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The 5 Best Things I Ate in Newport Beach

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Newport Beach, California? For me, it was beaches, beautiful people, fancy cars and lots of wealth—until I visited the destination for the first time through a FAM trip hosted by Visit Newport Beach last month. After that trip, I’m adding inventive food scene to my list. Here’s what I discovered eating my way through this SoCal city that’s defying expectations from plate to palate.

ONE Pan-Roasted Maine Diver Scallops

Bivalves are in vogue. Though scallops started gaining popularity on fine dining menus years ago, they’re showing no sign of going back in their shells. We enjoyed scallops at three different restaurants during our trip. California chefs like David Man, executive chef at Island Hotel Newport Beach, add panache to the crustacean by putting on a firey show along with dinner. During a four-course meal at Island Hotel’s Oak Grill private dining space, Man did cooking demos for each course, showing us his techniques in cooking each dish while his team plated ours behind him. Man, whose personality, humor and cooking skills could render him a shoo-in “Top Chef” contestant, executed a perfect pair of scallops over crushed English peas, potato confit and citrus gremolata.

TWO Almond Joy 2.0

Also at Island Hotel, Pastry Chef Andy De La Cruz was a first a quiet player in the background of our interactive dinner. But once the dessert course rolled around, we discovered this guy is one heck of a talent. He’s been with the hotel about a decade and was even featured last year in the L.A. Times for his annual giant edible gingerbread display. De La Cruz, who says he’s inspired by “Willy Wonka,” led all of us to find additional room in our stomachs to savor every last bite of his riff on an Almond Joy bar for dessert. We watched in awe as he plated coconut chocolate cremeux (a dense, classic pudding) with homemade almond ice cream, coconut powder, slivered almonds and a blue wedge of white chocolate. Gerard Widder, general manager of the hotel who dined with us, admitted to licking his plate clean.

THREE Cauliflower

The best part about dining with a group organized by Visit Newport Beach can be getting to order off-the-menu items. Such was the case at Lido Bottle Works, an eccentric little spot in the newly revitalized, upscale Lido Marina Village. Keeping good company with the likes of Nobu, Serena & Lily, Warby Parker and more, this restaurant focuses on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients that can be shared and enjoyed among friends. While everything we tried here was delicious, the cauliflower dish (from the dinner menu, which we enjoyed for lunch), was a work of art. Featuring several kinds of cauliflower nestled into a beautiful ring held together by a slightly sweet cauliflower puree, this colorful plate rendered cauli Cali-cool.

FOUR Pumpkin Rolls

If there’s a downside to traveling, eating and drinking frequently in the name of work, it’s that you have to work extra hard to maintain your dress size. One item that’s typically easy for me to pass up is the bread basket—unless it’s bread that is life-altering, like the pumpkin rolls at Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa. This hotel is the largest one in the area, so you might expect its food to be more banquet-minded than mind-blowing, but you’d be wrong. The team of chefs here have a go-to recipe for rolls that they change up seasonally. As we were there in September, they rolled out their pumpkin variety. Served piping hot from a cast-iron skillet, topped with chunky sea salt and spread with a bit of tomato butter, these pumpkin rolls were the type you’d want to slip into your purse to take home.

FIVE Vanilla Crème Brulee

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I have a raging sweet tooth, and I always save room for dessert—but usually of the chocolate variety. When it comes to crème brulee, I can take it or leave it. But I’d take another plate of the Hyatt’s take on this classic dessert any day. Executive Chef Julian Bontron executed the incredible interactive dinner experience that was the brainchild of Director of Events Shelley Callahan. Drawing on his French upbringing, Bontron paired a basic vanilla crème brulee with local strawberries, bits of pistachio sponge cake (that reminded me of sea sponges but tasted like cotton candy), heavenly blobs of homemade marshmallow and white-chocolate nitrogen rocks that, well, rocked our tastebuds as the grand finale.