If you took Universal City Walk, removed all the neon, kept the parking fee, then put it next to the ocean, you'd get something close to Pacific City in Huntington Beach. Over the next few months, this new shopping center, located two blocks from downtown and the pier, will unleash more restaurants than Marvel has superhero movies. One of the few restaurants already open is "Saint Marc - Pub, Cafe, Bakery & Cheese Affinage." The full name is important to point out because the place (the American arm of Japan's Saint Marc Café) is trying to be all of those things. But the experience at Saint Marc feels as if someone wrangled the most interesting vendors from the LA Farmers Market, then sanitized them for your protection in a room that could double for a mall food court.
There's a coffee counter, a bakery counter and a cheese shop with a display case so crammed with cheese wheels it resembles a bubbling quesadilla. There's also a bar on the patio, a glass-enclosed kitchen and a wine-dispensing contraption that looks like a futuristic pipe organ. But when you're here, you don't walk up to any of them; you use the iPad installed at your table to punch in what you want to eat and drink.
Unlike the tablet computers at Chili's, which are meant to supplement traditional table service, Saint Marc's iPads are your lifeline, what you rely on for everything. When we first sat down, a server gave us a primer on how to use ours. Browse through the paper menu first, she said, then do the ordering on the app. And if we needed help from an actual human, press the button on the appropriate screen. "The nearest server will get buzzed and come over," she said as she held up her Apple Watch. We wouldn't see her again after that. It turned out that no matter how many times we mashed the help button in the hope it would send electric shocks to some nearby server's wrist, what ultimately worked was an old-school wave or an "Excuse me."
That's not to say the iPad app wasn't effective. As far as giving us useful pictures and prices, the iPad was actually more user-friendly than the paper menu, which was so jumbled it might as well be an iTunes User Agreement. In fact, the iPad made it easy to keep track of what we ordered with a running tally of how much we spent. And rather than being a distraction to dinner conversation, the iPad spurred it. It became our food jukebox, and between bites, we'd use it to confer with one another on what we'd try next.
Ignoring the cool tech, the food I tried seemed a decade behind the times and gave me flashbacks to my middle-school cafeteria (with sporks to match). A French onion soup was so salty that a friend winced when he took a sip. And if it weren't for the scallions sliced on the bias and the tiny cubed pineapple, Saint Marc's Kobe chili fries would just be a sweeter version of Del Taco's chili fries with the same crinkle cut potatoes. Worse was a spongy, strange-tasting Swedish meatball appetizer stacked on a cast-iron skillet. Despite warnings from a server that it was hot enough to brand, the skillet was barely warm. The meatballs were slightly colder.
For the now-quaint pairing of watermelon and feta, Saint Marc's kitchen staff does its darndest, meticulously cutting the fruit into symmetric rectangles, the cheese into perfect cubes—all of it assembled artfully as if to justify the $5 we spent on a dish that would be gone in two bites. The S.O.S. (the military-commissary staple known as "shit on a shingle") was its diametric opposite, with the glops of gravy over stacks of dense toast and bacon engendering the fear of getting drafted.
We did like a few items. The fried cheese curds were nicely cocooned in a light batter and sprinkled with cracked pepper. And Saint Marc's so-called "Free Flowing Bread"—a basket of oven-hot crusty dinner rolls with whipped honey butter—was replenished at regular intervals and free. I also liked the BLTA despite the sandwich being muffled by thick bread that wasn't the baguette advertised on the iPad. It was a far better way to consume bacon than the slices I ordered from Saint Marc's much-hyped Bacon Bar. We punched in three flavors: the Habanero, the Coffee-Rubbed and the Apple Pie. But when we ate, we realized the one labeled as Habanero was sweet, tasting not much different than the Coffee, and the one marked as Apple Pie set our mouths on fire.
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Technology, as with all things, is only as good as the people behind it.
Saint Marc - Pub, Cafe, Bakery & Cheese Affinage, 21058 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (949) 629-2591; www.saintmarcusa.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Full bar.