clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An Experimental Chef’s Table Hides Inside an Orange County Strip Mall

The funky, semi-underground Bello Chef’s Table is turning heads well beyond Newport Beach

A wide room of diners sits at a chef’s counter while a man in whites speaks and another person drops dishes.
Diners seated at Bello Chef’s Table in Orange County.
Derek Van Oss

Along the back wall of a Newport Beach Italian restaurant, six diners sit at a white counter overlooking a pizza oven. Their backs are turned to the bustling dining room, and they never once look down at a menu — there isn’t one. Instead, they’ve each come for something well beyond the usual bill of fare: an experimental tasting menu that looks nothing like the pastas and pizzas found at every other table. This is Bello Chef’s Table.

Across a dozen or more courses, chefs Zach Scherer and Andrew Adams guide diners through an evening of basically whatever they want. A well-composed dish served in early July ends up being a playful take on pain perdu, brioche drenched in “corn juice” instead of egg and topped with Hokkaido uni. The natural cornstarch crisps up the exterior, making the whole bite taste like warm, slightly crusty French toast draped in the chilled flavors of the sea. It speaks to the creativity of Scherer, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, and sous chef Adams. On other nights they’re working with Italian-born executive chef Sandro Nardone, owner of Bello by Sandro Nardone — the name on the sign for the restaurant where Bello Chef’s Table resides — slinging burrata and salads and crispy octopus, but, increasingly, the chef’s counter occupies their time.

Together, Scherer and Adams are trying to have a new kind of conversation on the plate — one that Orange County has rarely seen. The region is home to more than 8,000 restaurants, but the few that offer chef’s tasting menus tend to skew toward refined and expected upscale French cooking. Nobody else is doing what Bello Chef’s Table is doing — hosting an entire fine dining restaurant within an existing (and already quite busy) Italian restaurant, several nights per week. And it’s all going down in a retail plaza with a gaping parking lot, hidden away behind Fashion Island and the Big Canyon Country Club.

A close up shot of flakey white fish in a yellow sauce in a blue bowl.
Black cod.

That pain perdu corn bite will disappear one day soon (even Scherer isn’t sure when), though diners will certainly continue to see seafood during future nights at the chef’s counter. “Seafood to me has the most character to it,” says Scherer. “Meat is great but it doesn’t have the depth that you can get with some seafood. Uni and hamachi are wildly different. That’s kind of the idea: to have flavors that are unique and stand out on their own. It lends itself to a delicateness that I like.”

Bello Chef’s Table, or the Bello by Sandro Nardone restaurant that contains it, is not where Scherer thought he would end up. For a while, he had plans to be a professional musician, followed by a career in gaming. Eventually, he found his true cadence with cooking. “I used to be this pseudo-semi-pro gamer when I was like 17,” he says. “All my friends went into video game development and I went into cheffing.”

A string of jobs led Scherer to Playground, the genre-bending Santa Ana restaurant, where he eventually became chef de cuisine. It was fast-paced, frenetic stuff, and helped Scherer learn how to both create and edit a menu basically on the fly, backed by the constant chaos of one of Orange County’s busiest kitchens. “At Playground 1.0, we came up with 115 menus in two years,” says Scherer.

In 2019, Nardone was readying to open Bello, and he needed some extra hands. Born in Atina, Italy, Nardone is a child of the restaurant industry and previously ran Orange County restaurants like Angelina’s Pizzeria in Dana Point. He was familiar with the scene but did not know Scherer; the two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance after Nardone heard of Scherer’s menu-making exploits at Playground. Scherer, seeking a change of pace, agreed to join Nardone at Bello, freeing up the Italian to spend more time working the room, instead of being in the kitchen.

An overhead shot of caviar on top of chopped fish in a clear bowl with gold rim.
A caviar bite.

At first, there was no plan for a chef’s counter at Bello by Sandro Nardone. But as the months moved along and the restaurant’s kitchen staff remained steady, Scherer realized that the team could handle weekend service without him (it’s worth a seat at Bello Chef’s Table alone just to watch the whole kitchen staff crank out two restaurant menus at once). Nardone was happy to let Scherer and sous chef Adams take up some counter space and a bit of spotlight, so Scherer began to conjure up new dish ideas in his off-hours.

“I see things in a musical manner, and that’s why I like this style of dining,” says Scherer of his menus. “It’s important to me because it comes off as more of a performance.” When asked what band best represents a night at Bello Chef’s Table, the emo-loving Scherer says Brand New. “But we need to ask Andrew.”

“It’s more Mars Volta,” responds Adams from the back.

Scherer relies on Adams for more than just his band references. Adams is a support pillar for Scherer, helping to steady his ambition and keep things level. “It’s Zach’s vision,” says Adams, who has cooked with Scherer on and off since 2016, when they were both at Playground. “I help organize his brain because he’s like a wolverine in the kitchen.”

Adams streamlines the prep and adds his pastry experience to an evening, often with a flourish of unexpected ingredients like a sweet squid ink dessert from a recent menu. “I’ll think about how I can put red peppers into a dessert,” he says, “or if something is sitting around [in the walk-in], I’ll try to think of how that interesting savory thing can work into a dessert.” The pair still edit on the fly, preferring to move fast at the chef’s table. It’s an intimate, avant-garde meal shared with only a few people each week.

Because of the pace of Bello Chef’s Table and Bello by Sandro Nardone, Scherer also relies on Instagram to keep him inspired. He cops to being heavily influenced by restaurants outside of the United States, plating a flower-shaped stuffed waffle dish served in July that is a direct nod to Jordnær in Copenhagen, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Copenhagen’s Geranium and Ynyshir in Wales are others on his bucket list. “It’s continual research and learning,” he says. “I cook. I hang out with my wife. And I play some video games. The rest of the time, I’m on my phone and seeing the perspective of the world.” Admittedly, Scherer has not traveled extensively, so he relies on the lens of social media to supplement his vision.

“I grew up in the ruralist part of San Diego,” he says. His mother, a librarian, gave him a deep appreciation of reading and the arts, and taught him the value of cataloging, learning, and storing knowledge away for future use. (“If people don’t put value on [art and science], we’re all just hustling for money,” he says.) He is a Southern California kid who grew up slinging rich plates at Playground, but is now more interested in teasing out the nuances of expressive modernist dishes from halfway around the world.

Scherer’s dichotomous approach to dinner is challenging at times. He is trying to forge his own road with sometimes more-conservative Orange County diners, showing big ideas, but quietly, serving his menu inside of a different restaurant. Scherer insists on pairing the wines, but says that he does not drink. He is allergic to shrimp, but serves it raw at the restaurant on occasion, as part of an opening dish. “We always have a starter that sets a tone. Reflecting back to a play or a concert, you have to set a tone, let people know that they’re in for an experience,” he says.

A chef in a white chef’s coat stands in front of diners at a table inside a restaurant.
Chef Zach Scherer.

A meal at Bello Chef’s Table is Scherer’s artistic expression — a little messy and chaotic but always interesting. And while the duo is having fun with these meals, Adams hopes the experience will continue to evolve. “I love Bello and the chef’s table is what we’re focused on for sure,” says Adams. “We’re grateful to [Nardone] so we can do this secondary thing, but I think Zach and Drew’s funky restaurant is the angle.”

The “funky” counter requires an open mind, an open calendar, and an open wallet. A full meal is $245 for a dozen-plus courses with wine pairings, and lasts for nearly three hours, so the right dining companion is crucial. Scherer and Adams attend to customers themselves, discussing dishes and talking about everything from sourcing to rock bands. They’re trying to shed the bro-y image of their previous gigs and they don’t want to be exclusionary. Still, this meal is not for everyone.

“It’s aimed at someone who’s looking for something different,” says Scherer, “not someone who’s looking for tasty umami bombs 13 courses in a row. There are times when I know, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to be your cup of tea, man. And I don’t want you to suffer through this if you’re not going to enjoy it.’ I’d rather build a culture around what this is and get people interested in it, rather than trick people into coming and having them say, ‘Eww, that was weird.’” He mostly finds willing audiences on weekends, but with so few seats and such a unique setup, not everyone knows to try Bello Chef’s Table in the first place.

Scherer and Adams believe that now, this moment in booming Orange County, may be the best time to broaden their diner base. There are people out looking for new restaurants, seeking new experiences and a greater sense of meaning from them. “There are a lot of things we lose when we have to live [during times like the pandemic],” says Scherer, “but the togetherness and expressiveness in the restaurant space is something that should be cherished. It’s like music: There’s a level where you want to feed your soul.”

Bello Chef’s Table runs weekly at 1200 Bison Avenue in Newport Beach. Reservations are available on Tock.

A smiling diner speaks with a chef at a pop-up restaurant.
Diners at a recent Bello Chef’s Table meal.
Derek Van Oss

Bello Chef's Table

1200 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, CA 92660
LA Restaurant Openings

The Next Chapter for This Arts District Wine Bar Includes Pét Nat and Jewish Deli Fare

Eater Inside

A Luxurious Hot Pot Restaurant From China Just Opened Its First U.S. Location in Southern California

Where to Eat in LA Right Now

Best Dishes Eater Editors Ate This Week: February 26