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Orange County's Best Restaurants

A Taste of Brad Johnson's Top Ten

goat-laguna-panna-beach
Goat cheese panna cotta at Studio, Laguna Beach.

A taco that defies the imagination. Sushi like you’ve never seen before. Dry-aged steaks that flip the paradigm for Spanish cuisine. Extraordinary pizza. Ten fascinating chefs. These are the 10 most essential restaurants in Orange County right now, and many are on the coast or nearby. They’re also merely the tip of the iceberg of the 75 Best Places to Eat for 2016, described at ocregister.com/75best.

1. Taco Maria
Taco Maria has pushed Mexican cuisine into a new, uncharted realm. There’s no one else doing what Carlos Salgado does with tortillas and beans. Winner of The Orange County Register’s 2015 Chef of the Year award, presented in December, and a James Beard Award semifinalist, Salgado cooks at a level of precision and creativity not found anywhere else. Don’t let the name fool you. Taco Maria is not a taqueria. Although disarmingly casual, this is a serious fine-dining restaurant where every dish is a revelation.
3313 Hyland Ave., Suite C-21 Costa Mesa, 714.538.8444  :: tacomaria.com

2. Vaca
In Spain, the cow is important because that’s where cheese comes from. But in the hierarchy of Spanish meat, the pig is king. The cow is just a cow. But don’t tell that to chef Amar Santana and partner Ahmed Labbate, whose new Spanish-themed steakhouse has thrown into chaos the traditional pecking order of the Spanish barnyard. As the name above the door suggests, you come here to eat steak – but also incredible paella. And while you wait for the meat to age or the paella to sizzle, you nibble on Iberico ham sliced from a black-hoofed leg or perhaps smoked chicken canelón with foie gras sauce or scrambled eggs on toast with sea urchin roe. The Spanish-only wine list is spectacular. Desserts are the only letdown.
695 Town Center Drive, Suite 170, Costa Mesa, 714.463.6060 :: vacarestaurant.com

3. Marché Moderne
Chefs Florent and Amelia Marneau blend the joie de vivre of Paris with the casual, laid-back lifestyle of Orange County. Yes, this restaurant is in a mall, but never mind that; it’s easily the best French bistro in California. The service is both charming and professional, while the globally influenced French cuisine – beef tartare, moules frites, coq au vin,
steak au poivre, chocolate macarons – is always  meticulously crafted.
3333 Bristol St., Suite 3001 Costa Mesa, 714.434.7900 :: marchemoderne.net

4. Shunka
Sit at the sushi counter and train your eyes on the chalkboard menu. Look for things like ishi dai, kin mei, ho-bo, umeiro, tachiuo, akamutsu, tobiuo, mejina, higesori ... fish that rarely make it to sushi bars in America – all of it flown in daily (except Sundays) from Japan. Shunka also serves fresh, live octopus; most sushi bars serve only cooked octopus.
Trust the chefs and order omakase, then sit back and enjoy a highly nuanced procession of fish you can’t pronounce – and can’t get anywhere else.
369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949.631.9854

5. Arc
With a kitchen entirely fueled by wood, chef Noah Blom looks to the past to show us the future. He employs a big spoonful of duck fat to transform potatoes into a luxury good. He coaxes mushrooms and a free-range egg into a smoke-scented epiphany. Steaks, tacos and burgers might sound familiar, but nobody else has mastered live-fire cooking like Arc.
3321 Hyland Ave., Suite F, Costa Mesa, 949.500.5561 :: arcrestaurant.com

6. The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
As the warbling twangs of Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris float through the air, cowboy hospitality is alive and well. While The Ranch isn’t exactly a steakhouse, the menu does lean heavily toward meat: pork chops, lamb chops, short ribs, pork ribs. The massive bone-on rib-eye is legendary. But save room for dessert. The Register’s 2015 Pastry Chef of the Year, David Rossi, offers visually stunning twists on s’mores, Milky Way chocolate bars, and peanut butter and jelly.
1025 E. Ball Road, Anaheim 714.817.4200 :: theranch.com

7. Studio
Every meal at Studio begins with an amuse-bouche, which might be a miniature “taco” filled with caviar and creme fraîche or a grape-size ball of goat cheese into which a small syringe of honey has been inserted. Waiters weave between tables in what feels like a highly choreographed ballet. A choice of bottled water is complimentary. Bread comes with three types of butter. Every waiter has passed the Level 1 sommelier exam, just one of the reasons Studio received the Register’s 2015 outstanding wine award.
Montage Resort, 30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach 949.715.6420 :: montagehotels.com/studiolagunabeach

8. A Restaurant
Winner of the Register’s 2015 Icon Award, A Restaurant bills itself as the oldest continually operating restaurant in Orange County. It has gone through lots of changes since its inception in the 1920s. But A continues to remain relevant. Much of the credit lately goes to chef Jonathan Blackford. The steaks are superb, especially the Japanese Satsuma beef.
3334 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.650.6505 :: arestaurantnb.com

9. Sapori Ristorante and pizzeria
When Pizzeria Sapori opened last spring, it wasn’t just another new pizza parlor. It was the long-awaited extension of chef Sal Maniaci’s Sapori Ristorante – and the catalyst to being named the Register’s 2015 Restaurant of the Year. Sapori was already one of the region’s best Italian restaurants. The off-menu veal chop is incredible. But something magical happened when Sapori installed its new wood-fired pizza oven, which had a wonderful ripple effect on the entire restaurant and staff. Clearly, pizza is the Italian chef’s true passion.
1080 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach, 949.644.4220 :: saporinb.com

10. The Cannery
Located on the water’s edge in Newport Harbor, The Cannery is
Orange County’s best seafood restaurant. Chef Nick Weber makes pasta carbonara with lobster, but instead of bacon he uses bonito flakes to achieve a beguilingly smoky undertone. He serves raw scallops with flying fish roe and coconut milk. He slow-poaches abalone, then finishes it over oak charcoal before folding it into a velvety sea-urchin bisque. Octopus, too, benefits from the fire. A tangle of tentacles delivers a powerful escabeche-style blast of vinegar with sinus-clearing, tongue-numbing chili.
3010 Lafayette Road, Newport Beach, 949.566.0060 :: cannerynewport.com

Sometimes it feels great to splurge. It’s like retail therapy for the stomach. I recommend it regularly. Here are some of my favorites:

Degustation menu at Studio, Laguna Beach
Chef Craig Strong’s six-course tasting menu paired with top-tier wines costs $325. Every wine is practically guaranteed to be revelatory.

Whole chicken at Stonehill Tavern, Dana Point
In chef Michael Mina’s dish, a whole Jidori bird is cooked in duck fat and served with truffled macaroni and cheese. At $64, meant for two, it’s probably the most expensive chicken dinner you’ll ever eat. But, dang, it’s good.

Foie gras at Marché Moderne, Costa Mesa
The menu at South Coast Plaza’s finest restaurant usually includes some sort of fabulous foie gras terrine or torchon, for roughly $21.

Fried chicken at Three Seventy Common, Laguna Beach
The last Sunday of every month, Three Seventy Common tosses out the regular menu and serves fried chicken instead, from a bucket, family-style, with all the classic sides, $39 per person.

USDA Prime steaks, various
Most people have never eaten an extraordinary steak. But to experience magnificent USDA Prime beef, it’s going to cost. The chef’s-cut bone-in rib-eye at Mastro’s is $63. The cowboy rib chop at The Ranch sells for $115. The 50-day dry-aged rib-eye at Vaca costs an alarming $150. And the massive wood-fired, butcher’s board steak at Arc – enough to satiate the whole family – costs $250. Oh, but the joy.


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