>Tommy Bahama Bar & Grill

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Awhile ago, I was invited to a preview of this restaurant to see first hand what the new Tommy Bahama Bar & Grill in Laguna Beach had to offer. The restaurant is attached to the Tommy Bahama store and encompasses a relaxed beach feel so perfectly suited to its surroundings. From some of the tables, diners can enjoy scenic views of the ocean while others can keep an eye on what’s going on through the glass of the “open” kitchen in the back.

lobster corn dogs

While we waited for others to arrive, we were treated to some hors d’oeuvres going around. There was a crostini topped with goat cheese, however, I especially liked the lobster corn dogs, little bite-sized corn dog shaped morsels with a surprisingly delicious crab interior. These were served with house-made ketchup and mustard, just like you would with a regular corn dog, but there was nothing regular about these very adult appetizers.

Guests were offered the opportunity to create their own cocktails and I made myself a mojito with extra lime and mint. I should have held back if I’d known that every course to come would have a wine or beer pairing of some sort….. ay carumba!

shrimp Avalon

After we all sat down, we were presented a tasting selected by Chef Donley to showcase his menu. Shrimp Avalon was a refreshing cold starter comprising chilled tiger shrimps, dungeness crab, spicy vegetables, lime and served with fresh made corn chips. Succulent shrimps with the sweetest of crabmeat kicked this, otherwise pretty standard, shrimp cocktail up several notches. Beautifully presented and it tasted just as wonderful as it looked.

Ahi tuna tacos are served in a wonton shell with Asian slaw and drizzled with wasabi lime infused avocado sauce. The sashimi grade ahi had a wonderful freshness to it and the crunchy wonton shell makes for a textural contrast which combines together for a tasty finish. I’m not sure I would personally order this dish but I did enjoy eating it.

ahi tuna tacos

Just when I thought the first two items were pretty good, here comes the shrimp BLT! The saltiness of the smoky Nueske’s applewood bacon plus the jumbo shrimp are sandwiched between thick slices of toasted sourdough bread with romaine lettuce, avocado and a lemon basil aioli. I must confess, our tasting portion was hardly enough for me so when everyone completed their photo-taking with the full-sized portion, I unabashedly asked the server to cut that one into smaller portions so we could partake in more “piggetry” (I think I just made up a word here!)

Arctic char

When it came time for the Arctic Char, I was still relishing in the deliciousness that was the shrimp BLT and really wasn’t focusing on the piece of fish placed before me. However, when Mr Rob Goldberg, VP of restaurants for Tommy Bahama, seated next to me, exclaimed that this was one of his favorite dishes on the menu, I wasn’t going to be rude and so took a bite. Actually, it was good, perfectly seared on the outside, moist on the inside, sitting atop a sweet pea risotto with very good consistency. The apple fennel slaw lends a refreshing component to the dish with the fennel very mild and not overpowering the delicate taste of the fish. But I think the BLT really did a number on me so although I liked the Artic char, I was still feeling pretty heady about the sandwich.

banana cream pie

And as if we didn’t get enough to eat, here comes a trio of desserts. Triple chocolate cake was so decadent I really can comprehend how anyone can possible polish it off on their own without help, but I was told someone at the table had indeed done so. My hat off to you! That’s a lot of chocolate love there! The cake part was very rich on its own, add to that the sinfully gooey chocolate ganache and it was enough to put me into a diabetic coma. I highly recommend this even though I think it would take four people to capably finish it after eating a meal — I don’t know, it would just seem like the sensible thing to do.

Those wanting to reminesce about their childhood should definitely try the Root Beer Float. It arrives in what would look like a gargantuan mug to a kid, but no matter how old you are, you will feel like a kid again after a few sips! Abita root beer is used and unlike regular root beer which has high fructose corn syrup, this one uses Louisiana sugar cane as its sweetner. I wish they would offer this in a smaller version.

triple chocolate cake

Finally, banana cream pie arrives and I’m about to explode. I was only able to eat a few bites and albeit a tad too sweet for me, I loved the thickness of the filling and how nice and texturally pleasing the crust was.

After an almost 3-hour long meal mainly stuffing my gluttonous self, I had to reschedule my dinner plans for 2 hours later just so I could make room for yet another meal in my life. I’ve been trying to find a day to return to Tommy Bahama Bar & Grill and my hectic schedule hasn’t allowed for this yet, but I can hear that Shrimp BLT calling my name louder as the days go by!

