This is a list of restaurants your humble food writer has deemed his ten favorite in a city that's arguably one of the best restaurant cities in Orange County, one where OC Weekly World Headquarters happens to reside (lucky us!). Should any Travel Channel show host, visiting businessman, or a recent transplant ask me where to eat in town, this is the list I'd give them. But know that it was difficult to whittle it down to just ten. In one of O.C.'s best restaurant cities, there are at least 20 more that are worthy. Share yours in the comments.
1. Il Dolce
Roberto Bignes holds a certificate from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an Italian group of pizza makers that keeps track of this sort of thing. And at his modest square of a restaurant kitty-corner from Triangle Square, he skims ever closer and is seemingly determined on fine-tuning his pies toward the Neapolitan pizza ideal. His mozzarella is house-made. His olive oil, premium. And most important, when you bite into his crust, it crackles with the prickly sound of a million tiny molecular bonds breaking.
Marrakesh is one of the more transportive restaurants in our county. You eat as you lounge around like sheiks under the shelter of a Bedouin tent. Never mind that the belly dancer shimmying over to your table with dollar bills tucked near her nether regions is often the tall, statuesque blond who's also their hostess. The most important thing is that her toned abs move so rhythmically to the music, it has the power to convince even the most unwilling participants to dance with her. The food is great. The bread called khobz is served in wedges and perfumed of anise. You sip the lentil soup straight from the bowl after squeezing some lemon. The fluffy couscous tastes so feather light, it feels as though it were infused with helium. There's a lamb leg dripping with honey and chicken roasted with olives, preserved lemon and thinly sliced fried potatoes. Both are served in a tagine, a platter capped with those funnel-shaped vessels that look like ceramic bullhorns. For dessert: a baklava so sweet it makes your teeth hurt thinking about it. And when it's all done, there's the intoxicating complimentary mint tea poured from an ornate, long-necked vessel.
3. Mastro's Steakhouse
Mastro's is a steakhouse in Costa Mesa that is famous for its steak. Only the sissies or those who realize they're in way over their heads order the chicken, and even that isn't cheap. Forget the salmon, forget the pork chop, forget everything else that doesn't go moo. Hunks of beef, bloody rare inside, crusted with black sooty char outside, is why you go to Mastro's. Sure, it'll cost an arm, a leg, and possibly, a spare kidney. Why worry now? Go for broke for the Australian wagyu ribeye that's served still attached to a bone as ridiculously large as the price is steep. It eats like a hundred dollar piece of steak should: effortless, sinew-free, every sanguine, tender piece you slice an affirmation that you're still alive and carnivorous. The sides? A la carte, of course. A few, like the lobster mashed potatoes will cost as much as a steak. But even a pauper should at least sacrifice a few hours' wage for the sugar snap peas. Expect a dimly lit room, excellent free bread, white tablecloths, hot towels, crumb scrapers, and a uniformed guy in the bathroom who expects to be tipped after he hands you a towel.
4. Marche Moderne
Located on the roof at South Coast Plaza, Marche Moderne is enclosed by the building's outer wall and a tall wooden fence. Sunlight pours in a deluge from the sky, while potted fruit trees dance in the breeze to the relaxed rhythms of bossa nova. You wouldn't think such a bucolic spot could exist two stories above Tiffany and steps away from Nordstrom, but it does. The servers are pros, basically what you would expect at one of the finest French restaurants in the county. Yes, the prices can be astronomical, but with one notable exception: the three-course lunch that owner and chef Florent Marneau dubs “Spontanée.” For about the price of one dinner entree, the Spontanée includes a salad, main course and dessert. The selections change daily, but anything can appear, even duck, which isn't something you probably expected to eat on the roof at South Coast Plaza.
Mesa is an anomaly–an ultra hip lounge with a nightly supply of beautiful people in beautiful clothes, but one whose kitchen serves food you actually want to eat. There are cozy, almost private booths at one level, a retractable glass ceiling that lets in either sunlight or starlight above you, crackling fire-places between a few tables, and leaf-covered walls–a space that Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud to call one of his own. And the food you eat is something that Georges Auguste Escoffier would approve of. The menu is modern, consisting of tapas-sized plates of things to share, things to nibble, things to savor while sipping a fashionable cocktail or two. The pizza is particularly good, especially the mortadella. Even better, the pies are discounted for happy hour.
