It's true that the new Chapter One: the modern local is a pub, a very good one featuring a roster of serious microbrews, New Age self-described “culinary cocktails” and old-man drinks. And yes, what comes out of the kitchen can safely be called “gastronomy.” But you won't see or hear the word “gastropub” uttered anywhere except perhaps in the hushed whispers about Jeff Hall, one of the owners, who was previously a founding partner at Haven Gastropub in Orange.
The story began before anyone in the public knew anything about what would occupy the building at the corner of Third Street and Broadway in Santa Ana. There were rumors that it was slated to house a second Haven Gastropub, a scoop Gustavo put up on our blog, and was immediately denied by the remaining Haven partnership. Only when it was revealed that Hall was behind this new venture did all the puzzle pieces fall into place. The revelation also made statements Hall had made in the past prophetic. When asked whether there were any immediate plans to turn Haven Gastropub into a chain or franchise during its infancy, he told a reporter, “Until this one is perfect . . . we won't take another one on.” As everyone knows, Haven went on to do a spinoff called Taco Asylum and is currently working on a second gastropub in Pasadena, both without Hall.
Chapter One, just by the virtue of its name, is where Hall writes his own story, a new episode indeed for the man and also for Santa Ana, which continues to birth eclectic eateries and daring cooks the likes of the Crosby's Aron Habiger and Memphis' Diego Velasco. Hall has brought with him Oge Dalken, a chef every bit their equal who fits right in with the crowd. First thing you notice is how well Chapter One is run, as if Hall learned from growing pains of the past. Young as it is, Chapter One has already hit its stride, its choice of dishes and drinks thoughtful, its kitchen and wait staff already working together in lock step. And for the first few weeks, it was smart about the way it introduced its menu. Hall and Dalken did it bit by bit, little by little, until each morsel on each plate was fully calibrated and ready for the eating public.
If there's one thing still missing now, it's Dalken's last name, left off the menu. His dishes, though, make perfect sense. Some are like a riddle asked and then wittily answered. What, for instance, is a potato pear? Well, it's a Japanese korokke-like breaded mashed-potato ball, stuffed with mushroom duxelle, molded into a pear's shape, and eaten with a wild-mushroom marsala cream sauce. And what is this dessert called Milk & Cereal? Why, it's a bowl of perfectly set panna cotta playing the role of milk and crispy Greek pastry dough called kataifi doubling for shredded wheat. A scoop of Cinnamon Toast Crunch ice cream drives home the punch line like a rim shot.
By the time you bite into the Elvis sandwich, you think you've got Oge's quirky sense of humor figured out. You know the thing's got to have peanut butter and banana; but what you don't expect is that the peanut butter's been gentrified with coconut, the banana is caramelized to intensify its sweetness, and the bread is no less than a Grand Marnier French toast. It makes the whole thing perhaps too elegant, too sophisticated to be associated with the King during his bloated years. The sandwich also transcends breakfast or dessert, the perfect thing to munch along with their crispy, salty, wispy shoestring fries piled into a glass.
And when you think you've pegged the salmon nachos appetizer as some sort of pseudo-Asian knockoff because it uses crispy wontons as platforms, you're again proven wrong. Smoked salmon, jerk seasoning, tobiko caviar and the cooling citrus sour cream do, in fact, go together better than lox and bagels. So does ground turkey for the Scotch eggs, for that matter—an appetizer neither greasy nor heavy-handed unlike the pub standard it emulates, served aside a nicely dressed salad. Even the usually overplayed bacon-wrapped steak becomes relevant again in Dalken's hands, here as rosy medallions on his beef culotte crusted with chocolate and coffee sitting atop Dijon mashed potatoes both smooth and chunky in the right places.
You finally come to the realization that the word “gastropub” would grossly undersell the place when the Jamaican pork tenderloin arrives. Only a serious restaurant like this one would ever serve it threaded on sharpened sticks of sugar cane, propped on a baked, halved acorn squash, the gourd acting as a bowl for the nutty wild rice. And only this restaurant would put fried wonton strips, sesame powder, chocolate soil, soft chocolate ganache, soy and caramel, all on the same dessert plate. Or Coke foam and whiskey ice cream on another. Or stuff a burger with a crisped disc made from Parmesan cheese. There is already no question that Chapter One is great. What remains to be answered is what Hall and Oge have in mind for Chapter Two.
This review appeared in print as “The Next Chapter: Jeff Hall, formerly of Haven Gastropub, forges his own path with a new restaurant in downtown Santa Ana.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.