Culinary standouts in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa capture the attention of Michelin Guide.
By Crawford McCarthy and Newport Beach Magazine Staff
In 1889, two brothers founded a tire company in France and, to promote automotive travel—and by association, their products—the duo developed a guide for motorists with helpful information: travel maps, how to change a tire, where to get gas (or petrol for their European readers) and, most importantly, where to find hotels and places to eat while on the road. This handy booklet was known as the Michelin Guide, for its founding brothers and their eponymously named company.
As the guide’s restaurant section started to have more influence, a team of mystery diners (now called restaurant inspectors) were put into action to anonymously visit and review the establishments. The guide began awarding stars for fine dining locations in 1926, first using a single star and then moving to a tiered system of up to three stars. Almost a century later, the guide now rates more than 30,000 establishments on three continents.
The words Michelin Guide can evoke images of silent dining rooms where nondescript waiters with white gloves deliver tiny portions of food, often wrapped in foams and gels—but those are edifices of a decadent past. The guide has evolved, and so have the restaurants that fill it. Orange County has been fighting for pole position in the eyes of Southern California diners for some time and, in recent years, several local establishments have made Michelin Guide take notice, proving they’re on par with top restaurants in big cities around the world.
Few understand this better than chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi, the husband-and-wife team behind Knife Pleat, the most recent to earn a Michelin star in OC. Taco Maria and Hana re—two other Costa Mesa restaurants—also boast one star while five eateries in Newport Beach have received Michelin mentions including Fable & Spirit, which is highlighted on the Bib Gourmand list of quality establishments that also offer a good value. In 2019, Michelin expanded to include Orange County in its first California guide, and the most recent accolades were announced this past December.
At Knife Pleat—situated atop iconic South Coast Plaza—the chic space showcases modern, seasonal interpretations of classic French cuisine by Esnault, one of California’s best French chefs. Think black truffle risotto, seared duck breast and leg confit, and a mango and passion fruit souffle. To him, “Michelin is about excellence” in every area. “This means consistency, quality of ingredients, discipline, creativity, technique [and] innovation,” he says. “Having all these elements show in the cooking is what exemplifies a Michelin-starred restaurant.”
Esnault and Sarmadi offer some insight into Michelin’s decision-making process. “[It’s] mainly the level of cooking,” Sarmadi says. “According to Michelin, a star is earned based solely on what’s on the plate, but a restaurant is about much more than that. Great food delivered through culinary expertise is paramount to being considered for a star, but without warm, gracious service and a pleasant ambiance, a guest’s experience isn’t the same.”
A top level dining experience like this can seem intimidating, but Knife Pleat aims to end this stigma. “Our team works as a cohesive whole to deliver hospitality at its best,” Sarmadi explains. “We strive to create a memorable experience through attention to detail in the kitchen and the dining room without the intimidation factor that sometimes comes with fine dining.”
Like Knife Pleat, Marché Moderne—situated along the jewel that is Crystal Cove—elevates the French style to an ethereal degree. Interestingly, Marché Moderne is also run by a husband-and-wife team, Florent and Amelia Marneau, and once occupied the same South Coast Plaza penthouse space as Knife Pleat does now. Masters of their crafts, the chefs at Marché Moderne truly know how to give guests an experience unlike any other. Florent heads the kitchen, turning out dishes like coq au vin with cremini mushrooms and honey bacon, and roasted lamb rib-eye with mint and vadouvan emulsion, while Amelia’s delectable desserts range from raspberry tarts to chocolate souffle cake.
Though the guide’s roots are in France, and expertly crafted French cuisine is a hallmark of the Michelin Guide, other experiences are easily within reach. If French isn’t your cup of tea, sushi is another great option. The perfect exercise in minimalism that is a meal at Hana Re (or Sushi Ii in Newport) will have you dreaming of sushi for many nights to come.
Hana re, tucked into The LAB Anti-Mall, specializes in omakase (chef’s choice) dining at a 10-seat counter with chef Atsushi Yokoyama at the helm. According to the Michelin Guide, “It feels like a neighborhood secret, hidden in the back of a shopping mall, yet this gem is indeed worth seeking out.” In addition to highlighting the masterfully-cut fish and dishes such as cuttlefish dashi and house-cured salmon roe with uni petals, Michelin notes that “the almond panna cotta with macerated strawberries is swoon-worthy.”
Sushi Ii, on West Coast Highway, features the masterful work of chef Susumu Ii, who started at age 18 as an apprentice in traditional Japanese cuisine and has honed his skills over a nearly 30-year career in Orange County. Michelin notes that the “kaiseki-style menu, complete with Japanese-imported fish and local ingredients, is a tribute to the seasons,” calling out dishes like tofu topped with bafun uni and yuba as well as nigiri made with hagashi toro and baby sea bream. “These plates are meticulously prepared and enjoyably nuanced,” Michelin says.
Chef Carlos Salgado’s Taco María was among the first in Orange County to earn a Michelin star. It is, by the very definition of the Michelin Guide, a fantastic restaurant. However, it’s more than simply a place to eat: Taco Maria changes you. It takes the history, culture and flavors of Mexican cuisine and translates them in a way that transforms preconceived notions and challenges expectations. It is more than Mexican food—it is heritage.
Taco María earns its star by going beyond the plate and challenging diners’ very notions of not just a dish, but a cuisine. Consider the smoked albacore taco, the “callo gratinado” with scallop, uni cream and squid ink, or the “tamal de pataca” with white corn, sunchoke, tomatillo, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. A meal here is a conversation with tradition, and a beautiful one at that. In doing this, Taco Maria has proven itself not just as one of the best restaurants in Orange County, but also one of the most important.
Bello by Sandro Nardone is similar in the unconventional way it has found the eyes of the guide. Essentially two restaurants in one, Bello presents Italian cuisine that defies tradition and trades the conventional “red sauce” mentality for technique and an approach to seasonality in its food. Owner Sandro Nardone is from Atina, between Rome and Naples, in Italy. Growing up in a family of chefs, he quickly gained a passion for the culinary arts. His parents ran a small chain of restaurants, his mother produced olive oil from family trees, created charcuterie from pigs raised by an aunt, and her polenta was so popular that Rome’s most important politician would visit the house for it. Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II was reportedly a loyal customer of an aunt who made a beloved scamorza cheese. Nardone studied cooking in Italy and worked at the famous Al Mulino outside of Rome then came to the U.S. in 2012 and founded Angelina’s Pizzeria in Dana Point before opening Bello in 2019.
In addition to regular seating in the dining room, a chef’s table is offered Thursday through Saturday for groups by reservation at Bello, where Chef de Cuisine Zach Scherer and Sous Chef Drew Adams present 12- to 14-course seasonal tasting menus that challenge diners’ taste buds to shockingly delightful degrees. A meal at Bellow is surprising and, at times, provocative in the best way possible. Take, for example, the “pollo crocante,” a crispy free-range chicken with pea and pistachio pesto, or the “acqua pazza” with branzino, fish stock, baby heirloom tomatoes, lemon and chopped parsley.
Leveling the Playing Field
Stars are hard to earn, which is why Michelin expanded its offerings to diners by adding the Bib Gourmand list and other recommendations. Mind you, while these restaurants may not have stars, they are still phenomenal all the same. The reaction to even this degree of recognition from Michelin is enough to make professionals do a double take. Ali Coyle, the sommelier at Fable & Spirit and daughter of owners Darren and Jean Coyle, remembers the moment her family’s Via Lido restaurant was praised by the guide, first as one of 25 California “Inspector Discoveries” in 2020—a year after the eatery opened—and then making it on the Bib Gourmand list for the next two years.
“It was unreal,” she says. “When we first opened, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the wine list for the restaurant. Then we got recognized and you realize people are watching, and it just reaffirmed my commitment to the approach to my wines and our wine program.”
Her commitment to the wine list is well noted and Fable & Spirit boasts an astounding kitchen to match. Consider dishes like rabbit fricassee with truffle potato puree, beet agnolotti with chevre espuma, chicken confit, 12-hour kurobuta porchetta and fish and chips with curry remoulade. As Michelin says, ”With its elegant design and backdrop of the sparkling sea, this ‘fabled’ spot doesn’t have to try very hard to win fans. And yet, it never rests solely on its good looks. The room is packed with an unmistakable hum of happy diners diving into delicious pub grub.”
Around the block in Lido Marina Village sits another Michelin favorite: Lido Bottle Works—a tiny space that serves up alarmingly delicious food with seasonal changes. From burrata with heirloom carrots and gremolata to a crispy Jidori chicken sandwich with coconut-lime aioli, octopus with mole negro and escabeche, pork belly bao buns, and the LBW Burger with manchego, smoked chile aioli and garlic turmeric pickles, there’s something to wow every palate. Even the house-made fries come with a nontraditional condiment: pomegranate ketchup.
“It’s definitely a great honor to get recognized and be listed with other restaurants at the top,” says Executive Chef Joel Gutierrez.
“Personally, for me as a chef, now, it’s just about continuing to keep doing what we did to get here. If anything, it forces you to look even deeper at the small details that you wouldn’t have seen before to stay in the conversation.”
Lido Bottle Works and Gutierrez’s feelings about the Michelin Guide are proof that excellent dining is not hard to find in Orange County. You simply need to look around, and, if need be, consult a guide.