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Friday, December 15, 2023

Bello Chef's Table (Newport Beach, CA)

Bello Chef's Table
1200 Bison Ave, Newport Beach, CA 92660
949-520-7191
www.bellochefstable.com / www.instagram.com/bellochefstable/
Fri 12/15/2023, 07:00p-09:50p




Bello by Sandro Nardone

Bello Chef's Table is a spot that'd been at the top of my OC "to-eat" list for a while now. It's basically a kitchen counter tasting menu sort of concept, one that commenced in spring 2021 inside Bello by Sandro Nardone, a popular Italian restaurant that itself opened in November 2019. Regular readers may recall that I was supposed to dine here back in September, but due to some problems with Tock, the tickets that my party purchased were issued in error, and we were thus forced to dine at Camphor that evening instead. We vowed to make it back here eventually, and finally made good on that promise recently.

About the Chefs: The story begins with Sandro Graziano Nardone, a native of Italy who was born in Atina, a town in Lazio's Frosinone province. He got interested in food through his family, who were talented home cooks (his mother Giovanna in particular) and also in the restaurant business. He later attended culinary school at Istituto Alberghiero di Cassino and worked at a number of places around Italy, including Al Mulino. Nardone eventually relocated to the US, and in October 2012, opened Angelina's Pizzeria in Dana Point, which was generally well received.

However, the place soon encountered financial difficulties, and in order to save the restaurant, Nardone secured a loan from a customer by the name of Philip Fusco in late 2013. Fusco ended up purchasing half the business the following May, and he and his wife Shokoufeh "Sho" Amiri began getting involved in operations. The three of them then decided to launch Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana in Irvine, which debuted in April 2016. Disputes between the partners soon increased to the point that Nardone was driven to leave his post as Executive Chef that September; he then relinquished his remaining stake in the business to Fusco. The original Angelina's ended up shuttering in early 2019, while the Irvine location remains open; the brand also expanded to Laguna Niguel in November 2021 with Bottega Angelina.

With the Angelina's chapter of his life closed, Nardone quickly started work on Bello, and his new restaurant would grand-open on November 18th, 2019 in the old Pita Jungle space. The place proved to be quite popular, and in late February 2021, Chef de Cuisine Zach Scherer was allowed the opportunity to institute Chef's Table as a more creative offering at Bello. You might remember that I first encountered Scherer way back in 2012, when he was still CdC at Playground in Santa Ana. Following his tenure there, he made his way to several OC spots (Haven, Balboa Bay Club, Big Canyon Country Club, The Country Club/Lounge Group) before landing here in September 2020. However, Scherer announced his departure from Bello in July, and was quickly replaced by his sous chef, Drew Adams.

Born in April 1990, Andrew Adams' interest in cooking was sparked at a young age by food television, and throughout his culinary career, he's actually worked at over 40 restaurants, mostly in Orange County. By 2015, he was at Outpost Kitchen in Costa Mesa, though he would leave the South Coast Plaza-adjacent spot by the end of summer 2016. Following, he cooked at Laguna Beach's Three Seventy Common, then joined Scherer at The Country Club in Costa Mesa in December 2017. In July 2019, he helped open Helmsman Ale House in Newport Beach (another Lounge Group property), where he stayed until moving over to Bello in March 2021 as sous, shortly after Chef's Table started.

Bello Chef's Table
Shown above is the view from my seat at the far-right end of the six-seater counter. As for pricing, Bello Chef's Table commands $275, plus 20% service, 7.75% tax, and a $5 Tock fee, and this includes a wine pairing. If you'd like to bring some supplemental wine, as we did, corkage is $30 a bottle (though it was waived tonight on account of the aforementioned difficulties we encountered).

Oyster, celeriac, apple, vanilla
1: Oyster, celeriac, apple, vanilla
Kicking things off was a lone Kumamoto, which was lightly steamed, giving it a slightly firm, satisfying, clam-like consistency. The oyster was set atop a purée of celeriac and parsnip, and joined by roasted celery root, Pink Lady apple marinated in Meyer lemon and toasted vanilla bean, Kaluga hybrid caviar, and more toasted vanilla bean. The amalgam of vanilla, lemon, and apple coalesced surprisingly cleverly with the bite's saline notes, and curiously, I was even reminded of Danish butter cookies at points. A really neat start that did a great job setting the tone for the rest of the meal.

Hamachi, satsuma, horseradish
2: Hamachi, satsuma, horseradish
Yellowtail was paired with satsuma juice fermented with persimmon, then crowned with shaved daikon, freshly-grated horseradish, and a sprinkle of lime zest. This was another strong effort, and I thoroughly enjoyed how the slightly sour-funkiness present married with the brine and fattiness of the fish. Really nice.

Uni, puntarelle, nori, wasabi
3: Uni, puntarelle, nori, wasabi
This ostensibly Caesar salad-inspired course just might've been my favorite of the night. I loved the interplay between the sweet, creamy nature of Santa Barbara sea urchin and the unabashedly bitter, crunchy qualities of the olive oil-dressed puntarelle. And if that wasn't enough, a dusting of anchovy, nori powder, and dehydrated wasabi imparted a briny, savory character that really completed the equation. Very cool.

Scallop, macadamia, poblano
4: Scallop, macadamia, poblano
Hefty cuts of Hokkaido scallop demonstrated a palpable sweetness and salinity. However, the crux here was that duet of poblano-infused housemade macadamia milk and an oil incorporating toasted coconut, toasted pumpkin seed, and shiso. Taken together, there was this fantastic nuttiness and creeping heat that matched up wonderfully with the scallop, making for a really smart presentation of the bivalve.

1978 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn
Tonight's dinner seemed like a good excuse to open up a bottle of 1978 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn. Initially, the nose was filled with spiced plums and sauvage, while flavors were all about red, cherried fruit and cacao. With a bit more time, aromas became spicier, more herbaceous, but still with a dark fruit backing; the palate was then silky smooth, with a distinct funkiness and some animale. With even more time, I began smelling suanmei and tasting a softer presentation of spices. Toward the end of the evening, I got aromas of baking spice, while taste-wise, that soft, funky fruit reappeared. The wine was pretty clearly over the hill (I suspect that the cork was compromised), making this more of an interesting than outright pleasurable drinking experience.

Chanterelle, Aleppo, roe
5: Chanterelle, Aleppo, roe
BBQ chanterelles were roasted and tossed in rendered, lightly smoked dry-aged beef fat, giving the mushrooms a woodsy, smoky spice that combined seamlessly with the heat of an Aleppo pepper-enriched buttermilk foam and smoked trout roe. Torpedo onions, meanwhile, imparted a zingy accent that really perked up the dish.

Foie, persimmon, ponzu, sage
6: Foie, persimmon, ponzu, sage
I feel like you don't encounter foie gras very often these days, so I was happy to see it on the menu. The liver was on point texturally, and I loved how its richness meshed so effortlessly with the dish's smokiness. Further facets were provided by a Valencia black truffle ponzu, fermented persimmon, and fried sage, all of which helped even out the strong flavors at play.

Black cod, curry, currant
7: Black cod, curry, currant
Black cod is apparently one of the Chef's favorite fishes, and he did it justice tonight. The sablefish had that flaky, buttery consistency I was looking for, and worked great with the cozy, familiar flavors of a Thumbelina carrot-boosted curry, as well as a splash of burnt onion oil

Black truffle tagliolini
8: Black truffle tagliolini
This hand-made pasta certainly met the mark in terms of texture, and made a whole lotta sense with the one-two punch of both black truffle butter and shaved black truffles. Straightforward, but oh-so satisfying.

Pork belly, cone head cabbage, rapini
9: Pork belly, cone head cabbage, rapini
A salty, fatty cut of pork belly was paired with charred Weiser Farms conehead cabbage, and even more crucially, a zippy sauce of rapini, olive oil, and anchovy. Yum.

Dry-aged NY, chestnut, beet
10: Dry-aged NY, chestnut, beet
In our final savory course, dry-aged NY strip was joined by a roasted chestnut sauce and a beet-pepper hot sauce. The steak itself was spot-on, but the key here was how effectively the meat paired with the dish's delectably nutty heat.

Special Cocktail
At this point, we were provided an unnamed cocktail that incorporated fig leaf syrup, lemon, Lillet Blanc, and grapefruit syrup, as well as other ingredients that I've forgotten. The drink was decidedly on the refreshing side, actually reminding us of a boozy version of Squirt.

Vanilla, Negroni
11: Vanilla, Negroni
Serving as a bit of a pre-dessert was a refreshing duo of housemade vanilla bean gelato and blood orange negroni granita.

Chocolate, maple, sesame, caviar
12: Chocolate, maple, sesame, caviar
For dessert proper, a milk chocolate crémeux worked surprisingly well with the brine of Kaluga caviar, but my favorite thing here was probably that delightful nuttiness imparted by the sesame.

La Diavola
La Diavola | tomato sauce, di stefano mozzarella, spicy salame
Given that we weren't quite sated by the meal's conclusion, we were given an extra pizza to fill us up. It was pretty damn tasty, especially that spicy sausage, and certainly hit the spot.

I really wish that I'd made it out to Bello Chef's Table earlier, since tonight's meal was one of the strongest I've had in Southern California all year. Adams' vision for Italian cuisine is refreshingly modern, bold, and beguiling, and the Chef clearly excels at combining classical ingredients in creative ways. In fact, I'd posit that this place may very well represent the best meal one can have in Orange County at the moment, and probably deserves more attention than it gets.