This is the time of year when I tend to look back at the previous 12 months and contemplate my favorite dining experiences.
I admit, I’m lucky when it comes to writing about Newport Beach restaurants. We have some of the best dining establishments in Orange County, and most of the cuisine is damn good. The chefs are creative, but they have to be since they’re all vying for position in one of the most competitive culinary markets in Southern California.
Speaking of competitive, many excellent new restaurants took the plunge and opened this year, including CdM (from the folks behind A Restaurant), Louie’s by the Bay, Bello, Helmsman Ale House, ARC Butcher & Baker, Fable & Spirit, GuacAmigos, and a handful of others.
My favorite annual culinary event, the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival in October, outdid itself with a weekend of grand tastings and special seminars and tasting events (the Cristal and caviar tasting was unforgettable). I have no doubt the 2020 edition will be bigger and better than ever.
So many memorable dining experiences in 2019, so little room to recap them all. Here are four that stood out for various reasons.
New Chef at Andrea
The year began well at Pelican Hill Resort’s Andrea restaurant. Dining at Andrea is like taking a trip to Italy for an afternoon or evening. The setting is exquisite, with endless views of the resort grounds and the ocean beyond. And then there’s the sensational north Italian cuisine. From the pasta made in-house to the risotto with black truffles to the seafood and steaks, it’s a food-lovers paradise.
Andrea introduced a new chef in January, Chris Simons, although he’s not new to the resort. He was the sous chef at Andrea for more than a year before taking the helm in the kitchen.
Simons is personable and knowledgeable, and a perfect fit for the resort. I enjoyed his cuisine several times in 2019, and even took a pasta making class from him, which was more fun and enlightening than I expected.
I dined one last time at Andrea before the end of the year: I splurged on the restaurant’s special New Year’s Eve wine pairing dinner. Talk about memorable!
Farmers’ Market Foray with Chef Amy Lebrun
Most chefs readily acknowledge their forays to local farmers’ markets to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables. Last summer, I had the opportunity to accompany Chef Amy Lebrun of Lido Bottle Works on one of her weekly shopping excursions to the Newport Beach Farmers’ Market (conveniently located a few feet from her restaurant).
Lebrun, who was one of three chefs nominated for Chef of the Year at the Golden Foodie Awards, has quietly built a loyal following that appreciates her cooking style that focuses on fresh produce and fish, with flavor combinations that are familiar yet unique. Alternately subtle and bold, her dishes are born of the seasons, awaken the senses, and ultimately drive diners through the Lido Bottle Works doors.
The NB Farmers’ Market is held every Wednesday from noon to 5 p.m. Lebrun said she uses about 30 percent of the farmers market in her restaurant. Naturally, I was curious about how she incorporated the items in her cuisine, so after we went shopping for fruit and vegetables, Lebrun had me try her burrata dish, which includes a smoky nectarine puree, toasted hazelnuts and citrus vinaigrette.
“This dish has all the stone fruits,” Lebrun told me. “I add a little bit of lettuce and frisee, put the burrata on top, and serve it with crispy lavash chips. Hazelnuts add texture, and I use some flowers from our garden. It’s a perfect summer dish.”
David Wilhelm Returns to Newport Beach with Tavern House
Restaurateur David Wilhelm has spent much of his life creating noteworthy restaurants, and menus. His Newport Beach-based Culinary Adventures empire that he launched near the end of the millennium included many of my favorites: Savannah Chophouse, Chimayo, Chimayo at the Beach, French 75 and others, but his career goes back much further than that.
Wilhelm’s most recent venture was the successful Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern chain. He sold his share of JFAT earlier this year and returned to Newport Beach with a new concept called Tavern House Kitchen + Bar, which replaced the old 3Thirty3 restaurant on Coast Highway at Bayside Drive.
Tavern House offers a menu of elevated comfort food with a tasty twist. I’ve dined here three times so far and love the experience, and cuisine.
One of my menu favorites is the voodoo shrimp martini with crispy rock shrimp in a sweet chile glaze and papaya salsa.
The shrimp that are marinated overnight in honey and buttermilk, flash-fried, and tossed with a sweet chili-Sriracha aioli, served in a martini glass topped with a papaya, tomato, and red onion salsa.
“This was one of my signature dishes 30 years ago at Barbacoa restaurant, which was located down the street on the harbor,” Wilhelm told me.
And then there’s the tavern buttermilk fried chicken with mashed red bliss potatoes, maple glazed brussels sprouts and thyme gravy. It’s a popular dish Wilhelm introduced at his old Sorrento Grille restaurant back in the mid-1980s.
Another must-try: The decadent bananarama dessert with bananas, pastry cream, butter pecan ice cream, and salty caramel sauce. It’s insanely good.
Culinary Tales at Fable & Spirit
Fable & Spirit was named Best New Restaurant at the annual Golden Foodie Awards held last September. The restaurant had been on my culinary radar for several months, and I finally made it over there last month.
Fable & Spirit is the third restaurant in Orange County for husband-and-wife team Darren and Jean Coyle, and the first in Newport Beach (their other restaurants, Dublin 4 Gastropub and Wineworks for Everyone, are in south OC).
Fable & Spirit’s Executive Chef David Shofner got his start at Troquet and Aubergine restaurants. He later opened Opah Restaurant at The Tustin Marketplace with Chef Marc Cohen, and worked at Chat Noir and French 75 with Wilhelm’s Culinary Adventures.
The scratch kitchen makes everything from pastas and breads to bacon and pickles in house. The Fable & Spirit menu offers dishes cooked on a wood-fire grill.
The Guinness brown bread with oats, served with Kerrygold butter (from grass-fed Irish cows) mixed with clover honey and sea salt, is a must.
The avocado shrimp toast with a basil pesto spread, onion petals, watermelon radish, and smoked tomato was lovely, and the ingredients blended perfectly. The toast has a nice char from the wood-fired grill.
I had heard that Fable & Spirit had one of the best with pork belly and a duck fat fried egg, accompanied by truffle fries. The burger was beautifully messy, and the thin-cut fries were perfectly seasoned with herbs and truffle flavors.