Saturday, December 31, 2005

Zov's Bistro - Tustin

One the Eve of Christmas Eve, December 23rd, we tried Zov's Bistro for the first time. It was a trip long overdue, considering that it earned multiple votes in a recent "Ultimate" Orange County poll on Chowhound. Not only that, Mealcentric wrote up a review of his first experience there the very same week, proclaiming it as his new favorite restaurant. This just about cinched it for me. So off to Tustin and Zov's we went, a scant seven miles from home.

As we walked up to Zov's building, we discovered that it is split into two parts; on one side the bakery/cafe and on the flip side facing a second parking lot, the bistro. This was where everyone was that evening. The majority of the diners braved the cold crisp air by eating outside, under an elegant tarp that seems to be a permanent fixture of the restaurant, like an never-ending wedding reception, complete with dangling chandeliers. Each table was kept toasty by radiative heaters hovering overhead.

Not feeling like dining under a Ronco rotisserie, where our waitress could conceivably "set it and forget it," we opted for the dining room and sat near the open kitchen. It's always a treat to see your food being prepared in front of you, especially in such a frenetic and dynamic environment as this kitchen was. Eventhough Zov, herself, wasn't there that night, she left the cooking to a cadre of capable young male chefs. We watched these guys work as we nibbled on warm rolls slathered in butter, marveling on how pillowy soft the interior was compared to crackling crisp crust.

In this cozy dining room, a column undulates into an snaky "s", recalling 80's modernism, while the tables remain naked, made of a polished teak veneer that gleamed like mirrors.

We skipped the appetizers and ordered our entrees.

I zeroed in on the Roasted Rack of Lamb ($27.95), which were actually lamb medallions, splayed out in thick rare slices on top of whipped potatoes. The charred bones from whence the meat came were driven into the same mound of spuds upright, like skis.

I dug into the glistening slices of the sheep steak and immediately noticed the lack of gaminess I've come to expect from lamb. Instead it was beefy, silky, and fork tender, like a premium filet mignon with a clean finish.

The pool of pomegranate and garlic reduction on the plate was just the thing to round out the flavor. I pushed around each forkful of the lamb in this dark burgundy sauce; a fruity sweet syrup with a bitingly sour tang. Imagine cranberry sauce boiled down and concentrated to its berry core, then kissed by garlic.

Presented as both a garnish and accompaniment were steamed haricot verts, asparagus and a single carrot, tied tightly in a bundle by a wilted green onion stalk. "Look! A vegetable straight-jacket!" I said. It was a creative and whimsical presentation, although the carrot was slightly undercooked.

By far the best part of this dish were those sooty bones, which I promptly split apart like pork ribs once I finished the medallions. I gnawed on them like a rabid jackal, tearing off every last remaining shred of that sweet meat.

The Seafood Tagine ($24.95) was a take on cioppino, that Italian/San Franciscan tomato and seafood soup which is densely populated with mussels, clams, and prawns.

For this rendition, the chef added a distinctly Middle Eastern touch; seabass wrapped with grape leaves and toasted couscous. The seabass "cigars" were firm and flaky, rolled in sturdy grape leaves to protect the fish from breaking apart in the broth. The couscous which reminded me of pellet-sized tapioca pearls, functioned much like pasta, adding a slippery and starchy component to the dish.

The fresh mussels and clams sparkled in the powerful peppery punch of the tomato broth, which complimented the seafood rather than overwhelmed. But the shrimp, giants the size of thumbs, were, I'm sorry to say, rubbery and overcooked.

I tried a small bite of the Grilled Swordfish Piccata ($24.95) and it was good. Served with a delicate sauce of white wine, shallots, capers, mushrooms, and lemon, this had the lightest touch of the three dishes we ordered.

To close out our dinner, we chose the Bread Pudding ($8.50) to share between the three of us. Candied walnuts were strewn about for crunch and served as a textural contrast to the bread pudding. But pudding this ain't. Rather, as others have described, it bears more resemblance to a dense, moist slab of cake.

It's served as a slice, cut from a bigger loaf, topped with a scoop of pumpkin ice cream and a white chocolate straw. It gets top marks in my scoresheet for presentation, but unfortunately not for taste. After the first bite, I yearned for the soppy, warm, wet, and mouth-filling simplicity of the traditional preparation. However, my friends weren't as picky as I was, and liked it nonetheless. We all agreed that we liked how the pumpkin ice cream run-off turned into a thick decadent sauce for the "cake."

Apart from that dessert, which can just be chalked up to personal preference, Zov's lived up to my expectations and has convinced me that Tustin is one of Orange County's best food towns.

