Bistango has been around for 26 years and is still going strong, perhaps even better than ever. This could be attributed to its chameleon-like nature.
By day, it is a power lunchtime gathering place, located in the atrium of a tall office building. By night, it is a grown-up, fine-dining restaurant (but not stuffy) that also features a bar area with a happy hour and tapas, as well as live music and a dance floor.
It has always been a very attractive venue. The large space is divided into several areas by curved walls, so the noise level is manageable. Soft lighting creates atmosphere, while a tasteful black and red color scheme and rotating artwork complete the décor. There is a separate dining area in the atrium with suspended umbrellas and outdoor furniture and plants.
Our waiter brought us some particularly good, warm, crusty La Brea bread with excellent butter to munch on while we made our choices.
We were delighted to see duck leg confit on the menu since this French classic doesn't appear very often any more. Chefs don't seem to want to take the time to do it properly, and short cuts just don't produce the same effect. A confit is a centuries-old way of preserving meat in which the meat (most often duck, goose or pork) is salted and slowly poached in its own fat. Then the meat is packed into a crock or pot and covered with the cooking fat to seal it. It can then be refrigerated up to 6 months (or several weeks in a plastic container).
Bistango does it the right way, and it is wonderful. The leg of Muscovy duck had some really crispy skin and moist, tender and slightly salty flesh. There was also a small piece of breast meat on the plate. The confit was served with a little salad of peppery arugula, sweet strawberries, salty feta and candied pecans, all in a light balsamic vinaigrette: a lovely balance of flavors and textures.
Very meaty crab and lobster cakes were replete with seafood and had very little filler. The cakes had a nice crusty brown exterior. They were resting on a wonderful roasted tomato-pepper relish with a bit of heat and a few ripe cherry tomatoes.
The restaurant's take on paella was called Sea Land and Sky and had tiny sweet mussels, big, plump and juicy prawns and two kinds of sausage, one dry and one spicy. It was oddly topped with a small chunk of steak to fulfill the requirements of the title. The paella rice was very fluffy and tasty and wasn't the expected saffron scented version, but rather had a slightly sweet taste and was studded with bits of red and green peppers, peas and corn. Altogether, it was a lovely dish.
Much simpler, but equally good, was the hanger steak with its crusty char. Nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked, it came with rounds of sautéed potatoes and rested on a bed of spinach.
We were delighted with our servers' recommendation for dessert, the chocolate parfait. This layered tower of deliciousness had a dark chocolate ganache on top, and digging down, we discovered creamy layers of medium and light chocolate and a vanilla layer for contrast. There was also a tart raspberry sauce on the bottom … one yummy mouthful after another.
Perhaps no dessert could successfully follow that, but we tried the crème brulee and were not impressed. The burnt sugar topping was crackly but lacked a deep caramel flavor. The custard itself lacked depth, and the madeleines on the side were also a bit tasteless.
Other than the final dessert, we had a very exceptional meal in a beautiful setting with a very acceptable noise level and, even better, nice cool jazz in the background.
Where: 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine
When: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday
Appetizers: $8.75 to $21
Entrées: $17.75 to $49
Desserts: $8 to $10.50
Bottles: $34 to $424
By the glass: $4 to $29.95
Corkage fee: $18
Information: (949) 752-5222 or http://www.bistango.com