OC Foodie Frenzy
We guide you through the top 10 restaurant trends, themes and memes, with 50-plus hot new spots for 2012.
For its first four decades Disneyland wasn’t a place fit for discerning dining. That began to change when Napa Rose opened at the Grand Californian, starring super chef Andy Sutton and the magnificent master sommelier Michael Jordan. Downtown Disney’s Catal upped the ante when talented chef Nick Weber returned to the Patina Group team, and just opened an upgraded Uva Bar.
With the recent opening of Carthay Circle Theatre (a restaurant, not a theater) at Disney California Adventure, culinary upgrades at Disneyland Hotel (Steakhouse 55 and Trader Sam’s specifically) and the addition of tasty treats in the new Cars Land and Buena Vista Street sections of the park, the Disney Resort is now a true dining destination.
Though we’ve yet to sample much of the menu at the upscale Carthay Circle (how about Korean pulled pork sandwich with kimchi and Sriracha mayo, Cavatelli pasta with a Tuscan-style braised lamb and grilled quail stuffed with prosciutto wrapped peaches?) we have supreme confidence in Executive Chef Sutton, who is adding the stunning spot to his repertoire.
And we have been very impressed with the new pit stops in Cars Land, from the sweet brioche French toast with salted caramel and bananas at Flo’s V8 Café to the surprisingly spicy chicken verde served at Cone #3 at the Cozy Cone Motel (not a motel, but five food stands serving food in bread cones; it will make sense when you see it). And that cone is also where they’ll put vodka in your pomegranate limeades, if you so choose. And you should!
But it’s the less celebrated additions to California Adventure that help up the overall eats ante, including Fiddler Fifer and Practical Café on Buena Vista Street (try the fine turkey Rueben sandwich – plus it has a Starbucks), Clarabelle's Ice Cream Parlor next door and the new Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop in Pacific Wharf.
The PETA-philes may have won the fight over foie gras in California—for now. Luckily, there’s a lot for OC carnivores to love this summer as fatted cow flesh takes center stage at luxury resorts, bayside barbecue bars and trendy burger joints.
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel just transformed its intimate Eno wine, cheese and chocolate room into enoSTEAK, featuring a smartly curated menu of prime and grass-fed steaks. The opening menu includes prime bone-in New York and prime rib eye from Niman Ranch, locally grown produce and a selection of signature compound butters, including black summer truffle and garden herb and garlic. Start with a charcuterie plate, add a side of duck fat-sautéed rice and summer truffle mac & cheese to go with the steak (there’s also a fish and chicken choice), and pair it all with a wine flight of La Vendemia Rioja, Chalone Pinot Noir and J. Dusi Zinfandel. Then forget about foie gras for a while.
The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon in Anaheim, which opened late last year, is already a country music and red meat Mecca – and don’t forget about the wine. Master sommelier Michael Jordan is the restaurant’s wine guru. The outgoing oenophile is perhaps best known as the man who pushed Disney’s wine program into Tomorrowland while he was at Napa Rose. Part of his legacy: Every server at the new Carthay Circle at Disney California Adventure is a certified sommelier.
I’ve always dreamed about a basement barbecue and blues bar in one of our OC beach towns, but for now I’ll settle for a bayside location. Jeff Reuter, who owns NB favorite 3-Thirty-3 Waterfront, is opening DivBar Smokehouse Barbecue in the Mariner’s Mile spot that was previously Josh Slocum’s and Rodman’s. Hopefully, he’ll be able to keep the food, fun and alcohol flowing without triggering the ire of the homeowners across the water, always a challenge for this restaurant row.
If a beef sandwich is what you crave, you’ll want to see if Umami Burger has been worth the wait (“Not nearly as good as it once was,” says my James Beard-award winning critic buddy. But what is?). The L.A. gourmet hamburger chain with plans to take over the planet has two restaurants now open in OC, one at Costa Mesa’s The Camp and the newest in North Laguna’s Boat Canyon center. And another is on the way in the Anaheim Brewery building. I’m partial to the Hatch Burger (mmm, spicy), and I like the beachy vibe at the new Laguna restaurant. Hopefully the owners will keep the late hours long enough for locals to discover that not every place has to close at 9 p.m.
And though I’m partial to Crow Burger on the peninsula and Crow Bar and Kitchen in CdM (the Black Label Burger at the latter is number one on my best burger board), friends tell me I have to reserve judgment until the permanent (as opposed to the previous pop-up) location of Jason Mahon’s Burger Parlor opens in Fullerton. Consider my reservation confirmed.
The really big guns in Orange County’s artisanal pizza revolution of the past decade have come from L.A., with Pizzeria Ortica and Mozza leading the charge for cool and creative toppings set atop thin crusts with burnt bits on the bubbles. Local favorites like Cucina Alessa, Il Dolce, and Ecco are in the fight for best nouveau Neopolitan pizza as well, but our most-anticipated new entry in the pizza wars is Brick Pizzeria in San Clemente.
Brick’s chef/owner David Pratt also co-owned the much-missed Mirabeau, one of our all-time favorite local French bistros, which was tucked into Monarch Bay Plaza in Dana Point. For the past few years he’s been dropping hints about his next big thing whenever we’d see him at Studio at Montage Resort, where he was the GM until recently.
Pratt brings serious chef chops (he worked at Picasso in Las Vegas back in the day) to the artisanal Italian pizza and pasta restaurant battles, and it shows in Brick’s farm-to-market-inspired menu. Starters like stuffed zucchini blossoms, charred octopus and Tuscan bread soup, platters of meatballs or mussels and perfect little pizzas cooked in the wood-burning brick oven make for an amazing multi-course meal. Favorite pizza picks so far include the English, with prosciutto, figs and Gorgonzola, and Pratt’s house-made sausage Salsiccia, which already rivals our fennel sausage favorite at Mozza.
Though the pizza is the big draw, don’t overlook the sublime pastas or the fantastic Sunday brunch offering poached eggs with porchetta and sweet potato hash, a breakfast pizza and a Bloody Maria made with Calabrian chile-infused vodka.
Positively 17th Street
Another major pizza player from north of the L.A. border is opening an outpost in OC: Pitfire Pizza, opening in the old Marie Callender’s building on 17th Street in Costa Mesa. The opening will start what we expect to be a serious foodie feud with local favorite classic pizza spot Massimo’s, on the same block as Pitfire. The spot is getting a serious makeover courtesy of architect Anthony Agriam, and we can’t wait. If you’ve been to Gjelina on Abbot Kinney in Venice (and if you haven’t, you should), you know his work.
Pitfire is a perennial top ten pizza pick in L.A., and the OC location, which should open late summer, will include a speakeasy called Pie Society and a test kitchen, and should up the culinary ante on long-incubating 17th St. With numerous strip malls and centers owned by a variety of landlords, the stretch of 17th St. between Dover and Newport Blvd. has felt primed for a retail and restaurant renaissance for a decade or more. Pioneers like Haute Cakes and Plum’s Café have held the fort as cool shops and fashionable boutiques opened, while in the interim, restaurants like Capri Blu, Ristorante Max and the last incarnation of The Arches have come and gone – and those all in the same Westcliff location.
And though we wish the Tap Shack sports bar taking that space luck, and can’t wait to try Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Café in Westcliff Plaza, the real action is on the other end of the avenue where Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop recently debuted. The gourmet salad, sandwich and breakfast spot is open, airy and aesthetically pleasing, the food is healthy and happening and the crowd lined up to order fast casual style includes the fashionable ladies who workout crowd.
Grab a table in the shaded back patio that’s part of Plaza Sereno, the quaint center owned by the suddenly inspiring Burnham USA, the company responsible for the stunning transformation of South Coast Collection.
Speaking of SoCo, the rehabbed and suddenly fab furniture center that’s been incubating for a couple of years has definitely reached culinary critical mass, with more restaurants soon to come. When I first toured the site with Scott Burnham, CEO of Newport Beach-based Burnham USA, a few years back, the landscaping and exterior changes were in, but not much else. But his vision was clear, and I became a believer. We’ve watched the center evolve since, slowly at first, but with each new opening the momentum has maximized. Though the core of the center is still furniture, the key to getting the cool kids to make the trek is food.
Where once your only foodie find was coffee, pastry or an amazing cake at Christopher Garren's Cakes, now you can get waffle sandwiches and craft beer (The Iron Press), artisanal cheeses and gourmet goodies (The Cheese Shop), sushi (Waiiha), handmade gelato (N’ice Cream), spices (Savory Spice Shop), olive oil and wine (We Olive) and super select coffee (Portola Coffee Lab), not to mention delicious bites from a variety of food trucks that gather at the Saturday farmers market on many weekdays for lunch.
Next up at the center is a restaurant offering 48 types of heirloom oysters (Shuck Oyster Bar), complete with oysters to go and a shucking 101 class. And later in the summer, cocktail culture will find a home at SoCo with the opening of ARC, with a cool cocktail bar and wood-fire kitchen. We love what we see from a sneak menu peak. Instead of wordy descriptions with exotic ingredients and name-dropping of farms, they list three primal elements to each entry: “Steak: potato. citrus. cream. Veg: farm, fire. love.”
ARC and Shuck are co-owned by Noah Blom and Leonard Chan, who also owns The Iron Press, which makes for a consolidation of talent and vision that is another OC foodie trend, as chefs and owners open second and third restaurants, often in adjacent spaces or nearby.
Taking one successful restaurant and expanding to a second, then several, is much harder than it looks. The challenges increase exponentially, and keeping quality up when the founding chef isn’t in the kitchen is crucial. We’ve seen several iconic OC restaurateurs expand quickly and then contract painfully in the past decade. But happily there’s always another generation of ambitious auteurs out there ready to give it a go.
Last year there was a bit of a trend of opening pubs, gastro and otherwise, in adjacent areas of existing restaurants, with the most successful being Justin Monson’s St. Roy Chef’s Pub at Vine in San Clemente and Ryan Wilson’s SideDoor at Five Crowns in CdM and Il Garage, a part of Park Ave. Steakhouse in Stanton featuring fresh produce from the restaurant’s renowned gourmet garden.
The motif is recurring in recent months, though the adjacency angle has waned. Much-beloved Bear Flag Fish Co. went a bit bougie (but brilliant) with its instant hit hot spot in Crystal Cove Promenade. Eat Chow, a favorite of Costa Mesa’s creative class that offers one of the best breakfasts in OC (especially the MexiCali choices), has expanded from its original East Costa Mesa locale to a second spot in West Newport Beach, a few blocks from the original Cucina Alessa.
Alessandro Pirozzi, the chef/owner of the expanding Alessa group (Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach), just opened another restaurant in Laguna Beach called Mare Culinary Lounge. It’s in the Holiday Inn space that was most recently home to Blue Laguna, and has been a bit of a black hole with numerous concepts coming and going. But we’re betting on Mare to have staying power, as the room is suddenly sexy and the food is so far fabulous.
In another hotel move, Anepalco’s Café opened a second spot in the Ayers Inn just off the Chapman exit of the I-5 across from UCI Medical Center. The first Main St. spot was an in-the-know hidden gem for many with a great breakfast and lunch menu, and is on the short list for best chilaquiles in the county. The new locale is much larger, without the parking headaches of the original – though we were very disappointed that they don’t open until 11 a.m.
Finally, in the only one-dish expansion we can remember, The Crosby in Santa Ana is taking one of its most popular menu items (Starving Artist grilled cheese sandwich) and building a take-out restaurant around it. Called The Grilled Cheese Spot, it’s billed as a build-your-own grilled cheese restaurant. It’s either crazy, or a brilliant move that Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton (known for their grilled cheese nights at L.A.’s Campanile) should have thought of years ago. Knowing the guys at The Crosby, we’re betting on brilliant.
The Crosby has been one of the key elements in the ongoing revival/gentrification (depending on which side of the debate one stands) of downtown Santa Ana. The opening of restaurants and bars like Memphis at the Santora, Gypsy Den, Proof, Lola Gaspar, The Copper Door and Chapter One in Santa Ana’s Artists Village has been crucial to each stage of the area’s growth.
Next up is Little Sparrow (originally named the Flora Park Café), set to open this summer at 3rd and Main, where a closed café has sat seductively for years, looking for the right owner.
Old Towne Orange has also undergone a restaurant revival in recent years, with early entries like Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen (among the best creative Mexican cooking in the county) being joined by many others, including Haven Gastropub and Bruery Provisions. One we’re really looking forward to is chef/owner Scott Brandon’s LinX, a gourmet sausage and craft beer concept opening next to the new Wahoo’s. We tried a spicy street dog and a delicious brat on a pretzel bun at the recent Taste of OC, and we think Brandon (late of Crow Bar & Kitchen) has a hit on his hands.
Though the Santa Ana renaissance has been ongoing for, well about as long as I’ve been writing, the downtown district of Anaheim is getting an influx of energy from visionary (no ironic quotation marks necessary) developer Shaheen Sadeghi that should transform the place in a matter of years rather than decades. The creator of The Lab and The Camp has two major projects in Anaheim a few blocks apart. He is well along in transforming the venerable Sunkist Packing House into a gourmet food court for the ages, with 20-plus culinary kiosks, restaurants and stands in a stunning interior space. We’re picturing the Ferry Building in SF, or something similar. Next door, an old Packard dealership has evolved into Anaheim Brewery, and Umami Burger is slated to open adjacent soon.
Shaheen’s biggest challenge to date will be transforming Anaheim’s bland and boring urban renewal project, Center Street, into something cool and cultural. A smart sign is that Gypsy Den Café, an urban pioneer at both The Lab and in downtown Santa Ana, is one of the initial tenants.
Food Trucks Take Root
One of downtown Santa Ana’s newest restaurants is The Playground, a bricks and mortar location for a former food truck called The Lime Truck that won The Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” in 2011. Chef/owner Jason Quinn took his winnings to open this eclectic spot a couple of blocks from the culinary center of the Artists Village.
And there are other food trucks taking root with permanent OC locations, proving that the truck craze has served as an incubator for creative culinary concepts. SlapFish in Huntington Beach features oysters from Carlsbad Aquafarm (oysters, another trend?) and other sustainable seafood in a modern seafood shack setting. If it seems a bit pricey, remember: eco-correct food costs more, but not as much as the damage done by factory fishing that brings you your filet o’ fish at a bargain.
Back in Santa Ana, though on the City Place side of the I-5, a sublime little Italian café called Paninoteca Maggio opened in the spring, offering coffee, sandwiches and salads that are something special. On the ground floor of one of the live/work lofts in the center across from Main Place that’s home to The Habit hamburger spot, Mother’s Market and Geisha House, the surprisingly chic spot has counter service and shaded tables outside. The creator of the restaurant, Sharron Barshishat, was the chef behind LA food truck Balls on Tires. Our favorite of the eight or so sandwiches on the menu has to be the Toscana, with tender slices of roasted pork belly, arugula and lemon aioli on crusty ciabatta bread. Next time, though, we’re ordering the Bologna sandwich that sounds far, far away from what I ate as a kid: spicy capicola, mortadella, soppressata and provolone. If all the loft projects in OC included a café like this, we’d be well on our way to a much more civilized and urbane existence.
Though it’s a world away from the experience at Paninoteca Maggio, the sub sandwich chain Jersey Mike’s is an intriguing fast casual chain undergoing aggressive expansion in OC (there’s one in the center next door to Paninoteca, 10 others elsewhere in OC and dozens more planned to open soon). We had a chipotle turkey sub prepared “Mike’s Way” that was perfectly satisfying, enough so that we’d drive by a Subway or Quiznos to find a Jersey Mike’s. The Jersey Shore-themed chain is part of a wave of sub shops from elsewhere invading OC, including Which Wich, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop (dubbing itself optimistically as “the In-N-Out of sub shops”) and Firehouse Subs all set to come ashore soon.
One import with only one planned OC location is Earl of Sandwich out of Florida, but that spot is in Downtown Disney, where the Compass Bookstore used to be. Due to open this summer, Disney regulars can add it to their list of new culinary attractions at Anaheim’s happiest place.
The French macarons at the new Rocq Café in Lake Forest are things of beauty, created by chef Eddy Rocq, who has worked at top OC French restaurants Tradition by Pascal, Aubergine and Pinot Provence. Macaron marts are multiplying with authentic offerings at Fashion Island’s new ’lette Macarons boutique from Paulette Koumetz, founder of ’lette in Beverly Hills, and French pastry chef, Christophe Michalak, and the fancy almond meringue cookies can also be found at the new Sweet and Saucy Shop at Crystal Cove Promenade. But all the new macarons must measure up with the ones Amelia Marneau makes at Marché Moderne on the penthouse level of South Coast Plaza.
Best and Worst of Disney Dining
Try it :: Scallops at Napa Rose; fried green tomato sandwich at the Hungry Bear; Bone-In Rib Eye at 55 Steakhouse; Monte Cristo at Cafe Orleans; chicken verde cone at the Cozy Cone Motel; Corn dogs; turkey Reuben at Fiddler Fifer and Practical Café; steak skewer with chimicurri at Paradise Garden Café; any chef special at Catal; carnitas burrito to go at Tortilla Jo’s Taqueria (they validate for Downtown Disney parking); a breakfast burrito or anything else at White Water Snacks (a receipt gets you through the Grand Californian gate before 11 am).
Skip it :: Chimichangas, giant turkey legs and anything from Pacific Wharf’s Lucky Fortune Cooking, other than a cold Sapporo.