Counter Act

January 7, 2010

Dressed up burgers are peeking from their egg washed bonnets all over town these days. I’m all for affordable indulgence, but certain topping combinations are becoming more overexposed than brawling Bravolebrities. 

Consider A Restaurant’s beef patty the size of a solidarity fist with its buttery brioche bun, caramelized onions, bleu cheese and  bacon. Now ponder Haven Gastropub’s mad amalgamation of pork and beef entangled with pungent pickled red onions and blanketed with triple cream bleu cheese. Sound familiar?   

The fun of  the rapidly expanding 25 branch hipster franchise The Counter is having infinite choices of what to put or not put on your juicy whoopee cushion of grilled goodness, even when the current trend is all about blue-veined cheeses, manipulated onions and pork. 

Whipped avocado, fried tomatillos and pepper jack? Check!

With its powdery blue walls, soft globe lighting and industrial aluminum furniture, OC’s brand new and only branch of The Counter is the latest backdrop for stylish alternative servers with the deliberate bed head of  Himalayan guinea pigs and the ink, but not the vacant poker-faced stares of Travis Barker.   

The treated concrete floor and large retractable wall that bathes the room in light give the impression of an artist’s studio or gallery space, but under its cool facade lies a warm fuzzy ethos. The website says The Counter was ‘anti-established’ in 2003, but the most subversive thing about the chain is the radical step of ditching factory meat and choosing humanely raised and handled Angus beef.  

Did you miss out on waiting tables? There’s still time! At the counter, you take your own order by checking off boxes in five sections of the menu on a clipboard.  While you do this, you will need inspiration. A fifty-fifty combo of sweet, wispy fried onion strings and match-stick thin savory fries served with barbecue and ranch can help. On another visit, the monthly special was a  gritty application of low-end parmesan on fries and the fried dill pickle chips channeled Carl’s Jr.’s slimy fried zucchini coins, but with a sodium-packed punch. This left valuable real estate in my gut for the main course. 

I built a 1/3 lb. manwich with horseradish cheddar, roasted chiles, roasted red peppers, mixed baby greens, grilled onions,fried onion strings and  roasted garlic aioli. In a deft feat of physics, the chefs balanced my seven unwieldy topping selections with Jenga-like precision. Juicy, savory and seared to a pink medium rare, the beef  seemed to absorb all the other flavors and textures on its pliable, crenelated surface. 

If you were fashion challenged  kid swaddled in the Garanimals mix and match separates who learned never to pair the monkey label shorts with the rhino tag shirt, choosing from a legion of toppings and sauces might be tough. My advice: order a malty bottle of Three Philosophers Ale, take a deep breath and go for it! Sun dried tomatoes, herbed goat cheese spread, fried eggs, soy-ginger glaze  and caramelized onion marmalade are just a few choices. Be brave and change it up in 2010! 

The Counter 6416 Irvine Blvd. Irvine, CA 92620.949.336.7272. Dinner for two, $25.00, food only.

Shabu Chic

December 30, 2009

 Ditching dirty work. It’s the reason even the most hell-bent D.I.Y. home cook wants to close his kitchen and get away from it all occasionally.  Yet restaurants  that lure customers into manual labor under the guise of interactive food experiences are packed. Korean Barbecue, fondue restaurants and take-your-own-order burger joints to name a few. Gimmicky? Yes. But they’ve got something. Say you’re in the company of elementary school aged children.  Forget the devil’s playground, idle hands are Satan’s inflatable slide with the splash pool at the bottom.  And when entertaining that personality-impaired client, busy work at the table can be a boon to both of you. Enter Shabu Shabu Bar.

Still, it’s not for everyone. Think pointy chopsticks, boiling cauldrons of broth and meat that stays raw unless you cook it yourself. But that’s the Shabu Shabu experience, and after a Kirin or two you’ll be happy to let your kids or colleagues take control of their dining destinies. I was. Wedged into a new Santa Ana strip mall, Shabu Shabu Bar is all red walls, black bar stools and the pristine glint of stainless cooking vessels that may have been autoclaved giving it the pleasing sterility of a posh  surgery suite that serves sake. There’s a stylized design aesthetic that reeks of prototype: glass wall encasing sake bottles, a thermalized photo mural of one of the owners and bar furniture that would be at home in any bottle service ultra lounge.

Cute club kid servers remind you that if you don’t like the food, it’s your own fault. Yeah, kind of. This isn’t gourmet cooking, its high quality ingredients that you assemble yourself. Start by grinding black and white sesame seeds in a ceramic mortar with a hardwood pestle to add a toasted, nutty finish to the goma sauce and squirting chili oil into the lemony ponzu sauce.  After seasoning the cooking pot with green onion, garlic, soy, and radish, a still life of fresh veggies and a platter of shaved, fat-ribboned rib eye is procured. Wagyu beef, Kurobuta pork and shrimp are other options. White or brown rice is available. Blame it on The Black Eyed Peas: I never actually heard the alliterative ‘swish swish’ while laundering my meat through the boiling liquid, but my efforts were decent.  And the soup the servers concocted for me out of  the resulting broth was delicious. Just don’t make me do the dishes.

Shabu Shabu Bar 1945 E. 17th Street #108 Santa Ana, CA 92705  714.954.0332. Dinner for two, $40.00, food only. Beer and wine only.

Daily Dosa

November 17, 2009

Without a hint of the mad Bollywood-set lighting and billowing spice market-hued fabrics of Chakra and none of the casual hipness of a longtime take-out standard like Nikki’sDosa Place has more than managed as the homely sister by catering weddings and hawking a  serviceable lunch buffet to hungry Indian crowds looking for a lunchtime replacement of mom’s sambar in its dark strip mall cavern on Red Hill.

Its newly-opened second location is painted conservative gold and burgundy in its former steakhouse digs minus the booths and plus sleek black scrim-like shades and  heavy tasselled drapes. Is it cool? Not by a long shot. The handsome dark woods and 3-D paintings of Indian scenes give it a respectable if faintly matronly air: somewhere you’d take your co-workers, or grandma visiting from Kerala. Utilitarian and budget friendly, the steam table lunch buffet is also pushed here.  But the reason I love this place has nothing to do with décor or all-you-can-eat tandoori chicken. Dosa’s hidden charms are found on the regular menu. 

Mysore Madness!

Start with the Mysore Masala Dosa, a lentil batter crepe the size of the LA Times, its crackling golden brown paper-thin layers spiked with an incendiary blend of crushed udad dal, red pepper and tamarind swaddling a thick smear of curried whipped potato filling.  You’ll have to completely dismantle the thing to dip it in the soothing side of coriander and coconut-spiked sambar, or you can just spoon it on. A paneer dosa on another day didn’t have the same papery crispness or the promised spiciness as denoted by a chili pepper icon on the menu, even with the side of red curry. Sort of like a benign, flaccid Indian quesadilla.

If chapter four of Skinny Bitch grossed you out with its descriptions of factory farming and scared you into becoming an ambivalent-but- fabulously-emaciated vegetarian, you would get along great here because half the menu is meatless. This fact won’t occur to most omnivores thanks to vegetable dishes as complex and multifaceted as Hindu deities. Okra is doused with mustard seed onion  and   tomato,  perfumed with garlic and ginger paste, laden with aromatic curry leaves and fried with tiny lentils resulting in a surprising nutty crunch. Try the Baighan Baratha. The tandoor renders the eggplant velvety and it oozes with flavors of tomato, onion, chilies and a masala mixture too exhaustive for my poor server to recite. 

 Animal dishes rate high with me; smoldering rivers of viscous red curry studded with tender hunks of lamb,  fiery tamarind-based catfish curry with notes of red chili and jalapeños and chicken tikka masala as good as any around. On to our discussion of local Indian food, our waiter told us he had worked for twelve Indian restaurants and this was the best by far. “I believe in Karma.” he said. So do I.  

Dosa Place 17245 Seventeenth St. Tustin 714.508.7788. Dinner for two, $40.00, food only.

Spaced Out at Park Ave.

November 11, 2009

When you are perusing your mental Rolodex for fine dining in OC, you may think of Newport, Laguna, CDM, even Costa Mesa.  Many restaurateurs will do anything to be there,  even if that means operating contortionist-style out of a  kitchen slightly larger than an elevator with a dining room the size of a bookmobile.

 Bet you don’t think about Stanton when planning that special fête. In a wasteland of dilapidated Googie-style motels along Beach Blvd. that serve as lodging for probationers sits a  handsomely revamped  58 Buick of a structure known for the past five years as Park Ave.

90680 doesn’t fall into the McMonigle Group profile for luxury real estate holdings to be sure, but it really doesn’t matter once you step inside. Located on a sprawling acre with two dining rooms, a private park and adjoining garden rife with Carnival carrots and heirloom tomatoes, Park Ave. puts Stanton on the map as a culinary destination much like Zov Karamardian did with Zov’s Bistro in Tustin in the late eighties.PARK AVE 012

Chef and managing partner David Slay formerly of La Veranda in Beverly Hills presides over the entire production including a dimly lit bar full at lunch with a corpulent bunch nursing sidecars under the glow of its Sputnik-style starburst lighting. But novelty architecture and kitchy cuisine are two different things.  The food at Park Ave. never feels gimmicky or dated.

 Slay has put together a staff who make most everything on the straightforward menu from scratch. Meals start with lavender honey butter (they have their own gardener and  bee keeper)  and slices of crackling, thin crusted baguettes made in-house that release soft, moist, cotton candy-textured insides.

 Grilled calamari: a few seconds too long and you have a steel-belted Goodyear on a plate. Yet each time I had the grilled calamari  and artichoke in delicate garlic and lemon sauce under Slay’s nuanced watch, the former had a supple, tender texture.   
 A  sandwich that consisted of a wan chicken breast laying on two slices of walnut bread with grilled romaine and bland tomato relish was a disappointment on one day, pushed on me by an experienced server who was perhaps engaging in a staff contest to sell out a recently added special.

PARK AVE 006

Carnival carrots at Park Ave.

Steaks and chops dominate the menu, but the seafood is worth special mention. Maine scallops are as big as cupcakes, tender and sweet, barely seared in a grain mustard pan jus and served on a bed of  creamy, savory edamame succotash. A salmon filet baked with a sinus-clearing five spice blend and drizzled in an elegant hot mustard sauce is lovely with moist freshwater pearls of scallion brown rice and spinach. I scream for the refreshing homemade ice cream that packs just enough butterfat to remind you of a Michoacan nevería.  Not so much the pistachio with its gummy nuts but the exuberant fresh ginger, yes!

 Park Ave. 11200 Beach Blvd. Stanton 714.901.4400 www.parkavedining.com. Dinner for two, $60.00, food only.

Chilling Station

November 6, 2009

I’ve come to the grim realization that my personal assistant, whom I haven’t seen in months, may never be coming back. And now they’re saying I might have never even had one. Eerie. Got to sort that one out. In the meantime, I’m a sucker for establishments that eradicate several nagging errands at once, especially if I can make a lunch date out of it!

AMARKET 020

A MARKET 'oreos'.

Has the assistant you never had disappeared? A lot of this going around. Pastry chef Shelly Register will hook you up at the one-year-old former filling station-turned-sandwich shop, gourmet food purveyor, newstand and coffee-house known as A Market.

Where else in OC can you get a dozen red velvet cupcakes, holiday hostess gifts, boutique wines (a bottle of luscious Bitch Grenache for that special someone?) and pick up hand crafted dinners with easy parking?AMARKET 016

While you’re there, stay for lunch. Register’s sandwiches are gorgeous and fastidiously proportioned. No wayward gobs of mayo here. My personal fave: lightly toasted artisanal corn marble rye with slices of juicy bird, micro-planed avocado, a whisper of arugula and a thinly spread layer of honey mustard and pear marmalade served with dainty house-made coriander, clove and red pepper flake-laced pickles.

Register’s giant ‘oreos’ that were so popular at The Camp’s Village Bakery are back along with lily pad sized chewy, sugar-flecked ginger-molasses cookies. A Market 3400 West Coast Hwy., NB 949.650.6515. www.arestaurantnb.com . Lunch for two, $23.00, food only.

Baristacrats

October 30, 2009
KEANS 004

Turkish Latte by Ashley

When Martin Dietrich opened Kéan Coffee, it was a huge day for our caffeinated coast. Diedrich lovingly treats coffee beans as what they are: food. Yet he doesn’t compromise what we all love: style. The result is heady, complex performance art. Kéan’s superlative baristas personally stylize each cup coaxing perishable tobacco-hued espresso crema and meringue-textured micro foamed milk into rosettes, hearts, exotic palm fronds, rabbits and even Pac Man on the surface of your latte, no extra charge! Last time I was there, a woman with maniacal Dan Zane’s-like hair asked for and received a Piero Fornasetti sun motif. Next up: The Lord’s Prayer on a patch of Macchiato foam. Kéan Coffee 2043 Westcliff Drive, NB 949.642.5326. 13681 Newport Ave. Ste. 14, Tustin. 714.838.5326. www.kean.com Coffee and snacks for two, $13.00.

Lola Gaspar

October 29, 2009

Lola Gaspar 003Restaurateurs have a way of looking  ill at ease, or just ill at the beginning of a new venture. After all; life savings, mortgages, pawnable goods and  first-born children are often hanging in the balance. Yet in the half-dozen times I’ve been to Lola Gaspar since it opened ten months ago, the owners always appear relaxed and companionable, chatting up guests with the effortless brio of the guys you met on the train to Pamplona back in college.

 Indeed the Santa Ana Artist’s Village is about as close to Europe as you’ll get in OC. With the Santora Arts Building’s ultra-baroque churrigueresque-style faςade as its bones and a pedestrian street with a trickling fountain and  sunny patio in front, the reinvented pocket of downtown Santa Ana is channeling a Gaudí -studded Barcelona or even Milan’s Brera neighborhood with its side street wiles. A prickly debate has raged for at least ten years over whether this area could or should  go through the pains of metamorphosis. Now the point is moot thanks to a handful of pioneering  restaurants and clubs like Lola that are stimulating down town Santa Ana’s economy one glass of sangria at a time.lola gaspar outside 009

Inside, there are a handful of black leather booths and cute servers that sometimes wear boots to match. Hi-tops and bar stools  flank the L-shaped bar. A single flat screen discreetly shows stuff like The Motorcycle Diaries or the Argentine Super Clasico soccer match while samba plays on an IPOD. Shadows cast by florid wrought iron give the haunt an ethereal vibe during lunchtime while goth-glam chandeliers add femininity at night.

Lola Gaspar 006

Lola’s kitchen occupies the paltry square footage a larger restaurant might set aside for, say,  their small walk-in, yet manages to turn out the casual, unmanipulated fare of a San Sebastian tavern.  Flatbreads  and tacos are decent. Caramel-like dates stuffed with pungent blue cheese and wrapped with crisp bacon have their own cult on Yelp. Seared cuts of steak, caramelized onions and  cheese  in a grilled tortilla rendered translucent with oil is essential comfort food while the accompanying Spanish-style potato salad is just alright.

At thirteen dollars, the roasted wild snapper is one of the more expensive things on the  menu. Cooked to  tender flakiness and dressed in  a tangy caper beurre blanc, it could easily go for more in a formal setting on a dinner menu  even without the accompanying green beans and  crumbly, golden-crusted goat cheese polenta that yields to a pudding-like texture. 

Let the politicos spar about whether gentrification was nefarious or the  if the dominant demographic and current aesthetic of the neighborhood will continue to co-exist. I’ll be on the patio at Lola with a slightly effervescent glass of Twin Vines albarino.

Lola Gaspar 211 W. 2nd Street Santa Ana 92701 (714) 972 1172. Dinner for two, $40.00,  food only.

Top Chef at Zov’s

October 23, 2009

A small faux-painted sign on the wall above an antique buffet in Zov Karamardian’s Bakery reads: Zov’s Queendom. It goes largely unnoticed by the throngs panting on the bakery cases, politely purchasing and then mauling pumpkin-chocolate chip cookies with velvety chocolate cream cheese frosting and ogling the key lime tartlets with meringue peaks toasted the impossible golden brown of a perfect campfire marshmallow. One thing is clear to Zov’s royal subjects: she’s in the details. If you get the sense it wouldn’t be the same without her physically there, you’re right.  

Chef chat.

Chef chat.

That’s why when the Bravo reality show Top Chef Masters asked Zov to be a contestant on the show this year,  she demurred.The show offers the winner $100,000.00 cash for their favorite charity. Still, to earn it, chefs have to be sequestered from family and friends, contend with sleep deprivation and such insane elimination competitions  as creating an amuse bouche from items out of a vending machine. What’s next, dumpster diving for power garnishes?  

Chef struck!

Chef struck!

In a moment of serendipity, Top Chef Season One veteran Dave Martin ate at Zov’s recently and hit it off with Karamardian. Last Sunday,  Martin led a cooking class at the bistro. I like to cook, but all that tedious standing around and manual labor can make me cranky and hungry. Especially when the only consolation is a meager sample of my own cooking. In this class, I watched a demo while the steps were fully explained and questions were answered, ate a full-sized meal and went home with the recipes-hooray!  

He's not your bitch.

He's not your bitch.

Teddybearish and disarming, Martin fumbled with the gas burners and introduced his mom during the demo. A pleasant surprise considering his signature line on the show was, “I’m not your bitch, Bitch!”  

Black truffle mac and cheese has become as ubiquitous in OC as chef-celebs with meat-cutting diagram tats and flesh plugs. Still, when done well, who can resist? Bill Bracken serves an elegant version at Palm Terrace and there’s a decent homespun-if-too-creamy take at  Old Town Orange’s Haven Gastropub. Brandy and sherry fortification lended a fondue-like quality to Martin’s version for a result both comforting and upscale. Substituting the usual pasty roux with a liaison to thicken the sauce garnered a lighter result. Though based in NYC, he’s welcome in our kitchen anytime.  

Mac daddy.

Mac daddy.

 Zov’s Bistro, Café and Bakery 17440 East Seventeenth St. Tustin, CA 92780 714.838.8855. www.zovs.com Dinner for two, $80.00, food only.  

www.chefdavemartin.com

Gutsy Gastropub

October 20, 2009
Belly up!

Belly up!

Consider the gastropub. Never mind that the word itself is as leaden as a basket of greasy fried mozzarella sticks. Coined in the early nineties in England, it combines the word gastronomy and the word pub implying that you’ll be getting more than pickled eggs with your pint. And since bars with big screens are usually known more for their nachos and wings than their organic produce ands house-crafted ketchup, this is a welcome concept. Chances are, if you follow food trends in OC, you’ve already enjoyed a malty 20 oz. Old Speckled Hen and an order of prime short rib pasties at the comely Crowbar and Kitchen in Corona Del Mar, the first boîte in the county to call itself a gastropub.

Like CDM, Old Orange is one of OC’s few pedestrian-friendly hamlets that thrive on foot traffic and a loyal, insular crowd of locals. Haven Gastropub, open for just over a month is jammed  at nine on a Friday with pub-crawlers,  university hipsters and  fastidious Old Orange preservation-cultists. There’s an impression of cozy sophistication: handsome dark wood, stone hearth, candlabra chandeliers and booths that look as if someone made a trip to the Laguna Design Center to pick out upholstery.

Haven mavens.

Haven mavens.

Chef Greg Daniels has done everything from managing Heat Ultra Lounge (bottle service anyone?) to cooking under the Gallic tutelage of Pascal Olhats: a fitting combination of the barfly cred and culinary chops needed to make this work. Like Crowbar, he relies on local or organic produce, sustainable seafood and meat from animals who were humanely-raised.

Haven olives are a lovely trifecta of fruits spiked with citrus zests, cured and loaded with fresh herbs. The fritto misto, vegetables and seafood fried in tempura-like beer batter is decievingly heavy handed, better the herb-flecked fries with cinnamon-spiked house-crafted ketchup if you’re in the mood for crunch.

The hamburger, a combination of beef and pork with the heft of a closed fist, drips with juices, tangy pickled red onion roasted red pepper and the molten funk of a double-cream blue  cheese. An artisanal bun with the absorption of a Sham Wow is futile in keeping the savory drippings from my face, hands and Nanette Lepore blouse-ouch!

Gastronomy aside, any establishment with the word ‘pub’ in the title is only worth the brew it serves. Haven has over fifty hand-crafted small-batch beers from buoyant-as-champagne hefeweizens to ale the color of black strap molasses.

Gastro-grub.

Gastro-grub.

Wine and beer pairings listed on the menu lure with the confidence of a motivational speaker and the authority of a life coach. When the command, “ENJOY WITH: Layer Cake Shiraz” appears right after the description of the burger, really, who am I to argue?

Old Towne Orange  has struggled with its quaint reputation for decades. For years it seemed better suited to Red Hat Society tea room outings than a hang-out for a diverse cross-section of humanity. Now a handful of new restaurants have breathed life into its Anytown, USA historic plaza. Haven is the latest.

Haven Gastropub 190 Glassell Street Orange, CA 92866 714 221 0680 www. havengastropub.com

 

Butternutcase

October 7, 2009

85degreesbutternut 006As a former flight attendant, I know first hand how long-range flying ravages your skin. I watched my complexion transform from glowing Maxfield Parrish model material to Hartz rawhide chew in the dozen hours it took to get from LAX to Melbourne. Sure, it was nothing a gallon of water, black-out drapes and a tub of Creme de la Mer couldn’t fix, but your perishable produce doesn’t have that luxury.

Chilean grapes are great if your in Chile. But by the time they get here, they’ve lost their supple tautness and squandered valuable fossil fuel that could’ve been saved for that Bucket List trip you’re planning to Madagascar. 85degreesbutternut 017

Why not ditch the foreign fruits and vegetables and replace them with the gorgeous seasonal produce from your local certified farmer’s market? The butternut squash in these pictures comes from the Wednesday market in Tustin on the vacant corner of  El Camino Real and 3rd. These creamy-colored pendulous beauties came from the Sweredoski Farms (of Bell Gardens) stand.  The distance they travelled to get to my plate was 28.69 miles according to Mapquest. Here is a simple recipe I made up after experimenting in the Galley Girl test kitchen.

 Butternut Squash Soup with Garlic and Ginger

4 medium sized butternut squash

1 eight ounce can chicken broth                                                          

olive oil

1 tsp. salt

fresh ground pepper

2 T. fresh ginger root

4 T. butter

1 T. honey or agave nectar

4 cloves garlic

85degreesbutternut 021

Cut squash lengthwise, scoop out seeds. Brush or drizzle generously with olive oil and place in a Dutch oven. pour can of chicken broth into Dutch oven and put lid on. Roast in 400 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Cut skin from squash, cut into cubes and put in blender with half of broth liquid, reserve other half. Mince garlic cloves. Saute in olive oil. Add garlic, butter, honey, ginger salt and pepper to blender and puree until velvety smooth. Add rest of broth, salt and pepper for desired consistency and taste. Heat and serve. The flavors in this soup really mature on the second day.

Visit the Orange County Farm Bureau website at orange.cfbf.com or call (714) 573-0374 for a listing of certified farmer’s market locations.