This restaurant hasn’t always been easy to love. When Mesa opened in 2007, it brought a too-cool-for-school air of exclusivity not so common in Orange County. The vibe was forced and off-putting.
At first, the local loungerati didn’t mind the haughty hospitality, deducing it meant Mesa was a serious, L.A.-level hipster hang. Then the economy imploded and suddenly, elitism was passé and reaching out was in. An exterior sign finally materialized. Phone calls were returned. Media interviews were allowed. Stacks of business cards appeared.
Now, a few staff changes and a few years later, Mesa is less demanding and more inviting. Executive chef Jason Travi, formerly chef-partner of Frâiche in Culver City and sous chef at Spago in Beverly Hills, has settled in nicely since his arrival last May. His 27-item menu romps through countries, trends, and classics, easily qualifying for the gastropub genre, though wines and sophisticated cocktails—not beers—dominate the beverage roster.
The long, double-sided bar feels open and low-slung in the cavernous space that seats 160. Raised booths line one wall, and a row of fireplaces spreads across another. Dining at the bar is quite comfortable, and tops for people-watching. Comfy booths are best for larger parties, though fireplace-adjacent tables in the main room are popular, if much noisier.
I intentionally time my visits to sidestep the nightclub scene—easily done before the kitchen switches to an edited menu served from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. Mesa lacks a traditional happy hour (heck, it doesn’t even open until 6 p.m.), but you’ll find some interesting tray-passed nibbles until 8 p.m.—gratis chef’s choices that include salt-cod fritters or potato croquettes with aioli. They’re just enough to set off a fine cocktail like The Clash, vodka infused with tangerine and chile de arbol, plus fresh lime and torn cilantro.
Skip the crunchy fried green beans as a starter. They’re just ordinary. Opt for the sweet, meaty mussels with sea salt and cracked pepper, awash in melted butter and heaped in a blistering cast-iron skillet. One night, four of us share a varied salumi plate with several imported and house-made cured meats, including spicy n’duja—a chili-laden pork spread sure to clobber all but the boldest beverage. A platter of house-pickled vegetables reveals what Travi admits is a current “passion for pickling.” Shiitakes, cucumbers, radishes, onions, bell peppers, and more are brined many ways, to salty, sour, spicy, and sweet effect. It’s a fun plate to taste through alongside the salumi.
Hamachi crudo with pickled coconut sounds intriguing, but the generous portion of immaculate fish is trounced by too much juicy, tart grapefruit. Skipping the citrus proves too little, too late to save the subtle crudo. Raw fans are better off with the rib-eye tataki, lush and thinly sliced, with a scattering of crispy fried capers and leeks plus a miniside of pungent arugula dressed with a Dijon emulsion. Roasted beef bone marrow is an ace effort for fans of the gelatinous treat. The two blazing shanks come with a just-right tangle of fresh parsley with threads of preserved lemon. A large crostini and a marrow spoon make for easy spreading. Meaty cicchetti olives, crusted in cornmeal and fried, are a holdover from previous chefs, but they’re as yummy as ever and a worthy classic.
Of course there’s a luscious burger, this one refreshingly basic with a patty of chuck, ground daily to Travi’s specs. Add bacon or cheese if you must, but I think it shines as is, with a side of skinny fries. The from-scratch falafel sandwich is also delish, an ideal interplay of crunchy, smooth, hearty, and spicy. Flavorful chicken crisped under a brick is a comfort food no-brainer—sweet pepper stew and braised greens add complex notes that tease out the poultry’s gentle essence.
Four pizzas vie for attention and each easily feeds three or four, assuming a few other items fill in any gaps. Pickled jalapeños, fennel, and house-made garlic sausage make a mighty mouthful on a good bread crust smeared with simple tomato sauce and a toss of quality mozzarella. The “meat lover’s” pizza is laden with brawny bites of meatball, bacon, lamb sausage, and caramelized onion. Moist meatball sliders also shine since they’re nicely spiced but tender, and dressed with that respectable tomato sauce and decent Parmesan cheese.
Desserts aren’t strong. Affogato is a ho-hum effort and the chocolate stout cake is surprisingly dry and unappealing. But I look forward to Travi’s butterscotch pudding, which I hope is on the menu by now.
Much already has been made of Mesa’s modern design, with its living wall of ivy, unisex bathrooms, and retractable skylight roof. In fact, the coed restroom isn’t all that outrageous and the skylight, when open, allows smokers to light up when the late-night crowd parties down. Smoking indoors? Now that is scandalous in these times. But it also symbolizes the demographic shift as the night wears on—before 10, locals dine and drink, after that, the crowd gets younger, music gets louder, the skirts shorter.
I like Mesa in this more mature form. Be it the economy or the passage of time, it’s no longer the precocious, beautiful child who captivates with cleverness, only to offend with silly, self-important shenanigans. And with Travi’s steady hand at the helm, it’s a convincing choice for all of us, not just the woefully hip.
Salumi plate, fried olives, pickle platter, cast-iron mussels, rib-eye tataki, Jidori chicken, falafel burger, garlic sausage pizza, meatball sliders.
Food, $9 to $22; drinks, $8 to $11.
Mussels, with Paco & Lola Albariño.
Bring a bottle, and the $15 fee is waived when you buy a bottle from the restaurant list; top price is $38.
725 Baker St.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi