Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tradition by Pascal - Newport Beach

As Monster Munching friend and reader JB astutely observed:
Pascal Olhats is to OC what Georges Perrier is to Philadelphia...someone who overlooked world-class meccas like NYC to set up shop elsewhere and sustain a French dining mini-empire to respect, revere, and treasure.
But when fellow blogger Loving Annie and I met for dinner at Olhat's flagship restaurant, Tradition by Pascal, we found the place eerily deserted. This was Friday night, prime time for establishments of its ilk. But save for three or four other people who trickled in quietly, the room was as hushed as a monastery. For the remainder of the night, almost all of the pressed table linens would remain unwrinkled, the wine glasses unsmudged, the silverware unused.

One could blame the recession or Tradition's location on a one way street, too far from South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island. But if Olhats was reevaluating his place in OC's dining scene, he didn't show it.

After dinner, the man himself came out to personally check on us and have a chat. A jovial, friendly, down-to-earth chef as any I've met, he struck me as thankful for the business he still had; and perhaps just slightly curious about the weirdos taking pictures of his food. Besides, what else has he got to do after he finished cooking our dinner?

But let's rewind to the beginning of the evening.

While Annie chose to order a-la-carte, I opted for the "Tradition" -- a three-course prix fixe for $40. And since I was to pick my appetizer and main course from three possible options, of course I took the most expensive stuff. C'mon. Wouldn't you?

The charcuterie plate (usually $16) was the most complex and challenging charcuterie plate I've ever encoutered. The most recogizable item? Saucisson, which tasted a lot like salami with the same, slow peppery burn.

The other selections seemed like chapters taken from Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

The pork rillette cooly disintegrated on the tongue with the initially surprising, but not unpleasant consistency of wet tissue paper. And the country pâté were textured with crunchy bits, hammy bits, and bits whose origins were better left unknown.

Next to that, there were comparatively boring thin slices of duck breast, a dollop of bracing dijon mustard to slather over everything, and tart cornichons and haricot verts to jolt my protein O.D.'ing taste buds back into coherency.

But best of all -- crowning the whole pile in a burgundy tuft of sweetness -- were caramelized onions that tasted like gummy worms crossed with a pickle.

My prime beef sirloin (regularly $28) came shortly after, a dish absent of carbohydrates but blessed with a surplus of flavor. Cooked to a supple pinkness, sliced to tender slabs, and fanned out to impress, the steak sat over a poured puddle of green peppercorn cream sauce that sang with the tang of wine. Every forkful that I drug through the brown gravy, terrific.

The meat was flanked by sautéed wild mushrooms that had soaked up the flavors from its pan, and nicely crisp brocolini with stalks that stretched as long as a chopstick.

For dessert, it was Olhat's thin apple tart (normally $9), a warm-out-of-the-oven, flaky baked pastry disc topped with a scoop of vanilla and drizzled with caramel sauce. I've had renditions of this same dessert at just about every restaurant that offers it, and this one was just as good or better than all of them: sour and sweet, crispy and melty, hot and cold.

Now if you've been keeping track and have done the math, you would've figured out that doing the prix fixe amounts to nearly a 25% discount, which along with my charming dinner companion, made for a nice evening out. But it still begs the question: Where was everybody?

To read about what Annie thought:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---

Tradition By Pascal‎
(949) 263-9400
1000 Bristol St N
Newport Beach, CA 92660

At Last Cafe - Long Beach

Sunday, March 22, 2009

$48 5-Course Omakase @ Hamamori - Costa Mesa

In a review I wrote within weeks of Hamamori's opening, I said that eventhough the food was exquisite, you'd need to spend a month's salary to get full.

Then, back in October, I scribbled the following about them for OC Weekly's Best of Issue:
Great sushi has never been cheap, but no one else in OC has been able to get away with charging as much as James Hamamori does. Dinner for two at his eponymous South Coast Plaza eatery will climb into the triple digits faster than you can say "omakase" ($80 per person for food, an additional $40 for wine or sake pairing). This is the reason why you should get someone else to pay for it. For example, a repentant boyfriend trying to make amends, or that sales exec who's desperate to get a signature on a dotted line. Let them buy your way into your good graces with a meal prepared by Hamamori himself; a sushi feast to break bank accounts and breach credit limits . . . just not your own.
In that same month, Hamamori seemed to take proactive steps in shedding its reputation. After all, this was around the time that the stock market took a dive and it became clear our economy was in the crapper.

It was bad to be seen as one of the most expensive restaurants in the county.

What Hamamori did was to revise its omakase menu with tiered pricing. Don't get me wrong: on the whole, Hamamori still ain't cheap. You can still get into trouble with creditors if you opted for the top-end meal. But now, at least, there was a $48 5-course option that effectively slashed the original cost of omakase in half.

A few weeks ago, to celebrate a birthday, I returned to try it. And if you asked me now, I would have to say: compared to other restaurants of the same caliber, Hamamori is not overpriced.

Heck, I'd even go further and proclaim that I prefer its omakase meal over Bluefin's $35 5-Course lunch.

The reason? Bluefin's omakase is a crapshoot. You don't know what's going to happen after you've placed your bet. And lately for me, every subsequent Bluefin omakase meal has been a lesson on the law of diminishing returns -- each were never as good as the one that preceded it.

Hamamori's omakase, on the other hand, is as dependable as a treasury note. Their set menu doesn't change (or at least not yet). So although the element of surprise goes out the window, there's an unshakable consistency and sure-footedness in the execution of the set game plan. And in these risk-averse times, it's always reassuring to know that you're going to get what you paid for.

Japanese mushroom salad started the meal -- a first course that was as brisk a wake-up call to the palate as any I've had, containing field greens dressed in a sour dressing and more mushrooms than a Smurf village.

The second course consisted of three appetizers.

There was a rissole of kobe beef and foie gras, a billiard ball-sized orb made of deep-fried ground beef that sang of Scotch egg, but without the egg.

Next, rock shrimp tempura draped in a mayonnaise-y sauce, acting very much like the famous Chinese banquet dish, Honey Glazed Walnut Shrimp, but again, without the walnuts.

Beneath it, there was a lacy, fried shiso leaf that crunched as loudly as a kettle potato chip.

Last but not least, one of Hamamori's signatures: the okaki-crusted asparagus, where those tooth-jarringly hard Japanese rice crackers are put to good use as a crunchy breading.

Third course was sushi. All were fresh, plump, hand-formed ovals as sleek as bullets. Each piece was pre-seasoned with such things as ponzu and sea salt. No extra dipping or wasabi was required.

For the main course, you are to choose one from three available options.

Pork ribs were meaty bones crisped to burnt edges, with a deeply marinated and pronounced miso-flavor that seeped through each swarthy strip you tore off. Below was a starch that reminded me of baked beans, but wasn't.

Miso, lots of it, was also responsible for the bold flavor of the petite lamb chops. The savory paste was slathered on them like spackle.

Black cod, the only fish option, had the most going on. Tomato salsa, pickled kumquats, marinated gobo, and a trimmed slice of lotus root flanked a thin, well-roasted slab that was so aggressively seasoned it was almost too salty.

Eaten with plenty of rice, it was perfect.

To close the meal, homemade organic green tea ice cream arrived with a gravity-defying strawberry fanned out like a sail. Crunchy, addictive honey glazed nuts and more fresh berries were strewn as garnish and an added treat.

So, there you are: a reasonably priced prix fixe at Hamamori. Something you could probably swing for that special occasion dinner, even if you're not expecting an AIG bonus check in the mail. OK. Bad joke.

(714) 850-088
3333 Bear St # 320
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Basilic - Newport Beach

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Chippy Fish & Chips - Irvine

Like tacos and banh mi sandwiches, fish & chips is a dish best served cheap. You could always find it at some overpriced, reservations-only, seafood restaurant, or even an Irish or British pub, but I would argue that fish & chips should never see a plate, silverware, or a waitress that you have to tip afterwards. It was conceived as take-out food, after all.

But in Orange County, with a few exceptions, once you rule out these places, you're often left with dreck. There was a well-regarded joint that I will not name, which touted its Brit-cred with a shelf full of products only Prince Charles and Harry Potter could find appealing. But the fish and chips? The only thing memorable about it was that it wasn't memorable.

Many others I've tried suffered from a misconceived notion that it is acceptable to serve fish fillets that come in preformed squares or triangles -- objects that had more in common with the Filet-O-Fish than actual fillets of fish. What ground beef is to steak, most were no better than what a seven-year old can accomplish with a frozen box of Gorton's and a microwave.

You could say I'm a fish & chips snob. But it's not because I am British (I'm not). It is because I know great take-out fish & chips, though elusive, is possible and attainable. It ain't rocket surgery or brain science.

It can be done, and I've seen it.

Old family friends of ours owned and operated a fish & chips shop in Fullerton many decades ago, and they managed to use actual fresh fish, not that pre-processed stuff. And none of them had degrees in rocketry or neurology.

Thankfully, The Chippy Fish & Chips, a new family-run chip shop in Irvine, has taken up the cause, doing for the month they've been in business what every other shop should've been doing for years: Using whole fish steak fillets, hand-dipped in a batter of their own concoction, deep-fried to exacting standards, and sold for a pittance.

Mom minds the register. Dad monitors the deep fat fryer with a watchful eye and busy tongs. Daughter serves the final product.

A single retails for a reasonable $3.90, piled on top of a paper basket brimming over with fries. Though the potatoes are resurrected from frozen, they are fried to a golden crisp, salted properly, and function as the trusty back-up track to the real star: the fish.

Its glory starts with the crust. It's rippled, has ridges petrified into a gnarled crunch, measures only a few hairs thick, and is just slightly heartier than tempura. When you break into the golden crispy cocoon, a plume of steam billows out to reveal the virgin flesh -- a white, moist, milky meat, unmolested by machines, which falls apart into supple flakes when you put your mouth on it.

Provided: Tartar sauce. Lemon. Indispensable thimbles of malt vinegar. And proof that, indeed, great fish & chips can exist outside of the restaurant or the pub.

The Chippy Fish & Chips
2222 Michelson Dr. #216
Irvine, CA 92612

Wako Honey Pig - Buena Park

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Valerio's City Bakery - Cerritos

Almost all Southeast Asian countries -- particularly the ones that are blessed with the climate and soil to grow banana trees -- have their own version of the fried banana. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, you name 'em, each have a snack, a dessert, or a street food that involves the fruit deep-fried to a golden brown. Some will be dipped in batter and tossed in a wok full of oil, but some will be encased in egg roll's shell and paired with pieces of jackfruit, like the turon, which is what the Filipinos call their rendition.

And in Southern California, I would argue that the best turon is made by Valerio's, a Filipino bakery in a forgotten part of Cerritos that only Filipinos know about. It's got a sparse-looking storefront and an even less impressive interior. Walk inside and you'd think you were in a Soviet-era shop, especially if you come late in the day when the shelves are stripped empty and bare. Also if you come in the late afternoon, the turon usually won't be there.

Valerio's make them in the morning and sell out quickly. And at 75 cents a piece, the things go like hotcakes (Though, seriously, how popular are hotcakes anyway?)

We took a dozen and couldn't wait to rip into the box as soon as we got back in our car. First thing you notice is how long it is. (That's what she said!) It's slender like a cigar and as rigid as it is lengthy -- and I do mean lengthy. It's a stiff, foot-long shaft that that would even make a horse jealous and in no need of, you know, assistance. (Schwing!)

And now that I'm done with the phallus-related humor, I must tell you how crunchy the shell is. From tip to tip, every inch is glazed in a protective layer of caramelized sugar, which transforms what might normally be a flaccid Bruce Banner egg roll (ok, I guess I'm not done with the dick jokes) into a moisture-proof, fortified Hulk-like super egg roll capable of withstanding a dunk in, let's say, tea -- not that you would, though it would be perfect with it.

Underneath the crackle, you'll find a moist, mushy, sweet and tart filling of banana and the aforementioned jackfruit. And once you finish chomping each delectable bite, you'll want another. And another. And another. You won't want to stop. (That's what she said!)

Valerio's City Bakery
(562) 402-3244
17210 Norwalk Blvd
Cerritos, CA 90703

Pizzeria Ortica - Costa Mesa

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Pascal at Hutton Center - Santa Ana

If you are reading this and you do not live or work in South Coast Metro, which is really Santa Ana with Irvine aspirations, you can ignore this review. There's no need for you to go out of your way to try Pascal at Hutton Center.

Instead, you probably want to just suck it up and eat at Chef Pascal Olhats' real restaurants, Tradition by Pascal and Cafe Jardin, both of which I have not tried, but heard good things.

But if you do work near the 55 at MacArthur, have $8 burning a hole in your pocket and a hankering for a panini, then read on. Pascal at Hutton Center is the answer for when you've grown tired of the other ho-hum options at The Food Court at MacArthur Place.

It's part deli, part creperie, part airport terminal pitstop. But mostly it is Pascal's satellite location where most of the food is driven in from the bigger restaurants, dropped off daily by a van.

This is "Pascal's Jr.", if you will.

No "French Fries", but French food, fast.

There are prepared meals packaged in ready-to-heat containers and sealed in saran wrap. A meager selection of French pastries will be unimpressive, unless you are hypoglycemic.

But they can make you a crepe from scratch; and when you order a panini, they'll take a pre-assembled hoagie-type sandwich from the display case, brush the outer crust with olive oil, and then mash it flat to sear in a panini press.

What comes out looks like a Subway sub that's been trampled by a Size-12 hiking boot. As thin as its insole, but as crisp as toast, it's indicative of a true European panini (at least the ones I've seen in Belgium).

I took the lamb. Slices of roasted meat, a touch of feta, tomato, and the bracing wallop of chili (more on this later) were all smooshed inside a crusty sandal-shaped oval that eats like a glorified Hot Pocket. A Hot Pocket that, by the way, cost me almost $8 ($7.82 to be exact), which is a lot if you're used to overstuffed banh mi sandwiches that sell for $1.67 each.

Me? I'm a banh mi fiend. Read: I am a cheapskate. And because I am, I need to say that this sandwich did not satisfy my hunger or sense of value. But oh, the flavor!

It was savory to the max and hot in both definitions of the word. At first, I thought the chili component must have been Mexican, since it had the smoky burn of Tapatio. I later found out it was Sriracha, which still doesn't justify the price, I know, but made the panini even more endearing and me even more conflicted about how much I liked it.

Maybe when the recession is over, I'll get another one.

(714) 957-3087
2 Hutton Centre Dr
Santa Ana, CA 92707

Royal Kitchen - Irvine