Monday, January 20, 2014

Taco Maria - 12/27/2013

3313 Hyland Ave,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 538-8444

Despite having lived most of my life behind the Orange Curtain, I find that the area is sorely lacking in quality restaurants. Had I judged Taco Maria by name alone I would have pegged it as a run of the mill tacqueria, fortunately one look at the menu quickly dispels that misconception. In fact, there isn't a single taco anywhere to be found on the menu, instead diners are presented with a 4-course menu with two options for each course.

Housed in The OC Mix Mart within SoCo (South Coast Collection), Taco Maria is right at home in one of Orange County's most progressive culinary locations. The restaurant is a brick and mortar offshoot of the Taco Maria truck opened Chef Carlos Salgado. An OC native descended from restauranteurs, Carlos honed his skills up north with long stints at both COI and Commis up north before returning to Orange County. While at the Michelin starred restaurants Salgado made the transition to pastry, which makes the switch back to savory something of a surprise.

Amuse: SUNCHOKE CHIPS - chorizo aioli
The meal began with a plate of sunchoke chips, think potato chips with a mixture of sweetness and bitterness to compliment the savor. The aioli was maddeningly addictive, with a hint of meaty savor that just barely registers, I found myself eating chip after chip in search of that elusive flavor.

1a: BETABELES - beet, avocado, fromage blanc, pistachio, pea tendrils
2012 Caballero de Castilla Verdejo Castilla La Mancha Spain
I've never been fond of salad, that goes doubly for a beet salad but this was one of the strongest courses of the night. Instead of being all about the beets, everything on the plate had a purpose and a place. The resulting salad celebrates the sturdy texture and sweetness of the beets but working in concert with the gentle gamy flavor of the fromage and the vegetal levity of the pea tendrils.

1b: AGUACHILE - local rockfish crudo, serrano, guava, Ensenada olive oil
2007 Peregrine Riesling Central Otago New Zealand
The second of our initial courses is Mexico's answer to Ceviche. The key difference is that in aguachile, the fish is cured only briefly in chili-lime marinade which necessitates the use of fresher seafood. This dish bursts with different flavors most obvious are the tart astringency of the marinade and jammy sweetness of the guava; though the jarring contrast could get a bit disconcerting at times. The olive oil adds a light fruity flourish while the Serranos provide a fiery heat that gives the dish its name.

2a: 'CAESAR' - pacific sardine, celtuce, egg yolk, parmigiano, sourdough
2012 Ca d'Maria Langhe Arneis Langhe Italy
Most people probably wouldn't consider the Caesar Salad as Mexican food, but the salad's creation is generally attributed to Caesar Cardini an Italian restauranteur who invented the salad in 1924 while working in Tijuana. The sardine has a oily relish twang reminiscent of Mackerel nigiri while the creamy egg yolk ties the whole dish together. Salgado's deconstructed Caesar salad captures the essence of the original but the added depth made this my favorite course of the night.

2b: TAMAL de CALABAZA - kabocha squash, panela, pipian verde
NV Casa Vinicola Zonin Prosecco Veneto Italy
This was probably the most challenging dish of the night for me. Not much of a tamale fan to begin with, I could appreciate the precision that went into this preparation, but I struggled further with the inclusion of kabocha which gave the dish a monolithic overarching sweetness.

3a: JARDINERO - shiitake, stinging nettles, shishito peppers, queso Oaxaca
2011 Juana del Sol Malbec Mendoza Argentina
Arroz Jardinero or Gardiner's Rice is a South American dish of rice served with assorted vegetables. Chef Salgado replaces the rice with a puree seasoned with creamy queso Oaxaca; the perfect base to show off the earthy heft of the mushrooms coupled with the peppery bright green flavor of the stinging nettles and shishito peppers.

3b: POZOLE de MOLUSCOS - shellfish, heirloom hominy, brassicas, lime
2011 Paco & Lola Albariño Rias Baixas Spain
Pozole dates back to pre-Colombian Mexico, and is a stew of meat and hominy traditional served on special occasions. The large white hominy kernels are dense, starchy, and sweet while the accompanying broth is infused with a deep saline flavor from the shellfish as well as a bright citrus tang.

4a: ARROZ con POLLO - Jidori chicken, toasted farro, pear, fennel
2011 Eola Hills Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Oregon
One of the final savory options is a gentrified take on chicken and rice featuring a beautifully moist chicken breast wrapped in a thin layer of crispy decadent skin. The interaction of the chicken and farro exhibits a slight caramelized character brightened with a hint of licorice and a light sweet crunch from the pear slices.

4b: CACHETE - pork confit, cattle beans, persimmon, chrysanthemum
2012 Cachette Grenache Noir Gard France
The final course was the most elegant presentation of pork and beans that I've ever tasted. Centered around two chunks of pork cheek braised to tender perfection, the dish exudes a rich porcine flavor that permeates the starchy cattle beans. My one issue with the dish is the heavy application of orange zest which overwhelmed the cheek at times.

Supplement: QUESADILLA - queso fresco
With the meal concluded an nowhere near satiated we resorted to ordering off of the kids menu. Ironically this was probably the only dish that most people would easily identify as Mexican. Most quesadilla's are all about the cheese, the gooey consistency and rich flavor with the tortilla being something of an afterthought. Here the fragrant aroma of corn is particularly stark against the mild creamy queso.

Pecan Javalines (sp?)
The lack of a dessert menu which is particularly surprising considering that Chef Salgado's background in pastry. Chef Salgado promised desserts were in the works but for now we were given a pair of cookies in lieu of composed dessert courses. I didn't quite catch the name but they sure tasted like shortbread cookies.

Chef Salgado's modern take on Latin cooking shows a level of dynamism, creativity and sophistication rarely found in Orange County. From start to finish this meal far exceeded my expectations; I only hope other OC residents realize what a gem we have in Taco Maria.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sushi Ota - 11/27/2013

4529 Mission Bay Dr
San Diego, CA 92109
(858) 270-5670

I've long been aware of Sushi Ota and its status as the best sushi in San Diego, but despite that it was hard to find a reason to head down especially with the plethora of top spots in LA. Opened in 1990 by Chef Yukito Ota, the restaurant remains quite popular even with a week's advance notice, we struggled to get reservations at the sushi bar. In the end, we had to take a 5:30 reservation and agree to be out within 2 hours. Wanting to maximize our dining time, we arrived a few minutes early, and were surprised to see a line already forming outside the restaurant.

After making our way through the line we were shown to seats in front of Shige, the executive chef who ended up taking care of us. Chef Ota was working as well and our requests to be seated in front of him were politely refused, apparently the seats are normally reserved for VIPs and regulars.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
We decided to stick with a consistent solid performer in Hakkaisan. There is definitely some body and viscosity on the mouth but the flavor has a light floral finesse to compliment the rice-y sweetness.

Tako Age
The meal started with delightful fried octopus, packed with brine and savor and heightened with the streak of thick sweet tentsuyu. The accompanying sprouts and asparagus were equally integral, bright and crisp the light vegetal bitterness was an especially poignant contrast to the octopus.

Sashimi - Kampachi, Mirugai, Toro, Uni
Our second course was a platter of pristine raw seafood. The Kampachi had a classic creamy profile with a lingering oiliness. The Mirugai was equally impressive, the dense snappy texture was immensely satisfying as was the consistent even brine. The Toro was pure luxury; smooth, lush and stupendously fatty the tender fish melts in the mouth. Arguably the best of the quartet was the San Dieo Uni. Less common than its much-beloved Santa Barbara cousin, the Ota crew actually prefer the local version and with the cool creamy consistency and perfect sweet-saline balance, I can see why.

