Russ Bendel, the restaurateur behind the excellent Vine in San Clemente and sublime Ironwood in Laguna Hills, uses the three-worded slogan “Cellar. Craft. Cook” to describe his wine-country-cuisine concept. But as he debuts Olea in Newport Beach, his third restaurant, it might as well be “Rinse. Lather. Repeat.”
Now, at all three of his eateries, you can get the same crispy duck wings shellacked in a Meyer-lemon-and-honey glaze as an appetizer, then move on to a main course of the Jidori-chicken schnitzel. And as I said in my review of Ironwood, this chicken schnitzel—which is so large you could wear it as a scarf—is a masterpiece. For something that should’ve been as heavy as a piece of deep-fried, county-fair decadence, it’s extraordinarily light. It possesses the perfect ratio of crispy breadcrumb to moist meat—as good as a piece of white meat chicken could ever hope to be.
If Bendel and his executive chef, Jared Cook, should open a fourth, fifth or, heck, hundredth restaurant, I don’t doubt the schnitzel is going to be at the top of the menu. It’s their Big Mac, the dish that can breed more locations since it’s so coveted by its customers. One night at Olea, I saw a man devouring his schnitzel with his arms cradling the plate to protect it from his tablemates. And he’s right to hog it. Although it’s huge—enough for two—you want it all to yourself. Everything about the dish is precious: every morsel of that chicken, every nub of its spaetzel, every speck of the gravy.
Now that I’ve been to all three of Bendel’s restaurants, aside from the common menu items, I’ve noticed other constants. The first is that it attracts the usual assortment of mostly middle-aged diners. But compared to its sisters, Olea—with logs in the rafters and a bar as its centerpiece—feels the most hip.
The second constant is the generous portions of the main entrées. Knowing it would be enough to share, I ordered the herb-roasted prime-beef-cheek stroganoff. But before I had the chance to ask for two forks, the server offered to have it split at no extra charge. What came out on two separate plates resembled full-sized entrées, and most important, it was unlike any stroganoff I’ve ever encountered. I expected nothing less of Cook. As with his schnitzel, the chef uses the traditional dish as a jumping off point.
For his version of the Russian staple, instead of yellow egg noodles, Cook opts for wide-as-duct-tape pappardelle that’s tinted green from rosemary. I remembered the same chewy made-from-scratch pasta in Ironwood’s meatball entrée. And just as I did then, I had to cut the noodles into swatches after realizing they couldn’t be twirled around a fork.
The rest of the dish capitalizes on all the things a good stroganoff should always have—tender beef, earthy mushrooms and cippolini onions as meltingly sweet as marshmallows. But the chunky shreds of beef, which are so soft they border on pulp, were ethereal. There was no need to chew; they turned into meaty foam in my mouth.
I should also note that, for now, Olea seems to be the only place you can have the stroganoff; I couldn’t find it on Vine’s or Ironwood’s online menus. Also unique to Olea is a baked-oysters appetizer topped with blue crab, garlic, Nueske bacon and Champagne tarragon butter. It’s served five to a plate over a bed of peppery watercress and crunchy frisée. As I ate them, I discovered the greens weren’t just for show; they’re an essential part of the dish. Without their bitterness, the oysters end up too rich and oversalted.
A better appetizer is the agnolotti, ravioli-like dumplings topped with fresh goat cheese and drowned in brown butter—a very popular starter at all three restaurants. But just as great is a side dish of roasted seasonal vegetables, which I think functions better as an appetizer than main-dish accompaniment—especially at just $7.
One of the best things I remember eating at Ironwood that’s now also one of my favorites at Olea is the jumbo lump crab with heirloom beets. It’s identical to the one at Ironwood—and for good reason. Cool, refreshing and full of contrasting textures that change by the forkful, the dish lays in the sweet spot between a crab Louie and a sushi-bar appetizer. I loved it now as I did then. It also proves that a better slogan for Bendel’s restaurants might be “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.”
Olea, 2001 Westcliff Dr., Ste. 100, Newport Beach, (949) 287-6807; www.oleanewportbeach.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Starters, $12-$23; entrées, $16.50-$43. Full bar.