by Jessica Forsyth

photos By Ed Olen

With miles of coastline, beach cities stretching from Huntington Beach down to San Clemente and more palm trees than most tropical islands, it can be easy to forget that Orange County’s culture, while firmly rooted in white sand and ocean views, can also mean cityscapes, art communities and yes, even inland destinations. One such location is Santa Ana’s Artist’s Village, a few square blocks carved out of OC’s second most populous city, where art, music and food have become the central stage for cultivating the city’s evolution into a center for culture. And yet, while small in physical area, one gets the feeling of being in a real city for a square block or two, watching artists fling paint on canvases through lit windows and diners linger on patios strung with lights, discussing (we imagine) things like literature and politics. Of course, it helps to have venues at which to pursue these lofty intellectual ideals, and Chapter One: The Modern Local, is the newest arrival on the culinary scene to facilitate OC’s passage into citified greatness.

The first thing one notices upon arrival at Chapter One is not the food – though that is undoubtedly prominent – but rather the lengthy bar and shelves lined with books – a tribute, no doubt, to the restaurant’s name, but also an indication of the kind of place that Chapter One is striving to become. One part restaurant, one part gastropub and one part “modern local,” it lands somewhere between community gathering place and foodie destination, with a wisely edited culinary cocktail menu and food choices ranging from the bite-sized (Scotch eggs) to the man-sized (Italian burger with portabella) and the low-brow (Asian chicken wings) to the high-brow (seared duck breast with sweet potato waffle). To be sure, there’s something for everyone – including playful spins on desserts of which we’ve refreshingly never heard (chocolate soil with fried wontons, anyone?).

We kicked off this experimental feast with one of the specials for the evening: grilled baby octopus salad with mixed baby greens, shaved fresh fennel, tomatoes, capers, red onions, scallions, and feta

cheese and topped with a roasted lemon vinaigrette. Fresh and sophisticated, the salad was delightfully light with gently accented citrus flavors, which all came together with the concentrated zing of a balsamic vinegar reduction. On the opposite side of the spectrum was the potato pear, a gastronomical riddle that revealed itself to be a pear-shaped riced potato stuffed with mushroom duxelle, breaded and then surrounded by a puddle of wild mushroom- Marsala cream sauce. We had high hopes for this dish, not entirely because of its mysterious name, but the final result lacked a bit in the flavor department. Even when infused with the mushroom duxelle, the potato pear was lackluster, and the cream sauce, while silky smooth in texture, could have used more of an infusion of both mushroom and Marsala.

True to casual-meets-fine dining fare, Chapter One’s sandwich selection is as it should be: diverse. We tried the island pulled pork sandwich, which ranked somewhere between a sloppy Joe and traditional pulled pork. While the pork mixture could have been a bit firmer, the addition of IPA beer to the marinade gave a welcome depth of flavor and cabbage provided crunchy texture. An acorn squash aioli was a little lost amongst already strong components and the shoestring fries, while crispy, could have used a bit more of a soft center to round them out.

The larger plates on the menu are where Chapter One seemed to hit its stride with dishes like the beef culotte (the top cut off of a top sirloin), which is bacon-wrapped, crusted with coffee and chocolate and served with Dijon mashed potatoes. Extremely tender, with subtle aromas of earthy chocolate and coffee coming through, the steak was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Chapter One’s menu. The mac and cheese with white cheddar, fontina, pearl onions, smokey bacon, fried onions, and toasted panko was similarly flawless. Sharp cheese flavors managed to cut through al dente macaroni, and aromas of bacon and the crunch of fried onions and toasted panko rounded out what we’ve determined to be amongst the best mac and cheeses in the OC.

Yet, for all the innovation on Chapter One’s menu, it’s the desserts that leave the final taste of the restaurant – and it’s a good one. Whiskey and Coke consisted of black pepper sponge cake with whiskey ice cream, Coke foam, unconched chocolate, and chocolate oil – a tried-and-true amalgamation of flavors, yet never before presented in such a successful dessert rendition. Milk and Cereal (translation: vanilla panna cotta, kataifi, Cinnamon Toast Crunch ice cream, seasonal fruit, and fresh juice caviar pearls) was as beautiful as it was delicious with edible flower petals draped over a creamy white concoction that tasted like a grown-up version of cereal-laced milk.

Part edible intellectualism and part exploration of uncharted culinary frontiers, Chapter One gives us the feeling that there are more vignettes to come. We certainly hope so.

Whiskey and Coke – black pepper sponge cake, whiskey ice cream, Coke foam, unconched chocolate, and chocolate oil

Taking the book theme seriously, Chapter One’s shelves are lined with literature

Octopus salad

milk and Cereal – vanilla panna cotta, kataifi, Cinnamon toast Crunch ice cream, seasonal fruit, and fresh juice caviar pearls

“potato pear,” made of riced potato and stuffed with mushroom duxelle, breaded and doused in wild mushroom marsala cream sauce

Baconwrapped coffee- and chocolate-crusted beef culotte with dijon mashed potatoes

Mac and cheese with white cheddar and fontina, pearl onions, smokey bacon, fried onions, and toasted panko

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