It’s fun when fate intervenes and provides simultaneous epicurean experiences. Such was the case last week when Stasha and I both had dinners on the same night on separate coasts.
Stasha was in New York starring in a short film, while I was stuck in Newport Beach contemplating our next culinary sojourn. Then an idea hit me like a skillet thrown at my head: Stasha could review Corton, the upscale Tribeca restaurant whose chef, Paul Liebrandt, was featured in the documentary “A Matter of Taste” that recently screened at Newport Beach Film Festival.
We had interviewed the film’s director, Sally Howe, for our Table for Two column, but all that did was tantalize us for a taste of Chef Liebrandt’s cuisine. Knowing the film premieres June 13 on HBO, we made a few phone calls, rearranged schedules, and the next thing you know Stasha is dining at Corton.
“This was one of those rare dining experiences that leaves you speechless,” stated Stasha. “Chef Liebrandt’s dishes are stunning—he blends avant-garde art, molecular gastronomy and epicurean mathematics together like he whips meringue…perfectly. The 10-course menu he prepared was mind-blowing and worth the two-star Michelin rating.”
“I’m jealous, but I’m on my way to the Five Crowns reopening dinner,” I said smugly. “We’ll have to compare notes when you come back to OC.”
“Definitely,” said Stasha. “And let me know if Tommy Roadrunner is still there.”
“He better be there—I can’t imagine Five Crowns without him.”
I arrived at Five Crowns – an OC landmark since 1965 – and surveyed the interior as I was led to my table. The restaurant had been closed for a month while they revamped the décor, switched chefs and revised the menu, but I could see no overt signs of changes.
“We refreshed the interior without compromising the integrity of the building and its charm,” explained General Manager Steve Kim, who was an integral member of the team that opened SideDoor gastropub adjacent to Five Crowns.
Lawry’s Design Director Susie Frank said her goal was to rely on the antiques and artifacts already in Five Crowns to maintain the warmth and authenticity of the English inn setting, while adding new highlights such as framed photographs, fresh fabrics and decorative light fixtures.
But no amount of charm can replace culinary integrity. Would Five Crowns’ new chef concoct a mouthwatering menu worthy of what former Five Crowns chef Dennis Brask established and honed for so many years?
Well, the answer is yes.
New Executive Chef Ryan O’Melveny Wilson is part of the Frank family, and actually got his start at Five Crowns more than a decade ago as a pantry and prep cook. After stints at restaurants in Napa, San Francisco, Italy and Japan, Chef Wilson became the Executive Chef at Lawry’s flagship restaurant, Tam O’Shanter, and now Five Crowns.
“This is a very special moment for me,” said Chef Ryan. “I had the tutelage of Chef Dennis Brask and learned a tremendous amount from him about cooking, and about this wonderful community. When the opportunity presented itself to return to Five Crowns to continue my career, I knew it was something I had to do.”
He also knew he had to keep Five Crowns’ famed roast beef on the menu, but what changes has he brought to the table?
I sampled the artichoke tarte tatin with whipped goat cheese (a fun and tasty take on traditional tarte tatin), seared salmon, grilled asparagus with blood oranges, Moroccan spiced sweet carrots, and a sensational strawberry and rhubarb tart. I was impressed with both the flavor and the creativity of each dish.
“We’re featuring seasonal, quality ingredients, so depending on the season you’ll see old favorites come back from time to time,” Kim told me. “Creativity is a part of the menu as well as simplicity. We wanted to give people more options when they are dining here, so we’ve tailored the menu to offer more variety to our guests.”
And while Five Crowns is steeped in culinary tradition, the new outlook makes Five Crowns not just a special occasion destination but an “any occasion” restaurant.
“Dining out should be for any occasion,” agreed Kim. “Whether you’re celebrating something special or just getting off work, we want to be a part of people’s lives.”
“Speaking of special moments, the last time Stasha and I dined at Five Crowns, our experience was special because Tommy Roadrunner regaled us with his wonderfully charming stories,” I told Kim. “I assume that with the changeover, Tommy has retired?”
“Oh no, Tommy Martin is still here, celebrating 44 years with the company, still working five days a week,” said Kim with a smile. “We love Tommy. Hard to believe how one person can make an impact on so many people, but he has. He’s incredible. Five Crowns would not be the same without him.”