Too Good for Its Own Good

Can a tasting menu be a restaurant's pride and downfall? Welcome to the main conundrum of Mesa, one of the three new buzzed-about restaurants near Costa Mesa's LAB and CAMP establishments. Mesa is already the Orange County dining destination this summer thanks to ample booths, a beautiful crowd and a lounge with a retractable glass roof. Really the only thing wrong with this playground is the tasting menu, but it's still something you should order in a couple of months.

Confused? Let me explain. On my initial Mesa visit, my girlfriend and I were floored by Mesa's bold, delicious menu—scallops topped with miniature heirloom tomatoes that gushed sweet juices, everything wading in a cool gazpacho; chilled tomato soup; a shrimp-and-lobster bolognaise hidden underneath tasteful foam. These were some of the best high-end meals I've had in years, and the rest of the menu seemed similarly enticing, with meats paired with vegetables known only to botanists.

We visited a couple of weeks later, this time accompanied by her niece. While comely waitresses readied our table, we sat in the lounge and ordered some items from the bar menu. While my ladies sipped on Mesa's specialty cocktails (both containing fresh fruit and juices), I wolfed through three phyllo dough pastries stuffed with prime beef and accompanied by a pickle-spiked yogurt. Everything was a smash, a surprise. With ample reason to trust the chef, one of us decided we'd choose the four-course tasting menu.

The first unpleasant surprise was procedural: In order for one person to dine on the tasting menu, the entire table had to follow suit. No substitutions, no way out. Fine. Nevertheless, we were excited—and at $65, the price wasn't that bad. The first course gave us hope: capellini noodles within a foam that possessed black-truffle shavings. The capellini-truffles-foam combo succeeded, even with the surprising inclusion of a poached egg below the noodles adding another layer of sweetness. The ladies didn't finish the course, not because it didn't impress them, but because it was a bit heavy for the first round.

The second dish followed, and while lighter in taste—buttery halibut cheeks combined with a bitter mushroom called garlic whistles and a whole fig, accompanied by a couple of raviolis stuffed with tender osso bucco—the portion was too big for a tasting menu. Alone, each component could've constituted its own dish: The osso bucco ravioli, in particular, should appear on the menu of every Italian restaurant pronto. But it was a lot of food, and next up was some New York steak.

I had always considered the New York steak cut as the American version of carne asada—a strip of beef burnt to a crisp, then topped with buckets of A-1 Sauce. Mesa's version was extraordinarily rich—rare, almost bloody, and so luscious I could only eat about half. The sauces painted across the dish didn't do much; the cassoulet and foie gras pastry was, again, overkill. We had to stop and make sure we saved room for dessert. And the wines paired with each course were so unremarkable that my girlfriend and her niece kept ordering more Pinot Noir.

Thankfully, the final course redeemed Mesa and hints at the high culinary level at which the place already operates. The dessert seemed like a cliché at first—three takes on chocolate. The milkshake (prepared in a wee cup) was rich, if a bit unsurprising. But the mousse stuffed with malt had us fighting over the last spoonfuls, and a smear of peanut butter and chocolate is the best stain you'll see that doesn't involve the Virgin of Guadalupe.

We left happy but unfulfilled, knowing we could've had a better meal. Nevertheless, do try to snag a reservation here before a dozen foodies beat you to it. And to the owners of Mesa, I say this: Have faith. Mix and match. Mix more of your wondrous appetizers and entrées into the tasting menu. Lighten the portions. And above all, can I get the recipe for your yogurt?


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