Beneath the shadow of the elegant curved glass and chrome edifice of the Plaza Tower, sat Mastro's, a steakhouse by which to measure all others.
European autos lined the driveway, seemingly fresh from a run on the Autobahn and arranged by the valets so that the costlier models are nearest the entrance.
Walking inside, past a stretched entryway with walls of textured sandstone, the hostess -- a rail-thin twentysomething co-ed -- directed her colleague to escort us to our table, her voice icy and precise with a bit of put-on haughtiness. We were led to a table dressed in crisp white linen and plush high-backed chairs.
It was the early evening, but the sunlight could not reach into our seating area, even in that pre-sunset hour. The room's primary source of illumination came from vertical panels lined with a glimmering fabric, dramatically backlit to exude a honey-yellow glow. Dimly lit and sultry, the space was conducive for intimate conversation, but unfortunately not for food photos*.
In front of us, a glass wall with columns of wine bottles reached beyond the limits of the ceiling. They looked like jewels; a cascade of emeralds and onyx. In Vegas, this is the kind of sight which panders to the tourist hordes, in a showy display of one-upmanship over the last glitzy restaurant to open in town. But here, in Costa Mesa, it comes across as measured, dignified, even purposeful.
The servers, in starched white tuxedos, were models of efficiency and masters of prose, regaling us with pitch-perfect recitals of the night's specials. And as with any establishment where dinner for two easily reaches into triple digits, they used crumb scrapers.
We produced the crumbs to be scraped as we nibbled on crusty bread and crackers. Notable in the artfully arranged basket was the pretzel bread, a burnished mini-loaf with the dark color of pumpernickle and a crusting of salt. Yet another standout was the crispy planks of toast, which were tangy and bubbled with parmesan cheese.
But the point of the evening was steak, and lots of it, so we saved our appetites until our orders arrived.
The sixteen ounce New York Strip ($36.95), was not a strip of meat as much as it was a gold-brick-sized section of cattle. Served on a plate which was heated past the temperature of magma, the hunk of charred flesh sizzled and sputtered in melted butter. Slicing off the first chunk was an effortless task, with the meat offering little resistance to my blade. The core was cool crimson, surrounded by a perfect perimeter of pink and a seasoned outer crust of beautiful brown and black.
I pierced the cut piece with a fork, held it up, blew on it, and then ate it. It took no more than one chew for me to realize that this was the best steak I've ever had. There were no fibers to masticate, no connective tissue to gnaw. It wasn't just tender, it surrendered upon contact with my teeth, like Jell-O. The result was an unobstructed taste of red meat, of blood and of flesh. This was the purest essense of beef; a pristine core sample of the beast worth its weight in gold.
Twenty days of dry aging had done its duty, concentrating the flavor and tenderizing beyond where any mallet or marinade can take it.
The sides were offered a-la-carte and served in ample portions. Gorgonzola Mac & Cheese ($9.50) came highly recommended by Chowhounds who came before me and was deserving of the praise. It's heaped into a deep metal bowl -- enough to feed a family of three on its own -- and adorned with a burnt, bruleed top, which only added to its appeal. The heady concoction was redolent with the mild penicillin tang of bleu cheese and stretched-out in mozzarella-like webs as we brought it to our mouths.
The Sauteed Asparagus ($7.50) were green and crisp-tender, slicked with olive oil and flavored with minced garlic. Our choice functioned as a palate-cleanser against the heavier dishes, but the woody, fibrous stems of the asparagi should have been trimmed off prior to cooking.
As I looked around the room, I took stock of my fellow diners. Along with my lovely dining companion (who, by the way, treated me for this carnivorific feast) and I, there were women decked out in their newest South Coast Plaza couture and birthday celebrants with deep pockets. But because it was midweek, there were quite a few groups of young professionals on expense accounts and executives who've descended from their high-rise boardrooms to have supper.
Mastro's was a fitting refuge for these hungry lions of industry -- a place to toast the day's business conquest with glass of scotch and chomp on a bloody steak.
633 Anton Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626