There is this small white toy poodle named “Fuzzy” which struts around my neighborhood like it's the boss of the pack. Fuzzy really likes to mix it up whenever the pooch sees other dogs, even dogs five times her size. Earlier this week, I saw Fuzzy in real smack-down action. While she was on a walk with her owner, Fuzzy’s leash straightened out like a frozen rope, and the little critter yapped furiously at a big black rottweiler walking across the street. Her owner looked and me, grinned and stated the obvious: “She thinks she’s a much bigger dog.”
I thought about Fuzzy the Poodle the last time I dined at Costa Mesa’s Old Vine Café, a small, family-run, twelve-table restaurant located in the “Camp” shopping district on Bristol Street. Costa Mesa has seen its share of high-profile restaurant openings in the last 18 months. Leatherby’s Café Rouge, located in the new Segerstrom Concert Hall, received not one, but two positive articles in the Los Angeles Times’ “Food” Section. Marché Moderne, Florent Marneau’s toney French bistro on the third floor of South Coast Plaza, has also garnered splashy press. Rounding out last year's trifecta was the opening of Massimo Navaretta's Onotria, an OC favorite among Italophiles. These relatively new gastronomic scenes are all within a couple of miles of each of the Old Vine. Although these places have garnered a lot of attention, I believe it would be a mistake to dismiss brothers Mark and Brandon McDonald’s little café as a quaint sidestep in South Coast Metro. The Old Vine really belongs with the big dogs in town.
Since its opening about 18 months ago, chef and co-owner Mark McDonald has presented gutsy, exciting Italian-themed dishes featuring organic, locally farm grown ingredients. A four-course tasting menu changes about once a month, and it has in the past boasted of such items as a delicate octopus carpaccio, drizzled with a hint of lemon and olive oil, and a gorgeous buratta mozzarella caprese salad with flash-fried arugula. The regular menu consists of tapas style dishes and fresh pastas made from scratch. The pastas include a delightful egg fettuccini tossed in a velvety pomodoro sauce and garnished with just the right amount of romano cheese. Another treat is the porcini mushroom mac & cheese, which Chef McDonald is careful to keep balanced and subtle, despite the strong flavors. Too many gourmet mac n’ cheese offerings end up being an overblown and overmade chef’s concoction, rather than keeping the dish more of a delectable side attraction.
The menu, presented to you on pretty oil-painted canvas, usually sticks to a few seasonal items. It is never more than a couple pages long. If you do come with a group of people, you may be able to easily taste all the plates on the menu. From watching all the wide eyes and hearing the “mmm’s” around the cozy restaurant, you can get a sneak preview of which plates are among Old Vine’s most popular dishes. The “petite” filet mignon and the char-grilled lamb chops are definitely crowd favorites. Both dishes come with beautiful cuts of meat, accompanied with ribbons of leaks or onions and seasonal vegetables.
One item which others in the restaurant liked, but I found to miss the mark was the proscuitto wrapped artichoke. Artichokes are fairly light flavored to begin with. When wrapped in proscuitto, all I tasted was the saltiness of the cured ham. It’s not one of my favorites, but judging by how many tables ordered the item, I may be in the minority.
Old brother Brandon McDonald wears many hats at the Old Vine. He is the one who usually picks up the phone to take reservations (his phone style can be politely described as “efficient”). He also fits nicely in the role of the restaurant’s busy host, seating you when you arrive and taking your order. However, where brother Brandon really shines is as the restaurant’s wine steward. For such a small place, the Old Vine’s wine list is extensive and meticulous. His wine suggestions with each meal have been consistently spot-on and a pleasure to experience. You can count on him to pick the right wine with the right meal and his wine pairings alongside each course given the individual dishes additional nuance or heft depending on the meal.
Deserts, while not too extensive, are still a fun way to end the meal. Grandma’s cheesecake, which thankfully comes out in a tiny wedge and usually accompanied with some berries, is a particular delight.
Interestingly, “AIRe Global Cuisine,” the larger restaurant next door to the Old Vine, recently closed its doors. The little restaurant won the popularity contest. It just goes to show you, in the local foodie scene, size really does not matter.