"Mastro's Costa Mesa, may I help you?" drawled the voice on the other end of the telephone.
"I'd like to see if I can make a reservation for Monday at 6:30 PM, party of two."
"Certainly, no problem. Are you celebrating anything?"
"Oh, congratulations. Tomorrow at 6:30 PM, party of two for Ubergeek, bring your appetite."
...bring my appetite? What kind of sign-off is that? Weirdos.
At 6 PM tonight, my wife had not yet got home and I was freaking out -- would we lose our table to the vagaries of the 55? But the traffic gods were smiling and we zipped -- nay, FLEW -- to South Coast Plaza, where we found...
...Mastro's, wrapped in construction fencing. A small sign assured us they were open, though, so we persevered. Make the next right on Ave. of the Arts for the parking, both valet and self.
We were seated immediately in the only room in the entire restaurant with any natural light in it, which made me happy, because even with the late afternoon sunlight streaming in, it was a DARK room. Clubby. Full of executives from the surrounding office buildings and salesmen trying desperately to wine and dine them into multimillion dollar deals, and travelling road warriors with flexible limits on their corporate cards. Dark, lit with orange panels, and the most impressive wine storage I've ever seen -- the stairs are made of wine storage.
Dress nicely. Ties are not needed, nor are jackets, but men, you're going to feel out of place if you wear jeans and a t-shirt or flip-flops or any of that. Titans of industry dine here; they do not wear Alpine Star t-shirts and baseball caps.
The menu is pretty short. A lot of seafood appetisers, an impressive list of enormous hunks of aged prime beef, a list of fruity freshman girl drinks in martini glasses (they also serve martinis), and a very nice wine list, including at least three dozen wines by the glass, and none of that "quartino" upsell bullcrap like at Mozza that I've been reading about.
We enquired about lobster mashed potatoes. Sadly, though I was tempted, the description of how large a portion it is put me off -- what on earth are we going to do with six plus servings of delicious but ticking-time-bomb seafood potatoes? I was bummed for quite a while about that, but for $33 (it has well over a pound of lobster, and we saw a portion being delivered -- it is a veritable PLANET of food) we want to go back with a larger group and have it.
We ended up splitting a Caesar salad (the non-spicy kind), the Mrs. got a petite (8 oz.) filet and I got the 12 oz. filet on the bone, we had creamed spinach, and I ordered a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to be served with the meal.
The Caesar salad was delicious and the dressing was obviously made by hand (real Caesar salad is tossed with its dressing's ingredients one at a time), but the complaint there was that it was shockingly overdressed. Still very tasty -- the dressing had a great tang -- but it could have used half the dressing for the same effect. The bread basket that came with it was delicious as well, though we ate the pretzel bread and nibbled on the flatbreads but left the rest.
The steaks -- wow, my God, the steaks. First of all, they really understand what the temperatures of steak are. Rare is, in fact, cold red centre. Medium rare, then, is warm red centre. We punted and ordered medium-rare, though I debated the waitress' recommendation of "rare plus", cool red centre. Second of all, that is the second tenderest beef I've ever had (Kobe wins) and the most tender MASSIVE HUNK OF MUFFERTHUNKIN' BARELY-SCORCHED DEAD *COW* I have ever put in my mouth.
You knew there was a "but".
But... I liked my wife's petite filet better than the much-vaunted "house speciality" bone-in filet.
You see, in my head a filet has essentially no connective tissue. It is a single piece of delectable, so-tender-you-can-cut-it-with-a-spoon meat, the ordering of which past medium-rare ought to be a crime. Such was the case with my wife's steak.
My steak, though it was more flavourful (maybe that malarky about the bone creating more flavour wasn't such malarky after all), had a nasty wedge of connective tissue holding the filet to the bone, and the flavour was so good that despite the rarefied surroundings, I picked up that bone and GNAWED IT... except that horrid wedge of gristle. And though I forgot to request no butter, the amount of butter used was (dare I say it) proportionate -- not floating in an entire stick the way Ruth's Chris does it.
The creamed spinach was good -- "iron-y" the way spinach should be, with the right hint of nutmeg and white pepper, and good rich manufacturers' cream and salt, and nothing else.
After dinner, forks were re-laid and we waited, patiently, for the dessert menu.
