Dinner and the theater is such a classic date – the anticipation of seeing a hit musical or highly acclaimed play in a dramatic, elegant setting has more sophisticated caché than going to the latest blockbuster movie, which is fun, too, and Don and I practice both for our date nights. About 14 years ago we subscribed to The Broadway Series at Segerstrom Hall (formerly known as the Orange County Performing Art Center). Doing this ensured that we would have several really special evenings a year, and every couple needs this time to nurture your relationship… or talk about the kids, discuss work, argue – just kidding, although I think that’s probably happened to all of us at some point, right?
To make an evening at the theater extra special we always treat ourselves to a nice dinner at one of the nearby restaurants. There are three restaurants located just a 5-minute walk from Segerstrom Center for the Arts: Pinot Provence and Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, both Patina Group restaurants, and Scott’s Seafood Bar & Grill. Over the years we’ve dined at all three numerous times and witnessed their evolution over time as well. I remember when Pinot Provence first opened in 1998 and it was THE reservation to have and we celebrated many birthdays, anniversaries, and business watershed events there. Now, sixteen years and many chefs later, two things remain constant at Pinot Provence: the French country decor and the free corkage fee.
Most recently we made a reservation for 6:00 at Pinot Provence to experience Executive Chef Alfonso Ramirez’s Market Tasting Menu on Thursdays, our tickets are for Thursday nights and from what I had seen and heard the menu had all the attributes of the kind of food we most enjoy: fresh flavors creatively prepared with familiar and surprising combinations.
The rotating Thursday night tasting experiences featuring five courses ($75) that capture the flavors and essence of summer. Guests have the option of curated wine pairings for an additional $45. Our reservation was for 6:00 p.m. and we opted to sit on the sunny patio which we had all to ourselves (it was early, and curtain time was moved up from 8:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. by popular demand a few years ago – lovers of the arts in Orange County are all getting older it seems).
The first course was an Asparagus Gratin topped with a fried egg (pictured above). “Gratin” usually translates to covered with cheese but thankfully Chef Ramirez shows restraint in a sprinkling of Parmesan. Once you pierced the soft yolk bathing the tender spears in its golden richness, the cheese imparted just enough saltiness to accentuate the vegetal grassiness of the asparagus.
The cordial wait staff accommodated our request to have the second and third course brought together since we were going to the theatre. The Hamachi Crudo with grapefruit segments and pistachio vinaigrette was everything I want from a seafood ceviche or crudo – fresh fish and bright citrus flavors, and Chef Ramirez lends intriguing layers of flavor and texture with a dollop of delicate avocado mousse, a touch of fennel and tart pickled onion all napped in a beautiful pistachio vinaigrette.
We segued easily into the vibrant Roasted Octopus Salad with a medley of Peewee potatoes, salsa verde, and a flourish of Sauce Vierge. Again, the complexity of flavors was well balanced, tiny potatoes, pea tendrils, and olives hinted to Provencal cuisine all melded beautifully with the star – tender, meaty, expertly prepared octopus with just a hint of chew.
Moving on to the fourth course (below): Roasted Venison with steel oats, heirloom carrots, fava beans, and violet mustard. Venison is a naturally lean meat and is best served rare or medium rare, if overcooked, it dries out and loses its tenderness. The meat was excellent, but would have been better had it been warmer and it was a little rare for my taste, but that didn’t stop me from savoring each forkful with the interesting pairing of steel-cut oats in a carrot puree, simply prepared crunchy favas and the unique violet mustard.
A suitably summery sweet ending of rustic strawberry rhubarb crumble sparked with lemon verbena gelato and a jaunty chapeau of the compressed fruit. Like a sophisticated take on your grandmother’s strawberry rhubarb crisp (or crumble).
While the decor is looking a little frayed around the edges and, judging from the empty tables, the restaurant is in need of a makeover to remain relevant, we enjoyed Chef’s creativity, the attentive service, and having the patio all to ourselves. This week Ghost the Musical began its two-week run at Segerstrom Hall. Our tickets aren’t until next Thursday and I’m battling the inevitable dilemma of choosing between a return to Chef Ramirez’s market fresh menu or checking out Patina sister Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge and their newly launched Broadway Seasonal Menu beginning with Executive Chef Ross Pangililan’s culinary interpretation of Sam & Molly’s love story in Ghost the Musical. Sounds provocative.
The Chef’s Market Tasting Menu at Pinot Provence is featured on Thursdays through August.
686 Anton Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge Broadway Seasonal Menu is uniquely tailored for each upcoming musical.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts
615 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Photo of Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall courtesy of Segerstrom Center.