2014 O.C. Restaurant Awards!

Chef of the year? Best new restaurant? The greatest desserts … ? To condense a year’s worth of dining into just six awards is a daunting but delicious task. The possibilities were numerous, but the awards are few.

To arrive at these selections, I dined more than 400 times, driving more than 8,000 miles from one end of the county to the other in a never-ending search for something great to eat. In the end, it comes down to this: the best of the best for 2014.

Taco Maria and chef Carlos Salgado (photos by Mark Rightmire, OC Register)

Restaurant of the year: Taco Maria 

When Taco Maria opened last year, the kitchen did not serve tacos. The message was loud and clear: This isn’t that sort of place. The menu has since evolved – growing more refined each day. At dinnertime, the kitchen still offers a four-course, prix fixe menu that changes monthly, and it usually includes a single taco. But it’s never really just a taco. In November it was a black tortilla topped with peanuts and buttery-soft calamari, pigweed and delicate purple flowers. The tortilla got its color from the ink of the very same squid that filled the taco, and the cornmeal from which that tortilla was made came directly from the farmer who grew the corn – because that’s the sort of a place this is.

The best way to experience the full-sensory ride of Taco Maria is to sit at the kitchen counter and watch the crew up close. Led by chef and owner Carlos Salgado, a team of only three or four cooks remains laser-focused, each obsessing over just a couple of dishes, again and again, all night long. They work much of the shift without saying more than a few words but constantly communicate with a nod here, a gesture there, perfectly in sync. It’s an unspoken language understood only by the best of chefs.

It quickly becomes clear that anything less than perfection is not tolerated, not because there’s an evil Gordon Ramsay-type chef at the helm but because that’s simply what everyone on staff expects from themselves. It’s an attitude that permeates the entire operation. The head waiter previously worked at far ritzier places, such as the St. Regis and Montage, which drives home the message: Taco Maria isn’t a taco joint. The wine pairings are sophisticated and perfectly matched: a California grüner veltliner with a bowl of geoduck clam, sea urchin and freshly captured tomato drippings, for example, or a spicier-than-usual Chianti matched with wood-grilled beef and housemade blue hominy grits. The blue corn for those grits comes from yet a different farm, near Santa Barbara. Taco Maria bought the entire crop.

Taco Maria has grown up awfully fast. Despite its very casual vibe, I cannot think of another restaurant in Orange County where the entire staff is as polished and professionally mature. To the many world-renowned restaurants in Mexico City, take note: Taco Maria is nipping at your heels. This is quickly becoming one of the most important Mexican restaurants in the Americas, and it just keeps getting better. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa; 714-538-8444, tacomaria.com

Chef Ryan Adams (photo by Cindy Yamanaka, OC Register)

Chef of the year: Ryan Adams, Three Seventy Common, The North Left

Fettuccine, sausage, garlic, broccolini and an egg: There’s a good chance we all have these ingredients in our fridge. But nobody makes better use of them than chef and owner Ryan Adams at Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach. In his hands, these everyday items become one of the best, simplest, most memorable pasta dishes of the year.

Adams has a way of turning the mundane extraordinary. A grilled cheese sandwich becomes an unlikely star, served one bite at a time. Poutine, a heap of fries smothered in a glop of short rib chili, becomes a strangely refined culinary masterpiece. Meatloaf encased in a crisp layer of bacon awakens as an individual work of art.

Roughly once a month, Three Seventy Common sends out an alert to its loyal customers that family-style buckets of fried chicken will be offered on an upcoming Sunday, and if you’re lucky enough to open your email before everyone else, you might still be able to get a reservation. Good luck with that. The chicken is hauntingly good and eerily reminiscent of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Napa Valley, except maybe even better.

Capitalizing on the success of Three Seventy Common, which Adams opened in 2011, it was inevitable that he would branch out. The Laguna Niguel native could have opened a second restaurant pretty much anywhere, and diners would have come. But the location he chose for a follow-up venture is the site of one of the year’s most notorious crimes, the infamous nightclub killing at the former The Crosby in downtown Santa Ana. It was a daring move that cannot go unmentioned and might ultimately prove too much to overcome.

However, I sincerely believe The North Left, the phoenix that Adams has raised from those ashes, could be exactly what downtown Santa Ana has long needed to push it beyond the tipping point. Some of the kitchen crew from the old place remains at the stoves, but with Adams now running the show, everything feels different: grown up, well-behaved, organized and earnestly focused on being taken seriously as a restaurant.

Adams splits his time between The North Left and Three Seventy Common, devoting quality time to both kitchens every day. The cooking in Santa Ana is an evolution of what he started at Three Seventy, a dose of the familiar with a pinch of the unexpected. Three Seventy Common, 370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach; 949-494-8686, 370common.com. The North Left, 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; 714-543-3543, thenorthleft.com

Nasera Munshi’s opera torte at Little Sparrow (photo by Paul Rodriguez, OC Register)

Pastry chef of the year: Nasera Munshi, Little Sparrow 

The power of a great last bite should never be underestimated. That final impression often determines whether a restaurant’s customers will return.

Little Sparrow continues to establish itself as one of the most exciting restaurants in Orange County, and one of the best things about dining here is always dessert. Before joining the opening team at Sparrow, Nasera Munshi worked in the pastry departments at David Myers’ Comme Ça and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, two of L.A.’s best French brasseries, so it’s no surprise that her desserts continue a Francophile theme.

Order the seasonal clafoutis, her interpretation of the classic French tart. The filling changes regularly depending on what’s in season. A few months ago, it was plum. Currently, it’s apple. The filling doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to like apples or plums or whatever. The crust alone makes this tart so special, it will haunt you every single time you attempt to eat pie again for the next six months.

And it’s not just the clafoutis. It’s everything I’ve ever encountered on the dessert menu here: the chocolate doughnuts at brunch, the decadent chocolate torte at dinner, the chocolate mousse with caramelized bananas, the ile flotante (floating island).

The meringue in Munshi’s floating island tastes as if she reached up and pulled it from the clouds, so light and fluffy that the slightest breeze could easily spirit it away. Fortunately it is weighted down with toasted almonds and anchored in a bath of perfect creme anglaise. 300 N. Main St., Santa Ana, 714-265-7640; littlesparrowcafe.com

Wine Works for Everyone (photo by Nick Koon, OC Register)

Outstanding wine service: Wineworks for Everyone 

If you asked the average sommelier to dream up the perfect wine list, no expenses spared, all bases covered, most would turn to a guide such as Wine Advocate and start checking off the classic estates and legendary vintages until the cellar was full.

Darren and Jean Coyle, the duo behind Wineworks for Everyone in Mission Viejo, chose a much different approach. Scan their list. They make no pretense toward the cult of Robert Parker. Instead, they offer an obscure, constantly changing collection of terrific, modestly priced wines – roughly 60 or 70 at a time – that even the geekiest of wine geeks probably hasn’t tasted. And in doing so, they have leveled the playing field for everyone. Ordering wine becomes an adventure, no matter your expertise or private-cellar status.

The only way someone can create a list like this is by tasting a lot of wine, which everyone on staff seems to have done. Tell your waitress you prefer big, full-bodied reds, and she might bring two 3-ounce pours of a Herman Story Syrah and Orin Swift’s D66. The former is a smoky, hedonistic, “Games of Thrones” sort of drink. The latter, made by former Opus One winemaker David Phinney, is a raunchy, sexy, Rhone-style blend that defies its own stereotype and crosses into a cabernet lover’s domain. “If you don’t like it, let me know and we’ll explore something else,” she says. But more likely, you’ll leave here with an extra bottle of each under your arm. Wineworks isn’t just a restaurant and wine bar, it’s also a retail boutique with some of the fairest prices around. 26342 Oso Parkway, Mission Viejo, 949-582-0026; wineworksforeveryone.com

Chef/owner Bernard Althaus at Basilic (photo by Cindy Yamanaka, OC Register)

O.C. Icon Award: Basilic 

The O.C. Icon Award praises an institution – open for at least 10 years – that continues to set the standard and raise the bar for the entire restaurant community. This year that honor goes to Basilic, a tiny storefront bistro on Balboa Island where chef and owner Bernard Alt-haus has been serving classic French/Austrian cuisine since 1997.

Basilic is a secret window into the past, a virtual time machine to another era somewhere high in the Alps. Keeping it classic – while also remaining relevant – is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act. Rare is the restaurant that pulls this off without eventually feeling dated. Basilic understands this perfectly and continues to feel fresh even when serving something as simple as a slice of cheese. Every meal here involves at least two paper doilies, and the wine list is strictly, unapologetically French. Dated? Not in the slightest.

Seriously, though, order the raclette, which is nothing more than a slice of cheese, a couple of fingerling potatoes, a gherkin and a pickled onion. The plate is untouchably hot, the cheese bubbling. The fragrance is intoxicating.

A salad of blue crab tastes of little more than the crab itself, unpretentious and decadent. Endive is melted into an ethereal cream sauce with prosciutto and becomes an enigma so much greater than the sum of its parts. The rack of lamb is always superb, as is the apple tarte Tatin.

Note: If you want a reservation, you will have to pick up the phone – and, most likely, speak with Althaus himself. 217 Marine Ave., Balboa Island, 949-673-0570; basilicrestaurant.com

Driftwood Kitchen (photos by Sam Gangwer and Brad A Johnson)

Best new restaurant: Driftwood Kitchen 

The cocktails. The view. The wine. And, most importantly, the food. Driftwood Kitchen is the total package. It feels like the restaurant we’ve all been waiting for but never realized we were missing until someone finally opened it: a great, chef-driven, open-air dining room that dangles over the beach and doesn’t cost a fortune for the experience.

Chef Rainer Schwarz makes it look easy, turning out baked-to-order Parker House rolls and beautiful charcuterie boards. The buttermilk-fried soft-shell crabs are as good as you’ll find on the West Coast. And the halibut is stunning, served atop a fricassee of summer corn and fava beans. Rising-star pastry chef Rene Baez seals the deal with the perfect sticky-toffee pudding and a tongue-in-cheek riff on carrot cake. 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach, 949-715-7700; driftwoodkitchen.com

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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