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Culinary Theatrics Making Smoky Local Comeback

From flaming cocktails to smoking steaks, theatrical presentations and tableside preparations have made a comeback at upscale restaurants. Why? Social media and diner expectations of something beyond simply a good meal.

I recently wrote about the risotto and parmesan wheel served at Andrea at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, a fun presentation that’s become an institution there, and about one of a more recent spate of servings with flare, the steak inside a smoke-filled dome at Bourbon Steak at Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point.

Those are just two examples of creative culinary concoctions I’ve seen at local restaurants that almost demand documentation on Facebook and Instagram.

My most recent encounter with epicurean magic came last month at the Renaissance Newport Beach Hotel, formerly the Duke and Fairmont Newport Beach, near John Wayne Airport.

The hotel has undergone a makeover, and the new decor provides a hip and boutique ambiance, with the new Current restaurant to match.

I was invited to a media tasting to learn about new Executive Chef Jessica Roy and her menu. The culinary show began at the bar when I opted to enjoy a predinner cocktail. From the bar menu, I selected the “Not So” old fashioned with bacon-infused Maker’s Mark, maple syrup, applewood smoke, orange bitters and candied bacon.

The cocktail arrived inside a clear glass box filled with smoke that the bartender slowly swung open. Applewood smoke seeped onto the bar top as fellow imbibers observed and admired the presentation. I took several photos with my cellphone camera before removing the drink from the box and taking a sip. It was a satisfying blend of flavors that were enhanced by the presentation. By the time I left the bar, others had ordered the drink. It’s a show that will never get dull.

Nor will Chef Roy’s cuisine, I suspect.

“I have a strong vision for how I want a dish,” she told me. “Eating and dining should be exciting.”

Her tasting menu that night showed off a sampling of her talents: sea scallop tartare served with crisp potato, lemon aioli and seawater mist; bursting heirloom tomato with balsamic, basil, tomato and torn chip; seared wild-caught halibut with spring vegetables and lemon sage; wild mushroom pasta with a porcini glace; and a steak and potato dish with bordelaise sauce. The potato was as unique as they come. Chef Roy boils small potatoes, carefully scoops out the insides, and puts them in a freezer to achieve crystallization before dipping them in a deep fryer. She makes pureed potato using two parts butter and one part potato, and then stuffs the concoction back into the potato.

“It’s an illusion of a baked potato,” said Chef Roy. “I like to do things that are interesting in presentation and flavors. I try and create memories. I love having showmanship and telling stories.”

Indeed—for an intermezzo during the meal, Chef Roy created tableside nitro sorbet, a showpiece with plumes of nitrogen smoke billowing from a large bowl as she mixed her frozen concoction.

When I went back to the Renaissance hotel a week later for its official reopening party, Chef Roy was in the lobby with a new cotton candy machine. She told me she’s working on several savory cotton candy recipes to add to the menu.

Now, that’s creativity at its best.

4500 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 476-2001; marriott.com/npbbr

Lovely Liver

Haven Gastropub in Old Towne Orange, one of the first gastropubs in Orange County when it opened in 2009, surprised longtime patrons last month by announcing that Executive Chef Greg Daniels had departed. In his place is Craig Brady, who served as chef de cuisine at Haven from 2012 to 2016 before migrating to The Ranch Restaurant to work with Chef Michael Rossi as executive sous chef.

Chef Brady has returned to Haven and brought with him a new menu. A media tasting revealed new takes on classic dishes and new soon-to-be classics.

My favorites: chicken liver toast with Harry’s berries, pickled mustard seed and port syrup; braised lamb pappardelle with fava beans, baby carrots and lamb jus; and coriander-roasted baby carrots with yogurt, smoked almonds and lemon zest.

Dish Nashville Heat consisted of softshell crab with spicy remoulade that overwhelmed my palate for several minutes. I’m not used to such heat in a seafood dish, but spice fans will gravitate to it.

190 S. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 221-0680; havengastropub.com

Chicken and Pizza

Around the corner from Haven, Chef Ryan Adams of Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach has opened a fast-casual concept called Buttermilk Fried Chicken. The name comes from the famous fried chicken Chef Adams serves on the last Sunday of every month at Three Seventy Common.

The chicken is so popular that he decided to expand the concept and menu in his new venture.

