Taste something different

September was called Herbstmonat ("harvest month") by Charlemagne and Gerstmonath ("barley month") by the Anglo-Saxons.

But here in Newport-Mesa, September is better known as epicure month. With both the Taste of Newport and Orange County Restaurant Week approaching, area foodies are salivating like Pavlov's dogs.

A much-loved event now in its 22nd year, the Taste of Newport intermixes iconic menu items from area restaurants, confectioners and wineries for the county's palates to explore.

Entertainment at this year's Taste of Newport is as top-notch as its exhibitors, and will include the Gin Blossoms on Sept. 17; Foreigner on Sept. 18; and Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo on Sept. 19.

Some of the Taste participants are newer names trying to differentiate themselves in the competitive Newport-area dining scene; others have been around longer than the event.

Back in the spotlight

The Ritz Restaurant, a longtime area fixture, is back at this year's Taste of Newport to reintroduce itself to the community.

"From a food and service quality standpoint, it's probably right up there with the best of them," Ritz Manager Ray Jacobi said. "We create great price value. We're only open five days and nights a week now, from Tuesday through Saturday, with a big emphasis on live entertainment. We're making it fun again."

Jacobi said he looks forward to renovating and repositioning the restaurant, which was founded in 1977.

Jacobi became managing partner of the Ritz in June 2009, and is the former managing director of the Island Hotel; he was the property's general manager when it was managed by the Four Seasons.

"It's part and parcel with the resurrection of the Ritz to get back into the community," Jacobi said. "What better way than to use the Taste to jump that threshold? We want to be a neighborhood restaurant. We don't want to be an occasional restaurant. Being a strong neighborhood restaurant dictates a strong neighborhood presence."

That includes regular outdoor barbecue dinners Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and frequent live performances from musicians like the Fabulous Baker Boys, Jim Roberts and Jimmy Hopper.

"The place is alive; we want to keep it casual, but with great service and food quality," Jacobi said. "We've got everything from seafood to beef to pastas, with great specials every day. We do a businessman's lunch for $12 where you're in and out in 35 minutes."

Part of the reinvention of the Ritz includes the return of the original Ritz burger, with bar burgers and pizza served every half hour during happy hour. The burger will be served at the Taste of Newport, along with creamed corn and crème brulée.

"We're just having fun and keeping it alive, and the proprietor's out on the floor all the time," Jacobi said. "I think that's the difference between the good restaurant and the great restaurant."

The sweetest thing

For chocolatier Christopher Michael, distributing copious quantities of truffles at the three-day gourmet extravaganza was a natural choice.

"We participate in the Taste because we get exposure we can't normally get doing other events," he said. "People are at the Taste to eat food — great food, actually — so the event is geared for food establishments like ourselves. When people come to the Taste, they expect to have food from some of the finest restaurants in Orange County, so being the finest chocolatier in Orange County and one of the finest in the nation, we're kind of obligated to participate. Kidding aside (partly kidding), it's a great way for us to be a part of the community and to gauge what our local customers like. We really like to hear from our customers, and the Taste is the perfect platform to do so."

This will be the chocolatier's third year at the event; he said he's also impressed with the Taste's musical selections this year.

"When you can have an evening where there's great food and music, what else do you really need?" he said. "So everyone is always having a great time, and to be in the middle of it, selling what we love, it's the setting for a great experience. We always look forward to the Taste, and we hope everyone else feels the same. It's also fun to meet and see what other chefs or restaurants are doing. Just like everyone else, I've tried restaurants at the Taste and end up going to places I wouldn't have, unless I was exposed to them at the Taste."

Christopher Michael Artisan Chocolates is engaged with preparing for a number of special events, including chocolates for the star of a Broadway show, who is having a special event this month. They've also made appearances on television shows like "The Today Show," "The Early Show," "Fox & Friends" and "Extra!"

"We've also recently been contacted by Dean & Deluca, Aria in Las Vegas and a few other high profile resorts from across the country," Michael said. "Even though we've done special events, like the Grammys, Oscars and for celebrities, our special customers are our everyday customers. So we're always doing special events — maybe not on a large scale, but to most people, enjoying one of our chocolates is an event, and that's what makes what we do so fun and exciting."

The company is releasing truffles in various fall flavors. Michael also has developed a new figs and prosciutto chocolate bar, which is "kind of like a grown-up version of our sizzling bacon bar," he said. The latter reached popularity nationwide for its combination of bacon, milk chocolate, sea salt and Pop Rocks-style popping candy — long before the chocolate-covered-bacon craze hit area fairgrounds.

In addition to Michael's flagship shop at 2346 Newport Blvd., Suite A3, their products also are available at Laguna Gourmet, 424 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach.

"Our future plans are to open a couple new shops locally and hopefully in cities like San Francisco, New York and maybe Seattle or Las Vegas," Michael said. "But for now, continue to try to make the best chocolates and show or educate people that you don't have to go to Europe to experience great chocolates, because you have one of the nation's best chocolatiers in your backyard here in Orange County. So as long as people support us, we will continue to grow our business here in the best place in America. Hopefully we will become Orange County's destination for chocolates. But in the meantime, come to the Taste and enjoy the local restaurants, then stop by our booth for dessert or a quick snack."

If You Go

What: 22nd annual Taste of Newport

When: Sept. 17 to 19

Where: Fashion Island area, Newport Beach

Cost: $25 at the gate

Information: tasteofnewport.com

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