Thursday, February 24, 2011

Five Places I Recommend for OC Restaurant Week

Why? I love these restaurants year-round. They provide good service, a solid menu, and a comfortable setting...and their OCRW menu is worth a visit.

Any of the Marc Cohen trifecta: 230 Forest in Laguna Beach, Opah - Seafood Grill in Irvine and Aliso Viejo, Watermarc in Laguna Beach

Chef Cohen knows his stuff, and it's apparent when you come here. While I live closer to one of the Opah's, we prefer Watermarc for its secluded dining room upstairs. I should note that Opah has undergone a bit of a transformation (for the better, of course), so don't be surprised. All three Restaurant Week menus feature specials reflective of each establishment.

Memphis at the Santora in Santa Ana

While I love the location of their original in Costa Mesa, it's just super crowded there (are you seeing the trend?). Get the same excellent cuisine in a prettier locale. Perfect before coffee at Gypsy Den or a drink at The Crosby. Parking structure and street parking are very available in the evenings.

Catal at Downtown Disney

The first of two Patina Group favorites. First off, you've already got five hours of free parking, assuming you remember to validate after the meal. That means walking it off in one of the safest places in Orange County (can we say Fox Patrol?) Servers are welcoming, just like the cuisine. Here is your date nite option.

TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea

You're in North County, you say? Okay, I can dish out a rec there. Go to this family-owned seafood joint where their portions are reasonable and the vibe is casual. Kind of the original House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer, but with a better decibel level and more family friendly.

Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa

My other Patina Group fave is across from my favorite mall, South Coast Plaza. Don't let its attachment to Westin detract you -- this is lovely hotel dining. While maybe a little formal, I'd rather have this than the opposite end of the spectrum. Call this your affordable business meal, before drinks.

Now go book your reservations, stay warm and dry, and enjoy the good deals. And for all things Orange County Restaurant Week, here's their official link.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valentine's Day 2011 - Xanh Bistro

After years of planning our mid-February plans as early as December, this was the first year we were stuck. Couldn't agree on anywhere. Time was running out. He wanted upscale Asian, but I learned the hard way there was a direct correlation between the decor of an Asian establishment and the quality of food served. So I used a lifeline and contacted a friend. He recommended Xanh Bistro.

We arrived in Fountain Valley amid rush hour traffic feeling a little flustered. Fortunately, we found our location without any trouble and were seated in moments. Tucked in a far corner of a vast strip mall, Xanh is the quintessential hidden gem. A clean, well-lit place where the kitchen kind of juts out into the dining space, blockaded by countertop and a barrier of shiny appliances. This doesn't matter, though, as our furnishings are of dark, finished woods and (dare I say) comfortable chairs. Cool green accent walls keep things light -- almost spa-like.

With the full menu at our disposal, our hearts settled on khai vi thap cam (a.k.a. the appetizer sampler). A trio of their best bites arrived at our table, along with a spouted glass vessel containing the savory "house sauce". Crispy wontons were punched with flavor by a topping of pineapple chutney. Chicken skewers, a seemingly simple appetizer, is somehow made tastier than I can ever remember having. If infusing foods with lime leaves is this delish, then everything should be prepared this way. An innovative twist on cha gio, the yam cake wraps resembled sweet potato fry clusters studded with crunchy shrimp. Cocooning these bundles in mint and leaves proved to be quite the challenge. Dipping melded all the flavors and textures into one messy, chewy, happy handful. In addition, he got the crispy tofu squares, which I loved. I ordered a cup of the mustard greens and chicken dumplings soup, which he loved. Go figure.

Despite the extensive menu of specialty items, our tastes that night were relatively simple. We each settled on a bun/rice noodle bowl. Mine was a grilled pork with egg roll, his was grilled fish and shrimp. Both sat atop a bunch of lettuce leaves and were garnished with an array of cucumber, mint, daikon, carrot, peanuts and onion flakes. With so much stuff, you'd think this sounded very kitchen sink. Wrong. The binder was (again) the umami-ness of "house sauce" that translated the many individual flavors into a cohesive taste. Our noodles almost drowned in it, creating a soup more than anything else. While I primarily consume processed pork, (i.e. Spam, sausage), this renewed my faith in the art of grilling.

Our plates were filling without being heavy. Chef Haley finds beauty in the simplistic. Her specialty is taking a known entree and improving it through superior execution. This corner find could use some wall shades to mask the slate walkway and vacant storefronts next door, but overall, Xanh was our exception to the correlation.

Xanh Bistro

16161 Brookhurst Street

Fountain Valley, 92708


closed Tuesdays

Visiting food blogger: Flat Stanley

(Backstory: Flat Stanley was sent to be by my nephew Ryan. I was asked by both him and his teacher to show Stanley around during his visit. I decided it was about time Stanley became a foodie. This is his blog post.)

Dear Ryan,

Things are great here in Southern California. Your Auntie Anne has been a cool host. We've been to Knott's Berry Farm, Downtown Disney, and a LOT of places to eat. I thought you would like to see some of the places we visited.

In the first photo above, I'm having a BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato) sandwich at Sonic. Did you know you can get tater tots here? The drinks are great too. LOTS of flavors to choose from.

Anne and I were invited to a preview of a new place called Taco Asylum (that's a place for crazy people). The chef put crazy things inside of tortillas. This taco had pork belly, carrot, daikon (like a radish), onions, and cilantro.

You can see on the right our visit to Knott's Berry Farm. Uncle Jack was with us, but he's taking the photo. Did you get my Snoopy postcard from here? I was not tall enough to ride the roller coaster, but we walked around and shopped.

This was our dinner place after Knott's. Did you know Japanese curry is different from Indian curry? It's not as spicy. I couldn't finish my dinner, so Auntie Anne ate the rest.

My last meal was at a place called Kimera. It was next door to the Google building (where you can search for ANYTHING). Erin, our bartender, said the doughnuts were great, so we ordered them. She was right! The chocolate sauce tasted the best with them.

Thanks for letting me visit Auntie Anne. She hopes you can visit too this summer!

Reasons for nearly falling off the face of the Earth

Well, the big one is the fact that I am working again. A year-and-a-half later, I'm finally doing what Mr. brekkie fan wanted by doing something I'm passionate about: Blogging about food.

I've read OC Weekly for years, ever since I moved to Orange County in 2001. I'd scan the articles, but usually I was looking for recommendations on places to dine at. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to contribute my thoughts *and* get paid for it.

The blog is called Stick A Fork In It, and the team I joined is a group that I'm flattered to be associated with. Gustavo, Edwin, Dave and Shuji (a.k.a. "The Mexican", elmomonster, Das Ubergeek and Professor Salt) have their own thoughts about food, but we all share a love for it. I could go on and on about these guys, but I know their respective posts speak for themselves.

This does NOT make me an expert on food in any way. I know what I like, and I write about it. SAFII is a medium to share the random bits of information I come across during the course of my day. Brekkie fan's blog will focus on things that might fall outside of my OC Weekly guidelines. Actually, I would love to go back to my myspace roots and really start reviewing again. Alas, I don't know if I can.

I wanted to apologize for letting this fall by the wayside while I figured out how do work from home (a really foreign concept for me). I plan to make up for it....just as soon as I do one more thing. If my brother happens to be reading this, JR - Auntie Anne the Pretzel Lady is gonna make it up to Ryan now. Hope his teacher can show it in class.