I’m shaking hands with my jocular waiter, who, after introducing himself, asks my name. I can’t hear him over the din, and just as I say “What?” my boothmate yells my phony name for the night. Unbridled enthusiasm and personal greetings begin our dining experience at The Winery’s snazzy new venue overlooking yacht and Duffy boat traffic on sparkling Newport Harbor.
Open since April, the waterfront sibling to the Tustin original is bustling every night I visit. The handsome bi-level room crackles with VIP bonhomie and its attendant handshakes and backslaps. Clearly, this crowd enjoys effusive hospitality, and they’re getting it in spades. I expect no less from these operators. Partners JC Clow and William Lewis built The Winery on the country club model honed during their years at Morton’s.
Rising from the footprint of renowned Villa Nova after 14 months of construction, the new site’s handsome marble surfaces, cushy booths, and showy wine lockers evoke a family resemblance to the Tustin original. But this one flaunts some considerable harbor charms, with 180-degree views from both floors plus a cigar patio. Clow deems it “the venue of a lifetime for a restaurateur,” and given the 46-year run of Villa Nova, he makes a solid case.
Introductions complete, our waiter recites chef-partner Yvon Goetz’s nightly specials as he hands over the four-page menu of modern surf-and-turf fare. Page 1 is devoted to listing the many “of the year” and “best” accolades bestowed on the Tustin branch, and I can’t decide if the chest-thumping is team pride or TMI.
A dozen appetizers makes more interesting reading. Goetz’s signature Alsatian “pizza” leads the list, a delicious thin flatbread with creme fraiche, bacon, Gruyere, and onion. Deep ruby carpaccio slices of Colorado buffalo are tender and mildly sweet, and black pepper crust and truffle vinaigrette are a welcome bump of flavor. The kitchen will upgrade the dish with shaved truffles when available, though surprisingly, these add more texture than flavor.
Copper-hued shrimp bisque arrives barely warm, and too salty. Better to order the immaculate raw oysters, glistening in half shells on a dome of crushed ice. Freshly grated horseradish revs up the mignonette, and the peppered vodka cocktail sauce isn’t shy either. Sweet, fat Hawaiian shrimp, broiled in a prosciutto slice and served atop steamy risotto, is another winner. The flavorful shrimp are so voluptuous they can take on the salty ham, and the terrific risotto adds both acid and aroma, thanks to its lemon verbena beurre blanc.
Of the ho-hum salads, the Blend, with bacon, onion, and blue cheese dressing, stands out as something different, but alas, fridge-cold bacon fights the wan greens, and what is shaved Parmesan doing on blue cheese dressing? A small tapenade crostini adds little, and tastes like an afterthought.
Steaks, seafood, and seasonal game dominate the circumspect array of entrees. Hawaii is the source of another well-executed dish—mahi-mahi with a chile lime rub over jasmine rice with a genius sauce of lemongrass-gewurztraminer butter, speckled with roasted pistachios. Braised Angus short rib with zinfandel reduction, a holdover from Tustin, is tender, and layered with savory flavors. I fall for the accompanying carrot-infused couscous, mostly because the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus tastes routine by comparison. All four of the steaks bear the Brandt Family Reserve label, ranging from an 8-ounce filet mignon to an 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye. Given runaway beef costs, the use of Brandt, a family-owned company in Brawley, is astute. The all-natural meat offers corn-fed richness minus the heart-stopping prices Prime grade demands. Precisely medium-rare as requested, the rib-eye is more than decent, if less than stellar. It doesn’t help that a large smear of Bordelaise tops the steak, something I didn’t order, and which appears on the menu as $3 extra. Ordered or not, steak sauces should always be served on the side. The lovely, petite Brussels sprouts side is another miss: The cast-iron pot is hot, the bacon is tepid, and the sprouts nearly raw.
Game lovers, chef Goetz is your man, and has long been O.C.’s culinary booster for wild and farm-raised game. As the months roll by, his menu is sure to expand with elk, all-natural Colorado buffalo, California ostrich, Australian kangaroo, pheasant, quail, squab, and partridge. Organic venison from New Zealand is the sole game item one summer night, and it’s a sizeable steak, finely grained, and cooked perfectly. It’s tender but bland, and I detect no seasoning. Goetz often partners game with fabulous spaetzle, but not this night, and my pan-browned noodles are rubbery and taste rewarmed.
Wine is all but compulsory at The Winery. Twice we choose from a worthy list of by-the-glass options and half bottles. When our first choices are unavailable, the sommelier suggests others, neglecting to note the 50 percent price differentials. Next time we’ll ask. Mark-ups lean to the high side, but the bottle list does have some dreamy gems at in-your-dreams prices. Still, for this crowd, cost may not matter. Another night, a friend brings along two high-end wines. Corkage is $25, which I gladly pay when the wine service is gracious and polished, but it’s not always the case here.
I’m still angling to get a table on the stunning patio, complete with fireplaces and wind protection. That view is wonderful, and it has to be less noisy. But so far, my efforts have been in vain, leading me to wonder if perhaps these plum seats are set aside for Winery insiders.
3131 W. Coast Highway
For The Wine Dudes review of The Winery’s wine program, click here.