Thursday, July 30, 2015

South OC Gets Lucky Again

South Coast Kitchen
31105 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Away from the hustle and bustle of the mission area of San Juan Capistrano, on the other, quieter side of the freeway is a restaurant that you definitely have to check out. Like I've said before, there's kind of a renaissance of great, independent, chef-driven spots opening up all over South OC. Joining Pub 32, Urban Grill and Wine Bar, Dublin 4, and nearby Pascal in this new age of great restaurants south of Irvine, is South Coast Kitchen.

South Coast Kitchen is definitely off the beaten track, in the same out of the way shopping center that doomed Harlow's. With no direct freeway access, a shopping complex that is anchored by a post office, a Mediterranean restaurant, and a martial arts studio, South Coast Kitchen has managed to be around for three years, and earned some great praise for their restaurant. A ton of five star yelp reviews, a very nice review of their food by the OC Register, and high marks from OpenTable users, I was excited to see what all this great press was about.

It probably has something to do with chef and owner, Justin Davis. If that name sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you remember him from his time at Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis, or maybe you might have heard that he was also at the Ritz Carlton for a time. He left these high profile jobs to open a catering business, but once people tasted his food, they coaxed him into opening a restaurant, where they tweak the menu every week depending on what's available, and what he feels like making. It must be working, as the restaurant was lively from the moment we walked in, until we left.

We had made reservations on a recent Thursday evening. It would definitely be wise to make reservations on weekends, as this restaurant is pretty small, with about ten or so tables inside, and two to three tables out in front of the restaurant. The decor here is understated, but comfortable. The acoustics of the place make it seem louder than you would think from the number pf people occupying the space.

The menu is sectioned off into simply small and large plates, with limited selections offered under each. Of course with a different menu every week, this can change. As with many of these chef driven restaurants, it states that substitutions and modifications to the chef's dishes are politely declined. I used to find this kind of galling, but have come to understand the reasoning behind this. A chef is like an artist, and he's come up with plates that he feels equal each other out, and if you take one part away, it alters their interpretation of what they were trying to accomplish with the meal. Let's take a look at what Chef Justin had in store for us on this particular night.

We were going to be meeting my good friend Michelle, so drinks were definitely in order. SCK only has beer and wine, so they have to get a little creative with their wine cocktails. Michelle tried the SCK Sangria ($12), which was made up of red wine, apples, pear, and sparkling water. Michelle is always bragging that she knows everything about sangria, and she called this version pretty tasty. It was refreshing and not overly fruity. Sorry for the poor shots of this beverage, as it did not photograph to well in the darkened restaurant. My selection was much brighter, the Just Keep Swimming ($12). This tall red drink used sauvignon blanc as its base, elderflower, a vodka infusion, champagne, lemon, and a strawberry garnish. When this was placed in front of me I thought it was going to be too fruity, but it was more toned down than it looked. I'm not sure how they get away with the infused vodka, but I believe that's what toned it down a bit. A good drink, but I was ready for some food.

Katie selected the first of our two small plates. She was intrigued by this Rustic Spanish Bread ($4). The three pieces of grilled bread were joined by smoked salt, house made butter, tomato confit, and local extra virgin olive oil. We all really liked this simply prepared dish. The grilled bread had a nice crunch to it, and all three of the condiments went well together. Not trying to do too much here, this disappeared rather quickly with Michelle around. 

I had read the Yelp reviews of SCK before we got here, and a lot of people commented on the Savory White Cheddar Souffle, so there was no question I'd be ordering it. I really enjoyed the presentation of this dish, even though I did not totally understand it. Of course there was the very well made cheese souffle, which had a lightness to it which I was not expecting. Very tasty. They also included a fruit compote, petite greens, apple slices, and a cube of pork belly. I get the apple, as some people enjoy apples and cheese together. I also get the fruit compote and the greens, as it was kind of like a mini salad, but the pork belly kind of seemed out of place here. Don't get me wrong, I love pork belly, and will never turn it down, but it kind of was left on its own here. Still delicious, but it seemed odd to me. 

Michelle had a hard time choosing her meal here, just as she has a hard time picking which one of her many suitors she will hang out with on a Saturday night. She eventually went with Chicken and Biscuits ($25) for her entree. This was not like any chicken and biscuit version we had seen before. The chicken breast came whole, and was used as the base for the scratch made biscuit. It was plated with a fava bean succotash and a light serving of a foie gras and bacon gravy. Michelle had nothing but nice things to say about her dinner. The chicken was tender and seasoned well, the gravy was light, but still had tons of flavor, and the biscuit was well made. She liked that this was not as heavy as she was expecting. Not your mother's chicken and biscuit meal. 

Katie's been on a real steak kick as of late, and she held true to form on this evening, when she selected this Petite Filet ($30). Unlike those expensive steak house restaurants, you get a full meal here, instead of ordering a bunch of sides. This steak came with truffle potato gratin, broccolini, and a confit onion. Even though Katie likes her steaks medium, this still came out very tender, and the pinot noir reduction got along with the steak, not trying to mask the natural flavor of the meat. The potato was delicious, without the truffle taking things over the top. A very well balanced plate, that left Katie full, but not overly stuffed.  

Just like when I see pork belly on a menu, I have become a big fan of pork cheeks as well, and had to try this Pinot Noir Braised Pork Cheek Carbonara ($27) when I spotted it. The first meal I made for Katie was spaghetti carbonara, which she thought was good, but this one blew mine out of the water. Chef Justin uses linguine here, along with snap peas, a white cream sauce, pecorino cheese, a fried egg, crispy shallots, and of course the very good pork cheeks. This was a fantastic interpretation of a carbonara. Not as heavy as some can be, all the elements blended wonderfully together to form a real homey kind of feel to this plate. My only complaint would be that there was not nearly enough pork included in this, but the pork that was here was very tasty. A very comforting meal. 

We could not let our visit to South Coast Kitchen go by without trying their desserts. The pastry chef here is Samantha Ihde, and she came up with the unusual SCK Snickers and the more traditional Espresso Creme Brulee (both $8). The creme brulee came with a sidecar of Irish coffee, which Katie polished off rather quickly, probably due to listening to all of Michelle's stories. I was afraid that the creme brulee would have been overpowered by the espresso, but it was milder than I imagined. My favorite of the two desserts was the SCK Snickers which utilized a peanut butter crust, chocolate mousse, salted caramel and nougat to recreate the famous chocolate bar. If you ate this expecting it to taste like a Snickers, you'd probably be a little let down, but it was good nonetheless. Not over the top sweet, the peanut butter kind of got pushed to the side, as the chocolate took over, and the texture of this was spot on. I liked the playfulness of this, and it was a great end to our meal.

When we were walking out of South Coast Kitchen, the three of us left totally satisfied. You can definitely add this to the list of very good chef driven restaurants in South OC. I was very impressed with not only Chef Justin's menu, but also that he took the time to walk the front of the restaurant, and chat with each of the tables to see how they liked their meals. Yes, with prices for entrees in the $20 to $30 plus range, this might not be a place you come every week, but it's more of a special occasion restaurant for most of us. Be advised that what you see in this review might not be exactly how it is on the menu when you come here, but if our experience is any indication, you will definitely be in for a treat. Service was solid, and you could tell that our waitress was very proud of the food she was serving here. We felt the same way, and it's definitely worthwhile coming to the quieter side of the freeway in San Juan Capistrano.

Out of five ink spots, (because the musicians, the Ink Spots were the first to record the song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," five being best to zero being worst, South Coast Kitchen gets 3.5 ink spots.

For more information about South Coast kitchen, head over to their website here:

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