Sunday, July 30, 2006

New Capital - Rowland Heights

If there's one thing that the Chinese love more than good food, it's a good deal. Combine these two elements together and the result is a scene similar to a Saturday night rave or the NYSE trading floor on a Monday morning.

The siren call of $1.98 dim sum is louder than the thump of the techno beat or the clanging of the trading bell. This was what brought me and the throngs of others to New Capital Restaurant in Rowland Heights.

The restaurant -- situated up a flight of stairs in a Chinese-owned business enclave due east of the San Gabriel Valley -- felt like it was the epicenter of this weekend ritual; the Sunday morning dim-sum rush.

As always, a glut of people jammed the entrance with a blatant disregard for municipal fire codes. Elbowing my way inside to get a number for a table, I became a particle in a sea of bodies. The focal point of the chaos? The hostess' podium. This was Heaven's Gate and she was Saint Peter. To have your number announced by her on a raspy P.A. system was salvation.

Luckily for us, and despite the continuing influx of customers, we only had to wait about fifteen minutes before ours was called, accompanied by harps and an angelic chorus.

And since New Capital operates on the "roving cart" system, as soon as we sat, one rolled to a stop next to our table.

We pointed to a few goodies and promptly started noshing.

The seaweed salad sparkled in a bright emerald green -- a color that was as striking to the eyes as it was refreshing on the palate. The thin julienned ribbons was full of crunch and perfumed with the faint nuttiness of sesame.

A sugary glaze slathered the tops of the baked char siu buns, making the doughy domes gleam like mirrors. It came stuffed full of pork, suspended in Chinese BBQ sauce -- a syrupy sweet and dark elixir with the consistency of molasses.

The golden fried glutinous rice balls, which were gummy and sticky ovals, chewed like mochi but hid a savory center of chopped meat and gravy laced with five-spice.

Then there were the shrimp sticks; dreidels constructed from the pureed flesh of the crustacean. They're breaded with Panko, skewered on sugar cane stalks, and deep fried to a golden brown crisp.

Biting into a drumstick revealed the sea-sweet meat of many prawns, compacted into a bouncy pink ball of pure bliss. Once we picked it clean, we chewed on the leftover sugar cane and sucked on its nectar. We left nothing on the plate but masticated plant fiber. Finger food has never been this fun and scrumptious.

Steamed bittermelon was the platform for another dish, which cradled morsels of fatty pork and a thimble-sized cylinder of imitation crab. The melon was true to its name, packing within its cell-walls an astringency only appreciated by those who know it well. Its primary function was to counteract the porcine sweetness, which it did dutifully.

But there was another creation that flew in the face of the bittermelon. The same minced pork, jeweled with fat, crowned the top of a thick omelette base. American eggs and breakfast sausage never collaborated as successfully as these morsels did. Unctuously rich, teetering on the edge of overkill, we needed something afterwards to balance its full-bodied boldness.

The simply steamed Chinese broccoli fit the bill. Blessed with a deep chlorophyll green, the stalks were tender without being mushy, warm while still refreshing. Each spear and leaf exuded a pleasant vegetable bitterness (think spinach, but firmer).

Chopped thousand-year-old-egg lurked beneath the opaque and starchy rice porridge, giving the brew a uniquely old-school Chinese flavor. Traditionally, the therapeutic benefits of congee was used to nurse the sick back to health.

That morning, it nourished us too, providing a soothing respite from all the cholesterol and Atkin's-friendly protein we were consuming. Crunchy wonton strips and chopped scallions contributed fresh textures and herbiness.

Lacy balls of taro crumbled like fine French pastry and ate like Japanese korokke -- the crispy granules of the outer crust a perfect counter to the mashed taro root. Inside, a lightly curried filling awaits, like the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. I slathered mine with chili paste and ate it, followed by a swig of hot tea.

From the same cart, we grabbed some stuffed fried crepes. These thick parcels vaguely resembled mini Hot Pockets, but belonged to another class entirely. Chopped carrot, minced pork and shrimp lubricated in a light cream sauce were lovingly wrapped around thin sheets of crepe, then delicately breaded and fried.

Steamed fish paste seemed to be the running theme of another cart that rolled by. We chose two renditions of the ingredient, served in round metal steamers. One had the fish paste caked onto tofu and swimming in an oily gravy. The other had it plainly steamed; a naked threesome, huddled together in golf-ball-sized orbs.

The former had more depth because of salty oyster-sauce it was steeped in. But the latter had a cleaner taste, unobstructed and springy as if it were made out of edible Silly Putty.

A brick-sized block of tofu had a crispy, browned outer crust, sliced like Wonder Bread to reveal a white, virgin curd -- a smooth surface that was supple and silken to the touch. Since the quivering slab couldn't bear to stand upright under its on weight, I laid it down on a saucer and pushed it gently with a spoon towards my waiting mouth.

A translucent skin was wrapped around chopped Chinese chives for a set of attractive-looking dumplings. The grassy herb was held together with nothing but starch -- one of the few vegetarian items on the roster, but still oh-so-good.

Once we were sated, we waved our order sheet in the air -- a white flag to signal our surrender. Each stamp on the paper counted for $1.98, but the sum total was equal to a delicious brunch worth a dive into the mosh pit that is the Sunday morning dim-sum rush.

New Capital Seafood Restaurant
(626) 581-9813
1330 Fullerton Rd
Rowland Heights, CA 91748

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mitsui - Irvine

In Irvine, there are more Japanese restaurants than there are McDonald's. It's true! My estimate puts sushi bars and Japanese joints outnumbering the Golden Arches by at least ten to seven.

Developers at The Irvine Company must have a standing arrangement that for every shopping center built here, there should be at least one Japanese or sushi bar in it. Some are better than others. And most aren't even owned or operated by Japanese. But you can bet that as Irvine's border expands to meet the proposed Great Park at the former El Toro Airfield, there will be a few more places for citizens to get a California Roll and Teriyaki Chicken.

At the southern border of Irvine, occupying a coveted corner of a neighborhood shopping center, Mitsui is the youngest of the breed. Immaculately designed with jutting bamboo poles acting as room dividers and art, it's the kind of place that serves sushi rolls with inexplicable names like Dejavu, Monkey, and Playboy.

The rest of the menu runs the gamut of Japanese restaurant mainstays and there is, of course, a sushi boat listed among them.

The proprietors of Mitsui know their clientele well. The target market is Quail Hill, a posh new neighborhood that now dots the last undeveloped, grassy hills of Irvine where previously, I assume, there were only quail. And what better way is there for a restaurant to curry the favor of its intended customer base than by serving up something called the Quail Hill Roll.

We didn't try the Quail Hill Roll that night, but it left us wondering if our own neighborhood sushi joint, S. Sushinoya, offered up a Northpark Roll.

Instead, we opted for the familiar Rainbow Roll Combo ($15.95), which was typical of other incarnations I've had before. Shrimp, tuna, salmon, whitefish, and mackerel hugged the top of a California Roll, cut into bite-sized pieces. The ingredients were fresh, cold, and briskly invigorating. It was just the thing to cool down our sweaty heads after the scorcher of a day we endured.

The platter also included four pieces of nigiri which were good, so long as I temporarily erased the memories of omakase at Sushi Shibucho.

Worthy of its name was the Spicy Tuna Roll ($6.95). Each morsel looked like a stunning broach with a red ruby center which packed a wallop of flavor. Its raw tuna nucleus, chopped and mixed with Sriracha, smacked us unexpectedly with its capsaicin punch.

Next up was the House Special Roll ($10.95) which was a California Roll blanketed with thick slabs of albacore, smeared with avocado, sprinkled with shaved red onion and scallions, and finished with a drizzling of mayo-ponzu sauce.

The mass was just about impossible to handle with a chopstick, tumbling like a deck of cards before it reached the vicinity of our lips. But once conquered, it melted in our mouths with ease. The tart sauce complemented the subtle albacore, while the avocado added richness and body.

After the cooling comfort of the sushi rolls, we were ready for the bliss that is deep fried seafood. The Fried Oysters ($5.95) were standard issue, but nonetheless greaseless and golden, freshly plucked from the deep fryer. Dunks in tonkatsu and hot mustard really brought out its briny soul.

We should have stopped there, because the Unagi Tempura Roll ($8.95) disappointed. Eel, crab, smelt roe and avocado was rolled inside sushi rice, which was then coated with tempura batter and deep fried. The resulting dish was dazzling at first, but in the same way deep fried ice cream is dazzling -- a novelty that sounds better on paper than in practice.

The first bite was intriguing, with the hot, crunchy golden crust calling out to itself. But the second was less appealing as I noticed that the heat of the oil had compacted and transformed the sushi rice into an unpleasantly gummy and dense paste. The aforementioned fillings were also similarly beaten into submission, rendering its flavors mute and impotent.

The lesson learned?

Irvine sushi joints: everywhere. Cold sushi: good. Fried sushi: bad.

6731 Quail Hill Pkwy.
Irvine, CA 92603

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mastro's Steakhouse - Costa Mesa

Beneath the shadow of the elegant curved glass and chrome edifice of the Plaza Tower, sat Mastro's, a steakhouse by which to measure all others.

European autos lined the driveway, seemingly fresh from a run on the Autobahn and arranged by the valets so that the costlier models are nearest the entrance.

Walking inside, past a stretched entryway with walls of textured sandstone, the hostess -- a rail-thin twentysomething co-ed -- directed her colleague to escort us to our table, her voice icy and precise with a bit of put-on haughtiness. We were led to a table dressed in crisp white linen and plush high-backed chairs.

It was the early evening, but the sunlight could not reach into our seating area, even in that pre-sunset hour. The room's primary source of illumination came from vertical panels lined with a glimmering fabric, dramatically backlit to exude a honey-yellow glow. Dimly lit and sultry, the space was conducive for intimate conversation, but unfortunately not for food photos*.

In front of us, a glass wall with columns of wine bottles reached beyond the limits of the ceiling. They looked like jewels; a cascade of emeralds and onyx. In Vegas, this is the kind of sight which panders to the tourist hordes, in a showy display of one-upmanship over the last glitzy restaurant to open in town. But here, in Costa Mesa, it comes across as measured, dignified, even purposeful.

The servers, in starched white tuxedos, were models of efficiency and masters of prose, regaling us with pitch-perfect recitals of the night's specials. And as with any establishment where dinner for two easily reaches into triple digits, they used crumb scrapers.

We produced the crumbs to be scraped as we nibbled on crusty bread and crackers. Notable in the artfully arranged basket was the pretzel bread, a burnished mini-loaf with the dark color of pumpernickle and a crusting of salt. Yet another standout was the crispy planks of toast, which were tangy and bubbled with parmesan cheese.

But the point of the evening was steak, and lots of it, so we saved our appetites until our orders arrived.

The sixteen ounce New York Strip ($36.95), was not a strip of meat as much as it was a gold-brick-sized section of cattle. Served on a plate which was heated past the temperature of magma, the hunk of charred flesh sizzled and sputtered in melted butter. Slicing off the first chunk was an effortless task, with the meat offering little resistance to my blade. The core was cool crimson, surrounded by a perfect perimeter of pink and a seasoned outer crust of beautiful brown and black.

I pierced the cut piece with a fork, held it up, blew on it, and then ate it. It took no more than one chew for me to realize that this was the best steak I've ever had. There were no fibers to masticate, no connective tissue to gnaw. It wasn't just tender, it surrendered upon contact with my teeth, like Jell-O. The result was an unobstructed taste of red meat, of blood and of flesh. This was the purest essense of beef; a pristine core sample of the beast worth its weight in gold.

Twenty days of aging had done its duty, concentrating the flavor and tenderizing beyond where any mallet or marinade can take it.

The sides were offered a-la-carte and served in ample portions. Gorgonzola Mac & Cheese ($9.50) came highly recommended by Chowhounds who came before me and was deserving of the praise. It's heaped into a deep metal bowl -- enough to feed a family of three on its own -- and adorned with a burnt, bruleed top, which only added to its appeal. The heady concoction was redolent with the mild penicillin tang of bleu cheese and stretched-out in mozzarella-like webs as we brought it to our mouths.

The Sauteed Asparagus ($7.50) were green and crisp-tender, slicked with olive oil and flavored with minced garlic. Our choice functioned as a palate-cleanser against the heavier dishes, but the woody, fibrous stems of the asparagi should have been trimmed off prior to cooking.

As I looked around the room, I took stock of my fellow diners. Along with my lovely dining companion (who, by the way, treated me for this carnivorific feast) and I, there were women decked out in their newest South Coast Plaza couture and birthday celebrants with deep pockets. But because it was midweek, there were quite a few groups of young professionals on expense accounts and executives who've descended from their high-rise boardrooms to have supper.

Mastro's was a fitting refuge for these hungry lions of industry -- a place to toast the day's business conquest with glass of scotch and chomp on a bloody steak.

As I left the restaurant with beef oozing out of my pores, I saw how right my observation was when I walked past my company's CEO who was enjoying his own Mastro's meal.

Mastro's Steakhouse
633 Anton Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

*Note: To see photos and read the review which spurred me to action in trying Mastro's, check out Seth Chadwick's report here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Stricklands - Irvine

Nothing in life is as sweet as ice cream in summertime. To indulge in it during these hot months is always a forgivable sin. That diet can wait. It's summer after all.

In Irvine, the best place to treat oneself is Stricklands on Campus Drive.

Hailing originally from Ohio, this solitary California outpost of the franchise sells soft serve, freshly made out of gleaming churning machines that look like they belong in the engine room of a steamer ship. The ice cream produced by these metal contraptions is silken, devoid of ice crystals, and thoroughly smooth. Before Haagen Dazs hardens, it would taste like this.

Two special Flavors-of-the-Day are offered, along with Chocolate and Vanilla, which are always available. You can order it straight up in a cone or have it dolled up in a myriad of ways, including drizzled with toppings for a sundae or whipped into a cold shake.

When you order it as is, a unique conical scoop sculpts each serving into a shape out of Van Gogh's The Starry Night, with stiff, undulating curves that end in pointed peaks. This is Stricklands' signature -- something they probably should patent.

We had our vanilla soft serve with half a banana, some chocolate syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a Maraschino cherry. They called it a Banana Boat ($3.95). We called it "summer".

Stricklands Ice Cream
(949) 387-9955
4523 Campus Dr
Irvine, CA 92612

Interesting Trivia: Since our visit last summer, Stricklands has garnered a smattering of accolades from the local press, which they proudly framed. One that was featured more prominently than the others was from fellow food blogger and Chowhound, Professor Salt.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Zon Baguettes - Tustin

I heart Tustin.

Time and time again, it has proven itself as a fertile breeding ground for unique and eclectic restaurants. It's no wonder that when hunger hits, my mind and stomach inevitably wander into Tustin: one of O.C.'s best food towns.

Zon Baguettes is just exactly the type of place I expect to find here. A Vietnamese sandwich shop far removed from the hustle and bustle of Little Saigon's Bolsa Avenue, with no ties to any corporate franchise, it is an independent in every sense of the word -- a fitting new entry to Tustin's remarkable restaurant repertoire.

But its grand opening this past Saturday occurred without fanfare. There was a plastic banner draped over the front of the shop advertising the time and date of the event, but otherwise the traffic on Newport Avenue was oblivious. Most of the customers present that day seemed to be personally acquainted with the owner; well-wishers bringing gifts of plants tied up with bright red ribbons.

Nonetheless, the store was still busy with activity. And the space it occupied, although a fraction of the size of Lee's Sandwiches in Irvine, was just as polished.

I sampled three of their banh mi's, walking away with a free promotional baguette to boot.

Although the Shredded Chicken banh mi ($2.00) was what I ordered and paid for, it wasn't what I received. Instead, they mistakenly wrapped up a Grilled Chicken, which was actually a few cents more expensive.

For the sandwich, charbroiled strips of white meat chicken was stuffed inside a French bread hoagie roll with the usual suspects of pickled carrots/daikon, sprigs of cilantro, sliced cucumber and scorching jalapeno. The meat -- smoky sweet and moist -- went well with the accoutrements and most of all, the bread, which was supple with a hearty crust.

The BBQ Pork banh mi ($2.00) was adorned with thin slices of the Chinese restaurant staple, char siu. Lean and rimmed with red food coloring, the pork was tooth-tender, but it was the snappy and cooling garden fresh veggies that made up the bulk of the filling - a feature that had my inner vegetarian rejoicing.

However, had the carnivore in me not been suppressed by the muggy weather, it would have lamented that the skimpy serving of swine was swaying to the sorrier side of satisfactory.

They were more generous with the Special Combo ($2.75) which was layered with a few flaps of char siu and other cuts of meat they called "Vietnamese bologna" and "jambon." An earthy smear of chicken-liver pate was also present, but almost undetectable.

Still it was a tasty sandwich and quite filling since it's bigger and longer than the average banh mi. As a result, just one was enough to amply stamp out my hunger.

But if the sandwich hadn't been enough, there was that baguette that came free with a $5 minimum purchase. Tearing into it revealed a fluffy interior which came alive with slathering of butter. Each chewy bite produced a savory-salty tang and the mildly tart, intoxicating aroma of yeast.

The crust, although not as satisfyingly crackly and crisp like those at Top Baguette in Westminster, is worlds better than the rock-hard loaves sold by Lee's, which has the uncanny ability of cutting-up my cheek and inducing jaw fatigue within minutes.

Zon's baguettes are gentler souls, at home and at your service, here in Tustin.

Zon Baguettes
14081 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Gaja Okonomiyaki - Lomita

"It's so damn hot...milk was a bad choice"

- Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) in the the film Anchorman, after realizing that chugging a carton to quench his thirst after a sweaty jog on a hot day wasn't the wisest of decisions.

I was to come to a similar realization when I invited five friends to an early dinner at Gaja Okonomiyaki in Lomita one balmy Sunday.

It was the tail end of one of those sweltering Southern California days we're now all too familiar with, but not yet accustomed. The sun had dipped below the horizon, but the air was still thick with heat. And although Lomita is close to Torrance, which is close to the beach, it still didn't make it any cooler in that black asphalt parking lot.

I had been yearning to try Gaja ever since a Chowhound by the name of Perceptor posted his drool-inducing photo spread for everyone to see. And then recently, Tony Bourdain went to Osaka on his Travel Channel show and had okonomiyaki in a place just like Gaja. Like a rat entraced by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I was lured by the call of this Japanese pancake dish and I e-mailed my friends to meet me in Lomita post haste.

The folly of my decision set in as soon as they arrived and we went inside to take our table.

Okonomiyaki, you see, is a cook-it-yourself dish like Korean BBQ, done on a table-top griddle built into each booth. There were about a dozen tables there, all equipped with these hot plates -- flat metallic grey cooktops connected to an unseen power source -- each of which acted like space heaters, pumping out BTUs into the enclosed room like coils in an electric oven. This, and the fact that the air conditioning was woefully underpowered, made the temperature inside the restaurant easily ten degrees hotter than it was outside. Taking my seat directly in front of our griddle, I could feel its radiative heat on my skin. If my chair was able to swivel and rotate, I'd be shawarma.

We were undoing the first few buttons on our shirts, shedding any unnecessary layers of clothing, and fanning ourselves even before it was time to cook. One of us pointed out the adage "if you can't handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen." This apt and hilarious observation captured the absurdity of the moment -- we couldn't escape the kitchen as this dining room *was* the kitchen.

But we had gone too far to chicken out. So, as the only person in the group who had any idea of how to cook okonomiyaki -- thanks to Perceptor, mmm-yoso's Kirk, and Daily Gluttony's Pam -- I started us off with an order.

Part of the appeal of okonomiyaki is that its communal and interactive. The word itself means "as you like it." Everyone is in control of how well the dish turns out since it is cooked and eaten fresh off the cooktop by you and the friends you've invited. And because it is slightly more complicated than just slapping a piece of marinated beef on a grate and watching it sizzle, an order of okonomiyaki comes with its own set of instructions.

That's right. Instructions -- a laminated "How-To" guide complete with a set of steps, diagrams and charts. It's even written in Japanese and broken English like those Sony VCR manuals from the bygone 80s.

When the first bowl of okonomiyaki batter arrived, I played the part of intrepid diner and expert cook by demonstrating the procedure to my friends as if I was auditioning for my own Food Network show. I took a spoon to task and mixed the toppings of raw egg, dried shrimp, diced scallion, folding it gently into the gloopy starch-and-cabbage-based batter. Then a squirt of oil from a squeeze bottle lubed up the griddle.

When it came to spreading the batter onto the cooking surface, I heeded the warnings on the instructional sheet which said that making two smaller pancakes was recommended for beginners. Being risk averse, I hedged my bet and made four.

The moment of truth came a few minutes later when it was time to flip. Not surprisingly, it stayed fully intact since the tight circumference of my small pancakes left a lot of room for error.

Then after a few short minutes, I brushed on some dark okonomiyaki sauce over the tops, sprinkled each generously with dashes of dried green seaweed powder, zig-zagged Japanese mayo, and placed a finishing crown of bonito flakes ever so daintily on top. I cut it up and portioned it out to my eager friends. We consumed it piping hot and oozy.

I'm proud to report that my creation was delectable. The batter produced a savory and springy, eggy pancake with the herby notes of scallion and the salty bite of the dried brine shrimp. The dark okonomiyaki sauce, a tart cousin of teriyaki, played against the sweet richness of the mayo. The bonito flakes and seaweed powder contributed an unmistakable Japanese character.

Seeing the success that I had with the first okonomiyaki, one friend -- who was a culinary school graduate and an ex-chef at Lucques -- took it upon herself to prepare the next batch.

Hers required a few more steps than the rudimentary one I made. First of all, there was raw pork belly to render and pieces of seafood to cook. Then there were noodles which had to be heated and stir fried. Finally, it's doused by the same base batter.

But when it came time to spread, she confidently formed one single, large circle with the circumference of a medium pizza pie. Her reputation as a professional chef was now on the line. And we all bit our nails waiting for her to do the flip.

How did she do? Well, upon flipping, the pancake fell apart in ragged patches. What didn't stick to the spatula made an ungraceful belly flop onto the flat surface. And although it tasted great, the whole incident left her open for some playful ribbing about her "supposed" culinary training.

Of course, I couldn't claim that I could have done any better -- that large and thick circular disk was as unwieldy and awkward to handle as a bowling ball balanced on a pool cue.

After being stuffed full of okonomiyaki and sweating like pigs, we breathed a sigh of relief when we left that stifling dining room. Outside, we were refreshed when our perspiration evaporated on contact with a brisk sea breeze. Surprisingly, the weather in Lomita had cooled considerably during the hour we spent in the restaurant.

As we parted company, we made a vow not to return to Gaja again until the weather is good and frigid...or until they install an air-conditioning system with supercooled air jets like those used in the "Backdraft" attraction at Universal Studios, whichever comes first.

Gaja Okonomiyaki
(310) 534-0153
2383 Lomita Blvd # 102
Lomita, CA 90717