Short Order: Babette’s, Crystal Cove

Babette’s (photos by Brad A. Johnson)

Babette’s is beautiful. This sexy little spinoff of the East Hampton original opened last month at the Crystal Cove Shopping Center. The kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. It’s not a very big place, with only a dozen tables inside and maybe just as many outside on the olive-tree-lined patio. The patio is where you want to be.

The patio feels extra luxurious thanks to its plush indoor furniture. The music — soft rock from the 1970s, mostly — is perfectly calibrated so that it fades in and out as conversations crest and lull. Life feels so easy here. The bar is crowned with a breathtaking skylight, and unless you’re sitting at the bar, you would hardly notice it. It would be a shame to miss it.

The food is mostly good. I haven’t tasted anything that I thought was great. Nor have I found anything that I consider bad, except for maybe the thin, overly vinegary Bloody Mary at brunch, which was graciously removed from my tab.

The huevos rancheros are delicious, as is the almond maple granola. At dinnertime, clams are steamed in white wine and mild, aromatic Calabrian chilies. The sake-soy-marinated ribeye steak, by its very name, is far more saucy than it needs to be. I’ve never understood a chef’s urge to marinate a $42 steak, which in this case is very nice organic, grass-fed beef, which probably doesn’t need so much masking. The fried broccoli rabe underneath the steak is wonderful.

At lunchtime, the organic chicken torta is very good. The chicken is marinated and cooked in orange juice and achiote, then shredded and mixed with an achiote aioli and stuffed into a crusty ciabatta-style roll with avocado and pickled onions. The term “torta” is used very loosely. The menu can be somewhat ambiguous like that. A flatbread sandwich described as Korean barbecue flank steak turns up looking more like a salad than a sandwich, and the Korean influence is noticeable only to someone who’s never had any experience whatsoever with Korean cuisine. As a sandwich, it fails. But as a salad, it’s not bad.

You can’t go wrong with the burger. It’s a two-fisted sandwich made with quality beef, stuffed into a soft, whole-wheat bun with grilled onions and roasted poblanos. The menu gives you the option of adding bacon. Only problem: The kitchen doesn’t serve pork, so your choice of bacon is tempeh or turkey. Adding tempeh or turkey bacon to a good beef burger sounds to me like a downgrade, not an upgrade.

When I ask the waiter why the restaurant doesn’t serve pork, he responds with, “I don’t know. The chef really wants to serve pork, but the original restaurant in the Hamptons doesn’t, so we don’t either.”

“Is it a religious thing?” I ask, thinking that would explain it. “No,” he says, “It’s definitely not based on religion. We just don’t serve pork.”

Perhaps it’s a perceived health-conscious thing. The restaurant offers a lot of vegan choices, including most of the desserts. The carrot cake is vegan, for example, using vegan “cream cheese” for the icing. It’s fine, I guess, if you’re a vegan. But is it better than the real thing? Sadly, no.

Where: 7962 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach
When: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Phone: 949-715-9915

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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