Tommy Bahama Bar & Grill, 400 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. Tel: 949-376-6886
Tommy Bahama Bar & Grill

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>Buick’s Discovery Tour featuring Chef Michael Psilakis

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my weekend ride

Last weekend, Buick stopped at Dana Point’s St Regis Monarch Resort for its Discovery Tour as one of its 10 city-wide tour to promote the new 2011 Regal. Buick was so generous to drop off the brand new car at my doorstep Friday morning so I could enjoy it for the entire weekend and drive my friends and I to the event featuring mixologist Michael Green and the star of the evening, 1-star Michelin Chef Michael Psilakis.

Chef Psilakis in action

I had been excited all week long anticipating this event and when the day came, my food blogger friends Holly (Savored), Melissa (Alosha’s Kitchen) and photography enthusiast Mahesh packed into the Buick Regal and made our way to Dana Point. The resort is simply stunning and the views breathtaking. You feel like royalty when you’re here. We were personally escorted from the hotel’s lobby to the event’s registration area by one of the resort’s staff.

Our three hour event started with a test drive of the new car, which, I chose to sit in the back for seeing I’d already been driving it for a day and had the entire weekend to enjoy. Holly took the wheel and blasted the incredible sound system, even playing around with the equalizer so much we were late to the 2nd part of this event.

Greek style meatballs

It felt like this moment would never come, but when it finally came time for the cooking demo, we literally ran down the stairs into the grand ballroom and situated ourselves in the front row and listened intently to how Chef Psilakis’ passion for cooking came about and at some point, we were all teary-eyed with his incredible heart, wisdom and love for this craft. We were given the opportunity to sample his Greek-style meatballs and watched him go through how it is prepared with the help of a lucky member of the audience.

my friends and I with Chef Psilakis

Before this module was over, I was on my feet and as soon as Chef Psilakis jumped off the stage I was there asking for a photo op. My friends and I jumped in with Chef for this once in a lifetime experience to meet a celebrity chef who is down to earth and not at all arrogant and standoffish. It was the highlight of our evening.

Monday rolled around and the Buick was picked up, and I must say, I was a little sad to give it up. It handled superbly on turns and had a kick-ass sound system. It was a fun thing to drive around, even only for just a few days!

*** Photography By Mahesh ***

>DG Burger — it’s really DAMN GOOD

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DG Burger

I was one of the first to try out the “damn good” burger at Charlie Palmer’s DG Burger opening yesterday. I even had the honor of meeting Chef Palmer himself who briefly filled us in on the story behind the “damn good” burger.

The menu here is very simple: the DG Burger ($7.95), Citrus Glazed Skewers ($7.95), Sausage Sandwich ($6.95), fries ($5) and two types of salads ($5).

DG Burger is a Black Angus beef burger comprising of a blend of ground chuck, short rib and hangar steak and grilled on an open non-charcoal grill to sear in the juices. It is then finished on low heat to maintain the juiciness of the burger. The meat is served at a perfectly pink medium rare on a bun made with unbleached wheat flour and potato flour, buttered and toasted for a crisp finish. The bun was slightly “toothy” for me, sticking to my teeth as I chomped down into it. The burger itself was very tasty indeed.

sausage sandwich

Sausage sandwich is a delicious grilled garlic sausage topped with roasted peppers and onions and pillowed between a semolina hoagie. I loved the texture of the bread — wonderfully chewy without being doughy. The toasted exterior gave it a delightful crunch with every single bite! Wonder if I can get my burger on the hoagie instead?

French fries here are medium cut and remained crispy even after 30 minutes. There are four dipping sauces to choose from and every order is accompanied by one of your choosing. There is a 75 cent charge on additional sauces.
Out of the four: curry ketchup, roasted garlic sour cream, bacon mayo, chipotle aioli, my favorites were the first two.

Curry ketchup reminded me so much of the stuff my best friend uses on his fries — he’s from the Netherlands and they sell that stuff in a bottle. I am not a fan of regular ketchup on my fries so normally I would use mayo instead, but this curried stuff is absolutely mouthwatering.

French fries

Everything here is house-made of course and absolutely addictive. Roasted garlic sour cream is so divine I want to slather it onto sandwiches or even use it as a dipping sauce for the chicken katsu I make at home. It is THAT good! Maybe they can consider selling it?

If you like milkshakes, by all means get one. The $5 price tag may sound expensive but once you take a sip you will understand why. The malted chocolate was to-die-for with the richest chocolatey taste you will ever encounter in liquid form. The strawberry was filled with the aromas of a strawberry field ripe for the pickings. The best part about having a DG Burger is that you can enjoy it with a tall milkshake, a glass of wine, or a bottle of beer!

malted chocolate shake

DG Burger is open from 11.30am to 4pm and depending on whether there is a function held in the private room (where DG Burger is) at Charlie Palmer, you might even be lucky enough to enjoy one of these damn good burgers for dinner!

DG Burger at Charlie Palmer, South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, CA. Tel: 714-361-4264

***Photography by Mahesh***

DG Burger

>Jack’s Bakery — much more than just baked goods

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kufte

**An abridged version of this article can also be found on OC Register’s Food Frenzy**

I’ve been a huge fan of middle eastern pizzas ever since I found out about them after moving to southern California 4 years ago. Ever since then I’ve been trying them out at various places specializing in them. Therefore, I guess it is not surprising that other cultures eat pizzas other than Italians and Americans. In the middle east, pizzas are quite the rage and eating them for breakfast is quite common, and although each region offers a slightly different variation, they all ultimately taste reasonably similar.

loaded manaish

Owner Jack is Armenian, but has lived in Lebanon and speaks a host of the languages including Turkish and English, as he proudly proclaims. But an Armenian bakery/restaurant in the middle of Little Saigon? There is my favorite com tam place across the street and my favorite pho ga place right around the corner. And then, there’s Jack’s in the middle of the strip mall where a Vietnamese catering business and a barber shop shares the same lot.

I found out about Jack’s Bakery a few years ago from my friend Holly (Savored) and since then I’ve been going on and off whenever I felt like something middle eastern and didn’t want to travel too far. Ironically, I’ve never been to Jack’s with Holly, until now.

Lahmajun

Last week, Holly and I were meeting for lunch and she suggests we go to Jack’s Bakery. I am excited because it’s been a while since my last visit and I was actually craving some of the delicious fare from this place. The minute we enter, Jack and his wife warmly welcome Holly like a long lost daughter and spent a good portion of time chatting to her.

I took the opportunity to peruse the menu on the wall and mentally make a note of everything I want to try. They’ve renovated the interior since my last visit and there are new photos up on the wall.

Naturally, we order too much seeing Holly wants specific items while I have my favorites I don’t want to miss. We decide to get everything our hearts desire and sat down to wait for Jack and his wife to cook it for us. Everything is cook-to-order so do not expect this to be fast food.

onion salad with sumac

The restaurant is very small, seating at most, 15 people. There are a few chairs and tables outside as well as inside, but generally, people order and take out. Jack has a lucrative catering business as well so during the holidays he is busy preparing turkeys and whole roasted lambs for his customers.

Our food arrives and we start our mouthwatering feast with kuftes ($1.50) also known as kibbeh. These look like miniature footballs with a ground beef or lamb with pine nuts filling. The exterior is traditionally bulgar and these little delightful pockets are fried to crispy perfection. The menu shows a kufte platter, but if you are on your own, Jack will let you order a couple, even one if that’s what you want. The kuftes here are some of the best and not greasy like other places.

hummus

One of my favorites is the Armenian pizza, thin and topped with a minimal mixture, I can eat 2 or 3 of these in one sitting if I don’t eat anything else. Lahmajun are really tasty with tomato and ground meat and quite common in various middle eastern cuisines. Each region makes them a little differently and these taste similar to the ones I’ve had at a Lebanese bakery, perhaps an influence from Jack’s time in Lebanon.

Boyreg ($3.50-$7) are another delicious alternative to the pizza. They look like little pockets filled with anything from spicy cheese to sujuk (dry spicy sausage) or basturma (air-dried cured meat) and can also be topped with an egg. I highly recommend getting the egg because it adds a different texture and flavor to the usual boyreg.

Loaded manaish ($3) is similar to the pizza but topped with tomatoes, onions, olives, mint and some herbs and spices. It is rolled up, eaten like a wrap and wonderfully refreshing, a good selection for vegetarians or those staying away from meat.

Armenian bagel

Adana Kebab ($12) is what I come here for. Ground beef and lamb are combined with a blend of herbs and spices, grilled, and served with rice pilaf, hummus and an onion salad sprinkled with sumac. The seasonings on the meat is unbelievable and the meat is cooked to perfection so when you cut into it, the juices run out and when you take a bite, it is so juicy and moist on the inside you have to be careful not to burn your mouth.

If Jack has these “Armenian bagels” available, I urge you to try some. They are coated with sesame seeds and have a slightly sweet taste to them. They are excellent with coffee or tea and I love the fragrance of sesame seeds with my pastries.

Jack is extremely personable and if you’re unfamiliar with this sort of food, don’t be afraid to go in. He is happy to help you out and explain his wares to you. