Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Last year I waited a full 12 months (until March 2021) to assemble a “best of” list because of the initial coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. This time around I held off until the start of the new year before making decisions in an effort to bring back a sense of normalcy. Also, since December restaurant openings allow a narrow timeframe to frequent before selecting what’s best, I’m considering concepts from December 2020 through November 2021 to fall under the “Best New Restaurant” category. It makes things more fair to new businesses and feels right instinctively.
The people behind these concepts aren’t newcomers to the Orange County dining scene, yet they’ve taken the best characteristics from places they’re known for and evolved into a better version of themselves. My favorite new restaurants are presented in alphabetical order.
Artisan: 7 Leaves and Crema Bakery
While researching a column on iced tea, I learned about the Artisan collaboration which pairs a duo of brands with loyal followings: Crema Cafe and Bakery in Seal Beach and 7 Leaves. Of the two 7 Leaves drive-thru locations in Fountain Valley, Artisan is the only outlet in the company offering a craveable dine-in menu within an inviting interior. Ambiance can sometimes be a dealbreaker for me, but Artisan’s design of colors and textures possesses an aesthetic that makes me linger.
Served until 3 p.m. daily, brunch touts a savory assortment – think perfect (please splurge on the truffle mushrooms) cheese omelette and a rich beef stew possessing an authentic, homemade quality. I could taste the care put into it. As of this writing, Artisan chef Chad Urata was testing out a breakfast burrito developed by one of his talented cooks. For sweets, I strongly suggest the croffle: croissant dough crisped in a waffle maker alongside a choice of salted caramel, vanilla cream and jam dippers. 10065 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley.
Bello Chef’s Table
Trust is key when seated at one of eight chairs facing the kitchen of Bello by Sandro Nardone. Chef Zach Scherer is your host over the duration of 12 or more courses in this intimate chef’s table environment. While the kitchen tends to other guests, Scherer (with appearances by accomplice Drew Adams and Nardone) performs front and center, navigating eaters through a thoughtful dialogue with each plate where questions are encouraged. The impromptu education on specialty products and cooking techniques outclasses similar meals prepared behind walls and is something I truly appreciate.
Available only three nights a week, Bello’s counter is a marriage between the Italian flavors people are familiar with and Scherer’s innovative cooking methods of reimagining those tastes. Between courses, I exchanged quips with seatmates, watched the inner workings of Bello’s back-of-the-house team and followed along as Scherer methodically assembled each course in full view. There’s something about seeing a course come together on a plate that makes my meal more special.
Scherer’s trips to Chino Family Farms translate to hyper-seasonal ingredients which in turn update the menu from week-to-week – a challenging task to accomplish when doing much of the behind-the-scenes planning and prep. My chef’s table experience can be viewed in Instagram highlights. Interested parties can email Scherer directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations. 1200 Bison Ave., Newport Beach.
When the Moulin cafe chain celebrated the seven-year anniversary of the opening of its flagship Newport Beach locale in late 2021, there were two major unveilings. The first was an announcement of location No. 6 at South Coast Plaza below the Bridge of Gardens. Its second was a peek of the nearly ready Bouillon restaurant, adjacent to Moulin Newport – a full-service space with a nightly dinner not available at the other branches.
Offering daily lunch and dinner (plus a duo of weekend brunch options), Bouillon is authentic Parisian fare wrapped in a boisterous dining room overseen by diligent waitstaff. It’s a combination that inspires wanderlust and makes me want to dine there often. Bouillon nails classic steak frites, cheesy French onion soup, boeuf bourguignon and profiteroles to name a few. Pricing is tres reasonable for the experience received at this indoor/outdoor venue.
Bonus: Paying a check requires no wait as servers utilize handheld devices brought to the table – something I first experienced in London many years ago and wondered why it wasn’t done here. Between the devices and accepting walk-ins only, these details make for an efficient meal from start to finish. And no, my love for Bouillon has nothing to do with the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” 1000 Bristol St. North, Suite 11, Newport Beach.
A year ago, former Lido Bottle Works executive chef Amy Lebrun joined the Ferm Farm family. At the time, Fermentation Farm was best known for its stellar kombucha and customizable bone broths. It has since grown and offers a full menu, adding a Taco Tuesday on in-house tortillas, terrific weekend brunch (if undecided, get the saucy shakshuka) plus a dinner spread including rice ramen, kraut grilled cheese I drool over and roasted brassicas in red curry.
If that isn’t enough, summer 2021 was also when Lebrun began a recurring chef table under the stars at nearby Rosewood Farms – one of the more memorable dinners I’ve had the pleasure of attending in recent years. Fermentation Farm’s grab and go, plus existing liquid nourishment, are convenient remedies for those on the move, but making time to slow down and finish one of Lebrun’s creations at one of the outdoor tables is the best way to go. That’s how I dine there. 1125 Victoria St., Suite R, Costa Mesa.
The youngest of its Orange County siblings, Little Sister is the extrovert version of LSXO (a hidden restaurant within Bluegold’s property at Huntington Beach’s Pacific City). This sister’s modern setting is a contrast to comparable Little Saigon counterparts with its elevated ceilings and fashionable accents flowing throughout.
Chef Tin Vuong’s nuanced point of view toward French-Vietnamese cuisine is welcomed in this neighborhood of Orange County. During lunch service, I prefer being at the bar for reasons including people-watching and plenty of elbow room. Familiar tastes of banh mi and pho are part of the menu, however famished appetites will want the suon nuong, a hearty serving of lemongrass-infused pork chop beside chicken fat rice topped with a sunny egg that tides me over until evening. Haute couture at dinner is a salt and pepper lobster glistening in garlic, fried chiles and buttered shallots. 896 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine.
On the coattails of my top five are a handful of worthy destinations to spend one’s hard-earned money. A taste for every price range, these places won’t disappoint.
Amorcito SoCal Taqueria
People familiar with chef Thomas Ortega’s Amor y Tacos in Cerritos and first Amorcito in Long Beach will be pleased like I was to find a second branch of this delicious brand adjacent to the 405 Freeway and South Coast Drive inside Metro Pointe, which opened in late 2021. In addition to Amor’s burritos and tacos, newbies should familiarize themselves with signature mole tots, a Hatch burger featuring the famous chiles, plus a memorable (albeit gargantuan) taco salad. Heck, get all three and grab a lunch buddy. 901 South Coast Drive, Suite 180 D, Costa Mesa; $5-$15.
The Bungalow Kitchen
One of the reasons I frequented Long Beach last year was to dine at Michael Mina’s collaboration with Bungalow owner Brent Bolthouse. Substantial bites and juicy cocktails in a posh living room setting were all the makings of a cozy double date night at 2nd Street and PCH’s plaza. A short rib pop tart, house-smoked burrata and lobster pot pie were stand-out offerings on my most recent visit. Take a masked stroll through the space to soak in the tony atmosphere. 6400 Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach; $20-$110.
A formidable competitor to nearby Din Tai Fung, Paradise Dynasty inside Bloomingdale’s Collage Culinary Experience gives DTF loyalists a solid alternative when selecting where to get their xiao long bao (XLB or soup dumplings) fix. I would even say that Paradise’s comprehensive menu exceeds expectations. I encourage you to explore the soups, greens and shareable dim sum plates. However if you’re not familiar with the eight different XLB flavors, make sure to order multiples of the sampler for your group to try all of them. 3333 Bristol St., Suite A, Costa Mesa; $10-$20.
Poppy & Seed
Between the curated chef’s garden by Heirloom Potager and soulful soundtrack wafting throughout Poppy & Seed’s outdoor dining space, one may temporarily forget that he or she is in Anaheim’s Packing District. Chef Michael Reed’s ever-changing seasonal menu is guided by his plentiful garden beds as just-picked ingredients complement starters, meats and sides. Even the bar program is influenced by fresh herbs and produce. Poppy & Seed is a feast for the senses. 350 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim; $20-$40.
Most Korean barbecue joints have customers selecting and cooking their own meats; Umma’s isn’t one of those places. Operating under a takeaway service format, diners order a preferred protein that’s grilled to order by moms Melody Chin and June Choe. Freshly prepared sides are generously packed into each box. For something different, order one of the jun dishes; fish jun is pan-fried cod and meat jun is marinated beef. Both are dipped in egg prior to grilling, resulting in utter umami goodness. Call ahead if you’re short on time or take advantage of the outdoor seating option. 24531 Trabuco Road, Suite G, Lake Forest; $15-$20.
January Interview on ‘The SoCal Restaurant Show’
On Jan. 8, I was on the air live with Andy Harris of “The SoCal Restaurant Show” for two segments to discuss my recent dining columns. I also dished on restaurant openings I’m looking forward to, as well as a new place that opened last month at South Coast Plaza.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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