Soulful suckling pig. Finely crafted pizza. Dazzling Peking duck. Orange County is a great place to dine in 2018, thanks to a record number of restaurant openings. The question is, which deserve your attention? Selflessly, we combed through the tangle to narrow your search. Just for fun, we also threw in evidence that the county’s best new spots share serious DNA with some of its best old spots.
1 Marché Moderne | Disembarking the luxury liner that ferried you to unimaginable acclaim is a bold risk. Chef-owners Florent and Amelia Marneau were up for the adventure when they moved the Marché Moderne family from South Coast Plaza to the venue of their dreams in Newport Coast. For devotees, the painstaking construction felt longer than its eight months, but today, all traces of the doomed Tamarind of London are gone—replaced by an inviting space that stars coastal skies, an open kitchen, a sublime bar, and a secluded patio.
An extensive menu is bigger than it needs to be, meaning old favorites await and new obsessions are ready to be discovered. Consider prosciutto plucked from premier sources, expertly carved to melt on the tongue. Or a tasting of five silken Bordier butters that results in your forever crossing Land O’Lakes off your grocery list. Or mellow cassoulet that gets the Marneau treatment by means of suckling pig, cured 72 hours, married with velvety braised flageolet beans with vivid accent from lemon and garlic vinaigrette.
Chef Marneau includes nods to the past with dishes that pay tribute to people and places. I don’t recall 1991 tasting as good as his version of Pascal Restaurant’s braised rabbit with hand-rolled tagliatelle. It epitomizes the mining of O.C.’s dining history for touchstones that give rise to contemporary triumph. Other classic bistro fare includes a stellar coq au vin and a grilled Prime hanger steak with shallot jus and super frites. Both are soulful and filling, so do leave room for Amelia’s virtuoso desserts. Any of her modern riffs on gateaux or profiteroles supply sweet thrills. Napoleons are a weekends-only offering but tend to be fabulous finales. The early results are in: The new iteration of Marché Moderne is a joyous coup.
With the 1998 opening of his rose-filled storefront Restaurant Pascal, Pascal Olhats became a star. Florent Marneau was one of several young chefs to pass through Olhats’ kitchen, the current iteration of which now flourishes in San Juan Capistrano.
7862 Coast Highway, Newport Beach
2 Olea | New restaurants rarely open on schedule, much less early. But Newport Beach’s markedly dapper Olea opened before its ETA. Such efficiency is a testament to the increasingly polished crew behind sister restaurants Ironwood and Vine, a homegrown hospitality group that tries hard to over-deliver. Sleek but unfussy, Olea attracts neighbors who can’t say no to a new source of upscale seasonal cooking by a talented chef, backed by practiced service, with surroundings aimed to entice sophisticated regulars who are more than happy to stick close to home. Fans of chef Jared Cook will recognize some dishes from his kitchens at Ironwood in Laguna Hills and San Clemente’s Vine, but the menu also offers fare you’ll only find here. Hold off on his signature crispy duck wings until you’ve tried the opulent duck liver terrine with bacon and bourbon, a fine partner for a glass of Chateau Laribotte Sauternes at the roomy, welcoming bar. Oysters baked with blue crab in tarragon butter scream for a glass of bubbly from the list of 25 notable wines by the glass. Also pleasing, a heartening beef cheek stroganoff with rosemary pappardelle and charred onion crème fraîche. Braised Duroc pork shank sauced with preserved tomato-herb jus is terrific on a bed of toasted farro.
Olea is the continuation of a wine country cuisine movement we can trace to Napa Rose, where executive chef Andrew Sutton still reigns over a wine-driven domain he helped Disney debut in 2001. Having once worked under Sutton (at Napa’s premier Auberge du Soleil), chef Justin Monson brought his take on wine country cooking to South O.C. in 2003, when he planted Vine in downtown San Clemente. Later, it was acquired by Russ Bendel, owner of Ironwood and Olea.
2001 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach
3 Lido Bottle Works | It’s not exactly an inviting name for a restaurant, but don’t let this keep you from enjoying Lido Bottle Works’ many charms, besides its bottle shop. When inaugural executive chef Joel Harrington bolted this waterfront venue late last year, it allowed Huntington Beach native Amy Lebrun to move into his position, one she rightfully deserved as Harrington’s secret weapon in the kitchen since the opening. Lebrun, an alum of the Ritz-Carlton, is in tight with the iconic Dory Fishing Fleet Market and takes her pick of the sea early in the day, breaking it down into a knockout dish at dinner. Be sure to ask about her fresh seafood specials, perhaps fish tacos du jour or black cod in ginger-miso with seaweed rice, sea beans, and baby Brussels sprouts from Weiser Farms. Tuna tartare is a big seller, but the raw-and-cooked vegetables plate is the sleeper find here. Starting with a “soil” of crushed toasted hazelnuts, Lebrun builds a wreath—a striking assemblage of seasonal produce from local fields, some miniature, some pickled, some confit, some just clipped off the vine. She gilds it all with bee pollen, edible flowers, and local lemon vinaigrette.
A decade ago, when chef-owner Mark McDonald launched charming Old Vine Café, surprising diners with fab brunches and prix-fixe dinners, few realized he also peddled his value-priced wines out the door. Today, many Costa Mesans stock their cellars with prime, affordable finds from his shelves.
3408 Via Oporto, Newport Beach
4 The Recess Room | What? No gastropub in Fountain Valley? The realization was a light-bulb moment for five childhood school chums, who as adults couldn’t find a tasty destination after their Saturday ball games at La Capilla Park. The old neighborhood was bursting with Viet cafes, kebob shops, seafood houses, and dessert boutiques, but not a single spot for craft beers, meticulous cocktails, and fare befitting the libations. Using the “if you build it they will come” theory, they took a swing and created The Recess Room from a defunct Coco’s, turning the coffee shop model on its head with an eye to luring grownups eager to trade their club sandwich for a bone marrow burger and a Hello Again lager brewed by Chapman Crafted Beer in Orange. Or addictive Jidori chicharron with yuzo kosho ranch dressing for nibbling between sips of a butter-infused Lot 40 Whiskey cocktail. Chef de cuisine Nikko Marquez adds more depth and interest to the menu with each passing month. Yes, you can still get the Kurobuta Pig Head, but don’t miss some of his fresh new takes for spring. We’re especially smitten with the impeccable scallops with spinach pasta in lemongrass cream, the meltingly tender adobo-inspired pork cheek confit, and for dessert, the lime panna cotta with bits of zippy Thai basil.
That The Recess Room debuted as the only gastropub in town is almost curious given that gastropubs sprouted like weeds after a rainstorm long before it opened. While not all have succeeded, Orange’s Haven Gastropub, one of the originals, has flourished. Chef-owner Greg Daniels opened the door in 2009 and the Old Towne hang has only improved over the years. Would The Recess Room exist if Haven did not? What we do know is Daniels, beverage ace Wil Dee, and chef de cuisine Landon Pulizzi are still the team to beat on the now-familiar gastropub scene.
18380 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
5 Meizhou Dongpo | Impressive digs, a classy pedigree, and keen service are the peripheral reasons to seek out Meizhou Dongpo. But it’s the dazzling Peking duck that has lured diners and powered the migration of this group from Beijing to Irvine. Cooked to order and meticulously sliced into tender petals of meat crowned with crackling amber skin, the royal bird comes splayed on an oval platter, along with the traditional fixings—slivers of cucumber, scallions, a pot of roast duck sauce, and an aluminum steamer of stacked bing, the lace-thin crepes to fill as you wish. A weeks-long, hush-hush system of aging, drying, and lacquering coaxes concentrated flavors and complementary textures from each roasted duck (whole, $77; half, $40). Were the recipe flaunted online, sane diners would not attempt to make this dish at home. Order it here and pass the 50-minute wait slurping spicy dan dan noodles, minced pork, and tender wokked pea tips.
Spicy pork noodles are also on the menu at South Coast Plaza’s Din Tai Fung, the first O.C. outpost of a flourishing Taiwanese chain known for hand-pleated juicy dumplings. The sleek space with an exhibition kitchen is perpetually packed, with no relief since opening in 2014. It established the trade route from Asia to the San Gabriel Valley to Costa Mesa that Meizhou Dongpo then extended to Irvine.
15363 Culver Drive, Irvine,
6 Puesto | Delectable tacos are a culinary institution in O.C., so it took some confidence for Puesto, a San Diego operation, to introduce us to its fresh take on taqueria fare. Based in cushy La Jolla, its upscale spin on street food was shrewd, and a bet that it might also work in the huge, jazzy Los Olivos Marketplace venue paid off. So much so that in January, a second Puesto opened in Irvine’s Park Place. Energetic and color-splashed, these breezy sites attract groups and family fiestas. Tacos headline, and they deliver on several counts. Tortillas are handmade with organic, non-GMO, blue corn masa, and the deckled-edged beauties aren’t skimpy. Crisply griddled Oaxacan cheese is the silver bullet in most variations and especially welcome on some brilliant vegetarian tacos. Executive creative chef Katy Smith is an alum of Rick Bayless’s dining empire and quite fluent in Mexico’s cuisines. Her Taco of the Month is often a gem, so always ask, and do leap at the pork shoulder with chile sauce when it comes around. Expect mighty indoor-outdoor bars serving boozy potions, many crafted with agave spirits. El Mezcalito is our favorite irresistible margarita—Vida mezcal, guanabana fruit, tamarindo soda, lime leaf, and charred orange. They’re not your little sister’s aguas frescas, but these are excellent, too. On the non-taco front, don’t miss the gossamer chicharrones, and do try pastry chef Jessica Scott’s dazzling Aztec Gold, a multi-layered dessert featuring horchata gelato and churro caramel corn.
When you swoon over Puesto’s organic tortillas, remember Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa’s Ivan Calderon, who first shared the glories of non-GMO tortillas by switching to supplier La Fortaleza nearly two years ago. By 2017, he opened Taco Mesa Tortilleria Orgánica & Cafe in Orange to supply house-made GMO-free masa to all his venues.
