Does Great Maple Make Good?

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Fabulous Fashion Island

Perfectly positioned in fabulous Fashion Island, this spot should be so hot!- By kedric francis | PHOTOS BY jody tiongco

It’s one of those dining locations that should be a sure thing: a cool corner of Fashion Island next to the shiny new Nordstrom, with plenty of foot traffic and a patio that’s perfect for people watching.

And Great Maple, the repurposed restaurant that replaced Rustica in that space, seems like a perfect fit. The place has an appealing look and feel. From the open kitchen and interior to the design of the menu, you could be in an up-and-coming chef’s debut restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood in Any City, U.S.A.

My first experience at Great Maple was, if not great, pretty promising. We wandered in soon after the owners completed a remarkably quick makeover from Rustica, which had languished a bit after all the opening hoopla about celeb chef Grant MacPherson, who came and went quickly. Some will recall that Rustica was itself a stand in for Osteria Drago, an Italian trattoria from L.A. celeb chef Celestino Drago, which was originally slated to take Francoli Gourmet’s place.

We sat at the bar and had some happy hour drinks and small plates. There’s a nice selection of cocktails and wine, and any time I can get a cold Stella Artois for $5, I’m happy.

The bar service was stellar, and the simple dishes we shared were what small plates should be all about: a blast of flavor from fresh ingredients at a fair price. The market asparagus sprinkled with shaved pecorino and a drizzle of lemon olive oil was delicious. And while the mini meatballs in red sauce won’t make you forget the ones your mom or grandmother made, they are a stellar bar snack.

Perhaps it’s because I had such a satisfying first experience that my several subsequent visits have been so disappointing. Lackluster service (one young lady knew far less about the menu than I did), uninspired dishes (a fennel flatbread with such tiny bits of bland sausage that what you get at Mozza seems like mountains of meat in comparison) and an overall attitude that makes the place seem like a grand marketing experiment rather than a chef-driven, creative culinary experience.

It’s as if the owners followed a check list of what works in Newport Beach: A rustic yet hip design like Café R&D, though topped off with red Murano chandeliers? Check. A Bandera-like oval bar with sports on television and a lively happy hour crowd? Sure. An eclectic menu that includes burgers, beer and flatbreads like Crow Bar? Got it.

The thing they seemed to forget was that the food at those tried and true restaurants is reliably good, at times even great. So why shouldn’t we just opt for an original?

And though quoting from or relying upon Yelpers is anathema to anyone writing about food, I completely agree with one commenter who summed up her Great Maple experience succinctly:

“Oh dear, I had such hopes.” ,

Great Maple; Fashion Island; 949.706.8282

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