Arc is easily the most exciting new restaurant in Orange County right now. It’s boldly singular, even within the of-the-moment nexus of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Collection.
Open since February, it’s far from fully formed, but it’s an impressive work in progress serving audacious fare that gets better with every visit. Only 50 seats big, the corner OC Mix site with loads of natural light feels like a modern lair surrounding a colossal oven that breathes heat and flame and smoke. Almost all of the dishes chef-owner Noah Blom labels “new American roast house” cuisine spend time in this wood-fueled oven.
Early ventilation issues are fading fast; diners no longer leave reeking of eau de campfire. Now the primal aroma of almond smoke is slyly alluring, making sensuous promises to your appetite. Honoring them is tricky business when the kitchen lacks conventional tools such as gas burners, walk-in coolers, or deep fryers. Blom revels in the simplicity of this culinary atelier, working in the wide open with no place to hide.
The learning curve is steep, given that dishes are all from-scratch, butchering is performed onsite, and the oven works 24 hours a day, getting as hot as 2,000 degrees during peak output but yielding coals that slow-cook select items overnight. During the first several weeks, nascent dishes were uneven, tasting underseasoned (meatballs, calamari) or undercooked (beets, brunch eggs). Other inaugural items prompted love at first bite (chicken divan casserole, duck confit with stone fruit jam). Clearly Blom and his team are charting new territory.
Arc blurs the line between chef and bartender. Kitchen and bar staff work shoulder to shoulder behind a 17-stool bar that serves as front-row seating for cocktail fans and oven groupies. Straightforward drinks by “startender” Koire Rogers rely on few ingredients, and many feature hand-chiseled ice, so as not to dilute the meticulous balance of elite American spirits, European liqueurs, and house-made bitters. The prices ($10 to $12) and moderate pours make it clear—these drinks are for sipping, not swigging.
Prepare to interrogate your server. Menu descriptions are intriguingly stark: “FISH. corn. pepper. lime. $15.” This leaves lots of wiggle room for the kitchen and no mercy for waiters. If the constant explaining wears on them, they don’t show it. Even when the room runs at full capacity, the earnest crew maintains good cheer. Blom’s fiancee and partner Marin Howarth captains the front of the house with a sweet cordiality that belies her strength under pressure, a skill that grows more valuable as the crowds find Arc.
Recent visits show more consistency and deeper flavors. Fat, juicy meatballs in a cast-iron ramekin are savory bites of ground pork and veal with obvious salty notes from simmering in Parmesan broth. The slow-cooked tomato sauce is umami-rich and begs for dipping with singed rustic bread from OC Baking Company. One day’s vegetable dish—layers of baked eggplant, shimeji mushrooms, ricotta, and stewed tomatoes—is so luscious with distinct flavors I find my juicy burger growing cold while I devour it. And about that burger: It’s a $20, 20-ounce behemoth on the “secret menu.” This two-handed combo is a mixture of lightly packed dry-aged beef and chopped onions sweated in bacon fat, bound with duck fat in a thick, succulent mass that’s barely contained in a potato bun slathered with roasted garlic-lime aioli. What a mighty nice burger. It’s too large for one, in my book; your mileage may vary.
So much buzz surrounds this hidden menu, which in-the-know diners must ask for, that Blom has launched a tasting menu in hopes of offering specials in a more controlled manner. He serves five to nine courses for $95 to $150, depending on the day’s menu, allowing diners to indulge in his butchery magic by way of a pristine tomahawk chop, a classic Delmonico steak, or his “butcher’s love,” a beef rib skirt steak stuffed with marrow butter.
Dessert is limited to old-fashioned chocolate-chip cookies alongside Straus Family Creamery whole milk, a new offering by executive sous chef Will Minard, former pastry chef at The Bazaar by Jose Andres in L.A., and both Plum and Coi in Oakland. But I do hope some clever artisan s’mores or a fabulous summer fruit crisp are also in Arc’s near future.
Weekend brunch also is a recent addition, and undoubtedly undergoing further development. The Goose Nest, an orange-yolk goose egg encased in layers of fine prosciutto, arrives with hot, crispy edges on the prosciutto, but the runny yolk is foiled by a near-raw, aqueous white. All is forgiven when the gorgeous wedge salad arrives. Priced for two ($20) and enough for three or four, the fresh, cold gem lettuce is cut into thick slabs and drizzled with ivory ribbons of buttermilk dressing before given a generous helping of chewy house-cured bacon. Like most of the cold dishes, it’s served in a large, hand-hewn wooden bowl. Sandwiches and flatbreads arrive on planks. Diners are served hot dishes from the restaurant’s cast-iron cooking vessels, blazing from the oven.
Arc’s provincial tableware, stacks of split logs, fascination with fire, and devotion to hand-crafting help create its rusticity. But it's more urbane and challenging than it might appear—a culinary gamble that's not for dining rookies who can’t imagine a meal without fries or pasta, but for engaged food lovers willing to roll with this ever-evolving venue. I can’t wait to see where Blom takes us next.
Meatballs, chicken casserole, duck confit, vegetable casserole, fresh fish, burger, wedge salad, Delmonico steak, cocktails.
All-day menu: $10 to $15; tasting menu: $95 to $150; cocktails, $10 to $12.
Blom is a partner at The OC Mix’s Shuck Oyster Bar. His pedigree includes stints at Daniel in New York, BLT Prime and BLT Steak (nationwide), and his own Taco Loco in Vermont (now closed).
3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949-500-5561, arcrestaurant.com
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Photographs by Priscilla Iessi
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.