Friday, January 20, 2017

Getting out for Restaurant Week


Pizzeria Mozza
800 West Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA 92663

Now that the holiday hustle has died down, this is the time when people are still clinging to their new year's resolutions, trying to replenish their bank accounts, and probably just wanting to stay home to rest after running all over trying to get things done for the holidays. Traditionally this is also a slow time for restaurants, so they have to come up with reasons to make people venture out, and Newport Beach Restaurant Week is one of the things that will definitely get us out of the house.

There are over 400 restaurants and bars in the cities of Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar. Now in its 11th year, Newport Beach Restaurant Week has over 60 of these restaurants participating in this two-week event, which runs from January 16th to January 29th. Put on by the Newport Beach Restaurant Association and Dine Newport Beach, restaurants offer special, two or three-course prix fixe menus priced between $10 to $25 for lunch and $20 to $50 for dinner. This is a great opportunity to try a restaurant that you have been wanting to try, but haven't yet. You can skim through the menus by clicking here: http://www.dinenb.com/restaurant-week/, but of course, first you should finish reading this review.

When restaurant weeks roll around, I usually just go to my restaurant wishlist, see what restaurants on it are participating, and make a plan to go. That's how we ended up at Pizzeria Mozza. I feel ashamed that we had not been to this pretty popular pizza restaurant located at the end of the Mainer's Mile on PCH yet. It has definitely got some star power behind it. You might have heard of Mario Batali, Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery, and Joe Bastianich, James Beard Award winner, and partner to Mario Batali in far too many restaurants to list here.

These three opened Mozza on the corner of Highland and Melrose, in the high traffic Fairfax area of LA, and then a year later took over the restaurant next door, to create a more traditional Italian restaurant, Osteria Mozza. Mozza is definitely more focused on pizzas, and they have seemed to catch on. They opened an outpost in Singapore and opened this Newport eatery in 2011. In those six years, they have been talked about as having some of the best pizza in OC, been praised by numerous food critics, and gotten some glowing reviews on Yelp. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to give this place a try.

Parking here is valet and at a cost of $7, which we heard a few people scoff about. You can chance it and park in the McDonald's parking lot next door, but there is a sign telling you not to. We arrived about fifteen minutes early for our 7:30 dinner reservation, but they still sat us right away. I really enjoyed this space, as the high ceiling and bright orange and yellow painted walls detracted us from the tables that are way too close to each other, and the way too dark dining room. The bar is pushed to one side of the restaurant, while on the other side of the restaurant is another bar, where diners can eat while watching pizzas going in and out of the very active pizza oven, which is the centerpiece of this restaurant. We quickly made our selections from the $30 restaurant week menu. Let's see if Pizzeria Mozza lives up to all of its hype and if this was a good choice for Newport Beach Restaurant Week.





Salads were offered as the first of the three courses, and as we often do during restaurant weeks, Katie and I coordinated that we each try a different option. She started with the Mozza Caprese. This was a very good version of this classic Italian salad. It had some of the most creamy burrata we have had, which was topped with a very well done pesto. The tomato was not as prominent on this as it usually is, which is fine with me because I'm not a big tomato fan. A really nice start for Katie's meal. With only two options offered, that left me with the Insalata Mista as my salad choice. This mixed green salad was dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, which was fine but kind of was boring. This salad would have been better with some blue cheese or something else added. I finished it, but not my favorite salad of all time.



The second course of the restaurant week menu had much more variety offered, with thirteen pizzas to choose from. Katie selected this Bianca pizza, which featured fontina cheese, mozzarella, sage, and sottocenere cheese, which is a cheese that is rubbed with truffle oil during aging. Katie thought this pizza was going to be too rich, but it was more mellow than she thought. It had a pleasing taste, but she was looking for that big burst of flavor to come through. The crust here was done to a wonderful golden brown, and we both wished for some marinara to dunk the crust in.



I usually always get the pizza that has the most meat on it, but at Mozza on this evening, I threw myself a curveball when I ordered this Egg, Bacon, Potato, Onion Pizza. I nicknamed this the breakfast pizza because it has all the ingredients on this which would make a great breakfast casserole. At first, I was a little disappointed with this, because I chose to start with the side of the pizza which did not include the hen egg on it. When I got into the second half of this pizza I really enjoyed it. The runny yolk really brought this to life, even though it was still a challenge to get everything included here in one bite. When I did manage to get everything in one perfect bite, this pizza was magical. The potatoes were fork tender, the bacon had a good smokiness going on, and the crust was good, and I'm the type of guy to leave my crust most of the time. My only other complaint would be that they could have included a few more onions here, but other than that, this was a great pizza.





The last of our three-course dinner was dessert, and again there were only two options, so Katie and I got one of each. I was pretty surprised with the portion size of the Chef's Choice of Gelato. We got two huge scoops of vanilla and caramel with an Italian cookie separating them. Both were delicious. The vanilla was my favorite, as it was creamy, and had a rich vanilla flavor. The caramel one was good as well, but it had a tinge of what I perceived to be coffee to it, which kind of threw me off. The Butterscotch Budino was nice and creamy and was not as sweet as we imagined it would be, which was a plus in our book. The little rosemary pine nut cookies that came with this stole the show, though. After having my little cookie I imagined that if I worked here, I would eat a ton of these unique tasting cookies. So good.

Coming to Pizzeria Mozza was a good choice for restaurant week. Not only did I get a chance to cross this place off of my list, but when I added up the costs of the meal, we saved between ten to fifteen dollars per person, which is a good amount, especially with how much we eat out. As I've stated before on this blog, I'm more a fan of American-style pizzas, with lots of cheese and toppings, but I've started to come around to liking authentic Italian style pizzas recently. These were some pretty good versions of what many would consider fancy pizzas. You can tell that they are using some high-quality ingredients here, and making these pizzas the right way. I've heard some good things about their lasagna as well, but from what our waiter told us, this is only available as a special on weekends. Speaking of our server, he was very nice and friendly but was definitely not what we would call overly attentive, as this three-course dinner stretched out past the two-hour mark, with a long wait in between courses and waiting for the check to arrive. Still, we will be back to explore more of their pizza menu and to hopefully get a chance to try their lasagna. We're pretty stoked that Newport Beach Restaurant Week has rolled around again, now we just have to decide where to eat next.

Out of five orange Crocs, (because those are the trademark footwear that Chef Mario Batali wears all the time), five being best to zero being worst, Pizzeria Mozza gets 3.5 orange Crocs.

For more information  about Pizzeria Mozza, head to their website here: http://newportbeach.pizzeriamozza.com/the-restaurant/

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Definitely Not Bottom of the Barrel Barbecue


Barrel and Ashes
11801 Ventura Blvd. 
Studio City, CA 91604

It's funny where a drunken phone call on New Year's Eve can have you end up. We had just left Katie's parents house when I decided to drunk dial Katie's cousin Bridget. After some long winded conversation about how we haven't been up to LA for awhile, we made some tentative plans to head up that way very soon. With my impending vacation coming up, we decided the approaching weekend would be the perfect time to see Katie's cousin and friends, and also a fantastic time to try an LA restaurant that has been on my list forever, Barrel and Ashes.

This Studio City restaurant came across my radar and ended up on my restaurant wishlist because of the review that acclaimed LA Times Restaurant Critic, Jonathan Gold gave it, and also because I had heard that this was Gordon Ramsay's favorite restaurant when he's around these parts. I'm sure it is, besides his own place, Boxwood Cafe in West Hollywood. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this restaurant, so I quickly made reservations via Open Table, and eagerly awaited our meal here.

After checking into our hotel, and a quick nap for Katie, we made it to Barrel and Ashes right at our 7:15 reservation time. Parking is tricky in this area of town, so we valeted for the modest price of $6. With our reservation, we bypassed the half hour wait and were seated right away. This is a smaller than I imagined restaurant, with I'm guessing fifteen or so tables inside, and maybe another five out in front of the restaurant. The tables were pretty close together, but we were still pretty comfortable here.

The menu at Barrel and Ashes is barbecue-focused, and the items on it are meant to be shared family style. Not a big barbecue lover? There are a few sandwiches and salads on the menu to help you out, but I was of course here for the meat. Heading the kitchen is Chef Tim Hollingsworth, who earned Michelin stars at his former place of employment, a little restaurant you might have heard of, French Laundry, where he worked with the iconic Thomas Keller and was the Chef de Cuisine there for four years. With this pedigree, it got me even more excited to see what was in store for us, so let's dive in.



When I saw that they had Frito Pie ($9) on the menu, I had to give it a try. I have to admit that this was my first time having this Southern staple. I really enjoyed my maiden Frito Pie, which in case you do not know is a bag of Frito's split open, and then topped with chili, cheese, sour cream, green onions, and pickled Fresno chilies. I wished that there was a little more chili included here, as it was kind of hard to get a bite of everything included with this starter. I look forward to many more rendezvous with Frito Pie in the future.



If you read through the Yelp reviews of this restaurant, one thing you pick up on is that the Hoe Cake ($8) is a must order. A hoe cake is another southern staple that I had never had/heard of before this evening. It's a little hard to explain what it is, but I'd describe this one as part cornbread, part french toast, with a savory pancake vibe, which has a touch of sweetness from the maple butter used to finish this off. I could have and probably should have ordered an extra one of these for myself. A little more sweetness included here could have pushed this to even greater heights, but still pretty impressive, and a must get when eating at Barrel and Ashes. Guess those people on Yelp do know a thing or two.



The cocktails need to be highlighted here, as the beverage program was started by Julian Cox, a prolific bartender/beverage director, who left LA last year for a new gig in Chicago. His legacy lives on at Barrel and Ashes, which has numerous drinks posted on chalkboards above the open kitchen. I had the Mai-Ty Joe Rum ($13), which utilized a five rum blend, L'Orgeat, Combier, and is aged in oak for 37 days. Our friend Christy is all about bourbon, so she zeroed in on the Kentucky Mule ($12) right away. This riff on a Moscow mule substituted bourbon for the usual vodka and also incorporated lemon, ginger, honey, and angostura into the mix. I felt both drinks were pretty professional, and they were meant to be enjoyed. The alcohol was present but hung out in the background of each sip. Nicely done.




Both Christy and Katie ordered the same thing, which helps me cut down on writing, which is always appreciated, (probably more by you readers, than myself). What got both of them so excited? The rather boastfully named, Best Damn Chicken Sandwich Y'Ever Had ($11). While neither of them claimed this was the best chicken sandwich they have had, both really enjoyed it. The chicken was moist, not too heavy, and Katie detected a little heat from the breading. The sandwich was finished off with some coleslaw for texture, jalapenos, for even more heat, and pimento cheese, which bound everything together nicely. Katie liked the way that the items on this interacted with each other. Not the best, but pretty damn good.





Barbecued meats are sold by the weight at Barrel and Ashes, as they do not offer any combo plates, which I was a little disappointed with. Combo plates are my usual order at barbecue restaurants so I can get a chance to try a little bit of everything in one trip. Luckily, I had a partner in crime on this evening, our good friend Rosanna. She was willing to split a meal with me and even allowed me to pick the meats we were going to have. I went with the Half Pound of Brisket ($17), Half Rack of Spare Ribs ($19), and a Jalapeno Cheddar Sausage ($7). The brisket was some of the best I have had, in most of the bites. The outer portion had a nice crust to it, which was thicker in parts, and might not be to everyone's liking. It was to my liking. I did have a few bites that were a little on the dry side, but for the most part, this brisket was moist and tender, and one the best briskets flavorwise that I have had. The sausage was also a winner. It's made by Electric City Butcher, which is based out of Santa Ana's 4th Street Market. It was really cool being in LA and having a little taste of OC up here. It really lends legitimacy that the OC food scene has come a long way. Back to the sausage, it had some good cheddar cheese and jalapeno in it, but the prevailing flavor was the sausage itself. Very well made, with a nice snap to its casing. The weak link on this plate were the spare ribs. They were a little devoid of meat, but the meat that was there was tender and pulled away easily from the bone. They were enhanced with flavor by adding the provided barbecue sauce, which was kind of pedestrian but did the trick by adding a little more flavor to these ribs.



Of course, you have to get some sides when eating in a barbecue restaurant, but since we had two appetizers, we only got two to share between the four of us. The Mac and Cheese ($9) was a solid choice. This cheddar based version was nicely done, lighter than I thought it would be, and with the addition of the slightly browned bread crumbs, had a great texture to it. The Tater Tots ($7) do not show up on their online menu so they might be a new addition to the lineup here. They were pretty average, and nothing special, even with the cheese topping them.




Dessert was our last hurrah at Barrel and Ashes, and we indulged by having the Apple Crumble ($9). As far as fruit desserts go, I really enjoyed this crumble. It came with plenty of homemade vanilla ice cream, the crumble was nice and crunchy, and the apples underneath were not bathed in a syrupy mess, but were pretty natural tasting, which was a big plus in my book. The Banana Pudding ($7) was a little more of a letdown for me. The toasted meringue topping this dessert really overpowered the banana pudding and Nilla Wafers underneath, which was a shame because both were pretty good.

Even with a few minor hiccups, Barrel and Ashes really lived up to the hype. The barbecue here is legit, and definitely in the running for one of the best we have had in Southern California. Yes, I would like them to have some combination plates on their menu, but I'll probably just stick to their brisket and sausage on future visits, and I won't be shy about ordering a lot of both of them. Our waiter, Clay was a great server, explained the menu to us perfectly, and gave us some great advice on what to order here. Thanks for everything Clay. I ended up being pretty happy that a drunken phone call in the wee hours of the start of this year led us to Barrel and Ashes.

Out of five architects, (because the house used for exterior shots on the Brady Bunch is located a few blocks from this restaurant, and it was supposedly designed by the patriarch of the Brady clan, Mike, who of course was an architect), five being best to zero being worst, Barrel and Ashes gets 3.5 architects.

For more information about Barrel and Ashes, head to their website here: http://barrelandashes.com/

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Grubbin' in Tustin


American Grub
365 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Getting dinner before a Ducks game is a juggling act for Katie and I. I usually look up places on Yelp that are on our way, but by the time she gets out of work, and with traffic, we almost always end up just driving thru somewhere, and eating in the parking lot at Honda Center. This is not the case with games that start at 7:30, instead of the usual 7 pm starting time. With that extra half hour traffic dies down, we can eat a decent meal, and still make it to the game before the national anthem has been sung. On one recent game day, we had the extra half hour and spent it at American Grub in Tustin.

I'm sorry to admit that American Grub had escaped my restaurant radar until this point of time. I'm usually pretty good with keeping up with restaurants, especially ones that feature great shots of their burgers on their Yelp page. American Grub is situated in Old Town Tustin, right next door to the Swinging Door, which of course I have never been to, (okay a few times, but don't tell my secret).

I guess you could call American Grub a sister restaurant to the Swinging Door. After talking to Owner, Gerald Montes, who prefers to be called, G, he told us that his girlfriend is the manager next door, and they offer their menu to the hungry patrons of that bikini bar through a window directly from their kitchen. There would be no visit to the Swinging Door on this evening, we were here for a quick bite before the game.

The inside of American Grub resembles the Pinterest website brought to life. There's an American flag made out of discarded license plates, mosquito netting used as lighting covering, and lots of other repurposed items used in unique ways. Lending to the slight hipster vibe in this former antique store location is the exposed beams in the ceiling, the wonderful brick walls, and the mismatched tables and chairs, which give AG some good character.

The menu at AG includes a good amount of burger options, even more sandwiches, and is rounded out with some salads, sides, and a few grill items. Most prices hover right around the $12 mark. Ordering is done at the counter and the food is brought out to your table. Let's see if the food tastes as good as it looks in the pictures on Yelp.




Out first was this tray of Cajun Fries ($3.95). These were simply crinkle cut fries that were sprinkled with cajun seasoning, but they were still pretty solid. Frequent readers of this blog know about my love for crinkle cut fries. Not only do they remind me of being a kid and having them at Carl's Jr., but I believe that they hold whatever you dip them into better. The ketchup or ranch clings to the crinkle nicely, which allows for more flavorful fries. These fries had plenty of flavors included with the addition of the slightly spicy cajun seasoning. There was definitely enough fries included here for more than two people, so order accordingly.



As if we needed anything more than the fries before our meal, we also got the Onion Rings ($4). I liked that these onion rings were dusted with parmesan cheese, but I thought that the breading was too heavy on these, and really let the onion underneath down a bit.



I was here for a burger, but Katie wanted to give this Turkey Melt ($8) a try. This was a pretty simple turkey melt, which was done well. The toasted sourdough bread provided a nice crunch, while the insides featured creamy Swiss cheese and a decent amount of turkey. Katie liked the simpleness of this sandwich, but ordered a side of mustard to go with this to jazz it up.




I was so torn as to which one of the thirteen burgers to get here, but I finally decided to get the Guilty Burger ($12). It was a good choice, and there was no guilt by me for having this burger. This burger was a souped up version of their breakfast burger. It comes with swiss, cheddar, and pepper jack cheeses, a fried egg, bacon, and one of the better versions of a chipotle mayo I have had. This burger was delicious and really got me excited for this place. The yolk was nice and runny, the cheeses were so good on this, and the chipotle mayo actually had some spice to it. Definitely, a burger made for my tastes. The beef patty was a little overshadowed by the condiments here, but I'll definitely get a double the next time to make sure it's more prominent the next time I have this very good burger. I also want to highlight the buns here, which were soft, but still structurally sound, even with this runny burger. The burgers and sandwiches come ala carte at American Grub, but you do get a small side of their homemade potato salad, which is both creamy and chunky at the same time, which is the way I want my potato salad.



When G came over and talked to us, he mentioned that he was making some soup for tomorrow, and asked if we wanted to try it. I did not get a chance to catch the name of this soup, but it was scalding hot when it came out to us, and we had to let it chill for a bit before tackling it. Once it was cool enough, we could tell this was an Asian-tinged chicken noodle soup. I thought G said this was jute, but not sure after I looked up what that was online. Whatever it was, it was very good, and you should be on the look out for specials when coming to American Grub.

American Grub was a real solid find on this evening. Not only did we get in and out quick enough to make the game, but we also got to experience one of the better burgers I have had in some time. I really enjoyed that burger, and look forward to coming back here again to try some of their other ones soon. Service on this evening was friendly and welcoming, and we enjoyed hearing G's story about opening this place, and the passion that he has for the food here. Finding restaurants like American Grub is one of the main reasons that I write this restaurant review blog. They obviously do not have one of the big PR companies working for them, and they are kind of like an undiscovered place, that people need to know about. Hopefully one of my three readers of this blog will give this place a try. We will definitely be back, and not just before Ducks games.

Out of five palm trees, (because after a little internet digging, I found out that G was an extra on the TV show, "Hawaii Five-O", and that show has lots of palm trees in the background as well), five being best to zero being worst, American Grub gets 3.5 palm trees.

For more information about American Grub, head to their limited website here: http://www.americangrub.net/home.html

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Trip into the Burger Trenches


Mooyah
5365 Alton Parkway
Suite A2
Irvine, CA 92604

If you are anywhere near the intersection of Jeffery and Culver in Irvine and listen very closely, you can hear the sounds of spatulas being tapped on grills, ketchup bottles being loaded and made ready for battle, and you might also pick up the sound of knife blades cutting produce. Yes, these are the sounds of war, well a burger war anyways. In one corner, or in this case, shopping center, we have The Stand, which we visited recently, and you can read that review here. Across the street, we have another new to OC burger concept, and the one we would be visiting on this evening, Mooyah.

I had not heard about Mooyah until they started following me on Instagram recently. When I finally checked them out, I was kind of embarrassed by not knowing about them. They have 76 domestic locations open and operating in nineteen states. They also have quite the international presence, as they are slinging their burgers in nine different countries, with a good majority of those in the Middle East. I could be partially forgiven not knowing about them because they only have one other Southern California outpost right now, that one being in Monrovia. At least that's the story I'm sticking to.

Actually, this Irvine location has been open close to two years now and is situated in the same shopping center as Ralphs, CVS, and California Pizza Kitchen. This is a fast casual burger place, where you order at the counter, and the food is brought out to you after that. The concept here is that they want you to create your own burger, build it from the bun up. The menu above the register only has this option, but there's also another menu that lists some of their all-time favorites, for people that don't want to think too hard about putting their perfect burger together. Not sure why these are not front and center as well, but at least now you are aware of them. Other than burgers, Mooyah offers chicken and turkey burgers, salads, and hot dogs. Let's see if they are winning this burger war, based on their food.



These Half and Half Fries ($4.39) came out first.We were instructed when ordering that the medium sized fries would easily feed the three of us, and they were totally right. For a little variety, we got both the sweet potato and the hand cut fries. I'm not a big fan of sweet potato fries, so I left those to David and Katie, both of whom liked them, but were not wowed by them. I kind of had the same reaction to the regular fries here. I think they had a lot of potential, but they came out lukewarm, and not as crisp as I like. We got their spicy ranch and regular ranch dressing as dipping sauces, both of which were fine, but the spicy ranch was not very spicy.



Regular readers of this blog know that this was not my choice on this evening. Since the calendar has flipped to 2017, Katie has tried to become a little more healthy, so she gave Mooyah's Chicken and Avocado Club Sandwich ($7.29) a try. Instead of the multi-grain bun that this usually come with, she opted for the lettuce wrap option here, which did not look too flattering in pictures. This came with avocado, ranch dressing, bacon, and tomato included. Katie was not too enthused by this sandwich. She thought that the chicken was overcooked and dry, and there was not enough ranch dressing and avocado to moisten this up. She'd definitely get something different on future trips here. The price of eating healthier I guess.




David got something that your more likely to see at Mooyah, a burger. Both David and I got one of their all-time favorite burgers to try, and his selection was this Well D'Onion ($6.99). This one-third pound burger was topped with cheddar cheese, onions, grilled onions, fried onions strings, lettuce, and spicy ranch all on a potato bun. David's not the most voa=cal of my friends, but when pressed, he said he enjoyed this burger and would get it again. That's about all I could get out of the big guy on this evening.




I was feeling like I wanted to be heated up on this rather chilly night, so I got the Double Diablo Burger ($8.49). This burger topped out at a half a pound and was joined on the bun by some pepper jack cheese, Cholula, bacon, mayo, and jalapenos. Even though this burger failed to heat me up too much, it was delicious. I really liked the loosely packed beef here, which was seasoned well and was very juicy. The condiments were distributed evenly, and the bun held it all together. Consuming this burger got me excited about other burgers here, and I look forward to coming back and trying out their Six Degrees of Bacon Burger, or maybe I'll build my own burger.



As excited as I was about the burger at Mooyah, I was let down by this Full Count Hot Dog ($6.29). This was another one of their all-time favorite menu items, which came with plenty of American cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, relish, and bacon. I should have listened to my golden rule about hot dogs, never order a hot dog with ketchup. Not to bad mouth you ketchup loving purists out there, but ketchup does not belong on a hot dog ever. At Mooyah they use Hebrew National All Beef Hot Dogs but I could not tell, due to all the toppings used on this one. The cheese really overpowered here, and the other condiments really did not help either. If the menu had not said that there was bacon on this, I never would have known. The bun was probably the best part of this, as it had a nice crunch to it, but remained stable throughout the short life of this hot dog.

So who's winning the burger war at the intersection of Jeffery and Alton? After just one visit to each, I'd have to say it's close, but I'm giving the slight edge to The Stand. I really enjoyed the hot dog better there, while the burger was better here at Mooyah. So the tiebreaker would be the fries, and I liked the ones at The Stand just a bit better, plus I enjoyed that they offer onion rings, unlike Mooyah. Mooyah offers fried crispy onion straws on their burgers, and those might be a great addition to their side item menu. Just a little hint. I thought the prices were pretty fair for the burgers at Mooyah, but the hot dog prices were all out of whack. My hot dog was nowhere near worth over $6, and a plain hot dog will set you back $4, while the chili dog is pushing $6 as well. Service was pretty strong here, as Dayana, who took our order at the counter, also brought out our food, checked on us regularly, and brought us out all the sauces we could ever want. It was a good night of catching up with my good friend David, and getting to experience the Great Burger War of Irvine firsthand.

Out of five pommel horses, (because the first Mooyah was located in Plano, Texas, ten years ago, and that city proclaims itself the gymnastics capital of the world, and the pommel horse is one of my favorite events), five being best to zero being worst, Mooyah gets 2.5 pommel horses.

For more information about Mooyah, head to their website here: http://www.mooyah.com/