Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Enjoying Our Hendrix Experience

32431 Golden Lantern
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

This is the last of my birthday weekend reviews. I guess the people in my life know me pretty well. I'm not really one for presents. I admit I'm pretty hard to buy for, so that might be why people usually just take me out to a restaurant, which is definitely something that I enjoy almost more than anything. This time it was Katie's parents turn to take us out, and as is their custom, they allowed me to make the decision on where to go. I did not have a hard time coming up with a place, we were headed to Hendrix in Laguna Niguel.

Hendrix is part of the Sentinel Restaurant Group, which also runs Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck in Laguna. It's been almost two years since we visited Driftwood, but I still look back fondly on not only one of the most impressive restaurant views anywhere in OC, but also the food of Chef Rainier Schwarz, which shined on that night.

His new joint is located in the Ocean Ranch Plaza, which used to host the now-shuttered Savannah Chop House, and is located right next door to the Cinepolis Movie Theater. This used to be the site of Fred's, which I never had the pleasure of eating in, but judging from the reviews on Yelp, I wasn't missing out on anything.

Gone is the garage sale meets TGI Fridays look that Fred's had going for it. and it's been replaced with a more grown-up style, which is comfortable, airy and light. Hendrix is going for a neighborhood kind of feel to it, and I feel they nailed it. High ceilings with exposed beams, comfortable seating options, an indoor firepit, and at the restaurant's centerpiece is a very busy and lively bar.

Before even walking in the front door of Hendrix you get to see what they are all about, rotisserie. The highlight of the menu is front and center, with a rotating rotisserie filled with chicken, pork, lamb, and drip potatoes. The aromas once inside the restaurant are intoxicating and made me hungrier than I imagined I was. Not a fan of rotating meats, okay I guess we can still be friends, but Hendrix has you covered. Their menu features a good number of small plates, soups, salads, and entrees, with an emphasis on seafood options. Enough talking about the menu here, let's see what we ended up ordering.

We started wth two options from the small plates section of the menu, the first of which was this Creamy Spinach ($9). This started our evening off wonderfully with a good amount of not your grandmother's creamed spinach mixed with hazelnuts and topped with parmesan cheese and a lightly fried egg. I'm a big fan of spinach and this was a nicely done twist to a dish that can sometimes be a humdrum side item. The leafy green veggie was light, with a good textural element from the hazelnut and it was all brought together with the yolk of the fried egg. Very well balanced and definitely something I would get again.

I was not as much in love with the second of our two starters, the Roti Chicken and San Daniele Proscuitto Fritters ($9). The structure of these fritters was fine, but the chicken and the prosciutto kind of got lost here. I also wasn't feeling the mustard and honey aioli sauces that came with these. This would be one of the few misses for me on this evening.

Entrees were up next, and Katie and her mom split this good looking Rosemary-Lemon Chicken ($19). Both she and her mother were pretty impressed with the juiciness and flavor of the chicken here. It did have hints of lemon and rosemary throughout and was incredibly tender. I'm not really into ordering chicken in restaurants because they are often dry and overcooked. Not the case here, even I would consider getting this neatly stacked half chicken on my next visit to Hendrix. Also hiding beneath the poultry were these little yellow potatoes, which also get their turn in the rotisserie, right underneath the chicken, so they soak up the drippings from the chicken above. The result was a fork tender, and bursting with flavor potato that was tossed with chimichurri. A very satisfying meal.

After reading a review in the OC Weekly I really was torn between the lamb and the pork, but ultimately the Porchetta Pork Roll ($21) won out. This plate came out neatly stacked with those drip potatoes as a base, the next level of this included a rich slice of pork belly wrapped around a slice of pork loin, and then perched on top of that in the penthouse position was some pickled veggies. This plate blew me away. The pork belly was fatty and since it absorbed most of the heat from the cooking process, it got nice and crispy and gained a sweetness that made it taste like pork candy. The pork loin was not to be overlooked either. It came out moist and tender. One of my favorite pork dishes to date. It was rounded out by the pickled veggies which balanced out the richness of the pork with a little acidity. I'll be hard pressed to pass this up to try the lamb next time.

