Thursday, October 18, 2012

Backstage pass: The Bruery's barrel management warehouse

Searching for the perfect Black Tuesday sample
Over the summer, we learned more about brewing thanks to Matt Strickland, barrel manager at The Bruery in Placentia. Our fascination with beer has grown enough in the last couple of years that Matt extended an invitation to visit the warehouse he works at. Less than five miles from their headquarters, only a core group of employees and VIPs step foot in the building. Tastings here are special because most consumers never get to taste product directly out of the barrel.

During one heatwave of an afternoon (106?!) I arrive for my private tasting. It would also be Matt's last day with The Bruery, as he accepted an offer in his hometown of Nashville to work for Corsair-- an artisan distillery that's booming in all things absinthe, rum and gin. While I was sad to see him go, he was cool enough to guide me through all things barrel-aged.

An error in photo rotation, or the result of one too many tastes?
Only about 40% of their inventory is stored here. Everything else is contained down the street in stainless steel tanks that patrons get a glimpse of while visiting their recently opened tasting room. The warehouse itself is peaceful, except for my heels clacking on the concrete. Like one massive walk-in closet for beer, it's stacked high with barrels. I was reminded of my recent visit to Napa, minus the cavernous tunnels. The front room was pleasantly lit and air-conditioned, so we began our tasting here with Sour in the Rye and a sampling of next years Oude Tart. Matt pulls samples in a fashion similar to whiskey distillers, drilling holes and using nails to seal. He also takes care in sanitizing the area surrounding the barrels to ensure zero chance of growth outside of them. Our rye was recently brewed and tasted mild in comparison to the tart. A drain system runs beneath us, taking the place of spit buckets (who doesn't finish their beer?!) and acting as an "out" in the event of a barrel mishap. Before moving on, I shake hands with another Matt (director of retail) as he heads out for a meeting at their Provisions store.

My tour moves to the sour room, where all the funky bacteria is allowed to work their magic. Here we find some special batches like Christmas beer, based on the famous 12 days. I spot a few barrels of Four Calling Birds, set aside for special release to their reserve society. Matt explains how almost everything here is blended mixing some parts old and some new. Their goal is to create a flavor profile that is similar enough from year to year. Sometimes, adding a young component with a distinct character might provide a positive impact on a batch. Older contributions are upwards of two to two and-a-half years old. After an agreed upon aging period, they will go straight to bottling.

Charlotte, 1.5 years old
Smoking Wood is our next taste. At 10%, it is the lowest in alcohol, but the most difficult to brew. Nobody knows why, except maybe because of the large proportion of rye used. It's already a temperamental grain, despite being used in many of their beers. Typical brewing process lasts six hours; brewing Smoking Wood lasts anywhere between 10 to 12. Its flavor reminds me of backyard barbecues. In contrast, he pours their Anniversary beer. The gimmicky recipe is almost identical from year-to-year, matching the amount of grain to the year it's brewed. Therefore, this year's batch contains 2,012 pounds of grain. A tasty blend, the Old Ale style is our favorite of the six, tasting more like hard liquor.

This brings us to our final two selections. Matt wanders down a dimly lit aisle, selecting an appropriate Imperial Stout for the brew that would be known as Black Tuesday. Aged in Bourbon barrels for over a year, this year's vintage was recently bottled in preparation for its October 30 release. A name with dual meaning, not only is it a nod to the Great Depression, but also for the exhausting brewing circumstances it was created under. The final photo is of Charlotte's Beer, named after the daughter of founder Patrick Rue. A taste of this was a rare treat, since it will never have a public release. Created specifically with her in mind, this is held in eight brand new, American Oak barrels, and will age until Charlotte's twenty-first birthday. It began at 21%, but Matt predicts it will be upwards of 27 to 30% once she is old enough to taste it. A beautiful amber, it is strong with a smooth finish. Beer by definition, Charlotte's Beer was made with 51% corn mash to resemble bourbon.

Thanks to Matt, I have a new appreciation for sour beers and the process that parallels winemaking. I don't know if our paths will ever cross again, but it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.

The Bruery 
717 Dunn Way

Monday, September 17, 2012

Heart my pizza. . . .

This week, our freelancing duties found us sitting down with Sid Fanarof, founder of zcafe and zpizza. After the usual formalities, I kicked off our discussion with the usual, "If there's anything you'd like to add that wasn't covered in the questionnaire. . ." Well, Sid proceeded to speak for another hour. We're still pouring over the content.

Before heading to our desk job, Sid asked us to try two new dishes that are in the works. As zcafe is about to celebrate its first birthday, they want to continue to create innovate additions to their menu. I'll admit, I didn't use to like zpizza (their parent chain, 100+ locations strong worldwide). I grew up on very run-of-the-mill chain versions. I did evolve to Chicago-style, but alas, it's difficult to locate truly good deep dish (unless you're Tony's Little Italy in Placentia).

The z team creates a cracker-like crust-- not too doughy, but not so thin as Neapolitan.  Enough toothsome bite to withstand a few layers of toppings. On this day in particular, Sid was concerned about the crust. He explained that when there's a lot of humidity, the crust doesn't rise as high. You'll notice fewer bubbles around the edges.

Our first rustica flatbread was a take on a Margherita. Blanketed in burrata and basil pesto,whole mini cherry tomatoes are dropped down to blister, and a generous sprinkle of fresh basil completes the sharable plate. With each bite, the subtle burst of tomato juice releases enough acidic flavor to offset the creamy mozza. It is as lively as the flag it's modeled after.

Our second experiment was reminiscent of Olive Garden's attempt to plate salad on pizza. In theory, not a bad idea; but OG's was poorly executed for a number of reasons (one of which was choking on a forkful of both salad and pizza). Additional hesitation braced us when we opened the box and were caught off guard by the aroma of citrus. While this appetizer also included burrata on a cracker crust, the similarities ended there. Thin-sliced prosciutto, arugula, pear, an olive oil drizzle and lemony zest make for more of a salad to us. Dare we even try it? Of course, and with a smile.

This dish in particular reminded me of a realization I had about food. When it comes to a few ingredients (blue cheese and arugula being two of them), our palates are most at ease once aforementioned items are paired with at least one other taste. Steak with blue cheese, or arugula with sliced pears, for example. By themselves, ack. In conjunction, complementary. It's really about having the right pairing that matters. In this case, the salty ham, acidic fruit, peppery greens and fresh cheese balanced each other out. We were pretty impressed by the combination.

If you find yourself across the bridge at South Coast Plaza craving a casual bite, we suggest stopping by. The secret: park yourself in the outdoor patio on one of their couches. People watch, have a beer and just chillax. Just don't bug the Apple employees on break.

3333 Bear Street
Costa Mesa

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Irvine on Irvine: Robert discusses the city

Larger than life. Seriously.
If you follow OC Weekly's Stick A Fork In It, you'll know I've spent A LOT of time at OC Fair this year. Some would say too much, and they are probably right. Hey-- when you're given access to all things food-related for a month, try to turn it down.

I have a friend who has the last name Coto. When she would visit a real estate pal for lunch, my friend would get looks and whispers because office staff would assume she's associated to Coto de Caza (ground zero for the Real Housewives franchise). So when I first heard of Robert Irvine, I would think, "Does he even know he shares a name with a city?" As the opportunity to interview Robert came up, I knew this was my chance to ask. But to drive the point home, I procured an article of clothing from City Hall, just for effect.

Sizing was impossible, like his show, because, "I'm very thin here (waves at waist), but I'm wide here (gestures to shoulders). All my jackets are made now." I knew that would be an issue, so XL and explaining how I wanted it to fit comfortably around his (massive) arms excused me from embarrassment.

So did he know about Irvine the city? YES! This is his tale.

I went to a Ford dealership in Irvine many, many years ago to see the Ford DB9 [pretty sure he meant Aston Martin, but they're all the same parent.]. The only reason I went there was because I was so in love with this car. I didn't get paid for the appearance, just so you know. They flew me in, and they had this vehicle in a ball of water [only in Irvine....]. And I'm like, "You gotta take this out. I wanna drive this car.

They couldn't take the car out of the water because of whatever reason, but they got me a DB9 to drive. And if I died and gone to heaven now, I've driven it, so it doesn't matter. It's a once in a lifetime drive. 

And the t-shirt? He loved it, (to his agent) "I want an Irvine city. Like this one, though."

Naturally, the topic became him being mayor of his own city. "I wouldn't be a good mayor. Everybody would be off at 12, in the bar, drinking. But they would have to work out at 9 o'clock the next morning. No later than 9.

We can do that, Robert. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is it Sweet or is it Saucy? How about both?

After a dinner at Bluefin, Mastro's Ocean Club, or even Javier's, you may find the need to walk it off. Unfortunately, 99% of Crystal Cove Promenade is closed after 7 p.m. So unless you're browsing the slim pickings at Pacific Whey, finding sugar is as difficult as locating a parking spot. Melody Brandon saw the demand for dessert and launched her second Sweet and Saucy shop last month. I stopped by with my friend Suki before heading to a party for some photos and take-out.

While patrons can opt to breathe the ocean air on a sun drenched bench or shady table, our preferred seat is on the shabby chic sofa welcoming you upon entry. Flecked with pillows in neutral patterns, we almost mistake our setting for a tea lounge. As with their neighbors, the room takes on an airy nature from the whitewashed walls and natural light flooding in.

Be our guest
A feature not found in their Long Beach flagship: a refrigerated case where clients can request small quantities of chilled treats (as opposed to placing a larger minimum order when catering). Of the four shot glass-sized tastes, we salivate over strawberry shortcake and raspberry chocolate mousse. While they do remind us of Seasons 52's minis, we're pretty sure caloric breakdown is not taken into consideration.

