Monday, July 28, 2008

Hamamori, South Coast Plaza 4 Courses, 40 Dollars Event

Thanks to my buddy Sharon, who let me know that South Coast Plaza is having a 4 courses for $40 (per person) event (*) from now [well, last Friday actually] through Sunday (click on the event title in the bottom right hand corner to see menus) at the following restaurants:

  • Marché Moderne
  • Antonello Ristorante
  • Pinot Provence
  • Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's
  • Quattro Caffé
  • Hamamori Restaurant-Lounge
  • Royal Khyber Fine Indian Cuisine
  • Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar
  • SAVANNAH Supper Club & Lounge
We ate at Hamamori, which has been occasionally criticized as overly expensive. This, however, was refreshingly not (at least in my opinion). The four courses were a Kobe carpaccio, an appetizer trio, a selection of sushi, and then a black cod.

The carpaccio was very lightly flavored, so the taste of the meat was very apparent. It's a little different from the ones I'm used to, which tend to be drizzled in an oil, like sesame oil. The presentation was pretty typical, with thin slices arranged in a circular overlapping pattern on a round plate (much like those plates of raw shabu shabu meat you get in the supermarket, except with a salad in the middle instead of a strange yellow plastic flower). Taste was, well, let's go with different. Sometimes different is good, and I was okay with a more meaty version of the dish.

The appetizer trio was a couple pieces of wrapped asparagus, a breaded and fried meatball made with kobe beef, allegedly, but was basically ground and then fried, so it was hard to tell, and a little Japanese eggroll with crab. The meatball was ehh, the asparagus had a fresh crunch to it that was light and good, and the eggroll with crab was nicely done. However, the dish itself was a bit heavily weighted to the fried side, so I'd recommend making sure you have something like an iced tea to counteract.

The sushi set was a small platter with single pieces of basically new versions of Wasa Treasures. We had a tuna, an albacore, a scallop which was drizzled with sea salt and yuzu, and a salmon. A couple slices of shrimp-infused egg provided the garnish. The sauces are much like you'd expect from Wasa, except that they don't have these particular combinations there, and the fish itself was a bit fresher. Basically Hamamori is kind of what you'd expect from a "Wasa Plus". The decor's a bit nicer, the food's a bit fresher, and the service is superior by far.

The cooked fish, however, was the star of the four courses. This was cooked just right, so it was barely done, soft and juicy, but not at all translucent in the middle. I wish I knew how to do this, but I do know it's not easy to get both the heat and the timing just so, so the whole fish cooks this way. The sauce was a nice accompaniment, but I found myself using as little of it as possible, so well was the fish itself prepared. It needed no disguise. Much like sushi- it's hard to improve on the natural taste of a well-selected and fresh fish. I contend in some ways that cooking fish is harder than making sushi, because the act of cooking fish at all confers a disadvantage over sushi that has to be overcome by effort and skill. They just about did that here.

Dessert was not included in Hamamori's set, although they seem to be in most others. We chose to share a granité, flavored with melon. It would've made a nice amuse, but as a standalone, it was almost too much iciness. The Hamamoritini though was nicely executed, clean tasting, and warming to the stomach. A nice accompaniment to sushi.

*Does not include beverages, tax or gratuity. Not valid with other offers, promotions or private dining groups. Dine-in and dinner only, please.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Whole Pita -- Greek Island Grille

I originally tried Greek Island Grille -- also called The Whole Pita on its web site -- based on an online review by local food fan OC Mutt (thanks!), and everyone I've brought there since then has liked it. So I thought it was high time to include a review of it on the OC Food Blogs.

The restaurant is run by a Greek family, and they serve basic, authentic Greek dishes. Which means this is not a good restaurant for someone allergic to cheese, or who doesn't like garlic, or who insists on fancy plating. If you're still with me, read on...

The restaurant is hidden in Yet Another Uninspired Strip Mall, but once inside, the place is cozy and homey and casual. It reminds me of the restaurants I've been to in Greece that catered to the locals, and not the "fancied up" ones designed to bring in the tourists. They have seating outside, but the decor inside is so charming -- at least, considering that they're in a strip mall -- that I like sitting inside. They have a couple of TVs (which I normally hate), but they only show beautiful photos of Greece, which helps rather than distracts from the decor. The photos are so beautiful that some of our friends, who had only been to Athens (which is great in its own way, but not exactly teeming with natural beauty), were wonder-struck and began talking about another trip to see the more rural parts of the country.

First, to demystify the process: Pick your own table. You can grab a menu to look over your choices while your other friends arrive, but eventually you have to go to the counter, order, and pay. (Don't forget to tip the nice servers while you're there.) You get your own fountain drinks, but they bring you everything else. Each dish comes out as soon as it's ready, which can be a little chaotic with a large group, but hey, you're at a Greek restaurant: relax and go with the flow. The service is quick and everyone there is very, very nice.

For first-timers, or anyone with a larger group, I'd suggest the Greek Island Variety Platter. It comes with hummus, melitzanosalata, dolmades, pita bread, tzadziki, spanokopita, feta cheese, and some olives. The only odd thing is that it comes with three dolmades, three pieces of spanokopita, and three pieces of feta. Which is perfect if you have exactly three people. Which we never do. Ah, well.

My favorite of these appetizers is the melitzanosalata, which is an eggplant "salad" but is a far cry from the babaganouj I've tried and mostly disliked: the chunks of eggplant are juicy rather than slimy, roasted to give a wonderful smoky flavor. It's also chunky, mixed in with garlic, parsley, onions, and bits of roasted red pepper.

The hummus is good too, and also chunky; it has just the right amount of garlic and herbs, with tiny bits of what look like tomato but are actually roasted red pepper. I like the tzadziki too: it's sufficiently tart and garlicky. I'd normally put more cucumber in mine, but I eat theirs with zero complaints.

I love the pita bread here -- it's thick and soft on the inside and just a bit crispy on the outside, usually still warm from the oven, and sprinkled with a bit of cheese and herbs. The problem with the platter is that it doesn't come with enough pita bread for the sheer volume of dips; no problem, get another basket of delicious pita bread for 92 cents. Heck get two or three more baskets and take some home (it tastes almost as good the next day warmed up in the toaster oven).

The dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are very simple, as they contain nothing but rice and herbs, but they have a pleasant vinegary flavor to them and a nice bite. I'm known to be especially picky about my dolmades, and these aren't my favorite style, but I happily eat them when offered.

The spanakopita was not as good this time as usual -- somewhat over-fried -- but that meant it was still good. Nothing spectacular, but then, it is supposed to be a simple dish. At the same time, how can you turn down fried filo with spinach and hot feta cheese inside? Okay, maybe you can, but I can't.

The platter comes with Greek olives. I only started eating olives at all a few years ago, and it turns out that I still don't like Kalamata olives. But my dining companions this evening (one of whom is Greek and therefore automatically an olive expert) assured me that these were authentic tasting Kalamata olives.

Now, if you were going to eat a reasonable amount of food, you might share the platter between two people, add a salad or cup of soup, and call that a fine meal. I've never managed to restrain myself that well here, but I thought I'd put it out there, just in case.

This time I ordered the bifteki "pita bundle", which is a sandwich so big that it's hard to figure out how to fit it in my mouth. Soft warm pita bread, with a pile of lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, red onions, and herbs, and hiding somewhere on the bottom a hamburger's worth of beef, all topped with tzatziki sauce. Bifteki is described as "savory beef sausage" on the menu, which is a bit confusing, because it's ground beef patty, mixed with herbs. The beef was beefy and juicy: so juicy that halfway through eating the sandwich, the juices had soaked through the pita and compromised its integrity: I had to eat the rest of it with a fork and knife. This would have been easier if the sandwiches were served on plates, like the other dishes, instead of in paper-lined baskets.

I can also vouch for the chicken souvlaki, which I think is my favorite so far. The marinade and grilling process locks in the juiciness of the chicken and adds extra spice -- and it doesn't soak through the pita when you order it as a sandwich.

Although I ordered the pita bundle as a separate item ($4.95), you can also add $3 to add two side dishes, such as salad, or "Pappou's island fries". I've had the fries many times, although not on this particular trip. They're hard for me to resist: a medium cut, not very skinny and not very fat, so they're somewhat crispy on the outside and soft inside, with a generous dusting of herbs and Parmesan cheese.

Another good option is a Taverna platter, which comes with two meats and a bunch of sides. Nobody ordered one the night I had my camera, unfortunately. It's a lot of food for $11.

The Greek Village Salad is tasty: fresh-tasting, with big chunks of tomato and cucumber, and a decent balsamic vinegar dressing.

Another side dish option is the "chicken rice lemoni" soup. However, the diners who tried it agreed that it wasn't "lemoni" enough. One diner didn't like it, the other really liked it. I didn't taste it, so I can't chime in.

The lamb stew is a classic: lamb, tomatoes, onions, wine, herbs, all stewed until the lamb is perfectly tender -- and here's the clincher -- by someone else, who spent a lot longer on it than you felt like devoting to cooking that evening. I forgot to get a taste until after I was already satiated and the stew was no longer especially hot, and even so it tasted good. The rice was red, infused with tomato sauce. The rice comes separately and the idea is to combine it into the stew (or vice versa?). As someone who limits my carbs I always appreciate being able to mix in only as much rice as I like. This was Carter's dish, and he said it was "fine". Those of you who know Carter understand what high praise this is. In fact, perhaps I only need say this on behalf of the restaurant: Carter went back not only a second time, but multiple times. Wow! (I have a long list of restaurants in Orange County where we have only been once because Carter's was "not impressed" and thus, why bother going back?)

I confess I never even noticed they had salmon on the menu, so I thank my friend Wayne for "finding" it. The dish as pictured does not appear on the menu, so he must have done some substitutions. Note that the menu only offers "penne pasta" but what he got was clearly spaghetti. (Since I find spaghetti to be Highly Annoying to eat, receiving it when I'd ordered penne would be a sore point for me.) Anyway, the pasta looks pretty boring: just doused in a bit of oil with parmesan cheese on top. The vegetables are great, though. I didn't try the salmon, but Wayne said it was fabulous (and it smelled delicious from the next seat over).

They have a small selection of table wines, including a Chardonnay, retsina, sometimes a Sauvignon blanc, and one or two red wines that I can't remember now. These are table wines, so don't expect much, but they go down perfectly smoothly with the casual atmosphere, and they're a good deal at only $4.95 per (generous) glass. A caveat about the retsina, which is a Greek white wine that is flavored with, yes, pine resin: I will not promise you that that will go down smoothly, as it is definitely an acquired taste. On the other hand, if you haven't tried it before, this is a fine chance to give it a whirl. They also have some bottled beers.

I've never paid for dessert here, although they have it on the menu. Every time I've gone there for dinner, they wait until you're done eating and bring you dessert for free. Maybe I'm just that cute, or maybe they're just that nice and want to encourage you to come back. I'm betting on the latter. Most times we've gotten little bowls of tart yogurt drizzled with wonderfully sweet honey, with chopped walnuts on top. Wow, so simple and yet so divine. It prompted the Serbian friend to ask the Greek friend, "Why don't we do this in my country?!" I thought much the same thing: we should do this in my country a lot more often. Yum, yum, YUM. I always think I'm too full to eat another bite by the time they bring dessert out, and next thing you know, my bowl is empty.

The last time we came we were brought a few dishes of baklava for dessert instead, which was also very good -- not too sickly sweet, as it can sometimes be.

In other words, this may not be the fanciest place in town (ha!), but it's good, heart-warming food from beginning to end.

A practical note: it's somewhat hard to find this restaurant among the many signs in this area, especially now during the center's renovations. So don't bother looking for a sign. Just trust me, and park in the lot across Sunflower from South Coast Plaza, in the same general parking lot area as Cost Plus World Market and Red Robin, but closer to the corner of Bristol. Then go into the strip mall on the corner; the Greek Island Grille is down the stairs on your right.


The Whole Pita -- Greek Island Grille
3940 S. Bristol St
Santa Ana, CA

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