Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Sweet Opening at SOCO

Susie Cakes
3321 Hyland Ave.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

I should really head over to South Coast Collection way more than I do. It seems like every two weeks they are opening a new foodie destination that I add to my every growing list of restaurants to hit up. Right now languishing on my, "must go to" list is Taco Maria, Shuck Oyster Bar, Arc, and the Iron Press. We will definitely hit these places up soon.

I was bummed to hear that one of the places we have actually been to at SOCO is no more. We liked Christopher Garren's Bakery when we were here early last year, but they shuttered their storefront on December 31st. I had wondered what happened to their old space, and had heard that a new bakery was opening up shop there, Susie Cakes.

Susie Cakes recently opened up their second OC location, with more in the work for sure. We heard about a Laguna Niguel spot, but did not get a date or an exact location, so keep an eye out for that. Susie Cakes has numerous Northern California outposts, and have begun a conquest of Southern California recently.

Susie Cakes comes to us from Susan Sarich, who grew up in Chicago, where she came home from school everyday to her grandmothers baked treats. It is these handwritten recipes which accompanied Susan to the West Coast, where she wanted to share all these fantastic baked goods with all of us. Their philosophy at Susie Cakes is that they don't bake with anything they can't spell. They don't use mixes, artificial preservatives, or high fructose corn syrups. This scratch bakery also uses only the highest quality ingredients they can find.

We arrived at the Susie Cakes Bakery during their grand opening celebration. There was definitely a carnival atmosphere going on here. Face painting, pictures in a classic Ford Mustang, and of course, sweets. The bakery was packed with people getting a large assortment of baked goods. My favorite feature of the space is the open kitchen, which allows you to see that this really is a scratch bakery. I could have sat there and watched the workers bake all day, but we had some big decisions to make at the bustling counter.

As you can see from the pictures, I was a little trigger happy with my camera, as all the baked goods were pretty photogenic. Behind the case at Susie Cakes were plenty of varieties of cookies, cakes, pies, bars, and their famous cupcakes. This was going to be tough to just pick a few things to come home with. After much consideration we made our selections, and were on our way home to enjoy our haul.

I can usually judge a bakery by what kind of cookies they make, and after eating this Chocolate Chip Cookie ($2), I had a pretty good feeling about Susie Cakes. I'm always partial to cookies that are crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle. This cookie had passed that test, and I liked that there were plenty of chocolate chips in this cookie as well. Probably one of the most homemade tasting cookies I have had from a bakery. Really tasty.

I had read on Yelp that Susie Cakes is known for their 7 Layer Bars ($3), so that was a definite must try on this afternoon. I'm a big fan of Eagle Brand's Magic Bar recipe, and these were just as good. A mixture of butterscotch, coconut, chocolate chips, nuts, and who knows what else, combined to make these just as good as any Magic Bar I have had.

Carrot Cake ($6.25) is one of the most polarizing desserts out there, but you can count me as being one of its biggest fans. This version at Susie Cakes was good, but not the best I have had. Their frosting is what made this cake for me. Not overly big on the cream cheese, this was more of a sweeter icing than most carrot cakes use normally. The cake portion of this is where I have to dock points. It was moist, but I expected a little more cinnamon used here, and there were some big hunks of nuts in the batter. I also would have liked a little more icing used in between the layers. Still a good slice of cake though.

The last thing we tried on this afternoon was this Apple Cider Cupcake ($3.25). This seasonal cupcake came highly recommended from our guy behind the counter, and he was not just blowing smoke. It had a very good apple flavor to it, the cake portion was moist, but the best part for me was the icing again. With just the right amount of sweetness, it pushed this cupcake to another level. Really tasty, and much better than a lot of the specialty cupcakes I have had.

I was really sad to hear of Christopher Garren's closing, but I'm more than happy that Susie Cakes has taken over their spot. Everything really did taste homemade here, and I am surprised that it was as affordable as it is. You can definitely add Susie Cakes to the many reasons to come to SOCO. We can't wait to come back.

Out of five typewriters, (because whenever I hear the name Susie, I think of the TV series Private Secretary, with Ann Sothern, who played a character named Susie), five being best to zero being worst, Susie Cakes gets 3 typewriters.

For more information about Susie Cakes, go to their website here:

Susiecakes on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hitting the Brick(s) in San Clemente

216 N. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672

This must be what if feels like to cheat on someone. It's probably not shocking to you, but since it was hard for me to even get one girl, let alone two, I have never cheated, until now. To make matters worse, I cheated right in front of the other, restaurant.

There it was, one of our favorite restaurants, right across the street. We love Vine Restaurant, but I had heard some good stuff about Brick. We had our friends Sabrina and Anthony over, and usually we would want to show off one of our favorite places, but for some reason I made online reservations at Brick. Part of the reason for this is that I have already written about Vine twice, and I did want to share a new experience with you readers. So please forgive me Vine, we will be back, but for now we hurried into Brick before Russ and the boys at Vine could see us.

Brick has been open for over two years now. Owner and Executive Chef David Pratt is no stranger to OC restaurants. He was General Manager at Studio at the Montage Resort in Laguna, and before that he was the chef and owner at Mirabeau French Bistro in Dana Point. With Brick, he is serving up what they call, "rustic Italian cuisine," made with hand-picked produce from farmer's markets. Chef Pratt also gets one or two pigs a week, butchers them up, using everything from the snout to the tail, for sausages, meatballs, sauces, and daily specials. I was very excited to see what Brick had in store for us.

We arrived to this very busy area of San Clemente at about 6pm on a Saturday night. Parking is always a challenge, but we didn't mind the short walk. We were sat at the very front of the restaurant, near the bar. Predictably, the walls are brick, with lots of dark woods throughout the very comfortable dining room. I'd describe the dining space as, "beach comfortable," with high tops, and a few communal tables scattered about. Since this is near the beach, there's no air conditioning, so if you are here on a warm day like us, be prepared for it being a little balmy inside. I was pretty excited to eat, and of course once the food hits the table, it limits the amount of words that we have to hear our good friend Sabrina speak, so let's enjoy the silence and see what we thought of the cuisines at Brick.

There were not a ton of options as far as starters go at Brick, but the four of us wanted to try their Pizza Bread Antipasta ($12). I thought this was a little misnamed on the menu. It should have been called, "do it yourself pizza bread." This came with sliced pizza dough, some prosciutto, burrata, and marinara sauce. I liked this, but was not in love with it. Splitting this between four people was tough because you want to make sure you split everything evenly, and that was hard to do with this appetizer. The components of this were definitely fresh, but not nearly enough burrata or prosciutto for the four of us. We would probably skip this on our next visit here if we had more than two people splitting this.

We must have been in a sharing mood, because the four of us also split a Family Sized Caesar Salad ($16). I'm always a little leery when splitting a family sized salad, but this was more than enough for the four of us. This Caesar had all of the usual suspects included; fresh romaine lettuce, a generous amount of parmesan cheese, croutons, and a liberal amount of a very mild tasting Caesar dressing. They also added some little cherry tomatoes to this salad. We all felt this salad was pretty good, and the farmers market fresh produce was definitely in full effect with this.

I have had some really good luck with pork chops recently, and this held true at Brick as well. In fact this could be one of the best I have had. When I heard that Chef Pratt gets a whole pig each week, and makes specials out of it, I hoped that they would not be out of them when I came to eat here. Lucky for me, they still had this limited availability item. These House Butchered Pork Chops ($20) come three to an order, and are served above a casserole of cannellini beans, kale, and pork belly, then it's topped with a lemon-calabrian chile arugula salad. I liked this dish so much, I didn't even mind that it had kale and arugula in it. The pork chops were a little on the small side, but there were three of them, and more than enough meat on them. They were tender, and went well with the delicious cannellini bean casserole. This is a very hearty dish, that all four of us enjoyed, but probably none more than myself.

The entree portion of the menu at Brick is divided into pizzas, pastas, and plates. I always enjoy a little nice alliteration. Katie selected the Orecchiette ($16) from the pasta section of the menu. Along with the freshly made orecchiette, this plate featured house made sausage, broccoli, mushrooms, and pecorino cheese. Katie really enjoyed this earthy dish. The mushrooms were plentiful, the sausage had a great flavor, and it had just the right amount of cheese on it. Katie would totally get this again when coming back here.

Our good friend Anthony was feeling like a pizza on this night, and he selected the one I would have tried, if I did not order my fantastic pork chops. The Carne ($17) predictably has a lot of meat on it. Pancetta, salami, sausage, and bresaola, which I learned is an air dried, salted beef, are all included here. The pizza is cooked in their 750 degree Valoriani pizza oven, and the edges did get a little charred, which some people think just adds some character to the pizza. Anthony felt this was a good sized pizza, with a crunchy crust, which he really enjoyed.

The only miss of the night as far as our entrees were concerned was Sabrina's pick, the Khorasan Wheat Pici ($16). To be honest with you, I have no idea what was in this, but we all agreed this was not very good. Of course I am not a fan of whole wheat pasta, so take my opinion for what you will. There appeared to be tomatoes, olives, and artichokes in this. The pasta was much too thick, and had a weird texture to it.

Even though we ended on a low note with Sabrina's dish, we all really enjoyed our time at Brick. The pork chop I had was more than worth the trip from anywhere in OC. The menu is not going to blow you away with its variety, but from our experience here, almost everything is worth trying. We had the bartender as our server, and he was pretty solid service wise. It's usually hit or miss when you have a bartender as your server, but he kept checking on us, and even the food runners were very attentive. We still love Vine, but now we have another great option down in San Clemente.

Out of five devils, (because hockey season is upon us, and the New Jersey Devils play in Newark, which is nicknamed, Brick City), five being best to zero being worst, Brick gets 3.5 devils.

For more information about Brick, go to their website here:
Brick Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Picture Perfect Day at the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival

Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival
Newport Civic Center and Park
100 Civic Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

I have tried to shy away from food festivals for awhile. When we first started this blog we tried to go to almost all of the, "Taste of... fill in the blank with your city of choice." For the most part, these kinds of food fests are all kind of the same. Whatever city you happen to be in, there will be some bad music being spun by a DJ, or a local band made up of teenagers getting their first gig. There will also be chain restaurants that you have grown tired of long ago, back when you were a teenager. By the end of the night, everything will start tasting the same, and you will leave the event in a food stupor. These are some of the reasons we have forgone these food festivals for awhile, that is until now.

After looking at the restaurant lineup, the quality of chef talent that were giving cooking demos, and the wonderful musical acts that were involved in the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival, we were ready to end our food festival embargo, and accept an invite to what we would ultimately call a great food event.

The Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival was held recently on the beautiful and spacious grounds of the Newport Beach Civic Center. Yes, it was a little warm, but there was plenty of shade to be had. This event benefited two wonderful charities in our community. Project Hope Alliance is aiming to end the cycle of homelessness, by stabilizing working poor families and their children by providing them with the tools and opportunities to learn their way to a better tomorrow. Hoag Hospital Foundation's Circle 1000 is a volunteer group that brings hope in the fight against cancer. Two very worthy causes, plus all this great wine and food, made this a winning afternoon for everyone involved.

As I had mentioned earlier, there were some great chef demos going on at this event, with some of the best culinary talent from OC and beyond. We had a lot to see outside, but we did manage to catch Chef Craig Strong from Studio, which is located at the Montage. He made a New Caledonian Prawn Carpaccio, and yes we did get to sample it. It's so rare to watch these chefs work out in the open, that you definitely need to take advantage of the opportunity when you get the chance. They are so creative, and most chefs love showcasing their talents to their adoring public. I also snapped this quick picture of Chef Strong posing with the equally great, Chef Pascal. It's not just any food event where you can see two great chefs hanging out together.

After watching the chef demo, it definitely whetted our appetite for all of the great eats outside on the lawn. We started with a newcomer to the OC scene, Del Frisco's Grille, which recently opened at the Irvine Spectrum. They were serving up their Signature Ahi Tacos. These refreshing tacos were filled with plenty of ahi and avocado, and then topped with a spicy citrus mayo. After eating these we definitely made a mental note to give Del Frisco's a try very soon.

Definitely one of the most generous spreads given out by any of the restaurants at the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival was from Chef Joshua Severson, and his team at Selanne Steak Tavern. They not only handed out four samplings, they also had a replica of the Stanley Cup on their table, which took every bit of decorum by myself, not to lift over my head and run around the tent. The Kobe Beef Short Rib with Point Reyes blue cheese foam also had me wanting to run around and show it off. So tender and good, I snagged one of these every time we walked by this booth. Really tasty. The Maine Lobster Salad was not to be missed either. It had a very nice black truffle dressing to go along with a very generous amount of lobster. Even though it was warm outside, the Butternut Squash Soup was a must eat. Floating inside of it was a maple-bacon marshmallow, which gave this a little unexpected twist. As if all of that was not enough, Selanne Steak Tavern also had Pumpkin Whoopie Pies for dessert. Nothing says Fall, like pumpkin flavored things.

Five Crowns was the next booth we hit up, and it would be blasphemous for them not to feature their famous prime rib in some form. Lucky for us, they had these Prime Rib Sliders. The prime rib here is some of the best in OC, as it was a perfect medium rare, which went really well on a sandwich. With a dab of their famous creamed horseradish, this was one of the top eats at the festival.

There's a lot going on at the Honda Center, and we are not just talking about hockey coming back. Wahoo's Fish Tacos is opening their first arena location at Honda Center, there are some new concessions opening up, including an Italian joint, a skewer spot, and a new restaurant called Standing O, which we definitely will be hitting up during the hockey season. Executive Chef Joseph "Jo-Jo" Doyle was very excited to share his vision for what he has planned at Honda Center, and we can't wait to see how it all comes out. On this afternoon he was showcasing a fusion item, called the El Pho. This Asian/Hispanic soup was filled with pork and beef albondigas, fideo noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, radishes, cilantro, lime, and chickpeas. A very flavorful soup, that brought both styles of cuisine to the table. Loved the creativity of this.

If you have read this blog recently, you might have read about our visit to Tamarind of London in Newport Coast. We were excited that Chef Imran was here, as this is some of the best Indian food we have tasted. Even a week later, Katie is still going on about the Butter Chicken Masala that they were sampling. Really good, but slightly overshadowed by the Chocolate Samosa they were giving away. Kind of like a chocolate filled wonton, but lighter, and not as greasy. I loved this dessert, and went back for seconds and thirds.

The Island Hotel has really stepped up their game lately, and that could be attributed to their chef, Marc Johnson and the menu he has created at the hotel's restaurant, Oak Grill. They offered this nicely crusted ahi, with a yuzu charred bok choy and furikake aioli. Very well done ahi, and the components all worked well with each other here. A nice and light dish.

Another restaurant we had heard about, but have yet to visit is Wildfish Seafood Grille at the intersection of Bison and MacArthur in Newport. They were sampling a Yellowtail Crudo with Fresno relish and a ponzu reduction. I liked the slight heat from the fresno chilies, and the ponzu of course went well with the yellowtail.

If you are hungry near Bloomingdale's at South Coast Plaza, you should stop by AnQi Gourmet Bistro and Noodle Bar. This world renowned restaurants had two samples for us on this afternoon. The Naked Ramen had a lot going on with it. Squid ink Japanese noodles, with ponzu mignonette, Vietnamese pickled veggies, and it was topped with a tempura crunch. Lots of textures working with this one. More to my liking was the Crispy Rabbit Confit Dumplings with a Wasabi Dijon and edamame and fig relish. I always enjoy rabbit, and don't get to have it too often. I again liked the creativity of the plate, and the rabbit was done wonderfully.

Speaking of creativity, I've been to numerous food festivals, but I don't think I've seen anything like I saw and tasted at the Lark Creek booth. See if you could have come up with this. Compressed watermelon with a habanero orange marinade, then add goat cheese feta, a balsamic reduction, and top it with micro basil. Surprisingly this worked well. It was odd having the sweet, and then you got hit with the spice. Very good, just like their meat offering. With this one they used a filet mignon with a parsnip and bone marrow puree, a concord grape veal jus, and roasted white beech mushrooms. It seems Chef Ryan Pitt is kind of just picking things at random, and they all kind of mashed up well together. Lark Creek is now on our list of restaurants to go to for sure now.

We have been a fan of Scott Brandon back when he was at Crow Bar and Kitchen in Corona Del Mar, and we were still fans when we went to his new place, Fireside Tavern, which is located at the Crowne Plaza Costa Mesa Hotel. For us on this afternoon they had a delicious Pork Belly Banh Mi. Pork belly anything is good, but then you put it in sandwich form, it gets even better. I loved the pickled vegetables and the jalapeno on top. So good.

Another favorite booth for me was the Driftwood Kitchen spot. My Facebook feed has been lit up by the ocean view from this Laguna Beach restaurant, but the food we had on this afternoon matches that fantastic view. The house Cured Scottish Salmon reminded me of a miniature eggs Benedict. The Scottish salmon was placed on top of a corn and collard greens cake, then layered with an avocado salad, dill lebni, and a lemon confit. I loved the different layers of flavors on this one. For dessert they had a Popcorn Panna Cotta, which had a great texture, but other than the piece of caramel corn that was placed on top, I did not really get much in the way of a popcorn feel from it. Still good though.

This Sweet Corn Panna Cotta from the Loft at the Montage really packed an unexpected punch in the way of heat. The texture from the chicken cracklings was the first thing I noticed, then the sweet from the corn panna cotta, then a good amount of spice from the pickled fresno chilies. I always like foods that surprise me with bursts of flavors. Very well done.

That was the last of restaurants located in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, but there was much more left to see starting with the Nothing Bundt Cakes booth. After all of that great food, I was definitely ready for some desserts. Nothing Bundt Cakes was sampling their Lemon Cake and a Chocolate version. I really liked the lemon cake the best, it went great with their signature butter cream frosting.

There were some really awesome vendors at this festival, including San Luis Sourdough. They were giving out slices of their slow baked sourdough bread with a very nice spinach dip on it. I found out it takes 30 hours for each loaf of sourdough to be made here. Now that's dedication to your craft.

How could I refuse a beverage from the Stella Artois Girls? Their taps were not working, so I tried their Cidre. This was probably one of the best cider drinks I have had. Very refreshing on this hot day, and not overly sweet. A very nice balance.

B Candy turned me into a fan on this afternoon with their Chocolate Chip Cookies and Mini Cupcakes. They had a Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cupcake and a Rollo Cupcake. Both were great, and were really representative of what they were supposed to taste like. We're going to be making a stop by their Corona Del Mar store soon to try their house made ice cream, which includes flavors such as; Frosted Flakes, Chocolate covered Potato Chips and Caramel, and Coffee Toffee. All of these sound like winners.

I've had dreams like this. An event where I could have all you can eat doughnuts from Sidecar Doughnuts. This was no dream though. We hung out in front of this booth while I devoured their famous Huckleberry and Cinnamon Crumb doughnuts. If you haven't already made your way to their Costa Mesa spot, head up there immediately.

You're probably asking yourself, "I thought this was a wine festival as well, so where's all the wine?" Yes, you are correct, but I'm not much of a wine guy. I like to save room for food instead. I did hear nothing but praise for the wines that were being offered at this festival though. The afternoon we were here, they had 32 wineries pouring for the attendees. They were not pouring cheap bottles at all. These are all the best wines, from some of the best wineries around. If you're a wine lover, you were in heaven at the Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival. 

Needless to say, we were blown away by this event. It's hard to believe this is their first one they have put on, and after this great time, I'm positive it won't be their last. I can easily see this festival becoming a yearly ritual for many food and wine lovers every year, including ourselves. Make sure to keep an eye out for the return dates of this great festival. We will hopefully be able to make both days next year. 

For more information, and updates on next years Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival, click here:

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