Old Vine Cafe - Costa Mesa
Since Old Vine Cafe opened in 2007 at the ultra-hip-it-hurts shopping mall called The Camp, it's gotten a smattering of accolades. It was the winner of OC Weekly's Best New Restaurant for 2007, and recently it's number two on Chowhound's Ultimate O.C. Restaurants Poll, second only to Marche Moderne.
Since I clearly missed the boat the first time around, I cashed in one of my Christmas gifts (dinner at a restaurant of my choosing) to finally visit the place.
First thing I notice after we found it at the end of a meandering path -- past the rope hammocks and the fire pits -- is that the restaurant is pocket-sized, like an hor d'oeuvre for the larger-than-life but insanely overpriced Charlie Palmer a few blocks away.
Appropriate then that 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 three kinds) for $65 per person, which includes wine-pairings; or choose to dine a-la-carte.
Whatever you decide, you'll discover Chef Mark McDonald's true calling: to pummel your taste buds with flavor.
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. The guy is not above sprinkling fried onions on stuff, and when he says something has Maytag blue cheese, you better believe you're going to taste it.
His Crispy Blue Salad ($9.50) has both. I've never had a salad that made me wince. This one did. The blue cheese -- though it's dissolved completely into the dressing -- is at decongestant strength, rivaling wasabi's sinus-clearing power. Meanwhile, the crispy fried onions fought against the strips of crunchy prosciutto. The onions won handily, but my mouth was the victor.
Then there was his basil pesto in the Eggplant Buratta ($14). The cheese -- ropy and taut on the border, blubbery in the center -- was the base for a panko-crusted plank of eggplant. But below, it was the pesto that tickled my nostrils even before I tasted it.
Proteins were next. If the three prawns in the Asian Curry Shrimp ($16) were any bigger, it would've been a lobster tail. The meat of one equaled two mouthfuls, and it couldn't have been cooked better or more precisely if a stopwatch was used. Despite the fact that the sauce sang of lemongrass and coconut milk, it could've used less salt. And since no rice is served or offered, the sodium saturation became immediately overwhelming.
Sauteed Scallops ($16) came in a foursome, again perfectly cooked. They were then showered with fried leeks and smothered in a tarragon-chardonnay sauce that whispered slightly of Chinese five-spice. Each bite was like Jell-O: A jiggly, slippery ambassador of the sea.
What came next was what I called the Stonehenge of Starch; They named it Polenta Pomodoro ($11). Wedges of pan-fried cakes of polenta stood upright, draped with sauce and pecorino romano cheese. Solid on the spoon, each scoop I took turned into liquidy mass of cornbready goop in my mouth. And the sauce? Brilliantly realized with shades of garlic, tomato, and cream.
Grown-ups and children alike would love the Porcini Mushroom Mac & Cheese ($12), which is one of the most expensive bowls of mac-n-cheese I've ever encountered. But in every humble-looking forkful, there is a blend of artisan cheeses. Pleasantly gritty and tangy, but never rich, this is a mac-n-cheese one never tires of eating.
The one and only disappointment of the night was, coincidentally, the dish that could've been construed as the main course. It misfired only because the Petite Filet Mignon ($16) tasted like a repeat of the Crispy Blue Salad -- it had two of its main components. And by this time, the fried onion and blue cheese seemed overplayed. Also, since they neglected to ask how I wanted it cooked, the thick hockey puck had a bloody center.
Old Vine's Pecan Tart ($7) brought things back in line, and in it was a first for me: salt with dessert. And not just any ol' salt, but a vanilla-infused fleur de sel. You drag the mini pastry cups around on the plate to catch a few grains. Then you pop it in. Salty combines with sweet; and a small, seemingly insignificant morsel becomes a revelation -- sort of like Old Vine itself.
Old Vine Cafe
2937 Bristol St # A102
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
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