Sunday, September 30, 2007

Stonehill Tavern - Dana Point

I like food. I like talking about it, writing about it, taking pictures of it, and most of all, eating it. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. It can come from the humblest of places. It just has to be good. But once in while, a little splurging is nice. And there's no better way to splurge than when your friends are doing the splurging, like mine did a few days ago for my birthday.

Last year, it was Bluefin and Spago. This year, it's Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Hotel in Monarch Beach.

If you couldn't tell by the name, this hotel was as ritzy as it gets. Guests rolled in on Bentleys and were dressed in designer duds. All around, there were polished marble columns and immaculately clipped topiary. The aura of wealth was everywhere.

As we pulled up to the valet, in a dented Toyota pickup, I suppressed a chuckle as my friend said to me under his breath, "Couldn't we have taken my car?"

But the attendant barely batted an eye as I handed him the key and we made our way in, through the lobby, past the gorgeous foyer, into the restaurant.

We sat in a glass encased booth near the bar, a dimly lit lounge with towers of glass bejeweled with wine bottles.

Our waiter was precise and professional with the chiseled features of a daytime soap star. He recited the fine details of the night's specials flawlessly, from memory -- a talent which will undoubtedly come in handy the next time he auditions.

Of the many menus he gave us, one was the tasting menu, a list of six courses for $115 per person. Originally, our plan was to try it, but everyone at the table has to agree to order it, or no one does.

This "all-or-nothing" option wouldn't work, since one of us does not eat duck or lamb, and it made up two courses.

A smarter way, we decided, was to order a-la-carte. Not only would we save money, we'd get to try twice as many items as the tasting menu offered.

The appetizers alone would account for nine items.

They were subdivided into these categories:

Maine Lobster
Liberty Farms Duck
Dungeness Crab
Osetra Caviar

Each category had three different variations, while a fourth, called a Tasting Trio, had a sampling. We chose three trios, but steered clear of the caviar, which commanded hefty price tags ($150-$275).

But before the trios arrived, a basket of hot rolls did. And I do mean hot. A plume of steam escaped when we tore one apart. A slathering of house-made butter liquefied on contact, and before we knew it, we finished the entire basket. The best roll was one bubbled over with crispy cheese.

Next came a complimentary amuse of raw tuna, set on a thin round of cucumber, topped with caviar. It had the diameter of a quarter, but tasted like a thousand bucks.

It readied us for the Tuna Trio ($33), served side-by-side on a flat, rectangular plate. The first was a thin square of meat, seared on the bottom, but red and raw topside. A few spears of crunchy haricot verts and a boiled quail egg accompanied an "endive marmalade". It was a study in contrast and balance, between flavors and geometric shapes.

The second was thick slices of sashimi, "cooked" with the acid of yuzu and topped with shaved radish, enoki mushrooms, and cucumber. The creaminess of the fish was offset nicely by the citrus, like scrambled eggs with a fresh O.J. chaser.

The third was tuna tartare, laced with habanero-infused sesame oil, garnished with ribbons of mint and a side of buttered toast. The tuna's fine dice sparkled ruby red, and slipped around like an oiled seal in my mouth.

The Lobster Trio ($38) was good, but never being a fan of lobster, the meat failed to impress me. Though the methods did.

The first was a chilled salad, with frisee, pickled peaches, orange, and dribbles of roasted almond oil. The lobster sat underneath, frigid, firm, and furtive.

The second lobster app was bisque presented in a tea cup. Submerged under a rich, hot soup full of its essence was more of the meat. This time, it's butter-poached. There was also a crisp, fried fleck of batter, present for crunch and color.

The third lobster incarnation was as a shiso-wrapped fritter, deep fried on a stick. A deliberate dressing down of an expensive ingredient, this was a lobster in a corn dog's clothing. It rested on a lettuce cup with a dollop of sour cream.

When I went for the lettuce after the fritter was consumed, one of us remarked, "but that's a garnish."

"On a $38 dish, nothing is garnish!" I said to nods of agreement.

Hearts of romaine was certainly not garnish either. This was the first sample in the Greens Trio ($23), the trio that trumped the others. The romaine was done as a traditional Ceasar, with cheesy, crunchy crouton cubes and generous shavings of parmesan.

The second was a salad of heirloom tomatoes, with a oozy gloop of burrata cheese for body and wild arugula for fodder. The play between the tart and the rich was thrilling, if fleeting. I wanted more than the small hill I had to share with my two friends.

