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Chain Reaction

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About two months ago, I reviewed Maggiano’s Little Italy, a splashy South Coast Plaza restaurant that specializes in home-style Italian dishes and huge portions. I also raved about the Corner Bakery, which occupies about a third of the same building.

The Corner Bakery has quickly established itself as one of O.C.'s premier Italian bakeries. Mary Kay Halston, who created many of the bakery items, is an alumnus of La Brea Bakery, which many people (including me) consider America’s bread bakery, and clearly picked up a lot of ideas there.

But surprise, the Corner Bakery is part of a nationwide chain--it’s No. 18, in fact. Clearly, this is not just any chain. For instance, a pamphlet available at the counter describes for you how each of the 31 breads is baked--and lists every ingredient.

Still, if this were just a great bakery, I would not be writing about it here. But the Corner Bakery also is a restaurant that seats 80, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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And the menu is quite varied. At breakfast, there’s the world-beating “French toast"--fresh cinnamon-raisin brioche layered with custard and baked, rather than fried, and dressed with vanilla bean syrup.

To complement your cappuccino, there are hazelnut, pistachio and chocolate biscotti, plus sweet cinnamon rolls and light, yeasty, impossibly sticky pecan buns. And I love the potato egg pie: fresh vegetables and cheeses in a crust of roasted potatoes.

The bakery also makes its own nutty, darkly roasted granola, positively loaded with red currants, almonds and pumpkin seeds (and a boatload of calories). Everything here tastes rich, even the low-fat muffins; all the choices (oatmeal, blueberry, cinnamon crumb, lemon/poppy seed and banana) are firm in texture and full-flavored.

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It’s a casual, cafeteria-style place. After paying, you round up your own silver and condiments and bus everything to your table, which is covered with red-and-white checked oilcloth.

The one exception to the self-service policy is when you ordered something that takes a few minutes to prepare, such as a fresh hot flatbread or panino (sandwich). In that case, a cheerful server will carry it to your table.

A few items are clearly worth the wait--the sandwiches, for instance, made with thinly sliced, buttered and grilled country sourdough (which by itself makes incredibly good toast). The club sandwich (smoked turkey, white cheddar and bacon) is best if you ask them to warm it in the pizza oven. The salami sandwich, on a small, crusty baguette, includes pungent asiago cheese, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula and white bean spread (it’s just fine at room temperature).

The soups and salads I’ve tried were all well conceived. The mild chili soup was loaded with lean ground beef, fat kidney beans and sweet red peppers. The chicken peanut soup reminded me of a grainy, pale yellow peanut soup I once had in rural Virginia, except that this one adds big chunks of chicken breast and a light curry spice mixture, giving it a Southeast Asian cast.

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The Caesar salad is a bit heavy on the grated Parmesan, but the greens are fresh and the croutons (made on the premises, of course) are perkily spiced and powerfully crunchy.

The chicken salad is a real mouthful, a multi-textured surprise full of red currants, sliced almonds and chopped celery, bound with lots of mayonnaise. The chicken is cut into bite-sized chunks, and I like the way all the flavors come together.

What the menu calls Asian vegetable salad turns out to be steamed bok choy, carrots and broccoli, served cold and nicely dressed with sesame oil and rice vinegar. The potato salad is a fine one if you don’t mind a heady shot of whole-grain mustard in the mayonnaise.

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Curiously, the only things my group didn’t unanimously like here were pizzas and flatbreads. The flatbreads are as crunchy as kettle-fried potato chips and nearly as thin. The hand-finished rounds are lightly brushed with olive oil and topped with either roasted potatoes or tomato and basil.

The kids in my group didn’t like the fact that they were all crunch, no softness. Personally, I’m biased toward thin crusts, and I found them quite good.

The pizzas also are thin, but they’re baked in a deep pan, creating a brim of crust that sticks up 2 inches or so from the edge of the pie.

They’re made with skim-milk mozzarella, making the toppings lighter than usual. My two favorite toppings are mushroom--shiitake, white and oyster mushrooms with a minimum of marinara sauce--and a more conventional pepperoni.

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You ought to save room for dessert. Ask them to heat one of the pastries called rustic pies, which come in three flavors: cherry, blueberry and apple. What you’ll get is an individual fruit pie with a gloriously buttery short crust lightly glazed with crystallized sugar.

There are four varieties of brownies: fudge, cream cheese, butterscotch and low-fat (which seems way beside the point). The Corner Bakery also makes a raft of cookies, all chewy, rich and hard to resist. Oatmeal raisin and pecan chocolate chip both taste as if Granny made them. Who said Granny can’t have corporate experience in her resume?

Corner Bakery is moderately priced. Soups and salads are $2.25 to $5.95. Sandwiches and panini are $3.25 to $5.65. Pizzas are $6.95 to $7.95. Breads are 95 cents to $6.75.

BE THERE

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* Corner Bakery, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. (714) 546-1555. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.


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