The slender brunette slams shut her textbook as soon as she sees us step through the front door. She leads us to a cushy half-round banquette lining the roomy bay window at the rear of the tavern. It’s dark out, so the window reflects the room’s multiple flat screens and its handful of patrons.
We’re sitting lakeside at Rancho Santa Margarita’s recently born Blind Pig. Last spring, this space was a struggling sports bar, and, after a quickie retool, Blind Pig took residence in August. In a suburb short of noteworthy dining options, the rookie indie is a welcome arrival, even if two of its more formidable competitors—Pizza e Vino and Carmelita’s—are mere steps away.
It’s almost fitting that the lake view is obscured. After my weeks of advance snooping, this spot is still an enigma and I’m definitely curious. Is it a sports bar? A beer boutique? A wine bar? A cocktail lounge? Good for date night? Nice for alfresco brunch? And the fare—what are “small plates of progressive American with eclectic twists”? Owners Tony Monaco and Jarryd Graaff are new on the scene, and chef Josh Han has the most local experience. Clearly, adventure awaits.
Some of the finest rewards come from the craft cocktail list. Since most women are drinking wine and guys are downing beers, gorgeous cocktails that taste modern and sublime, well, they sort of surprise. Why aren’t more folks drinking these? They cost less than what you find at craft bars such as Broadway or Little Sparrow—maybe these aren’t the cocktail hours in Rancho Santa Margarita. I later learn that this cocktail program was the design of the inimitable Gabrielle Dion, one of O.C.’s hotshot bar talents, this time in an initial consulting role.
Terrific drinks often have a balance that stimulates the appetite, to the extent that nearly everything on the 20-item menu sounds irresistible. The alcohol smoothes some edges off the grueling acoustics, exacerbated by an echo-y barrel ceiling and a singer-guitarist murdering an Amy Winehouse tune over a screechy sound system. Bad memories of college coffeehouses fade when the first round of small plates arrives: batter-fried baby artichokes, seared scallop, and pork belly. There is nothing undergraduate about these dishes. A swirl of eggy sauce gribiche begs to collide with a crunchy artichoke too hot to touch. A fork drags the golden morsel through the zingy sauce that flatters the earthy ’choke. A small fritter of yucca root and corn is an inspired base for one sweet seared scallop, served with mayo spiked with piquant chimichurri that refreshes.
Han goes Asian with the expertly rendered pork belly served on a bed of shredded green guava, crisped rice, peanuts, and Vietnamese fish sauce seasoned with garlic, lime, and cilantro. I’m weary of pork belly in sliders, tacos, and on fries, so I admire this tasty version. It’s a solid dish.
Roasted cauliflower florets, cloaked in a first-rate Hollandaise, make an interesting warm salad with Parmesan frico and prosciutto crisp, but the harmony is rudely interrupted by pickles so vinegary they bring tears to my eyes. Large plates are identifiable mostly by price and their position low on the menu’s format. The cheese and meat plates both suffer from acute drabness. Today’s artisan marketplace abounds with complex cured meats and thrilling cheeses, but these offerings are sadly commonplace.
Duck confit is pleasing on many levels, but mostly because Han invites plenty of powerhouse players. Along with the sausage of duck confit and bacon are dried cherries, gnocchi, parsnips, and browned-butter applesauce. It’s a busy plate, but it’s packed with tantalizing bites that change with every forkful. Halibut crusted with parsley-flecked fromage blanc is outstanding, and the ladle of bouillabaisse broth over roasted vegetables is a clever touch. Chicken-fried octopus is unique too, paired with warm potato salad under paprika gravy.
Clearly, this kitchen is all about modern eats, with a variety of inspirations. The flavors are quirky in a good way, recalling fare at The Crosby in Santa Ana. I later learn Han has done time in that kitchen, as well as Charlie Palmer when Amar Santana was top chef. I’m not surprised by this news, but it’s shocking how few people are ordering food on my visits. Dishes could well be too edgy for this location.
Or, it could be the floor staff isn’t into the fare either. Service is cockeyed at best. Management has zero visibility, and hospitality suffers as a result. One night, the waitress uses language better suited to a truck-stop diner. She later offends a nearby table of 20-something fellows with her crude reply to a simple question about a video overhead—a behind-the-scenes shoot of a bikini calendar, in HD, natch.
Unfortunately, that’s only one disconnect you can expect here. Dine on the 50-seat patio and you’re begging to be ignored by the wait staff. Interesting beers, dazzling drinks, and uncommon food at attractive prices, what’s not to like? Flippant service, horrid acoustics, mundane charcuterie, sloppy hospitality—all fixable flaws, provided the blind can learn to see.
Fried artichoke, seared scallop, pork belly, chicken-fried octopus, duck confit, crusted halibut, craft cocktails.
Dishes aren’t classified on the menu, but are $6 to $22; drinks, $5 to $11.
Lago Santa Margarita covers nearly 12 acres and was built in 1985 by J. Harlan Glenn and Associates.
31431 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949-888-0072, theblindpigoc.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.