Bustling Fountain Valley is awash in Viet cafes, kebob shops, seafood houses, and dessert boutiques. Residents have no trouble satisfying most cravings near home. Yet until last fall, there wasn’t a single gastropub in town. Fans of modern noshing buoyed by craft beer traveled to Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, or Huntington Beach to sate that appetite.
When five childhood pals couldn’t find a nearby haunt for chilling after their weekly basketball game, they gave birth to The Recess Room. The freestanding, 148-seat venue—in a cleverly retooled old Coco’s—offers easy access and loads of parking minutes from La Capilla Park, where the partners still play on Saturday mornings.
Now that a full liquor license is in play (since January), food and booze get equal love here. Expect to find small-batch, offbeat brews among the 24 tap offerings. Think Bretta Rosé, a Berliner Weisse-style ale, wild fermented with Santa Maria raspberries. The 14-seat bar keeps a crew of craft bartenders hustling, mixing classic drinks and imaginative creations, such as a balanced, summery Blackberry Bramble built with Nolet gin, fresh berries, and lemon. Whiskey enjoys the Most Favored Spirit-status here, and you can choose from more than 155 labels. Smoke & Mirrors is a brilliant fusion of butter-washed rye whiskey, pecan bitters, and maple syrup swirling around an ice cube that’s embossed with a capital R and nearly as big as the glass it’s served in.
All this attention to libations encourages a menu heavy with fats and proteins, and chef de cuisine Sam Green tackles this mission with gusto. A veteran of Broadway by Amar Santana and the Balboa Bay Resort, Green is four months at the helm, though the menu still offers some popular dishes from theearly months. Brussels sprout leaves sizzled in brown butter, lemon, and diced lap cheong (dry Chinese sausage) seem to be on half the tables, though even with a veil of just-grated pecorino, the sweet sausage dominates, making for an oddly cloying starter. Folks rave about the Maryland blue crab beignets, six golden dumplings bursting with a crab-mascarpone blend. Extra points for the absence of filler, points off for blandness that even the chipotle aioli remoulade can’t remedy. Like most dishes, it’s designed for sharing.
Bone marrow mac ’n’ cheese is easy to love and too rich to finish alone. The al dente coiled pasta catches the fontina-mozza béchamel, and a split bone—piled with an oxtail-marrow mix garnished with jalapeno—is ready for mixing in to taste. Red curry mussels, and plenty of them, are notable for their comparative simplicity—plump mussels in a mild broth that balances curry, coconut milk, kaffir lime, and ribbons of Fresno chile.
On the salad front, caprese wins, thanks to the confit prep of heirloom tomatoes, a savvy move when tomatoes aren’t at their peak. A base smear of mascarpone sets up frisee, milky burrata, dribbles of basil oil, and a scattering of golden bee pollen that has a vaguely floral essence. Sandwiches are solid winners. A Creole rub and deep-fried thighs give the chicken sandwich a juicy, crunchy start. Tangy white barbecue sauce (aka “Alabama ranch dressing”) and snappy house slaw make for sloppy eating, in a good way. Double-decker tacos satisfy with sweet tiger shrimp, crumbled cotija, avocado crema, and cilantro lime slaw. Heartier than street tacos, this plate could easily be an entree. Gotta respect the diablo sauce on the side—it’s hot as Hades.
I don’t see skirt steak often enough on menus, and Green’s Japanese-style treatment makes the most of the densely flavored cut. He floats a yolk in the sauce that surrounds a gathering of the sliced steaks and mostly Asian goodies that include bok choy, shitakes, ginger, and jalapeno. Order this cooked more than medium-rare and you’re inviting toughness. Veal dumplings (raviolis) are saved by a flavorful tomato sauce made with marsala and crème fraîche. Wild Scottish salmon is ideal for lighter eating; the flaky flesh plays well with a mellow yellow curry and trumpet mushrooms that can be alternately rubbery and tender.
Desserts are popular here, likely because the execution is strong and folks save room by sharing savory dishes. The Fluffer Nutter is a marshmallow-peanut butter-banana sandwich, with a side of ice cream. Gooey, crispy, and very sweet, it doesn’t surpass the enchanting Cereal Milk Crème Brulée, made with heavy cream that has spent the night soaking up the flavor of frosted flakes. The resulting crème is silky smooth and tastes of sweet corn. Crushed flakes provide contrasting crunch atop the brittle brulée.
Service veers from tip-top to so-so, depending on the size of the crowd. Comfort depends on seating and noise level. I’m told the window seats that broil in the afternoon sun are soon to get shades; I’ve learned to request the high table opposite the bar. On every visit, even midweek, the place is in high spirits and busy.
It’s clear the schoolyard buddies behind Recess Room are headed to the top of the class, proving that a killer restaurant concept can begin and end in your own backyard.
18380 Brookhurst St.
5 BEST DISHES
→Bone marrow mac’n’ cheese
→Fried chicken sandwich
→Cereal milk crème brulée
PRICE RANGE Starters, $9 to $18 Entrees, $14 to $55 Desserts, $6 to $9
FYI The new happy hour starts at 4:30 p.m.