Event - Riveria Magazine's "To Live & Dine" Orange County 2014

As the food-loving crowd of Orange County gallivanted about the South Coast Plaza Village on the evening of August 7th, some of the best chefs the county has to offer were wiping their brows with the upper sleeves of their chef's coats and putting signature touches on bite-sized food. It was the 2014 "To Live & Dine" event hosted by Riviera Magazine, a much anticipated food foray that pits chefs against one another in a friendly battle for votes. Each attendee clasped their one vote in the form of a gold coin and tried tastings from restaurants they both knew and maybe have never heard of; whatever was the "best taste" for the guest would get the vote. How does one pick when sixteen chefs have put their best food forward? There was a tasty assortment but we did have our favorites...

The Chef's Challenge was in a new location this year, a departure from their previous stints at the South Coast Collection (SOCO) but not too far off. Still within Costa Mesa's confines, the newer space was a welcome change of pace and as we navigated ourselves around, a better layout for the event. Spread out further apart than previous years, the restaurant tables had more space to decorate and set up both table settings and pull-up banners. Plenty of lounge areas and highboy cocktail tables were scattered about to give guests some intimacy with their own parties. Several sponsors were present as well, sampling out their products and engaging with the guests. This year's celebrity hosts were Chef Stan Frazier and Wahoo's Wing Lam, two exuberant and easy-to-talk-to people that circulated among the chefs, getting to know what special weapons each had brought.

Th team at Haven Gastropub always seems to be trying out new methods and ways to approach food. Their entry this year was Chef Craig Brady's Leek Ash-Coffee coated Yellowtail Crudo with sambuca-pickled watermelon, miso aioli and cucumber foam. It was a refreshing summer bite. Waterline Newport Beach's Chef Vincent Lesage brought forth a floral theme to display and on the bite - his was the first picture in this article of the Lobster Roll with yuzu wasabi vinaigrette and chipotle dipping sauce; a beautiful bite that came conveniently resting on a spoon-like plate. Along the summer refreshment theme was a picking of Pickled Watermelon with pickled jicama and hawaiian sea salt, papaya, and cilantro by Executive Chef Mike Doctulero of Scott's Restaurant & Bar. Sushi Chef David Fernandez of Ten Asian Bistro brought on his hefty and large portioned Kitchen Sink Handrolls in soy paper with a variety of fresh fish; it was one we really loved. There was also a tantalizing plate of Pork Belly on sweet corn by Executive Chef Cathy Pavlos of Provenance, a chef who always seems to know how to handle the fatty meat part. Chef Marcus Lage of Tommy Bahama's Island Grille brought along a boat of Vadouvan-dusted Salmon on top of bresaola cassoulet with crostini. There was also plenty of bread to be had at the BREAD Bakery booth.

The star-studded list continued with Chef Dante Ascenzi of Wildfish who had a plate of Asian Style Scallops & Bacon with braised pork belly, shimeji mushrooms, and sweet soy caramel for everyone. Wild Goose Tavern in Costa Mesa caught people's attention when they brought their own spit for the freshly carved El Pastor Taco by Chef Chris Rubinstein. There were bowls of Coconut Shrimp Ceviche with Mexican white shrimp, coconut meat, fresno chiles, and orange with toasted shredded coconut by Chef Niki Starr Weyler of Mesa. In keeping with Costa Mesa, Maggiano's Little Italy had a presence as well; Chef Josef Bartos contributed tastes of Smoked Brisket Cannelloni and Tiramisu. The last "To Live & Dine" incumbent chef, Executive Chef Chicken Wang/Jason Montelibano did not fail to create a book-focused space for his Chapter One: The Modern Local table; he shared with guests a Bay Scallop Ceviche blended in a Peruvian style with olive oil mixed with lime juice and aji amarillo pepper topped with Peruvian "corn nuts", sliced onion, cilantro, micro mint lime, and a red beet gelee. One of the most enthusiastic stops that evening was at Silver Trumpet who urged us back for their dessert later in the night. Executive Chef Eddie Garcia there handed out generously-sized Seared Sea Scallop served on bed of goat cheese potato puree with spicy osso frito braised pork. Near the lounge area, Chef Natasha Kazic of Wild Strawberry Cafe provided assorted desserts and chocolate dipped strawberries.

With all of the wonderful bites abound, it was difficult to find a favorite so we had to narrow it down to our two most memorable (savory) tastes of the night. The first one was the Land & Sea made of twisted and crispy prosciutto, hamachi sashimi, toy box melon, yellow peach, and a mint-cilantro vinaigrette by Executive Chef Aaron Anderson of Harlow's. Their sign also displayed which farms and producers contributed to the dish, a community-driven way to really showcase what the restaurant is all about and give credit where it is due. We also could not resist the skillful Pork Belly Sliders by Chef Scott Brandon of Fireside Tavern who chased these rich and practically sinful mini-burgers with a cocktail called the Kentucky Riviera made of small batch bourbon infused with cherry, vanilla, and rhubarb. An honorable mention goes out to that dessert we returned for made by by Executive Chef Eddie Garcia of Silver Trumpet - a Dark Chocolate Tres Leches Malt Cake with whipped cream and crushed malted milk balls.

Alas, there could only be one winner though and that coveted title went to a newcomer on the food scene, Executive Chef Marc Johnson for Oak Grill & Aqua Lounge. He was another chef who brought a twofer that evening with both an entree bite and dessert: Togorashi-Crusted Seared Ahi with yuzu marinated bok choy and miso coconut snow next to a decadent, warm Pineapple Butter Cake. The cake was one of those that we had to get seconds of though so it was not too surprising to see a win there. Let's see, next year, if Chef Marc will be able to defend his title! Overall, the turnout was just as large or larger than the previous years and every attendee appeared to have an enjoyable time. We're looking forward to the next "To Live & Dine" to see just what exactly these chefs (and other participating ones) will have up their sleeves.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook.