How about a high-end restaurant where you can have a moderately priced meal? Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's is certainly an elegantly appointed space with superior service, urbane touches like amuses bouches, mignardises and even a pretty little package of cookies to take home; but if you bring your own wine (because there is no corkage fee) and if you limit your ordering to the extensive small-plate and first-course menus, you can have a very nice dinner indeed for a very decent price.
As you enter across the dramatic glass bridge, you're confronted with a three-story wall of wine bottles and a stack of giant wine casks off to the side. The large dining room with its lofty ceiling and sleek clean lines is accented by contemporary chandeliers and tall transparent panels adorned with images of leafless trees — altogether handsome, but not at all stuffy.
Nibbling on our amuse bouche, a tiny deconstructed version of bagels and lox with a few snippets of smoked salmon and a crouton in a soupçon of thick cream, we tried to decide which tempting small plate to choose. We narrowed it down to the mussels, the duck meatballs and the truffled fried egg. Finding it too difficult to select one, we ordered them all.
We were immediately surprised by the size of the "small plate" of mussels, as it was anything but small. We've been having good luck with mussels lately, and these were no exception — big, plump and juicy. The white wine broth was well balanced and flavorful enough to be eaten with a spoon, and a drizzle of saffron aioli added a touch of garlicky goodness. The accompanying sourdough toast, flavored by the grill, made a perfect sponge to soak up the tasty juices.
Duck meatballs were also served in a generous portion. The deliciously seasoned meatballs sat on a creamy parsnip puree. On the bottom of the plate was a slightly sweet pomegranate molasses gastrique, enriched with the meat juices. Fresh orange segments and a bit of zest added a fresh, bright finish. This was meatballs and mashed potatoes taken to the third power.
The most intriguing sounding dish on the menu was truffle fried egg, potato, mojama and salsa tartufara. It also proved to be the most luscious.
We'd never encountered mojama before, and we're willing to bet you haven't either unless you've dined here. It's like prosciutto for pescatarians: thinly sliced, salted dried tuna loin. Salsa tartufara is a mushroom truffle sauce. Once again, transforming an American standard, this is bacon and eggs with hash browns gone to heaven. Stacked on top of the deeply flavored chopped mushroom, truffle oil sauce were slices of creamy fingerling potatoes, topped with a fried egg that oozed a golden glaze over everything. The salty tuna functioned as the bacon. All the elements together made a compelling combination.
From the first-course menu, we selected ahi sashimi, which was more like a tartare, except the tuna itself was sliced rather than chopped. Served on a bed of green tea noodles and chewy seaweed, all tossed in a soy lime dressing and sprinkled with sesame seeds and tiny pearls of crunchy caviar, it was a symphony of textures but, alas, marred by being a bit too salty.
Now we were truly stuffed, but when our shrimp ravioli arrived, we dug right in. These were the fattest ravioli we'd ever seen; the dense, flavorful shrimp and whitefish filling became a seafood meatball. The ravioli dough was excellent and cooked al dente, while delicately flavored saffron-Pernod cream sauce bathed the plump pillows. Saffron only provided color and there was just a whisper of Pernod, while leeks and cherry tomatoes completed the dish. Furthermore, a garnish of dried tomato and fennel shreds added color and texture.
Passion fruit tarte was indeed tart but balanced by the caramelized, soft, sweet meringue. The complimentary mignardise was a delicious little chocolate almond haystack.
At Charlie Palmer, a refined dining experience doesn't have to break the bank.
Charlie Palmer Where: 3333 Bristol St., Costa MesaWhen: Lunch: 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Dinner: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour: 4 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to closing Prices: Small plates and appetizers $6 to $18; entrées $27 to $38; desserts $10Wine: Bottles $25 to $650 By the glass $8 to $25 (half price during happy hour) Corkage free for up to two bottlesInformation: (714) 352-2525 or www.charliepalmer.com