Chill out
Vintage-inspired dishware somehow transforms otherwise trendy morsels into old-fashioned bites of nostalgia. Delicate lattice top caramel apple or peach pies and classic key lime tastes require no further explanation. On our diet, they all count as a daily serving of fruit. How pretty is that plate?


If you're still not convinced, peer towards the back of the store and find a collage of their features. Over a dozen publications showcased the delectables at one time or another. The table adjacent to us conducted a tasting-- probably based on one of the reviews on their wall.

For themed events, Brandon will do custom orders to your liking. Check out the petite Mason jars layered with red velvet cupcake and frosting. It coordinates nicely with her patriotic cupcakes. Not pictured were mini apple pies on-a-stick. Seriously. We don't joke about dessert.

Sweet and Saucy Shop 

7922 East Coast Highway, Newport Coast
(949) 715-0920


Monday, May 28, 2012

On the Line: Anne Marie Panoringan, Parts Two & Three

The holiday weekend winds down with a continuation of me interviewing me. This is probably too much information, but it's worth it for my friends coming up to me to say they've learned something new (or in one person's case, that they already know me).

And now, on to Parts Two and Three. . . . 

Part Two 

Boudin's clam chowder

When you're not in the kitchen cooking, what are you doing?
Working on one of my other commitments. Or seeking out my next blog post. 

Last song playing on your radio/smart phone/iPod:
I'm pretty sure it was a song by Nicki Minaj.

Where did you grow up? If you’re not from Orange County, what brought you here?
I’m a Bay Area gal. I transferred to Cal Poly Pomona to complete my degree. I thought it would be three years, and back home. It was quite the contrary.

Do you like to do anything besides go out to eat?
I have the shopping gene. And lately, I’ll sleep more than exercise. But when I’m out and about, it’s yoga and training for my first half-marathon.

Hardest lesson you've learned:          
How to take criticism. You just do.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Taking the 21A SamTrans bus to Serramonte or Stonestown to run errands or meet my friend for Boudin clam chowder in a bread bowl.

Favorite Halloween costume:
The hubby and I were Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. He wore an entire suit, minus the pants. I had a beret and navy dress smeared with cream cheese. Classy, huh?

What were you up to five years ago?
Doing facilities management for a financial services company. I worked with foodservice, engineering, security, housekeeping, and many other vendors. We had a 30+ acre property, including parking structures and landscaping. Over 2,500 associates relied on us to keep them comfortable. Talk about internal clients.

Favorite holiday and why:
My birthday. I pamper myself at the spa and plan wherever the hell I want to eat.
Last book you read or last movie watched; how was it?
A neighbor just emailed me Fifty Shades of Grey. It trumped my hard copy of (Bourdain's) Medium Raw.

When you use the internet, what’s on your homepage?
The Krazy Coupon Lady, but I think I want to change it to Anderson (Cooper); he is so quirky and oddly grey.

Last thing you looked up/searched online:
The lipstick Kristin Chenoweth was wearing; it was called Fire In The Hole. Can’t figure out who makes it.

Do you have any skills that are non-food related? What are they?
I LOVE to organize. And I play well with others.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
Maybe doing personal assistant work or event planning. I enjoy spending other people’s money.

So I know it's a cop out on the original questionnaire to not include a recipe, so in lieu of that I'm gonna do what I am comfortable with - answer more questions!

Part Three

Kitchen blackboard at Red Table

Food weaknesses?
Brownies. Bananas. Truffles (mushrooms, not desserts). Caviar. Risotto. Deep dish pizza.

Do you really hang out with Edwin?
It would be easier for me to say PSYCH -- It's Gustavo! But yeah, we sit down for a meal maybe monthly. I have a lot of respect for him, and am thankful for our friendship.

We hear you love music.
I have eclectic taste that's influenced by the people I'm around. My childhood was a mix of Casey Kasem's America's Top 20, KMEL r&b/hip-hop, and oldies my parents loved. In college, it was a mix of KKSF smooth jazz, young country and Japanese anime soundtracks (Robotech's Lynn Minmei has special meaning).

Nowadays I'm addicted to Alt-Nation on Sirius XM: Airborne Toxic Event, Cage the Elephant, Imagine Dragons, Chappo, Bombay Bicycle Club, Black Keys, Foster the People.... it goes on and on. Still love all things current, though.Oh, and we scored tickets to Young the Giant this summer. Yay!

Why don't you report on more hole in the wall places?
Mainly because the rest of the team does such a fantastic job of it already. And because Mr. brekkie fan has a thing for fancy places. 

How many times have you been to French Laundry?
Five dinners over the course of 11 years. Our initial visit was probably my first real experience with fine dining. And that's where the real love affair with food began.

Give us more chef dish!
Besides the fact that I couldn't think straight when interviewing Michael Chiarello? Louie Francis Jocson (Red Table) has this chalkboard in the kitchen where they had a list of people who tried balut. Awesome! Alan Greeley is a potty mouth, but since he's a culinary bad ass it doesn't matter. One guy chef totally dissed a gal chef as I interviewed him. Awkward.

