Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bistro 75 - Newport Beach

The title of this post is not a typo, it's just ahead of its time**. What was once Fashion Island's French 75 (and at one time, Rouge) will be rechristened Bistro 75. It's all part of chain-wide rebranding effort by David Wilhelm and his marketers. The restaurateur has discovered that his American-themed joints performed better than his French ones.

The solution is an exorcism of all things Gallic, which recently began by turning Chat Noir from a French Can-Can Girl to a Southern Belle named Savannah. (READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE)

But even though there may be some truth to their conclusion that French food is too often associated with fancy special occasions, I find it eerily coincidental that in the same week, I see Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud's face emblazoned on boxes of Costco frozen food. (Wasn't this a plot point in the movie Ratatouille?)

No, I'm not implying that French 75 or any of Wilhelm's properties are of the same caliber as a Keller or Boulud (nor is it even the best French in Orange County), but is this a harbinger of a future where all restaurants are Taco Bell?

Thankfully, at least for now, things haven't changed much (eventhough the new name is already being used on mass mailers). As of a week ago, French 75 remains French 75, and the appetizers still boasts escargot, fromage and shrimp en cassolette.

The complimentary basket of bread still wows with a crackly crust that shatters in shards. In the center, its steamy, billowy crumb goes especially well with a smear of mayonnaise tapenade.

Their main courses also kept a French accent. Even the cheeseburger is called "Cheeseburger in Paris", utilizing brioche and gruyere.

For a recent lunch, I opted for the Chicken Viennoise ($15), which is encased in a light, crunchy breading of Panko that rivals the best Japanese katsu. Its oily crunch reveals a white-meat filet as moist as dark-meat. But unlike it, the ivory flesh is sinew-free and creamy, almost buttery. To counter the richness, a bitter salad of arugula and shaved parmesan is served.

The best part of the dish, though, are the smattering of deep-fried capers buds and leaves strewn over the top of the chicken. These carbonized, crispy things pop with a licorice and anise wallop -- palate cleansers that you eat in concert with the food.

However, not all things French are good. The Moules Frites ($16) has a cream sauce that coats your tongue in butterfat and makes you wish you had taken a Lipitor before you came. The mussels suffer from this sauce as much as your palate. Their delicate sweetness are all but drowned out in the deluge.

A deluge of a different kind is welcome in dessert. Ah, yes, Chocolate Souffle ($13.95). It may well be the one signature item to survive. Because let's face it, who can say no to a puffy, chocolate cake that comes hot from the oven, drizzled with chocolate sauce, dolloped with cream, and drizzled with more chocolate sauce?

Très bien!

French 75/Bistro 75
(949) 640-2700
327 Newport Center Dr
Newport Beach, CA 92660

**Update from Joy (12/22/07):

"...the staff I spoke with seemed optimistic that this branch would not, in fact, be turned into a Bistro 75. I contacted Culinary Adventures to express my hope that this was true, and David Wilhelm himself assured me that the Newport Beach location is not going to be converted, although the Irvine Marketplace location is. Hooray! I like the NB location much better anyway."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Red Mango - Irvine

No recent food story is as sweet or as bitter as the sordid tale of L.A.'s frozen yogurt phenomenon. Unless you've been holed up in a dark living room, tuned only to C-Span and hunched contentedly over a carton of Dreyers, you've no doubt heard of Pinkberry and the hype-driven PR machine that sparked the yogurt craze a few years ago. Since that time, meter maids, trademark lawyers, food bloggers, lab testers, and tabloid celebrities got involved.

In the meantime, in O.C., things were a bit calmer. For a while, Yogurtland and other bandwagoning independents enjoyed doing business in a Pinkberry-free zone. But with a recently opened store in Huntington Beach (Bella Terra) and plans to debut at least three more franchises in Irvine (Spectrum), Tustin (The District), and Newport Beach (Fashion Island), Pinkberry's finally brought the fight down to us.

But even before it snips the ribbon to its Irvine store, Pinkberry will find an old adversary crouched and waiting with gloves already laced. Red Mango just launched its Irvine outlet; the first in Orange County for the chain that purportedly started the trend in South Korea.

It swirls up the now familiar flavors of yogurt -- plain and green tea. Both are tart and icy, intended to be garnished with toppings of chopped fresh fruit, cereals, and mochi nuggets ($1.00 for one topping; $1.25 for two). At Red Mango, you'll be surprised that pomegranate is offered as a choice, but you'll be even more flabbergasted to find that mango is not (Reason: Not in season).

Those who prefer their yogurt sans accoutrement are charged $2.50 for a small cup.

The similarities between the two rivals are worth noting, especially the hollow center of emptiness you'll discover at the core of its swirl. This is the space where more yogurt should be, but instead, there's air -- a void with nothing but an echo. It's ingeniously misleading. But the ruse is par for the course in L.A.

The taste of their yogurt, in this humble blogger's opinion, is less puckeringly sour than Yogurtland; sweeter and more subtle. Delicious.

But still, I wonder how long before I tire of Red Mango as I did Yogurtland. Better hurry up Pinkberry. The clock is ticking. The boom times of this fad won't last forever. Remember tapioca milk tea?

Red Mango
17595 Harvard Avenue, Suite D
Irvine, CA 92714

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mabuhay Bakery - Anaheim

You've heard it over and over again: the best food discoveries in Orange County are often made in anonymous, beaten-down strip malls far away from the master-planned communities some of us live in.

Case in point: Mabuhay Bakery -- a Filipino bakeshop we stumbled into recently in a blink-and-you-miss-it dilapidated row of stores facing the wrong direction on a busy Anaheim thoroughfare. Had it not been next door to the Ethiopian restaurant that was our intended destination, we wouldn't have found it in a million years.

A proud, middle-aged Filipina tended the store, curious at the sight of our curiousity at her selection of goods.

There was the ever popular pan de sal, the Filipino version of the dinner roll, tied up in bags. Ensaymadas -- the sweet brioche-like breads frosted with butter and shredded cheese -- came in plain, ube, and macapuno flavors. The chicken empanadas looked plump, the edges of its pastry shell crimped with a fork. A modest selection of Filipino pantry essentials lined metal racks. These would be your banana ketchups, cheese spreads, and patis (fish sauce).

But what caught our eyes were some Technicolored, twirly-topped meringues (8 for $1) set on cooling trays, existing in more hues than Benetton can dream up. The confections, we later discover, has got a tacky, sticky outer texture similar to taffy, which relents and turns to foam in your mouth.

Some squat, golden brown muffins that looked like cornbread also tasted like it. But these had a dense, compact crumb and more a determined sense of purpose. Cheese rolls had the shape of a flattened hot dog bun, but ate more substantially, especially because it was slathered with butter.

As we paid for our haul, I asked the proprietress how long they'd been in business.

"Four years," she said, too matter-of-factly.

"Are you not from the neighborhood?" she queried in return.

"No," I said, almost embarrassed. "We're from Irvine."

Mabuhay Bakery
(714) 828-4947
2620 W La Palma Ave
Anaheim, CA 92801

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Wheel of Life - Irvine

"Vegan power!" he shouted, his fist pumping the air. "Vegan power!" he heard in return. Were we at a PETA rally? Some kind of protest march? No, it was a run-of-the-mill Saturday night in Irvine and we were having dinner.

And the enthusiastic activist was not a tie-dyed, dreadlocked rebel rouser. He's a conservatively-dressed, middle-aged Asian man -- the owner of the restaurant called Wheel of Life.

His battle cry wasn't so much a call to arms as it was a greeting -- a greeting he bestowed with a genuine smile and a slap on the back to the guests in his establishment. His customers came from all walks of life; young and old, hippie and straight-laced. And if you counted me and my friends (one of whom was wearing an In-N-Out T-shirt), not everyone in there that night was a vegetarian.

Other than a few stray bumper stickers which said "Love Animals, Don't Eat Them" and that proud proprietor, you wouldn't be able to tell Wheel of Life apart from any other Asian food mom-and-pop. Wide mirrors gave the illusion the room was bigger than it was. Green Christmas lights twinkled festively. The sounds heard are of noodles being slurped and rust-colored Thai iced tea being sucked from a straw.

The menu ran the usual gamut of pad thai and tom kha kai, and tasted just like any other pad thai or tom kha kai. The former had a dark, tamarind earthiness that gave each rice noodle strand a tangy depth of flavor and a dirty red tinge.

The latter sipped like a creamy coconut soup, but also refreshingly light and tart. It was enlivened by lime and made slightly hazardous by roaming pods of dried Thai chili. And there was cabbage in the brew, julienned so that it ate like noodles. The only difference between these dishes and those served elsewhere is that instead of chicken and tofu, it's fake-chicken (which I will abbreviate as ficken) and tofu.

The ficken didn't taste much like chicken (ironically, it may be the only thing in the world that doesn't), but regardless, it was yummy. The texture was somewhere between a mushroom and tofu skin, spongy with a distinctly firm chew designed to fool your palate into thinking, "Hey! I'm eating meat!"

The charade went the same way with the nam sod, utilizing itty-bitty granules of mock-pork (which I will abbreviate as mork). But that wasn't my problem with it. There wasn't enough of the puckering power of lime to perk up the dish.

Appetizers we tried didn't pretend to be made of meat. The egg rolls were deep fried and filled with cabbage. Even after good dunk in its sweet and sour sauce, the raucous crunch of the crispy skin relented and reverbed in our skulls.

The tofu, though, was slightly disappointing, and left us puzzled. Of all things that should impress in a vegan restaurant, it ought to be tofu. Instead, these were limp beings in need of character. It made me miss the tofu other restaurants served -- the kind with a papery-crisp crust and an interior of custardy curd.

Redemption came in the form of more egg rolls. This time, it was dessert, stuffed with pieces of banana that oozed out of the shattering shell like scalding pudding. Contrasting the temperature and texture was a scoop of coconut ice cream, an icy and rich treat that chilled our tongues just as the egg rolls burned it.

We left full, satisfied, without consuming even a molecule of meat. Therein lies the true "vegan power" of mork and ficken*!

* NOT ACTUAL TERMS. Use them at the risk of your own embarrassment.

Wheel of Life
(949) 551-8222
14370 Culver Dr # 2
Irvine, CA 92604