My voice said “Oh, really?” but my mind said “Ohhh, noooo!” when I heard Wildfish had been snapped up by Darden Group, Florida’s vast, muscular engine behind popular chains such as Olive Garden and Seasons 52.
I like Wildfish, as do most diners I steer its way. Would Newport Beach’s sparkling seafooder go the way of Red Lobster—another Darden chain? Or, would the 1,900-unit brand behemoth leave a vital, successful operation unscathed.
How nice to report there is no glaring evidence of ownership change. My fears of petty downgrades and graceless meddling were for naught, and recent visits indicate Wildfish is holding tight to its core strengths. But new items also appear on the tightly calibrated menu, as Keith Stich, formerly of Mastro’s in South Coast Metro, follows Arthur Briones as executive chef.
As ever, the handsome dinner-only venue is hopping. The bar fills fast for the tempting happy hour deals, and the dining room booths burble with jovial conversation that competes with the open kitchen’s energetic thrum. Crisp service and signature starters launch feasts on a steep trajectory. Impeccably shucked Blue Point oysters, plump and sweet, slide down with Neptunian finesse. Four portly shrimp, two or three bites each, anchor the old-school shrimp cocktail punctuated by sinus-clearing mustard sauce that’s chilled and fiery. It easily trumps the bacon-wrapped shrimp that tastes mostly of salty bacon fat. And the lauded crab cakes? Right on the beam, replete with fresh lump meat subtly griddled to awaken the flavors and leave a thin surface crust.
I regret ordering the Caesar salad, only because it doesn’t soar like the rich Maine lobster bisque, flavored with long-simmered shells, and rigged with cream and cognac. Consider splitting the indulgent soup to save room for luscious, always-fresh seafood specials, entrées, and irresistible sides. Glacier-white halibut coated with crushed toasted macadamia nuts, a nightly special, spotlights the pristine flesh with a simple complement of beurre blanc, and bright mango for tropical zing. The mild fish is cooked with practiced care. Pacific swordfish is masterfully broiled, then topped with freshly chopped ripe avocado and flakey Atlantic Jonah crab. A ribbon of sassy red chili vinaigrette keeps the rich players in line. Crab fried rice makes a splendid shareable side starch. Just enough fresh ginger adds weightless pizazz to fluffy grains sizzled with mushrooms and onions.
Fried rice proves an unlikely ally to Prime beef as well. A 1-pound cut of New York strip, butchered to picture-perfect neatness, is a sizzling beauty, but not quite medium-rare as requested. Sending it back was no problem until the contrite waiter apologized to excess, triggering a parade of mea culpas from floor staffers. All’s well that tastes well, but repeated apologies can be a bigger annoyance than an undercooked steak. Politesse aside, the aged Midwestern beef is as good as it gets.
When an over-the-top dinner seems too much of a splurge, happy hour is a great call. If the buzzy bar is running over with Newport dandies and coquettes, scoot back to the fireplace patio bar. Obliging attention from the ace staff makes dining and drinking from the discounted offerings a relaxing pleasure. A steaming bowl of delicious broth teeming with house-made wontons plump with pork and shrimp is just one way to leave room for the crazy-good buttery pineapple upside-down cake, baked to order.
Big fish often eat little fish. It’s a brutal law of the restaurant marketplace. But today’s Wildfish suggests catch-and-release is a viable policy for sustainable dining excellence.
Seasonal raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, lump crab cake, Maine lobster bisque, Wagyu beef ishiyaki, wonton soup, seasonal fresh halibut, Pacific swordfish, Prime New York strip, crab fried rice, pineapple upside-down cake.
Large booths Nos. 92 and 20, and cozy No. 28, near the wine wall.
Happy Hour Heaven
4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; all night Sunday and Monday. Special menu of $5 to $8 appetizers and $6 drinks.
1370 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, 949-720-9925 wildfishseafoodgrille.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.