People ask food critics such unimaginative questions. What's your favorite restaurant? Where should I eat? Do you really eat everything you write about?
Every food critic I know secretly wants home cooking. They want to go to a place and not have to be anonymous or photograph the food; they want simple food cooked simply, the best ingredients available, and wine. Lots of wine. Food critics require a lot of wine.
All of us have our places. I'm not going to tell you where Edwin's is (it's the same as Gustavo's, which should really shock no one), but mine is Anaïs+Raya at Picnics Kitchen in Costa Mesa.
Picnics was always sort of a hidden gem, a place with a lot of cheese and some small plates and a better-than-average wine selection. Unfortunately, it's in kind of a cursed location; it's tucked away in a plaza on 17th Street whose sign is invisible until you're almost too late to turn.
Enter Anaïs Tangie, who manages the SoCo Farmers Market, and Raya Belna, formerly of the Seabirds truck (of Great Food Truck Race fame). They made arrangements with the owners of Picnics Kitchen to set up a few different businesses in there. Raya makes raw foods and runs the Wildcraft Elixir Bar.
There's an enormous kitchen in the back of Picnics that has an angled mirror for demonstrations, and a long table with seats for people to watch.
During the week, Anaïs and Raya have started conducting classes in the space, with raw foods followed by the first in a series called Man Can Cook led by local Renaissance man Michael Harris. I'll be teaching a basic knife-skills class (spoiler alert: don't balance your index finger on the spine of the knife) and working with Michael on a Man Can Cook class involving meat.
The best day to go, though, is Sunday: reserve a spot at the weekly Farmers Market Feast, where you'll be invited into the kitchen to see a multi-course meal being prepared from produce "rescued" from the SoCo Farmers Market. The meal costs $30 to sit in the front room and $40 at the "chef's table" in the kitchen; you can buy wine there (glasses are $5 or $6, bottles are $20) or BYOB for a small fee--Hi-Time is just down the street.
One recent meal was grapefruit and plum agua fresca; green beans, yellow squash, and almond flour-dusted baked eggplant dipped in a green onion and cashew dip; barbecued chicken and pork tenderloin; corn and cauliflower purée; zucchini fritters with cashew "cream" cheese; sautéed kale with apple cider vinegar; and dessert with a homemade energy drink, a chocolate-avocado truffle, coconut bar, and fresh cherries.
This past Sunday, because it was approximately four thousand degrees outside, the meal was simpler: Greek salad, crudités with hummus, quinoa tabbouleh, spanakopita tart, grilled free-range turkey köfte, and lavash. Dessert was a raw baklava which, while not exactly calling to mind the wonder of Sarkis Pastry, was refreshing and just enough to sate the sweet tooth.
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Anaïs and Raya also have produce from the markets for sale, should you miss the weekend markets, and they sell products ranging from Raya's raw vegan cupcakes to whole fruit sorbet to kombucha. They sell sandwiches, as Picnics did, and plenty of vegetables to go with it.
It feels like eating in someone's home; it's exactly that sort of hygge feeling that draws me back week after week.
Picnics Kitchen is located at 435 E. 17th St. #7, Costa Mesa; (949) 478-4857; anaisandraya.com.
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