The Dish

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Top Tastes

The hottest chefs, coolest new restaurants and top tastes in Newport Beach and O.C. – By Kedric francis | Photography By Edward Duarte

NEWPORT’S NEW GUARD

Laguna got all the glory this summer with the opening of a surfeit of spectacular dining spots including Katsuya, Asada, Starfish, Common Table and Broadway by Amar Santana, but Newport’s got next. CrowBurger is incredible; Fashion Island’s Rustica just had a remarkable makeover into Great Maple; and Pizzeria Mozza is opening like, now, giving Pizzeria Ortica a run for best pizza in O.C. And, in what we hope is a continued philosophic about-face, The Irvine Co. is adding some choice spots to its previously corporate chain-heavy restaurant lineup with both an upscale import (Tamarind of London) and a favorite locals-only spot (Bear Flag Fish Co.) coming to Crystal Court. And Whole Foods will be joining forces with A Market, Bristol Farms and Gelson’s to give Newport Beach a gourmet grocery brigade that’s the equal of any anywhere.

breakfast break!

Speaking of CrowBurger, who knew that a place destined for fame for its burger-liciousness would also earn accolades for the best breakfast burrito in… well, maybe the world? A sure sign of a skilled chef is the ability to turn the simple and uti

litarian into something sublime. Chef John Cuevas has done that with scrambled eggs so moist and tasty that the only criticism could be that his breakfast burrito sacrifices the easy portability of the hard, dry tortilla-entombed eggs found in most. Other exemplary O.C. breakfast dishes include the chilaquiles and huevos hybrid at Laguna’s Sapphire; Alan Greeley’s biscuits and gravy (the Golden Truffle offers breakfast one Saturday a month); anything at Break of Dawn, especially the merlot poached eggs; and the crazy chilaquiles at Anepalco, a tiny spot just around the corner from CHOC in Orange.

BESt mex

We adore Raya at the Ritz-Carlton, but Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Old Town Orange still holds the top spot when it comes to innovative Mexican cuisine. It’s close, though!

Most influential award

The owners of the Memphis Group are O.C.’s ultimate urban pioneers, opening cool new restaurants  and bars where few before them had dared. Memphis at the Santora in downtown Santa Ana was the trailblazing restaurant in the city’s downtown arts district that’s now a hipster foodie haven, and Detroit in a semi-seedy section of Costa Mesa is ground zero for indie music fans. But first there was Memphis Café, which debuted in 1995 next to The Lab, and O.C. was transformed by the culinary combo. Now, with The Camp across the street and Rooster Cafe and Onotria nearby, its one of the best areas to dine in O.C.

top spot you’ve never been

Chef Haley Nguyen’s Xahn Bistro isn’t only one of the best, most innovative and accessible restaurants in Little Saigon, it’s one of the best in O.C. And if you’re not going to take our word for it, an influential French chef we know put it on his short list of the most important restaurants in O.C. How short? There were only two others on it!

UNEXPECTED AL FRESCO

With a few exceptions, locals know that looking for a great meal outdoors and on the water is a tourist trick that’s destined for disappointment. Instead, we look inland, even if by a few blocks, when we want to dine al fresco. Quattro Caffé and Pinot Provence have patios that are hidden away enough that South Coast Plaza execs often escape to them, and the picnic tables at Rooster Café are almost always full. Café Beau Soleil, the French café next to American Rag Cie at Fashion Island, recently expanded and upgraded into such an aesthetically pleasing place that it won’t be on our “hidden” list for long, and the outdoor seating at the parking lot-adjacent CrowBurger wins our nod for NB’s best new al fresco find.

top tasting menus

The best way to get to know a chef is through a tasting menu that changes, often daily, depending on the freshness of ingredients and the whim of a creative personality. They can range from something as simple and sublime as the $20, three-course prix fixe lunch at Marché Moderne (many wouldn’t think of this as a chef’s tasting menu per se, but we do) to the culinary masterpiece that is a multi-course dinner at Studio. It’s really the ultimate compliment to a chef, allowing them to bring you whatever they please. And places we’re always pleased do so include Old Vine Café; Golden Truffle (especially a long lunch at table one); Abe’s omakase at Bluefin; and a recent addition to our “best” list, the molecular gastronomy menu at Anqi on Monday nights, or by reservation..

best barbecue

We have a theory about why it can be difficult to find good, authentic barbecue in O.C., especially near the coast. We blame (or is it praise?) one of our favorite dishes, carnitas. Though we’d love a joint specializing in North Carolina, Texas or even Kansas City barbecue, our favorite Mexican joints do fine when we want a pork fix. Pulled pork, kalua pork and barbecue pork can rarely hold a candle to crispy, juicy carnitas. But that doesn’t solve the riddle of where to find a really good, bone-sucking rib. Though there are some restaurants dedicated to barbecue in O.C. that are pretty good (Lucille’s at the District in Tustin, Bad to the Bone in San Juan Capistrano, Tulsa Rib in Orange and Beach Pit in Costa Mesa, to name a few), we get our fix in small doses at places that get smoking on special occasions. The Ritz Restaurant has barbecues out in the garden on holidays, for football games and the like. Chef Arthur will be manning the grill if you’re lucky. He’s retired after 20-plus years but still comes back to serve up is classic ‘cue. And Bill Bracken’s Sunday Pool Party and BBQ at the Island Hotel is almost over for the season, alas. Sitting on the Palm Terrace patio with a plate of smoked meats is one of the best things about summer in Newport Beach.

ABS APPEAL!

Anyone who has doubts about the effects of over-fishing needs only talk to a ‘60s-era abalone diver, or diner. The dish was once on every menu (sort of like ahi appetizers are now) and locals would serve their friends stacks of the mollusk muscle pounded tender, as if they were serving up pancakes. What once was abundantly available off the O.C. coast is now nearly gone, likely forever, and the harvesting of wild abalone is banned. Never fear: Eco-friendly aquaculture is here, and the dish is on many O.C. menus, from sexy sushi spots like Bluefin and Hamamori to classics like 21 Oceanfront and The Cannery. But the best for our buck is the terrific and tender dish served by Alan Greeley at The Golden Truffle. He poaches the marvelous mollusk in its shell, and serves it up however he damn well pleases on a particular day. Try it and taste the sea.

BEST BROTHER ACT

How could we leave Old Vine Café off the best breakfast list? We can’t. But brothers Mark and Brandon McDonald offer much more at The Camp: its one of the best restaurants in O.C.

DIVINE daily special

On Tuesdays, Mama An comes down to AnQi at South Coast Plaza bearing her family’s greatest gift to SoCal gourmets: the crazy-good crab that gave her family’s Crustacean restaurant in Beverly Hills it’s name. The spicy/sweet meat from the An’s “secret kitchen” is an ultimate taste treat. We pay a buck or so extra to have it cracked, but for our money it tastes better straight from the shell (it’s also available completely out of it), and with a glass of ice cold beer (Elizabeth An’s recommendation). It’s the ultimate in finger lickin’ good food.

TOP TOQUES

When asked to choose just one best chef in O.C., we do our best to decline. Instead we list the most creative chefs in O.C., who change their menus obsessively based on the freshest, most interesting ingredients. Our culinary champions include the Golden Truffle’s Alan Greeley (we never order from the menu. Ever. Let Alan decide); Craig Strong at Studio; Takashi Abe at Bluefin (omakase, all the way); and Florent Marneau at Marché Moderne. Others who threaten to enter the upper echelon include Amar Santana and Ryan Adams. The two are opening new Laguna restaurants a half-block from each other, replacing venerable spots at the same time (Broadway/Five Feet for Santana and Common Table/Sorrento Grille for Adams). Let the tasting menu wars begin!

NB’s BEST DISH!

Like many of the best things about Newport Beach, the iconic Ritz Egg appears to be an import (quit your grumbling; if you’re a native, at least one of your parents probably wasn’t!). Claude Koeberle, the former chef at the Hans Prager-era Ritz Restaurant and Garden and now co-owner of Solstice Cellars, began developing the delicious dish while he was at L’Orangerie in L.A. The combo’s not that complex—perfection often isn’t. It’s just an egg divinely scrambled with smoked salmon, served in the shell, topped with caviar and accompanied by a shot of icy cold Stoli, but it’s at the top of our “last meal” menu. ,

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