For Orange County chefs Ross Pangilinan and Nicholas Weber, opening a restaurant together seemed inevitable.
The friends and business partners met while working at the Patina Restaurant Group under renowned restaurateur Joachim Splichal.
“We would always work the same station because we had the most dishes and all the specials off our station,” said Pangilinan.
“We always worked well together, like a dance,” said Weber. “It was a good time.”
Both found success in the industry, Pangilinan as owner and operator of his global food concepts, Terrace by Mix Mix at South Coast Plaza, Mix Mix Kitchen & Bar in Santa Ana and ReMix Kitchen Bar in Long Beach, and Weber as executive chef at 24 Carrots Catering Events and at Downtown Disney’s Catal Restaurant and the Cannery in Newport Beach.
Today the duo opens their latest concept, Populaire, at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The modern Cal-French bistro takes over the space formerly occupied by Lawry’s Carvery, with an indoor and outdoor patio on Level 2 in the Saks Fifth Avenue Wing and features fine French food with a California twist in an approachable setting. Pangilinan is taking on a business partner role while Weber will be Populaire’s main chef.
“I just wanted it to reflect my personality,” said Weber. “Both of us grew up working in French restaurants, but it was always white tablecloth, and I wanted it more comfortable, casual and a place that I would want to hang out.”
The restaurant boasts cool blues and purples with an elegant floral wallpaper mural juxtaposed with art and posters featuring the Beastie Boys and the Ramones.
“A lot of the stuff is just stuff that hung in my house, stuff I collected through the years,” said Weber. “The Beastie Boys poster, I bought that in 1995 when it came out.”
“Nick is putting all of his touches on it,” said Pangilinan.
Weber also adds his touch to the food, riffing on classic French cuisine while incorporating distinct West Coast flavors. A duck confit spliff from the hors d’oeuvres section of the menu, for example, is a dish Weber calls “tongue in cheek” and serves with cucumber, cilantro and nuoc cham, lending bold Vietnamese flavors.
“I just wanted to have fun with it, but also ‘keep it simple, stupid,'” said Weber. “We don’t want to overthink it.”
The menu also offers escargot, with the snails cleverly encased in sauerkraut aebelskivers and served with a buttermilk sauce and parsley oil, which makes for a dish that is more ranch-dipped fritter than garlic-drowned mollusk.
The menu will be seasonally influenced too.
“Seasonal stuff makes it easy, but it already tastes good when we buy it,” Weber said. “Right now our fish dish is a swordfish belly with English peas, fava beans and pea tendrils in a caviar beurre blanc. We probably have about four or five more weeks of the peas, then maybe it is sweet corn or whatever comes in.”
Rounding out the team is pastry chef Margeaux Aragon and Alyssa McDiarmid, formerly of Marche Moderne, in charge of wine.
Together, Pangilinan and Weber say they hope to curate an elevated but still casual experience.
“I just want people to feel like they are our house at a dinner party, just having fun,” said Weber. “They should leave here wanting to come back.”
For hours and reservations visit popularaireoc.com.
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