Oak Grill’s Executive Chef Marc Johnson’s compelling and lighthearted personality is evident in Oak Grill’s thoughtfully devised Autumn menu. Each season he changes the offerings, bringing a fresh approach to California cuisine elevated with a range of global flavors. An apprentice of the acclaimed Chef James Boyce, his energy and talent manifests itself in artful cuisine. He blew everyone away at this year’s Riviera To Live and Dine 2014 event in August with his Togarashi-Crusted Ahi with yuzu charred bok choy, miso coconut snow and citrus ponzu and added Riviera To Liv and Dine 2014 Chef Challenge Winner to his accomplishments. The flavors and complexity in this diminutive taste ignited my culinary curiosity and I was excited to accept an invitation to dine at Oak Grill.
Creativity abounds. Take for instance, the Roasted Heirloom Carrot and Prosciutto Salad (opening photo) – prosciutto, burrata, figs, and a date relish make a fantastic salty/sweet/creamy combination and adding roasted heirloom carrots brings an earthy, fall flair to a salad that artfully represents falling leaves. Marc’s goal was to create a salad that echoed the colors, thoughts, feelings and tastes of autumn and he succeeded beautifully. Linear lines of balsamic reduction connect the interesting textures on the plate and balance the acidity of the peppery, barely-dressed mizuna greens.
The Butternut Squash Soup was so divine that a rainbow from the heavens shown down upon it. I hesitated at disturbing its golden halo, if just for a moment. Sure butternut squash soup is on many menus this time of year, but not one with a hint of curry, banana bread croutons, and candied pecans! Unbelievably good – look for my copy cat recipe soon. This dish “feels like Thanksgiving in one bite,” according to Marc, and what makes this soup really different is the symphonic blending of banana and curry.
Loup de Mer, Swiss Chard Risotto, Baregold Artichokes & Natural Jus
This lovely dish brought back memories of dinner at Gaston Gastounette in Cannes a few years ago – after a long and arduous journey getting to Nice and the Cotes d’Azur, thanks to a transportation workers union strike in France that affected everything from baggage handling to rental cars (the French really know how to strike and make an impact). The fish had pure white flesh, a flaky texture and an exquisitely sweet and mild flavor and was served in a pool of tomatoey broth begging to be sopped up with crusty bread slathered with garlicky rouille. This was my first experience with branzino, aka Mediterranean seabass, Loup de Mer, European sea bass, robalo, lubina, spigola, branzino, branzini, bronzino, or bronzini – and I’ve been buying it at the farmers market ever since. Until I googled this a few minutes ago, I didn’t know that Loup de Mer is another name for branzino.
Chef Marc’s Loup de Mer was faultless – pan-seared to flaky perfection, mild and sweet, luxuriously draped over silken risotto adorned with thin ribbons of chard in a pleasantly light chicken stock fragrant with Baregold artichokes stewed with mirepoix vegetables (trinity of chopped onions, celery, and carrots) and pancetta. A beautifully balanced dish such as the Loup de Mer is one where all the flavors and components work in concert to enhance each other so no one flavor or ingredient overpowers the others.
Other seafood dishes that I’ll be returning for are the Salmon with Port Braised Cabbage topped with a Cauliflower Ravioli. Salmon is a staple in my at-home heart healthy dinner rotation and my tastebuds are imagining how well the port braised cabbage and delicately earthy cauliflower complements fatty, Omega 3-rich salmon. Finished with tri-color cauliflower, very simply – a beautifully composed dish.
The other autumn dish that caught my eye is the Roasted Chilean Sea Bass. As a consumer dedicated to buying sustainable, responsibly-fished and farmed seafood, choosing Chilean seabass offers a conundrum. If you’re a little confused about Chilean seabass, it’s not surprising. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, it isn’t actually seabass. “Chilean seabass is the market name for two different species—Antarctic or Patagonian toothfish. Most Chilean seabass for sale in the U.S. is either a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” because the U.S. prohibits the import of illegally caught toothfish and requires pre-approval of all shipments. For now, Chilean seabass from the Crozet, Prince Edward and Marion Islands, and Chile is on the “Avoid” list due to concerns about overfishing and bycatch in these regions. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies some Chilean seabass fisheries as sustainable.” Whew, order without guilt!
Sea bass is a meaty, oily fish that shines when paired with basmati rice infused with fragrant garam masala, notes of warm cinnamon and coriander, and sweet golden raisins. Sauces can make or break a dish and, in this case, the sauce makes it! It takes two days to prepare and requires teamwork from the culinary staff, and it shows. The stock is blended and reduced down for 12 hours until nearly a glaze, with additions that include spice, lemon juice, honey and a tiny bit of butter.
In June, the Irvine Company unveiled the Island Hotel Newport Beach – the newest social and culinary destinations in the heart of Newport Center. In just a few months, Oak Grill and Aqua Lounge have become the dynamic duo destination spot for local trendsetters who desire to see and be seen. Oak Grill boasts a sophisticated, yet relaxing ambiance, which extends from the artistically well-appointed interior, with warm lighting and oak floors, to the scenic al fresco patio and fireside. The spacious patio consists of well-spaced tables and comfortable banquette combinations suitable for friendly get-togethers or business luncheons, all beneath a canopy of colossal ficus trees that, thankfully, have remained through decades of development to lend a distinctive southern California ambiance like no other.
When you enter (or leave) Oak Grill you’ll walk right past the hottest club in Orange County at the moment. Aqua Lounge is a one-of-a-kind lounge concept offering live entertainment with a resident DJ, casual shareable bites and a late night menu, with a truly imaginative and engaging approach to craft cocktails. High-backed curvy banquettes and a cool palette of calming blues and sandy hues are an invitation for convivial conversation, celebration, or romance. I hear a queue forms along the glassy serpentine ramp on weekend nights, so be prepared.
The choices depicted here tempt the palate with a fusion of seasonal flavors, tease with a hint of exotic Indian spices, and impress with French techniques. The dinner menu consists of Shared Plates ($14 – $21), Starters from Fried Green Tomatoes (Yes!) to Littleneck Clams w/Baguette ($9-$18), and Mains – Pasta Pomodoro to Grilled Bone-In Ribeye ($18 – $41). Open for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
690 Newport Center Dr.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(at Island Hotel)