Saturday, March 29, 2014

XA Marks the Spot

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe
424 South Main Street
Orange, CA 92868

My parents were headed to Ruby's on a recent Monday night, so that left Katie and I to fend for ourselves on our usual night when we eat at my parents house. We still had to go bowling, so I scoured my list of places to eat in between Katie's work in Irvine, and the bowling alley in Anaheim. One place jumped out at me, with a note I had made next to the name of the restaurant. I had written, "apple pie cookie", in the margin of the paper, and that was good enough for us to head to XA Sweet and Savory Cafe.

I have read about XA Cafe about a dozen times in the OC Weekly. This seems to be one of their favorite places to eat, as I have read about their menu changes, best of lists, chefs interviews, and of course their cookies. Keep in mind that this restaurant has only been open for a year and some months now, so all of this press is quite rare for a new restaurant. I was pretty excited to see what all the hype was about.

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe is a few blocks away from Main Place, in the same strip mall as Kaffa, Roma D'Italia, and book-ended by Carl's Jr. and Taco Bell. A few blocks away from CHOC and St. Joesph Hospital's, we saw quite a few medical workers come in during our early evening visit. XA Cafe is named after chef and owner, Shawn Xa, who came over and introduced himself after we were done eating. Shawn definitely has an infectious personality, and it's easy to see why so many people came by to say hello to him, and he knew a lot of his customers by name. When we talked to him, he wanted to make it clear that this is not a health food restaurant, but more of a clean eating spot. A place where you don't have to sacrifice taste by eating clean.

This restaurant is not huge, its pretty quiet, but a comfortable space. Maybe ten or so tables, ordering is done at the counter, and the menu is of the build your own meal style. Sauces and rubs change with the season, so the ones you are about to see in this review have now been phased out for the Spring offerings. This will at least give you an idea of what to expect when you dine here. XA Cafe also features sandwiches, breakfasts, salads, and of course their famous cookies that we will get to later. Let's see if all of OC Weekly's praise is worth a trip here.

When Katie's plate was sat in front of her, I was kind of blown away. This is more like something you would see at a four star restaurant, than in a small place in a strip mall. Even more shocking was the price of the Entree ($8.99). Both Katie and I ordered an entree, which means you get to choose your protein, a sauce or a rub, and then you get two side items. The chicken gets rave reviews here, so that's what Katie went for, with roasted garlic and herb sauce, grilled asparagus, and a garlic noodle. Her first comment when she bit into this chicken was to remark how moist the bird was. The garlic was not too overpowering, but it hung around the background. She was a little worried that the noodles would make this dish greasy, but that was not the case here. The asparagus was fresh, and grilled nicely. When I asked Katie for any negatives about this plate, she could not come up with any. She liked the lightness of everything, and would probably get this again.

Not looking much different from Katie's, I ordered the Tilapia ($8.99). For my sauce I chose the honey spice, which started out sweet, then bit back with a little heat on the back end. I really enjoyed that sauce. The tilapia, like the chicken, was very moist, but did not break apart too easily. For my side items I got the potato cake and brown rice pilaf. The rice was good, with just enough flavor, while the potato cake was a little unassuming. It kind of got lost here, because it was so light. I really liked this plate, but if I was pressed to say something negative, I could only come up with that I wished there was more sauce on the plate.

Right next to the register are numerous kinds of cookies all wrapped in cellophane. I should have written down all of the different kind of cookies that they have here, but I would have been writing for a long time. They had a Bacon Chocolate Chip, a Blueberry, and their most famous cookie, the Baked Apple Pie. I liked the cookies at XA Cafe, but I like a crunchier cookie, and these were more on the softer side. The flavors for the most part were dead on. The apple pie cookie actually did taste like apple, while the blueberry was probably my favorite, as it came across as a blueberry muffin in cookie form. I did not really get too much of the bacon from the bacon chocolate chip cookie though. I'm not going to lie to you, Katie really enjoyed these cookies a lot. She even took home a dozen, which we snacked on for the next couple of days. Insiders tip, if you tell them that it's your first time here, they will give you a free cookie with your meal.

