Rich Mead used to have two restaurants in Newport Beach: Sage and Sage On the Coast. But when the economy tanked, Sage On the Coast closed. And then, after his landlord refused to renew the lease, the 15-year-old Sage was also forced to shutter, and Mead, who was once a self-described "IRS paper pusher," went wandering into the wilds of Anaheim Hills to open Canyon. Though Canyon enjoyed modest success before it closed three years later, you could tell that Mead longed to go back to Newport, his home turf. And now, he has, with an al fresco restaurant called Farmhouse Café inside Roger's Gardens in a partnership that's as mutually beneficial as South Coast Plaza and Din Tai Fung's.
If you want in on Mead's Newport Beach homecoming with a dinner reservation between 6 and 7 p.m., you'd better plan a month in advance. Otherwise, you can attempt a walk-in. But be warned: The wait times are an hour or more. It's proof that his Newport Beach faithful have yearned for his return as much as Mead has wanted to come back to them.
Mead rebuilt amid the bucolic and leafy surroundings of the city's toniest nursery and garden. It's a gorgeous set-up. As you enter through the archway, fountains gurgle to the right. To the left, the sounds of laughter spill out from the open windows of a bar that resembles a barn. If you managed to score a reservation, you'll likely be seated at one of the many tables sheltered under a giant awning connected to the building, which is actually the kitchen. But if you're lucky, you'll get a more private seat underneath the umbrellas and overlooking the garden itself. Or, better yet, in the gazebo.
No matter where you are, twinkling string lights surround you. And from anywhere in the restaurant, you can see Mead through the window of his kitchen. Like Carl St. Clair at his conductor's podium, Mead's back is to you, his arms always in motion. And under his direction, dishes flow out in a constant rhythm.
The majority are Mead's greatest hits, his classic sermons on farm-to-table cooking, such as the grilled Asian beef short ribs and the chopped grilled-vegetable salad. The Sage constant of tortilla soup is also here, a silken brew that's not too thick, not too thin, and topped with shredded white meat and confetti ribbons of crunchy fried tortilla. For dinner, Mead belts out an herb-roasted chicken, which I assume is served in the same way he used to do it at Sage. It's half a bird thoroughly deboned save for the wing, sitting atop roasted root vegetables and puddles of sauce made from pan drippings. Mead also makes a burger with a patty that's two fingers thick, seasoned just shy of being too salty, and coupled by rustic, wedge-cut potatoes halfway between In-N-Out's and Red Robin's fries.
There are also a few new revelations. Mead panko-crusts Icelandic cod only on its top and bottom side, just enough for the crispy breadcrumbs to contrast the fish's pudding-soft suppleness. He sets the cod at the summit of an Asian-vegetable mountain, with saimin noodles slowly soaking up a soy-wasabi broth. True to his old style, the dish and others like it are vaguely Asian. One of his best share plates is also Asian-inspired. The "Chinese Sausage, Dried Shrimp & Farro" is, in actuality, a bold and rich kimchi fried rice with chewy farro subbing for starch and a yolk-bleeding egg tying it all together.
Flashes of brilliance are everywhere. A side dish of curried cauliflower "cous cous" is so packed with Indian flavors and drizzled with yogurt, I wished I had some naan or basmati rice. And the shrimp with romesco sauce is wondrous. Mead smears the nutty, red-pepper paste onto the plate as if paint to a palette before piling on shrimp, then vegetables both cooked and raw, warm and cool. Every bite was a surprise in texture and temperature. Will it be a crisp haricot vert next? A cooked soft potato? A crunchy piece of celery?
It's probably wise to skip the mussels, which for some reason have breadcrumbs dumped into the bowl and doing nothing but soaking up the white wine and buttered broth as though sawdust on an oil leak. Do not, however, pass up the peach crisp for dessert. It contains the last of the season's stone fruit and is served so hot from the oven the scoop of ice cream placed on top doesn't even have a chance. Eat it, sip some wine, and then rejoice, for Mead is back from the desert, with an even better cathedral where we can all worship his food.
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Farmhouse Café, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Rd., Corona del Mar, (949) 640-1415; farmhouserg.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$100, food only. Full bar.