Our two favorite new restaurants of the year are Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach and Juliette Kitchen & Bar in Newport Beach.
There were few fine dining establishments that opened in 2012; perhaps it's the economy or perhaps it's the trend toward small plates and more casual dining. Either way, it allowed us to taste a larger variety of dishes. Here are our front-runners, in no particular order of preference.
Green Rice Kebab: Koobideh are ground chicken meatballs, stacked on skewers. We like the fact that they had been made from the more flavorful, juicy dark meat, which was enlivened by a complex mixture of spices.
Three Seventy Common: If your arteries can stand it, don't miss the bone marrow. The salty, fatty, luscious goodness makes it worth the risk. A roasted beef bone is sliced in half lengthwise, making it easy to scoop up the yummy stuff. Dab on some chimichurri sauce, smear it on the grilled bread and balance it with the richness of a little red onion, radish and parsley salad.
Caffe Gazelle: One of the best tiramisus we've ever tasted had coffee-suffused cake, light and full of flavor and a creamy mascarpone filling that was cloud-like and delicious. The final touch was shavings of rich dark chocolate, instead of the usual dusting of cocoa powder.
Savoy: The papardelle were thin, wide housemade noodles cooked to a perfect al dente texture. The dish was a composition of sweet, seasonal English peas and their tendrils, salty slivers of coppa ham, large shavings of pecorino and crunchy marcona almonds, all in a light butter sauce.
230 Forest Avenue: Three little racks of three little ribs of lamb were slow-cooked until the meat was meltingly tender, yet the surface was deliciously browned. A small bowl of a mild pureed romesco sauce (red peppers, tomatoes and almonds) was provided for dipping.
Mare Culinary Lounge: Limoncello, a liqueur made in-house, is infused into fresh pasta and the results are marvelous. The wide, flat noodle itself has a lovely, lemony taste. Limoncello malfadine is a scrumptious dish in which this pasta is combined with chopped lobster tail and shallots in a Pinot Grigio lemon sauce.
Juliette Kitchen & Bar: The luscious broth in Juliette's fish stew is chock full of scallops, sweet mussels, delicate white fish and a particularly tasty giant prawn, all contributing juices to make this a spectacular liquid, accented by tomatoes and smoked paprika. Baby turnips are added instead of the more traditional potatoes.
SeaLegs Wine Bar: The humongous slice of chocolate cake was simply outrageous. The cake was dense and moist with a deep, rich chocolate flavor. A light, creamy chocolate mousse separated the four layers and the thick frosting tasted like a wonderful, slightly soft, dark chocolate bar. Heaven!
SW Seafood and BBQ: Peking duck has skin as crackly as parchment paper, and the meat is succulent and moist, full of the flavors of soy, honey and five-spice powder. It's served with steamed buns rather than pancakes, green onion shreds and hoisin sauce.
Peony and Sushi Corner: The honey garlic wild jumbo shrimp were lightly fried, tender, moist and juicy, tasting incredibly fresh. They were sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a delicate sweet sauce.
Sol Grill: Mediterranean swordfish was cooked to perfection, buried under a mound of chunky fresh tomato sauce, flecked with slivers of garlic and enriched with black olives.
Eat Chow: Tres amigos are three enchiladas with three different shredded meats and three sauces. All were stoutly stuffed. The mole sauce on the chicken enchilada was the best we've ever tasted.
Wine Gallery: Here we had some of the best short-rib tacos around. The meat was tender, juicy, nicely seasoned and nestled in crispy, corn tortilla shells. Piquant pickled red onions added crunch, guacamole added creaminess and Fresno chilies added a kick. A light sprinkling of cotija cheese and micro-greens were the finishing touches.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Green Rice Kebab: (714) 843-0655, greenricekebab.com
Three Seventy Common: (949) 494-8686, http://www.370common.com
Caffe Gazelle: (714) 846-2694
Savoy: (714) 557-3000, http://www.thehotelhanford.com
230 Forest Avenue: (949) 494-2545, 230forestavenue.com
Mare Culinary Lounge: (949) 715-9581, mareculinarylounge.com
Juliette Kitchen & Bar: (949) 752-5854, http://www.juliettenb.com
SeaLegs Wine Bar: (714) 536-5700, sealegswinebar.com
SW Seafood and BBQ: (949) 262-0128
Peony and Sushi Corner(949) 497-5777, http://www.peonycuisine.com
Sol Grill: (949) 723-4105, solgrill.com
Eat Chow: (949) 423-7080, http://www.eatchownow.com
Wine Gallery: (949) 715-8744, winegallerylaguna.com