Sunday, December 28, 2008

Park Avenue -- name does not match experience

Park Avenue

11200 Beach Blvd Stanton, CA 90680 (714) 901-4400

Heard all these good things about Park Avenue, so when a friend decided to have her birthday celebrations there, I was excited and eager to be part of it. Our medium sized group of eight arrived with the exception of one who was lagging behind due to a flight delay, but it didn't matter. We took the time to settle into our seats and perused the menu while we waited.

Bread baskets and water were brought out and whipped butter both plain and with bits of orange cranberry dotted the little plates. I tasted the bread and was immediately impressed by it -- great flavor and I liked how the butter enhanced and complemented the bread.

While waiting we decided to order some appetizers to share. Tenderloin bites and lobster corn fritters were both outstanding. The menu stated that the tenderloin bites were marinated with soy, lime and garlic and it was obvious by the first bite. Not only were these bite sized beef chunks tender and moist, but extremely flavorful. And although I couldn't taste the lobster in the fritters, they were just the right texture -- not too hard or too soft -- and fried perfectly. This made me even more excited about the meal ahead.

Soon, we all placed our main course orders and waited for our meals to arrive. Given that there were this many of us, I wasn't really fazed by the length of time we waited. Our bread baskets had been empty a long time and while our water carafes were refilled over and over again, the bread basket had been sitting there bare for more than 30 mins now. I brought this to the attention of our server who said he would take care of it. A few minutes turned into more than 10, until the birthday girl finally brought it to our server's attention again. He informed her that he was waiting for the baguette to be ready so it could be served alongside the cranberry bread. I guess she told him it wasn't necessary and to bring it out as is because we got our bread pretty soon after that.

When our main courses arrived I noticed that none of us who ordered steaks or chops had steak knives. In fact, there wasn't even a regular knife since we had used it for the appetizers. I quickly pointed this out as I really didn't like eating cold food and it was cooling down each second the knives weren't on the table. Our server murmured apologies regarding the lack of knives and his reasoning was because they were being polished. Just a sorry about that would have sufficed.

The other thing which was rather obvious was the fact that the main courses had that outdated feel about them. Presentation was seriously lacking -- practically non-existent. My NY steak was just sitting there with thin carrot ribbons on one side and scalloped potatoes on the other. The other diners' meals were the same: mixed grill was just the three items alongside mashed potatoes with the same thin ribboned carrots. No imagination in the presentation whatsoever.

I could've overlooked the presentation had the food blown me away. After eating the appetizers I was sorely disappointed by my main course. This being a 'steak and chop' house, the steak was subpar beyond belief. My steak was flavorless. At first I thought, well maybe they forgot to season it. I picked up the salt on the table and I shook my head when I saw it was the regular type of table salt. Luckily, I carry a salt grinder in my purse filled with sea salt. I sprinkled some onto my steak but it really didn't help much. The steak still remained pretty bland. We'd just returned from Vegas and I had a $10 steak which tasted far better than this almost $30 steak at Park Ave. In fact, I didn't finish my meal. My husband ate my scalloped potatoes and my son had some of my steak. I even left a piece unfinished on my plate. I rarely waste food, but I will not hesitate to leave inedible food behind. It was unfortunate that this was one of those times.

My husband's lamb chops were okay, still not the best I've ever had. I've bought lamb chops from Whole Foods which were more tasty. All in all, I think disappointed is too lax a word to use for this experience. Maybe after hearing the hype, I just expected a whole lot more. Maybe, because their prices were above average, I expected more. Maybe because Park Avenue presents itself to be a little more sophisticated, I'd expected service to be on par with that aspect, but again, I was let down. Everything was really mediocre at best -- the food, the service. The only redeeming factor was that the birthday girl enjoyed her main course -- swordfish. That was really the most important thing.

Would I come back again? Probably not for dinner. There's a different menu at lunch time -- perhaps that would be better? I don't know. But what I do know is that Park Avenue does not live up to the hype, nor does the quality of food vs cost ratio go hand in hand. I'm left feeling cheated by a lackluster meal with uninspiring service for a price which really doesn't justify the goods we received.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba -- Tasty tapas tidbits

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba
3200 Las Vegas Blvd S, Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 258-1211

Tapas. It's something my family loves and can eat lots of. Only problem is, outside of San Francisco, we've not had much luck finding seriously great tapas restaurants. In Vegas, we tried Firefly, but it was really dismal. We tried a lot of items but nothing stood out. Call us stupid, call us hopeful. Whatever it is, we were on a quest to find some halfway decent tapas. I had found a new place called RE Tapas, but they were closed. My husband searched via cell phone and found Cafe Ba Ba Reeba -- which, incidentally, was in the mall we were in at the time of search so off we went, fingers crossed.

When we entered, the woman asked us if we were wanting to dine in Ba Ba Reeba or Stripburger. HUH? The restaurant is separated into two sections: one section is for the tapas restaurant, while the other, a burger restaurant. So confusing. I wanted to sit by the window for better lighting and since most of the tapas restaurant was dark, I chose a table by the door to Stripburger.

The menu wasn't large so it was quite easy to maneuver. My husband was busy talking on his cell so I went ahead and ordered. My son wanted pizza and I wanted to just try a few things in case they weren't all that good. A bread basket was brought out with tasty crusty bread while we waited.

Padron peppers arrived along with the garlic shrimp. As soon as I tasted the shrimp I smiled. I'll have to say, these were even better than the ones at Zarzuela (my favorite tapas place of all time). The shrimps were plump and had that fresh snap to them. They weren't stingy on the garlic either, nor were they shy about using seasoning. This dish was fantastic -- we ended up ordering another.

Padron peppers were also nicely seasoned with sea salt and were grilled perfectly! The chorizo pizza had cherry tomato halves and the crust was thin and crispy -- delightful after so many bad pizzas we've had elsewhere. The only thing I thought was a tad weak was the seared sea scallops. Although the scallops were very fresh, the accompanying couscous and tapanade was under seasoned and didn't do much for the scallops.

My husband had some sangria and I took a sip. Very well balanced without being overly sweet. I thoroughly enjoyed our meal even though it was very pricey for what we got. Our total came to about $80 tip included. Still, it was thoroughly enjoyable and service wasn't bad either.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

'tis the season for family

The cold weather is the ideal time for people to come together for hotpot dinners. Traditionally, hotpot is eaten during Chinese New Year where family gather around the table and eat for hours on end. Everyone huddles over the pot of boiling broth dipping pieces of meat, seafood, vegetables into the communal pot to cook together.

I was invited to my friend Anh's home for such a joyous occasion. Anh's and her husband's family were having a Christmas celebration and hotpot was the main attraction. Since getting a hotpot dinner together is a bit of a production, I felt really honored to be joining them as a guest.

Anh's family is of Vietnamese heritage so food is always the center of any family get togethers. There was sticky rice with soy chicken, fried chicken marinated with lemongrass, salt and pepper crabs among the yummy offerings on the table. Unlike the hotpots I do in our home, Anh spent the
afternoon cooking up two pots of broth especially for this event: one spicy using a ma la base, while the other, using Chinese medicinal herbs for flavoring. I noticed goji berries floating in the latter pot. Ma la seasoning comes from the Sichuan peppercorn berries which leave a tingling sensation on the tongue. While some people might find this a rather daunting experience, I absolutely love it!

To complete the hotpot meal plates of raw items are placed around the pot so guests can pick and choose what they want and cook it themselves in the seasoned broth. Plump shrimp, snow white pieces of calamari, thinly sliced beef, beef balls, as well as lots and lots of greens cover the entire table. My favorite hotpot vegetable tong ho (chrysanthemum leaves) prettily adorn the tray alongside baby mustard greens and bok choy. There are two types of mushroom: shiitake and button. The choice is endless.

I started off eating the lemongrass chicken Anh had been busy frying up. It was absolutely delicious! The chicken was tender and moist and the marinade had seeped entirely into the meat m
aking it flavorful bite after bite. Then, it was time to dig into the star of the night. Anh had made a dipping sauce out of sa cha sauce (Chinese bbq sauce) and we were to add chilis if we wanted them. I certainly did. I took a slice of beef, dipped it into the ma la broth, swished it for a few seconds and then dipped it into the sa cha sauce and placed it into my mouth. Heavenly! I did this over and over again with different items for almost two hours, finally finishing off with vegetables.

I was glad I sat on my end of the table. We were all in for the long haul so to speak. The other end had given up long ago. I wish I had worn my sweat pants instead of jeans as I had completely stuffed myself silly. As I sat there in a food daze, Anh was up and about making root beer floats for the kids.

We stayed for a little while longer until my little guy looked like he was ready to call it a night. But before leaving, I was graced with two ziploc bagfuls of leftovers to enjoy the next day.

I thanked my wonderful hosts Anh and her husband Hung for their hospitality and felt all warm and fuzzy from the meal and grateful for all the wonderful friends I have made here -- plus, it doesn't hurt that they are all wonderful cooks and as in love with food as I am!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hangari Kalgooksu -- carbo overload Korean style

Hangari Kalgooksu

9916 Garden Grove Blvd, Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 537-0100

Every cuisine has its own comfort food and to me, a bowl of noodles regardless of region is always soothing on a cold day. Located in Orange County's Koreatown, Garden Grove, Hangari Kalgooksu serves its namesake, kalgooksu, or soup noodles. The restaurant is clean and bright, the clientele, all Korean. At first I felt a tad intimidated by the paper place mat with the menu all in Korean printed on it. I was thinking it's going to be a challenge ordering today. I then took a photo of the menu and texted it to a girlfriend to see if she could make light of it.

When my friends arrived, they were the ones who found the English menu on the table on the other side of the Korean menu. Yes, it's too early in the morning for me. After perusing and discussing, we decided on three items to share... the #1 which was kalgooksu -- seafood noodles in soup, #2 jangtuhgooksu -- noodles with vegetables was what we were told, and #7 ddukmandoogook -- dumplings with rice cakes in soup. A small tureen of kimchi was brought out and believe it or not, it was positively THE BEST kimchi I've ever tasted. Here, they use bok choy instead of napa cabbage and the texture is lovely.The spice was also perfect with just the right amount of kick even my 8 year old was eating it up.

A small plate of steamed barley was brought out for each of us. We ate it with the kimchi and it was delicious. The barley was nutty and textural-wise and while eating it I was wondering why other restaurants didn't serve it like that.

The noodles soon arrived piping hot in earthen bowls. Kalgooksu was quite tasty with slices of king oyster mushroom, shrimp, seaweed, scallions. Ddukmandoogook had dumplings and rice cake ovalettes in it. And while jangtuhgooksu looked the prettiest, it appealed the least to all of us. The noodles were thin somen noodles and were too mushy. It also soaked up a lot of the broth too quickly. We left most of that uneaten. Everyone agreed that the kalgooksu was far better. Mandoo, or dumplings, were outstanding as I was told, since I never got to them in time. My son ended up eating the dumplings and nothing else so I'm certain the dumplings were fantastic. This kid has a palate like no other kid his age.

The noodles are accompanied with a small plate of chili paste which you can add to your noodles at your own leisure. There are also 3 jars of different chili concoctions on the table, including sea salt should you need more to season your noodles. This way, everyone can season their own noodles according to their own taste. I liked the one with the chopped chilis because it was on the spicy side and I love spicy foods.

Hangari Kalgooksu is wonderful for a hearty lunch with family as their portions are large enough to share. Other items on the menu are various tempura, steamed mandoo and fried mandoo. Next time, we'll definitely get a platter of the steamed mandoo and tempura, but we'll have to bring a few more friends along to share in the festivities!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My obsession with Vietnamese food part 1

I've decided to periodically pay homage to some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes simply because I'm totally addicted to this cuisine. I find that I must somehow satiate my desire at least twice or three times a week, so I might as well document my constant hunt for the next Vietnamese dish so you can also partake on some of these delicious findings.

I'm going to start with cha ca thang long -- dill turmeric fish. This dish is always served with a plateful of fresh greens including lettuce, mint, perilla leaves and cilantro -- the variation may change depending on where you go but you'll be sure to get some, if not all of the herbs. A little plate of peanuts and sesame seed cracker are also given as well as a plate of rice vermecelli and a small bowl of shrimp paste sauce.

I'm not sure if there is a correct way to eat it, but what I like to do is to layer the bottom of my bowl with some vermecelli, then drizzle some shrimp paste sauce on it before I break apart the various greens and top with the fish and wilted onions and dill. The shrimp paste sauce can be intimidating to the untrained palate as it is slightly pungent, and doesn't look very appetizing. However, if you can get over that, it is what binds the entire dish together.

Cha ca thang long
is not a cheap dish -- generally it's around $13 although the highest I've come across has been $15. There are quite a few places which serve it up, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what's available out there, but here are just a sampling of what I've found.

Ha Noi
(9082 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-901-8108)
When the original owners still were in charge, this place had some of the best dill turmeric fish around. I was never partial to catfish, but somehow, the way they prepared it here was that the marinade took away any of the muddy taste which lingered on the flesh. Under new ownership, the fish no longer tastes as good, nor is it as tender. The accompanying shrimp paste sauce is also very watery tasting.

Vien Dong
(14271 Brookhurst Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-531-8253)
One of the first places to offer up this dish, Vien Dong's version uses snapper instead of catfish. My husband really liked the version here, but I thought it was just okay. I didn't like the shrimp paste sauce here and that is essential in how the whole thing ends up tasting.

Ha Noi Avenue
(8432 Westminster Blvd, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-898-8838)
The original owners of Ha Noi restaurant recently opened Ha Noi Avenue serving up dishes using their old recipes. Catfish is used here and it's as moist and tender as I remembered when I first had it at the old location. Although it is slightly greasy, the fresh dill and sliced onions are perfectly charred and caramelized because the sizzling platter always arrives splattering from the heat. The shrimp paste sauce here is about as perfect as you'll get with the right amount of savoriness to sweetness.

Canton aka Chao Ca Cho Cu
(8550 Westminster Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-892-2022)
To date, this is my favorite place for cha ca thang long. I'm not 100% sure what kind of fish they use here -- could be snapper, could be sole -- but it's damn good! The fish is moist and very tender and all the accompanying sides are fresh and flavorful. This is also the most expensive one of all topping out at $14.99 and the portion isn't any bigger than at the other restaurants. The reason why this place takes first place over Ha Noi Avenue is because I am not a huge fan of catfish. Otherwise, in terms of flavor, I'd say Ha Noi Avenue is the best all around.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fukada -- Comfort food without the guilt

8683 Irvine Center Drive Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 341-0111

In Irvine, good food is really hard to come by. For some odd reason, we have one of the best school districts in the country, which attracts families, which attracts money etc, but they can't for some reason attract restaurants which serve up great food. Go figure.

Fukada is the exception -- when it is in a good mood that is. Most of the time, Fukada has great food, except when it has less than stellar food. When that happens, it's not a good experience.

It is a very popular lunch time destination with lines forming before the restaurant even opens at 11.30am. Fifteen minutes upon opening, the restaurant is already at full capacity. Sucks to be you if you arrive just a few minutes too late to snatch up the last table.

They have a pretty good sized menu, but most people go for the lunch combos which are about $10 or less. These give you the option of a noodle and a don (rice bowl), or a salad with slices of seared raw fish with your choice of 3 rice bowls. Some of the selections include unagi-don (eel), spicy tuna don, ten-don (tempura), curry-don and a few others. With the salad selection you can choose only from spicy tuna don and 2 types of rolls. For an extra $2, you can choose any of the other choices available. The same combo is offered at dinner time, but for a few dollars more.

A white board also offers special combos which claims to be daily specials. Only thing is, I've only seen these choices change twice in the years we've been coming here. If you wish to order a la carte, the menu has entrees such as teriyaki chicken and salmon. However, noodles and tempura are their specialty. Fukada makes its own noodles -- specifically, udon. Although I prefer soba (buckwheat noodles) over udon, they often are a hit and miss. On my last visit, they tasted like the flour to buckwheat ratio was off, hence, doughy and hard at the same time. Weird texture just kills it for me.

If you're ordering a la carte, appetizers, entrees and dessert, with a drink or two, be ready to shell out a hefty amount because the portions are on the small side. We've paid close to $100 tip included for a party of 3 at dinner. Of course, if you stick with the combos, it's still a really great deal.

Service could be better but it all depends on who is working that day. However, no matter what the service, you can be sure the food will fly out of the kitchen because they want you in and out faster than you can shout 'oishi' so they can begin the next round of diners waiting in the wings.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pho the record -- the good, the bad and the ugly

My favorite thing to eat on a cold day is a piping hot bowl of pho, and the only place to eat pho is in lil Saigon -- mainly Westminster, but the main drag, Brookhurst, sits in between the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove. You'll find a restaurant on one side of the street with their address in one city and one across the way in another.

I've had my share of nasty pho, mediocre pho, as well as decent pho, but what I really want is a perfect bowl of pho. To me, the perfect bowl comprises of al dente noodles, broth that is so hot your mouth will burn if you tried to sip it too quickly, and fresh condiments to accompany it with. Another important aspect is the broth, which ideally should have a hearty beefy taste without being murky or greasy. I never knew it was such a difficult task to find this perfection until I went searching for it.

One of my favorite places for pho is Pho 79 (9941 Hazard Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92643. Ph: 714-531-2490). Now, don't be fooled by the other places boasting the 79 name. They are all imposters! Only the location on Hazard has the good pho. The version here is a rich, deep, broth filled with the strong aromas of star anise. My experience has been better later on in the day rather than when they first open at 8am. The broth is a lot stronger around lunch time. The only thing I dislike is the copious use of MSG at Pho 79. Be sure you have some time to wait because this place is always packed. I've had to wait for a table most often than not even during off-peak hours.

If you wish to avoid the MSG factor, try Pho 86 (10528 McFadden Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843. Ph: 714-531-0512). You'll get a scorchingly hot bowl of pho with fresh basil, ngo gai leaves (or sawtooth herb), beansprouts and jalapenos. The broth is flavorful without being oily and has a rich finish -- not as intense as Pho 79's, but very very satisfying! For about $5 you will leave highly contented without to deal with MSG coma later!

Pho Quang Trung (10072 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843. Ph: 714-638-2286) is one of those places even hardcore grandmas agree has pretty decent pho when they don't feel like making it themselves. They get quite busy around lunch time so try to get there early or late.

If you're on a tight budget, you might wish to consider Hoa Binh (14472, Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92842 Ph: 714-531-3088) and Pho Vinh Ky 2 (14390 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92842 Ph: 714-531-4965). Both are decent enough for what you pay. Hoa Binh has two daily specials each day at 50% off the regular price, while Vinh Ky has pho bo or beef pho at around $3.99 a bowl.

Pho Lu (10141 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-539-7979) and the sister location of Pho 86 off McFadden Ave (14576 Brookhurst Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-839-4591) also have decent pho -- not too much MSG and a tasty, flavorful broth. The latter serves a perfect portion for me, not too large and they are very generous with the meat just like the McFadden location except their broth isn't serve as scorchingly hot.

I've discovered that just because a place has "pho" in its name, doesn't necessarily mean it has good pho. Sometimes, it's pretty goddamn awful. Generally, I trust my Vietnamese friends for recommendations, but mostly, it's simply by trial and error. Sometimes, I just stop at a place I've never been to and take my chances. When it's truly awful, I just don't eat it. There's nothing worse than having to eat something disgusting when there is so much good food out there. I know my mom would've slapped me silly 20 years ago had I left a bowl of anything because it didn't taste good. These days, she knows better. My motto is, "why waste your stomach space for something unpalatable? You only get 3 meals a day, make them great!"

My motto came into full effect when I was faced with inedible fare at Pho Thanh Lich (14500 Brookhurst St, Westminster, CA 92684 Ph: 714-531-5789). The broth was coated with a layer of grease and had the murkiness of a river bed when disturbed. The worst part was it tasted like offal. I passed!

Another less than desirable establishment is Pho Thang Long (
9550 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-839-4955), which has extremely high volume in the wee hours of the night because it's one of the few places in lil Saigon open until 3am. I'm told their pho is a hit and miss, but unfortunately for me, it was definitely a miss. Overcooked noodles were squashed into a bowl too small for the volume. Measly portions of meat shared space with overbearing noodles trying hard to garner attention, but without much luck. The ratio was a lose lose situation for the meat and flavorless broth. Very soon, the noodles soaked up all the liquid leaving them in a pile of white clumpy mess.

