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By Lisa Jennings

Tim and Liza Goodell put Newport Beach, Calif., on the culinary map when they opened Aubergine in 1994.

At the time they were two relatively unknown young chefs with little business sense and a dream of opening their own restaurant. They fell in love with an aging building in what was once a funky fishing village on the Balboa peninsula south of Los Angeles and converted the former flower shop into a tiny 30-seat French restaurant, with Tim in the kitchen and Liza up front.

More than a decade later, the restaurant has accumulated many accolades.
The Los Angeles Times Magazine named it among California's top 75 restaurants, and the newspaper's dining critic S. Irene Virbila once described Tim as "one of the best chefs we have in Southern California."
Gourmet magazine called the food "lyrical" and described Aubergine as "a small miracle in a sea of mediocrity." Reviewers at the Orange County Register dubbed the Goodells "the closest thing we have to culinary royalty."

Not surprising, the Goodells have added considerably to their kingdom, which includes the hip small-plates venue Meson G in Los Angeles; Troquet and The Lodge and Village Bakery in Costa Mesa, Calif.; Red Pearl Kitchen in Huntington Beach, Calif., and soon San Diego; and several new concepts at the renovated Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

And Aubergine also has changes in store. Weeks of torrential rain in Southern California forced the Goodells to close the restaurant temporarily in mid-February for roof repair and other renovations. They moved Aubergine chef Josef Centeno to Meson G, where he continues to serve many of the same dishes previously served at Aubergine.

Now Tim is considering the possibility of moving Aubergine to Los Angeles.

"We've done well in Newport Beach for 10 years, but the majority of our business is from L.A. anyway, so it makes sense to move closer to our customer base," he says.

On the other hand, Aubergine has a loyal following in Orange County. "It's such a beautiful little building, and we own the property, so it's a hard call," Liza says.

Whether in Los Angeles or Newport Beach, Aubergine will be back and better than ever before, they both promise.

The restaurant has survived respites for renovation or reconfiguration in the past.

Aubergine opened in December 1994 two months after the Goodells got married. Navigating the complex permit process had taken more than a year with Liza often coming home from meetings with city officials in tears until Tim's father, a businessman, stepped in to help. "He came with me to one meeting and threatened to open a massage parlor in the building if they didn't let us do what we were trying to do," Liza says, laughing.

In the early days the menu was "rustic French with California influences,"
according to Liza. "Goat cheese was huge. And we were probably the first in the area to serve veal cheeks."

There was no fine china or glassware. There were only 10 wines available.
Bread was baked in-house in an old pizza oven.

But the quality of the food stole the show.

Aubergine was one of the first restaurants to bring "sophistication that wasn't stuffy" to Newport Beach, says Elizabeth Evans, dining critic for the Orange County Register. "Tim had a wonderful palate, and he also had a lot of fun with what he did. And Liza at the front-of-the-house was very warm and welcoming.

"Even at the beginning it felt like the people who ran Aubergine knew what they were doing," Evans adds.

Within the first few months that the restaurant was open, the Los Angeles Times gave it a glowing review.

"Imagine a sweet yellow house with small-paned windows trimmed in white, two tall trees out front, a diminutive dining room with just nine tables,"
Virbila wrote. "Where the cooking is French and the small menu changes every few days, where the saucy red-headed patronne pours glasses of Sancerre behind the zinc bar brightened with a bouquet of flowering plum branches.
Where, as you give your name, waiters rush by with baskets of freshly baked rolls fragrant with yeast. And from the open windows comes the faint tang of salt breeze.

"Daydreaming about the south of France? Mais non: thinking about the south of California and Aubergine . . . On a first visit, despite the wait for a table, I was completely charmed."

Tim's father, who had provided so much help and support for the project, died the following spring. But the couple was cheered by the fact that "he saw it was successful," Liza adds.

Not one to sit still, Tim later decided to take it up a notch. In 1997 the Goodells opened their second restaurant, Troquet, which was more of a bistro concept. The success of that venue allowed them to close Aubergine for a yearlong upgrade.

Not only did they expand the building, which now seats about 60, but the Goodells refined the dining room, with a more upscale look and menu. Rather than offering dishes à la carte, as they had previously, Tim created two prix-fixe menus a five-course and a nine-course option. Later, the Goodells brought back à la carte options, but the prix fixe menus continued to sell well, Liza says.

And when Aubergine reopened in 1998, the crowds came back.

As their company now called Domaine Restaurants grew, Tim spent less time in the kitchen at Aubergine. While the Goodells were operating the restaurant Whist at The Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., they hired Centeno as a sous chef. Tim quickly noticed Centeno's potential. The young chef had worked previously at celebrated restaurants, such as Vong, Daniel, La Côte Basque and Les Celebrites in New York and Charles Nob Hill and Manresa in Northern California.

Tim gave Centeno plenty of leeway to play with some of the long-running dishes. For example, Tim offered a pork belly with asparagus and morel mushrooms, while Centeno created a variation with avocado and thyme.

Centeno describes his style of cooking as "everything I like to eat all over the world, served simply."

But he notes that while he likes to use ingredients from across the globe, he doesn't fuse contrasting flavors. "I go for balance. I want food that's clean and that tastes like what it is," he says.

Dishes that stood out include Centeno's yellowtail tuna appetizer adorned with a gremolata of bacon, Meyer lemon and chives; a fried eggplant and cucumber salad with spiced yogurt and fresh leeks; and roast lamb with artichokes and black olives. For dessert: rhubarb panna cotta with vanilla ice cream and the ever-popular molten chocolate cake with caramel ice cream.

Two dishes that have held a spot on the menu over the years are the braised veal cheeks with root vegetables and potato purée, and the braised rabbit and foie gras pastilla with sherry and tarragon jus, the latter being one of the most popular.

When Aubergine reopens whether in Newport Beach or Los Angeles the restaurant likely will see a new chef. Centeno says he enjoys cooking in Los Angeles though he misses the more adventurous palates of his Newport Beach crowd. "L.A. is very meat and potatoes," he notes.

If Aubergine moves to Los Angeles, Tim said he will likely lease the Newport Beach building. Like Aubergine's fans, Tim says, "We'll have to wait and see."

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