8577 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine
3311 Michelson Drive, Irvine
7 The Country Club | Diners love VIP treatment. They warm to being indulged like regulars: your usual drink, your favorite booth, your preferred server. Such insight is at the heart of the grownups-only venue that partners Mario Marovic and Andrew Gabriel erected on the footprint of Pierce Street Annex, a notorious Costa Mesa watering hole. The result is a social club where everyone is a member and the initiation fee is zero. Aside from the carefully preserved A-frame roof, the 175-seat restaurant is a massive reset. In a nod to Gatsby-era merriment, the sumptuous space is replete with chandeliers, gleaming pressed-tin ceilings, and acres of hobnailed leather. The new kitchen is helmed by Zach Scherer, a veteran of Playground. He caroms with confidence from graceful starters—hamachi tacos with avo mousse on jicama “tortillas”—to charred ribeye blasting juicy flavor from every bite. In between, find short-rib Gorgonzola flatbread made with yogurt-spiked dough, a beet salad with marinated berries, and a gorgeous dry-aged burger with aged cheddar cheese. Sophisticated cocktails are not overly fussy, leaning instead on superb house-made syrups and mixers. Some servers lack finesse, but overall the crew is eager to please, making it clear they hope this becomes your frequent favorite.
The idea of an exclusive city club is not new to Costa Mesa—The Center Club, founded by Henry Segerstrom in 1985, is still catering to its evolving membership, which pays a $1,000 initiation fee before dues. Unlike The Country Club, there is no late-night dancing on weekends.
330 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa
8 Habana | Imagine hearing that someone’s having a second child 22 years after their first. Naturally, you’d wonder, is it with the same partner? On purpose? In most cases the replies would be no and no. But in the case of Habana, in a newly minted wing of Irvine Spectrum Center, the answers are resoundingly yes. After so long in the making, it’s hard to say that owners Kenneth Jones and Jeffrey Best are leveraging Cuba’s heightened profile, but the sprawling 300-seat compound certainly co-opts the island’s frozen-in-time splendor. A roomy patio open to the sky is made intimate by high walls; inside, several props and vignettes add to the decor with alcoves dedicated to house pastries and coffees. Bustling with costumed staffers, the vibe is “this far” from a theme restaurant. Despite the impressive scale, the menu hews tightly to the focused offerings at the Costa Mesa flagship. Chef Alex Moreno ably synchs the newborn kitchen with founding chef Miguel Quintero’s well-established rhythm. More than a dozen interesting starters deserve deep exploration, especially the empanadas, bocaditos, and pork croquettas. Skirt steak and pork osso-buco are savory, plentiful entrees. Lunchtime’s commendable Cubano and media noche sandwiches layered with ham, roast pork, sharp mustard, and tart pickle tame the craving for Cuba’s classic nosh. New elements that merit notice include the bakery counter (try the guava croissant) and coffee bar.
Though a generation separates the two Habanas, the family resemblance is undeniable. Both turn out top-notch rum cocktails that are strong, balanced, and not to be missed. Sunday brunch is a lavish spread with a languid air at either address. At Habana, the sensual allure of a Cuba most of us will never know is a siren song for diners craving the lush life.
708 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine
9 2145 | Santa Ana native Eduardo Salcedo is so passionate about pizza, he immersed himself in a hot spot for Neapolitan pizza culture. Not Naples, Italy, but Tokyo, Japan, where the artisan mindset finds joy in chasing pizza perfection. The pilgrimage was fruitful for the veteran Pizzeria Ortica pizzaiolo, yielding inspiration, investor-partners, and a promising site for a pizza eatery with a serene, less-is-more aesthetic. A vacant auto mechanic shop was converted into a welcoming corner where the scent of burning almond wood whets the appetite for finely crafted pies and imaginative toasts on house-baked shokupan, Japan’s beloved breakfast loaf. First-timers marvel at the understated digs that place the kitchen in the former oil-change bay and diners at the white marble bar or under umbrellas in a simple backyard patio. But it’s the seemingly rustic fare with sly refinement that begs return visits, with delectable options all day. For lunch, think bresaola and burrata salad with pickled fennel. Or hyper-tender octopus with diced potato, charred scallions, and squid-ink mayo. Daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. offers delights such as lip-smacking Wagyu corndogs dunked in honey vinegar or fried dough with browned butter-spiked egg yolk for dipping. Pizzas include a divine margherita with crushed San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil on a puffy crust with just the right char—a mere $10 during happy hour. Mascarpone-Gorgonzola-honey pizza is rich. Excellent balance makes it easy to devour an entire spicy salami pie with smoked mozza, green olives, and pickled chiles. Dessert? Horchata tiramisu is the sweet spot.
Clever as it is, turning a garage into a venue for Italianesque fare isn’t novel. Chef-partner David Slay mastered it seven years ago with his Il Garage, on the sprawling grounds of Stanton’s Park Ave. A gussied-up farm equipment shed supplied the ideal setting overlooking a dreamy chef’s garden.
2145 Placentia Ave.,
Costa Mesa, 949-873-5853