I got a sneak taste of the Buttermilk Fried Chicken menu a few days before it opened, sampling several items, from chicken strips to a classic fried chicken sandwich. The chicken was absolutely perfect—crunchy on the outside, tender and juicy meat on the inside. My favorite was the over-the-top Smothered Tots with gravy, cheddar, bacon, chicken, chilis, slaw, and hot sauce.

Not content with just two restaurants, Chef Adams also opened Parallel Pizzeria last month in Dana Point. I popped in and tried the mashed potato pizza with bacon and jalapeño, and the clam pizza with littlenecks, bacon, pecorino, onion, garlic, chili flakes, olive oil and parsley. They may sound odd, but the ingredients blend perfectly.

You can tell Chef Adams is having fun with his new concepts, and so are the patrons.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken: 238 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 941-9124; buttermilkfc.com

Parallel Pizzeria: 34255 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, (949) 441-7406; parallelpizzeria.com

Down South

As a longtime admirer and patron of The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar, I’m thrilled for partners JC Clow, William Lewis and Chef Yvon Goetz, who’ve hit a trifecta with the opening of their third restaurant, this one at the Westfield UTC mall in La Jolla near the San Diego (I-5) Freeway.

I’ve known JC and William since their days at Morton’s The Steakhouse in South Coast Plaza Village nearly 20 years ago, and I love what they’ve done with their flagship Tustin restaurant and the more recent Newport location.

Naturally, I was curious about the La Jolla spot, so fellow foodie Shelly Zavala and I made the drive down to check out the new digs and grub in to some tasty food.

We started with glasses of champagne at the adjacent wine bar, a cozy spot for mall shoppers to grab drinks and appetizers.

Once in the restaurant, we tried several dishes, including a wonderful house salad, sensational sea bass, and tasty lamb chops—plus a chocolate dessert to satisfy Shelly’s sweet tooth.

“I loved the casualness of The Wine Bar next door to the actual restaurant,” Shelly said. “I enjoyed being able to sit outside and have a glass of sparkling wine with blackberries muddled in it before going to dinner. My favorite entree was the sea bass that melted in my mouth with wonderfully matched flavors. The details that have been put into the decor and atmosphere made me feel relaxed, like I was on vacation. The Winery has done it again, creating a beautiful restaurant, from the design to the food.”

La Jolla stole General Manager Bryan “Spike” Bradford from the Tustin location, and we watched him work the room as we dined. Spike told us he sees a lot of longtime Winery patrons from Orange County who bring their San Diego clients to the La Jolla restaurant for business lunches and dinners.

4301 La Jolla Village Drive, San Diego, (858) 230-7404; thewineryrestaurants.com

‘A’ Game in CDM

If you’ve got one successful restaurant, why not parlay that into two—or three? It’s worked for Chef Ryan Adams, The Winery restaurateurs, and for Amar Santana of Broadway by Amar Santana and Vaca, among others.

A Restaurant partners Jordan Otterbein and McG have announced that their River Jetty Restaurant Group has taken over the former space of Crow Bar and Kitchen on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar and will open a new concept this fall to complement A Restaurant in Newport Beach. The name: CdM.

A Restaurant Chef Jonathan Blackford has been appointed corporate executive chef to guide both A Restaurant and the new eatery.

“We wanted to do things that set us apart from other restaurants in the area,” Chef Blackford told me while discussing his CdM menu. “We’re going to have pastas made in-house, a pizza oven, stuff we can’t do here at A Restaurant.”

I also talked to McG about the new project. The popular movie director and producer—“Charlie’s Angels,” “The O.C.”—was raised in Newport Beach.

“We want to provide a place where everyone is welcome,” he said. “We love the magic of a British pub, kind of a ‘Cheers’ culture.”

Vibe is important, he said, but so is cuisine.

“Everyone today demands the best, so our food needs to be excellent, and the service needs to be excellent and friendly,” he said. “Those are the three elements—vibe, food, service.”

I noted the elements during my recent dinner at A Restaurant. The restaurant was abuzz with happy diners as I took a seat. I started with Dungeness crab bruschetta with English pea puree, avocado, pea shoots, lemon vinegar and Old Bay atop ciabatta bread. A perfect combination of flavors, and a pretty dish on the plate. The jumbo diver scallops with sweet corn cake and a pepper puree were also fabulous. I can’t wait to see what Chef Blackford creates at CdM.

3334 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 650-6505; arestaurantnb.com

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