The third was watercress, served with a goat cheese and pistachio. The goat cheese was mild and runny, like yogurt without the tang; closing out the appetizer course with a cooling finish.

The main entrees came next, and we passed it around to take a taste of each other's selections.

My choice was the Berkshire Pig ($37). There was not one, but two different cuts on the plate, each prepared differently. One was a loin roast -- a cylinder of very tender meat with hardly any fat.

The other was thin planks of cheek meat. These were very dense, very fatty, and very flavorful. Its bouncy bite reminded me of bologna. A thick smear of paste was the puree of yellow carrot. And yes, I shall describe it as baby food. But any baby or toothless adult would love this full-bodied and sweet spoonful of silk.

Another entree, was the Nebraska Prime Beef ($46), which also had two distinct cuts and preps. The first, was a soft-as-pudding braised veal cheek meat, which could've been eaten with a spoon. The other was a bloody hunk of steak; good but unremarkable.

Broccoli and a block of a thinly-layered potato gratin acted as sides. All together, it was a homey dish -- hearty, rich and filling.

The Monkfish ($35) on special would be the winner if there was judging. Two swollen fillets were pan-seared, cooked to perfection and served under shredded cabbage wilted with bacon drippings. Grapes, pearl onions, and marble-sized English potatoes were strewn below for flavor and starch.

Tasting the buttery, firm-yet-supple flesh, I realized that this "poorman's lobster" needs a better nickname. It did, indeed, feel and taste like lobster, but it didn't have its odor or funky bitterness.

For dessert, we passed on the usuals of chocolate cake, creme brulee, and cheesecake (all available with fanciful add-ons), for something we never thought we'd see in a fancy restaurant: Root Beer Float ($12).

Yep, thanks to Pulp Fiction, you've heard of the five-dollar shake. Well, this is a twelve-dollar float. And I'm sorry to have to say this, but: it was worth every penny.

First of all, it comes with three hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, which already won our hearts. But this isn't just a mug of soda with a hastily dropped scoop of vanilla. No, this is a thoughtful and calculated dessert course.

First, the glass is filled halfway with a root beer slush, so that the scoop of ice cream can sit on it without sinking to the bottom. Then, there's the ice cream. It's not vanilla, but sassafras, which is a main ingredient in root beer. Over this, chilled root beer is poured.

The result; a playful rethinking of a classic.

When we thought we were done, we weren't. With the check (I will let you calculate the total on your own), came complimentary bon bons, ice cream morsels covered in chocolate, speared on plastic sticks.

It was a wonderful night of splurging by good friends on my behalf. One of them handed me a wad of cash when we walked outside. The money was for the valet, who was about to pull up in our pickup truck.

Stonehill Tavern
(949) 234-3325
1 Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, CA

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tea Station - Irvine

When did boba become a has-been? The tapioca pearl drinks -- the rage among Asian teens and college students during the middle to late nineties -- seems a little long on the tooth nowadays. Hopeful franchises, who sprang up during the Boba Boom and thought they were ready to take on Starbucks, have come and gone. And the lines that stretched out the door at places like Tapioca Express and Lollicup have migrated to the Pinkberries and Yogurtlands.

By the mid naughts, the bubble-tea bubble had burst.

Where it was once a beneficiary, boba drinks has now fallen victim to the fickle tastes and fleeting attention spans of a changing youth culture.

When I get boba now, it's for nostalgia. Boba milk tea is my generation's equivalent of the ice cream soda: We spent our allowance and summer job money on it, but having one now seems quaint.

Still around is one of the few stalwarts of the genre: Tea Station. This is a place where the drinks are still mixed in cocktail shakers.

Since the franchise is controlled by the Ten Ren Tea Company, the tea actually tastes like tea -- a refreshing balance of the bitter to the milky sweet ($2.75). The balls of tapioca which settle at the bottom are a chewy source of carbs that propel themselves like bullets down the barrel of that oversized straw. Paired with a snack of tea eggs ($1.00), they equate to the same amount of calories on a typical Sunday breakfast.

But the main attraction for me now is their food, namely their lunch plates. The best is the pork chop ($5.99), fried in a bubbled tapioca starch batter that crackles like a chicharon.

Served atop rice doused in soy-stewed ground pork, some stir-fried veggies and pickles, this is a meal that makes me forget that I'm in a boba tea shop. There's a fried egg that rides along in the dish, because let's face it, anything good is made better with a fried egg.

With the last morsel of pork eaten and the last sip of the milk tea drunk, I wonder: What will be the next food trend to fall by the wayside?

Tea Station
15333 Culver Dr. #430
Irvine, CA 92604

Friday, September 21, 2007

OC Weekly's "Best of OC" 2007

The best of the "Best Of" lists is out: OC Weekly's. And I'm not just saying that because this blog was listed in it last year. I'm saying that because this year, as The Weekly's other food reviewer that isn't the writing juggernaut named Gustavo Arellano, this blogger had the privilege of contributing to the issue.

Pick up a free copy at newsstands all over the county or read it online, and revel in the irreverence of such things as:

Best Place to Waste Six Hours and Possibly Sprout a Pimple
Best Restaurant for Tolkien Geeks
Best Two-Hour Wait For Food
Best Guy-Friendly Mall
...along with a few "reverent" ones that this writer was responsible for, like Best Hot Dog.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mochilato - Irvine

What is it? It's everything. The proverbial "kitchen sink" of desserts. A shaved ice mound topped with one too many toppings. Make that three too many. I had it at Mochilato -- the newest Asian dessert joint to recently open in Irvine -- and I wanted to like it, but I just couldn't.

It's not that the components by themselves weren't any good. They were. The mochi nuggets were chewy, sweet, like edible wax and bubble gum. The strawberries were perky, the kiwi fresh, and the mango tart. But then there were red beans ...and bananas ...and green tea powder ...and vanilla frozen yogurt ...and sweetened condensed milk ...and rose syrup ...and on and on.

The sum of its parts equaled a convoluted, sickening mish-mash of good things, which together, become bad, like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hofmann in Ishtar or Spielberg and Kubrick with A.I.

The shop called it the "Mochilato Way" ($5.95). I just called it "Blech!"

But I am being a bit hard on Mochilato. They do, in fact, offer more restrained and sane choices of shaved ice toppings. That is to say: Not all of them together in the same bowl.

So if there's anyone to blame, it was me for ordering it. I was the one who got greedy.

I was, however, better at choosing the products they were known for: Mochi ice cream, or more precisely;

mochi + gelato = mochilato.

Since this was the retail outlet of Mikawaya -- the company who puts out those mochi ice cream boxes you see in the freezer section of Asian grocery stores -- I wasn't expecting less than perfection.

And they were perfect.

Even better: The boutique sells more flavors than what is commercially available, arranged like truffles at a chocolate shop. There's one to tempt every sweet tooth, from hazelnut, to mango, to peaches 'n cream, to green tea. And the names, of course, are cute as buttons.

The strawberry mochi I tried was dubbed "Pinky" ($1.25), and the fruit's flavor was present in the thin, glutinous rice casing as well as its gelato center. The green tea was just as refreshing and the stretchy pull of the mochi, just right.

But the best part about eating them was that there was no stick, no cone, no bowl. Nothing more than just a layer of dough between you and the ice cream.

Mochilato also offers pastries, gelato in its pure form, coffee, tea, and even frozen yogurt (the tart kind a-la-Yogurtland and Pinkberry). It's a one-stop-dessert-shop. Just know, before going in there, what should and shouldn't be eaten together.

(949) 559-1116
14310 Culver Drive Ste E
Irvine, CA 92604

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Morimoto's Cookbook

One perk of owning a blog is the offers I get from publishers for preview copies of books. But I've never considered actually taking any of them up on it.

Until now.

None other than one of my food heroes, Masaharu Morimoto,has a cookbook out. And I couldn't wait to get my greedy little hands on some food porn and bits of cooking wisdom from the Emperor of the Iron Chefs.

Morimoto is a paradox of sorts; an ardent traditionalist who defies tradition. A celebrity chef who's more chef than celebrity. You can sense his reluctance at his fame -- this is a guy who rather be known for his food than just for the sake of notoriety.

And despite the fact that he now wears a ponytail and fashionable horn-rimmed glasses since his permanent move to the States (he has his own place in Philly and NYC), he's still the same intense warrior I came to revere from the original Iron Chef.

He's an honorable samurai in a land full of self-promoting hucksters -- one of which, by the name of Bobby Flay, he had a run-in early on.

Who can forget Morimoto's outrage and anger when he saw Flay, his opponent, standing on a cutting board after that cross-continental episode of Iron Chef.

For a second, it looked like Bobby Flay was going to be Bobby-Splayed-Open-With-a-deba-bocho (that's the kind of knife Morimoto uses to gut fish).

