Friday, October 18, 2019

Fru Nimb at Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen, Denmark

Before going, I knew that Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland. But what I didn’t know was that this 176-year-old theme park is, in fact, Bizarro Disneyland. The similarities to Walt’s park was so uncanny, if Tivoli was created after Disneyland, it would be sued by Disney.

I saw versions of Autopia and Dumbo, even a ride that look suspiciously like It’s A Small World. The latter, by the way, honors Hans Christian Andersen, the Dane who wrote The Little Mermaid and Snow Queen, which, of course, inspired Disney to make The Little Mermaid and this little film called Frozen.

But the similarities didn’t end there. We ate in a restaurant that was the twin of Disneyland’s Plaza Inn. Unfortunately after tasting the dry and chewy schnitzel I ordered, I came to the realization that it also was overpriced, which, come to think of it, is the same feeling I get everytime I eat at Plaza Inn. So yeah, Tivoli is EXACTLY like Disneyland in every way.

Okay, maybe not every way. At least I was able to ask for a beer without having to belong to some exclusive club.

Fru Nimb at Tivoli Gardens
Bernstorffsgade 5
1577 København

Chicken Hero Kho Ga - Anaheim

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Joans Polser - Copenhagen, Denmark

This is what a street hot dog looks like in Denmark: hanging out from a hole in a baguette into which it is inserted but does not fit. The condiment dispensers in Denmark are also hung—literally. When you want mayo (or mustard or ketchup) on your wiener, you grab the hanging condiment tubes like a milkmaid does an udder and squeeze until stuff squirts out.

Joans Polser
Kongens Nytorv 4
1050 København

Knife Pleat - Costa Mesa

Monday, October 14, 2019

Taffelbay Bakery - Copenhagen, Denmark

You know those people who tell you that you haven’t had sushi until you’ve had it Japan? Or croissants in France? Or xiao long bao at the original Din Tai Fung in Taiwan? I hate those people.

But for right now, I’m going to be the thing I hate. I’m here to say that you’ve probably never had a danish until you’ve had it in Denmark.

It’s true!

I didn’t plan to make this proclamation or was even looking to eat one until we passed a pastry shop called Taffelbay on our way somewhere else. On a whim, we stopped in and realized how amazing a real Danish danish (weird as it sounds) was.

The pastries I had were laminated like a croissant, but was so light it seemed leavened by helium. It was buttery, but didn’t leave a trace of its greasiness on the palate. Behind the dough, the flavors of each individual pastry popped without an overreliance on sugar. It made every leadened, hypersweet danish I had in the States not worthy of the name.

So, yes, hate me for saying all this; but I beg you, prove me wrong.

Taffelbay Bakery
Nørre Voldgade 92
1358 København

Heartful Made - Fullerton

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Selma - Copenhagen, Denmark

You go to Italy to eat pizza. I went to Denmark to eat smørrebrød. What’s smørrebrød? It’s open faced sandwiches consisting of a slice of rye bread topped with a variety of toppings, which is a very loose definition, indeed. Smørrebrød, as I learned, can come with anything and everything. It not just open faced; it’s open interpretation.

It’s especially so when it comes to Selma in Copenhagen (@selmacopenhagen), the first smørrebrød specialist to be awarded by the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand. Selma is an upgraded smørrebrød experience. Imagine if a chef created a fine-dining concept around New York’s dirty water hot dog. Yes, it’s like that.

Some of it involves the rye bread only in spirit. The traditional herring smørrebrød has the rye toasted and crumbled into crunchy pebbles. And when you order the baked cod smørrebrød, you get dinner and a show; the chef comes out to ladle the shrimp from a frying pan tableside, pouring the mustard-based sauce over the fish and a perfectly poached egg. There’s even a stunning seared scallop smørrebrød carefully decorated with peas and shoots. Tweezers were definitely involved.

Your move, avocado toast.

Rømersgade 20
1103 København

Sal's Pizzeria - Foothill Ranch

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Hana Re - Costa Mesa

I admit it. When it comes to Hana Re Sushi, one of only two Orange County restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star, I am late to the game.

I’d been aware of it since it opened, but because Orange County is already blessed with so many great sushi bars, I put off reviewing it. Eventually I forgot about it altogether.

Then the Michelin people came. But by that time, writing about it would be like someone in 2019 raving about Breaking Bad.

When my birthday came around, my lovely dining companion insisted on taking me. At first I resisted, thinking we’d never get a seat on such short notice.

I was right. They were fully booked for the night of my birthday.

Then fate intervened. There was a last-minute cancellation. And before we knew it, we were sitting at a table for two in a small, stark room with a group of six Japanese businessmen swirling goblets of wine next to us. At the front of the room, behind a curtain of ropes, ten people sat at the sushi bar. There, it’s only omakase, which lasts 3 hours and cost upwards of $200. At the tables, we ordered the only thing there is to order: The $95 Hana Re Tasting Menu.

Actually, there’s no ordering involved. Other than asking us if we had any food allergies, the server effectively started the meal as soon as we sat down.

And as quickly as I settled into my seat, I realized why Michelin took notice. The service here is flawless, exacting, and efficient. It has the kind of attention to detail and obsequiousness I’d imagine of a traditional Japanese ryokan serving kaiseki. Water was topped off as soon as I took two sips; wine was poured so that none of the businessmen ever held an empty glass.

The meal began with an octopus salad with cucumber, a subtle, faintly sweet and sour amuse bouche that reminded me of a Chinese jellyfish cold dish.

Next, there was a Wagyu beef carpaccio with maitake mushrooms—tenderness on top of umami.

Shortly after that, the sashimi course arrived in a stone bento box. When the heavy lid was slid off like a sarcophagus, it revealed pieces of barracuda, bluefin, snapper and yellowtail sashimi. Each surgically sliced morsel was brisk and melted in my mouth as though Jell-O.

When the Japanese abalone was served, my eyes grew as wide as saucers. What a treat! It rode atop a spoonful of risotto cooked with cubes of daikon. The creamy texture of the rice contrasted the firmness of the abalone, which had an almost foie gras-like funkiness.

The next dish came out in a plastic bag secured with a clothespin. The server explained it was a steamed snapper with matsutake mushrooms and spinach. “You can eat everything but the plastic,” she said to our laughter.

I thought we’d reached the culmination of the meal when the five pieces of nigiri came, but then they were followed by two lobes of lusciously sweet uni over rice that included its own spoon.

Next was miso soup, which was unlike a standard miso soup. It was dark, tangy and slightly bitter.

For dessert, we were served a wiggly panna cotta with five different kinds of grape and one berry—every piece of fruit sugary.

Finally, a cup of hot matcha closed out the meal and also this belated review. And hey, how about that Breaking Bad movie coming out soon?

Hana re
2930 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Shabuya - Fountain Valley

Monday, September 02, 2019

Thali at Southern Spice - Irvine

If only life can be compartmentalized the way Southern Spice compartmentalizes its thali lunch. Instead life is like a messy Indian take-out Styrofoam combo plate.

Southern Spice
3850 Barranca Pkwy Suite O
Irvine, CA 92606

Casablanca - Costa Mesa

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pier 76 Fish Grill - Tustin

I think Pier 76 is going to become a weekly Thursday ritual. On that day, the restaurant offers a $3 beer and 99-cent oysters from 3-7 p.m. What kind of oysters are they? I have no idea because when I asked the oyster shucker, he didn’t know either.

At this price point, I don’t think it matters. Oysters don’t come cheaper than this. What’s more important is that they’re fresh, ice cold, and comes with lots of lemon, cocktail sauce, and a decent mignonette.

These condiments are essential as these oysters are also kind of basic—the vanilla ice cream of oysters. They weren’t particularly briny, sweet, or iron-rich. To put it another way: They showed up to class, did the required homework, but aren’t going for any extra credit.

In fact, in retrospect, I think I actually enjoyed Pier 76’s crispy fish tacos that I added on to my order more than the oysters. I paid the regular price for them, $3.25 each, and they’re worth every penny.

The crunchy battered fish filet inside them were so ripping hot from the fryer, the tortilla acts as an edible oven mitt. And they were so good—with two kinds of sauces, two kinds of shredded cabbage, and a tuft of gourmet pickled onion—that I think they might just be better than Los Cotijas across town, which automatically makes them one of the best fish tacos in the County.

And on Tuesdays, these tacos are discounted to $2.99. So I think Pier 76 will become a weekly Tuesday ritual, too.

Pier 76 Fish Grill
15080 Kensington Park Dr #330
Tustin, CA 92782

Gram's Kitchen - La Palma

Friday, August 30, 2019

Pacific Wine & Food Classic 2019 - Newport Beach

These are pictures from the Pacific Wine & Food Classic, which happened a few weekends ago at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort. This is the third year for the event, and like all previous years, it’s a food frenzy and boozy bonanza that happens on the sand and under the sun.

As the all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat affair boasts appearances from virtually every big name chef, restaurateur, vitner, brewer, and mixologist in OC, admission isn’t cheap. But if you drink a lot and have the stomach capacity of a large aquatic mammal, you’d more than reap significant returns on your investment. Me, I don’t drink much and tend to get full quickly. This is why I’m thankful I was invited as part of the media.

This year’s event was as grand as the last two. Lots of restaurants wisely chose to serve cooling raw seafood dishes such as crudo, poke, and ceviche. Let’s face it, the last thing anyone wants to eat out there on the hot sand are heavy soups, chowders, or stews. I even saw a poisson cru this year, which was refreshing in both definitions of the word.

The best bite I had was a crudo from Ellie’s in Long Beach, a restaurant that I had no idea existed. But I think that’s the point of this thing—it’s a speed dating event for restaurants and their potential customers.

Pacific Wine And Food Classic
1131 Back Bay Dr
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Summer Travel Issue 2019

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sam Woo Express - Irvine

This is Sam Woo Express, proof that you can still go somewhere that isn’t fast food and get enough to feed two people for under $7 in Irvine.

I should rephrase that last bit—it is “fast” food. You won’t spend longer than the drive-thru here. It’s just that it’s not processed food. For at least the last quarter century, everything is made from scratch and then dumped into steam table throughs.

Since it’s all cooked in the same kitchen by the same chefs using the same ingredients as the restaurant next door, those still unfamiliar with this Irvine landmark might operate on the assumption that the food here is just as good. This isn’t always true.

The chow mein is always greasy. The fried rice is near inedible. And some items tend to crust over the longer it sits under the heat lamp. As such, my strategy has always been the following:

Take the white rice and pick whatever looks like it just came out of the kitchen, which, when I was there, was the fish in black bean sauce.

Pick only one entree if you want a double portion of it for no additional charge.

Ask for the complimentary chili oil. It will correct any of the meal’s deficiencies.

And for those millennials who are reading this, bring cash. It’s the only form of payment accepted and no one who works there has heard of Venmo.

Sam Woo Express
15333 Culver Dr Ste 720
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 262-0688

Tim Ho Wan - Irvine

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Charlie Wong Saigon Garden - Kalispell, MT

This is what a bowl of pho looks like in Kalispell, Montana. I had it at a restaurant called Charlie Wong Saigon Garden. Charlie Wong, as you might have already guessed, served not just pho, but also Chinese food of the sweet-and-sour-pork-and-chow-mein variety.

But while this pho may look average at first glance, it was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. Since Vietnamese restaurants are still a rarity around these parts, the basil served on the plate with the bean sprouts was not Thai basil; it was Italian basil, the kind you put into pesto.

Also, the broth was more sugary than herbal and the rice noodles were pre-cut into two-inch lengths, suggesting that the chef designed it to be eaten by people who are used to soup spoons, not chopsticks.

In fact, chopsticks aren’t automatically supplied with the bowl. I had to get mine by going up to the counter and specifically asking for a pair.

What this pho didn't have in short supply, however, was meat. There was about a half pound of beef in the bowl--an amount equal to a decent steak dinner. And it was sliced into thick chunks, every piece tender and soft.

So was it an authentic bowl of pho? No, not if you're judging it against pho from cities where the Vietnamese population is larger than the family that owns the restaurant; but for Montana, it was everything it needed to be. And if you ate it after a day of hiking in the frigid wilderness of Glacier National Park like I did, you'd agree with me that there's no better bowl of pho in the entire state.

Charlie Wong Saigon Garden
1645 U.S. 93 S
Kalispell, MT 59901
(406) 755-5290

Nourish - Costa Mesa