Arc’s wedge salad with fire-grilled bacon (Photo by EUGENE GARCIA, O.C. Register)
The air is thick with the scent of brown butter and duck fat and smoldering embers. The musk of charred meat seduces the room like a flirtatious ghost. First it’s here, then it’s not. Sparks flutter up from the grill like a swarm of fireflies. And if you look into the mouth of the kitchen’s fiery brick hearth, you can see its throat pulsing with fury. Servers hurry through the dining room carrying sizzling cast-iron skillets, cautiously shielding their hands with thick rubber mitts.
“Don’t touch that!” warns the waitress, gently but firmly, as I’m reaching for the handle of a pan she’s just plunked on our table. “That came straight from the fire.”
Ah, yes, of course. Now that I look closer, I can see smoke rising not just from the pork inside the pan but from the cast-iron handle of the pan itself.
I inhale, and my lungs swell with the fleshly fog of pork still melting in the pan. There’s a sugary sweetness in the air now, like when a pig is twisting on a rotisserie at a Hawaiian luau.
How many seconds has it been now? Three? Five? That’s long enough. I reach my spoon into the skillet and scoop a hunk of slow-roasted pork and bring it to my plate. I dig again, burrowing deeper, and unearth a spoonful of beans and a puff of steam.
Fatty and aromatic with a slight maple sweetness, the pork pulls apart with ease. The beans are submissive and creamy, still too hot to eat, but if I toss them around with my tongue while I chew I can almost keep from getting burned.
Before we know it, the table is crowded with more untouchable skillets. One is bubbling with cheese. It’s an old-school chicken and broccoli casserole, and it’s better than anything I can remember from the ’70s. Another is filled with duck that has been slow-roasted in its own fat until it’s falling apart. The duck is lemony with a hint of honey, served with perfectly charred Brussels sprouts. There is also calamari – tentacles of varying shapes and sizes, plus solid white strips of mantle – still quivering like Mexican jumping beans alongside blistered shishito peppers and pickled onions.
The best of all might be the potatoes, which look normal enough. But then I take a bite and I’m blown away. They’re as crispy as if they’d just come from a deep-fryer, but this place doesn’t have a fryer. “Duck fat,” says the chef. He finishes them to order in the hearth with pure duck fat. And they are sublime.
Arc is the second restaurant opened by chef Noah Blom at the South Coast Collection in Costa Mesa. His first was the oyster bar Shuck. While Shuck was certainly noteworthy for Orange County, Arc is emphatically one of the most important restaurants to open in America this decade. Everything at Arc is cooked over live fire, either on the grill, which is fueled with orange wood, or in the brick hearth, which is fueled by almond. The restaurant does not have a conventional range or oven. There is no sautéing, no frying, no sous-vide machine, no salamander, no ice cream maker. Nothing but smoldering charcoal. Anything and everything that gets cooked, gets cooked over wood. Period. The only gas line is on the roof, connected to the water heaters.
As best as I can determine, Arc is the first restaurant of its kind in the nation to completely eschew contemporary kitchen technology. And I have absolutely no doubt that we will soon see chefs across the country rush to copy Blom’s idea. It’s the ultimate and inevitable backlash to molecular gastronomy. This, too, might be a passing fad, but for now Blom is reminding us just how great real food can taste without all the technological trickery and modernist pretense, without even a stovetop – just a dude with a fire and a firm commitment to cooking locally and passionately.
Arc is intimate. Most living rooms in Orange County are larger than the dining room here, which maxes out at a tight 45. I love the exclusivity, but I worry that once this place catches on, I’ll never be able to get a seat. That said, I understand plans are in the works to introduce patio seating soon. Outdoor diners, however, won’t get the full-sensory experience of sitting around the fire.
It’s not until my third visit that I get wind of the off-menu specials. I ask the server what else might be available, wink, wink. She pauses and gives me a look, like she’s trying to decide whether I’m worthy of her full candor. Then she cautiously mentions the burger and a wedge salad. “And that’s it?” I ask. She gives me another of those looks. “Let me have the chef come talk to you,” she says. “He’s usually got something up his sleeve.”
Blom comes over with a tray of extraordinary-looking steaks. “I’ve got one of each of these,” he says, showing off a 28-day dry-aged sirloin and a double-rib Delmonico that’s been aged in-house for 20 days. The latter is literally 5 inches thick, 5 inches wide. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. “We’ll have that one,” I say. And a few minutes later, we can smell the precise moment when our steak hits the grill. It’s a special, one-of-a-kind aroma that until now hasn’t wafted through the room.
The service at Arc is a bit homespun. Given the intimate size of the restaurant and the somewhat primal cooking philosophy, the laid-back hospitality makes sense, but it can come across as somewhat artless and uninvolved. When silverware is replaced, they give you an entirely new roll of utensils, including a new napkin. So by the end of one meal, my guests and I each have four or five napkins in our laps.
The one really perplexing thing about Arc, though, is Blom’s refusal to serve dessert of any kind. On my first two visits, the servers kindly inform us that we should go visit one of their neighbors in the Mart Mix if we want dessert.
So on the third visit, we stop by Portola before dinner to pick up a bag of pop tarts and Danishes to go. And when Blom later sees us eating these pastries, he stops by our table and acknowledges that he loves dessert. He’s just not any good at making sweets, he says, so he simply doesn’t bother.
Oh, but to imagine what that wood-fired hearth could do to a simple, seasonal fruit.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 3321 Hyland Avenue, Costa Mesa
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Don’t miss: Pork and beans, duck, burger, duck-fat potatoes, calamari.
About the bar: Mixologist Koire Rogers makes some of the best artisanal cocktails in Orange County
Best place to sit: The booths, for easier conversation.
About the noise: Conversation friendly throughout, with impeccable background music.
Cost: Menu items, $5-$18. Off-menu items can be significantly more; special steaks up to $89. Corkage, first bottle free; additional bottles, $5 each.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.