Click here to read Orange County Restaurant of the Year 2014: Little Sparrow
216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949‑429‑1199, brickpizzeria.com
Sure, chef-owner David Pratt makes a sexy Carne pizza loaded with house-made sausage, pancetta, Calabrese salame, and bresaola, but he also performs other feats of pleasure with Brick’s Valoriani almond-wood-fired oven, including some mighty brawny meatballs in bubbling marinara, topped with salty pecorino. And don’t get us started on his fresh-made pastas—delicate basil-green chitarra that tastes of summer, coiled in vine-ripe tomato sauce studded with milky fresh burrata. Trade smoky aromas for ocean breezes on the laid-back patio, and dig into a bold Caesar (anchovies!) with heat-blistered cherry tomatoes and Grana Padano-coated croutons. Add an order of fried squash blossoms and call it a dreamy day at the beach.
Field Notes Pratt butchers two 100‑pound pigs a week; call ahead to reserve an order of the high‑demand chops or ribs.
Ayers Inn, 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑456‑9642, anepalcoscafe.com
Chef-owner Daniel Godinez has built a small empire on his alluring chilaquiles. The buzz, which began in 2008 with his rather funky first cafe near CHOC Children’s, has reached new decibels with the opening of this full-service venue that anchors a busy hotel. Those chilaquiles draw one heckuva brunch crowd, but now that dinner is on the menu, Godinez’s creativity with Mexi-French fusion fare has room to roam. Sweet shrimp in heady roasted tomato sauce, dotted with goat cheese and epazote oil; delicate rabbit-and-cotija enchiladas; a juicy burger with huitlacoche aioli on brioche—it’s what happens when an enterprising Mexican chef leverages his roots with stints in high-end kitchens that include Stonehill Tavern and Charlie Palmer. Coming soon to downtown Santa Ana: Godinez’s El Mercado Modern Cuisine, serving modern regional Mexican fare, plus cocktails.
Field Notes The French accent is thickest on the dessert menu, where top‑notch crepes steal the show. We’re stuck on the caramel apple crepe.
6507 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine, 949‑725‑1773, luccacafe.net
Back in 2005 when Lucca Café opened in a standard-issue, glossy Irvine Company shopping center, folks were slow to comprehend this indie shop with Mediterranean flavors and a European sensibility. Chef-owner Cathy Pavlos went rogue where others played it safe. The artisanal cheeses, boutique-cured meats, and field-fresh produce we enjoy today weren’t common when she first explored their appeal, and she continues to develop creative new dishes under the banner “kitchen studio.” Toasted quinoa risotto with Parmesan cream, parsley dumplings with speck, bresaola hand rolls with roasted apricots are all seasonal dishes that, right now, also serve as test recipes for Provenance, her ambitious garden-to-table restaurant soon to open in Newport Beach. And though Lucca serves a fierce weekend brunch, Pavlos’s themed monthly Sunday suppers are incredible feats.
Field Notes Look for site-grown produce soon; new raised-bed gardens are on the docket for summer, along with added patio seating.
Disney’s California Adventure, 1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, 714‑781‑3463, disneyland.disney.go.com/disney-california-adventure.com
Disney steps up its fine-dining game at California Adventure’s homage to Walt’s early fame in Hollywood. Look for the blue-trimmed bell tower, a venue that replicates the architecture of the movie palace that premiered “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. Executive chef Andrew Sutton orchestrates bold flavors in New American fare, which, like his cuisine at sibling Napa Rose, has strong foodie charisma along with gentle notes of refinement. The spice-rubbed quail made our list of top 25 dishes in last December’s “What to Eat Now” feature, but citrus-grilled shrimp over a tumble of braised root veggies is equally luscious. An elegant lounge draws plenty of locals for craft cocktails and small-batch booze samplers. This doesn’t seem like theme-park dining, and that’s a high compliment.
Field Notes Passholders, this one’s for you. Or if the $92 park admission rankles, raid your contact list for a “cast member” who can get you a pass.
Wineworks for Everyone
26342 Oso Parkway, Mission Viejo, 949‑582‑0026, wineworksforeveryone.com
Next door to Dublin 4, the classy gastropub that made last year’s list, this dinner-only sibling shares the talents of executive chef David Shofner, though its wine-friendly menu and polished surroundings are distinctly different. Seasonal dishes that spotlight premium goods flatter the astute wine roster, abetted by Shofner’s meticulous creations. The menu is compact, and its gems range from a dazzling crudo, to rich duck breast over fluffy quinoa studded with currants, to a gorgeous cheese platter. And if you hanker for an excellent Irish coffee after dinner, Dublin 4 will happily send one over. Diligent owners Darren and Jean Coyle graciously welcome diners and conduct the evening’s flow. Despite its bantam dimensions, the sleek 50-seat room somehow contains private corners and communal areas. Even on nights when live music plays, diners can converse without bellowing. How novel.
Field Notes Avoid disappointment by making reservations for this pocket bistro, especially Thursday through Saturday nights.
210 W. Birch St., Brea, 714‑257‑1000, brunosbrea.com
North County has its share of red sauce-and-pizza joints, but Brunos in Brea’s Birch Street Promenade stands out for fare that’s varied and authentic. No pizza here, only classic comfort dishes from executive chef-partner Peter Serantoni’s childhood in Venice, Italy, as executed by Christian De La Vara, his skillful chef de cuisine. Expect soulful eats such as creamy arancini with nuggets of sweet ham, skin-on branzino with lemon and capers, and a don’t-miss house-made pappardelle with wine-braised short ribs and mushrooms. The narrow, brick-walled venue is modern, aglow with warm lighting, and a 16-stool bar does a steady trade in first-rate cocktails with strong Italian accents. Good deals on happy-hour eats keep the bar busy from the moment this dinner-only spot opens each evening. Brunos aims for humble pleasures, but delivers laudable Italian cooking, a great beverage program, fair prices, and caring hospitality. It’s the complete package. Let’s call it a gift.
Field Notes Sunday suppers are a three‑course pasta feast for $23.50; kids, $10. It’s an irresistible way to obey every nonna’s plea to “Mangia! Mangia!”
3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949‑500‑5561, arcrestaurant.com
Rustic serveware, a fascination with fire, aromatic stacked logs, and devotion to hand-crafting set a decidedly artisanal tone at Arc. Its boldly singular focus on wood-fired eats makes this restaurant a pioneer, even in the trendy nexus of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Collection. Chef-owner Noah Blom calls his glass-wrapped atelier a “new American roast house.” Almost all of the from-scratch dishes use the almond-wood-fueled oven that works 24 hours a day, reaches 2,000 degrees during peak output, and yields coals that slow-cook select items overnight. The house-butchered steaks, behemoth burger, and colossal wedge salad already are stars, but it’s Arc’s barkeep Koire Rogers who adds energy to the somewhat static food menu. His straightforward drinks with hand-chiseled ice are meticulous concoctions of elite American spirits, European liqueurs, and house-made bitters that change with anticipated regularity.
Field Notes Limited reservations accepted. Skip the wait by dining late, early, or Monday through Wednesday evenings.
3010 Lafayette Road, Newport Beach, 949‑566‑0060, cannerynewport.com
Jumping in as top chef at a cherished dining landmark is not for lightweights, but Nick Weber navigates this kitchen with style to spare. His skill at weaving his nuanced fare through a menu of legacy dishes is beguiling—to die‑hard regulars and curious newcomers alike. Choose his carpaccio of scallops with crunchy peanuts and cool cucumber sorbet, or his daily catch brochette with basil risotto and blood orange vinaigrette, and the waterfront venue feels newly urbane. Or, go nostalgic with crab legs, and wallow in the throwback thrill of indulging in this 92-year-old space. But there’s no call for a retro dessert after you’ve tried the delightful Balboa Sundae 2.0 with pistachio crumble, Ovaltine fudge, and brandy-soaked cherry sauce. Weber proves that being sexy and luscious in your 90s requires no plastic surgery.
Field Notes Upstairs at the Jellyfish Lounge, happy hour endures as a top spot for sushi, and painless prices on drinks and appetizers, 4 to 6:30 p.m. daily.
217 Broadway, Laguna Beach, 949‑715‑7829; 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949‑709‑7600, carmelitaskitchen.com
Just steps from crazy Coast Highway in the heart of Laguna Beach, Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico stays packed with locals—diners with plenty of nearby options that include Javier’s, Asada Laguna, and Avila’s El Ranchito. Carmelita’s eats are pure Cal-Mex creations, through the prism of second-generation Californian and third-generation restaurateur Clemente Heredia. Meals reveal a yen for quality, from dazzling fresh juice-agave margaritas, to the pairing of robust skirt steak with an enchilada in lively red sauce, to carnitas of Snake River Farms Prime Kurobuta pork. Plus, chef Jose Colin enhances plates with attractive presentations that don’t feel formulaic. Add stylish surroundings and service that’s both snappy and warm, and you leave here feeling sated and appreciated.
Field Notes Inland fans get their dose of Carmelita’s on the ersatz lake in Rancho Santa Margarita, but Laguna is our preference for its intimate, coastal vibe. Just sayin’.
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Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.