Sunday, October 31, 2010

Crepes de Paris - Irvine

Never underestimate the power of suggestion. We just happened to run into the Crepes Bonaparte truck--the closest thing OC has to a Food Network celebrity after that Great Food Truck Race show--while it was parked on a random side street in Downtown Fullerton. And that was it: we needed, wanted, craved, demanded crepes for dessert.

The problem is that we were headed somewhere else for dinner. Somewhere not far from it, across the parking lot actually, where we were still able to see the truck serving a brisk and steady stream of customers from our seat. But it was too far away to run after it when it suddenly left before we finished our supper.

To be fair, it didn't just decide to retreat on a whim. Checking their Twitter afterward confirmed that they cooked their last crepe at exactly at 8 p.m., just when they said they would.

But its departure now left us with a crepes-for-dessert mission; a mission to satisfy a jones that no other dessert could fulfill--not frozen yogurt, not Strickland's ice cream, not cake. We desired nothing but a crepe, made hot and thin in front of our eyes, oozing with Nutella, bananas, covered under a furious flurry of powdered sugar, and served as a folded triangular envelope. Dollop of whipped cream, optional.

This is how we found ourselves at a Crepes de Paris at Diamond Jamboree in Irvine--one of a few non-Asian eateries at the decidedly very Asian plaza--and ordering exactly this. Inside, chick-lit cartoon drawings flitted about the walls like it was actually animated. A very nice woman took our order. Ours would be the last one of the night, she said. She relayed it to her partner, a man in the back whom I spied through a window where the crepe griddles were hot and visible.

He poured onto them a ladle-full of batter. His wooden squeegee swirled it around to spread the off-white liquid wide and thin. After a minute, he flipped it with a skinny spatula, revealing a browned, mottled reverse-leopard-spot disc of our soon-to-be-dessert. On one quadrant, a fistful of sliced bananas and a copious drizzle of Nutella went on. Then with two quick folds and a powdered-sugar and chocolate shower, our crepe was done.

Witnessing our crepe's birth was just as essential to the enjoyment as eating it.

We took it outside to the courtyard full of patio tables and chairs, where others were sinking teeth into 85C Bakery's breads. Our crepe we tore up ravenously--a slightly thick stock, chewy with a playful rubbery pull, Nutella turning into sauce, sugar melting into it, and banana slices lost somewhere in the milieu.

It was good, not earth-shattering, but exactly what we needed at the moment we needed it.

Now it must be said, I don't recall ever buying a crepe in my life until now. I have always made my crepes. Of all things in the Larousse Gastronomique, it is arguably the easiest dish to accomplish with nothing but common ingredients (flour, butter, milk, eggs, vanilla extract, sugar, and salt) I always have laying around.

So after paying the almost $7 toll for the treat, I'm still of the opinion that when it comes to this basic banana-Nutella model, the economics is wholly in my favor if I continue to make them myself. I've yet to sample their more elaborate versions.

But I won't rule out surrendering more money for even the bare-bones ones if the mood should strike, especially if that Crepes Bonaparte truck sashays in front of us again and plants the idea that we must have it that instant like DiCaprio in Inception. I think it has something to do with those irresistibly hilarious outfits they wear.

Crepes De Paris
2710 Alton Pkwy. Ste 125
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 727-2096

Update: As an extra topping to this post, I'm adding the Will Ferrell/Sacha Baron Cohen crepe scene from Talladega Nights. Thanks to Anonymous and digkv for bringing this up in the comments section!

Bari Bari Japanese BBQ - Tustin

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Yum Cha Café - Westminster

Readers from the San Gabriel Valley should already be familiar with Yum Cha Cafe. There are three there already (not counting the one in L.A.), all taking residence inside the armpits of large Chinese supermarkets.

They open early and get insanely busy fast. You know it's morning in the SGV when you see a jumble of bodies crowding the hot display cases like magnets. It is not uncommon to see little old ladies overtaking other little old ladies, elbowing themselves to the front of the line and jockeying for their turn at what is possibly the cheapest dim sum stash in existence.

Take a lesson from those women: You need to assert yourself. Forget shyness and decency. And also, forget about coming in the afternoon or in the evening, when all of the dim sum supplies are depleted and it turns into a standard, but equally cheap noodle soup shop.

This is dim sum at bargain prices, all freshly made and warming under heatlamps and in shiny aluminum baskets stacked tall behind a chin-high glass perennially fogged up with steam.

You order yours by screaming (it's the only way to get yourself heard above the din) and then pointing at stuff when you have to. You pay in cash and they package-up what you choose into Styrofoam containers with disposable chopsticks and hot sauce in little tear-away packets.

Orange County has two of its own, also following the same pattern as its SGV sisters. Both hide inside supermarkets and attract the same type of bargain hunters who salivate at the thought of getting the most out of their money. Read: quantity and prices before all else.

But if a Cantonese San Gabriel Valley resident should happen to come across our two Yum Chas, including this one inside the My Thuan market in Westminster, they'll find themselves more or less as a foreigner. Ours are decidedly Vietnamese, with Vietnamese translations for everything and Vietnamese speakers behind the counter.

Tip: take a number and watch the LED sign like a hawk. Chances are good that even though they'll yell the numbers in English and then Vietnamese, you won't hear it.

The prices are the same. Over 25 items are at 99-cents, usually with three pieces to an order. The rest top out $1.39. It is conceivable to spend more on the tea, tax, and tip at a proper dim sum house than an entire meal here. The spread I have pictured set me back exactly $11.22, and it fed the two of us until we were comatose.

Yes, you do sacrifice some of the refinement. The cheong fun can be thick where it should be delicate; the har gow is often pasty when it should be translucent; and the chao tom--deep fried balls of shrimp paste speared on sugarcane--are usually cold and dense by the time you get it home. But any complaints will be silenced when you again realize how little you paid.

Besides that, there are some really well-made items here. The taro croquettes crisps as it should, shedding its shredded-wheat-like fur in crumbles when you bite into it. Experience the same thrill of gnawing and nibbling the meat off of the braised pork ribs, just like usual. For dessert, enjoy the perfectly baked mini-custard pies called dan tats, as good here as it was at your last dim sum outing.

All you need now is to brew yourself a scalding hot pot of tea.

Yum Cha Café
8900 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683

Aji Limon - Buena Park*

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Aji Limon.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kaju Soft Tofu - Irvine

It occurred to me during the middle of my Korean soft tofu dinner what a perfect meal this was. Not just this particular one ($16.99)--which was good, soul-soothing, and body-warming in the cold drizzle of the night--but all soondubu combos like it.

No matter where I've had it, the hot rice, the kalbi beef short ribs, the fried fish, the vegetable side dishes, and the soup are like the A-Team. Each individual component has its quirky strengths, contributing its own unique talents to the mission objective.

As played out as the yin-yang analogy may be, everything balances out something else. A bite of something crunchy can be followed by something soft. A slurp of something scalding is countered by that which is briskly chilled. The chew of meat is answered by tofu or veg. Spicy meets sweet. The sweet then cleansed by tart.

Your mouth becomes a see-saw and everyone is taking turns.

As is often the case, Kaju had a handful of people waiting at its doors to get in on the experience, and desperately trying to get out from the cold. If I'm not mistaken, most of the customers are Chinese, as are the servers.

That it is one of Irvine's most consistently managed, consistently good soondubu joints is saying something, especially in a town with no shortage of soondubu joints. The panchan isn't as varied or interesting as Kaya, but it does everything it needs to do.

And doesn't it all sound good?

In the cold, wet, and nippy nights that are to come, there's nothing better.

Kaju Tofu Restaurant
5408 Walnut Ave
Irvine, CA 92604-2500
(949) 653-2849

Izakaya Meijiya - Costa Mesa
Best of OC 2010
Valkyrie of Transcontinental Sausage - Ehrline Karnaga

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Providence - Los Angeles

This post is about Providence, one of only a few L.A. restaurants to be awarded two Michelin stars. Its chef and proprietor, Michael Cimarusti, appeared on Top Chef Masters, and has been referred to as the West Coast's answer to Eric Ripert, and his restaurant, Le Bernadin.

The post that you are about to read, however, will be the least informative on this acclaimed five-year-old restaurant as you'll ever come across. This, I guarantee.

