Mesa: Keeping Things Low-Profile in Costa Mesa

Restaurant Orange County

Mesa is the most ambitious dining and nightlife option at The CAMP in Costa Mesa.

For its first year of business, the owner of Mesa didn’t allow any signage or photography, preferring to let the concept speak for itself and for support to build organically. In the past two weeks, Mesa added a sign, listed their phone number and printed business cards. As you can see, they also reversed their photography policy. In this economy, there’s no reason to play hide-and-seek with your customer base, especially when a restaurant offers the total package of food, atmosphere and (at least on this night) service.

There was no hint that the building near The CAMP housed a sports bar for over 40 years. The space featured three areas that flowed together: a dining area with banquettes near the east wall (made from living plants and found wood), a central lounge and a sprawling bar, each with a unique vibe. We ate in the middle, on comfortable lounge chairs, eating off of restored wood cubes topped with glass. The retractable roof was open, which was ideal on a warm Southern California night. Beck and other indie music played over the speakers. Surfer movies were projected on the concrete walls. David Haskell, who closed BIN 8945 to start 2008, previously worked in Orange County, at Aubergine, where diners in suits used to sit side-by-side with people in sandals. Now he’s at Mesa, and he led us on an incredible food and wine journey, with each stage featuring two dishes and two glasses. Haskell is an exceptional sommelier, not only for his knowledge and enthusiasm, but also for his straightforward manner and ability to discover esoteric varietals from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He said that when he assembled Mesa’s wine list, he decided to avoid the “standard commie Orange feel.” Only four wines cost over $100 and most bottles range from $28 and $45.

Mussels normally come in a broth, which leads to splattered shirts and plenty of wasted broth. Mesa opted to cook their mussels in a cast-iron skillet with sea salt, cracked pepper and butter. This led to some seriously supple and smoky shellfish. Haskell paired the mussels with Audine D’ampiere, a sparkling French wine. He said the mussels would bring out the predominant flavor of Chardonnay grapes.

Mediterranean Food Costa Mesa
A silky slice of hamachi came on aioli-slathered crispy rice, topped with Chinese green garlic, a sliver of red jalapeno and wasabi-infused tobiko. The plate also featured white soy sauce, which I never knew existed. Haskell paired the fish with a glass of Hoegarden, a “classical white ale, casked for six months in wood.” He said to eat the mussels with champagne, then taste the hamachi with beer, which is designed to reboot the palate.

Mediterranean Food Costa Mesa
Next up: chanterelle crostini slathered with truffle oil and crème fraiche. It was too creamy for my taste. To combat the pungent truffle oil, Haskell paired the crostini with a glass of Chateau Musar, an “effervescent” northern Lebanese wine made from Marue and Obiedah grapes. Haskell met the producer of Chateau Musar when he worked at Le Cirque in Manhattan. He said to look for hints “dried apricot.” It had some sweetness to it, but I’m not able to pinpoint specific fruits.

Mediterranean Food Costa Mesa
Bacon-wrapped dates have becoming increasingly en vogue ever since A.O.C. filled theirs with Parmesan. Mesa takes the concept to another level, stuffing their roasted dates with braised oxtail. The rich packets are plated with parsnip puree and pickled grapes. Delicious. Haskell needed a bold wine to compete with the flavors of the dates. He pulled out a bottle of Bibich, “a Croatian wine similar to Sangiovese, fruit on front, acid in back.” The wine utilizes Bibich, Lasin and Plavina grapes. Nice call.

Meatballs Costa Mesa
Since the cast iron skillet worked so well with the mussels, Mesa used it again with their meatballs. The pepper-studded meat caramelized on the pan and was doused in zesty tomato sauce strewn with garlic and sea salt. It came with crostini that soaked up the sauce nicely. Haskell paired the meatballs with a glass of Banyuls, a sweet fortified red wine.

Mediterranean Food Costa Mesa
Tenderloin is normally the least flavorful cut of beef, since it’s so lean, but Mesa was able to muster plenty of flavor from their ‘loin. The tender char-grilled slab of beef was strewn with sea salt and plated with Roquefort fondue, rows of Tuscan black kale and sweet cippollini onions. For this pairing, Haskell chose Lioco, a wine red made in Mendocino by friend Kevin O’Connor, the wine director at Spago. The grapes: Petit Syrah and Carreon. “Blue cheese adds earthiness to wine.”

Haskell selects 10 different cheeses every month for the Cheese Plate. This month: Petit Basque (a soft sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees), Humboldt Fog (an ashy goat’s milk cheese) and Tome de Savoie (a firm cow’s milk cheese) plated with honey pear compote. The wine: Tilia, a crisp Croatian sauvignon blanc.

When asked about obscure Lebanese and Croatian wines, Haskell said, “This is what food and wine pairing is all about, doing something off the beaten path.”

Costa Mesa is certainly off the beaten path for Angelenos, but it’s within range and well worth the drive. This was one of the better dining experiences in recent memory, not only due to the food, but also due to the ingratiating David Haskell.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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