The first French element you’ll notice as you approach the new Utopia European Caffé is the knee-high steel fence adorned with a growing number of love locks that’s evocative of Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. Inside, you’ll find even more things designed to convince you that you’ve stepped into an actual café in France.
From the black-and-white-patterned floor tile to the rattan chairs and the round white marble tables just large enough to hold a croissant and a coffee cup, the interior-design choices were deliberately made by Bobby Navarro, a name usually known in OC foodie circles for his PR work. Utopia’s owners, Samuel Lee and Yalcin Aslan, hired Navarro to transform the space, which used to be a Peet’s Coffee, and what he has accomplished for them is a café that not only can play French on TV, but also looks pretty on Instagram—which is far more important these days.
And because it is Instagram-friendly, the place has so far attracted the so-called “influencers” who come to perpetuate the self-feeding cycle of hype via hashtag. One recent picture has a blonde in a short red dress admiring the intricate pattern on the floor tile. The caption on Utopia’s repost of that photo openly admits, “Yes, we designed for the ’gram.”
The food is also photogenic. The glass case is stocked with cakes that drip cream and chocolate. And if you get a latte, the baristas will, of course, draw pictures on the microfoam to make it worthy of at least a dozen extra “likes.”
Its most popular coffee drink is the one featured repeatedly on Instagram, the eponymously named Utopia Latte. And when you see it, you can see why. Sprinkled atop its whipped-cream head of foam are purple rose petals and crushed green pistachios that pop out against the white as if they were Monet’s water lilies. But these toppings aren’t just for show. As you sip, floral aromas waft into your nostrils as though you just buried your head in potpourri.
In the mornings, most customers pair the coffees with omelets or egg-based breakfast platters, all of which are named after the places that inspired them. The Santa Ana omelet features pico de gallo, and the English egg platter comes equipped with fried toast, beans, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and spicy sausage.
As the day shifts to the afternoon, everyone starts ordering paninis and pastas. But those who are privy to the fact that Lee and Aslan are the masterminds behind the DonerG chain should seek out the Turkish specialties, which are hidden in plain view amongst the tuna melts and fettuccine Alfredos.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with DonerG or Turkish food, ordering the avocado toast over the soujouk kashar panini would be a mistake. The latter is clearly the better sandwich. Packed tight with thick slices of soujouk, a Turkish sausage that harbors the spicy wallop of a Slim Jim and the springy texture of a Hillshire Farms smoked link, this sourdough-bread panini is crunchy on the outside and melty on the inside because of the kashar, a sheep’s milk cheese that ties it all together.
You’d also do well in choosing the housemade manti over any of the other pastas. As you tuck into a bowl of the ravioli-like dumplings lubricated with dollops of yogurt, red pepper sauce and mint, you taste a dish that’s as rare in Orange County as it is satisfying. It’s only when you realize someone in the kitchen had to stuff each of these tiny pasta tetrahedrons with a morsel of ground meat no bigger than a pencil eraser that you begin to understand why this labor-intensive dish isn’t served everywhere.
If you’re just here for the ’gram, know that the manti isn’t as attractive as the menemen. Similar to shakshouka, this classic Turkish stew of eggs cooked with tomatoes, green peppers and olive oil is, for some reason, relegated to the Sides portion of the menu. But unlike the hummus and the thick-as-baby-food lentil soup, the menemen is a full-fledged meal that looks as bright as it tastes. After you snap a couple of shots for your feed, scoop it up to eat with toast—you’ll need nothing else for the rest of the day.
Do be aware, however, that Utopia can be less than utopian. It’s currently suffering from its own viral success such that when it gets busy, some of its customers can become inconsiderate and entitled. These are the kind of people who will save a table, then get in line to order, leaving those who’ve already paid to stand around until someone leaves. It’s something Utopia can quickly fix with a sign that says “No Saving Tables Until You’ve Ordered” or maybe “Don’t Be Rude; You’re Not Actually In France!”
Utopia European Caffé, 2489 Park Ave., Tustin, (714) 352-5789; utopiacaffe.com. Open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Coffee, $3-$5; dishes, $4-$12. No alcohol.
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.