Knife Pleat’s delicate crudo showcases chef Tony Esnault’s artful plating. PHOTO BY ANNE WATSON
Capping off 2021 with its first Michelin star, Knife Pleat joins Taco María and Hana re as the third restaurant in Orange County to receive the coveted award. Here, the famed chefs behind each unique concept recall their paths to success—and hint at what’s to come.
Knife Pleat occupies a stylish 5,000-square-foot space on the penthouse level of South Coast Plaza INTERIOR PHOTO BY TOM BONNER
Prior to debuting Knife Pleat (knifepleat.com) on the penthouse level of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza in July 2019, renowned French chef Tony Esnault and his wife, restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi, earned much acclaim for their Los Angeles collaborations, Church & State and Spring. “The somewhat simple bistro fare of Church & State was more like what Tony cooked at home growing up rather than what he’d spent his professional years mastering and refining,” says Sarmadi of the Arts District favorite. “But the fun and playfulness of that environment allowed us to grow into the more refined atmosphere of Spring, and eventually, into what we do now.”
Chef Tony Esnault and his wife, restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi. PHOTO BY ANNE WATSON
Born in France’s Loire Valley, Esnault worked at Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe as well as at New York’s Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and Adour at the St. Regis. He took the helm of Downtown L.A.’s Patina in 2009, where he incorporated the fresh ingredients that also now serve as the foundation for Knife Pleat. “[My inspiration is] mostly the south of France and its abundance of beautiful produce, much of which is very similar to what we have in Southern California,” Esnault says. “While we eat more simply at home than what the restaurant menu offers, the ethos is the same: clean, organic ingredients combined together in a way that shows appreciation for each and allows each flavor to sing without being muddled by too much going on each plate.” Adds Sarmadi, “People in the U.S. tend to associate French cuisine with rich, heavy, saucy, protein-heavy dishes; this isn’t modern French cuisine. Tony’s cooking is light, bright and has a reverence for vegetables.”
Sophisticated yet approachable dishes include the Crescent Farm duck breast PHOTO BY ANNE WATSON
The pair’s favorite offerings include the escargot, caviar service, duck, truffle brie, champignon, and the Supreme and Yoji Yamato cocktails. “Our weekly tasting menus on Friday nights have become so popular that we’ve expanded them to Saturday dinners,” Sarmadi says of the six-course prix fixe with wine pairings. The restaurant’s decor echoes its approach to the food: sophisticated but approachable. Johnson Fain designed the stylish 5,000-square-foot space—whose name nods to the intermingling of the fashion and culinary worlds—with an open kitchen, Calacatta marble-topped bar and private patio. “Our main goal was to create a warm, elegant dining room that felt more like our home,” Sarmadi says.
While their journey has been marked by uncertainty—“We opened and closed a restaurant in its infancy, then reopened and closed several more times,” Sarmadi notes—in September, Knife Pleat became the third Orange County restaurant to receive a Michelin star. The duo hopes to only continue growing. “In a relatively short and extremely challenging time, we’ve come to feel that Orange County is our home,” says Esnault. “As such, it’s all the more gratifying to have earned this star here.”
Taco María utilizes corn directly from Mexico and fresh California produce in dishes, such as the quesadilla PHOTO BY: ANNE WATSON
“It really all began with the tortilla,” says Taco María (tacomaria.com) chef and owner Carlos Salgado, who explains that corn is as fundamental to Mexican cuisine as flour is to a French bakery. “It was obvious to me that finding a better corn and exploring the process of making the tortilla would yield a better product.”
Salgado utilizes heirloom corn directly from Mexico in the daily made tortillas he serves alongside entrees. “The way that we eat Mexican food at home is a spread of delicious things to be eaten with tortillas,” he says. Other menu highlights, like the mole he’s refined over 10 years and is currently serving with confit duck leg, employ fresh California produce in “reimaginings” of the food he grew up with.
