A lot of posts to come, including two adventures in Las Vegas. In the meantime, I gotta get settled down for school.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Things are going to get messy in the next week or two. I'm trying to add a sidebar on the right. Any advice, pointers, etc. is welcome!
So far I am able to get a sloppy working template. The problem is there is no distance between the left sidebar and the center post area. These two boxes somehow overlap...
I'm also going to see how widening the main wrapper would look.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Close friends know how big of a health nut I am. They know I religiously stick to my weight training and cardio regimens, and they also acknowledge my adhering to a strict diet formulated for muscle growth and tone. But, despite my strong discipline I am helpless when faced by my nemises--pies, cakes, and tarts. As a tribute to the old SAT I Verbal, Kryptonite : Superman :: Desserts : Roger. Desserts will mean the end of me. They cloud my judgment, strike a crushing blow to my health, and always appear at the worst possible times. Unlike Superman though, I just can't resist my Kryptonite. I suppose that kills the analogy, but you get the idea.
Taking advantage of the beautiful coastal weather we've been having recently, I headed down to Newport Beach for an afternoon jog along the coastline. It was a relaxing change of pace compared to my interval sprints on the steep hills of my neighborhood. As long as I was down there, I decided I might as well cruise around the area and take notes on promising looking restaurants. That's how I ended up on 17th Street in a desolate strip mall home to Cafe Blanc.
Cafe Blanc is a Japanese owned dessert shop specializing in Western style cakes and desserts. Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese pastry chefs do not make heavy, overly sweet desserts. The Asian palate is not fond of foods sweet enough to induce tongue cramps. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Cafe Blanc also offers gelato instead of ice cream. I tried to include the cute young lady behind the counter in this picture, but I guess she's shy. Pastry Chef Harase can be seen peeking from the kitchen.
The selection of cakes and tarts at Cafe Blanc was endless. There was something for everyone's taste: fruits, chocolate, coffee, cheese, etc. I am amazed at how much variety the staff was able to cram into the display (on the left of the gelato counter). To the amusement of the staff, I took a full five minutes to decide what to order. I wanted everything. I regret not being able to take a picture of their desserts for readers to see due to the glare on the glass. If you could see what I was up against, I'm sure you too would stand at the counter speechless and gaze with childlike wonder at Cafe Blanc's offerings.
I ordered three items to eat on the spot. Apparently, if you dine in, each dessert will come with a gelato paired by the staff to compliment the respective dessert's flavor. What a treat! Keep in mind, though, if you order more than one dessert, the staff will bring you the entire order at once. Good for feasting your eyes with, bad for the rapidly melting gelatos. Next time I will specify to have each dessert brought out one by one instead of on a giant rectangular plate. Plates are decorated with chocolate, caramel, or any variety of syrup, by the way. Very pleasing to the eye.
The cashier personally recommended this one, claiming it was her favorite. A great choice! The bottom is a very thick moist lemon cake, and sandwiched between the gelatinous raspberry sorbet is some sort of custard/pudding wrapped with whipped cream. The custard/pudding also has a lemony flavor. The staff paired this dessert with a scoop of cappuccino flavored gelato. Though the Florence is aiming to please citrus lovers, the acidity is well controlled and did not cause me to pucker up like a prune. I'd definitely order this baby again. It goes very well with the thick Miroir by giving my palate a quick breather.
This decadent dessert consists of layers and layers of rich, dark chocolate in various forms. The foundation is a thin teardrop shaped slice of solid chocolate, and above it is a multi-layered treat featuring two types of chocolate mousse cradling the dessert's heart of shaved frozen raspberry juice dipped in chocolate. The delicate outer layer of melted chocolate somehow provides this beauty with enough support for it to stand. A scoop of raspberry gelato is paired with the Miroir, my favorite dessert at Cafe Blanc.
In my opinion, the Japanese make by far the most delicate and exquisite cakes. Cafe Blanc did not disappoint. The cake, however, is not the traditional crispy biscuit. Instead, Cafe Blanc opted for the modern take on strawberry shortcake and simply substituted the biscuit with a soft, moist, spongy cake. I'm usually a stickler when it comes to traditional preparation, but I do make rare exceptions. This would be one of those rare exceptions. A well made Japanese cake is heavenly. Extremely light and airy while still maintaining substance, these cakes are a perfect example of how the Japanese borrow a Western concept and perfect it. I do wish the cake was topped with more strawberries, though. Of course, it would seem appropriate for a strawberry gelato to accompany a strawberry shortcake. I guess the gelato makes up for the lack of berries.
It was impossible to leave without bringing some treats home. I was concerned about the heat affecting my take-out box during the hour long drive home, but the cashier happily informed me that she could prepare a bed of ice in the box for my desserts to sit on. What a gal! I bought three more items: a fig tart, a mandarin orange tart, and a chocolate cake. The chocolate cake is not pictured because I ate it while sitting in traffic.
This baby was just amazing. Chef Harase had paired the sweetness of the figs with the saltiness of two small cubes of cheese (type unknown). It was a great tasting contrast. I plucked out the rosemary, though. I think it's only there for decoration. The brown bed the figs sit on is sweet and savory. I'll have to ask Harase what it is next time. I just can't identify the taste.
Mandarin Orange Tart:
Damned good tart. Like the Fig Tart, the crust was nice and crumbly. I'm very happy that the topping was not too sweet and maintained the flavor of a fresh mandarin orange.
I've eaten a lot of desserts in my time, both in restaurants as well as cafes/bakeries, and I have to give it to Cafe Blanc. Its creations definitely rival those of pastry chefs from esteemed restaurants, and are sold at half the price. Despite being an hour long commute from my house, Cafe Blanc is really worth the drive.
Employees at Cafe Blanc were very interested in watching me set up for the photo shoot. I even got a job offer to be their photographer!
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Western style brunch gets old. On those weekends when it's too late for breakfast but not quite yet time for lunch, why not give dim sum a try? Back in the '80s, Monterey Park used to be the hot spot for Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, and specialty stores. Immigrants and adventurous residents used to make the weekly commute from cities as far as Diamond Bar (maybe further!) for groceries or eating out. There simply was nowhere else to purchase authentic Chinese food.
Circa 1991, the Chinese community in Rowland Heights began rapid commercial development along Colima., thus eliminating the need to frequent Monterey Park. Two supermarkets, countless restaurants, stores, and clinics sprung up so fast that local American establishments recoiled from the sudden loss of Chinese customers. During this brief time period of commercial development, Hong Kong Palace emerged as the best restaurant in the area, followed closely by the revered Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant. Hong Kong Palace served the finest and freshest ingredients in a luxurious dining room, thus putting it ahead of its competitors. Its masterful chefs produced dishes so amazing that during any given meal, it was the norm for each party to wait at least 20 to 25 minutes for a table. On a weekday.
To this day, Hong Kong Palace is still as popular as ever. So popular, in fact, that they have significantly increased their prices. A pound of jumbo shrimp as massive as prawns previously priced at $30 is now $60. Hong Kong Palace has still kept the Buy One Pound Get Another Free deal, however.
Though my family used to be regulars at Hong Kong Palace, we have not dined there in over six years, partly because we have excellent cooks in the family now. Recently, we decided to pay our favorite Chinese restaurant a visit again, this time for dim sum. We arrived at 1:22pm (dim sum goes until 3pm) and were not the least surprised to find 11 parties already waiting before us. The wait wasn't so bad, though--15 minutes. Being no stranger to dim sum, we filled our table with each cart's goodies in no time.
Saying that my family members eat fast is an understatement. As a moderately paced eater who savors every bite, eating "family style" is a real challenge for me. Dishes I like are usually finished by the time I go back for seconds. I'm surprised I even had the time to shoot the following photos, a small portion of our meal that afternoon:
BBQ Pork Pastries:
It's not customary to start off a meal with a sweet item, but I defied tradition and had a plate of these flaky pastries sent to my table. These were simply amazing. Layers and layers of crispy buttery goodness. My only complaint is that there is not enough pork wrapped inside. Then again, I've always complained about the lack of meat at every Asian restaurant.
Yeah, it sounds gross, but keep an open mind and try some. Savory (soy sauce and a blend of spices) and slightly spicy, these chicken feet were very skillfully prepared. The skin and meat were not too soggy like in most dim sum restaurants. As a child, nibbling on chicken feet used to be my highlight when having dim sum. It's a very fun dish to eat and takes newbies a bit of concentration to get all the meat off.
Shumai and Fried Tofu with Shrimp:
Shumai is the bottom dish. It could have been bad luck, but this serving of shumai seemed either overcooked or has circled the room in the hot cart for hours. They were just too soggy. The taste was blander than usual, but I could still discern the taste of ground pork. A mix of mustard and chili sauce really helped improve this shumai, though.
Fried Tofu with Shrimp:
My family is a big fan of fried tofu, and we give this dish our approval. Each tofu is topped with very fresh shrimp before placed in the steamer. Frying anything automatically makes it tastier, and tofu is no exception. Topping it with shrimp and some sort of sauce makes it even better!
Egg Custard Tarts:
Egg Custard Tarts is the favorite of every Chinese kid who's had dim sum. Adults typically do not order this, but I had to feed my inner child. The crust hit the perfect medium of soft and crispy while maintaining its flakiness. Perfect! The egg custard was flavorful and not overly sweet to cover up any shortcomings. (Some establishments cheat like that.) I could polish off nine of these tarts. They are so damn good.
Pork Blood "Tofu":
"Pork Blood 'Tofu'" is not the official name. I do not know the official name, but my designation more or less captures the essence of this unique dish. Pork blood is somehow rendered into the form of tofu and cooked in a pork broth with Daikon radishes. Blood tastes good. Don't ask me how or why and don't feign a shocked look on your face. Somehow, the pork blood "tofu" captures the very essence of pork and then some. There is the meatiness of pork along with the slight sweetness of blood. Quite a unique dish. Adjacent is hot sauce for dipping.
These are the only photographs I managed to shoot during the meal. We actually ordered well over ten unique dishes. A real dim sum meal is lengthly, relaxed, and it is not unusual to go through over four pots of tea. You eat a lot of food. Though the dishes my family ordered were pretty good for the most part, we all agreed that something was just off. The dishes weren't as exquisite or carefully prepared as we remembered. Furthermore, the taste, though well above average, is just not as good as it used to be. Regardless, Hong Kong Palace still remains one of the best places in Rowland Heights for Dim Sum.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Fresh from China, these two peanut snacks really hit the spot for any nut lover:
The Sweet One:
I'm so sad this regional specialty did not survive the trip across the Pacific. Damn you, baggage handlers! Extremely delicate, this snack is made by folding countless layers of grounded peanut and (brown?) sugar over each other. The intact pieces were faintly sweet and flakier than...well...the flakiest pastry you've ever had. These strips of nutty goodness were capable of wiping away stress, career frustrations, and depression. God damn these were good. The idea of "comfort food" being able to "comfort" used to draw snickers from me, but recently this snack helped me through a very tough time in my life. Well. That sure showed me.
The Spicy One:
These are peanuts roasted with chili peppers, peppercorns that numb/tingle your tongue, salt, and a dash of sugar. At first glance, these nuts look capable of igniting an inferno in your mouth, but they are actually quite light on the spiciness. The chili peppers are not the main players in this recipe. In fact, it is the small little crushed peppercorns commonly used in Schezwan cooking that give these peanuts their character. Yes, you'll feel and taste the peppers' heat, but not as much as you'll feel the light tingle and numbness that sweeps across your mouth from this Schezwan spice. Have a drink of ice cold water after a few bites. The sensation will trigger the nerves in your mouth to fire off signals of pleasure. It's like shooting up, but without the physical addiction or health risk. I can't recall the last time I had so much fun with food.
These two snacks were a real special treat, and I thank my mother for bringing them to the United States after her vacation in China. I don't remember what city these two peanut snacks were from, but it is an eight hour drive from Shanghai.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
After seeing "Cafe Hiro" pop up in numerous blogs and discussions, I had to see what all the fuss was about. Cafe Hiro is well known not only among the online blogging community, but also to residents in-the-know around Cypress. Offering fine dining at a fraction of the price, it is popular with good reason.
Hidden in a discreet strip mall behind Chili's, this Japanese owned restaurant serves Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine among other international dishes in a quirky dining room. Seating is limited in the small restaurant room, but by no means would a customer feel cramped. The ambiance is warm and cozy, the work of pastel murals painted on three walls. Pictures of Cafe Hiro's unique decor will be featured in a future post.
Cafe Hiro was packed at 6:23pm on a Thursday night. Fortunately, there was a seat at the counter for me, party of one. Though it is a small establishment, reservations can be made, but my trip made on a whim. Service is friendly, though it may feel slapdash. Don't blame the two cute waitresses if you wait a few more minutes than usual for them to come to your table. In addition to normal waiting duties (taking orders, serving, refilling drinks), they also bus the tables and somehow manage to help out in the kitchen, adding finishing touches to each dish. Ladies, I tip my hat with respect for your efficiency and morale.
Placing my order was difficult. Every item on the menu caught the interest of my eager palate. Their prices also grabbed the attention of my wallet. The ingredients Cafe Hiro use are typically found in more sophisticated restaurants featuring sommeliers and servers who ask "Sparkling or flat water?", but here they were at Cafe Hiro at nearly half the price. In the end, I settled for crab cakes, seabass risotto, and panna cotta.
Each entree comes with a complementary salad with a Japanese miso dressing as well as the soup of the day, which was mushroom on the day of my visit. Plates of salad wait in a refrigerator before one of the waitresses pulls them out to dress and serve. I personally like my salad very chilled instead of room temperature, so the salad was especially enjoyable. The soup was thick and creamy, putting to shame anything claiming to be Cream of Mushroom Soup. Its heavy flavor suggests a great deal of mushrooms were pureed to make this soup. I approve.
Creamy Crab Cakes:
Though "creamy" is not a descriptor one would like to associate with a Maryland Crab Cake, this menu did not specify to expect the traditional Maryland preparation. I took a risk, and it was worth it. Fried a beautiful golden brown, these two large pieces were delightfully crispy on the outside while remaining, as its name suggests, "creamy" on the inside. Make no mistake, fillers were not added to these crab cakes to substitute the lack of meatiness. In fact, the taste of crab was as dominant as any traditional crab cake and Cafe Hiro simply saves customers the trouble of chewing. The Chef, however, seemed to allow small pieces of crab to remain intact in order to add some substance to each bite. Calling the interior "creamy" is an overstatement for it is far from liquid form. "Soft and easily chewed" would be a better, albeit unprofessional, description.
Sea Bass and Mushroom Risotto:
My impression was that I would be served a risotto containing sea bass and mushrooms. Upon seeing the actual product in front of me, I admit I was much more pleased. A generous sea bass filet was masterfully broiled, rendering the surface crispy while keeping the juices intact. As a fish originally considered too oily for consumption by Chilean natives, sea bass is heavenly when broiled at a high temperature and fried in its own fat. A tender stalk of my favorite vegetable, asparagus, added a bit of color to the dish. I don't know how Cafe Hiro found asparagus in August, but it tasted fresh.
Risotto is common fare in Italy, but it has inexplicably found a place in higher end restaurants in America. Cafe Hiro brings this hearty dish back to its humble origin and adds a Japanese twist--Shitake Mushrooms. Somehow, the shitake mushrooms managed to work with the European mushrooms to create a unified, well balanced taste. No flavor overwhelmed another, and I was able to savor the flavors of as many as four different types of mushrooms in this risotto. The rice was appropriately toothy and had absorbed the taste of the mushrooms. An amazing dish.
I bid goodbye to this year's Berry Season with my order of Panna Cotta. Eating panna cotta is a very curious sensation. The mixture of cream and milk with gelatin creates a dessert with the appearance of a soft creamy pudding but has the consistency of soft, delicate Jell-O. However, unlike Jell-O, panna cotta is rich with flavor. Served cold with a quick drizzle of strawberry syrup, Cafe Hiro's panna cotta was a refreshing conclusion to a meal during this summer's heat wave.
Look up "Bargain" on Wikipedia and you will find an entry on Cafe Hiro. Dishing out pricey ingredients with the skill of a chef from a higher end restaurant, Cafe Hiro's food does not reflect its pricing nor the cramped strip mall location. Moreover, the wait staff is phenomenal. The two sole waitresses essentially work four jobs simultaneously and yet are still able to remain genuinely cheerful and lighthearted. Because they are forced to multitask (an understatement), service can sometimes be slower than other restaurants. Bear with it. You'd be hard pressed to find another establishment with servers who treat you not only like a regular, but also a friend.
I tipped an unprecedented 25% at Cafe Hiro. That's how satisfied and impressed I was with these two young ladies.
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Finding good Mexican food in Orange County requires a drive over to the Latin American community down in Santa Ana. It's a totally different world down there. The streets are just awful--cracks and potholes will torture your car's suspension. Deep in Santa Ana, there is not a single gringo face in sight. It is as if you just crossed the Border. Think: Colima's Chinese & Korean strip malls. See: Little Saigon. But if you are willing to come this far, rest assured you will be rewarded.
I found El Gallo Giro packed on a Tuesday evening. Turns out, it is an extremely popular take-out restaurant that also does a brisk business in desserts and pastries. A bright illustrated menu covers pretty much all the standard Mexican fare we are accustomed to. And then some. I settled for a plate of braised beef and a Torta Cubana even though El Gallo's specialty is carnitas.
It is very helpful to have at least a basic understanding of Spanish when coming to El Gallo. The staff does not seem to speak or understand much English, thus forcing customers to speak Spanish. I initially attempted to order and ask questions in English, but that got me nowhere. Needless to say, the cashier calls out order numbers in Spanish, so stay sharp. Drinks are sold at a separate counter, by the way.
Mind you this is a hot sandwich, fresh off the girdle. Each bite is a meat lover's dream. Crispy beef, spicy tender pork, headcheese!, and fresh creamy slices of avocado to top it all off...This manwich makes me as happy as when I watch my baby Alizee perform. Yeah. It's THAT good.
It was so good my dining partner couldn't help but ask for a bite...then another bite, then another, and yet another.
Not shown in this post is the savory, ultra-tender plate of braised meat plus the complementary oh-so-fluffy tortillas. I dug in and cleaned the plate before I realized I brought my camera.
On the way out, I purchased my favorite pan dulce:
The bread was fluffy and springy. Its outer surface was a beautiful golden brown and appropriately crispy. The sugar on top was baked to perfection and not overly sweet. Hints of cinnamon were present, and some bites reminded me of horchata. I personally like my pan dulce extra crispy and thick/chewy, similar to how Las Brisas (R.I.P.) used to serve it. But, these guys make awesome pan as well.
With just one meal, I consumed a day's worth of calories, 2 day's worth of saturated fat, and an entire day's worth of carbs. Was it worth it? Hell yeah.
Friday, September 7, 2007
Small humble restaurants and cafes that serve spectacular food for under $10 are always a treat to find. Not only does it takes a bit of wandering to find these restaurants, it also takes a sharp eye to actually catch them as you drive past. But, most importantly, it requires your willingness to take a chance and give these establishments a shot.
At Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, Chef Em-Toni cranks out juicy kabobs and fries up delightfully crispy falafels in an exhibition kitchen. The menu is a staggering list of savory appetizers and various grilled meats. First-timers may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of available items, all of which sound pretty damn good. The aroma of grilled meat in the air does not make ordering any easier, the smell of kabobs really awakens your hunger and urges you to order half the menu.
The dining area is small, consisting of four tables (each seats five) and roughly seven seats at the bar overlooking the grill, which takes up a third of the room. Expect to rub elbows with the regulars. Take-out is also an option at Sunnin, and many customers opt for it despite the scarcity of nearby parking. Feel free to flash your emergency blinkers and park outside the cafe. After all, a curb painted red is meant for emergencies right? Nothing is more important than satisfying hunger.
Because of limited seating, Sunnin is packed during dining hours any given day of the week. Fortunately, most patrons are courteous enough to not leisurely eat and lounge after their meals. That's not to say you shouldn't comfortably enjoy your meal, but the line of people waiting outside are hungry as well. Hard wooden chairs do help the turn-over rate, however.
On my visit, I went with the basics:
Appetizer- Hummus and Falafels.
Entrees- Kebbeh Bil Sayniyeh,Spicy Kefta, and Shawarma.
Dessert- Understandably none.
My order of Hummus and Falafels arrived with enough pita to serve four. Hummus is a very common side order made with garbonzo bean paste, garlic, tahini, lime, and topped with a nutty olive oil. My appetite was increased two-fold after tasting Sunnin's hummus. It was fresh and skillfully prepared. The falafels were fried perfectly. Though they may seem overcooked, falafels have to be fried a deep golden brown in order for them to be appropriately crunchy. Falafel is a fried vegetarian dish made with a patty of spiced fava beans and/or chickpeas. It is commonly served in a pita with a dash of hummus, which is exactly how I had mine. These appetizers certainly did not disappoint. They even raised my standards for the upcoming entrees.
Kebbeh Bil Sayniyeh
This plate consists of grounded beef and burgul stuffed with minced beef, onions, and pine nuts. On the side are hummus, "Lebanese Salad," and rice. Interestingly enough, the meat tasted almost exactly like a Taiwanese braised meat dish. Unfortunately, I do not know Pinyin, but native speakers should recognize the phonetics "Lu zho fan". Kebbeh Bil Sayniyeh was leaner and heavier on herbs/spices than its Taiwanese tasting counterpart. Also, no soy sauce was used. It is amazing that two completely different cultures at opposite ends of a continent produced such a similar flavor with their own regional ingredients. Kebbeh Bil Sayniyeh was served as ground beef and onions sandwiched between two juicy patties. A taste of Lebanese as well as a taste of home (Taiwan) cooking...I loved it.
Shawarma is marinaded beef cooked on a vertical broiler. Sunnin's broiler was teasing my taste buds the whole time I waited for a table, so I felt compelled to order the Sharwarma. The flavor was amazing, but the texture was a bit too dry. Tahini did help to render each bite easier to chew.
Kefta Kebabs are made with ground beef with chopped onions, parsley, and seasoned with a mix of spices. Pretty good all by itself, but baking the kebab in tomato sauce and herbs makes it Spicy Kefta. The tomato sauce just adds more flavor, but is by no means spicy. Cilantro was used sparingly in the sauce, which to me is a plus. I'm not a fan of cilantro because personally I feel that the taste overwhelms the more important ingredients in a dish. Toni added just the right amount. The kebabs were so tender you would never guess that Toni uses lean beef. These were fluffy like a good meat loaf or burger paddy or any ball of ground beef should be.
With the exception of the beef shawarma, I consider this trip a success. I can see why regulars flock to Sunnin when there are so many other dining options available. Sunnin offers great food and friendly service for a paltry $4.75 per appetizer and $8 per entree. What a steal. I am definitely swinging by next time I'm in the area.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Ever since attending a friend's high school graduation party way back in 2004, I've been a huge fan of Indian and Pakistani cuisine. For many of the guests of that party was memorable because of the hip DJ, dancing, gorgeous high school graduates, and plentiful food & drink. I, on the other hand, remember the party solely because the catered food exposed me to new tastes and smells. Dancing with high school sprites wrapped in tube tops is good wholesome fun, but the food kept me occupied throughout the night.
Never have I let an opportunity to eat Indian food slip by. Recently while shopping and making myself available to the young pretty things at South Coast Plaza, I decided to drop by Royal Khyber for a quick lunch. Mind you, I had breakfast at 8am and it was 12:30pm by the time I made it to the restaurant. Friends familiar with my eating habits know I am a stickler to my 5-to-6-meals-per-day program, a necessity for body builders. I lugged my camera bag into the restaurant but failed to take any pictures of food because I was too gad-dang hungry to remember I had a camera with me.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Former chef of the internationally renowned Nobu chain, Chef Abe brings over his mastery to Bluefin. After leaving Nobu to open his own restaurants, Abe developed a distinctive style of sushi to meet the picky and fickle demands of Newport Beach. Chef Abe blends traditional Japanese cuisine with European flavors in a modern restaurant complete with an illuminated sushi bar.
Bluefin's greeter seated my friends and I at the sushi bar, which despite being it being lunchtime, was already lit. The dramatic contrast between the glowing counter and black waterfall behind the sushi chefs was very impressive. Almost equally impressive was their sake selection at the end of the bar. Bluefin carries some real high end sake. As usual, I made a quick scan of the visible slabs of fish at the bar as a preliminary freshness check. I say "preliminary" because it is now a common procedure to expose tuna and red meat to carbon monoxide, which prolongs the appearance of freshness. My concern was partially allayed from what I saw, all that remained was a taste test. Paranoid...I know....but seriously, after you've had Japanese at the places my friends took me to....you'd understand.
After dining at Bluefin, I feel stupid for every doubting this restaurant.
As mentioned before, I came for Chef Abe's lunch tasting menu, or "omakase," which is precisely what I ordered.
The First Course:
1. Prosciutto wrapped honeydew.
2. Shot of roe.
3. Lobster, Octopus, and shrimp ceviche.
4. Marinaded Conch atop of sea salt.
Ceviche is the closest name I can attribute to the refreshing mix of octopus, shrimp, lobster, and cucumber. I call it a ceviche because the seafood is marinaded with lime juice and parsley. All three seafood items were cooked perfectly. They were chewy without being rubbery, and the lime juice had not completely broken down the protein yet (completely broken down = mushy).
The conch was a very interesting treat. An uppity white lady next to me left her's untouched. What a shame. She missed out on a savory delight marinated with soy sauce and just a little bit of star anise. The texture of the flesh was much like a braised tendon of oh let's say a cow. Readers unfamiliar with this texture should try to imagine the flesh as chewy, but at the same time retaining a certain crunchiness.
The Second Course:
I wasn't too enthused about the salad, which contained my favorite bitter greens but also too much cilantro. I had such a fun time picking out cilantro...
The dressing is Japanese themed and made with grated onion, carrot(white), apple, and sesame oil. I also spotted a dash of pesto near the sashimi. I was happy to see that Chef Abe, like all good chefs, does not use a lot of oil in his creations. I don't know how the flavor of sesame was so strong without the use of a lot of sesame oil.
The featured sashimi were some great cuts and most importantly, extremely fresh. My palate confirmed my earlier observation of the tuna's healthy red tone. I was very pleased to notice that none of the slices of fish contained tendons or any connective tissue. It was great!
The Third Course:
Two generous slabs of grilled Red Drum Fish was presented to me as the third course. Coming from a Chinese family, I am far more accustomed to steaming this particular fish and garnishing it with a blend of hot oil, green onions, and a special soy sauce. Chef Abe's Western take on this fish was delicious. The temperature of the grill was controlled very well, evident by the crispy skin and moist interior. Only salt was used to season the fish, which is honestly all it really needed. The lobster sauce was very flavorful but did not interfere or overpower the fish. I also spotted some lobster eggs floating about. Score!
The Fourth Course:
No trip to a sushi bar is complete without having nigiri sushi! Chef Abe's technique truly shines in this traditional sushi preparation. Each piece was molded into the perfect shape and dimensions to facilitate dipping and handling. Furthermore, the fish to rice proportion was just right. Sushi connoisseurs are familiar with the fact that Nigiri sushi becomes cumbersome if too much fish is given. As good as Abe's technique was, the texture of the rice felt a bit off. It just wasn't "al dente" or "Q" enough. Texture aside, Bluefin's sushi rice is flavored pretty well, leaning a bit on the sweet side which reflects the Osaka style (that's what Wikipedia says. :P). From the great food that I've been served to far, I'll just assume that the overly soft rice was a fluke.
The Fifth Course:
Calling this a tiramisu is weird because it's quite a long shot from the traditional Italian dessert. It was a lightly sweetened Japanese style cheesecake with a hint of green tea. Very refreshing. Who knew tofu could be transformed into such a delicate dessert?
Bluefin's tasting menu at lunch is an AMAZING deal, in my opinion. Chump change at $30, given the quality and quantity of the food. Definitely will drop by if I'm around UCI.
Monday, September 3, 2007
Situated deep inside Disneyland's Grand Californian Hotel, Napa Rose is Disney's best kept secret right after the exclusive Club 33. Its seasonal menu boasts nothing but the finest and freshest Californian ingredients. While enjoying Executive Chef Sutton's skillful contemporary Californian cuisine, a diner can either place himself in the midst of the kitchen action at the Chef's Table or relax with company to a sweeping view of Disney's California Adventure theme park. As beautiful as the night view is, a towering glass display of Napa Rose's extensive wine collection steals the show tempting and teasing diners with the promise of a taste of Heaven.
Upon arrival at Napa Rose, I promptly asked for the Chef's Table and the greeter was more than happy to oblige. A sleek dark marble table complete with a foot rest (it's a really tall table) awaited me. Here, I could watch each of the different kitchen departments perform their craft.
Warm bread was placed on the table the moment I sat down and a menu arrived seconds later with the usual "Would you like Sparkling or Bottled water?" The tap's fine, thanks. After studying the seasonal menu for over a year, I was intimately familiar with the menu. Daydreams of the Seven Sparkling Sins and Chef's Tasting Menu had haunted me for so long...I placed my order before my glass of water even arrived.
Napa Rose serves artisan bread. That's fancy-speak for "Napa Rose bakes its own bread". I'm accustomed to finding no more than two types of bread in a bread basket, but Napa Rose overdid themselves by offering me four. There was a mini-loaf of French bread, four slices of a bread with olives, four slices of its olive-free counterpart, and two towering pieces of crispy flat-bread. In about five minutes I left no evidence of there ever being bread in the basket.
Both items were made from sushi grade fish and roe. The tartare was mildly spicy and the delightfully crunchy flying fish roe was a nice contrast to the soft tartare. The golden sauce you see tastes faintly like a sweet mustard with a hit of lemon juice. It wasn't very necessary.
After not having tasted hamachi for a good one and a half months, this amuse bouche really picked up my spirits. It was perfect. Kaiseki sushi enthusiasts know what I'm talking about. A good buttery slice of fish can really cheer you up!
Small 1-biters they may be, but these two items did what they were made to do--wake up my taste buds.
My appetizer came with a disclaimer: "Please allow a 15 minute preparation time for this signature starter, as it is made to order!" Behold! The Seven Sparkling Sins:
Allow me to break down its offerings in the order of Pope St. Gregory the Great's mnemonic:
1. Pride - I wasn't expecting much, but to my astonishment, truffled quail eggs > my killer home-made deviled eggs.
2. Greed - A lightly fried potato cake is garnished with a heaping tablespoon of caviar. More...more! I want more!
3. Lust - Cured Salmon lies on top of a generous lump of crab meat. I swear I felt a tingle in my dingle while masticating this smoky piece.
4. Envy - Smoked Sturgeon is stuffed into a crunchy little basket. As I took a bite, the gentleman on my left who joined me at the Table told me he is a regular at Napa Rose. Son of a...he must be rolling in it.
5. Gluttony - Lobster was served in a cute little tortilla cup and topped with red flying fish roe. Lobster used as a chip dip. Need I say more?
6. Anger - A thin slice of pickled Asian cucumber wraps around the Ahi Tartare. This piece, though tasty, I enjoyed the least. I already had a taste of the tartare in my amuse bouche and the pickled cucumber was a tad too sour.
7. Sloth - Pheasant is grounded into a patty and topped with tomato (sauteed with basil). It was as creamy as pate and barely needed chewing. Lazy pushes of the tongue sufficed.
Did I mention this $43 appetizer comes with two of each item? Each bite left me wanting more.
What a tease.
The First Course arrived from literally a few steps away:
And thus my four course Chef's Tasting Menu began. The Halibut was grilled masterfully. I may be mistaken, but halibut is a fish that is very easily overcooked. The green peppercorn encrusted slab of fish on my plate was juicy, springy, and retained most of its original flavor despite the thick peppercorn rub. Grill temperature was perfectly set and controlled, as evident by the slightly crispy outer surface and juicy interior. I expected no less from Napa Rose.
The calamari was a success as well. I really have to give it to Sutton and his team. They sure have timing and technique down for seafood preparation. The calamari was not overly chewy(hard), and the Tomato Fume went perfectly with it. Yes, that yellow liquid bed is the Tomato Fume. I was confused, however, about the addition of Basil Oil, which in my opinion did not contribute anything to the dish other than aesthetics.
The Second Course: Salad
I rarely get girly and emotional when I eat. But there are exceptions. Example: The first time I tried Kobe beef, the first time I tasted foie gras, and...oh what the hell tons of other times. Now I can add one more experience to the list: Veal Carpaccio. I've always loved the tender, unique taste of veal. I've had it braised, grilled, pan seared, you name it. But having it raw? What a decadent way to top off a salad. These thinly sliced pieces of veal were salted much like prosciutto and garnished with a thin line of olive oil.
I've never been a fan of beets, but this salad won me over. These lightly roasted beets were both earthy (meaning it tastes like earth) and sweet (as a result of the roasting, which brings out sugar). I was pleased to find out that the vinaigrette was not at all sour, but rather aromatic. It must have been the sherry. The choice of greens was nice too. I absolutely love arugula.
Bit of a small salad though...
The Third Course: Main Dish
Usually when I have duck, I have them as Chinese preparations: Peking Duck and grilled duck. Needless to say, this was a welcome change. Grilling a duck to medium rare is an extremely tricky affair. There is a very fine line between rare and medium, the margin for error is nearly nonexistent. Too rare and the meat would be too chewy. Too well done, and the meat would be too dry.
Judging from this main course and the previous three, I can see why Napa Rose has won so much acclaim. The skin is crispy, the meat tender, flavorful, and a perfect medium rare. Bravo! The fig sauce complimented the breast by adding more complexity to each bite.
Waiting for me below the duck breast was the most interesting pasta. It was essentially creamed corn tossed with spinach, figs, a bit of pasta, XYZ? cheese, and cute little flavorful mushrooms called Chanterelles. Every taste and texture in this dish was well thought out. Furthermore, seemingly insignificant details such as the texture and consistency of the pasta managed to stand out and declare how perfect they are.
The chef personally came over to me and asked what I thought of this dish. What did I reply? "It's brilliant! I wouldn't change a single thing." It's amazing how well Chef Sutton can mix and match so many ingredients and still come out with a unifying theme. Apparently, this was his new creation. It would be great if it was offered on the regular menu because I'd definitely order it again.
Fourth Course: Dessert
The final course of the tasting menu was this delicate dessert topped with shaved ice and prune reduction. Holding up the shaved ice were thin candied nectarine slices. I absolutely loved the multiple layers to this dessert. The sorbet and shaved ice were very refreshing, a good way to end a summer meal. The cake was the thickest and sweetest component, contrasting with the airy fraiche. Light desserts have always been my favorite, and all the various flavors here worked together to bring a smile on my face.
Just as I was about to give a nod to summon for the check, the Chef dropped by again for a. He mentioned an earlier conversation we had as I was eating the Seven Sparkling Sins, and I was quite surprised that he remembered what I had said about my ideal dining experience--"I would much rather try a few bites here and there of several dishes instead of having just a single normal sized course."
He asked, "Do you like coffee and chocolate?"
"No. I LOVE coffee and chocolate!"
"I have just the thing for you," he replied, grinning ear to ear.
This dessert was a two-parter. On the left I have a chocolate and cappuccino souffle decorated with a dark chocolate rose and rolled in creamy white chocolate flakes. On the right is a cup of what is essentially espresso pudding adorned with their own condensed milk. Both were very thick and masterfully crafted. A chocolate and coffee sledgehammer slammed onto my taste buds with each bite. Such concentrated flavor! Hot damn, what a finisher.
I held extremely high expectations coming to Napa Rose, but Chef Sutton and his staff completely shattered them and awed me with their artistry. In their hands, food and service is elevated to an art. I've been to many fine restaurants before starting this blog, but never have I met such efficient, courteous and friendly staff. They are willing to do anything to make sure you have a dining experience nothing short of perfect. Though I could not use his services because I was the designated driver for my party of one, the Sommelier still dropped by to further my knowledge in wine. To top it off, Napa Rose was more than willing to give me one of its menus. At other establishments the staff usually briefly hesitates or politely declines, though I don't see what the big deal is with giving away a menu.
Never have I experienced such personalized service and attentiveness at a restaurant. It's the little things people don't usually notice that elevates the service at Napa Rose above most restaurants. For someone as young as I am (finishing up college as of this post), dining solo at establishments with more mature and affluent clientele has in the past rendered me a victim of discrimination as well as sub-par service and attitude. But, here at Napa Rose, I was taken seriously and treated with courtesy and with respect. I hold the highest regard and deepest gratitude for Chef Sutton and his staff for providing me with such an amazing dining experience.
Sunday, September 2, 2007
This Orange County gem sits quietly in an unassuming strip mall hugging the 73. The restaurant is so well hidden I'll bet my SLR that even locals don't know it exists. Quite a modest location for someone with Chef Pascal Olhats' credentials. I won't bore you with his history, but let's just say chefs like him are typically found in more upscale areas.
Actually, I think I will bore you. Chef Olhats' accomplishments just cannot be overlooked:
- Chef owner of Pascal Restaurant, Épicerie Pascal & Café Jardin in Newport Beach since 1988.
- Attended Hotel School in Brussels, Belgium after apprenticeship in Rouen, Normandy.
- Worked for Master Chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon.
- Spent three years in St. Tropez at Club 55.
- Was a Chef at Hotel Le Meridian , Newport Beach & Restaurant Chanteclair , Irvine.
- Was Chef of the Year in 1991.
- Is the President of the French Chef's Association.
- Recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
- Pascal Restaurant received the 2006 Restaurant Hall of Fame National Award.
Pascal is small and very intimate with its soft lighting, luxurious seats, and fresh flowers. The ambience is so relaxed and romantic I'd bring my wife here for our anniversary. But, I'm getting ahead of myself there. I arrived for dinner on a Thursday night and was greeted by George Fortier, the Maitre d'. Seating was prompt and the service gracious. An amuse bouche of brioche and an onion spread glided to me from the kitchen as George inquired whether I would like sparkling or imported water. The tap is fine, thank you.
My server smoothly recited the evening's specials and was more than happy to help me decipher the French menu in his cute French accent. I settled for foie gras torchon, a cold meat plate, bouillabaise provencale, and braised rabbit. Regrettably, Chef Olhats signature dish Seabass au Thyme was unavailable. Pascal had run out of sea bass during lunch.
As I tucked away the last piece of brioche, warm artisan bread was brought to my table with a small tub of creamy salted butter. I've tasted all the available butter in our supermarkets, and none of those come close to this tub. The only way I know how to describe it is in Chinese, but its loose equivalent in English is "aromatic".
The first dish to arrive was Foie Gras Torchon served with a Fig & Pear Chutney, Pickled Baby Vegetables, and Brioche:
Spectacular pairing. The sweet tartness of the chutney goes very well with the thick creamy foie gras. Acid from the pickled vegetables helps to balance the dish. It gives your tongue a break from foie gras' heaviness. Still, the taste of smoky foie gras haunts me! I will never forget this dish. As Elmomonster eloquently explains, "The pleasure of eating foie gras is sanguineous and carnal. It's like pornography for the palate, and you feel naughty for loving it."
The next course was Assiette De Charcuterie:
Various cold cuts are served in this dish typically made to be shared with the table. Starting counter-clockwise from the foreground: Duck Prosciutto, two types of Pate, Baby Pickles, sauteed onions, and Saucisson.
This dish arrived with perfectly toasted slices of French bread. The Prosciutto was aged very nicely. Each bite tasted like concentrated duck! Pate was great. I especially enjoyed the paler variant hidden under the pink one. Pale one was smoother and had liver in it. The pink one was meatier and slightly chunkier. The Saucisson was pretty interesting and reminded me of Chinese sausage except it was not as sweet and was spiced.
After a brief break, a pipping hot Bouillabaise Provencale arrived:
This is a soup of Steamed Bass & Seafood in a Spicy Saffron & Tomato Broth. What kind of seafood? Clams, Mussels, Scallops, Shrimp, and Squid. Super. Fresh. These ingredients tasted a helluva lot better than what we buy at the grocery store.
The soup was rich and flavorful. Duh. It was basically a seafood broth. If you've had bisque, the soup is kind of like that. The bass was perfectly cooked, very tender. Mussels were a tad on the small side, but they made up for it in freshness and flavor. The scallops were fuggin' huge, and like the bass, perfectly cooked. It's quite easy to over or under-cook the fish in dishes like this. Well, for amateurs at least.
George suggested I dip bread into the soup. That was fine and all, but my starters all involved bread. Plus I don't need the carbs.
This course came with a 5" ceramic bucket for me to set aside the shells. Classy.
I've been dying to try rabbit for years and here was my chance--Braised Rabbit with Wild Mushrooms and Roasted Potatoes:
As you can see, I was a little rushed taking this picture. When my rabbit arrived, I just could not wait to dig in. Chef Olhats used wine when he braised the rabbit. The result? Uber rich broth and a very gamey rabbit. My sponsor for the dish (left) agreed after judging the flavor, that the braised rabbit was possibly wild and not farm raised. There was at least half a rabbit in my personal pot. I could hardly finish! Meat fell lazily off the bones as I dug around them. Texture hardly varied as I moved from white to dark meat. Each section was lean yet still juicy and supple. If you have cooked cornish hen in a broth before (and controlled the temp/time), the texture of the rabbit is pretty similar to the dark meat. The taste however, is completely different.
Many people say rabbit tastes like chicken. Hmph. Tastes like chicken my ass. Rabbit has its own distinctive flavor. Not as gamey as venison, but just a little.
You haven't tried roasted potatoes till you've had these potatoes. The butter they use is very thick and flavorful. The salt used was top notch and helped the side tremendously. These are the best I've ever had.
The dark empty void that is my stomach screamed for dessert. Should I have the Lavender Creme Brulee? Or the Twice-Baked Cheesecake Souffle served with berries and Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream?:
This dessert is served in a wide, pipping hot bowl about 1.5" deep. You definitely want to share this one. Berries included blueberries, two strawberries, two raspberries, and a blackberry. The berries I have at home are a bit larger and a tad sweeter, but then again I don't buy in bulk like these guys do. Hand picked all the way! The ice cream blows Ben & Jerry's away, makes Coldstone look silly, and could put Baskin Robbins out of business. Yes. It's that good. This is the first time I've had ice cream this aromatic. I could actually taste real vanilla! The syrup was a bit overkill, but then again, I'm not your average sugar-loving American. Now the souffle....oh the souffle....Light, delicate, warm!, & creamy. The golden brown surface gave in gently to reveal a moist interior. Perfect control of the oven temp. As for the taste, imagine a cheesecake that's a bit easier on the cheese. As for the texture, well...its a souffle. A very well done one at that. Bravo!
My aunt makes a mean Japanese version, but Chef Olhats gives her a run for her money.
Sadly, this could have been a great picture, but you know what? I couldn't wait to dig in. Ice cream doesn't wait for you when its getting hot n bothered.
I can't wait to return here after I've completed my Orange County restaurant rotation. I find it odd that customers have found the service at Pascal haughty. During my visit, I did not detect a single note of snobbishness or arrogance in the wait staff. Everyone was attentive, helped me overcome the language barrier on the menu, and the Maitre d' even stopped by my table to chat a bit. Oh and the food..I don't think folks eat much better than this in Heaven. Flawless execution of French Provencale cuisine coupled with a very professional wait staff more than satisfied my inner glutton.