Friday, February 22, 2008

Onotria Wine Country Cuisine -- Costa Mesa

I felt a little silly making reservations, since dinner with the visiting job candidate would be early -- 5:30 -- and there would only be four of us on a Wednesday night. Most of my experience with nicer OC restaurants implied that we'd be the only ones there for the first hour. When we arrived at Onotria, we felt even sillier, handing over our car for the complimentary but mandatory valet parking, as it would have taken us all of five seconds to pull into one of the many empty spaces ourselves. But we followed protocol, like well-socialized diners.

As expected, we were the first to arrive in the dining room, shortly after it opened at 5:30, but I was surprised at how quickly it filled up. A large party started arriving by the time my wine was poured, and all but two of the tables in the main room were occupied by 6:30. The place was jumping! Well, jumping in a "somewhat older than we used to be, but hey, now we can afford great wine and excellent food" kind of way.

Before I first went to Onotria, I had read many glowing reviews about the food. My high expectations have not quite been met, but I keep going back for more. Why? Because Onotria never bores me. You may know what I mean. So many restaurants around here have lovely settings, well-dressed waiters, fancy plating, pricey menus, and the same, dull, bland food that every other restaurant is serving. (Yawn...) By contrast, Onotria's menu consists of interesting combinations of strong flavors that keep surprising me. Onotria sometimes annoys me, but I have yet to find it dull. And on my never-ending quest for good food in Orange County, I find I'd rather risk being annoyed.

Case in point: on a previous visit, my vegetable soup was unusually bitter. This was interesting -- since when is vegetable soup bitter? -- and could have been fine, but it was one-dimensional. It needed some bass notes to counteract the high-pitched squeal. A cabbage risotto with truffles was also too bitter: a sharp attack of a dish that needed a soothing round touch to smooth things over. I had the much-recommended pheasant on that trip, and found the bird to be delicious. However, the raisin and pine nut sauce was a bit too sweet, and although I liked it at first, it seemed to become sweeter and stickier with every bite until it was downright cloying. On the other hand, the seafood soup was interesting, if a bit under-salted. And the eggplant bruschetta blew my socks off: how can something as simple as smoked eggplant on toast taste so amazing? I didn't know, and didn't care -- and I didn't share, either.

My meal this time hit more high notes and fewer low notes, I'm happy to say. The service was spot on, and I'm not just saying that because our waiter was of the especially handsome and charming Italian variety. Water and bread came quickly. The bread was warm and soft and good, although I was surprised to see it served with butter instead of olive oil. The wine my waiter suggested was new to me and interesting -- something from the bar that night that was white and tangy and full-bodied and whose name I never quite caught. His suggestion was especially welcome, because for a restaurant that has "wine" in its name, the menu has a distressingly short list of wines by the glass.

Speaking of the menu, Onotria's is unnecessarily confusing. Again, they push away from the predictable, which I applaud, but then veer straight into the problematic. Instead of dishes being listed by type -- e.g., appetizers, soups, entrees -- they have some dishes listed that way, and others listed by what type of wines they best match. It's an interesting idea, and the wine suggestions are certainly welcome, but it complicates the process of finding, say, all the fish entrees.

I had planned to eat lightly, but that failed as soon as I heard about the specials, or more specifically, the foie gras appetizer. I find it difficult to resist foie gras, and I'm glad I didn't this time. The foie gras itself was meltingly tender with the tiniest taste of gaminess: just enough to remind the tongue to stop and appreciate what is visiting it before letting it go. It was set on a piece of fried bread, surrounded by the first of three moats of wine sauce that my dishes would feature that night. The bread was scrumptious. In fact, I kept poking at it, trying to figure out what it was. The texture was just too perfect: soft enough to soak up the wine sauce for added flavor, while remaining crunchy enough on the outside to act as a contrast to the foie gras. It couldn't be just fried bread (but it was, as I checked later). The sauce was well executed too: flavorful, not too sweet, not too anything else either. After finishing the rest of the dish, I unceremoniously dipped more bread into the sauce, reluctant to let any of it go to waste. The only odd notes were a swig of rosemary that was so large that I felt I was excavating under it to get to my food, and some unidentifiable little, um, things scattered around the plate. I'm pretty sure they were dried fruits. That's what they looked like, at least. Too big to be raisins or dried cranberries. Too small to be plums. Too soaked in the wine sauce to taste like much of anything else. I kept tasting each one carefully, but ran out before I figured out what they were.

The other diners had soup, which they seemed to like just fine. But to tell you the truth, I was so fascinated with my appetizer that I think I might have forgotten to look up the entire time. Was I too obviously ignoring my companions? I hope not. Next thing I knew, poof, appetizers are done and it's on to the entrees.

My entree was odd. But then, I knew that when I ordered it, and I got what I asked for: tempura sea bass, with grilled eggplant and Kalamata olives in a Zinfandel reduction sauce. The tempura was excellent, with a big crunch, imparting the taste of quality batter and oil without even a hint of greasiness. The problem was that the flavor of the fish was all but lost inside all that wonderful crust, and all that was left was its soft texture. It seemed a waste of what I assume was a quality fish. The eggplant was fine, if unremarkable (perhaps my hopes were too high on that score), and matched well with the tasty wine sauce. The olives, however, were all wrong. What were they thinking? The flavors of the olives and the sauce clashed riotously: two great things that taste horrible together. I tried a second olive, and then a third, trying to will myself into "seeing" the combination function well, and I just couldn't get it to work. Yuck. Ah well, at least it wasn't boring. And the olives were separate from the rest of the dish, so they didn't interfere with it.

Carter had another of the specials: fried quail with boar sausage over polenta. The polenta was creamy, and I noticed him mixing it with the sauce and finishing off every last bite. I had a taste of the sausage and it was good, although not as good as it should be. It's true that I'm a snob about sausage, but there it is: this sausage needed more. More spices. More flavor. Maybe more boar.

One of our companions had the pheasant, which he enjoyed. I asked him if he found the sauce to be sweet, and he did, but he liked it that way. To each his own. At least I know now that it wasn't a fluke that mine was sweet on that previous visit.

Then, dessert. Before I forget, I must compliment Onotria on their decaffeinated coffee. The others ordered cappuccino or espresso, but since I had an early morning the next day, I ordered just plain decaf. This is always a risky proposition, especially as I drink my coffee without benefit of sugar or cream to mask a bad brew. Most restaurants can't even get regular coffee right, and their decaf is even worse. But this was rich, full-bodied, and not the least bit bitter. I was almost worried it wasn't decaffeinated, but my quick lights-out early that evening seemed to confirm that it was.

The four of us ordered four different desserts, but since this was a work rather than personal dinner, I didn't end up trying anyone else's desserts. They looked good, though: the crème brûlée had a well-torched topping, the zabaglione came with big chunks of fruit, and they didn't skimp on the serving of creamy-looking pistachio gelato. Still, I'm glad I ordered the poached pear in, yes, yet another wine sauce. The presentation was nice, with the pear sliced almost to the stem end and fanned out in the middle of a wide, shallow bowl, surrounded by the dark red liquid, with a large dollop of crème anglaise perched precariously on the pear. The texture of the pear was perfect, precisely between not soft enough and falling apart. It somehow managed to retain its pear flavor while also being transformed by the wine. The closest I can come to describing the flavor is: loud, bright, and sleek. The essence of the fruit -- both pear and wine -- was pared down and intensified, producing a powerful flavor punch that stayed true to the end of the dish, without getting either overpowering or dulled. The crème anglaise was a creamy rejoinder to the rest of the dish, but the logistics were tricky. The cream kept slipping off the wet pear and landing in the wine moat, where it immediately began to dissolve. Armed only with a fork and knife, I rescued as much as I could, but precious bits of dairy goodness slipped through the tines and were lost forever.

By the time we retrieved our car from the parking valet -- who was tipped well for not grinding the gears in our stick shift -- we were well-fed and satisfied. All in all, it was a perfectly interesting meal, in a welcoming room, with courteous and competent staff. I'll definitely be back.

Onotria Wine Country Cuisine
2831 Bristol, Costa Mesa CA

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Comments on "Onotria Wine Country Cuisine -- Costa Mesa"

Blogger Chubbypanda said ... (February 22, 2008 at 6:17 PM) : 

Talk about a fine dining experience. I love the way you break down each dish.

Blogger elmomonster said ... (February 23, 2008 at 9:01 AM) : 

What a great, flowing and descriptive read! Felt like I was there tasting every bite. Way to show how it's done!

Blogger Vegasbuff said ... (February 24, 2008 at 11:33 AM) : 

Great review! Now I want to go out and try this place.

Blogger Bill said ... (February 27, 2008 at 11:19 PM) : 

I feel like a noobie after reading this review. I can take it from your review how foie gras blissfully tasted.


p.s. pictures would of have been sinful ;-)

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