By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
The prettiest dishes at Café R&D aren't coming out of the busy open kitchen; they're posing around the oval stretch of bar, or curled into the deep booths at martini time.
On a late spring evening, the kittens and cougars of the nearby Park Cities slink in before sundown to order cocktails and fork-fondle light fare at this newish oasis in Preston Center Plaza. The crowd is a mix of this neighborhood's versions of Bravo's "real housewives" and their men, who are a good decade or two into the good life. You can spot the second wives—tanned tennis-court calves, $100 blowouts, honking huge diamond rings. They're big sisters to younger singletons doing the Choo-foot floogie with their backs against barstools. The guys here, many a little blue pill older than the babes they're with, namedrop golf courses to each other and jump up to iPhone a biz partner from out on the sidewalk (no cell phones in the dining room).
It's a scene all right, heavy on thin, blond 40-plus women who know they're hot. Looking over the room from our booth in the elevated section above the bar, my dining companion, Roberto, offers a fierce description of the pack below: "Puma Thurmans."
All the action in this place can be a distraction from the good, if not spectacular, food. Part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group that includes Houston's (there's one directly across the parking lot), Café R&D was launched in the ritzy Fashion Island shopping plaza in Newport Beach, California, where it's still drawing Stepford-West cousins of our fellow diners. The University Park location is the second; a third opens in Santa Monica this summer.
Café R&D's emphasis is on indoor-outdoor ambience and attentive service, supporting a seasonally changing menu that features just a few choices among the starter, salad, sandwich and sushi categories. A half-dozen or so heavier entrées, a few more at dinner than at lunch, include the usual fillets of fin, feather and fur. Right now there are only two desserts: hot fudge sundae and banana cream pie.
In two visits—come between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., or make a reservation to avoid a wait—we tried a little of everything, finding a couple of items worth repeating. At these prices, however, return visits will be special occasions. A light lunch for three, without alcohol or desserts, edges just past 80 bucks.
The best bites we found are in side dishes and appetizers. With an entrée of center-cut fillet, it's the warm potato salad that gets our attention. Coarsely chopped spuds are stirred up with green peas, corn kernels, onions and warm bits of bacon. It's like a loaded baked potato that's shed its skin and gone shopping for accessories. The fillet is fine too, but without a sauce the little round mound of dry beef looks a mite lonely on its side of the big oval plate.
A potluck supper was the last time we tasted deviled eggs as creamy as the appetizer version here. Stirred into the yokes is a dollop of mustard and mayo, some salt and pepper, paprika and teeny-tiny bits of something crunchy, possibly celery or finely chopped scallions. Big yum.
Guacamole is a ubiquitous starter, but Café R&D's has a sweetness that perks it right up. Chunks of the creamy fresh fruit sit nicely on warm tostada chips. Too bad the order comes with so few of those, only 10 small chips per, not nearly enough for proper sharing. We were hoping our server would drop a few extras our way. Instead, she cleared the unfinished plate, which still had lots of guac left on it.
Serving sizes here feel about right otherwise, but there can still be too much of a good thing. The Newporter salad sports a just-enough clump of spring greens. A few thin slices of chicken breast hide among julienned apples, cherry tomatoes, purple onion, bacon and cashews. The menu description doesn't mention cheese, but the salad comes wearing a superfluous hood of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Plus chopped egg. Plus golden raisins. And besides the cashews there are fat walnuts and chopped almonds throughout. Fewer nuts, less cheese and egg, and more chicken might be nicer.
Roberto, our vegan diner, is happy with his no-tuna version of Café R&D's seared tuna Mediterranean salad. Tossed into the greens are fat, sweet balls of fresh beets, cold fingerling potatoes, olives, yellow tomatoes, cucumbers and other crunchies. He also approves of the veggie sushi roll and is impressed that the server puts it on the table, then quickly removes it for fear some stray anchovy paste might have sneaked into the filling. She returns with assurances from the chef that the roll and its contents are completely creature-free.
Slices of California roll look lovely standing on end on their pristine saucer, but the filling is sopping with mayonnaise. Even a swipe of wasabi doesn't cut the gooeyness. It's a too-tame wasabi by half. Need that burn.
Our threesome shares a side of fries, but we wish we'd ordered more. They come in a loose knot of shoestring-cut potatoes, flash-fried in long shreds, then dusted with salt, pepper and parsley flakes. The tablespoon of pink dressing alongside isn't enough for three and isn't as good as fresh ketchup would be.