Monday, August 29, 2011

AnQi - Costa Mesa

A deal is a deal and a $30.11 prix fixe at last week's Costa Mesa Restaurant Week for three courses at AnQi is certainly one of those. AnQi is arguably one of more expensive if controversial OC restaurants among people who go out to eat as a hobby (read: me). I'd reviewed AnQi before, but since that time, they hired a different chef--a new chef whose style is culled from the school of Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, which is to say he does molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine or whatever new label they call their food these days.

So I was looking for something to the level of that kind of experience: A little of the MIT mixed in with the CIA, a meal that plays to both the science and food geek in me. What I got wasn't exactly that. The two main courses on offer were like the meals I had previously under the old chef. This was fusion-y stuff that attempts to upgrade the Asian with a few unAsian ingredients. I'm not saying it wasn't good; just not what I came to try.

The best dish out of the two they offered as a main course was a Cornish game hen, presented in an rectangular tray, the diminutive bird cut is into four pieces, each quarter roasted to a nice doneness with slightly charred skin, served with roasted sweet potato and jicama spears, arugula, and pistachios in a salad.

The sauce that bridged the veg with the protein was nouc cham, the classic and workman-like Vietnamese fish sauce that sloshed around as a puddle at the bottom of the dish. I liked how both the sweet potato cubes and the chicken absorbed the stuff. But I ask you: What can't nouc cham improve?

There was a salmon dish, where a square of fish was laid on top of a tangle of green tea-flavored noodles, the whole thing dressed in an opaque and creamy wasabi-miso sauce and tasting like a hastily edited highlight reel of a tour of Japan. While well-intentioned, it was too much to process and ended up being a muddled representation of Japanese flavors when it should've been reverential.

Much better were the duo of apps. An ahi tuna poke taco was not unlike a lot of other ahi tuna poke tacos I've had; this particular one delicate and well-balanced between the slightly tart raw paste of fish, the rich avocado, and the salty-bursts coming from jet-black bits of caviar.

Next to it was something they called a beef tongue wonton, which should've been called a taco since it used the same swooping crunchy shell as its plate mate. I liked it just the same: a braised, tender bite of meat and crunch gone too soon.

It wasn't until the lychee panna cotta arrived did I see the what appears to be something new. Here was the mouthful I've been looking for: a combination of a well-made, jiggly, perfectly set Italian cooked cream, joined by a scooped dome of freezing rosewater that seemed to exist fleetingly like frigid sea foam out of the Arctic.

This substance electrified every spoonful I scooped up with a tangy zing. Surrounding it was a raspberry coulis and Thai basil gelee in cubes, which didn't so much taste like Thai basil as it reiterated the silken smoothness of the cream, just by the contrast of its firm jelly bites.

If the dessert was just a tease of what modernist/molecular spins Ryan Carson has to offer for their so-called "Molecular Mondays", it worked. Now I'm as curious as ever.

South Coast Plaza
3333 S Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-5679

The Lime Truck - Orange County
Food Issue - Bunch of Brunch

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gatten Sushi - Irvine

Be prepared to be yelled at. No, they're not mad; they're happy to see you. That's how they say hello here. As soon as you enter, everyone who works at Gatten--whether they're in the middle of wrapping a ball of rice in nori, cutting cucumbers, or clearing a table--will look up and acknowledge your presence with an enthusiastic "Irasshaimase!"

And since the restaurant attracts a lot of customers with its $2-$3 per plate sushi, be prepared to hear the salutation at least a half-dozen times during your meal. And oh, when someone leaves, they'll also bid farewell with the same amount of energy. With this and the plucky koto soundtrack they've got on a constant loop, Gatten is as lively, noisy, and busy a sushi purveyor as you'll ever encounter. And because this is another one of those conveyor belt sushi mills (which makes three for Irvine), turnover is what you want. As I've said before, this is sushi as food, not as art.

Everything is in constant motion. Interesting things, tasty things, things you wouldn't think to order will whiz by on the sushi Shinkansen. This is the kind of restaurant where Travel Host Andrew Zimmern's credo of "if it looks good, eat it" can be applied.

I had a sweet piece of scallop butterflied and sprawled over a morsel of rice; a decent uni gunkan maki; and excellent chicken karaage (that I actually ordered from our waitress to ensure it was fresh out of the fryer).

There was a steam-emitting balls of takoyaki zig-zagged with mayo and sauce just waiting to inflict a first-degree burn on your tongue. Everything else I had in the three separate visits seems to blur, flavors and texture merging. All I know is I enjoyed myself more here than I did at Irvine's other two kaiten sushi joints; and I did it without spending more than $12 before I got full.

Every visit, I ordered the salmon skin hand roll. One out of those three times, it wasn't great; the skin was chewy as leather. But the other two times, the deep-fried curls of the sea chicharrón was immaculate and crunchy enough that it drowned out any and all ambient noise...which is saying a lot here.

Gatten Sushi
4517 Campus Dr
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 679-8322

Slater's 50/50 - Anaheim Hills

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cafe Hiro's Osso Bucco Pasta - Cypress

I have this habit of taking food pictures wherever and whenever I go out to eat. It's a compulsion. I have a camera in my pocket at all times. No, not the one on my phone: An actual camera dedicated to taking pictures and only pictures. I carry it because sometimes, even at restaurants that I can safely call myself a regular, such as Cafe Hiro in Cypress, there's always going to be something new I want to document. Why? Well for posts like this.

The camera had to come out to snap a pic of the dish you see above. It was on the specials board that night, and simply put, it's kismet, a dish that Hiro Ohiwa should've been making all along. It takes two of the menu's strongest dishes and combines it into one. This is his osso bucco pasta.

In the bowl, the pasta bites as the definition of al dente, lubed in a creamy (but not laden with butter or cream) sauce that doesn't overpower but complements the hunk of braised meat. The beef falls apart with a nudge and together with the noodles, the dish becomes a sort of hyper-realized, almost-Stroganoff.

The effect is as serendipitous as when peanut butter met jelly for the first time. When milk met cookies. You know what I mean? Well, you can see by the picture. That's why I took it.

Cafe Hiro
10509 Valley View Street
Cypress, CA 90630
(714) 527-6090

Barth's Continental Cuisine - San Juan Capistrano

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Tropical Shave Ice - Orange County

Of all the food trucks I wouldn't have thought I'd get addicted to, it's this one: Tropical Shave Ice. But it makes sense that I would be. This sunny weather has something to do with it.

And there's the fact that anytime I see the Tropical Shave Ice truck at OC Din Din A Go Go at Irvine Lanes on Wednesday nights, it feels like a block party. Of course, I can't discount that shave ice always reminds me of Hawaii.

But theirs is somehow even better than those I've had in the island state. Their machines doesn't just shave the ice as much as turns it into soft-pack snow.

The flakes are such that it fluffs and almost floats. It's so fleeting and precious that just the short walk back to my car is enough to turn half of the mound back into liquid water. This is shave ice that must be eaten straight away the moment you take possession.

The syrups they use are somehow not syrup-y, not cloying or too artificial. Lamentably, they do seem to always run out of the lilikoi (passion fruit) before I get there.

I always opt for ice cream to be deposited to the bottom of the cup/cone, because when the whole thing does liquefy, the icy/milky slurry that's left behind becomes like the pensieve in the Harry Potter books and movies: it contains all my fondest Hawaiian memories.

Tropical Shave Ice

Cafe Seventh Home - Buena Park