Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Lively Evening at Brio Tuscan Grille


Brio Tuscan Grille
774 Irvine Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618

I feel kind of bad that I've neglected Brio Tuscan Grille this long. I mean they are right next door to a restaurant that we've written about twice, Del Frisco's Grille. We make at least ten trips a year to the Spectrum, where Brio is located, and have yet to dine here. It always looks so busy and inviting, but we have yet to go inside this restaurant, which has been around for a year and a half now. That was until we got a little nudge.

That nudge was in the form of an invite by the great folks at Brio, to come in and try their latest promotional items, The Tale of Two Risottos. For a limited time Brio is offering two seafood inspired versions of this classic Italian comfort food dish. We could not say no to this great opportunity, and quickly reached out to Brio to say that we could not wait to come in and try them out.

Before we left, I checked out the Brio website, and was surprised to learn that they have so many locations throughout the United States. They operate over 100 restaurants in 22 states, with two of those being in California. This Irvine location is joined by another at Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga. The focus food wise here is on Northern Italian cuisine, which they prepare with what they hope to be the freshest ingredients, in a lively Italian eatery. I was excited to see what they had in store for us this evening.

We arrived at just before 7pm, and were seated promptly in a comfortable side room, near the bustling kitchen. They nailed the lively atmosphere here. The space has a welcoming quality to it, an upscale vibe, but not in a stuffy way. I was struck by the wide array of people dining here. There were tables of businessmen talking shop, a gaggle of woman enjoying a ladies night out, friends celebrating someones birthday, and me and Katie enjoying a quiet date night, going over each others hectic days at work, which slowly melted away as the night went on at Brio.

The menu is pretty impressive here. What I noticed first and foremost were the prices. They were not as outrageous as I was expecting. No menu item is over the $30 mark, and most entrees are going to set you back less than $20. I made many mental notes of what I would be having here on my next visit to Brio. This trip was all about the risottos though, so let's see how that worked out for us on this evening.


When we were sat, they almost instantaneously sat out this bread basket filled with some crisp pieces of bread and a half a loaf of sourdough. I much preferred the sourdough. It was served warm, and had a great pliable texture. A very nice bread, which came with plenty of butter. The crisp bread was seasoned well, but I could not stop eating the sourdough.






As first timers to Brio, we were advised that trying the Bruschetta Quattro ($15.95) would be a wise move for us, and that advice proved to be correct. This is a sampling of their four most popular bruschettas, and it's easy to see why they are so well liked. Both Katie and my favorite was the sliced steak version, which also included Gorgonzola, arugula, charred tomato, and Parmesan. The steak was tender, and the big flavors played together nicely on the well toasted bread base. I also really enjoyed the version with the applewood bacon, tomato jam, ricotta cheese, Parmesan, and basil to to round it out. Not sure where it came from, but this had a good spice to it, which lingered awhile after consuming this. Other bruschetta versions included a roasted red pepper version and the chef's seasonal bruschetta, which featured shrimp and a delectable sauce. A very good start to our time at Brio.



I kind of cringed when Katie ordered this Kale Caesar Salad ($7.25). Kale and I have a very stormy relationship. To be honest, I'm really not much of a fan, and was afraid that the kale would ruin one of my favorite salads. I'm pleased to announce, that I was wrong about this. This was one kale dish I could get down with no trouble. The marinated kale was joined with a whole cavalcade of items; pancetta, chopped egg, tomatoes, tricolore lettuce, Parmesan, and drizzled with a very good Caesar dressing. First and foremost, this was a good sized salad, the produce was fresh, and the kale was not as bitter as others we have had. A good take on a Caesar salad. I'm still estranged from kale, but this dish has at least opened up a dialogue between us two.



Lobster Bisque ($6.95) is always a good option, and that was the case here at Brio as well. This velvety soup came with a sauteed shrimp garnish in the middle of the bowl. This soup was predictably rich and flavorful, and I almost found myself licking the bowl after I was done with it. I had to control myself, since we had our entrees coming up next.



Our first of the two entrees was this Sea Scallops and Ratatouille Risotto ($19.95). The ratatouille is made up of some roasted eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, zucchini, basil, and Reggieano cheese. The risotto really picked up each of these flavors, and was topped with five good sized scallops. The scallops were fork tender, and cooked well. The risotto shines here, and is not just a vessel for the scallops and other items. Katie loved the heartiness of this meal, which was just what the doctor ordered on this chilly evening.




When this Cold Water Lobster Tail with Shrimp Risotto ($19.95) hit the table, I let out an audible gasp. I could hardly wait to dig in to the lobster, but the shrimp risotto was also worth some admiration. Along with the shrimp, this risotto contained mushrooms, asparagus, roasted red peppers, basil, and Parmesan. Big time favor explosion here, and then you add the sweet and tender lobster, and it makes this dish a winner. Who could ever imagine lobster being this affordable? I ended up only finishing half of this, as I really wanted to savor this as I ate it. It was just as good the next day for lunch, and had a lot of coworkers envious that they did not have lobster for lunch.



We definitely did not need it, but could not resist this Torta Di Cioccolata ($6.95). This kind of chocolate lave cake was like three desserts in one. You of course had the moist, chocolate cake on the outside, and inside was an almost pudding like texture of the warm cake, which is then topped with a generous serving of vanilla bean gelato. Katie was pretty full by this point, so I was lucky enough to be able to eat most of this, which I did in record time. I liked mixing the warm center with the vanilla gelato. A great way to end our meal at Brio. 

We left here full, and content on this evening. Brio really impressed me on our inaugural visit here. Not only was the food good, but the value was too great to ignore, especially for the lobster dish that I had. The feel of the restaurant was like an upgraded Macaroni Grill, and of course the food was upgraded as well. We really felt like we were dining in a fine dining restaurant, at way more reasonable prices. Even though the prices were reasonable, the food was elevated at Brio. The service we experienced on this evening also deserves some accolades. Our server Shelia has been at this location of Brio since they opened, and all of her knowledge, suggestions, and attention that she lavished upon us has made us even bigger fans of Brio.

If you would like to experience the Tale of Two Risotto promotion, you have to hurry. It will only be around until March 27th. From our experience at Brio though, even if you do not make it in to have this fantastic deal, you will definitely find something on this menu to make you and your stomach happy. A special thanks to everyone that made this visit so enjoyable. Everyone we encountered on this evening was so pleasant, and really made us feel welcome.

If you would like to keep up to date with all of the happenings at Brio, or find your nearest location, head to their website here: http://www.brioitalian.com/index.html

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Our Eyes and Stomachs are Smiling at Muldoon's


Muldoon's Irish Pub
202 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

At the very start of this year, my old computer took a dump on me. I was a little bummed about it because it was the computer that I started this blog on, the computer where I first contacted my now wife, Katie, and of course I lost some pictures and documents that I did not have enough time to recover before the motherboard burned up.

One of the things I was most bummed about losing was my, "Restaurant Wishlist", that I had compiled since the inception of this blog. Anytime I ran across a newspaper article, another restaurant blog, or even readers tips, I would jot down the name of the restaurant, and also where I had heard about a certain place, and who told me about it. I remember a few from my old list, including the place we would be dining at this evening, Muldoon's Irish Pub.

Nick, one of my sister-in-law's friends, was the one who suggested that we visit Muldoon's a few years ago. Sorry it took us so long to get to your suggestion Nick. We picked this restaurant not just because it was recommended to us, but also because we are in the midst of Newport Beach Restaurant Week, and their menu looked real promising. Restaurant weeks are great chances for restaurants to shine, and showcase their creativity and culinary prowess. Muldoon's had a four course meal for $30 a person, which is a steal when you consider that entrees alone are priced at $20 by themselves here, so this menu got me excited.

I was also excited because Muldoon's brings to mind a simpler time in my life. Two decades ago when I lived in the area with my two best friends, we would come here two, three, or more times a week. We would always hangout in the pub, enjoy some cocktails, and participate in darts. Back then it was all about drinking and chasing skirts, now it's more about having a great date night with my wife, and enjoying a great dinner. This was in fact the first time I would be eating in the dining room in all my many visits to Muldoon's. Let's see if I should have been focusing more on the food, instead of the adult beverages for all those years.



Meals at Muldoon's always start off with Irish Soda Bread. I've had mixed experiences with this bread in the past. At some places the bread is really hard and dense, while others make a more sweetened version, which I enjoy more. This one at Muldoon's was not in your face sweet, but I still enjoyed it because it was lighter than most, and the raisins stayed out of my way. We also enjoyed the generous slab of Irish butter that came out with this. Very creamy, and it really added to the bread.



On the restaurant week menu, this was listed as an appetizer, but I thought of this Smoked Salmon on a Potato Pancake more as an amuse bouche. I almost took this down in one bite. I enjoyed this, even though I thought it was weird to combine salmon with a fried potato. The potato was fried nicely, lacked grease, and had a good favor. The salmon was fresh, and was good on it's own, but was a little overpowered when combined with the pancake.



On to course number two, and Katie selected the Pub Salad ($8.95) to start with. This good sized side salad included greens, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and as a little twist, sunflower seeds. Katie was pretty happy with this salad, and loved the inclusion of the sunflower seeds. The blue cheese dressing was on point, and the produce was fresh. All you could want from a side salad.



Since Katie had the salad, that left me with the Soup of the Day ($7.95), which just happened to be Split Pea. This was a pretty good version of this classic soup. It could have been made better by adding more ham or some bacon, and it could have been creamier, but it did its job fine on this evening.



When Katie's entree hit the table, we could not believe the serving size of this Fish and Chips ($19.95). Five good sized pieces of wild snapper, fried perfectly, with a nice crunchy batter, and a moist, flaky fish inside. One of the better fish and chips we have had recently. It was made even better with a very well done tarter sauce for dipping. The fries were tasty and plentiful. Katie said this could have been made better with some malt vinegar, but our waiter never brought any out, and she could not stop herself from eating this before we saw him again.



There were three other items for me to choose from the entree portion of Muldoon's restaurant week menu, and I think I made the right choice by picking this Sheppard's Pie ($21). This very Irish meal was deceptively filling. I kind of thought it was on the small size, until I could not finish it, and had to take half of it home for lunch the next day. A well seasoned meat and veggie base was topped with some really good mashed potatoes to create this comfort food classic. Be forewarned if you order this, it will come out scalding hot, so be sure to let it cool for awhile.



Even though we were quite full by this point, we still had dessert coming for us. Katie selected the Irish Berry Trifle ($11) to end her meal at Muldoon's. This European take on a shortcake had layers of vanilla bean custard, whipped cream, cake, and berries strewn about it. For fruit lovers, like Katie, this was a wonderful way to end her meal. I much prefer chocolate when having desserts, so the Mini Dark Chocolate Sundae ($7.50) would be my choice on this evening. Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and See's crushed toffee were the basis for this dessert. I would have liked some hot fudge included here, but still a decent sundae.

Both Katie and I left Muldoon's very happy, and full. At $30 each for dinner, this is wonderful place to come for restaurant week. By my rudimentary calculations, this meal would have cost us well over $80, so that's a savings of at least ten dollars per person. What I enjoy most about Muldoon's is that I had the feeling that this is how the pubs are in Ireland, even though I have never been there. It's not too gimmicky, their Irishness is subtle, and not thrown in your face like a lot of other spots that claim to be Irish pubs are guilty of. The food here was pretty stellar for pub fare, and we would not hesitate to come back and try some of their other items, Irish or not, on our next visit to this Newport Beach gem. We even had the added treat of having a nightcap in the pub, where the great Sean Kelly helms the bar five nights a week, just like he's done for over 25 plus years now, and back when I used to be a regular here. I dare even say, he remembers my drink every time I come back to see him. I'm glad I remembered that Nick suggested we visit Muldoon's, and I look forward to starting my new restaurant wishlist.

Out of five hill-forts, (because the name Muldoon means hill-fort), five being best to zero being worst, Muldoon's Irish Pub gets 3.5 hill-forts.

To find out more about Muldoon's Irish Pub, head to their website here: http://www.muldoonspub.com/ 

Muldoon's Irish Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 22, 2016

Another Year Older and Another Thai Restaurant


Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine
23808 Mercury Road
Lake Forest, CA 92630

I guess we now have a tradition with David, my friend at work. His birthday rolls around right after the holidays, and the last three years we have taken him out for his birthday. David is a great worker, and he makes my job infinitely easier than it would be without him being there. I always ask him where he wants to go for his birthday dinner, and he always makes me pick. The life of a food blogger, I guess. This year I picked a place none of us had been to, Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine in Lake Forest.

This restaurant is located in the same shopping complex as quite a few other restaurants. Sammy's Original, Nory's Peruvian, and Tutto Famigilia, are some of the food places that have piqued my interest in this out of the way shopping center. For those of you that are still lost, it's in the same shopping center as Boot Barn, and where the Black Angus used to be off of the 5 Freeway.

I picked this restaurant because I know that David likes Thai food, and they get a pretty high rating on Yelp, 4 stars with over 300 reviews. At first I thought I had made a mistake with my pick, as when we walked in at 6, the place was deserted. As the night wore on though, the phone rang non stop with to go orders, and when we left at 7:30, the restaurant was packed with hungry customers.

The menu at Bhan Baitong is pretty much what you would expect from a Thai restaurant. There are a good number of appetizers, curries, noodle dishes, soups, chicken and beef entrees. I had a hard time deciding what to order here, as I do not really have a go to favorite at Thai restaurants. I kind of just let what I'm feeling on a particular night kind of guide me. Let's see if this would be the night that I found my all-time favorite Thai food item.



Over the three years that we have gone out for David's birthday, he always starts with a Thai Iced Tea ($2.75). He enjoyed this one, and made it last all throughout his meal. He's not really much into being too descriptive about his food, so I assume this was to his liking.



David's a pretty big eater, so two appetizers were definitely in order, the first of which were these Fried Wontons ($5.95). These were not very remarkable. They were fried nicely, with a decent crunch to them, but there was nothing to the insides. There was a small amount of chicken inside, about the size of a dime, and it of course did not make an impression. The best part of this was the provided sweet and sour sauce, which added some flavor to the fried wontons. This appetizer was a miss for us on this evening.



What wasn't a miss for us, was this Chicken Satay ($8.95). This chicken was flavored wonderfully, grilled, and placed on a stick, the way that all food tastes better. It was served with one of the better peanut sauces I have had. They did not skimp on the amount of chicken here, like they did with the wontons. A much better appetizer choice.


Katie wanted something to warm her up on this rather chilly evening, so she tried the Tom Yum Soup ($5.95). I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not the soup she had wanted to order. After our trip to Lotus of Siam in Vegas, she has been searching for an equally great OC version of their Tom Kha Soup. This soup was good, came out volcano hot, and had some chicken included in this slightly sour soup. Good, but she'll probably get the Tom Kha here next time.


We might as well start our entrees off with the birthday boy's selection, the Mussamun ($8.95). David had this curry which contained potatoes, onion, carrot, beef, and peanuts. He really enjoyed this, but would get this spicier next time. He had this medium spiced, and it contained no kick to it at all. It's always a crap shoot when you are eating in a Thai restaurant for the first time, and they ask how spicy you want things. Some places are really tentative about adding spice, while others really over do it. I'd say Bhan Baitong is like the former, where they add spice sparingly, so you can feel safe going up a spice level, and still enjoy your meal.  Lesson learned David.




A lot of people on Yelp were talking about this Pumpkin Curry ($8.95 plus $2 for a cup of Brown Rice), so it was not too hard for me to choose what to have on this evening. The most difficult part was deciding on having chicken or beef in it, and the beef won out after seeking the advice of the waitress. This pumpkin curry was delicious, with a real smooth texture, slight pumpkin tinge to it, and some pretty tender beef. I asked for this spicy, and it came with the perfect amount of heat. Not overwhelming, but still enough spice to have you notice it. A very delicate balance to achieve. A balance they did not achieve here was the amount of rice to the pumpkin curry. I would have asked for more rice, but did not feel like paying four dollars for two cups of rice. A little outrageous in my opinion. Probably the best entree of the night that we had.


Last but not least is Katie's dinner, the Pad See Ewe ($9.95). This beef and flat noodle dish came with a brown sauce which Katie thought was a little on the thin side, as compared to the ones she has had in the past. I liked this dish, but had hoped she would have gotten this with more spice than her requested mild spice designation. A good sized portion for under ten dollars though.

David's birthday dinner was a complete success. We got together outside of work, and had some pretty good Thai food. Bhan Baitong is not the best Thai food we have had, but it's definitely worth a visit if you are near the area. The dining room is well lit, has a modern feel to it, and makes the patrons feel comfortable inside of it. Service was a little spotty on this evening, as they were pretty busy with just two servers, so drinks did sit empty for stretches at a time. I still have not found my perfect Thai food item to eat, but I look forward to exploring more Thai food in the future, and not just on David's birthdays.

Out of five elephants, (because this large animal is one of the national symbols of the country of Thailand), five being best to zero being worst, Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine gets 3 elephants.

For more information about Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine, go to their website here: http://bhanbaitong.com/

Bhan Baitong Thai Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, January 18, 2016

Blast From the Past at Galley Cafe


Galley Cafe
829 Harbor Island Dr.
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Some people do not believe in time machines. I'm here to tell you that they do exist though, in the form of restaurants. There are some restaurants where if you closed your eyes, put away your cell phone, forgot about the upcoming presidential election, and wiped your mind clean of ever hearing about the new Star Wars movie, you would swear that you were picked up and placed in another decade.

Restaurants like this are rare, but they are around. Five Crowns, Mrs. Knott's Chicken House, Watson's Soda Fountain, and the Crab Cooker are all pretty good examples of OC restaurants that have not changed in all their many decades of being in business. Sure they may have added a few items to their menu, or maybe remodeled their decor a bit, but these are pretty much the same as they are today, as when they started. You can add one more restaurant to this list, Galley Cafe in Newport Beach.

Galley Cafe has been around since 1957, and not much has changed since then. This small diner sits in the middle of a residential area, close to the road that takes you to Balboa Island. It's not a big restaurant, with only 10 or so tables, and some counter seating available. The Galley Cafe brings to mind Ruby's on the Balboa Pier, back before they became corporate. The nostalgia is not pushed on you like it is at Ruby's, but you definitely know this restaurant has been here forever.

Owned by the same people that now run Wings Cafe at the Fullerton Airport, the menu is not going to shock you with its creativity, but it brings plenty of people to this out of the way location. The menu is dotted with the standard breakfast items, sandwiches, burgers, and plenty of ice cream specialties. It was a little too early for us to try their famous shakes and malts, so we made our breakfast selections rather quickly, and waited for our food to make an appearance, as we enjoyed the view from our booth of the Balboa Yacht Basin and Beacon Bay beyond that.



My dad starts things off for us with this Omewich ($10.55). Equal parts omelette and patty melt, this uses a third pound beef patty with cheese, and an omelette, sandwiched in between two slices of toasted white bread. I could tell my dad liked this, but was not in love with it. He said he'd probably get the chili cheese omelette on his next visit here. This came with one side item, and he went with the unusual choice of cottage cheese. Odd, but he's never been the kind of guy to follow the crowd.



My mom likes her first meal of the day to be pretty basic, and that held true to form here at the Galley Cafe, when she ordered this One Egg Breakfast ($8). Really not much to talk about here, as this was a solid breakfast with three strips of bacon, an over hard egg, and a good sized helping of hash browns. A solid breakfast, but not one that is going to blow too many people away.


I should have taken a picture of the inside of this Breakfast Burrito ($9.99), but I didn't want to halt Katie's progress on it anymore than I usually do. This was a pretty basic breakfast burrito. Eggs, bacon, and cheese on the inside, and for a walk on the wild side, she used the provided pico de gallo. She had no complaints about this breakfast burrito, and was actually surprised that it was as good as it was, for only having three things in it. It kept her satisfied until dinner.



This place came across my radar when the OC Weekly rated the Galley Cafe as having one of the best chicken fried steaks in the county. That was all I had to hear to make me order this. This Country Fried Steak ($11) came with two eggs and hash browns. Was this the best country fried steak I have had? It was not, but it was definitely better than most. The meat was good, but what made this for me was their very tasty gravy, which had a great consistency to it, and would have been great on anything.

Galley Cafe is a great place to come if you want to relive the past, and want to get away from the present for an hour or two. The breakfast food here is all very solid, and you will leave here satisfied, but not blown away. I thought the prices were more than fair for the amount of food that you get. I'd be interested to see how their burgers and ice cream treats are on my next visit. The service here was nice and relaxed while we were here. Be aware that this is a small restaurant, and during peak times there might be a wait, but the do get the food out rather fast, so it should not be too long before you can dig into your food. Glad there are still restaurants like this around OC, places where you can decompress from modern life.

Out of five oars, (because this is how galley ships were powered back in the day), five being best to zero being worst, the Galley Cafe gets 3 oars.

For more information about the Galley Cafe, go to their website here: http://www.thegalleycafenewportbeach.com/

Galley Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato