Friday, January 31, 2014

Saagar Fine Cuisine of India - Newport Beach

There are dolphins on the ceiling. They're frolicking, splashing in sky blue water in a 3D sculpted mural that's as beautiful as anything you'll see in a Wyland installation. In the corner, there's a private booth seemingly carved out of the wall that looks like it's Ariel's seacave.

Where am I? An Indian restaurant called Saagar. Was all of this Under The Sea theming part of the last restaurant that occupied the space? Or is the turban-wearing owner just fond of Sea World?

These are questions that I pondered as I ate until my belly ached and my burps reeked of garlic and spices. Saagar is one of only two Indian restaurants that exist in Newport Beach and also one of a few places that my largely Indian (and thus largely vegetarian) co-workers and I can go without anyone having to compromise what they really wanted to eat.

For them, there's the thick and wonderful sludge that is saag paneer; the spiced lentils called dal makhani; and aloo gobi, a stir fry of sorts full of cauliflower and potatoes blasted with spices. And for me, there was the flourescent orange of tandoori chicken; the sultry creaminess of tikka masala; and goat curry, which tastes like lamb dialed up to 11.

And then for all of us, there were fat, bulging samosas stuffed with curried potato and peas; endless baskets of freshly baked and bubbled naan covered in garlic; gulab jamun, those milky orbs steeped in syrup for dessert; and an afternoon of feeling sluggishly full, because no matter where you're from, food comas after a buffet lunch like this is universal.

Saagar Fine Cuisine of India
4248 Martingale Way
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 955-1904

Atun - Long Beach

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Crispy Fried Chicken" at Pizza & Chicken Love Letter

There's fried chicken and then there's Korean fried chicken. Korean fried chicken is everything American style fried chicken is--decadent, crispy, really bad for you--but taken to higher levels of perfection.

If regular fried chicken is Toyota; Korean fried chicken is its Lexus. The Toyota will get you there, but if you had the choice, you'd take the Lexus.

The Korean way of frying poultry distinguishes itself from the way it's done in Kentucky. Theirs is a double-fry method that melts all of the subcutaneous fat and renders all skin to the thinness of film, the crispness of burnt parchment, with none of the residual chewiness or floppiness. Beneath the golden crust, the meat is unseasoned, unbrined. There's a light touch of soy sauce in the batter, but the meat tastes of pure poultry-ness.

Maybe because of the subtle soy sauce flavor, these birds seem to go really well with rice; but you must, must, must eat it with the vinegar-steeped radish pickles they give you. These pickles are essential. Each dice-sized cube resets your palate for the next bite of chicken. Think of it as Windex for your mouth.

A whole order of the "Crispy Fried Chicken" goes for $13.99 and comes with 14 small-sized pieces, which are fried to order, served extremely fresh. I saw our fried chicken craftsman poking the pieces in his fryer with a skewer, checking them for the exact point of doneness.

You'll find Love Letter in food court stall hidden inside Hmart in Irvine. It's not the only Korean fried chicken joint in that plaza, but in this blogger's opinion, it doesn't just cook the Lexus of fried chickens, it's the Lexus LFA.

Pizza & Chicken Love Letter
2600 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 852-2900

Red O - Newport Beach

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gaufree - Irvine

Ever since Bruxie showed the world that waffles can be more than maple syrup delivery devices, it’s been a waffle gold rush out there. The old adage “selling like hotcakes” should probably be revised. And right now there are so many me-too waffle sandwich shops opening, it seems a repeat of what happened with food trucks after Kogi and frozen yogurt after Pinkberry.

Though it's neither the first nor the last waffle sandwich shop you’ll ever see, Gaufree--owned by ex-circus acrobats--does everything you expect with its waffles. It’s used as the bun for a burger, as the platform for sweet desserts, and as everything else in between. They are decent waffles…doing what waffles do, which means they stay crisp long enough for me to eat the whole sandwich without falling apart. But I don't like the waffles at Gaufree as much as I like what goes in between.

The fried chicken, which is not like Roscoe's nor Japanese katsu, is the bastard child of both, a lightly battered boneless plank of poultry that tastes like something your mom would make on a cast iron pan. If you ate it with mashed potatoes, you'd consider yourself well fed. Yet as we all now know as fact: it tastes pretty damn good in a waffle.

But to me, what distinguishes Gaufree from all the other Bruxie carbon copies are the homemade sauces. The curry mayo is divine, kind of like a Indo-European mash up (and something I swear I've tasted before in Brussels). The best sauce may be the homemade ketchup, which one might first mistake for barbecue because it's so complex.

Now if only they had waffle fries...

3851-A Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 222-5622

Bonefish Grill - Tustin

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Monster Sushi - Tustin

Have you ever dreaded the arrival of food like it were the Apocalypse? We did. Somewhere in the middle of our AYCE sushi lunch at Monster Sushi, when our table was already full of plates containing about 40 to 50 pieces of rolls, it dawned on us that this was just HALF our order...40 or 50 pieces more were still forthcoming. It was at that moment we realized we were in big, big trouble.

We didn’t just over order; we hyper over-ordered. We were too hungry, too greedy, and too bad at math to realize that every time we checked off a sushi roll on their list, we had to multiply that number by 8, because each roll we asked for had that many pieces. This meant that when we asked for 10 rolls, we were committing to 80 to 100 pieces in all.

Worse yet: Though we were a party of 5, it was effectively three, because the kid we brought doesn’t eat sushi, and my better-half (as faithful readers of this blog already know) can only put down half a portion of anything.

And so there we were. Our faces drained white with food fatigue, our stomachs bloated beyond their limits. And it was all our fault. Monster Sushi is a very, very good all-you-can-eat sushi bar. And they did everything right. Even the rolls with silly titles as “The Ex-Girlfriend” were constructed of fresh ingredients, good sauces, and not over-packed with rice. There were delicate crab leg nigiris, rolls made bright green with tobiko roe, and sublime cuts of maguro, hamachi, and crisp tempura.

This was great sushi, better than an AYCE place has any business serving. So we realized we had to do right by them. We had to try to eat it all, not just because of the signs that warned of an additional charge to dissuade idiots like us not to order what we can’t finish, but because it’s insulting and a colossal waste of food not to consume everything that was served to us.

We got close. Very close. By the end, we whittled it down to about 10 pieces. But the server saw that we were dying. The last piece I ate I chewed over and over, my throat refusing to swallow. It was about then that he came over and told us we didn’t have to try to finish the rest. They wanted us to enjoy the experience, he said, because they want us to come back.

We were more than relieved, but also grew more fond of the place. We thanked him and vowed that we were definitely coming back...but maybe after a month or two. Right now and for the past week, for some reason, I'm not craving sushi.

Monster Sushi
13832 Red Hill Ave
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 573-2855

The Empanada Maker - Mission Viejo

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Urban Plates - Irvine

I don't think I ever mentioned how much I liked Urban Plates on this blog. It is, by far, my favorite one of these. One of what? One of these--the recent handful of new, hip cafeterias that are like Boston Markets for yuppies.

Why do I like Urban Plates more than the others? Well, it's partly because so many other people do, too. And I don't mean that in the way you think. The fact that it's popular--with lines routinely out the door--means that there's a constant turnover of food.

In the half dozen times I've eaten here, I've not had anything that sat around longer than 10 minutes. In some cases, what I ate was just seconds off the saute pan, stove pot or grill. And they do the cooking right behind the service stations to demonstrate that there aren't any pre-prepared, boil-in-bag shortcuts going on. As far as I can tell, when they make something, they really are making something.

I think about the only thing not from scratch are the potato chips. But the mashed potatoes are dreamy. The meatloaf is flawless. And when I get a side of Brussels sprouts, broccolini, or green beans, I know they'll have that requisite snap.

Also, there's the price point: $10 for a plate with a protein and two sides, which is about right.

And then, there's the mango tart, a simple pie crust slathered with dense cream and embedded, nay, crammed with mango slices that, for some reason, tastes perky and in season, even when it's not.

Heck, I even like the salads.

Urban Plates
3972 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 387-2600

Leadbelly's - Fullerton