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Three Orange County restaurants honored with Michelin plate awards

Chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi
Chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi’s new restaurant showcases modern, seasonal interpretations of classic French techniques.
(Courtesy of Anne Watson)

Chef Tony Esnault, of Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa, isn’t new to Michelin recognition. He is familiar with the expectations and the standards, earning stars as an executive chef in New York City in 2006 and 2007.

Now Esnault has earned recognition again as Michelin Guide California, which expanded to include Orange and San Diego counties in 2019, makes an effort to highlight more establishments.

Knife Pleat, the sophisticated yet approachable French restaurant that calls South Coast Plaza home, was recognized along with two other Orange County restaurants this week with Michelin Plate awards ahead of Bib Gourmand and Stars to be announced on Sept. 22 and Sept. 28, respectively.

Knife Pleat is a French restaurant helmed by Chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi.
(Courtesy of Anne Watson)

“By revealing some of the new additions made by our inspectors throughout the year, we enhance our digital tools to further strengthen the ties that bind us to food lovers,” said international director of the Michelin Guides, Gwendal Poullennec, in a statement on the Michelin Guide website. “We hope that these regular revelations and updates to the selection throughout the year will provide opportunities to highlight the profession and invite everyone to discover and support the restaurants around them.”

Yassmin Sarmadi, restauranteur and owner of Knife Pleat, said highlighting new additions brings often overlooked regions, like Orange County, into focus.

“Sometimes people don’t think about other areas, be it Orange County or San Diego or elsewhere,” said Sarmadi, “There are great chefs and great restaurants and great food everywhere. I think it is really nice to have a spotlight on restaurants in Orange County with Michelin, which is internationally recognized and still carries a lot of weight.”

Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano and Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton were recognized alongside Knife Pleat. Together, the three restaurants serve as an example of the diversity and uniqueness that can be found in Orange County dining.

Heritage Barbecue is owned and run by Daniel Castillo and his wife, Brenda. Heritage specializes in smoked meats like beef brisket and handmade pork sausage and their dedication to traditional Texas pit techniques make for a barbecue experience that is as authentic as one can get outside the Lone Star State.

Pitmaster and owner Daniel Castillo stands next to a 1,000-gallon offset smoker at Heritage Barbecue.
(Courtesy of John Troxell)

Castillo said he always had high ambitions for Heritage, which opened in 2020.

“When we opened this brick and mortar, those were kind of the goals I set. I told the guys we could get James Beard recognition, we could get Michelin recognition, so from the jump those were always the goals,” said Castillo.

Castillo added that restaurants should always hold themselves to the highest standard, regardless of the possibility of accolades.

“I think there should always be pressure on a restaurant to excel and to be the best they can,” Castillo said. “This restaurant needs to be as clean as possible, the service has to be the best there is and our food has to always be on point when it come out of that window.”

Chef Imran “Ali” Mookhi of Khan Saab, a full halal restaurant that highlights the flavors of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, expressed a similar philosophy.

Chef Imran "Ali" Mookhi.
(Courtesy of Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen)

“We were not shooting for anything in the beginning,” said Mookhi. “Our focus was introducing something new to the community and bringing good food to Fullerton.”

But Mookhi was encouraged when his previous restaurant, Tumbi in Santa Monica, earned Michelin recognition in 2020.

“We thought if it could happen with that restaurant, then with the hard work of all the team, why not this one?” said Mookhi. “Now, our hard work is paying off, I would say.”

All three restaurants acknowledge the hand their staff played in earning Michelin’s appreciation.

“I can’t take credit for this, I have a great team and my executive Nicholas Echaore, runs the kitchen for me,” said Castillo. “He has done a great job and deserves just as much recognition as me or the rest of the team.”

Heritage Barbecue is known for its popular BBQ platters of smoked meats, sausages, brisket, beans, mac & cheese.
Heritage Barbecue is known for its popular BBQ platters filled with an assortment of smoked meats and sausages to housemade sides such as brisket and beans to mac & cheese.
(Courtesy of John Troxell)

Sarmadi agrees restaurants owe much to their teams.

“No restaurant is what it is because of a chef or an owner,” said Sarmadi. “It takes every single person who works in restaurant to make a restaurant what it is. Because all of those people, in one way or another, interact with the guests, whether it be through what they have created on the guests plate to serving them something or making them a drink, greeting them at the door, thanking them as they walk out or picking up a napkin that fell on the ground.”

Mookhi said Khan Saab is thankful to their clientele as well.

“We want to thank everyone for their support, especially the Fullerton community,” said Mookhi. “Because of them we made it through the pandemic and that is the reason we are here now and made in the Michelin.”

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