But pho isn't only restricted to beef pho or pho bo. Chicken pho or pho ga is also very tasty. My favorite can be found at Pho Dakao (15532 Ward St, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-531-2009). The chicken is freshly slaughtered each day, and poached so perfectly that even the white meat is moist and tender. For the hardcore foodie, get it with all the special ingredients such as chicken heart, liver, gizzard and intestines. I love the gizzard, but not the other stuff. You can order your pho with white or dark meat and they serve it on a separate plate with a garlic sauce for dipping.

Alternatively, pho ga at Pho Nguyen Hue (10487 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92684 Ph: 714-839-8916) is not too bad. Here, you can ask for bun (rice vermecelli) instead of pho noodles. Some restaurants won't allow you to substitute.

Eating is very subjective and regardless of what I may think, there will always be others who will beg to differ. All I can say is, if you are a fan of pho, go try it out. That's the only way you'll know if you like it!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Antoine's Cafe -- Breakfast? Anyone?

Antoine's Cafe
218 S El Camino Real, San Clemente, CA 92672
(949) 492-1763

Antoine's Cafe is definitely vibrant on the weekends. People were waiting on the benches and chairs outside ranging from bikers to military personnel from nearby San Onofre/Camp Pendleton. There is a slight wait, no more than 15 minutes, but be sure to step inside and put your name down on the waiting list. Inside the cafe, a cozy but bustling dining room offers booths as well as tables and counter seating, while outside, plastic chairs and tables are available for those who enjoy fresh air and/or are accompanied by their furry companions.

, eating breakfast, out, two days in a row -- not something I ordinarily do unless I'm on vacation, but yes, the breakfast fan -- my other half -- didn't get to brunch at Plum's Cafe yesterday so this was his consolation prize this weekend. After the eggs Benedict yesterday, I felt like I shouldn't order the same thing again, but was glad my husband did -- and no, I did not have to twist his arm either. I had my eye on the highly recommended fish tacos. Our little man choose French toast, homemade sausage patties and a fried egg.

Our server started off in an abrupt manner. Initially, we troubled her because the coffee cup was dirty -- there was some green residue on the rim. then, a knife had some sticky stuff on it and a fork had butter stuck to the handle. When I requested clean silverware, she grabbed them off the table and then brought some back without saying a word. I was feeling like maybe I'd made a bad choice about eating here. I'm not one who enjoys a leisurely Sunday morning to turn south before my food even hits the table. Then I started to worry -- "what if the food wasn't up to par?" But those thoughts were quickly quashed when we started eating.

My fish taco plate had 3 tacos with generous chunks of albacore tuna, avocado, a sprinkling of some cooked peppers and onions and a hefty topping of cilantro and salsa. They bring you additional salsa in a small cup should you feel you require more. Every ingredient, from the fish to the avocado was very fresh. I only wished they had a spicier sauce, a salsa roja, perhaps, to complete these tasty tacos. Still, for a non-Mexican place, these were pretty good. If you don't like cilantro or raw red onions, let them know, because they REALLY pile it on here. I, on the other hand, love it -- the more the better.

I guess I shouldn't have tasted the eggs Benedict because right after, I immediately regretted not ordering it. The English muffin was toasted to a crispness I'd never experienced before. It was just amazing because when you get a mouthful of the muffin together with a piece of the ham (sorry, no Canadian bacon here either) and a morsel of the poached egg, the textural sensation is just incredible. Don't get me wrong ... I was thoroughly enjoying my tacos, but the Benedict was just THAT much better. Also, if you like sausage, don't miss out on the homemade sausage patties -- they were fantastic, perfectly seasoned and not greasy.

By the end of our meal, our server warmed up and even stopped by to check on us, but even so, I had ask for a refill on my water. She brought the check out pretty quickly though -- that's a plus ... no? Reasonable prices and I'd have to say, I'll take these eggs Benedict over Plum's Cafe, hands down!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Plums Cafe -- pickins to start your day with

Plum's Cafe
369 E 17th Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(714) 722-7586

My husband and friends all love going out for breakfast. Me? Not so much. I'm not a big breakfast person -- Western breakfast that is. Asian breakfast, on the other hand, I love.
I always figure, why pay exorbitant prices for something I can whip up at home right? However, I'm no party pooper when my friends are in the brunching mood especially to a place I've never been before.

Plums Cafe is absolutely delightful in terms of decor. It reminded me of cafes in Sydney where the use of natural colors makes you feel like you're enveloped in eco-friendly surroundings. Does that make sense? The main dining area is round while the adjoining area is sort of rectangular. I guess its kind of like an exclamation mark stuck together. Our server was simply charming. Not only was he full of smiles, accommodating, but he was cute too. That's always a plus right?

The menu was creative, yet not complicated with too many choices. But with that in mind, it was laden with enough appealing items for me to become very indecisive. Usually, when my husband is eating with us, I can coerce him into ordering something else I wish to try, but since I was with my friends, I didn't want to seem overbearing about it. Turned out, our other friends were late so we started with some feta and chive popovers while we waited. They reminded me of light versions of Yorkshire pudding, but not as good. I could barely detect the feta and they were too dry. It would've been better had there been a chunk or two of feta tucked between the popover giving a soft contrasting texture to the puffed dough.

