Drunk After Work: Ecco
The Hours: 5-7 p.m.
The Deal: $4-$8 appetizers. $3 domestic beers. $4 import beers. $6 well martinis. $4 well drinks. $5 house red or white wines by the glass. $10 cocktails.
The Scene: Still yet to be discovered by most, Ecco's Happy Hour bar scene isn't as mobbed as say McCormick and Schmick's or Wildfish. Hidden at the end of a twisty walkway, past the post-apocalyptic lawn sculptures of The Camp in Costa Mesa, you won't find a more secluded eatery.
There's one bartender minding a well-stocked shelf of booze bottles, which backs onto a glass window. A massively thick and cold white marble counter usually has no one saddling up to it. Most of the customers, from power-suited business-types to grungy hipsters with perennial bed-head, opt to sit in the wooden high chairs and tables that border the bar.
The Sauce: Most who do the Happy Hour do beers. There is a multi-paged wine list topping at prices in the three figures, but only two (the house wine) are offered by the glass and at discounted rates. Ask the bartender what she recommends, and she'll most likely steer you to the cocktails--the blueberry mojito, in particular.
It in she muddles thinly sliced lemon, blueberries and mint before pouring in rum and soda. The tall pint is formidable, strong, and refreshing. It's also as chunky as a boba drink. You'll spend half the time fishing out and chewing on all the goodies that settle at the bottom of the glass. Continue your buzz with other cocktails, as all are as creative as the blueberry mojito. Something called Veluto is made from Frangelico, Bailey's and Chambord. An espresso martini has vanilla vodka, espresso and Godiva--but of what manifestation (powder? bar?) is unknown.
The Food: Ecco excels in appetizers. And during Happy Hour, all the favorites that regular diners enjoy are available with discounted rates at the bar. The $8 pizza, with its usual crusty, bubbled hand-tossed crust, is a meal unto itself. Though it comes with three choices (white, sausage, or margherita), the sausage is best, its peppy spiciness tempered by a mouthful of cheesy.
As I mentioned in an earlier review, the calamari fries are excellent, tender as you expect. But it's the sprinkled-on deep-fried herbs that becomes the object of obsession. You don't rest until each salty, crispy fleck is scooped up by a spoon or a wetted finger. The meatballs come two to an order, golf-ball-sized and drenched in a thick marinara you'll eat up like soup after the orbs are gone. And a tempura-battered, goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms are still on the menu for now, a seasonal treat that probably won't be there much longer. Get it and forget about any past and future jalapeno-poppers.
The Verdict: Ecco's exactly the kind of happy hour we like: balanced between wonderful food and strong, well-mixed drinks.
The Grade: A.