The Gossiping Gourmet: New chef, new menu items at Crow Bar

We've been fans of Chef John Cuevas since we dined on his inventive and delicious fare when he took over as executive chef at The Loft in the Montage Hotel. His departure for the new Montage in Beverly Hills struck a sour note for us.

So his return to Orange County to take the helm at The Crow Bar and Kitchen in Corona del Mar has been music to our ears. He has been tweaking the menu since his arrival, and we feasted on his new additions. This man really knows how to cook!

This casual, attractive hangout in CdM is always abuzz and sometimes downright cacophonous with its busy bar and tall tables at one end of the room. The menu is very casual as well.

Nibble on a flatbread, order the daily taco, munch on a Cuban sandwich or chow down on one of their great burgers; but if you'd rather, you can put together a lovely leisurely meal with say, wild rocket salad featuring braised pancetta, lardoons, poached egg, banyuls vinaigrette and rustic toast, followed by roasted wild striped bass with braised artichoke, English peas, pickled ramps and herb butter. Finally, top it off with bananas Foster bread pudding with rum caramel sauce and caramel gelato.

We began with a marvelous brick-oven flatbread topped with earthy crimini mushrooms, buttery tender leeks and a whisper of seven-cheese sauce. Although the cheese sauce was barely visible it somehow suffused the vegetables with a rich cheesy undertone. The flatbread is up there with the best of them with its blistery browned, paper thin, crunchy crust. There are also three more varieties and a daily special to choose from.

It's hard to get excited about a simple chicken dish, but John's free range, organic paillard (thinly pounded chicken scallop, quickly sautéed or grilled) was outstanding. His was a de-boned, small half-chicken and we enjoyed both light and dark meat, all perfectly seasoned and especially succulent with a crackly skin that was irresistible. The Mediterranean style accompaniments included organic cherry tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives and fingerling potatoes — perfect complements except for the flavorless potatoes.

Our second entrée was called "pork 'n beans" but it was as far from Van De Camps as a Lamborghini is from a VW bug. Pork belly is on every other menu these days, but this one was an outstanding example of the genre.

The fatty meat, or shall we say meaty fat, was marvelously tender with a crusty caramelized exterior that erased the memory of all previous pork bellies. It rested atop a savory stew of cannellini beans with little rounds of sausage, carrots and meat juices permeated with mild Mexican seasonings; all was served with very good corn tortillas that could be used to make a taco or just sop up the juices.

Chef John's sweet potato fries also take the prize for Best In Show.

We've often encountered good ones, but for us, the perfect fry, either sweet or French, has to be really crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and these were perfect. They didn't need any kind of sauce, so we weren't put off by the accompanying "aioli," which had no garlic flavor and had separated. We just ignored it.

Crow Bar features some playful names for their dishes (see above: pork'n beans) and desserts are no exception. To wit: their s'mores are hand-made marshmallows, nutella and chocolate brownies with melted chocolate sauce and vanilla gelato. The traditionally named butterscotch pot de crème was light custard topped with salted caramel sauce that balanced the sweetness with a salty crunch.

Except for the flatbread, all the dishes we tried were new to the menu. Other delicious items that we enjoyed at a recent press tasting are scheduled to appear soon on the summer menu.

This gastropub has an amazing selection of international beers and an award winning wine list but it is the "gastro" side that we find so very exciting in the competent hands of John Cuevas.

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 m_markowitz@cox.net.

The Crow Bar and Kitchen

Where: 2325 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar

When: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

PRICES:

Appetizers and cheese: $4 to $16

Salads, soups and flatbreads: $9 to $15

Burgers and entrées: $7.50 to $19

Desserts: $2 to $7

WINE:

Bottles: $32 to $198

By the glass: $7 to $14

Half-carafe: $13 to $27

Corkage Fee: $15

Information: (949) 675-0070 crowbarcdm.com

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