SOCIAL (its CAPS, not ours) is not unlike every other new American restaurant I've seen open around these parts. Dish cloths are used as napkins. The burger is in the $10-to-$15 range. Fries are turned into poutine, and all of it is washed down by elaborate cocktails from a bar that looks as though it came from the set of Tombstone. Diners sit either on a hard wooden bench or a cold metal chair at long communal picnic tables. The music is, of course, always loud. But if you're there on a Saturday night, you'll barely hear anything, anyway, since everyone is shouting over it. Call it a gastropub, a tavern, a "kitchen with libations," an "eatery and drink"--whatever it is, I went in with the feeling I'd been to SOCIAL before. It looked, felt and tasted like Newport Beach's Bosscat, which also leans toward a Southern comfort-food menu.
But as familiar as everything was, SOCIAL sticks out. It's in a weathered strip mall that has a dollar store, a pool hall and a taquería--businesses in a neighborhood in which SOCIAL's mainly upmarket crowd wouldn't have any reason to be hanging around past sundown. And when my date and I made our way past groups of women who were disproportionately blond and men who seemed to prefer flannel as the garment of choice, we caught the two people who sat on either side of our reserved seats instinctively inching their purses closer as we got near. Was it our less-than-ivory complexions? Or did they just remember they surrendered their keys to the valet while a man who seemed to be shouting at the sky walked by on the sidewalk?
The servers should've put them at ease. A few rested their palms on my shoulder as they talked to me. Most were generally warm, even if one was befuddled when I asked what the shredded vegetable on my plate of crudo was. "Pickled apples," a manager told her when she asked. Later, I realized it was green papaya. It was written up on the specials board all along. It didn't matter, though: This thing they called a crudo wasn't one. The hamachi was in dice-sized cubes, tossed with the acidity from a lime cordial as dressing, then tangled among the green papaya shreds with peanuts, cilantro, sliced chiles and crispy fried shallots as garnish. If it was anything at all, it's a poke crossed with a ceviche crossed with a Thai salad. It was only when we finished it after a couple of forkfuls that we also realized it's kind of outrageous at $18 a pop.
For the money, the other hamachi on special was better. Lacquered in a sticky soy caramel, it was a roasted collar with its skin crackly, served atop pickled wedges of persimmon and roasted potatoes that were themselves glazed in something sweet--a fully realized union of disparate flavors that worked. Too bad the meatiest part was still ice-cold raw. If I were at Sushi Town a block away, I'd send it back. But here, I wasn't so sure it wasn't on purpose. Judging from other dishes I tried, SOCIAL head cook, Jeffrey Boullt--previously the sous chef at Playground--seemed to know his way around roasting meat.
His best dish was the Akaushi skirt steak (a breed of American wagyu) he seared nearly black and blue. He embedded the slices in blubbery mashed potatoes before flavoring it with dollops of chile chimichurri and garlic chips. But it's how he's unafraid to let the bitterness of its charring dominate the plate that made it one of the best steaks I've had this year. The char was just as good on the extra colossal U-10 prawns in his shrimp and grits. Each shrimp was freckled with bits of soot--as essential a flavoring as salt. In fact, it distracted me from the pickled green tomatoes and Tasso ham in a dish that might have done better without them. But even his oysters were charbroiled just enough yet were still slurpable.
Since it didn't involve the charbroiler, it's perhaps understandable his weakest dish was the duck confit poutine. It's the exact kind of bland, boring, drab reinvention of poutine (Quebec's only notable export that's not Cirque du Soleil or Celine Dion) that food pundits and Canadians alike bemoan. The fries were limp, and the duck-meat gravy soaking it wasn't helped by a sunny-side-up egg that bogged it down more. The best part of the dish turned out to be the cheese curds, which weren't melted on top, but instead deep-fried tempura-style and existing almost as a separate dish on its own that tasted as though an unintentional Japanese agedashi tofu.
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So should you go to SOCIAL? Yes, the menu is still evolving, and Boullt is just getting started--even if you feel as if you've been here before. And if you're not a gabacho and some blonde is scared by your swarthy appearance? Wave hello!
SOCIAL, 512 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-2425; www.socialcostamesa.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $75-$100, food only. Full bar.