Courtly attendants greet us as glass doors glide open to The Island Hotel’s glossy new lobby. We check in at Oak Grill, and our ingenue hostess leads us through the vastly revamped dining space. Any trace of the former tropics-themed Palm Terrace is gone, replaced by roomy booths, blond wood trim, and a 50-foot flat screen dwarfing a lone bartender at the slick, if empty, bar.
In fact, the entire room is deserted—every diner is seated on the glorious patio, under spreading old ficus trees dripping with glowing lanterns. After some ogling, I realize this natural beauty was hidden for years behind walls and mullioned windows until The Irvine Company launched an extreme makeover and rebranding last spring. And like all good face-lifts, the effect is impressive yet seamless. The transformation from expense account business hotel to suburban resort feels complete.
The new menu from executive chef Marc Johnson is equally instrumental in recasting the 28-year-old venue. Recently of Mastro’s Ocean Club, Johnson also did a stint at Cotton Row in Huntsville, Ala., under acclaimed chef James Boyce, following Boyce after he exited the Montage Resort’s Studio in 2008. So while the restaurant bills its cuisine as contemporary American, Johnson slips in some polished Southern cooking, say fried green tomatoes, alongside modern mainstays such as seared wild salmon, and Maine lobster chopped salad.
Just a single page, the menu is slyly dense, with unexpected preparations elevating dishes that first seem typical for hotel fare. Johnson nudges the ahi tartare out of the ordinary by spiking the ruby ahi cubes with curry oil, crisp Asian pears, and creamy avocado, for a Tandoori-spiced starter, complete with papadum crisps. Tender grilled calamari with gutsy Spanish chorizo and ethereal mascarpone gnocchi is another disarming appetizer. For a starter that could double as a light meal, try the first-rate duck confit risotto, the rich meat and creamy rice punctuated with fresh squash for balance, and spiked with sage-maple for extra layers of savory flair.
Sad to say, the popular BLT panzanella salad won’t be back until tomato season, but the composition of juicy heirlooms, greens, avocado, and pork belly is worth remembering next summer. Cobb salad makes a fine stand, starring fried chicken, bacon, egg, and Point Reyes blue cheese for a savory dish that eats like a meal. Open-face pulled pork wins my vote for best sandwich, its jalapeno-cheddar corn bread a welcome break from potato buns on the twin burgers. The sides are piping-hot onion rings and perky slaw.
Braised short ribs get respect here, paired with Anson Mills’ inimitable blue corn grits, mushrooms, and Bordelaise sauce, for an upscale take on a ubiquitous protein that’s a menu mandate for 2014. Skyrocketing beef prices and the flexible nature of braises make short ribs a kitchen workhorse. But Johnson has the chops to make a too-familiar comfort dish stand out. Speaking of exorbitant beef, the flavorful Brandt Beef Prime rib-eye is the menu’s most expensive, least daring entree.
Johnson gives flaky, rich Chilean sea bass an expert golden crust and delicious support from its bed of cranberry quinoa. Though not on the menu at press time, his description of autumn’s loup de mer paired with Swiss chard risotto and barigoule of baby artichokes is tempting enough to lure me back. A bewitching grilled pork chop is the perfect choice for the indecisive, delectably gussied up with smoked cherries, pork belly risotto, and a dribble of Madeira sauce.
If a pastry chef’s mission is to spoil diners by sending them away with a luscious memory, Andy de la Cruz deserve a medal. Both his warm pineapple butter cake and deconstructed rocky road “candy bar” are exemplary to eat and pretty to behold. Unlike so many hotel dining rooms, desserts here stand on their own and don’t resemble forgettable banquet confections that taste of refrigeration.
Sunday brunch is a gentle revelation: no buffet, no bottomless booze, no ice sculpture. Actually, this is the breakfast menu as served all week. Again, the quiet patio proves a blissful setting that’s worlds apart from Fashion Island shopping. Any of these three dishes will delight: juicy fried chicken with an oven-hot megabiscuit and gravy, low country-style shrimp and grits, or a pancake souffle with seasonal fresh fruit—really a clafoutis in a cast-iron skillet.
The adjacent Aqua Lounge boasts its own fancy new face, a circular bar with a dedicated patio just beyond. Sleek, swooping lines and sea glass hues attract the old, and some young, scene makers. The people-watching is better than ever at this long-standing meet-up outpost. Cocktails are variable, as is service. Alas, the bar menu is heavy, but most folks come here for liquid calories.
It’s been years since this upscale venue offered great flavors for the cost of dining. Johnson and crew add extra pizazz to this gleaming space, so I’m thrilled to report, come for the patio, stay for the food.
The Island Hotel
690 Newport Center Drive
Tandoori-spiced ahi tartare, fried green tomatoes, Cobb salad, BLT salad, Maine lobster chopped salad, open-face pulled-pork sandwich, grilled calamari, grilled pork chop, Chilean sea bass, braised short ribs, shrimp and grits, souffle pancake, fried chicken and biscuit, deconstructed “candy bar,” warm pineapple butter cake.
Starters, $8 to $21; entrees, $15 to $41; desserts, $10
FYI Fireside Wednesday offers a whiskey cocktail and live mellow music around the patio’s firepit, lower level, 6 to 9 p.m.