Thursday, January 30, 2014

Swinging By the Vine Restaurant in San Clemente

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

Writing this blog we have met some real nice people that work in restaurants. It seems that almost everyone that we come in contact with has such a passion for what they do, and they want others to experience their fervor for their food or restaurants. One such guy that we always look forward to seeing at his restaurants is, Russ Bendel. We met Russ when he worked at Fleming's at Fashion Island. We were shocked to learn that he had left early last year to pursue new endeavors. We recently learned that one of these new enterprises was Vine Restaurant in San Clemente. As luck would have it, we were recently invited to come down, try some of their food, and of course reconnect with Russ.

Vine Restaurant is located on the very busy, El Camino Real in San Clemente, right across the street from Italian restaurant, Brick, and is a few doors down from Pizza Port. This is not a new restaurant. It has been around for ten or so years, but Russ recently took it over late last year, with a couple of his friends, who each have extensive pedigrees working in the restaurant industry. Add to this trio of friends, Chef Jared Cook, who previously ruled the roost at Crow Bar and Kitchen in Corona Del Mar, along with two other stints at Vine, but now he's back here as Executive Chef. He was very proud showing off his garden on the hillside behind the restaurant, which helps inspire many of the chef specials on many nights.

We got to Vine at 3PM for our Media Lunch, with many of our favorite food writers in attendance, we knew we were going to be having a great time. Vine is only open for dinner, starting at 5:30 during the week, and 5PM on weekends. Make a special note that they are closed on Mondays. I hate showing up to a restaurant, and finding out that they are closed on that particular day.

When walking into Vine, the bar will be to your right, as well as a look into the kitchen. There are high top tables along the left hand side of the room, which is where they had placed good looking Charcuterie Boards ($18 for a full order, or $10 for a half order), for us to enjoy. I am not too much into the sliced cheeses, but the domestic cured meats were very good. I really enjoyed the pepperoni and the proscciutto naturally.

The man in charge behind the bar is the very personable Gabe Whorley. Gabe has been in the restaurant industry since high school, and has a ton of experience tending bar. He worked alongside renowned mixologist, Gabrielle Dion at Charlie Palmer. Gabe uses fresh herbs and fruits in many of his cocktails. We were lucky enough to try two of his craft cocktail creations. The Flaming Buffalo ($10) is made up of the unusual combination of Serrano chili's, lemon, egg, and bourbon, and is then garnished with an orange peel and two cherries. I am not too much into bourbon, but this cocktail was delicious. The bourbon did not overpower, the egg kind of made this frothy, but I did not get much from the Serrano chili. Katie had the more fruity option, the Love Potion #9 ($10). This one used vodka as a base, then went with orange liqueur, lemon, cucumber, and raspberry, with an orange peel as a garnish. I was afraid this would be too sweet, but the cucumber and lemon probably helped keep this drink in check. Gabe even made Katie a virgin version of this drink, which he topped with an orange flower. Not into craft cocktails? Vine has 10 craft beers on tap, along with 25 wines by the glass, so there's something for everyone here.

After having our drinks and charcutrie, we went into the dining room for the next stage of our meal. First up was a very unusual item, Crispy Meyer Lemon and Honey Duck Wings ($14). We eat in a lot of restaurants, and I can not recall ever seeing duck wings on a menu. These were topped with a chili sauce and chives. They are butchered exclusively for Vine, and I will definitely be back for these. This duck was not as greasy as others can tend to be, with a nice crispiness. The chili sauce was not crazy overpowering, and allowed the natural smokiness of the duck to shine through. Obviously more meat than a buffalo wing, these were one of the highlights of our meal here.

The second part of our appetizer course was this House Made Pumpkin Ravioli ($13). Accompanying the pumpkin ravioli was a white truffle brown butter, crispy sage, and pecorino. I thought this ravioli was very well made, but a little too subtle for my palette. What brought this to life for me was the pecorino, which added a big boost of flavor that brought this appetizer to life.

