Monday, March 25, 2013

Mortadella Pizzetta at Mesa - Costa Mesa

Mozza. Ortica. Il Dolce. Pielogy. Yadda. Yadda. There's a lot of pizzas out there. And a lot of them are good. A lot of them are great. But you know what's my favorite pizza right now? The one you see pictured above, offered and served not by a hyped-up or Naples-certified pizzeria that touts its wood burning oven or the Batali behind the curtain, but a hip, small plate restaurant that has been hip for a long time now.

Yes, it's Mesa. And their pizza is friggin' awesome. That pretty much summarizes what I said when I bit into the first slice. "This is friggin' awesome," I said to my tablemates. And they agreed. The crust is perfect--not soggy, not tough, as thin as those hand-tossed pies from all the places I mentioned, but tender, more pliant, and still in possession of that bubbled-burnt edge that I like to savour slowly at the end, especially when the crust is this good.

And the toppings? This one had mortadella, sharp parmesan, blubbery burrata, red onion, sofrito and something called "finishing oil"; but it matters less what they are and more that whatever it is, it's infused, melted in, incorporated, at one with the crust. I really have no other way to describe the pizzas at Mesa that what I said a paragraph ago: it's friggin' awesome.

725 Baker St.,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Phone:(714) 557-6700

Four Sea Restaurant - Irvine

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar & Grill - Foothill Ranch

I admit it. If it weren't for the fact that Open Table had them listed as one of a few select 1,000 point reservations, I wouldn't have given Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar & Grill a chance. Would you? It's located in Foothill Ranch, which is a really inconvenient town to visit if you don't live or work there. Check the map! It's tucked away near the actual foothills, nowhere near any freeways that don't charge toll.

So even before I even saw it, I pegged Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar & Grill to be a stereotypical suburban sushi joint in a stereotypical suburban strip mall in a stereotypical suburb, which these days means teriyaki bento specials with California rolls, miso soup, a citrusy-dressed iceberg salad, and all that jazz (which may or may not be the easy-listening kind).

This isn't to say that I refuse to eat in such places. I have a fondness for a good bento combo special as much as the next guy. It's just, why go all that way when I have my pick of stereotypical suburban sushi joints inside the stereotypical suburb in which I live?

Well, the reason, like I said, was the 1,000 points on Open Table.

But by golly, Ahi Ahi turned out not to be just a stereotypical suburban sushi joint; it was a GREAT stereotypical suburban sushi joint. They had California-type rolls with actual crab meat that, yes, tasted more of actual crab than the mayo typically used to hide imitation. Moreover, they served a seaweed salad with cucumbers that ate like an actual salad, not a side dish. And they fried lobster nuggets, coated in thin batter hiding the sweet, sweet meat that redeemed a species of crustacean I've always thought was way overrated. They even made their sweet potato fries crunchy by encasing the spears in a bonafide tempura.

And when was the last time a stereotypical suburban joint offered grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon this excellent--a dish I usually have to go to a robatayaki or an izakaya to order. Or the miso-glazed seabass--probably the closest thing to fish pudding as I ever want to eat and the dish that convinced me, once and for all, that I'm coming back, 1,000 Open Table points or not.

Of course, the meal did come with a miso soup and salad. But even the salad surprised me. The iceberg was actually chilled. No, I mean chilled deliberately. When I bit into it, it sent shivers up my spine and made me actually say these words to my lovely dining companion, "This iceberg lettuce is amazing!"

And for dessert: fried bananas with ice cream, which is more of a stereotypical suburban Thai restaurant thing than Japanese, now that I think about it...but who's stereotyping here? Not me!

Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar
45 Auto Center Dr.,
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610
(949) 600-9833

Two 40 South - Brea

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Julian Serrano at Aria - Las Vegas

If you hadn't noticed, Vegas ain't what it used to be. Name chefs like English and Ramsay rule over the all-you-can-eat buffets, and the monopolizing presence of French Canadian contortionists have all but rendered the Siegfried and Roy's extinct.

Which is fine by me.

Buffets aren't really my thing and I'd rather see Steve Carrell's send-up of Las Vegas magicians than actually go to a Vegas show with one.

Not that I'm particularly fond of those self-important Cirque du Soleil snooze-fests, either, where weird is done for weird's sake, but the Beatles show at The Mirage? Kinda good because, well, they don't use that New Age Euro crap as soundtrack.

After seeing it, what will probably be my last Cirque show for a while, we chose a restaurant that was conveniently located in our hotel--the reasonably priced Spanish tapas restaurant by Julian Serrano, called, um, Julian Serrano.

It isn't too exorbitantly expensive or required that we be dressed up--a happy middle between the Guy Savoys and the downtown steak-and-egg specials.

Best of all, some of the dishes look like what my college roommate might have slapped together at quarter past midnight, which is kind of refreshing in a restaurant that looks like this.

Two fried eggs are laid atop fast food fries with cut-up Spanish chorizo (though I'm pretty sure he would've used hot dogs or Vienna sausages). The egg yolk oozed out like sauce, mixing with the spicy red oil that leeched out from the chorizo, creating a new substance that's better squeegeed by the fries than ketchup.

Then there was the "Black Rice", a creamy/chewy appetizer-sized portion of a sort-of Spanish seafood paella merged with Italian risotto. Colored as dark as crude oil by squid ink, flavored by sofrito and a decorated with a few char-kissed rings of calamari, we ate the thing while our lips made inky black streaks on the napkins.

We ordered an actual risotto after that. And it was already nicely cheesy even without the slice of manchego on top, with the grains retaining just a little bit of tooth. Between them, there were mushrooms, big, squishy, tasty ones hiding like undiscovered jewels that announced themselves boldly when I least expected.

The last thing we tried turned out to be the item that we saw pictured on posters that advertised the restaurant throughout the hotel--the tuna raspberry skewer.

A cube of raw ahi, crusted with sesame seeds was the bottom building block; the top part was a raspberry Jell-O shot they described as "molecular"; and together it tasted as though you took a slurp of a smoothie right after sushi.

It's good, but it also encapsulated what Vegas can be: flashy but without a lot of substance.

Altogether the meal cost under $70 (with tax, tip, and a dessert I didn't mention), which is still steep, I know, but considering I don't gamble, I think I made it out of Vegas better than most schmucks.

Julian Serrano at Aria
3730 S Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 590-8520

ARC Restaurant - Costa Mesa

Friday, March 08, 2013

Gulliver's - Irvine

How have I not been to Gulliver's till now? It reminds me of the old Cask n' Cleavers, the Whale n' Ales, and all its variants...decked out with copper, wood, B&W photos, and a hearth--the kind of old English pub that actually looks like it came from old England.

The John Wayne Airport-adjacent restaurant is, in fact, almost as old as I am. But as I lose my charm as I age, this restaurant gains it.

We initially came for Happy Hour, where they put out plates of complimentary hors d'oeuvres with actual burgers (cut into quarters), deviled eggs, crudites, smoked salmon dip, and a chafing dish of what tasted like Sloppy Joe meat made from chipped beef (if anyone knows what it is I ate, let me know).

And it's all free...yes, I said free.

But then, we started ordering stuff, because you kind of have to when you start seeing the prime rib platters that your fellow pub patrons were tucking into.

These are slabs of pristine pinkness still attached to bone--prime ribs of beef as I've never seen it served before, complete with real grated horseradish, a pour of thick-as-syrup au jus, hot creamed spinach and a crackle-crusted, amorphously large Yorkshire pudding that became an edible bowl for creamed corn the bar wenches doled out of a steaming ramekin with a gigantic spoon.

And while you're waiting for your prime rib, you also need to order the crab-stuffed mushrooms, four cheese-draped caps containing more crab meat than most crab cakes possess.

Then for dessert, a real English trifle, a Sherry-soaked cake layered with custard and berries, which I have now decided is the second best thing I've eaten in a meal I should not have been eating...because as I get older, charming food like this will ultimately make me significantly less charming the more of it I eat.

18482 MacArthur Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 833-8411

Xa Sweet & Savory Cafe - Orange