There are currently four restaurants at Lido Marina Village, the revamped dockside mall that seems to be the epicenter of everything new and chic in Newport Beach these days. Of those four, Circle Hook is the only one that offers counter service. Beneath the words “Order Here” is a big opening through which you can stick your head to look at the menu and pay for your lunch. The menu, I should mention, is handwritten. And the specials have been scribbled with a marker on brown butcher paper that’s taped up so it can be torn down at the end of the day.
Inside, you find no tables; it’s all counter seats. One counter faces the bar, behind which is a painting of the Nautilus and a giant squid wrapped around it. The second row abuts the window looking out into the harbor. The third is outside, set on the boardwalk itself.
And it was at these boardwalk seats that I ate next to a couple and their obedient golden retriever. They lived nearby, the man told me, and as he fed his dog some of his ceviche, her tail wagged. I was as happy as she was. While looking toward the water, I sunk my teeth into the first meaty clam in my appetizer. It was at that moment I realized this was the restaurant I never knew I’d been waiting for here. There’s just something about eating seafood on paper plates when you’re actually next to the sea.
It didn’t matter much that the yellow-curry-tinged liquid was perhaps a touch too salty to sop up with the grilled bread. Plus, I was still looking forward to the fish and chips, which, at $15, is at least $20 less than what I’d be charged at Nobu, just a few paces away.
But first, there was the crab cake, a hockey puck already collapsing into two crab piles on top of leafy greens. Conventional wisdom dictates that the best crab cake should always be more crabmeat than binder; the lack of structural integrity in Circle Hook’s version proves its dish is exactly that. Except for the crusty caramelized parts where it was pan-seared, I tasted nothing but pure crab, which is the best compliment anyone could give a crab cake.
And in Circle Hook’s lobster bisque, I tasted nothing but lobster. In every sip of the thin, brick-red soup, which was no doubt extracted by patiently coaxing the flavor out of the shells, there was only a hint of cream. But ordering it over the crab or seafood chowder was an easy decision. As of this writing, the lobster bisque is actually the cheapest soup on the menu, which is noteworthy because I found at least a fistful of lobster in the bowl.
The fish and chips finally came in a paper box. There were three pieces, each one an actual filet gilded with just the slightest suggestion of batter made with vodka. It’s not salted, which I think was by design since fish and chips is supposed to be an interactive dish. It’s not meant to be eaten as served; you build each mouthful with salt, sauces and lemon as you go. I tore off a chunk and showered it with malt vinegar. Then I sprinkled another chunk with salt and a squeeze of lemon. I tried a few more in tartar sauce and others in ketchup. In between, the cooling, creamy coleslaw counteracted the hot fries.
Owned by the same people responsible for Bear Flag Fish Co. and Wild Taco, Circle Hook offers other fish entrées, as well. There were four plates on special that night, including a grilled local mahi mahi whose parsnip-and-cauliflower purée turned out to be a miscalculated attempt at adding flavor. Since the dish comes with two sides you can choose from a roster, that meant the purée—a bland mush akin to Gerber baby food—was supposed to be a sauce. It was not. I ended up scraping most of it off and instead tried to enjoy the fish with the roasted-vegetable side dish I chose, which included asparagus, wild mushrooms and purple cauliflower. The veggies also turned out to be much more enjoyable than another side of forbidden rice.
The restaurant’s shortcomings faded as quickly as the daylight. As I ate the rest of my meal, the setting sun stained the sky a rusty orange, its reflection glimmering on the water. I gulped the last of my beer, inhaled a lungful of the salty air and patted the retriever on the head. Time to head back to the mainland.
Circle Hook, 3432 Via Oporto, Ste. 104, Newport Beach, (949) 200-9476. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Appetizers, $5-$17; entrées, $14-$22. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.