Zov's Bistro
(714) 838-9495
17440 17th St
Tustin, CA 92780

Monday, December 19, 2005

Chuao Chocolatier - Irvine

Quickly! Name two female indulgences.

If you said "chocolate" and "shopping," then you are thinking the way the owners of Chuao Chocolatier must have been thinking when they scouted the location of their store. It's situated smack dab between the two retail anchors of the Irvine Spectrum Center; Robinsons May and Nordstrom.

I don't know for a fact if this was truly a strategic decision or just a happy accident. But it sure smells like part of a carefully calculated plan to cleverly tap into female psyche, mining the fondness of the cocoa bean and fashion.

Perhaps I'm doling out too much credit where it is not due, but I can't help but think that some forethought was involved. This is Irvine after all, where the placement of every shrub on every corner goes through a vote by committee.

Think of it:

Hey Ashley, Nordstrom's out of stock of the Jimmy Choos I wanted. I'm, like, so bummed! Let's check out Robinsons May across the way. Wait a minute...let's stop in here to get a chocolate bon-bon first.

Oh Mary-Kate, Robinson's May didn't have my size in Levis. Let's walk to Nordstrom. Hmm, I feel like a flourless chocolate cake.

I am making this up. I don't know if those Olsen twins even eat. (And I'm told that it's unlikely that they'd wear Levis or step foot into "Rob May").

And also, I wouldn't know if they sell Jimmy Choos at Nordstrom. As a guy, I don't know these things. Really, you should just be amazed that I even know what Jimmy Choos are. But the truth is, I know as much about chocolate as much as I do about shoes, fashion, and the Olsen twins.

And eventhough I can probably tell the difference between a Hershey's and a Scharffen Berger, I consider myself a chocolate idiot. So I'm not going to pretend that I know the flavor profile of Venezuelan chocolate and how it compares to those made from Ivory Coast cocoa beans.

But apparently, the folks at Chuao do know the difference, because they make it a point to note that all of their chocolate comes from Venezuela and that, in fact, their name is taken from the region where the beans are cultivated. It's evident that they are intensely proud of this.

Read their description of two of the chocolates I tried:

MODENA: Dark Venezuelan chocolate bon-bon filled with a soft caramel deglazed with strawberry pulp and balsamic vinegar from Modena.

CARDAMOM: Soft cream ganache scented with fresh cardamom covered with Venezuelan dark chocolate.
Each piece is placed on a pedestal. Literally. Albeit teeny-tiny ones, made from brushed metal, inside the long glass display case.

I bought a sample box of nine chocolates, which they called a "Tease," and found them decadent, creative, complex, and not sugar-ladened. The depths of flavor from the chocolate comes through clearly, even when it is paired with unconventional and sometimes odd ingredients like balsamic vinegar or cardamom.

The former, by the way, was probably my favorite out of the nine, with the oozing syrup of tart balsamic vinegar and strawberry bleeding out as soon as I took a bite. The Cardamom tasted vaguely of Indian curry, which is as close to "Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans" as we'll ever come.

But how much of the credit is attributable to the Venezuelan origin of the cocoa beans is still unclear to me. My kudos goes to the inventiveness and artisanal method of preparation more than anything else. But what does this idiot know?

Regardless of where the cocoa beans came from, I thought these were damn good chocolates. Good but unapologetically expensive too. This handsome box with nine small chocolates was $15.00.

Too many of these and not even Mary-Kate and Ashley will be to afford their couture.

Chuao Chocolate Café
Irvine Spectrum Center
(949) 453-8813
95 Fortune Dr. Suite 603
Irvine, CA 92618

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fisherman's Restaurant - San Clemente

The salty sea air whipped past our ears, frigid and biting like icicyles on naked skin. It was barely 5:30 pm, but the sun had long ago dipped below the horizon, leaving the sky and sea as black as ink, the two merging into a singular dark void, vast and cold.

We could hear the soft sound of waves breaking on the sand in the distance, but could not see it. San Clemente Pier stood before us, stretching out far and long, distinguishable only by a line of faint, flickering dots of light reaching out into the darkness of space.

On the pier, nearest to shore, was Fisherman's Restaurant, our dining destination for the night. It's split into two halves, separated by the creaky wooden walkway of the pier itself. On one side was the bar, filled to capacity with Friday-night revelers; on the other, the seafood restaurant, which was relatively somber by comparison.

We walked up to the restaurant and flung the door open, our cheeks red and raw from the onslaught of the brisk wind. Inside, it was toasty warm, cozy and cramped, every table occupied with people who were just as glad to be out of the chill. The far side of the room was adorned with wide plate glass windows looking out into the pitch-black.

