Let me tell you about the first time something I ate at a restaurant made me . . . um, trip out. Yeah, that's what I'll call it. It was a dessert served at the new A&O Kitchen+Bar in Newport Beach: The Tobacco & Whiskey Brulee looks innocent enough, served in a flip-top glass jar. But it isn't; you have to be at least 18 to order it, as it's actually made with tobacco. According to our waiter, a cigar is unfurled and its innards steeped in milk. That milk is used to make the custard, which is chilled inside the jar, then topped with a scoop of whiskey-infused chocolate mousse and bits of chocolate streusel that are scattered around like flicked cigarette ashes. Tastes like Grandpa's shirt! They presented the dessert with a comically long spoon, and it was the last thing I ate that fateful Saturday brunch.
Now, I should say that if you're a smoker, it may not even give you much of a buzz. But if you've never had so much as a single puff of a cigarette in your entire life and you actually end up eating the whole thing by yourself . . . you will trip out. This is all I can say about my experience, for the sake of politeness and legal purposes–oh, and don't order it. No way, no how–even if you're a nicotine fiend. Luckily, the public restrooms in the posh resort in which A&O is located are nicely appointed–each stall is private and has a supply of rolled-up terry cloth towels, which I used to blot my forehead after I was done . . . tripping out (that's polite enough, right?).
That's not to say A&O Kitchen is a washout. There are other desserts, such as the Twisted Sisters–a sort of three-layered parfait with a marshmallowy salted caramel, chocolate pudding and pretzel crumble–that doesn't leave bad feelings at the back of the throat as you eat it. Perhaps the Tobacco & Whiskey Brulee is just publicity bait, something to set A&O apart from a crowded gastropub market. Or perhaps it's just something the restaurant offers to appeal to a moneyed crowd that may already belong to a cigar club.
A&O is one of three restaurants at the Balboa Bay Resort and Club, which once hosted Bogey and Bacall, that had John Wayne on its Board of Governors, and stands as one of the last bastions of Old Orange County. One restaurant is a members-only place I've only heard stories about; Waterline is a formal restaurant at which most entrées hover in the $30 range.
Then there's A&O, which is really just the hotel bar, set in a room that could've been open to views of the harbor if it weren't blocked by a row of luxury yachts as big as houses.
It was on A&O's patio a week prior to the tobacco dessert incident that I had a more pleasant, sunset-lit supper. I tried a steamed halibut steak with a tomato-based Bloody Mary broth, shellfish, potatoes and one gigantic shrimp, all served dramatically with its butcher paper cocoon torn open and fuming–all in all, one of its better dishes. I also enjoyed the Pepperoni Pizza Fries, even if the dish tasted more as if it were just plain steak fries with nuggets of rendered pepperoni sprinkled on them, and less the "French fries that taste like pepperoni pizza" description the menu promised.
There were unremarkable chicken wings served with a notably good thimble of raita and pork-belly buns topped with an excess of damp coleslaw that's nowhere close to even emulating the ones at David Chang's Momofuku. And the Twisted Sisters. But the best part of that evening was feeling the cool breeze and watching the sky turn shades of purple as the day slowly turned into night. Next to us, a gaggle of blondes with chiseled dates lounged on an outdoor couch surrounding a fire pit. When the ladies weren't sipping their martini glasses or snapping selfies, they passed around pretzel bites served in paper bags. The rich are different from you and me . . . or something.
I saw other parties ordering the Popcorn and Pig: popcorn, peanuts and scraps of bacon, all covered in sticky caramel that tastes as though pieces of jerky were mixed up with a stale box of Cracker Jacks. Bacon and pork is a recurring theme at A&O: chunks of it are in a macaroni salad with shaved celery, as well as in the mayo sauce slathered on a Kobe burger that's unfortunately muffled by a too-thick bun.
But let me cut to the dish I had before the tobacco dessert. It was the Ham & Egg Savory Cake–basically, muffin batter baked with bits of ham suspended in it and a poached egg the kitchen somehow managed to tuck in the dead center. When I cut into it, the yolk flowed out as a thick yellow lava, and I ate it with slathers of mustard and a simple arugula salad. It was a wonderful brunch dish that, admittedly, wasn't as great the second time I had to taste it . . . if you know what I mean.
A&O Kitchen+Bar, 1221 Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 630-4285; www.anchorsandoceans.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-midnight. Meal for two, $50-$70, food only. Full bar.