photography by Dawn Garcia
In the world of cuisine, story can be much more than the fare placed before you. If you’re lucky, the story can begin the moment you enter the doors. Such is An Qi Bistro. A rare little find in Costa Mesa, CA and a unique and tasty take on what is officially known as Asian tapas and fusion. When you enter into this restaurant, the entry wall is covered with a rather hauntingly beautiful painting that epitomizes the calm of a woman. Past that, the one thing you begin to recognize is there is a passionate red emanating throughout the room. As you enter into the dining area you pass a bar that has a counter-to-ceiling display of frosted glass and premier bottles of top-shelf liquor. Turn to your right and you have entered a world that no longer seems like your typical restaurant. Every corner is decorated with an earthy, yet artistic design that blends both a modern feel with traditional Asian artifacts. Sliding screens, bar-top tables, cozy rounded booths that allow you to see everything that is happening while feeling tucked away just enough to be a voyeur. Luckily tonight, we are the voyeurs.
Our server Karen comes over to greet us but not before Matt, the British Manager, stops by to say hello. A charming and very easy spoken Englishman who remembered our visit nearly two months before – as it turns out, the first time I ventured in to what I refer to as the Red Haven. He leaves us in the capable hands of Karen, who smiles and explains (with finesse) the specials, the drinks, and a rather prolific account of what is worth trying. We start off with bottled still water, an Indochine and a Viet-No-Jito, and may I just say – delicious! Each cocktail had its own twist (and kick). We give in to the sushi/hand-roll special, the Hiramasa Crudo, and Mussels. First comes the Hiramasa Crudo which arrives looking like a colorful play on food art with avocado “silk”, beet, crudo with a sweet & sour tangerine sauce. The taste was fresh and crisp. The sushi special wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it ended up being the small variation of adding fried onion crisps that made piece #2 so enjoyable. The hand-roll was coupled with Unagi and was bursting with flavor. Our third starter was mildly sensual with it’s play on steamed black mussels swimming in a cream Thai-like coconut base – something about the mussels basking in the sauce made its flavor undeniably endearing.
Karen returned to take our order. Ono with one “humongous” Prawn as she put it and the Filet Mignon Confit. I teetered between the Mongolian lamb chops and the filet and in the end, the happy cow won. I also ordered a glass of Pinot Noir and it really was extraordinary. While I patiently awaited my delectable cuisine, two more surprises unveiled. The 1st – Chef Ryan Carson, who came out to say hello: A Chef with a passion for food and moreso, gastronomy (for those of you who don’t know, it is a fascinating take on any kind of culinary concoction utilizing both chemistry and a happy marriage of taste and combination). He arrives with a genuine smile and fervor for his profession. The 2nd surprise was perhaps, the more intriguing. Owner, Elizabeth An, came over to say hello. Few people possess a true grace about them and a willingness to partake in a stranger’s experience (let alone a food writer) but she is a rare exception. It was lovely.
Soon after, our main course arrived. The filet mignon was good and the wasabi tater tots were good enough (though to be fair, I’m not a wasabi fan altogether) but what was absolutely, without fail, exceptional was that Ono and Prawn dish. The prawn was, as described, enormous, and more succulent than any other. Perfectly cooked with citrus and oils, it just cut through the knife with ease and landed in ones mouth with even more precision and delight. We let the minutes pass gladly as our food settled into us and sat back to watch the relatively mild Friday night crowd. Eventually, dessert was bound to be invited in and so we ordered the Elderflower Parfait and the Chocolate Twist (I secretly hoped for the Port Roasted Figs — next time). I ordered a glass of Port in its stead and soon enough my mouth was basking in the refreshing and oddly beautiful medley of fresh petals of elderflower, rose water meringue, pomegranate caviar, sweet & sour tangerine, and an ever-so-light jasmine sorbet. This was heaven in every conceivable way. The chocolate twist was good but it couldn’t hold a candle to the elderflower parfait.
An Qi is a surprisingly beautiful tale that indulges ones senses – each and every sense ignited. I would recommend it to most anyone. I would also add that their Sunday Brunch menu looks perfectly juicy and their Red Hour is one of the best “Happy Hours” I’ve ever had. The one dish I did not order on this night that is worth mentioning (and perhaps the most simple): The Salt & Pepper Calamari. Their calamari is one of the best I have ever had. Perhaps THE best. Grilled and served with salt and pepper, subtle hints of jalapeno, and Thai basil aioili, the “dish” allows the natural flavors of the fish to exude all on its own and in turn, offers your tongue an excuse to play for a while. Though it’s sister restaurant is well known in Los Angeles (and I have dined there at least half a dozen times), An Qi blows Crustacean out of the water in taste and authenticity. Go take a walk on the Red side … awaken something exotic and sensual and open your mouth to invite in a healthy ahhhh.