Over the years, I have found that the best dining in Huntington Beach is often in strip malls away from the center of town: small, chef-owned, ethnic places that have great food at modest prices. However, when I was searching for a place to review there, I discovered that Spark Woodfire Grill was voted the best restaurant in Huntington Beach by the Orange County Restaurant Assn. Of course, that recommendation meant we had to give it a try.
Located high (one story) above Coast Highway in the heart of the downtown just off the main drag, it has an expansive view of the ocean through the tops of the palm trees, and its loftier location keeps you from having to watch the sea through the busy traffic, both of cars and beachgoers below. In summer, downtown Huntington is one gigantic mob scene, so it was nice to find us far from the madding crowd.
It is an attractive space with two dining rooms, a pleasant bar area with a separate martini menu boasting 50 different types of "martinis" and a large glassed-in, heated, outdoor terrace with a fire pit at one end. The décor is contemporary with lots of pale wood paneling and planked floors, big windows facing the water, tones of beige and brown and white linens on the tables.
We sipped our wine and munched on some fluffy rolls while we watched the sun go down and perused the menu. Our waiter suggested the black mussels, and they were wonderful. Plump and juicy, sweet and tender, they came in a big bowl of an amazing, thick tomato broth. It was full of onions, chunky tomato bits, basil and red pepper. It had a pleasant amount of heat but not enough to overpower the very fresh tasting mussels. It would have been great on its own as a soup. Luckily, it came with a spoon so, after devouring the mussels, you could yum up some more of the elixir.
Equally good was the crab cake. Resting on a cornhusk was a baseball-sized round with a crispy, barely crusted exterior and an interior of very fresh crab mixed with some breading and a little spice. It came with a zippy tomato sauce and a delicious fresh corn and red pepper salad.
At this point, we were thinking perhaps it was the best restaurant in Huntington Beach. Alas, the entrees proved less than stellar. The shrimp and lobster linguini was seasoned with a jalapeno basil pesto, which would have been good had it not been drowning in oil. There was a fair amount of shrimp but very little lobster, and the pasta was way beyond al dente as it had remained too long in the pot.
Our attentive waiter told us that the filet trio was very popular. This was a dish with three small, thick chunks of good medium rare beef, each with its own topping. One sauce had sliced mushrooms in thick gravy, which would have been quite delicious if it had not been extremely over-salted. The next one was topped with some very tasty shreds of lobster; however, the amount was just too skimpy. Last was creamed spinach, which was good but really needed to be eaten separately. The mushroom was the only topping that would have enhanced the meat.
There are also several fish entrees, chicken, hamburgers, rack of lamb and a variety of steaks.
Dessert was a bit of a disaster. The seasonal cobbler featured peaches, which were really not ready to be eaten. They were tasteless and overcooked. The advertised blueberries were in short supply and the cobbler topping, a crumble, was undercooked and very mushy.
This is an attractive restaurant with a great view, some very good food and some that was disappointing.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spark Woodfire Grill
Where: 300 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 202, Huntington Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Appetizers: $5.95 to $13.95
Entrées: $10.95 to $33.95
Desserts: $5 to $9
Bottles: $22 to $121
By the glass: $6 to $16
Corkage fee: $12
Information: (714) 960-0996 or http://www.sparkwoodfiregrill.com