Do you give a lot of restaurant recommendations?
It depends. I ask people about distance, price range and who they are going to be with. The best thing I can ask someone is what they don't want, and work from there. For a family chain, Lazy Dog Cafe. Affordable upscale - easily the prix fixe lunch at Marche Moderne. For Asian food, I refer a lot of them to Edwin's blog.

My approach is very 'big picture'. Seafood lovers would enjoy House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer IF they understand that it's not a quiet place, but you can't beat the location and prices; plus I'd remind them that it's mostly meter parking until 7 o'clock. A lot of factors go into giving any sort of recommendation.

Where haven't you been that you want to check out?
Well, I still want a dining companion for Pizzeria Mozza in Newport. I've done the LA outpost, and fell in love with sweetbreads and real mozzarella, just haven't done the pizza yet. There's a Thai place inside the OC Badminton Club that I'm curious about, just because I like the random combination. Hangar 24 in Redlands for a proper beer tasting. And one of Anahita's hidden dinners.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On the Line: Anne Marie Panoringan, Part One

I'm neither a chef nor restaurant owner. However, I did graduate from the hotel & restaurant management program at Cal Poly Pomona. I've worked for Disney, Nordstrom, and a couple of financial services companies. These days, I divide my time between a government job, OC Weekly food writing, TaskRabbit gigs and CorePower Yoga. 

I spend a great deal of time typing up chef interviews for the weekly blog and print series, On the Line. I don't copy and paste anything, because my junior high and high school typing classes would go to waste. With just about 60 subjects covered, I thought it would be amusing to turn the questions on myself. Granted, I'm not savvy in the kitchen. I cook simple things and love following recipes. This is how I would answer the chef questionnaire. (Note: I'm tired of typing right now, since my current subject wrote a novella. So how do I blow off steam? More typing....)

One of my favorite things - the OC Burger at Burger Parlor
Part One

Your earliest food memory:
Searching for Del Monte chocolate pudding cups (the kind where you pull on the ring) in my grandparent’s cupboards. They would hide them in the back with the pots and pans.

Favorite meal growing up:
Fried rice made with with eggs, soy sauce and whatever breakfast meats I can find.

Your best recent food find (from where?):
Cookie Monster ice cream from Lola’s in Huntington Beach. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Nuts. They add texture and another layer of complexity to dishes.

How did you join the food blog team?
I randomly met Gustavo at his chica’s store, The Road Less Traveled. He was covering for her, and I had always wanted to check the space out. I only recognized him from a YouTube video he did where he dissed Taco Bell food. We started talking, and friended each other on Facebook.

Fast forward how ever many months, and I receive a message right around my birthday from him saying that they had extra money in the budget. He asked if I would be interested in being part of the team. I was surprised he even remembered my blog. It was a no-brainer.

How did the chef interviews come about?
I originally started writing something called Food Profiling, where I interviewed chefs who created food, but didn’t run a restaurant – home chefs, entrepreneurs, farmers, etc. They just had to be sans restaurant. The powers that be decided that it wasn’t doing as well as it could, so Gustavo asked me to take ownership of On The Line – make it consistent (i.e. having someone lined up every week).

It’s not always easy finding people who haven’t already been or want to be interviewed. Once I find a subject, I come up with original content (I tailor each document with some unique questions based on online research) before I can email the list. I have to make sure our art director knows so she can dispatch an intern for a photo shoot. Then it’s a matter of the chef completing their “homework” and scheduling the follow-up meeting. It never used to be this complex. Before, it was the exact same list of questions, and the team would do everything via email. However, now that it’s also in the print edition, I’m expected to draw more from my subjects. 

I found the best way is to just meet and let the conversation guide us. I record the interviews so I don't miss anything. More often than not, I’ll get some great anecdotes or observations to use in my introductions. And it’s always great to talk about food with someone who is as passionate (usually more so) as I am.

We hear your degree is in Hospitality Management.
I have a business mentality, but feel strongly about service, so this was an ideal mix of the two. I started at USF, bounced between a couple of community colleges, and wrapped up at Cal Poly Pomona. It’s an incredible, nurturing program. I had to complete 900 hours of work experience as part of my requirements. We even spent an entire quarter running our full-service establishment, The Restaurant at Kellogg Ranch. I still keep in touch with alumni relations. I'm impressed that some of my professors still remember me by name. One of the managing partners at Capital Seafood graduated in the same class, and even he remembers me, even though we never hung out.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Mix of everything – between Little Saigon’s pho, foodservice industry giants who are headquartered here, and everything in between. I love how many ethnic grocery stores are within a five mile radius. And yes, I have to agree that so many chains (fast food, more upscale and celebrity) have made this their home.

