Chapter One: the modern local, has always possessed an acumen for subdued sophistication. Nestled in the 1928 (former) Pacific Building in the Artists Village in Downtown Santa Ana, the interior evokes the comfort and timelessness of a home library or study. With its dark woods and craftsman design; quaint fireplace crackling in the corner; as well as dog-eared, vintage tomes lining the walls, it’s so cozy that you’ll want to curl up in a corner with a blankie as you relish their best-selling, fresh ginger-based Moscow Mule served in an authentic copper cup.
Whilst sipping on your Moscow Mule, you might even chance upon a Russian novel; notorious for their confusing name conjugations. If you’re familiar, you know that a singular character might be referred to in at least half a dozen mutilations based on terms of endearment and/or jest. In the same vein, Chapter One has Jason, Jei, Boy, RJei, Chicken Wang, Chef Chicken Wing or, more succinctly, Chef. All one person. In proper company, he is introduced as Chef Jason Montelibano, their new kitchen chief. Save for his signature, golden chicken wing pendant draped imposingly a la Flava Flav, Montelibano is as down to earth and humble as they come.
Chef Chicken Wing, as he has been fondly and publicly christened (you’ll have to ask him about the sordid details), began his apprenticeship with the restaurant on day one, during its rough draft. He diligently and zealously scaled the ladder starting as a dishwasher and ultimately landed the top rung. He has already made quick work of his role as Executive Chef — lauded as crowd favorite in a recent chef’s challenge at Scott’s Seafood Restaurant and as victor of Riviera Magazine’s “To Live & Dine” competition over twenty of Orange County’s best. Due to his profound grasp of Chapter One’s brand and culture, there remains a seamless continuity despite him editing his own inventive creations into the already voluminous roster of eats. Given his Filipino heritage, he’s proudly interjected a few native influences like adobo and sisig into the dining mainstream.
“When I revamped the menu I wanted to stay true to our concept and our guests. Regulars will notice that many of the dishes have a new spin and presentation, but with a familiarity. Like a 2.0 version,” explains Montelibano.
Their ever-growing number of ardent fans and rave reviews are a result of Chapter One’s innovative and cutting edge menu. Organized thematically into three categories: “Preface” (appetizers), “Body” (main course), and “Climax” (desserts) there is a conscientious focus on the SOL (sustainable, organic, local) principles. They pride themselves on sourcing only the best that California has to offer, as well as spanning the globe for additional ingredients for both their food and beverage programs.
On our recent visit to sample their Fall Menu, the fastidiousness did not falter from their aforementioned ideals and creative style. Evident in all of the dishes was Montelibano’s light-handed, deft execution and keen attention to detail.
Snack Plate: Cassoulet Scallop, Bird’s Nest, Salmon Croquette
We’re always on the lookout for a perfectly seared scallop and the succulent bivalve on our snack plate did not disappoint. Although cassoulets are traditionally made with duck confit and navy beans, the fist-sized U10 scallops, with its sweet caramelization, and the fast cooking lentils, made it quicker to warm the table with smiles. The creamy chive vinaigrette blended nicely to cut through the indulgent richness.
The Bird’s Nest is Chapter One’s leaner take on Scotch Eggs. Utilizing ground turkey instead of ground beef, the egg-centric orbs are less dense, but definitely not less in flavor. A mini-bed of frisée and a swab of mustard sauce gave it additional crunch and some acidity, while the dollop of maple bacon jam was a sweet and savory party in our mouth.
The Mad Men-esque appetizer of croquette with smoked salmon was given an elegant update with the addition of a caper-tarragon vinaigrette, parsley creme and tobiko caviar. The interplay of zesty, briny and herbaceous adorned the blank, but not bland, crunchy potato canvas.
Complemented with Moscow Mule: Spicy housemade ginger beer, Svedka Swedish vodka, Chase elderflower liqueur, lime
Seasonal Squash Salad
More often than not, a token salad is thrown into the dinner mix as a polite gesture for our non-carnivorous brethren. This particular one was so lovely in composition that no one would ever consider it a sidebar. Parmesan tuiles were broken up thoughtfully to resemble crushed nuts that others might just toss in haphazardly. Versatile enough of a salad to imbue any season, the candied nuggets of roasted squash elicited visions of holiday cornucopias dancing in our heads.
Complemented with Monkey Party: Illegal Joven, Looza banana juice, Stroh 80, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, egg white
Lamb & Gnocchi and The Tuna 2-Step
The Lamb & Gnocchi was Chef Montelibano’s aforementioned championship entry into Riviera Magazine’s “To Live and Dine” event this past August. Make your mama proud with this autumnal dish, as in one fell swoop it has all of your basic food groups. The gnocchi was plump, pillowy and not overwrought to render it too starchy. The curried granola kind of threw us for a loop, but the lamb ragout in all its beautiful, braised tenderness made up for it ten times over. In case you were wondering about the fruit element, it’s in the sprinkling of gremolata.
The Tuna 2-Step possessed decidedly Asian flavors and was presented almost as a yin and yang of hot and cold. Sesame panko-crusted and finished medium-rare, it resembled more that of a prime beef filet served with a stir-fry of bell peppers and an Oriental sauce comprised of spicy ginger, citrus, oyster sauce and soy. The tartare, on the other hand, veered into the realm of Thailand with its accompaniment of a mildly pungent salsa of roasted corn, scallions and cilantro. Peanut butter maltodextrin powder was a nice surprise, melting softly on the palate.
Complemented with Wine: Finca Los Primos/Sparkling Torrontes blend on the rocks
American Burger and Harvest Burger
What would a proper gastropub be without its representation of burgers. These slider versions start off with freshly ground sirloin, short rib and top round. Formed with just the right amount of pressure, the patties are firm yet not too packed, thereby giving way to a nice, juicy bite instead of a tough, dry chew. The brioche buns, on the other hand, were a bit too toasted that you could not sink your teeth into them without creating a mess of crumbs. Toppings included rosemary aioli, apple-onion jam, Havarti cheese and arugula for the Harvest and 72-hour brined Berkshire pork belly bacon, white cheddar fondue, roasted shallot pork jus aioli, tomato and lettuce for the American. We’re already salivating again just typing up these descriptions.
Complemented with Belly of the Beast: Housemade bacon bourbon, Luxardo cherry liqueur, Dolin vermouth, Kampot pepper tincture
Aside from Montelibano’s new designation, another wonderful addition to Chapter One is their event space aptly dubbed The Red Room — outwardly due to its sanguine color palette. But if you’re looking for literary allusions here, it’s more likely that it was named after the writer’s society founded in 1904 which includes Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners amongst its literati. As it exists today, The Red Room is a diverse, global community that fosters the idea that “writing transforms individuals and sometimes whole societies.”
The endless glass that wraps around The Red Room, the main dining and bar area allows passersby to people-watch as patrons from within are able to do the same — both showcasing the eclectic vibrancy of Downtown Santa Ana’s rebirth. As Chapter One: the modern local turns a new page with Chef Montelibano, the story only promises to unfold with more exciting twists and plot changes up ahead.
All photos: Brian Feinzimer of Feinzimer Photography
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