Monday, November 25, 2013

Hilton Papagayo Resort - Costa Rica

Ah to be on an all-inclusive beach resort in Costa Rica. To just lie here, on a towel-lined lounge chair, a thatched umbrella above you, the waves crashing in the distance, and something cold the bartender mulled with mint leaves sweating next to you in a glass.

It's in these kinds of moments that you feel truly alive, that you start noticing everything around you is in vibrant Technicolor. Has the sky always been this blue? The trees this green? The breeze this lovely?

The only major decisions you need to make today is whether to try the Italian restaurant over by the spa or keep the reservation you have for the place next to the main pool where you previously ate a crisp pork belly entree and drank more wine than you've had all year.

Then you realize you've had a lot of pork belly this week. Yesterday for lunch at the open air hut cafe near the beach, you ordered the "local fried pork" dish with pieces of crispy pork belly, fried cassava, and shredded cabbage in a thin vinegary sauce. And that was just an appetizer.

Enough pork, you decide. Tonight, you want a big fat steak. And hey, the open air hut turns into a steakhouse in the evenings.

Later, you arrive to dinner wearing the same board shorts you've had on all day. Even though you're still digesting the mid-afternoon nachos, ceviche and beer you had at the bar, you mouth waters because the air is sweet with the aroma of beef and Argentine sausage roasting over a billowing fire.

This, you think, is going to spoil you when you get back home where the forecast is rainy and gray.

Hilton Papagayo Resort & Spa
Playa Arenilla
Golfo de Papagayo
Carrillo 50503, Costa Rica
+506 2672 0000

Kolache Factory - Tustin

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sushi Town - Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa, along with being the home of the most ramen shops in the county, has a lot of sushi joints. There are about thirty, if not more, places to sit in front of an itamae and toast his knife skills with sake and chilled Japanese beer.

Sushi Town is one of them, a place you've probably passed by without knowing it. It's on the one-way part of Newport Blvd. that parallels the 55, in a strip mall with a liquor store and a massage parlor that advertises "colon hydrotherapy" in neon.

When you go in, you realize the whole neighborhood is here at the bar, knocking back the sake like they've got something to prove and feasting on rolls drenched in sauce. There's a wait list for the booths and the specials are scribbled with marker on plain white copy paper taped on the walls. Everything seems to be served on no-frills cafeteria plates.

You find a cozy booth in the back corner. There's a TV tuned in to sports that no one's really watching and when the waiter comes, you find out he's one of the friendliest, most sincerely affable chaps you've ever had serving you anywhere, sushi bar or otherwise.

Since the prices are relatively low, with nothing generally over $10, you over order. The sesame chicken is not like what you expected, the fried morsels soaked in sticky teriyaki, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and enough to be a filling dinner by itself.

Their hamachi kama is wonderful, plainly broiled, seasoned with black pepper you can taste, the meat soft like pudding. They do a remarkable oyster fry bursting briny juice and a flawless soft shell crab covered in panko. Both are to be dipped in the same tart house ponzu sauce and served with the same fistful of coleslaw.

You move on to the sushi. The broiled unagi comes in slices thick enough for two nigiri pieces, belted with a strip of nori and brushed with enough sauce to taste like candy. The raw scallops come cuffed in more seaweed, tossed in a light mayo-based lubricant with bits of caviar. The snow crab is done the same way, except with a crowning touch of lemon. On special tonight, a hamachi belly, and to it you add a roll that you saw on the picture menu that has imitation crab, salmon, tuna, and more hamachi wrapped around thinly sliced cucumber. It's speared on toothpicks and is as refreshing as it sounds.

The uni, however, is just so-so, kind of bitter in the aftertaste, perhaps because Sushi Island's customer base aren't the kind to order it. Nor would they necessarily order the sweet shrimp just so that they can chomp on their deep fried heads, a crunchy shell harboring pulpy sea-mousse right behind the beady eyes.

They'd rather have something like the salmon skin roll, which you order too, because the crispy scraps of rendered fish epidermis they scatter atop the rolls still has bits of meat attached.

After you start on the Banana Surprise, a dessert of freshly fried tempura-battered bananas served with ice cream, you decide that Sushi Town has become one of your favorite sushi joints in a town full of sushi joints.

Sushi Town
2346 Newport Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(949) 515-5183

Ways & Means Oyster House - Orange

Monday, November 11, 2013

Miyabi Shabu Shabu & Grill - Irvine

If there’s anything to distinguish one shabu shabu joint from another, it’s certainly not in what you’re eating. What you get at one, you’ll get at the next. You’re boiling pieces of beef in plain hot water, after all. And there’s not much disparity between how one place shaves their beef on a deli slicer and how the next one does it. All will start with a frozen hunk of cattle, plane it down to gossamer sheets, and present it on a plate.

There may variations on that last part--some slice and then refreeze, but most won’t. No matter what, the beef will shrivel into the same tender piece of nothing once you wave it around in the water. And the sauces, goma, a peanut-buttery sesame sauce, and the ponzu, will taste exactly the same, as most places will just pour it from a factory-produced bottle.

The term "boilerplate" takes on new meaning here.

There will be hot drops, chili oil, or chili flakes. There will be scallions, grated garlic and daikon. There will be an arranged vegetable plate, which will contain leaves plucked from a head of Napa cabbage, a bunch of baby bok choy, or both. There will be some tofu, a tangle of udon, a bundle of enoki mushrooms that you will inevitably lose track of in the pot. And if there’s a carrot, whether or not it will be carved into the shape of a flower will be dependent on how long the place has been open. Newer joints will do it to impress.

Miyabi Shabu Shabu does that to its carrot. But it also does other things that so far manages to distinguish the restaurant from the pack.

It offers an amuse bouche of grated mountain potato and marinated shiitake dolloped with caviar for no other reason than because it can. And in the seafood shabu shabu offering, it includes actual snow crab legs along with deveined shrimp, thin slices of salmon sashimi, squeaky clams, and good quality scallops.

And then there’s probably the thing that people will use to judge whether they’re going to come back to spend their $20 plus dollars on a meal they have to cook themselves: the service. Miyabi’s service is currently very good. Water is topped off without having to ask. Broth levels are monitored and adjusted.

When it comes to shabu shabu, service is perhaps second to price in what you should look for in a meal that you can do just as well at home.

Miyabi Shabu Shabu & Grill
15435 Jeffrey Rd. Ste. 119
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 551-0200

White Wasabi - Long Beach

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Sake 2 Me Sushi - Tustin

If you're at a certain age when your metabolism hasn't yet caught up with you, you relish places like Sake 2 Me, an all-you-can-eat sushi bar where you try to recoup your dinner investment by overeating and make the restaurant's profit margin just that much smaller.

Judging by the lines and long wait times on Friday and Saturday nights, there are a lot of people just like you. Sake 2 Me is currently one of the most popular and cost effective ways to eat sushi in Orange County. For the relatively reasonable entry fee of about $25, you can stuff yourselves full of raw fish and rolls like you've never done before...well, at least not since the last time you found a place like this.

If you haven't been, you'd be wrong to assume Sake 2 Me is a seafood buffet, where the sushi rolls engender the fear of God or diarrhea. No, Sake 2 Me is an honest-to-goodness sushi bar.

Their nigiri is actually made-to-order. Everything you mark down on the sheet of order paper (which are organized in rounds), from your first piece to your fiftieth, will be cut, molded and then served like any sushi bar would...except you're not thinking about how much money you have left in your bank account, but rather how much room you have left in your stomach.

Know when you go that the rolls are gut fillers, most often drowned in sauces sticky sweet, Sriracha-spicy, or mayo-rich. But most of their nigiri sushi are notably well done, with the fish sliced so thick you begin to wonder how they turn a profit.

Freebies like crabmeat nachos on wontons are also offered without you even asking for it. But when you think about it, they're actually not freebies--they're insurance policies the restaurant takes out to get you full faster before your gluttony puts them out of business.

Sake 2 Me Sushi
13951 Carroll Way Ste A
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 731-6980

All That Barbecue - Irvine