Last Sunday, my husband and I went to brunch at a new restaurant called Oak Grill, in the Island Hotel on the outer circle of Fashion Island.
It was a glorious summer day and we dined al fresco on the new patio. Trees surround the large space, and even though the day was quite hot, we felt a lovely gentle breeze. The patio itself is just a delightful place to eat, although there is a large indoor restaurant as well. Next to the dining areas, separated by a pretty hedge, is the new Aqua Lounge, which is near the pool area.
Oak Grill is such a pleasant place to have a meal that we almost didn't care about the food. However, the cuisine turned out to be extremely good.
I had chicken panini on ciabatta bread with roasted tomatoes, smoked gouda and tapenade aioli. The chicken was tender, the roasted tomatoes were sweet, the cheese was melted and gooey and the tapenade was garlicky and salty. The sandwich came with a paper sack of crisp French fries.
My dining companion enjoyed his Maine lobster chopped salad, which had lots of lobster along with corn kernels, red onions, celery hearts, rocket, arugula and a tarragon dressing.
We enjoyed our meal so much that I decided to review the restaurant the following weekend. Once again, the weather was perfect and we chose to sit outside.
Many restaurants these days feature a menu heading called "Shares." These are larger offerings than appetizers. They could easily serve as lunch or a light dinner. We tried the wild mushroom and truffle flatbread and were quite impressed with the cracker-thin crust, the array of mushrooms drizzled with truffle oil and the thin slices of purple potatoes resting on soft white cheese. Pea tendrils were added on top for more color.
It was as good as any we've tasted, and we would have devoured it all had there not been other dishes to be enjoyed.
On to the starter menu. Little neck clams were served in a tart, salty and slightly sweet broth that was accented with bits of bacon lardons and baby heirloom tomatoes. It was wonderful, and wisely served with slices of toasted baguette to sop it up. The only things less than stellar were the clams themselves; they were a bit rubbery.
I had the grilled pork chop, which had a lovely char on the outside and juicy tender flesh on the inside. It came with smoked cherries and a Madeira demi glace. The sweet cherries made a perfect contrast to the meat.
As good as this was, the side of pork belly risotto was to die for, maybe literally. It was rich and luscious. The risotto was perfectly cooked, and the strips of fatty pork belly were irresistible. Broccolini came on the side, but it was undercooked and tough.
My dining companion selected the Chilean sea bass. The fish was moist and flavorful. It lounged on a bed of cranberry quinoa, and the contrast of the sweet berries and the toasty quinoa made for a lovely accompaniment to the fish. The plate featured a swath of pureed peas and another of carrots, making for a beautiful presentation.
Oak Grill does a playful cheesecake presentation. The filling came in the form of a ball resting on a circle of crust. Two strips of mango cream with bits of candied macadamia nuts ran up the sides of the dish. Resting on top was a sliver of toasted coconut. The cheesecake mixture was very good with a nice texture and the right amount of sweetness.
Although the dinner menu lists the usual suspects, we found that chef Marc Johnson adds his own delicious and inventive twists to each and every dish. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: Island Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
When: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
Shared: $13 to $21
Starters: $8 to $18
Entrées: $17 to $39
Bottles: $32 to $4,500
By the glass: $12 to $50
Corkage fee: $30
Information: (949) 760-4920 or oakgrillnb.com