Jason's Downtown Restaurant
by Rich Manning
Santa Ana is a difficult place to market a restaurant. So difficult, in fact, that some of the best strategies designed to get people to come to the city completely avoid naming the actual city itself. Case in point: South Coast Metro. Everyone knows that this successful region located just north of South Coast Plaza and the Arts district is merely southern Santa Ana in disguise. However, replacing the city’s true identity with a nickname that is far less intimidating has undoubtedly worked wonders for the area. For those whose restaurant is located within Santa Ana yet outside its pseudonym-protected sanctuary, pre-conceived notions are more than likely going to be a consequence to address.
This is a shame, because some areas in Santa Ana are making a valiant effort to combat the public’s perceptions of the town and soar above them. Sections like The Artist’s Village, located downtown in the shadow of the magnificent Ronald Reagan Federal Building. This collection of downtown-style storefronts found at the end of 4th Street is dripping with the potential to be a trendy neighborhood that would instantly rival Fullerton’s hip SOCO section or Old Town Orange. Admittedly, it does have quite a way to go before it can achieve such lofty heights, but it does already come equipped with Jason’s Downtown Restaurant, a relentlessly cool, sparkling venue that is the anchor to which the rest of The Artist’s Village can build around.
The area’s possibilities are beautifully manifested inside Jason’s colorful, chic space. Jason Kordas, executive chef and mastermind behind the eponymous restaurant, uses the building’s century old wood floor, brick walls, hammered tin ceiling, and earthquake retrofitting to his utmost advantage, integrating them with soothing colors and abstract art culled from local talents (fitting, given the area’s nickname). The result of his vision is a superbly stylish spot that would easily make a killing in San Francisco’s Union Square area, let alone some of the other chic sections of Orange County. The evening’s music that was emanating from the singer/guitarist perched near the front of the space was lovely and unobtrusive. I’m anxious to come back when the weather gets warmer to see how well the vibe translates to their sidewalk patio.
While it’s easy to get a bead on the ambience of Jason’s Downtown Restaurant, doing the same on the menu is a bit trickier, simply because Jason is definitely a man who thinks of food in global terms. If you were to ask me about the type of food served here, the best response I could give you is “yes,” because Jason’s menu reads like a culinary U.N. of sorts; a free-flowing confluence of different inspirations and ideals found the world over. And make no mistake: this is not the safe, garden variety international sprawl that one might find at a chain restaurant. There are some bold strokes going on here, as witnessed by some of the items my wife and I enjoyed on our meticulously arranged sampling of appetizers. The unusually shaped Cham-Lam Thai “Crescent Moons”—they resemble kettle drumsticks much more than a lunar body in shadow – managed to pack the sweet and subtly piquant flavors of a multi-course Thai dinner into each bite. The Corsican style calamari, served sans breading and immersed in a tangy mélange of garlic butter, lemon zest, capers, red onions, and white wine, had a delightfully citric note that reminded me of a perfectly prepared calamari steak. However, the plate’s showstopper was an intriguing creation called a California Rumaki. This is not your father’s rumaki, as the chicken livers and water chestnuts that are typically associated with the traditional Hawaiian dish
have been deftly replaced by ripe bananas wrapped in smoked bacon, and baked with a spiced brown sugar rum glaze. This heavenly morsel’s resulting clove-like aroma creates a fantastic blend of smoky, sweet, and spicy notes that sent both of our mouths into utter bliss. When you come here, you owe it to yourself to try this unique treat.
Our next stop on our worldwide culinary trek led us to France by way of Washington D.C., where we shared a re-creation of the seafood bisque that was served at President Obama’s inauguration dinner. Jason prepared the bisque as a weekend special, and it is my sincere hope that he will not wait until four more years before he rolls out this extraordinary dish. The creamy bisque made its presence known, but it did not interfere with the sweetness of the scallops, fish, and lobster, all of which were served in abundance. It made me thankful that our new Commander in Chief did not have a love for split pea, although I have complete confidence that Jason would be able to do something magical with that, too.
For my main course, I went south of the border – way south, down to Argentina – and had the prime skirt steak, which was marinated in a smoked enchilada sauce. The presentation of the dish was stunning – Jason managed to harness the dish’s elements together to create the appearance of a bouquet. The steak itself was one of the tenderest morsels of beef I’ve ever enjoyed, and the smoky tang of the marinade permeated through the cut, giving it a beautifully bold flavor. The accompanying mélange of corn pepper relish, cojita cheese, tortilla strips and rice infused with mushrooms and pine nuts combined with the steak to provide even more adventurous shades. The meal paired perfectly with the glass of Malbec Terrazas (an Argentinean wine, natch), whose sparse, dry tone helped preserve the meal’s unique presence on my taste buds. My wife, meanwhile, kept the French/American theme going and ordered the Brown Sugar Pork Chop Calvados. This turned out to be far and away the evening’s biggest surprise. Simply stated, I have never encountered a piece of pork that was so ready to melt in my mouth than the bite my wife begrudgingly shared with me. The apple brandy cream sauce that covered the chop gave it a delicately fruity tone, and the carmelized Granny Smith apple that came with the dinner could stand on its own as a decadent dessert. The glass of Newton Red Label Chardonnay that went with her meal provided an exquisite buttery yin to the dish’s yang.
We stayed closer to home for our dessert. My wife opted for the layered tuxedo cake, which is essentially a decadent tiramisu which is made delightfully tart via a rich raspberry topping. Meanwhile, the red velvet cake I enjoyed was delicious, although some people may find it a little too sweet for their tastes.
If, in a couple years from now, The Artist Village transforms itself into the hip, happening area that is currently lurking about the shadows of its sidewalks, venues like Jason’s Downtown Restaurant will deservedly earn recognition of being a prime mover in such a change. After all, it has already earned a reputation as being the shining example of what wondrous heights the area could achieve.