If you clicked on this post from your Google Reader thinking "Oh, he finally went to Providence!", chances are you already know more about it than I do. If you've read any of the billion other food blog odes, the 600 plus Yelp reviews, or the Jonathan Gold write-up of 2005, this post will sound like an addendum, a post-script, a foot-note.

You already know that Cimarusti is known for seafood. You already know that among the many wonderful things to eat, there is the three-tiered pricing on its tasting menu, and that it starts with a cocktail encased in a globular film accomplished through spherification. You might also already know that its 5-course option, previously $85, was recently brought down to $65--a bargain for cooking of this caliber.

If you know this, like I said, you knew more than I did. Because when my friends and I arrived at Providence--an imposing building looking not unlike a pirate ship had moored itself in front of a residential part of Melrose--we were anticipating to pay $85.

Upon discovering it was now only $65, we didn't do the logical thing and take them up on the discounted price. No, we went for the more expensive 9-course option. We said to each other, "Well, since we budgeted for $85, and we drove all this way, why not $110?"

Our atypical behavior can be explained: we didn't have a bite all day save for a 79 cent corn dog eaten earlier. Our growling and empty stomachs were making all the decisions. Famished and nearly delirious, we deluded ourselves into thinking we could do 9-courses. That Adam Richman ain't got nothing on us, we thought.

But as we found out: 9-courses is a LOT of food. Too much food.

This, my friends, is why I stopped taking notes, why this post will be uninformative, why I spent the sixth course worrying about whether I would be able to force the seventh, the eighth, and God forbid, the ninth course down my gullet without throwing up in front of all the nicely dressed people on dates and the impeccable service staff who doted on us.

Our evening of relentless eating began with freshly baked hot rolls of our choosing, eaten with butter. At this point, I was ravenous, so I chose the bacon brioche and slathered it in that butter despite the fact it already contained bacon. Then came four amuse bouches that, by the way, did not count against the 9 courses.

Yes, there were four amuse bouches; a frozen mojito as a slushy cube on a spoon; the aforementioned cocktail spherification that burst in our mouths like a grapefruit juice-filled water balloon; a cheesy puff pastry with the soul of a Cheez-It; and finally, a shot glass filled with fish eggs, flecks of gold, and bits of something that reminded me of Rice Krispies.

My friends, who heard the description (I was in the restroom at the time) said it also had cured trout. It was halfway down my gullet before I could confirm.

When the first course of kanpachi with creme fraiche, crispy rice crackers and flowering cilantro came, we ooh-and-ahh'd the firmness of the flesh, its chewy, agar-like density slipping playfully between our teeth. Soon this too was gone.

Then came uni served warm, mixed with raw quail egg inside a chicken's egg shell. There was again a crispy topping, this time crumbled brioche, or something like that (I get hazy on ingredients around here). But I do remember that the yolk and the ultra-rich uni became a cholesterol double threat and tasted like it. I also noted that it was the first time I've eaten sea urchin at a temperature other than frigid (save for when it is dissolved into uni spaghetti).

The third course was the first real protein: a seared scallop with a buttery foam, boiled napa cabbage laid down like carpet, and braised buckwheat that ate like pearl pasta infused with boullion (but much better than that). And of course, the scallop couldn't have been more precisely cooked.

Cured halibut with cranberry beans and a tomatoey froth arrived as the fourth course. This dish, as my friends and I agreed, had very little to contrast the fish against the rest of the components. It quickly became the least favorite of the night, especially when the salmon came around as the fifth course.

With its skin rendered to a salty crisp, its flesh cooked just to warm, the salmon was already a textbook example of how salmon should be prepared; but there was also the matsutake mushrooms, both raw and sauteed. And of course, all of it was united by a puddle of sauce with bright, acidic notes the last dish lacked.

This was the point where we started to feel the weight of our decision. After close to two hours of eating, the food we had consumed began to settle. Compounding this, the bread basket had made its second visit and none of us said no.

My friend's face seemed to whiten at the sight of the two sous-vide medallions of veal tenderloin, thick steaks easily worth a third of a pound. It wasn't that he didn't love it (he did), it was the realization that this obscenely tender, thoroughly pristine, and absent-of-sinew cut of meat was just course number six. There was still three more to go.

We sighed with relief when our server came out pushing a cheese cart to our table signaling that from now on, starting with this seventh course, it would be dessert. But after he cut four generous wedges off of different wheels, the man paused for a moment and said "Normally, it's only four cheese to a tasting plate, but I'm going to give you five".

I shot a worried look across the table, but it was too late. As the last and fifth wedge, he had picked out a runny specimen that he was particularly proud of, a naturally coagulated cow's milk cheese that owed its existence to nothing but an open window. He said it would taste of grass and the barnyard, and he was right. He continued by suggesting that we eat the pungent, wasabi-strength blue cheese with apples and the candied walnut, and on this, he was also right.

Finally, we came to the eighth course, and wasn't surprised that it was called a pre-dessert. No really. A pre-dessert: A sweet amuse of melon soup, akin to a slushie, served in a shot glass with a dollop of ice cream meant to ease our palates into the real dessert course.

We barely managed to crawl across the finish line, scraping up the last of our compressed banana, bread pudding, and a barley ice cream dessert, when what should appear but the petit fours. The salted caramels went straight into our pockets while the macarons and the chocolate marshmallows we crammed into our unwilling mouths. They were good, but at that point we couldn't be bothered about how it tasted.

After we left, we asked each other what we thought of the meal, and it was unanimous: though we agreed that Providence was everything we expected to be, and that it was worth every penny of our $110, five courses would've been plenty. It was after the fifth course that our enjoyment turned into dread. It was also at that moment when we realized our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. And that Adam Richman? Freak of nature.

5955 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3623
(323) 460-4170

The Pint House - Fullerton

Monday, October 04, 2010

Medieval Times - Buena Park

It was OC Restaurant Week last week, and what discount did I take advantage of? Medieval Times at $30...practically half price.

Half price to get into the Kingdom of Kitsch. Half price to watch actors/stuntmen in shiny armor clang swords and charge towards each other atop galloping horses with bolsa wood lances that splinter into a million pieces.

Half price to see a dirt patch become the stage for pseudo-Shakespearean prose with words like "doth" and "sire", all of it unintelligible because of the poor acoustics and an antiquated sound system. Half price to have "wenches" serve you food out of troughs and that you eat sans cutlery while wearing a colored paper crown on your noggin.

Yes, it's been a while, and I am not ashamed to say I loved every corny, hokey, hammy, hollerin'-for-your-knight thrill of it: pro-wrestling for the geeky, Renaissance-fair-going, Lord-of-the-Ring fanboy set, and you get a meal with it.

I remembered fondly how I sold bags upon bags of Blow Pops for some high school club all those years ago, just to raise enough funds to cover our year-end dinner there. Medieval Times, like Sizzler, back then, was a special treat. Only The Velvet Turtle carried more panache.

These days, it's easy to get cynical about it. It has been, and probably always will be, a tourist trap--a side trip for the Disneyland-bound out-of-towner who happens to be from a metropolitan area that doesn't already have a Medieval Times in it.

The bill of fare hasn't changed much. Soup, a thin tomatoey thing with bits of veggies cut down to grain-size, is poured from a jug into a metal bowl which will sap the heat from the liquid and be too hot to handle for the better part of 10 minutes.

Next comes a butter-soaked garlic bread, and then the roasted chicken (something they called a "buzzard"), which is larger than I remember. It's followed by a teensy piece of tender pork rib, half of a skin-on baked potato basted with the same sauce as the ribs, and a warm apple turnover for dessert.

Drink was Pepsi, poured into our mugs from jugs similar to the ones they used for the soup, and already flat.

So did I enjoy the meal? Yes, especially at half price where most of money ($25 of it, as the receipt broke it down) paid for the show, which saw our Fabio-like Red Knight become the evening's champion, besting the evil and sneering Green Knight.

And to our Fabio-like Red Knight: We're sorry to have doubted you, and for mocking your striking resemblance to the oft-ridiculed male model. You deserved every bit of your staged victory!

Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament
7662 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90620
(866) 543-9637‎

Seasons 52 - Costa Mesa