Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ambrosia -- An elixir of the cyanide kind

801 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: (714) 550-0811

It was supposed to be a happy evening spent with friends in celebration of a birthday. What transpired was not only bizarre, but an experience I had never encountered, until tonight, in 15+ years as a professional food writer, cookbook author and now, blogger.

As soon as we walked in, we knew it was going to be an interesting evening. The dining room was kitschy like one would find in a 70s restaurant, complete with lounge singer and another accompanying on the piano and synthesizer. The plastic foliage should have been a dead giveaway, but we were marveling at how a restaurant only 3 years old could be so dated in every possible way.

Our server Cesar was the start and end to our problems. The minute he offered us water -- sparkling or still -- and heard we were fine with tap, was the start to the ill-treatment we received. His immediate response was to remove all the wine glasses from the table before we’d even had a chance to peruse the menu or wine list for that matter. Such pre-conceived notions perhaps that maybe, people who like to drink tap water are somehow too gauche to want wine with their dinner is why he removed the wine glasses in the first place?

With the wine glasses, he also promptly removed the a la carte menu leaving us with only the prix fixe version. He then informed us that we all had to order the prix fixe or the a la carte menu—there was no mixing and matching allowed, but if we were to order the prix fixe, then side selections from the a la carte were acceptable.

He started with me when he took the orders and after I had selected my appetizer and entree, proceeded to ask what I would like for my dessert off the prix fixe. I asked him if I had to tell him right now and his answer? ABSOLUTELY YES! I sighed and gave him my response.

Our appetizers of flambed shrimp and beet salad were so-so. It didn’t blow us away, but they were just average. The general manager who flamed our shrimp is an eccentric Frenchmen who actually gave a damn about our dining experience. He was pleasant and inquired about our meal a couple of times throughout the evening.

However, when our entrees arrived, we realized that every one of our meals were cold. The plates they were served on were cold. Not only that, but the steak frites was ordered medium and arrived rare. The most bizarre thing was that the meat tasted off. It had the gameyness of unfresh meat. I immediately spat it out.

Incredibly, the braised Colorado lamb was not gamey at all, but I was surprised that it arrived like a ragout served with undercooked pappardelle which only needed a minute more in the water for it to have been perfect. Such a waste of homemade pasta too.

I found it strange that seabass could be overcooked since it’s such an oily fish. I cook it all the time at home and never have I found seabass to turn out dry. But there is always the first time for everything.

When a busboy inquired about our meal we informed him that the steak was not edible. His immediate response was an apology, followed by a ‘what would you like me to do’, and then ending with the shirking of responsibility off to the kitchen stating he took no part in preparing the meal. He did say he would send a manager over.

What we got was Cesar who says to my friend “I see you’re going to take your dinner home”. My friend with the steak shook her head and told him no. He then replied “that’s good news since we’ve run out of ‘to-go’ boxes and I was going to suggest you finish it since you won’t be able to take it home”.

Perhaps it was just as well that my friend didn’t understand his sarcasm but it wasn’t lost on the birthday girl who was quietly seething away. We didn’t even know how angry she was until the general manager stopped by before she let loose her contempt for Cesar.

Not having a good meal happens sometimes. Kitchens have bad nights, it’s totally understandable. But if you’re working at the front of the house, it’s your job to make sure your diners are having a good time regardless of how the food is. Not only did we have a subpar meal, but the blatantly rude behavior of Cesar just pushed us over the top.

Although the GM ended up comping out meal, it was too little too late. The birthday celebration was ruined. The birthday girl was devastated, and birthdays only come around once a year!

*I have never been so distracted that I didn't even feel like taking photos, but as you can see there is only one photo to accompany this entry and a shoddy one at that*

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pizzeria Ortica -- molto bellissimo

Pizzeria Ortica
650 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

(714) 445-4900

I had driven by this place several times and often wondered what it was all about, so when my son wanted pizza today, I suggested we try this place out since it seems to be a pizzeria by its name.

Upon entry, I immediately took to the long dining room, something one hardly sees out here in southern California, but quite prevalent in New York City restaura
nts. Our server was a really lovely gal named Justene who was knowledgeable about the menu and was pleasant throughout our entire meal.

We ordered salsiccia e finnocchio pizza, Angelino panini and two starters, polipo e patate and verdure al forno con burrata to share. Foccaccia is brought to the table with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. My son immediately loved the olive oil. He said it was good olive oil and he would know since we've been to other Italian restaurants where he's said the olive oil was gross. The balsamic wasn't as aged as it could've been since it was a little too tart on the palate.

Our appetizers arrived shortly. The polipo e patate, or charred Mediterranean octopus served with Yukon potatoes, capers and celery hearts didn't look pretty but it sure tasted good. We loved the tartness of the dressing and the chewiness of the octopus. The
grilled vegetables with burrata comprised of zucchini, red peppers, sweet peppers and cippolini onions and a nice lump of burrata. We loved this immensely.

We came for the pizza and when it arrived we were not disappointed. This is the type of pizza I like, with a nice crust and not too much toppings. I really dislike American pizza because the toppings overflow and the pizza is greasy as hell. Here, the toppings are used sparingly like they do in Italy, just enough to flavor without overkill. The house made sausage was nicely flavored, but what I loved most about this particular pizza was the caramelised fennel.

Angelino panini comprised of a very moist piece of chicken breast with oven roasted tomatoes and crispy pancetta. I thought the panini bread was too soft which resulted in the sandwich becoming soggy too quickly. The bread was also too thick which made it hard to bite into the entire sandwich. Other than that, it tasted delicious. If they could figure out a way to keep the bread intact, this would have been an almost perfect sandwich.

We were even tempted enough to have some dessert -- ricotta al forno -- ricotta cheese cake topped with berries and served in a fig sauce reduction. The first thing which struck me about this was that it wasn't sweet at all. I would've loved it had the ricotta cake been softer and moister. Ricotta is on the dry side so without adding anything else to it would mean that it had a crumbled texture rather than a smooth texture. I like how they were true to using only ricotta, but texturally, it wasn't to my liking.

Service was great. I really liked Justene and I hope when we return again, we'll have her serve us or have someone equally good. There is validated parking in the back as well so it makes it convenient for diners not to have to circle around trying to find street parking. The portions are European-style, which means you're not going to get gargantuan proportions, but it also means that your final tab might be slightly higher than you anticipated. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and we'll definitely be back to try some other things on the menu.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lotus Chinese Eatery -- a different kind of Chinese

Lotus Chinese Eatery
16883 Beach Blvd
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: (714) 848-4940

In China there is a small population of people who are Muslim and this means they don't eat pork or pork by-products. This means, lots of beef and of course, lamb! Naturally, t
he cuisine is highly reflective of the region and its people.

It took us a long time to find a favorite place for Muslim-style (halal) Chinese food after moving to southern California. We used to eat it a lot when we lived up north so after eating a lot of uninspiring halal Chinese, we finally found a place which has consistently served us great food.

Lotus Chinese Eatery is interesting in that they have the authentic dishes along with the regular "American-friendly" dishes for those who might not want to venture into unknown territory.

Our favorite items to order at the spicy beef tendon or the beef tripe. It is nice and spicy here and utilizes a seasoning using Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, we try to order a lot of the spicier items on the menu except for the braised tofu with vegetables which we always order because our son loves it.

They also do a sesame scallion bread which takes a little while to prepare, so if you're interested in ordering this dish, make sure you do it the minute you sit down, even before you order your dishes because otherwise, your bread will come out at the end of the meal rather than with your meal. We like the thin version -- which isn't thin at all! It's still about an inch thick.

I suggest ordering any lamb dishes is the way to go. We love the lamb with leek or lamb with green onions. However, if you're not a fan of lamb, you can have them substitute any lamb item with beef. They're happy to do it! You won't get the gorgeous aromas that lamb gives off, but it'll suffice.

It is of course best if you go with a group of six or more so you can order more items to share. On one occasion when I've come here with friends, they've ordered this tofu omelette dish which comprised of soft tofu in a brown sauce topped with an omelette. I liked their combined textures but I am not sure it's my favorite dish here.

Once the sesame scallion bread arrives, our son likes to use it like bread in a sandwich. He'll take any of the dishes we've ordered and put it in between the slice and eat -- quite innovative for an 8-year-old if you ask me!

Don't expect excellent service, after all, it IS a Chinese restaurant. However, I've never received bad service here. The ladies are hilarious since they speak Cantonese to me and love to come o
ver for a chat. They are also quite quick to help us order, often suggesting new items we've never tried before.

Another thin
g that's different about this place is that you'll notice that apart from the Chinese diners, there will be a lot of diners of other backgrounds enjoying this fare. After all, your regular Muslim clientele can't well walk into any Chinese restaurant for a meal. Oh no! Pork is one of the largest staple of Chinese food and that would be a huge no-no for a devout Muslim to consume. Here, at Lotus Chinese Eatery, they can indulge in tasty Chinese food without worrying about the possibility of cross contamination!

If you've never tried it, give it a go. It's positively delicious!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mariscos Puerto Esperanza -- marvelous-o

Puerto Esperanza
1724 N Tustin St Orange, CA 92856
(714) 998-3599

I never thought I was going to say this, but this is a Mexican restaurant like no any other I've ever experienced. The decor was wonderfully festive with vibrant colors and the warm welcome we received from the server added to the experience. This place specializes in seafood but they offer meat dishes as well.

Chips and salsa are brought out quickly as well as drinks if you're having them. The salsa is smokey and flavorful with a good kick to it. We had to get this refilled three times, that's
how good it was.

Since a friend of mine steered me towards this place, I went ahead and ordered something she recommended -- the bistec encebollado -- for my son since he's not a fan of seafood
. Hubby and I got fish -- him, Salmon Yucatan, me, Pescado Zarandeado Robalo (striped bass). Both fish dishes are cooked on banana leaves which not only makes for wonderful presentation, but also, an aroma that enhances the dish further.

We started off with ensalada fiesta, a simple salad comprising of romaine lettuce, julienned carrots and jicama, tomato wedges, and the main attraction -- grilled nopales or cactus. The citrusy dressing was outstanding. It was simple and that's what makes it so special.... nothing too complicated or heavy. Just some olive oil with some citrus and jalapeno.

It took a while for our entrees to arrive and we knew they were cooking it with care. We could see them doing it at the open kitchen, the two chefs giving the food their loving touch. When our entrees arrived we were first blown away by how lovely the dishes looked. This is new for us since we usually go to hole-in-the-wall Mexican establishments where food tastes good but may not be as appealing on the eye. But none of that here. Everything was beautiful and tasted just as delicious if not better. Bistec encebollado was grilled to perfection. An ample piece of pounded steak topped with sauteed onions, peppers and salsa fresca served with your choice of rice -- and there are two types -- or black beans and grilled vegetables.

My striped bass was huge. In fact, it was enough for two. This isn't a cheap dish at $15
/lb and my fish alone was $25, but it was well worth it. The orange sauce was tart, sweet, salty, the perfect accompaniment. Served with salsa fresca and pickled onions and carrots with sliced avocados, the mix of all the flavors come together like a burst on your palate.

I'm not a fan of salmon so I did not enjoy hubby's dish as much, but then again, I would never order salmon so it doesn't matter anyway. His dish was a little sweet since it was topped with a roasted corn and grilled cactus relish but he enjoyed it very much.

The server brought out a separate dish of sides for us to share -- I thought that was the nicest gesture! The portions were huge so we couldn't finish everything. But one thing's for sure.... this is on my top three places for Mexican food!