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The artisanal cocktails like the Pimms Cup entice with sophisticated twists

Flight of Fancy

by Jamie Gwen | Photography by Jessica Sample | Riviera Orange County magazine | September 26, 2013

Good wine needs time to mellow and settle in. The same applies to restaurants. So I’ll be the first to note that I visited Lark Creek Newport Beach at Fashion Island during its settling-in phase. It had just opened and was experiencing some growing pains. But that hasn’t dulled the excitement of locals, who are happy to have a new kid on the block. The vibe is part neighborhood eatery and part hot spot. A subtle, enticing aroma of almond wood wafts from the kitchen and permeates the dining room. And the outdoor seating is stellar. It’s the first SoCal outpost from the San Francisco-based Lark Creek Restaurant Group, which operates 11 other eateries up the coast. The kitchen is helmed by chef and partner John Ledbetter, who takes pride in serving seasonal, farm-fresh cuisine. The wine list is impressive, with a generous offering of California selections. And the craft beers and artisanal cocktails boast a sophisticated flair.

On my first visit, the bar was full and the dining room bustling. My party of food-lovers was drawn to the menu of mainly fresh-catch and wood-fired medleys. Cocktails were served, and they were-well poured and tasty. That’s a good start. And my experience improves on my next visit, when our server, Allison, stops by the table to discuss the menu. She’s honest about the best dishes and steers us toward superior choices. Bread arrives, and the flavor is pure comfort, with salted butter that’s so good it could stand alone. We order a selection of starters. Among the winners: the white shrimp ceviche and the barbecue chicken tamale pancake. In a few words, this is killer. Tender chicken is roasted and pulled from the bone, then lightly tossed with a beautifully balanced sauce. It blankets a fluffy pancake chock-full of corn flavor, then garnished with creamy, ripe avocado and crispy tortilla chips. (I’d like the recipe for the corn cake—it’s that good.) The ceviche is a hit—everyone digs in for the cooked (a nice twist), briny, sweet shrimp, with toy box tomatoes, habaneros, cilantro and a touch of lime. About two ice cream scoops of this stuff would make for a lovely lunch.

On to the main courses, where this newbie really shines. You must try the Alaskan halibut—it’s heavenly, top-crusted with an herb butter and given a panko jacket, then baked to perfection. The fish is moist, the topping crunchy, and it makes a truly happy plate when it’s set atop a bed of pillowy, light and lovely potato gnocchi. Fresh sweet peas are strewn throughout and topped with a foam of truffle essence. It’s really spectacular.

Don’t miss the chicken, either—and I don’t often say that. It’s roasted to juicy deliciousness and paired with a glorious baby kale and quinoa salad with intense plum flavor and an herbaceous finish. (Take note: The menu changes daily. So the quinoa might shift with the seasons, but I know that it will still be virtuous.)

The burger is a winner, too—wood-grilled and truffle-infused. The brioche bun is impressive, but the soggy fries left me cold. The almond wood-grilled, cider-brined pork chop finished with a stone-fruit glaze is juicy and toothsome, just how it should be. And the 1885 New York strip comes to us tender, with a gorgeous crust and perfectly cooked.

As for the sides, the chickpea fries are a can’t-miss. They’re like polenta fries, with a delightful dichotomy of crispy and soft. And for all you chile-lovers out there, the dish is offered with a harissa aioli that’s hot and good. I love the yellow squash, too. It’s roasted and tossed with golden raisins and chile flakes.

The wine list is plentiful, with unique whites and reds. The highlight is the selection of pinot noirs. The Etude 2010 from Carneros is drinking well now, with fresh cherry and a bit of oak on the palate. It’s glorious with the pork chop.

Now, dessert—while pretty to look at, the sweets here fall a bit short of perfection. That’s a problem that could easily be fixed with the addition of a pastry chef, however.

So there you have it. I think you’ll find that the cuisine is bright and flavorful, if you’re sure of what to order. Everyone deserves a little time to settle in to a new home, though. Here’s hoping that freshness, flavor and a pastry chef prevail.

Lark Creek Newport Beach
957 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949.640.6700, larkcreeknb.com
Mon.-Thu.: 11am-10pm, Fri.: 11am-11pm, Sat.: 9am-11pm, Sun.: 9am-10pm
Starters, soups and salads: $7-$14, add-ons: $5-$10, secret menu prices: really are secret, sandwiches and burgers: $13-$15.50, entrees: $14-$23, libations: $12

Who Goes There
Foodies, health-conscious eaters, Fashion Island shoppers

You Must Order
The barbecue chicken tamale pancake and the halibut

Best Table in the House
On the front patio

Daily Special
The menu changes daily—it’s the chef’s commitment to farm-fresh fare.

In the Know
This is the Northern California-based chain’s first Southern California outpost.