Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival Wows with Spectacular Sips and Savors


Photos by Ben Brown

Butternut squash soup with bacon marshmallows. Lobster rolls piled high with fresh seafood. Endless choices of high-end wines coupled with cooking demonstrations from some of the most acclaimed chefs in the country. The Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival saw a successful year indeed. Hosted over the final week of September, the festival welcomed fall in gourmet style with a festive party in tow.

Two days of grand tastings at the Newport Beach Civic Center highlighted the weekend, whereby a collection of acclaimed chefs showcased their restaurants’ creative approaches to modern dining. Live music energized a fun-loving crowd that sipped to their hearts’ content [albeit maybe beyond their livers’], with perfect weather rounding out an OC-foodie’s dreamland. 

Award-winning Chefs Hubert Keller, Richard Blais, Lorena Garcia, Melissa King and Brooke Williamson were among the many big names to showcase their skills live on stage. Highlighting the cooking demos, however, was the duo of Amar Santana and Katsuji Tanabe, two Top Chef alums whose humor and banter were almost as fantastic as their kitchen skills. On the wine side, four master sommeliers led tastings and wine education lessons. Given that there are less than 150 master sommeliers in the entire US, the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival recruited one heck of a lineup.

Dozens of eateries came to play, and a few certainly stole the show. Nobu was an unsurprising standout with a steamed cod that melted in your mouth. Selanne Steak Tavern’s braised short rib with white polenta and bleu cheese foam was a huge crowd favorite, as was their butternut squash soup noted above. Broadway’s lamb confit and Driftwood Kitchen’s prime, farro and roasted corn griddle cakes continued the momentum, as did The Winery’s pork belly over risotto and Puesto’s tacos. 

Wineries included Ancient Peaks Winery, Barlow Vineyards, Mondavi Family Wines, AIX, Duckhorn, Dearly Beloved, Navarro Vineyards and Roadhouse Winery among many others. Stella poured from three separate stations, ensuring everyone got their beer fix. Duke’s and Johnny Walker brought an interesting presence to the festival, as well as Blue Marble’s ‘ultra premium’ pre-mixed canned cocktails. 

Dessert was surprisingly missing on day one, but made a beautiful appearance day two thanks to Mozza’s butterscotch gelato and Aven Table + Bar’s honey syrup doughnuts with pork belly. It was joined with plenty of sweet drinks, such as Bass Note Sangria and Tatratea, a Slovakian tea-based herbal liqueur that packs a punch like you wouldn’t believe. 

Numerous VIP events surrounded the grand tastings, such as a champagne and caviar tasting by Moet Hennesey and Petrossian. A panel of four master sommeliers, caviar expert Christopher Klapp and Chef Alan Greeley led guests through five pairings of labels such as Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot and Moet Chandon with some of Petrossian’s top caviars. Petrossian, for those who don’t know, is the Moet Hennesey of caviar. 

More VIP events, private dinners and late-night parties allowed the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival to effectively take over Orange County’s restaurant scene for the weekend, adding a great spark to celebrate the region’s sprawling foodie presence. 

Guests may spend the next year visiting the restaurants they sampled over the weekend, but before you know it the 2018 festival will be fast-approaching. For more information, visit

Gargantua: Gourmet Pop-Up in East Santa Monica

You’d never guess that the OP Café, a quaint and quiet little breakfast nook on Ocean Park Blvd, would house food with a level of sophistication rivaling that of many Michelin-starred establishments. Enter Gargantua, a high-end pop-up that takes the helm at OP Café on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The nostalgic beach décor and bed-and-breakfast feel remain, but the menu and the chef behind it bring about an entirely different experience.

Chef Nick Barainca, a veteran chef of Four Seasons and various L.A. eateries, serves up a 5-course menu that takes the palate through intricate levels of savory, salty, sweet and all-around fascination. Barainca shows off spectacular attention to detail and culinary intuition, making every ingredient in every course a talking point. This is Barainca’s first solo show, and he’s definitely taken off out of the gates. 

You don’t start out with just bread; you start with black garlic bread basted with mushroom and air-dried beef, served with salted butter churned that day. What is listed as pozole is not as much a soup as it is individually seasoned tender potatoes and sheep’s cheese with out-of-this-world texture that sit in a harmonious sauce accented with sliced tomatillo. The beef belly is simply superb, holding rich flavor with a bold crust that most steakhouses couldn’t come to grips with.

The list goes on and is ever-changing. Gargantua’s menu shifts quite frequently, so guests will get an entirely different experience with almost every visit. Patrons should also come prepared in two ways. First, the experience is BYOB. Second, portion sizes stray about as far from the gargantuan name as you can imagine, so don’t come hungry or expect to leave full. Think of this as more of an interactive culinary art exhibit, where equivalent meals would be at least 5x the $47/person that you pay at Gargantua.

Interested guests should hurry. You don’t know how much longer this pop-up will be around. For more information, call (310) 452-5720 or visit gargantuan online at

Surfside: Stylish and Savory on the Venice Beach Boardwalk 

While establishments have popped up across Venice to showcase new-age, sophisticated cuisine, few have dared to border the iconic boardwalk. Surfside is that brave soul, challenging the typical grab-n-go shacks that define the area’s otherwise lowbrow dining scene. This loud, high-energy restaurant rises above the riffraff, but does so with a smile on its face, letting the food speak for itself with just the right touch of Venice pizzazz.

Surfside’s menu is inventive, worldly and delicious. An American comfort food base layered with Korean and Mexican influence produces works such as their top-selling Korean fries, covered in bulgogi steak, melted cheese, sriracha mayo and kimchi. The L.A. street corn is something truly special, genius in its simple approach to crushing cotija cheese into the corn to get the most decadent bite, every bite.

The mac ‘n’ cheese is something else here. Surfside nails it with the exact kind of indulgent creaminess you’d hope for. Burgers are a staple, as are bowls and salads for a healthier approach. The Mexicali bowl is an absolute favorite, made all the more special with rich chipotle crème. Surfside is a seasonal restaurant, so the menu will change frequently, but expect the execution of Head Chef Jesse Gutierrez to remain excellent.  

Portion size lands in the guest’s favor here, a rare find for food this good in a prime location. Just be sure to navigate the menu the right way. As great as it is, Surfside can’t afford to stay in business by giving away expensive ingredients…another way of saying that if something has lobster in it, it may not fill you up as much as would a burger or bowl.

A fun cocktail list rounds out the culinary experience, but a visit to Surfside is capped off with some spectacular people-watching.  The price point is in a sweet spot—high enough to keep out most of the ‘I don’t shower’ crowd, yet reasonable enough to attract some very interesting personalities. Sports may be playing across the restaurant and bar, but all eyes tend to focus on some of the characters that walk through Surfside’s doors. For more information call 424-256-7894 or visit Surfside online at