Off the Menu OC

Covering the dining scene in and around the OC

Best Dining Experiences of 2013

So many restaurants, so little time.

That seemed to be out mantra this year. We lost count of how many restaurants we dined at in 2013, and despite our best efforts we still did not make it to all the restaurants on our lengthy list.  Even so, we had many memorable dining experiences, and dishes, during the past 12 months.

Cocoa 2xHere’s a look back at what made our palates excited in 2013. Most are in the greater Newport Beach area (our regular beat for the Newport Beach Independent newspaper), but a few are a ways from home yet worth the drive.

In February, we experienced the Island Hotel’s Cocoa Lounge, an annual dessert experience in the private dining room of the Palm Terrace Restaurant. We sampled delicacies such as pastries, tarts, truffles, cakes, mousses, chocolate, made-to-order crepes, homemade ice cream sandwiches, chocolate nachos, and caramel popcorn drizzled with chocolate. It was a decadent, over-the-top experience.

Chris had a memorable lunch with Wahoo’s co-founder Wing Lam to discuss the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. Over a plate of Wahoo’s fish tacos at the Newport Beach location, Lam talked about expanding from a single store in Costa Mesa to more than 60 stores in seven states, and one in Japan.

Lam’s recipe for success? Simple: “Treat employees well and serve good food.”

Good food – make that exceptional food – is the watchword at Pelican Hill Resort. The resorts three restaurants (Andrea, Coliseum Pool & Grill, and Pelican Grill) offer diverse culinary experiences of the highest level. We’ve dined at all three and love them all, but our favorite is Andrea, an

Risotto at Andrea

Risotto at Andrea

impeccable Italian restaurant whose exquisite cuisine and service rank it among the top restaurants in So Cal.

This year, Andrea introduced a new chef, Luigi Fineo, who is creating seasonal masterpieces. We attended several media tastings at Andrea, and each time were blown away by the creativity and quality of the dishes. One of our favorites is an Andrea classic: risotto prepared in a parmesan wheel. Andrea is indeed dining nirvana.

Chef Franco Barone (formerly of Antonello Restaurant) opened his intimate and inviting Il Barone Ristorante nearly three years ago, and the place has been packed ever since. One reason is his signature dish, Facci ri Veccia: baked, paper thin focaccia filled with imported crescenza cheese topped with parma prosciutto and drizzled with white truffle oil. It’s thin and crispy yet bursting with flavor–easy to see why the dish is so popular, and why it was one of our favorites of the year.

Another of our favorites was Brasserie Pascal, our go-to restaurant that never fails to make a good impression on our taste buds. We love so many of the dishes there, but our favorites are the shrimp cassoulet and the short rib.

The massive burger at ARC

The massive burger at ARC

And then came ARC, the creation of Newport Beach resident and Chef Noah Blöm. Every dish is prepared on firewood-flamed frills or in a brick oven. Chef Noah offers an eclectic take on rustic cuisine unlike anything else we’ve tried. We sampled a number of excellent dishes, but one really stood out: the hamburger. It’s a huge tower of juicy, messy goodness that we’re still talking about months later (and yes, we’ve been back to ARC several times since). Catherine calls ARC “classy yet casual, a great experience that’s in a league of its own.”

So is A Restaurant, which we’ve been to several times. We tried a number of excellent dishes there, all beautifully presented. But the dish that had us both swooning with delight was the New York Block Cut, a 12 ounce steak with the fat cut off, leaving a piece of meat that’s juicy on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside. Catherine

A Restaurant steak

A Restaurant steak

ordered it cooked medium. It arrived as a baseball-sized steak on the plate with black truffle aioli on the side. We agreed it may have been the best steak we’ve ever had–perfectly cooked and seasoned, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. We’re still talking about it months later. Kudos to Chef Jonathan Blackford!

And then there was the bacon-wrapped venison at The Winery. Yes, they’re in Tustin, but their Newport location opens in February, and we wanted a preview of things to come. Chef Yvon Goetz, who is still tweaking the Newport menu but promises it will be similar to his current menu, loves to serve exotic meats. His venison was a work of art. Tender, juicy, a mouthful of flavor in every bite. We can’t wait for the new restaurant to open.

Venison at The Winery

Venison at The Winery

The Village Inn surprised us with a renewed focus on food. We tried several dishes, and the one Catherine is still talking about is the brie salad. “I’m not normally a salad girl, preferring to stick to meat and potatoes, but this salad was perfect. It had a small puff pastry filled with melted brie alongside a leafy green salad with seasonal fruit including strawberries, pineapple and honey dew, plus caramelized walnuts and an orange citrus vinaigrette drizzled on top.”

We never expected to use the words “oatmeal” and “Flemings” in the same sentence, but their Wine Country Brunch offered an array of creative takes on standard brunch fare, including Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal served with banana brûlée, walnuts, blueberries, brown sugar and warm milk. It was, without a doubt, the best oatmeal we’ve ever had. We love their dinner menu too (who doesn’t), but it’s the oatmeal we remember.

Another dish we’re still raving about: the pinwheels at Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza, which reopened in October with new owners, a new chef, and a new menu. The pinwheels are made from pizza dough, and swirled with pepperoni and other fillings. Simple, but a party in your mouth.

Another noteworthy new restaurant, The Sliding Door in Balboa Village, was launched this fall by a husband and wife duo from New York. Our favorite dishes include the gnocchi and the short ribs.

Other local favorites: tacos at SOL Cocina, cocktails at La Cave, the revamped menu at Tamarind of London, Bluewater Grill’s stuffed lobster, Aussie pies at Pie Not, gourmet treats at Sidecar Doughnuts, crepes at Wild Strawberry Café, and the holiday mulled wine at Muldoon’s.

Our favorite non-Newport/Mesa restaurants: Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea (fun menu and atmosphere), Bruxie (who doesn’t love waffles!), Maro Wood Grill and 370 Common in Laguna Beach, and the return of restaurateur David Wilhelm with Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern in Dana Point.

And if we had to pick our top five restaurant experiences of 2013?

Andrea, A Restaurant, ARC, The Winery, and Il Barone.

A special nod to The Sliding Door and Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza, our two favorite new restaurants of the year.

Here’s to a memorable year of dining. We’re looking forward to what’s in store in 2014.

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