[Editors Note: Anchor Hitch closed April 2017]
Just navigating to Mission Viejo’s Anchor Hitch demands a fair degree of skill. The expedition requires dealing with a grim parking structure below three floors of the oddball Kaleidoscope center, only to search for the nondescript, unmanned entrance—which is right beside the also unremarkable Union Market food hall. But inside its colorful quarters, Anchor Hitch shows signs of life. Open since May, this upscale seafooder with a casual demeanor is building a following among fans of chef Michael Pham, previously of L.A venues Providence and Mélisse. Gaggles of 30-something pals gather at communal tables, eagerly Instagramming Pham’s most photogenic dishes. Couples and singles gravitate to the bar and high tables near the open kitchen, where a bartender concocts specialty craft cocktails.
A wall mural by tattoo artist Paul Nguyen dominates much of the 120-seat dining room. It depicts an imaginary battle between a blue octopus and red lobster. Nearby is a curtain of floor-to-ceiling metal rings said to evoke rising air bubbles. Backlit blue ceiling panels drive home the under-the-sea motif. Wait. Was that a sea lion barking? No, it was simply one of the absurdly heavy blue wooden chairs scraping against the concrete floor.
Raw-bar offerings are a concise and pricey bunch: oysters, clams, scallops. Though the two seafood towers get special billing on the menu and are suggested by servers, I don’t see too many on tables during my visits. At $120 and $175, they’re lavish. No wonder platters of sparkling fresh oysters are more prominent. A half-dozen Kumamoto beauties feel like a steal at $24, especially with a bracing glass of French Sancerre from the concise, thoughtful list by “liquid chef” Andrew Parrish.
Of course, no sane diner makes this trek for raw-bar fare only. So it’s a treat to cross over to dishes that reveal Pham’s confident way with seafood, gorgeously presented. Hamachi Chipotle Ceviche, a fine starter for sharing, has Asian leanings. Crunchy, golden wonton crisps stand in for tortilla chips, and miso and vinegar delicately coat the raw yellowtail, adding savory notes to the already rich flesh. White miso teams with cream in the chowder-esque house clams, a slate-gray bowl of gaping bivalves peeking out from pale umami broth, dotted with bits of onion, red potato, and crisped smoky bacon. These dishes are telling examples of the chef’s ability to lighten Western fare with Asian character.
Pham handily applies classic techniques to flavors inspired by his culinary travels to Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Taiwan. Tom Yum Agnolotti is a delicious intersection of East, West, and local. Tender house-made ravioli, plump with a filling of chopped shrimp, are delectable under a restrained cream sauce redolent with Thai herbs. Slices of sautéed maitake mushrooms under a glistening foam add agreeable texture, and a cluster of curly microgreens is the final flourish.
Presentation is crucial here. Some of it is eye candy, other times it hides flaws. Take the voluptuous lobster roll that appears to be exploding with seasoned lobster. The “roll” is a fresh, buttery house-baked mini bread loaf, but there is very little lobster inside. When a dish does live up to its impressive plating, the results are heavenly. Ivory abalone-infused panna cotta comes strewn with edible flowers, neon orange pearls of ikura (salmon roe), and matte “tongues” of uni. It’s an ooh image with an aah flavor. Every bite tastes of the sea. Another dish, served on a sheet of natural slate, reveals slices of charred tako (braised octopus) that are tender, sweet, and smoky, arranged in a riotous parade among dots of chile verde sauce, sweet yam purée, crumbled chorizo, and starchy yam crispies. It’s a refined accord of disparate components and makes for a lovely photograph.
Perfectly seared wild Pacific halibut is worthy, if straightforward, compared to its adventurous brethren. It’s out of season now, and Pham predicts he’ll likely add whole branzino and snapper along with cool-weather rib-stickers such as braised pork belly, short ribs, and game birds. My dinner of the chewy, flavorless “little boy” 14-ounce ribeye proves discouraging, though I see that house-made potato chips now replace its side of ho-hum batter-fried green beans. But sad things often happen to beef in a seafood house. I always figure it’s on the menu as veto buster for dining groups with a fish-hater.
Now that it’s gone, I wonder what lavish item will replace the menu’s $120 40-ounce Prime “big boy” ribeye. Like the spendy oysters, showy seafood towers, and $25 corkage fee, Anchor Hitch positions itself as a splurge-worthy destination. But the real hitch is the spotty hospitality. One night, a freshly hired server-bartender is utterly clueless during the entire meal; the next visit, an impatient server rushes us in a rude attempt to turn the table. Each time, the reception stand is unmanned and “thank you” is never heard on our exit.
Chef Pham is a gracious fellow, however, and does visit tables when timing allows. Still, his refined and striking dishes deserve better. Location difficulties and price oddities aside, Anchor Hitch is one of the finest new kitchens for miles. In other words, go for Pham’s food, stay for—well—his food.
27741 Crown Valley Parkway
All photos by Priscilla Iezzi