Monday, May 26, 2008

Vosges Haut Chocolat & Hershey's Cocoa Kisses

You will rarely read me post about chocolate. I simply do not eat it. Sure, I'll occasionally partake in some sweet treat at work. For the most part, however, it's not a taste I crave. Maybe I've matured my palette? It might be because I find it too sweet. Either way, I sit here this Memorial morning staring at a box.

A thin, pink vessel previously housed one of the most exotic flavors I've experienced for dessert. Granted, I'm a bread pudding fan. Most sweets will be a step outside of the box. It is an exotic candy bar. A goji bar, to be exact. With an ingredient list that rivals Breyer's All Natural ice cream. Check this out:

  1. Dark and milk chocolate
  2. Goji berries
  3. Salt

That's it. Four Vosges shops around the country. The closest to me being the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace Las Vegas. I would go to Vegas for 41% cacao and pink Himalayan salt. I cannot believe how much I enjoyed this candy bar. I was raving to co-workers and offering bits to sample. The mingling of sweet and savory was intoxicating. I must find more. (Thanks to Moses at Mustard Cafe for bringing chocolate sexy back).

Closeted obsession #2 can no longer be found in retail stores. I have a twenty-five cent clearance bag stashed in my emergency cabinet at work. Ron (a fellow snacker) found it at his local grocery store and remembered my quest for such treasure.

Hershey has been an OG in confection history for as long as candy's been sold to the masses. It's a brand like Microsoft, McDonalds, Vincent Chase (sorry, too much Entourage). With a formula that stands the test of time, they understand the need to appeal to a changing market. The only time I ever ate Hershey was in a s'more. I discovered these gems by coincidence.

Due to the cocoa flavoring, the usual solid texture of a Kiss has been altered to a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. Dare I say, creamy. With just the right amount of sweet, it settles like a mug of hot chocolate. They were instantly used in my birthday favors (along with Elvis inspired Reese's banana flavored peanut butter cups, but I digress). Anytime I need a 'hit' of sugar, I reach for this sweet. I cross my fingers with hopes that they'll be back next holiday season.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Irvine is (not) a culinary wasteland....

While taste is a matter of opinion, I get a little offended when this statement is uttered. While we certainly aren't a major dining capital, Irvine can smack down most of their Southern OC neighbors anytime. I'm also very amused by the little known fact that so many bloggers also reside in this city, myself included. This is my continuing journal to disprove those naysayers.

I must preface this by stating my opinion of Irvine factors in a number of attributes. First, I think it says something when any chain will put its first OC/Southern California/West Coast operation in Irvine. Next, anyone in a regional chain wanting to be here is a compliment. Last, memorable dining isn't about being in a particular city for a specific cuisine. It's getting a satisfying meal that's accessible. This is my Irvine.

Reason #1 - I finally tried Pho Bac Ky last night, per my manager's raving. While it is the sister restaurant to Pho Bac off Barranca, I found it to be even better. Perhaps it's because of the spacious parking, prompt service, and chill atmosphere. While folks complain about the few extra dollars it might cost, uh, hello? Irvine charges more rent than Westminster people. I'm not about to hit my Pho 86 anytime soon if I can drive less than 10 miles for some salty lime soda and #41. Residents don't blink at the extra $, or else why is it so crowded at 6pm on a Saturday?

Reason #2 - I read about Strickland's right when they were opening in '05. An Akron, Ohio based chain, UCI is the only West Coast operation at the time of this blog. With two new flavors each day, and a husband & wife team taking care of business on a Saturday night, this place is a destination for all: students, families, anyone tired of Cold Stone. They even give props to some of my acquaintances, Professor Salt and Elmomonster with framed copies of their blogs hanging next to their local awards. Note: banana flavor is very tasty.

Reason #3 - Yes, I am going to say Melting Pot. Who was the first city in CA to land one? Irvine. What has a bar scene that's never empty? Yes, you can cringe at the $50/person you're going to spend on cooking your own food, but they are not hurting for business. Actually, Irvine was the top money making location in the company for 2007. Hey, I did some research.

