Arc is located at SoCo,
3321 Hyland Ave. Ste. F
in Costa Mesa.
Stacks of firewood are piled along the inside perimeter of Arc. It could have been a decorative flourish, strategically put in place to evoke the feel of a rustic, underground supper club. Or it could have been put there for a practical purpose. We weren’t entirely sure, until this exchange towards the end of our recent meal there:
Us: “Can we please see your dessert list?”
Server: “We don’t have one. We only use a wood-burning oven to cook, so the chef has decided not to offer dessert. But there is a bakery, a coffeehouse with pastries and an ice cream place here at the center.”
This is notable for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant that didn’t have dessert. At all. Not even ice cream. Second: The recommendation for neighboring businesses caught me off-guard. Perhaps I’m a little too accustomed to the cutthroat, take-no-prisoners business model, but this seemed generous. Dangerous, even. Recommending potential competitors? Isn’t that the first thing they teach you not to do as a card-carrying member of capitalism-driven American society?
I’ll admit that not only was I surprised, I was also a little peeved by this blatant absence of post-dinner tradition, especially since the aforementioned substitutes were already closed. But partial as I am to finishing a meal with something sweet, I had to respect Arc’s integrity. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all, is the message they seemed to be sending. Who can argue with that?
Not us – but mainly because Arc did most things impeccably well. Cocktails arrived in delicately stemmed ice-cold glassware, with names that evoke nothing more than a feeling or an image. The Gloom, a unanimous favorite, combined gin, maraschino cherry, cava, and lavender to make for a delicately flavored aperitif (not in the least bit gloomy); Up in Smoke, the polar opposite, puddled around a glacial ice cube, with a smoky bitterness thanks to añejo tequila, mescal and cynar. All the while, the kitchen fire raged – it was about to put on its dinner show.
Beets with goat cheese, herbs and a drizzle of Champagne-infused dressing were light and unoffensive, but on the whole rather uninspiring. Served in a thick, canoe-shaped piece of wood, which resembled something whittled on a deserted island, the almond-shaped bowl was more interesting than the dish itself.
The casserole, with chicken, broccoli and cheddar cheese came in a cast iron skillet – another decorative (and functional) touch that became a theme for the rest of the oven-originating menu. Oozing out of its skillet, with a golden-brown top, the casserole tasted as appealing as it looked – comfort food at its finest. With hints of sharp cheddar mediated by toothy broccoli and tender chunks of chicken, we were smitten – with the casserole and with self-nominated Vagabond Fire King Noah Blom’s dexterity with his wood-burning oven in the kitchen.
Steak – a hanger steak the night we were there – was likewise poised appetizingly in a cast iron skillet, with crispy potatoes and a sparse dribble of light cream sauce. With all the character of a grilled piece of meat, the hanger steak took on nuances from the wood, and the potatoes inspired with their crispy edges and soft middles. Not normally a potato fan (they too often feel and taste like filler), I found these ones melded into the dish as if they truly belonged there.
What the steak gave in award-winning campfire food, the fish mimicked in fine-dining fare. Apart from the ubiquitous skillet, the only thing these two dishes had in common was the fact that they came out of the same oven – amazing, since the fish maintained a delicacy uncanny for having just issued forth from a smoke-infested cooking chamber. It was light and flaky, cooked to juicy perfection and surrounded by aromatic, fresh-from-the-farmers-market corn, tomatoes and a squeeze of lime. A side order of bacon – thick slabs of meaty, sizzling house-cured meat – was the last of our fire-burning-oven experience at Arc, and it was a memorable one.
Well done, sirs. And let us just say that if a wood-fired, skillet-housed peach cobbler is in your summer menu future, we’d be thrilled.