Everyone ended up ordering smoked salmon hash except me. I got the eggs Benedict. They do the Benedict a little different here -- baguette instead of English muffin, chipotle-cilantro Hollandaise instead of regular Hollandaise and peppered ham took the place of Canadian bacon. I thought the eggs Benedict were good, but it didn't blow me away. The rosemary potatoes accompanying the eggs Benedict were outstanding though and I don't even like potatoes unless they're French fries.

Unfortunately, I wasn't keen on the smoked salmon hash, but then again, I don't like cooked salmon much. I find the texture very unpleasant. The other thing I'm not fond of is homestyle potatoes and that's what they use instead of hash.

Apple honey sausages were cute and small, but at a buck and a quarter a pop, it was very pricey and on the sweet side for me. I'm glad we ordered the Oregon peppered bacon (also immensely pricey at $1.25 each) because it was definitely some tasty bacon!

Plums Cafe is a great place for brunch, and if you're a breakfast kinda guy or gal then you'll love it. I thought it was on the pricey side as most specialty dishes average around $15. If you add a side or two, a drink, your final tab with tip included can easily lurk around the $30 mark per person. Not a place to indulge in on a weekly basis, but when you do get a chance to visit, you'll be glad you did. I sure was!!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Izakaya Wasa -- pricey mall fusion

Izakaya Wasa at the Spectrum
59 Fortune Drive Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 453-9500

I'm very particular when it comes to eating sashimi or sushi. REALLY particular. I have one or two places I will eat raw fish at and then I stick to it. Rarely will you find me venturing to unknown restaurants to indulge in one of my favorite meals of all time.

So when a friend suggested Izakaya Wasa for lunch, I probed and questioned regarding the quality of fish, etc etc. He assured me that it was pretty good. I trust this friend when it comes to raw fish so I happily tagged along for yet another culinary adventure.

Some people may not like this look, but I like minimalist decor. It gives me a feeling of serenity. To me, nothing is worse than extremely loud music and too much going on in a restaurant when you're trying to enjoy a meal. There is a time and place for that sort of dining -- when we're out with a bunch of kids -- and Izakaya Wasa just isn't one of those places.

There are little booths which give you the feel of privacy yet remain part of the entire dining room. The modernist approach makes it perfect for a night out on the town while the wooden plaques adorning the walls creates just a touch of old school charm without being gaudy.

The menu is quite extensive so be prepared to spend some time browsing. There are appetizers, yakitori, sushi, noodles, rice bowls and much much more to choose from. On this particular visit, my friend opted for the spicy tuna
don, while I had the premium sushi set. Our lunches came with a salad and a bowl of miso soup. The ginger sesame dressing on the salad was extremely overpowering in terms of ginger. You could barely taste the sesame and they overdressed the salad so by the time you've eaten the first half of the salad, the second half was swimming in the dressing. Overkill if you ask me. Miso soup was quite pleasant -- flavorful without being overly salty.

I found it strange that the server put my friend's order in before I was ready to order, hence, his food came out about 5-7 minutes before mine. The spicy tuna don arrived very beautifully presented, but atop the layer of rice was a generous sprinkling of panko bread crumbs drizzled with a dark, sweet sauce and then finished off with the spicy tuna. I am not a fan of bread crumbs or batter crumbs sprinkled on my rice or my noodles so I didn't like this dish all that much. Also, different restaurants create different versions of spicy tuna ..... here, chili sesame oil is used instead of
sriracha chili sauce. It's just a personal preference, so if you like chili oil, then this will be extremely favorable to your palate.

My premium sushi set arrived on a white platter. There were 6 pieces of spicy tuna roll (alternatively, you can choose California roll)
and 8 pieces of nigiri. The only piece I didn't like was the mirugai (geoduck clam). It was on the fishy side. The other fish were all very fresh with melt-in-the-mouth texture. There was also enough umami for me to deem this pretty damn good fish for a fusion-style restaurant.

Next time you're at the Spectrum, by all means check it out. It's not outstanding sushi, but it's not bad at all for its location and price.

Marche Moderne -- Marching to a tasty beat

Marche Moderne

3333 Bristol Avenue, #3001, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 434-7900

The images 'mall food' conjures up are an endless list of fast food and greasy spoons. In Orange County, where the rich and famous flock to shop at the renown South Coast Plaza, you can be sure that a lot of thought has been put into taking care of these celebrities as well as chain restaurants for us mere mortals.

Marche Moderne is a French-style bistro which is both upscale enough for those 'real housewives' of Orange County, yet, relaxed enough for the regular person. The restaurant is split into two sections, inside, an open kitchen aligns one side of the dark mahogany hues of the dining room, while the outside patio is absolutely perfect for a casual lunch with the girls.

The lunch menu consists of a host of fresh and light offerings ranging from salads and sandwiches to seafood. For dinner, you will find heartier dishes such as rabbit, lamb and beef short rib.

What sets Marche Moderne apart is their exceptional lunch prix fixe menu. For $20 you get a 3-course menu usually kicking off with a salad. I've had arugula salad with Asian pears, chevre and candied pecans, or a Belgian endive salad with balsamic vinaigrette and goat cheese.

Entrees generally is a choice between a seafood and a meat dish. On one visit I sampled the skate wing and on another, lamb osso bucco. I don't have a sweet tooth so I can't be objective when it comes to rating desserts, but I did try everything put in front of me. Some I liked, others, not so much. However, my dining companions have always relished in their Portions are ample and you will leave more than satisfied and be back at your desk in no time.

Service is attentive without being intrusive and in this economy, you can enjoy the prix fixe at Marche Moderne every week without breaking the bank.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Zarzuela -- Top notch whichever way you look at it

2000 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 346-0800

Ask me what my favorite restaurant in California is and there won't be a pause so that I can think about it. There is no hesitation when I say with absolute certainty, it's Zarzuela.

The very first time I visited this cozy little restaurant was when I attended a high school friend's wedding back in 1997. I was still living in Hong Kong then, and was a little jaded by the constant bombardment of luxurious foods such as foie gras, caviar, abalone, white truffles and whatever top chefs would throw my way. After the wedding, my friends brought their cousin, who was visiting from Australia, and myself, to the city for a bit of sightseeing as well as dinner at Zarzuela.

I was hugely surprised at how simple and delectable the dishes were. Most of the tapas were presented in earthen dishes without much flair -- although these days, it's a lot different. The only thing I remember is, it was love at first bite.

Fast forward a few years and there I was trying to figure out what sort of a wedding I wanted and Zarzuela immediately came to mind. I wanted a small, intimate dinner with the most delicious things to commemorate my special day. It was an affair my friends still talk about to this day.

Now, 10 years later, we still return to Zarzuela whenever we are in the Bay Area. On our last trip, we brought 6 of our friends with us and it was just as memorable as my first visit. Of course now, the Zarzuela family has become 'our' family. We are always greeted warmly by co-owner and maitre d' Andy Debanne. We always sit in Arturo's section and we always go around back to say hello to Lucas Gasco, the owner and chef. These are the given. And in return, we get 5 star service from Arturo and food that is like the foods of the gods.

We usually start off with some cold appetizers: bocarones or white anchovies are a favorite. These are lightly pickled and served with salad leaves, never overpowering and definitely nothing like any anchovies you've ever tasted. Whoever your server may be, you can be sure they are knowledgeable about the menu and will make suitable recommendations should you ask.

Hot tapas you should definitely try are the camarones al ajillo or garlic shrimp, chorizo, and any specials of the day. We tend to fill up on tapas but if you want an entree instead of filling up on tapas, then the lamb chops are highly recommended. My son loves Zarzuela and everyone knows he only wants the lobster bisque and calamares or fried calamari and let me tell you, this child has some very adult taste buds!

Regardless of what your weakness is, whether it be seafood or meats, make sure you get a glass of their house wine to pair with. The best thing about Zarzuela is that they will allow you a taste before they pour so you can be sure you're getting something you like. Trust me when I say, we've never had a bad wine here.

Our friends had an absolute ball and after 5 bottles of wine and a table filled with food, we finally rolled ourselves out the door, but not before the hearty handshakes, hugs and goodbyes until we are able to make our way up again.

I-naba -- A Noodling good time

20920 Hawthorne Blvd
Torrance, CA 90510
(310) 371-6675

It was on my birthday last year that a bunch of my friends brought me here for dinner. Hence, it was ironic that a year later, I had the pleasure of meeting a dear old friend, the Ubiquitous Grammar Cop ( when he was visiting, at I-naba, again, on my birthday. Thirteen years separated our last meeting to this one. We ordered quickly so we could catch up on the last decade between bites of tempura and soba.

Tempura Deluxe Set lunch was agreed upon and thus started the array of food which arrived. A green salad and miso soup arrived first, followed by hijiki (seaweed) salad which had bits of carrots and roasted chestnuts interspersed with the black tasty seaweed.

The set also included some sashimi, but honestly, I-naba is not known for its sashimi or sushi. I suggest you try to avoid this at all costs. Soba and tempura is what they are known for and it is here they excel. My cold soba was perfectly al dente and from the ooos and ahhhs the Grammar Cop was giving off, it'll be safe to say he was enjoying his hot soba as well. The accompanying tempura was perfectly fried -- light without the heaviness of copious batter.

Our meal ended with a scoop of ice cream, but, as the flavor and texture of the sashimi proved before, I-naba needs to have their refrigeration system thoroughly checked out. Ice cream was dotted with chunks of icicles causing extremely discomfort while eating. Mine was slightly better, I finished my sesame ice cream, but the Grammar Cop pushed his green tea version aside.

Noodles and tempura, plus the company of a good friend -- not much else one could ask for!

Hanoi Avenue -- Vietnamese at its best

Ha Noi Avenue
8432 Westminster Ave, Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 898-8838

Ever feel like you go to a Vietnamese restaurant and only one or two items are truly fantastic? I've often felt that way whenever I go with family or friends and everyone has different taste buds. I might want pho, my husband bun, my son, com but not all of us will be satisfied when we leave.

Ha Noi Avenue has managed to be the one restaurant I've come across which excels in almost everything on the menu -- at least, everything I've tried to date. The owners used to own Ha Noi Restaurant on Bolsa and had not planned to start another business, but opportunity came calling and hence, Ha Noi Avenue came to fruition.

I've been there on my own and with my family. Either way, you can be sure you will leave satisfied and satiated if Vietnamese food is your thing. It's definitely MY thing! I love Vietnamese food. When I'm on my own, I have a bowl of noodles and the bun rieu or bun rieu oc are just fabulous. The broth is light and refreshing with a very clean finish. If you like snails or periwinkles are they are called, order the bun rieu oc. Otherwise, stick to the bun rieu. Chunks of crab roe hide under the white thin noodles. Break off the mint and basil and dunk it into your piping hot bowl of bun rieu for an added aromatic flavor. Julienned lettuce and beansprouts create a nice crunchy texture to the softness of the noodles.

Steamed chicken is also perfectly tender and moist. I wasn't very fond of the accompanying garlic sauce, but if you order pho ga, then these exact same chunks of chicken will arrive in your bowl of soupy noodles and you wouldn't need to dip it.

Bo luc lac or shaking beef arrives sizzling and splattering on a hot plate atop sliced onions which end up nicely caramelized. Apart from this dish being a tad oily, the flavor is so fulfilling you probably will overlook the greasiness.

Cha ca thang long or dill turmeric fish also arrives on a hot plate although not quite as spit splattering as the beef. Make sure you quickly move the dill under the fish so it wilts -- wilting the dill intensifies its flavor. Take a little of the noodles, put it into your bowl, drizzle a little of the shrimp paste sauce, break apart some perilla (shiso) leaves, mint, basil into the same bowl and now, take a chunk of fish with some of the dill and enjoy. It's quite addictive really!

We also tried an item not on the menu. Trung duc is an omelette similar to egg foo yung. Our's had crabmeat (real crabmeat, not krab!), wood ear fungus and glass noodles in it. We were lucky that the lady owner was on hand to give us some recommendations!

If you're adventurous, let the owner steer you in the right direction. She's extremely personable and quite the hostess. Your dining experience will be THAT much better if you just let yourself go.

The Veggie Grill -- Tasty meat-free delights

The Veggie Grill
4213 Campus Drive Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 509-0003

It's taken me a very long time to try this place and I wouldn't have if not for my dining companion who suggested it. I checked out all the reviews as well as their menu on line before going so I would have an idea as to what to order in case I held the line up or something.

It was pretty empty when we arrived at noon on a weekday. I had expected a much bigger crowd considering what the reviews had said. However, I like it when there's not a lot of people. I ordered my crispy chickin sandwich and an ice tea. I also wanted the steamed kale on the side. My total? Almost $14. Since I had already read the reviews, I knew my meal would come to about $15 so I wasn't shocked, but it was still really pricey for a sandwich and a non-meat sandwich at that.

A friend of mine had the iced tea mixed with some lemonade and I did just that -- great suggestion as it was really refreshing.

My dining companion and I found a spot on the patio and put our numbers on the table. Our plates were brought out to us when they were ready. I guess I was confused. I thought if you ordered the kale, the sandwich came sans bun. I was put off by the reviews regarding the soggy bun, but I guess they must've worked out their kinks because my whole wheat bun was lightly toasted and not soggy at all. In fact, the whole sandwich was really quite good although I wouldn't say my 'chickin' had the same texture as chicken. It had more of a very firm canned tuna texture -- kinda flaky.

The kale was served with a sesame dressing. I liked this a lot. The kale was steamed well, not under or over cooked. The dressing was also light which enhanced the kale without overpowering it.

All in all, I really enjoyed it. Beware of the lurking birds if you sit on the patio. Obviously they're used to humans and they hover, waiting for you to leave so they can pounce on your leftovers. If you take too long, they will fly around in the hope to intimidate you to leave. My dining companion was a little freaked out by the birds, but they didn't really come close enough to deem any damage.

Ajisen Ramen -- Hot and Brothy

Ajisen Ramen
2700 Alton Parkway Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 833-3288

Ajisen Ramen opened at Diamond Jamboree with much aplomb and it shows with the number of customers waiting patiently for a table. We arrived early to avoid the lunch rush, but by midday, the line had already formed outside. The menu is vast and varied requiring more time than usual to sift through the offerings. Staff are impatient and pounce on your as soon as you've sat down to take your order but don't let them hurry you. Take your time to decide.

Spicy Pork Ramen was not spicy at all. In fact, it was a mild tasting broth with slices of chashu similar to that at Santouka except there was less fat.

Premium Pork Ramen had the best flavor in terms of broth and they were very generous with the pork. It was silky and moist served in thin slices -- almost with the consistency of it being shaved.

Spicy Beef Ramen was again not spicy, but there was a drizzling of spicy hot oil to give it the illusion that it was spicy. The broth was hearty and flavorful and the beef looked like chunks you would get in a bowl of niu rou mien, or Taiwanese style beef noodles.

There are lunch specials which consists of 5 or 6 types of ramen to choose from plus a side of either agedashi tofu, gyoza, corn salad or cucumber with krab salad.

Bowls of ramen were around $9 which is pretty pricey for what you get. The ramen noodles itself was subpar tasting like the ones you'd get from a packet you can purchase from the grocery store. The broth is what stands out at Ajisen. It is flavorful, robust, yet not overly salty or overly greasy. Ajisen's ramen remains mediocre until they get the consistency of the noodles right.