Reason #4 - Bistango. A major player for business lunches and dinners, their live music and artwork fits right in among the white collar crowd. While the parent company, Dining As Art, has branched out in other directions (Kimera, Tonic), this is their prized possession. My co-worker still dreams about the beef stroganoff.

Reason #5 - Taco Rosa. For a rockin' Sunday brunch that includes both a Mariachi band and a tall glass of sangria, look no further than the local Market Place. Their seasonal specials are excellent lunch fare, and you cannot beat the accessible location.

Reason #6 - Pei Wei. Laugh all you want, but when the P.F. (of Chang's) wanted a quick casual option, he knew the ideal neighborhood to start the chain was in the IRV. In a county full of Asian options, this is a smooth operation. Shortly after, others followed suit in their concept of "make your own meal" by selecting a protein and cooking method.

Reason #7 - Mochilato for shaved ice. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find this? Check the boards and learn this is few and far between. Their deluxe version can feed a family of four or more. Lovely alternative for dessert.

Reason #8 - Three words: Three Trader Joe's! (Culver/Irvine, UCI, Sand Canyon/Irvine Blvd).


Reason #9 - Family owned and operated, New York's Upper Crust Pizza is a six location chain dedicated to bringing Brooklyn style pizza to the masses. You ain't finding this joint in Anaheim or Westminster. They are RSM residents who know where garlic knots and sauceless White Pizza would be appreciated.

Reason #10 - Irvine cares about their vegetarians. When you steal the co-founder of Native Foods and hire the architect who designed Bluefin, you know something special is brewing. In the land of UCI it is called The Veggie Grill. Where the city falls in love with sweetheart fries and tempeh is the new chicken.

Reason #11 - To show that we are not just health conscisous, down the street is the mother of Brazilian carnivore havens, Agora Churrascaria. With a business lunch vibe and endless meats to savor, being near SNA has never been so good.

Reason #12 - What do you do when you have a successful restaurant in Laguna Beach? Open another in Irvine, of course. Javier's Cantina and Grill keeps the vibe cool and the food hot in the Spectrum. My preferred spots are in the covered patio. Update: The original LB site has up and moved to Crystal Cove for more spacious and swankier digs.

(August - July was a very long month of sickness and otherwise)

Reason #13 - First opened in Irvine, the surge of frozen yogurt frenzy began at the corner of Jeffrey and Walnut. Yogurtland and its IKEA furnishings was an immediate hit. With lines out the door, the Arbor's parking spots would be primer real estate then when it's time to get some dim sum. Averaging no less than a dozen flavor options, their tagline of "Thirty cents an ounce" is enough to get anyone in their car. Most sing the praises of their mochi topping. I now frequent another one even closer to home.

Reason #14 - Across from John Wayne Airport, diners either love or loathe Gulliver's. For over 35 years they've been cranking out creamed corn, English trifle, and prime rib. Their claim to fame is being host to frequent diner John Wayne himself. They'll even seat you at The Duke's table if you ask. When you are ready for Old World experience and some serious red meat, make the drive down.

Reason #15 - "Italian food in Irvine" and one is inclined to ask 'Olive Garden', 'Buca di Beppo', or 'Macaroni Grille'? I say none of the above, thanks to Adriano Paganini, owner and chef of Pasta Pomodoro. While I will probably be told to find some real Italian, I dream about their ravioli di zucca. I dare you to find a more savory starter so close to home. Roasted butternut squash with parmesan and brown butter. Sage and crumbled amaretti atop.

Reason #16 - Stuck in the Market Place. Not craving a combo meal. How does one find an award-winning chef in suburbia? Marc A. Cohen is your answer. He helms the palette pleasing (albeit noisy) menu at Opah. Known for a social patio, the Pacific inspired cuisine is dateworthy. Named after a symbol of good luck, as an entree it is a unique find.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mesa - A hidden gem

On a busy corner
in an unmarked building
lies the essence of LA Orange County.

The first visit left us stunned. The next was like a private party. After that, even better. So after three, I think a review is long overdue.

Adjacent to a filling station and quietly occupying a former pool hall, you can't say for sure if you're at the right location. Read about it briefly while scouring for a new place to dine last year. Our most recent foray found us being carded! I feel so old, but admittedly look youthful for my thirtyish years. I owe it all to mom. We request a table in our favorite server's section. She welcomes us with hugs.

The menu has gone thru a number of changes since opening. The previous chef was considered avant garde for the area. He was not only forced to simplify his menu, he started compromising his vision and decided to leave. The focus now shifted to small plates, thanks to the former chef de cuisine of Suzanne Goin's revered A.O.C. Coincidentally, it was the last place I recall ordering any.

L is excited to go over the most recent additions with us. We nod, smile, and think to ourselves, "OMFG. This is going to be one tasty meal" Let's get started.

As much as I crave charcuterie, I allow myself to expand my palette to their other specialties. Note to self: must order the artisinal salami and four cheeses with marcona plus jam NEXT time. Fried baby artichokes are bursts of flavor. I discovered my new adoration of fennel. Do you have any idea how tasty fried chickpeas are? Better than edamame.

D and K help themselves to an order of halibut in black rice polenta, ramps, and spring onions. I go ahead and savor my farrotto grains cooked risotto style with mushrooms and pecorino. The table is silent except for the clink of utensils.

Scallops pay a visit with blood oranges, pea tendrils and almonds. These are not your run-of-the-mill mollusks. They are big for a small plate. It left them wanting more. English peas imparted their sweetness onto ricotta gnocchi and hint of curry.

The signature Mesa burger is accessorized with gruyere, carmelized onions and house frittes seasoned with rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme. While it may sound like they went heavy handed on the herbs, this pair did not overpower our taste buds. It was actually a bit mild to us.

I must pause to comment on the room. One wall is literally covered in ivy and streamlined seats. Seen only at Bastide, I think the 'texture' is genius. A single communal table holds one sizable dinner party. Booths occupy half of the space. The rest is undeniably cool, particularly if you are needing some air. Thanks to a retractable roof and efficient HVAC, cigarettes are welcome. They've even added the option of literally dining beneath the stars. Top that off with a nifty wine dispensing system that is also proudly displayed at Marche Moderne. This is a stellar combination.

We're back to discuss the talk of our table: duck sausage crepinette. L describes in a hushed tone that it resembles "a big meatball", but should not be using such analogies. For as long as I've been dining on duck, I have not been so impressed until this evening. Savory. Juicy. It is a pinnacle moment. I forgot to mention the duck fat fries that accompany. You heard me.

Before I can even look at dessert it is time to take a breather. A brisk stretch across the room and I encounter the Twilight Zone. Overhead, a film is projected onto the wall. On either side is a line of nondescript doors. Their only distinguishing feature, a red or green glow above their entry. A bit intimidating at first glance, I make my decision and reach for a handle. West Elm sleek meets private jet lavatory in this modest compartment. A bath all to yourself, and not having to share a mirror? Open waiting space, a warming fire, and not feeling envious of men's room availability. Priceless.

We order five desserts, and are comped for three. Our initial round of Persecco and additional white are also removed. We are surrounded by sweets, two of which aren't even offered yet. I would feel guilty to discuss such richness, but I am not shy about the brown sugar cupcake or dulce de leche bread pudding. Buttermilk ice cream is unorthodox in my book, but I make an effort to give it a go. Their grown up sundae is an updated classic featuring cashew brittle, Jameson toffee and toasted cashews. A foursome of tea presses and two and a half hours later, we are ready to call it a night.

Thank you, Mr. Swift for saving us the trouble of going the extra hundred plus miles for a dining journey. We won't be back soon enough.

725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa
* Come on, I'm not divulging everything.