Tucked into a corner haven of Fashion Island’s shopping core is one of the most surprising, contemporary regional cuisine restaurants Newport Beach has to offer: Rustica California Wine Bistro.
Surprising, because you wouldn’t expect a top-rated Gayot restaurant to be situated next to Nordstrom. Surprising, because Gayot doesn’t usually award top honors to newcomers. Surprising, because Rustica’s trellis-covered outdoor patio and large fountain give the illusion of sitting in a European courtyard, not a hustling, bustling shopping mall. Surprising, because Rustica’s modern take on Italian-inspired cuisine offers a fresh spin on old classics; and finally, because as much as I appreciated Rustica’s menu upon its opening last year, I believe the restaurant is now firing on all cylinders.
Chef Renieri Caceres brings more than a decade of experience to Rustica, with a seasoned resumé that’s peppered with a medley of the most renowned chefs in the business: Julian Serrano, Michael Mina, Mark LoRusso, George Ramsey, Georges Blanc and Martin Berasategiu, to name-drop a few. While Chef Ren’s international experience and culinary prowess guide his unique approach to classic Italian standards, it’s his Mobil Five Star and Five Diamond standards that shape the service.
Chris and I had the pleasure of tasting Chef Ren’s new Spring menu, which he says is his favorite season.
“Spring is the most fantastic time of the year because you have all the fresh green vegetables: sweet peas, green onions, fava beans, artichokes, and asparagus. It’s the best time of the year.”
Chris and I began sampling the dishes inspired by the fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
“To begin, the Ahi Tuna Tartare,” our server James announced as he placed the dish between us.
“What an impressive presentation,” I gasped.
“It’s stunning,” Chris agreed.
Indeed. The accoutrements of mango, pine nuts, mint, avocado, and siriachi were arrayed as paint colors on a palette, with the Ahi as the blank canvas to paint.
“The flavors are very unique, too” Chris noted.
“It’s definitely a refreshing ’palate’ pleaser,” I smiled.
Next was the Char-Grilled Baby Octopus with Citrus Oil and Saffron Aioli.
“This little guy is too cute to eat,” I stared at the baby octopus in front of me. “He looks like a miniature alien. I’m naming him Wally.”
“Stasha,” Chris looked at me and checked my glass. “How much wine have you had?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” I said, leveling him a glance. “The other two didn’t have heads. Look at him. He’s got a cute face. I can’t eat him. You go ahead”
I pushed Wally towards Chris, who checked the features and begrudgingly acknowledged that I wasn’t completely cuckoo with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Delicious,” Chris said, savoring every perfectly charred morsel of Wally.
“The Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Pineapple Chutney and Homemade Doughnuts,” James announced.
“Please tell me they don’t have faces,” Chris pleaded.
After one bite, we both agreed Rustica’s foie gras was one of the best we’d ever tasted. The exotic pineapple, star anise and cayenne of the chutney explode on the tongue.
The Homemade English Pea Ravioli arrived with clockwork precision, timed to our last bite of foie gras.
“Now this says Spring,” Chris sighed. “The Morel Cream Sauce with Pancetta, sweet peas, and mascarpone…”
“Sweet and savory, balanced perfectly,” I finished.
The Crispy Skin Branzino with Artichoke Barigoule and the “21” Spiced 16oz Bone-in Ribeye with Wild Mushrooms solidified my opinion that Chef Ren is a master with plenty of surprises up his sleeve.
“Well, what did you think?” Chef asked after we finished dessert.
I looked up at him and grinned.
“Have I told you how much I love surprises?”