I am always honored when invited to take part in previewing a restaurant’s menu, and on this occasion, shared a meal at Rustica with fellow bloggers at a tasting showcasing Chef Renieri Caceres’ menu selections.
Chef Ren, as he is fondly referred to, comes to Rustica with an impressive resume having worked alongside culinary stars such as George Blanc, Martin Berasategiu, Gordon Ramsey and San Francisco’s own Michael Mina.
Rustica is located at Fashion Island which isn’t known for its mind-blowing culinary offerings, and situated right next to Nordstrom’s at that! As always, whenever visiting a new restaurant, I try not to arrive with too many expectations and remind myself to keep an open mind throughout.
The restaurant has a trattoria feel about it, chic and trendy, but I think everyone was most impressed by the red Murano chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The bold color stands out in a sea of muted colors and you can’t help but be drawn towards them.
I think I was pretty much sold the minute the bread basket arrived. I don’t have to remind you that one of my biggest pet peeves is a lazy bread basket, lazy because no one put any thought into it, This is a restaurant’s introduction to its customers. It says “hello, this is what we have in store for you, this is a testament of things to come”. The bread basket is the “first date” if you will. It HAS to impress or at least, be interesting enough for me to want more.
As owner Mark David — who later joined us — tells it, they taste-tested a myriad of breads before deciding on these ones and I’m glad they did. The pretzel bread was truly addictive. With a smear of soft butter, it was simply divine. Something SO simple but so delicious, I was afraid I might fill up before our first dish hit the table but let me repeat once again that it took a lot of willpower for me to resist.
Our tasting menu begins with Dungeness Crab Salad, a playful arrangement of crab meat topped with crostini and frisee lettuce.
The plate shares its space with apple, cucumber, citrus and mint, juxtaposing a bounty of refreshing components coming together to make way for the star — the crab — which, needed just a touch more salt.
Our second dish of Char-grilled Baby Octopus ($12) was decoratively plated in a ‘deviled-egg’ tray allowing each octopus to be displayed in its own little dish.
I loved how tender and how perfectly charred the octopus was. This isn’t a fussy dish, in fact, I was impressed by how the emphasis was on the cephalopod’s natural flavors and its flavors unmasked by unnecessary elements.
My heart beats as I highly anticipate our next tasting. I love foie gras like any other foodie and Pan Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($18) absolutely did me in.
I can safely say we were all blown away by how perfect the seared foie gras was, the exterior nicely crusted while the inside, soft and creamy. The slightly sweet, but tart, huckleberry compote, a bold and unique accompaniment, reflect Chef Ren’s ability to utilize ingredients outside of the ordinary. I was sad when I put the last piece in my mouth, pushed my plate back and let out a satisfying sigh.
Homemade Butternut Squash Ravioli ($16) was my least favorite dish of the evening but I think it is a solid vegetarian selection.
I’m not fond of sweet on savory (savory on sweet I love!) so the sweetness of the butternut squash, as well as the Amaretto cookie crumb sprinkled on top, didn’t appeal to me.
I think if I’d only eaten the Crispy Skin branzino ($29) that evening, I would’ve left happy and satisfied. I mentioned to the others how Holly, Mahesh and I had experienced a branzino disaster at the now defunct 1-star Michelin restaurant, Ortolan, where the branzino arrived not only resembling like jerky, but the fish was overcooked to a crisp.
In fact, I was a little fearful at first but as soon as I cut into my succulent piece of Mediterranean seabass, my doubts vanished and I marveled at how well seasoned and beautifully prepared it was. The crispy skin added a delightful contrast to the delicate, flaky fish. Bravo!
I wasn’t sure I had enough room after the branzino to fit in any of the “21” Spice Bone-In Rib Eye ($38), but chef was mindful enough to served this dish family style, along with a few side. The steak was a perfect medium rare and the special rub coating the outside gave it a nicely seasoned crust, but never compromising the flavor of the meat.
Our side dishes of Brussel sprouts, smashed potatoes and sauteed mushrooms were all lovely, but I was definitely drawn to the smashed potatoes more (yes, the “not a fan of potato” me) than the others.
Pine Nut Coffee Cake was certainly a lovely finish, it was moist and flavorful and would’ve been sufficient to end the meal ……
…… had Mark David not insisted we try the Baked Rustica. When it arrived I was instantly transported back to my childhood where Bombe Alaska was frequently the dessert served after a fancy meal. I remember the waiters in tuxedos splashing rum over the baked Alaska and lighting it on fire. It made quite an impression on my tween self.
The Baked Rustica is a version of Baked Alaska with hazelnut, pistachio and vanilla ice cream as its center and covered with torched meringue on the outside. It is shaped like a pine cone, similar to the one atop the fountain right outside the restaurant, as Mark David pointed out! Very nifty! Very tasty! This absolutely won over the coffee cake — sorry.
As we took our last bite of this delicious dessert, I looked around the table and realize how lucky I am to be enjoying a meal with people who were brought into my life through a common love — good food! Holly, Marian, Mahesh, Mona, Paul and Mark David, each and everyone of us with stories of the good eats we’ve experienced. This is what I live for…. good food, good friends …. this is what I love!
1133 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660