It was close to 10 p.m. when the wedding-cruise riverboats began returning to the Lido Marina. They're enormous—futuristic steamboats gleaming of glass, polished chrome and spiraling staircases. As the party guests danced their last dance, these massive vessels backed slowly into their berths, one after another, eclipsing my view of the harbor.
Though it was my second visit to Lido Marina Village this year, this was a sight I'd never witnessed before. I went to Nobu earlier in the spring, but to be at its sushi bar is to be swallowed by the whale with nary a view of the outside. It wasn't until I ate at Lido Bottle Works that I saw these riverboats and, most important, how far Lido Marina Village has come. For years, the place was neglected and in disrepair. Now that the long-awaited restoration to this once-thriving marina—which hosted the likes of John Wayne in the 1970s—was finally complete, it's become the perfect spot for window shopping and romantic strolls at sunset. And as proof it has resonated with the Newport glitterati, I have never witnessed fewer than two Bentleys roll up to the valet.
Of the three restaurants that are now open, Lido Bottle Works is the most accessible to the rest of us. It accepts no reservations for parties fewer than six. There's an outdoor patio to the side, a dining room that resembles the cozy interior of a rickety houseboat and a bar that straddles the two. All sight lines go to a tall glass refrigerator stocked full of beers near the back, which is the intended focal point of the restaurant. That it looks as if it were ripped from the corner liquor store might be intentional. It seems to say, "Come here not to flaunt your bling, but to have a cold beer, a good time and maybe a burger."
And you should definitely try the burger. Every bite kept me guessing as to what was in it. I finally had to reread the menu to sort it out. It turned out the barbecue smokiness I detected came from the bacon jam, and the savory sweetness was the work of the black garlic aioli. But there were flavors the menu couldn't account for. Was that citrusy hit actually yuzu kosho? Whatever the source and inspiration for this thick, two-fisted beast, it was a gourmet burger worth its gourmet price.
The chef responsible is Joel Harrington, who used to be Marcus Samuelsson's sous chef at Aquavit. And just like that burger, his menu takes bar food and bistro fare into territories new and intriguing. There are wings made with Jidori chicken and charcuterie, but also eggplant hummus and burrata. The latter two employ crisply toasted shards of lavash as a delivery device. For the burrata, the blubbery cheese is paired with juicy, poached peaches and smoked-pecan crumbles nestled on a bed of arugula. And because you're spreading and piling it all on top of that lavash, you eat this salad the way Vietnamese eat salads—on a cracker.
I was expecting something different when I ordered the short-rib croquettes—perhaps a potato ball in the Porto's tradition, filled with a little meat. But what I got was a deep-fried orb composed of nothing but meat. After my fork breached the paper-thin breading, a windfall of braised beef came flooding out.
There are predictable nods to the other restaurant tropes of pork belly bao buns and tuna tartare. The buns were the least impressive, coming in the typical clamshells of steamed, Chinese-style bread that's stuffed with caramelized pieces of pork, radish and an egg that got lost in the shuffle. The tuna tartare with avocado was better—and not just because it wasn't served in the usual molded cylindrical stack. Harrington actually sprinkled chile Pop Rocks over the ahi cubes and supplied a side of ponzu sauce to douse and activate the snap-crackle-pop of the candy.
The most inspired dish, though, is the cauliflower. It has three preparations—creamed, pickled and roasted—arranged in the shape of a wreath and dotted with trumpet mushrooms and raisins. If it's not the best argument that cauliflower deserves to dethrone kale for the trendy vegetable crown, then it's the dish that might convince a carnivore to go vegan.
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At the moment, my favorite dish at Lido Bottle Works is Harrington's Iberico "Secreto" pork: barely seared slices of lean pig steak served medium-rare and fleshy. It's laid atop a tangy carrot purée with pickled plum and dollops of foie mousse. And I have to admit, eating it in Lido Marina's most casual restaurant was still a luxurious experience, even if I wasn't leaving in a Bentley.
Lido Bottle Works, 3408 Via Oporto, Ste. 103, Newport Beach, (949) 529-2784; lidobottleworks.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$90, food only. Beer and wine.