Noah Blom, who now has two restaurants at Costa Mesa's SOCO, cooks everything with wood—and I do mean everything. The four-layered cakes? Baked in an oven with a crackling fire at the back. The fries? Cooked in a cast-iron pot heated by burning logs. That stack of firewood leaning against the building? That's Blom's only fuel source. There are, as far as I know, no gas hookups, no heat lamps and certainly no microwaves. If I didn't know Blom used to work with Boulud at New York's Restaurant Daniel, I'd think he was Amish.
When he opened ARC, it was Blom's insistence on the primitive that drew me in, even if it sounded gimmicky. Later, when he opened Restaurant Marin, it was his no-tipping policy that was talked up, though Blom abandoned it after two months in favor of lower menu prices. But it's the chef's Luddite-like aversion to cooking with gas or electricity that's more remarkable than anything. Restaurant Marin, after all, is a diner that serves all-day breakfasts, including Benedicts, doughnut holes and fluffy egg soufflés, in addition to tacos, sandwiches, and full-on dinner entrées such as steak frites and an excellent pan-crisped salmon.
With ARC now a success, Blom certainly doesn't have anything to prove. If he'd installed a short-order griddle and a Frialator at Restaurant Marin, no one would've called him out on it. Yet there he was, shoving cast-iron skillet after cast-iron skillet into the gaping hole of his crackling wood-fired oven. Blom's not making it easy for himself, even when he's just frying an egg.
I realized then that none of this is a gimmick. Blom is the real deal. In a Los Angeles Times article, he said that cooking "got so modern, and I had to retreat from it. I didn't get into food to be a chemist. I got into it to simply make and serve food."
And that he does. What he serves at Restaurant Marin is perhaps the best argument that we would be better off moving away from the molecular-gastronomic tendencies of Adrià and toward Apicius. Blom's cooking is old-school, the kind that revels in chicken pot pies and country-skillet-style breakfasts. With the latter, it's as though he's appealing directly to the Ron Swansons in our souls. Order the greaseless, golden-fried chicken breast, and you'll discover it comes with plenty of gravy covering half the chicken and smothering the lower part of a gigantic biscuit. On top of it all, Blom adds one of those perfectly fried eggs.
Then there's Blom's chicken pot pie, which is worthy of a Garden & Gun cover. The top of it is laced with intricate latticework that obviously took a lot of time to construct. And when you eat it, the crust bursts with butter, and the filling tastes as if it's a distillation of everything that's good and curative in chicken soup.
I've tried half of everything on his "Bites to Share" menu, and though some of the dishes may sound uninspired, with enchiladas and crab cakes among them, it's Blom's expert execution that makes the difference. The enchiladas are fuming and draped in a green chile sauce that actually tastes and burns of the chile. The crab cakes are almost entirely composed of crabmeat and encased in a perfect sphere of breading—the best I've had this year. And the Swedish meatballs that swam in an addictive sauce made with brandy and cream are cooked just until the outsides firm up, but the insides are still as rare as steak tartare.
Everything else Blom cooks seems to rebuke the trendy. Order the avocado toast, and you don't get a piece of toast so much as a tall, fluffy brioche topped with sliced avocado, wilted spinach, onions reduced to sugar, goat cheese and an egg. And yes, the brioches were baked fresh in that oven.
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If I had any real critique, it's that the restaurant feels cramped. The awkwardly shaped blue banquettes also happen to clash with the French boudoir design elements of crystal chandeliers and distressed mirrors. And some might say that a meal at Marin can be very costly, especially if you get the lobster hash, which is more expensive than it needs to be. But I'm apt to give him a break on his prices: Blom and Restaurant Marin are a throwback to a time when quality and integrity meant something—and time travel isn't cheap.
Restaurant Marin, 3321 Hyland Ave., Ste. G, Costa Mesa, (949) 402-3974; www.restaurantmarin.com. Open daily, 9 a.m.-midnight. Meal for two, $50-$80, food only. Full bar.