Sunday, July 26, 2009

ParkAve - 06/27/2009

11200 Beach Blvd
Stanton, CA 90680

After a 70-hour work week followed by 10 hours of class on Saturday I needed something good to end the week. However a long drive sounded terribly unappealing. Kevin found an adequate solution, a new restaurant in Stanton that was getting notice for its new-American fare. Even among the meager pickings in Orange County, Stanton's restaurant selection leaves much to be desired. Would this be the meal that finally offered a legitimate ray of hope to the city's diners?

Ginger Grant - Gin, Fresh Ginger Syrup, Lime and Dash of Bitters
I was expecting something much softer but the initial taste was almost straight gin, and a more apparent ginger flavor would have been very welcome.

Tommy Bahama Mojito - Muddled with Garden Grown Mint
The mojito was the exact opposite, with an abundant sweetness but nary a hint of alcohol.

01: Lobster Mac N Cheese - with a Spicy Cheese Sauce
This turned out to be the best course of the night, possessing a spicy pop on the attack with the lobster adding an undertone of sweetness to the sharp creaminess of the cheese. This dish demonstrates masterful use of the lobster as an accompaniment. The sweetness of the shellfish adds an element of complexity that reinforces the simple enjoyment of the mac n cheese.

02: Lobster and Roasted Corn Fritters - Red Pepper Mayonnaise
Unlike the last dish, the lobster plays a bigger role, to disastrous effect. The lobster, or lack thereof is immediately apparent against the abundance of filler. The bits of sweet corn, tangy mayo, and spicy Siracha sauce help somewhat but it didn't quite make up for eating a mouthful of cornmeal.

Champagne - HEIDSIECK Monopole Brut, Epernay
An earnest sparkler that combines mineral notes of graphite and flashes of lemon rind along with traditional aromas of yeasty bread.

03: Marinated Tenderloin Bites - with Soy, Lime and Garlic
A simple preparation of beef, that immediately conjured up images of Galbi, or Korean marinated short ribs. The bitterness of the slaw proved to be an effective contrast to the sweeter flavor of the meat.

04: Seafood Risotto - with Pea Pesto
The seafood risotto was the special of the night and I was very curious to see what seafood the kitchen would pair with the pea pesto. I expected some sort of shellfish, but the dish employed a heavy oily fish' reminiscent of mackerel that was far too heavy for the lighter sweetness of the pea. Both my companion and I agreed that an earthier compliment like mushroom would have been a more fitting accompaniment for the fish. Judging solely on the texture rice was no better with the quality being marginal at best.

05: Grilled Skirt Steak - Molasses, Soy and Ginger Marinade Cauliflower and Pesto Risotto
Skirt steak tends to be tougher cut but also imbued with robust beefy flavor that was sorely lacking with this particular preparation which instead exhibited a disturbing flavor better suited to an oily fish than beef. The risotto was somewhat better, offering a hearty stew-like flavor that would have been a good pairing had the steak been up to par.

2006 BIBICH Riserva, Skradin
For our second wine we went with a Croatian wine which was a first for both of us. The initial flavor of the wine was highly reminiscent of a pinot with a light flavor of sour cherry. As the bottle got some air, the flavor-profile shifted more toward Cabernet.

06: Texas Antelope Medallions - Pear Risotto, Red Wine Demi
The antelope was far superior with a syrupy sweetness that didn't feel out of place. The meat had a light gaminess somewhat reminiscent to lamb that enhanced an otherwise straightforward of charred meat.

07: Sage Ranch Honey Ice Cream
A dessert menu has to be pretty lackluster for me to resort to ordering the ice cream but this turned out to be a great choice. The initial flavor was a simple brown sugar sweetness that evolved into a pure concentrated honey on the finish.

08: Cream Cheese Ice Cream
The cream cheese was a light refreshing contrast to the honey ice cream; reminiscent of cheesecake filling with a light tang similar to those trendy new frozen yogurt stands.

09 Strawberry and Blueberry Sponge Cake - with Whipped Cream
A typical sponge cake that could have come out of the refrigerator case at any supermarket bakery.

Based on the clientele and decor, I was expecting something tired and old but the food exhibits some flashes of innovation and manages to pull them off nicely though aside from these rare moments the food was fairly pedestrian and there were actually quite a few misses. Ordering the right courses, one can actually get a surprisingly good meal but order poorly and this won't be the restaurant that puts Stanton on the culinary map.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Old Vine Cafe - 06/11/2009

2937 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Recently a co-worker asked me for a good breakfast place in Orange County and I recommended Old Vine Cafe despite never having been myself. Shortly thereafter I had the opportunity to correct that oversight at a going away party for Aaron, a fellow food blogger. Old Vine Cafe's emphasis on fresh seasonal ingredients makes the restaurant well suited to its home in The CAMP, a sustainable retail center that caters to outdoor enthusiasts and natural food lovers.

Cerveza Cucapa Honey Beer
This was my first experience with honey beer. As one would expect the nose smells strongly of honey and malt but on the palate, the sweetness was balanced by a marked bitterness.

Scaldis Belgian Ale
Old Vine offers the Scaldis "Prestige" on the menu for a whopping $43. Seeing as I decided to forgo my income for the next 10 weeks, I felt the less prestigous version would have to do. The beer pours a clear amber and exudes a powerful aroma of malty sweetness and cinnamon spice. The beer tastes strongly of caramelized sugar with an alcoholic heat on the finish that serves as the only sign of its massive 12% abv.

The restaurant offers 3 4-course tasting menus with wine pairing for a modest $65. Kevin and I decided to split to tasting menus in order to maximize the number of courses tasted. A word of warning, the "tasting pours" are easily full 4 ounce pours at the least.

Seasonal Tasting Menu 01: Panko Crusted Goat Cheese, on a bed of Organic Mixed Greens with a Red Grapefruit Vinaigrette
2008 Bottromagno Gravila, Puglia Italy
The salad was a wonderful way to open the meal. Surprisingly well-executed it included elements of all four basic flavors. The bitter vegetal greens and sweet grapefruit are enriched by the tang of the goat cheese while the panko crumbs add a crunchy textural contrast and light saltiness. The grapefruit serves as a bridge to the wine, drawing out stone fruit and a hint of wet slate from what I'd previously felt was a petrol character.

The Original Tasting Menu 01: Sauteed Sea Scallop on a nest of Crispy Leeks finished with Tarragon Chardonnay Sauce
2007 Macon-Vinzelles Chardonnay, Burgundy France
These scallops had the most succulent lithe texture that compares favorably with the best preparations I've tasted. The tarragon and chardonnay sauce had a tart butteriness that utterly overpowered the natural sweetness of the shellfish. The wine was a full-bodied Burgundian that complimented the sauce quite well.

Seasonal Tasting Menu 02: Hand Made, Lasagnette filled with Bosina Robiola Cheese, Zucchini, Shitake Mushrooms & a Fresh Herb Pesto Cream Sauce
2006 Cantine Rosa Del Golfo Scaliere Negroamaro
I wasn't expecting much from this course but it turned out to be a very lively multi-faceted dish. The Bosina Robiola is a blend cow's and sheep's milk, its mild flavor was superbly accented the herb pesto's alluring herbaceousness and the earthiness of the mushrooms. The wine was a dry red that exhibited flavors of ripe berries balanced by herbal notes and smoke, a darkly rustic wine that paired exceedingly well with the food.

The Original Tasting Menu 02: Handmade Fettuccini Pomodoro garnished with Aged Pecorino Romano Cheese
2005 Icardi Barbera D'Asti, Piedmonte Italy
The fettuccini was enlivened by the bright tart character of fresh tomato and basil, a bit one-dimensional but enjoyable nonetheless. The accompanying wine was a vibrant blend of cherry and raspberry with a core of acidity that matched the tang of the Pomodoro sauce.

Seasonal Tasting Menu 03: Certified All Natural Australian Lamb Chop, Sauteed Mustard Greens, Tortilla Espanola & a Peppercorn Monastrell Demi
2004 Portico del Castillo Monastrell, Yecla Spain
This is one of those cases where the sides made the dish. By itself the lamb was passable but lacked any truly noteworthy qualities. Though the peppery bite of the demi and bright bitter flavor of the greens complemented the meat beautifully. The wine was a big Spanish Red that stood up nicely to the lamb, offering plenty of earth, dark fruit and leather both on the nose and the palate.

The Original Tasting Menu 03: Four Ounces of All Natural Filet Mignon & Crispy Fried Onions with Bleu Des Basque Demi Cream Sauce
2007 Gouguenheim Cabernet Sauvignon, Argentina
A fairly typical though unspectacular filet mignon. The intensely smoky tang of the blue cheese sauce and the sweetness of the onion complimented the beef nicely. The Gouguenheim was a nicely balanced Cabernet, marrying ripe plum with hints of spice and tobacco

Seasonal Tasting Menu 04: Pear & Walnut Phyllo Dough Purse drizzled with Pear, Vin Santo Syrup & dusted with Powdered Sugar
2002 Agricoltori del Geografico Vin Santo Del Chianti
I'm a bit disappointed with the way this dessert turned out. I would have liked a light sweet fruit focused dessert or a heavier syrupy affair like baklava. This was a neither here nor there, possessing a blase sweet nuttiness. The accompanying wine had a similar nuttiness that paired easily with the dessert.

The Original Tasting Menu 04: Grandma’s Cheesecake, Wild Berry Puree
N.V. Ferreira Ruby Port
I'm not a huge fan of cheesecake but this was a brilliant example. The lighter lemon topping felt like a better pairing with the sweet buttery crust than the typical filling. The port was a lighter example with sweet ripe fruit and a subtle hint of wood.

The restaurant is a bit rough around the edges but the comfortable atmosphere, earnest service, and simple satisfying food make Old Vine Cafe a good choice breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Animal - 06/06/2009

435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 782-9225

Animal is the brainchild of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo and since opening in June 2008, has received massive critical and blogger acclaim as well as a James Beard Nomination for best new restaurant. The duo met in culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and since then have worked in a variety of kitchens together. In addition to Animal, the two have their own Food Network Show, 2 Dudes Catering and recently published their first cookbook, 2 Dudes One Pan.

Sporting a dark exterior bereft of any signage, the restaurant seems to go out of its way to avoid calling attention to itself. Though this is less an intentional snub to the unwashed masses and more a function of how tight funding was at when the restaurant opened. The simplicity continues inside the restaurant, a spartan rectangular room with nearly bare walls, functional wooden tables and chairs, and a small bar running along the far wall.

poutine, oxtail gravy, cheddar
When I asked our server what this was he described it as "what chili cheese fries would be if God cooked them." A crisp exterior blankets a light interior that serves as the perfect sponge, sopping up the rich fragrance of the oxtail gravy. The tender chunks of meat and sharp cheddar serve to drive the flavor to even dizzier heights. If only the exterior of the fries remained crisp while soaking up the gravy these truly would be God's own fries.

barbecue pork belly sandwiches, slaw
The appropriate dish to pair with the poutin is something equally as rich and decadent, pork belly. Served here on a sweetened bun, think Hawaiian Bread, that has been toasted to airy perfection. The pork belly is covered with a surprisingly restrained bbq sauce that gives a tinge of sweetness but allows the flavor of the pork to come through full-force. The topping of slaw is a nice touch as it breaks up the monotony of the pork with its pleasing crunch and light bitterness.

lamb tongue ravioli, artichoke, tomato, green garlic
The next course was a first for me, lamb tongue, having no other point of reference I expected it to taste like beef tongue. Even after eating the ravioli, I still don't really know what to think of lamb tongue as it was overpowered by the tomato, garlic, and artichoke. I wonder if part of my disappointment with this course comes from the fact my tastebuds were dulled by the intensity of the first two. This might have been more appropriate to open the meal.

rabbit legs, peas, bacon, dijon, spring onion champ
I have to say this presentation of rabbit tasted a lot like chicken, albeit a much more tender and wild-tasting version of chicken. The addition of peas, bacon, onions, potato and a cream sauce reminded me of a chicken pot pie which only served to reinforce the similarity. A satisfying course, but again much lighter than the first two courses.

foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy
When I first acquired a taste for foie gras it was for the seared preparation but my preferences have changed over time and I now favor terrines or torchons. This may be the best preparation of seared foie gras I have ever had and it quickly reminded me of the joys of seared foie gras. The luscious melting fat is combined with a delicate rich buttery biscuit and doused liberally with a savory sweet gravy. Fantastically delicious and borderline dangerous for your health, this course left my girlfriend alternating between ecstasy and wanting to see it banned as a public health risk.

tres leches, dulce de leche
I never pass up an opportunity to get tres leches cake, a sponge or butter cake soaked in three types of milk: evaporated, condensed, and heavy cream. Animal's interpretation was intensely sweet though a touch soggier than expected. The dulce de leche was superfluous, its excessive sweetness blunting the subtler flavors of the tres leches cake.

Animal seems to disdain pretension in everything it does, from its rough-hewn look and to its casually clad waiters (no uniforms here) to its straightforward goal of delivering the most flavorful food possible. The food at Animal runs a bit heavy and isn't the most complex; there is something satisfying in its directness. The staff recommends ordering family style and indulging in the social aspect of food while enjoying a good meal and I heartily agree.

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