Typically, we tag a veteran restaurant for a Rediscovery review when a shift takes place. A major overhaul, a landmark anniversary, a change of ownership all qualify, but the arrival of a new chef is by far the most common trigger.
Once Rustica announced a new executive chef and menu, I found myself back at the rookie Newport Beach bistro only six months after last year’s initial review. Inaugural chef Grant MacPherson is long gone, and Renieri Caceres, the restaurant’s opening sous chef de cousine, is the new top toque. Like MacPherson, he brings experience from luxury hotels in Las Vegas, and Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe.
Sunset is waning on a cool midweek evening when we’re seated in the nearly empty dining room. As we gaze over a sea of polished wood tables, my friend whispers something about “bad feng shui.” But at least we get to choose our seats—a prime window table overlooking the unpopulated patio and the courtyard’s burbling fountain beyond. Our jovial server greets us with the night’s specials and reveals that all wines, by glass or bottle, are half-off this night, so we opt for German riesling and California viognier by the glass. We also go with her hearty appetizer recommendation: pan-seared foie gras with pineapple chutney atop house-made doughnuts. The morsels arrive in a row of three tiny wells that are outfinessed by the large and gracefully curved plate on which they’re served. Alas, the dough buttons don’t taste freshly fried, and the chutney is as sweet as marmalade, overpowering the slivers of warm goose liver on top.
Next, luscious gem lettuce stars in a lovely salad with shaved raw asparagus, a sprinkling of pistachios, and a delicate dressing laced with white balsamic vinegar. This is lightweight fare targeted to size-4 shopaholics, but I like it, too. From-scratch ravioli are filled with mascarpone and fresh peas, but the filling is weighed down by a too-heavy pasta. The dish’s silky morel mushroom sauce is delicious, though, especially when mopped up with bites of La Brea bread. A bottle of peppery Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel pairs well with the “21-spice” rib-eye; the wine’s acidity helps subdue the bold, sweet-warm notes of the tender steak’s spice rub better than its accompanying wine reduction sauce.
Diners—and Fashion Island shoppers—are more abundant on a sunny Saturday’s patio lunch. Service is brusquely efficient as waiters scurry, currying to several pampered pooches parked on pet blankets as their owners loll over salads. Deconstructed ahi tartare is the oh-so-pretty starter that’s oh-so-frustrating to eat. All its colorful components—pine nuts, diced avocado, mint chiffonade, and more—surround the luscious mound of unadorned chopped raw tuna, but the peewee portions and Lilliputian spoons make assembly on frail toast a sight fit for YouTube. Next time, I’ll insist my server mix the whole batch tableside. You should, too.
Wild mushrooms headline the day’s flatbread. The fungi don’t fare well on a thin crust that goes floppy. A stout patty of rich ground Kobe makes for a mighty burger that breaks up quickly, brioche bun and all. Aged cheddar, and bacon-onion-based marmalade sound like wonderful accents, but in fact they clash, until the cloying jam prevails. Going forward, I’ll request my marmalade on the side.
Most desserts are baked. Pine nut coffeecake is a down-home favorite gone uptown, its fine crumb gussied up with gentle mascarpone. Baked Rustica, a riff on baked Alaska, makes gooey good use of velvety gelatos, layered and wrapped in torched meringue. Those house-made gelatos are delightful by themselves or in trios. I fell hard for the pistachio—so hard, I left hungry for more. The scoop I had at nearby Gelato Paradiso wasn’t nearly as good.
Yet again, I leave Rustica with a split opinion. Certainly, things are no worse with the new chef. Competent service, a not-so-Italian menu, and consulting pastry chef John Park are changes for the better; chef Caceres’ approach is less stagy, and that’s nice as well. But at prices like these, even Fashion Islanders should get a more impressive bang for their platinum-card bucks, and well before dessert is served.
Gem lettuce salad, “21-spice” rib-eye, pine nut coffeecake, seasonal pies, gelatos.
Lunch, $6 to $24; dinner, $8 to $41.
Tables No. 10 and 20 for up-close views of the open kitchen; No. 41 for perfect patio vistas.
Half-off wine nights from 4 p.m. until closing; all wines (glass or bottle) are half-price Monday and Tuesday.
1133 Newport Center Drive
Photograph by John Cizmas
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.