Thursday, November 30, 2017

Inhabiting Citizen Kitchen

Citizen Kitchen
1500 South Raymond Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

I always feel sorry for chefs that operate restaurants in hotels. Yes, they have a captive audience of ever-changing guests, but it has got to be a challenge getting locals to find out about your restaurant. With tourists, you never really get the loyal following that other restaurants require to survive. For travelers you also have to kind of dumb down the menu, or should I say make food that appeals to the masses. Executive Chef Zach Geerson is attempting to break that mold.

For those of you that are not aware, Citizen Kitchen is located in the Hotel Fullerton, which can be seen as you crawl along the 91 Freeway going westbound. For the past two-plus years it has been home to Chef Zach Geerson, a Florida native who left the Sunshine State to pursue a degree from the Culinary Insitute of America. OC diners might remember him as the Executive Chef at Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea, a position he attained after just two months at that restaurant.

Now firmly entrenched at Citizen Kitchen, Chef Zach is pretty much the man in charge of everything here. He, of course, oversees the menu and the food but also has taken charge of the cocktail menu and handling the rest of the staff. As if there's not enough on his plate already, he's also got another restaurant opening up on the other side of the hotel, but more on that later.

For this media dinner, I had the wonderful opportunity to invite my sister along. I always enjoy sharing with my friends and family a little of what I am lucky enough to experience on a semi-regular basis. We met in the spacious parking lot and found Citizen Kitchen by walking through the lobby and listening to the other guests already enjoying their plates. Chef Zach's menu can best be described as global, with many influences from around the world. Even if something looks like it's pretty pedestrian, there's a pretty good bet that there's a twist in there somewhere. Let's see what Chef Zach had in store for us on this evening.

Since it was a trek coming to Fullerton from South OC, a drink was definitely in order. The first of my two cocktails was the Canned Heat ($10). I'm always drawn to a spicy cocktail and this one did not disappoint. It uses Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur and some Illegal Mezcal as its base and then is softened just a bit with some orange and lime, and then finished off with some chili powder streaked across the rim of the glass. A very smooth beverage, which had a good balance between spice, sweetness, and the alcohol in it. 

The Bread Service at Citizen Kitchen had us food people raving, and not just because we were hungry. The bread is made in-house, and it was light and airy. I overheard that the butter is left out for an extended amount of time, but I'm not sure for how long. It was some of the creamiest I have had, and it spread very nicely over the bread. I had more than my fair share of it on this evening.

The plates started coming out of the kitchen at a furious pace now, starting with these Kimchi Crab Rolls ($9). For kimchi lovers, this starter is a must order. These rolls were filled with kimchi crab, a light touch of cream cheese, and topped with yuzu teriyaki and green onions. I liked these, even though I'm not really a big kimchi fan. The crab was kind of overpowered by the kimchi, but the yuzu kind of balanced things out for me.

I really enjoyed the Truffle'd Fries ($6) at Citizen Kitchen. They were smashed fingerling potatoes dusted with parmesan Reggiano and parsley and then served with a house ketchup and one of the better chile pesto aiolis I have had the pleasure of consuming. The potatoes were fried perfectly with a nice crunch to the outer shell and a fluffy potato underneath. The parmesan was a nice touch that helped the truffle to not overpower. 

When this hit the table I did not really know what to make of it. My immediate thought was how we were going to cut it in fifths so we could all try it. We somehow managed, This Stuffed Crepe ($10) was filled with sweet potato and served on top of a lemongrass and grapefruit salad. Not something that I would normally order, but I'm pretty glad I got to try it.

Much more to my liking was this Short Rib Agnolotti ($14). Short ribs are one of those things that you see on a menu and you just know it's going to be good. That was the case with this short rib and noodle dish. Very comforting, and accentuated with some fennel and garlic to round it out. I could definitely see some hotel guests eating this after a long day of sightseeing.

Chef Zach put a different spin on the usual mac and cheese dish with his creation, the Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($11). The gnocchi was bathed in a parmesan fondue sauce and then seasoned with some lemon and rosemary with breadcrumbs added for texture. I thought the sweet potato was going to be odd, but to tell the truth, I think he could have put an old shoe in there with that excellent cheese sauce and it would have tasted great. He could have had a lighter touch with the breadcrumbs to allow the fondue to shine even more.

Shrimp is always a favorite of mine, so I was pretty excited to see this Shrimp Escabeche ($15) make its way out to us. The shrimp was done simply with some fennel and thyme and accompanied by a grilled piece of bread that was excellent for dipping into the sauce after devouring the shrimp. 

A first for my sister, this was her first time having boar, which she was not too excited about trying, but we finally got her to give it a whirl. With this Wild Boar Pipian Rojo ($13) Chef Zach takes us south of the border with this Mexican inspired dish. The boar was coated in a red mole sauce made with what I believed to be pumpkin seeds. Also thrown into the mix were some red onion, roasted grapes, and coriander. I liked the multi-layered flavors of this dish. The boar was fine, but I could not really get a good handle on it with everything else going on here. It just kind of tasted like pork to me.

Octopus, in my opinion, is one of the most underused items on menus in OC. Chef Zach has tried to rectify this with his Grilled Spanish Octopus ($14). This was presented wonderfully and the octopus came with a very well done black garlic barbecue sauce, some chile, and some pressed fingerling potatoes. The octopus reminded me of one I had at Splashes in Laguna a few years back but at half the price.

With all this food coming out, it was definitely time for another cocktail. This time I went for the Sour Skittle ($12). This one used a mixture of Spirit Works Gin and 329 Lager and was then finished with some pomegranate and lemon. Usually, when something on a menu says spicy, sweet, or sour it's kind of muted. That was not the case with this beverage, it was sour. The only thing that broke up the sour was the candy coating the rim. This might be more for those people that enjoy really sour things, so I'll stick with my Canned Heat cocktail that I had earlier on future visits to Citizen Kitchen. 

Pizza was next on our agenda. The Ham and Cheese Pizza ($13) was the better of the two. A mellow parmesan cream and burrata teamed up with some thinly sliced serrano ham to top this good quality pizza crust. I liked the creaminess of the cheeses and of course the saltiness of the ham, but what made this pizza for me was the pizza dough. It was crisp and light but still added to the pizza, instead of detracting from it. I'm definitely biased against fruit on pizza, so I already had dismissed the Orchard Pizza ($10) when it was sat in front of us. Sliced apples, a fig jam, and hazelnuts made this feel more like a dessert pizza than an entree. It was fine, but I still stand by my thoughts that fruit does not belong on pizza. I'm looking at you pineapple.

I really enjoyed the look of this Citizen Burger ($17). It kind of reminded me of a fancier version of a Big Mac. Chef Zach has two burgers on his menu, this Citizen Burger ($17) and his base model, which he calls a boring burger. This burger is kimchi focused with kimchi mayo and house-made kimchi included, and then it's topped with a fried egg. I liked the burger but found the kimchi overwhelmed here. The fries were of course still outstanding, especially with the provided pesto aioli. Good stuff.

The last entree of the evening for us was the Braised Beef Short Rib ($29). The short rib was predictably tender and flavorful and bathed in a very good sauce. It was ringed around a moat of polenta which went well with the beef. A nice finish to our evening.

As I mentioned earlier, Chef Zach has a new passion project in the works, and it is also going to be located at the Hotel Fullerton. His new restaurant is going to be called Journeyman and it's taking over where a Chinese restaurant was located a few years back. The owner of the Hotel Fullerton has given Chef Zach full range on what to do with this restaurant. While we were there a couple weeks ago it was still going through the construction phase, but we were told it was going to be ready for opening in December. They were pouring the flooring the next day we were there, and so far everything looked great.

Chef Zach gave us a little taste of what to expect from his Journeyman menu. I'd describe what we tried as very daring and a little out of the box. Guests are in for a very interesting evening at Journeyman. The food here is not like anything else we have had in the area, and it will be exciting to see how it is received once it is open. It kind of reminds me of how Tempo Urban Kitchen used to be when they first opened. They had a menu that changed daily, so you never knew what was going to be on it next. I'm very eager to see how Journeyman evolves once they are open for business.

We'd like to thank Chef Zach Geerson and the rest of his team at Citizen Kitchen for this wonderful opportunity to experience their food and get a special sneak peek at the new Journeyman Restaurant, which will be opening in December. We loved your passion and it was a real pleasure getting the chance to meet you and see you in your element. I'd also like to thank my tablemates, who are some of the best food influencers around, and live up to the saying that food people are some of the best people around. Very true with this group. Also thanks to my sister for joining me on this food adventure, it's always a blast to hang out with you.

For more information about Citizen Kitchen, head to their website here:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Our First Trip to Little Arabia

Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine
638 S. Brookhurst St. 
Anaheim, CA 92804

It's been a grind at work lately. New manager, the holidays are fast approaching, and people are getting crankier as they have more to do. Around this time of year, it's easy to get in a rut after a long day at work and just want to stay at home, lock the front door behind you, and not have to have any interaction with people for the rest of the day. I have to realize that's not fair to Katie plus it's not good for this restaurant blog. The three pages of restaurants I want to try is never going to shrink if we stay home all the time. So we decided to head out on a Saturday night to cross another one off the list.

Our destination on this early fall evening was Little Arabia Bakery and Cuisine. I had heard some pretty good things about their shwarma, and I know Katie is crazy for that and the garlic sauce that is found in lots of Lebanese restaurants. For those that are not sure, like me, shwarma is a lot like gyro meat, as it's cooked on a slowly moving spit, which allows it to cooks in its own juices. Shwarma is spiced differently though and not served with tzatziki sauce like its cousin the gyro.

Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and cuisine is situated in a corner of a shopping center anchored by an old-school Stater Bros. Market at the intersection of  Brookhurst and Orange Avenue, just north of Ball Road in Anaheim. We arrived at just before 5 on a recent Saturday evening. There was ample parking and we had our pick of tables when we walked in the restaurant. During our stay the booths filled up around us, but at no time would I say that they were busy.

There's a nice fenced patio out front, but we elected to eat inside. The interior of the restaurant was inviting, with a number of booths lining the far wall, and a good many tables in the center of the dining area. If you are getting food to go you order at the register, and for dining in guests you'll be directed to a table and a server will take your order. The menu at Little Arabia has all of your Mediterranean favorites. There's plenty of hot and cold appetizers, sandwiches, plates, and savory pies to choose from. They even offer pizza for those who are a little skittish about trying something new. I was going to forgo the pizza but still had a tough time making my meal decision. Let's see if Little Arabia was worth the drive up from South OC.

Starting things off for us were some of the baked goods that were featured prominently in the display case near the register. At $1.49 each these were a great way to start our meal. We got one each of the Mini Spinach Boat, Mini Cheese Boat, and a Mini Balabaki Square, which was filled with meat. My favorite of the three was the plain cheese, which had the tanginess of parmesan cheese, which mellowed into a smooth and creamy cheese. The spinach was nicely done, but the spinach could have been a little more prominent. The meat one missed the mark for me. It was spiced a little too much and did not let the meat shine. I really liked the dough that encased these, as it was soft and light and did not interfere with the contents of these baked goods. Worth a try for sure.

Katie had no problem deciding what to get at Little Arabia, as she eagerly anticipated this Chicken Shwarma Plate ($13.99). This massive pile of seasoned chicken really impressed, and that's coming from me, who is not really a big fan of chicken. It was tender, juicy, and seasoned well. Definitely the best chicken shwarma I have had, not that I have had a ton in my day. The garlic sauce was a tad too light with the garlic but did the trick. I knew there was no way Katie would be able to finish this all, so I had it for lunch the next day and it even held up then. Wonderfully done.

Whenever I'm in doubt about what to order, I always lean towards a combo meal, so I can at least get a good lay of the land if I'm going to end up visiting a restaurant again. At Little Arabia, I selected this Combo Plate ($17.99) as my meal on this evening. With this one you get either a beef or lamb skewer, I picked the lamb, a ground beef, and a chicken skewer. Not normally my thing, but the chicken one was my favorite of the three. It was seasoned like Katie's shwarma but in cubed form. It went nicely with the garlic paste. The lamb and the ground beef skewers were both slightly overcooked, but I still enjoyed them well enough. The rice was full of flavor and spiced with something I was not expecting but kind of warmed up to. It had a subtle sweetness to it. The hummus was silky smooth and I found myself using it to jazz up the ground beef and the lamb. I did not really get into the salad here, but it seemed fresh.

Both Katie and I enjoyed our time at Little Arabia. We have had slightly better Mediterranean food in OC, but this was a very solid visit and worth your time if you are in the area and craving some shwarma. It's definitely the thing to get here. Next time I'll try the beef. We felt very welcome during our stay, and the service was cordial, but they did seem to forget about us a bit when they got a little busier. Prices seemed fair when you consider the serving size of the food that you get with each meal. Glad I dragged myself out of the house to come here. Good food is what will definitely get me through this hectic holiday season.

Out of five briefcases, (because the first law school in the world was built in Lebanon, and all lawyers use briefcases), five being best to zero being worst, Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine gets 3 briefcases.

For more information about Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine, head to their website here:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Something to Crow About in Orange?

Old Crow Smokehouse
1535 West Katella Ave. 
Orange, CA 92867

I could not believe our luck. While we were looking for a restaurant to eat at before heading to a party in Orange, I had to do a double take. There had to be some sort of mistake. I have heard raves about Old Crow Smokehouse, but I knew that they were anchored at Pacific City in Huntington Beach. Surely, Yelp had gotten it wrong. They had an Old Crow Smokehouse listed in Orange. I guess I have to step up my new restaurant openings game.

So Old Crow is in Orange. They took over the old Who Song and Larry's spot in the Stadium Promenade Shopping Center. Old Crow has gotten glowing reviews from OC Register Restaurant Critic Brad Johnson, who included this place as one of his top 75 OC restaurants of this year. He also gave them a glowing review in May.

This Orange outpost opened in late October. We had never been to Who Song and Larry's, but I had been to this location when it was Acapulco's a few years back. It's unrecognizable now from those days. Much more wide open, lots of dark woods, and a definite country vibe dominate the space. We were seated near the bar at high top tables, which are not my favorite types of seating arrangements, but we made it work.

I had made reservations on Open Table for 7:30 on a recent Saturday night and we got seated right on time. I'm sure this Old Crow gets a little hectic when there's something going on at the nearby Honda Center. There's plenty of TV's throughout the bar area, and they were tuned to various sporting events during our stay. Live country music takes over after 9 on Friday and Saturday nights.

On to the food though. This is Chicago style barbecue, kind of like Lillie's Q in Brea, which we hope is ready to open again soon after their hiatus while their parking structure is being built. Anyways, back to Old Crow. The characteristics of Chicago style barbecue is heavy on the smoking, low and slow, and an emphasis on ribs and rib tips. We were very excited to get to everything, so without further ado here's our take on Old Crow Smokehouse.

We started things off by getting a slice each of their Classic Cornbread ($2) and the Bacon, Cheese, and Jalapeno Cornbread ($3) after our server really talked it up. We were not too impressed. I like a sweeter cornbread, and this one was not very sweet, almost bordering on being boring. I also could not tell the difference between the regular and the bacon jalapeno variety. They ended up tasting the same to me. 

Entree time and Katie selected the Old Crow Smoked Sliders ($12) as her meal on this evening. She had asked for a brisket, pulled pork, and a chicken slider, and that's how our check read, but she ended up just getting three of the pulled chicken sliders. No worries, you kind of expect the kitchen of a new restaurant to have some kinks to work out. These chicken sliders were just okay in Katie's opinion. The chicken was fine but did not stand out. She also felt they could have included a little more chicken per slider. The pickled red onion along with the barbecue sauce on the table helped to keep her interested. For her side item, she tried the crunchy coleslaw, which I kind of enjoyed. While the menu touted this as having a horseradish-slaw dressing, I did not detect any hint of horseradish here, but I still enjoyed this subdued coleslaw, which had just the right amount of dressing to cabbage ratio.

As is my custom when dining at a barbecue restaurant for the first time, I lean towards getting a combo meal, and at Old Crow that would be this Pick Three ($25). For my three types of meat, I went with the brisket, sausage, and the quarter slab of pork baby back ribs. The ribs were head and shoulders above the other two meat selections. In fact, these were some of the best ribs I have had. They were tender, had plenty of meat on each bone, had a great bark crusted on their outer portion, with just the right amount of smoke included here. The other meats were fine, but could not compare to the ribs. I had some really good bites of the brisket, but other forkfuls were kind of on the dry side. The sausage was the weak link here, pun intended. It was a very sturdy sausage, but it needed a little moisture to make it easier to eat. Decent flavor, but I expected more of a flavor pop. The sides were just kind of average. The menu promised that the country mashed potatoes would include rosemary, garlic, and a bbq rub, but these taters fell flat. I liked the consistency of the spuds, but they did not really taste like anything other than potato. No garlic, nor rosemary was present. The mac and cheese was equally disappointing, as it came out lukewarm, and needed an extra spark to keep me interested after my first two bites. Kind of lackluster. I'd try the fries and the baked beans on my next visit.

I almost forgot to post this extra side that we ordered, the Savory Sweet Potatoes with Blue Cheese ($5). Points for originality, but after the initial shock of having blue cheese with sweet potato wore off, I lost interest.

Dessert was our last hurrah at Old Crow, and we went out with a bang with these Apple Fritters ($6). Not what I was expecting when I saw apple fritters on the menu. At Old Crow, they take apples and coat them with a tempura batter, fry them, and dredge them with cinnamon and sugar to form a lighter crumb donut. It comes served with some caramel sauce and a maple brown sugar gelato.  There was a slight disconnect with this. I felt it could have been served better and all the components were a little awkward. I liked it enough, but will probably try another dessert next time.

As is the case with a good many of the barbecue restaurants in OC, there are some good and some not so good parts to Old Crow Smokehouse. I found the meats to be above average, especially the ribs, but the sides and the dessert were average or below. I'm definitely trying the burnt ends and the tri-tip on our next visit. I just wish they were offered as part of a combo meal. Sides were disappointing and need some help here. We have heard some rumblings about slow service, but we did not experience anything close to that on this rather busy Saturday night. Our server Peggy was excellent, and she anticipated our every need during our stay. I felt the prices here were right on par with what you'd pay at let's say Lucille's, but the meats here are way better. We are glad Old Crow is open so close to the Honda Center, and we will be back before a game for sure.

Out of five bottles of bourbon, (because one of the earliest Kentucky bourbons is Old Crow Reserve, which started production in 1853), five being best to zero being worst Old Crow Smokehouse gets 3 bottles of bourbon.

For more information about Old Crow Smokehouse, head over to their website here: