Monday, December 29, 2014

Our Best Restaurants of 2014

Another year has flown by way too fast. 2014 was a big year for me. I reviewed my 500th restaurant, I came closer to eating in all OC cities, (we now only have two left to hit, Seal Beach and La Palma, which we will do in the first part of the new year), I moved in with, and got engaged to Katie, something that I never would have expected to have happened ten years ago, and our numbers on social media have kept a steady climb.

It has not been all good news on the blog though. Because of all the wedding planning, and a lack of time management on my part, this is the second straight year that we visited fewer restaurants than the year before. Not something that I want to keep repeating. We reviewed 84 restaurants this year, which still works out to a new review coming out every four days or so, but I know we can do better. Of course it will be tough in the early part of next year, since we have our wedding in April, but I pledge to get our restaurant wish list down from four pages, and our reviews up.

As is my custom in these year end lists, I have a lot of thank yous to throw around. I would like to thank everyone that went out to eat with me this year. Not only did I enjoy your company, but I also like that you allowed me to pick some great, and not so great spots for us to eat in. A special shout out to my bride to be, Katie. You are always so supportive, and I can not imagine sharing this experience with anyone but you. Thanks for all you do Katie.

Of course I need to thank all of you that have taken some time throughout the year to read our blog. It's because of all of you that I do this. My quest to find the best food that OC has to offer is because of you readers. I hate seeing people eat and pay for mediocre or terrible food, when there are so many great places to eat all around us. Thank you all for all of the comments, tips, emails, and words of encouragement about our blog. I greatly appreciate it.

Usually we do a best and worst list of restaurants, but we had a pretty good year, and there were not too many restaurants that we would rate as awful. In fact we had no restaurants rate less than a two, and only four places receive only two stars. So let's focus on the positive, and check out our top five restaurants that we ate at in 2014.

#5 Sue Ann's Kitchen Unfortunately you won't be able to go to every restaurant on this list, because this one shuttered mid year. It wasn't because of the food though. We had some great American classic food at Sue Ann's, and we hope to hear that Gillian and Robin open up another place, in a higher traffic area than this place was. We still remember their great crab cakes fondly.

#4 We became aware of Vine Restaurant when we were invited to come here for a media dinner, but it makes this list because of our return visit a few months later. Owner Russ Bendel and Chef Jared Cook are always posting their specials on Facebook, and their Center Cut T-Bone Steak had me drooling over my computer keyboard, and it lived up to its billing that night when I devoured it.

#3 The only breakfast spot that made our list this year, and with good reason is Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills. We reviewed Break of Dawn pretty early in our blogs history, and even after a location change, it's our pleasure to report that it's just as good, if not better than ever. If you're looking for a traditional breakfast spot, you best try the Carrow's down the street. Each plate comes out here with a delicious twist that you will not see coming, but you will definitely come back for more. Just a fantastic way to start your day.

#2 Mastro's will always be a special place for me. Not only did we have a great dinner with friends here during Costa Mesa Restaurant Week, but it's also the restaurant where we did our 500th review. The steaks live up to all the hype, the service was first rate, but you definitely better save room for the butter cake, which is a thing of beauty. Such a great end to an awesome meal.

#1 The best meal we had all year was from Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach. This restaurant, which is co-owned by Ducks legend, Teemu Selanne blew us away with their great steaks, sides, and desserts. The ribeye was probably one of the best I have ever had, and the Monkey Bread dessert left a smile on our faces well into the next morning. We went back six months later, and found the restaurant to be even better than our first visit. Looking forward to having many more special occasions at Selanne's.

So there you have our top five restaurants of 2014. I wish you all a happy 2015. We look forward to sharing all that our great county has to offer food-wise with you in the coming year. Happy new year to you all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Trying to Hook a Great Dinner in Tustin

The Black Marlin
560 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

It has been sometime since we met my parents for dinner, and we had some wedding details to go over with them. Seating charts, honeymoon options, and rehearsal dinner spots were all on the agenda for this night. We were also going to be catching up with them, since we haven't seen them since Thanksgiving. As usual we always try to pick a central location for us all to meet, which usually lands us in the Tustin area. Lucky for us, I had a restaurant on our list to try in Tustin, The Black Marlin.

