The Mystery of Costa Mesa's Hidden Kitchen, Finally Revealed!
In Search Of . . .
The clandestine cuisine of Costa Mesa’s Hidden Kitchen
My duty here is to shine a light on restaurants deserving of praise and publicity. But what if there were an eatery so special, so good, and whose virtue depended so much on it remaining a well-kept secret that I’ve seriously thought about keeping it mum?
Although I wrote about its clandestine existence on our Stick a Fork In It blog back in September after a tip from a reader named Steve, it wasn’t until I tried the place that I realized it’s a bona-fide Orange County treasure. The experience was one of the most pleasurable I’ve ever had as a diner. And then it dawned on me: What would happen if word were to really get out? I’d actually need reservations!
Obviously, since you’re reading this, I’ve decided to share.
So here it is: For two nights a week, a group of aspiring restaurateurs—Jeff Dobkin; his wife, Julie Thompson-Dobkin; Holly Roberts; and her husband, Jason Coulston—have been borrowing the space occupied in the daytime by the Rooster Cafe and turning it into a place that serves market-driven California/French dinners. Appropriately enough, they’ve called their project the Hidden Kitchen.
Jeff and Julie will be your servers; Holly and Jason will do the cooking. By day, Jeff is a radiologist, and Julie a neurologist. Holly and Jason are owners of Popcling, a Costa Mesa-based art-reproduction company. But when night falls on Thursdays and Fridays, they unfurl the table linens, put on their chef hats and transform the diner into their very own bistro. They offer a prix-fixe, three-course meal for $35, with a menu that changes every two weeks. Since Jeff and Julie also own Thompkin Cellars, each dish is thoughtfully paired with a suggested wine, sold by the glass or bottle.
And because Jeff and Julie are doting hosts, I felt like a guest at a dinner party, not a customer in a restaurant. When Julie asked how I liked the mugolio syrup that was drizzled over my kabocha squash soup, it’s because she really wanted to know what I thought. “It’s amazing,” I told her. And I wasn’t just being polite. Earlier, she proudly revealed that the substance was extracted from pine cones. And it truly was amazing: Tasting of caramel, maple and smoke, the syrup was as good as the warm hug of a soup beneath it.
There were two other choices for the first course: A flaky leek, Roquefort and crème fraîche tart melted in my mouth like savory ice cream, its richness offset by a peppery arugula salad. And for the carnivore, a charcuterie sampler boasted Fra Mani and La Quercia cured meats laid out primly on an oblong stone slab. The selection included velvety strips of marbled speck striped with fat, salty-smooth proscuitto and thick coins of fiery chorizo so bold I needed a Tic Tac afterward to neutralize my spicy sausage breath.
Jason and Holly prepared only two main entrées to choose from, but that was enough to wow. A moist, pan-roasted Atlantic cod sat on a bright, chunky tomato sauce with white wine, chile, pine nuts, currants and olives. I could taste the sincerity in each bite as if it were also an ingredient.
Patience was the secret component for the lamb shoulder. After 10 hours of braising, the meat practically fell into ribbons on my fork. Surrounding it was a ring of blubbery polenta, glazed turnips and the cooking juice. Jeff came around to offer more bread for me to wipe the plate with. Though he meant it tongue-in-cheek, I responded, “Yes, please.”
For one of the desserts, there was a cheese plate with a runny, assertive Chèvre and a Red Leicester that had the color of carrot and the crumble of Cheddar. The other choice was a “Tart Au Citron”—their version of a lemon tart. A forkful of it dutifully remained in its solid state until it liquefied in my mouth. Each crumb was precious—just like the existence of the restaurant itself.
I’ve heard that the current location is only temporary, that the foursome have been looking for their own space. That makes this incarnation even more special and fleeting. So take this tip and go already, but do me a favor: Don’t tell anyone else.
The Hidden Kitchen at the Rooster Café, 750 Saint Clair St., Costa Mesa, (714) 662-5808; www.myspace.com/hiddenkitchen. Open Thurs.-Fri., 6-9 p.m. $35 per person excluding tax, tip and wine. Corkage, $15 per bottle.
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