I waited nearly a year for Ecco to open at the Camp in Costa Mesa. It’s not that I was necessarily looking forward to another Italian restaurant, with Pizzeria Ortica and Il Dolce already existing in the same city. I was more interested in seeing how it would play out and contribute to the Camp’s evolution from an outdoor gearhead’s hangout to a restaurant nexus.
For a while, it didn’t look like Ecco was going to happen. After seeing other concepts die in development, I was ready to write it off. Rasta Taco, the long-planned Caribbean taco joint, had big dreams but never materialized. Ecco appeared just as stillborn.
Then, suddenly, it was open. And with its birth, the Camp’s foodie prospects re-energized. It’s buzzing with a momentum that confirms the mall—once also home to a scuba-diving school—is transforming into an eclectic restaurant mecca. The ratio of eateries to shops is growing by the moment.
Just weeks ago, a walk-up window called East Borough debuted and is now assembling bánh mì and pouring Vietnamese iced coffee on an outdoor deck. In the coming months, the Haven Gastropub folks plan to open a fusion taco joint there, presumably in front of the patch of grass that used to be the scuba shop’s diving pool.
And the month-old Ecco? It’s holding its own against the standbys of Mesa and Old Vine, thanks to former Sage On the Coast chef Kris Kirk, who works the stove.
Inside the new restaurant, it’s perpetually dark even when the doors are flung wide open. Brick, marble and concrete add a feng-shui balance and antidote to the outdoor scrap-metal sculptures that look as though they could hurt you. The bar area has a window for a wall. And as decorative elements, they’ve placed antique blowtorches retrofitted with light bulbs around the room. It’s a conversation starter, just like the food.
Chat about how rarely you see Grana Padano, a Parmesan-like hard cheese Ecco uses in measured amounts on practically everything. Or the peaches paired with prosciutto, arugula and blubbery burrata—a dish with all the major food groups (fruit, veg, dairy and pig) represented. Or how you could’ve never imagined eating tempura squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese—a sophisticate’s version of the jalapeño popper.
Then meet the in-season squash blossoms again in the house pizza with burrata and summer squash sliced into coins. On a pizza simply labeled “seasonal,” figs melt into marmalade, hidden under a pile of wild arugula. It’s all good enough to excuse how the accumulated moisture dampens the thin-crusted pie into limpness. You won’t be able to pick up the floppy slice with your hands; a fork and knife are required here.
Your fingers are all that are needed for the breaded calamari spears. They bite as tender as you’d expect. But what makes the dish are the crispy deep-fried herbs Kirk sprinkles all over. You’re more likely to fight over who gets to run a wetted thumb to pick up the last few specks than the last piece of squid.
But the dish that represents the restaurant is the half-chicken. Like the Camp itself, it looks challenging to navigate. It’s brown, dark and crispy where it isn’t Hulk-green from the heavily herbed marinade. You ready yourself to get hands and fingers dirty, thinking there’s a bone-in barbecued chicken in front of you. It’s only after you finish the plate that you realize it’s all edible—not a trace of bone or cartilage to be found, just moist pink meat and deliciously rendered skin.
Strewn about for contrast and starch, cannellini beans can be mistaken for overgrown Tic Tacs and burst like buttery mashed potatoes stuffed into capsules. The most challenging thing to eat turns out to be the braised strands of kale. Since it’s as long as dreadlocks and a bit tough, it’s ornery to handle and to chew. But it does seem to absorb the puddled chicken au jus as well as a Rastafarian hairdo attracts ganja smoke.
Then there’s the orecchiette pasta, a rare thing to see at any Italian restaurant these days since the ear-shaped things are prone to clumping in the pot if you’re not paying attention. Ecco’s are done with care, each convex, diminutive cup distinct and individual, looking like Smurf hats and fittingly served with mushrooms, olive oil, Swiss chard and unsheathed Italian sausage sautéed into crumbles.
Yes, Ecco is a good sign of things to come for the Camp. Where there was once just a notably good vegan restaurant housed in a yurt, there is now also an Indonesian/German sausage house and this, an Italian restaurant that introduces the granola set to Grana Padano.
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Ecco, 2937 Bristol St., Ste. A103, Costa Mesa, (714) 444-3226; eccocm.com. Open for lunch daily, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner, Tues.-Wed., 5-11 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Pizzas, $12-$15; pastas, $12-$17; entrées, $20-$23. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Cannellini Camp: Ecco elevates the Camp from gearhead’s hangout to foodie nexus."