Zensai - Eggplant, Persimmon, King Mackerel, Lobster, Sea Snail
Another plate of five seasonal treats. The eggplant was surprisingly good soaked with a satisfying umami-laced dashi to compliment. I've never liked persimmon, but I really liked the way the fruit's ripe sweetness was neatly constrained by the fried mochi batter. The baked mackerel was the strongest of the bunch, unabashedly oily and salty with a satisfying savory heft. The lobster had a fantastic smoky sweet char but was a bit overcooked and dry texturally. Lastly the sea snail conveyed a dark dense savor coupled with a bitter earthiness from the snail guts and the accompanying broth captures the interaction perfectly.

Kakiage Tempura
The last of the composed courses was also unfortunately the weakest. The tempura was a mix of shrimp onion and vegetable and while the shrimp kept a firm snappy texture, the overall feel was a little heavy and oily.

Hirame - Halibut
The sushi started out with a fine example of hirame. The fish was snappy and mild, deftly showing the interaction between the tangy ponzu and scallion's zing.

Kinmedai - Golden Eye Snapper
A consistent favorite of mine, Ota's Kinmedai has all the creamy richness the fish is known for augmented with a faintly bitter char.

Toro - Fatty Tuna
The toro was a continuation of the sublime fish from the sashimi courses. The whitish-pink fish has a faint oily sheen that hints at the fish's stupendous richness.

Kohada - Gizzard Shad
The kohada showed off its characteristic firmness with a moderated fishiness that left a lingering steely tang on the palate.

Uni - Sea Urchin
Yet more of that sublime San Diego uni. The burnt orange roe has a light creamy mouth feel and comes bursting with fresh ocean flavor matched with a lovely sweetness.

Ikura - Salmon Roe
As commonly occurs, the uni is followed with Ikura. The salmon roe is a touch dense with a slightly tacky feel, but the flavor is deeply savory like a chilled dashi.

Anago - Sea Eel
One of the weaker pieces of the night, the paper-thin Anago had a faint whiff of fishiness with a sour bitter twang on the finish that I didn't care for.

Umeshiso Yamaimo Hosomaki - Plum, Shiso, Mountain Potato Roll
Negitoro Hosomaki - Chopped Fatty Tuna & Scallion Roll
The rolls were a sure sign the meal was coming to a close particularly because both of these rolls are often served to aid digestion at the end of the meal. First up was a bracing sweet and sour mixture of plum and shiso with crunchy mucilaginous mountain potato. The second roll brought back that fantastically rich toro mixed coupled with bright freshness from the scallion.

Kuroge Wagyu Sashimi
Still feeling a bit peckish, we decided to order the Japanese beef sashimi. With loads of beefy flavor, the sashimi was certainly tasty, but despite the obvious marbling the meat was surprisingly tough and lean.

Sanma - Pike Mackerel
The Sanma came with a touch of vinegar which amplifies the Mackerel's inherent oiliness. The sliver of translucent kelp brings a much-appreciated sweet contrast.

Kibinago - Silver-stripe Round Herring
Despite a shimmery silver skin the Kibinago had a markedly restrained flavor particularly once the bite of the ginger was factored in.

Yagara - Flute fish
Another new fish for me. The Yagara has minimal inherent flavor along with a pleasing snappy texture

Tamago - Egg
A classic tamago, the cool sweet eggy funk didn't do much for me, but it wouldn't be sushi without tamago to close. The egg course came branded with OTA though I think mine looked more like USA.

Asari no Misoshiru
Following the sushi came a piping hot bowl of miso soup enlivened with the flavor of Manilla clams.

Black Sesame Ice Cream
A pretty typical black sesame ice cream, the consistency was overly hard but the sweet flavor was a nice finish to the meal.

I can see how Ota earned its reputation as San Diego's top sushi spot. Though the restaurant offers California Rolls and other Americanized drek, the restaurant also features a quality omakase. Not only is the nigiri very good all around, but the initial kaiseki dishes are creative and tasty. My only complaint had to do with pacing particularly the lengthy delays between the early courses. Even with 5 or 6 chefs working behind the bar, they could barely keep up with the flood of orders. Despite the uneven service, I wouldn't hesitate to come back if I ever found myself in San Diego again (assuming I can even get a res).

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Republique - 12/03/2013

624 S La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(310) 362-6115

I've been a fan of Manzke since we first crossed paths at Bastide back in 2008. After leaving Bastide I expected Manzke to strike out on his own but he wound up at Church & State instead. Following his departure from Church & State in March 2010, an early appearance during the first incarnation of Test Kitchen lent gave the impression that a new offering from Manzke was imminent.

Turns out Manzke likes to do things at his own pace and since that meal in August 2008 Manzke has worked the occasional pop-up taken turns at the helm of Milo & Olive and Petty Cash and even opened a couple of restaurants in the Philippines for good measure.

California Carrot - mezcal, beet jam
Harvard (with Honors) - cognac, punt e mes, chartreuse, bitters
Smash - basil-infused rye, meyer lemon
Republique's cocktail program is run by Erik Lund, a protege of Julian Cox, Lund spent a year as Rivera's Program Director before leaving to captain the bar at MessHall. The cocktail list features a mix of elevated classics and unique creations. The California Carrot definitely falls into the latter category, an expressive mix of sweet vegetal funk and petrol-y mezcal. The Harvard was a stately classic cocktail, boozy with a herb-y medicinal character. The Smash was an easy-drinking refreshing libation tart and crisp with a whiff of fragrant basil.

Iced Oysters - Shigoku (washington), Blackberry Point (prince edward island)
Naturally the Shigoku was a must order, the deep cupped bivalve was a creamy gem of melon-y saline. This was my first experience with Blackberry Point oysters, big succulent and creamy, there was a trace of bitterness to start but the oyster finished with a clean pronounced salinity.

Hamachi Crudo - citrus, celery, jalapeño, crispy wild rice
A fairly conventional crudo presentation, the fattiness of the fish is countered by a balanced attack of citrus, spice, and even a touch of bitter succulent levity from the celery.

Gulf White Prawns - green cabbage, persimmon, pistachio, chili, lime
The salad was absolutely delightful multifaceted mix of vegetables, citrus, and spice; the vibrant Southeast Asian flavors were underscored by a touch of sweet coconut; a complex blend of flavors and textures that harmonize perfectly. I thought the prawns might have been a bit dull by comparison, but they were actually quite expressive with a pleasing rare snap and pronounced saline relish. Manzke previewed a similar course during his second stint at Test Kitchen but with hamachi instead of prawns.

Grass-Fed Beef Tartare - tarragon aioli, pickled red onion, potato chips
Manzke's tartare deftly shows his penchant for re-imagining classic bistro fare. The tang of the pickled onion and the richness of the aioli feel at once familiar yet simultaneously novel thanks to the tarragon's herby anise smack and the light grassy twang from the beef itself. The tartar was equally delicious on its own or scooped onto the salty potato chips.

Escargots en Croûte - garlic, parsley
Beneath the buttery pastry crust lurked a classic escargot preparation; a toothsome mollusk soaked in a bed of warm melted butter enlivened with aromatic herbs and garlic.

Warm Baguette - on request
With so many intriguing dishes, we had planned to forgo the bread course but we needed something to sop up the remnants of the escargot.

Daiquiri Martinique - rhum agricole, lime
Collins du Jour - dry vermouth, grapefruit, tonic
Fair Hills Farms Fuji Apple - whiskey, apple brandy, vermont maple
Moving onto our second round of cocktails we decided to try some of the more classic cocktails. Though today the name Daiquiri conjures to mind something frozen, too vivid, and too sweet; the original recipe is a minimalist mix of lime and rum that was straightforward yet satisfying. The Collins was a light effervescent tipple reminiscent of a simple adult grapefruit soda. The Fuji Apple was the most interesting of the three cocktails a sweet libation with a note of wintry spice.

Eggs on Toast - santa barbara uni, soft-scrambled eggs
This is the third iteration of Manzke's uni toast and for me a step back from his previous Test Kitchen versions. I found the scrambled eggs a bit discordant though I did enjoy the fresh levity of the chives with the uni.

Parmesan Beignets - sweet potato, vadouvan, erik's maple syrup
This course is a case of if it ain't broke don't fix it. The previous version of this course had a laser focus on the deep cheesy flavor and airy fried savor and didn't confuse the issue with vadouvan and sweet potato.

Chanterelle Mushroom - spring brook farm raclette, wild arugula
Manzke's tarte flambées quickly became one of his signatures at Church and State and with good reason. The paper-thin crust is airy and crisp. I quite enjoyed the interplay between the nutty arugula and the earthy chanterelles though the caramelized onions a bit too intense for my liking.

Negroni Blanc - gin, americano, vermouth blanc
Never a huge fan of Negronis, we ordered this for sake of completeness and it didn't hurt that Lund said this was his favorite cocktail on the menu. I well balanced and nuanced like drinking smooth liquid velvet with a touch of dirty earth.

Pig Ear Salad - crispy pork rinds, raw root vegetables, chili vinaigrette
After a couple of mixed courses the meal got back on track with the pig ear salad. The ears and pork rinds pack an immense amount of porcine savor between them, but the crisp vegetables and tang of the vinaigrette kept the dish feeling light as a feather. The sliced red peppers had a fair amount of heat to them for good measure.

Emrich-Schönleber, Riesling Halenberg Großes Gewächs, 2008, Nahe, Germany
Though I tend to prefer dry reds, I still have a soft spot for my gateway wine, Riesling. The expressive nose showed off a lovely minerality mixed with citrus and pineapple and a touch of herbaceousness to boot. On the palate the wine is bone dry with a taut acidity and touch of effervescence.

Wood Oven Brussels Sprouts - frisée, lardons, soft egg
I'm not a fan of brussels sprouts but the lardons and poached egg won me over. The salad had all the qualities of a classic Salad Lyonnaise, but with a steady bitter undertone.

Spaghetti Rustichella - manila clams, razor clams, garlic, chili flake
Just a spot on shellfish-based pasta, the noodles are supple and toothsome suffused with a resonant shellfish brine while the subtle touch of herbs and spice lend the dish an extra dimension.

Risotto Nero - atlantic calamari, mediterranean octopus
The risotto was every bit as good as the spaghetti, spot-on texturally with a pronounced citrus twang keeps things light and lively, a deft contrast to the hearty meaty octopus and the supple enigmatic squid.

Cook Ranch Pig's Head - lentils, bacon, frisée, farm egg
Pork, frisée and eggs round 2? Yes, please! This course was even more imbued with porcine goodness than the brussels sprouts. Each sliver of jellied pig's head were a bit intense on their own, the flavors were moderated by the roughage coupled with the starchy heft of the lentils.

Sage Panna Cotta - butternut squash, pumpkin seeds
Pôt de Crème - caramel
Passion Fruit Tart - mascarpone sabayon
Bomboloni - hazelnut ice cream, chocolate sauce
We were given a dessert sampler of sorts to end the meal. The panna-cotta was the lightest of the dessert, nuanced sweetness is met with urgent fragrance from the sage. Being a sucker for pot de creme and caramel, that was easily the most approachable of the desserts for me; creamy salty-sweet, I wish I had one all for myself. The passion fruit tart was equally as impressive bracing fruit is matched with a buttery crust augmented by a dollop of creamy mascarpone. The Bomboloni were a nice twist to the classic Italian pastry; filled with a hazelnut ice cream then drenched in chocolate sauce it was like combining a donut with an ice cream sandwich.

Republique was was a meal over five years in the making and it was worth the wait. Manzke's signature style can be seen in every course and the resulting elevated take on bistro fare is approachable yet elegant, familiar yet thought-provoking. The restaurant was packed during my visit and I don't expect things to change any time soon.

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