Saturday, September 29, 2012

Panera Bread Media Event in Mission Viejo

Panera Bread
25523 Marguerite Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92692

I love sharing what I do with others. This was the case on this visit to the brand new Panera Bread in Mission Viejo. Katie is my usual plus one when we attend events, but she has a regular 9-5 weekday job, so she has a hard time making some of the lunch events. Plus she was out of vacation/sick days by like February. So I needed a substitute guest to attend this Panera event with me. I could think of no one better, than my Mom to join me. I had never been to a Panera Bread before, but my Mom has, but only for breakfast. She was excited to see what they offer after the morning hours.

We got to Panera Bread just before 1. This Mission Viejo location had only been open four days when we showed up, but the restaurant was packed. The word has definitely gotten out about this place, and only four days in! This location shares a building with a Chipotle, and a parking lot with Walgreen's and a California Pizza Kitchen. It used to be an old Blockbuster, but it does not resemble a video store anymore. The restaurant is deceptively large. Plenty of two person tables dominate the dining area. The colors are bright and inviting.

Also inviting are all the baked goods that you pass on the way up to the ordering area. I was surprised with all of the different varieties that they offer. Most bakeries shelves are all empty by lunchtime, but the shelves at Panera were full. If there is anything left over at the end of the night, it is donated to a local charity. In the case of this Mission Viejo location, they give to the food pantry at Saddleback Church.

Who says you can't have dessert first? The good folks over at Panera Bread brought us out a large assortment of baked goods to start. I was very partial to the Pecan Braid and the Cinnamon Roll. Both were very sweet, with the cinnamon roll really living up to its name by having a lot of cinnamon on the inside of it. I would not hesitate to get these both again. The item I was most surprised by was the Pumpkin Pie Bagel. I always refer to bagels as a poor man's donut. I have never really been a big fan of the heavy dough, non-sweet bagel. This bagel has changed my mind. This bagel is flavored with pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin flakes, then topped with a cinnamon crunch topping. My Mom was so impressed with this bagel, she went right up to snatch the last one that they had.

Man can't live on baked goods alone, so it was time to bring on the sandwiches. Up first was one of Panera's best sellers, the Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich. This sandwich came with smoked turkey breast, bacon, smoked Gouda, lettuce, tomato, and their signature dressing, on a tomato basil bread. The first bite, I realized how special this bread was. Full of flavor, but not as crusty as I thought it would be. It also held the contents of the sandwich well. The produce was fresh, and complimented the meats and cheese nicely. This was paired up with their Broccoli Cheddar Soup. This is a pretty solid soup. Very smooth tasting, without big hunks of broccoli in it. I can imagine eating this on a cool fall night, if we have any cool nights in our future.

We really must have been in a turkey mood because the next two sandwiches we got also featured turkey. The Roasted Turkey and Cranberry Panini might be new to the Panera menu, but we spied a lot of people ordering this one throughout the restaurant. I liked this sandwich because it was so stuffed with turkey. It literally had turkey falling out of the sandwich. The cranberry added a nice little sweet surprise in some bites, while the garlic and herb cheese spread added a nice zing to the sandwich. The Roasted Turkey and Avocado BLT had my name written all over it when I saw it on the menu. All of my favorites were on this sandwich, which came on a very sturdy sourdough bread. Basic sandwich, but really hit the spot.

Taking a break from the sandwiches, we also got to sample the Mac and Cheese and Sonoma Chicken Stew. I am really picky about my macaroni and cheese. It takes a lot to impress me. This one did a good job of it. Panera's version is made of Vermont White Cheddar cheese, and poured over shell pasta. The result was a smooth, kind of understated version of mac and cheese. The item that really captured our hearts was the Sonoma Chicken Stew. This had a great homey taste to it. We could imagine buying this, taking it home, and filling pie shells with it to create our own chicken pot pies. This seasonal stew combined chicken, leeks, carrots, onions and celery, with a very creamy sauce. It was also served with a cheese biscuit in the middle of it, which was good for dipping. Again, we long for cooler nights where we can curl up and sip on this wonderful stew.

When I saw Cuban Chicken Panini on the menu, I had to have it. I am a real sucker for Cuban sandwiches. This one was a little different. It did not have roasted pork, but used chicken instead, to go along with the lean ham, sweet and spicy pickle chips, Swiss cheese, mayo, and sun dried ale mustard. An interesting take on the Cuban sandwich. I have been back to Panera one time after this, and this was the sandwich that I got. It is very balanced, with the saltiness of the ham, the smooth Swiss, and the tanginess of the mustard and pickles. The French Onion Soup was paired with this. Not as cheesy as some french onion soups can be, this one also did not taste like a salt lick. I usually stay away from this soup because most restaurants over salt this very easily.

I definitely needed to end my meal with one more thing, the perfect ending to the afternoon, the Chocolate Duet with Walnut Cookie. This cookie also included white chocolate and semi sweet chunks of chocolate. Not too crunchy, and not overly soft, this cookie really had a pleasant texture, and was the great end to a wonderful afternoon of food.

My first visit to Panera Bread could not have gone any better. All the food was great, but the baked goods was where it is at! All of them were so good, I had to sign up for a MyPanera Card, which is their version of a rewards card. You can sign up for it, or get more information about the program here: We have already been back for dinner one night, and have plans to go again soon.

Both my Mom and I really had an excellent afternoon at Panera Bread. It gave us some quality time together, and showed her what it was like going to these food events and what it entails. Special thanks go out to everyone at Panera Bread. They really made our visit great. Thanks to Panera Bread's, Jenny Lynch for making sure we got to try everything our hearts desired. Hope she has a great trip to Europe. One last thank you goes to Jocelle Untalan, from Fleishman-Hillard for the invite. We really enjoyed ourselves, and that was due to your hospitality Jocelle.

For more information on Panera Bread, check out their web site here:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Working on Getting a Good Meal at Sabatino

Sabatino Pizza and Pasta
23032 Alicia Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92692

Sometimes you just do not want to go to far from home. This was the case on Labor Day. Besides the stifling heat we have been having, Labor Day always seems like a depressing holiday to me. When I was a kid it always marked the end of summer and the start of school. Now that I am older, Labor Day means more cars will be out on the road during morning rush hour, the weather will be turning cooler, and football season will be starting. Okay, two of those things are good, but I still have been scarred by Labor Day, so I was not in a great mood to battle the beach traffic, and wanted just an easy night somewhere around our house. That's how we came upon Sabatino.

Sabatino is located a few miles from our house, in an Albertson's shopping center on the way to RSM. The restaurant is small, with only ten tables or so. The decor is dominated by the color brown, with a real comfortable, updated feel to it. The Labor Day crowd was trickling in during our visit. At the height of their busiest, they probably had about five tables full. They do have some seating outside, but with the heat everyone opted to sit inside. The staff is on the younger side, but all seemed very polite. The menu is not crazy big, but the staple Italian items are here. Let's see how everything came out of the kitchen for us.

Starting us off are the Garlic Knots that came out to the table. These were pretty good. They came out warm, had a decent garlic flavor, and were pretty soft. Not the best garlic knot I have had, those would be at Oggi's, but not bad for free. The marinara served with this was slightly sweet, and went well with the garlic here.

I have been on a real Caesar Salad ($3.95) kick, and I basically picked an Italian restaurant just to order one. This salad had plenty of dressing and cheese, which I liked, but the croutons were this salad's downfall. They had no crunch to them, and were just cut up pieces of garlic bread. Katie was pretty excited by her Side Dinner Salad ($3.95). Not only was the price right, but she really liked this salad. The olives and cheese really enhanced the produce, and no complaints with the ranch dressing.

Let's go with Katie's meal first. She selected the Spinach Cannelloni ($11.95). This was hand rolled pasta stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, and spinach, topped with a tomato-butter-sage sauce. I like to think of these as an Italian enchilada. The sauce was mellow, but very fresh. The spinach was cooked well and not soggy, like some restaurant spinach can be sometimes. This is not usually a meal I would order because of the lack of meat, but it was good enough that I may consider it on future visits.

Not the most photogenic lasagna ever, but a deceivingly large portion. This Homemade Lasagna ($10.95) had layers of ground beef, pasta, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and was topped with marinara sauce. The sauce was pretty sweet tasting. I toned it down with some Parmesan cheese. Crushed red pepper flakes would have done the trick as well. I would have liked the meat to have been in bigger hunks, but this was a solid lasagna. Plenty of cheese on this one.

Sabatino may not be destination dining, but if you are in the area it is not a bad place to visit. The two entrees we had were pretty good. Not going to blow you away, but they were better than most. A good majority of their business was to go orders. Almost all of the to go orders while we were here were for their pizza, so that might be what we try on our next visit. I thought the prices were pretty good for the size of the plates. Service was not top notch, but they never really forgot about us. Glad this place was close by, so we did not have to fight Labor Day traffic.

Out of five white shirts, (since it was Labor Day, and as a rule you should not wear white clothing after this holiday), five being best to zero being worst, Sabatino Pizza and Pasta gets 3 white shirts.

For more information on Sabatino Pizza and Pasta, click here:

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bottle Wars Commencing at Fleming's

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
455 Newport Center Dr.
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Fleming's is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots to visit. Not only is their food very good, but they keep introducing new food items and having great promotions. This month alone they have a Memorable Feast for Two that is three courses for $99, and they are also having their Last Call Sale, where patrons can save 25% off bottles of wine. As much as I would have loved to have taken advantage of these offers, we were here for two other happenings going on at Fleming's, the introduction of their new Bar La Carte menu and Bottle Wars.

Bottle Wars is a fun, competitive way that Fleming's is introducing their latest version of the Fleming's 100. After a year long search, and numerous tastings, Fleming's introduces a new list of 100 wines offered by the glass. They leave about 25 to 30 wines on the list from the previous year, so that leaves 70 to 75 new wines for people to discover. Fleming's has come up with a great way to get people to sample some of these by having wine tastings every Friday night in September. Not your average wine tasting though. Fleming's is pitting wines against each other, based on style, location, and price. On the Friday we were here, it was a Battle of the Hemispheres. For $25 you get to sample wines from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and Chile, then see how they compare against wines from California. Here are the pairings, and what we thought was best.

The first match up pitted two Sauvignon Blanc's against each other. The Kim Crawford  was from New Zealand and had a slight fruitiness to it. I would have liked a little more sweetness out of it. The Hanna, from the Russian River Valley of California was my clear winner here. It was a clean tasting wine, with subtle hints of citrus. Score one for California wines!

Next up was the Chardonnay round, which had Women of the Vine, from California's Central Coast, going up against Indaba, from South Africa. The Women of the Vine was pretty mild for my taste. It needed a little something more. The Indaba was the clear favorite in my book. It had more substance behind it, and had a wonderful depth to it. We are all tied up now, California and the Southern Hemisphere knotted up at one apiece.

Also included in the $25 for wine tasting is the inclusion of some appetizers from Fleming's. The night we were here they started us off with these Shrimp Skewers with chimichurri. These went very well with the white wines we had. These shrimp should not be called shrimp, because they were so large. Very tasty, well seasoned shrimp, and the chimichurri sauce went very well with these. A nice respite from the wine tasting, but now it was on to round three.

Round three featured red blends, The Prisoner from Napa Valley versus Yalumba from Australia. This was the most difficult match up for me. They both were pretty good. I gave the edge to The Prisoner because the flavor lingered longer, and with more complexity. The Yalumba was good, but I did not get the intense finish I was expecting. California wines up 2 to 1 now.

The people at Fleming's may have been wanting to move things along, or they might have noticed my Dad getting a little rambunctious, so they sent out the next appetizer rather quickly. This Mushroom Crostini may have lacked meat, but it was delicious anyways. The bread had a nice crunch to it, the mushroom added a little meatiness, and the Gorgonzola cheese added a lot of flavor.

Cabernet Sauvignon was next to be tried, with Educated Guess from Napa Valley going against South American favorite, Primus, from Chile. This Chilean wine was my Dad's favorite of the night. He was trying to convince everyone to vote for it as well. He was very passionate about the rich fruit flavor of this one. The Educated Guess was a little too creamy for my taste, but not a bad wine by any means. We are all tied up with one more match up to go.

The last of our three appetizers was this Apple and Blue Cheese Flatbread. I am not usually a big fan of mixing fruits and cheeses, but this one worked out pretty well. The bread portion of this was sturdy enough to hold the toppings, and the blue cheese really made this pop with flavor.

Merlot's were the last wines of the evening. The California contender was Dreaming Tree from the North Coast of California. This wine is backed by musician Dave Matthews. It had a real rich fruity taste to start, then a peppery flavor took over. The Esk Valley, from New Zealand had a rich bouquet of fruitiness, then finished with a nice hint of vanilla. This wine won this match up, and won the tasting for the Southern Hemisphere. To be truthful though, all of these wines were winners. They all had their own unique qualities to them, and maybe your wine palette is different from mine. You have two more opportunities to enjoy this wine tasting, tomorrow and the next Friday, September 28th, but you can enjoy the new Fleming's 100 glasses of wine for the next 11 months.

The other two bloggers that were attendance, Anne Marie from Brekkie Fan's Blog and Tiffany from Wine Taste Travel, and myself got to have the added bonus of checking out the new Bar La Carte Menu. This menu was recently introduced in the bar, and features seven appetizers/light meals that are available anytime. We got seated at a table and got to break into this bread. If you have not had the bread at Fleming's, it is one of the best ways to start a meal. It came out warm and was served alongside two great spreads. The Sundried Tomato and Basil is good, but the Feta Cheese Spread had a great flavor to it. I knew a lot of food was on the way, so I tried to limit myself to only a few pieces of bread.

Of course Fleming's is famous for their meat, so it was a natural that we start with their Prime Rib Melt. This hefty sandwich comes with Swiss cheese, sauteed mushrooms, and a whole grain mustard slaw. The meat was of course tender, the Swiss helped give a little extra flavor boost and the slaw added a little extra crunch. Good solid sandwich, and not a bad way to start off this Bar La Carte Menu..

This was the most interesting item that we tried the whole night, the Salt and Pepper Shrimp. This appetizer also came with crispy French green beans and a rich caper-mustard sauce. The shrimp were very good. I did not detect the salt here, but the pepper was evident. I am not a big green bean fan, but with this very flavorful sauce, it even made these taste good. The serving size for this was very generous as well.

This hearty dish is the Prime Steakhouse Meatballs. The meatballs were of course the big draw here, but the peppercorn sauce and shiitake mushrooms should not be overlooked. They both helped make this more of a meal than just an appetizer. I could imagine eating this comforting dish on a cold winter night.

Going around the table at the end of the meal, this House Made Burrata seemed to be a clear favorite. I did not get a chance to try this, because I was getting full and wanted to save room for the last two appetizers. The burrata was served with charred grape tomatoes, wild arugula, and toasted garlic crostinis.

We ended our night with two flatbreads. The Filet Mignon Faltbread was very tasty, with its Danish blue cheese, Monterey jack cheeses and red onion confit. Just typing these words makes my mouth water. The Cedar Roasted Mushroom and Artichoke Flatbread may have been missing meat, but it still was a nice light option here. The red peppers, jack cheese, and garlic married well here to create a very flavorful union.

It was quite a night at Fleming's. As you can see from this post, there is always something happening here. On this Friday night the restaurant was popping and the bar was filled to capacity. We even had a visit from Fleming's founder, Paul Fleming. Just like the rest of the staff, he made us feel real comfortable. A special thanks goes out to PR guru, Lee Healy for the invite to Fleming's. Also we would like to thank all of the staff at Fleming's. Everyone we have ever run across is always so pleasant and nice. Thank you all very much, we look forward to coming back soon!

For more information on Fleming's, and all the happening there, click here: