I love, love, love this restaurant. I love that it's different from anything I've seen before. I love that it takes effort to find in an industrial section of town, and that it's located near nothing except auto body shops and anonymous block-shaped warehouses. I love that when I walked in there for the first time, the cashier was in the middle of changing the record player to queue up Oingo Boingo on vinyl. And I love that the staff use tin plates to serve everything, that the silverware is inside buckets, wrapped with napkins, and left distributed along the communal tables where everyone sits. I also love how open the kitchen is, how I can see everything that happens in there, from the guy cutting up limes for the coconut-papaya-and-lime smoothies I ordered to the stove where they're cracking eggs onto sputtering frying pans one-by-one.
Yet none of what I previously mentioned would be at all endearing if it weren't for the food. And yes, I love the food.
It has impressed me more than anything else I've had this year. The flavor profiles are clean and simple–everything cooked with clarity of purpose and an unshakable confidence in the ingredients used. Nothing I've eaten at Outpost Kitchen is superfluous or redundant. Everything that's on the plate needs to be there. This includes the dew-flecked spinach salad served with virtually every egg-based breakfast. Yes, you read that right: a salad, this salad, is part of breakfast. And it works so well with the silken scrambles and the yolk-oozing poached eggs, it has made me re-evaluate all the egg breakfasts in my life in which nothing green has dared show up.
On the plate called the Aussie-style scramble, I ate the salad with the egg, the shards of prosciutto, the roasted tomato chunks and the plank of toasted bread that forms the base, immediately realizing it's the first time I could describe a breakfast as refreshing. In the meantime, an older man next to me started on his sausage and eggs, which were also nestled atop raw spinach. He took a bite, put his fork down, then motioned to the chef. With a slight look of concern, the chef headed over to the stone-faced man.
"This is the best breakfast I've had in my life," gushed the man, comparing it to a previous meal at some Paris hotel whose name I didn't catch.
The chef–a tall, lean, bearded gent who could've walked out of the latest Mad Max film–is Andre Sickinger, someone whom I knew nothing about before this except that he labeled himself as a "Surfers Chef." It was this and the words "CLEAN | RAW | VEGAN | PALEO | ORGANIC | PLANT BASED | ALLERGY FREE" on Outpost Kitchen's less-than-informative website that initially had me skeptical of the place. What do surfers such as Kelly Slater–whom Sickinger has cooked for and name-drops on multiple occasions on other websites–know about food, anyway? Well, since Slater hired Sickinger, apparently a lot.
The chef has been in the business for 25 years in at least six countries, which I don't doubt would have to include Indonesia and Vietnam. The two places appear to have influenced Sickinger's best dish: the wild salmon salad.
To make it, he fries a salmon steak to a crisp, tears it into chunks, then tosses the crunchy pieces into a lime-dressed pile of greenery with grated coconut, peanuts, bean sprouts, Thai basil and cilantro. The result tastes like a combination of Vietnamese goi mit and this obscure Indonesian salad I grew up eating called urap-urap.
And I even loved the paleo dish, but especially the making of it. I watched as Sickinger cooked the peewee potatoes from scratch, roasting them in a pan, whacking them flat by slamming another pan on top of them, and then seasoning them in stages as they sizzled. When the dish was served, the potatoes were hot; the salad with arugula, fennel and cauliflower was cold; and the smoked slices of salami were somewhere in between.
As with all seasonal cooks, Sickinger rotates out his menu routinely. The last few weeks saw a honey-glazed roast pork, a slow-braised lamb and a flawless pan-seared Alaskan sea bass; they might not ever come back. For now, he's replaced them with two new sandwiches, as well as a salad with shrimp that our server joked was grilled on the barbie.
Yet it still isn't the most Australian thing you could eat at Outpost. If you dare, ask for toast smeared with Vegemite and wash it down with a flat white. Before you do, ask the cashier to dust off the Men at Work record and queue up that song. You know the one.
Outpost Kitchen, 1792 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 873-5123; outpostkitchen.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. No alcohol.