Restaurants have so overused the buzz phrases farm-to-table and farm-to-fork over the past decade that they have pretty much lost their meaning, as a devastating exposé by the Tampa Bay Times recently showed. When someone told me about Oceans & Earth in Yorba Linda, these terms, along with sustainable seafood, were mentioned so much that it went in one ear and out the other. And even if the restaurant actually grew a few of its own vegetables, it wouldn’t be the first. Il Garage in Stanton seats you in its garden; I actually sat so close to the plant beds that grew the tomatoes I was eating on my plate that I could smell the fertilizer.
So when I ordered Oceans & Earth’s salad—which our server said is “really fresh”—I found it leafy and green, but still a salad. It wasn’t until later that I Googled the chef, Adam Navidi, and realized that that salad wasn’t just a salad. It was made from produce grown by the chef himself, who nurtured these plants not in his back yard, but on a working hydroponics farm in Brea that yields thousands of heads of lettuce, bushels of herbs, crates of tomatoes and other vegetables, which he sells at nearly all the local farmers’ markets, to other restaurants and through his Community Supported Agriculture subscribers.
Google him yourself, and you’ll learn through video interviews and photo essays that Navidi is a real farmer. What’s more, his Future Foods Farm is something of a sustainable-agriculture innovator. In 10 greenhouses located on the last vestiges of rural Orange County, Navidi has designed and built a nearly closed-loop system that involves live tilapia fish whose waste water feeds the plant beds, which then filters the water and subsequently recycles it back to the fish tanks—a real-life incarnation of that “Circle of Life” song from The Lion King. So while other restaurant cooks may tout on-site gardens as side projects to their eateries, it could be argued that, given the magnitude of his farm, Navidi’s restaurant is his side project. For sure, he’s the first chef I’ve encountered who, I can truly say, had a hand in what I was eating from seed to sauté.
But this review is about the food at his restaurant. And judging from the dishes I’ve eaten, Navidi is as good with the frying pan as he is with a shovel. One of the best I ate was a Burgundy-marinated skirt steak he dubbed Ron Burgundy’s Meat and Potatoes. The meat was flavorful down to the fibers and tenderer than skirt steak had any business being.
Though it could be a touch on the greasy side, Navidi also makes very good tilapia fish and chips. While the menu didn’t expressly say the fillets came from the fattest tenants of his aquaponics tanks, I would have to assume they did since the thick, moist flesh was far less muddy-tasting than other tilapias I’ve had of late. Best of all, he encased them in a batter that had a consistent crunch reminiscent of those last bits near the stick end of a Disneyland corndog.
Navidi’s best fish dish, however, was the Aquarium of the Pacific bouillabaisse (called that because it abides by recommendations from the nonprofit’s sustainable-seafood-advisory program). It was excellent despite the fact that, that night, Navidi ran out of the Santa Barbara Hope Ranch mussels that would have made up a third of the protein. In its stead, our server asked if it would be okay if the kitchen subbed in more of the local sea bass and shrimp. I said yes, and what arrived at the table was a stainless-steel pot in which Navidi simmered the seafood in white wine and butter. The fish was delicate, the shrimp sweet, but the real highlights were the julienned strips of seaweed, sliced zucchini and squash he included in the dish.
For shareable small plates, Navidi has the usual suspects of roasted bone marrow, poke, and a faux foie gras pâté he made from chicken liver and duck blood. But the most dramatic of them all might be the crab croquettes. Not only did the three golden, batter-covered balls of pure crabmeat come on a hunk of shale, but the croquettes were speared with alderwood twigs and surrounded by strands of kelp, as well. That last part drove home the ocean part of the restaurant’s name as the salad I ate earlier did the earth.
By the way, Navidi churns his own ice cream for dessert. If he had Holsteins at his farm, I don’t doubt that he’d be milking them himself with a stool and a bucket—the man is that committed and serious about Oceans & Earth’s greatness.
Oceans & Earth, 20305 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 970-7027; www.oceansandearthrestaurant.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 4-9 p.m.; Fri., 4-11 p.m.; Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$90, food only. 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.