To say that Nesai California Italian Cuisine & Bar is hidden is understating it. It's a stone's throw from Newport Beach's main drag, where the Rusty Pelican and all the other PCH landmarks are. But at the same time, it's not there. It's as if it's a mirage or a chameleon you can't see until you start to look for it, only to realize it was there all along, in plain sight. To find the restaurant, you have to turn down a side street from PCH and go for a block until the road slopes upward. Just when you think you're lost, you see the plain sign. It's behind what looks like a warehouse with iron bars on the windows, located on the bottom floor of an office-space duplex.
The first thought that crosses your mind is that, from the outside, it resembles a seedy biker bar. Then you go in, see an actual bar and realize it looks like that on the inside, too. There is no hostess podium, no chirping blonde to greet you. There is instead a bartender, a twentysomething bro with arm tats, who welcomes you warmly and takes you to your table, which is inside another room. This room doesn't call to mind a biker bar, though—it's what fancy Italian restaurants looked like in 1982. There's ivy crawling up the walls, ornate mirrors with missing corners and framed portraits of Victorian women in forlorn poses staring into space.
It's dark in here. You take a guess the lights are kept low to convey a romantic mood or to hide the worn edges—or maybe both. The restaurant has been "around awhile," your elderly waiter tells you when you ask. You gather the guy has been here since it started (which you find out later is around the 2000 time frame). Everyone calls him Uncle James. He looks as if he's overdue for retirement, but you hope he never does leave because you like him, his un-ironic mustache that curls at the tips, and the way he talks to you as though you're a regular even though it's your first time. Most of all, you like the place and its un-Newportness.
Nesai California Italian Cuisine nesairestaurant.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.
The specialty of the house is the crispy pork belly, an appetizer you've seen just about everywhere these days, but not like this. It's not so much crispy as it is just good and simple. It's braised, then dribbled with a sauce that isn't just reduced balsamic, but also something else you can't put your finger on—which you do literally, squeegeeing every last drop off your plate.
And then there's the scallop and homemade sweet-potato ravioli, drenched in browned butter as it always is, but with an extra ultra-savory flavor that must have to do with garlic or shallots or brown sugar or magic; it's better than all of those things combined. For the salad, you ask for the caesar. This is an Italian joint, after all, and who can resist the salad everyone orders when you're in one. You discover it's a great variation, with bits of fried capers, not too heavy a dressing and freshly milled pepper from one of those oversized bazooka grinders. A main course of lobster ravioli is decadent, oozing of cheese where it isn't pregnant with meaty bits of the costly shellfish. All of it is smothered in a sort-of marinara the menu calls "pink sauce," which has the exact right amount of tang and sweetness.
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There's also the braised boneless short ribs, which doesn't sound Italian with its "chipotle cumin barbecue sauce," but it's delicious regardless, properly cooked and bold—one of the most well-flavored, well-executed braised short ribs you've had, and you've had quite a few. Also in the dish: a skewer of grilled shrimp resting atop a dollop of mashed potatoes in the middle of the plate. You exercise portion control with the spuds. You want to have some on your fork for every bite of meat and sauce.
But when you make small talk with Uncle James while pondering the tiramisu for dessert, he reveals that current owner Michiko Soffer (who used to own Issay on Old Newport Boulevard before it burned down 14 years ago) is in the process of selling the place. He tells you that he expects the restaurant to get remodeled, to get a modern, new look—not like this, he says, waving his hands at the ivy and the broken mirrors. You feel a little sad and make a point to tell everyone you know who hasn't yet been here to go before that happens, before this charming, wonderful Italian restaurant with a Japanese name does what every other aging Newport Beach dweller does rather than grow old gracefully: get a facelift.