Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hoping Taps Will Be The Tops

Taps Fish House and Brewery
13390 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA 92602

I play it off like I am unemotional, but I can be pretty romantic when I want to be. For weeks leading up to our first anniversary, Katie had been asking me what we should do. I told her, just like with Christmas and our birthdays, we'll just go out for a quick dinner, with no presents. So when it was our anniversary night, I surprised her at work, got her flowers and a card, and even made reservations for dinner. Since she works so close by, and we've always loved our trips to Taps, that's where we headed to celebrate one year of wedded bliss.

This Irvine location of Taps is also celebrating their one year anniversary next month. Founded by the successful Joe Manzella, Taps now has three locations, (this one, Corona, and the original Brea spot). Also under his co-leadership is one of my favorite barbecue restaurants in OC, Lillie's Q. Built on the former Buca Di Beppo site, the interior of this Taps is completely unrecognizable from its last tenant. High ceilings, comfortable booths, and a wonderful brick archway lend an elegance to the space, while the expansive bar area helps even things out with an upscale sports bar theme. The real showcase for this restaurant is the open kitchen, which allows diners a fantastic view of the goings on in this large culinary wonderland.

I had made reservations, but did not really need to on this rather quiet Monday evening in the dining room. During our stay there was a slow procession of customers inhabiting the dining room, but we never encountered anything close to a rush during this early dinner hour. The menu at this location of Taps is a little different from the others. On this menu there are more table side presentations, which I like, and hope they come back in fashion. The rest of the menu is pretty straight forward, with lots of seafood, steaks, and starters. They also feature a prix fixe menu, where for $31.99 you get to create your own three course meal from their selected offerings. This sounded great to both Katie and I, so we quickly ordered from our waiter Greg, and talked about all of the grievances we have experienced with each other from our first year of marriage. Just kidding, wanted to make sure you were still reading along. Here's how everything came out for us.

As is customary with all meals at Taps, they start you out with a Quarter Loaf of Sourdough and some Oil and Vinegar. This bread comes out piping hot, and that makes it even better. We devoured two servings of this before we had to stop ourselves.

You might think these Short Rib Meatballs were my first course, but you'd be wrong. Katie selected these as her appetizer course. I knew I married her for some reason. These tender meatballs were bathed in an arrabiata sauce, and topped with an interesting house made lemon ricotta and gremolata. I learned later that gremolata is an herb condiment made up of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. It really added to these meatballs. The citrus was evident, but did not overpower, which also could be said for the cheese used here. Both allowed the meatballs to be the star of the show.

I'm always a sucker for a Caesar Salad, and I had an inkling that this one was going to be good, and I was right. On their regular menu this Caesar is prepared table side for two people, but this prix fixe portion was prepared in the kitchen. Romaine hearts, croutons, and pecorino ramono cheese made up this salad, which had a very subtle Caesar dressing with it. I'd like a little more dressing on here, but a very solid, yet simple Caesar.

Katie was torn between a couple of choices, but eventually went with this Harissa Grilled Atlantic Salmon. The salmon was presented on top of a bed of toasted red quinoa, and topped with a toasted almonds, a cucumber bouquet, lemon vinaigrette, and fennel pollen. I'm not going to lie to you, I'd probably never order this, because I've never had a great experience with quinoa, but Katie loved this. She loved the freshness of the fish here, the use of cucumber, and the playful use of textures that they came up with. She would totally get this again on future visits to Taps.

I went simple yet again with my entree selection, the 8 Ounce Prime Top Sirloin. If a restaurant can cook a top sirloin, and make it taste good, then you know they are doing it right. This was done to my desired medium rare, and was more tender than I was expecting. I would have liked a sauce with this, but it was fine when I alternated bites with the very good mashed potatoes. These were some of the best mashed potatoes I've had in awhile. Really tasty. This also came with some asparagus as the seasonal vegetable on this evening.

Dessert time was next, and I had this Classic Creme Brulee. Tahitian vanilla bean custard, which was topped with whipped cream and mixed berries. A strong creme brulee, but nothing that made it stand out. I did enjoy that this was pretty good sized, and it did have a nice caramelized coating covering this.

I have been on a roll with bread pudding lately, but this Salted Caramel Bread Pudding might take the cake as best we have had. The bread pudding was moist and delicious, the salted caramel was plentiful, and this really came alive with the addition of Pop Rocks. I know that they rotate their versions of this dessert, but if this is offered when you are here, order this, you won't be sorry.

Celebrating our anniversary at Taps was a great choice, if I do say so myself. The prix fixe menu was a great value. I added up everything I had, and it would have cost me $45 instead of the $31 that I paid. Katie's meal was an even better deal, as we would have had to shell out $49 for hers, but again, this costs us just $31. Good food, and good for your wallet as well. The food at Taps is very solid, but what I had on this evening was prepared too simply. I'd definitely jazz up my meal on my next visit. As much as I hate to say it, Katie's picks were better than mine on this evening. Our service was on point, and the food made its way out to us in a timely fashion. Taps was a great place for us to celebrate our anniversary, and might just become our anniversary tradition.

Out of five barrels of oil, (because the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, also known as TAPS has carried 16 billion barrels of oil to date), five being best to zero being worst,  Taps Fish House and Brewery gets 3.5 barrels of oil.

For more information about Taps Fish House and Brewery, head to their website here: 

TAPS Fish House & Brewery Irvine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Future Is Now at Oceans and Earth

Oceans and Earth
20305 Yorba Linda Blvd. 
Yorba Linda, CA 92886

To a lot of the people of OC, Yorba Linda is a faraway city, a municipality that most have no need to visit. I was listening to my fellow food family at this media event, and to them this is like driving to Argentina. Yes, it took me an hour and three minutes to make it to the, "Land of Gracious Living," from Mission Viejo at 3pm on a recent Wednesday, but the end result of that drive, Oceans and Earth Restaurant is totally worth it.

Full disclosure, I grew up in Yorba Linda. We moved here when I was four years old, and my parents still live in the house where I grew up. I make my way up to North County at least two times a month to visit my family, so I'm used to the time it takes to get up to the birth city of Richard Nixon. When I was growing up here in the 70's, we only had a handful of restaurants. If you wanted something other than McDonald's or Wing's Chinese, you had to high tail it to either Brea or Orange.

With all the building of new houses in the eastern section of town, chain restaurants started to move in, and Yorba Linda became a wasteland of cookie cutter restaurants. Mimi's Cafe, Chili's, and Polly's Pie's to name a few that are still in their original locations. Fast forward to the present, and now independent restaurants are slowly popping up; La Betolla, The Wild Artichoke, and this inventive spot on the corner of Yorba Linda Boulevard and Village Center Drive, Oceans and Earth.

For you long time locals, you know this location as one that changes restaurants frequently. It used to be Le Diplomate Cafe and transitioned to Palomar after that. Oceans and Earth took over a year and a half ago, with a huge makeover to the restaurant. The makeover was overdue, but what really makes this restaurant is its Executive Chef and Owner, the pretty incredible Adam Navidi. This media dinner was not like anything I have ever experienced before. I was amazed to learn that Chef Adam has his very own farm, and while I was imagining an herb garden in a flower box at the side of the restaurant, I learned I could not have been more wrong.

A short drive from the restaurant is Future Food Farms, in Brea. This twenty-five acre farm was incredible. Not only do they have ten greenhouses, which yield a number of varieties of organic lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, veggies, edible flowers, and peppers, but they also raise farm fresh tilapia. This is an aquaponic farm, which means that it's a closed circle, where the water that is used to keep the fish is then used to grow the produce here, and the plants then filter the water and it is returned to the fish. A very ingenious way of doing things, especially in drought ravaged California. I was really amazed at how Chef Adam keeps up with everything here. I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of this operation, but he shrugged it off like it was no big deal. He not only stocks his own restaurant with his bounty, but provides his goods to other restaurants, sells at farmer's markets, and donates some to food banks. Chef Adam does admit he's at a cross roads in regards to his farm. He's not sure if he wants to expand, or if he's good keeping it this size. Time will definitely tell, but this farm shows that farm to table is not just something that is written on the menus here, it's a way of life at Oceans and Earth.

Back at the restaurant after the impressive tour of the farm, our 7 course Chef's Dinner started off with a bang with this Tasting of Tides. This four part plate included a Seared Sea Scallop accompanied by seaweed and an orange-ginger reduction, a Ceviche made up of the Future Farms raised tilapia and Ocean Rose abalone,  a Crab Croquette that also included lobster and moss rose aioli, and last but not least, the soup that more chowder than soup, but one of the best I have had recently, one that combined sea urchin, lobster, stingray nettle, mussels, and seaweed, all in a mugwort stock. Everything came together nicely to make a comforting soup, and one that I had to check myself from licking the bowl clean, but I was trying to be on my best behavior. An excellent start to our meal, and proof that even in landlocked Yorba Linda, it's possible to get great seafood here.

I had no doubt that this Future Foods Farms Salad in a Backyard Grapefruit was going to be one of the freshest salads I have ever had. I mean, I saw him pick it right in front of me. Not only did this taste fresh, but it also was one of the cleanest tasting salads I have had. I also enjoyed how he paired this salad with wonderfully flavored saffron shrimp, avocado, and an inventive shrimp chicharon. I had put the flower that adorned this off to the side, but was urged to give it a try. It produced a nice subtle peppery flavor that I really enjoyed. Who knew?

If Chef Adam has a trademark dish, it's probably this one that has followed him from when he used to work at the Hyatt in Huntington Beach. Just like everyone that has had this at Oceans and Earth, I was pretty impressed with this Pan Seared MSC Chilean Sea Bass. Sea bass is already one of the most delicious fish around, but then you pair it with basil mashed potatoes, caramelized shallots, and a delectable red wine reduction, and you have a real winner. The bass was done perfectly, and obviously very fresh since Chef Adam brought it out to show it off to us. The basil mashed potatoes are going to ruin me for plain mashed potatoes from now on. This one had everyone at our table talking.

The sea bass may have won all the raves from my table mates, but my favorite bite of the night was this Duck Over Wild Mustard Fields. I'm a huge duck fan, and this one was superb. The duck lacked the greasiness one usually associates with this water fowl, and both the leg and breast brought the wonderful duck flavor, while the provided fig jam helped cut the saltiness here. A very nice pairing of sweet and salty, and the success of this dish has me eyeing the Drunken Duck on their regular menu the next time I am at Oceans and Earth.

I could sense that Chef Adam was pretty proud of this Evolution Burger. He proudly proclaimed that just like this gluten free pastry that had bison, cheddar cheese, tomato, onion, and lettuce inside of it, his whole restaurant is gluten free. Something that I'm sure a lot of you love to hear. This "burger," was topped with a very good thick cut potato chip, which was cooked in grape seed oil. Not oily, and it had a fine crunch to it.

I've been eating some great, high quality steak recently, and this trend continued at Oceans and Earth on this evening. Chef Adam used a hot rock to cook a very tender piece of Akaushi Kobe Sirloin, and then paired it with some native red peppercorn, and an excellent avocado chimichuri. I liked this method of cooking, because it allows the customer to cook the beef as long as they like, but this is best eaten no more than medium rare. Really a great finish to our entree portion of our evening.

Dessert was the last of our seven course journey, and it is special here. Made in house, they rotate pies frequently. On this evening we were treated to a slice of Peach Pie and a Berry Pie. Both were sturdy, and could stand on their own, but they were paired with some very good house made ice cream. There was the rosemary vanilla coupled with the slice of berry pie, and the interesting poppy seed ice cream to go along with the peach. Definitely save room for dessert while dining here, if you can.

As I was driving back down the 5 Freeway towards home,  I was thinking about how this is the kind of restaurant that my hometown desperately needs. An independent, chef driven spot which will help to counteract the chain restaurants that still dominate Yorba Linda's dining scene. I could also not help but think that this is a restaurant that is ahead of its time. Someday in the future food will have to be grown this way, and I just hope Chef Adam is there to help prepare it. Not only are they growing food the right way, but I love his inventive touch with the things he grows, and the way he re-purposes as much as he can. It's worth a visit all the way to Yorba Linda, even in rush hour traffic.

I'd definitely like to thank everyone at Oceans and Earth for their kind hospitality and excellent food on this evening. General Manager Barbie Wheatley was amazing with the wine pairings, running food, and making sure we had anything that our hearts desired. She runs the front of the house like a pro. Also big thanks to Chef Adam Navidi for taking the short amount of time that he has in his day to show us around the farm and cook for us. Your passion for not only your restaurant, but Future Food Farms was awe inspiring. Another big thank you goes out to our friend Toni Purry for putting this dinner together, and including us. Many thanks Toni. Lastly, I would like to thank my fellow food family, who make these events even better than they would if I was by myself. You guys all rock, and I love reading all of your stuff, as you help keep me current with what's going on in the OC restaurant world.

If you would like to experience Oceans and Earth for yourself, get more information about them on their website here: