Sunday, April 13, 2014

Getting a First Look at Provenance

2531 Eastbluff Dr. 
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Sometimes I really hate my regular job. I know, not really a big shock to hear someone say that, but I only feel this way sometimes. For the most part I am pretty happy where I work. I have been there for 26 years now, and it has afforded me to go on vacations, gives me a roof over my head, and allowed me to go out to a few restaurants. Then there's a day like a couple weeks ago. I had inventory weekend, and it just so happened that there was a media tasting at a new restaurant that I have been waiting to try since I heard about them opening. There was going to be no way that I could get out of work, so in my place, I sent my way better half Katie to enjoy a great afternoon at Provenance in Newport Beach.

Provenance is the new restaurant from Chef Cathy Pavlos of the highly acclaimed LUCCA Cafe in Irvine. If you go into Provenance thinking this is going to be just like LUCCA, you would be mistaken. LUCCA is a Mediterranean restaurant, that draws its inspiration from all of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The culinary inspiration for Provenance comes from the California wine country, and that cuisine is of course greatly influenced by France and Italy, which means, so is the food of Provenance. Just like food of California is influenced by Asian and Latin flavors, the food making its way out of the kitchen at Provenance will have a slight tinge of Asian or Latin flavors on top of French and Italian basics.

Katie came home singing the praises of Chef Cathy. Chef Cathy is of course worthy of these praises. She's an architect by profession, with a degree in Architecture and Art History, a Master's Degree in social Ecology, and a PhD in Environmental Design and Analysis. Literally, she's one smart cookie. She grew up right here in Huntington Beach, but has lived in Italy, and traveled throughout Europe and the East Coast.

Chef Cathy grew up in Huntington Beach when the city was rural, and at Provenance, she's going back to her roots, with a garden right on the premises. Farm to Fork is all the rage now, but that's how she lived growing up, and that is what they are striving for here at Provenance. They are catering to a 35 and up clientele, and these diners are part of the LATTE culture, which means they are looking for restaurants that are Local, Authentic, Traceable, Trusted, and Ethical. It doesn't get anymore traceable than knowing that the vegetable on your plate is from the garden in the back of the restaurant. Just as they were settling in, the food started to make its way out. Let's see what Chef Cathy had cooked up this afternoon.

Speaking of the garden, starting things off was the Salted Garden Beets ($14). Joining the beets on the plate was a Di Stefano burrata, avocado, mandarin aigre-doux, chard, and a sherry-maple vinaigrette. I just learned that aigre-doux means sweet and sour while I was writing this, guess I should have taken French instead of Spanish in school. Katie went nuts over this. She claims that she has never had a better tasting burrata, which played well with the myriad of flavors here. The beets added an earthiness, while the mandarin sauce provided both a sweet and sour combination.

Back in 2005, when LUCCA first opened, Housemade Charcuterie ($23.50) was not as big as it is now. Fast forward to the present, and almost every fine dining restaurant now offers charcuterie. Provenance is no different, but their offering includes; potted rillettes, duck pate, sliced charcuterie, pickled veggies, and mustard's. Katie really liked the variety here.

Next up were a couple of sandwiches off of the lunch menu at Provenance. The Turkey Meatloaf ($15) is something that is definitely right up my alley. Joining the tender turkey meatloaf on this sandwich was applewood smoked bacon, Fiscalini Farmstead cheddar, cippoline in agrodulce, Boston lettuce, tomato relish, sweet pepper jelly, and a house aioli. Not your normal humdrum leftover meatloaf sandwich here. If the meatloaf sandwich sounds unique, the Roasted Leg of Colorado Lamb Sandwich ($16.50) is also not something that you see everyday. It's topped with a Meyer lemon confit, mixed chard's, a Kalamata olive tapenad, and the house aioli. For lamb lovers this one can not be beat. As if the insides of the sandwiches are not enough to make you happy, the bread at Provenance comes from Dean Kim's OC Baking Company, so you know it is going to be great.

Showing off more from the garden at Provenance, the Honey Balsamic Roasted Baby Carrots ($7). With such a simple sounding dish, there was a lot going on here. The carrots were fork tender, and popped with flavor from the addition of a spice blend, dill, chives, and the unusual inclusion of feta cheese.

The bounty from the garden continued to make its way to the table, with these two other offerings. I have never really been a big fan of Rapini ($8.50), but this version has me rethinking that. Topping the usually bitter vegetable is a spicy tomato sauce, green garlic, and my favorite part of this dish, a fried egg. Genius. Chef Cathy has found a way to make even rapini taste good. The Sweet and Sour Winter Squash Medley ($7.50) was plated in such a way, that you could really see Chef Cathy's architectural background. The tall black kale surrounding the squash, and sprinkled with roasted pumpkin seeds. This dish seemed to scream Autumn.

The lone lunch entree brought out was this Mahi Mahi ($21.50). This fish was encrusted with pistachios, and served alongside a quinoa medley, tomatillos, salsa verde, and a hint of citrus. Katie really enjoyed this earthy dish. She liked the fish, but was taken aback by the quinoa here. She said she could have just made a meal of the quinoa medley.

Now onto the dinner menu, and starting things off was this starter, the Whole Smoked Idaho Trout ($27.50). For smoked fish lovers, this is a must. Topped with ribbons of hearts of palm, capers, artichoke hearts, oven roasted tomatoes, and smoked olive and lemon cream. Katie's not much of a smoked fish fan, so she did not try this, but I really enjoyed the plating here, so I had to include this shot.

The fish parade just kept on coming, with this Pan Fried New Zealand Sole on the Plancha ($28.50). For being pan fried, this fish had a lightness to it, and lacked any noticeable grease. The sole was served with crispy prosciutto, planch potatoes, spinach, tarragon, and infused brown butter sauce. A very nice fish dish, for light eaters who do not want to sacrifice flavor.

New Zealand not only brought us the sole above, but also this lamb. This Rack of New Zealand Lamb might look like its not cooked all the way through, but at Provenance, they cook some of their meats using the top of the line Sous Vide station, which cooks meats all the way through to the desired temperature, in a vacuumed packed bag. It's a cooking process made popular by Thomas Keller, which cooks items evenly, from the inside out. Also served with the lamb is a blood orange leek risotto and a cilantro macadamia nut pesto. A lot more creative than that horrible mint jelly option.

When Katie came home and showed me the pictures that she took, the one that caught my eye immediately was this one of the Roasted Jidori Chicken ($23). A lot of times chicken can be boring, but looking at the chicken here, it made me crave it. It comes with garden veggies, baby Yukon potatoes, blistered Brussels sprouts, and pan gravy. Comfort food, with a modern twist. According to Katie the chicken was some of the most tender she has had. This is a meal that you can feel good about eating.

Just like at LUCCA, Provenance will be serving brunch, but for right now the brunch at Provenance is only on Sundays. No run of the mill eggs Benedict here. This is the Housemade Whiskey and Brown Sugar Cured Wild Salmon Gravadlax. This Nordic style way of serving salmon is placed on top of two house made English muffins, with poached eggs, dilled Hollandaise sauce, and fried capers placed on top of the salmon.

They love their fish at Provenance, and there is no shortage of seafood on the brunch menu here. This Pan Seared Idaho Trout ($17.50) is not something I would normally order at brunch, but the menu description definitely piqued my interest. Two poached cage free eggs, root veggie loose hash-browns, baby garden greens, all with a mustard cognac Bearnaise sauce, comprised this dish. Katie liked every aspect of this plate, but the root vegetable hash-browns really got her attention here.

I love hash for breakfast, but a lot of them are just mediocre. After seeing the picture of this CAB Shortrib Corned Beef Hash ($16.50), I have very high hopes for this version at Provenance. Served with a sunny side up egg, a butternut squash succotash, and a Wasabi Cream, this promises to be full of big time flavors. I look forward to making it here to try this as soon as possible.

Last but not least, we jump back to the dinner menu for this grand finale, the 32 Ounce Certified Angus Beef Porterhouse Steak for 2 ($93). This was brought to the table medium rare, and was one of the most tender pieces of meat that Katie has ever consumed. It is carved off the bone, and served with a plethora of grilled vegetables from their garden, potatoes, and sauces. If you are a steak fiend, this is probably what you should get at Provenance.

Just when they could not eat any more, a nice trio of desserts were brought out. Pastry Chef Alice Castro, formerly of Park Avenue in Stanton, has been brought on board to create the desserts at Provenance. Always a sucker for apple pie ala mode, the Cast Iron Apple Pie ($9) looks like it will be a winner, with a salted caramel sauce and Calvados ice cream. For those that do not know, like me until I looked it up, Calvados is an apple brandy from France. For a lighter dessert, you may want to try the Plate of Cookies and Mini Pastries ($9). Carrot Cake ($9) always gets my attention, and after seeing this one, I had to stop myself from licking my computer screen trying to get a taste of the good looking cream cheese frosting. Just like at Park Avenue, a lot of Alice's desserts feature house made ice creams, with some unique flavors. All the more reason to save room for dessert when dining at Provenance.

For the next couple of weeks after her visit to Provenance, Katie could not help but sing their praises. She told a bunch of people that they must try it with us, so it looks like I will be able to experience it for myself very soon. Provenance was everything that Katie thought it was going to be. The food was amazing, innovative, and Chef Cathy really inspired her. I was pretty upset that I had to miss this event, but glad Katie got to experience it.

For more information about Provenance, go to their web site here:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hoping That Vine Bears a Great Night Out

Vine Restaurant
211 N. El Camino Real 
San Clemente, CA 92672

After we get invited to a restaurant tasting, I always wonder if we get a true representation of the food and service. With food writers and other assorted media in attendance, a restaurant could just be putting on a pretty face. I had no such thoughts when we were at Vine Restaurant earlier this year. The team behind this restaurant is just too good to have a bad restaurant.

It starts at the top, with Owner, Russ Bendel. We met Russ a number of times when he was a Partner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse at Fashion Island. He left that post in early 2013, and resurfaced with a group of his friends to purchase the already established Vine Restaurant in San Clemente. Also coming on board was Partner Kyle Simpson, who has extensive restaurant experience, including stints at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion, as well as others. Gabe Whorley is not only a partner as well, but he's the man behind the craft cocktail program at Vine. He's worked his way through the bartending ranks, and was last behind the bar at legendary Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza. Rounding out this impressive team is the man in the kitchen, Chef Jared Cook. This is Jared's third time working at Vine, but his first as Executive Chef and Partner. He's so passionate about local and sustainable produce, that he's created a garden on site here, and uses what he picks that day to inspire his chef's specials.

Definitely a great team, but what brought us back here so quickly? I had liked their Facebook page during our first visit, and then a couple weeks ago, up popped one of their specials of the night, a big slab of meat that definitely called out to me. After looking at the picture, I alerted Katie that I had made our decision on where we would be eating later that night. She seemed really happy with our decision, so we headed down the 5 Freeway after making our reservation.

I was really glad that we made a reservation, because Vine was packed on this Saturday night. The bar area was hopping, and the restaurant was just as busy, even at this 8PM hour. Our table took a few minutes to get ready, which was nice, so we could observe Chef Jared hard at work in the kitchen, which you can see right by the front door. It's always entertaining watching a professional kitchen in action.

Vine is not a large restaurant, but it's not cramped. The decor could be described as rustic, with lots of wood showing. They are really trying to play up the wine country vibe here, as there are plenty of wine bottles on display throughout the dining area, including an actual wine cellar room, perfect for small or large groups located in the back of the dining space. The menu is not huge, with ten entree options, and a couple of burgers to offer. This is a seasonal menu, so you might experience some changes depending on when you visit, but there's probably enough diversity on the menu to please a good many of you. I, of course was having the special that I saw on Facebook, so I just had to wait for Katie to make up her mind. Let's see how everything turned out for us on this night.

Meals at Vine start off with their version of a bread basket, which is actually served in a metal pail. This sturdy bread was served alongside a White Bean Puree, which is made up of olive oil, honey, salt, pepper, and sage. A very mellow spread, it had different bursts of sweet and earthiness in alternating tastes.

I usually forgo having cocktails when we are out to eat, instead trying to save room so I can consume more food, but I had to try one of Gabe's specialty cocktails. I went with the Hot Shot ($10). To be honest, I'm not really sure what was in this, but it started out sweet, then got spicy on the way down. I know there was jalapeno in this, and it was garnished with a cucumber. A very unique drink.

There are some really good starters on the menu at Vine; including Duck Wings, Bone Marrow, and a House Made Pumpkin Ravioli. At the media event we attended they had charcuterie boards out for us, and Katie has been thinking about them ever since, so we started with this Selection of Artisan Cheeses and Domestic Cured Meats and Cold Cuts ($18). There's too many things on here to remember, but the pate really stood out, as well as all of the meats, which worked out well because Katie was way more into the cheeses. When this was brought to the table, other customers really took notice.

It has been awhile since I have had a memorable Caesar Salad ($7), but that streak ended on this night. Joining the usual produce in this salad was white anchovies, garlic croutons, crispy capers, pecorino, and a Tijuana vinaigrette. What set this Caesar apart was that the greens were chopped finely, the anchovy was not overly fishy, and the croutons added a nice crunchy texture. The salad was lightly dressed, in a nice tasting Caesar dressing. A good sized salad for the price.

At a restaurant like Vine, you might not expect burgers to be on the menu, and I definitely did not expect Katie to order one, but here she was getting the Mexicali Burger ($14). This Mexican inspired burger came topped with queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, chile de arbol crema, onion, and roasted Serrano chiles. Not a usual Katie hamburger choice for sure, but she called this burger, "really delicious". Even though she wanted her burger well done, it still came out juicy, which is a feat in itself. This was a burger of big flavors. The arbol crema was good and spicy, but was balanced out by the smooth and cool avocado. The bun should not be ignored here. It held everything in place, and you could tell it was freshly baked. Not what you would expect from this kind of restaurant, but a very solid burger.

Now this is the meal that I saw on Facebook that brought us back to Vine Restaurant so quickly, the Center Cut T-Bone Steak ($36). This big hunk of meat was topped with an asparagus Bearnaise sauce, and served alongside garden vegetables and mashed potatoes. I picked this bone clean, the meat was so good. Cooked to my desired medium rare, the Bearnaise sauce paired well with the tender steak. All the vegetables were cooked perfectly on this plate, and I especially enjoyed the shallots that were scattered about. This big plate of food did a great job of filling me up, but of course there's always room for dessert.

The Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Crumble ($9) had me fooled. I'm not really a raisin kind of guy, as I would much rather prefer to have chocolate chips any day, but the raisins did not get in the way here. Three scoops of apple strudel ice cream, along with cut up apples, and caramel bourbon drizzle combined to make this dessert a winner. A lot of my complaints about ice cream desserts in restaurants is that there is never enough ice cream, but that was not the case at Vine. More than enough ice cream to go around, the oatmeal cookies had a good chew to them, and I liked the sliced apples in this. They almost fooled me into thinking this was good for me.

Usually I feel like wine-centric restaurants do not cater to non-wine drinkers like myself, or that they are kind of stuffy. This was not the case at Vine Restaurant. The vibe here was more beachy, than highfalutin. We even struck up a great conversation with a couple sitting next to us, who gave us some great recommendations for other restaurants to try in San Clemente. They had eaten here before this new group of owners had been here, and they are much more pleased with how things are now. I have to admit, I was pretty pleased as well. The steak that I saw on Facebook was well worth the drive, and the rest of the meal was great as well. The service we had on this night was solid, but a little leisurely, which is perfect in a beach town on a late Saturday night. We were glad to see that the media dinner was not just window dressing, the Vine Restaurant is really all that.

Out of five loincloths, (because that's what Tarzan wore when he traveled the jungle on vines), five being best to zero being worst, Vine Restaurant gets 4 loincloths.

For more information about Vine Restaurant, go to their website here:

Vine Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 29, 2014

XA Marks the Spot

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe
424 South Main Street
Orange, CA 92868

My parents were headed to Ruby's on a recent Monday night, so that left Katie and I to fend for ourselves on our usual night when we eat at my parents house. We still had to go bowling, so I scoured my list of places to eat in between Katie's work in Irvine, and the bowling alley in Anaheim. One place jumped out at me, with a note I had made next to the name of the restaurant. I had written, "apple pie cookie", in the margin of the paper, and that was good enough for us to head to XA Sweet and Savory Cafe.

I have read about XA Cafe about a dozen times in the OC Weekly. This seems to be one of their favorite places to eat, as I have read about their menu changes, best of lists, chefs interviews, and of course their cookies. Keep in mind that this restaurant has only been open for a year and some months now, so all of this press is quite rare for a new restaurant. I was pretty excited to see what all the hype was about.

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe is a few blocks away from Main Place, in the same strip mall as Kaffa, Roma D'Italia, and book-ended by Carl's Jr. and Taco Bell. A few blocks away from CHOC and St. Joesph Hospital's, we saw quite a few medical workers come in during our early evening visit. XA Cafe is named after chef and owner, Shawn Xa, who came over and introduced himself after we were done eating. Shawn definitely has an infectious personality, and it's easy to see why so many people came by to say hello to him, and he knew a lot of his customers by name. When we talked to him, he wanted to make it clear that this is not a health food restaurant, but more of a clean eating spot. A place where you don't have to sacrifice taste by eating clean.

This restaurant is not huge, its pretty quiet, but a comfortable space. Maybe ten or so tables, ordering is done at the counter, and the menu is of the build your own meal style. Sauces and rubs change with the season, so the ones you are about to see in this review have now been phased out for the Spring offerings. This will at least give you an idea of what to expect when you dine here. XA Cafe also features sandwiches, breakfasts, salads, and of course their famous cookies that we will get to later. Let's see if all of OC Weekly's praise is worth a trip here.

When Katie's plate was sat in front of her, I was kind of blown away. This is more like something you would see at a four star restaurant, than in a small place in a strip mall. Even more shocking was the price of the Entree ($8.99). Both Katie and I ordered an entree, which means you get to choose your protein, a sauce or a rub, and then you get two side items. The chicken gets rave reviews here, so that's what Katie went for, with roasted garlic and herb sauce, grilled asparagus, and a garlic noodle. Her first comment when she bit into this chicken was to remark how moist the bird was. The garlic was not too overpowering, but it hung around the background. She was a little worried that the noodles would make this dish greasy, but that was not the case here. The asparagus was fresh, and grilled nicely. When I asked Katie for any negatives about this plate, she could not come up with any. She liked the lightness of everything, and would probably get this again.

Not looking much different from Katie's, I ordered the Tilapia ($8.99). For my sauce I chose the honey spice, which started out sweet, then bit back with a little heat on the back end. I really enjoyed that sauce. The tilapia, like the chicken, was very moist, but did not break apart too easily. For my side items I got the potato cake and brown rice pilaf. The rice was good, with just enough flavor, while the potato cake was a little unassuming. It kind of got lost here, because it was so light. I really liked this plate, but if I was pressed to say something negative, I could only come up with that I wished there was more sauce on the plate.

Right next to the register are numerous kinds of cookies all wrapped in cellophane. I should have written down all of the different kind of cookies that they have here, but I would have been writing for a long time. They had a Bacon Chocolate Chip, a Blueberry, and their most famous cookie, the Baked Apple Pie. I liked the cookies at XA Cafe, but I like a crunchier cookie, and these were more on the softer side. The flavors for the most part were dead on. The apple pie cookie actually did taste like apple, while the blueberry was probably my favorite, as it came across as a blueberry muffin in cookie form. I did not really get too much of the bacon from the bacon chocolate chip cookie though. I'm not going to lie to you, Katie really enjoyed these cookies a lot. She even took home a dozen, which we snacked on for the next couple of days. Insiders tip, if you tell them that it's your first time here, they will give you a free cookie with your meal.

I really enjoyed our visit to XA Sweet and Savory Cafe. The food was real good, the prices were more than fair, and we left here full, but did not have that real heavy feeling walking out the door. My problem with these build your own meal places is that I am always afraid that I'm going to screw it up, and pick something that doesn't go together. That was not the case here. The honey spice sauce seemed like it was made for the tilapia, just like the garlic and herb sauce was perfect with the chicken. I'm positive that if we flip flopped the sauces on the opposite meats, both would work just as well then too. I have a feeling that it would be impossible to have a combination not work here at XA Cafe. We are really looking forward to coming back again soon, exploring the flavor combinations, and finding our perfect one.

Out of five tumors, (because Main Place Mall is right down the street, and part of Kindergarten Cop was filmed there, and that movie had the famous, "it's not a tumor" quote in it), five being best to zero being worst, XA Sweet and Savory Cafe gets 3.5 tumors.

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe has a very limited website, which you can access here:

Xa Sweet on Urbanspoon
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