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: http://www.cellardining.com/index.html

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