Monday, March 28, 2005

India Cook House - Irvine

A visit to India Cook House, an Indian restaurant in Irvine, has been long overdue by me. After all, I drive past it on a daily basis, and I have heard a lot of good remarks about it on Chowhound.

We arrived on the early evening to an almost empty restaurant. The room was larger than I expected, with a dramatically lit white stone fountain on the far wall. A few cushy booths hugged one side of the restaurant, while square tables dressed with white cloths occupied the rest of the space.

We ordered the Chicken Tikka Masala ($11.95), which was described on the menu as "All white meat boneless chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, tandoored in clay oven, then blended in our delicious curry sauce" and the Shrimp Jalfrezi ($12.95), which was "juicy shrimp cooked with assorted vegetables". We also ordered Naan bread ($1.50).

The first thing that was brought out was the papadum. These, for those who've never had them, are thin crispy Indian crackers, which are served with a spicy mint chutney and a sweet mango chutney. The papadum were light and airy, perfect with a dab of the marmalade-like, sticky consistency of the mango chutney and the piquant heat of the mint chutney.

Then the dishes were served, all in shiny metal bowls. The Chicken Tikka Masala was fantastic. It is quite simply, the best that I have ever tasted. The sauce was the star of the dish. Deep reddish orange, it was creamy and rich. Eaten with rice, each spoonful of it filled my mouth with the faint sweetness of tomatoes, the silkiness of coconut milk (or was it yogurt), and the ever present tang of spices. It was not overly sharp or too bold. Just perfect. The chicken meat was really just playing second fiddle to the sauce.

The Naan, which is Indian flatbeard baked in a tandoor oven, was also surprisingly bubbly, crispy, and yet still supple. It's somewhere between a matzo cracker and a thin pizza dough crust. Perfect when dipped into the aforementioned Tikka Masala sauce.

The Shrimp Jalfrezi was also good, but not a favorite. The shrimp, completely stripped of the shell and tail were quite large and plump. They could have been cooked a little less, since some were a little rubbery. And the accompanying sauce was quite mild and was more akin to a vegetable soup that an actual sauce. The veggies (potatoes, carrots, zucchini) were a nice addition, rounding out our meal nicely, but I don't think you could order the Shrimp Jalfrezi all by itself and feel satisfied that you had experienced all the flavors the restaurant had to offer.

In any case, a great meal, and a stone's throw from home no less. By the time we were finished with our meal, the restaurant had filled up completely. Dozens of people, Indians included.

India Cook House
(949) 857-4858
14130 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604

Monday, March 14, 2005

Sanamluang Cafe - North Hollywood

I ventured to L.A. and environs this weekend to visit a friend. He had suggested a Thai place in North Hollywood that he had heard about but never tried. When he mentioned that it was called "Sanam...something", I immediately said, "oh Sanamluang. I heard about that place on Chowhound." But for the life of me, I couldn't remember whether Chowhounds gave it a positive or negative review. But we went anyway. It was near two o'clock and our group of three was starving.

First of all, the parking was horrible. The restaurant shares a tiny lot with, I think, five other businesses, one of which was a Thai grocery store. Cars were double parked, end to end, the driveway was completely blocked by cars entering, and no one leaving. A nightmare. We decided to park at the KMart across the street. Once we found a seat at the restaurant, we saw a sign that said "Do not park at Kmart. Your car will be tow (sic)."

"Great," I thought. I guess if we get towed, this will be a very expensive meal. I thought about moving the car elsewhere, but being a stranger in strange land, I wouldn't know where. So we decided to chance it, and stayed.

The interior of the restaurant was sort of like a retro Fifties diner complete with neon, meshed with a post-modern metal-themed nightclub. Quite weird actually.