I looked around and noticed immediately that a majority of the diners were from the "Lawrence Welk" generation, whom I dare say, were there to partake on "Sunset Special," available only between 4-6pm on weeknights.

For $13.95 they are heartily fed with chowder or salad, a choice of main entree with roasted red potatoes or rice pilaf and steamed vegetables, followed by vanilla ice cream or sherbet for dessert. All this can be enjoyed while presumably basking in the last drops of daylight and listening to lapping seawater.

We were too late to enjoy the Pacific sunset, but were fortunately early enough to take advantage of the special.

The clam chowder was good and hot, a thick and rich elixir chock full of clams and chunked potatoes that slowly brought up my plummeting core temperature with each spoonful. It was nothing fancy or gourmet, but its warmth was just the thing I needed.

The calamari steak entree was lightly breaded, pan fried to a golden crisp, and topped with zesty capers. Contrary to my expectations, this slab of squid meat wasn't the least bit rubbery. Instead it yielded easily to my butter knife, and chewed much like tender shrimp with all of its sweetness. The capers functioned like concentrated flavor pellets, becoming tart and salty counterpoints. The tartar sauce, glopped on to a cupped leaf of cabbage, was almost unnecessary.

Another surprise was the side of steamed vegetables. When I see carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, and zucchini piled in a heap, it's usually the sad, tasteless, wilted, and soppy mess of microwaved Bird's Eye. This was different. Cut in-house and steamed to order, each chunk of produce was cooked crisp-tender, with not a single mushy morsel in the bunch.

The roasted potatoes were well-cooked too; crusty brown skins left intact, leading into buttery-soft pulp, perfectly and simply seasoned with dill and salt.

In case you're keeping track, that's three for three!

The second dish was grilled ono. This thick slab was grilled over mesquite, rendering the fish flaky and moist with the smoky flavor of the wood permeating deep into the flesh. A dusting of Cajun spices, to borrow an already overused and clichéd catchphrase, "kicked it up a notch."

This was accompanied with the same steamed veggies and fluffy, nutty rice pilaf.

Finishing this hot meal with a frozen dessert seemed counter-intuitive, but everyone else was doing it. And since it's included in the price of the meal, how could we refuse?

We drove away, into the city lights and the freeway back to Irvine, with full bellies and warmed spirits.

Fisherman's Restaurant
(949) 498-6390
611 Avenida Victoria
San Clemente, CA 92672

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Honda-Ya - Tustin - A Photo Superpost

On a recent article reporting the results of a Chowhound poll of favorite Orange County eats some posters lamented that the O.C. restaurant scene is "sad," "depressing," "lacking," and "bleak." They took this list as proof that dining in Orange County does not equal that of New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

If one's metric in determining whether a region has a "great restaurant scene" is how many tony French and European establishments with celebrity head chefs named Puck, Splichal, or Keller are present, then they'd be right in saying that O.C. is indeed "lacking".

Inarguably, L.A. is home to dozens of "world-class" fine dining restaurants. And being as large as L.A. County is, it harbors some authentic "ethnic" food enclaves within it as well. It's a fact that Chinese food heaven is located in the San Gabriel Valley, and Artesia is home to Little India; both of which are in L.A. County. I love L.A. for these reasons.

But that's not to say that Orange County isn't great also. Orange County boasts Little Saigon, Vietnamese food mecca, and Santa Ana for the best Mexican north of the border. We've got our share of fine dining options too, like Chat Noir with Chef Yvone Goetz at the helm. And that's just naming a few.

Some might read this and say, "But most of the good restaurants in O.C. are just just ethnic joints." Yes, Virginia, it's true that most of the places people enjoy in Orange County could be considered "ethnic" or "foreign," but obviously, one person's "ethnic" and "foreign" is another's home cooking. It's just an unfortunate consequence of semantics and perspective.

What I would argue against is calling Orange County's roster of fine, family-owned, and independently operated restaurants as "sad," "depressing," or "bleak." In my humble opinion, it is quite the contrary. For every L.A. chef with his/her own line of cookbooks and cutlery, there are hard-working and talented ones in Orange County like Hiro Ohiwa who aren't as famous.

Unlike Chef Puck, (who long ago turned over the reins of Spago to an equally capable head chef) Chef Ohiwa still mans the saute pans at his namesake restaurant, Cafe Hiro. There in the open kitchen, you'll see him toil every night of the week wearing a backwards baseball cap, dazzling his patrons with inexpensive, honest, and inventive food.

