Modern. Sexy. Fun. With dimly lit, intimate booths and tables laid out strategically around a long, elegant bar to ensure comfort and privacy, you will find yourself quickly engulfed in the sensuality that the ambiance of the dining room alone has to offer as soon as you walk through the front door of Mesa in Costa Mesa.
But, if you think the experience stops with the decor, I hate to say it, you are wrong. Here, the food has its own seductive nature that ties in beautifully with the atmosphere and it all starts from the top with none other than Executive Chef Niki Starr.
Full of life, charisma, and with a serious passion for cooking, Chef Starr somehow harnesses enough energy to not only start her day at noon to prep food for dinner service, but to also continually execute flawless technique day in and day out for 16 hours. Even during the photoshoot and interview that my photographer, Antonio Espino, and I were conducting, not only was she preparing the kitchen for dinner service, she was also cooking and plating all of the beautiful dishes you are about to see, while hopping in and out of meetings and coordinating with designers (what can’t she do?). One would mistakenly assume that the hard work that she continues to put in would naturally start to deteriorate over time, but if a hotel pan full of second degree burn-inducing short ribs to the face on the third day as an Executive Chef cannot stop her, I highly doubt much really can.
Now, just because she works behind the scenes in the kitchen does not mean you are not able to experience her magic in person. Fortunately, for us, her fierce tenacity paired with her eclectic background in cooking translates seamlessly onto paper in the form of a tightly kept menu.
The shareable, California-inspired menu at Mesa consists mainly of small plates that are easily able to be divided which means you can relax as you do not have to worry about any fighting over portions. From cheese and charcuterie to Angus steaks and Loup De Mer, you will be sure to find something that satisfies your palate. Within these plates, though, is where you will find some beautiful and international twists from Chef Starr’s diverse culinary background as well as her time spent working alongside influential chefs such as Amar Santana. Let the tasting journey begin.
For our first course, we were fortunate enough to enjoy some guilt-free ahi tacos as our appetizer. The sashimi-grade ahi tuna has a beautiful, tender meatiness that provides a full mouthfeel, complemented by the creamy avocado starting from the first bite. Combine this with the crunch from the refreshing watermelon radish shell and finish off with a some sweet and spicy elements from the ponzu and fresno chiles, and you will be sure to kickstart your flavor journey the correct way.
As you continue along this path, it is difficult to ignore the soft and light beat of the music that quietly plays in the background as the DJ provides some entertainment. Rather than fight it, it is recommended that you embrace it and become one with the beet… salad. The bass of the whipped burrata provides a smooth foundation while the high notes are hit with sherry shallot vinaigrette and compressed strawberries. While you feel like you are soaring high through the symphony, the pumpernickel soil and the edible pansies keeps you grounded and safe as your taste buds continue to dance.
Now that the cruise control is on and the mood is just right, it is time to get to the meat of things. Fortunately, there is a fork in the road and you get to decide how this story goes from here. You can drive through the countryside where you can experience the melt-in-your-mouth braised short ribs paired with a crispy sushi rice cake, finished with a bright acidity from the raspberry pork jus that makes you dream of simpler times during the holiday season with momma’s home cooking.
Or, you can drive along the coast and head south of the border. Here, you will be greeted with grilled shrimp, marinated in smoked paprika and garlic, with fire roasted corn, Bilbao chorizo, roasted heirloom baby tomatoes, and a chimichurri emulsion to turn standard California cuisine into something a little more Cali-ente.
The expedition gracefully continues on with a final, gentle push in the form of a vanilla bean panna cotta, cashew dust, and macerated berries to satiate the sweet tooth. This adventure does not stop here as you are encouraged to continue with libations and enjoy Starr-gazing through the retractable roof.