Sunday, July 24, 2016

Another Winner for the Boys at Ironwood?

25250 La Paz Road
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

I used to have a pretty strict rule of not reviewing a restaurant before its first anniversary of being in business. I had read some stat that 80 percent of restaurants that open for business, fail before they hit the one year mark. I have since learned that this untrue, and that the actual stat is that new restaurants have a sixty percent chance of closing within the first three years of being in business. It still doesn't make me feel like going into the restaurant business anytime soon.

The reason I had this personal rule was that I did not want to have a restaurant review blog filled with a bunch of places that were already closed. My thinking was that if a place lasted a year, at least it had a pretty good chance of being around when you wanted to look for a review. I now feel that people want to try the new place that opened up down the street from them. Yes I know that it sometimes takes restaurants awhile to get into the groove, and get everything running smoothly, but I decided to squash my rule, and open up my reviews to all restaurants. One restaurant I had eagerly anticipated trying was Ironwood in Laguna Hills.

To be honest, I had no doubts that Ironwood was going to run like a fine tuned machine from day one. How could I be so sure? Well, because the same guys that run one of my favorite restaurants, Vine in San Clemente, also opened this place. The same lineup is here. Russ Bendel, formerly of Flemings is the head man, along with his lifelong friends as Partners, Kyle Simpson, Gabe Whorley, and new to the mix, Kevin Franke, who also did some time at Flemings. Heading the kitchen is Chef/Partner, Jared Cook, who has an on site garden at Vine, and is working on doing the same at Ironwood.

We were here celebrating my birthday with my in-laws, who had never been to Vine, but have heard Katie and I rave about it for years. They are not ones to range too far from home for dinner, so they were pretty excited that Ironwood opened up so close to their house. Ironwood describes their food as, "an all encompassing wine country experience," which really is just another way to say that the produce used here is locally grown, while the meats at Ironwood are sustainable and prepared simply.

Ironwood is located in the same shopping center as Villa Roma and Hot Off the Grill, right at the corner of McIntyre and La Paz Road, a few blocks west of the 5 Freeway. If you remember where the old Elephant Bar was in Laguna Hills, you will know the spot. This place was torn down and redone since the Elephant Bar days. Now the space is wood dominated with dark wooden floors, lighter wood used for the ceilings, and a wonderful patio towards the back, which allows some unexpected views of Saddleback Mountain. This L-shaped restaurant has enough room for about twenty tables inside, and about half that many out on the patio, most of which were full on this particular Friday evening about a month after they had opened. People have definitely found out about this place, so we were excited to see if the magic of Vine would play out up the freeway in Laguna Hills.

Before we get to the food at Ironwood, the craft cocktails are worth noting here. It was my birthday, so I indulged in this Nutmeg Ryan ($12). This rum based beverage included both white and dark rum, Campari, lemon, Chinese five spice, and pineapple. I usually am a big fan of the cocktails at Vine, but this one was a miss for me. The Campari's bitterness kind of overshadowed this drink. It was not awful, but I'd probably try another one off of Gabe Whorley's cocktail list on my next visit.

Katie's parents went big here, getting two charcuterie plates to start with. The Cured Meats and Cold Cut Platter ($19) came with plenty of meats, toast points, olives, and whole grain mustard. Being a meat eater, I enjoyed this charcuterie immensely.  Good variety of meats, some were even a little on the spicy side, which went well with the provided mustard. The Artisan Cheese Platter ($19) was favored by the rest of the table. Katie's mom Lynn, is kind of a cheese snob, and she gave a ringing endorsement of the cheeses made available to us on this evening. This platter was garnished with grapes, golden raisins, and thinly sliced apple. A great start to our meal.

There are plenty of items that appear on both the Vine and Ironwood menus, but I was most excited to see these Crispy Meyer Lemon and Honey Duck Wings ($12) make the transition up the north side of the 5 Freeway. Not something you find on many menus I have seen, these huge duck wings are pretty rare, and if you come later in the evening they may have run out. Prepared so the skin is crispy like a chicken wing, the inside has plenty of the smoky duck meat that I'm crazy for, along with a hint of citrus from the sauce. If these are available when you are here, even non-duck lovers should order them, you won't be sorry.

Entrees made there way out for us next and my wonderful father-in-law made the wise decision to try the House Made Giant Meatball ($22). This one pound meatball, served on top of a scratch made herb pappardelle, with assorted veggies, a spicy pomodoro sauce, and finished with a sprinkling of ricotta salata, has gotten a lot of love on Yelp, and it's well deserved. The meatball, even though it's one pound is wonderfully tender throughout, which is not an easy trick to muster when it is as big as a water logged baseball. The homemade pappardelle is excellent, and even though I'm not big on veggies mixed in with the sauce and noodles, it works here. The only complaint I have is that the sauce is not spicy, but it's solid none the less, and provides a sweeter, rather than spicy flavor profile to this dish. Maybe this teams next restaurant should be an Italian venture.

I went rather big here, since it was my birthday, and at the urging of my in-laws ordered the Grilled Bone-In Ribeye ($36). This huge slab of steak came covered in a Bearnaise sauce, which I would have liked to have been a little thicker, but it still really added to the beef. The steak was cooked to a wonderful medium rare, and was one of the better steaks I've had this year. Not sure on the size of this, but it definitely filled me up. This was served with blue cheese mashed potatoes, roasted cauliflower, mushrooms, English peas, and asparagus. The veggies were good, but not enough of them to make a big impression. The blue cheese mashed potatoes were fine, but a little too subtle with the blue cheese flavor on these, but good consistency to them. A very worthy birthday meal, which I hope to relive before I turn another year older.

Like mother, like daughter, both Katie and Lynn got the Jidori Chicken Schnitzel ($19). This is similar to the version served at Vine, but there they use pork to make this dish, with a few variations. This came with herb spaettzle, squash, golden wax beans, beech mushrooms, and a basil-lemon emulsion used for a sauce. The chicken was lightly breaded and not as heavy as you would imagine. Inside the breading was a very tender, yet flavorful piece of chicken breast. The sauce played nicely with the chicken and veggies, and did not try to steal the show. The veggies were fresh, and balanced this meal out nicely.  Katie would get this again for sure.

Since there were four of us, we decided that we'd split two desserts, the first of which was this Meyer Lemon and Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee ($8). This was a pretty good, not great version of this classic dessert. It was smaller than I imagined it would be, but topped with plenty of fresh fruit, which I scooted aside, so I could get to the sweet creme brulee beneath. The top layer was not as caramelized as others we have had, but the bottom layer was sweet and creamy. I didn't get a lot of lemon here, but that's fine with me, as I'm not really a big fan of citrus.

I was a little more excited by this Warm Fromage Blanc Brownie ($9). I'm guessing that this brownie is made with the French white cheese that has the consistency of cream cheese, but I'm not one hundred percent sure. I do know that this was a lighter brownie than we are used to, with a muted chocolate flavor. This was accented with a scoop of Nutella ice cream and filbert praline, both of which were good, but I was hoping for a little more ice cream on this, but I always like extra ice cream.

Being a month old, I was still pretty impressed with Ironwood. I felt that being as busy as they were, they had things running smoothly, which is not really a shock when you consider the management team running this place. The menu at Ironwood is a little on the dainty side, so if you are here with some picky eaters, you may want to choose another spot. They have nine entrees to choose from, with two specials offered every night. More than enough choices for me, who can find something on almost any menu to eat, and I feel with a smaller list of choices, the attention to detail is that much greater. I had no major problems with anything we ate on this evening. The appetizers and entrees were all top notch. I felt the desserts were a weak spot, but after meals like these, a lot of people would not even have room for dessert. More of a date night place than a family restaurant, this is exactly the kind of chef driven restaurant that this area of South OC so desperately needs. Glad I waved my one year rule of eating in a restaurant, but I have a feeling this restaurant will be around long past that mark anyways.

Out of five eagles, (not only because the Philadelphia Eagles are Russ's favorite team, but also because the mascot of Ironwood High School in Glendale, Arizona is also named the Eagles), five being best to zero being worst, Ironwood gets 4 eagles.

For more information about Ironwood, head to their website here:

Ironwood Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, July 21, 2016

New Food Items to Try at the 2016 OC Fair

OC Fair
88 Fair Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

There are certain signs in Orange County that let you know that summer is in full swing. There's less traffic on the freeways during the morning commute, there's no trace of June Gloom when you wake up in the morning, and of course the OC Fair opens. This year the June Gloom dissipated, I shaved ten minutes off my drive to work, and the fair opened, all in the same week. It was karma's way of making sure that I knew that the calendar had finally made it to mid July.

A lot of you probably like the concerts at the Pacific Amphitheater,  yes they do have Earth, Wind and Fire, UB40, and the B52's coming up during this years run of the fair. Others of you might like the exhibits, which are spread throughout the six exhibit halls on the grounds of the fairgrounds. You might be into all the animals that are here too. I've heard the wallabies are one of the highlights, but for me, the thing that brings me back to the OC Fair every year is the food.

I'm sure this is not shocking to anyone, as this is a restaurant blog, and when you mention that you have been to the fair, the first question someones asks is, "What did you eat?" I'm always amazed at seeing what these talented vendors come up with. Every year I think they would have run out of ideas, but the next year they show up and top themselves once again. We were recently invited to sample some of their newest creations, and of course some of their classic items as well. This is one of the food events that I get really excited for, so let's see what's new at the OC Fair this year.

The food media at this event were exchanging stories about the best items they have ever had at the OC Fair, and Tasti Burger's Chili Relleno Cheeseburger kept coming up as the best thing they have eaten here. Well, Tasti Burgers & Tasti Chips have two new burgers added to their already impressive lineup this year. The Bacon Cheddar Brat Burger is great for people that can't make up their mind as to whether to have a bratwurst or a burger. Why not have both? This burger has a burger patty, which is topped with a bacon and cheddar bratwurst, bacon, sliced cheese, Sriracha bourbon sauce, lettuce, tomato, and a chipotle sauce. This was a very solid burger, with a myriad of favors, each coming through at different spot. This is the burger to beat at the OC Fair this year. The All American Reuben Burger was right on its heels, with its eight ounce beef patty, corned beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, and two deep fried pickles. This was a good representation of a Reuben, with the fried pickle acting as the kraut on this. It's always a good idea to pair their burgers with their Tasti Chips as well. There are now three varieties to choose from, Classic, Parmesan Garlic, or Cheddar Jalapeno. Tasti Chips are always served hot and crisp, and there's always a line, but well worth the wait.

Chicken Charlie is like the mad scientist of the fair circuit, and this year was no exception. Chicken Charlie probably had my favorite savory item I had on this afternoon, the Bacon Wrapped Chicken Leg. This very manageable chicken leg was easy to handle, had crisp bacon on the outside, and featured some of the most tender and flavorful chicken inside. Really a well done food item. The Chicken and Waffle On A Stick kind of missed the mark for me. Even though it's easy to eat, when it was picked up, the syrup runs down all over your hand. No problems with this flavor wise though. Now things get a little weird. Chicken Charlie gets a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, adds a cheese sauce, then has two versions for you to choose from. The Surf and Turf comes with lobster and steak, while the Black Tide version comes with escargot and caviar. Yes, you read that right, caviar and escargot. I tried both, and felt the surf and turf version was the better of the two, but both were pretty salty. Definitely something you might want to try, just to say you did it.

It's really a shame that I have never made it to Pink's in LA, because I always enjoy their hot dogs at the OC Fair. This year they are premiering two new hot dogs to the crowds at the fair, the first of which is the Lord of the Rings Dog. This simple hot dog comes with some the crispiest onion rings I have had, along with a tangy barbecue sauce. This simply prepared item allowed the high quality hot dog to shine, and I loved the snap of the dog when I bit into it. Heat seekers will want to try out the Daenerys Mother of Doggies. This Game of Thrones inspired hot dog packs some real heat, which is probably why it is named after the mother of the dragons. On this one they use a spicy Polish Dog, then top it with sour cream, kraut, onion, spicy alfalfa sprouts, and drops of Sriracha. This will definitely have you breathing fire like a dragon after consuming this one.

Bacon-A-Fair is definitely a booth that you want to hit up, at least if these two offerings are any indication. The Pepsi Cola Donut Dog is one of the most unusual hot dogs I have ever had. It starts with two glazed donuts used for a bun, then the hot dog, which is marinated in Pepsi, is then joined by peppers and onions, and topped with a Pepsi reduction sauce. It's also served in a half hollowed out Pepsi cup, so your fingers do not get all sticky. I liked the contrasting savory and sweet, yin and yang thing going on here. Neither side really won out, so a balanced taste to this hot dog was achieved. The French Toast Bacon Bombs were another of my favorite items on this afternoon. Little balls of dough are filled with some frozen cream cheese, then wrapped in bacon, fried to a dark brown, and served with whipped cream and maple syrup. These were pretty addicting. I was afraid the cream cheese was going to overpower, but it was subtle. An ultimate brunch item that I hope catches on around at other restaurants.

You either love pickles or you don't. I'd rather not have them, but for the pickle lovers out there, you have to head to Pickle O' Pete's. This will be your Pickle Nirvana, Fried pickles are so yesterday, now it's all about Pickle Fries. Even I kind of liked this version of a fried pickle. The crispy breading and ranch dressing helped me drown out the sometimes overbearing pickle flavor. I did not dare eat the Pickled Cheese on a Stick though. They hollow out a pickle and then stuff it with cream cheese, batter it with a corn batter and fry it. My friend Tom loved this, but I was too chicken to give it a try.

Biggy's is an OC Fair mainstay, and if you love pork, you will be hard pressed not to visit this iconic booth. Pork mania starts with the Bacon Wrapped Pork Belly Dog. A slab of pork belly is impaled with a skewer and then wrapped in more than enough bacon to to cover the whole thing at least two times. This is some hot pork on pork action, and because this is a manageable size, it does not over power like the time I ate a one pound, one hundred percent bacon burger. If the bacon wrapped pork belly seems a little too much for you, then you might want to try the Pork Belly Corn Dog. This eliminates one layer of pork for those who are trying to watch their pork intake.  Even with the one less layer of pork, this was delicious and rich.

My favorite sweet item of the afternoon were these Fried Butter Balls from Fair Fix & Fried A Fair. These racquetball sized orbs of dough came with more than enough butter inside of them, but were not too way over the top. Kind of like a pancake ball when dipped into the provided maple syrup. These can become dangerous when I'm around, because I wouldn't be able to stop inhaling them. A must try at the OC Fair.

There's nothing like a giant sized donut to get food media to audibly gasp when gazing upon its magnificence. This was the case when the S'moreo Texas Donut from Texas Donuts was introduced to us. This glazed bad boy was loaded with marshmallow creme, chocolate sauce, graham cracker and Oreo crumbs. It definitely had the feel of S'more's, without the campfire smell that permeates your clothes after a long night at a bonfire.

When I was driving home after leaving the OC Fair, I was still struck by the way that these vendors come up with new items every single year, and they get more outrageous as the years pass. I was even more struck by the fact that this is some pretty high quality food made in fast time to feed hungry fair goers. I'm definitely not going to try to dupe you all into thinking this is healthy food, but it's the OC Fair after all, and it only comes around once a year, so some debauchery is definitely permitted, and in my case maybe a couple more times during the run of the fair.

The OC Fair runs through August 14th, and they go dark on Mondays and Tuesdays. Fore more information about tickets, concerts, and all other things fair related, head to their very well done website here:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Taking a Dip at Splashes

Splashes at the Surf and Sand Resort
1555 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

I do not take advantage of the beautiful coastline of Orange County nearly enough. I realize this almost every time that I drive to one of our beach cities, and can visually see the water through my dusty windshield. The picturesque ocean view always takes my breath away. I'm always thinking to myself, why am I not down here more often. Then I remember that I'm part of the pasty posse. The sun and I do not mix too well, as my snow white skin usually burns in about ten minutes of exposure. Katie's right there with me, so it seems the only time we make it to experience the beach is when we get the chance to dine at the shore, which we had the opportunity to do recently at the Surf and Sand Resort in beautiful Laguna.

Every time we are at this beach front resort, we are instantly transported into vacation mode. You can honestly feel the stresses of your workday wash away with the tide. We were invited to this sun kissed resort to meet their new, or I should say, new to us chef, Chef Ron Fougeray, who has the pleasure of working in this beautiful paradise. With views like this, I wouldn't get much done, but I'm generally a lazy person.

Chef Fougeray comes to us from Philadelphia, where he built up a pretty impressive resume. After graduating from culinary school, Chef Ron went through a snow storm to meet with famous chef, Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin, and agreed to work for free for him, just to get a start in the business. Three months after that he was hired, and worked every station in the restaurant, until the business was sold six years later. He then moved on to another French restaurant, the critically acclaimed Bibou BYOB, where he would be named Executive Chef in 2013, and win a whole host of accolades, including being named a finalist for a James Beard Award as Best New Restaurant. Alas, he would leave this prestigious position as a promise to his OC raised wife, that they would move back to her beloved Orange County, and the much more cordial weather.

Philly's loss is the Surf and Sand's gain, as he took over the kitchen almost a year ago. His predecessor at Splashes was more Asian influenced culinary wise, while Chef Ron is of course much more trained in the French style of cooking. This has lead to a complete overhaul of the menu at Splashes, which has been a big hit with the guests of the resort and the locals that flock here for stunning views and world class cuisine. They were going to be featuring Chef Ron's Summer Menu on this evening, which all of us food media were all looking forward to experiencing.

I couldn't resist adding a few more pictures of the spectacular view we experienced. We did get cheated of a sunset because the clouds rolled in, but beautiful nonetheless. We were met with a glass of wine, and situated on a patio right above the pool deck. It took every ounce of my being not to strip off my clothes and join the other vacationers having a great time in the water, but I knew I had some eating to do on this evening.

When I was growing up, I would have never have guessed that Brussels sprouts would be as big as they have gotten. I never really had a bad association with them like a lot of my friends, because my mom never made them. These are not your mother's Brussels Sprouts ($17). They came with a lighter touch than most restaurants deliver, with a splotch of cranberry puree streaking across the plate, along with lardons, dried mulberries, and a watermelon radish julienne. I really liked this summer version of this classic veggie side item. Of course I could have handled more lardons in this, but those little pieces of pork made themselves known, and still allowed the Brussels sprouts to be the star of the show. I was not even bothered by the inclusion of fruits with vegetables like I usually am. A very nice dish with a good array of textures, which kept me interested.

Not on the summer menu, but I think Chef Ron wanted to show off some of the things he picked up on a working vacation he recently took to France with the other JC Resort chefs. This Salmon dish had us all smiling. The salmon was rubbed with peppercorns and espresso grounds, and came with a mustard-mango sauce and a fresh herb salad. The salmon was cooked wonderfully, and the rub did not overpower the natural flavor of the fish, but enhanced it. I liked the sauce well enough, which is a big statement considering I'm not really into mustard or mango. Look for this to make an appearance at Splashes soon, if we have anything to say about it.

Back to the summer menu, and when you think of summer, soup is probably not something you think of, but at Splashes they offer this Chilled Cantaloupe Soup ($15). This is prepared table side, with a dramatic flair which I always enjoy. Little bits of duck prosciutto and mint oil join an orb of melon sorbet, as a cantaloupe and honeydew soup is poured over the top. Unique flavor profile, and refreshing are what came to mind when I ate this. I'm not really into melons, but I think the duck and mint oil kind of softened the sweetness here, and made for a lovely chilled soup that can be enjoyed fully once the temperatures reach the triple digits in a month or so.

Ahi has really hit the mainstream, as you can now get it in any strip mall across OC, but not as fresh and delicious as this Ahi Tuna Crudo ($19). Chef Ron adds a whole slew of items to these dice sized tuna cubes; cured black olives, jicama, raspberry vinegar, mustard oil, cucumber, and an excellent avocado mousse. It's not overly dressed, and the avocado mousse really comes through at the most opportune times.

Lastly, we are just steps from the ocean, so of course more seafood was needed for our last savory item of this evening. This Bay Scallop Ceviche was a fitting end to our evening at the Surf and Sand Resort. Good sized hunks of scallops were served alongside cucumber, radish, dill, celery leaves, citrus supreme, and verde jus. There were notes of citrus, along with a freshness that most restaurants seem to miss when preparing ceviche. I liked this reworked take on this classic dish.

Desserts are something special at Splashes, and we were lucky enough to finish with this Mango Meringue Tart ($13).  I'm always partial to non-fruit desserts, but this dessert might have shown me that there is some merit to non-chocolate desserts. This tart had three distinct layers to it.  The mango puree was sandwiched by a praline crumble on the bottom, and a very well done and eye pleasing meringue topping this. Not overly sweet, but you knew you were having a dessert item.

This was just a sampling of what Chef Ron has in store for his guests when they visit the Surf and Sand Resort. The Grilled Lamb Loin, Duck Breast and Halibut are on my radar for the next time we eat at Splashes, but I'm sure Chef Ron will have some nightly specials that may entice me as well. Perfect for out of town guests, or locals who want to take advantage of where we live, Splashes at the Surf and Sand will not fail to delight.

For more information about the Surf and Sand Resort and Splashes Restaurant, click here:
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