Lark Creek a Lark
Unless you're one of those Chicken Charlie guys who deep-fry everything imaginable—even unimaginable—for a living, I bet you've never wondered what deep-fried hummus would taste like. But that's exactly what the chickpea fries at Lark Creek are. What this new restaurant from a group based in Northern California has done to hummus is so simple it's amazing more places—not even Chicken Charlie—don't do it. Mashed chickpeas are spread in a thin layer on a sheet pan, then refrigerated until they set. The chickpeas are then cut into strips, breaded, then gently fried until the finger-thick spears turn to a rigid crispness. When they arrived, they resembled doppelgangers for Carl's Jr.'s French toast sticks—golden-brown and served upright in a bowl as though they were actual pommes frites. As I ate, the insides liquefied on my tongue. There's a comforting polenta-like creaminess to them, but I realized as I dipped another one into the harissa aioli dipping sauce what I was actually eating: a gentrified falafel.
It wouldn't be the restaurant's only attempt at rejiggering a classic. It deconstructed a tamal into its component parts, daring to call it a "tamale pancake" perhaps because no one who dines at Lark Creek is likely to realize what it really resembles: a taco acorazado, the Cuernavacan dish for which masa is sculpted into a thin pillow, crisped on a griddle, and then topped with meat. In this case, it was shredded chicken lubed in barbecue sauce. Though a chilled avocado salsa and a nest of crispy fried-tortilla filaments were piled on top, it still ate like the Weekly's favorite taco-truck meal. All of this despite the artful swipe of sauce painted on the plate and where we had it: at Fashion Island in a restaurant that looks like a cross between a cramped French bistro and an expensive steakhouse.
Yet the upper-crust food you'd expect at such places has also been upgraded. For a version of the now-ubiquitous pairing of watermelon and feta cheese, Lark Creek eschewed the term "salad" for "carpaccio"—and it did indeed resemble one. A CD-thick slice of watermelon, cut exactingly with a circular template, covers the entire surface of the plate as though you were looking at an actual sheet of raw beef. And to bring home the metaphor, the kitchen has strewn the feta on top in tiny clumps, the micro basil for color and the radish in white julienned shreds as though it were the Parmesan. We ate the thing smiling, thinking it the best update of a dish—one in real danger of becoming the next blueberry doughnut.
Lark Creek, 957 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-6700; www.larkcreeknb.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.
Another example of this: the trio of bruchetta, in which not a molecule of tomato or basil can be found. Instead, they used stone fruit—peach, plum and nectarine—sliced, diced, and adorned with nuts and slathered with creamy cheese. Even if the flavor veered into the territory of dessert, it's a wonderful reinvention: good, simple and something Olive Garden might get around to serving in about 20 years. But even Lark Creek's shrimp ceviche—which hasn't been altered so much as it's been done right—tasted ahead of its time. Each shrimp is split in half longitudinally and carefully arranged in layers while the acidity of its lime juice gets tempered by the richness of the avocado, both of it turned into a silky sort of dressing.
But perhaps the most admirable thing about Lark Creek was its restraint; it knows when to leave things alone. A shrimp à la plancha was flawless, the smokiness coming off the charred head-on prawns trickling down to the hash of roasted corn and cubed zucchini served beneath. The pork chop came as thick as something that retailed for $26 should and was cooked by the book. The center was kept pink, the outside char-burnished, and the dribbling sauce it came with indispensably lip-smacking, even discounting its floating slice of peach. Later at home, I chopped the leftover pork into pieces, let them roast to just short of charcoal in my toaster oven, and what came out was still inexplicably tender and juicy—proof that not only was this a prime piece of pork, but also that it was brined to the point of inoculation from becoming less than perfect.
If there were disappointments, they were minor. The spaghetti with the half-lobster was one—and only because lobster is always exposed as overrated when no melted butter is around. There was also that thing the kitchen tried to pass off as strawberry shortcake, a well-meaning, meant-to-be-healthy misfire, with yogurt substituted for whipped cream and the shortcake tasting like a stale bagel. But these are faults Lark Creek can brush off because it has done the impossible: It made gentrification palatable.
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