The Phoenix-based New Times chainof alt. weeklies is bidding to buy the Weekly’s parent company and create the largest free-weekly company in the nation. Tempe officials are wooing Angels owner (and Phoenix native) Arte Moreno with improved spring-training facilities in a possible quest to leverage his complaints about Anaheim into a franchise move. Such Arizona-based chains as Thaifoon, Z’Tejas and P.F. Chang’s opened their first non-Arizona locales in Orange County.
And they keep coming. In August, the Mastro’s chain of classy supper clubs opened Mastro’s Ocean Club Fish House in the Crystal Cove Promenade. Getting a seat here has been nearly impossible since—I know of seven-figure-salaried guys unable to snag a reservation unless they call weeks in advance. There hasn’t been so much buzz around an Orange County restaurant opening since Hush came to Laguna Beach last year.
But is the attention warranted? Mastro’s supposedly enforces a dress code, but my dining partner and I walked in on a recent Monday evening in hipster-flannel shirts with nary an eyebrow raised. Aside from a bronzed dolphin statue in the entrance—like Donald Trump got hold of Flipper—Mastro’s is gorgeous: high leather booths, intimate tables and a preposterously large bar with a three-tier liquor cabinet whose topmost level looms a good 15 feet above the bartender’s head. A piano player bangs out sturdy covers of Beatles classics, post-Rubber Soul.
Mastro’s prides itself on an à la carte with gargantuan portions—think Claim Jumper, but three times the style and cost. So it wasn’t a problem that our first appetizer of vanilla-battered shrimp included just three of the crustaceans: the shrimp were among the largest I’ve ever seen, about the size of a cop’s blackjack. The sautéed meat inside was light; the vanilla-tinted batter surrounded the shrimp with a puffy, golden, crispy blanket. A dunk in the cocktail sauce added a pleasant tang, and the horseradish made us wince. In a good way.
Micki the waitress could not stop genuinely enthusing about the offerings, but we finally settled on the fried onions and sautéed asparagus for sides to our entrée. The order of fried onions was really too much: the dozens of fried onions made the bowl they rested in look like a tumbleweed rolling out of the Sangre de Cristos range. But each gnarled string was crunchy with salt and batter, although I wish Mastro’s chefs hadn’t zapped out so much of the onion flavor. We had no quarrel with the asparagus spears—shiny with butter and a heroic helping of garlic cloves.
Micki recommended we dine on a seafood tower. Most of the tables already were, their various shellfish stacked up over dry ice. My dining partner and I were more excited about the fish fillets—13 varieties, all at least 12 ounces. We ordered the broiled red snapper, crusted with bread crumbs, oregano and paprika. Any qualms over paying almost $30 for a fillet I could order at California Fish Grill for about eight bucks disappeared under the dense, buttery consistency of the red snapper.
The Mastro’s pianist launched into a jaunty “A Day in the Life.” The unfortunately named Ménage-a-Trois white wine my dining partner and I shared flew us to the heavens. The hefty butter cake we ordered for dessert grew more decadent with each bite thanks to its almost-liquid interior, while an accompanying whipped cream was the best I have ever tasted: subtle, creamy, gorgeous. If Mastro’s is any indication, we can learn much from Arizonans about living the good life. Without Mastro’s, they can still teach us how to skin a jackrabbit.
MASTRO’S OCEAN CLUB FISH HOUSE, 8112 E. COAST HWY., NEWPORT BEACH, ?(949) 376-6990. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 5-10:30 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$100, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.