With 100 restaurants to choose from, the biggest question about the fifth Orange County Restaurant Week isn't whether to partake; it's where.
The now-annual culinary event opens Sunday and offers three-course menus for all palates, from down-home gumbo at Memphis Café to lamb tagine at Marrakesh.
The prix-fixe menus will include lunch for $10, $15 or $20, or dinner for $20, $30 or $40.
For Executive Chef Renieri Caceres of new California wine bistro Rustica in Fashion Island, the week means an unparalleled chance to showcase his restaurant's focus on quality ingredients and straightforward presentation.
"It's a great opportunity to have guests come in and get a preview of what Rustica has to offer," he said. "It's a great way to introduce our cuisine and what we're trying get across to a whole new demographic that might not have heard of or seen us."
Caceres said Rustica's approach is to highlight the individual components of a dish, like seasonal Scarborough Farms tomatoes or La Quercia prosciutto.
"We work with fantastic purveyors who get nothing but the best quality local ingredients," he said. "We take those great products and just try to showcase them, not overcomplicate them. … We're a small, mom-and-pop restaurant that really is just focused on doing it the right way. We're the furthest thing from a chain restaurant."
For their Restaurant Week menu, Rustica has opted to use high-end ingredients, along with some unexpected options, Caceres said.
"For lunchtime, we've got a really fantastic truffle mushroom flatbread," he said. "We're using some really great wild mushrooms with Urbani truffle butter and a spinach ricotta spread. That's really one of the great ones to start with. For the entrée, we're going to be showcasing a free range chicken breast sandwich. That really kind of shows what we're trying to come across. Also, for lunch, we've noticed that some of our guests are in a hurry, so we're going to have an option to have a glass of wine with their meal or dessert, which I think is kind of a fun twist."
For dinner, patrons can start off with a soup of Weiser Family Farms carrots, vegetable stock and crispy ginger, Caceres said.
"There are some really great dishes on the dinner menu; the pork porterhouse is probably going to be one of my favorites," Caceres said. "We're going to serve it on top of a paella-style risotto. Paella is traditionally done with seafood, so we'll have some seafood components. The great paellas that I've had in Spain also have had a pork element, and the porterhouse will do that. That really kind of sums up our style of food that we're trying to get across."
Caceres, a Bay Area native, has worked with world-renowned chefs like Julian Serrano of San Francisco's Masa, with whom he opened the Picasso restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. From there, he became assistant chef at that property's hot Aqua restaurant, created by Michael Mina and run by Mark LoRusso.
"I was very fortunate, when I decided to get into cooking, to meet some incredibly talented chefs who took me under their wing and really showed me what the business is all about," Caceres said.
He later was selected to work with LoRusso to open the Wynn Las Vegas' VIP restaurant Tableau, as well as Botero at the Wynn Encore Resort. He also has worked as a stagiaire, or apprentice, for internationally famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay in England and Martin Berasategui in Spain.
"I've really been trying to expose myself to world-class chefs and see what they're after; I've learned from them to let the ingredients speak for themselves," Caceres said. "We're very excited to be part of the Newport community now. I look forward to being here a long time."
For more information on Rustica, 1133 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, call (949) 706-8282 or visit rusticafashionisland.com.
If You Go
What: Orange County Restaurant Week
When: Sunday through March 5
Where: 100 restaurants throughout Orange County
Cost: $10 to $40