Dining Behind the Orange Curtain
by Rich Manning
Over the past few years, the Orange County dining scene has experienced an invasion of sorts. A growing number of non-mega-chain restaurants originating in Los Angeles and other major cities have made their way down to OC, bringing with them the promise of innovative food and big city know-how. Yet there’s been one constant amid all the hoopla: While many of these places are good, they often fall short in terms of sheer culinary excitement when compared to homegrown offerings.
What follows is a list of places you may have missed while checking out the OC version of a major metropolitan joint. Some venues still carry that new restaurant smell, while others have been open long enough to leave you out of excuses if you have yet to visit. Check these Orange County restaurants off your “must-visit” list pronto.
Leatherby’s Café Rouge – Costa Mesa
You’d almost be forgiven if you haven’t come to this Costa Mesa restaurant located within the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. After all, the venue is only open for a few hours during show nights. But you don’t need to be a fine arts aficionado to appreciate the culinary genius of executive chef Ross Pangilinan and his uncanny ability to craft artful works of contemporary cuisine. You do, however, need to know what theatrical performances are on the horizon – Pangilinan themes his exquisite prix-fixe, pre-show menus around each production.
The Loft – Laguna Beach
It may be easy to forget about this low-key restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach, especially considering the amount of attention surrounding the hotel’s flagship eatery, Studio. However, it would be a shame to overlook the deft skill possessed by chef de cuisine Casey Overton, whose keen sense of dish composition and ingredient selection is rivaled by few in Orange County. His studiousness shows in dishes like the blackened Kurobuta pork rib-eye with corn masa and roasted tomatillos, or the rotisserie chicken with herb spaetzle and carrot-fava ragout. While the stars of the dishes may be familiar, the supporting players turn them into a revelation.
Pueblo – Costa Mesa
By now, the guy in your office with the skinny jeans and Civil War-era facial hair may have told you all about the awesomeness of OC Mix’s restaurants. Scoff if you must, but understand that the hipsters have it right this time. The boutique shopping center has brought Orange County such must-try eateries as ARC and Taco Maria over the past couple years, and they have struck gold again with this cozy, charming venue. Executive chef Michael Campbell delivers on Pueblo’s commitment to modern Spanish tapas in a big way, avoiding the temptation to turn the word into a catch-all term for small plates in the process. Dishes such as papas bravas, mussels prepped with saffron and a Cava vinaigrette, and frito mixto served with squid ink aioli are meant for sharing, but nobody will blame you if you decide to be a little greedy.
Provenance – Newport Beach
Pay no mind to the fact that this Newport Beach Back Bay restaurant is wedged between a grocery store and a drug store. The venue’s strip mall surroundings vanish as soon as you step inside, and remain hidden even if you dine on the outdoor patio, where you will be enveloped by lush seasonal vegetables. The garden is tended by owner and executive chef Cathy Pavlos, who first showcased a commitment to seasonal ingredients at sister restaurant Lucca Café in Irvine. Her fresh-picked bounty shines in veggie-centric intermezzos such as pan-roasted cauliflower kung pao with apples, black vinegar, cashews and ginger, as well as in mains like whole smoked Idaho trout with oven-roasted tomatoes, hearts of palm and artichoke hearts.
Marché Moderne – Costa Mesa
It’s important for the annual crop of new and emerging foodies to recognize the greatness of Orange County’s long-standing, highly acclaimed restaurants. At the top of this list is Marché Moderne, a perpetually exemplary South Coast Plaza establishment. Owner and executive chef Florent Marneau gives a lesson in proper French cuisine at its finest, as dishes such as coq au vin and steak au poivre with pommes frites demonstrate why classic entrées still matter. His skill is the reason why so many diners came here within days of the reversal of California’s infamous foie gras ban.
The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar – Newport Beach
You may have tried The Winery’s Tustin outpost before, but we prefer the stunning harbor views and supper club vibe at their newest location along Newport Beach’s posh Mariner’s Mile. Executive chef/partner Yvon Goetz and his team have crafted a waterfront dining experience that is elegant and upscale without feeling exclusive, so you’ll fit in even if your idea of dressing up is to don a freshly-pressed Hawaiian shirt. The seafaring vessels that drift by the restaurant’s large bay windows are a perfect backdrop for Goetz’s flavorful, expertly composed contemporary cuisine, which ranges from seafood entrées such as jumbo Maine scallops and wild white shrimp with saffron and crispy prosciutto, to more adventurous fare like a daily rotation of wild game dishes.
Sushi Noguchi – Yorba Linda
It’s no surprise that Orange County’s best sushi restaurant is in the middle of a strip mall. Such a location tends to be the calling card of the county’s top sushi joints. The fact that it is tucked away in Yorba Linda is much more shocking, since the northeast corner of OC is not exactly known for its destination dining. But sushi chef Hiro Noguchi makes the trek worthwhile, regardless of where you’re from. The bottles of soy sauce that adorn the sushi bar are practically there for show – you won’t need to touch one if you order Noguchi’s omakase, which can feature anything from tuna and spot prawns to bold seasonal items such as monkfish liver.
The North Left – Santa Ana
In the last few years, the term “gastropub” seems to have gone from representing culinary anarchy to becoming code for “place that serves the same beet salad and short rib dish that you’ve had at several other establishments.” That’s why this unpretentious downtown Santa Ana joint is so remarkable. Chef Aron Habiger and chef/owner Ryan Adams have crafted a slew of dishes that remind you precisely why the notion of the gastropub was such a thrilling concept to begin with. The duo impresses with simple fare like prosciutto with handmade biscuits and walnut butter, and also delves into intriguing new territory with standouts including pork rib and head-on shrimp with corn fritters. As an added bonus, their exceptional Brussels sprouts make you forget what a tired trend they’ve otherwise become.
Pirozzi Corona del Mar – Corona del Mar
It’s practically a given that whenever chef/restaurateur Alessandro Pirozzi opens up an eatery, the food is going to be stellar and the place is going to be packed. That’s exactly the deal with his newest creation, situated in the heart of Corona del Mar. Pirozzi’s whimsical approach to regional Italian fare results in dishes that are flavorful and smartly composed, like the must-try limoncello taglierini. They also take their pizzas seriously here, as each pie is made in an artisanal wood-burning oven that was specifically designed for the restaurant.
WATERTABLE – Huntington Beach
This flagship restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa has an outdoor ocean-view patio that’s so nice, it could get away with a mediocre menu and still make a profit. But to the credit of executive chef Manfred Lassahn, WATERTABLE eschews average fare in order to push the parameters of contemporary cuisine into intriguing directions. This mindset can be experienced by simply indulging in a pre-dinner “bar jar”— a small canister of house-made snacks and treats including pickled eggplant and fennel spread.