Last month, I was at the historic Fort Worth Stockyards, an epicenter of meat processing back in the Wild Wild West. The steakhouse there, H3 Ranch, was exactly what I wanted to find while I was in town. It looked like the Texas out of my imagination: a time-capsuled cowboy saloon with at least half a dozen bison heads mounted on the wall and floorboards that creaked under spurred boots. On the menu were steaks cooked on steel grates over a hickory fire that blazed in an open kitchen. And all around me were cowboy-hat-sporting customers eating those bloody hunks of meat with nothing but a baked potato and a charred jalapeño as sides.
I thought about that place while eating at the new Malibu Farm in Newport Beach’s Lido Marina Village. As Duffy boats skimmed the harbor and the predominantly female clientele in sundresses gossiped on the patio, I realized I’d travelled from one end of the American ideological spectrum to the other. If H3 Ranch was the Texas of cowboy rodeos personified, Malibu Farm was California set on full hippie mode. My waiter informed me that everything in the restaurant was locally grown, organic and free from artificial sweeteners—a description that might have also applied to himself.
No doubt if I had asked one of those Texas steakhouse patrons to guess what a restaurant called “Malibu Farm” in California served, they’d answer with predictable clichés of granola and arugula. And they wouldn’t be wrong. As the newest branch of a growing chain that began in Malibu, Malibu Farm Lido only offered brunch during its soft-opening period and listed first on its menu was a “vegan, gluten-free granola” on top of “vegan cashew yogurt.” I passed on visiting the place until dinner service was introduced.
When it finally was, I chuckled when I found arugula in nearly every dish I tried. Malibu Farm is not kidding around with the arugula. It’s as if the kitchen decided to prove true every stereotype about us Californians being “granola-and-arugula-eating hippies.” The steak came with a side of arugula dressed as a salad even though the menu didn’t say it would. The chicken Parm was wearing a nest of arugula as a hat. And the chocolate cake—yes, even the chocolate cake—had an arugula leaf stuck in the whipped cream.
But that steak at Malibu Farm was better than the one I had in Texas. Herb-marinated and cooked to a perfectly pink center while charred on the exterior, this sliced-on-the-bias hangar steak couldn’t have been more flavorful and tender—the complete opposite of the Texas rib-eye I gnawed on a month ago. Its superiority didn’t stop there. There were the flavor bombs that came as diced, lightly pickled Portobello mushrooms. As a side, there was a twice-baked potato, which is always an improvement over a single-baked one. And the arugula salad—peppery, cold and refreshing—paired nicely with the rich meat and buttery potatoes.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Malibu Farm is that it manages to not only do chicken breast well in its chicken Parm, but it also improves on the original red-checkered-tablecloth Italian standard. The dish was nothing more than a pan-seared cutlet with mozzarella melted atop it, surrounded by shaved flecks of Parmigiano Reggiano, heirloom tomato, splotches of basil pesto, kalamata olive purée, crispy pancetta and, yes, arugula. But it was perfect. That this reimagining of a classic doesn’t involve a speck of breading or a drop of marinara makes it feel so light, new and guiltless that it’s actually a disservice to call it by the same name.
This is not to say there aren’t decadent gut bombs on the menu. The Newport Nachos, which is available at brunch as well as dinner, is drunken junk food at its best. Made with thick-as-tile chips like those you’d find at Northgate Gonzalez, savory beans, glops of sour cream and two kinds of cheese, it costs $13. The fact that the sour cream is actually crème fraîche and the beans are part of a Fresno chili should justify the price tag.
Dessert at Malibu Farm is as calorically dense as at any restaurant, with 13 flavors of homemade ice cream and three kinds of ice cream cake. But that chocolate cake I mentioned earlier was something else. It’s advertised as “grilled,” but it’s actually brûléed with sugar, then sprinkled with sea salt, which amplifies a cake so chocolatey, airy and fluffy it’s almost soufflé. In fact, the cake was so good it’s almost enough to forgive the arugula leaf in the whipped cream. Almost.
Malibu Farm Lido, 3420 Via Oporto, Newport Beach, (949) 791-2096; malibu-farm.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Dishes, $13-$36. Full bar.
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.