What fast food do you admit to eating? Why?
I grew up on McDonalds. It’s so accessible. Filet-O-Fish sandwiches used to be a treat. It really depends on my mood. I tried a new item at Taco Bell the other day just because it piqued my curiosity.

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Nowadays it’s either draft beer or unsweetened iced tea. I drank wine before any other alcohol (thanks to Wine & Spirits class, where the prereq was being 21), but finally had my first Guinness a couple of years ago. I love craft brews, and am always looking at the bar menu for local ones on tap. I treat iced tea as a palate cleanser, but mainly I like it because I'm tired of drinking water.

Brekkie fan?
It’s from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. In it, he talked about wanting to open a restaurant that only served breakfast (brekkie). I loved the idea! If I was a chef, that’s what I’d focus on. Eggs, pork products, potatoes, French toast, and so forth. I can have it any time of day.

Do you watch any food-centric shows?
I used to be addicted to Food Network. Nowadays, I stick to Top Chef with the occasional Sam the Cooking Guy.

One food you can’t live without and why:
Eggs. They are the basis of so many tasty things. Sometimes I’ll make a scramble out of leftovers.

Where was your most recent meal? What did you have?
I was just having Happy Hour at Nieuport 17 in Tustin. Chicken Dijon bites, a mix of regular and sweet potato fries and a Moscow Mule.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Having your mise en place ready and cleaning as you go. Easier said than done.

Favorite interview subject:
I won’t even go there. But I’ve been fortunate that the chefs I’ve met have been very gregarious. I’veaccompanied Wing Lam in the carpool lane to conduct our Q & A. Hung out with the guys on The Viking Truck at Bootleggers Brewery and seen their entertaining interactions with customers. Listening to Bruno Serato talk about how important it is to feedhomeless children nightly was very emotional.

What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
Well, I’m one of them. The circle of friends I have who blog immerse themselves in social media. My peers are used to checking in, tweeting, and Instagraming; it’s like a ritual. Friends and co-workers used to ask me about where I dined and what I had, but I never used to photograph. It’s my way of sharing experiences, and they are entertained.

Favorite chef. Why?
Thomas Keller for obvious reasons. The man is brilliant.

Also Gary Menes. He just so happens to be my best friend’s cousin, but he has made an impact in the dining scene with his experience. Patina Group, French Laundry, and now his pop-up, LeComptoir. Gary can make me eat just about anything, especially the stuff I didn’t like growing up.

We hear you love Tasti D-Lite.
I used to follow a blogger named Michael Ausiello (he does entertainment news) who was obsessed with a number of things, Tasti being one of them. I just love the concept. When you get to the heart of the matter, it’s about people with control issues. Have things the way you want them. I’ll pay extra for that. Bananas Foster flavor rules!

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
It’s not really exotic in my opinion, but the notion of being coerced to chew on chicken feet was really disturbing at the time.

Sweet or savory?
Savory. Salty makes me happy. Sweet, not so much.

Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
I don’t have my own place, but I rarely turn down Loft Hawaiian, any good breakfast place, and dim sum.

Best meal you ever had:
Probably Per Se in NYC. I was proposed to hours before. The cuisine and service were impeccable. We got to tour the back of the house. It was an incredible evening.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
I started making fried egg sandwiches. Wow.

Friday, April 27, 2012

One week

I like recommendations. When it's from a trusted friend, you don't have to worry. When it's from a server, they've got the burden of anticipating your needs -- because let's face it, their gratuity is kind of riding on the experience as a whole. "One Week" is a song from Barenaked Ladies, a band my friend turned me on to over a decade ago. Typically I'm out and about, but it's not so crazed that it reminds me of BNL's music.

A year ago, I was trying to find my voice. Trying to write to the level of my "co-workers" (I use quotes because when I generally don't meet with any of them, I feel odd using the term). It took most of 2011 to realize that I need to stick with what I know, and not stress so much about pleasing everyone else. I want to report events, do posts that have (usually free) deals associated with them, and jump on topics that I find amusing. The team I'm on is exceptionally talented in their areas of expertise. I contribute what I can, when I can, and that's all I can do.

I thought it would be interesting to recount last week's events. Mind you, I never used to attend networking socials. I resist creating Pintrest and Instagram accounts, and have yet to have any personality on Twitter besides restaurant check-ins. But my association with the Weekly does allow occasional access to places your typical diner might not have (yet). In high school, joining student leadership was my thing; I worked on projects, and loved knowing about what's coming up before the rest of the school. So it's natural for me to gravitate towards things like previews. I still don't understand how everything ended up all in the same week. 

Monday: Slapfish VIP Tasting, (Huntington Beach)

Many friends I've made in the food blogger community were present, and then some. We were celebrating the launch of Slapfish, one of my top 5 picks for 2011 - a sustainable seafood gourmet food truck gone brick & mortar. Andrew and Jethro are as hospitable and charming as a pair of savvy businessmen could get. Chefs from other establishments were even there to show their support. The food scene in Huntington Beach became even more appealing that night. And the fan favorite: Chowder fries. Luscious New England-style creaminess poured by our Coolinary Trends Chef Bev over a pile o' potatoes. We then helped ourselves to generous amounts of chives, tomatoes and bacon for extra yummy measure. Between hugs and Allen Taylor group photos, it was the ideal atmosphere for social networking.

