“In the morning?”
“Yes. And everyone showed up.”
I was sitting in the corner booth at Newport Beach’s latest bay-side dining experience, Lido Bottle Works, about to dive into an expertly seared halibut set before me moments before by Executive Chef Joel Harrington.
From what I could already tell, the chef commands his kitchen with a quiet, almost reserved confidence and judging by the chorus of mmmms resonating inside the sleek, darkly wooded, 1,235-square-foot space; it’s all working just fine.
Be-hatted with a straw bowler, jovial and thoughtfully earnest, Chef Harrington is himself a study in the art of culinary prominence, a formative figure who is at once a force of epicurean reckoning—with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and credits working under Marcus Samuelson, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles—yet without even a sous vide-trace of self-importance to his name. He’s humble. He’s charismatic. He’s a raconteur of colorful stories about bygone farm life in Vermont and bike rides around his Balboa Peninsula neighborhood. The guy just happens to know how to make food taste really, really good.
Chef Harrington was recounting to me, zealous gleam in his eye, the true tale of how one morning weeks ago he had asked his crew to join him at the local fish market—Dory’s Fleet—well before the sun even thought about crawling its way out from the horizon.
“Five thirty is when you get the best fish,” he said, pointing to the halibut on my plate, a product of Dory’s Fleet fishermen. Dory’s Fleet, an open-air market along the sand by Newport Pier, looks much like a ragamuffin structure ripped straight from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. More often than not, pelicans outnumber people at this oceanfront, somewhat-secret gem but so what? You’re getting the freshest of fresh cod, tuna, halibut … all caught mere hours before and sometimes, still alive.
“There was no hesitation with anyone on my team,” Chef Harrington said. “They showed up at Dory’s and we picked out the fish. That’s how dedicated they are.”
In a world when 9-5ers hum drum through their jobs with the dispassionate air of elephants at a pillowcase convention, this kind of dedication says a lot. It’s a testament not only to how very much Chef Harrington’s new staff respects him but also to how much attention is placed on what goes atop diner’s plates; you can tell when you taste the buttery-ness of the salmon belly and sinful sweetness of the vanilla cauliflower foam that it was prepared by someone … well, a few someones, who care.
But if passion alone can’t convince you about the esotericism of this new spot, nestled waterfront in the hip Lido Marina Village area of Newport, there’s another point to be made: Lido Bottle Works seeks to become a major Orange County player in the sustainable, local and seasonal game, and so far, the place is totally winning.
Beyond its commitment to local fishermen, Lido Bottle Works is also pledging its ties to local produce. A small garden lines the perimeter of the restaurant; sweet marjoram, curry, rosemary and a whole lot more grow with manicured vitality. The dill in your salad was just a short time ago chillin’ right outside the restaurant’s entrance.
It’s an admirable feat when you consider how “farm-to-table” has become something of an obsolescence by nature of its overwhelming ubiquity; so many eateries today say they’re in the farm-to-table club, and think purchasing carrots once grown from soil somewhere on the vast planet Earth qualifies them for membership. OK, maybe you’re a bronze-level inductee (if anything) but do you know the farmer who grew what you serve?
True farm to table means just that: You work with farmers and get their stuff on your table.
It helps, of course, that Chef Harrington is a microcosm of the sustainable philosophy running rampant at Lido Bottle Works; he’s an East Coast transplant who now lives just a few miles from the kitchen in which he cooks. His mom’s backyard houses some of the produce sourced for his creations and the rest comes from O.C. gardens and farms. On June 24, Harrington competes in the Eco App-off at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, CA to test his sustainability chops.
While Chef Harrington gears up for an ecological battle, Lido Bottle Works chugs onward under his watchful eye and the eyes of GM Brett Karas and developer Eric Paine (also CEO of Community Development Partners in Newport Beach), who all together run the show.
Right now, there’s lunch, dinner and dessert offerings, 15 craft beers on tap—many of them from local breweries—along with an in-house marketplace where diners can purchase to-go drinks ideal to bring on a Duffy ride along Newport Bay.
The menu itself is as changeable as the seasons but current standout dishes for me include the tuna tartare with avocado and chili pop rocks (yep, the crackling candy), cauliflower served four ways with trumpet mushrooms and golden raisins, salmon belly with bacon, clam and dill gel, and yes, the locally caught halibut.
“Did you like it?” Chef Harrington asked about the dish, genuinely concerned I might not.
“Are you kidding? It’s amazing!” I was beaming. “I’m at Dory’s every week to buy fish but my halibut tastes nothing like this.”
Then Chef Harrington told me how to prepare the halibut—how to cook it on one side only, exactly the kind of sauté it needs. I was shocked to hear him so acquiescently reveal his chef-wise secrets, except I guess when you’re that great at what you do, even secrets are safe to be spilled.