Orange County is also home to artisans like Shibutani of Sushi Shibucho and L.A. ex-pat Chef David Slay of Park Ave. And let's not discount those countless unsung cooks from La Habra to San Clemente who take great pride in churning out everything from pupusas to foie gras. For instance, Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove produces the freshest, most authentic Thai cuisine in all of California, but there's not a snowball's chance in hell that the chefs behind the scenes will ever get to see the limelight of an adoring press.

Another example of this is Honda-Ya in Tustin, which topped the "Ultimate" O.C. Restaurant List tying with Mastro's Ocean Club. The cooks in the kitchen of this venerable eatery might not hold degrees from Le Cordon Bleu or win awards from the James Beard Foundation, but the food is reliably good and unfussy.

There's a tatami room where you can make like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or Richard Chamberlain in Shogun and sit cross-legged while you struggle with chopsticks and your legs fall asleep. Massive logs from ancient timber tower above you and there's always the boisterous sound of toasts made after Asahi is poured out of giant bottles. The wait is frustratingly long on weekends and you feel like you've won the lottery when your name is called. This is my kind of place. This is my Orange County.

If you're curious what the food is actually like, what follows is a sample of a typical dinner I have often at Honda-Ya.

We start with complimentary brined cucumbers to ease our palate into the meal. The two spears served are as cool as ice cubes and crisp with a slightly spicy zing.

The first dish is potato, carrot and thinly sliced beef, slowly simmered in a soy and mirin infused broth. This is home-style cooking with simple and rustic ingredients. Like the typical American beef stew, it's soothing and uncomplicated.

The soft hunks of potatoes, carrots and tender meat are designed to warm you to the core and lull you to a satiated slumber. But unlike Dinty Moore, this Japanese version isn't bogged down with a heavy and thick gravy. In fact, once the meat and vegetables were eaten, I couldn't help but sip the leftover brew like consomme.

Next was the crab custard, a faithful preparation of chawan mushi topped with the extra treat of whole pieces of freshly shelled crabmeat. We thought the steamed egg was a touch too sweet and dessert-like, making it an odd base to the briny crab.

But we both swooned over the crab shumai dumplings which are made of thin wonton wrappers stuffed with crab mousse. These piping hot parcels of goodness are shaped into diamond-shaped purses and served freshly steamed with a dollop of lethal hot mustard on the side. The paper thin noodle-dough envelope offers the slightest resistance to the teeth and the firm, silky filling has a subtle but omnipresent crustacean flavor. This is one of my Honda-Ya favorites.

Next dish? Grilled clams. Cherrystones, to be exact, each about two-inches wide. With something as fresh and delicate as these, simplicity is key. And Honda-Ya's restraint is evident here.

Heated on a grill until it pops open, the mollusks are served hot on the half shell over a bed of sea salt. A drizzle of lemon and it's ready to eat. No other accoutrements are necessary. I grabbed one, tilted the shell into my mouth, and allowed belly meat to slide down. The acidic tang of the lemon and clam juice accented the tender chew of the creature. It couldn't have tasted better if it was cooked over a beach bonfire in paradise.

Although Honda-Ya is well-known for sticks of yakitori prepared on the robata, the cooks also put their grill talents to use on fish. One fine example of their handy work is the grilled hamachi collar.

Collar meat, for those in the know, is the filet mignon of the yellowtail snapper. This is the hunk of flesh surrounding a boomerang-shaped bone nearest the gills. Here, the smoky heat of the grill imparts a pleasant bitter charring which compliments the natural buttery sweetness of the fish. We buried our chopstick tips deep into every nook and cranny, making sure to extract every bit of the meltingly soft and pulpy meat.

The kona cream croquette demonstrates Honda-Ya's expertise with deep-frying as the hamachi collar does with grilling. What is a kona cream croquette? It's a crab meat suspended in a cream sauce, encased in a deep-fried, breaded shell. This crunchy, golden brown coating forms a rigid enclosure which breaks apart when you bite into it, revealing the hot oozing filling. If you have ever dreamed of deep-frying clotted cream, this is as close as you'll come.

A dab of dark tonkatsu sauce, the Japanese cousin of Worcestershire sauce, brings the richness of this deep-fried dish back down to earth.

No meal of ours at Honda-Ya is complete without an order of quail eggs from the robatayaki menu. What could be special about grilled sticks of boiled quail eggs you ask? The answer: the charcoal.

The neutral flavor of these miniature eggs make them best suited to suck up the sweet smoke of the special lumps of carbon that Honda-Ya uses called bincho tan. This type of fuel is expensive stuff as I understand it.

Next was the deep-fried soft shell crab.

There's just something so satisfying about eating a whole animal from end to end. This is why I like munching on deep fried anchovies and eat the heads of ama-ebi after I feast on its flesh. Soft shell crab qualifies itself into this category and they do a great one here at Honda-Ya.

The whole crustacean (minus the gills) is lightly battered and then dropped into hot oil until the soft carapace is rendered as crisp as a wafer. The bowl of dipping sauce made from soy spiked with vinegar and floating pieces of diced scallions always ends up with a few stray crab legs in it, due to our rapaciousness at consuming this dish.

Anything tastes good when it's wrapped in bacon. And the grilled sticks of okra is no exception. Each green pod is bound with a thin layer of sliced pork belly. When it's put over the coals, the fat melts and bastes the okra, imparting a lip-smacking, porky flavor.

The first bite taken crunches like asparagus, but subsequent chewing releases a slimy and mucuous-like liquid that exudes from the vegetable and fills your entire mouth. It's like the okra hocked a loogie and now you have to swallow it. It's an alarming experience to some, but call me crazy, it's one that I savor.

To finish the meal, I had the most surprising and eye-catching dish of all. Called anmitsu, it is simply a bowl of agar-agar, which is Jello culled from seaweed, joined with cubed pear, melon and a pasty sweet red bean. It is a dessert that's refreshingly light and guilt-free.

This satisfying meal for two came out to total only about $50. And there's nothing "sad" or "depressing" about that.

Honda Ya Japanese Restaurant
(714) 832-0081
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lollicup - San Gabriel

If you are Asian and under 30 years of age, you are no stranger to the object pictured above. If I had to guess, millions upon millions of dollars, mostly from the disposable incomes of high school and college kids, have been spent on drinks such as this over the past decade.

That's a lot of piggy banks.

Is it any wonder why Tapioca Express and Lollicup franchises have popped up everywhere like zits on a teenager?

The highest concentration of the breakout is the San Gabriel Valley. This area is the oily "T-zone" of boba drink shops.

Here at the Lollicup on Valley Blvd., plop down $2, and a bubbly, Asian Hilary Duff will go on back and make you a "Tapioca Milk Tea." A spoonful of black tapioca pearls is dropped into a clear plastic cup and an opaque, tan-colored liquid is poured on by a ladle from a vat. The cup is deposited into a steel contraption, gears whir, and the top is hermetically heat-sealed with a plastic membrane.

You grip an oversized straw with a hole-diameter big enough to suck up a marble, and like Norman Bates, you plunge it straight down, piercing through the seal with a satisfying "pop."

The first sip is a surge of icy-cold milk tea, which actually tastes more like thinned chocolate milk than tea. Then comes the "thump, thump, thump" as the chewy, gummy tapioca pearls are propelled up the straw and pummel the back of your throat like bullets on Kevlar.

Choking hazard? You bet. And if you suck hard enough, it's entirely possible that one might shoot up and lodge itself in your brain. At least that's what Tony Bourdain thought when he tried his first cup of boba tea in a recent episode of No Reservations.

I, for one, have outgrown the boba habit, partaking maybe once every few months when before I couldn't go three days without getting a hit. Even now, on this visit, I opted for the more soothing "Pudding Milk Tea," which has been statistically shown to have a lower incidence of death-by-asphyxiation. The pudding, which settles restfully at the bottom of the cup is custard-based; smooth and silky with a clean finish.

Milk tea isn't the only thing you can get at these shops either. Lollicup, for instance, has a menu so long it reads like a tome of Asian drinks, boasting more fruit flavors than Starburst. The types of concoctions these teenaged employees must have memorized rivals a professional New York bartender's.

If that weren't enough, this particular Lollicup also offers generous bowls of shaved ice topped with gelatinous cubes of agar, lychees, rose syrup and candy-sweet red bean.

You can even order a full meal of rice and meats to pair with your drink and dessert if you're feeling the pangs of hunger preempting your thirst.

That afternoon at Lollicup, all the couches and tables were taken up by gaggles of young Asians. It's a hang-out place, like drugstore soda shops used to be, where giggly Asian girls trade gossip about boys. The boys, in the meantime, play cards and read Japanese manga. The vibe here is Starbucks mixed with a splash of Hello Kitty.

So kids, if your parents left you some extra allowance, or if you feel that you didn't have enough carbohydrates in your lunch, flip the bird at Dr. Atkins with a drink full of starchy balls of tapioca at a Lollicup near you.

(626) 282-5200
301 W Valley Blvd # 101
San Gabriel, CA 91776

(949) 559-9436
14805 Jeffrey Rd # A
Irvine, CA 92618

Note: Lollicup franchises of varying qualities can be found throughout the Southland.