“Should I change into something nice?” Don asked, his eyebrows furrowing into that pathetically worrisome frown.
“You’re FINE,” I said with an exasperated gasp. “I’m sure Dood is going to be wearing a hawaiian shirt; a RVCA t-shirt is not going to offend anyone.” As I tried to fix my hat, angling the cap and fixing my bangs, I saw him go back into the closet. “But you might want to dress warm because that space is mostly outdoors seating!”
That space is what used to be Blanca, where I had my first blogger dinner years ago, which is now replaced by the The Lido Deck Restaurant and Wine Bar, under new ownership and a totally different concept. They just opened recently, and their PR rep, Dan Cox, and H.C.of L.A. & O.C. Foodventures were kind enough to invite both me and Don for a media dinner. The guest list was like a mini-Blanca reunion with H.C., Fiona (Gourmet Pigs), and Matt (RumDood), as well as LA bloggers Esther (e*star LA), conbon (Hey Hey Scenesters!) and some of H.C.’s foodie friends.
I could see why Don would be nervous – this was, after all, his first time being invited to a dinner, and be showcased to what is like a chef’s dissertation defense. It was also his first time to go into a restaurant and not have full control of what he was going to be eating – which means that there would be no escaping from mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other evils in his life. Plus, a bunch of internet strangers who meet up solely because of their love of food? A weird, nonsensical concept for a non-blogger.
Dan greeted us at the restaurant with a very cheery, yet relaxing voice, then lamented the fact that the cold weather had interfered with his seating plans. He was rearranging the seating so that we would be eating in the cozy inside, so he directed us to the bar area to unwind and wait for the other guests.
The bar area was much like the set up that Blanca had, with cushy booth seats and some little tables in a dimly-lit room. We were served glasses of ice-cold Zonin Prosecco NL: the bubbly smelled intensely of apples, but very light in flavor. We did a little catch-up with Matt (who wasn’t wearing his signature tiki shirts. d’oh.) and his girlfriend Niki, until everyone else arrived.
We were then seated in the indoor dining area, with a quick introduction from Dan and the owner chef, Don Schoenberg. Much like the bar area, the dining room comprises of small tables and cushy booths, mostly white from the Blanca decor.
The servers poured the wines of the evening… (a 2008 Round Hill Chardonnay and 2008 Syrah-Merlot blend from Reserva de l’Aube)
… And voila! The first course: a cheese and charcuterie plate that featured a duck and olive pate, pork and cilantro terrine, rabbit rillete, and assorted cheeses like a Spanish tres leches, some blue cheese, an 18 month Gouda, and some Humboldt Fog. It’s an impressive spread, to say the least, if not ambitious.
The highlight of the platter was the rabbit rillete; it tasted like a fancy corned beef with the gentle mustard, and spread on smoothly onto the crusty house-made sourdough bread. The whole combination is a bit rustic, and a bit glamorous.
Don, who’s “never eaten a bunny before” enjoyed it very much. His worries about the dinner was obviously elsewhere; he constantly mmmm-ed and ooooh-ed throughout this course, nibbling a bit of the this, sampling a bit of that… While I claimed the the gouda, ooh the gouda, as my favorite cheese (it was just awesome – very nutty, and with crunchy little crystals tyrosines), he ate most of the tres leches cheese. And with the wine flowing freely, there was no problem about socializing with strangers.
I should take this moment and let you know that Chef Don gladly does menu tweaks if you’ve got certain dietary restrictions like gluten allergy too (although, no vegans or dairy allergies because they use a lot of butter). Niki is a vegetarian, and he had a separate 9-course meal for her, which she seemed to be pretty happy with.
Marinated Squid Salad: Turner New Zealand calamari, English cucumbers, black jewel heirloom tomatoes, kalamata olives in a red wine vinaigrette. The squid was a bit firm, but this Mediterranean-ish dish was very enjoyable.
Next up: tomato fennel soup with brioche and gruyere grilled cheese. Is there anything more comforting than tomato soup and grilled cheese? The soup is very pulpy and meaty, with faint hint of fennel in the back ground. The grilled cheese is a bit heavy by itself, crispy from being fried in its own cheese fat, but that’s why they give you a little piece. Dipping it in the soup offsets the grease, and is very, very enjoyable.
Chili smoked shrimp with chili, ancho, chipotle powder, brown sugar rub with mango gastrigue & mango sorbet. It’s been rubbed with chilis, left alone overnight, then smoked in hickory and mesquite chips… And it WILL make you crave an ice cold beer. Chef Don came up with this dish when he was trying to come up with some bar food menu items to accompany the bajillion beers they will be carrying here.
Cinnamon rubbed pork loin, sweet corn polenta, and mole. The polenta was delicious, but I wasn’t too impressed with the dish… Probably because I dislike cinnamon on savory foods. But Don loved it! Actually, he ate most of it, sneaking slice after slice onto his plate, seeing that Esther was chatting it up with Dan. Sorry Esther.
Seared Scallop: jumbo day boat scallop, pan seared, braised escarole, braised wild boar bacon, black truffle jus with Dijon mustard foam. Scallops are one of Don’s evil enemies, but he managed to try a bit with the bacon (after much coaxing, of course). The components are delicious separately, but combined together, I think it’s a tad too heavy as a shellfish dish. I mean, the bacon? Man, the bacon. And the escarole had a nice mustard-y kick to it.
Stuffed rabbit tenderloin: braised rabbit tenderloin roulad, stuffed with wild mushrooms, sautéed asparagus tips, deglazed chanterelles & parmesan foam over celery root puree. I never thought that I would like rabbit up until this dinner, mainly because I’ve only had tough stew preparations before… Quite good, but the celery root puree was a bit too strong in my opinion.
Final savory course: marinated venison tenderloin, cauliflower puree, honey glazed cipollini onions, black trumpet & chanterelles, zinfandel paint. Yum. We were so stuffed at this point, but Don treaded on (“I feel so bad! These people give us so much food and I don’t even blog!”). The chantrelles were very meaty and savory; Don hates mushrooms but gladly ate them until I spilled the beans.
On to desserts. Ain’t it impressive (daunting, actually, after 8 courses of noms)?
It included Brioche French toast with braised pineapple, roasted bananas…
Flourless Chocolate Cake…
…Some poached peach and lemon-mango sorbet…
And this cake, which is probably cake in crack form.
Seriously. I was so full and could only nibble on the other desserts, but this? I wanted to hoard it all for myself. Its real name is not crack cake, but really Medjool date cake with black toffee black pepper caramel. Get it.
Chef Don’s wife, Christi Carter is the pastry chef here. Did I tell you that I’m a sucker for husband-and-wife teams? That’s like, my dream job: running a restaurant with my husband.
We left the restaurant very full and satistifed, and a little hopeful as well; it’s especially exciting for us OC people to have a new player in the restaurant game. While there were some ups and downs, most of the dishes are very strong and delicious, and reasonably priced. On their regular menu, a three course wine-paired prix-fixe is only 55 dollars (4o, virgin), and you can always just pop into the bar and nibble on the bar menu! We’ll definitely be back when the weather is warmer.
The Lido Deck Restaurant & Wine Bar
3420 Via Oporto Suite 101
Newport Beach, CA
P.S. Chef Don also cooks for the Balboa Pier Gondola rides: for a hundred bucks, you can have a romantic boat ride and a bento box. Just