With my hunger blissfully satisfied, I exit Mr. G’s Bistro stuffed and toting precious leftovers I look forward to enjoying later. Oddly, no one says thank you or goodbye. I feel a twinge of rejection, but I’m sure I’ll return, bad manners be damned. Open since December, Balboa Island’s newish entry on the indie dining scene is teensy, urbane, and delicious. The extremely vetted menu offers mostly Italian cuisine at rather posh prices. So it’s no surprise Mr. G is Giuseppe Accardi, former managing partner at swanky AnQi at South Coast Plaza.
But a tight a la carte menu with this pricing puts massive pressure on the kitchen to deliver.
And it does, quite consistently. Executive chef Jason Elder, a recent transplant from Napa, turns out superb dishes on par with their prices—particularly the handmade fresh pastas. From the deliciously simple cacio e pepe to agnolotti filled with fresh ricotta and summer vegetables to lavish tagliatelle with saffron and seafood, Elder has a graceful way with fresh pasta. He credits this affinity for flour and water to formative time spent in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen, where “a pasta roller was my first toy.”
Add culinary education at Art Institute of Houston and years climbing through shops the likes of Napa’s Azzurro Pizzeria and Ethan Stowell Restaurants in Seattle, and it’s clear that Newport Beach has gained a fab new toque.
Before rushing into a steamy affair with pasta, do consider top contenders in other categories—perhaps salads, sandwiches, or share plates. The Caesar is made up of crunchy blocks of romaine, stacked like a sculpture and dribbled with thick garlic and anchovy dressing under a shower of pecorino Romano gratings. A salad of jewel-vivid beets—offset with tangy labneh, greens, and candied walnuts—really sings after dipping a forkful into the small mound of accompanying snappy cocoa nibs. The burrata features a gorgeous collage of the milky cheese,
tissue-thin prosciutto, bites of bright fruit, and a celadon tangle of frisee, arranged on a rustic wood oval. Beware: Its portions are so delicate, only two hummingbirds would happily share it.
Presentation is important. Flower petals are strewn on salads, slabs of dark slate sub for plates, glossy black caviar dots a pale chilled soup, deep porcelain bowls have an elliptical form, and, get this, every table sports a bright white linen cloth. Tablecloth sightings are rare these days, so I’m compelled to document their existence.
Pecorino Romano sees lots of action here, a welcome pivot from ubiquitous Parmesan. Fresh gratings of the aged sheep’s milk cheese contribute that sharp bite that lights up a dish. A fluffy topknot of it nudges the 7-ounce meatball, labeled a “snack,” into the “oh, my” category. The solitary sphere sits in a pool of loose tomato sugo spiked with fresh oregano—an Elder family recipe. The meatball is a lesson in technique: 100 percent fresh beef chuck, ground to the chef’s specs, and mixed with house-made crumbs made from dried Artisan Bakery baguettes soaked in water and drained. Fresh herbs, not dried, add a juicy layer of flavor, while some just-toasted coriander brings on the earthy funk. Firm, but not hard, this meaty orb begs to be paired with pasta. My pick is the classic $20 cacio e pepe, which is not too rich but unabashedly carby.
Like your pastas over the top? Go with the near-perfect carbonara with diced pancetta, chopped broccolini (no peas!), breadcrumbs, egg yolk, and molto pecorino. When the weather cools, don’t miss the cappelletti with duck confit, foraged mushrooms, and fresh thyme. I’m looking forward to the return of butternut squash agnolotti with amaretti cookie crumbs and sage brown-butter sauce.
Though the wine list is lean, it focuses on midlevel wines from top, mostly Cali-
fornia vintners. By-the-glass prices are steep at $9 to $20 for a 4-ounce pour, yet bottles are almost bargains when a glass is $12, the bottle $42.
For $19, $18 at lunch, the house burger better be superlative. It is. Half a pound of freshly ground short rib and chuck is a robust start to a meticulously composed stack that includes white cheddar, red onion, arugula, and a superhero sauce of bacon rum marmalade. The kitchen is happy to cut the monster in half for you. A cone of fresh fries accompanies.
If chocolate is your dessert mandate, a rotating choice of two to four house-made sweets usually includes a silky pot de crème and if you’re lucky, the killer sweet-salty fudge brownie that’s more delicate than it sounds. It’s $10 and big enough to share.
New sandwiches keep appearing on the lunch carte. I hope to sample the chicken Parmesan some afternoon—maybe
after 3 p.m. Why so late? Because service is iffy when this joint is full. Long waits between courses and sidetracked servers depreciate the kitchen’s best efforts. Mr. G himself is a blessing and a curse. He’s ebullient and as chatty as a mayor with some tables, especially those with eye-catching females or personal friends. On my four visits, I had zero contact with the dapper gent. When business is slow, service is more gracious, though hardly coddling. Consider yourself warned.
Which brings me back to red flags. As with a rascal boyfriend or jezebel girlfriend, there’s always something that draws you back, against your best judgment. With Mr. G’s, it’s Elder’s splendid cooking. And if your visit is timed just so, odds are you will leave satisfied, though not cherished.
305 Marine Ave.