We had the choice of three entrees at our media lunch, so I made sure that Katie and I got two different things. She ordered the Pan Roasted Loup de Mer ($27). For this French seafood dish, Chef Jared used Mediterranean sea bass, and topped it with fingerling potatoes, Riesling raisins, cauliflower, baby endive, and a pistachio brown butter. Katie felt this had very subtle flavors, while being very juicy. She liked this rustic dish, that allowed the natural flavors of the fish to shine through. Just looking at this dish from across the table, you could not help but be drawn to bright colors on the plate, and the wonderful aroma of the sea bass.

I was not expecting to have a burger at Vine, but it was one of the three entrees they were offering us, and I was told how amazing it was. The American Kobe Wine Country Burger ($13) did not disappoint. This good sized burger was topped with caramelized shallots, mahon cheese, marinated tomato, and pickled onions, on a brioche bun. I would describe this burger as a very good backyard burger. The mahon cheese is very mellow, the rest of the toppings were executed very well. When I saw the bun, I was afraid it was going to be too bready, but this was not the case. The bread absorbed the juiciness of the meat and flavors of the other toppings. The fries here are made with real potatoes, and you can definitely taste the difference. They were seasoned with Parmesan and fresh herbs from their garden out back. Very tasty, and almost out shined the burger.  

When it was time for dessert, we were ushered out front to their patio that overlooks all the activity on El Camino Real. Here we were given Coffee and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Souffle ($10). This was not only a chocolate souffle, but it also included vanilla bean ice cream. This souffle was not overly sweet, but still tasted great. I was pretty full from everything that we ate up until this point, but I ended up making quick work of this.

Vine was everything we thought it would be, especially after we had found out that Russ had took it over. Not only was the stuff we tasted very good, but the rest of the menu looks promising as well. I am torn between a Pulled Lamb Sandwich and their Jidori Chicken on my next visit. Of course there will probably be an amazing chef's special that Chef Jared has cooked up, that will throw all of my plans out the window, but I'm sure it will be delicious. Everyone at Vine Restaurant was a real pleasure to deal with. Even though this restaurant has changed ownership, a lot of the employees have stayed on, so if you have been to Vine before, you will probably recognize some familiar faces. Glad to see that Russ has turned up at Vine, and with this great team behind him, I am sure Vine has a bright future in store for it.

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Saluting Bear Flag Fish Company

Bear Flag Fish Company
407 31st. St. 
Newport Beach, CA 92663

I told my friend Richard that I was going to be trying a new fish restaurant. As Richard can sometimes be, he sarcastically shot back, "Wow, another fish restaurant. I'm sure it's going to be just like all the rest". For once, my fickle friend has a point. In the last few years there have been numerous fast casual fish restaurants come on the scene. There are a few standouts, but for the most part they are really all kind of the same. With Richard's negative vibe, I was not really looking forward to trying Bear Flag Fish Company, but I was excited to meet up with my friend Megan, and introduce her to Katie.

Bear Flag Fish Company was started in 2007, and not only do they have a location on the peninsula in Newport, but they also have a storefront in the way more upscale area of Newport Coast. My tux was at the cleaners, so I was happy that Megan wanted to meet at the 31st Street location on the peninsula. For those of you not familiar with this area, Bear Flag is right next door to Rudy's, and is across the street from Italian favorite, Mama D's. It's an easy to miss spot, because it's off the main drag.

We arrived at Bear Flag at 7PM on a recent Thursday night. I love Newport on slower nights. Easy parking, not having to deal with drunken college guys, and your pick of restaurants, with little to no wait. This was all true on this night, except that Bear Flag was quite busy during our visit here. This restaurant caters to a young, hip clientele, so of course I fit right in, (kidding of course).