Tuesday: Chef interview at Palm Terrace, The Island Hotel (Newport Beach)

When the establishment is modest enough, I only have to work with the chef for an interview. Lately, however, I find myself cooperating with public relations/marketing/general managers/etc to secure a meeting. This instance, I met with the PR contact in preparation for an upcoming chef feature. Eventually, Chef Man (yes, that's his last name) sat down with us. I'm used to only spending minutes with most contacts, so to relax and share casual conversation is always welcome. The new lunch menu exceeded my expectations, from the pear and blue cheese flatbread to the chicken "almost slider" sandwich. The serene setting didn't hurt, either. You'll see more of chef in next week's On the Line.

Wednesday: TASTE Magazine Spring issue launch and The Iron Press preview (both Costa Mesa)


Orange Coast Magazine. Riviera. South Coast Plaza management. Me. It was the flip side of Monday. Instead of food bloggers, I was surrounded by the county's lifestyle magazines. It was an honor to represent the publication. If my editor wasn't on his book tour, he would've attended. Charlie Palmer even flew in from Chi-town to host the luncheon. Chef Sea Kyeong Kim's sweet parfait was featured on the cover of TASTE, and our gathering lunched on three other courses leading up to dessert. There was even a blind tasting of West Coast white Rhones. My favorite course (and Kat Nguyen's -- love her!) was the starter: an asparagus salad featuring a one-hour, 62 degree poached egg, black truffles, white anchovy and mache.

That evening, I met up with Bobby (aka 100 eats, 100 days) who invited me to check out a new eatery at South Coast Collection. The Iron Press, or as I refer to it, Bruxie with brews, was packed with curious diners. Now that I have a day job, being out late (yeah, I'm feeling old) was unusual, but I rolled with it and had a great time. When I go back, I'm definitely trying either the grilled cheese or tilapia sandwich.

Thursday: Ilegal Mezcal dinner pairing at Matador Cantina (Fullerton)


If there was an event that would kick my ass, this would be it. I interviewed Chef Dennis last year, but never had a chance to thank him for his time. Five courses, and Mixologist David Valiante's matching libations later, a brisk stroll through downtown Fullerton was in order. The most memorable course was the third: a short rib empanada. Simple in presentation, yet complex in flavor, its smoky heat permeated and cleared my senses....or maybe that was the senior peppar ilegal cocktail assaulting me?

Friday: Chef interview at Yogurtland headquarters (Anaheim), and finding sustenance (Santa Ana)

Wing Lam of Wahoo's offered to get me in touch with his friend at Yogurtland. I held off a good six months before taking him up on the offer, just because I got a lot of flack from conducting an interview with a restaurant chain. Seriously? Wahoo's gives back to the community and sponsors athletes. How many establishments can say that? And he even teaches at Chapman and Concordia. But I digress.

It was more difficult to see him than probably anybody else. Phillip was just plain busy. However, I did get a lot of information -- like their 2 new flavors, their returning collaboration with Sanrio and the news that they're moving to Irvine. Turns out I met with him at just the right time. On my way home, I tried checking out a new Italian deli, but time wasn't on my side. Instead, I went across the parking lot to The Habit Burger and feasted on a double avocado burger on sourdough. Minus the pickles, it ranked up there with Joseph Mahon's Burger Parlor (open your brick and mortar, already!).

Sunday: TAPS Fish House & Brewery blogger event, plus Merely Sweets and Green Bliss (Brea, Brea again, and Fullerton)

Every person who has ever tried Sunday brunch at TAPS swore by it, so my expectations were rather high. Turns out they were right. With over 100 items to choose between, Dave (my former co-worker and +1)  and I drank and ate our fill. I regret not finding the clam chowder until after my dessert course. Their beer selection was educational, and proved to be more appealing than any Bloody Mary or mimosa. House-made hummus and tasty jambalaya were unexpected treats. This was indeed one of the better ways I've spent a Sunday. Oh, and while it's not on their brunch menu, management started us off with their new sliced charcuterie. If you know me at all, this is a weakness.

Being in the northernmost part of the county, I made my mandatory pilgrimage to Merely Sweets. Diane is so sweet (pun never really intended) and her pastries are well-crafted. Typically, I don't order the same thing each time I revisit an establishment. Merely was one of the exceptions. Except this time, I found something even more swoon-worthy than my usual: banana pudding. It was so damn amazing I wrote about it.  Which reminds me, if you think of any great summer desserts, she's looking for inspiration.

Final stop, a new cafe in downtown Fullerton. I recently interviewed the women of Green Bliss, and Alexandra LittleJohn (Director of Coffee) got me hooked on their organic chai. Plus, the space is gorgeous! Our foursome found solace in the courtyard and chatted until the lazy afternoon decided it was time for us to go home.

And that was a rare week.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Getting the meat sweats at Umami Burger Costa Mesa

Yes. It's the last day of the month, and I have next to nothing to show for it on my personal blog. If you know me, you'll know that this was by far the craziest month....ever. There was the loss of a loved one (and getting drunk as a result). I co-hosted my first media event, which was well-received, thankfully. Made unexpected friendships with some great people. I even agreed to a radio interview and television segment. To top it off, I started a new job. Yes. This was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in 30 days. So what would I write about that related back to food? The general consensus is that we love what's new and shiny, so this morning I attended a media preview/soft opening of the trendiest chain to descend upon our citrus kingdom: Umami Burger.

Originated in LA, Costa Mesa is the newest in the privately-owned collection of savory, meaty goodness. SF got their very own last autumn, but we are getting three in a 20-mile radius before the end of the year ~ Laguna Beach is slated for summer, and Anaheim whenever they get around to it. Formerly Valhalla Table (RIP), it appears that some of the former tenant's communal furniture was re-purposed for this quick turnaround. A mural along one wall is an interpretation of the Umami story, with the ocean representing salt, the flowers sweet, and a warrior meant to kick all the other tastes to the curb.

For opening day, there were a number of things 86ed:
A) Craft beer and wine were not in stock today. They pulled a Mozza and are delayed upwards of a month.
B) They are not carrying Cake Monkey desserts. I miss my faux ho-ho *sad face*
C) The house specialty burger, Tandoori (with cucumber herb tzatziki salad and black beluga lentil spread), was not available. Who forgot to order the chicken?!?!

What they did have available, we approved of.

Many items are created in-house, like their American cheese that pairs with roasted green chilies in the Hatch burger. While only a couple of toppings, they complement the slightly sweet Portuguese bun and perfectly medium-rare patty to a tee. Truffled glaze and matching cheese surround their t-burger with richness that's nearly overpowering. Yet we cannot help but wolf it down. Our Manly version had mandatory bacon duty in the form of chunky lardons. Slap on smoked salt-onion strings and beer-cheddar, and I was ready to raise my pint of...oh wait, there's no beer yet.

Matchstick fries remained crisp from start to finish, getting a mild kick when dipped in jalapeno ranch. A teppanyaki tower of tempura rings tasted even better drizzled with their signature ketchup. The secret menu, made-from-scratch tots were infused with proprietary cheesiness and tasted fine when munched naked. However, I sided towards Umami's version of Irish nachos - double fried creamer spuds smushed and served alongside a generous slather of roasted garlic aioli, dusted with salt, pepper and herbs. Pause for visual.

On the sweeter side, retro pop options galore were a change of pace from mainstream sodas. Strawberry and plain lemonade puckered some tastes, but I was all about the simple, unsweetened iced green tea. If you order a boozy breakfast Coke float, prepare your senses for corn flakes swirled into alcohol-infused ice cream. Oh wait, alcohol isn't available yet....Instead, request some L.A. Creamery ice cream sammiches. Cool treats normally reserved for Diddy Riese lines, the sandwiched dairy courtesy of Straus Organic.

Long-term plans for world domination include roughly 40 locations nationwide. Short-term menu specialties will feature a red Mole sauce simmered for a week. We suggest avoiding The Camp between 11:45-12:45, unless you have incredible parking karma.

Umami Burger
2981 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hanging out on THE RANCH

There's a strategy folks over at THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon have that gives them an edge: The element of surprise. Not only being the new kid, but situated by the train tracks (on the ground floor of an office building) your average diner would question its quality by this first impression alone. I don't blame them. But if it prevents visitors from ever kicking their heels up, I say you are missing out on a gold mine.

Once thru the heavy doors, one realizes that they're definitely not in an industrial neighborhood anymore. Where a patron might expect hokey, they receive handsome.  A welcoming warmth from our hostess, she leads us past expansive wine displays,  reminding us we are in a house Master Sommelier Michael Jordan helped build. Depending on your party, you could find yourself in the main dining area with a panoramic view of their expansive back of the house. Our corner booth is adjacent to the Carolina Room, an intimate space for formal meetings or special occasion. There's at least two other spaces, not including the banquet rooms they're completing on the sixth floor. This operation is a serious workhorse. 

Chef Michael Rossi's (wine) country cooking gives tribute to many a things lassoed and hung over a spit to roast, yet carefully incorporates thoughtful plates of seafood, greens and other fare. Our starter course includes their hand crafted sweet potato gnocchi. Lounging in a luxurious sauce of plump San Marzano tomatoes, braised Petaluma rabbit and Maitake mushrooms, my urge to lick the bowl was quelled only by my expert spoon scraping abilities. The rabbit was subtle, making the dish more approachable than it reads.

