Back in 2007, Crow Bar and Kitchen was the early bird on the O.C. gastropub scene. As the first to embrace the post-modern pub concept, owner Steve Geary thought it wise to add a meticulous explanation of the genre on the restaurant’s website.
Now, the number of gastropubs is rising faster than foam on a draft beer. Nearly a dozen competitors later, Crow Bar is the de facto vanguard of an eager, enterprising flock. Founding chef Scott Brandon took wing in April, and lauded local toque John Cuevas now rules the roost as executive chef. At first look, his changes to the menu are subtle, and mostly additions or tweaks to long-running dishes. Retaining crowd favorites such as the duck-fat fries and a dry-aged rib-eye burger with beef marrow is wise protocol in this choice, clubby ’hood of Corona del Mar.
Still, the evolving Cuevas menu offers a fair number of new items, pub fare for sure, but polished and upgraded with a deft command. Cuevas’ resumé boasts stints at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., the St. Regis in Dana Point, and the Montage, both Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills. In 2008, he snagged a James Beard Foundation nomination for best chef, Pacific region. So is a gastropub gig a bit downmarket for him? Not especially, given this is the same upwardly mobile crowd that frequents—or aspires to frequent—elegant four-star destinations.
Daily specials reveal Cuevas’ refined style. One night’s “daily taco” is a lightly seared sea bass with kimchi and roasted shisito peppers, a tricky threesome the kitchen pulls off by keeping pungent players in check so as not to smother the fish. Grilled-cheese sammies du jour tend to be petite-but-powerful combos such as paprika-rich Spanish Soria sausage, Gruyère, arugula, and lemon aioli on thick country bread; or sharp Tillamook cheddar, bacon, pickled ramps, and fried egg on whole wheat.
Dinner specials verge on exceptional, if oddly elegant for this raucous room. Seared sweetbreads with a velvet interior get delectable support from morels tinged with Marsala. Tender tubes of calamari filled with chorizo and white beans play well against a sweet-smoky piquillo pepper sauce.
A piping-hot pretzel roll accompanies the sausage trio—a variety of minibangers, each with a spoonful of coordinating relish. Tawny duck-fat fries are as crunchy-creamy as ever, though the house-cured olives look mechanically pitted and taste commercially brined. The “pot o’ pickles,” once a metal pail of assorted pickled vegetables, is now a plate of ordinary pickles fried in a sweetish tempura batter. Heirloom tomato salad in a hinged jar is a sad, meager toss of pale wedges I assume will rally after some summer UV time. Cheeses are varied and not overchilled, but portions veer on what good cheesemongers serve as samples.
Things improve when the jar of tartare arrives, a glistening pile of sirloin, hand-chopped against the grain, scattered with cornichon slices, piquillo pepper bits, and a poached quail egg freckled with grains of sea salt. Eating is simply a happy task of stirring and loading the lush pastiche on thin crisps of country bread. This confident dish needs a few more toast slices though, and requesting them leaves a hint of bitterness when they appear as an upcharge on the evening’s tab. Sweet corn and mizithra cheese agnolotti are four dainty pasta pockets that miraculously stand up to a lashing of browned butter for a feather-light pasta dish.
Burgers remain a staple, with top-notch ingredients and attention to detail. Their interesting buns and proprietary beef grind are good enough to spin off on their own, which explains the new Crowburger offshoot in Newport Beach. (See Page 162.) Even the nonbeef burger is tasty, starring a slab of expertly sizzled fresh ahi, gussied up niçoise-style with tapenade aioli and sliced eggs. A huge side of grilled green beans subs for fries.
Gastropubs rarely serve desserts that wow, and Crow Bar is no exception. Despite our perky waitress’s “best ever” rating for the banana bread pudding, it’s dry and makes me wonder how many she’s sampled in her twentysomething years. But a chiffon-light butterscotch “pot-au-crème” hits the sweet spot commendably.
Brews are the alpha beverage here, and grape fanatics won’t much like the wine roster or markups. Consider swapping out that Cambiata Albariño from Monterey for a glass of Brouwerij West Beglian style blond from Palos Verdes.
Cuevas brings needed direction and rigor to Crow Bar’s kitchen. But some dishes bring a precious edge that feels too honed for a loose PCH hangout. Overreaching is hardly a culinary crime, but it makes me wonder if he ultimately will have to make a choice: reduce his altitude, or soar freely in loftier conditions.
Beef tartare, fresh agnolotti, sausage trio, daily taco, grilled cheese, ahi burger, duck-fat fries, daily specials, butterscotch “pot-au-crème.”
$4 to $21.
Banquette along the south wall.
2325 E. Coast Highway
Corona del Mar
Photograph by John Cizmas
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.