Sunday, March 30, 2008

Red Mango - Irvine, CA

I'm a culinary skeptic. Whenever I hear about a new food fad, Sprinkles, Pinkberry, South Beach, or Atkins to name a few, my gut reaction is doubt. As the frozen yogurt craze that swept Los Angeles trickled into Orange County, I was determined not to be taken in, resisting cajoling, bribery, and other forms of peer pressure. However, I was eventually lured to the Dark Side through the clever application of a 50%-off coupon by family-run Beach Cities Yogurt & Gelato in Huntington Beach. Curse my Taiwanese penny-pinching genes!

When friend, OC Weekly columnist, and fellow Orange County Food Blogs contributor Elmomonster broke the news that the Red Mango yogurt chain had arrived in Irvine, I knew I had to pay them a visit. A Korean franchise business, Red Mango was purportedly the inspiration for the first Pinkberry operation in LA. Pinkberry went on to spark a frozen yogurt fad that, as the LA Times quipped, launched 1,000 parking tickets.

The first thing that struck me when I stepped into Red Mango's Irvine location was the sparseness of the decor. Despite the futuristic furniture and brightly colored posters, the shop was unable to escape the chilly, antiseptic, freshly mopped atmosphere that permeates most purveyors of chilled desserts. It's a disconcertingly soulless feeling. I was also surprised by how Spartan the menu was. Two types of frozen yogurt, Original or Green Tea, and a double row of toppings dished up by the youthful staff. It was a far from the self-serve, weigh-to-pay frozen yogurt model I'd grown accustomed to.

I ordered a 4oz Green Tea frozen yogurt ($3.50) with two toppings ($1.25); blueberries and mochi bits. With my first bite, it was evident that Red Mango's frozen yogurt was a high quality product. Full-flavored, gently sour, and with a smooth mouth-feel, it filled my mouth with a creamy presence. The blueberries were fresh and sweet, popping like juice-filled bubbles. The mochi had a pleasantly chewy texture that added body to the dessert. However, as I finished my frozen yogurt, the other flavors faded, leaving only the sourness behind.

4oz is half of a cup, an amount of food roughly equivalent to what can be held in the palm of one cupped hand. Breaking it down to cost per unit, I'd paid about $1 per ounce, not counting the additional money added on for toppings. By way of comparison, the other frozen yogurt chain in Irvine, Yogurtland, charged 30¢ per ounce, had 3-4 types of tart and an additional 4-6 other frozen yogurt flavors, and a self-serve toppings bar with more options. There was a difference in quality to be sure, but it wasn't great enough to justify a 300% markup.

I like Red Mango and I may end up there once or twice a year. But, I have serious reservations about its ability to compete for market share in the frozen yogurt niche. With places like Beach Cities Yogurt & Gelato and Yogurtland offering better return on investment, and with the name recognition of the ever-expanding Pinkberry juggernaut, Red Mango may find drawing cost-conscious customers difficult in the current economic slump.

Red Mango
17595 Harvard Ave
Irvine, CA 92614
Red Mango USA website

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Napa Rose - Anahiem

It was Saturday night and we had a double date. Didn't know any good "in between" establishments from Irvine to Whittier, so why not the Magic Kingdom? I love the fact that valet is comped when you park at the Grand Californian for hotel dining. One less thing to fuss about. We arrive slightly ahead of schedule and decide to crossover into Downtown Disney for a quick stroll. Downstairs at Catal looked packed, and there was a line just to be seated at Uva Bar. I love reservations.

Back at the hotel we glide past families milling around Storyteller Cafe (pretty decent buffet, btw) for their name to be called. Once through the Napa Rose entrance, I sense the calm Craftsman-style beckoning me to be seated. Katheryn and Michael arrive minutes after, and we are ready to begin.

As much as I would normally get into great detail about the music and decor, I'm opting to spare the details for once (and only one time) and discuss the spread at our table. Our guests brought a bottle of sparking wine as a belated present, so we promptly asked for it to be chilled. Our bubbly server noted that it would complement the Seven Sparkling Sins starter to share. Was that a tongue twister? Three servings were thus ordered, and we awaited its arrival. We were blown away by the results. Savory spicy beef cucumber roll, curried crab taco (his favorite), Ahi "Tatiki" hand roll (Kathryn's fave), tarragon lobster relish, potato pancake with citrus cured salmon (my favorite), "BBQ" fried oyster, and grape leaves stuffed with pheasant and preserved lemon. It was a stellar start.

The entire Winter menu is lovely. If not for our "sins", I could've easily craved the grilled quail stuffed with hearth roasted portobello mushroom. It came with creamy stone ground polenta and sunset chili-toasted almond mole. A twist on wine country "Caesar" featured grilled romaine hearts with a golden garlic balsamic vinaigrette. What about some scalloped Yukon golds with Gruyere, leeks, and applewood smoked ham? Mmmmmm.

The Vintner's Table tasting menu wasn't a unanimous decision, so we went our separate main course ways. Jack adored his Roasted Shells of the Sea. An array of sweet shrimp, pink scallops, little neck clams and Mediterranean mussels in a light crab broth flavored with Meyer lemon, garlic, and coriander. The variety was incredible, and those scallops had an unexpected presentation of still being attached to their shell. Clearly a winner. Kathryn chose the cashew crusted "Tai Snapper" with tempura fried shrimp over fried Himalayan red rice with pineapple and tangerine-coconut vinaigrette. Her silence was all the acceptance we needed to convince us she was enjoying dinner. Mike and I were on the same wavelength as we both ordered the bacon wrapped "maple leaf farms" duck breast with wild coastal mushrooms and dried apricot pecan conserve. What a savory sensation. Full flavored and satisfying, I could not ask for more, except perhaps the dessert menu.

Dessert was a bit of a blur, as we (again) all had our preferences. Our server, Rashelle, provided some insight. I must say, I had what was probably the best cheese plate. Ever. There were seven (7!) varieties, each with a detailed explanation of its flavoring and origin. Would you believe me if I told you it was $16? It trumped the chocolate truffle cake and creme brulee. This post would be ridiculously longer if I could find that detailed explanation.

Napa Rose
inside Disneyland's Grand Californian Resort
1600 S. Disneyland Drive
Anaheim, 92802
714.956.6755 (hotel) or 714.781.DINE (Disney Dining reservations)

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St Patrick's Day Everyone!

213 Ocean
Laguna Beach, CA

I headed down to Hennessey's Tavern in Laguna Beach for lunch today. Since my wonderful wife was at home making a traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner for me, I decided to go the less traditional route and ordered the Reuben Cheeseburger and Irish Nachos. The Irish Nachos were big slabs of potato covered in cheese, bacon, and green onions. They were delicious! The Reuben Cheeseburger was piled high with swiss cheese, sauerkraut and freshly cut corned beef. It was ok. Unfortunately no green beer for me. I had to get back to work. I heard they don't even sell green beer here anyway. Have a safe St. Patricks Day everyone! Don't drink too much!

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

FYI - Opah (Irvine) undergoing renovations

My fiance was scheduled to attend a working lunch here on Tuesday, only to find out they are currently closed until next week. After calling the restaurant directly, I learn they are doing work on a "shared fire wall" and hope to reopen on March 18th. Of course, being the uninformed person I am, I thought she was referring to computers. So I did what I always do. I Googled it and found an article which sheds some insight on the usage of fire walls.

I never said I understood the article fully, but it was enough to satisfy my curiosity.
Guess it makes sense since Julian's post below references their next door neighbor, Wasa Sushi.

There's always Aliso Viejo and RSM to go to...

13122 Jamboree Road

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Ayame, Irvine

Newly opened in the Orchard Hills Shopping Center off Portola Pkwy and Culver Drive, Ayame is a Japanese sushi bar and restaurant by the folks that brought us Zipangu. We ended up there in our neverending search for a decent neighborhood sushi joint, which gained new urgency now that Wasa in the Irvine Marketplace is temporarily closed.

A small, bright, almost bubbly kind of decor appears to be as close to the opposite of dark, wooden, Zipangu (the restaurant names also occupy opposite ends of the alphabet), with its polished glass sushi bar and brightly lit soffit. The itamae we sat with spoke fluent Japanese with his mates, but told us he'd previously done time in Nashville. Nashville! After we talked about how much nicer the weather is here, I asked him how fresh the fish could possibly be in Nashville, and he shook his head sadly.

The sushi is fresh, nicely prepared, and the wait staff is friendly. However, selection is a bit limited if you're only into raw fish: they have the usual standards of tunas, salmon, halibut, etc., but less in the way of more exotic fresh fish and shellfish. I tend to rate the regular kinds of sushi by the maguro, on a scale of color, translucence, and heft. Basically 0 is your variants of inedible, from lack of freshness to overabundance of gristle. 1 is your Todai brand of almost FD&C Red #40, with such airy lack of substance that if you squint, you can almost see the rice through the tuna. 10 is your deep ruby red exterior with almost a purple-red interior, and a marbled sparkly sheen, that so often seems restricted to Bluefin Tuna, and when you bite it, it's almost like there's the barest hint of carbonation in a texture that is simultaneously spongy, melty, and hefty. On that scale, Sushi Wasabi is an 8, and Ayame a 5, which puts it squarely in the corner sushi place realm, not in the aspiration to greatness realm.

They did have, interestingly, a basket of fresh (live?) shrimp sitting atop the bar from which they quickly shelled, cooked, and made shrimp sushi and deep fried shrimp heads for us. Very flavorful. Their uni was passable, and most fish was more serviceable than outstanding. This is the kind of place we'd choose if we were short on time (it's almost walkable from here), impatient (it hasn't been discovered by the massive hordes yet), and with the kids. They only have one high chair right now though- something I suspect they'd fix if we overwhelmed them with family diners.. and who are they kidding really? That whole area is primed with young children. Wasa never has less than one high chair scooted up to the bar, no less, every time I've been there.

Prices are indicative of what is likely to be massive per sq.ft. rents in one of the newest centers in one of the newest developments in Irvine, which, according to the last homefinder email I received today (enough already! I live here already! I'm not moving again at least until home prices stop their freefall), is in the Irvine Unified School District and Northwood High boundaries. Unfortunately, living in a nice place, and finding an affordable sushi restaurant nearby seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive. It's not to say it's outrageously expensive, just a bit more than I'd expect: sushi prices almost all from $4 and up.

However, they do have a fairly nice kitchen menu: their monkfish liver is paired with something they call a ponzu jel'ee which really brings out the flavor. Their prime tenderloin with foie gras had a well done sauce on it, some kind of jus reduction that went perfectly with the tender buttery softness of the filet. The foie gras, well, we could've stood for it being slightly less cooked.

I think the menu items that sold my wife on this place, though, were the desserts. There was a nice green tea mousse type dessert, some ice cream for the kids, and a sampler plate that had a variety of them, including a rich chocolate cake. Japanese places tend not to do dessert well, and Wasa and Ayame appear to be two exceptions. (We went for years, maybe close to twenty years, to a restaurant called Noshi Sushi in Los Angeles, maybe a couple, few times a month, and every time, my dad insisted on asking for "green tea ice cream" for dessert at the end of the meal, knowing they didn't have it, hoping one day they'd get the hint: they never did.)

Orchard Hills Village Center
3923 Portola Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92602


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Three Dog Bakery - Newport Beach

I came across this store, and I had to take a snap. A whole bakery! For dogs! Let me repeat that last part: FOR DOGS! It's in Newport Beach, of course, across from Bristol Farms, a few steps away from Sprinkles. I doubt this type of store would work out in, let's say, Stanton. Dogs there will have to settle for kibble.

But in Newport, the poshest neighborhood 'round these parts, it doesn't seem so strange to pamper your pooch.

Inside the store (which is actually part of a chain), there were indeed cookies, tarts, pies, and cakes inside a gleaming display case. Some were dipped in what looks like chocolate, but isn't (I hope). All looked good enough for human consumption. Heck, they seemed like they were baked by a pastry chef from a tony French patisserie -- and priced just about the same!

Someday I hope to be filthy rich enough to buy such treats. If I can do that for my pet, imagine what kind of food luxuries are in store for my own gullet!

Three Dog Bakery
924 Avocado Ave
Newport Beach, CA
(949) 760-3647

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Charlie's Chili - Newport Beach

Found this gem years ago when I received an Entertainment book for the holidays. We go here periodically when the craving is for some comfort and a stroll along the beach.

Parking is a zoo, but expected, so not really a big deal. Especially when your driver has parking karma. It took all of five minutes to get a great spot and drop in an extra quarter. Glad DST kicked in, because sun was still high for 5 o'clock.

Charlie's is an institution. Laid back, seat yourself kind of vibe. A scattering of tables outside, with roomy booths inside. We beelined for one in the back. At first glance, yes, it appears to be pretty run down. Just take a closer look. Three flat screen monitors strategically placed, and even closed captioning on one. The stained glass light fixtures convey this homey chic that appeals. Even Jack commented the upholstery appeared in better condition than he remembered. This place is maintained. If you want uber fancy, cross the parking lot and go inside Oceanfront 21.

Breakfast is served ALL DAY. You know now why I'm so fond of Charlie. Usually, we start with zucchini sticks. It's a huge pile of deep fried happiness. Not this time. He wanted a cinnamon bun. It took over half a dinner platter and was warmed upon request. Not bad. Their menu covers a diner selection with burger, chili, seafood, and brekkie options.

I tried the Baja breakfast. A scramble of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggs with salsa on the side. Flour tortillas included and my meal was complete. You have the option of spicy salsa and corn tortillas too. It was very good. Potatoes were chunky and onions had had a 'just chopped' crunch to them. I inhaled it without a second thought. Jack ordered the fisherman's platter (what he always gets), which came with breaded and deep fried shrimp, cod, scallops and (skin-still-on-them) fries. Came with his choice of chowder which was just fine.

As always, our server was consistently friendly and her timing was well-executed. The Muzak played new Sheryl Crow, one hit wonder Dido, and classic John Cougar Mellancamp.

Afterwards, we took in the salty air and casually looped around the sidewalks before heading back home. Impromptu outings like this are great. Avoiding most of Newport Boulevard and taking Superior up to the 55, priceless.

Charlie's Chili
102 McFadden Place
Newport Beach, CA 92663

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Wasa Sushi, Irvine closed temporarily

Our family went to eat there a few nights ago, and found it dark and shuttered, with a sign on the door. The sign indicated that they were closed for six weeks for remodeling, and recommended we visit one of their other locations.

However, a quick OCRegister search turned up this:

Wasa Sushi, 13124 Jamboree Rd., Irvine; fire or other disaster damage; permit suspended Feb. 9.

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