Published June 2010
Restaurant names say so much. They climb ladders in your head that immediately strike impressions such as fussy, safe, elegant, creative. And a venue’s name never works harder than when it’s new.
When Don Schoenburg, former executive chef at Leatherby’s, launched his solo effort in the defunct Blanca space last winter, his new bistro’s name made my eyes roll: The Lido Deck. Oh my. Please stop the mental slide show of cheesy cruise-ship buffets.
Schoenburg has a reputation for cultivated cuisine with a wild-game streak, but The Lido Deck tag communicates none of that. What a relief when the early menus show up on the Web site: imaginative dishes appealing and original—nothing like food you expect on a Love Boat to Ensenada. Even his signature elk burger appears on the tightly focused lineup of contemporary American fare. The concise selection is quite seasonal, so change-ups are frequent, contributing novelty and breadth.
The relaxed location in vintage Lido Marina Village has a vaguely nautical element. It’s a meandering floor plan, but it exudes an eccentric charm that Blanca never captured. Alfresco tables flank the weathered docks, offering a Newport Bay view when not obscured by behemoth party boats. An open-air dining room is just opposite patio seating; in warm weather, tables are added to the breezeway that’s also the entrance. A few steps east is a small bar in yet another dockside alcove. The wine bar wasn’t fully functioning during my visits.
Tiny though it is, the setting appeals on multiple fronts. Date-nighters cozy up in curved, white booths. Girlfriends dish about food and wine over a lazy patio lunch. A gaggle of wine lovers spreads out at a large table, unpacking several premium bottles, setting the stage for their gourmet feast. The sentiment is less about showing off and more about sharing the pleasures of the table. On my visits, I never see a table turn for another party. Lingering without being prodded is a welcome luxury; it prompts happy memories of eating well in Europe.
At lunch and dinner, three-course prix fixe meals ($20/$38) are bargains, especially on menus populated with entrées well over $20. Some choices are allowed, but not enough to steal the show from dishes that don’t make the prix fixe. Mixed seafood poached in vanilla-tinged wine broth, or braised rabbit with chanterelles are two examples. On my visits they’re offered only as stand-alone entrées, but each was expertly executed. A deep, sleek bowl cradles the pretty arrangement of seafood that gives off a complex eddy of aromas: grilled calamari, kalamata olives, heads-on prawns, Prince Edward Island mussels, Manila clams, leeks and tomatoes all contribute to the carefully cooked mélange. I’m not surprised to learn Schoenberg’s rabbit is a big seller—it’s a rarity in our area, and his gentle braising of the white, mild meat is nicely enhanced by bright asparagus tips, lusty fresh chanterelles, and a dose of fragrant white truffle foam.
A modest list of starters is a mixed bag. Duck confit crêpes are tempting, but unavailable on a couple of tries, as is the duck confit salad. Braised pork belly doesn’t scratch the itch—it’s too tough and dry, but the accompanying fried egg, frisée, and sweet-tart vanilla vinaigrette carry on valiantly. The cheese course is listed with appetizers, which seems a bit curious. I expect good cheeses at the end of such meals. Straightforward salads are the more consistent appetizers. Baby arugula, orange segments, and Medjool dates are a tasty trio; Marcona almonds, Parmesan ribbons, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette complement without overpowering the fresh produce. A new chopped salad with haricots verts, heirloom cherry tomatoes, radishes, grilled corn, and white balsamic dressing looks promising, but also is not available on my visits.
Before I delve into the meaty subject of Schoenberg’s elk burger, a shout-out to the tuna Niçoise tartine, a perfect lunch sandwich on La Brea bread: rich tuna bound with fresh mayo, lifted by crunchy green beans and kalamatas. It’s not as French as the billing implies, but it’s wholly enjoyable. As for the widely worshipped elk burger, well, it is a very big deal—in size, opulence, flavor, and attitude. The $15 stack starts with one-half pound of medium-grind elk, then gets busy with remoulade (the classic French sauce of mayonnaise, mustard, capers, herbs, chopped gherkins, and anchovies), caramelized red onions, wild boar bacon, tres leche cheese, braised lamb belly, a fried duck egg, and a few soft lettuce leaves. Our waiter offers instructions on how best to attack the beast: Press down on the top bun to break the egg yolk, be sure each bite includes every element, hold with both hands, cut in half if necessary. Avoid disassembly with knife and fork.
I do my best, but hands the size of an NFL player’s are required, not to mention the bottom half of the sesame bun is a soggy mess at first bite, providing zero grip for all those slippery ingredients. I fail miserably and resort to a fork, gamely trying to spear items in their proper sequence. The dish is alternately delectable, sloppy, inexplicable, brilliant, and exhausting. Its dainty side of red cabbage slaw in a crystal box is a bizarre incongruity, like a Girl Scout at a gang rumble.
It’s a reprieve to return to dishes we can consume, sans lessons. Like the wondrous roasted wahoo filet jazzed up island-style with fresh corn, red onion, green peppers, and tomato. A splash of coconut milk and yummy corn cake supply sweet, rich notes that mellow the tangy vegetables. Pork gets respect, too—the grilled porterhouse is juicy and stands up to boar bacon, onions, and sautéed Brussels sprouts. Just like its beef cousin, the porterhouse cut includes both the chop and the loin. Grilled Granny Smith apple slices with a spicy apricot glaze are a first-rate flourish.
Desserts are important. Pastry chef Christi Carter, Schoenburg’s wife, is a nimble, creative talent. Though the Web site describes her desserts as rustic, I think it undersells her creations. Her moist Medjool date cake with black pepper caramel ice cream already has a following. For summer, she plans a “chocuterie” course with various chocolate nibbles made to resemble a typical charcuterie platter of pâtés, sausages, and the like. Fun? Yes. Rustic? Hardly. Coffee from San Diego organic roasters Cafe Virtuoso shows intent to do right by Carter’s desserts. A petite French press infuses a custom blend for a flavorful cup that ranks with the best on our restaurant scene.
Expect lighter fare on Schoenburg’s summer menus, less red meat and more game birds, more fish, and plenty of tomatoes and warm-weather produce. Berries can appear in both savory and sweet preparations. And don’t think the elk burger is going anywhere; it’s too big to fail. But for the real story at The Lido Deck, explore beyond its ho-hum name and outrageous burger. You’ll find refined cooking and sophisticated service equal to some of Orange County’s better Euro-style cafés.
Tuna tartine, seafood nage, Caribbean-style roasted wahoo, braised rabbit, pork porterhouse, date cake, French press coffee.
Lunch, $9 to $27; dinner, $9 to $32; bar, 6$ to $18; corkage, $10.
Happy hour discounts on bar food 5 to 7 p.m. daily. Sample each of the bar’s 45 worldly beers ($3) and get a $25 gift certificate to the restaurant.
3420 Via Oporto
Gretchen Kurz is an Orange Coast contributing editor and the local editor of Orange County’s Zagat Survey / Photographs by Jessica Boone.