This no-nonsense tone plays into the book. Here are a few points on a page entitled "How to Eat Sushi":

Don't dunk your sushi rice-first into soy sauce.

Don't mix wasabi into your soy sauce.

But he can be playful too.

A prime example is what he does to that popular chocolate-covered Japanese kid snack, Pocky. His rendition substitutes asparagus for the cookie sticks.

The rest of the cookbook is full of gorgeous pictures, knife-sharp prose and a slew of recipes that range from the mundane (Grilled Pork Chops), the classic (Braised Black Cod), and the "what-the-f***?" (Chocolate Coated Sweetfish Liver).

Some of the more whimsical dishes he invented Johnny-on-the-spot on the battle floor. Others come from his restaurant kitchen.

But methinks a bit of wordplay was the inspiration for an iceberg salad called "Frozen Lettuce".

If you're going to use this book to cook with (not a coffee-table book as I will), it's full of useful tips. For "Pork Kakuni", he writes:

The longer you make this ahead, the better. If you're serving it on the weekend, begin preparations on Thursday.

But make no bones about it, Morimoto's recipes are involved, utilizing hard-to-find ingredients like Japanese soy lecithin (obrato) and sudachi, a citrus fruit virtually unheard of outside Japan. This isn't How to Boil Water. It is not, however, as intimidating as Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook.

Thomas Keller. Now there's a worthy competitor I'd like to see pitted against Morimoto on Iron Chef America.

NOTE: If you decide to buy it, you don't have to do so from the Amazon link I provided above.

But if you did, you will be supporting the blog a little. And for that, I thank you in advance.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Haveli - Tustin

I know next to nothing about Indian cuisine, and am not afraid to admit it. But if you don't have to be a musician to know a good song when you hear one, then it doesn't take a Madhur Jaffrey to appreciate how delicious Indian cooking can be or to recognize that it is one of the most complex, spicy, and robust of the world's cuisines.

This lack of knowledge does make ordering off Indian menus an intimidating experience though. Even the most able English translations can only give you a vague idea of what's coming.

Enter Haveli's buffet.

Although they did not invent the Indian buffet, this Tustin restaurant has been getting raves from just about every corner of the foodie universe -- and for good reason.

For a pittance ($7.95 for lunch or $11.99 for dinner) I can skip the menu roulette and do what must be done when I don't know what to order: Try everything.

And everything at Haveli is worth trying.

Spices dominate the food and pepper the crisp garlic naan. Fenugreek, cardamom, ginger (and a slew others I cannot identify), each sing its own notes, but together, in each dish, they harmonize -- the culinary equivalent of an entire symphony orchestra in your mouth.

There's white-meat chicken chunks swimming in a gurgling brew so silky and ruddy it looks like thick lobster bisque. Don't let that fool you though. It's spicy -- meant to be eaten with rice to temper its strength. Next to it, the dark-meat of the bird simmers in a darker sauce with the color of toffee. It's hotter than its neighbor, but finishes with the slight tartness of tamarind.

Veggies gets the saucy treatment too. A semi-sweet, but scorching gravy has button mushrooms floating in it like buoys. Another has peas and cubes of homemade cheese that tastes like mild ricotta.

Potatoes are cooked with onions, dry-seasoned with curry, and blasted with whole spice pods. Eggplant is reduced to mush, as is the spinach, concentrating the flavors that will invade every sensor on the tongue, leaving none unstimulated.

And as for a salad there's one mixed up from garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes and raw onions. This one will refresh the palate like no other salad can. But it will leave your breath smelling like, well, like raw onions.

Pakoras -- fried vegetable fritters covered in chickpea batter -- are fresh, crisp, and hot. They're ideal for dipping in Haveli's perky-green, herby sauce which smacks of mint.

Once you finish gorging, there's the gulab jamun, golf-ball-sized orbs of fried dough steeped in syrup. It tastes like bread pudding soaked in sugar water.

But if you're lucky, there will be gajar halva, a pudding of sorts consisting of shredded carrots, spices and sugar. I never had it before my visit to Haveli, but that's exactly why I love their buffet: I wouldn't have any idea what it was if I had just seen it on the menu.

But now I do. And if you've read this far, you do too. Think of what else you'll discover at the buffet.

Haveli Fine Indian Cuisine
(714) 669-1011
13882 Newport Ave # G
Tustin, CA 92780
NOTE: Haveli's dinner buffet is only available on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Their lunch buffet is offered daily.