Mare Culinary Lounge Is the Pixar of OC Italian
I knew I was in for a good meal at Mare Culinary Lounge in Laguna Beach, but I didn't expect to find one of the best dishes I've ever had. The venison filet mignon, two cubes the size of a baseball sitting on opposite sides of an oblong plate, was red meat epitomized: the outside burnished close to char, the inside a sinew-free crimson soft enough to be cut into by the dullest spatula. And then there was the way it was served: each piece perched atop a warmed, halved peach in which a sweet/tart port wine reduction pooled into the wells left by the pits. Who knew that peaches are to deer meat as apples are to pork chops? Or that amarena cherries, which Italians preserve with sugar for topping ice cream, work even better in a game meat-centered main course? In the middle of the plate, cupped in a rigid basket made from deep-fried pasta sheets, were the golden, home-style potatoes I remember fondly from Alessandro Pirozzi's other Laguna Beach restaurant, Alessá. These home fries, I admit, made it even easier for me to use the words "best ever." I've always been a sucker for crispy, buttery, fried potatoes, and these were pretty damn close to perfect.
Mare is the fourth restaurant by Pirozzi, the man this rag has singled out in issues past as OC's most-admired Italian restaurateur. Not that he needs our approval: He has already proven himself a hit-maker with his trilogy of Alessás in Newport, Huntington and Laguna beaches, the latest of which opened to overflow crowds about two years ago. But with Mare, you get the sense Pirozzi is operating with the confidence of someone who knows he has zoomed past the usual sophomore slump without even blinking. He provides barely a clue that Mare is his restaurant or that it's in any way affiliated with the Alessás. It doesn't need it; it stands on its own.
The site was formerly Blue Laguna, a clubby lounge (as is Mare) placed anachronistically inside a quaint Holiday Inn with wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of New Orleans Square. While Pirozzi's other restaurants are fit for families, Mare is intimate and sexy. The cold blue lights and shiny metal make it resemble a futuristic set from a scene in Blade Runner. A looped movie of bathing elephants projected on one wall is purposely beguiling. There are other features that indicate the restaurant also wants to be trendy, but for now, as Mare is slowly being discovered, reservations are a snap to secure, and parking is even easier (you're allowed to use the hotel's lot).
For those who come to enjoy Mare as a lounge and bar, it already has fried calamari that beats any offered on Pacific Coast Highway. The lighter-than-air batter covering the tender squid rings, Castelveltrano olives and house-pickled jalapeños taste rich. From there, move to the tissue-thin octopus carpaccio, which melt on the tongue as though they are snowflakes, while the sprinkled, black, Sicilian lava salt crunches between the teeth. There are direct imports from the Alessás, including the indispensable, incredible butternut-squash ravioli with brown butter and fried sage; here, they are cut into heart shapes and called cuori. But even an out-of-place appetizer called "Tacos Mai Way," which employs the fluffy steamed Chinese bun all Momofuku aspirants tend to use, is well-done. Instead of pork belly, Pirozzi stuffs his "tacos" with braised oxtail, sweet onions, carrots and a homemade saba. The oxtail is also seen tangled up between the pappardelle, tape-wide, green-tinted noodles that taste as though they were just squeezed out from a pasta press. The lasagnas use the same pasta, but cut wider and laid down with béchamel for a balanced dish layered with a slow-cooked meat sauce. I expected Pirozzi to make a good lasagna, but I didn't expect it to be just as light as his salmon and sea bass, both seared on a hot pan to a proper crust and moist flesh.
All that I saw and tasted confirm that Mare will be the fourth hit in a row for Pirozzi. It does, however, require me to revise an earlier write-up. In a previous review, I likened the chef to James Cameron, another auteur who hasn't yet had a flop. But at his current level of output—the first Alessá opened in 2008, the second in 2009, the third the year after that, and now Mare—Pirozzi is starting to look more like Pixar, a blockbuster-per-year juggernaut.
This review appeared in print as "The Pixar of OC Italian: Alessandro Pirozzi has his fourth smash in a row with Mare Culinary Lounge."
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