-plated iron lung, to dip in a blistering and highly addictive chipotle aioli, any red meat lover would be a happy camper.

Which leads me to wonder why you just didn't open another Charlie Palmer Steak in this location. If you can't find the experienced cooking talent or won't take the time to give the kitchen the training needed, then what? That young chef takes the fall for you, the one who is ultimately responsible.

I almost forgot to mention desserts, which are fussy and sometimes overambitious, with the exception of the vanilla-braised pineapple chunks with a buttery brown sugar cake and a beautiful vanilla bean ice cream. I'd add that to an order of steak and fries for a pleasant, if expensive, meal at Charlie Palmer. Or, even better, have that prime flat iron in the bar, where it's more relaxed and fun.

It gives me no pleasure to have to write this review of an eager young chef's work. But whatever problems there are in staffing or maintaining the restaurant, it's the diners paying hard-earned money to eat at the famous Charlie Palmer who are being disrespected. After an initial visit, I spread the rest out over several months in the hopes that the food would improve. So far, it hasn't. And now it's time to write this review.

Mr. Palmer, please stop by to give your protegé some encouragement and advice. He needs to be proud of his charcuterie and his cooking. He needs to be up to the job you have given him. When main courses reach into the mid-30s, diners are much less forgiving -- despite the handsome decor and professional service. Mr. Palmer, your restaurant is floundering. I think you should fix it.

Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza Rating: 1/2 Location: 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa; (714) 352-2525; /bloomingdale/home.html. Ambience: Spacious, luxe restaurant from New York chef Charlie Palmer. The crowd is upscale and sedate. Service: Professional and personable, particularly good wine service. Price: Dinner appetizers, $10 to $24; main courses, $26 to $36; vegetables, $7 to $10; desserts, $10. Best dishes: Foie gras torchon, crisp pork belly with melon, prime flat iron steak, vanilla- braised pineapple. Wine list: Excellent, wide-ranging list at very fair prices. Corkage fee, $25. Two-bottle maximum. No corkage fee all day Monday. Best table: A corner banquette. Special features: Next Vintage Wine Shop offers wine list bottles to take home at retail prices ($25 off wine list prices). Details: Open for lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m daily and for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lounge is open daily from 11:45 a.m. to midnight. Full bar. Lot parking; valet Friday and Saturday dinner only, $7. To see a photo gallery go to Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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