6. Old Vine Cafe
Old Vine is pocket-sized, and the menu is comprised entirely of small plates. “We don't do full entrees”, the waiters tell everyone. You either opt in on the prix-fixe (there are eight kinds) for about $60-$80 per person, which includes wine-pairings; or choose to dine a-la-carte. No matter what, Old Vine's food is so bold…so over-the-top, it borders on abusive. This is cooking with a bullhorn and a chest-thumping kind of machismo. Chef Mark McDonald's goal is to pummel your taste buds with flavor and he's not above sprinkling fried onions on stuff. When he says something has Maytag blue cheese, you better believe you're going to taste it, and at nasal-decongestant strength.
7. Rick's Atomic Cafe
You've had egg breakfasts at home, at Denny's, at your local greasy spoon. What Rick Le Blanc of Rick's Atomic Cafe serves in a hard-to-find office park somewhere close to John Wayne's landing strip starts with the same basic kind of ingredients as everyone else: bacon, eggs, toast and potatoes; but the end product is somehow better, more special, thanks to the fastidious care he takes. The toast is from artisan bread, buttered by Rick, ready to be spread by a thimble of preserves he selected out of a bigger jar. A food nerd with horned-rimmed glasses and a buzz cut that makes him look more like a NASA engineer than a cook, Rick will salt things with care and put in some elbow grease to hand-squeeze a dozen oranges just so he can give you one glass brimming with pulp. And oh, Rick's potatoes! The cubed spuds burst with flavor, steam and other intangible toe-curling properties.
8. Santouka Ramen
Santouka Ramen's soup is a soup that transcends soup. The elixir has so many layers, both figuratively and literally. The first layer is a melted, glimmering substrate of pork fat, insulator to the milky, sweet and rich super-broth beneath. The fat fulfills a dual purpose: it keeps the soup hot throughout your slurps, and to the still-chewy noodles you lift out of the bowl, it coats the strands in flavor, acting like lubricant that hastens the next mouthful. The rest of the bowl is just as immaculately arranged in the same two-toned vessels as those of its predecessor: bamboo shoots snap noisily, the pork is tender, cut generously thick; but it's that broth that'll sustain you, invade your senses and make you very, very happy. Every sip of it seems like a meal in and of itself.
9. Sushi Shibucho
It is a fact that personal relationships develop between every sushi-lover and his or her preferred itamae (sushi chef). Because of this, sushi is a subjective, um, subject: Everyone has his or her favorite sushi joint. But if we had to pick simply based on the scarcity of bar seats, the best of the best would have to be Sushi Shibucho. Tradition rules here, but not with an iron fist. Sakae Shibutani's omakase always starts with a cooked dish made by his wife. Then comes bright hues, textures, and tastes. Some feel like Jell-O. Others crunch, bursts, melts into pleasure-filled mouthfuls. You need not order “omakase” (sushi chef's choice) in front of the master to enjoy your experience here. But “omakase” is the way to go–not only for one of the best sushi meals of your life, but also the most reasonably priced.
10. Taco Maria
Taco Maria is the finest fine-dining Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa right now. A local boy who eventually became the pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Commis in Oakland, chef and owner Carlos Salgado returned to OC a few years ago to sling tacos and burritos out of a lonchera he named after his mom, Maria. But the truck, as great as it was, turned out to be just warm-up to this brick-and-mortar. At the new restaurant, also called Taco Maria, Salgado has traded tacos for the sophisticated Mexican of alta cocina. A meal here will come at a leisurely two-hour pace, each course served with its own set of utensils. This is the food Salgado was destined to cook. Even in interviews he gave back when he was at Commis, the ex-pastry chef admits desserts wasn't his true calling–he spoke with longing of going back to “dealing with open fire and salt.” Now with a small crew and working in a kitchen in full view of his customers at the OC Mix, you can see Salgado is where he was always meant to be. He prepares only eight dishes, each of them thoughtful and flawless, served four per person for about $40-$50. The thing to do, of course, is to bring a friend, have them order the other four dishes, and then share each one.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.