Get Out There and Eat: Orange County’s 10 Best New Restaurants of the Year!

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: PUEBLO
3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-340-5775, pueblotapas.com

IMG_6235Pueblo truly is a first of its kind in Orange County. Modern Spanish tapas are the lure here, with executive chef Michael Campbell’s dishes so spot-on they sound familiar to travelers with Spanish stamps on their passports. Mejillones en Vinagreta—chilled mussels, saffron, and cava vinaigrette—is perfect for a warm night patio dinner. Beans rise to new heights with the trio Habas Habas, a share plate of fava spread, grilled roma tomatoes, marinated wax beans, almonds, and chiles. Atun Crudo is tuna tartare with swagger: pickled kohlrabi, sesame, chiles, and fresh mint. And few can resist a dessert of grilled bread smeared with dark chocolate ganache, drizzled with good olive oil, and sparkling with crunchy diamonds of sea salt. Campbell, formerly of Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco, does lots of curing on site, so definitely seek out the charcuterie, especially the sliced-to-order jamón. And ask for the paella of the day. The custom furnishings in the welcoming 55-seat refuge create micro zones for every mood. Service is relaxed and carefully gracious. And how fitting that Pueblo is tucked into Costa Mesa’s SoCo, with equally daring peers Taco Maria and Arc.

FIELD NOTES: Spanish and California wines are mostly $11 a glass, $40 a bottle. A select few are $42 to $90. Corkage is free for one bottle, $15 for the second.



OAK GRILL

Island Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-760-4920, oakgrillnb.com

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Pan-seared loup de mer with Swiss chard, risotto, and artichokes.

For too long, The Island Hotel’s upscale room didn’t deliver great flavors for the price. No more. The setting and the dining are vastly improved after the venue’s extreme makeover and the arrival of talented executive chef Marc Johnson. His slyly dense one-page menu of contemporary American fare pops with unexpected ingredients and preparations that lift meals out of the typical hotel zone. Take the ahi tartare, which Johnson nudges beyond ordinary by spiking the ruby cubes of ahi with curry oil, crisp Asian pears, and creamy avocado for a tandoori-scented starter, complete with delicate papadum crisps. Tender grilled calamari with gutsy Spanish chorizo and ethereal mascarpone gnocchi makes another disarming appetizer. After months spent dreaming of it, I look forward to the return of the justly popular BLT panzanella salad with juicy heirlooms, greens, avocado, and pork belly rendered chewy. Open-face pulled pork wins my vote for lunch, its jalapeño-cheddar corn bread a welcome break from the potato buns served on the burgers. Plus, it comes with piping hot onion rings and perky fresh slaw.

FIELD NOTES: On Sundays, take brunch on the blissful, ficus-shaded patio. Tuck into a fresh fruit pancake soufflé and feel worlds away from shopper-clogged Fashion Island.

There’s more! Read our Main Course review of Oak Grill here.



SOCIAL

512 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, (949) 642-2425, socialcostamesa.com

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Mussels with lemongrass, ginger, coconut, and fresno chiles.

Social is a far cry from the tatty pub it replaced. Despite the cliché Hemingway drinking quote on the wall, this 118-seat dinner destination surprises with polished cooking behind a deep menu of enticing dishes. The diverse selection is tough to classify with a single label. Shrimp and grits, and Louisiana frog legs say American South. Duck confit, and steak frites with bernaise nods to France. When pressed for a category, well-traveled executive chef Jeffrey Boullt suggests Progressive American. Boullt runs a limber scratch kitchen here, given his previous stint at Santa Ana’s aggressively eclectic Playground. Even his bar noshes have a refined streak. Jidori chicken liver toasts mounded with silky pate get added spark from jamon gastrique and pepper confit. Boullt’s menu ranks markedly high on the creativity scale—that alone is enticing news. Add first-rate goods and polished execution and you have a standout restaurant in a town already teeming with worthy options new and old.

FIELD NOTES: Brunch is worth the usual wait, Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Want more? Check out our Main Course review of Social here.



PROVENANCE
2531 Eastbluff Drive, Newport Beach, 949-718-0477, provenanceoc.com

IMG_8255Every season brings something new to Provenance. That’s the genius behind this “little farm kitchen that could” near Back Bay. By design, this yearling will never stop growing. Chef-owner Cathy Pavlos relives her childhood in an O.C. farm-to-fork family, this time with a tricked-out kitchen and craft bar, a bespoke 1,300-square-foot garden, and tables for 95. Living with Mother Nature compels Pavlos to ceaselessly adjust her offerings. I never saw the same menu twice in a month, though some favorites stick around awhile. Lunch is loaded with squeaky fresh salads and hearty sandwiches, and dinner offerings include grilled Mongolian-spiced lamb chops or whole branzino with three season-specific sauces. Don’t miss Sunday’s Farm Breakfast for terrific whiskey-and-brown sugar-cured wild salmon in a splendid Benedict with fried capers. This meal also boasts the best breakfast taco of the year, built with green chile-roasted carnitas, scrambled cage-free eggs, feta, pepitas, and radishes, folded into a soft flour tortilla.

