Chef Mark McDonald grew up in Huntington Beach, but the heart of his cooking — accessible tasting menus and bistro breakfasts are the backbone of his Costa Mesa restaurant, Old Vine Café — comes straight from southern Italy, a place he calls a "home away from home."
McDonald opened Old Vine at The Camp 10 years ago after leaving years of work in Orange County's service industry to attend the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, the mostly undeveloped state that covers the tip of Italy's boot.
There, while working under certified Master Chef John Nocita, he explored the country's regional culinary nuances while learning everything from cheese making and charcuterie prepping to the subtle art of wine pairing.
"The most important thing I took away from my time in Italy is simplicity," McDonald says. "I learned to focus on quality ingredients and let those ingredients shine, versus some of these contrived techniques I had learned along the way."
At Old Vine, McDonald has put these ideas into practice and then some, building a reputation for innovative morning grub (lengua omelette with your stacked berry French toast, anyone?) and, for dinner, one of the best and most underrated prix-fixe experiences in O.C.
Since 2010, McDonald also has become known as the only local chef with a following so loyal that he leads intimate annual culinary tours abroad. His destination of choice? Italy, of course.
Every spring, McDonald and a paying group of restaurant regulars fly out to his mentor Nocita and, over 10 days in the region, leisurely explore their favorite villages, farms, family-owned restaurants and culinary traditions of Calabria and eastern Sicily.
Last fall, Nocita and McDonald launched a Splendors of Northern Italy tour (it returns Oct. 21-30), which starts in Verona and hits up Bologna and Lake Garda, while visiting some sustainable wineries and rural food producers along the way.
Trips include cooking instruction, historic context and dinners prepared by the host chefs and their friends. The goal with both, McDonald says, is to expose people to the vast regional differences within Italy by giving everyone the chance to live like a local for a few days.
"What I realized when I traveled and live there is there's so much tucked away and so much hidden in different areas that it's absolutely amazing the layers of history and the different cuisines and different food cultures in each region," McDonald says. "It was my goal before I opened my restaurant to one day bring groups of people here and share some of the experiences I've had."
Even if you can't afford to take the full culinary tour with McDonald, dinner at Old Vine Café is an educational excursion around the world all its own, with seven tasting menus offered each night, each dish for which comes with nearly a full glass of wine (or bottle of beer) for less than $100.
Before each course is delivered, sommelier Kate Perry will pour your drink and — as casually as a friend would explain a movie they saw — tell you why the unusual grapes in your glass were carefully selected to complement the corresponding flavors in the food you are about to eat. (A dry white Grüner Veltliner from Austria with a citrusy seared octopus, perhaps.)
Her excitement about giving you a wine you've likely never had before is infectious and the more questions you ask her about them, the more she smiles as she answers. McDonald often emerges from the kitchen too, checking in on the meal and providing insight into dishes like his pristine soju-sauteed curry prawns or a pan-seared polenta that's more soufflé than cornmeal.
Between the quirky staff and deep list of obscure (but affordable) wines, it's hard not to leave Old Vine Café hurting from too much laughter and full of food, knowledge and lots of vino. McDonald's culinary tours seem to promise more of the same.
"I liked some of the classic elements to fine dining but the one thing I didn't like about it was that it was pretentious. So I knew I wanted my restaurant to practice elements of fine dining but make it more comfortable and relaxed," McDonald says. "I really like the idea of a European café — a place in France or Italy that might serve breakfast or you can have a glass of wine on the patio with a light lunch, but at nighttime you can go back to the same place and they've dimmed the lights and have a bistro concept. That was the inspiration for what we wanted to be."