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Drawing a crowd for all the right reasons, this restaurant scores high with our resident diner.

Drawing a crowd for all the right reasons, this restaurant scores high with our resident diner.

Chicken liver terrine with capers and fine herbs at A Restaurant

Photos by Ed Olen

Chicken liver terrine with capers and fine herbs

I

t's difficult to imagine a time in Orange County's history when a red tile-roofed, Mediterranean-style restaurant offering steak and seafood was any kind of novelty. But when The Arches opened its doors in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, it was an instant Newport Beach hit. To be precise, the year was 1926. Oil had been discovered in Huntington Beach, prompting eight-and-a-half miles of virgin coastline to be paved between today's Surf City, U.S.A. and Newport Beach. Coast Highway, it was called. En route was The Arches, which, besides being a favorite local spot, had become something of a Hollywood hideout. Shirley Temple, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart are known to have frequented the dark wood-paneled dining rooms of The Arches, seeking privacy and a respite from the L.A. pace. But times, eventually, change. And when The Arches decided to pick up and move nearly nine decades later, the fate of the historical building fell into the hands of Liza and Tim Goodell. Well known for their distinctive brand of culinary acumen and visionary style, the Goodells have opened a diverse portfolio of restaurants under their Domaine Restaurants umbrella, including Orange County's much-loved and sorely missed Aubergine, Troquet and Red Pearl Kitchen -- restaurants that raised the bar on dining in Orange County to a level that many argue hasn't been met since. So it was with cautious excitement -- the "too-good-to-be-true" variety -- that the gastro-community watched as the old Arches became a construction site and the "coming soon" sign went up for what seemed like an interminable wait.

And then, A Restaurant opened without so much as a peep. Where was all the fanfare and

The revamped A Restaurant at the site of the former Arches

The revamped A Restaurant at the site of the former Arches

glory? The fireworks and the parties? All the display normally afforded to such an anticipated restaurant was... missing. It was an act that spoke of confidence, but more than that, of focus -- focus on food, service and ambiance. Flashiness, it appeared, was not on the menu.

And so it was that on a Saturday night, we went to A Restaurant with expectations high -- a precarious position, to be sure. We began with an extremely generous Bombay Sapphire martini and a glass of Gruet rosé, a 100% pinot noir sparkling wine from New Mexico, the first hint that A Restaurant was not interested in becoming your garden-variety stab at mediocrity that Orange County has become, unhappily, known for. On the contrary, there is no ocean view at A, no dramatic cliff-side location to distract from the real task at hand; even celebrity backers McG (producer of "The O.C." and director of Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall, among many others) and singer/TV host Mark McGrath remained under the radar. The space itself is intimate and warm with much of the same Old Hollywood vibe as its predecessor, but with a classy, modern edge conveyed by comfortable red leather booths and red-toned lighting. A is upscale without being stuffy, current without being trendy -- it is uncontrived, real and reliable. In other words, A Restaurant draws a crowd for all the right reasons.

Alaskan halibut with heirloom tomatoes, fava beans and tomato-coriander sauce

Alaskan halibut with heirloom tomatoes, fava beans and tomato-coriander sauce

One of those reasons is the menu, prepared under the direction of Executive Chef Vartan Abgaryan, formerly of L.A.'s Red Pearl Kitchen. We began with the yellowfin tuna starter -- a throwback to the Red Pearl days, and one of Abgaryan's signature dishes. Reincarnation or not, it's spectacularly delicious, the soft cubes of tuna coated in a spicy aioli and served on bite-sized discs of crispy tempura eggplant. It's something I think about long after I leave, and begin to crave at inopportune times. The charcuterie selection of jamón ibérico, duck prosciutto, chorizo bianco, Nostrano salami, and coppa (cured Italian pork shoulder) is generally dependable, and it was here as well, served with thin slices of black-olive-studded bread. Another staple from the starter menu was the crab cake with yuzu aioli and shaved radish -- again, not terribly esoteric, but it is in these basics that a pattern for precision begins to take form: A Restaurant isn't trying to rewrite the book on cuisine, but it does make every word count.

That said, there are a number of dishes that stray from the mean. Abgaryan's white corn chowder with Manila clams and applewood smoked bacon took three seemingly unrelated ingredients and managed to craft a truly unexpected harmony of flavors; and the roasted bacon with Sherry-braised rhubarb was very tender, the rhubarb working perfectly to cut through the typically fatty pork belly.

Entrées were a similar mix of liberties taken and foregone, always with the same solid foundations. The Alaskan halibut with heirloom tomatoes and fava beans threatened to be on the bland side, but bolstered by a tomato coriander sauce, the mildly flavored fish took on another (positive) dimension, with fava beans adding the necessary texture. The Colorado lamb chop osso buco was as soft and tender as they come, and served with a rich, soft polenta was something I could see myself coming back for -- over and over.

A section of the menu is devoted entirely to A's vintage natural beef steaks, which, presumably, are meant to be accompanied by the

Pot roast with fingerling potatoes at A Restaurant

Pot roast with fingerling potatoes

various à la carte vegetables and sides. We sampled the rib-eye, which was broiled to a perfect medium-rare with rich marbling and loads of flavor and added the roasted mushrooms -- a mixture of meaty, full-flavored varieties -- and the sweet corn gratin, which was more cheesy than sweet, but nonetheless delicious.

At the helm of the dessert menu reins Shelly Register, a seasoned pro with more than a few tricks up her sleeve. From the lemon cream tart with candied kumquat, citrus salad and Clementine ice, which resembled the lemon bars of my childhood, only grown up and much better than I remember; to the black and white ice cream sundae with liquid marshmallow, hot chocolate sauce and toasted almonds; and the caramel custard with red Hawaiian and black lava sea salt brittle and butterscotch shortbread, each was artfully and masterfully rendered.

A Restaurant, much like the Goodells' other ventures, has broken the mold for decent "Bs" and average "Cs" in OC. A has made the grade.

A Restaurant is located at 3334 Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 650-6505; www.arestaurantnb.com.


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