Around four years ago, I ate at the exact spot I’m writing about today. I was reviewing a new place that was simultaneously called Biggie Baguette and Quebec Montreal Poutine. The restaurant had two names because it had a split personality; it couldn’t decide whether its specialty was sub sandwiches or poutine. The place shuttered about six months later. After that failure came the Beach Barrel, which served burgers, hot dogs and pizzas; that eatery, which I never got around to visiting lasted about three years.
But as I was researching a new seafood concept called Hook & Anchor, it dawned on me it had the same address.
If all this turnover proves anything, it’s that the location is challenging. The mini mall in which Hook & Anchor is the newest tenant is one of the least accessible on the Balboa Peninsula, barely registering in your peripheral vision as you zoom past on Newport Boulevard. Parking spots there have always been scarce, but this fact was recently made worse when the city ripped out all the metered spaces in front of the curb and turned it into a bike lane. And with Lido House Hotel and its restaurant, the Mayor’s Table, making a splash across the street, there’s even more competition in the area. So I debated whether it was worth trying Hook & Anchor. What good would my review be if the restaurant ended up like its ill-fated predecessors?
But after eating the food, I can safely say that as soon as people discover Hook & Anchor, it will not only do fine, but it will also thrive. As with Slapfish, it’s a casual seafood eatery that revels in fish tacos and seafood sandwiches. The po’ boys overflow with deep-fried shrimp, soft-shell crab, Guinness-battered cod or oysters. A man was sinking his teeth into one when my order of lobster fries arrived. I heard him whisper to his date, “Look, that’s the lobster fries.” In his voice was an undercurrent of envy that revealed the regret of not ordering it himself.
He should have. These were fries that finally traded in trendiness for substance: The garlic-and-parmesan-dusted potatoes were crisp, the lobster plentiful and sweet. But it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the tangy, house-made lemon-herb Sriracha aioli that cut the richness and lubricated every bite. After I wiped the last drops of it from the bottom of the paper fry basket, I went through my own pangs of regret that I didn’t ask for two orders.
Instead, I tucked into the whiteboard special of clams cooked with white wine, shallots, garlic, leeks and butter. The cook had tossed and swirled the shells in a sauté pan in the same kitchen (and presumably the same equipment) that the teenager who assembled my poutine used when the place was Biggie Baguette all those years ago. But when I compared what I devoured now with what I ate then, the difference was like diamonds and coal. Despite being served in a plastic to-go container, these clams would not be out of place at Water Grill.
The man who cooked that dish wore a nicely pressed, professional chef’s uniform. Wayne Magnusen is a classically trained Cordon Bleu grad who toiled for eight years at various restaurants before starting a catering business. If you attended the Long Beach Lobster Festival and 626 Night Market, you might have encountered Magnusen’s lobster sriracha mac and cheese or his lobster quesadilla, both of which are now offered at Hook & Anchor.
Magnusen’s pedigree became even more evident when I saw the Scottish salmon plate. The presentation was immaculate. The perfectly grilled fish laid carefully atop a base of cilantro-lime rice and sautéed-to-order green beans and carrots, garnished with micro greens and edible flower petals. Had the plate not been made of paper, it would’ve been fit for a magazine cover shoot. But it was upon tasting the flawless beurre blanc Magnusen spooned over the fish that I realized this place was something better than the fast-casual seafood concept it advertises itself to be. That Magnusen took this extra step when he could’ve easily gotten away with a California Fish Grill-style garlic butter is not only admirable, but it also behooves us all to give him the chance he deserves, despite that awful location.
Hook & Anchor, 3305 Newport Blvd., Ste. E, Newport Beach, (949)423-7169; www.hooknanchor.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Dishes, $11-$23. No alcohol.
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.