I arrived at the Country Club with a chip on my shoulder. It was because of two things. First, there was the compulsory valet, which, I thought at the time, is ridiculous in this part of Costa Mesa. If a restaurant called "Pancakes R Us" directly across the street has self-parking, why can't this place? Then there was the bouncer wearing a Secret Service earpiece who not only asked if I had a reservation, but also waited for an answer in the affirmative before he opened the door.
"Oh, I see," I muttered, "this is one of those places."
My fears were not assuaged upon entering. I felt as if I'd been pushed into a wall of noise. Imagine a packed room of people all talking loudly to make themselves heard above other people talking loudly. Then imagine an A-frame ceiling bouncing it all back and amplifying the sound tenfold. Following the hostess, I pushed through a crowd that had gathered around the main bar. This was going to be a long night.
But as I sat on an overstuffed but admittedly very comfy banquette in a corner, I started to relax. Apart from the acoustics, this remodel by Wild Goose Tavern's Mario Marovic of what used to be Pierce Street Annex was done well. I could tell no expense was spared to turn it into something out of the Roaring Twenties, with rows of penny arcade-era light bulbs softly illuminating the bar and trophies, polo sticks and various Great Gatsby-esque bric-a-brac on the walls that suggest we common folk had somehow crashed an exclusive club for the wealthy and privileged.
The first of two servers I'd meet that night recommended some dishes, which happened to happily coincide with what I already had my eye on. Still, I asked for a few more minutes to decide. By the time the second server came around, I'd made up my mind. But this didn't stop that second gent, a born salesman, from suggesting what he thought were must-haves, starting with a particular cocktail. When I politely declined, he asked if I was sure, pointing out that the bartender was known for that particular drink.
"No, thanks," I said.
He must have sensed I was beginning to get annoyed because from that point, he stopped being pushy and became generally enthusiastic about the menu. It's probably why he didn't blink when I told him I'd rather have the crispy octopus than the crispy Brussels sprouts he recommended—a restaurant trope I've grown tired of.
I made the right choice with the octopus. Tender as sin with a texture that's not unlike perfectly roasted turkey breast, the lightly battered tentacles were paired with hunks of fried potatoes with a crunchy golden outer crust and fluffy interior. It was this potato-and-octopus combo that started to chip away at my first impression of the place. Any place that can fry a potato like this and make an octopus like that should have a bouncer. When I asked the second server how the octopus was prepared, he cracked a joke about revealing the secret and told me it was "massaged in salt, cooked sous-vide, then flash-fried at the last second."
Every dish I tried after that was just as good. The French dip rivaled Philippe's in LA and Houston's in Irvine. The sandwich itself was faultless, with a butter-toasted hoagie roll so light it floated and sliced prime rib so soft it melted. And then there was the au jus—a dip built not from bouillon cubes, but from meat drippings, fond and stock. The melted fat on top of the ramekin revealed this, but the leftovers confirmed its pedigree, having congealed into Jell-O in my fridge. I was impressed.
Also, I must give credit where it's due: It was actually that second server who detected that my sandwich initially came without it. He rushed to the kitchen to get the hot jus out to me before I even asked. He couldn't have been more pleasant and helpful the entire night.
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And, as it turns out, the white seabass entrée he said was a solid choice—topped with mojo verde and served atop a spinach gnocchetti and carrots roasted to sugary shrivels—couldn't have been more transcendent. The flesh was delicate and the skin seared so crisply it was indistinguishable from a chicharrón.
I ended up loving the place. As I was leaving, I also realized that both the free valet and the bouncer were absolutely necessary here. A line of people had formed behind a velvet rope outside. If Pancakes R Us were this popular, it would need them, too.
The Country Club 330 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 281-2582; www.countryclubcm.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 2 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Starters and sides, $7-$23; entrées, $13-$110. Full bar.