On Black Friday of all days, I had just finished eating lunch at Knife Pleat, the 6-month-old French restaurant inside South Coast Plaza, when the lights flickered and then stayed off in the dining room.
I watched as servers in neat white button-down shirts and pressed khakis glanced nervously at each other and diners halted conversations mid-sentence, everyone waiting for the lights to kick back on.
A fire in an electrical vault, I later learned, had cut power to half of the three-story Costa Mesa mall, including the Penthouse level, where Knife Pleat is located. The outage lasted nearly two hours.
In the shadowy open kitchen, normally a well-lighted jewel box of burnished steel counters and state-of-the-art ovens, chef Tony Esnault looked unrattled. The French-born chef spent years cooking in New York and Monte Carlo under French master (and renowned perfectionist) Alain Ducasse; the lights going off didn’t faze him in the slightest. He calmly directed his staff, who soldiered on under the mall’s skylights, and within minutes food began to stream out of the kitchen again.
In Southern California, Esnault and his wife and partner, Yassmin Sarmadi, first earned acclaim at Church & State, the Arts District French bistro they sold in April. They attracted even more praise at Spring, the downtown French restaurant that closed last year at the 1898 Douglas Building.
The couple relocated to Orange County this summer to focus their efforts on Knife Pleat, a French restaurant that opened in June in the mall’s haute couture wing (the restaurant’s name, a play on a fashion design term, is a nod to Oscar de la Renta, Christian Louboutin and the other designer boutiques surrounding it).
The 80-seat restaurant is tucked into the quiet space that formerly housed Marché Moderne. It’s a refined room with a nine-seat marble bar overlooking the open kitchen, herringbone wood floors softened with thick rugs, and velvet-trimmed chairs so comfortable you could nap on them. Opaque curtains soften the room’s edges, almost letting you forget you are installed in one of the region’s biggest, glossiest shopping malls. A serene, pleasant patio space attached to the dining room is even further removed from the world outside.
The drink menu leans toward rustic Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, and a strong cocktail list plays on the high-fashion theme — the Yohji Yamamoto, a spumy blend of gin and leche merengada sprinkled with matcha powder, is especially good.
The kitchen picks up on the themes that Esnault and Sarmadi were investigating at Spring: modern French cooking modulated to the California seasons and the flavors of Provence, overseen by a fastidious chef whose cooking is informed but not overwhelmed by tradition.
Legumes de saison — more than a dozen individually prepared vegetables arranged into a vivid mosaic of colors, textures, flavors and shapes — was a hallmark of the menu at Spring and is the marquee dish at Knife Pleat.
Ivory-white chestnuts scented with butter and thyme tangle with wisps of shredded purple carrot. Thin, tender coins of carrots, radishes and beets seem only barely altered by the kitchen while cauliflower florets are steamed until they nearly collapse into buttery fluff. The dish is tied together with an ethereal vegetable jus. Whether it’s the precise articulation of each ingredient or the alchemy of serving them together, the result is a beautiful and intricate elaboration of the season.
Most appetizers are less dramatic but reveal a similar preoccupation with precise, harmonious flavors. Escargot ravioli is saturated in the deep umami musk of trumpet mushrooms and a black garlic broth. Wild prawn carpaccio is subtly invigorated by citrus and pomegranate. Maine lobster soup with carrots and chestnuts (Esnault has a thing for chestnuts this time of year) is swirled with Cognac cream — extra-rich, beguiling comfort food.
In cooler weather, entrees include burly pappardelle fortified with hunks of shredded boar; duck breast served with roasted half-moons of yam; or a dense mushroom risotto dosed liberally with Parmesan. Slices of venison saddle are blushing pink and tender as sirloin.
Cassoulet (available on the lunch menu) hits the same comforting notes. The bowl is brimming with sturdy Tarbais beans, topped with crunchy duck confit and lightened with the bright acid of tomato confit. It’s bone-warming stuff on a chilly day.
Not everything works so well. Steak tartare is luxuriously soft but veers too closely to blandness. Diver scallops with cauliflower, Romanesco and lemon confit feel formulaic in comparison with the rest of the menu.
Lunchtime offers high-end salads, but these rarely thrill or offer good value — a $32 lobster Caesar salad is crisp and creamy but probably not as meaty as it ought to be. For the same price, the kitchen offers a three-course prix fixe lunch, a conspicuously better option. Or opt for the excellent a la carte strozzapreti tossed in a tangy arugula pesto or roast chicken so tender you could slice it with your credit card.
At lunch or dinner, pastry chef Germain Biotteau’s desserts are formidable. Recently I finished my meal with two favorites: a creamy vanilla panna cotta topped with an apple-kiwi gelée and a pear sorbet embellished with candied pear slices and dollops of bourbon cream. (If the power ever goes out again at Knife Pleat, I plan to bolster myself against the darkness with Biotteau’s ultra-rich chocolate crémeux pudding plate with hazelnuts.)
I’m not sure there’s a more serious, market-driven French restaurant in Orange County than Knife Pleat — not one, at least, with a chef as disciplined and accomplished as Esnault. If your daydreams center on the pleasures of dunking crusty mini-baguettes into warm bean stew or a seasonal vegetable plate that makes filet look insipid by comparison, Knife Pleat is worth the trek from almost anywhere in Southern California.
Location: 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa (inside South Coast Plaza), (714) 852-3974, knifepleat.com
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $15-$22, mains $28-$60, desserts $9-$14
Recommended dishes: Legumes de saison; escargot ravioli; venison saddle; Crescent Farm duck; duck cassoulet (lunch); desserts