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The 50 Finest

Orange County’s restaurant scene is more exciting than ever, with chefs launching out-of-the-box concepts, a plethora of fine dining experiences and the return of a landmark that’s even better than the original. So sit back and savor the tastes we share from our annual list of the best restaurants the region has to offer.

TAPAS THE TOWN
At Amar Santana’s Vaca, share the atun crudo ($14), with tuna tartare, balsamic nori puree, tomato and avocado.

10 MOST EXCITING NEW RESTAURANTS

Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana
From Don Oehl’s art (love his Sophia Loren piece!) to chef Sandro Nardone’s cuisine (his pies are made with a fresh mozzarella de bufala from a cheesemonger in Fondi), this is a posh pizza joint. Try the Diavola ($16); we like it spicy. Or lighten up by sampling the insalata esotica di gamberi ($24) with dragon fruit and the 2013 Antinori Cervaro della Sala Chardonnay ($85). MangiaPOWER MOVE Look out for a VIP dinner July 27 with artisan Stefano Ferrara (Nardone’s pal), who created the wood-burning ovens used here. 8573 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 949.536.5200

Aveo Table + Bar
The Monarch Beach Resort’s Cali-cool spot is the place to linger with friends over a meal, which should begin with Collin Thornton’s mixed seafood tower ($65). It teems with Carlsbad Aquafarm oysters, half-pound king crab legs and poached prawns. To pair? Perrier Jouët bubbly ($115). POWER MOVE A tip: Nab a patio table, order the moules ($16), and sub in the house-cut Kennebec fries and dip them in the broth, just to make the moment last. 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, 949.234.3900

Centrál
Come for the sauces—the anticuchos ($10 to $13) are served with aji verde, aji amarillo and rocoto aioli—and stay for the salmon sashimi ceviche ($24). Its cucumber noodles pop against the Casa Noble tequila marg’s charred pineapple ($14). Yes, Ana Zegarra and Anna Montoya’s concept is a centerpiece for Peruvian cuisine. POWER MOVE Wednesdays mean whiskey. The Executive flight ($25) is three global pours; ask for it with sips off the secret scotch list ($35), with The Macallan Rare Cask single malt. 361 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 949.715.0801

Gratitude
Mix man Jason Eisner “craves” chef Dreux Ellis’ plant-based menu, and vice versa. The Oaxacan 75 ($12), with sparkling wine and mezcal gin, is Eisner’s response to Ellis’ I Am #Kawaii ($14)—brown-rice sushi balls packed with tastes like tamari and avocado. Says Eisner: “Umami flavors are hard to pair, but bubbles go with anything.” POWER MOVE Drink in daily specials at the bar, such as the off-menu mojito ($13). A recent pour: blackberry basil. And even more things get stirred up on your request. 1617 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, 949.386.8100

EASY BEING GREEN
Take advantage of the warm summer temps by nabbing a seat on Gratitude’s peaceful 1,200-square-foot patio, outfitted with geometric-patterned cement tiles and handmade Moroccan tile tables.

Ironwood
Restaurateur Russ Bendel and chef Jared Cook have branched out with this eatery, and it’s hard to recall a time when we couldn’t order the jumbo lump crab and sea salt roasted heirloom beets ($15), and the 2014 Far Niente Chardonnay ($75) in the oft-overlooked Laguna Hills. POWER MOVE Bringing a group? Request the Captain’s Table. It has a custom oak design, seats eight, and is surrounded by a wine display and chandeliers. 25250 La Paz Road, 949.446.8772

Ola Mexican Kitchen
The Puerto Nuevo-style lobster (market price), pan-fried with tequila butter; the Abreojos marg ($11); and a seat on the deck—it’s how chef Alfredo Amado wants you to spend your day: “Why go to Baja?” he quips. POWER MOVE The cheese and chicken enchiladas ($13 to $16) are bathed in red sauce, and the lobster ($27) is in green. But do like the regulars: Ask for your ’chiladas with half red and half green. Spicy! 21040 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach

Restaurant Marin
Behold Marín Howarth von Blöm’s art deco decor, then savor hubby Noah’s fare all the day long: rabbit rillettes ($18), steak salad ($28), and fried chicken and biscuits ($26). And Koire Rogers’ La Fête de Fizz ($12) “goes down too easy,” says Marín. As for the lady’s top seat: on the patio, at a corner stingray-inspired booth. POWER MOVE Dining at adjacent Arc? Stop here afterward for a slice of cake ($12) in a range of flavors (salted caramel is a fave). You can even order a custom concoction ($80) a week in advance. 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949.402.3974

The Ritz Prime Seafood
The icon’s rebirth mixes classics with contemporary coastal fare. The Ritz Egg ($16) jogs our memory, and the Arctic char ($32) is truly fresh. It’s teamed with Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout for depth, says chef Phil Kastel. And the Belle Glos Pinot Noir ($72) will further elevate every bite. POWER MOVE The rotating wine list boasts rareties such as the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($190), a label not often found in restaurants due to its limited production. Toast it before it’s too late! 2801 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.720.1800

Saint Marc USA
Man of Style Scott Blakeslee of nearby Paséa Hotel & Spa is among those who frequent this grown-up candy store for its 100-plus cheeses and 32 vinos on draft. Sip the 2015 Stemmari Italian Pinot Grigio ($2 to $55) while cooking ahi tuna on a Himalayan salt stone ($16). Then go to the bacon bar. POWER MOVE We won’t tell you where to find it, but there’s a speak-easy here with a Spam menu that sizzles ($7 to $12). 21058 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, 949.629.2591

Vaca
Gourmands like Vera Wang know that Top Chef finalist Amar Santana’s joint is on fire. There’s the embutidos (the jamón ibérico costs $36 per ounce), and the new lobster paella (market price) swims with plump shellfish in a sea of bomba rice. It’s worthy of the Valdespino Palo Cortado Viejo CP Sherry ($34)—a gem on GM Ahmed Labbate’s list. POWER MOVE Weekend resos are booked six weeks out, but if you do land a coveted Saturday seat, try the erizos con huevo ($16). Santana hits the Dory Fleet Fish Market in the morning to buy fresh uni. Enough said. 695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 714.463.6060

5 OVER-THE-TOP DINING EXPERIENCES

Napa Rose’s Chef’s Counter
Renowned talent Andrew Sutton is a joy to watch, and you can do so during his Chef’s Counter experience ($100, $150 with wine). The 14 seats overlook the magic in the exhibition kitchen, and dinner includes up to six courses. There are two seatings (5:30 and 8:30pm); make resos up to three months out by calling the secret number you see here. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, 714.300.7170

Pelican Grill’s Tasting Table
The solid-wood table (word has it Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren donated it) is placed just beyond the open kitchen. Chef Luke Turpin does the shopping for all the ingredients himself, and then he creates an exclusive menu (four to six courses, $85 without wine) for his guests to enjoy. A recent bite: uni toast. You have to know it’s available to visit, and reservations are required 48 hours in advance. There’s a six-guest minimum (the table sits up to 10 guests). The Resort at Pelican Hill, 22800 S. Pelican Hill Road, Newport Beach, 855.467.6800

Playground 2.0’s Culinary Theater
This concept by chef Jason Quinn’s white-hot, and the 18 seats fill up fast. His Trust dinners are a sure bet, but the themed competition feasts are the ultimate. July 21 and 28, Quinn’s teams drive to Chino Farms, pick produce, then head back and prepare an elaborate, strictly vegetarian bounty for guests to judge (7pm, $150, no refunds for cancellations). Some dinners dish out 26 courses. Take note: The format’s family-style—perfect for making new friends. 220 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714.560.4444

Twenty Eight’s Suckling Pig
Top Chef darling Shirley Chung’s modern fare appeals to all levels of daring. For a real feast, she’ll fire-roast a whole suckling pig ($550) and pair it with seasonal marmalade and lotus crepes. Add the 2012 Hugel Gewurztraminer ($70), and you’ll be in hog heaven. But you must reserve the spread a week in advance. 19530 Jamboree Road, Irvine, 949.852.2828

Waterline’s Wine Dinners
The indulgent quarterly event is inked in many a calendar. Chef Rachel Haggstrom teams up with a winemaker to create a memorable multicourse menu built around the nectars, with the somm on hand to discuss each varietal. The hourslong affair begins with nibbles—and bubbly, of course—on the patio overlooking the Balboa Bay’s megayachts, and the eve progresses with a four-course dinner; one recent event featured an opera singer. Coming up Aug. 12: a wine vs. beer dinner ($99), with vinos by Robert Mondavi and brews from Ballast Point. Balboa Bay Resort, 1221 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 844.241.3503, balboabayresort.com

5 BEST DESSERTS

Driftwood Kitchen's Mille-Feuille
Rene Baez elevates the classic with his gluten-, sugar- and dairy-free twist ($10). Everything is its own layer: Your spoon slides through a sea salt sprinkle and a chocolate mousse, then into a milk chocolate plaque. Go deeper, and a hazelnut feuilletine and a chocolate cremeux, respectively, give way to a dense cocoa base. The last level? Your first bite. 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach, 949.715.7700

Marché Moderne's Macaron
Meals here always end with a treat from sweetie Amelia Marneau, who loves macarons of all designs. Sandwiched in this pastry ($12): pistachio gelato and yuzu mousseline. “The citrus flavor goes so well,” she says—even better with the pistachio nougatine, strawberries and raspberry coulis. Oui, oui! South Coast Plaza, The Penthouse, 3333 Bristol St., Ste. 3001, Costa Mesa, 714.434.7900

Oak Grill's Carrot Cake
Andy de la Cruz created this cake ($10) after gardening with his wife. But this isn’t your same-old sweet: An orb of batter enrobes a gooey cream cheese filling that’s accented by a carrot-orange puree and applesauce. There’s no icing, just a sugar dusting, and the maple walnut ice cream quenelle rounds things out with nuttiness. Homegrown, indeed. Island Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949.760.4920

The Ranch's Black Sesame Panna Cotta
We’re hot to trot over David Rossi’s panna cotta ($13). The black-sesame custard is creamy, and the cherries (from Andy’s Orchard in the San Jose area) add tart pops. A last flourish comes by way of the housemade cherry sorbet. It’s a clever concoction, but we’d expect nothing less from Rossi, who loves to “watch the surprise” on diners’ faces. 1025 E. Ball Road, Anaheim, 714.817.4200

Selanne Steak Tavern's White Chocolate Mousse
It’s all about that airy mousse ($15)—a fluffy cloud of milky flavor that seems to float just above the brown-butter genoise base, as if to tease it into a taste. There are strawberries too, which stain that puff with juicy fruit. Ah, Erin Garcia’s whimsical treat is just what we want on a summer day—don’t you? 1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949.715.9881

1 CHEF WHO STEALS OUR HEARTS

Bruno Serato
We simply must give a nod to chef Bruno Serato, who owns the legendary Anaheim White House. He was just recognized by Pope Francis (that’s right, the pope) for his 11-year-old Caterina’s Club program, which feeds some 6,000 underprivileged kids each week. He’s got another program that raises money to cover motel families’ first and last months’ rent, so they can move out of cramped quarters and into a real home. And in the spring, he launched Chef Bruno’s Hospitality Academy for Youth out of Anaheim Packing District’s CulinaryLab to help train teens in the hospitality and food industry. (The next 12-week course begins in the fall.) He’s garnered accolades from around the world—he was granted knighthood by the Italian government, presented with a humanitarian award on the steps of the United States Capitol and named a CNN Hero of the Year. The list goes on and on. And his Italian steakhouse restaurant? It’s a winner, just like its owner. 887 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim

3 BEST WINE LISTS

enoSTEAK
At The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel’s restaurant, you’ll find the 2011 and 2012 vintages of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon ($2,800) and an Opus One 2012 Cab ($385) among the many bottles that double as artwork. Try pairing either of these with the 16-oz. grilled bone-in New York steak ($60)—you can get it plain or topped with Point Reyes blue cheese ($8), or coffee rubbed and charred ($5). For a true indulgence, order the bone marrow ($12) as an enhancement. Then team it all with a side of sauteed mushrooms in sherry cream or the uberdecadent white cheddar truffle mac and cheese. 1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point, 949.240.2000

SeaLegs Wine Bar
What sets this haute spot’s list apart is the careful sourcing the team does. The bar is known for featuring excellent vinos produced in small batches by boutique wineries—like Westwood Wine’s 2014 Westwood Legend Red Blend ($130)—alongside esteemed nectars like Duckhorn Vineyards’ 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($115). And then there’s The Prisoner Red Blend ($90). It’s outstanding with the ancho chile-braised short rib, with jalapeno and poblano creamed corn—the stuff of dreams. 21022 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, 714.536.5700

Studio
This dining destination at Montage Laguna Beach sells Screaming Eagle by the glass (6 oz. for $700, 3 oz. for $375) and a half-bottle of the 1959 Château Lafite-Rothschild, Pauillac, First Growth ($2,385). The list of wines by the bottle is as thick as a book, with 2,500-plus vinos from every prominent region around the globe. It’s a carefully curated selection by sommelier Troy Smith. One recent unique acquisition: a 2011 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, Burgundy ($6,000). Smith matches it with Executive Chef Craig Strong’s cod and calamari, with lemon couscous, ink puree, pepper coulis and fennel ($55). Simply
sublime. 30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949.715.6420

5 TOP MIXOLOGISTS & THEIR SIGNATURE DRINKS

Jason Schiffer, 320 Main
A founding member of O.C. Bartenders Cabinet, he’s a major voice in the cocktail scene. He doesn’t use pre-made mixes, and you’ll find throwbacks and originals, like his Detroiter ($12), with apple brandy, honey, lemon juice, Cynar and Stone IPA. It’s been in two books. 320 Main St., Seal Beach, 562.799.6246 

Gabrielle Dion, The Mixing Glass
The mind who makes this shop fun teamed up with bar pro Michael Rooney to create the drinks at Vaca. Her fave? The Vaca Tonic ($12). It’s “a mix of high-brow ingredients and a low-brow slushie,” with Brooklyn Gin, lime, Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic and a finish of basil blossoms. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714.975.9952

Andrew Aoun, Taps Fish House
The brains behind the booze, he turned this bar program into an extraordinary one—thanks to drinks like his Pine-y the Elder ($12), with London Dry Gin, pine, lemon and TAPS’ IPA. Locations in Brea and Irvine

Amber Billiard, Five Crowns and Sidedoor
Oh, what she does with spirits, juices, herbs and essences of everything. It’s like performing liquid magic, delighting guests with her hip sips. But it’s the Love Me Tendril ($13) that tops her list: cachaça, lime juice, green Chartreuse and pea puree over a cube of ice and adorned with pea tendrils. 3801 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949.760.0331

Julia Arjune, Mesa
She’s been creating clever cocktails here for four years. Her favorite is The Beatles-titled Eleanor Rigby ($12). Earl Grey-infused Ketel One Citroen teams up with elderflower liqueur, honey and lavender bitters. Her inspiration? “A drink I had in Paris.” 725 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 714.557.6700

3 PLACES TO SEE AND BE SEEN

A Restaurant
You wouldn’t think a place that’s been around for 90 years would still be a hot spot, but this icon is as popular as ever. Producer McG, a founding partner, is often spotted dining with friends. And on any given night, the lounge is packed with movers and shakers who nosh on modern classics like the crispy suckling pig ($15). POWER MOVE Take a hint from McG and end the night with a Fluffernutter sundae: “It’s our housemade gelato, liquid marshmallow, peanut butter powder and honeycomb—there’s nothing like it.” 3334 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.650.6505

Sushi Roku
Folks couldn’t wait for this place to open, and it was well worth it. It’s in a prime spot at Fashion Island, with greenery surrounding the outdoor patio. It’s where the beautiful people (think Leisure Society’s Shane Baum) go for lunch, drinks and date nights. And the baked crab hand roll ($10) is a gift from the sea. POWER MOVE Ask GM and somm Eiji Mori about his secret sake menu, and he’ll be only too happy to share his rare sips. 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949.706.3622

The Winery Newport
The list of diners (and wine-locker guests) reads like a who’s who: Actress Katherine Heigl, Angels owner Arte Moreno and hoops star Kobe Bryant are among them. You’ll also see tanned folks stepping off their yachts—the locale has three boat docks. Then there’s the food—like the chile lime-rubbed Hawaiian mahimahi ($28). POWER MOVE The upstairs patio is where you’ll want to sit, but take our advice and reserve a table at least a week in advance. 3131 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.999.6622

5 UP-AND-COMING RESTAURANTS

El Mercado
The buzz about this place—expected to open in the fall—has been tempting fans of chef Danny Godinez and his Anepalco restaurants ever since he posted a tease on Facebook back in 2013. Set to debut in the thriving Downtown Santa Ana district, adjacent to The Yost Theater, this newest concept will serve up the best of Mexican gastronomy and mixology. Viva!

The Guild Club
It’s like Club 33 at Disneyland—an exclusive dining establishment that’s the brainchild of “it” couple Noah von Blöm and Marín Howarth von Blöm. It wasn’t open at the time this piece was written, but excited foodies had already begun booking reservations. It’s a small joint—only six tables of six. Members have first pick (the annual fee is $1,000), but nonmembers are welcome too. You may have to reserve a month or more in advance, however. Knowing Noah’s talent, it’ll be worth the wait.

Meizhou Dongpo
We’re predicting another Din Tai Fung-like phenomenon when this upscale Sichuan restaurant chain opens its first O.C. location in Irvine’s Culver Plaza this fall. With 100-plus locations in China, it expanded to U.S. soil in 2013 with an outpost in L.A.’s Culver City, and two more locations (a second L.A. County spot and Las Vegas) are on tap. We can almost taste the roasted duck!

Nobu
The name says it all—the innovative, inspired creations by renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa have been delighting diners in L.A. (there are two spots there) and San Diego for years. And finally, come November, the first Orange County kitchen will open in a 12,642-square-foot space (there’s more than double that on the two patios) at Lido Marina Village. Oh, black cod with sweet miso!

Water Grill
You’ll find this popular chain in San Diego and Santa Monica, and in the fall, you’ll find it on the corner where the landmark Scott’s Seafood restaurant once stood (across from South Coast Plaza), serving a sensational selection of briny bivalves, fresh seafood and prime steaks from an exhibition kitchen. Aw, shucks!

3 TRENDS DEFINING ORANGE COUNTY

Big Game
In a region where seafood is king, it’s nice to see restaurants making room for big game. The revamped Stag Bar + Kitchen serves up killer venison meatballs—by the skillet ($8), in a sub ($9) or as trio of sliders ($3). But the leader of the pack, without a doubt, is The Winery’s Executive Chef Yvon Goetz, who cooks nightly specials that ply the palate with venison, elk or buffalo—even alligator. A tip: Ask for the Colorado buffalo carpaccio ($16). Unforgettable.

Healthful Indulgence
Gluten-free and vegetarian dining has gotten a lot more exciting. Take Fig & Olive. Its zucchini carpaccio ($15) is something even a carnivore would love, dressed with lemon, pine nuts, Parmesan and Arbequina olive oil. The Waffle Affair has a whole selection of gluten-free varieties. (We recommend the corncake waffle.) And we can’t forget Babette’s. This place is tops, what with dishes that cover all the bases, like the barbecued tofu ($14), abundant with texture; an Asian veggie saute ($22), with its balance of sweet and savory; and a vegan carrot cake ($11) that’ll satisfy even the most discerning gourmand’s sweet tooth—the curried carrot gel makes us swoon.

Pickled and Fermented
These foods are popping up on menus everywhere. Fermented fare is packed with probiotics, enzymes and omega-3 fatty acids. And they add a nice flavor component. Top Chef finalist Amar Santana put pickled fennel on his pork belly in one episode. And at Vaca, you’ll find pickled raisins on the spinach ($9). The new Farm & Culture kombucha and broth bar at SoCo’s O.C. Mix has a whole menu of fermented veggies and a curtido (small bowl for $5, large bowl for $9) that won first prize at the L.A. Fermentation Festival. It’s a traditional kraut from El Salvador made with two varieties of cabbage fermented with jalapenos. Talk about a wallop of flavor!

10 OF-THE-MOMENT CHEFS

Jeffrey Boullt, Mama Roux
O.C.’s culinary circle let out a collective “hallelujah” when we learned that this gourmand is taking his Southern flavors back to Playground as its sous-chef (he says it’s the only place he can cook what he wants with no compromise)—and he’s giving new life to his pop-up, Mama Roux, at 2.0. His 10-course prix fixe dinners ($175) will dish out creations like his chowder, a gorgeous soup that teams celery root with absinthe (two products he loves together). It’s whimsical and soulful—just like Boullt. 220 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714.560.4444

Julio Hawkins, Fly-N-Fish Oyster Bar
Smoke, brine, stuff, sashimi, batter, cedar-plank—those are the ways he experienced king salmon while growing up in Washington. And he uses the last technique in Fly-N-Fish’s version ($28), with his own Asian-inspired twist. But it’s his seasonal gazpacho ($15) that has everyone talking: He’s adding a watermelon puree to the tomato base and serving it in the rind, with spiced baby shrimp and feta. 2304 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach

Brian Huskey, Tackle Box
You can thank this Top Chef alum for the gourmet beach concession food you’re savoring seaside. Huskey—who once worked with L.A.’s Ricardo Zarate—started the trend with his concept (it’s a step from the sand). You’ll taste global flavors such as the shrimp ceviche “michelada” ($12), inspired by his work with Zarate. Shrimp, onion, jicama, avo and cilantro are dressed in a tomato broth. See you on the shore. 3029 E. Shore Ave., Newport Beach, 949.723.0502

Roman Jimenez, Macallans
Gayot named Macallans among the 10 best Irish pubs in the United States, owing to Jimenez’s supercreative spins on traditional fare. (Not surprising from a guy who says the best advice he’s ever received is to push yourself out of your comfort zone—wise words from TAPS’ Tom Hope.) Take Jimenez’s ham and cheese salad ($14): Baby arugula provides a spicy base for the burrata and cured pork. There’s stone fruit, a bourbon vinaigrette and, to top things off, coffee crunch. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell you how he makes it too. 330 W. Birch St., Brea Downtown, 714.529.1224

Shachi Mehra, Adya
While you won’t find the chickpea chaat ($6) in the lineup at her soon-to-open kitchen in Irvine (or in Anaheim), ask for it, so you too can try those crispy wheat crescents, the spiced chickpeas, the tamarind chutney, that tart yogurt. It’s one way she honors her culture with modern fare, particularly through spice and texture. (Perhaps that’s why she says chiles are a must.) On the menu? The Bombay sandwich ($7): grilled cheese done “Bombay-style."

Jason Montelibano, Eats
Always trying to push the envelope—that’s this executive chef, whose flair for out-of-the-box fare (with attention to Filipino techniques) beckons foodies. On their tables: the crispy pork ($10)—the maple-vinegar glaze boasts a sweet and tangy balance. And his specials are so playful, like his upcoming Kamayan dinner. It’s a Filipino meal where you sit at a communal table and eat with your hands—from banana-leaf plates. 17900 Jamboree Road, Irvine, 949.225.6780

Adam Navidi, Oceans & Earth
Wherever this green-food god has gone for the past 16 years, his pan-seared MSC Chilean sea bass ($38) has gone too. It’s on the menu at this eatery, where you can taste the fruits of his aquaponic Future Foods Farms. But the sea urchin and stinging nettle dip ($13) is piquing our palates now. “Sea urchins have plagued me [while] surfing,” he notes. “And nettles are a nuisance for farmers. But they’re nutritious. I put them together to make a dish that represents the good and bad of [land and sea].” 20305 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, 714.970.7027

Tony Nguyen, AnQi
When this executive chef appeared on Bravo’s Recipe for Deception earlier this year, he faced off with O.C.’s Jason Quinn. But he won, with a soup (pickles were his secret). Then there’s his French onion pho—it was the hit of the 2015 James Beard House Dinner. And when his sizzling rice ($35) with lobster debuts, it’ll have the same effect: It’s cooked on a Himalayan salt block and brought out with “much fanfare.” Applause, please! South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714.557.5679

Carlos Salgado, Taco María
When a chef earns a James Beard Award nom for tacos, you know they’re special. We think that’s because of the corn maize that forms the “backbone” of his cuisine. Salgado sources the “colorful, delicious ‘land-race’ varieties” from Masienda in NYC. He uses the product in multiple ways during his prix fixe dinners (four courses $75, with wine $35), to display its diversity. A shell-shocker: the taco de esturion with smoked Passmore Ranch sturgeon. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714.538.8444

Cody Storts, Grits Fullerton
Pork is tops for this devil-may-care fella, and it’s everywhere at his new joint. Take the Thai Balls ($17), chock-full of pork cutlet—and pancake batter with fish sauce-maple syrup, cilantro, shallots and jalapeno. “It’s a mix between my love of Asian flavors and appeasing the need for fried chicken and waffles,” says Storts, who also made a cameo on Recipe for Deception. And don’t get us started on his beer dinners. 133 W. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, 714.449.0939