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I'm pretty sure that at some point in his life, Noah Blom has fried an egg on an electric stove or microwaved a frozen burrito. But walking into ARC Restaurant, his new restaurant at the OC Mix (formerly known as OC Mart Mix), you would have to conclude the man believes Daniel Boone did it right—that if you're going to cook something, you need to chop down a tree for fuel.
3321 Hyland Ave., Ste. F
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
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Directly outside the glass-encased triangle that serves as both dining room and kitchen, he has stacked the firewood waist-high. There's another tall column behind the hostess and more next to the entrance. Blom is not kidding around with the stuff: ARC restaurant uses the logs—and only those logs—to cook everything from the potatoes to the calamari. There are no gas hookups, no dials on the ovens, no Fryolators. For the first time, the word "rustic" would not be squandered here. Heck, the whole operation is downright Amish. From where I sat, I observed only two cooking apparati, both fueled by a roaring wood fire. One is an oven into which the cooks shove cast-iron skillets through a gaping hole at the front while red-hot logs crackle at the back. There's also a glowing pit of a grill that has a gigantic wagon-wheel metal crank that lowers and lifts grates, all of it resembling the platform Dr. Frankenstein used to bring his monster to life.
No matter whether it comes from the oven or the grill, everything the kitchen produces is imprinted with wood smoke whether you like it or not. In fact, you will soon smell and taste of smoke—the smell will seep into every inch of your clothing, from your loafers to your skivvies. And when you next take a shower, you will, for the first time, heed the instructions on your shampoo bottle, rinsing, lathering, then repeating. It's the only way to keep the smoke molecules from making a permanent home in your follicles.
Blom—who could be Orlando Bloom's more masculine older brother—worked for Daniel Boulud in New York, opened restaurants for Laurent Tourondel's empire, and did a pair of concepts in San Francisco. ARC seems to be a stripped-down-to-the-essentials reboot of his career. It's an eatery that, despite the pointless "oven-to-table" blurbs on its website and marketing material, is actually a place serving upmarket camping food and stiff, old-timey cocktails with whole hunks of ice. But the prices are reasonable, with nothing costing more than $15, and the commitment it makes by cooking only with firewood is admirable, even if it sounds unnecessarily gimmicky.
The menu reads as though it's a haiku—economical with its descriptions, spare with its words. Take the calamari: "potato. lemon. pepper." I haven't quite figured out whether I want to order the "veg" described as "farm, fire, love" or ask for a rewrite. But you want that calamari. The cut-up tentacles and squid meat wiggle and squeak perfectly, flanked by shishito peppers burned to a crinkle and potatoes roasted until the skins char. A dose of acid from vinegar and lemon lifts the dish to heights that most fried calamari can't reach.
Blom's dish of pork and beans is much more understated, perhaps the second-best thing served in the cast-iron skillets because it really does feel as though it's something you'd eat by a campfire. Simmered in the searing metal, pinkish hunks of hog tear away in moist shreds, but the subtly sweet white beans are kind of soupy and bland, in need of a shake or two of salt. If beans aren't your thing but you still want pork, you could try the bacon, which is actually a side dish that has two hand-sliced, foot-long rulers of smoked pig belly oven-roasted just short of charcoal and chewing as if they were crossed with a Slim Jim.
ARC isn't yet perfect. The cooks still need time to get used to the impreciseness of Blom's chosen fuel. Some things are overcooked to a near-rubbery state, such as the steak; some things tend to be undercooked, such as the potatoes. (I encountered a few morsels that were still too firm in the middle even though the skin on the outside was blistered black.) A fist-sized boulder of fish with corn salsa was also slightly dry, but the meatball dish that included a roasted half-head of garlic and sugary crushed tomatoes was damn near perfect; toast sourced from Dean Kim's OC Baking Co. topped it.
Blom shows he's nothing if not adaptable—he has recently started offering the meatballs as a bona fide sandwich during lunch. But, yes, your clothes will still reek of that sweet, sweet smoke.
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