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My Most Memorable Dining Experiences of 2018

I’m often asked to share my favorite local restaurants—local as in Orange County, which is a large area to cover. I dine out multiple times a week at a variety of restaurants, so naming a favorite isn’t always easy. However, looking back on my dining excursions this year, I certainly had a handful of memorable experiences.

At the top of my list: 21 Royal, which provides up to a dozen guests a luxurious epicurean evening in a private “residence” upstairs from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland.

The dining experience comes courtesy of Chef Andrew Sutton, culinary director of Signature Restaurants at Disneyland Resort and creator of the Napa Rose and Carthay Circle eateries.

Imagine being invited to Walt Disney’s home for a dinner party. That’s 21 Royal. Chef Sutton and Chef de Cuisine Clint Chin worked their culinary magic to prepare a seven-course dinner paired with wines.

Chef Sutton’s description of 21 Royal as “epicurean theater” is apt. A story unfolds from one course to the next as he shares his inspiration for each dish while Sommelier Matt Ellingson tells stories about the wines he selects for each.

From the first course to the dessert finale, it was a gastronomic feast I’ll be talking about for a long time.

21 Royal is open to the public for $15,000, or $1,250 per person, including tax, gratuity, valet parking and admission to the theme park.

21 Royal Street at Disneyland, 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim 92802, (714) 300-7749, 21royaldisneyland.com

Lasting Merits

This year, I named Russ Bendel, the owner of the Olea, Ironwood and Vine restaurants, the Business Journal’s Restaurateur of the Year, and the husband-and-wife team of Florent and Amelia Marneau of Marché Moderne in Newport Beach our Chefs of the Year.

Repeat visits to Olea—Bendel’s newest restaurant, which opened in Newport Beach exactly a year ago—and Marché Moderne confirmed the merits of the accolades.

Olea remains as busy as it did when it opened. I’ve sat at the bar and enjoyed a burger—one of the best in OC—with fries, and last month dined with a friend on a superb terrine of duck liver, the signature crispy Meyer lemon and honey duck wings, and the famous chicken schnitzel.

With three successful restaurants, I’m betting Bendel has his sights on a fourth location.

One location is plenty for the Marneaus. After moving their popular French restaurant from South Coast Plaza to Crystal Cove late last year, they’ve reinvigorated the menu and continue to host a packed restaurant every night.

I’ve enjoyed wine and appetizers at the cozy bar, took a prime booth in the dining room for a lengthy formal dinner, and relaxed on the patio for dessert with friends. Marché Moderne’s consistency with food, and Amelia’s always-welcoming smile as she roams the restaurant greeting guests, are two of many reasons the restaurant deserves its stellar reputation.

Olea: 2001 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach 92660, (949) 287-6807, oleanewportbeach.com

Marché Moderne: 7862 Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Coast 92657, (714) 434-7900, marchemoderne.net

Fish With Pop

In the spring came another noteworthy experience courtesy of Chef Michael Mina, who closed his successful Stonehill Tavern at Monarch Beach Resort last December and reopened it this year as Bourbon Steak. The menu offers largely new items, though a few of Chef Mina’s signature dishes remain.

Showstoppers include a steaming shellfish platter overflowing with oysters, shrimp, half lobster and king crab atop a bed of rock salt. Hot lemongrass broth is poured onto the pile, creating a steaming, showy platter of pizazz. The other showstopper was rolled to our table on a cart on which rested a wooden platter under a clear glass dome filled with smoke. The lid was removed, the smoke billowing over our heads, to reveal hay-smoked Snake River Farm ribeye cap, sliced tableside. A tasty and memorable show.

1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point 92629, (949) 234-3405, monarchbeachresort.com/bourbon-steak

Food Journey

Another dining experience I still talk about came in a most unexpected place: Journeyman’s Food & Drink restaurant inside Hotel Fullerton. The proprietor is the young Executive Chef Zachary Geerson, who has a passion for creating inspired cuisine he describes as progressive American. At the time, Journeyman’s offered a four-course, prix fixe menu with optional wine pairings, but it’s since added a six-course option. The amuse bouche alone signaled something above the norm, as Chef Geerson describes: “Laotian sausage-inspired foie gras marshmallow, ginger, lime, cabbages and micro cilantro. I made an infusion of shallots, garlic, lime leaf, ginger, rendered foie gras scraps, infused into whole milk, added gelatin, whipped it, and set into a tray.”

The nuances of each dish I tasted revealed a chef well on his journey to becoming a master.

1500 S. Raymond Ave., Fullerton 92831, (714) 635-9025, journeymanfood.com

Welcome Return

It’s also been a year of new beginnings for Chef Bruno Serato, owner of Anaheim White House. He endured more than a year of rebuilding his beloved Italian restaurant after a fire destroyed the historical landmark.

With much anticipation and more than a little fanfare, the new White House opened its doors in May. From the outside, it looks refreshed and familiar, like an old friend whose makeover enhances his or her appearance. Inside, the decor dazzles like an Italian villa would, but those familiar with the old White House will notice a revamped layout that seems more open yet still with multiple intimate dining areas.

“I am so happy about the new reopening,” Bruno told me. “The customers love it because they feel like they are in Italy or France. It’s almost like a restaurant in a museum because of the artwork on each wall of the dining room. I couldn’t be happier. I feel like I just bought a new restaurant.”

887 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim 92805, (714) 772-1381, anaheimwhitehouse.com

New and Old-New

The year also brought a handful of brand-new restaurants, many from familiar faces.

Chef Ryan Adams closed his popular Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach to focus on new endeavors, Parallel Pizzeria in Dana Point and Buttermilk Fried Chicken in downtown Orange.

Adams sold his restaurant to Chef Greg Daniels, former chef-owner of Haven Gastropub and Provisions Market in Old Towne Orange, who opened Harley last month. I dined there opening weekend and was pleasantly surprised to see the restaurant packed with happy diners. I’ll offer a full report next month, but let’s just say my dining companion and I cleaned our plates.

Around the corner from Harley, former Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach Executive Chef Craig Strong launched Ocean at Main. Open for lunch and dinner, it has interior and patio dining. I had dinner at Ocean at Main, followed later by lunch with three friends, and I like what Chef Strong is doing in the kitchen. His dishes are creative and approachable. So far my favorites are the lobster fettuccini and the oxtail kale risotto. More about Ocean at Main next month.

One of my favorite chefs, Ross Pangilinan, left Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge two years ago to open Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in downtown Santa Ana, but his relationship with the Segerstrom family helped coax him back to South Coast Plaza to open a second restaurant, Terrace by Mix Mix. Chef Pangilinan is serving his trademark California-Filipino fusion cuisine, and local diners couldn’t be happier. Terrace catered the opening-night reception for the new Orange County Museum of Art space in Costa Mesa. The food was as artistically creative as the artwork.

My favorite Italian restaurant, Il Barone, closed its small restaurant near John Wayne Airport and reopened in a larger space nearby on Bristol Street. The new space is beautiful, with a larger bar and dining room, and an expanded menu—though Chef Franco Barone is still making his popular facci ri veccia, a thin pizza made with cheeses, prosciutto and truffle oil, among other classic entrees.

And then there’s the new kid in town: Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, a popular East Coast Italian restaurant that moved into the former Prego spot on Von Karman Avenue in Irvine. It’s the brand’s first West Coast location and probably not the last, based on the menu items I tasted. The three-course Power Lunch includes soup or salad, choice of three entrees, and dessert. A terrific value, and equally terrific food. My dinner there several days later was a well-executed, well-choreographed affair featuring a variety of dishes, from traditional Italian to—surprise—spring rolls. Davio’s is a welcome addition to our local dining scene.

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