Not sure who suggested this place to us, or why I had put it on my list to begin with, but it was there. Opened just over a year ago in charming Old Town Tustin, this restaurant and bar takes over in the historic Tustin Garage that occupies the corner of El Camino and 6th Street. This joint is owned by the original owner of Quinn's, which is down the block. From what I can ascertain, he sold Quinn's to retire, and then realized he missed working, and opened this place in the old Tustin Roadhouse and Beach Pit Barbecue spots. Maybe a change from barbecue would be good for this corner.

We arrived to the Black Marlin without a reservation, but were seated promptly on their heated patio out front. Even though it was raining, the patio was completely covered, and was rather comfortable. We were however cramped in the back table, which was way too close to other tables. Made for an awkward dining arrangement all night. Still we were pretty glad to be on the patio, as it gave us time to talk, and spared us from the rather loud music inside the restaurant. The menu here is seafood driven, with some sandwiches and pasta dishes thrown in for non-seafood lovers. Let's see if the Black Marlin would hook us up with a great meal.

Starting things off, we tried the Garlic Cheese Bread ($5.50) from the appetizer portion of the menu. They say this is great for sharing at the table, and there was definitely enough for the four of us. Wish it had been cut up in pieces, but this was a pretty good garlic bread. A little light on the cheese, but plenty of garlic to go around. The loaf was a little charred on the edges, but the center was nice and soft. We'd get this again for sure.

It's no surprise that Katie started things off here at the Black Marlin with a salad. This Itsy Bitsy Dinner Salad ($5.75) came with greens, feta cheese, tomatoes, and pickled red onion with a citrus balsamic dressing. Katie liked this salad, calling the produce fresh, and liking the addition of the feta cheese, which upgraded this salad from your ordinary dinner salad.

Our waitress really talked up the Clam Chowder ($5.95 for a cup), so both my dad and I ordered it. This was a very buttery clam chowder, almost too much so. All the butter took away from what I had hoped would be a more creamy version of chowder. There was not an over abundance of clams in here either. Not awful, but not one of my favorite versions of this soup.

Yes I know I said this was a seafood focused restaurant, and of course we are starting out the entree portion of our meals with a Cuban Press Sandwich ($13.50). My dad came to the Black Marlin wanting to order this sandwich, and after asking the waitress if it was good, he went ahead and tried it. This sandwich is filled with ham, Swiss cheese, pulled pork, lots of pickles, and mustard all on a French roll. My dad had no complaints about this sandwich. The portion size was a little more than he could handle, so I got to eat a fourth of this. I liked it, but kind of missed the real Cuban bread that helps round out this sandwich.

My mom's favorite seafood dish has to be Fish and Chips ($16.95), because she almost always orders this in seafood restaurants. At the Black Marlin they use halibut to make their fish and chips, which is encased in a beer batter. This fish and chips was not too greasy, and the fish inside was pretty good, but a little on the dry side. I like cod instead of halibut for this dish, but when I used their house made tartar sauce, it had a positive effect on the fish. The coleslaw here was pretty bland. It was too lightly dressed and only tasted like raw cabbage. Not very good. My mom really liked the skinny fries here.

Again, not a fish plate, but Katie beelined it right to this Pesto Chicken Pasta ($15.95). This was probably the best plate of the night. It came with sliced up chicken breast, sundried tomatoes, and mushrooms, which were then tossed with pesto and linguini. The pasta was cooked well, and the pesto really brought this plate to life. The chicken was tender, but could have been cut up into more convenient bite sized pieces. This must be a favorite here, because I saw a number of people having this when we were on our way out of the restaurant.

I tried something I had never had before, Stuffed Dover Sole ($24.95). This sole was filled with lobster and a citrus beurre blanc sauce, which also came with a side of risotto and vegetables. This fish was very boring. The fish was bland and the lobster kind of was the same, and I never thought I would ever say that about lobster. This really could have used more of a sauce, like maybe a Bearnaise over the top of it. The risotto was fine, and the veggies were fresh. Probably the best part of this meal were the sides, which is not a good sign.

We were pretty full at this point, but the Memphis Doughnut ($6.75) intrigued us. I love doughnuts and adore dessert, so this was a natural pick. They start with a glazed doughnut, then top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, add a blueberry sauce, and a few blueberries to top it off. I'm not much of a blueberry fan, but it worked here by cutting the sweetness that a chocolate sauce would have added to. This could have been a little better if the doughnut was warmed up a little more, but this was pretty solid.

It's funny, the two people that tried non-fish items here really liked their dinners, and the other two of us were less than thrilled with our choices. I'm not saying to stay away from fish at the Black Marlin though. We might have just picked two seafood items that were not to our liking, or maybe they were just having an off night. There are plenty of other seafood options that might entice us to come back here again sometime. The service we received on this night was warm and friendly. From the hostess to the busboys, these guys were right on top of things. Glad we could finally cross this one off of our list, and it was also great getting together with my parents.

Out of five fishing poles, (because the standing world record for largest black marlin ever caught is 1,560 pounds, off the coast of Peru in 1953), five being best to zero being worst, The Black Marlin gets 2.5 fishing poles.

For more information about the Black Marlin, go to their website here:

Black Marlin on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Brutally Honest About Bru

Bru Grill and Market
23730 El Toro Road
Lake Forest, CA 92630

We have made some pretty good friends because of this blog. When I started this, I never thought we would make friends out of it. I knew we would be eating in some great restaurants, I knew I would have to step up my social media presence, but I never expected to make some really good friends because of this blog. Last Saturday night we would be meeting up with two of these friends of ours, Tom from Tom's Foodie Blog and Daniele from Dani's Decadent Deals. We met this husband and wife blogger duo at numerous events, and now we go out on our own to catch up with each other. They are always real busy, but they squeezed us in so we could try a place they have already blogged about, Bru Grill and Market.

Reading Tom's blog, he went here when they first opened and did not like it. He then went back a few years later, and was pleasantly surprised with how they had turned things around. I was excited not only to see our good friends, but also see what kind of experience we would have at Bru.

Bru is located in the old Carino's spot, which is right next door to the always busy Lucille's BBQ. Bru is part market and part restaurant. They have a pretty nice selection of beers in their refrigerated cases and shelves. They claim to have over 200 craft beers here, and over 40 beers on tap. I like that they keep their tap list very current on their website. While we were waiting for Tom and Daniele to show up, I enjoyed browsing their unique selections. No Coors Light or Budweiser here.

Bru definitely has a gastropub sort of vibe to it. Lots of dark woods everywhere you look. The menu is seasonal, with flat breads, appetizers, and a good selection of entrees offered. They appear to be going for a farm to fork kind of feel, which is all the rage now. They also are definitely very proud of their beer selection. I'm of course more into food than beer, so let's see if we would enjoy what came out of the kitchen for us on this night.

I must admit to you all, I'm not really fond of charcuterie. I think this stems from when I was growing up, and my mom sliced up some Hickory Farms beef stick, cut some cheese, opened a box of Ritz crackers, and added grapes to our table, and called that dinner. Even in my eight year old mind, I thought I was getting jipped. Dinner involves cooking, right? Sorry for the rant. This charcuterie was called The Five ($18) and had four selections of cheeses, Spanish speck ham, some candied pecans, dried fruit, and olives. I steered away from the cheeses, but the candied pecans and ham were both pretty good. There were no complaints about this cheese board from Katie or Daniele, who spearheaded us getting this.

Tom and I decided to try out these Stuffed Mushrooms ($9) instead of risking injury to our hands from taking some of the girls charcuterie. These mushrooms are stuffed with spinach, then topped with bread crumbs, a garlic white wine sauce, and grated Parmesan. These were good, but not great. A little bland, the garlic was not overly present, and I kept expecting a pop of flavor that did not come.

On the dinner menu at Bru they offer petite versions of their salads, which almost always entices me to order one. It must have also tempted Katie to order one too, as she had their Chopped Salad ($8). This rather large petite salad came with plenty of grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives, red onion, crumbled blue cheese, and bacon tossed in a house vinaigrette. Katie felt this was a very hardy salad, and she would definitely get this salad on future visits to Bru.

The petite salad I went with was just as big. This Bloomsdale Spinach Salad ($7) had a lot of promise when I read the description on the menu. Spinach, sliced tart apples, candied pecan, a raisin gasrtique, and a blue cheese dressing to finish it off. The produce here is very fresh, but the dressing was bland, the apples and pecans did add a good crunch, but just like the mushrooms, I kept waiting for a pop of flavor here. I'd definitely go with a different salad on my next trip to Bru.

Katie beelined it straight to this Market Veggie Pasta ($20 with chicken added) when she saw it on the menu. They used spaghetti as the pasta, then added zucchini, squash, carrots, and green beans, then you have a choice of either marinara or an olive oil sauce. She went with the olive oil selection. She felt this dish was flavorless, and really did not leave a lasting mark on her. A very boring entree in her opinion.

For indecisive seafood lovers, Bru offers a Seafood Trio ($25) which Tom took full advantage of. The three fish represented here were a diver scallop, a 4 ounce piece of the fish of the day, (sorry I did not catch what is was on this particular night), and a German Speck wrapped prawn. The fish and the scallop were served on top of a truffle mashed potato with sauteed spinach, while the prawn was piled on top of a vegetable succotash. Tom did not really exclaim too much about his meal, although he did make quick work of it. The perfect dish for people who want to sample more than one kind of fish here.

Usually when I'm at a new place that I've never been to, I always order off the regular menu, but something told me to try this Hanger Steak Special ($28). Wish I had not listened to that little voice in my head. Much like Katie's meal, this steak was very boring. It was cooked to my desired medium rare, but eating this got to be monotonous because of the lack of flavor. It came with mashed potatoes that were fair, and green beans that I actually enjoyed, and I'm not even a green bean fan. Fresh and very crisp, these were the highlight of this plate for me.

This Prime Rib ($28) gave Daniele all sorts of fits. Only available on Fridays and Saturdays nights, Daniele wanted this medium rare, and as is evident from the picture above this was way more on the rare side, bordering on tartare. She tried to eat it, but it was sent back to get extra time on the grill, and when it came back it was medium well, so after a slight delay, she started all over again with a new piece of meat. Sorry I did not get a picture of the prime rib she eventually ate, because I was busy eating my meal. The new piece of prime rib was much more to her liking, and she was generous enough to let me have a bite of it as well. I thought it was definitely better than my hanger steak. The prime rib came with a baked potato with all the fixings, and sauteed spinach.

Dessert time was up next, and we selected two to share between the four of us. The first was this Bru Gelato S'more ($8). I did not get a real good description of the desserts, but this one had a graham cracker crust filled with chocolate gelato, which was topped with a toasted marshmallow topping. I liked this, but was not in love with it. For this to be a s'more dessert, it needed the chocolate to be more pronounced, as it really got lost here. Not bad, but it could have been so much better.

I liked this Bru Cake ($7.50) better than the gelato for sure. This cake is only for people over 21, and after my first spoonful, I can understand why. It really packed a punch. Inside the mason jar was a flour less chocolate cake, which had a nice chocolate flavor to it.

Needless to say, Bru really left us underwhelmed. All of our entrees kind of needed some help, and I couldn't help but think that their appetizers and salads needed a little extra something as well. They were probably a few ingredients away from really making a statement. Bru is an anomaly in South OC. There are not many gastropubs around, so that might explain why this restaurant is quite popular. Their beer list is unique for the area, and we just wish they had the food to match it. Service on this night was pretty good. Our waitress did not shy away from visiting our table, even though we had some issues with the food. Glad we could finally get together with Tom and Daniele, and we're also happy that food blogging has brought us together.

Out of five sunglasses, (because the city of Lake Forest is home to Oakley), five being best to zero being worst, Bru Grill and Market gets 2.5 sunglasses.

For more information about Bru Grill and Market, go to their website here:

BrĂ¼ Grill & Market on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hoping That Da Lu'au Will Be Da Bomb

Da Lu'au Hawaiian Grill
41 Auto Center Drive Ste. #101
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610

One food that I don't think gets enough love is Hawaiian cuisine. A quick search of Urbanspoon shows that there's only 43 Hawaiian restaurants in OC, and some of those are fusion restaurants that just happen to have a few items from the islands on their menu. Almost every time I have had Hawaiian, I've left the restaurant enjoying my meal. I was hoping that was going to be the case when we left Da Lu'au in Foothill Ranch.

Da Lu'au gets a lot of love from the OC Weekly. They've named this one of the top 10 spots for breakfast, they gave a pretty glowing full review of the food here, and Gustavo wrote them up in his always entertaining "Hole In the Wall"  column last year. Besides all that, the real reason I had this place written down in my notes was that a reader of the blog, Missy, had commented that I needed to try this place. Not one to let a tip go un-followed, we headed up to Foothill Ranch on a recent Saturday night.

This Hawaiian restaurant is located in an out of the way shopping center that people would only come to if you made a wrong turn, or had a specific reason for coming here. The shopping center is home to a Jersey Mike's, Cinnamon Productions, and Mustard Cafe, a restaurant we reviewed back in 2011. We were definitely hoping for a more positive experience at Da Lu'au than we had there.

Da Lu'au had a pretty good flow of business on this Saturday night. Lots of takeout orders and half of the fifteen or so tables in the small dining room were filled at least one time during our stay. Ordering was a little confusing. There was a register near the front, where we ordered, but for everyone else dining here, they were served by a waitress. After ordering at the counter we selected a table, got our drinks at the fountain, and waited for our food to arrive.

I didn't know this when I started dating Katie five and a half years ago, but she's a poke fiend. It's almost always assured that she will order poke anytime she sees it on a menu. That was the case at Da Lu'au as well. This Ahi Poke ($8.95) came seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sea salt, then was served on top of mixed greens, sliced avocado, green onion, lettuce, sliced cucumber, and a few tortilla chips scattered about. This was more like an ahi salad than I had imagined getting. The ahi was very fresh and seasoned simply to allow the natural flavor of the fish to come through. It came with a soy-sesame ginger dressing that was rather boring. The spicier dressing that they provided us with was a much better option for me with this. We wish there was more of the ahi and less of the greens, but it was a good cure for Katie's ahi cravings.

Katie selected what a lot of people probably think about when thinking about Hawaiian food, a Two Item Combo Plate ($9.95). At Da Lu'au you have the option of picking two of their fifteen entrees to complete your combo meal. Katie had the BBQ Chicken and the Kalua Pork. The BBQ chicken was the better of these two. It was tender, with a nice char to it. The pork was a little on the dry side and was only made better when the sauce was added. This was not even close to the pork we had at Hapa J's, which has been the best kalua pork we have had on this side of the Pacific. For her two sides, she went with White Rice and Potato Macaroni Salad. The rice went well with the chicken, but the clear winner was the potato macaroni salad. I'm not really a big fan of macaroni salad, but this was excellent. It had equal parts of potato and macaroni, it had the right amount of moisture, and the flavor was spot on. A very good side.

When it came time for my order, I decided to recreate the exact same two-item combo meal that the guys from OC Weekly had when they ate here. That meant I would be having the Meat Jun and Mochiko Chicken. Two items that were brand new to me, and rarely seen on Hawaiian menus on the mainland. The Meat Jun could best be described as a flat slice of rib eye, egg dipped, then grilled. Kind of like a meat version of french toast. It had a sweetness that kind of went with it, but neither of the sauces that came with this was the right fit for the meat jun. The mochiko is deep-fried chicken thighs, with ginger, and battered in sweet rice powder. These fried chicken nuggets were a winner. Not overly greasy, tender chicken and they were made even better with their hot and spicy sauce. Along with the potato macaroni salad, I opted for the Asian Coleslaw. If you are not a fan of cilantro, forgo this side item. The overpowering cilantro gave this an almost minty quality. Refreshing, but not for everyone.

We're really glad that reader Missy and the group over at OC Weekly steered us towards Da Lu'au. Not the best Hawaiian food that we have had, but not the worst by a long shot. In fact, it's pretty good for a fast-casual place. Prices were not crazy, with only a few items reaching the double-digit mark. Maybe not destination dining, but if you're in the area, and jonesing for Hawaiian food this could be the spot for you.

Out of five outrigger canoes, (which happens to be the official team sport of the state of Hawaii), five being best to zero being worst, Da Lu'au gets 3 outrigger canoes.

For more information about Da Lu'au Hawaiian Grill, go to their website here: