Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Something to Crow About in Orange?

Old Crow Smokehouse
1535 West Katella Ave. 
Orange, CA 92867

I could not believe our luck. While we were looking for a restaurant to eat at before heading to a party in Orange, I had to do a double take. There had to be some sort of mistake. I have heard raves about Old Crow Smokehouse, but I knew that they were anchored at Pacific City in Huntington Beach. Surely, Yelp had gotten it wrong. They had an Old Crow Smokehouse listed in Orange. I guess I have to step up my new restaurant openings game.

So Old Crow is in Orange. They took over the old Who Song and Larry's spot in the Stadium Promenade Shopping Center. Old Crow has gotten glowing reviews from OC Register Restaurant Critic Brad Johnson, who included this place as one of his top 75 OC restaurants of this year. He also gave them a glowing review in May.

This Orange outpost opened in late October. We had never been to Who Song and Larry's, but I had been to this location when it was Acapulco's a few years back. It's unrecognizable now from those days. Much more wide open, lots of dark woods, and a definite country vibe dominate the space. We were seated near the bar at high top tables, which are not my favorite types of seating arrangements, but we made it work.

I had made reservations on Open Table for 7:30 on a recent Saturday night and we got seated right on time. I'm sure this Old Crow gets a little hectic when there's something going on at the nearby Honda Center. There's plenty of TV's throughout the bar area, and they were tuned to various sporting events during our stay. Live country music takes over after 9 on Friday and Saturday nights.

On to the food though. This is Chicago style barbecue, kind of like Lillie's Q in Brea, which we hope is ready to open again soon after their hiatus while their parking structure is being built. Anyways, back to Old Crow. The characteristics of Chicago style barbecue is heavy on the smoking, low and slow, and an emphasis on ribs and rib tips. We were very excited to get to everything, so without further ado here's our take on Old Crow Smokehouse.

We started things off by getting a slice each of their Classic Cornbread ($2) and the Bacon, Cheese, and Jalapeno Cornbread ($3) after our server really talked it up. We were not too impressed. I like a sweeter cornbread, and this one was not very sweet, almost bordering on being boring. I also could not tell the difference between the regular and the bacon jalapeno variety. They ended up tasting the same to me. 

Entree time and Katie selected the Old Crow Smoked Sliders ($12) as her meal on this evening. She had asked for a brisket, pulled pork, and a chicken slider, and that's how our check read, but she ended up just getting three of the pulled chicken sliders. No worries, you kind of expect the kitchen of a new restaurant to have some kinks to work out. These chicken sliders were just okay in Katie's opinion. The chicken was fine but did not stand out. She also felt they could have included a little more chicken per slider. The pickled red onion along with the barbecue sauce on the table helped to keep her interested. For her side item, she tried the crunchy coleslaw, which I kind of enjoyed. While the menu touted this as having a horseradish-slaw dressing, I did not detect any hint of horseradish here, but I still enjoyed this subdued coleslaw, which had just the right amount of dressing to cabbage ratio.

As is my custom when dining at a barbecue restaurant for the first time, I lean towards getting a combo meal, and at Old Crow that would be this Pick Three ($25). For my three types of meat, I went with the brisket, sausage, and the quarter slab of pork baby back ribs. The ribs were head and shoulders above the other two meat selections. In fact, these were some of the best ribs I have had. They were tender, had plenty of meat on each bone, had a great bark crusted on their outer portion, with just the right amount of smoke included here. The other meats were fine, but could not compare to the ribs. I had some really good bites of the brisket, but other forkfuls were kind of on the dry side. The sausage was the weak link here, pun intended. It was a very sturdy sausage, but it needed a little moisture to make it easier to eat. Decent flavor, but I expected more of a flavor pop. The sides were just kind of average. The menu promised that the country mashed potatoes would include rosemary, garlic, and a bbq rub, but these taters fell flat. I liked the consistency of the spuds, but they did not really taste like anything other than potato. No garlic, nor rosemary was present. The mac and cheese was equally disappointing, as it came out lukewarm, and needed an extra spark to keep me interested after my first two bites. Kind of lackluster. I'd try the fries and the baked beans on my next visit.

I almost forgot to post this extra side that we ordered, the Savory Sweet Potatoes with Blue Cheese ($5). Points for originality, but after the initial shock of having blue cheese with sweet potato wore off, I lost interest.

Dessert was our last hurrah at Old Crow, and we went out with a bang with these Apple Fritters ($6). Not what I was expecting when I saw apple fritters on the menu. At Old Crow, they take apples and coat them with a tempura batter, fry them, and dredge them with cinnamon and sugar to form a lighter crumb donut. It comes served with some caramel sauce and a maple brown sugar gelato.  There was a slight disconnect with this. I felt it could have been served better and all the components were a little awkward. I liked it enough, but will probably try another dessert next time.

As is the case with a good many of the barbecue restaurants in OC, there are some good and some not so good parts to Old Crow Smokehouse. I found the meats to be above average, especially the ribs, but the sides and the dessert were average or below. I'm definitely trying the burnt ends and the tri-tip on our next visit. I just wish they were offered as part of a combo meal. Sides were disappointing and need some help here. We have heard some rumblings about slow service, but we did not experience anything close to that on this rather busy Saturday night. Our server Peggy was excellent, and she anticipated our every need during our stay. I felt the prices here were right on par with what you'd pay at let's say Lucille's, but the meats here are way better. We are glad Old Crow is open so close to the Honda Center, and we will be back before a game for sure.

Out of five bottles of bourbon, (because one of the earliest Kentucky bourbons is Old Crow Reserve, which started production in 1853), five being best to zero being worst Old Crow Smokehouse gets 3 bottles of bourbon.

For more information about Old Crow Smokehouse, head over to their website here: http://oldcrowsmokehouse.com/orange/

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Misery on This Visit to Mizuiro

22431 Antonio Parkway B-110
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688

I have a funny relationship with sushi. I like it well enough, but I never really crave it. I've had really expensive, high-quality sushi, but it is kind of wasted on me. I appreciate it, but when I'm forking out a bunch of money and going to need to stop off at a drive-thru on the way home, it kind of defeats the purpose of spending all that money. That's why when the sushi cravings hit Katie I always try to find an all you can eat sushi restaurant.

I love AYCE sushi restaurants. I always leave way too full, I'm a big fan of what a lot of you might call the non-traditional fried rolls, and it's a fixed price going in, so I know how much it's going to be when the check comes. Sure you are not getting the highest quality seafood, but in my experience, I have not really run across what I would deem an awful AYCE experience. I definitely have my favorite place, but our good friends Tom and Daniele wanted us to try a place they had been once before, so we all headed to Mizuiro in Rancho Santa Margarita.

Mizuiro is located on the corner of Antonio and La Promesa in the same shopping center as the Pavillions, Del Taco, and one of our favorite sandwich spots, Board and Brew. They have been open for coming up on three years in December as an AYCE place. From what I can gather this location used to be Mizu, which is still under the same restaurant group. They have a location in Tustin and started out in San Jose, where they have amassed over 2,000 Yelp reviews and attained a four-star rating since opening in 2009.

The switch to an AYCE format seems to have helped Mizuiro. We arrived at a very busy restaurant at 7:30 on a recent Friday evening. The inside of the restaurant is a little hipper than our usual sushi spot. The large dining room is spacious, with a tinge of blue hanging about due to the overhead lighting. A little on the loud side, but as the dinner crowd filed out, it became a lot more easy to hold a conversation, although with Daniele in our party I preferred to tune out.

All four of us opted for the all you can eat option, which is priced at $27.50 for dinner, and $15.50 for lunch. At lunchtime, they have a slightly smaller selection, but it also includes a soft drink with all the sushi you may want. The AYCE menu features appetizers,  nigiri sushi, baked rolls, tempura rolls, fresh rolls, traditional and hand rolls. There are also five special items where you are limited to having one per person, these include sea urchin, jumbo scallop, salmon egg, halibut, and snow crab. Very hungry by this point, we made our numerous selections on our order sheet, and let the sushi parade commence.

These are just some of the many appetizers that we tried on this evening. The favorites for myself were the Chicken Katsu, the Spicy Sesame Chicken, which really resembled an orange chicken and was not spicy at all, and the Calamari Tempura. Not pictured, but I was not too impressed with the Popcorn Scallops, which were dry and definitely over fried. For non-sushi fans, I'd say you could still have a good meal here at Mizuiro by just selecting from their appetizers.

Again, these are just some of the things that we ate on this evening. As the night went on a sushi coma washed over me, so I forgot to snap pictures of everything we ate. The nigiri sushi was all fresh and tasted great. Pretty impressed with the quality at Mizuiro. I always favor the tempura and specialty rolls, which are a lot heavier than the traditional sushi. I really enjoyed the selection here, but at a certain point of the gluttony, the rolls all started to taste the same.

Based on this one trip to Mizuiro, they have replaced our usual go-to spot for all you can eat sushi. Sure it's a little bit of trek getting out to Rancho Santa Margarita, but this is the best of the AYCE sushi spots we have been to so far in South OC. Unlike a lot of the Yelpers, we had no issues with the service here. They were pretty quick taking our orders, clearing plates, and refilling drinks. We even stayed a little past closing time, and they never really made us feel rushed. Our friend Daniele who we credit with finding this place for us claims that Mizuiro is 70 to 80 times better than the other place we used to go. While her math is definitely off, it is better, and with all that, we consumed it's a great value. Definitely, a sushi restaurant that's right up my alley.

Out of five paint cans, (because if you go into a paint store in Japan and ask for mizuiro, it translates as light blue), five being best to zero being worst, Mizuiro gets 3 paint cans.

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Our Quest Has Taken Us to the Hobbit

The Hobbit
2932 East Chapman
Orange, CA 92869

People get a little worked up over my grading system. My dad has always said that I should do it on a scale of 1 to 10, but as I have explained to him countless times, with the half stars that I give out, it's already like that. My friend Erven has another passionate gripe about my rating system.

He laments the fact that I have not given out a five-star review to any of the restaurants we have been to already. The fact is, most restaurants hover right around the average to slightly above average level. For those that think I'm too tough of a critic, I'll share these stats with you. Of the 655 restaurants rated so far, (we don't rate restaurants that we get invited to), 189 of those have been average or below, leaving 466 scoring higher than average. I'd say that's pretty generous.

As for the upper echelon of places that we've been to, seven restaurants have gotten 4 and a half stars. A five-star restaurant would have to be exceptional in every way. Such a restaurant would be world-class and make me want to forget about eating at all other restaurants. I have not been so blown away by such a restaurant yet, but I do hold out hope that it will happen someday. Erven was hoping that the five-star drought was going to be broken on a recent Sunday evening when he suggested we dine at one of his favorite restaurants, The Hobbit in Orange.

The Hobbit has been around for a ton of years. 45 years this week, which is pretty impressive in the restaurant business. They have been around so long that I can remember being left with a babysitter when my parents came here. Okay, that was only last year, but still impressive that I recall that far back. For the last 30 years, The Hobbit has been run by Executive Chef and Owner Michael Philippi and his wife, Debra Philippi, who holds the title of Executive Coordinator and Owner.

The Hobbit is not really so much a restaurant as it is an event. They have one seating Wednesdays thru Sundays at 7pm. The menu is a seven-course prix -fixe affair, and their website is updated very regularly so you can make reservations based on your preferences. Price for food only is $88 a person, with all beverages, excluding the champagne served in the wine cellar, added to the bill for an additional charge. The setting is a red tiled, Spanish style house located right on Chapman Avenue, right next door to Johnny Reb's. I could not find out too much about the house online and the wait staff here did not really elaborate on any of the history of the place, which I would date at about the 1940's, give or take a decade or two.

We got to The Hobbit at about 6:30 and got a cocktail upstairs in their bar. We took them downstairs and enjoyed them on the patio in the front of the restaurant. A half hour later we were whisked down to the wine cellar for champagne and as you can see from the pictures, quite the array of hors-d'oeuvres. All were very good, but the standouts were the Liver Mousse Pate, which had a great creaminess to it, along with a smokiness that rivaled bacon over an open fire. The best pate I have ever had. The French Sandwich was another winner. Ham and cheese sandwiched between some very soft bread cut into bites sized pieces. So simple, but as addictive as anything. I wanted to fill my pockets before leaving the wine cellar. The Steak Tartare, Mussels in a delicious wine broth, and the Artichoke Dip were all memorable and had me excited for what was to come.

After about an hour of noshing on the hors-d'oeuvres, we were ushered back upstairs and directed to our table. We were seated in the front dining room, which had no more than ten tables inside of it, with a very comforting ambiance to the room. We could hear ourselves talk, but were not bothered by the other parties conversations. I enjoyed the table setting and was especially fond of how the butter was presented, as a rose. Very unique and appreciated. The dinner rolls were kind of a cross between a regular dinner roll and a popover. These kinds of rolls always remind me of my grandmother, which are always cherished memories. They were not shy about keeping them coming either, which was nice.

Course number two was a Seared Diver Scallop perched atop a sweet corn succotash, and a smear of house-made pesto streaked across the plate. The scallop and the pesto went well together, but the corn succotash kind of was the weak link here. A little out of place, and not really adding too much to this. The scallop was tender and seared perfectly. I could have eaten a bunch more of these.

I'm always excited to see quail on any menu, and that was the case when this Grilled Quail was sat in front of me. A few bites of this quail were very good, but then I got down to the meatier part of the bird and it was slightly overcooked and dry, and the blueberry and red wine reduction could not save it. Also adding to my discomfort of this dish was that it was served alongside a white quinoa, which is kind of my arch nemesis. My disdain for quinoa held true at The Hobbit as well, as I found it to be flavorless and left a lot of it untouched. The rest of my dining party enjoyed it so it might have just been my quinoa bias rearing its ugly head again.

Salads were out next, and we were given this Frisee Salad, which for those of you that do not know, like me until I looked it up, is made up of curly endive. This one was served with a black pepper caramel gastrique and at the center of it all was a mission fig which was stuffed with gorgonzola cheese. This salad did not work for me. The endive was a little too bitter and the gastrique promised caramel but did not deliver. All I got was a slight peppery tinge. The fig was okay, but I expected more from the gorgonzola. Blue cheese would have been a better choice as it would have woken up this kind of sleepy salad.

After the salad course, we were asked to vacate the dining space so they could reset the table for the main course and the dessert to follow. We were encouraged to explore the house, and even tour the kitchen. The chefs were very generous with their time and answered everyone's questions. I was shocked at how small and hot their workspace was. It gives you a better appreciation for how many meals they can crank out in such a cramped and uncomfortable space. Much respect for all the kitchen workers out there.

The main course on this particular evening was a Wild Mushroom Stuffed Filet Mignon. The beef was very tender, but I wished the mushrooms had added a little bit more earthiness. The beef also needed to be seasoned a bit more, as I was waiting for a big rush of flavor that did not come. I did enjoy the veggies here. The Chineses long beans, squash, and radishes were all done expertly. Solid, but nothing that really made this dish too memorable.

Last but not least was dessert. Almond Cake was topped with some house-made vanilla ice cream, which was surrounded by some streaks of strawberry across the plate. The almond cake was fine, but the star of this show was the very well done ice cream. I should have asked for an extra scoop. I love small batched ice cream. Since it was Rocio's birthday, we were presented with some truffles, which were a nice touch to end our meal.

I guess if you've read this review up until this point, you can probably guess that this is not our first five-star rating. Sorry, Erven. We had a really good time with our friends on this evening, but the company definitely overshadowed the food. When someone asked me the next day my thoughts on The Hobbit, I said it was like elevated wedding food. I enjoyed the event more than what was sat in front of me. I do admire what they do in such a tiny space, and they should be commended for it. The highlights for me were the very good appetizers in the wine cellar and the scallop. Everything else was fine, but nothing that would make me return to The Hobbit anytime soon. Service was impeccable, and I can see why they get very high marks and awards for their waitstaff. I thought that the pricing was fair, but the cocktails were overpriced at $14 per drink. The Hobbit is an OC restaurant institution, and definitely something to experience at least once.

Out of five rings, (because of course when you hear the name of this restaurant, you automatically think of the Lord of the Rings work by J.R.R. Tolkien), five being best to zero being worst, The Hobbit gets 3 rings. 

For more information about The Hobbit, head on over to their website here: http://www.hobbitrestaurant.com/