Of course it’s crazy for me to think that I can whittle down my favorite-dish list. I’ve eaten at least a hundred new-to-me dishes in restaurants this year, rejoicing in concoctions that dazzled and comforted at the same time. But we all love lists, right? So here goes – in no particular order …
Start with dessert.
1. Stonehill Tavern’s Tempura Strawberries With Torched House-Made Marshmallows, Salted Caramel Sauce and Gianduja Ice Cream: OK, I know this dish sounds a little like a dessert circus, but trust me, it is ambrosial.
Executive Pastry Chef Maren Henderson knows how to create desserts that are so much more than simply sweet. In this summertime dessert, she wrangled up an appetizing assortment of sweet-salty-tart flavors – some warm and jammy, some cold and nutty chocolate-fied.
She started with some of the best strawberries on the planet, plump Harry’s Berries with their low-acid, wild berry flavor profiles. She lightly battered and deep-fried the berries just enough, so they were enticingly warm but not fall-apart mushy. They were plated with “s’more-style” torched marshmallows spiked with passion fruit and Tahitian vanilla, plus buttery, fleur-de-sel augmented caramel sauce. Not to forget the quenelle of Gianduja ice cream, a divine flavor that is a combination of chocolate and hazelnut paste. A little garnish of bright green baby tarragon or bullsblood microgreen poses one more heavenly surprise. Stonehill Tavern, St. Regis Monarch Beach, 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point
2. Il Barone’s Facci ri Veccia: Thin, crunchy crusts, top and bottom, sandwich an irresistible mixture of melted cheeses in chef-owner Franco Barone’s addictive antipasto, Facci ri Veccia. A wedge of this delicious starter offers alluring balance of crisp and creamy textures, plus the gentle saltiness of prosciutto di Parma made aromatic with truffle oil.
Barone says it was inspired by two dishes, one he sampled in Sicily, the other in Recco, Italy.
A mixture of Italian flour, water, oil and salt forms the soft dough that rests for over an hour before being hand-stretched into two thin, round sheets 12 to 14 inches in diameter. A mixture of mascarpone, fresh mozzarella and crescenza cheese is placed between the sheets. Someone has to keep an eye on it as it bakes to perfection in a 600-degree, stone-bottomed oven. Once plated, it’s topped with prosciutto di Parma and a little extra-virgin olive oil infused with white truffles. Il Barone, 4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach
3. Park Ave’s Grilled Rack of Lamb with Fig and Marsala Wine Sauce: I’m not overlooking the fact that chef-owner David Slay has an impressive, on-site organic garden at Park Ave. He shows off his fresh-picked produce to its best advantage in a wide variety of dishes. But he has some of the best red-meat dishes around.
I was dazzled in late autumn by his rack of lamb teamed with a fresh fig sauce. It was accompanied with Rosemary Roasted Potatoes With Garlic Slivers and Leeks.
The deeply flavored sauce tasted complex and gave the lamb just the right amount of savory-sweet pizazz. He made the syrupy concoction by cooking up fresh Black Mission figs, brown sugar, dry red wine and Marsala. It made the perfect partner to the juicy and luxuriously pink lamb. The meat was seasoned with a dry spice rub made with sea salt, white pepper, onion powder, paprika, black pepper and a little cumin.
“All our meat is hand-picked for us by Premier Meat Co. in Los Angeles,” Slay said. “They eyeball everything to meet our exact specifications.” For the recipe, click here
Sharing the sauce recipe that is included here, he adapted the ingredients to use fig jam instead of fresh figs that are out of season. Park Ave, 11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton
4. Addison’s Toasted Fennel Risotto With Cured Lemons and Parmesan: The Grand Del Mar in San Diego is home to Addison, the resort’s signature restaurant. Executive Chef William Bradley’s artisanal approach to cooking combines local ingredients with contemporary French influences.
At first glance, his cured-lemon risotto looked rather unimpressive. But after one bite, I proclaimed it the best risotto I had ever eaten. Layer upon layer of vibrant flavors danced in my mouth. It was like nothing I had ever tasted.
Yes, it starts with high quality Arborio rice, a wooden spoon and an hour-long stirring. But Bradley builds glorious flavor by adding highly flavored ingredients and concoctions along the way.
Among the components: an emulsion made with extra-virgin olive oil and cream; toasted fennel pollen that adds a subtle hint of sweet-but-grassy, anise character.
Preserved Meyer lemon cut into brunoise (1/8-inch dice) along with olive oil. And a Parmesan purée that is made in a Vitamix blender, whirring warm cream and a little Heineken beer, microplaning in some Parmesan, then finishing with a little hazelnut oil. Scrumptious. Addison, The Grand Del Mar, 5300 Grand Del Mar Court, San Diego
And the best local shellfish, spot prawns a la Craig Strong.
5. Studio’s Grilled Local Spot Prawns: David Pratt, Studio’s manager, drives to Pearson’s Port in Newport Harbor a couple of times a month to buy super-fresh seafood for the restaurant. In spring and summer, the bounty includes local deep-water spot prawns, alive and kicking. Pratt says the clean Pacific waters provide the five-per-pound crustaceans with a diet that makes them delectable.
The meat is lobster-like sweet and tender, especially under the watchful eye of Studio’s executive chef, Craig Strong. He doesn’t mask the detectability of the bed-sheet white flesh, keeping the preparation clean and simple to allow the bright flavors to shine.
He cuts them in half from head to tail, lops off some of the legs. They are brushed with butter augmented with lime and lemon zest. A little sprinkle of panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) on the exposed flesh and under the broiler, just long enough to cook, but not a second longer. Once plated, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil is added, followed by a sprinkle of fleur de sel.
Often Strong accompanies the spot prawns with a shaved fresh fennel salad. The anise-flavored bulb is cut almost paper-thin on a mandoline and tossed with toasted fennel-seed mayonnaise. Delicious. Studio, Montage Laguna Beach, 30801 S. Coast Highway
Just one more, a cocktail unlike any other. Want the recipe? Click here
6. It’s the Tamarind-Togarasgi Margarita from Raya, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel: This refreshing sweet-tart drink is capped with a rim dipped in togarashi salt. Togarashi is a Japanese spice mixture that contains ingredients such as coarsely ground red chili pepper, roasted orange peel, black and/or white sesame seeds, ground ginger, yuzu peel, nori (seaweed) and poppy seeds.
The spice blend combines with an equal amount of coarse salt to make the tempting jumble that coats the lip of the glass. Raya, Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, One Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point