It never came. Instead, a gargantuan slice of three-layer carrot cake with fresh fruit arrived, along with a chilled metal dish of creme Chantilly. On the side of the cake plate was written, "Happy Anniversary". It was -- delicious. The cake didn't have nuts in it, which is the kiss of death to my wife (she doesn't like the combination of warm spices and nuts and raisins -- charoset is anathema to her); they were on the side of the cake and it was delicious.
The service was great. One of the differences between Mastro's and, say, Ruth's Chris, is the service. Ruth's Chris has good service, don't get me wrong -- but they don't have great service, and it tends to reek of "chain training", if you know what I mean.
So many "fancy" restaurants start off on the wrong foot with the icy, appraising once-over at the desk and the distant, distasteful "Of course, sir..." from the waitstaff. This wasn't the case at Mastro's. The front desk was demure and spoke sotto voce to the maitres d', and we did get a quick once-over, but when we arrived at our table, it was obvious why -- the tables are set with white linens, and if you are wearing dark clothes, as we were, you are offered black napkins so you don't get white fuzz on your clothes.
They've even found a non-offensive way to do the Great Restaurant Water Ripoff -- "Would you like ice water, or bottled water?" asked the waitress. Upon hearing we would like ice water, there was no pregnant pause, no raised eyebrow, no minuscule hesitation. I got the distinct feeling that they get quite enough menu from the sale of their excellent beef that they don't feel the need to stick it their customers by trapping them into expensive water.
When I ordered wine, they were out of the wine I had ordered ($20 a glass -- not cheap) and the waitress didn't know, so they offered me a taste of a similar, but more expensive ($25 a glass) wine -- and when I accepted, they only charged me the price of the wine I had ordered in the first place.
Service continued as it should -- and those of you who have read my diatribes on the woes of casual California service know that when it comes down to it I am unbelievably picky -- when the salad was delivered on chilled plates and *with a chilled fork*. Crumbs were wicked away after each course, glasses were unobtrusively refilled, and -- I can't believe it, I thought this was dead -- appetisers were plated at the table from dishes. VEGETABLES were served and the dish left on the table for seconds. Service order was remembered, so that my biggest single pet peeve in restaurant service -- the auctioning off of the food because they can't be arsed to remember who ordered what -- was not awoken. The only misstep was that my espresso was delivered to my wife by the runner. Oops. Darn.
There is one service item that made me angry -- and that is the ridiculous service of the steak itself. The runner came RUNNING out with a tray and used three napkins to set the platters on our table. "Four hundred degrees," he murmured, "please be careful." I thought it was hyperbole, until another runner arrived with our creamed spinach, which he served onto our plates. It boiled INSTANTLY and FURIOUSLY -- if you have ever been served Korean soondubu in a ripping-hot dolsot (stone pot), you know exactly the effect.
And this would have been fine had we ordered, say, mashed potatoes, which would have had a nice appealing crust on the bottom (I'm one of those people who deliberately burn rice so I can have the tadig, so...). We didn't -- we ordered creamed spinach... which boiled violently and splattered onto my hands and sleeves. I was not a happy camper. By the time it was cool enough to consider eating, it had reduced too much and was slightly gloppy. I might not have cared elsewhere -- but you have to pay a la carte for your sides and I felt foolish and barbaric eating it directly from the serving dish so I could actually have some without searing my insides.
My wife left the fork on her plate while she was talking to me, and it was so hot she burned her fingertips slightly when she went to go pick it up again -- she had to flag one of the many servers in the room to bring her another, and they had to retrieve the overheated one with a napkin.
Honestly, give me a break. I know that a ripping-hot platter means that your meal will be hot through to the last bite, and that's a nice idea, but I shouldn't have to pay $43 for a steak AND another $5 to my dry cleaner so they can get creamed spinach off my cuffs. I mentioned it to the waitress and she laughed it off -- fine, OK, I get it, but what if, as I often do, I'd leaned down to smell my food?
That was -- honestly -- the only negative experience in the whole night. The food was absolutely delicious, the place is very well-designed (it holds 580 people -- a truly huge restaurant -- but each room holds perhaps 40 people), the service was damn near impeccable, and though (very) expensive, I felt I got what I paid for.
The night's tally was $162 out the door. Expensive? Yes, but I feel I got what I paid for, and it's not like we eat out at $162 restaurants every night or even every month. It's definitely the nicest steakhouse I've been to on this coast, and we spent only slightly more than what we did at Napa Rose, though to be fair, we drank more at NR.
Mastro's Steak House
633 Anton Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626