On a business trip to Costa Mesa this week, two major foodie friends of mine treated me to dinner at the new restaurant ARC Food and Libations. In fact, the restaurant has only been open a mere five weeks but you wouldn’t know that considering the miles of press it has already received. The darkly wooden, deeply homey, broken brick affair was packed to the gills with customers throughout our entire dinner there.
At the table while eating our food, I read an OC Register article that had come out just that day and discovered that writer Brad A. Johnson called ARC, “One of the most important restaurants to open in America this decade.” I had to re-read the article twice to make sure I was really seeing that line. Really? That’s an awful lofty statement by a food writer in Orange County. I mean, above New York? San Francisco? L.A.? But when I went on to read the article I surmised that he was making this statement based on the concept. In plain view of the diner, situated behind the bar, the chef cooks all dishes over an open flame either over almond wood in a brick hearth or on orange wood on a grill. And nutty, fruity goodness did indeed permeate all the dishes we were given albeit beneath an oddly smoky atmosphere, which I am still left wondering about whether or not it is an environmentally-conscious ambience to be injecting into guests. Another keynote of the concept is that all the dishes are prepped ahead so that all that is needed is arrangement in a mini cast iron skillet, flash cooking and then voila the food is guaranteed to be at your table under seven minutes, and time and again it was! No other conventional cooking apparatus like a range or stove are used.
On the menus for food and drink, written with whimsical Shel Silverstein quotes, is printed the tagline: Dirty, Sexy, Happiness and that was indeed how I would describe the dishes we shared.
Dirty, because the presentation of each comes steaming to your table in a pot so hot set onto an iron coaster that you have to fumble over each other to spoon portions of the mélange out onto your own plate. Grabbing the handle a good ten minutes later to redeliver some of the dish burned my dining companion – something that is of some concern and could be worked out by the owners.
The way the cheese melted over the dough in this caramelized onion and lardon “tart” (which is really a flatbread pizza) made a nice textural juxtaposition in the mouth in nice inch-cut square bites. A generous amount of the pork bits allowed for every mouthful to be filled with flavor which is a high mark in my book due to the fact that most restaurants are ultra cheap with toppings. For those who don’t like black burnt spots on their pies, this one is not for you because those bites do come at the tail end of the creaminess from the cheese and are rather jarring.
Sexy, because the food that is served is so sensually concocted towards pleasing multiple senses from taste to feel and is meant for sharing.
My favorite dish of the night was this roasted pork shoulder floating in perfectly chewy cannellini beans, all topped with an exquisite maple reduction. A bonus for the sweet meat obsessed like me and the meat just fell apart with the slight tug of the fork .
Happiness, well it depends. If you like your meats sweet and your savories floating in citrus and sloppily sauced like I do, then yes indeed bliss will ensue.
We shared five items amongst three people and were happily sated although I could have ordered a bowl of the scrumptious and addicting cannellini beans alone for dessert. Dessert is actually something they don’t offer because they can’t make anything that quick without it burning or turning bitter. But rumors have it that a churro cart (serving the authentic kind, short and curly for dipping into chocolate) or some other fun pit stop may arrive and sit outside the door upon leaving for diners who need a sweet bite to top off a sweet meal.