FIELD NOTES: For the freshest, most seasonal produce, check the What’s in Season Now section of the menu for dishes such as Hand-Smoked Portobellini Mushrooms with Caramelized Garlic.

There’s more! Read our Main Course review of Provenance here.


THE NORTH LEFT
400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, 714-543-3543, thenorthleft.com

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Octopus with squash, pesto, frisee, and quinoa.

When The Crosby folded last year, it didn’t vanish so much as reincarnate. Local hero Ryan Adams, chef-proprietor of Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach, and Crosby vet chef Aron Habiger join forces to push New American cuisine into the spotlight. The tightly curated menu, prepped in a hyper-tiny kitchen, renews itself every month or so, reflecting the season’s bounty. Who says a small kitchen is a disadvantage? Small plates are a snack for two, but “share” plates are mega portions of protein—maybe steak, pork, or chicken—heaped on wood boards and drizzled with jus or sauce. For $20, upgrade the juicy combination of rib-eye and mushrooms to a Swanson Special. It buys you two shots of select scotch, in honor of the deadpan “Parks and Recreation” character, Ron Swanson.

FIELD NOTES: You can’t see it from the street, but the roof boasts a burgeoning garden of herbs and vegetables, an Adams pet project. Look for spring onions and Japanese leeks to be harvested soon.


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A server with smoked fried chicken and tupelo honey


LILLIE’S Q
240 S. Brea Blvd., Brea, 714-482-2001, lilliesq.com

This ain’t your dad’s—or grandma’s—barbecue. This spiffy joint dishes out (mostly) South Carolina ’cue by top Chicago chef Charlie McKenna, as inspired by his dad, Quito, and grandmother, Lillie. Food & Wine dubbed the chef’s Chicago original one of the best new barbecue restaurants in the U.S. Now McKenna, in concert with TAPS Fish House & Brewery owner Joe Manzella, brings the peachwood smoked meats to lil’ ol’ downtown Brea. Don’t expect the sticky-sweet Kansas City stuff. You’ll get classic Southern eats rarely seen in O.C.: Kool-Aid pickles, pork rinds, slow-smoked pork, tri-tip, and fried chicken with genuine tupelo honey. Don’t miss McKenna’s fave, shrimp and grits. Iconic sides include collard greens, corn bread, and Gruyere-spiked mac ’n’ cheese. Wash it down with moonshine cocktails or Hogtied Amber Ale by TAPS brewmaster David Huls. Leave room for seasonal fruit shortcake or banana pudding.

FIELD NOTES: Champion pit master McKenna puts six of his proprietary sauces on every table, but more than a dozen rubs and sauces (we love barrel-aged Carolina Gold) are sold online and at the restaurant.



SELANNE STEAK TAVERN
1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-9881, selannesteaktavern.com

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32-ounce Lord Stanley rib-eye

Laguna Beach’s buzzy destination for prime steaks is a rookie no more. It has matured into a fine stage for the swanky beach set that can’t resist cult wines, spendy steaks, and a brush with sports celebrity. After all, retired Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne is a backer, and he didn’t lend his name to play this game on the down low. So yes, he’s often sighted at the restaurant. Executive chef Joshua Severson is up to the task of serving monstrous steaks such as the signature Lord Stanley 32-ounce rib-eye from Darling Downs Australia that arrives sliced on the bone, just right for sharing. Melting marrow butter trickles down the decadent slabs. Non-steak dishes are lovely, too. Zaftig Pacific diver scallops with golden seared crowns are now a signature dish. “Ravioli” are fashioned of thin rounds of slow-roasted scarlet beets layered over snappy goat cheese from local Drake Farms. Hazelnuts add toasty crunch, lamb’s lettuce brings delicate notes of green, and the warm vinaigrette enlivens every bite.

FIELD NOTES: We love the patio twinkling with Moroccan lanterns, but ask for the eight-seat top floor Bob’s Room for the ultimate private experience.

There’s more! Read our Main Course review of Selanne here. We review their wine program here.


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Cavoli pizza with roasted cauliflower and prosciutto; Limoncello Taglierini with prawns; and speck-wrapped quail stuffed with wild boar sausage.


