Monday, February 24, 2014

Luna Grill - Irvine

Is Luna Grill to Persian food as Panda Express is to Chinese? Probably. But let's not misconstrue that as a bad thing. For the record: I like Panda Express. And I like Luna Grill. I've eaten at Luna Grill enough now to see that they are consistent, clean, and a well-managed chain that makes one hell of a chicken kabob.

Yes, it is a bit expensive if you compare it to what Wholesome Choice charges for the same quantity of food. At Luna Grill, a plate with an avalanche of fluffy Persian rice, salad, three pita triangles, a roasted tomato and the meat off of one skewer goes for $10. But in my opinion, their koobideh, (which is just called "ground sirloin kabob" here), with the roasted meat in braids, is much better than Wholesome Choice's.

But oh that chicken! It's bursting with juice and flavor, deeply marinated at the molecular level, and did I mention that it's breast meat? Yes, breast meat, a protein that's more apt to being dry and boring, is so good here you will forgive Luna Grill for taking further liberties with the cuisine.

For example, they have spanakopita, which is actually Greek. Order it anyway. It's a massive thing—enough for a lunch in and of itself—where a flaky Phyllo dough cocoon is pregnant with creamed spinach, the pastry drenched in either butter or the fat coming off the cheese.

Besides, if we're sticklers for geographical accuracy in what our ethnic food restaurants serve, we would first have to reconcile what country Panda Express' cream cheese rangoons come from. Because it's certainly not Myanmar.

Luna Grill
3965 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 654-5862

Chianina - Long Beach

Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentine's Prix-Fixe at Cafe Hiro - Cypress

OC Restaurant Week begins soon, but I believe I've already eaten the best prix fixe deal of the month. And on Valentine's Day, no less.

Last Friday, I treated my better half to Cafe Hiro, the restaurant that I've blogged more than any other on these pages and the only place that I will willingly go during Valentine's Day--a day which usually becomes an excuse for other restaurants to gouge naive couples trying to force a romantic evening. Believe me: I've been a gougee.

But no matter whether it is New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, or Valentine's, Chef Hiro Ohiwa has never disappointed with his prix fixes. He has always charged a fair price for these meals that often turn out to be discounts if you do the math on what you usually spend on a normal night. It is because of this that I've spent many a New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, and yes, Valentine's Day at his restaurant--it is the best time to visit.

Last Friday was no different.

The price was $39 per person for 4 courses, and it went like this:

There were two choices for the first course: either beef tataki, over sliced red onion, garnished with a crispy garlic chip, and grated daikon, finely diced scallion and a jellied ponzu sauce for dribbling; or seared ahi tuna steak piled atop soft planks of fresh mozzarella cheese, over Asian herb mix and tomato, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and ginger miso sauce.

Second course was either a scallop spring roll stuffed with mushrooms, served over mesclun salad dressed with yuzu vinaigrette; or crispy fried chicken thighs served on sticks of sautéed daikon with green onion and decorated with squirts of Asian pesto sauce.

For the entrees, he sautés Scotch salmon with black mussels, red bell pepper, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and an au jus broth that came from cooking the mussels. He also offered a roast beef with mashed potatoes; or a beautifully roasted pork plated with the same silky spuds.

We chose the salmon and the pork. Both were cooked perfectly. The salmon was as crisp as creme brulee on the outside, creamy at the center. The pork was as supple as the softest part of my inner cheek, and as juicy and as flavorful as a steak.

For the fourth and final course, we had free reign on all the desserts they offered. We asked for a slice of the homemade pear tart, a tall, slightly dense cake of sorts that had a crumbly crust and was packed full of pears. And of course, we also had to have a wedge of Chef Ohiwa's incomparable croissant bread pudding in a sea of bitter caramel sauce.

And for you who are fans of this restaurant already, I've saved the best news for last: we found out that night that Cindy, Cafe Hiro's best front-of-the-house manager and server who left to take care of her growing family, is now back! She was the one that cut out all those construction paper heart garlands they hung for the occasion: the best restaurant deal of the month.

Cafe Hiro
(714) 527-6090
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630

Tasty Garden - Irvine

Friday, February 14, 2014

Honda-Ya Box - Costa Mesa

When I was a few years younger and in possession of more patience, waiting an hour for a table at Honda-Ya in Tustin was something I did every other Saturday night without even thinking about it. Now? Not so much. Honda-Ya Box in Costa Mesa is made for people like me who want instant Honda-Ya gratification without the Honda-Ya wait. It features some of the items the real Honda-Ya offers, just repackaged into a smaller frame. This is the Honda Fit to the original's Accord EX.

Yes, it feels a lot like the economy model, without all the bells and whistles--a stripped down, bare bones experience that tries to get you there and not much more. And in the kakuni lunch box I tried, it mostly does. The stewed pork I had tasted a little different than what I've had at the original. This one is a little less melting, a little more stringy. But I can't ask for a better miso soup than the one they serve it with. It's got noodles in it. And tofu. And vegetables. It's practically a meal into itself.

The combo comes with greens drizzled in a miso-like dressing, a pasta salad that seemed superfluous. But I like this place. I like the idea that Honda-Ya brings to the genre of quick Japanese bento box food. It doesn't resort to dumbing it down to teriyaki chicken and tempura specials. And they're slowly but constantly importing more and more items from the mother ship. Like crispy chicken skin. Asparagus bacon with garlic butter soy sauce. And those pickles they give you at the start of your meal. The one hour wait times? They can keep that there.

Honda-Ya Box
2969 Fairview Rd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-2688

Solita - Huntington Beach

Thursday, February 06, 2014

MOD Pizza - Irvine

When I tell you that MOD Pizza follows the Chipotle model, you know what I mean, right? It means that MOD is part of a new breed of pizza parlor where you choose the toppings behind a sneeze-guard-protected assembly line by pointing. Your pizza is then put together not unlike a Subway sandwich, slid into a oven to bake in scarcely minutes.

There are so many of these fast, quick-fired custom pizza shops now that it would only be surprising if I told you that MOD wasn’t one of them.

And if you've been to all the others, you already know what the pizzas taste like--which is to say, pretty darned good. What thing fresh out of an oven isn't good?

Not familiar with the concept? Haven't tried the what Pielogy, or Pizza Press, or 800 Degrees, or Blaze calls pizzas? Let me give you a crash course: the dough starts out raw, pressed down flat under a metal vice that looks as though it could be used to stamp sheet metal. Think of what would be the Venn diagram intersection of matzo, naan, and pita--that's where the consistency of the crust lies. It’s thin enough that it can be described as cracker-like, thick enough to have the integrity to hold up the toppings, and yes, it's ready in minutes...because when you want a pizza, you want it now.

I took one of the models that already had a lot of meat on it, discovered that it didn't have bacon, and then asked them to put bacon...because when all pizzas cost the same no matter how many toppings it has, you have to make sure one of them is bacon.

MOD Pizza
3965 Alton Pkwy Ste A
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 265-7770

BLK Burgrz - Ladera Ranch