Friday, May 9, 2008

Mesa - A hidden gem

On a busy corner
in an unmarked building
lies the essence of LA Orange County.

The first visit left us stunned. The next was like a private party. After that, even better. So after three, I think a review is long overdue.

Adjacent to a filling station and quietly occupying a former pool hall, you can't say for sure if you're at the right location. Read about it briefly while scouring for a new place to dine last year. Our most recent foray found us being carded! I feel so old, but admittedly look youthful for my thirtyish years. I owe it all to mom. We request a table in our favorite server's section. She welcomes us with hugs.

The menu has gone thru a number of changes since opening. The previous chef was considered avant garde for the area. He was not only forced to simplify his menu, he started compromising his vision and decided to leave. The focus now shifted to small plates, thanks to the former chef de cuisine of Suzanne Goin's revered A.O.C. Coincidentally, it was the last place I recall ordering any.

L is excited to go over the most recent additions with us. We nod, smile, and think to ourselves, "OMFG. This is going to be one tasty meal" Let's get started.

As much as I crave charcuterie, I allow myself to expand my palette to their other specialties. Note to self: must order the artisinal salami and four cheeses with marcona plus jam NEXT time. Fried baby artichokes are bursts of flavor. I discovered my new adoration of fennel. Do you have any idea how tasty fried chickpeas are? Better than edamame.

D and K help themselves to an order of halibut in black rice polenta, ramps, and spring onions. I go ahead and savor my farrotto grains cooked risotto style with mushrooms and pecorino. The table is silent except for the clink of utensils.

Scallops pay a visit with blood oranges, pea tendrils and almonds. These are not your run-of-the-mill mollusks. They are big for a small plate. It left them wanting more. English peas imparted their sweetness onto ricotta gnocchi and hint of curry.

The signature Mesa burger is accessorized with gruyere, carmelized onions and house frittes seasoned with rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme. While it may sound like they went heavy handed on the herbs, this pair did not overpower our taste buds. It was actually a bit mild to us.

I must pause to comment on the room. One wall is literally covered in ivy and streamlined seats. Seen only at Bastide, I think the 'texture' is genius. A single communal table holds one sizable dinner party. Booths occupy half of the space. The rest is undeniably cool, particularly if you are needing some air. Thanks to a retractable roof and efficient HVAC, cigarettes are welcome. They've even added the option of literally dining beneath the stars. Top that off with a nifty wine dispensing system that is also proudly displayed at Marche Moderne. This is a stellar combination.

We're back to discuss the talk of our table: duck sausage crepinette. L describes in a hushed tone that it resembles "a big meatball", but should not be using such analogies. For as long as I've been dining on duck, I have not been so impressed until this evening. Savory. Juicy. It is a pinnacle moment. I forgot to mention the duck fat fries that accompany. You heard me.

Before I can even look at dessert it is time to take a breather. A brisk stretch across the room and I encounter the Twilight Zone. Overhead, a film is projected onto the wall. On either side is a line of nondescript doors. Their only distinguishing feature, a red or green glow above their entry. A bit intimidating at first glance, I make my decision and reach for a handle. West Elm sleek meets private jet lavatory in this modest compartment. A bath all to yourself, and not having to share a mirror? Open waiting space, a warming fire, and not feeling envious of men's room availability. Priceless.

We order five desserts, and are comped for three. Our initial round of Persecco and additional white are also removed. We are surrounded by sweets, two of which aren't even offered yet. I would feel guilty to discuss such richness, but I am not shy about the brown sugar cupcake or dulce de leche bread pudding. Buttermilk ice cream is unorthodox in my book, but I make an effort to give it a go. Their grown up sundae is an updated classic featuring cashew brittle, Jameson toffee and toasted cashews. A foursome of tea presses and two and a half hours later, we are ready to call it a night.

Thank you, Mr. Swift for saving us the trouble of going the extra hundred plus miles for a dining journey. We won't be back soon enough.

725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa
* Come on, I'm not divulging everything.

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