Born in Orange to parents from two different states of Mexico (Guadalajara and Guerrero) who ran restaurants, Salgado’s food is an expression of his mixed identity and exposure to both Mexican regionalism and Mexican Americanism. After honing his craft at Michelin-starred San Francisco and Oakland restaurants like Daniel Patterson’s Coi and James Syhabout’s Commis—where he became accustomed to a multicourse menu—Salgado returned to his hometown and tried out his concepts via a food truck. In 2013, he and his now-wife, Emilie, opened Taco María, an occasion restaurant offering a prix fixe four-course progression of “very precisely dialed dishes with really bold flavors” in Costa Mesa. Also a woodworker, Salgado built the elegant dining room to reflect his cooking style: “the best materials treated simply, but with respect.” He named it after his mother, María, the proper first name of every mother and sister in his culture. “I wanted people to approach it believing they knew what it was, and then finding something different and surprising,” he says.
Chef and owner Carlos Salgado draws from Mexican regionalism and Mexican Americanism. PHOTO BY: ANTONIO DIAZ
Salgado first became a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: West in 2016, and in 2019, Taco María was one of two Orange County restaurants to receive a Michelin star. “I didn’t think we would ever be on the radar for the Michelin Guide. I thought it would be a little neighborhood restaurant in my hometown,” says Salgado. “To see a Mexican restaurant and my mom’s name in print in the Michelin Guide was especially validating and exciting.”
After shifting to an a la carte coursed menu during the pandemic, Salgado aims to reintroduce a prix fixe with an elongated tasting menu of five to seven courses, as well as to reinstate lunch or brunch. He notes, “I’m hoping we can create a refined and improved version of a more approachable daytime experience for people.”
Hana re at Costa Mesa’s The Lab Anti-Mall is an omakase concept serving dishes like ainame fish PHOTO COURTESY OF HANA RE
“The concept of Hana re is ‘petite yet deep,’” says chef Atsushi Yokoyama, whose answers were translated from Japanese. Originally from Yokohama, Japan, Yokoyama came to the U.S. 27 years ago and worked with chef Takashi Abe at his eponymous sushi spot, Abe, on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula and his subsequent Bluefin at Crystal Cove Shopping Center. Teaming up with restaurateur Fred Fukushima in 2004, the two opened sushi restaurant Zipangu at Costa Mesa’s The Lab Anti-Mall— where Yokoyama wowed Fukushima. “As in our concept, ‘petite yet deep,’ his strength is that he never stops learning,” Fukushima says.
Yokoyama served as chef of Fukushima’s Irvine restaurant Ayame and, later, at Kagura in Anaheim, but the pair rejoined forces in 2015 to open Hana re (hanaresushi.com) in the now-defunct Zipangu space, which was divided into two venues. The unassuming building hidden behind The Lab houses the intimate omakase concept—which consists of three small dining tables and a sushi counter, or “chef’s table,” with 10 seats. “This is the most chef Atsushi can handle by himself to maintain Hana re’s concept,” Fukushima explains. “We wanted to open a small restaurant such as the ones that exist in Tokyo or New York, [at] which only chef Atsushi can perform to make the customers satisfied. Atsushi wanted to pursue his passion for food further using the most carefully selected seasonable ingredients, such as California farm-grown vegetables and fresh fish from Japan, to create gentle and simple dishes.”
Chef Atsushi Yokoyama prepares delicacies including tsubugai. PHOTO COURTESY OF HANA RE
The draw of the menu is the omakase, during which Yokoyama gauges patrons’ reactions and curates an unforgettable experience. Known for dishes like shima ebi—Hokkaido sweet shrimp with spring cabbage puree—and unagi—freshwater eel and foie gras with daikon radish risotto— Yokoyama utilizes ingredients like foie gras, uni, Japanese A5 wagyu beef, caviar, abalone, lobster and sea urchin. Guests can toast with a wide selection of sakes and end on a sweet note with desserts such as panna cotta. Yokoyama humbly says he’s still on his way, but adds, “I always make sure to try my best to make the customers pleased.”
In 2016, Yokoyama was crowned chef of the year by the Orange County Register, and in 2019, the restaurant received one Michelin star. Yokoyama was honored: “Michelin was only focusing on the San Francisco and L.A. areas before, but now that they are watching O.C. as well, that should help bring more high-end restaurants and great chefs to the area.” Currently serving a single chef-driven omakase menu, Yokoyama and Fukushima hope that in the future they can support local young chefs, farmers and fishermen through pop-up events and collaborations.