Favorite Dining Experiences of 2023

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Braised Short Rib with browned butter sweet potato silk, petite fall vegetables, red wine reduction, at 608 Dahlia. Photo by Chris Trela

So many restaurants, so little time!

We are lucky to live in an area with myriad dining options, from formal to casual and everything in between. Newport Beach in particular has a wealth of top-notch restaurants, but drive down the coast a few miles and you can add Laguna Beach eateries to the list.

Having dined out more times than I can count in 2023, I made a list of my favorite gastronomic experiences of the year.

608 Dahlia at Sherman Library & Gardens

I have been a fan of Chef Jessica Roy since she delighted my senses during a media dinner at her former haunt, the Renaissance Hotel on MacArthur Blvd. She came to Sherman Gardens several years ago to work with Chef Pascal Olhats, who ran the restaurant under the name Café Jardin.

After Chef Pascal left, Chef Jessica took over and changed the name to 608 Dahlia, the address of the restaurant. She brings her fresh interpretation and style to 608 Dahlia, using ingredients from the gardens and local purveyors to create seasonal dishes that delight the senses.

Normally open only for lunch, Chef Jessica also curates special event menus. With that in mind, I hired her to create my special birthday dinner menu for 10 guests on Sept. 30 (my birthday is Oct. 1).

Chef Jessica with her carrot cake. Photo by Chris Trela

Chef Jessica concocted a perfect menu that I paired with wines from my collection:

  • Reception: Blintzes with crème fresh, paired with Cristal champagne and other bubbly.
  • Starter: Gruyere and chive biscuit with whipped rosemary butter, paired with assorted champagnes
  • First Course: Fall Harvest Salad with poached pear, fresh fig, candied walnuts, watercress, baked goat cheese, honey drizzle, and picked garden herbs, paired with Foxen 2019 Chardonnay/Santa Ynez
  • Second Course: Wild Mushroom Risotto with crispy wild herbs, seared jumbo scallop, black winter truffle cream, toasted parmesan gremolata, paired with Babcock 2018 Pinot Noir/Central Coast
  • Third Course: Braised Short Rib with browned butter sweet potato silk, petite fall vegetables, red wine reduction, paired with Tobin James 2016 Silver Reserve Zinfandel/Paso Robles
  • Dessert: Homemade Carrot Cake with whipped cream cheese frosting, paired with Babcock 2018 Ultra Latre Harvest Viognier/Central Coast

The experience of dining at Sherman Gardens after hours with good food, good wine and good friends was truly memorable. Chef Jessica is available for your special event—but make sure you try her lunch menus too, they are amazing.

https://608dahlia.com.

Chef Yvon Goetz of The Winery. Photo by Chris Trela

The Winery Newport

One of my go-to restaurants is the Winery Newport. I have been a fan since before they opened, thanks to their Tustin location. The Newport restaurants boasts views of Newport Harbor along with fabulous cuisine courtesy of Chef Yvon Goetz.

I dine there several times a year and always enjoy the experience, but that experience was ramped up after I attended the Table for Two charity event at VEA resort last March where I bid on, and won, a wine pairing dinner for six people at the Winery Restaurant.

After settling on a date (Friday, May 19), Chef Yvon created a fabulous six-course dinner that included grilled Spanish octopus, seared Hudson Valley foie gras, thyme roasted squab, wild boar Bolognese, and espresso cocoa rubbed venison loin. The dishes were perfectly paired with wines including a Kosta Browne pinot, a Brunello di Montalcino, and a Napa cab.

Venison loin at The Winery. Photo by Chris Trela

We were dazzled by the dishes, wowed by the wines, and thoroughly enjoyed our dining experience. The Winery Restaurant can create a memorable dining experience for groups of all sizes. Visit www.thewineryrestaurants.com.

Selanne Steak Tavern

They may not be in Newport Beach, but Selanne Steak Tavern is a short drive down the coast, so I claim them as faux Newport.

Anaheim Ducks hockey legend and NHL Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne and local Orange County businessman Kevin Pratt opened Selanne Steak Tavern in November 2013, and it’s been a hit ever since. Menus feature fine steaks and seafood served with a variety of accompaniments enhanced by herbs from the restaurant’s herb garden. The restaurant is also known for its excellent California and French wine selections.

The restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2023, a perfect time for me to return to Selanne Steak Tavern and rediscover what made the restaurant so special.

We started with the black pepper and thyme loaf that came with sundried tomato tapenade and a flight of seasonal butters. Wow—what a way to start a dinner.

Next came Moon Rock oysters from Oregon harvested two days before the appeared on my plate, followed by beet “ravioli” with artisanal goat cheese, hazelnuts and golden beet vinaigrette.

Pacific Diver scallops at Selanne

A signature dish came next: sushi grade scallops, pan seared, with cauliflower puree, porcini powder, pickled shimeji mushrooms, and fermented black garlic on top.

We also tried the Jerusalem artichoke soup with Bosc pear gel and smoked pumpkin seeds with sunchoke chips and micro cilantro with a touch of brown butter, and then the chef’s special: 60-day aged steaks accompanied by grilled onions and mushrooms with truffle butter and garlic chips plus a fennel crust and granny smith apples.

We ended our gastronomic experience with a lovely strawberry souffle, a nice change from the typical chocolate souffle.

Wow. That says it all. An amazing experience, from the cuisine to the ambiance to the service.

Check them out at www.selannesteaktavern.com.

Il Barone Thrives at New Location

Longtime Antonello chef Franco Barone and his wife Donatella opened Il Barone in 2009 tucked away inside a small Newport Beach strip mall near John Wayne Airport. In 2017, Franco and Donatella moved their much-lauded bistro to a larger space on Bristol Street inside a shuttered Coco’s Restaurant. They also opened Il Barone Sicilian Street Food at Pacific City in Huntington Beach, run by their eldest son, Jon Barone. They became the new proprietors of Ti Amo in Laguna Beach.

Then the pandemic hit, and they consolidated back to Il Barone. A year ago, they moved again but stuck to Newport Beach in the spot on MacArthur Boulevard near John Wayne Airport vacated by Bosscat Kitchen.

Il Barone has also changed its name, slightly, to Bar One by Il Barone. One visit to the new Il Barone tells you why: the large bar is now the centerpiece of the restaurant.

Facci Ri Veccia at Il Barone. Photo by Chris Trela

The new Bar One by Il Barone has a familiar menu, but an ambiance decidedly different than their last two locations, which had more upscale yet relaxed atmospheres. Most of the new restaurant is spread out under a covered patio.

Jon Barone has come to work with his father in the Bar One kitchen. Having had both their dishes, I was excited to finally go to Bar One last summer.

I had a fabulous crudo of the day with shrimp and yellowtail, then a plate of Arancini, which Jon Barone called typical Sicilian street food: tomato risotto cones filled with ground beef, mozzarella, and peas, with a parmesan panko crust.

And of course I had to order my favorite pizza: Facci Ri Veccia with thin yeastless focaccia, Crescenza cheese, Parma prosciutto, and truffle oil. People have been known to drive many miles to enjoy this Il Barone staple.

We also shared the Pistachio Pesto with fusilli, smoked salmon, shrimp, pesto, and toasted pistachios. Jon also brought out a special treat: diver scallops atop a bed of squid ink risotto with fennel pollen. Nobody does squid ink pasta like the Barone family, and the dish showed off Jon’s creative side.

Thankfully Il Barone is still going strong, and the cuisine is as creative and flavorful as ever.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/ilBaroneRistorante/.

Taven House and Olea

When I am in need of comfort food (and who isn’t these days), I have two places that fit the bill and fill my soul: Tavern House and Olea.

Renowned chef and restaurateur David Wilhelm opened Tavern House in 2019, and the menu is packed with comfort food classics done the Wilhelm way. His fried chicken is fantastic, whether it’s served with waffles and syrup, on a bun, or as an entrée.

I have many favorites on the menu. The shrimp Dijon starter is heavenly, served with toasted bread for dunking in the sauce.

Shrimp dijon at Tavern House

The terrine of duck liver and cognac mousse is decadently delicious and seriously addicting.

The Tavern cheeseburger is a juicy and delicious handful, and one of the best burgers in OC. Order it with truffle parmesan fries and you’ll keep smiling with every bite.

https://www.tavernhousekb.com.

Olea opened in 2017 and like Tavern house has gained a loyal following for its wine country comfort food.

They have several signature dishes, including the crispy Meyer lemon and honey duck wings, and crispy Jidori chicken schnitzel.

Olea burger

My go-to dish is their American Wagyu burger with extra sharp white cheddar and applewood bacon, with herb fries. I have dubbed this the second-best burger in OC, although the Tavern House burger ranks right up there.

https://www.oleanewportbeach.com.

Other Favorites

Joey Restaurant opened in Fashion Island, and both locals and visitors have flocked to the eatery. It’s easy to see why: valet parking, indoor and outdoor dining, and a menu that some say is all over the place, but others call it something for everyone. There’s no denying the food is good and the ambiance upbeat.

Fable & Spirit in the Lido Marina area is always a dynamic place to dine. They recently added several memorable dishes to their bar menu, although the regular menu is available no matter where you choose to sit. Make sure you order the Guinness brown bread to start, it comes with European butter, clover honey and sea salt.

Bayside Restaurant is another go-to spot. They recently expanded their bar and lounge area, and added a new bar menu. I go here several times a year for their live music and lively ambiance, not to mention the cuisine.

Moulin patio

Moulin Restaurant on Bristol Street is très bien when it comes to French food. The iconic bistro now has multiple locations along the coast (including South Coast Plaza) but the original is still my go-to for petit déjeuner (a little breakfast) and café. Their croque monsieur is fabulous, as are their desserts.

And finally, a special shout-out to Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza Store on Bristol Street in Newport Beach. Owned by four local families, Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza serves damn good pizza. I am here several times a month for their pinwheels, and their margherita pizza. They have several pizzas on the menu including a monthly special, but their margherita is so good I often grab slices to go.

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