Off the Menu: December Specials at Olea, Bayside, Tavern House

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(left to right) ) Olea Chef Jerod Cook, Olea Beverage Director Gabe Whorley, Olea owner/restaurateur Russ Bendel, and celebrity chef and radio host Jamie Gwen of Newport Beach pose for a photo at the Olea media event

Olea restaurant is coming up on its two-year anniversary (the wine country-themed restaurant opened just after Thanksgiving in 2017), and owner Russ Bendel, who was named Restaurateur of the Year at the 2019 Golden Foodie Awards, is celebrating with new menu items courtesy of chef and partner, Jared Cook.

They offered a sneak peek of their holiday dishes at a media preview last week held at Olea’s sister restaurant, Ironwood, in Laguna Hills (Bendel also has a third restaurant, Vine, in San Clemente).

The tasting featured unique dishes alongside familiar ones, most available at all three of Bendel’s restaurants.

We started with tray passed Royal Ossetra caviar on Yukon gold potato blini, followed by oysters on the half shell with champagne green apple mignonette and fresh lemon.

Next came prosciutto and fromage blanc crostini, and a Jumbo crab, avocado and winter citrus beet salad on endive (normally served plated, but easier to eat as tray passed in this preview setting).

Holiday dishes at Olea this year includes jumbo crab, avocado, winter citrus beet salad on endive.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

The house made sugar pumpkin agnolotti with fresh goat cheese, crispy sage and pecan brown butter was as fresh as you can get — Cook prepared it as a demo and then served it piping hot. There may not be a more winter-warming dish on the menu than this agnolotti.

We also sampled the slow roasted kurobuta pork belly with garnet yam puree, thyme roasted apple and spiced honey cider glaze, plus two steaks: Double R Ranch filet mignon with crispy langoustine bearnaise (an insanely delicious dish), and Snake River Farm American wagyu porterhouse, which is available only at Olea. Oh — and let’s not forget the Alaskan king crab legs with champagne herb butter.

House made sugar pumpkin agnolotti, fresh goat cheese, crispy sage, pecan brown butter, is one of the many special dishes for holiday season at Olea.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Dessert was dark Belgian chocolate cheesecake with raspberry reduction and pistachio crumble, plus blackberry and cabernet sorbet with oatmeal raisin butter cookie crumble.

Cook mentioned several core items on the Olea menu that will never disappear.

“The duck wings are a staple, we can never get rid of those,” he said. “That is my biggest claim to fame. I never saw them at other restaurants when I put them on our menu. We use Muscovy ducks, not the Peking ducks, those are smaller wings. Ours are huge, they come from one place in New York, It’s challenging to get them anywhere else.”

: Double R Ranch filet mignon, crispy langoustine bearnaise is just one of the steaks available on Olea’s holiday menu.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Another staple is the Wine Country burger with American Kobe beef, served with hand cut, herb, twice-fried french fries. It is one of my favorite burgers in Orange County, and some of the best fries anywhere. Cook said they try to put a little different twist on it every three months, but no matter how they serve it, it’s a beautiful burger.

One more staple that Cook said would cause a riot if it ever left the Olea menu is the crispy Jidori chicken schnitzel with maitake mushrooms, garden herb spaetzle, baby rainbow carrots, Meyer lemon and basil emulsions. Like the other Olea dishes, the serving is generous and packed with flavors and textures.

But Olea isn’t the only restaurant in town offering some special menu items during the holidays.

Lunch will be back at Bayside — but only for the month of December as the restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary.
— Photo courtesy of Bayside ©

Bayside restaurant is celebrating its 20th anniversary by bringing lunch back to the restaurant — but only for the month of December.

The restaurant stopped its lunch service earlier this year, but December is the perfect time to dine in the daylight and enjoy a classy midday meal.

Normally only open for happy hour, dinner, late night dining on Fridays (with live jazz until midnight) and Champagne brunch on Sundays, Bayside offers an updated lunch menu along with Bayside classics.

“This is a wonderful time of year for celebrations, and we’re happy to provide a place for locals and tourists alike to come and break bread,” said Bayside owner Marc Ghoukassian in a statement. “I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, and meeting new guests during December. Our amazing kitchen has really curated a menu that is perfect for lunch, and we’re excited to roll it out.”

I’ve dined at Bayside many times, and have known Marc for several years, so I know he’s excited. Marc and his father, John Ghoukassian, built Bayside from the ground up, and I have a feeling Marc will be strolling the dining room greeting guests like they’re old friends (which many of them are).

Some of the dishes I’m looking forward to trying on the lunch menu: tempura calamari with miso mustard dressing and roasted peanuts, Maryland style crab cake with jumbo lump blue crab meat and old bay remoulade sauce, the chicken chop chop with Asian vegetable slaw and wontons, salmon with roasted beets and whipped goat cheese, lobster salad with lemon aioli and avocado, seared wild diver scallops with lobster mashed potatoes and asparagus, and lamb chops with whole grain mustard sauce and potato puree.

My guess is that reservations will be at a premium for December lunches, so book early.

By the way, Bayside is also a terrific spot for dining prior to (or even after) the annual Christmas Boat Parade coming up Dec. 18-22. Bayside is a short walk from Balboa Island, where you can watch the spectacular parade of lights from almost any vantage point along the island’s perimeter.

Tavern House’s prime rib sandwich is part of the restaurant’s limited holiday lunch service during December.
— Photo courtesy of Tavern House ©

Another restaurant that has added a limited holiday lunch service this December is Tavern House (formerly 3Thirty3).

I’ve raved about dinner and brunch at this new hotspot from restaurateur David Wilhelm, and I expect to rave about the lunch too.

Starting Black Friday and then every Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tavern House will feature many of Wilhelm’s signature dishes including French 75’s onion soup (a staple on his old French 75 restaurant menu), prime rib dip sandwich, buttermilk fried chicken (some of the best I’ve had), Maine lobster club (which has my name all over it), shrimp Louie salad, and the impressive prime Mishima wagyu cheeseburger.

No word on whether my favorite dish, the voodoo shrimp, will be available at lunch. If not, it’s worth going back for at dinner.

The voodoo shrimp contains rock 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, which was located down the street on the harbor,” Wilhelm told me when Tavern House first opened several months ago. “When news broke that I was taking over the old 3Thirty3 location, I had some guests ask me if I was going to serve this dish on the menu as it was one of their all-time favorites, so I decided to do so to see if it would still be as popular as in the past. It has quickly become a crowd favorite again.”

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