Sunday, January 25, 2009

Desserts at IKEA - Costa Mesa

Spending more than what's necessary just to tempt your sweet tooth is foolhardy, especially these days. People know it. I'm guessing this is the reason why the Pinkberry at The District in Tustin is always deserted.

It's probably also the reason why there's always a line at IKEA's bistro.

$1 is the total cost for their drippy-delicious non-fat frozen yogurt cone. There's no fresh fruit or cereal for toppings. What's more, IKEA's yogurt is squarely set on the sweet side of the spectrum, not the sour. But it's swirled by a trained IKEA employee into a standard cake cone as a windy, sky-scraping helix. They stretch it as tall as possible until it becomes a precarious, wobbly spiral that seems to dare gravity into reclaiming it.

And there's no need to break out the change. The charge is $1. That's it. Tax is included. It doesn't matter if you're in a branch in O.C. or L.A., it's still a buck.

As soon as you get it, concentrate on consuming it post-haste. Unless you plan to trek into the tundra with it, the frozen stack starts melting immediately. It's your mouth against against the clock. The race starts now.

In the concoction you'll taste a combination of dairy and crack. It's just sweet enough to titillate, creamy enough to satisfy. Best of all, it's guiltless on two fronts. After that last crumb of cone is gone, you would've only spent a buck and a hundred calories.

The cinnamon rolls, however, are another matter. Although it's also a dollar, I took a forkful of this stuff and literally heard my teeth starting to rot. With every piece I chewed, I inched towards diabetes.

Both are sort of IKEA's reward to you for completing its furniture showroom labyrinth -- the cheese at the end of the maze.

Also, since the bistro and its oh-so-cheap-sweets are strategically located near the exit, IKEA can be assured that you're not walking around the store dripping ice cream onto their couches and touching everything with your sticky, cinnamon roll-sullied fingers.

These Swedes thought of everything! Now if they can only figure out how to make affordable furniture that lasts.

IKEA Bistro
1475 South Coast Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 444-4532

Andrea at Pelican Hill - Newport Coast

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Quan Hop's Bun Rieu - Westminster

If I may indulge you in an analogy: Beer is to pho, as a cosmo is to bun rieu. A bowl of pho is usually swigged, pounded down like a brewski -- poured and served in as many places as there are varietals of ale. On the other hand, a good bowl of bun rieu is rarer to find, slightly pink, and more apt to be sipped and savored; the Vietnamese noodle soup equivalent of a girly drink.

By comparison, pho is a masculine, seemingly testosterone-filled meal. Think of the proteins that inhabit a bowl of pho. Tendon. Beef brisket. Ahem, beef balls. Chewy things that hint of flexing muscles and manly brawn. The broth is bold, often wrenched out of ox bones, then seasoned aggressively, smelling of musk and labor.

As I've said before, the pho at Quan Hop is one of the finest in Orange County. So good, in fact, that it has distracted me from their even more fantastic bun rieu. And as they say, behind every good man, you'll find an even better woman.

In it, I met an elegant and sexy mistress. Its noodles caress my tongue in lustrous, feathery wisps. You don't chew it, you just let it melt. Briefly, you hear its bare whisper of sweet nothings, and then it's gone.

The broth it swims in is delicate and clear, but rimmed with chili red rouge; an elixir as intoxicating as a whiff of perfume from a passing beauty.

Shrimp -- chopped up and reformed into figure eight patties -- are as pink as naked skin. Nubs of sea snail chew softly but naughtily with a slight crunch. Cuts of fried tofu keep things grounded.

Then there's meat from a crab, packed loosely to disintegrate in your mouth as gently as a kiss. Floating in the bowl, a perky set of boiled tomatoes, both supple and plump, drips with juice as you squeeze them between your lips.

And if you kept your eyes shut, you could mistake the cube of congealed pork blood for silken tofu or pudding.

Quan Hop's bun rieu is a bowl to savor; a bowl to fall in love with.

