"Where is this place?" my date asked nervously, looking around at the barely lit street and deserted sidewalks.
We were driving through a desolate, industrial part of Costa Mesa we'd never been to and had no business being in before tonight. A factory with gigantic pressure vessels and pillars spewing steam passed on my left. On the right was a darkened car-repair shop.
"It's around here," I said, trying to sound confident.
Then I saw it. The only hints of life for blocks are a string of lights and a sign in the dark that reads, "Boathouse Collective parking." We parked under the glow of a street lamp and walked toward the entrance: a gap between two shipping containers, with razor wire strung across the tops. As we neared it, a pair of flood lights flickered on, triggered by motion detectors.
But then, we went farther in, and suddenly the sinister film-noir scene we were in turned Technicolor®, as though Dorothy just entered Oz. Garlands of light bulbs crisscrossed overhead. In an asphalt courtyard with potted trees and an herb garden, groups of people at long communal picnic tables ate, drank, took selfies and sang "Happy Birthday." If a joyous summer-night wedding banquet were held at a Home Depot Garden Center, it would probably look like this.
After the hostess found our reservation scribbled in a busy spiral notebook, she chirped that we had our choice of seating. Would it be out here or inside?
"Let's try inside," I said, noticing that my date had forgotten her jacket.
Fewer customers were in the indoor area. Most were saddled up at the bar, sipping alcoholic watermelon agua frescas while the bartenders muddled mint leaves plucked straight from the plant.
We sat at the end of a communal table in a cavernous warehouse next to an empty stage. Above us, a corrugated metal roof had surfboards nailed onto it. It reminded me the space used to be a surfboard factory, and long before that, it housed a company called Ditmar-Donaldson that made wooden-hulled ships. These days, the owner is Clayton Peterson, who previously used the property as a private-events venue and a recording studio. Now, as the Boathouse Collective, Peterson has created a restaurant where such a place shouldn't have been. But then, I'm told that's exactly why he did it.
Shortly after being seated, a complimentary basket of tostada rounds and bean dip came with the menu, a half-sheet of paper split into two sections: a vegetarian and one with meat all over. Yet, despite the mac and cheese, tacos, and burgers, there was something distinctly Japanese about the food. Dashi and mochi was in the pork belly dish, and when I ordered the chicken katsu appetizer, it tasted too spot-on, too perfect to not have been made by someone who ate it his whole life or was at least trained by someone who has.
The chef is Mathieu Royer, whom our tattooed waiter said was once the Jonas brothers' personal cook, but also a chef at Pizzeria Ortica, Hinoki and the Bird, and Morimoto. Where he learned how to make kalbi--here boneless, kissed with char, served with beni shoga, a smear of chimichurri and lettuce to wrap around them as though Korean ssam--I don't know, but it was as good as an izakaya's. And then there was his chopped salad, a textbook example on how to balance umami with citrus in a very busy dish populated with lardons, grilled kabocha, shiitakes, bite-sized balls of fresh mozzarella and a perfectly soft-boiled egg on the side.
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But there was no better demonstration on the Japanese virtue of artistic restraint than the grilled-swordfish entrée: a lone hunk of snowy moistness floating atop a Thai coconut curry with waves of potatoes sliced long and thin. More proof comes in a Zen-garden arrangement of crisp-skinned roasted fingerlings, a side dish in which a halved purple potato leans on the humps of yellows as it gazes into a puddle of lemon aioli, contemplating the meaning of life. Royer also does what I gather is a Hinoki and the Bird take of beurre blanc, something more broth than emulsion, lubricating but never drowning out the individual subtleties of the fat seared scallops, squeaky Manila clams, ultra-sweet grilled corn kernels and charred shishito peppers swimming in it.
I only wished he did what a proper Japanese restaurant would: provide a bowl of rice and a soup spoon. But if Royer isn't a "proper" Japanese cook, Boathouse Collective isn't exactly a "proper" restaurant either. And that's precisely why they're both so compelling.
Boathouse Collective, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-3176; www.boathousecollective.com. Open Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.