A generous portion of deviled eggs, which aren't easy to come by in these here parts, are tinged with sweet pickle relish and bacon made in-house, courtesy of pastry chef (and Michael's brother) David. Poufy popovers are slightly burnt on one side, but otherwise maintain their delicate texture and curious pockets of space within. Once dipped in berry preserves, they're almost dessert-like. Between this and their inspiring "wagon wheel" bread, I cut myself off before our next round. 

While the cowboy started on a platter of fish and chips, their house steakburger taunted me. You see, this was no ordinary patty. Four cuts of beef made their way under the bun: sirloin, brisket, short rib and hangar. Each chew felt like a Man vs. Food challenge. My medium-rare meal rendered me helpless around the half-way mark, but I wasn't complaining. There were still the sweet spoils of dessert to ponder.

Nicknamed s'more with a twist, our attentive server (who we recognized/confirmed came from Studio at Montage) told us it was his favorite. Resembling more Rorschach test than desirable masterpiece, silky Cordillera chocolate braids adorned the center of my platter, dotted with fluffy marshmallow. An icy, yet mild scoopage of honey graham cracker cream was an inventive neutrality in a sea of hazelnut crunch. Playing with our food involved dragging our utensil around like a Zen garden rake, crisscrossing textures until we were content. His trio of ice creams included dulce de leche, malted crunch (Whopper flashbacks!) and an unbelievable popcorn version. Just a taste was akin to cramming a mouthful of the real thing during a matinee, but without the crumbly mess.

Despite a lack of oceanfront property, THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon embodies a certain nostalgia-- the old glory of Crazy Horse, a childhood of Hungry Hunter, even some college outings at In Cahoots. For a Texas 10 step (oh yes, I can) and draft, I'll go next door to The Saloon. When I'm done horsing around, THE RANCH ribeye and Cabernet will be waiting.

THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon is located at 1025 East Ball Road in the city of Anaheim, located on the ground floor of the Extron building. 
(714) 817-4200

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chicken Bowling

"Flame Broiler or Kush Bowl?" he offered, as my friend double-checked the Entertainment Guide I'd given them for Christmas. "There's a coupon here for Flame Broiler." Being the frugal bunch we are, why did he even give the option? Both locations were a five-minute drive. We've ordered take-out (but not dine in) from both at some point. It would've, no should've been an easy choice. Our factors were the following:

Time - By the time we make up our mind and head out, it would be noon. Did we want to go to Flame Broiler, where we suspected longer lines of chain disciples? Or should we support the local business and hope for the best?

Company - We had a 2-year-old in tow. Anybody with children of their own understands this trumps pretty much anything else. Would the little man (whose vocabulary of the quarter was the ever popular "NooooOOOO!!") remain in his stroller long enough within tight quarters? Exploring the larger, enclosed space of the second option sounded appealing in theory, at least to us. But would the boy approve?

Price - Typically this would end the discussion. I'm all for saving a few bucks. Ok, it could be because my friends know I have somewhat picky taste. Let's get something straight -- hitting up a fast food or drive-thru joint is fine with me. I prefer walking inside, actually (saves some wear and tear on my ride). I read about Kush last year and shared food previously, so they knew cost and quality involved. Plus, they were treating for a favor I did. As a 'guest', they exercised unnecessary politeness. I was thankful, but didn't need want to be the deciding vote.

Stay or go - In the end, we left the decision to the fourth person -- my gal pal and wife/mother to the males in our hungry group. She wanted to sit down and relax. It was settled. We were headed to the car wash.

There was no crowd. Only a couple of guys already seated, awaiting their meals. We ordered and settled in a table, as father accompanied son around the retail wares of floor mats and air fresheners. Soon after, our neighbors received their plates. Ties flipped over their shoulder and they focused on digging in. When our meals came, I was taken aback by the clink the square plate made as it was put down in front of me. I expected black Styrofoam, not dinnerware. 

At first glance it looked more Asian fusion than teppan. The flourished drizzle of sauce visually enhanced, not seemingly coated my meal. Thin carrot slices and a couple of broccoli florets found their way to one side of my square, grounded by cabbage. I opted for chicken and brown rice, and it was finished with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and spoonful of cooked scallion. All that was missing was the cloth napkin and glass of tea. Seriously. This was a chicken bowl?! It was maybe a buck more than where we almost drove to. I was eating with my eyes, and it bamboozled me.

Grumbling took over, so our senses inhaled the aroma and went to work on lunch. A pile of protein and rice is about as exciting to me as a ham and cheese sammich. Yet I was loving it. Wasn't just about sauce, but the dark meat mixed with oniony and sesame flavors played well together. They were having a party. And it wasn't just me. My friend, born and raised in Hawaii, remarked that it was some of the best teri he's had on the mainland. It validated my thoughts. I never expected to find fulfillment in a bowl of chicken, but I was won the car wash.

5890 Lincoln Avenue
Cypress, 90630
Here's their Facebook page