Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Ocean at Main, Where Great Food Intersects

Ocean at Main
222 Ocean Avenue
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

My birthday got a little lost in the shuffle this year due to the birth of my fourth niece, the fantastic Evelyn. She made her much-heralded debut to the world three days before my birthday. So with all of the hospital visits, first car ride, diaper changes, and sleepless nights for her parents, it's understandable that my birthday dinner with my inlaws got pushed to the end of the month. I'm definitely more than happy to share the spotlight with the newest member of our family.

Now that life is getting a bit back to normal for all of us, my inlaws wanted to know where I wanted to go for my delayed birthday dinner. I sent about five or six places I'd like to go to, and my mother in law got back to me very quickly. She demanded that we had to go to Ocean at Main in Laguna. To say that she's a fangirl of Chef Craig Strong is kind of an understatement. So we quickly made reservations at his new restaurant and waited for the big day to arrive.

For those of you unaware of Chef/Owner Craig Strong, (unlike my mother in law, who probably knows what he had for breakfast this morning), he's from San Diego, he's worked in luxury hotels and resorts for the last 25 years, the last nine at the award-winning Studio at the Montage, he currently resides in Laguna Beach with his family, and Ocean at Main, which opened last October, is his first crack at restaurant ownership.

Ocean at Main is located right in the heart of Downtown Laguna and took over the old Taverna spot. They did a physical refresh of the space, which used to be home to the Laguna Beach Federal Savings and Loan way back in the day. Entering the door, there's a ten-seat bar set off to the right, The dining room, with its high ceilings, exposed beams, and white walls exudes a carefully crafted beach elegant atmosphere. There's also a heated patio out to the left, which is where many patrons selected to sit on this gloomy late June evening.

Chef Strong has stated that he wants to serve food like he does at home for his family and friends. These are some very lucky people. His California coastal cuisine will utilize the diverse and freshest ingredients from local purveyors. The dinner menu features starters, salads, entrees, and utilizing the existing pizza oven, five flatbread options. There's also a new bar bites section of the menu, which debuted the day after our visit. Chef Strong was very excited to share it with us, which you will see as you keep scrolling downward.

Laguna is notorious for its awful parking, but Katie and I had no problem parking in the lot right in front of the restaurant. Mind you that this was before the start of the festival season, so parking might be worse now that the Sawdust Festival and Pagent of the Masters has started. Side note, Laguna Beach has released a new app that will hopefully make parking in the city easier, and you could find it here, Since we had no problem finding our spot, let's see if we had any problems with the food at Ocean at Main on this evening.

Chef Craig was very active in the dining room the evening we were here. I observed him going from table to table. When he got to ours my mother in law, of course, blurted out that I write a restaurant blog. We all talked for a while about how when I joined their family they only liked two restaurants, Mimi's Cafe and BJ's. That led to a conversation about potato skins, and Chef Craig lit up and he said he was going to send something out for us, his version of Potato Skins. What came out did not look like any potato skin I had ever had, but all the components were there, just not like you would expect. Light and airy potato pillows were topped with a creme fraiche and green onion, and then dollops of cheese and bacon dust sprinkled around the plate. Very creative, and it brought the potato skin up to a whole new level. Wish these would make it to the bar bites menu someday.

Both Katie and her mom got the Scarborough Farms Mixed Greens Salad ($10) to start off with. This was not your typical run of the mill house salad. The mixed greens come from Ventura County's very own,  Scarborough Farms and are joined with some citrus segments, sliced radish, and nasturtiums, which are edible flowers that packed a peppery punch. The salad is finished off with a very well done honey-white wine vinaigrette. Katie loved this fresh and light salad. Even though it was light, it still was packed with flavor bursts from the citrus, edible flowers, and dressing.

Not in the mood for a salad, I opted to try the Oxtail Risotto ($18) off of the starter section of the menu. This ate more like a main course than a starter though. Filling with its kale puree and Parmigiano-Reggiano boosting the flavor profile of the risotto, but lighter than most risottos I have had. This made the inside of my mouth very happy. For lighter eaters not wanting a full entree, this could easily satisfy you.

My father in law is a soup-aholic. He loves hearing what soup is available at just about every restaurant he visits. He predictably tried this Prawn Potato Soup ($14) here at Ocean at Main. I was a little surprised this came out green, but then I remembered this contains basil. Dennis felt this was one of the best soups he has ever had. There were not any criticisms he could muster, with the nicely tender potato, the slight saltiness of the prawns, and the creamy broth with basil undertones. He called this soup a pure delight, which I'm sure is what he thinks about me marrying his daughter.

Chef Craig had another surprise for us when he sent out these Short Rib Cigars ($14). These are part of the new bar bites section of the menu which debuted the day after we visited. These were part taquito, part lumpia, and one hundred percent delicious. Served in an ashtray with a very well done horseradish creme fraiche, the outside had a great crunch to it, while the inside revealed the delicious short rib. A definite must-try.

Our entrees made their way out next, and the first one out of the kitchen was Lynn's dinner selection, the Pan Seared Halibut ($45). This halibut had Lynn raving. She called it one of the best seafood dishes she has ever had. Very high praise. The halibut had a delicate quality to it. They did not try doing too much with it, letting the natural flavor of the fish shine while allowing the unusual, but tasty rhubarb- tarragon-buttermilk sauce to be added to each diners' desired tastes. I would have used a lot more of the sauce than Lynn. The fish was accompanied by an almond saffron couscous, which I did not try, but Lynn let me know that it rounded out this meal nicely.

Both Katie and her father got the Grilled Salmon ($34) on this evening. Always a daddy's girl I guess. The crisscrossed grill marks made this high-quality salmon aesthetically beautiful, but the subtle technique that Chef Craig used here made this dish a winner. The salmon came in a bouillabaisse sauce, which enriched this cube of seafood. Along with the salmon were a side of shaved fennel, artichokes, and squash blossoms. The squash blossoms were the best of the bunch. Katie called this the perfect meal with the melt in your mouth salmon, the delicate squash blossoms, and the delectable sauce. A meal she will not soon forget. 

As is my custom before coming to a restaurant, I studied the menu numerous times zeroing in on what I wanted to have. From my initial pass checking out the menu to when I was sitting in the restaurant ordering from the server, I knew I'd be having the Short Rib ($45) for my birthday dinner meal. The first bite I had was a little on the tough side, but that must have been an apparition because the rest of this was tender and satisfying. I was not so excited about the forbidden rice when it came out, but it worked remarkably well with the short rib and the green curry sauce. Short ribs are almost always delicious, but very few are memorable. This one was unique and it has imprinted a lasting memory for me.

Since my mother in law made sure to mention it was my birthday about 83 times during our visit to Ocean at Main, we got to choose a dessert to try between the four of us. I had heard good things about Craig's Spice Cake ($12), so that would be what we ended up having. I'm not really one for deconstructed desserts, as it's always a challenge getting all of the elements together for one bite. This spice cake was good, but I really liked the banana ice cream with hazelnut crumble, which stole the show for me. A nice and light way to end this stellar meal at Ocean at Main.

After our meal here, my father in law, who has eaten at a lot of great restaurants across the country, proclaimed that this was the best restaurant he's eaten at. My mother in law is never one to back away from over-exaggeration also concurred. Katie, who has eaten almost every meal with me through the almost decade long history of this blog was over the moon about her meal at Ocean at Main. I was a little more reserved for my love for this restaurant, but that doesn't mean I was not in awe. Chef Craig has created one of the better restaurants in Laguna, and dare I say OC. Everything we consumed on this evening was well thought out, executed fantastically, and ended up tasting delicious. Sure, with prices like this it might make you think of this more as a special occasion spot, but consider that you are actually paying twenty dollars less per entree at Ocean at Main than you'd be paying at Chef Craig's last restaurant, the Studio at the Montage. It is like getting a super great deal for the same food, plus he's one of the most personable chefs that you will run across. Definitely, a birthday dinner to remember and one that we hope to relive many times over.

Out of five bank vaults, (because this location used to be the Laguna Beach Federal Savings and Loan, and of course they needed a bank vault), five being best to zero being worst, Ocean at Main gets a very strong 4 bank vaults.

For more information about Ocean at Main, head to their website here:

Monday, July 22, 2019

Getting Lit after My Dentist Appointment

Lit Cafe
1071 North Tustin Street Suite #100
Anaheim, CA 92807

Keen readers of this blog for the last nine years know that most likely when I review a place in North OC for lunch, it's probably because I had a dentist appointment. That was the case on a recent early Thursday afternoon. After getting my teeth poked, prodded, and cleaned, I like to treat myself to a meal. This time I enlisted my parents to come along with me to visit Lit Cafe in Anaheim.

Lit Cafe is a spot that's only open weekdays from 7 to 3pm, so this dentist appointment is one of the rare opportunities that I'd be up this way during their limited hours. The cool kids all know that lit means something is popping, turned up, or awesome in every sense. Okay, I confess, I did get those definitions from Urban Dictionary, so I guess you now know that I'm not one of the cool kids.

This spot is a long time coming for the husband and wife team that opened it this spring. Chef David Fujimura and Chef Erica Tjangnaka met while they were in culinary school. Talking with Chef David, he knew she was the one after she made him a cake, and he was blown away, not only with her culinary talent but with the woman behind the cake.

After graduating from The Culinary School at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, the duo has worked at some pretty big restaurants. He's had stints at Cafe Hiro, 6ix Park Grill, Marche Moderne, Andrei's Conscious Cuisine, and Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza. Chef Erica has been very busy as well working with her mentor, Chef Stephane Treand of ST Patisserie in Costa Mesa, she's also held various positions at the St. Regis Hotel and Resort in Dana Point, Charlie Palmer, Marche Moderne, and has even taught classes at pastry school. All of this, and raising a family as well. Pretty impressive stuff for these two.

Now comes their first restaurant. Lit Cafe is located right off the 91 Freeway, at the corner of La Palma and Tustin. They are situated between a nail salon on their left and a Taco Bell on their other side. There's plenty of parking at this restaurant, which they hope serves food that is a mixture of comfort and creativity. They see their food as a modern update on comfort food classics while using the freshest ingredients available.

Their menu bears this out. They offer breakfast toasts, three kinds of breakfast burritos, chilaquiles, and a couple of egg dishes. Lunch starts at 11am and consists of four varieties of salad, five sandwich options, two burgers, and a couple of out of the ordinary items. Only their Lit Burger and Fries will set you back $15, while the rest of the menu hovers around the $11 mark.

I arrived from my dentist appointment to Lit Cafe at noon. Half of the 15 or so tables were occupied, one by my parents, who were waiting for me patiently to arrive. I quickly looked over the menu and we made our way to the register to order our food. You also might want to linger near the register just a bit, because that's where the bakery cases are located. I instantly liked the clean, high ceilinged space. It was a bit sterile, but I found it comforting. Let's see if the food was comforting as well.

As you can see, I did linger at the bakery case a bit, because we started out with two pastries to nosh on while we waited for our food to arrive. The Coffee Cake Crumble ($3.75) was done very nicely, with a very subtle sweetness to it. The bottom portion was moist, but not too damp where it would lose its structural integrity. The crumble added just enough sweetness so it did not distract from the well-made pastry. The Almond Croissant ($3.00) was one of the better ones I have had. It was light and full of flavor. Technically a very sound croissant, with quite a bit of almond filling inside and the sliced almonds outside added a nice textural element. If you like real deal croissants, this is the one for you.

If there's one thing online that people rave about at Lit Cafe more than any other, it's probably these Chilaquiles ($12). From what I could gather, these started off as a special item and was permanently added to the menu due to customer demand. The only problem I had with this was that my dad picked it before I could. He did save me a few bites though. They only have this green version, but what a version it was. Tortilla chips were layered with mozzarella and cotija cheeses, salsa verde, and sour cream. The plate was finished off with some grilled smoked bacon, a cabbage cilantro slaw, and a sunny side up egg. A little different take on your traditional chilaquiles. The green salsa had a real nice heat to it, which the sour cream helped to cool. The chips stayed crisp, even after spreading the egg yolk around. My dad's only complaint was about the bacon, which he wished would have been crisper. I will call dibs on this one for sure the next time I'm here.

My mom was not feeling like breakfast, so she went with the House Greens Salad ($9). Made up of mixed greens, goat cheese, some shredded carrots, candied almonds, raspberries, and she swapped out the yuzu vinaigrette that this usually comes with for their ranch dressing. She could not have been happier with this salad. It had just the right amount of dressing coating the greens, the raspberries were at the peak of their freshness, and the goat cheese added a nice creaminess. A very well balanced salad.

No chance that I was going to be a light eater at Lit Cafe. This Mr. Rosas Breakfast Burrito ($9.25) was the first of the two items I had on this afternoon. This is probably the most traditional of the three breakfast burritos on the menu. One has honey in it, and the other has a maple syrup-soaked pancake bar in it, and I was not feeling either of those two. This Mr. Rosas' burrito came filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, chicken sausage, and bacon. It came with both red and green salsa. Not a huge burrito, but it was a well crafted one. There was no greasiness, the egg was cooked nice and light, the caramelized onions kind of shoved the sausage off to the side, but the bacon was present. The red salsa had a little more flavor than the green, which I thought was a little odd since the green salsa on the chilaquiles had a pretty good amount of heat to it. Still, a very solid breakfast burrito, and one of the better ones I've had this year.

