Begin your meal right with some of the most appealing appetizers in town.
By Crawford McCarthy
For servers and diners alike, the dance is always the same: a moment to look things over, order drinks and then, in some form or another, the question—“what can I get started for you?” It can be a daunting task to select an appetizer when there is a long list of options and you still need to figure out an entree.
Thankfully, several Newport Beach restaurants offer unique dishes that are guaranteed to delight the taste buds in new and exciting ways. Whether you order a variety to share at the start of a meal or skip the entrees altogether, these small plates will surely leave a lasting mark on any dining occasion.
Lido Bottle Works
A great appetizer can be unassuming, hiding its characteristics behind a veil of familiarity. On the surface, any other pork belly bao bun is a respectable, delicious orb of flavor. In the hands of Executive Chef Joel Gutierrez of Lido Bottle Works, though, it becomes something much more. “The most unique thing about the bao buns is the addition of the togarashi egg salad,” Gutierrez says. “It’s not something you typically see on bao buns. We use the braising liquid from the pork belly to then poach the eggs for the egg salad, which adds a great layer of flavor to the entire dish. It really helps bring out the citrus, gochujang and sweet soy notes found in the braising liquid. It’s one of our longest-standing menu items.” Garnished with radish and a slice of chile pepper, this dish will start your meal with a kick while you decide which other starters to sample. (949-529-2784; lidobottleworks.com)
Fable & Spirit
Irish-inspired eatery Fable & Spirit is known for doing many things exceptionally well, chief among them being the ability to take the familiar, add a bit of whimsy and leave guests completely smitten. A meal here is a well-crafted love story full of charming twists and turns, and the beet agnolotti is a perfect example of this. Not many would think that a pasta dish would be the way to start a meal, but this dish, with goat cheese espuma (or foam), hazelnuts, crispy kale, lemon and oak barrel-aged balsamic, begs to differ. The pasta, which is similar to ravioli, can also be enjoyed as a small meal for one, but no matter how diners choose to enjoy this dish, they are in for a trip down the rabbit hole as it challenges expectations beautifully with a satiating combination of flavors. (949-409-9913; fableandspirit.com)
In the world of starters, nachos are on the Mount Rushmore of staples. No matter if being shared amongst friends or served as a meal for one, this iconic dish has countless iterations and creative interpretations associated with it. One of the more interesting versions lies in wait at Gracias Madre, as the eatery’s entirely vegan take on this classic is one to behold. Ground Chi-rizo (plant-based chorizo made with sacha inchi seeds), cashew nacho cheese, black beans, pineapple salsa, pico de gallo and salsa verde all come together to deliver a dining experience that will forever challenge notions of what nachos should be. (949-386-8100; graciasmadre.com)
Joey Newport Beach
Pairing food with wine is nothing new, but what about pairing food with atmosphere? Joey Newport Beach is, to put it mildly, a vibe. There has hardly been an empty seat since the doors opened, and it has consistently presented a beautiful cacophony of people, flavors, sights and sounds. A meal here needs a dish that is also vibrant and unapologetic in flavor—the perfect dancing partner for a meal at Joey. Enter the Korean fried cauliflower, which combines multiple flavor elements with a sweet and spicy Korean chile-miso paste and toasted sesame seeds. A dish deep with flavor and unabashed in its delivery, it is a perfect metaphor for the space that houses it, and a great start to any meal. (949-826-5699; joeyrestaurants.com)
Bello by Sandro Nardone
It appears an unofficial decision was made in the dark corners of the dining world not long ago that every menu, wherever possible, would include a crudo. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing as many are delicious, but they do tend to feature a rather pedestrian selection of ingredients. However, that is not the case at Bello by Sandro Nardone. In fact, this dish changes completely each and every week. “It’s fun and keeps things fresh,” says chef-owner Sandro Nardone. Every single week, the team delivers a new crudo for the menu and have been doing so successfully for quite some time. Hamachi is typically used, though the ingredients that accompany the yellowtail change: One week, it may be shaven, half-ripe strawberries and micro onion while the next, the chef will switch it up to include elements like Thai peanut milk with lime and a chile vinaigrette. (949-520-7191; bellobysandronardone.com)