By Kristin Lee Jensen | Photos courtesy of Pelican Hill
An aria crescendos through the radio as Julia Holland drapes the canary-yellow pasta dough over the chitarra in front of her. With her hair pulled back into a white chef’s hat, her eyes light up behind pink-rimmed glasses as she explains the contraption: an Italian pasta cutter resembling a guitar.
“I can make [the spaghetti] slightly faster on a [machine], but there’s just something about using a tool and a technique that people have been doing for decades that is so much more authentic,” she says as she pushes a rolling pin over the dough resting on the chitarra’s taut strings. Under the weight, perfectly cut spaghetti noodles begin to fall between the chords.
Tucked in the back corner of the Andrea Ristorante kitchen at The Resort at Pelican Hill, the pasta room serves as Holland’s sanctuary, where she produces more than 17 different varieties of pasta each week. Though the workspace is small and the workload extensive, she began welcoming guests into her space in July: During “The Art of Pasta Making,” an intimate hour-long class held Thursdays at 11 a.m., Holland teaches up to three visitors at a time how to make pasta.
It’s just one of several new epicurean experiences offered at Pelican Hill, after renovations earlier this year modernized the rotation of offerings and flavors at the resort’s food and beverage outlets. And the changes aren’t just for overnight guests; many are geared toward providing locals a gourmet getaway, even if only for a night.
Walk into Pelican Hill on any given evening and you’ll encounter quite a different ambience than existed before. In the lounge just off the main entrance, a disc jockey might be spinning 1980s and 1990s tunes, or a Fashion Island stylist might be presenting fall trends to the sartorially inclined. It’s all part of the newly minted Great Room Social Lounge, one of several spaces in the main estate that underwent changes from April to May.
Previously decorated in shades of beige, the room and its terrace now feature a bevy of custom-made settees, ottomans and patio furniture radiating pops of burnt orange for a modern aesthetic. The menu also received a modish facelift, as Asian and Latin American-inspired finger foods replaced Italian appetizers. Selections rotate on a weekly basis, with the exception of four mainstays. Ahi tuna tartare tacos are one of the regular options, with a delicate balance of fresh fish and spicy ponzu that pairs well with a libations list highlighted by sparkling wines and cocktails.
While dining on small bites and sipping signature drinks, visitors can enjoy the new entertainment program, which includes a rotation of nearly 10 DJs spinning until midnight Tuesday through Saturday. The space also hosts a Social Hour weekdays from 5-6 p.m., with free table games and events like boutique art exhibits and etiquette conversations.
“We have done a tremendous job for the local community [when it comes to] food, spa and golf,” says Managing Director Giuseppe Lama. “But all of them cost money. So we said, ‘What about doing something in the Great Room that … is a service for you to come and chat with your friends, engage [and] relax?’ ”
Communal Italian piazzas inspire Lama’s vision for the lounge: A tourist in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, for example, can be the beneficiary of “beautiful architecture or lifestyles or music” free of charge. And in welcoming the concept to Newport Beach, visitors don’t even have to pay for parking: Pelican Hill has offered complimentary valet to guests and locals alike since opening in 2008.
The Great Room’s new look has also filtered into neighboring Andrea Ristorante, the resort’s flagship restaurant offering Northern Italian cuisine. The main dining room has been refreshed with burnt orange carpet, tablecloths and staff uniforms; the bar now features a 98-inch flat-screen TV showing black-and-white Italian films throughout the day. And while chef Marco Criscuolo will continue offering signature experiences like barrel-aged risotto prepared tableside in a Parmesan wheel, the fall season also brings new menu items guaranteed to make mouths water. White truffles from Alba, Italy, are an autumn mainstay, as diners can order the delicacy known as “the diamond of the kitchen” by the gram. Executive Chef Jean-Pierre Dubray recommends pairing them with the risotto—the warmth of the dish provides a rich backdrop for their unique taste.
Seasonal menus can also be found at Coliseum Pool & Grill, where chef Micah Severeid specializes in American cuisine with Mediterranean touches. Up to eight different types of apples from orchards in Julian, Calif., are used in fall offerings like poached apple salad, pork chop with apple chutney and house-made apple cider. Nothing is set in stone, but epicureans can also look forward to creative dishes using pumpkins sourced from nearby Irvine Ranch, such as hummus with cinnamon-sugar pita chips, risotto and butternut squash salad with a pomegranate reduction.
Dubray, who grew up in a farming community in France’s Loire Valley, has helped expand the resort’s locally sourced programs to now include Irvine Ranch and Alegría Farm in the Orange County Great Park, reaping the benefits of fresh produce year-round. During peak season in August, Pelican Hill restaurants receive nearly 30 different products between the two farms, a supply also supplemented by other vendors when needed.
While Alegría provides small lettuce, fennel and beets, among other items, Irvine Ranch harvests the strawberries used in Pelican Hill’s strawberry gelato, one of 10 rotating flavors served in the renovated Caffè and Market. Located across the lobby from the Great Room Social Lounge, the cafe now features display cases with more than 400 market products, including house-made paninis and pastries to-go. With its ocean-view terrace, the cafe could be an idyllic sojourn after a bike ride up the coast; locals who stop by should try scoops of the decadent dark chocolate and vanilla bean gelato. The Italian-style ice cream is even available at the spa in the body gelato treatment: The hydrating wrap and scrub centers on a seasonal flavor—fig is featured in the fall—before spa-goers are treated to an exclusive scoop to taste.
Also showcasing seasonal ingredients this fall is Pelican Grill. Known for its California coastal cuisine and tasting table experience in which diners are seated next to the open-concept kitchen for a meal led by chef Luke Turpin, the restaurant’s fall special features locally caught seafood. Menus aren’t yet finalized, but expect lots of striped sea bass, shellfish, Santa Barbara black cod and New Zealand razor clams.
It’s this juxtaposition—a reverence for tradition, yet a vision for the contemporary—that is mirrored in changes made over the last year at Pelican Hill. At a resort that so embodies the essence of Northern Italy, the recent renovations signal a more modern trajectory, offering a European-infused contemporaneity to the ever-increasing culinary landscape of our coastal city.