Quan Hop
(714) 689-0555
15640 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683

India Cuisine - Santa Ana

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Old Vine Cafe - Costa Mesa

Since Old Vine Cafe opened in 2007 at the ultra-hip-it-hurts shopping mall called The Camp, it's gotten a smattering of accolades. It was the winner of OC Weekly's Best New Restaurant for 2007, and recently it's number two on Chowhound's Ultimate O.C. Restaurants Poll, second only to Marche Moderne.

Since I clearly missed the boat the first time around, I cashed in one of my Christmas gifts (dinner at a restaurant of my choosing) to finally visit the place.

First thing I notice after we found it at the end of a meandering path -- past the rope hammocks and the fire pits -- is that the restaurant is pocket-sized, like an hor d'oeuvre for the larger-than-life but insanely overpriced Charlie Palmer a few blocks away.

Appropriate then that the menu is comprised entirely of small plates. "We don't do full entrees", the waiters tell everyone. You either opt in on the prix-fixe (there are three kinds) for $65 per person, which includes wine-pairings; or choose to dine a-la-carte.

Whatever you decide, you'll discover Chef Mark McDonald's true calling: to pummel your taste buds with flavor.

Old Vine's food is so over-the-top, it borders on abusive. This is cooking with a bullhorn and a chest-thumping kind of machismo. The guy is not above sprinkling fried onions on stuff, and when he says something has Maytag blue cheese, you better believe you're going to taste it.

His Crispy Blue Salad ($9.50) has both. I've never had a salad that made me wince. This one did. The blue cheese -- though it's dissolved completely into the dressing -- is at decongestant strength, rivaling wasabi's sinus-clearing power. Meanwhile, the crispy fried onions fought against the strips of crunchy prosciutto. The onions won handily, but my mouth was the victor.

Then there was his basil pesto in the Eggplant Buratta ($14). The cheese -- ropy and taut on the border, blubbery in the center -- was the base for a panko-crusted plank of eggplant. But below, it was the pesto that tickled my nostrils even before I tasted it.

Proteins were next. If the three prawns in the Asian Curry Shrimp ($16) were any bigger, it would've been a lobster tail. The meat of one equaled two mouthfuls, and it couldn't have been cooked better or more precisely if a stopwatch was used. Despite the fact that the sauce sang of lemongrass and coconut milk, it could've used less salt. And since no rice is served or offered, the sodium saturation became immediately overwhelming.

Sauteed Scallops ($16) came in a foursome, again perfectly cooked. They were then showered with fried leeks and smothered in a tarragon-chardonnay sauce that whispered slightly of Chinese five-spice. Each bite was like Jell-O: A jiggly, slippery ambassador of the sea.

What came next was what I called the Stonehenge of Starch; They named it Polenta Pomodoro ($11). Wedges of pan-fried cakes of polenta stood upright, draped with sauce and pecorino romano cheese. Solid on the spoon, each scoop I took turned into liquidy mass of cornbready goop in my mouth. And the sauce? Brilliantly realized with shades of garlic, tomato, and cream.

Grown-ups and children alike would love the Porcini Mushroom Mac & Cheese ($12), which is one of the most expensive bowls of mac-n-cheese I've ever encountered. But in every humble-looking forkful, there is a blend of artisan cheeses. Pleasantly gritty and tangy, but never rich, this is a mac-n-cheese one never tires of eating.

The one and only disappointment of the night was, coincidentally, the dish that could've been construed as the main course. It misfired only because the Petite Filet Mignon ($16) tasted like a repeat of the Crispy Blue Salad -- it had two of its main components. And by this time, the fried onion and blue cheese seemed overplayed. Also, since they neglected to ask how I wanted it cooked, the thick hockey puck had a bloody center.

Old Vine's Pecan Tart ($7) brought things back in line, and in it was a first for me: salt with dessert. And not just any ol' salt, but a vanilla-infused fleur de sel. You drag the mini pastry cups around on the plate to catch a few grains. Then you pop it in. Salty combines with sweet; and a small, seemingly insignificant morsel becomes a revelation -- sort of like Old Vine itself.

Old Vine Cafe‎
(714) 545-1411
2937 Bristol St # A102
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Ajisen Ramen - Irvine

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Macy's Signature Kitchen - Costa Mesa

What do you get when Mozza's grande dame (Nancy Silverton), the wunderkind chef of Aquavit (Marcus Samuelsson), and an Iron Chef (Cat Cora) meet up at Macy's Home Store? You get Macy's Signature Kitchen, a food-court-cum-celebrity-chef-pet-project-cum-department-store-experiment.

If it smells like Macy's answer to the beguilingly popular Nordstrom Cafe -- which to this day, draws crowds -- it probably is. As you may expect, there are ginormous glamour shots of the three principals' grinning mugs. Also, no surprise: all of their cookbooks are available for sale at a nominal price.

Nevertheless, this co-op eatery from three celebri-chefs is unprecedented, or at the very least, new. The first thing you see is a segregated menu -- one for each chef, with about a dozen items each. But you order from the same register and presumably, the food is cooked by the same staff, in the same kitchen.

Still, knowing all this, the place feels like it's Cat Cora's, even if her name is last on the roster. She seems to be the one putting herself out there, taking the most risks. Silverton's got sandwiches, Samuelsson's got burgers, but in her CCQ Platters, Cora's got the only knife-and-fork entrees -- and she bravely chooses BBQ, a food that people will have strong opinions about.

Her BBQ'd proteins range from pulled pork, beef brisket, shrimp, and chicken. For the vegetarians, there's a "fire roasted" veggie with smoked mozzarella. I took the pulled pork, and though it was cooked well and relatively moist, it was devoid of flavor. In fact, it seemed like a blank canvas in search of paint. And that paint existed in Cora's sauce bar -- a cooler of ice stocked full of pour-yourself carafes more colorful than a Crayola box.

Among the flavoring options available:

Mississippi Mop
Southern Red
Asian Hoisin
Green Gaucho
Carolina Mustard
Mediterranean Fennel
Ancho - Apple
Spicy Orange Peel.

Each one I tried enlivened my dull porcine strands, but especially the "Green Gaucho", which had an herby kick similar to Indian mint chutney and the "Ancho-Apple", which was sneakily spicy and lip-smackingly fruity.

The side items included "pit beans", a sweetly satisfying but not-too-cloying baked beans dish with garbanzo and pinto; Cora's "Blue Corn and Jalapeno Madeleine", which ate like regular ol' cornbread despite the fact that there was a slice of jalapeno baked into the top; and a crunchy, pseudo-Asian slaw, which was snappy, refreshing, and alive -- the best item of all.

But all in all, for $11.95, the amount served is barely equal to the price paid...which is why I also ordered the "Classic" burger ($8.50) from Samuelsson's side of the menu.

And in its textbook-thick, loosely-packed patty that was cooked to the correct shade of rosy, I found one of the juiciest burgers I've ever had. All of the components worked. The Swiss was melted properly. The lettuce was fancy. The tomatoes were perky. And the onions were shaved thin. But best of all, the bun was toasted to a lovely crunch with lots of butter -- so much that you can taste it seeping out of the bread.

There's even homemade pickles, sliced like typical dills, but with more of a sophisticated bent of the Japanese kind -- subtle and sweet.

The fries, however, were strange. They were porous, without the crisp skin you associate with deep-fried food. I would've suspected they were baked if I didn't see the cooks frying them myself. Luckily, the mound was blasted with granules of fried garlic and herbs, rescuing it from mediocrity.

But while Cora's slaw made me swoon, a taste of Samuellson's made me retch. Never have I had anything so bitter (and I love bittermelon), which means that if this was Kitchen Stadium and it was crunch time in "Battle Slaw", Iron Chef Cora would "reign supreme".

Macy's Signature Kitchen
Macy's Home Store‎
3333 Bear St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-3333

The Lost Bean - Tustin