Before I make your mouth water raving about the outstanding food, let me describe Island Hotel in Newport Beach. It's a beautiful, chic coastal hotel, featuring many rooms that offer balconies and sweeping views of the Pacific. We stayed in a corner suite, which included three balconies, beautiful art, and pumpkin-hued accent colors. A helpful feature of this hotspot is something quite practical — a convenient shop, simply called Marketplace, on the lobby level, which carries a carefully curated collection of good sandwiches, salads and other fresh foods, healthy snacks, wine and beer, and other specialty items available 24 hours a day. It's like having a giant mini bar downstairs, and an idea that I hope many other first-class hotels will copy.
Now to the news, and let me get right to it: I think that Marc Johnson, the executive chef at the Oak Grill and Aqua Lounge at the Island Hotel, is a superstar chef. His food, energy, and even his appearance remind me of a young Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with whom I worked on a few of my Food Network shows. Guests at the hotel and anyone who wisely makes the Oak Grill a destination restaurant will experience innovative, vibrant, clean food in a very comfortable setting. I particularly liked the outdoor dining area of the Oak Grill, with heating lamps and orange-tinted globes that create a romantic atmosphere.
The menu is divided among Shared, Starters, Main, and Greens. Under the "shared" column are two phenomenal flatbreads, one with heirloom tomato and mozzarella and another with house-smoked salmon. Chef Johnson's tandoori-spiced ahi tartare is a grand slam home run. Ever have a dish that makes you say "I could eat this every day?" That's how I feel about his amazingly inventive combination of ingredients that comprise the dish. To list a few: bigeye tuna, Asian pears, avocado, cucumber with curry oil and papadum, shiso leaves, serrano chili, tandoori masala sauce, pistachio, apple juice, garlic, and several more. I ordered it three times during my visit and each bite was better than the previous one.
Fried green tomatoes, white asparagus soup, calamari fritto misto, and togarashi-crusted ahi are among the six well-thought-out starters. One of the stand-out main dishes was the cioppino with scallops, Baja shrimp, mussels, and tomato-fennel fumet. The pan-seared halibut is outstanding with its sorrel and hollandaise finish, and the jidori chicken, with California succotash and thyme chimichurri, will not disappoint. Appearing occasionally as a special is diver scallops with sliced heirloom tomatoes, smashed Hass avocados, feta cheese, and basil pesto. I loved it.
Honestly, I never made it to dessert, although I was tempted by the warm pineapple butter cake. However, during our meals, we ordered so many starters and shares and salads — like the outstanding baby kale and apple salad with crisp pork belly, candied pecans, goat cheese, and apple cider vinegar — that I couldn't face sweets. (Plus, I was shopping for jeans every day). The hotel is located adjacent to the Fashion Island shopping complex, which is anchored by Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. In every way, Newport Beach is a terrific destination.
I did visit the Aqua Lounge, a gathering spot for locals and a cool space to get lost in a good cocktail. The blue lighting makes you feel like you are in a real island paradise. Recent additions to their cocktail list include the Aqua Smash, with Belvedere wild berry vodka, lime juice, soda water, simple syrup, basil, and jalapeño and Angostura bitters. Oh boy! But wait… maybe you'll want the Coastal Peach, a tempting blend of Ciroc peach vodka, Grand Marnier, cranberry, orange, and lime juices. Perhaps after a few of those a jump in the pool will be in order. It's a large, eye-catching pool, so you'd be able to swim off a few ounces of booze. I seem to remember doing that myself.