Our restaurant reviewer finds true love in this Orange County gastropub.
By By Jessica Forsyth
Imagine a straight line, one extreme representing love and the other, hate. Now, bend that line into a circle, where love and hate
|Photos By Ed Olen|
are so close to one another as to almost be the same thing. That’s how I feel about The Crow Bar and Kitchen: I love it so much that I almost can’t stand it.
I’m aware that it’s a dysfunctional relationship. You should never hate the things you love. But even from the start, just being there was too annoyingly wonderful. It was like looking in the mirror to discover that the person staring back is a better, more refined version of yourself. I felt at one with The Crow Bar and also at odds with it; it made me feel secure by its very nature, but contemptuous for the same reason. There was only one explanation for these warring emotions: I had fallen in love.
I remember clearly the first time I met The Crow Bar. It was online, through its Web site. I admired the rough-hewn typewriter font and the artistic food photos and looked forward to the day when we would meet in person. When the time came, I was not disappointed. It has been a whirlwind romance ever since.
But how did The Crow Bar become what it is? Who is responsible for creating this heaven-sent gastropub? Two brilliant minds in fact: Steve Geary and Scott Brandon. Like a destined partnership of its own, Geary, the owner, and Brandon, the chef, met at Oysters Restaurant, a stone’s throw from The Crow Bar’s prime PCH location, where Brandon had been working for 11 years. The two hit it off and became partners in bringing to Orange County the concept of the gastropub, a version of the British pub that serves high-quality food along with an extensive assortment of artisanal beers and wines.
“We built this place thinking that it would be a place that we would want to go,” says Brandon, a James Beard recognized chef who began in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at the age of 14. Judging from the throngs of people both inside the restaurant and out, they are not the only ones who want to be at The Crow Bar, which made me a little bit jealous, so I focused on the menu.
Perfection has its price. First and foremost is the beer selection, which is inspirational, to say the least. The qualifications? It has to be interesting and it can’t be readily available. “We didn’t want to have anything you could buy in a supermarket,” says Brandon.
My intention was to try one beer from each category: light-, medium- and full-bodied, but I only made it to medium and opted instead to save the last beer round for dessert (more on that later). First up was the Craftsman 1903 Lager from Pasadena, which we paired with a selection of Fra’ Mani salumi (handcrafted, cured meats such as mortadella and salami in the Italian tradition) and blue crab deviled eggs, which were stuffed to the brim with crab meat, the perfect ensemble to head into more advanced fare, like the brick oven flatbread with Bilbao chorizo, spicy tomato sauce and smoked mozzarella.
My love affair quickly on the ascent, I was surprised to experience a brief hesitancy at this point. Somewhere between a pizza and cracker bread, the discrepancy between the über-flavorful toppings and the relatively bland crust seemed off balance, though options like the flatbread with Serrano ham, quince paste, tetilla, and rocket (that we did not try) might have fared better. One always grants a few oversights in great romances such as this was turning out to be.
The first rounds over, we moved on to the main menu and a beer from the “medium” list: Wychwood Hobgoblin, a hoppy red
ale from England, which was the perfect accompaniment for one of The Crow Bar’s celebrated burgers, the Japanese Wagyu beef burger. Made with the highest-ranking, authentic A5 Wagyu beef available, it has an effect ecstasy-like in nature, especially when the brioche bun is slathered with the truffle allioli that comes on the side. Served on the side were the heavenly duck fat fries accompanied once again by the ambrosial truffle allioli.
We also sampled the Scotch eggs, which Brandon downsized by using quail eggs instead of the traditional hen eggs. Wrapped in sausage and deep-fried with spicy brown mustard for dipping, they were every bit classic pub grub. It is almost moot to announce at this point The Crow Bar’s commitment to using only the best organic, sustainable and local foods available; freshness can be tasted in every bite, but, refreshingly, it isn’t a point they dwell on or proselytize about. As Brandon puts it, “We’re not trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat.” The results, however, speak for themselves.
It is with great deliberateness that ample space has been left to describe the desserts prepared by pastry chef Dave Rossi. The house-made churros were abundantly covered in a layer of cinnamon and sugar, perfectly crispy on the outside with a warm, soft inside. Iced horchata as well as a chocolate dipping sauce completed the experience.
Next up: The Irish car “bombe” with Jameson whiskey crème anglaise, a domed concoction with a base chocolate layer, dense cream interior and crunchy cookie covering. Following these successes was the best in show, the sticky toffee pudding with buttermilk walnut ice cream. The perfect balance of sweet, rich and substantial, it’s a Scottish pub favorite that translates impeccably at The Crow Bar. Remaining in the spirit of the gastropub, we paired these desserts with a beer by Rochefort Trappistes, one of only seven trappist breweries in the world. Made by monks of the Abbey of Saint-Remy in Belgium, the beer is dark and deeply flavored with a richness that suggests sweetness.
I may be in love with The Crow Bar, but it turns out I’m not the only one. Brandon rolls up his sleeve to demonstrate his undying affection for the gastropub: a tattoo on his forearm of the rustic-looking kitchen tool logo. “I’m here for life,” he says.