Here’s an easy prediction: OC will see more gastropubs. The Crow Bar and Kitchen got the ball rolling a little more than two years ago in Corona del Mar. Then came Haven in Orange. The latest is SideDoor, also in Corona del Mar, an adjunct to Five Crowns, part of the Lawry’s Restaurant empire (yes, the one synonymous with prime rib).
Corporate affiliation aside, if every subsequent gastropub in OC’s future were to use SideDoor as a template, we would all be very lucky, indeed. This is a gastropub as one should look and operate. A dangling red key serves as a buried treasure’s X-marks-the-spot, drawing you to a side door of Five Crowns’ building.
A seat-yourself kind of place, it’s intimately cozy, like an English tavern from a movie-set designer’s sketchbook on English taverns. It may share the same valet-only parking lot as Five Crowns, but your restaurant reservations there are no good here. One busy Saturday night, a stray Five Crowns patron thought she could use hers to secure a table. Sorry, said the manager, SideDoor’s seats are first-come, first-served.
If you’re lucky, you’ll snag one of SideDoor’s two plushy couches. Otherwise, there are tall bar tables, rickety chairs close enough to the fireplace to warm your toes, or the semi-private wooden booths where you can lift a frosty mug undisturbed.
First thing you see as you enter is the charcuterie station—clearly a point of pride. Manned by a garde manger who looks fresh out of culinary school, its centerpiece is a cherry-red, old-school deli slicer operated by hand crank. Its blades slide silently, shaving blocks of Spanish jamon serrano and Italian prosciutto into thin sheets to be served atop wooden trays alongside dabs of strong mustard, roasted nuts and sliced apples.
SideDoor’s menu changes daily, as does the list of charcuterie and cheeses. But the Tête de Moine from Switzerland seems set for a permanent stay; I’ve seen it both times I’ve visited. Scraped into curls and drizzled with honey, it evokes sweetened condensed milk. A rind-encrusted Gratte Paille from France is as smooth as brie, as stinging as bleu.
More than half the menu comes from the garde manger. The avocado mash, guacamole stripped to its barest essence, is scooped up by sesame-crusted pita chips. The roasted-beet salad with ricotta, pomegranate and pecans eats almost like a meat dish—you actually need a knife and fork. But it’s the warm goose-confit salad that’s the most substantial, combining stringy scraps of the waterfowl and employing its melted fat to slowly wilt a bed of baby spinach. Despite the dried Bing cherries, parsnips and dashes of controne pepper, it was so rich I only managed to eat half of it in one sitting. I saved the rest for the next morning, when it became a nice spinach sauté upon reheating.
Duck-liver pâté is lighter on the tongue. It arrives in a thimble-sized terrine, insulated by a layer of congealed fat and flanked by a bitter arugula salad that does well to balance the ducky decadence.
A couple of panini presses make quick work of sandwiches, most of them oozing with melted cheese. The only failure is the GimmeMores dessert panini, a miscalculation that crams marshmallows and chocolate between sandwich bread. The Cuban medianoche, however, is faithful enough to please any Miami transplant—cut into five easy-to-pick-up triangles and so thickly endowed with roasted pork, ham and provolone, every bite pushes out an equal amount of meat and cheese to fall off the other side.
Five Crowns chef Dennis Brask can take credit for the rest of the cooked items, including a fine pan-seared scallop sitting atop vanilla-infused puréed sunchoke that seems like it transgressed the line that separates the fancier restaurant next door with this one.
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It’s this range that allows Brask to cater to the SideDoor ploughmen as well as the Five Crowns royals. His beef-fat fries crunch noisily, each spear possessed by the soul of a steak and the lingering aftertaste of buttered popcorn. He also does fish and chips, but the fries in it are conventionally cooked in oil and, thus, just conventional. Then there’s his Irish lamb stew, a tiny pot of chunky meat, potatoes and carrots. A crumbly soda bread biscuit as sturdy as hardtack will, sooner or later, end up in that vessel to soak up the brown broth. He doesn’t make the dish every day, so order it when you see it—it may not be there the next time.
If you get to sample the stew, it seems right to wash it down with a foamy glass of Guinness. They, of course, have it on tap along with all manner of alcohol, from a local microbrew by Placentia’s the Bruery to absinthe. This gastropub lives up to the “pub” part of the term as much as it does the “gastro.” For the moment, SideDoor’s popularity has eclipsed Five Crowns’, paving the way for more like it. So here’s to the next gastropub. And the one after that.
SideDoor, 3801 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 717-4322; www.sidedoorcdm.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 4:30-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 4:30-11:30 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dishes, $5-$12. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Gastro-Sensational: May all of OC’s many, many gastropubs-to-be follow SideDoor’s lead."