Digging for dining gold isn’t always a pretty enterprise. At least that’s what I tell myself as we cruise the rain-slicked parking lot of a scruffy Costa Mesa strip mall, searching for the new restaurant, Social. Two smoke shops, a pool hall, and a thrift shop later, a glowing vintage marquee signals it on the strip’s eastern end.
Just outside the dollar store, we pass an animated man conversing while eating an ice cream bar. He’s not wearing a Bluetooth. A nanosecond before wariness sets in, the front door to Social swings open and a smiling staffer ushers us into another dimension, a world of easy hospitality and tempting fare: creative cocktails, nifty bar eats, and vintage movies screening silently as wall art.
Open since September, Social is a far cry from the tatty pub it replaced. Despite some near-cliché hip elements—yet another Hemingway drinking quote on the wall—this 118-seat dinner destination surprises with sophisticated cooking behind a menu deep with enticing dishes. The diverse selection is tough to classify. Pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, and Louisiana frog legs say American South. Duck confit, and steak frites with bernaise nods to France. And what designation best fits ceviche mixto with Hamachi and avocado, or mussels simmered with lemongrass and fresno chiles?
When pressed for a category, Jeffrey Boullt, the executive chef who has lived and worked in several states, settles for Progressive American with Southern influences. Given his previous stints at Brentwood’s upscale Tavern and Santa Ana’s aggressively eclectic Playground, it reasons that Boullt runs a limber and confident scratch kitchen. Even the bar noshes have a refined streak. In the Jidori chicken liver toasts, slabs of rustic bread from OC Baking Company mounded with silky pate get added sparks of flavor from jamon gastrique and pepper confit. Pimento cheese, with its aged Oregon cheddar and smoky-sweet house bacon jam, tastes better with every bite of warm, grilled bread. Do try the deceptively simple-sounding Bar Sandwich, crispy pork belly glazed with reduced soy sauce on a brioche bun, with green papaya shreds, chopped peanuts, and slivers of red chile. It’s an expertly built snack that goes down memorably with a Social Sour, a citrusy scotch cocktail with notes of hazelnut. It’s hard to avoid ordering this pairing on every visit, but I must, in search of other equally mouthwatering dishes.
The prospecting is easy and fruitful. Farro risotto with butternut squash tempers the salt and opulent richness of savory duck confit; toasted pecans and a bit of heady pecorino supply hits of crunch and tang. A sauté of musky wild mushrooms cozies up to near-perfect grits, with palate relief from bright goat cheese, an impressive balancing act. And oh, the baby Brussels sprouts– slightly sweet with honey and chopped hazelnuts, under a fluffy cap of crispy sweet potato hay. Tasso ham replaces what’s so often bacon in this dish, but its peppery edge barely keeps the sweetness in line. A tad less honey would be a safe tweak since the baby sprouts are less bitter.
Diners craving sturdy, filling proteins have tasty options. Call ahead to reserve the limited whole grilled fresh sea bream set off by gutsy salsa verde loaded with anchovy, garlic, lime, and fine, grassy olive oil. Beef lovers, your best bets are a flavor-dense Wagyu skirt steak (medium rare, please) with a salty sear and brown butter bearnaise; and the leaner tri-tip, also Wagyu, on a bed of rock shrimp succotash, with smoked tomato and sizzled shallots. Of course there’s a majestic burger that belies its humble title of Drive Thru Burger. This is the rich uncle of In-N-Out’s classic Double-Double, with a fried duck egg as an optional upgrade.
Fried Jidori chicken oysters, those tender gems of dark-meat goodness, make for a superior plate of chicken and fresh-from-the-iron waffles; the Louisiana brand hot sauce and real maple butter verify Boullt’s Southern soul. The plate is a crowd-pleaser, appearing on the dinner and brunch menus.
Yes, Social serves up a fine Sunday brunch, firing up many midday-only items. I suggest passing on the spongy chilaquiles; they simply pale compared to terrific pan-seared Gulf shrimp and buttery Anson Mills grits under Tabasco gravy and a runny egg. Stay below the Mason-Dixon line (again) with the house benedict of crispy-edged smoked confit of pork riding a proper buttermilk biscuit; slow eggs and Creole mustard hollandaise further gild this indulgent lily. Just add a piquant bloody mary or the pricey-but-worth-it pour-over coffee, depending on how productive your Sunday needs to be.
Despite the grumbles about Social’s prices, they’re easily justified by the premium ingredients, execution, and creativity. Others must agree since weekend tables are increasingly hard to book a week or more in advance. Right now, no other spot in Costa Mesa comes close to striking the mother lode of flavors hiding in this golden outpost on the gritty West Side.
Social, 512 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa
Check out our Wine Dude’s review of Social’s wine program here.