We're back at the Camp again, that hip foodie enclave in Costa Mesa, this time to sample the fare at Old Vine Café, the joint creation of the brothers McDonald. Chef Mark and sommelier Brandon run this little restaurant virtually by themselves, with one helper. They're cooking, waiting on tables, chatting with customers, making suggestions and apparently having a great old time of it, albeit an exhausting one. Their passion for what they do is contagious and the food is really good, especially when paired with some of their well-chosen wines.
Although the restaurant is quite small, the big glass windows along one wall that open out to the dining patio and the mini-forest beyond make the room feel more expansive. In one small corner is their wine nook, where their carefully crafted collection resides, providing an element of decor in this clean contemporary room. Tasteful jazz playing in the background is conducive to conversation as well as digestion.
Mark and Brandon have been building their fan base for the last three years serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The extensive breakfast menu includes inventive omelets, crepes, quiches, even biscuits and gravy, as well as house-made baked goods, nut butters and marmalades. Lunch features a three-course tasting menu for $20, as well as soups, salads, panini and small plates. Dinner has three four-course tasting menus with wine pairings for $65. One is strictly seasonal, one is their original and the third is vegetarian. Their particular specialty at Old Vine is pairing wine with food. Please note the pours are so generous you might want a designated driver. House-made pastas, salads and smaller plates complete the a la carte dinner selections.
Choosing our own small plate dinner, we began with three well-prepared scallops, nicely browned, moist and very tender in a luscious tarragon chardonnay sauce garnished with a tangle of fried yucca shreds. Unfortunately, bread is not served and so when we wanted to soak up that scrumptious sauce, Brandon solved the problem by bringing us spoons.
Vegan quinoa jambalaya turned out to be surprisingly addictive. The complex Cajun spiced quinoa was studded with crunchy vegetables: zucchini, onions, shitake mushrooms and red peppers, enriched with cilantro pesto. (Quinoa is an ancient Incan grain, considered to be a complete protein with all eight amino acids.) We just couldn't stop eating it.
Prepared Thai style, was Asian curried shrimp in a fabulous coconut milk curry that was house made, redolent with kaffir lime leaf, galangal, lemongrass and jalapenos. The three giant shrimp, as tender and juicy as they could be, had been sautéed in Asian vodka and garnished with flash fried crispy rice noodles.
Only the giant raviolo wasn't up to the standard of the rest of the meal. The hand-made pasta enclosed a filling of smoked duck bits and goat cheese, which was just too rich and salty while the pasta itself was tough. The Pecorino Romano sprinkled on top made the dish even saltier. The brown butter and sage sauce had neither much sage nor sage flavor.
The dessert menu is cheesecake heavy but we were too full of quinoa to even attempt a slice, so for a little sweet finish we ordered the three mini pecan pie tartlets. They had a very thin crust and the filling was not the usual overly sweet stuff. The pecans were chopped up into it rather than left in pieces. The best part was their pairing with a sprinkle of crunchy fleur de sel and a drizzle of bourbon caramel sauce.
For Mark and Brandon McDonald, Old Vine Café is a labor of love and you will love the results of their labor.
Retail products are also available at the restaurant as well as gift cards online. They have 150 wines to choose from, artisan cheeses, handcrafted meats and house-made marmalades and nut butters.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
•WHAT: Old Vine Café (714) 545-1411 oldvinecafe.com
•WHERE: 2937 Bristol St., Ste A102, Costa Mesa (at The Camp)
•WHEN: Breakfast: 7 days, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Lunch: 7 days, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to closing
Friday and Saturday: two seatings, at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Pastas and Salads: $10-$16
Smaller plates: $11-$16.50
Tasting menus with wine: $65
By the glass: $7-$12