By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
Newport Beach's fifth annual Restaurant Week, a culinary celebration that offers gourmet prix fixe menus at bargain prices, will take place from Jan. 21 to Jan. 27.
The concept has been hugely successful since Restaurant Week's inception in New York back in 1992, when Tom Zagat and restaurateur Joe Baum, of Four Seasons fame, dreamed it up as a goodwill gesture to the 15,000 reporters coming to the city to cover the Democratic National Convention. The idea has now spread internationally and, in some places, Restaurant Week has become Restaurant Month. Costa Mesa is celebrating its version during all of January and Orange County Restaurant Week is set from Jan. 27 to March 5.
Especially now, after two years of a recession, restaurants are looking for ways to bring in new customers and entice old ones back. Prix fixe menus have been a staple in Europe for a very long time, where people know they can eat out at a reasonable price.
We had the pleasure of attending the Jan. 12 launch party for Newport Beach Restaurant Week at the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast. The event was held at the resort's Coliseum Pool & Grill, with its dramatic vaulted arches and corniced columns overlooking the 136-foot circular swimming pool below. The pool features 1.1 million hand-cut mosaic glass tiles, and beyond it, a view to the sea framed by full-grown palms.
Luckily, the evening was the first warm one in a while and food and drink were served outside on the terrace. The crowd included restaurateurs, chefs, media, sponsors and friends.
The resort hosted the event and provided the fare from two of its restaurants. Guests dined on tuna carpaccio on wonton crisps, sliders and beef tartar on toast at the hors d'oeuvres station. Scallops were being prepared on an impressive Evo grill, a three-foot round griddle that quickly seared the luscious scallops into submission. They were paired with a potato hash and sauced with white butter.
The other entrée was sautéed beef served over Thai lemongrass fettuccine, garnished with the tasty and unusual micro greens of basil and cilantro.
The dessert bar featured an array of gelato, all served in tiny ice cream cones and a selection of flavored cheesecake lollipops. Our favorites, though, were with the Chinese soup spoons of crème brulée flamed with palm sugar giving them a unique caramel-y flavor.
We were delighted to meet and speak with a number of chefs who seem to be enthusiastically focusing on healthier cuisine. One of the Restaurant Week sponsors is Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, which is encouraging chefs to prepare more heart-healthy food.
Chef Chad Blunston, of Bambú at the Fairmont Hotel in Newport Beach, has a particularly advanced program in addition to his regular menu. It is called Lifestyle Cuisine Plus and caters to special diets of all kinds, including gluten-free, diabetic, macrobiotic and vegan.
His $35 restaurant week menu was one of the most appealing on the list. It includes an appetizer choice of parsnip cappuccino with a macadamia beignet or Dungeness crab tian with vanilla-poached asparagus. Choose your entrée from pickled shallot topped roasted sablefish, braised short ribs with lobster and mushroom risotto or pork loin with spiced apples, cabbage and cornbread. Dessert is citrus almond Seville cake.
True Food Kitchen in Fashion Island has built its restaurant around the concept of healthier food but not "health food." Chef Nathan Coulon told us this translates into a lot more vegetables than what you get elsewhere with an emphasis on seasonal, local and organic.
True Food's $25 dinner menu gives you a choice of hummus, onion tart, smoked salmon or kale salad to begin, then chicken curry, ricotta ravioli, roast chicken or steelhead salmon. Desserts are apple cranberry crumble, chocolate cake or dairy-free chocolate pudding.
Even the Mexican favorite El Torito Grill is now offering healthy selections and some natural ingredients.
You can get a complete list of the 35 restaurants and their lunch ($15-$20) and dinner ($25, $35 or $45) prix fixe menus at NewportBeachDining.com.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food s and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.