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The prosciutto bruschetta

Ship to Shore

by Kristen Schott | Photography by Anaïs | Riviera Orange County magazine | October 29, 2013

For me, it’s all about the little things. A restaurant that was founded by friends who outfitted it with pieces from their own collections. A chef with local ties, who is inspired not only by the seasons, but by the weather. A wine list that boasts a well-curated selection of boutique vinos. And that leads me to the big things—like that gorgeous, glass 2,000-bottle wine cellar just behind the bar. Or the cuisine punctuated by flavors that are so distinct and layered that you and your dining guest forget to talk.

Yes, this is SeaLegs Wine Bar in Surf City, an intimate, coastal-cool space created by co-owners Lisa Nonemaker and Alicia Whitney. It’s got a nautical, Hamptons feel to it, with a blend of rich chocolate woods; nostalgic photographs (an image of Nonemaker’s father looks down upon the dining room); chichi touches, including crystal chandeliers; and a relaxed lounge that lets in the ocean breezes. It’s the perfect atmosphere for enjoying Executive Chef Alexander Dale’s Cali cuisine. The Le Cordon Bleu grad is something of a legend; his grandfather founded the former Villa Nova in Newport, and he grew up in its kitchen, learning the Italian classics that made it a landmark. He sources his ingredients locally, crafts his menu of small plates from scratch and takes pride in his dishes, and he’s skillfully navigating this ship. The evidence: His fare nabbed the Best Californian Cuisine honor for the second year at the recent Golden Foodie Awards.

Needless to say, I’ve got high hopes when I stop in on a bustling Saturday evening. My guest and I sit in the cozy dining room, directly across from that wine cellar (be still my heart). It houses bottles like the 2009 Nickel & Nickel C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon—a regular on the exclusive Captain’s List, which also touts newer additions like a 2011 pinot from Envolve Winery. On the main drink list: craft brews and small-batch wines by the glass or bottle from around the globe, though the focus is on California vinos.

We start with a buttery Zotovich Chardonnay to savor while we look over the menu. It’s broken down into whites and reds (for the wines, natch), entrees and sides. Dale also cooks up weekly chalkboard specials and seasonal dishes, like his pumpkin bisque—and this sets the bar high for the night’s fare. Spices such as curry, cayenne, turmeric and ginger, along with a hint of coconut, deliver an intoxicating kick that cuts into the luscious bisque, which is concocted with pumpkins from Irvine’s Tanaka Farms and gets a textural component from the pile of crab and micro cilantro adorning the soup. A hush falls over us as we eat—it’s unlike any other bisque I’ve tasted, and I want to lick the bowl. (Bread, however, would have been nice to sop up the remaining liquid.)

Next up is a glass of Zotovich Rosé of Pinot Noir (it’s floral and fruity) and some “red” items. The pig and fig flatbread is a study in flavor composition, with layers of salty earthiness from the prosciutto and applewood-smoked bacon, sweetness from the papaya gastrique and caramelized onion, and zestiness from the arugula, all on smooth mozzarella. The ingredients pop on the palate, and bleu cheese offers a bit of tang on the finish—but you don’t have to love that fromage to enjoy this dish. It provides a slight tartness that further elevates every bite. Dale’s bruschetta, meanwhile, is an elegant take on the classic, thanks to the prosciutto that joins marinated tomato and melted mozzarella atop a char-grilled baguette. The light citrus and acidity of the tomatoes juxtapose the heartier proteins, and the sharp yet succulent tastes dance on the tongue. I like the bread, too, but it’s a tad thick. (It’d be great for soaking up the soup!)

Then there’s the charred filet medallions, which we pair with the Pope Valley Eakle Ranch Cab—an immediate fave—and the stinky fries (more on those in a minute). Chunks of perfectly cooked meat are bathed in a rich red wine demi glace and topped with pickled onions. Taken together, the onions bring an unexpected, piquant burst to the juicy meat. Throw back a sip of the wine, and the end result is incredible.

Now about those stinky fries… if you’re a fry fan, I think you’ll love them. A fondue of white cheddar, mozzarella and bleu cheese, along with garlic and Parmesan, cover the fries. But they catch me off guard—at least at first. The fondue-laden ’taters aren’t crispy enough, and the sauce is cloying. However, they are a good choice with the meat; they contrast well with the berry notes in the cab; and they grow on me with each nibble.

Dessert brings us back to where we started: perfection, and a pumpkin cake. Slabs of pie filling and vanilla cake are topped with whipped cream. It’s spicy and sweet from the cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar (as it should be), and the candied walnuts and ice cream on the side add a cool crunch. It’s a big finish, and it proves that SeaLegs is sailing smoothly forward. Who knows-maybe a sister ship will dock in a nearby harbor soon.

SeaLegs Wine Bar
21022 Beach Blvd., Suite 105, Huntington Beach, 714.536.5700, sealegswinebar.com

Mon.-Fri.: 3-11:30pm; Sat.: 5-11:30pm; Sun.: 11am-10pm

Whites: $6-$18; Reds: $10-$20; Entrees: $24-$28; Sides: $7-$14; Desserts: $4-$12

Who Goes There
Oenophiles, gourmands, Surf City denizens

You Must Order
The pumpkin coconut curry crab bisque, the pig and fig flatbread, the prosciutto bruschetta

Special Touch
A photograph of co-owner Lisa Nonemaker’s loving father watches over the dining room.

In the Know
In addition to its weekly chalkboard menu, SeaLegs offers specials like Sunday brunch and Blind Tasting Tuesdays (guess the right wine, and your glass is on the house).