Last week, Newport Beach's Restaurant Week concluded. But this week, my list of restaurant essentials continues, this time for the city that includes Corona Del Mar, Balboa Island, and the parts of Newport Beach that still feel like Irvine. Some of the listed restaurants participated in last week's discounted prix fixe meals. But there's no reason you shouldn't try them this week also, if you haven't already. Don't see your favorite in there? That's what the comments are for.
As always, this list is alphabetical. And, of course, that means it starts with…
1. A Restaurant
Seemingly stripped of all pretense (not to mention consonants), A used to be The Arches, the legendary Newport Beach restaurant that was strictly for the A-list. John Wayne once ate steaks within these very walls. These days, A is for everyone. The dimly lit dining room feels like a cozy pub and the food comfort are staples like the short rib grilled cheese with bread that'll remind you of Sizzler's famed cheese toast.
You can take a date to an expensive restaurant with wide booths, grand entryways and a twinkling nighttime view of the city; or you can take that special someone to Basilic, a restaurant so cozy you are required–nay, forced–to get intimately familiar with each other and Chef Bernard Althaus' immaculate French/Swiss cuisine. In what seems like the square footage of a broom closet, Althaus cooks French/Swiss cuisine that is both balanced and exacting, rustic and refined. His menu is full of the classics: coq au vin, steak au poivre, bouillabaisse-all executed with the finesse of Escoffier and Bocuse. Not to be missed are the all-you-can-eat Raclette Nights the first Tuesday during the winter months. But you can enjoy the indigenous Swiss dish of melted cheese as an appetizer any night of the week–and you should.
3. Juliette Kitchen & Bar
Juliette Kitchen and Bar is in every way different from its location's predecessor Pascal Olhats' Tradition. Gone are the stuffy white-linen tables and claustrophobic room dividers. Everything has been stripped down to the foundation and bare wood. The chairs are unvarnished, the seats made of wicker. The whole space now feels breezy and loose. If dining at Tradition felt like wearing an overstarched suit, eating at Juliette Kitchen is the equivalent of putting on an unbuttoned beach shirt. Ask for the smoked ocean trout salad. You'll not have a sharper, more complex plate of food involving arugula than this. The nose-tickling smokiness of the flaked fish, the cloying bent of the stewed cherries and tartness of pickled onions seem initially at odds with one another, but then, somehow, they end up in harmony.
4. Lark Creek
Try the chick pea fries: mashed chick peas spread into a thin layer on a sheet pan, refrigerated to let it set, then cut it into strips and breaded before a gentle fry, turning the finger-thick spears to a rigid crispness. They look like doppelgangers for Carl's Jr.'s French toast sticks–golden-brown and served upright in a bowl as though they were actual pommes frites. Also try the deconstructed a tamal called a "tamale pancake." It resembles a taco acorazado, the chilango dish in which masa is sculpted to a thin pillow, crisped on a griddle, and then topped with meat. It will eat like a taco-truck meal despite the artful swipe of sauce painted on the plate and where you are: at Fashion Island in a restaurant that looks like a cross between a cramped French bistro and an expensive steakhouse.
5. Nesai Restaurant
To say that Nesai Restaurant is hidden is understating it. It's in Newport Beach, a stone's throw from the main drag where the Rusty Pelican and all the other PCH landmarks are. To find it, you have to turn on a side street and go up a block until the road slopes upward. Just when you think you're lost, you see the gaudy sign. It's behind what looks like a warehouse with iron bars on the windows, located at the bottom floor of an office-space duplex. 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 something else you can't put your finger on…except to squeegee every last drop of it clean from off your plate..
6. Pizzeria Mozza
Newport Beach's Mozza has a menu as simple and spare as the original. Pizzas are at the literal center of the list and the restaurant itself. A glowing oven with a half-moon slit anchors a casual room more colorful and airy than Batali's signature Crocs. Orbiting the oven are a cadre of cooks whose main purpose is to feed this beast. They coax balls of dough into pliant discs, layer on toppings and pull finished pies out of the gaping maw with a long-handled paddle. The best seat for a view of the action is at the counter. But anywhere you are, you smell the sweet and yeasty aroma of baking bread. The pizza is crisp, asymmetric, gnarled and pock-marked with char, the key signatures of a hand-made pie. Handling a slice means soot and flour dust on your fingers. Each 10-inch disc can feed exactly one person and is encircled by a bulbous ballooning crust that constitutes nearly half its acreage. The middle is as flat as a valley. A few toppings — such as fresh mozzarella — may make the pizza too wet to handle. If you have to resort to a knife and fork, know that that's the way it's eaten in Naples.
This gastropub and the restaurant its attached to are both part of the Lawry's Restaurant empire (yes, the one synonymous with prime rib). Charcuterie is its point of pride, but sometimes the chef, who splits his duties with the tonier Five Crowns next door, will do his Irish lamb stew, a tiny pot of chunky meat, potatoes and carrots. It seems appropriate 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 microbrew by Placentia's the Bruery to absinthe. Unlike most gastropubs of late, this one lives up to the "pub" part of the term as much as it does the "gastro."
8. SOL Cocina
SOL Cocina's chipotle-piloncillo goat cheese speaks to what this Mexican restaurant is about. Consisting of a dense scoop of the Philly-like cheese, it's surrounded by a spicy, dark-caramel syrup made of melted piloncillo, the traditional raw brown sugar of Mexico largely unknown to Americans. The sauce culled from it will seduce you-simultaneously hot, sweet, complex, and worldly, like Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo. The carnitas that filled the tacos came from Kurabuta pig and the beef, from antibiotic and hormone-free Meyer Angus cattle. Only in Newport Beach would the taco meat contain fewer additives than the residents.
9. The Crow Bar & Kitchen
We've seen its ilk before–new restaurants that huff and puff their locally grown produce, but end up a little limp on the delivery. Not Crow Bar and Kitchen. Heck, you won't even care where it sources its grub or that it's labeled a "gastropub." Everything is cooked so well, with precision befitting the best of Napa and New York. Seven years ago, it was the first gastropub to open in Orange County; these days it's the old dog.
10. True Food Kitchen
Should a bee ever make it inside True Food Kitchen, it would be thoroughly confused. Here is a restaurant that could be the Newport Beach outpost of the Secret Garden. The hostess' podium is a sculpted topiary. The fresh fruits aren't just decoration; they're also functional, ending up as blender fodder for smoothies. As in a greenhouse, sunlight floods in, nourishing both the plants and the customers. Lemon-striped seats flow into lime-hued walls. Though dining inside the place might call for an Allegra, it'll sure cheer up those suffering from seasonal affective disorder with a curative dose of summer and spring. The food has the same sunny disposition, served in bowls that look as though they're made of earthenware. Eaten in this space, the bright chopped chicken salad with jicama, dates and cranberries could drive antidepressants into obsolescence.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.