Monday, August 19, 2013

Hanging Out with MasterChef's Howard Simpson

Via his Twitter profile (MC4Howard):

 "I'm a combat veteran living in Southern California. I love food, I love wine and I love cooking for my friends!!" Howard Simpson is a San Diego transplant now living in Orange County. So it was fitting to end up at CUCINA Enoteca, another SD transplant, for our interview. Eliminated from MasterChef, we grilled him out on the patio as he inhaled his Brandt Farms burger [Note: Made with braised short rib and Fiscalini cheddar. Needless to say, he loved it.] and Moretti beer. We chatted about hospitality education, his current employer and that Ramsay character.  

What are the differences between the dining scenes in San Diego and Orange County?
I think the Orange County dining scene is growing and has a lot of potential. It's not established yet, but I think it's getting there. There is so much opportunity to grow. Everything is developing. San Diego has kind of been established, and now we're kind of tweaking things. Right now, I feel there's two categories of eating. You have your upscale dining, which seems like Sol and Cannery-- all of these $150 dinners. And then you have your hole-in-the-walls. There are no medium, casual dining places that are not chains. In San Diego, we have this place called Ocean Beach Noodle House. They have live entertainment and microbrews on draft. Yeah, you can go and get hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese food. But you get that idea and bring it into a atmosphere near the beach, with a young crowd and different cultures.  

Let's discuss your time serving.
I spent three years in the US Army, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington. I was in the infantry, so I spent 12 months in Afghanistan. I was an assistant machine gunner on a machine gun team. I finished out my contract, got out and went straight to hospitality school.  

Where are you going for hospitality school?
I was going to the Art Institute in San Diego. But now I transferred to the Orange County campus. I started in July for food and beverage management.  

Was MasterChef what you expected it to be like?
Yes, it was. I didn't think I was going to make it as far as I did. I was just happy if I had just gotten an apron. I didn't grow up cooking in a kitchen. I just like cooking for fun. To have someone say I'm one of the best home cooks in America is the most flattering comment I could ever have. I could die tomorrow, and I've served in a war and worked for the best chef in the world at 26. All I need to do is have a kid and buy a house, and the American Dream is over.  

Have you met your cooking inspiration, Brian Malarkey?
Yes. I worked at his catering company, called Campine Catering. I interned there for about a year. I'm a fan of his reputation, his food and his success. He's where I want to be at his age.  

Where have you eaten since you moved here?
My favorite place is Charlie Palmer, so far. I've been to Cannery, 3-Thirty-3, EN Sushi. I haven't found a good ramen place yet. I heard about the one in a market, but I don't want to go to a market to get ramen. I love seafood curry ramen.  

What was the hardest challenge?
The first mystery box, which should've been the easiest because it was a lamb challenge. I started by making a lamb roulade and I put a cranberry lime relish inside and rolled it up. Then I made a bell pepper frittata. So I had my plate, and I put my relish down. Then I get the frittata, cut it out and I stack it. I butterflied the lamb loin, put the relish inside, rolled it up, put it on foil and baked it. I put that on top of the frittata and drizzled jalapeno honey on it. It was so good, and they didn't show it.

The next challenge was "chocolate, bacon, tomato, potato." In my head, I thought frittata-- breakfast. This is a show about creativity and individuality. I didn't want them to think all I could do was frittatas. So I decided to do something crazy. I did a potato scramble stuffed in a tomato and chocolate-covered bacon. But I was so scattered with my ideas that I didn't season the chocolate or do a double boiler. And the girl behind me did a frittata. They loved her dish. That's how I got eliminated.  

Where are you working these days?
I was recently hired at Pelican Hill to take care of the private villas and bungalows. They're one of the finest resorts in the world right now, so it's nice to be a part of that. Even though I was on MasterChef, I'm a front of the house kind of guy.  

How did you learn about MasterChef, and what did you learn from the show?
I had been cooking for my girlfriend for a few months straight, all the time. And I always had my old roommates try stuff. They were cooking frozen stuff from a bag, and I'm making things like ceviche. My roommate came home one day and said they were doing a casting call. He told me to try out. So I made a dish that represented who I was. My ingredients were all organic and local to San Diego. I got halibut that was caught off the coast from Point Loma Fish Market. I made a citrus ceviche with cucumber slices. Out of 30,000 applicants, I made it to the top 100. And then I made it to number 15 before I was eliminated.

If you think you're a good cook, you definitely get checked at the door when you go to MasterChef. Gordon Ramsay cooked in front of us a couple of times. To see a Michelin-starred chef and the way he performs, he just uses pans and olive oil. I thought I was horrible. I have no idea what I'm doing. But at home, when you're cooking for your friends and roommates, you look like a Michelin-starred chef.

I'm a big fan of Gordon's YouTube channel. I watched how to cook scallops, and then he cooked them for us. I had the YouTube video in my head. He put the scallops in a circle, grabbed the seasoning, put his hand out and seasoned them from a distance. He then heats the pan up, adds olive oil, sets them up at 12 o'clock, and goes all the way back around. By the time he drops the 11 o'clock and flips it over to 12, it's 90 seconds on each side. Takes them out. Done. Perfect.  
What do you want people to know?
I'm new to Orange County. I'm exploring the culinary world that Orange County has to offer. I would love to be welcomed into anyone's restaurant. I would rather wear a suit than a chef's coat. I have an amazing palate, and I have a strong opinion. I'm encouraging any restaurant owner in Orange County to invite me for a tasting.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I'm typically the warmest person in the room, so searching for heat isn't really a priority for me. However, when I can get a little entertainment with my meal, then fire is most welcome. Here are some places where I love to watch them light it up.

For the Blue Light Special: El Corazon

How about some flaming tequila with your coffee? This one-man show offers the most options in addition to your after dinner drink. Frangelico, Kahlua, and Kahlua & Baileys can all be incorporated with your heated tequila in a flourish, as you can see from our model. One of their signature items, El Corazon is less about dining and more about socializing with margarita in hand. Unless you order Mexican coffee-- then look forward to the scoop of vanilla this balancing act will be poured over.

This reminds me of Independence Day sparklers. One of two table side treats, the other being an old school Caesar, Kierney (our server) presents a dazzling performance known as their hot chocolate. The Catch dessert starts off innocently enough, then blazes into a fireworks spectacular worthy of neighboring Angel Stadium, thanks to creme de cocoa and Bacardi 151. Coated in salty/sweet flavors, walnuts, caramel and chocolate protect vanilla bean ice cream. A nifty shaker of cinnamon allows for a good 15 seconds of Instagram video fame.

In this throwback to Old World cuisine, classic Italian specialties appear in their dark, cozy dining room. My preferred antipasti is hot stuff, as shown above. I was initially nervous at the proximity and height of our towering seafood inferno. However, he deftly prepared our shellfish, finishing with citrus and herbs. What I liked most was watching the dish come together from start to finish.

Sushi Dave sums it up best when he updates his status with, "Hot women and cold fish." From our awkward visit to The Venetian to his chef interview, it is apparent that David Fernandez knows sushi. Those that dine upstairs agree one of his best is the salmon lime roll: a creation of crab and avocado, topped with salmon and slivered lime. The final step is a brief torch of canned heat, intensifying the flavors. Of course, no discussion of Dave is complete without pitching his infamous jalapeno sauce. His all-purpose condiment is on the verge of something big-- it's just a matter of time.

Alcohol and flames give me flashbacks of St. Elmo's Fire (Don't ask if you don't know). Watching the ARC gang wield its powers for good is magical. Patrons are treated to seasonal vegetables, dips that unintentionally commingle and memorable cocktails. Libations such as Fighting Chance or Cigarettes & Coffee are embraced by counter culture, as gentlemen infuse smokiness and other nuanced flavors into liquid nourishment. At ARC, it's all fire, all the time.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Din Tai Fung Artist Renderings of South Coast Plaza Locale

Arguably our favorite shopping destination, South Coast Plaza's announcement to bring in dumpling house Din Tai Fung can be summed up in a word: Impressive. Sold around the globe, there are only three in the US-- two in California and one in Seattle. While we don't possess time travel or Smell-O-Vision technologies, we did acquire intel which may cause you to involuntarily salivate (at least it made us crave soup dumplings). Let us amuse you with a few artist renderings, quotes on the expansion and excerpts on corporate philosophy.

Service: At Din Tai Fung, we put the customer's needs first. This is both what we aim to deliver and strive to achieve. Our highest expression of our service philosophy is to meet customer's expectations before they have even voiced them.

If you're wondering exactly where this exterior entrance is located, the glimpse of parking structure on the right should tip you off. This is the former McDonald's parking area. Street level when you approach, but second floor dining upon entry, floor-to-ceiling glass windows will not only allow natural sunlight into the space (perfect for food photography), but pedestrians will have a full view of what they are missing from their day.

Per Werner Escher (Executive Director of International Markets), "Dining has always added luster to South Coast Plaza's collection of luxury of and designer retail and another reason to extend the visit. The addition offers the option to enjoy yet another ethnic cuisine."

Quality: We expect the highest standards in our production process. Everything from the selection of the raw materials, the processing of ingredients, the flavoring and cooking as well as table service must meet the strict standards that we set for ourselves or they won't be delivered to the customer's table. We are constantly seeking new improvements. Every step of the process must be quantified, all production methods standardized, our service friendliness personified, the management systemized, our techniques modernized and all personnel properly trained and educated. Only then can we maintain the superb quality of our product.

While food quality is at the top of our list when it comes to our dining experiences, I rank ambiance immediately after. Because sitting down to a meal is about the experience. It's how comfortable our seat is, whether the server refilled our beverage without us asking and the cleanliness of the restroom. Situating themselves at SCP sets the bar higher than if Din Tai Fung invaded a plaza in Irvine. Expectations will need to be met to keep up with the caliber of existing restaurants such as Marche Moderne and Leatherby's Cafe Rouge.

Beverly Hills architect-designer Anthony Poon quantified many of his detailed renderings. Maximum headroom will peak at 225. Broken down, this includes 25 in the exterior patio, 175 in the primary dining space and another 25 seated in their bar and lounge-- a first for them. Strategic placement of their exhibition kitchen ensures passersby will catch a glimpse of the dumpling making process.

Poon said the design pays homage to the dumpling both as a piece of art and a piece of gourmet cuisine. The restaurant's construction pays the same attention to craft, quality, material and detail that goes into the renowned dumpling making.

Gourmet: What customers want is to satisfy their palate. And if this isn't satisfied, no matter how cheap the prices may be, the food will not be worth eating. At Din Tai Fung, we have insisted on remaining true to the original taste. When customers visit us again,  they can enjoy that taste again and be satisfied once more.

Placed across from Starbucks and replacing the original McDonald's space, DTF speaks of a philosophy that these two powerhouse brands thrive on. Consistency is what brings individuals back. They know what to expect and what it should cost them. A temporary loss of the fastest food will force diners to rethink where their time is spent when hunger pangs hit. This may result in an egress to a location down the street, or maybe just a redistribution of where monies are spent among the remaining eateries. I'm positive the amount of Asian tourism SCP attracts factored in, as well as overall multi-cultural population of the county.

Business: When Bingyi Yang, founder of Din Tai Fung, passed the reins to his son Jihwa, total quality management and improved service became catchphrases. What had been a small eatery was transformed through corporate management to meet international hospitality standards. This not only served to make Chinese cuisine famous, but also make it a world famous brand. Our dedication to products far exceeds our interest in profit margins. To us, our customers' expectations will always take priority over profits.

Members of the founding family, Frank and Joanne Yang, stated, "We are excited to bring Din Tai Fung closer to our loyal Southern California customers, and also to introduce our cuisine to a wider audience."

8,000 square feet will be transformed over the next several months. A springtime debut (April is their current delivery date) will breathe new life in a corner of South Coast Plaza. The foot traffic alone will cause a stir in our preferred parking structure. But that's a first world problem, and I'll deal with that when it happens.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gone baking: Checking in to chocolate breads class at Le Pain Quotidien

Photo by Dawn Eguchi Jan

I may dine out more than I cook, but I’m always open to acquiring a new skill. When I took my first baking class at Fashion Island’s Le Pain Quotidien last summer, it was pretty good (considering we knew nothing about baking). Head baker and former On the Line subject Jonathan Eng emailed me about some of their new additions to the curriculum. So I grabbed a friend and checked out the Chocolate Breads course. Here’s what we took away from our afternoon of pretzels, rolls, shortbread and baguettes.

1. The ingredients are as important as the skill.

Preservative-free bread is crafted from only a handful of ingredients, so the quality of each is instrumental in a fresh product. When purchasing butter, only select unsalted. Manufacturers don’t elaborate on how much salt they put in, and you can always add, but not take away.

Brushing a thin layer of egg wash before baking gave breads an attractive sheen. We eat with our eyes, so the prettier the finished product, the better. Gently rolling shaped dough in flour adds a rustic touch when baked. One might choose to add a sprinkle of salt, giving a depth of flavor going beyond our sweet tooth.

2. Bread is pretty gassy.
getting ready to score some loaves

Scoring, or slashing dough prior to baking our baguettes, was necessary for excess gas (the bubbles that form in bread) to have a way to escape. Otherwise, the bread would expand and split open in less desirable places. The most effective tool to produce a fine line is a scoring clip with its razor sharp edge. Scoring a single, angled line lengthwise produced an “ear” effect. Another option was two shorter lines that paralleled in the middle.

Do you devour bread just out of the oven? As tempting as it was, Jonathan and his assistant Scott advised waiting at least the amount of time that it took to bake before slathering butter and partaking in some chewy goodness. Part of the reason had to do with the process. Similar to cooking steak, bread needs to rest because it continues to bake even after you take it out. Also, the gases released are still present, and ingesting them isn’t recommended.

3. Baking takes endurance. And there’s a proper way to do everything-- even taste bread.
discussing chocolate brioche

The group stood for three straight hours on a Sunday afternoon. Scott and Jonathan typically begin their work day at 3 a.m. They win.

My fingers grew weary from gripping the pastry scraper to soften butter. Patience waned as we rolled out stubborn pretzel dough studded with chocolate chips. This was not as easy as it appeared. Combining ingredients, degassing and rolling out dough made class literally hands on.

When possible, they provided comparable speed levels (for those owning a mixer) to achieve similar results. A folding technique I learned was how to fold and seal dough with a fluid movement utilizing the palm of our hand. When determining whether bread is done baking, it’s easier for bread to spend less time in the oven rather than more, because you can always add additional time.

Reminiscent of wine tasting, there’s a certain way to taste bread. You start by sampling the inside, or crumb. Then taste the outer crust, since it’s generally heartier in flavor and texture. Unfortunately, all that tasting got us craving cheese and a bottle of red.

4. Baking is for everyone. 
Participants included a student taking culinary classes, a stay-at-home mom and home cooks in other professions. The baking experiences we individually possessed varied greatly, yet we were all there to learn. Our instruction from Jonathan and Scott was slightly intimidating for some of us, but they demonstrated each step to put us at ease. I could see this as a group activity for a bridal shower, or even something inspiring chefs (minimum age is 11) could appreciate. Of all their locations worldwide, Le Pain Quotidien currently has two US locations offering these classes; the other is in New York City.

If you’re interested in checking out a class, may we suggest starting with either their Basics or Biscuits, Scones and Shortbread Cookies classes. Both are great introductions to baking. After precisely three hours, our daily bread was chocolaty and we lingered, sitting down to taste the fruits of our labor.

For a schedule of classes offered in Newport Beach, click here.

** Special thanks to Dawn of Spontaneous Clapping for being the coolest classmate.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Waiting at the drive-thru window, I looked down....

Pork chop bun from J&J Bakery. One of my go-to meals.
 . . . .at my check-in options. Foursquare wanted to know where I was. Dare I admit that I'm getting fast food? How much do I care about what others thought? Did it matter? Hell if I know.

I asked myself why, being forthcoming about my college degree, contributing to an alt-magazine about food, whose significant other will throw down for excellent service (which normally equates to pricey meals), why do I choose this for dinner? Reasons formulated. Arguments countered them. I sighed. My old co-worker Marissa once remarked, "Why spend money on fast food when you can get something better?" She's right to pose the question, because regardless of your background, profession, age or otherwise, you don't HAVE to eat it.

There's a perception that because I've dined at Thomas Keller restaurants and appreciate molecular gastronomy that I'm pretentious. If you've ever dined with me, you've seen otherwise. Outside of photographing my food (because most of us passionate about all things culinary anything love to--so back off), I just like to eat. When I get frustrated, I put down the chopsticks and use a fork. Chicken wings and ribs? I'll pick it up and request a handiwipe later. Here's how I decided on a fried chicken sandwich, fries and a Coke.

The easiest is to blame my upbringing. But I won't. Our neighborhood was at the top of a hill. Two miles in either direction led to McDonald's. I didn't go there all the time, though it was our  default when fast food was on the brain. When I was much younger, payday for mom meant eating out, and we would alternate between pizza and fried chicken nite. Both were little celebrations: A night off from cooking for mom, and the allure of cheesy, greasy food for us. I ate mostly home cooked meals, though.

Salt. Like how people crave chocolate, I want salt. Surprisingly, I rarely add salt to a dish outside of a recipe. A pretzel is infinitely better than cotton candy. Fries trump cake any day of the week. And when I'm on my period, I don't fight my cravings. That would be mean, and you don't want to piss off a woman on her period. Period.

Convenience sounds like such a cop out. Maybe it is. But when you know how something is going to taste, even if it's bad for you, it's a comfortable feeling. It's easy like Sunday morning. It's the drive-thru. Yeah, I know calling ahead and picking up a meal from somewhere better is possible, but it's not always preferable. I was headed to the nail salon, and didn't want to deal with food after my manicure. 

If I went out for a sit-down meal every single day, it would drive me crazy. I get bent out of shape eating leftovers more than once. Variety is possible, so I have it. Saturday is our date nite, and we always dine out. Mid-week, we might convene over pho. But a fast food chain isn't out of the question for him. A blended drink, healthy or not, is acceptable and a change of pace for me. And if it's been a rough day at work, neither one of us will fuss over a stove. Bowl of cereal. Chips and salsa. Fast food. 

I'd eat this all the time if SideDoor made it for me (and I didn't pay for parking).
So I checked in.

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