Bear Flag is in a very small building, and they have maybe five tables inside, with two tables outside on their patio. The tables are large, so they are more like communal tables. Even on this slower night in Newport, we had to wait for a part of the table that would fit the three of us nicely. Bear Flag has a nice fish market, where if you don't want them to make you a meal, you could easily take home some fish and prepare it yourself. Too much work for us though. The menu behind the counter is in very small type, which made it hard for us to read. Guess these youngsters have no problem reading small type, like us old guys. Gosh, I sound like my Dad, sorry about that. Anyways we placed our order with the guy behind the counter, and made our way outside to our spot out on the patio. This is how it turned out for us.

After reading the Yelp reviews, almost everyone was in agreement that the New England Clam Chowder ($3.50) was the thing to get at Bear Flag, so of course I had to try it. I have to admit, the Yelp kids got this one right. The chowder was creamy, with a good amount of clams, not too salty, and had a nice kick from some pepper. Really good chowder here. Not overloaded with potatoes, like others add to their chowder. The bread served on the side of this was excellent for dipping. A must get when eating here.

Katie has recently gotten into Poke ($12.95), so when she saw this on the Bear Flag menu, she had to have it. This was some well seasoned ahi. Very fresh, with just enough seasoning as to not mask the natural flavor of the tuna. Served with very sturdy tortilla chips from El Toro Bravo, this was a winning combination.

Not wanting to be left off of the poke train, Megan had the Poke Salad ($10.95). This is your basic green salad, with the rich poke placed on top of it. Megan almost always orders this refreshing dish every time she comes to Bear Flag. She loves the portion size, and claims that this is some of the best poke she has ever had.

Sorry for the washed out appearance of my meal, it was really dark out on that patio. How about putting some lights out on the patio? We were eating in almost pitch black, which probably helped the other diners, so they did not have to look at me. Anyways, back to the food. They were offering these Bacon Wrapped Scallops ($11.95) as a special the night we were here. At first I was a little disappointed by there only being three scallops here, but these were pretty good sized, and ended up filling me up. The bacon was nice and crisp, while the scallop was cooked perfectly, with just enough give when you bit into it. I used some of their signature sauce, the Tommy Sauce on the veggies, which went well together. Not sure what the Tommy sauce is made of, but it reminded me of a ranch dressing with maybe some Siracha in it. I'm probably wrong about that, but that's what came to mind when I tried it. The brown rice went well with the Tommy sauce also.

I kind of cringed when Katie ordered this Specialty Burrito with Lemon Butter Yellowtail ($9.95). Not because I thought it would be bad, but because if there's one thing I have learned while writing this blog, it's that burritos are delicious, but they definitely do not photograph well. At Bear Flag you have your choice of what kind of fish you would like in your burrito. Katie felt she picked right by going with the yellowtail. It was tender, flaky, and was a great compliment to all that was in this burrito, which included; rice, black beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, Tommy sauce, and avocado. Katie really enjoyed the freshness of this burrito, she was also impressed that they took the time to grill the burrito, as evident by the grill marks on it.

Bear Flag Fish Company really impressed me, and I could not wait to tell my cynical friend Richard that Bear Flag was not like all the rest of the fast casual fish restaurants out there. For being a seafood restaurant, their menu is pretty diverse, and changes with what is available to them on a daily basis. On future visits I look forward to trying their fish tacos, which I hear are fantastic, and been dubbed by some as the best in OC. I did not think that their prices were too crazy expensive for the amount of food that you receive. The service was very casual, but that's to be expected down near the beach. At peak meal times I can imagine that finding a seat here could be a challenge, but you're already down at the beach, so just take your food to go, enjoy the fresh air, and eat somewhere outside. It's not like we live in Michigan.

Out of five monarchs, (because the bear on the California state flag is modeled after the last wild California grizzly bear in captivity, and his name was Monarch), five being best to zero being worst, Bear Flag Fish company gets 3.5 monarchs.

For more information about Bear Flag Fish Company, go to their web site here: 

Bear Flag Fish Co. on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Having a Groovy Time at Sue Ann's Kitchen - CLOSED

Sue Ann's American Kitchen
1450 North Kramer Blvd.
Placentia, CA 92870

Katie and I have a pretty set routine. I play poker on Tuesdays with the guys, as she usually goes to her parents house to catch up with the family gossip. Wednesdays we usually have a hockey game or a food event, and on Saturdays we try to meet up with friends. Mondays we head up to Yorba Linda to my parents house  for dinner, and then we bowl. This year, the bowling league took a three week hiatus during the holidays. This meant we did not come up to my parents for our usual Monday dinner. Don't tell them this, but I actually kind of missed seeing them, so we made plans to have dinner at a restaurant that was near their house on a recent Saturday night.

The restaurant we headed to was Sue Ann's American Kitchen. I had read about this place on my good friend Minerva's blog, Much Ado About Fooding. You can click here to see her review of Sue Ann's Kitchen. We arrived here at about 6 PM, and the restaurant had a only a few tables occupied. They are in a kind of awkward shopping center, where it's hard to get into coming from Yorba Linda. The shopping center is anchored by an El Torito, a credit union, and a couple of smaller restaurants.

We walked in and were instantly transformed back in time to the 70's. The decor here is great. I almost half expected to see Marcia and Greg doing their homework at one of the tables, while Mike and Carol dispensed some great advice to the other Brady kids. The kitchen at Sue Ann's is not run by Alice, but the very talented, Gillian Clark. Her resume is quite impressive. She won a fried chicken battle on the TV show, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, her restaurants have been highlighted on numerous other TV shows, she is an accomplished author, she also contributes to the Huffington Post from time to time, and she is a graduate of L' Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. With a resume like that, I came into Sue Ann's with very high expectations. Let's see if the food could live up to them.

Right after we ordered, we were presented with these Scones, in lieu of a bread basket. I am usually not that fond of scones. I find them to be too dense and pretty flavorless. These were not like that at all. These were light, with maybe a subtle hint of cinnamon running through them. This is definitely not like any scone I have had. 

When I got home and looked at my pictures, I realized my error. I did not get a good shot of the insides of these Crab Cakes ($14). You will have to trust me when I tell you that these were some of the best we have had. Not full of filler, just stuffed with fresh crab. Not sure how these even stayed together. The crab cakes were small, but packed with flavor. These were paired with a mango salsa that was a little on the sweet side. I would have liked a sauce on these, but in reality these did not need a sauce. It's easy to see why restaurant reviewer, Brad A. Johnsonr of the Orange County Register has called these, "the best crab cakes on the planet". Very high praise from one of my favorite food writers. 

When the Buttermilk Battered Fried Chicken Strips ($8) hit the table, I was a little taken aback. These are not like the overly breaded things that dominate bar menus all across the country. These reminded me more of a naked piece of sweet and sour chicken. The breading had just enough crunch to it, revealing the tender chicken inside. These came with a Thai sweet chili sauce, which was more on the sweeter side, which probably conjured up my thoughts of sweet and sour chicken. My lighter eating Mom says that this will probably be her entree the next time she comes here.  

I guess two appetizers were not enough for Katie, as she also ordered the Small Salad ($4). They have a bigger version of this same salad that's called, you guessed it, the Big Big Salad. This house salad came with lettuce, tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, chicken, avocado, and an Italian style dressing. Katie really enjoyed this salad. The produce was fresh, the chicken was good, and the light dressing had a little tang to it. This was really a hybrid salad, part Greek and part chicken salad. 

Entree time, and we'll start off with Katie's dish, the Shrimp Soaked Gnocchi ($23). Katie has been shying away from shrimp lately, but she could not resist this dish. The shrimp and gnocchi are served with a garlic herb butter, yellow peppers, and green onion. She felt the gnocchi was cooked perfectly, which helped make this a great comfort dish. 

My Mom swears that this is the first time she has ever ordered Meatloaf ($13) in a restaurant, and I actually believe her. This simply plated offering is from the grill option side of the menu. There are four items to choose from, you choose a sauce, and then you pick two sides. My Mom had the Cognac and Peppercorn sauce served on the side with this. She was pretty pleased with this moist meatloaf. The mashed potatoes also dazzled here, as they were real potatoes, and definitely not from a box. I enjoyed the peppercorn sauce with the piece of meatloaf that I tried. 

I let another opportunity pass me by when I did not snap a picture of the inside of my Dad's dinner, the Beef Wellington ($23). If I had taken the picture, you would have seen that the beef inside was cooked to a perfect medium rare, which is usually not to my Dad's liking, but I heard no complaints from the big guy on this occasion. He also had the cognac peppercorn sauce, which he thought paired well with the wellington. For his two side items he went with the green beans and the highly recommended scalloped potatoes. These were creamy and cheesy, without getting in the way of the natural flavor of the potato. A very difficult balance to achieve. 

So now we finally get to my dinner, the the Citrus Glazed Pork Loin ($16). I am always a little skittish about ordering pork in restaurants, because a lot of places tend to overcook it, and then you are left with a dry piece of pork on your plate that you have to try to get through. This was not the case at Sue Ann's. This pork was juicy, tender, and with the citrus glaze, it really brought this swine to life. This was paired with a citrus salsa and sopapillas. I like sopapillas, and these were just like the ones I had in Arizona, but I think they were kind of out of place here. 

Katie and I did not want to be left out when it came to trying some sides, so we got the Baked Macaroni and Cheese ($5) and Bermuda Onion Rings ($5). This mac and cheese was pretty good. Not overly cheesy, the noodles were cooked to a nice, pliable-firm, and the crumb topping provided a nice crunch. The onion rings were good, made with the mild Bermuda onion. These were really more like onion strings, than rings though. Very light breading was used on these.

The desserts are made by Robin Smith daily, and the night we were here they had five different options available. We only had room for two between the four of us. I did not quite catch the name of the Slice of Pie ($5) that we had on this night, but it was delicious. It kind of reminded me of the Tollhouse pie that they have at Coco's, but with a much better crust, and better insides. We believe the pie was Chocolate Almond, with the base of the pie being chocolate, with almonds running through it. The other dessert we went with was a classic Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($5). This one was the tables favorite, as they liked the presentation, and the moistness of the cake. I thought this one was okay, as I am more partial to chocolate desserts, than fruit desserts. 

We all left Sue Ann's Kitchen being very excited about our time here. This restaurant is serving up good, scratch cooking from their kitchen, that should not be overlooked. In fact, 98% of their food is scratch made, and you can definitely taste the difference. Some might be bothered by the menu that is a little on the thin side, but there is definitely enough diversity on it, that you will find something to your liking here. I thought the prices were pretty fair for the amount of food you get. The way the food is plated is a little deceptive. The sparse plating would make you think that you are getting shorted when it comes to the food, but trust me, you will be full after eating here. I had more than enough pork loin on my plate, that I was able to take some home for the next day. According to Robin, the menu is still kind of a work in progress. They are still tweaking it by taking slow moving items off of it, and adding other items they feel might be better sellers. Everyone we encountered on this night were very friendly, and offered great service. Sue Ann's Kitchen might be hidden in a Placentia shopping center, but they are definitely worth looking for. We look forward to coming back soon to try their breakfast. Glad we were able to make it up to Sue Ann's and spend some much needed time with my parents. 

Out of five Veal Orloff's, (the specialty of Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and with all of this 70's decor, it made me think of this fictional Happy Homemaker), five being best to zero being worst, Sue Ann's American Kitchen gets 4 veal orloff's. 

Sue Ann's has a very limited website, which you can find by clicking here:

Sue Ann's American Kitchen on Urbanspoon