An elegant yet cozy venue where upscale singles meet, seek and eat fabulous mussels. Did I mention those stupendous mussels?
Like a surfer hitting that glistening, ideal wave at exactly the right instant, some moments when dining are quite simply perfection. As I headed home on the long drive after spending a charming evening at Mesa restaurant in Costa Mesa, that is exactly what I was thinking.
Unless you live in the South Bay, you might not consider making a special trip or detour down that way just to eat. But if you are a serious foodie like me — and after tasting one particularly sublime dish on the Mesa menu, you just might be pondering ways to end up in the Costa Mesa neighborhood in the near future.
Located in the newly trendy and eclectically arty section of town that is very popular with singles and locals, Mesa doesn’t divulge its secrets from its concealing exterior. Inside, however, the ambiance is welcoming and comfortably elegant, with clean, almost Asian design, rock and dark wood.
The minimalist space is warmed (literally) by several lit fireplaces. Even though the fireplaces are buttressed right up against the adjoining tables and padded benches, they have been engineered in some clever way so that even sitting inches away the heat is pleasant but not overwhelming.
The fireplaces break up the sitting area so that only two tables are in each U-shaped niche, giving a lovely intimacy to each table. With imaginative flair, the vertical walls between the niches are carpeted with living collage, a texture of organic beauty — made of identical plants in small pots.
Until much later on this almost-summer Thursday evening, my friend Ron and I didn’t even realize that we were sitting on a patio. After 9 p.m., the ceiling slides back to reveal the sky above and it becomes an open air space. Mesa is popular with upscale singles and locals as a meet (and seek) place for drinks, conversation and light fare. A very large and popular oval bar is the centerpiece of the establishment.
Our host, General Manager Peter Jaisel and our server Madison greeted us. Neither Ron nor I were in the mood for alcohol, so Peter suggested a fruit-based drink, “Nine Months In” — a play on pregnant women not being able to imbibe in alcohol. We gratefully sipped the luscious concoction of lychee, pomegranate juice, agave, fresh orange juice and soda. Created by mixologist Steven Garcia, the drink was not only delicious as a non-alcoholic cocktail, but also a wonderful accompaniment to the food that followed.
Our first dish, recommended by Peter, was a stunning creation. “Cast Iron Skillet Mussels” doesn’t sound fancy or elaborate, and it isn’t. What it is however, is a true culinary stand out. Astoundingly good. These are the freshest, superb quality Prince Edward Island mussels flash-cooked — with no liquid — directly on a cast iron pan, heated to 700 – 800 degrees. Then seasoned with Fleur du Sel (salt), cracked pepper, and served with melted butter for dipping.
This dish is so simple, so essential, but remained the high point of the evening. This is the dish that makes a trip to Mesa obligatory. It is served on a stand, which holds the sizzling, flat, cast iron pan. The briny sweet freshness and quality of the mussels made this dish truly memorable.
Peter told us that Prince Edward Islands has no factories and is far away from anywhere that does. I can tell you, the difference between these mussels and the ones that usually appear on restaurant menus, is as clear as those pristine island waters.
Accompanied by videos projected on the wall and a tasteful mix of classic rock, we continued on our culinary journey. Mesa offers an abundance of small dishes, which I always prefer to a giant plate. We selected beef marrow, roasted and served in the bone along with flat-leaf parsley salad and sprinkled with marinated Meyer lemon shreds. Although tasty, the marrow is quite fatty and a little goes a long way.
Then we sampled Beef Ribeye Tataki, finely sliced ribeye carpaccio, which was decorated with crispy leeks, fried capers, watercress and a delicate aioli. This was a good choice — light and tangy.
We followed this dish with Coconut Ceviche, with shrimp, halibut, sea bass, peppers, corn and seasoned with lime. The coconut milk was a faint hint, not overpowering the mix. I would have liked the texture to have a bit more bite to it, not quite as blended and soft as it was, and with a bit more tang.
Next was an interesting Greek salad with the usual suspects — bell pepper, onion, cucumber, black olives and feta, but with an unusual twist — the ancient grain called farro. This grain is similar in appearance to barley, but is delightfully chewy and also absorbs some of the flavors and lemony goodness from the salad.
Our halibut was another example of how the Mesa chef shines using top quality ingredients and simple preparation. It was pan-seared to perfection, letting the simplicity and freshness of the fish take center stage. Served with baby rainbow cauliflower florets and browned butter, it was delicious.
We were less enthralled by the Steak Frites as the hangar steak texture was somewhat chewy and had a slight gaminess. Somehow, all the garlic fries, served in an attractive cone, disappeared — I think that Ron was the culprit!
We wrapped up the meal with a smooth and delicious coconut panna cotta, served with a cherry and orange compote and almonds. It slid smoothly down into the limited space remaining and, with a leisurely coffee, we watched the interaction and activity around us.
I have to add a note about the Mesa restrooms as they are so unusual. They are unisex stalls, but each with their own sink and mirror. When you lock the door, a red light comes on above to indicate that it’s occupied.
The highlight of the evening — besides the company and conversation — was, hands-down, those stunning cast iron skillet mussels. They were the curtain opener and a very hard act to follow. I really hope to return to Mesa for a repeat performance. It would surely be worth the drive.