Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bayside Restaurant -- Newport Beach

I first tried Bayside Restaurant last month, during Newport Beach Restaurant Week. The promotion was successful, at least in my case, because I've already been back, this time for lunch with a colleague and a visiting scholar (yes, another work meal).

Bayside is part of the "Dining As Art Collection" restaurant group, along with Bistango and Kimera. To tell you the truth, I didn't notice any art, but then, I wasn't looking for any. Still, the dining room is definitely aesthetically pleasing, with dark woods warming up the smooth sleek modern lines of the decor. There are three dining areas: a tall, open-feeling inside space on the bar side of the room, with a piano. My friend and I sat there last month, and enjoyed the jazzy piano player. Another inside dining room is on the other side of the bar, and presumably quieter. On my second visit, I sat on the patio, which offers comfortably padded wicker chairs and a nice view of boats in the nearby harbor. A table of "ladies who lunch" looked very much at home here, demonstrating their stylish laughs over a second glass of wine.

On my first visit, I started with what they laughingly refer to as the "simple green salad." Yes, it is green, and it is a salad. But it is pleasantly un-simple. Circled by toast crisps, piled generously with wonderfully tangy blue cheese, it is sprinkled throughout with pine nuts and topped with julienned strips of crisp, sweet pear. The combination is not exactly unique, but it works well, and the high quality ingredients push it beyond "just another salad" status. Also, as I was reminded when the visiting scholar ordered this for lunch later, this is a big salad. If you consider that the cheese toasts are basically small sandwiches, you could count the salad as a light lunch all by itself.

On my second visit, the waiter told us that we were very lucky to be there on a Wednesday, because the soup of the day on Wednesday is chicken, the virtues of which he extolled quite highly. So, I got the soup. The waiter may have exaggerated somewhat, but yes, it was good soup: flavorful broth, shredded chicken that actually tasted like chicken, well-soaked grain (rice, if I remember correctly) for added texture, and bits of vegetables. I would have liked more vegetables, but then, nobody ever gives me enough vegetables.

The soup went well with the bread rolls, which are the round type that are almost-but-not-quite hard on the outside and soft on the inside. I slathered mine with soft butter and the bread was still warm enough to melt it just a little. The bread was thick and doughy on the inside, as though it were undercooked -- or should I say, as if everyone else cooks their rolls too much. Please, continue undercooking them. The wait staff noticed my first roll was gone and brought me another, so they get bonus points for not being stingy.

My colleague ordered the tuna tartare as her appetizer, which looked excellent. Are we still doing stacks? Apparently so. I, for one, am happy to see one now and again. The stack was fairly simple as these things go: mostly tuna and avocado, with other decorative bits scattered around, all soaked in a sauce of soy, chili, and ginger that she remarked upon very positively.

I realized later that I had salmon for my entree at both meals. For dinner the first time, I had oven-roasted wild mushroom crusted salmon, with potato puree, green asparagus, and Riesling sauce. The salmon was thickly sliced and meaty, with a perfectly crusty crust which added good texture, although it didn't taste much like mushrooms to me. The salmon was perhaps cooked a touch longer than it should have been, but was still within the acceptable range. The mashed potatoes and asparagus were unremarkable, even with the help of the sauce, which was fine (at least after I surreptitiously -- gasp -- added a bit of salt to it).

For lunch the second time I had another baked salmon with another admirably crusty crust, but this time the crust was spicy: mostly pepper, with a touch of chile and something else, possibly cumin. Spicy enough to make my lips tingle, but still low enough on the heat scale to be appreciated by a wider audience. The salmon was thick and meaty again, and this time cooked to perfection. It was served on a couscous salad, which was room temperature, although the vinegary infusion made it taste cooler. The couscous had a nice texture, neither so dry that the individual grains fall like sand off your fork, nor so wet that it feels sloppy in your mouth; and although I assume it had oil in it to hold it together, it didn't taste at all oily. The couscous salad included cherry tomatoes, very thinly sliced strips of red and yellow pepper, minced red onions, and plenty of parsley. The zing level was right on, but again, I wish there had been more vegetables. The size of the dish overall was more than I needed for lunch, given the large bowl of soup I'd already consumed. I took home about half the salmon and two-thirds of the couscous, which was enough for another meal later.

For her lunch entree, my colleague had the chicken breast with wilted spinach and lemon sauce. It looked fine, but I was more interested in the soft polenta that accompanied it, in a separate bowl. She did not seem crazy about it, and offered me a bite: I loved it! It had hints of corn pudding to it, which elevates it above the flavorless mash that is too often served under the name polenta. My guess about how it's made is that the polenta is mixed with crushed corn kernels, many of which are still mostly whole, and then baked in the shallow bowl. The smooth, thick polenta settles to the bottom, while the kernels rise to the top, solidifying into a chewier, chunkier layer. The result was a strong corn flavor and an interesting blend of textures.

I had something chocolate and delicious for dessert when I was there for Newport Beach Restaurant Week, although I didn't take notes on it. The online menu says it was chocolate soufflé cake with hazelnut ice cream. That sounds about right: I only remember that I enjoyed it. On the second visit, we were running short on time, so we didn't order dessert.

Bayside is not a top-dollar venue, but it's not inexpensive either. Dinner entrees are mostly $29-$32 (with two dishes priced at $20) and the charges for appetizers, drinks, and desserts add up fast. They have a relatively reasonable deal at lunch: $19.95 for two-course prix fixe, which includes any soup or salad and any entree (the pricier entrees cost an additional $3, but then, those entrees cost $19-20 by themselves). The deal includes a glass of house wine, a martini, or a non-alcoholic beverage. Forgetting to ask, I found out the hard way that their iced tea is flavored -- as I think of it, iced tea for people who don't like how tea tastes -- but it's more subtle than some.

Overall, Bayside is a lovely dining experience. The food is good: a cut above many options in OC, with nice presentation and good flavor, if not foodie-level excellent. It's also a cut above in terms of price, which puts it somewhat out of range for me for "normal" dining, whereas the food quality is not quite high enough for me to endorse it for "splurge" dining. That said, I'll be more than happy to return whenever they have special offers, or when someone else is paying.

Bayside Restaurant
900 Bayside Drive
Newport Beach

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Izakaya Zero (Huntington Beach) - LA-OC Foodie's Report

I've been wanting to try out Izakaya Zero for quite awhile, but finally made a point to go this past Sunday (and take a "mini Easter" break from my Lent-induced vegetarianism) after reading Los Angeles Times' positive review a few weeks back.

Situated in the downtown Huntington Beach area, a block away from the beach itself, my first thought upon arriving was "Haven't I been here before?" Sure enough, it was in the former Red Pearl Kitchen space, where I had pretty unmemorable meal. Hopefully this building isn't cursed with mediocre, overpriced eats . . .
Thankfully, the interior has been re-vamped. Gone is the dreary & campy red-and-black decor that's neither trendy hip nor authentically Asian. The bar and dining area is minimalistic modern with soft beige lighting and nice Asian-fusion touches -- lots of polished stones and a cute bathroom faucet that resembling a bamboo water pump.

I was debating whether to get their hot house sake (half off from Sun-Thurs) or one of their signature cocktails, and eventually decided on the latter and ordered the "Zen-gria"
Made with green tea liqueur (probably of the same name), sauvignon blanc, lemon and sweet-and-sour. I was afraid that this drink may be too sweet but turned out it's very well balanced and smooth, though I would've liked a little more green tea and fruity aromas to come through.

As I sipped away, I studied the menu - which is pretty much standard izakaya fare, Americanized a bit for the palates of the beach-going crowd (e.g. more deep-fried items than usual, and no hearts/gizzards/organs grilled up). Nonetheless, a lot of the items looked interesting and creative and a little whimsical (like fried crab cigar with scallops, shrimp and spicy mango sauce and sashimi ceviche served with tomatoes, red onions and yuzu dressing). Now I wished I came with others so I could try more stuff. But being a party of one for this foodventure, I ordered three small plates that started off with:
Eggplant with Shrimp and Miso-Aioli Sauce that was very luscious - the aioli, though a bit on the heavy side, had a subtly-sublime combo of flavors: a little sweet, a little tangy and a little garlicky, meshing very well with the grilled, creamy eggplant and the little chunks of shrimp. Would've been nicer if whole shrimps had been used, but overall very well-executed. And this is definitely a dish meant for sharing--The first few bites were divine, but it started weighing my tastebuds & stomach down fast. Nonetheless, my mouth still watered with the next dish's arrival:
Buta Kakuni - pork belly stewed in a soy-mirin broth with assorted veggies. Again, a wonderful dish with sweet and meltingly tender pork that barely needs any chewing. Wished I had some sort of starch to dip in that delicious broth. Mildly confuzzling, however, was the other veggies in the stew. The menu said "japanese mustard and mashed potatoes" (how the latter would fit into a dish like this, I wouldn't know) but instead it came with asparagus, enoki mushrooms and a root vegetable that I couldn't ID because it soaked up all that delicious sweet & greasy broth. Another minor mishap is that the stew served on one of those self-heating claypots, but there was no heat source when it was served. Not that I took long enough with this dish to let it get cold...

And finally, I got the course that I expected to come out first . . .
Mixed Green Salad with Baked Salmon Skin and Sesame-Ponzu Dressing. Timing for whipping this out is off, but at least from the still-warm salmon skin and crisp leaves I am at least relieved that it hadn't been left in the kitchen for half an hour while I was noshing on the other two items. The salad was light and refreshing, well-dressed and pretty generous with the crispy fish skins.

All in all, a nice delightful small-plates meal with a large variety of creative dishes that can please any tastebuds (there are at least another half-dozen things I wanted to try from the menu.) So, this time, I'm in agreement with Ms. Virbila -- and can't wait to come back for another round of delicious izakaya grub.

The Bill:

Zengria - $9
Eggplant w Shrimp - $6.95
Buta Kakumi - $5.95
Salmon Skin Salad - $4.95

Pre-tax/tip total - $26.95

The Rating:
Ambience: 4.5/5 (Comfortable and casual-hip with nice Asian-y accents)
Value: 3.5/5 (Like most other small-plate-oriented places, it's easy to run up the bill on not a whole lot of food; but portions here are deserving of the prices paid and I got quite a satisfying meal on about $20 of food)
Service: 7.5/10 (Nice and friendly without being obtrusive; given its location, the beachy surfer casual attitude is kind of there; service was only iffy from the timing of the dishes and no notice about veggie swaps)
Food: 17/20 (Pretty darn good all around, everything I tried had a tasty je ne sais quoi that made it a little bit unique; flavors could have been a little bolder, but I was pleased overall)

Bonus/Demerit: -.5 (crazy Huntington Beach parking)

TOTAL: 32/40

Izakaya Zero
412 Walnut Ave.
Huntington Beach

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Swirls in Costa Mesa

1799 Newport Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA

(This place is giving out free yogurt today only, February 23, 2008.)

Was invited to a food blogger meetup earlier today at a brand new frozen yogurt place. All us bloggers got there about an hour before the place was ready to start serving yogurt and just through a complete fluke I ended up being the very first person to get a frozen yogurt from there but since I was running off to a lunch meetup I had to practically swallow my yogurt in a single gulp without really being able to analyze it properly.

One interesting thing about this place is that its menu board is actually a TV screen:

My yogurt was mango-passionfruit flavor with gummi bears, strawberries and kiwi fruit as toppings:

After you are handed your frozen yogurt there is a "condiment bar" where you can sprinkle different flavorings onto it. I went a little crazy sprinkling papaya, watermelon, and honeydew flavoring on to mine:

The whole decor is right out of Willy Wonka (especially if Gene Wilder was Asian) and they have a special room for the kids to eat their yogurt:

With so many froyo places now people may end up just going to whatever one is closest to them but I did like my hastily eaten yogurt from Swirls and am interested in going back and trying one of their crepes.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Onotria Wine Country Cuisine -- Costa Mesa

I felt a little silly making reservations, since dinner with the visiting job candidate would be early -- 5:30 -- and there would only be four of us on a Wednesday night. Most of my experience with nicer OC restaurants implied that we'd be the only ones there for the first hour. When we arrived at Onotria, we felt even sillier, handing over our car for the complimentary but mandatory valet parking, as it would have taken us all of five seconds to pull into one of the many empty spaces ourselves. But we followed protocol, like well-socialized diners.

As expected, we were the first to arrive in the dining room, shortly after it opened at 5:30, but I was surprised at how quickly it filled up. A large party started arriving by the time my wine was poured, and all but two of the tables in the main room were occupied by 6:30. The place was jumping! Well, jumping in a "somewhat older than we used to be, but hey, now we can afford great wine and excellent food" kind of way.

Before I first went to Onotria, I had read many glowing reviews about the food. My high expectations have not quite been met, but I keep going back for more. Why? Because Onotria never bores me. You may know what I mean. So many restaurants around here have lovely settings, well-dressed waiters, fancy plating, pricey menus, and the same, dull, bland food that every other restaurant is serving. (Yawn...) By contrast, Onotria's menu consists of interesting combinations of strong flavors that keep surprising me. Onotria sometimes annoys me, but I have yet to find it dull. And on my never-ending quest for good food in Orange County, I find I'd rather risk being annoyed.

Case in point: on a previous visit, my vegetable soup was unusually bitter. This was interesting -- since when is vegetable soup bitter? -- and could have been fine, but it was one-dimensional. It needed some bass notes to counteract the high-pitched squeal. A cabbage risotto with truffles was also too bitter: a sharp attack of a dish that needed a soothing round touch to smooth things over. I had the much-recommended pheasant on that trip, and found the bird to be delicious. However, the raisin and pine nut sauce was a bit too sweet, and although I liked it at first, it seemed to become sweeter and stickier with every bite until it was downright cloying. On the other hand, the seafood soup was interesting, if a bit under-salted. And the eggplant bruschetta blew my socks off: how can something as simple as smoked eggplant on toast taste so amazing? I didn't know, and didn't care -- and I didn't share, either.

My meal this time hit more high notes and fewer low notes, I'm happy to say. The service was spot on, and I'm not just saying that because our waiter was of the especially handsome and charming Italian variety. Water and bread came quickly. The bread was warm and soft and good, although I was surprised to see it served with butter instead of olive oil. The wine my waiter suggested was new to me and interesting -- something from the bar that night that was white and tangy and full-bodied and whose name I never quite caught. His suggestion was especially welcome, because for a restaurant that has "wine" in its name, the menu has a distressingly short list of wines by the glass.

Speaking of the menu, Onotria's is unnecessarily confusing. Again, they push away from the predictable, which I applaud, but then veer straight into the problematic. Instead of dishes being listed by type -- e.g., appetizers, soups, entrees -- they have some dishes listed that way, and others listed by what type of wines they best match. It's an interesting idea, and the wine suggestions are certainly welcome, but it complicates the process of finding, say, all the fish entrees.

I had planned to eat lightly, but that failed as soon as I heard about the specials, or more specifically, the foie gras appetizer. I find it difficult to resist foie gras, and I'm glad I didn't this time. The foie gras itself was meltingly tender with the tiniest taste of gaminess: just enough to remind the tongue to stop and appreciate what is visiting it before letting it go. It was set on a piece of fried bread, surrounded by the first of three moats of wine sauce that my dishes would feature that night. The bread was scrumptious. In fact, I kept poking at it, trying to figure out what it was. The texture was just too perfect: soft enough to soak up the wine sauce for added flavor, while remaining crunchy enough on the outside to act as a contrast to the foie gras. It couldn't be just fried bread (but it was, as I checked later). The sauce was well executed too: flavorful, not too sweet, not too anything else either. After finishing the rest of the dish, I unceremoniously dipped more bread into the sauce, reluctant to let any of it go to waste. The only odd notes were a swig of rosemary that was so large that I felt I was excavating under it to get to my food, and some unidentifiable little, um, things scattered around the plate. I'm pretty sure they were dried fruits. That's what they looked like, at least. Too big to be raisins or dried cranberries. Too small to be plums. Too soaked in the wine sauce to taste like much of anything else. I kept tasting each one carefully, but ran out before I figured out what they were.

The other diners had soup, which they seemed to like just fine. But to tell you the truth, I was so fascinated with my appetizer that I think I might have forgotten to look up the entire time. Was I too obviously ignoring my companions? I hope not. Next thing I knew, poof, appetizers are done and it's on to the entrees.

My entree was odd. But then, I knew that when I ordered it, and I got what I asked for: tempura sea bass, with grilled eggplant and Kalamata olives in a Zinfandel reduction sauce. The tempura was excellent, with a big crunch, imparting the taste of quality batter and oil without even a hint of greasiness. The problem was that the flavor of the fish was all but lost inside all that wonderful crust, and all that was left was its soft texture. It seemed a waste of what I assume was a quality fish. The eggplant was fine, if unremarkable (perhaps my hopes were too high on that score), and matched well with the tasty wine sauce. The olives, however, were all wrong. What were they thinking? The flavors of the olives and the sauce clashed riotously: two great things that taste horrible together. I tried a second olive, and then a third, trying to will myself into "seeing" the combination function well, and I just couldn't get it to work. Yuck. Ah well, at least it wasn't boring. And the olives were separate from the rest of the dish, so they didn't interfere with it.

Carter had another of the specials: fried quail with boar sausage over polenta. The polenta was creamy, and I noticed him mixing it with the sauce and finishing off every last bite. I had a taste of the sausage and it was good, although not as good as it should be. It's true that I'm a snob about sausage, but there it is: this sausage needed more. More spices. More flavor. Maybe more boar.

One of our companions had the pheasant, which he enjoyed. I asked him if he found the sauce to be sweet, and he did, but he liked it that way. To each his own. At least I know now that it wasn't a fluke that mine was sweet on that previous visit.

Then, dessert. Before I forget, I must compliment Onotria on their decaffeinated coffee. The others ordered cappuccino or espresso, but since I had an early morning the next day, I ordered just plain decaf. This is always a risky proposition, especially as I drink my coffee without benefit of sugar or cream to mask a bad brew. Most restaurants can't even get regular coffee right, and their decaf is even worse. But this was rich, full-bodied, and not the least bit bitter. I was almost worried it wasn't decaffeinated, but my quick lights-out early that evening seemed to confirm that it was.

The four of us ordered four different desserts, but since this was a work rather than personal dinner, I didn't end up trying anyone else's desserts. They looked good, though: the crème brûlée had a well-torched topping, the zabaglione came with big chunks of fruit, and they didn't skimp on the serving of creamy-looking pistachio gelato. Still, I'm glad I ordered the poached pear in, yes, yet another wine sauce. The presentation was nice, with the pear sliced almost to the stem end and fanned out in the middle of a wide, shallow bowl, surrounded by the dark red liquid, with a large dollop of crème anglaise perched precariously on the pear. The texture of the pear was perfect, precisely between not soft enough and falling apart. It somehow managed to retain its pear flavor while also being transformed by the wine. The closest I can come to describing the flavor is: loud, bright, and sleek. The essence of the fruit -- both pear and wine -- was pared down and intensified, producing a powerful flavor punch that stayed true to the end of the dish, without getting either overpowering or dulled. The crème anglaise was a creamy rejoinder to the rest of the dish, but the logistics were tricky. The cream kept slipping off the wet pear and landing in the wine moat, where it immediately began to dissolve. Armed only with a fork and knife, I rescued as much as I could, but precious bits of dairy goodness slipped through the tines and were lost forever.

By the time we retrieved our car from the parking valet -- who was tipped well for not grinding the gears in our stick shift -- we were well-fed and satisfied. All in all, it was a perfectly interesting meal, in a welcoming room, with courteous and competent staff. I'll definitely be back.

Onotria Wine Country Cuisine
2831 Bristol, Costa Mesa CA

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Battle of the Irvine Hot Wings

So I was sitting at home in Irvine the other night talking to my buddy Tim. We were hungry. We wanted something delicious, and we didn't care about the fat. "How about hot wings?" I said. "I've been watching those KFC hot wing commercials all the time so I've been meaning to go get some. I haven't had their hot wings in years". "Sounds like a plan" Tim says, and off we go.

We walk into KFC and stare at the menu board. Their hot wings seem to be on sale, but still don't seem that cheap to me...$2.99 for 6 or $9.99 for 20. Now I realize that this wouldn't be expensive if you were to go to a restaurant, but this is fast food! Isn't it supposed to be cheap? I knew that Tim and I could easily finish off 20+ wings each and I didn't really feel like spending $20 at KFC if I wasn't sure we were going to love it. I hadn't had KFC hot wings in years, so I feared that maybe I remembered them wrong. I got an idea. "Let's get a small order of wings here, try them and then get some more wings at Albertsons. Then we can compare and see which ones we like better!" I said. Tim liked the idea so we ordered 6 hot wings and sat down to try them.

The KFC wings seemed a lot more bland than I remember them. They still had the signature peppery seasoning that you come to expect from KFC, but they didn't seem as spicy as I remembered. The wings seemed small. They were pretty crispy though and didn't feel very greasy. I added some hot sauce, and the wing tasted better, but I'm pretty glad I didn't spend $20 for 40 of these.

We headed off to Albertsons to get some more wings. We walked to the deli section and told the man there that we would like a bucket of his finest wings. "Sorry, we're all out" he said. Panic sank in. What were we going to do without more hot wings? We might have to resort to some other fast food that we weren't really in the mood for. I wouldn't hear of it! I told Tim that we were going to go to a different Albertsons to try and find wings. We walked into the second Albertsons, and there they were. A glorious mountain of meaty wings glistening in the deli case. The wings at Albertsons are $4.99/lb or a bucket for $10.00. The bucket can hold more than 2 lbs. I ordered a bucket and the nice lady in the deli section filled our bucket with almost every single wing left in the deli case. When she was done, she weighed the bucket and it came in just an ounce or two under three pounds! What a deal!

We drove home and dove into the bucket. The Albertsons wings had a much stronger, saltier flavor and felt really greasy in your hands. I said to Tim, "These can't be good for your heart". We laughed and then tore into the wings. Plump, juicy and flavorful. They were fantastic. However, they weren't really spicy. Then again, KFC wasn't really spicy without the hot sauce either.

KFC wings may be crispy and less greasy, but they also have less flavor. If you're going to get KFC wings, I would recommend getting lots of sauce. For the price and great taste though, I would have to say that Albertsons is the definite winner. You can't go wrong with these delicious "Zesty Wings". You don't have to just take my word for it though. Tim asked to be a "guest judge" for this little hot wing battle we had, so here are his comments on the evening.

Last Friday, as we drove to KFC I learned that they had been selling hot wings for years, and were "supposedly" very good. Upon our arrival, we discovered that the pricing was not to our liking, and we knew that unless we were satisfied (really satisfied) that it would not be worth the price. We decided to buy only six just to try them out.

I ate the first of my three without any condiments. The chicken was juicy, but lacked any definitive flavoring. I ate the second piece after covering it in KFC's patented hot sauce, and the flavor that was once missing returned to the chicken. However, if you dislike a vinegar taste lingering around in your mouth, I would not recommend using the sauce. I tried the third piece without the sauce, but had to give in as the wing just was not good enough on its own.
We had decided to go to Albertson's, and I decided to grab some more hot sauce, just in case. Two Albertson's later, we returned home with a bucket of hot wings. The first bite was just as delicious as the last. The wings are not really spicy, but they do pack a punch of flavor, and you know the seasoning was done just right. In my opinion, if you are looking for some "finger lickin'" wings go to Albertsons. Here's the breakdown if all this reading is not to your liking

5=Mmm mmm good 1=No way in hell am I eating that!

Appearance 5
Flavor 3
Aftertaste 2

Appearance 4
Flavor 4
Aftertaste 5

*I still crave some heat in my wings

Best of luck in your food quest


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