I guess Katie's dad was not in the mood for anything from the rotisserie, so he ordered this Baked Lobster Mac and Cheese ($18). I did not get to try this, but there were no complaints from her dad about this dish. It looked hearty from across the table, with its browned bread crumb topping and cheese hanging over the side of the small iron skillet it was housed in.

Just in case we did not have enough food, we also ordered two other items off of the small plates menu. The Cornbread Zucchini ($14) was stellar, and I'm pretty picky when it comes to cornbread. This one held together nicely, maybe because of the inclusion of the zucchini. It came with some very spreadable butter and honey, which went well with the warmed bread. Katie was over the moon with the Fried Brussels Sprouts ($8). These dolled up sprouts were a textural delight with crunchy almonds, chewy dried cranberries, and a mint yogurt sauce, which bound it all together. I believe that there was also possibly some parmesan cheese added to this. The result was a winning side item that still has Katie looking back fondly even a few weeks past our visit to Hendrix.

After my mother in law let the cat out of the bag that I was here doing a review, we had a very pleasant conversation with General Manager Pete LaCava. We talked about how excited they are to be in Laguna Niguel, his past employers, favorite restaurants, and of course about the food that we had on this evening. He told us he would send us out something for dessert, and we were excited when this dessert sampler made its way to our table. I was super excited to see that the same Sticky Toffee Cake that I had at Driftwood all those years ago is now available at Hendrix. It was still as good as ever but was upstaged by the Hendrix Midnight, which has a layer of peanut butter and jelly and then is finished with a chocolate glace. Decadent and definitely it needs to be shared. Another winner was the Apple Strudel, which should come as no surprise since Chef Schwarz hails from Austria, which is the birthplace of strudel. This was a very traditional version which did not rely on overly sweetened apples heavy in syrup to make its point. A very good group of desserts and a very nice gesture from Mr. LaCava.

I left Hendrix liking it more than I thought I initially would, and I did have high hopes for this restaurant. It exceeded all of our expectations. The meats from the rotisserie were all worth trying here, and the small plates and desserts were almost equally as good. I've read online that one of the criticisms of Hendrix is the portion sizes, but I left here very full and even had some leftovers for the next day's lunch. Our server and everyone we encountered on this particular evening was bright and cheerful and kept our needs met throughout our stay on this evening. I will not let another birthday go by without another visit to Hendrix.

Out of five roses, (because this restaurant is named after Hendrick's Gin, which uses rose petals to add flavor to its libation, and that's the brand of gin that's used to make their martinis here), five being best to zero being worst, Hendrix gets 4 roses.

For more information about Hendrix, head to their website here:

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Great Tacos Are No Urbana Myth Here

440 South Anaheim Blvd. 
Anaheim, CA 92805

I don't feel like we have explored the Anaheim Packing District nearly enough. I think we have only made two trips up this way in the three years this part food hall, part retail space has been around. There are many restaurants here that dot my restaurant wishlist. I really want to try Georgia's, the Kroft, the Blind Rabbit, and the Iron Press. For this birthday dinner, I wanted to cross Urbana off of my list, so that's where my parents and I headed on this fine early June evening.

The parking situation at the Packing District can be monumentally challenging. The parking gods must have been watching out for Katie and I as we got lucky and someone was pulling out, just as we got there, instead of valet parking like we had resigned ourselves to do. Even though this was just our third time at the Packing District, which is at the corner of Anaheim and Santa Ana Boulevards, I'm always a little amazed at how busy and full of life this Downtown Anaheim venue is.

Urbana is situated on the ground floor of the Anaheim Packing House, nearly dead center. Even though I had made reservations at this early 5 pm hour, there were plenty of open seats around, but it filled up around us as the evening rolled along. One of the few full-service restaurants at the Packing House, Urbana has a Dia de los Muertos theme to it, with colorful skulls and figurines hanging from the ceilings and walls. The bar takes up a lot of space in this long, narrow restaurant, which has maybe 15 tables, along with some counter seating near the front of the restaurant.

Owner Javier Cuadra, who hails from Zamora, Mexico, and Chef Ernie Alvardo has created a menu that is inspired by Michoacan street food. They also have a pretty impressive bar program here, which utilizes Mr. Cuadra's other business, the exporting of seasonal berries from Mexico to the US. The berries are used in numerous cocktails, which get rave reviews from many. Even though I was here with my parents, I refrained from drinking but decided to indulge in food instead. Let's see how this game plan worked out for me.

I love a good Queso Fundidio ($10) and was eager to try the version at Urbana. When I saw this come out I knew it was going to be a challenge splitting this between four people, especially after we all tasted it. Melted and bubbling cheese and chorizo was served in a small iron skillet and is topped with pickled red onion and comes with handmade corn tortillas. This fundido was a little more mellow than most I've had, but it was still delicious. It was not as heavy either, but that might be because we had to split this four ways. The salsa this came with had a great punch to it, which I saved to use with my entree. I'm usually more of a flour tortilla guy, but these corn ones were excellent.

Katie was the only one of the four of us not to get tacos, so we'll start with her entree, the Mole Enchiladas ($14). These enchiladas were filled with shredded chicken, melted Oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, crema, and radish, and bathed in mole. I really enjoyed the bite I had of this. The chicken was very tender and the mole had a wonderful flavor to it. Very comforting. Katie felt this was a very satisfying plate, which was lighter than most but did not sacrifice flavor. She'd get this again for sure.

My mom is a pretty light eater, so she only ate one of her Two Carnitas Tacos ($10) and let my dad take the other one home for lunch the next day. Wish she had given it to me, the birthday boy. This was an excellent taco, with moist and flavorful shredded pork, just enough queso fresco and pickled red onion to cut the rich carnitas. These usually come with habanero salsa, but she requested it on the side. The tortilla kept everything together nicely, which is kind of remarkable considering how moist the pork was.

My dad followed suit and got two Tacos ($10) also, but he went with Al Pastor Taco and the Gobernador. The better of the two, only by a hair was the pastor. Served on a blue corn tortilla it came with some well prepared shaved pork, the familiar red pickled onions that were on the carnitas and the queso fundido, and finished with some queso fresco and a touch of chili oil. The melding of all of these flavors made this one of my favorites of the night. The Gobernador was a shrimp taco filled with melted cheese that could have been the same as the one used in the queso fundido, serrano chilies, and onions rounded out this taco which was wrapped up in a crispy corn tortilla. This was probably the most disappointing taco of the night, as I probably expected a tad too much from it based on the description. It was good, with the shrimp cooked well, but it left me wanting more. Not a bad taco mind you, but I'd skip in favor of any of my three tacos coming up.

When my Three Taco Trio ($14) was placed in front of me what I noticed first were the bright and beautiful colors included on each tortilla. It was like an edible piece of art which I could not wait to dig into. I had the Arrachera Steak, Baja Fish, and the Pork Belly Taco. The gold medal winner for me here was the steak taco, and I learned that Arrachera is skirt steak which is marinated usually in a citrus-based marinade. Not sure if that's the case here at Urbana, but this was one of the best beef tacos I can remember having. Joining the juicy and tender beef was a smear of guacamole, queso fresco, salsa, and some pico de gallo. They didn't try to do too much with this, which made the beef shine here. The Baja taco was what I imagine you would be able to get on the Baja peninsula. Not sure what the catch of the day was here, but the fish was lightly battered and flaky, without a hint of grease. It also came topped with guacamole, pico de gallo, cabbage, and what put this over the top for me, a very solid spicy aioli, which did not so much add a lot of spice, as it added some needed moisture and gave this a flavor boost. I liked the Asian-inspired pork belly taco but was not in love with it. It reminded me of a Banh mi in taco form. It came with pickled daikon and shredded carrots, a cilantro aioli, and a blue corn tortilla. The pork belly was good but could have been a little more front and center, as it got lost a bit and I love me some pork belly, one of my favorite things to see on a menu. I'd still get it again here at Urbana.

When I left Urbana I was completely satisfied with my visit. Much like a lot of the reviews I've read online, my parents felt this was kind of overpriced for the amount of food you get. There's no chips and salsa when you get here, there's no beans and rice in sight, and $5 per taco might be a little steep when you really think about it, but I'm fine wth all of this because these tacos were some of the best I have had in a long while. All of the proteins were done excellently, and even if the tacos didn't totally work for me, I ate them up rather quickly. Again this is a pretty cramped restaurant which is not very comfortable, but with tacos like this, I'm willing to sacrifice a little comfort to make Urbana one of my must eat at restaurants when I visit the Anaheim Packing District.

Out of five bottles of wine, (because being in this historic building got me thinking back to the first settlers of Anaheim, Germans who in 1857 picked this area because they could grow grapes for wine here, and this area was once the hub of the California wine industry), five being best to zero being worst, Urbana gets 3.5 bottles of wine.

For more information about Urbana, head to their website here:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Less Than Stellar at the Cellar

The Cellar
305 North Harbor
Fullerton, CA 92832

When my birthday rolls around, it's always a guess where we will end up. I usually get three dinners; one with my parents, one with Katie's parents, and one with just me and Katie. I pick where we are going to eat for the dinners with our parents, but I always let Katie pick the place for our romantic dinner for two. I figure she's the one that knows me best, and she also has access to my computer which usually has my restaurant wishlist open on the desktop. This year though she did not peek at the list, instead she surprised me with a visit to The Cellar.

I'm pretty sure she picked this restaurant for sentimental reasons. It's located in the Villa Del Sol, the site of our wedding two plus years ago. At the time of its dedication in 1923, the Villa Del Sol was hailed as one of the finest hotels in the state. After a remodel in 1964, it now houses retail shops, office spaces, and of course restaurants, including The Cellar, which is located in the basement of the Villa Del Sol and has been here since 1969.

The Cellar has quite the history. It's the restaurant where Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor for their second chance at happiness, (it did not go well that time either), and this restaurant was designed by the same craftsman that designed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at nearby Disneyland. Once you descend the staircase and enter the restaurant you definitely get the vibe of being transported to New Orleans Square's most popular attraction. Actually, it's kind of both Pirate's and the Haunted Mansion which this restaurant brings to mind.

The muted lighting and the chandeliers bring to mind the Haunted Mansion, while the separating arches, exposed wooden beams, and cave-like walls surrounding the large booths is all Pirates. The only things missing are the orange lights and the pirates running after the ladies. While your eyes are adjusting to the sudden darkness of the restaurant, you'll notice that the bar and cocktail area is to the right of the hostess stand, while the dining room is to the left. Since we were early for our 7 pm reservation, we grabbed a seat at their cozy ten seat bar.

The bar program at The Cellar is really something to behold, and something that they take lots of pride in. While we were settling in, the bartenders were being quizzed about the recently changed monthly bar menu. They were making drinks and being told what they liked about the way they made them and what they did wrong while making the cocktails. It was really quite interesting. For my birthday drink, I tried the Shore Break ($13) which not only was photogenic as hell but tasted wonderful. One of the better rum based cocktails I have had in some time. Joining the rum in the rocks glass was cactus water, lime, and coconut. It was layered in such a way that you got parts of all the ingredients of this drink in each sip. Very impressive. Near the end of our evening, we talked with General Manager Rich Ohtsuka about their philosophy behind the bar, and he told us they change their cocktail menu monthly to reflect the coming month, and they also require their opening bartender to create a cocktail of the day, something that is new and helps keep the bar menu fresh at The Cellar. With a new cocktail every day, you never know what to expect when walking in the door of The Cellar.

After my beverage at the bar, we were lead to our table in the dining room. The dining room walls are lined with what I'd call sweetheart tables, and I noticed that couples sit side by side here, as opposed to across from each other. I always feel a little odd doing that, but I fell in line with the conformity of everyone else, with a little nudging from Katie. The center of the dining room is filled with larger tables and some cave-like booths fill the far wall. The restaurant is darker than most, but my eyes had already adjusted. The menu is not large as it includes 4 small plates, soups, salads, a couple of beef dishes, a pasta entree, three seafood options, and a pork selection. Prices range in the $30 area and go all the way up to $91 for the Chateaubriand, which serves 2. Servers are very quick to share what they perceive to be highlights of the menu, but not in a high-pressure way.

After our order was in they brought us a bread plate, which was kind of lackluster. It contained under toasted bread, which was not served warm. I did like that they provided plenty of butter, and even though we were not wowed by this, we did go through two helpings. Guess we worked up quite an appetite on our long drive up here.

One of our wait staff's suggestions was the Lobster Bisque ($13), which they claim has won some awards, and after trying this I can see how that could be true. This was a delicious version of lobster bisque. The lobster was front and center here, with a very rich but balanced flavor throughout each spoonful. It was not full of lobster meat, but what was there was done very nicely. I'd get this bisque again for sure.

Something I would not get again was this Cellar Caesar Salad ($12). This was a pretty classic Caesar with romaine lettuce, parmesan, and a muted dressing, but they tried to make it their own by adding some roasted corn and shallots to the mix. It didn't help. After a few bites, I was bored with this salad. The produce was fresh, but I think the problem for me with this was that the dressing was drab, while the croutons added no texture. Stick with the bisque.

Katie selected the 8 Ounce Filet Mignon ($47) as her entree on this evening. She always gets her steaks medium well, so I refused to try this, but she seemed to like this enough. Someday I'll get her to try a steak medium rare, but I have a lot of work to do before that becomes a reality. This filet came perched atop a potato puree, with some veggies, and sauteed spinach, all of which Katie felt were fresh and done fork tender. She liked the butteriness of the potatoes especially.

I was originally going to go with the pork offering on this evening but switched it up at the moment of truth by ordering the Chef Cut on this evening, which was Grass Fed Skirt Steak ($45). I wanted this served medium rare, and for the most part, each slice was done that way, with only the end pieces closer to medium. The meat itself was fine but could have been a little more seasoned and tender, and if they hadn't have told me this was grass fed, I would have had no idea. It was topped with a cognac mustard sauce which was pretty stellar but could have been used a little more liberally. This meal was rounded out with some asparagus and potatoes.

For an optional side item, we tried their Truffle Mac and Cheese ($9). For this they use three kinds of cheese, Gruyere, white cheddar, and sharp cheddar, then they add some truffle oil and panko bread crumbs to the top. Much like the rest of the food that we had up until this point, I was let down by this. It was pretty average and really failed to make an impression. The panko topping was probably a highlight, which is not what you want to be the star of the show with this dish. The truffle was present, but I lost interest after a few bites of this.

When we first sat down and our excellent waitress Laura advised us that souffle's take 30 minutes to prepare and that something was a little wonky with their oven, so she'd suggest that if we wanted souffle's that we get two of the smaller versions, so that's what we did. At The Cellar, you have your choice between chocolate and vanilla souffle's, and then your choice of Anglaise to pour inside of it. We both went with the same, chocolate with a salted caramel Anglaise inside. This was good, but not great. I liked the Anglaise, as the saltiness and caramel really shined here, but the souffle itself was rather drab. It only perked up with the added addition of more of the Anglaise. Kind of disappointed.

Since Katie let the cat out of the bag about this being my birthday, Laura brought out this Creme Brulee as a special treat. The top layer of this had a nice sweetness to it, but the custard part was way too eggy for my liking. A nice extra sweet treat for my birthday.

If you've read up until this point you can probably guess how this review is going to go. With the exception of the bar program and the lobster bisque, Katie and I both left the Cellar very underwhelmed with what we consumed. Nothing was outright horrible, but the food here did not wow us, especially for what we paid. You can get a much better meal at any high-end steakhouse for a few more dollars than what you are coughing up here. What you are getting at the Cellar is ambiance and old school charm. Along with the long drawn out dinner, you get food runners that bring your food to the table covered and uncover the plates after counting to three in French. You can also get the Chateaubriand sliced tableside, which is also pretty old school. What you are not getting is a quick paced dinner. Even though we loved our waitress, she seemed to be spread a little thin since she had half the restaurant to take care of, as there only appeared to be two servers on the floor this particular evening. The result was long lapses between courses and a two and a half hour dinner which lends itself to this being more of a special occasion restaurant than the one you are going to frequent more often. Even though this birthday dinner did not impress, I'm still happy to have spent my day with my beautiful wife, and looking forward to exploring lots more restaurants on future birthdays.

Out of five pyramids, (in honor of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton getting engaged here, and one of their first movies together was Cleopatra), five being best to zero being worst, The Cellar gets 2.5 pyramids.

For more information about The Cellar Restaurant, head to their website here:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

No Waffling About Sweet Combforts

Sweet Combforts
2222 Michelson Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612

If you've been following along on our food journey in order, you know that our last two reviews took place at the new Trade Food Hall in Irvine. We had started with an excellently done fried chicken sandwich and followed that up with the very impressive Mac Daddy Burger, which utilized two fried mac and cheese patties for the bun. Yes, we were feeling pretty good by this point but needed something a little sweet to finish this evening off. Luckily, there is one place at Trade to get your sugar fix, and that's why we headed to Sweet Combforts.

Sweet Combforts is brought to us by the same guys that run Pig Pen Delicacy, and their neighbor at Trade, Portside, along with GD Bro Burger. Sweet Combforts debuted at Coachella this spring, and one news article about them said they were the only reason to make the trek out to the desert. Not sure if that is a dis about the music or if their Instagram-worthy food is really that good.

Now with a permanent home at Trade, their chef is Anne Marie Damaso, who hails from California's Central Coast, but has done work at numerous OC restaurants in different capacities. At Sweet Combforts she uses a  scratch made liege waffle batter that's infused with pearl sugars and then coated with cookie butter and assorted toppings. After the savory part of our visit to Trade, we were excited to give Sweet Combforts a try.

When entering Trade Food Hall, Sweet Combforts will be the first stall on your left. The menu here featured six different kinds of waffles on a stick with assorted toppings, five varieties of ice cream, and two shakes. Katie ordered for us, and about five to ten minutes later we had our stuff. Let's see how it all turned out for us.

Up first, courtesy of Katie's excellent hand modeling is the Churro Crunch Waffle ($6). This waffle was coated with cinnamon sugar, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and finished off with a cream cheese drizzle. I was little underwhelmed with this. I thought the churro flavor would be a little more pronounced, but it kind of fell flat for me. The only flavor I really got here was from the cereal on this. I would have liked a little more cream cheese drizzle, and the bottom of our waffle, near the stick, was very well done, almost bordering on burnt. Maybe should have tried one of the other five kinds of waffles offered.

Just in case we had not had enough food at this point of our visit to Trade, Katie also got us some ice cream. For me, she got a Single Scoop of Peanut Butter and Chocolate ($3) and for her, a Scoop of Salted Caramel ($3). Hers was the better of the two. The saltiness came through, while the caramel lingered in the background. I was expecting maybe a caramel ribbon through this, but no such luck with the bite I had. The peanut butter and chocolate was disappointing as well. With the amount of chocolate included here, I felt calling this peanut butter and chocolate was grounds for false advertising. Little specks of chocolate, smaller than chips do not add enough to get equal billing here. In fact, it might as well have been called vanilla ice cream, because the tiny ribbon of peanut butter did not add too much either. Not sure if they make their own ice cream, but a chocolate ice cream base with a large ribbon of peanut butter running through it would have made this way more enjoyable and more true to what they were going for.

Sweet Combforts did not really shine for us on this evening. I'd give them another shot though because they are the only dessert game in town at Trade. I'd probably try their Oreo cookie inspired waffle or their version with Circus Animal cookies next time. The Cookie Monster Shake seems to be really popular and would probably be my choice over the scoops of ice cream. An even better choice might be to leave Trade and head to Afters Ice Cream on the other side of the 405 Freeway for their delicious Milky Bun or their wider selection of ice cream. Since you have mastered the parking at Trade, it should be no problem getting a spot at the always crowded Diamond Jamboree.

Out of five mallets, (because this place debuted at Coachella, which is held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, and you can't play polo without a mallet, or a horse for that matter), five being best to zero being worst, Sweet Combforts gets 2.5 mallets.

Sweet Combforts does not have a website, but you can check out their Instagram feed here: