If you’ve been watching the evolution of restaurants in Orange County as closely as we have, you know that over the last three decades, the chef’s role has changed as much as the daily specials at a farm-to-table bistro. In the late ’70s, the toqued legions mostly stayed in the teeming recesses of the kitchens in Gallic-inspired dinner houses. Instead, our attention was diverted to the serene fantasy of the dining room floor, where the only cooking we saw was done tableside by wait staff in institutions such as The Arches, Bob Burns, Chez Cary and Riviera, where they wowed guests with dazzling pyrotechnics. Steak Diane, anyone?
Chef Yvon Goetz, of The Winery
Restaurant life spans vary wildly due to a number of factors, but having a capable chef at the helm is crucial. Still, as former OC Register food critic Herb Baus notes, no restaurant is forever. Many of these bastions of fine dining disappeared along with wax paper doggie bags and tin foil swans, but their legacies remained. Despite their pre-Internet existence, many today have a strong online presence, with former guests and staff members posting recipes, sharing photos of original menus and preserving their memories as lovingly as a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem.
These virtual homages illustrate the powerful role restaurants play in our lives. Restaurants serve as stalwart backdrops for awkward pitches and ensuing promotions, breakups and proposals. Who can forget uttering the words, “Will you marry me?” or the chef who painstakingly hid the ring in the crème brulee?
In the ’80s and ’90s, word got out that all the action was behind those swinging doors with the round nautical-style windows, and chefs became the new celebrities.
When their once strictly back-of-the-house positions became the center of attention, expectations, menus and kitchen architecture changed. Released from the confines of the kitchen, chefs became playful and inventive, mixing and matching ethnic and regional cuisine quicker than you can say “Tex-Mex.”
With year-round access to the best produce and agricultural products anywhere, the O.C. chef’s turf has always been hyper-competitive. The chefs we have chosen work in restaurants that range from 20 seats to 20,000 square feet. Some are anchored securely in time-tested gigs, and others are poised to open new venues. Their concepts range from American regional cuisine to fusion sushi. They work inside theme parks and host runway couture luncheons with equal aplomb.
With the additional pressure of incognito restaurant critics, user review sites and food bloggers who photograph every dish before it goes into their mouth, the chef’s life has become as unpredictable – and dazzling – as a chocolate soufflé.
Despite these added duties, these chefs are masters at maintaining the delicate balance between arduous hours in the restaurant and the demands of traditional and social media and the dining public. Like foie gras sous-vide, these individuals have only improved in the high-speed vacuum of their careers. They influence what we eat, how we cook and the communities that the restaurants are building.
Here are the most brilliant, productive and iconoclastic kitchen veterans of the restaurants that are fast becoming O.C.’s new dining destinations.
The Winery Restaurant and Wine Bar, Tustin
With an immersion blender the size of a jackhammer, Goetz’s kitchen at The Winery is state of the art, but fancy equipment isn’t necessary when you have the knife skills of a kitchen samurai. The Winery has an on-site cellar full of supple Cabernet Franc and voluptuous Syrah that can stand up to anything with antlers, and Goetz has a knack for preparing big game. Kangaroo, wild boar, buffalo, ostrich and venison come out of his kitchen. Even beef is a spectacle at The Winery: a 40-ounce bone-in rib-eye Tomahawk Chop the size of Paul Bunyan’s axe carved tableside made us swoon.
South Coast Plaza
Marché Moderne chef/owner Florent Marneau says he can’t start service without a pair of German tweezers given to him by a Hoag Hospital surgeon. “I have a complete meltdown if I lose them!” he says. That may be an exaggeration, but if you’ve spent enough time in Marneau’s svelte South Coast Plaza penthouse restaurant, you know he performs with the precision and grace of a OR doc, turning out French cuisine that is both modern and classic. At $20, his three-course Spontané Menu is the best prix fixe in O.C.
Lucca Café, Irvine
She may have four degrees, including a Ph.D. in environmental design and analysis, but we love Lucca Café executive chef and owner Cathy Pavlos for her relentless sense of humor. “Restaurant years are like dog years: For every year we’ve been open, I’ve aged seven,” she deadpanned on a recent visit. The Snake River pork tenderloin with fried sage, thick cut potato chips and port wine-infused applesauce is our wintertime favorite, but Pavlos won’t take all the credit. “There are these whole brigades behind me,” she says. “I have a wonderful crew.”
WHEY TO GO
Even in Laguna, the seasons change a little bit, and Chef Azmin Ghahreman takes full advantage of the slight temperature drop with wintry soul food dishes such as braised California lamb ragu with black pepper gnocchi, shaved Brussels sprouts, roasted pearl onions and truffle pecorino. Speaking of great cheese, we might need a power shawl to do it, but we are considering taking up residence in the Cave D’Affinage, in the Sapphire Pantry next door. Ghahreman is a connoisseur who has filled this hand-painted, temperature-controlled, repurposed pecan-wood cheese humidor with 100 cheeses from around the world, and it’s our bucket-list mission to try them all.
TAVERN ON THE SCREEN
Stonehill Tavern, Dana Point
We fell for the sleek Tony Chi-designed Stonehill Tavern at The St. Regis Monarch Beach faster than you can say “concept restaurant.” The pub-chic vibe is only second to the homespun-yet-elegant cuisine. In a recurring foodie fantasy, restaurant partner and Executive Chef Michael Mina is our personal cook, whipping up these dishes for us at home.
Turns out he’s too busy, but the next best thing is his new website, “Cook Taste Eat” (cooktasteeat.com). The site features a daily how-to video with Mina and co-host Michelle Branch demonstrating one component of a meal. Ostensibly, you should be able to whip up the whole thing by week’s end, but why bother when you can order it at Stonehill?
Pizzeria Mozza, Newport Beach
Sure, we were skeptical when Nancy Silverton opened a Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach. Would the Mozza co-owner and founder of La Brea Bakery have any time to spare for us? She comes down a couple of times a month but leaves the restaurant in the hands of Chefs Emily Corliss and Konnie Gjorup, whose loving reproductions of her blistery pies are genius. And don’t miss the octopus alla piastra with carrots and cumin.
AnQi, South Coast Plaza
When AnQi bistro opened with its hostesses clad in slinky Calvin Hiep-designed outfits and seating that was converted into a runway down the middle of the restaurant, the food was as stylish as the couture collections showcased in their monthly fashion shows. Master Chef Helene An is still turning out healthy indulgences fit for AnQi’s fashionista clientele, such as steamed sea bass with pineapple-ginger sauce, lobster mango salad with miso dressing and grilled calamari with Asian pesto. An’s famous garlic noodles are still our favorite, though, showroom sample sizing be damned.
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, Orange
This isn’t her parent’s Mexican restaurant. Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen executive chef and owner Gabbi Patrick takes us beyond rice-and-bean combo plates to Mexico’s indigenous ingredients, such as huitlacoche. We like the earthy truffle-like corn fungus best in the December-only appetizer of three petite tamale options: one with butternut squash, honey-goat cheese and onion marmalade; one with mole coloradito and duck confit; and one with blue masa, huitlacoche and duck confit. If you missed that, try the perennial huitlacoche quesadilla or the lobster crepe special with a dollop on top.
Matador Cantina, Fullerton
Restaurants don’t usually do the chile relleno justice. The perishable dish is best eaten at your abuelita’s house. But what if you don’t have a Mexican granny who cooks? Try Matador Cantina executive chef Dave Dennis’s tortilla-crusted poblano chili stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and chicken, and garnished with pickled red onions. The crust is crunchy and the insides molten, and the chili shimmers with heat. That said, the superlative house-made chorizo ravioli with sweet, smoky chipotle cream sauce is just as good.
Broadway by Amar Santana, Laguna Beach
Bartender Ricky was muddling fragrant cardamom pods for his take on kalimotxo, a Spanish drink of equal parts red wine and cola. When we ordered a glass of Fié Gris, server and sommelier Janice explained that the arcane varietal is a distant cousin of sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley that was resurrected by a vigneron after surviving a phylloxera blight. On the rainy night we recently found ourselves at Broadway, every staff member we came in contact with had an encyclopedic knowledge of his or her niche and delivered it with apostolic fervor. After a bowl of butternut-squash risotto with sweet seared scallops, we want to work for him, too!
Embarcadero California Bistro, Rancho Santa Margarita
Embarcadero California Bistro executive chef and owner George Valdovinos was born and raised in Costa Mesa, but that doesn’t keep him from exhibiting Bay Area cred with his cioppino and chowder. Valdovinos speaks with equal affection for pork belly, pozole and pinot noir. His interests are varied, but his passion is as focused as the cone of truffle tater tots he serves.
Napa Rose, Anaheim
Asking Executive Chef Andrew Sutton what his favorite dishes are on the menu of Napa Rose, located in The Grand Californian Hotel, is like asking a Disney cast member if he likes Mickey or Minnie better. “Each dish is like a child,” says Sutton. “I love them all.” We have no problem choosing a favorite: There’s something about the alpine Craftsman fantasy environment that makes us long for the roasted venison with sage and bacon-whipped sweet potatoes with black trumpet-mushroom essence. In addition to Napa Rose, Sutton has been busy with his new restaurant, Carthay Circle, which opened last June in Disneyland’s California Adventure.
SOUS VIDE STAR
The Cellar, Fullerton
Executive Chef Sean Nemetz is obsessed with sous vide, cooking everything from filet to quail eggs “under vacuum” at low temperatures in a water bath. He didn’t learn the method at culinary school, however. Nemetz got his first job in a kitchen at age 19 and worked his way up to his current post at 24. “If you ask enough questions and you are really driven enough, it’s attainable,” Nemetz says. He complements the elegant historic atmosphere at The Cellar with a signature dish of traditional chateaubriand and dauphinois potatoes.
242 Café Fusion Sushi,
If assembling O.C.’s first all-female-staffed sushi bar were Miki Izumisawa’s main accomplishment, we still wouldn’t be impressed. But it’s the unusual menu that the Nobu alum serves at 242 Café Fusion Sushi, her funky 21-seat eatery, that brings us back. Izumisawa’s approach is mystical and playful with dishes she says are inspired by nature. Consider two sashimi dishes, each offered with five varieties of fish: Moss Pink, with mild miso sauce, wasabi cream and pickled ginger; or Snow White, with serrano chile peppers and an ethereal plum-and-mango-infused malted-rice sauce.
Nirvana Grille, Laguna Beach
Nirvana Grille owner and executive chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales was raised in Laguna Beach by a mother who was an ayurvedic practitioner and naturopathic doctor. She credits her mom for teaching her the joy of food. Smith-Rosales calls her concept California Clean Cuisine: food made from ingredients sourced with optimal health and overall environmental impact in mind. That means sweet, buttery kobacha squash and spicy root vegetables in the winter, artichokes in the spring and kale in the summer. But we scream for her maple goat cheese ice cream with tangy nibs of chevre all year round!
Tamarind of London, Newport Beach
The sleek fountain outside Tamarind of London is as clear as Bombay Sapphire, but that’s about as formal as it gets. Executive Chef Alfred Prasad left all of his white tablecloths on the other side of The Pond, filling the space with red leather, great music and an epic staff. Shanti, the bartender with the mien of a Bollywood starlet, offers us a vanilla-bean, cinnamon-and-chili-infused elixir. Savile Row-dapper John is the ultra-engaging GM. Prasad just revamped the lunch menu. Our favorite: the beef-and-potato pepper-fry Naan-wich. Tamarind is spicy, sweet and memorable, just like the white chocolate-covered mint leaves they pass out as parting gifts.
The Resort at Pelican Hill, Newport Coast
The Irvine Company’s behemoth Palladian-style resort is a long way from Neuville, the Loire Valley hamlet with a one-room school where Jean-Pierre Dubray, The Resort at Pelican Hill’s executive chef, was raised. Lucky for us, Dubray stays true to his European roots, citing great chicken stock, olive oil and butter as the ingredients he can’t live without. Dubray embodies a European living-off-the-land mystique seldom found in our sunny suburban sprawl. He describes the simple pleasure of a recent duck-hunting trip and the subsequent translation of its bounty into medium rare mallard breast on toasted brioche with chicken liver spread. Although we haven’t seen anything quite like it on the menus at Andrea at Pelican Grill, we’re putting in a request.
Park Ave., Stanton
Before all the kids were doing it, Park Ave. executive chef and partner David Slay was absolutist in his from-scratch pathologies. Park Ave. is a retro cool Googie-style steak-and-chop house, but Slay’s house-made ice cream, bread, crackers, mayo pasta, ketchup, sauces, dressings and stocks elevate the experience to fine dining – plus starburst Sputnik lighting and minus the white tablecloths. When we bring the gang, we like to sit on the expansive patio or in Il Garage, the former dairy-tractor housing overlooking the on-site garden.
Il Barone Ristorante,
Il Barone executive chef Franco Barone credits his mother-in-law, Giovanna Domicolo, who recently passed away, as his primary mentor. “She was, and still is, my inspiration for my cooking,” he says. Eschewing traditional chef’s whites, Barone opts for a soft green chef coat the color of the briny Bella di Cerignola olives he serves. The popular Sicilian has a gift for reinventing classic dishes. Prosciutto-wrapped wild boar tenderloin Wellington is a recent triumph. But lifting a few recipes on your next visit would be futile; they are hand written in Italian using metric measurements!
The Ranch Restaurant and Saloon, Anaheim
Deviate from the boot-scoot by-laws on the saloon side of The Ranch, and you will be asked to step off the floor. With our spastic dance moves, we had best stick to the restaurant. Executive Chef Michael Rossi presides over a menu that is truly regional. Much of the produce comes from owner Andrew Edwards’ personal farm, Edwards Ranch Estates. Rossi does some lovely variations on a theme: We became emotionally attached to the Nova Scotia Lobster Cobb Salad with artisanal bacon and deviled quail eggs, and built a long-term relationship with the velvety, truffle-kissed Kobe-style carpaccio.
FROM BLEAK TO CHICRestaurateurs seeking ‘old buildings with good bones’ have helped drive a revival of O.C.’s historic downtown areas.
By Kelly von Hemert
Orange County, with its considerable agricultural roots, is quite possibly the ultimate breeding ground for the new crop of farm-to-table restaurants that have made it their home. Back when farms ruled, the downtown of each O.C. city was the main event – the center of dining, commerce and community. But as we grew and sprawled, replacing farmland with housing tracts, main streets were vacated in favor of custom-built shopping plazas, strip malls and massive investor-driven “lifestyle centers.” Our once-vital downtown sectors couldn’t compete.
When city officials originally packaged downtown Santa Ana as “A Place for Art” in the late ’80s, the effort failed to attract restaurateurs. The few restaurants there struggled for years doing mostly lunch business. Memphis at the Santora chef and co-founder Diego Velasco, who signed a lease there in 2000, remembers when Memphis and The Gypsy Den were two anchors of downtown Santa Ana dining.
“There was a lot of turnover. People would get excited that we were down here, but the critical mass was eluding us and many lost patience – or their businesses,” Velasco says.
They held on during the lean years, relying on the character of the area and the potential for growth. Now, The Crosby, Lola Gaspar, Chapter One, The Modern Local and The Playground are thriving in downtown Santa Ana with Chef Cody Storts set to open The Volstead there this summer. On Saturday nights, the streets teem with a diverse mix of pedestrians and S.A.P.D. Mounties in what was an after-hours ghost town only a decade ago.
Santa Ana isn’t the only O.C. downtown experiencing a dining renaissance. When downtown Orange was used as a filming location for the 1996 Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do,” we wished that The Plaza and its environs were as lively as its fictional on-screen counterpart. Most of the area had been languishing for years. With a forlorn combination of antique shops, fading tearooms and a handful of modest cafes, the area was better suited to Red Hat Society field trips than chef-driven nightlife.
Haven Gastropub executive chef and owner Greg Daniels remembers when Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen and Haven were two of the first new developments in Old Town Orange.
“When we were building Haven, I used to walk outside around 9:30 p.m., and there could have been tumbleweeds rolling down the street, it was so quiet,” he recalls, “From day one, we were planning to serve food until 1 a.m. and I was definitely skeptical.”
Now, dozens of carefully conceived restaurants line the Grand/Glassell split, breathing new life into the historic district.
Fullerton has a great downtown vibe, and we think Harbor Boulevard has the potential of Santa Barbara’s State Street. Lots of bars and venues with superlative music like Steamers Jazz Club and Cafe have injected a steady stream of nightlife into its great downtown bones, but only in recent years has it matured to become a full-fledged food-driven scene.
In the last few years, Matador Cantina, Fuoco Pizzeria, Burger Parlor and Hopscotch have built an ingredient-driven matrix that is making room for more newcomers. Still, opening a restaurant takes time.
The intersection of Commonwealth and Harbor is full of storefronts that have been sporting “Coming Soon” signs for months. Located on this corner, JP23 BBQ and Smokehouse has a Facebook page that says it’s coming in July 2012, but it’s still in the works. Café 109, a coffeehouse and café on Harbor pioneered by Biola history professor Scott Moffat aimed to attract the university set, hasn’t cut a ribbon yet. D’Vine Mediterranean Restaurant on Commonwealth will be the second installation of Walid Alarja’s successful venture based in Brea, but as of press time, it hasn’t opened its doors. The pachyderm-like gestation period of a restaurant is exhausting, especially in a downtown area with preservationists to please, but, like a slow-cooked roast, it will be worth the wait.
HOT & FRESHFrom gastropub small plates to soirées in a vintage Spiegeltent, these up-and-coming chefs have the cutting edge of a Damascus santoku knife.
Chef-Owner Jason Quinn of The Playground’s devotion to his craft and his refusal to cater to requests for menu item modifications have left some picky eaters in the cold – and thrill-seeking omnivores smitten. Quinn says it best with this gem: “Let us do the cooking. Your job is to eat, drink and be merry.”
St. Roy @ Vine Chef’s Pub
Jared Cook would get carded at St. Roy @ Vine Chef’s Pub if he weren’t the executive chef there. The baby-faced 28-year-old shows his culinary erudition with crispy Meyer-lemon-and-honey duck wings.
Leatherby’s Café Rouge
Dinner and theater are like church and state: best kept separate – unless you’re dining at Leatherby’s Café Rouge at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Executive Chef Ross Pangilinan pairs the themes of the shows and his custom cuisine brilliantly.
Chapter One The Modern Local
Executive Chef Oge Dalken of Chapter One The Modern Local turns out meals that are as experimental as they are inventive: Pulled slow-roasted lamb shoulder with pineapple-apple salsa served on a sticky bun is just the prologue.
Raya at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
Raya executive chef Marissa Gerlach is focused on more than the latest chef trends, like her weekend seasonal tasting menu. Don’t miss it!