Eating My Way Through Newport Beach Restaurant Week

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Chilled champagne poached oysters, leek, salman roe, dill cream and sea beans at Café Jardin.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Julia Child once said, “people who love to eat are always the best people.”

And the very best people are dining out during Newport Beach Restaurant Week, which started on Monday and runs through Jan. 26.

That’s two weeks to dine at one of the 73 participating restaurants throughout the city. I managed to make it to four restaurants this week, as well as the official Restaurant Week kick off event, held on Jan. 9 at the Lincoln Experience Center in Fashion Island.

At that event, eight restaurants (Fable & Spirit, Provenance, CdM Restaurant, Tavern House Kitchen + Bar, Buddha’s Favorite, Pelican Hill’s Coliseum Pool & Grill and Sgt. Pepperoni’s) served samples of their cuisine to members of the media at an exclusive VIP reception, followed by a tasting event open to the public.

At the media event, Gary Sherwin, CEO and president of Newport Beach and Company, the global marketing agency for Newport Beach, told the crowd that there are now 450 restaurants in the city.

“That’s an average of 60 restaurants per mile,” he said. “We have so many seats in Newport Beach that if every resident of Anaheim came down here and went to our restaurants on one day, we would have room for all 350,000 of them.”

More importantly, 60 percent of diners tried a new restaurant for the first time, Sherwin explained. Restaurant Week also generated $3.7 million in spending in the city, which proves that “locals and visitors truly hunger for Restaurant Week.”

Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill said that the local Restaurant Week was one of his favorite times of the year because it gave him a good excuse to go out for lunch and dinner. He also read an official proclamation on behalf of the City Council that highlighted the accomplishments of the event and how it showcases the coastal city as a premier dining destination.

The four restaurants I dined at this week: Gracias Madre, Moulin, Provenance, and Café Jardin.

Gracias Madre offers a dish of esquites frios with corn, salsa verde, almond cotija cheese, chili powder, lemon, micro cilantro.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Gracias Madre

A newcomer to the local dining scene, Gracias Madre opened last fall in the former Gratitude space. Part of the same restaurant group, Gracias Madre has updated its décor to reflect the new healthy plant-based Mexican cuisine theme.

The $30 dinner menu has three courses. I chose the esquites frios with corn, salsa verde, almond cotija cheese, chili powder, lemon, and micro cilantro.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when the bowl of corn and salsa was presented to me, but after one bite I was hooked. This is a hearty yet not filling dish, and corn lovers will not be disappointed.

Gracias Madre also offers jackfruit mixiote tacos.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

I scooped up every morsel, just in time for my main entrée: A jackfruit mixiote taco with cashew crema, pickled cabbage, crispy onion, and black beans.

Jackfruit is a surprisingly versatile and sturdy fruit, perfect for this taco, which was piled high and not easy to grab.

I was tempted to use a fork, but managed to polish it off with only a few drops falling on my plate.

Dessert was a key lime cheesecake. Yum!

Moulin

La soupe à l’oignon at Moulin.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Even though I frequent Moulin for breakfast and coffee meetings, it has been a while since I enjoyed the $20 Restaurant Week lunch menu.

The deal comes with French onion soup with house baked baguettes topped with Emmental cheese, Moulin’s famous slow-cooked rotisserie half chicken with choice of french fries or roasted potatoes (I went with the potatoes), and an authentic chocolate éclair for dessert.

Le poulet frites, Moulin’s famous slow-cooked rotisserie half chicken with roasted potatoes.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

I don’t usually order French onion soup, but this is some of the best I’ve ever had.

The entrée is huge and tender, which au jus on the side.

The roasted potatoes are so good I polished those off before I was done with the chicken.

And the éclair is pure perfection.

Tres magnifique!

Pacific sand dabs, San Francisco lemon piccata style, roasted potatoes, zucchini, heirloom spinach, lemon caper brown butter, and crispy shallots at Provenance.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Provenance

It’s been more than a year since I dined at Provenance, but the superb $40 Restaurant Week dinner menu got my attention. Chef Cathy Pavlos is cooking up a storm — a welcome storm. Her dishes reflect a healthy lifestyle with a nod to the decadent side of life.

The menu begins with chef’s warm herbed garlic biscuits and soft honey butter, made from scratch daily.

Next a choice of three entrees. I went with the cup of grandma’s Italian wedding soup with savory broth, ground turkey meatballs, greens, acini di pepe pasta, and parmesan cheese. Yes, it’s Pavlos’ grandmother we have to thank for this hearty yet delicate dish.

A menu item at Provenance: Meaty beef shortrib pappardelle pasta.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Next, a choice of six entrees. I decided on the pacific sand dabs, San Francisco lemon piccata style (circa 1950s, Pavlos told me), with roasted potatoes, zucchini, heirloom spinach, lemon caper brown butter, and crispy shallots. I seldom see sand dabs on a menu, especially this style. The dish is huge, with several generous filets of sand dab breaded and fried atop a mound of potato wedges and sliced zucchini.

Pavlos also had me try another restaurant week entrée: Meaty beef shortrib pappardelle pasta with osso buco style shortribs, fresh pappardelle noodles, tomato ragu, parmesan cheese, and crème fraiche. Thick and hearty, this dish is bursting with flavor and is as satisfying as they come.

Desserts at Provenance: Mini dark chocolate crème brulee; olive oil cake with lemon curd; and mini apple pie a la mode.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Choice of desserts includes mini dark chocolate crème brulee, raspberry coulis, whipped cream; olive oil cake, lemon curd, blueberry puree, mascarpone cream; and mini apple pie a la mode on the beach with caramelized Granny Smith apples, bourbon-candied pecan sauce.

Bonus — anyone who dines at Provenance during Restaurant Week gets a Bounce Back card to be used between February and May, which could be worth a free round of drinks for the table, a free entrée, or other perks.

Café Jardin

Located amid the lush and tranquil grounds of Sherman Gardens, Café Jardin has been owned and operated for many years by Pascal Olhats, one of the most celebrated chefs in Orange County. Last year, he partnered with Food Network Winner Chef Jessica Roy, whose new cutting edge style is a good match for Olhats’ more traditional French cooking techniques.

Grilled salmon and Portuguese octopus with rouille and romesco sauce at Café Jardin.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Together, this culinary duet is concocting some fantastic dishes available mainly for lunch and weekend brunch, plus Sunday dinners.

The $25 Restaurant Week lunch menu is intriguing. I selected the brandy lobster bisque with roasted potato gnocchi, but Olhats insisted I also try the chilled champagne poached oysters. The plating for this dish is gorgeous, and has Roy’s artistic touches — foam, roe, dill cream. Both starters were excellent.

Chef Pascal Olhats of Café Jardin offers some fantastic dishes during this year’s Newport Beach Restaurant Week.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

I almost went with the trout almandine after seeing a nearby diner order one, but stuck to my original idea of grilled salmon and Portuguese octopus rouille and romesco sauce (an extra $5, but worth it). I love octopus, and this one was cooked perfectly. So was the salmon, but it was the green olives that helped the flavors stand out. That, and the ridiculously tasty sauce.

The restaurant week menu is a good introduction to the new regular lunch menu created by chefs Olhats and Roy.

Bonus — if you make a reservation for lunch, Sherman Gardens waives the normal $5 entry fee.

For a complete list of participating restaurants and their menus, visit DineNB.com.

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