On a recent August evening, chefs Ross Pangilinan and Nick Weber stood on the third-floor terrace of the soon-to-open Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), a terra-cotta-paneled building that will soon house more than 4,500 works of art. Wearing construction hats and bright yellow vests, the two looked below at the courtyard leading to Segerstrom Concert Hall where they’ll open Verdant, a mostly plant-based cafe and coffee bar, in October. The 53,000-square-foot museum will feature a performance and education hall adjacent to the restaurant, allowing visitors to gather for programs and art-driven food tastings.
Verdant’s opening marks the chefs’ second joint culinary venture in six months. Their first project, the French bistro Populaire at South Coast Plaza, opened on June 1 and has already been given high marks by outgoing Orange County Register food critic Brad A. Johnson. Around the same time, Pangilinan began to consider winding down operations at his Michelin-rated Santa Ana restaurant Mix Mix Kitchen and Bar, the six-year-old restaurant that took him from fine dining obscurity directly to the people.
“Before COVID-19, that’s when we were at our peak,” says Pangilinan of the now-closed Mix Mix Kitchen and Bar. The pandemic took a heavy toll, not just on his restaurant but on much of Santa Ana, leading to long stretches of quiet streets that once hummed with evening and weekend energy. Heavy construction on the forthcoming OC Streetcar line nearby compounded the problems, and employees occasionally dealt with graffiti and other issues on the front sidewalks. “The city of Santa Ana was great. They built us a patio so we could seat people outside,” says Pangilinan. “But it never came back to 100 percent.”
After more than half a decade helping to redefine Santa Ana’s thrumming dining scene, Pangilinan put the restaurant and its liquor license into escrow and walked away. The business was not just a big step into the spotlight for the shy chef, it had been the genesis of a growing empire that now includes Long Beach’s ReMix and Terrace by Mix Mix at South Coast Plaza. Just like that, the heart of Pangilinan’s operation had stopped beating. Though the closure was a difficult decision, it freed up the time and energy in Pangilinan’s life to reassess his next steps and consider new projects.
Last year, the prominent Segerstrom family behind South Coast Plaza approached Pangilinan with a proposition. They were pleased with the success of his globally inspired modern American restaurant Terrace by Mix Mix, and wanted him to help further rehab underutilized culinary spaces at the sprawling upscale shopping center. “They were like, ‘If you ever have an idea for something, let us know,’” says Pangilinan. He immediately thought of his longtime friend Weber.
Pangilinan and Weber have a winding history together, beginning with their stints at Pinot Provence in 2004. At the time, Weber was the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, while Pangilinan was a young line cook. Weber went on to become one of Orange County’s most sought-after high-end catering chefs after years with Patina Restaurant Group and at the Cannery in Newport Beach. When Pangilinan found himself homesick and dreading the hotel grind while working in Las Vegas, Weber convinced him to return to Orange County and build the life he wanted. The pace would be slower, says Weber, but the rewards would last longer.
When the opportunity at South Coast Plaza arose, Weber was interested but hesitant. The pair had previously tried to partner on a separate project years ago, the short-lived Blanca in Newport Beach. But neither one was fully ready and the restaurant floundered as a result. The closure set them both back; Weber returned to a structured life of catering — a place where he thrived but never truly felt at home. “When you’re at someone else’s [business], there’s always limitations on what you can do,” says Weber. “They have their ideas and opinions about how the menu should be executed.” Weber’s idea of having a restaurant all his own remained.
The South Coast Plaza project seemed like a risk on a few fronts, but the alternative felt like its own liability. Eventually Weber and Panalingan landed on a French bistro concept, a nod to the beginning of their friendship and joint culinary careers. French cuisine was in their wheelhouse and it was the kind of food they both missed cooking, says Weber.
Following construction and a whirlwind of hiring, Populaire opened in June 2022. Pangilinan takes a back seat, while Weber runs the kitchen. The menu includes ebelskivers (Dutch-style pancake balls) stuffed with buttery escargot, and a short rib burger, too. The bistro also sells plenty of duck — the breast seared off and sliced and the confit leg meat wrapped up like a Vietnamese egg roll. It’s charming and fun, an ideal mix of playfulness and bistro seriousness set against the backdrop of some of Orange County’s most expensive retail real estate.
Running one restaurant, even with your closest friend, is challenging enough — now the chefs are readying for their second. The third-floor Verdant opens in a few short days. With limited space and even less time, the pair are planning to open with a tight menu of grab-and-go items and simple sit-down meals, a departure from Populaire’s bistro fare but no less difficult.
The arrival also puts Pangilinan and Weber back at the Segerstrom Concert Hall campus where they first met 18 years ago. Their full-circle friendship is still spinning along and now includes two restaurants, two families, a few restaurant closures, and a lifetime spent cooking in Orange County.