I really enjoyed our visit to XA Sweet and Savory Cafe. The food was real good, the prices were more than fair, and we left here full, but did not have that real heavy feeling walking out the door. My problem with these build your own meal places is that I am always afraid that I'm going to screw it up, and pick something that doesn't go together. That was not the case here. The honey spice sauce seemed like it was made for the tilapia, just like the garlic and herb sauce was perfect with the chicken. I'm positive that if we flip flopped the sauces on the opposite meats, both would work just as well then too. I have a feeling that it would be impossible to have a combination not work here at XA Cafe. We are really looking forward to coming back again soon, exploring the flavor combinations, and finding our perfect one.

Out of five tumors, (because Main Place Mall is right down the street, and part of Kindergarten Cop was filmed there, and that movie had the famous, "it's not a tumor" quote in it), five being best to zero being worst, XA Sweet and Savory Cafe gets 3.5 tumors.

XA Sweet and Savory Cafe has a very limited website, which you can access here:

Xa Sweet on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hoping for the Endless Sandwich at Board and Brew

Board and Brew
979 Avenida Pico
San Clemente, CA 92673

It has been almost a year since we ate at Riders Club Cafe in San Clemente, and we are still trying to hit all the spots that one of the customers told us about during our visit. The young couple that sat down next to us, saw me taking pictures, and when Katie informed them that I write a restaurant blog, they peppered us with places that we should go to in San Clemente. We have made it to one of their picks, which was the fantastic Hapa J's, and after our experience there, we were excited to explore the rest of their suggestions. After a long leisurely walk along the beach trail in San Clemente, we made it to another one of their picks, Board and Brew.

Board and Brew started in Del Mar in 1979. Yes, that is a long time ago, and an eternity in the restaurant business. They now have four locations, with two more on the way, including their second OC spot soon to be open in Rancho Santa Margarita. Board and Brew credits their success to a casual, laid back atmosphere, a straight forward menu, and providing their customers an everyday value. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to give Board and Brew a try, and after our two mile walk at the beach, we had worked up quite an appetite.

Board and Brew is located pretty far from the beach, on the other side of the freeway, and in a large shopping center, which is anchored by a Walmart. We got here close to 2PM on a Sunday, and the place was pretty packed. The atmosphere here kind of reminded me of a Wahoo's, with reggae music playing over the speakers, and a definite surf vibe happening throughout the restaurant. There's a small bar, with maybe room for eight people, serving up a pretty impressive list of craft beers. Ordering of food is done at a counter, and your food is brought out to you. The cute, young girls at the counter were very helpful answering our questions, and giving us enough time to peruse the menu. Even after ordering, we had no problem grabbing a table, as they were pretty good about clearing tables after other customers left. After about a five minute wait, our food made its way to our table. Let's see if our friends from Rider's Club Cafe could give us two great restaurants in a row.

When we were looking at the menu, Katie had mentioned about five sandwiches that sounded good to her, she finally settled on the Turkey Club ($6.25). This sandwich came with turkey breast, Swiss cheese, bacon (which Katie got on the side, who does this?), mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato, all on a French baguette. Katie of course gave her obligatory, "it was real fresh" comment. The sandwich had plenty of thick cut turkey, was easy on the produce, and the bread was sturdy, and had a nice chew to it. I could tell Katie liked the sandwich, but she was very happy with the secret sauce that was served on the side with this. Orange in color, this sauce was kind of like a sweet and sour sauce, which has a cult following of its own. She felt this sauce really kicked up the flavor of this sandwich a lot. She left here a happy girl.

Usually when a menu item says that it's spicy, it almost always is not. This was not the case with this Roast Beef Spicy ($6.95). This sandwich was served hot, with roast beef, Swiss cheese, onions, jalapenos, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, and a side of au jus for dipping. The roast beef was tender and flavorful, the Dijon was evident in spurts, and the bread held firm, even after being dunked in the au jus. This sandwich provided a slow burn, which intensified as I ate it. My one minor complaint about this sandwich was that there could have been a tad more mayo, but other than that it was a very solid sandwich.

The sandwiches at Board and Brew are deceptively big. You might not be able to see it from the pictures, but these really filled both of us up. We left here pretty happy. I'm pretty pleased that they are opening a location closer to our house, and we look forward to becoming regulars there. Their menu is not going to blow you away with its diversity, but there is enough variety that it will keep you coming back. I look forward to finding my perfect sandwich at Board and Brew, if I have not already found it on this visit. Prices here are very fair. No sandwich on their menu is above $8. The service we experienced on this afternoon was pretty good. Everyone was very nice, the food came out quick, and all the employees really seemed to have the customers happiness as their number one priority. A real rarity these days. So it seems our tipsters from Riders Club Cafe have now gone two for two, so we will have to continue on with their picks. Really looking forward to the next place on their list.

Out of five smashing pumpkins, (because Board and Brew started in 1979, and the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins had a hit song with the same title as this year), five being best to zero being worst, Board and Brew gets 3.5 smashing pumpkins.

For more information about Board and Brew, go to their website here:

Board and Brew on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 23, 2014

El Cortez, Where Everyone Knows Your Name

El Cortez Bar and Grill
28971 Golden Lantern 
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Every neighborhood has their favorite Mexican restaurant. In Placentia there is the very good El Farolito, Anaheim has the Gwen Stefani endorsed Mexi-Casa, and San Juan Capistrano has El Campeon, which usually has a line out the door. I have lived in south OC for awhile now, and one place that I have kept hearing that I need to try is El Cortez Bar and Grill.

El Cortez is located at the intersection of Golden Lantern and Moulton, in the same shopping center as Wendy's and Patsy's Irish Pub. We were going to be meeting our good friends, and strong El Cortez proponents, Heather and Trevor for a brunch date on a recent Sunday. They always like sitting at the bar, (no surprise there), so that's where we found ourselves right about noon. I did not get a good look at the dining room side of this place, but the bar area was very comfortable, with maybe room at the bar for ten or so customers, a good number of booths, and a few TVs placed behind the bar of this segregated area of El Cortez.

Even at this early hour, the bar filled up with regulars. The bartender on duty knew most of the patrons by name, which was a nice, homey feeling. El Cortez's first Yelp review is from 2007, but I'm positive that they have been around a lot longer than that. The menu here is pretty standard for a Mexican restaurant in Southern California. A good selection of breakfast items, combination plates, and fajitas dominate the menu. I was really looking forward to what this local Mexican food hot spot would send our way from the kitchen.

The Chips and Salsa were pretty strong here at El Cortez. The chips were good. You could tell that they were freshly made, with just a touch of grease still lingering. The salsa was a little on the watery side, but the abundance of onions made up for that in my opinion. Not overly spicy, it provided a decent kick, but nothing that even Katie could not handle.

Katie started us off by ordering a plate of Nachos Carabela with Shredded Beef ($12.10) for the four of us. Piled on top of a single layer of tortilla chips was refried beans, melted cheese, a scoop of guacamole, two dollops of sour cream, jalapenos, and of course the shredded beef. I liked these nachos, there was plenty of meat spread on top of them, in nice, easy to manage pieces. With the exception of the sour cream and guacamole, the toppings were distributed evenly here. I thought the serving size for this did not merit a $12 price tag, but in the end, these were a pretty solid plate of nachos.

Katie was still feeling the effects from the dinner the night before, so she just ordered a Quesadilla ($6.95) as her entree. This flour tortilla was filled with cheese, and served with a pretty small side of sour cream and guacamole. I immediately noticed the lack of grease that usually comes with cheese quesdadillas. Katie felt this was pretty standard quesadilla. Nothing that really knocked her socks off, but what can you do to a cheese quesadilla to make it memorable? Probably not much.

Heather was really conflicted on what to get here, but she ended up having the #1 Beef Taco and Cheese Enchilada Combination Plate ($12.95). According to Trevor, this was an unusual order for Heather, but she really enjoyed this meal, and it helped clear up some of the remnants from the frivolity of the night before.

Much like ordering lasagna in an Italian restaurant, my "go to" order when I first eat at a Mexican restaurant is usually always carnitas, so my meal here would be the Carnitas Jalisco ($15.95). I was pretty happy when this plate of deep fried pork was placed in front of me. There was plenty of meat on the plate, mixed with a liberal amount of chopped onions and cilantro. My happiness was short lived though. A good majority of the pork was overcooked, which made this swine a little dry. Only made better by eating this alongside the pretty average refried beans to add moisture. The rice was the best thing on the plate, and I'm not usually even a rice kind of person.

Trevor has a pretty set order when eating at El Cortez after a long night of partying, the Huevos a la Cortez Mario ($8.95) is his hangover cure. Two eggs on a soft tortilla, topped with beans, chorizo and a special sauce. He likes his eggs almost burnt, which they got right on their second trip out of the kitchen. After that little snafu, he polished off his plate rather quickly.

Since we were sitting at the bar, it only seemed right to have a drink or two while wee were here. I started with this Bloody Mary ($8.00). This was a pretty pedestrian tasting Bloody Mary, which I got spicy. The spice was evident, but could not rescue this from being anything but mediocre. Much better were the infused tequilas that they have at the end of the bar. $5.50 per shot, these had a nice contrast of flavors which I can not remember right now, (I have to take better notes, or maybe drink a little less), but I believe there was jalapeno and fruit involved in the shot that I had. A must try for anyone that likes tequila.

So after going through this review, I can guess you can say that we were not "over the moon" about El Cortez, like the rest of our neighbors seem to be. We could have just caught them on an off day, but nothing we had, save for the tequila shots at the end of the meal, were anything but average. We would definitely go back, as their happy hour prices are more along the lines of what you should actually be paying for the food at El Cortez. They also have a taco night, which is on Wednesday, which we here is a pretty good bargain as well. Reading through their Yelp reviews, service seems to be an issue here, but we did not experience that at all. Our bartender/waitress, Michelle, seemed to have everything under control with the pretty steady customer flow on this afternoon. As with many favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurants, the people who grew up with El Cortez, or live near it, might be clouded by their love of this restaurant. For us that have no such affinity for this restaurant, it was pretty much average.

Out of five bougainvilleas, (which just happens to be the city flower of Laguna Niguel), five being best to zero being worst, El Cortez Bar and Grill gets 2.5 bougainvilleas.

El Cortez Bar and Grill does not have a website, but you can find out more information about them here:

El Cortez Mexican on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Menu Items at Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill

Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill
25482 Marguerite Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92692

Fish seems to be everywhere these days. Looking through the coupons we receive in the mail, it seems like almost all fast food and casual places are really pushing the fish items on their menus. Even the supermarkets feature fish on the front pages of their ads. Of course this happens every year during Lent. The time of year when an estimated 78 million Catholics forgo meat on Fridays, and instead turn to seafood. This has to be a big time of year for restaurants that are always about seafood. So it makes sense that fish focused restaurants roll out new or special items to entice diners during their busiest time of  the year. We were recently invited to try some new items at one of our favorite fast casual seafood restaurants, Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill.

I guess it has been a long time since we had been to Rubio's. Before we moved at the first of the year, we were regulars at the Rubio's by our old place. Now that we are all settled into our new digs, we have been busy exploring the restaurants in our new area. It's now time to turn our attention back to some of our old favorites, like Rubio's.

Things have changed a little at Rubio's since our last visit. Food doesn't come on paper plates anymore, and they have real utensils. Not only is this classing up the joint, but it's also all part of Rubio's commitment to be socially responsible. Whether it is using sustainable seafood, printing menus on recycled paper, or becoming more involved in the community, Rubio's really wants to improve the quality of life in the communities that they serve, as well as provide quality food. By getting rid of the paper plates, they are helping keep the landfills clear. They are also focused on bringing us high quality seafood, like Regal Springs tilapia.

Regal Springs is a company based in Indonesia that wants to produce the best tasting tilapia in the world, but wants to do it in a responsible way. These tilapia are grown in deep reservoirs in Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia. The fish are only fed the highest quality of food, and the water is monitored to insure that it is free of chemicals and contaminants at every stage of the operation. Rubio's had introduced  the Regal Springs Tilapia Taco earlier, and it was such a hit, they decided they had to use this special tilapia in other menu items. So Rubio's co-founder, Ralph Rubio, and his culinary team got to work on creating two new dishes utilizing the tilapia. Let's see what we have been missing at our local Rubio's of late.

All this build up about the tilapia, and we start off with the Guacamole and Chips ($1). In the five years that Katie and I have been together, I have not known her to miss out on ordering guacamole at Rubio's. Their guacamole is very natural, not overly seasoned, and goes great over the tortilla chips that are prepared fresh daily. I always manage to steal a little guacamole for my tacos, but that's my secret.

See I told you we would eventually get to the tilapia portion of this post. I'm not much into salads, and this would be Katie's first time having a salad at Rubio's, but it will not be her last after having this Chipotle Orange Salad ($7.79). This salad combined spring and butter lettuce, fire roasted corn, avocado, black beans, mandarin oranges, your choice of grilled or blackened Regal Springs tilapia, and finished with a chipotle orange vinaigrette. Katie really liked the contrasts in this fresh salad. She went with the blackened tilapia here, which went nicely with the cool citrus dressing. The tilapia was prepared well, very tender, and they were very generous with the amount used in this salad. Katie also wanted me to mention that she enjoyed the numerous layers of textures in this as well. Even though I am not much of a salad guy, I could not resist poking my fork in her bowl to have a few bites of this salad.

I believe that burritos are definitely one of the hardest foods to photograph well. They almost always look the same, and they never look as good as they taste. This Regal Springs Tilapia Burrito ($7.69) definitely tasted good. I was a little unsure that this burrito would fill me up, but it was jam packed with guacamole, Mexican rice, fire roasted corn, cilantro, onion, red and green cabbage, a creamy chipotle sauce, and of course Regal Springs tilapia. With so many ingredients used in this, I was a little afraid that the tilapia would get lost here, but it definitely made its presence known. I lamented the fact that I did not get the tilapia blackened, but the Diablo Salsa, from Rubio's great salsa bar, provided more than enough heat to satisfy any heat seeker.

Since we were here, we also had to try the item that got Rubio's creative juices going with their tilapia obsession, the Regal Springs Tilapia Two Taco Plate ($7.69). I thought I was going to miss the crunch of the Original Fish Taco, but that was not the case here. The great flavor of this taco was guaranteed with the inclusion of a creamy chipotle sauce, salsa fresca, a Serrano slaw, and of course the Regal Springs tilapia. The grilled fish option provided a nice smokiness to the fish, that was not as evident in the burrito. I was a little sad that I had to share the other taco with Katie, as I could have made quick work of both of these tacos.

After this little nudge to come back to Rubio's, I am sure we will become regulars at our new location in no time. I definitely noticed that this location did a booming carry out business during our 7PM visit. I also noticed that the employees here made the rounds to all the customers in the dining room, asking if we needed anything, and if everything was all right. Kind of made you feel like you were eating at a full service restaurant, while not paying for it. At this time of year, when everyone is looking for seafood, it's good to know that Rubio's is doing things the right way, and making food that tastes great too.

We would like to thank everyone at our local Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill for making us feel so welcome, and providing us with a great meal. We would also like to thank the fantastic Danielle Solich for this great opportunity to experience these new menu items at Rubio's.

For more information about Rubio's, including your nearest location, click here:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern Bringing Life to Dana Point

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern
25001 Dana Point Harbor Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629

The second of our two Orange County Restaurant Week picks this year was a place that we had only been to for their grand opening party. We had been meaning to go back sooner, but something had always popped up, like it usually does with us. We had a great time at the grand opening party, the food was great, but they were just samples, so we were really looking forward to trying full size versions of their food. When we saw that they were offering a three course, $30 dinner during OC Restaurant Week, we hurriedly made Friday night reservations for Jimmy's Famous American Tavern.

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern, or as the cool kids call it, JFAT, has been opened in Dana Point since August of last year. They have another very successful location down in the Point Loma area of San Diego. When this Dana Point location opened, it felt like the shot in the arm this area needed. The harbor area of this southern beach city has always kind of felt dated to me. Lending to the old feel of this area was restaurants like El Torito, Harpoon Henry's, The Wind and Sea, Gemmell's, and the now departed Jolly Roger. All restaurants that I seem to remember my parents going to on Saturday nights, when they left us with babysitters over thirty years ago.

JFAT is run by a man familiar to OC diners, David Wilhelm, of French 75 and Chat Noir fame. He's ditched the white table cloths and bread scrappers, for this much more casual tavern, that emphasizes classic American comfort food. Burgers, steaks, and large plates dominate the menu at this big restaurant that seats 200 plus. Not only is JFAT's presence bringing nightlife to the harbor area, but they are also doing it in an eco-friendly manner. They are one of thirteen OC restaurants to get a seal of approval from the Green Restaurant Association. Restaurants can achieve this honor by using sustainable food, waste reduction and recycling, among other factors. It's nice knowing that JFAT is not just about making money, they have a conscience as well.

We got to JFAT just before 7PM on a recent Friday night. I was happy we made reservations, as the place was packed. The restaurant is dominated by a large bar in the middle of the room. We were sat on the enclosed patio, in the rear of the restaurant. Even though we were away from the action of the bar area, this is still a loud restaurant. The clientele here is a good mix of people. Young to old, and everything in between. We really had no need for the menus, as we knew we would be having the OC Restaurant Week menu. We put in our order, and this is what we came up with.

Okay, not on the restaurant week menu, but we could not resist this Warm Cheddar, Spinach, Beer and Chorizo Fondue ($7). This rich dip was almost too cheesy, and warm was an understatement. I burnt my mouth with this scalding cauldron of cheese a couple of times. The big flavors here worked well. There was plenty of spinach, which I would have liked to have been cut up in some smaller pieces. I did not really get a lot of the chorizo here, but did not seem to miss it. This was served alongside some herbed croustades for dipping. This was a good choice, as the cheese coated the bread well, and did not break off in the dip. Our waitress even provided us with some extra, as the five included on the plate did not go that far. This was a larger than expected serving size.

Okay, now we are getting to the OCRW menu. First up was Katie's selection for her starter, the Farmers Market Salad. This I assume is JFAT's version of a house salad. This salad was made up of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, corn, croutons, and topped off with a Dijon vinaigrette. Katie used her obligatory, "this used fresh produce", but also added that she loved the croutons here. They were made with their jalapeno cornbread, which added a nice flavor to this house salad. She was also pretty excited with the dressing, because it was lighter than other vinaigrette's, but did not sacrifice flavor.

The night we went to JFAT, was the night that we actually had cooler weather, which has been pretty rare this winter. I wanted something to warm me up a bit. That's why I went with the New England Style Clam Chowder. This clam chowder had plenty of small clams in it, with a nice and mellow flavor. Not too thick of a chowder, this reminded me of the clam chowder I used to have at Polly's Pies as a kid. That's not a knock on JFAT's version, as I was pretty partial to Polly's chowder when I was growing up, even though I have not had it in a long time. This was served with a couple of house made potato chips for some reason. They were good, but I would have rather of had a dinner roll with this.

You don't see stroganoff on too many menus anymore. People probably have a connotation that this is an old fashioned dish, but JFAT updated it with this Filet Mignon Stroganoff. Gone is the heavy sour cream sauce, and added is mushrooms and pearl onions. Even without the heavy sauce, this still had a richness to it. The large egg noodles were cooked well, the filet was very tender, and there was a good dose of mushrooms and pearl onions spread throughout this plate. I love when chefs use pearl onions, but Katie thought they overpowered a little.

I was really in a quandary when it came to my entree. I had a choice of either fried chicken or the Cider Braised Salmon Creek Pork. My German background won out on this occasion. This pork dish definitely had a Bavarian feel to it. It came with apples, bacon and cabbage heaped on top of it. The pork was a little spotty on this night. A little dry, but the sauce helped. The sauce also helped with the pretty bland mashed potatoes. Should have gone with the fried chicken that I have heard good things about.

When I saw the dessert portion of the OCRW menu, I knew immediately what Katie would be having for dessert, the Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Drowning in Espresso. Katie is very fond of coffee, as her credit card statement could tell you from all of her Starbucks runs. This espresso was served cool, so the ice cream did not melt too quickly. She seemed pretty happy with this, and I was happy we did not have to make a stop at Starbucks on the way home.

I will preface the dessert portion of my review by telling you that I am not much into fruit desserts. Sure I do like some, but I am way more partial to chocolate than fruit. Unfortunately there was no chocolate to be had on the OCRW menu at JFAT. This Seasonal Fruit Crisp Ala Mode failed to impress. Not sure what fruit they used here, it could have been rhubarb, but it was way too tart. There was also not even close to enough ice cream on this. The fruit was served warm, so after the ice cream melted, this almost resembled a bowl of Grape Nuts with fruit. Definitely not one of my favorites.

I was not too excited by my selections at JFAT, but watching other tables food come out, I have definitely not given up on this restaurant. I look forward to coming back and trying either their burgers, or their prime rib, which sells out almost daily. Also worth mentioning are the desserts on their regular menu. They have a creation called the Bananageddon, and a Jimmy's Old School, that is a basically a hot fudge sundae with warm chocolate chip cookies, served for two. Yes please. Even though it was busy on this night, we experienced great service. Our waitress divided her time equally among her tables, and kept everything moving along at a good pace. Glad we made time to experience Orange County Restaurant Week at Jimmy's Famous American Tavern.

Out of five Megamouth sharks, (because in 1990, one of these rare species of shark was caught off of Dana Point), five being best to zero being worst, Jimmy's Famous American Tavern gets 3 Megamouth sharks.

For more information about Jimmy's Famous American Tavern, go to their website here:

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Toasting to a Great Meal at The Winery

The Winery Restaurant 
2647 Park Ave. 
Tustin, CA 92782

Oh OC Restaurant Week, you come and go so quick, we barely have enough time to enjoy you. When OC Restaurant Week rolls around the last week of February, it always seems like we always have stuff to do, so we never get to enjoy the reduced prices on three course meals. This year though, we made a point of clearing our schedule, and cross referencing our, "restaurant wish list" for places we wanted to go. OC Restaurant Week is a great time to experience a restaurant that might be a little out of your price range, or maybe is more of a special occasion restaurant. Not that The Winery is crazy expensive, but I would classify it as a special occasion place. It has been on our list for a long time, so we made our first of two OCRW dinners, at The Winery in Tustin.

The Winery has won some major awards since they opened up in 2007. They have been named Restaurant of the Year numerous times, their chef, Yvon Goetz has won a Golden Foodie Award as Chef of the Year, and even their Sommelier, William Lewis has been named Sommelier of the Year. Not only have the awards been plentiful, but they also get high praise from OC food writers and the general public. After over 400 reviews, they still have a four star rating on Yelp, and they have an 81 percent approval rating on Urbanspoon. Very good numbers, so I definitely had high hopes for a great dinner here.

We arrived at The Winery on a recent Wednesday night at 6 PM. I had made reservations, so we were sat right away, adjacent to the very busy bar area. This dark, loud restaurant was a little smaller than I had expected. What I had expected was the large number of wine bottles on display in the space. The Winery naturally has a huge wine list, with over 650 selections, which change weekly, so there is always something new here. Katie and I are not too into wine, but we were both hungry, so let's see if our high expectations will be met at The Winery.

I'm always kind of excited to see what kind of bread we are presented with at fancier restaurants. The bread basket at The Winery was pretty standard for an upscale restaurant. The sourdough like rolls were a little on the doughy side, but served warm. The winner of this basket for me was the Parmesan crisp. I could have eaten more of these crisps, but we had three courses headed our way.

Katie and I always like to get different things off of the OCRW menu, so this way we get to see more of the offerings, and we are both pretty good about letting each other try everything. She selected the Seared Rare Ahi Tuna to start with. This plate had a lot of things going on with it. Joining the tuna on the plate was a cucumber tower, avocado, mango, and a cilantro-orange vinaigrette. Katie praised this starter for the high quality of ingredients, the well executed tuna, and the very good citrus theme presented here. She likes avocado a lot, but kind of felt that the avocado, which was placed inside a lightly fried won ton wrapper, was a little misplaced here. I would never turn down an avocado, even on pancakes. Okay maybe then I would.

Since Katie went with the ahi, that left me with one of the other two choices. After reading the description of the Winery House Salad, it made my decision very easy. This is a salad that my mom would have loved, and I liked it as well. Organic baby greens, candied walnuts, crumbled Roquefort cheese, red grapes, apples, and tomatoes are all included here, with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. With so much going on with this salad, each bite had a different vibe going on with it. The light dressing really allowed the contents of the salad to steal the show, but I would have liked a little more Roquefort to counteract all the sweetness here. Still a good salad though.

Entree time, and Katie surprisingly veered away from the fish offering, and made a beeline for a restaurant week staple offering, the Zinfandel Braised Short Rib. It always seems like no matter where we eat during any sort of restaurant week, most restaurants always offer a short rib option. The short rib at The Winery was joined alongside a prosciutto wrapped asparagus, carrot infused pearl couscous, and a zinfandel reduction. Katie had nothing but praise for this dish. As it should be, this short rib was fork tender, with no need for the steak knife that came with this plate. All the items on the plate provided different layers of flavor, but the couscous stood out the most for Katie. This was not a heavy meal, but it really satisfied.

Please forgive the washed out pictures here. The restaurant was dark, and I was trying to snap pictures quickly, so as not to disturb the other diners. Even with the sub-par pictures, I look back fondly on this Brandt Cajun Flatiron Steak. This nice sized steak was served with a Bordelaise sauce and black truffle mashed potatoes. The steak was cooked to my desired medium rare specifications. I really liked the sauce, but had wished that there was more of it here. The Cajun feel of the meat came through, but did not overpower the natural flavor of the meat. A very difficult balance to achieve. The mashed potatoes were not overtaken by the presence of truffle, and were very smooth.  

Desserts were up next, and Katie had let me pick what I wanted first, so that left her with this Winery Cheesecake. Just like her entree, she was pretty pleased with this dessert. She liked that the cheesecake itself was not overly sweet, and the graham cracker crust provided a lot of the flavor here. The inclusion of the fresh berries were the cherry on top of this, so to speak.

You can never go wrong by ordering creme brulee, and the Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee proved this point as well. This was a pretty good sized portion, with a smooth custard inside that was not overly sweet, and the nice candied crust on top. It was then topped with a couple of fresh berries, and a chocolate fleur de sel cookie. I could have eaten tons of these chocolate cookies, they were so good.

The Winery Restaurant really lived up to the hype that we have heard about it, and is totally worthy of all the awards that they have received. We were happy that we got to experience this restaurant during OCRW, so it only cost us $40 a person for our three course dinners, a real bargain. We look forward to coming back again soon, to explore the rest of their menu. The restaurant kind of reminded us of Fleming's. but was a little more vibrant and lively. Our server, Melanie was on top of her game on this night. She was very personable, and made us feel very welcome. The food came out at a leisurely pace, but that's to be expected at nicer restaurants, as it's not really about getting the food out as quick as possible, but it's more about experiencing the food. There's a new location of The Winery opening up in Newport very soon, in the old Villa Nova spot. We are definitely looking forward to checking it out. Glad we did not let OC Restaurant Week pass by without coming to The Winery.

Out of five chess boards, (because the oldest winery in the world has been making wine for 6,000 years, and is located in Armenia, and that country's men's chess team is the current world champs), five being best to zero being worst, The Winery Restaurant gets 3.5 chess boards.

For more information about The Winery Restaurant, go to their website here:

The Winery on Urbanspoon