I'm a big fan of loco moco's, so the Lit Loco ($12) would be my second entree at Lit Cafe. A bed of Japanese rice is topped with a hamburger steak, then finished with a teriyaki au jus, gravy, and a sunny side up egg, Also thrown in the bowl was a potato salad and a good amount of sliced pickles. This was a good representation of a moco loco, but more gravy added would have made it even better. The hamburger was tender and the rice soaked up the yolk nicely. The pickles kind of seemed out of place here, but at least they were not overly intrusive like a lot of pickles can be. The potato salad was a definite star of this bowl. It was light and creamy with some shredded carrots for a crunch to it. I know it was not meant to be the star here, but it just might have been. It's easy to see why this has been moved to the permanent menu.

Okay, I might have been drawn to the bakery cases a bit too much, because we finished up by having a Chocolate Eclair ($3.25) and a Brownie ($3). The eclair was the better of the two. It had little crunchy balls perched on top which added a nice textural element to each bite. The eclair itself was a classic. A nice, slightly crunchy outer shell and then a rich cream inside. Tasty, but a little too small to split among the three of us. The brownie was fine but needed something to make it pop. Maybe a little icing? 

Both my parents and I were pretty excited about our visit to Lit Cafe. Yes, I have read the online reviews about the prices being a few dollars too much, and that the portion sizes are smaller than expected, but Chef Erica and Chef David are both highly trained chefs, and they are turning out some very good, high-quality food here. I think they have met their goal of creating comfort food with a modern twist. I also get the feeling that this is just the beginning for Lit Cafe. I think it will be an evolving process, as it is with most new restaurants, especially with first-time owners. As of our visit, they had not yet gotten their beer and wine license, so they were waiting to open for brunch on Saturdays until they get it. There's an announcement on their website that brunch will be starting on August 3rd, from 10 to 2pm. Stay tuned. As for now, Lit Cafe has limited hours when I can make it up there, but it's still worth the trip. Maybe after my next dental visit in six months.

Out of five suns, (because before it became a slang word, Lit was an OC band, and they had a big hit with, "Place in the Sun"), five being best to zero being worst, Lit Cafe gets 3 solid suns. 

For more information about Lit Cafe, head to their website here:

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Trusting the Weatherman at Jeff's

Jeff's Inviting Food and Spirits
1904 North Tustin St. 
Orange, CA 92865

Wow, 52 years is an awfully long time when you think about it. But, here we were celebrating my parents 52nd year of wedded bliss. For me to reach this milestone, I'll have to live to be 96 years old and Katie will be a young 90. Hmm, not sure I'm going to make it to 96, but I'll definitely settle for 40 years with Katie. Anyways, we decided we'd take my parents out to dinner to celebrate their big day, and as usual, it was left to me to pick the place. After very little debate, we headed to Jeff's Inviting Food and Spirits.

My mom actually had gotten me to jot this place down on our restaurant wishlist not that long ago. She's an avid fan of the KTLA Morning News and weatherman Henery DiCarlo. He mentioned on-air that Jeff's was his favorite restaurant. That was good enough for my mom to say that she wanted to give this Orange restaurant a try, so I made reservations on a recent Friday but was limited to the 5pm early evening slot. We raced up here from South OC, with just about five minutes to spare.

Jeff's is located in a pretty good-sized strip mall alongside busy Tustin Street called Tustin Square. They are situated right behind the Weinerschnitzel, and in the same center as Poke District, Darya Persian Restaurant, and Oshima Japanese Cuisine. From what I can gather Jeff's has been open since 2014, and gets four and a half stars on Yelp, with close to 300 reviews. Very respectable.

The man behind the food here is Executive Chef Paul Carcano, and we saw him working furiously behind the bar, where he competes with the bartenders for the elbow room of the confined space. The menu he has put together is classicly American and pretty varied for the amount of space that he has to work with here. There's eight appetizers, with only the bruschetta not having a seafood element added to it. Dinners run the gamut from chicken, pork, seafood, steaks, duck, and one burger is offered. Prices for entrees range between $15 for the burger to $48 for the surf and turf. Most entrees hover right around the $30 threshold.

It's easy to figure out why this restaurant is a tough reservation to get, with it being pretty small. Walking in the door there's a row of high top tables lining the left wall, a ten to fifteen seat bar, with a great view of the open kitchen and bartenders pouring drinks, and lastly, there's another five or so tables, which is where we were seated. Tables are predictably close together, but they make it work here. Let's see if my mom's tip from our local weatherman will yield clear skies or a stormy meal ahead.

A bread basket was the first thing out for us after ordering. The bread was very sturdy and some pieces had some garlic running through it, while others did not. I was also pretty stoked that they gave you a big portion of softened butter, which is something a lot of restaurants don't do. You eventually have to end up asking for more butter, and don't even get me started on butter packets, which almost always come out of the freezer and are hard to spread. Ugh.

Due to Katie's shrimp allergy, and the fact that five of the eight appetizer offerings include shrimp, we skipped that section of the menu and instead went for some salads. As is my usual, when it's offered, I had the Caesar ($7) to start. This was a pretty standard representation of a Caesar. It included chopped romaine, three bigger than usual croutons, a mellow Caesar dressing and some shredded parmesan sprinkled on top. Good, fresh greens, but there could have been more flavor to the dressing here, or perhaps a heavier hand when applying it. Katie opted for the Dinner Salad ($7), which included sliced cucumbers, mixed greens, tomato wedges, mushrooms, and her requested blue cheese dressing on the side. A good side salad that kept her busy until our entrees started to make their way to our table.

Katie will start us off with her pick for the evening, the Chilean Sea Bass ($39). This fish was topped with a lemon, caper, butter and white wine concoction that paired nicely with the very tender and wonderfully seared sea bass. The menu does not state it anywhere, but you do get two sides to accompany your meal. Maybe if they would put that on the menu it would save the servers from having to repeat it over and over, like I observed during our visit. Katie opted for the Brussels Sprouts and the Mushroom Risotto, which are the same sides I got. The risotto is the thing to get here, judging by subtle glances at the nearby tables. The mushrooms contain a great earthiness and the risotto was done perfectly. Katie was very happy with this meal at Jeff's.

Before showing up here, and looking at the menu, I was a little perplexed as to what my mom was going to be ordering for her entree. She's not really too much into seafood, and I can't recall the last time I saw her order a steak. That left her to get this Sauteed Chicken Breast ($26). This chicken was sauteed in olive oil and seasoned with white pepper, rosemary, thyme, and a touch of garlic. The outside portion of the chicken was crispy and the inside was surprisingly tender. I usually shy away from chicken in restaurants because it's usually overcooked, but this one was the exception to the rule. My mom picked the grilled asparagus and the fingerling potatoes as her sides. The potatoes were very bland and forgettable, but the asparagus was crisp and picked up some added flavor from the grill.

My dad had a way easier time coming up with what to eat at Jeff's. He decided to go with the Sea Scallops ($31) for his main course. The four scallops were pan-fried in olive oil and finished with a touch of lemon. My dad really liked this simple presentation, which showcased the fresh seafood here. He was even more over the moon with his selection of side items. He had the popular mushroom risotto but also got a side of wild mushrooms. He was in mushroom heaven with these two. The mushroom risotto was a favorite of his, but he inhaled the wild mushrooms quite quickly. My mom's aversion to mushrooms has led to him not being able to have these fungi too often, so when he does get them, he's pretty excited about it.

I've mentally noted that I do not get duck quite nearly enough, and I was going to remedy that situation by having this Liberty Farms Duck Breast Fillet ($35). This duck came pre-sliced with black cherry and port wine reduction. The first bite I had was a tad overdone, but the rest of the slices were delicious and tender. Duck like this makes me wish I'd get it more often. I got the same sides as Katie, Risotto and the Brussels Sprouts. The sprouts were pretty good, and what I liked was that some of them were crunchy, and the bigger ones were a bit chewier. They kept me guessing and I liked the sauce they used on them.

Since we were celebrating my parents anniversary, they brought us two pieces of cake. Not sure how we scored two, but we will take it. We learned from our server that these cakes are made by someone associated with Rockwell's Bakery, which is a pretty well-known bakery in North OC. Both cakes were good. I think I liked the Chocolate one better than the Carrot, which is a little shocking because I am a big carrot cake fan usually. Both had plenty of icing included, but both could have been a tad moister. Not bad for free cake though.

Our visit to Jeff's was really quite impressive. Not only is their menu pretty large, but they are also churning out some pretty delicious food in such a small space. I do wish they had a little more variety on their appetizer menu, but you could not go wrong with any of the entrees we tried on this evening. Chef Carcano has got it going on. The prices at Jeff's make one think of this more as a special occasion restaurant, rather than a place you will come weekly, although there did seem to be many regulars inhabiting the premises on the evening we were here, mostly hanging around the bar. Service was very good on this evening. Our server Morgan took great care of us and even took the time to learn our names throughout our stay, a very nice touch. Jeff himself was also fairly active checking on his guests at their tables and making sure things were running smoothly. At the end of the day, Jeff's was an excellent spot to celebrate my parents 52nd wedding anniversary.

Out of five Big Mac Burgers, (because this iconic fast food burger came into existence in 1967, the same year my parents got married), five being best to zero being worst, Jeff's Inviting Food and Spirits gets 3.5 Big Mac Burgers.

For more information about Jeff's Inviting Food and Spirits, head to their website here:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Over the Moon at Luna Rossa?

Luna Rossa
2449 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782

It's been some time since we last visited the District at Tustin Legacy. The last review we had done at this shopping and entertainment center was about a year and a half ago when we visited The Kroft, which is situated in the now thriving Union Market. The Union Market was slow to get things rolling, but now it seems like most booths are occupied, and at least the food stalls seem busy.

There's been some new additions to the food scene at the District. Bar Louie finally shed the albatross which is the Anaheim Garden Walk and opened here a year and a half ago. Cinnaholic, a gourmet cinnamon roll shop, made famous by their appearance on Shark Tank opened for the good people of Tustin almost a year ago. Mediterranian and Italian favorite, Prego, which used to be closer to the airport, relocated to the District in late 2017. It's another Italian restaurant that has brought us here on this evening though, a restaurant that I think might have been an original tenant when the District opened, Luna Rossa.

My parents were pretty excited that we had an open spot on our calendar, and that spot just happened to my birthday. They had asked where we wanted to go, and since both Katie and I were leaving from work, we decided to meet in the middle for all of us, which brought us to the District. Traffic was pretty light, and the notorious parking disaster that is associated with this busy shopping center was not present on this early Monday evening. We got spots very close to the restaurant and made our way through the sparsely populated center.

Luna Rossa was pretty desolate as well. We had made reservations, but they were unneeded, as we were the only ones in the dining room during the entirety of our hour-long visit. There were some people hanging out near the bar in the back of the restaurant, but other than our waiter and one other server, not much action going on in the comfortable, bright dining room.

Dining options at Luna Rossa abound. The menu is laid out pretty much like you'd expect in an OC Italian restaurant. Salad and appetizers start things off, numerous pasta options are up next, along with some baked pasta dishes, then the more substantial, protein-laden plates are up next. They do also have four risotto selections for your consideration. Their wood-burning pizza oven is prominently seen from where we are sitting, and there's 13 pizzas listed on their menu. Entrees range between $17 to $40 for their lamb chops. Lamb chops, always one of my favorites, was not what I was eyeing on this evening though. Let's see what we did end up trying on our maiden visit to Luna Rossa.

Bread service is, of course, the first step in an Italian restaurant, and Luna Rossa was no exception. They had two different styles of bread in this basket, a ciabatta style, and a more traditional Italian bread. Both were good and fresh and made even better with the provided oil and vinegar. Restaurants have been shying away from this practice, which I've learned is not done at all in Italy. I imagine the high costs of the balsamic vinegar and olive oil have a lot to do with this, but it was kind of refreshing to have it here for a change.

Three of the four of us had a salad to start our meal. Katie had the Half Lattughine Mista ($7)) or Mixed Green Salad for the non-Italian of the rest of us.  This simple salad came with grated carrots, tomato wedges, and a balsamic dressing. Katie thought this was just okay. The veggies were fresh, but the dressing did not bring the greens to life. A much better option was the Half Caesar ($7) that I had. The romaine salad was dressed with a very tasty Caesar dressing and overloaded with shaved parmesan cheese. A great Caesar which had just the right ratio of dressing, cheese, and romaine in each bite. Well sized for the half portion as well. It kept me busy until the entrees started to come out for us.

My mom is definitely a creature of habit when she sees an arrabbiata sauce on an Italian menu. She has to order it. That was the case here at Luna Rossa. The Penne Arrabbiata ($15), with its slightly spicy tomato sauce and garlic undertones, made her very happy this evening. It's kind of funny, she's not really into anything really spicy other than this dish. She would definitely get this again when returning here to eat.

I guess I'm pretty predictable as well when eating in an Italian restaurant. I always look for a dish which features sausage. This Rigatoni Con Salsiccia ($24) not only came with sausage but onions and mushrooms as well. The rigatoni was nicely made, there was a ton of sausage in this, and the mushrooms and onions added a ton of flavor. This was big enough that I kept half of it for lunch the next day, which allowed the flavors to meld even more.

Katie is a little less predictable when eating out, as I would not have guessed that she'd get this Tortellini Di Pollo ($23). The tortellini was filled with chicken and came with peas, mushrooms, and an Alfredo sauce. She thought this was a very pleasing dish. She loved the flavorful Alfredo sauce and the tender chicken nestled inside the tortellini. She could totally see herself getting this dish again.

Last but not least, was my dad's selection on this evening, the Lasagna Classica ($21). It doesn't look like it from the picture, but this was a pretty good sized slice of lasagna. This came not only with tomato and meat sauce but bechamel, which I always enjoy when its included in a lasagna. This was rounded out with some mozzarella and sprinkled parmesan on top. My dad put this away rather quickly, so I assume he was a big fan of it. The bite I had was pretty tasty as well.

From what we could tell, they send you off with, what some people online have called beignets, but these were lighter and more hollow than the typical beignet. They were fine for a free dessert, but only the powdered sugar topping these made them memorable. Our server also brought out a Panna Cotta birthday dessert for me. It had a generous amount of strawberry puree streaked across the plate. The pannacotta was one of the better versions I've had, it had a pleasing texture, understated sweetness, and paired well with the strawberry. This was my parents first time having pannacotta, and I think they were pretty impressed.

I actually really liked the food that I experienced at Luna Rossa, even if it is a little unsettling to be eating in a completely empty dining room throughout our entire visit. Actually, almost all of the restaurants that we passed by on our walk to and from the parking lot were pretty close to being deserted. It could have been because it was a Monday evening or a lot of people are on their summer vacations. Anyways, Luna Rossa is a solid spot for Italian food, with a varied menu, and some very good service. Our server, Gianluca took great care of us, even though he did not really have much to do in this uninhabited restaurant. It will hopefully not be another year and a half before we head back to the District.

Out of five lunar eclipses, (because this restaurant's name translates to a red moon in Italian, a phenomenon brought on by the earth blocking the suns light from reaching the moon, resulting in the moon being bathed in a red hue), five being best to zero being worst, Luna Rossa gets 3 lunar eclipses.

For more information about Luna Rossa, head to their website here:

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Enjoying the Ride at Harley

Harley Laguna Beach
370 Glenneyre St. 
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Birthday dinner time, and where should we head? This year it was much easier to come up with some places because the April issue of Orange Coast Magazine listed their top ten best new restaurants in OC. When I read the list, I made a pact with myself to try as many as possible within the next few months. The list includes some pretty pricey spots, so we'll see how many we actually make it to, but Harley Laguna Beach was the second one we could cross off of the list.

The last time we had run across Chef Greg Daniels was when he was at Haven Gastropub in Orange. I actually owe Chef Daniels an apology for that review. My review took place way back to 2010, during the first full year of this restaurant review blog. Back then I would say my tastes were a little on the conservative side. Reading my review from nine years ago made me cringe quite a bit. I have definitely grown as a restaurant eater, and appreciate chefs who think a bit outside the box. If you want to read that awful review, feel free to check it out by clicking on Haven Gastropub along the right-hand side of this blog. I'm definitely not going to link it because it's pretty embarrassing.

Harley is named after Chef Greg Daniels' grandfather. He named this restaurant after his grandfather because he wants his guests to experience the sense of home and hospitality that he felt when he'd visit his grandfather's house. Speaking of home, this address used to be home to one of our favorite restaurants, 370 Common. Chef and Owner Ryan Adams has since moved on to Parallel Pizza in Dana Point and Buttermilk in Downtown Orange, both of which are very good by the way.

Harley sits on the corner of Glenneyre and Mermaid Street. Since they have taken over in November of last year they have lightened the place up a bit, adding some visually pleasing lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling and an eye-catching shade of green to the walls of the dining room. Make a note that Harley is closed on Mondays and they are only open for dinner during the week but feature brunch on weekends starting at 11am.

Back to our visit on a recent Sunday evening. We arrived at a nearly empty restaurant and had our pick of seating options. There's the dining room, with its high ceilings and plenty of elbow room, there's a few cozy, out of the way booths, and lastly, the option we went for, a chef's bar, where you have a prime spot to glance the inner workings of a professional kitchen and watch your food being prepared. We could not pass up that opportunity.

The menu at Harley is designed so that most items are meant for sharing family style. There's a good assortment of at least 16 appetizers by my count, they have a $30 burger which made me do a double take, two pasta dishes, and one each of a chicken and seafood entree. Steaks and chops are the largest part of the menu, are grilled over pecan and citrus, and come pre-sliced for easy sharing. Harley has also partnered with Stemple Creek Ranch and Electric City Butchers to provide a rotating list of other options from their wood-fired grill. Let's check out what we experienced for my birthday dinner.

First up was the Grilled Avocado ($14). At first glance, this might seem like a pretty simple dish, but there was some complexity to it. The visually stunning avocado, with its grill marks, clearly showing, was seasoned with coarse salt and rubbed with some avocado oil and lemon, and placed on top of ground up avocado leaves and pit. The ground-up avocado leaves brought an earthiness to this that I was not expecting this plate to need. The avocado was warm enough that it was just on the verge of melting, which led to it spreading wonderfully across the lightly buttered thick bread.

A special treat from Chef Daniels was up next for us. Fried Halloumi Cheese ($14) is not something I would normally order, probably because I have never heard of halloumi cheese before this evening. I have since learned that this cheese comes from the island of Cyprus, is traditionally made up of goat and sheep's milk, and has a high melting point, which allowed it to be brought out to us on fire, fueled with Blinking Owl Distillery's Aquavit. We doused the flames with the provided lemon and dug in. The nicely charred outer crust gave way to a very structured, creamy inside that had a nice salty flavor to it. It might have been because of the lemon, but it kind of reminded me of a very subtle piece of grilled fish, but that was just my experience. I'm a little odd.

Since the menu encourages the sharing of dishes, Katie and I decided we'd order a few items and split them. She loved this Cacio E Pepe ($20) more than I did. The pasta is made here and is simply dressed with black pepper oil and pecorino cheese. The pasta was well crafted, but I needed a bigger pop of flavor, whereas Katie liked the subtleness of this and described it as total comfort food that she could see herself eating on a chilly winter evening. Guess we will have to agree to disagree about this dish.

When ordering, we inquired about a number of unique cuts of steak that are listed on their menu, like bavette, flank, skirt and the velvet, but they were out of them. We finally decided on this Bone-In New York Steak ($78). This sixteen-ounce steak was dry aged for 35 days and came from the Stemple Creek Ranch, near Santa Rosa in Northern California. At Harley, it comes sliced with a red wine pepper au jus. I admit this was one of the cleanest pieces of beef I have had, and it was cooked perfectly to my desired medium rare. I just needed it to pop a little bit more. The au jus did not do enough to elevate this steak for me. Maybe I've just become too spoiled by the ribeye steaks I've grown accustomed to.

We rounded out our meal with Brocollini ($10) on this evening. This was farmer's market fresh and nicely brought to life with the addition of roasted garlic and chili flakes. I decided I'd take more than my fair share of this since Katie was more partial to the pasta than this. It all worked out in the end.

A little something sweet to end our meal at Harley and we chose this Chocolate Flan ($12) from the four options. Not very sweet, this chocolate flan was kind of plain tasting, and definitely needed the caramel sauce and the tart luxardo cherries to bring this to life for me. From reading online reviews and looking at pictures, I think the pineapple upside down cake or the pecan pie would have been better options.

Everyone is sent off with these Chocolate Chip Cookies when they leave Harley. It's an homage to Chef Daniels's Grandma Mary. She'd always have her cookie jar full, and when leaving her house everyone took one for the road. A very nice gesture, but these did not even make it out the door as I had to eat them right away. A classic chocolate chip cookie, just the way I like them. A little crunch on the outside and chewy inside.

There's no doubt that Harley is a welcome addition to the Laguna Beach restaurant scene. They are using some of the best quality ingredients that we have encountered in a long while. There's also no doubt that Chef Daniels knows his way around the kitchen and has his techniques down. I can not fault the way anything came out for us on this evening, as it was all cooked wonderfully. For me though, it seemed like everything here was safely done. There was no risk, no big burst of flavors, like the apple tart with blue cheese ice cream that we had at Haven, (the one I criticized when I wrote my amateurish review ten years ago before I knew any better about the creativity that chefs must have). The steak here was good, but I needed more if I was going to pay close to $80 for a steak that was only a pound, including the bone. In hindsight, maybe I should have forked over the extra $40 for the $125 16-ounce ribeye. Maybe it would have wowed me as much as the one I had at Sellane Steak Tavern a few years ago. Even without the wow moments, I can see Harley being around for a long while, with their excellent service, small touches that show how much they want to take care of their guests, and their use of only premium ingredients. I'll bet that Harley will become many Laguna Beach residents favorite restaurant spot for special occasions for years to come.

Out of five hogs, (because when you think of the name Harley, it's hard not to think of the motorcycles, which are affectionately nicknamed hogs), five being best to zero being worst, Harley Laguna Beach gets 3.5 hogs.

For more information about Harley Laguna Beach, head to their website here: