O'Neill's Bar and Grill at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club
By Rich Manning
Let’s face it: A restaurant in south Orange County is a hard sell to anyone who lives north of the El Toro Y. Not that it’s a bad region or anything, mind you – on the contrary, I have long been envious of its beautifully undulating landscape and how it compares to the painfully vanilla flatness of central OC. Really, its only flaw is that it suffers from the illusion of distance, an affliction that even people from the buffer city of Irvine seem to battle. It seems to take effort to get to cities like Mission Viejo, and this mindset poses a unique challenge to the restaurants bold enough to set up shop in an area of such perceived isolation. For these places, the cuisine that they present not only has to be good, it has to be “willing to drive past the Y” good. And O’Neill’s Bar and Grill in Mission Viejo just so happens to be one of these hallowed venues.
Now, I know that the phrase “bar and grill” in a restaurant’s moniker may conjure up images of tackily dressed waiters serving clichéd entrees amidst a dining room whose garish décor rivals that of a fraternity house. Rest assured O’Neill’s steers as far away from these worn peccadilloes as they possibly can. Instead of being surrounded by all sorts of gaudy accoutrements, O’Neill’s is set inside a cozy venue awash in the soothing earth tones naturally created by the wood and stone that dominates the décor. This refreshing departure is most evident in the bar area where my wife and I enjoyed our dinner, as deep, comfortable chairs and the playful flicks of flame emanating from its fireplace wrapped us snug in an ambience highly reminiscent of a wintry Big Bear or Wrightwood lodge. Granted, O’Neill’s location may have lent to the venue bucking against type, as it is part of the Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, a stunningly beautiful public-access golf complex tucked in the foothills behind Saddleback Community College. But regardless of the reason, the end result is splendid.
As far as the cuisine goes, it was clearly evident that O’Neill’s culinary goal is to utterly destroy the bland connotation that oftentimes plaques so-called “bar and grill” food. All the proof of this ambition I needed came in the form of the pulled pork and beef sliders that we started our meal with at the behest of our server, Lazz (who was truly one of the best servers we’ve had in a long time). The slow-smoked meat was cooked with its fat intact, which made every bite tender, succulent, and jam-packed with bold flavor. The meats are also cooked in O’Neill’s delicious barbecue sauce, which is based on a recipe created by Richard O’Neill, who was the founder of the old Rancho Mission Viejo that dominated the South Orange County landscape over a century ago. The sauce, which has a decidedly sweet zing to it on its own, subtly takes on the flavor qualities of the meat it is cooked in, which allows it to work with the meat’s intense flavor instead of countering it. The sense of tasteful balance was also on full display in the half-dozen barbecue hot wings we also devoured. Instead of my mouth being coated in a sea of flames, I could actually taste the meat on the plump wings. The smoky tang of the chipotle sauce and the sweetness of barbecue that I used to dip the fowl lent an enhanced shade of flavor to each bite that was not intrusive in any way. We also stepped away from the barbecue motif long enough to enjoy their seared pepper ahi, which had a delectably latent spicy note to it without sacrificing the fresh flavor of the perfectly singed fish. The dish did come with wasabi and pickled ginger, but you probably won’t need to put either item to use.
Our palates were beautifully refreshed by O’Neill’s Napa Valley wine salad, which was one of the more beautiful looking salads I have seen in a while. There was something in this plate for every taste bud; from the earthiness of the greens and the bits of herb-encrusted chicken to the sweetness of the citrus segments and candied walnuts, from the bitter creaminess of the brie to the unrelenting tartness of the raspberry vinaigrette. Definitely a must-try for those who believe that a salad should contain more than two ingredients or colors, but be warned that the presence of the chicken could make it eat like a meal.
Of course, the salad’s size was not going to deter us from excitedly digging into our main entrees, which matched the quality of the first two courses stride for stride. My wife’s grilled artichoke skirt steak was cooked to a perfect shade of medium-rare pink, which made the cut burst with luscious beefy goodness. The bed of pablano chile risotto the steak rested on combined with the meat to give each bite a nice depth in both taste and texture. While her entrée had South American genes, the rack of BBQ baby back ribs I had decidedly evoked the land’s ghosts of yore. It had been a long time since I had indulged in a plate of ribs in California, and these Kansas City-style babies did not disappoint. They didn’t have the “fall off the bone” quality to them, but such a feature was deemed irrelevant in the face of just how smoky and tender these ribs were. And just like the chicken we had previously, the flavor of the rib meat was delectably discernable even as it seeped in the sweetness of the Richard O’Neill inspired sauce. The dish also featured the biggest happy surprise of the evening, in the form of the plate’s generous side of ranch style beans. Normally, I’m not much into baked beans, but I could have eaten a barrel of these impossibly smoky beauties. The ranch hands of yesteryear would have been proud.
I’m pretty sure said ranch hands would have thoroughly enjoyed the deserts that we indulged in afterward. Yes, I had a chocolate based treat again, in the form of their molten chocolate cake. And yes, it was exquisitely rich and decadent. As good as my dessert was, my wife’s bread pudding would have been a better cap to my meal. Her delightful delicacy was light, chock full of bananas, and topped with a yummy homemade caramel sauce. It was like taking a bite out of a Southern bakery, and it made me a bit jealous despite my enjoyment of my own chocolaty delight.
O’Neill’s is currently working on developing a website for themselves that is independent from the golf club, which is a very good thing – currently their internet presence is pretty minimal. Yet even though they are a little tough to find online, the culinary work that they are turning out in this magnificently inviting facility should make it quite easy for any self-respecting foodie to seek it out on a terrestrial level. Indeed, it is worth the trip, even if such a journey means biting the bullet and plunging downward past the dreaded El Toro Y.
By Rich Manning
Visit site for more info: www.arroyotrabuco.com