An experimental Chef’s Table hides in an Orange County strip mall

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Along the back wall of an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach, six diners are seated at a white counter overlooking a pizza oven. You turn to the busy dining room and never once glance at a menu – there isn’t one. Instead, they’ve all come for something far beyond the usual menu: an experimental tasting menu that doesn’t look like the pasta and pizza found at every other table. This is Bello Chef’s Table.

Over a dozen or more courses, chefs Zach Scherer and Andrew Adams guide guests through an evening of whatever they want. A well-composed dish served in early July becomes a playful take on pain perdu, a brioche soaked with “corn juice” instead of egg and topped with Hokkaido Uni. The natural cornstarch makes the exterior crispy and makes that whole bite taste like warm, slightly crunchy French toast wrapped in the chilled flavors of the sea. It speaks to the creativity of Scherer, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, and sous chef Adams. Other nights, they team up with Italian-born chef Sandro Nardone, owner of Bello by Sandro Nardone — the name is on the sign of the restaurant where Bello Chef’s Table resides — slinging burrata and salads and crispy octopus, but increasingly the chef’s counter also takes up her time.

Together, Scherer and Adams try to bring a new kind of conversation to the plate – one that Orange County has seldom seen. There are more than 8,000 restaurants in the region, but the few that offer chef’s tasting menus lean more towards refined and expected fine French cuisine. No one else does what Bello Chef’s Table does — host an entire fine-dining restaurant several nights a week at an existing (and already pretty busy) Italian restaurant. And it all takes place in a mall with a sprawling parking lot, tucked away behind Fashion Island and the Big Canyon Country Club.

Black cod.

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

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

A string of jobs led Scherer to Playground, the multi-genre restaurant in Santa Ana, where he eventually became executive chef. It was fast-paced, frenetic stuff and helped Scherer learn how to create and edit a menu in basically no time, aided by the constant chaos of one of Orange County’s busiest kitchens. “With Playground 1.0, we got 115 menus in two years,” says Scherer.

In 2019, Nardone was preparing to open Bello and he needed extra hands. Born in Atina, Italy, Nardone grew up in the restaurant industry, having previously managed Orange County restaurants such as Angelina’s Pizzeria in Dana Point. He was familiar with the scene, but he didn’t know Scherer; The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance after Nardone heard about Scherer’s menu-making exploits at Playground. Scherer, looking for a change of pace, agreed to join Nardone at Bello, which allowed the Italian to spend more time working in the room rather than being in the kitchen.

A squirt of caviar on top of minced fish in a gold-rimmed clear bowl.

A bite of caviar.

A cooking counter was initially not planned at Bello by Sandro Nardone. But as the months passed and the restaurant’s kitchen team remained stable, Scherer realized that the team could handle weekend service without him (it’s worth taking a seat at the Bello Chef’s Table just to watch the entire kitchen team prepare two restaurant menus served once) . Nardone was happy to give Scherer and Sous Chef Adams some counter space and a bit of the spotlight, so Scherer began conjuring up new dish ideas in his spare time.

“I see things musically, so I like this way of dining,” says Scherer of his menus. “That’s important to me because it feels more like a performance.” When asked which band best represents a night at Bello Chef’s Table, emo-loving Scherer tells Brand New. “But we must ask Andrew.”

“It’s more like Mars Volta,” Adams replies from behind.

Scherer relies on Adams for more than his band credentials. Adams is a mainstay for Scherer, helping cement his ambition and keeping 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 him organize his brain because he’s like a glutton in the kitchen.”

Adams streamlines prep and adds his baking experience to a night out, often with a plethora of unexpected ingredients like a sweet squid ink dessert from a recent menu. “I’ll think about putting red peppers in a dessert,” he says, “or if there’s anything lying around [in the walk-in], I’ll try to think of how this interesting savory thing could fit into a dessert.” The pair still edit on the fly, preferring to move quickly around the chef’s table. It’s an intimate, avant-garde meal shared with only a few people each week.

Due to the pacing of Bello Chef’s Table and Bello by Sandro Nardone, Scherer also relies on Instagram for inspiration. Heavily influenced by restaurants outside the United States, he’s serving up a flower-shaped stuffed waffle dish in July that’s a direct nod to Copenhagen’s Jordnær, one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Copenhagen’s Geranium and Ynyshir in Wales are others on his wish list. “It’s continuous research and learning,” he says. “I cook. I hang out with my wife. And I play a few video games. The rest of the time I’m on my phone and see the perspective of the world.” Granted, Scherer hasn’t traveled much, so he relies on the lens of social media to complement his vision.

“I grew up in rural San Diego,” he says. His mother, a librarian, gave him a deep appreciation for reading and the arts, and taught him the value of cataloging, learning, and storing knowledge for future use. (“If people don’t care [art and science]we’re all just chasing money,” he says.) He’s a Southern California kid who grew up slinging lavish plates in the playground but is now more interested in teasing out the otherworldly nuances of punchy modernist dishes.

Scherer’s ambiguous approach to dinner is challenging at times. He tries to forge his own path with sometimes more conservative Orange County diners, flaunting big ideas but quietly and serving his menu at a different restaurant. Scherer insists on pairing the wines but says he doesn’t drink. He is allergic to shrimp but occasionally serves them raw at the restaurant as part of an opening dish. “We always have a starter who sets the tone. When you think back to a play or a concert, you have to set a tone, let people know they’re going to experience something,” he says.

A chef in a white chef's coat stands in front of guests at a table in a restaurant.

Chef Zach Scherer.

A meal at the Bello Chef’s Table is Scherer’s artistic expression – a little messy and chaotic, but always interesting. And while the duo enjoys these meals, Adams is hoping the experience will evolve. “I love Bello and the Chef’s Table is definitely what we’re focusing on,” says Adams. “We’re thankful [Nardone] so we can do that 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 costs $245 for more than a dozen courses with wine pairing and lasts nearly three hours, so having the right meal companion is crucial. Scherer and Adams attend to customers themselves, discuss dishes and talk about everything from sourcing to rock bands. They’re trying to shed the bro-y image from their previous gigs and they don’t want to be marginalizing. Still, this meal isn’t for everyone.

“It is aimed at someone who is looking for something special,” says Scherer, “not at someone who is looking for delicious umami bombs in 13 courses in a row. There are times when I know, ‘Hey, this isn’t gonna be your thing, man. And I don’t want you to suffer if you don’t want to enjoy it.’ I’d rather build a culture around it and get people interested, rather than have people come and have them say, ‘Eww, that was weird.’” He mostly finds a willing audience on weekends, but with With so few seats and such a unique setup, not everyone knows they should even try Bello Chef’s Table.

Scherer and Adams think now, in booming Orange County, could be the best time to expand their diner base. There are people who are looking for new restaurants, new experiences and a greater sense of 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 appreciated. It’s like music: there’s a level where you want to feed your soul.”

Bello Chef’s Table is held weekly at 1200 Bison Avenue in Newport Beach. Reservations are possible tock.

A smiling diner talks to a chef at a pop-up restaurant.

Diners at a recent Bello Chef’s Table meal.
Derek van Oss

1200 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, CA 92660

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