Casually elegant dining in Newport Beach
There are any number of chichi dining establishments in Newport Beach but the Oak Grill at Island Hotel Newport Beach feels both more elegant and, oddly enough, more casual than many of its rivals. Maybe it’s the cool blue adjacent Aqua Lounge with its St. Tropez vibe or the romantic outdoor dining beneath a big leafy tree decked out in warm conical lights that drape its limbs like votive candles, but, even in winter, everyone looks like they just stepped off their yacht after a day of sailing and is famished and ready for a fabulous cocktail and some tasty, satisfying fare, which is just what you get here.
When the owners of the former Four Seasons rebranded the property Island Hotel, the old Palm Terrace, which always felt a bit dark and old-school, gave way to the brighter, more youthful Oak Grill with floor-to-ceiling windows and spacious padded banquettes in a swank and airy room. But you’ll forget the indoor dining room when you peek outside. Snag one of the 25 outdoor tables in the lushly landscaped gardens, almost all cozily situated beneath the canopy of a sprawling ficus tree that seems to cover the expansive 2,160-square-foot patio lit from the glow of a festive fire pit and dozens of twinkling lanterns. The elegant alfresco scene attracts celebs like Laker star Kobe Bryant as well as what could easily be mistaken as the cast from The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Before coming to Oak Grill, chef Marc Johnson mixed it up at several Southern California landmark restaurants, from Mastro’s Ocean Club to Studio in Montage Laguna Beach, just down the coast, where he worked with star chef James Boyce, eventually following him to Alabama to open Cotton Row in Huntsville. Johnson’s menu reflects the eclecticism of his career. There’s his classic California-style togarashi-crusted ahi, surprisingly sumptuous duck confit risotto, and, as a nod to his days in Alabama, fall-off-your-fork-tender braised short ribs perched atop blue corn grits.
Tip: Johnson also put together the little-known “after hours” menu in the adjacent Aqua Lounge, offered Thursday to Saturday from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., that includes the chef’s street tacos, poutine and what may be the best bar burger in Orange County.
Chef Johnson’s partner in crime is general manager Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal (he also worked at Mastro’s Ocean Club) who, in addition to running Oak Grill, is also a certified sommelier and renowned mixologist. He’s big on tableside mixology and using local fruits and herbs. Try his Cucumber Cobbler with coastal sage-infused Hendrick’s Gin, fresh green apple and cucumber puree, housemade ginger-honey syrup and fresh lemon juice. Oak Grill’s 50 wines by the glass are extensive and reasonably priced, from Duckhorn sauvignon blanc ($17) to Justin Isosceles, a Bordeaux blend ($45).
The luxurious 295-room Island Hotel sits across the street from tony Fashion Island Shopping Center (thus the name), which, with its 200-plus world-class department stores (Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s) and specialty boutiques (7 For All Mankind, Kate Spade), is the Rodeo Drive of outdoor shopping malls.