PIROZZI

2929 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-675-2932, pirozzicdm.com

Chef-owner Alessandro Pirozzi does it again, this time in Corona del Mar. Only locals know this used to be a KFC; bare tables, a long banquette, and family photos erase all traces of the Colonel. Notable upgrades include a 40-seat sidewalk patio and an olive wood-burning Acunto oven in the kitchen. The large menu spotlights his greatest hits with a fistful of new items. Start with the beloved fried Castelvetrano olives, but don’t skip dishes unique to this venue, such as the colorful salad of rainbow carrots with smidgeons of aged Gouda and candied pecans. Scottadito is new, too—bantam Aussie lamb chops, marinated with garlic and mint. Roasted quail oozes flavor, with a stuffing of wild boar sausage and wrapper of Italian ham. Pizzas are extra delightful, thanks to that 900-degree oven. Ethereal 00 Caputo flour dough bakes in a 90-second flash. Pirozzi says pizzas don’t even go in until a table’s other foods are being plated. That makes for very hot, very fresh Neapolitan-style pie, and there’s one on almost every table in the tightly packed house.

FIELD NOTES: We love the patio twinkling with Moroccan lanterns, but ask for the eight-seat top floor Bob’s Room for the ultimate private experience.

Want more? Read our Main Course review of Pirozzi here.



REUNION KITCHEN + DRINK

5775 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road, Anaheim Hills, 714-283-1062, reunionkitchen.net

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Pan-roasted salmon with mustard beurre blanc and capers.

Reunion might be North County’s success story of the year. Scads of happy customers, a responsive staff, and a smart redesign inject energy and lightness into the subdued space of now-departed Canyon. Operating partner Scott McIntosh is an industry veteran, with Asada, Nick’s, and Claim Jumper on his resume. So it’s no shock Reunion’s single-page menu of feel-good American chow is brazenly close to the winning format at Nick’s. Big burgers and likeable sandwiches vie for belly space with entrees to crave. Luscious, sticky baby-back ribs with warm potato salad, pan-roasted salmon with mustard beurre blanc and capers, and crunchy beer-battered cod and chips with fresh tartar sauce are instant classics. Even this meatloaf-hater happily applauds Reunion’s tender, moist version speckled with veggies, painted with barbecue sauce, and lassoed with thick, smoky bacon. A big slab of it on top of buttery Yukon mashers and alongside roasted vegetables defines default comfort food.

FIELD NOTES: Even the bar boasts a marked upgrade in skills, ingredients, and attitude. Check out happy hour, weekdays, 2:30 to 6 p.m., throughout the restaurant.

There’s more! Read our Main Course review of Reunion Kitchen + Drink here.


DIN TAI FUNG
IMG_3659mb3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-549-3388, dintaifungusa.com

No more driving to Arcadia or Glendale to partake of this world-famous dumpling house, the first major restaurant to open at South Coast Plaza in years. Architect Anthony Poon’s sleek design funnels diners right past the exhibition kitchen where swarms of dumpling artisans roll and pleat the dough. Stacks of bamboo steamers full of juicy pork pockets are a must, but don’t skip sleeper dishes that include crispy shrimp and pork dumplings, hot-and-sour soup, and garlicky green beans the color of emeralds. Looking for more heat than the wontons in spicy sauce? Condiments include soy, fresh ginger, hot chile sauce, and smoky black vinegar. Customizing your dipping heat is integral to the Din Tai Fung experience.



HALL OF FAME:
NAPA ROSE
Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, 1600 S. Disneyland Drive, 714-300-7170, disneyland.com

IMG_2962mbOrange County’s dining topography was considerably flatter in 2001. Aside from the random chef-owner who happened to be a wine wonk, truly fine “California wine-country cuisine” was a rarity that required a trek to Napa, Sonoma, or a select posse of San Francisco restaurants. Napa Rose changed that forever. When Disney lured Andrew Sutton away from Napa’s acclaimed Auberge du Soleil to head the fine dining room at the new Grand Californian Hotel, it was a tectonic shift for O.C. Who would ever consider a public Disney venue for superlative cuisine? Once local food-and-wine lovers discovered the deep-groove hospitality Sutton and then-GM and wine director Michael Jordan created at Napa Rose, the scene started shaking with vigor. California’s profound bounty of gorgeous wines and insightful farmers were at last at our doorstep. Napa Rose opened the door to refined magical dining, with a wine-country demeanor. Fourteen years later, Sutton, his team, and Disney’s redoubtable muscle have improved the resort’s dining on a systemic level. Last year, Napa Rose extended its quest for singular dining with a hefty exhibition kitchen renovation, above, impeccable weekly tasting menus, and an ever-deeper commitment to sourcing from California’s inimitable purveyors.

 

 

 

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