The food came out scarcely five minutes after we ordered. The FRIED SOY BEAN TOFU
appetizer, was what you'd expect from fried tofu. It was piping hot, with a saucer of sweet and sour sauce topped with ground peanut. Nothing special, but still good. The TOM YUNG GOONG soup, which consisted of shrimp and mushrooms with lemon grass, and lime juice was good, but would've been better had we ordered it mild, instead of "no spice". The shrimp were perfectly cooked, still quivering and sweet. The soup itself was not as complex as the one I have had at Thai Nakorn back in O.C. (but we attributed this to the way we ordered it). The HAWAIIAN FRIED RICE which is fried rice with Chinese sausage, chicken, shrimp, cashew nuts, pineapple and shredded dried pork, was my favorite. I liked the contrasting flavors and textures that the cashews and Chinese sausage brought to the dish. The RAHD BAH YEN-TA-FO, flat rice noodles with squid, shrimp, jelly fish, fish ball, fish cake and special gravy sauce, had a dramatic pink gravy, which scared us at first. But the taste of the dish was rather mild and conservative, with the flavor coming from the seafood, as the gravy was almost absent of real flavor. I liked it though, especially the crunchy jellyfish.

We had two THAI ICED TEAS and a DIET COKE. Total for the meal, including tip was $33.00 ($11.00) per person. So, all in all, we were happy. Not the best Thai food we've ever had (Thai Nakorn still remains unbeaten), but it satisfied us quite nicely.

Time spent at the restaurant? 20 minutes. And my car was still there when we got back to KMart.

Sanamluang Cafe
12980 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605

Cafe Hiro - Cypress - again!

This place has become my favorite restaurant in O.C. for good food, presentation, and price. This is probably the third time I reviewed this place for Chowhound, and the umpteenth time I've eaten there.

We were there on Friday and had a reservation at 7, but came late. About thirty minutes late. Unfortunately that was late enough that they gave our table away. But I thought that was fair. People with 7:30 reservations, who arrived on time, got seated right away. It's nice that reservations actually mean something here.

We waited an extra 10 minutes before an unreserved table opened up. We were given this table before another couple, who came before us but didn't have a reservation. Their system worked nicely, I thought. The couple in front of us got their seats shortly afterward.

A busy night, but the wait staff kept everyone happy.

We ordered one entree off the specials menu and one from the regular menu. The special entree for that night was SAUTEED MONKFISH WITH GARLIC RISOTTO AND SUNDRIED TOMATO ($15.00). We also ordered the OSSO BUCCO ($15.00).

The entrees came with their wonderful and creamy SWEET POTATO SOUP, which was light adobe red, and piping hot. A GREEN SALAD WITH GINGER MISO DRESSING came out afterward. Fresh greens, a spicy dressing, perfect for priming the tastebuds for the entrees.

The monkfish was alright. The white flesh was cooked just right, but lacked much flavor. The freakish giant bone that held the meat together was a little scary. This, as you might have guessed, was the first time we've had monkfish. The risotto was cooked correctly, but in my opinion, wasn't as creamy or full bodied as their usual mushroom risotto. My favorite fish dish there is still the Salmon Saiko.

The osso bucco was dreamy, as always. We love this dish. A big hunk of falling apart tender beef, in a pool of dark gravy (or is it a reduction). It came with a separate side of roasted potatoes and corn nibblets. The beef was perfect, eaten with white rice. I've heard some people comment that this dish was too salty for them, or too overcooked and soft, but for my money, this was the dish. Loved it!

The highlight of the meal was the special dessert of the night. CROISSANT BREAD PUDDING WITH CARAMEL SAUCE AND CHOCOLATE ($5). This simply is the best dessert I've ever had, anywhere! I hope they put it on the regular menu. It came on a large plate. A mound of warm, brown bread pudding, drizzled with caramel sauce and studded with melted chocolate chips. The combination of flavors just kind of melted in your mouth and filled your senses. Simple in origin, but elegant in flavor. Sinful but suprisingly not heavy.

We also ordered a GREEN TEA BLANC MANGER ($4.00). And it was just as good as always, but since we tasted the bread pudding first, it's now relagated to our second favorite dessert at Cafe Hiro.

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

P.S. I found some cool looking photos a fellow diner took on a recent visit to Cafe Hiro.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Chat Noir - Costa Mesa

We arrived at around 7 pm last night, parking in the structure behind TGI Fridays, so we had short walk to Chat Noir.

As soon as we stepped in, we noticed the red velvet, and the dark motif. Very Moulin Rouge, but not as in-your-face as the movie. Sultry and seductive as the decor was, we were there for the food. We flew past the bar (we don't drink alcohol of any kind) and into our booth for two. The crowd consisted of a few groups of men in business suits. I overheard talk about "action plans" and "revenue targets" from the other tables. Obviously, people on expense accounts. Otherwise, it wasn't a busy night.

Our waiter, a polite middle-aged gentleman recited the night's specials. Salmon with risotto and beurre blanc. They brought out a wire basket with warm rolls while we decided what we wanted. The rolls were actually just small versions of not-overly-crusty French baguettes. A ramekin of butter with a paper cover imprinted with a cat's paw came along with the bread.

My girlfriend decided on the salmon special ($30.00). I opted for the seared scallops ($28.00). After a short while, a young gentleman server came out with our dishes. It was at this point that I informed this man that we intended to order the souffle for dessert. As you hounds already know, if you want souffle at a restaurant, better order it ahead of time or else be prepared to wait. The man smiled and took our order for the souffle. Is it chocolate, I inquired? "Oh yes," he said. "Chocolate souffle, with a Grand Marnier creme fraiche and melted Belgian chocolate sauce."

I started on my scallop dish. It was awesome. I had four fat scallops, nicely caramelized crust, served on top of creamy risotto. The risotto was prepared right, with bits of cruncy asparagus mixed with the rice. There were also little jewels of oven-dried tomatoes which straddled the edge of the plate. The tartness of these tomatoes nicely undercut the creamy richness of the risotto and complemented the delicate brininess of the scallop. There were also thin baby zucchini on the plate. These were done perfectly, not too raw, and not too mushy. A nice bite of freshness. The sauce that brought all of these components together was stupendous. I don't know what it was called, but I wiped the plate clean with a piece of bread, getting every last bit of the sauce.

My girlfriend's salmon was also good. It was cooked to her specification. Well done. It also came with risotto, although when I went in for a taste, I detected an uncooked grain of rice or two. But she loved the dish. For her vegetable component, it was thin haricot verts, still crispy and vibrant.

The dessert came shortly after our entree plates were taken away. The original waiter who greeted us brought the bulbous souffle ($12.00) to our table. He then took a spoon and cut out a well in the middle of the cake. Then he mashed it down with the spoon. A couple of dollops of the creme fraiche went down, followed by a drizzle of the chocolate sauce. I think "a drizzle" is understating it. It was more like a deluge. Okay, I thought. This was not what I am used to. Usually at places, they would just serve the souffle as is and allow us to judge how much or as little of the cream and sauce we'd like to put in. We'd do it ourselves. Upon tasting the now overflowing souffle, I was a little disappointed and decreed that from now on, I am going to forgo the theatrics of the souffle assembly presentation. Souffle should be unadulterated by any pouring of chocolate sauce, especially if done by anyone other than yourself.

The delicate texture of the souffle was totally overwhelmed by that sauce. We scooped up globs of the soggy cake, which was had the consistency of bread pudding. It was a bit of a let-down from the pleasure of the entrees. There was no way we could tell how well the souffle was done. How airy was it? No idea. I tasted nothing but chocolate sauce.

Oh well, 2 out of 3 isn't bad. We still agreed that it was a great experience. Good atmosphere, great food, attentive service. The total with tip was $87.00.

BTW, the parking structure seems to charge eventhough Chat Noir validated our parking ticket. We ended up paying for a remaining balance of $6. So if you are going there on a date night, you probably might as well, do the valet.

Chat Noir
655 Anton Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-6647

NOTE: Chat Noir is now Savannah.
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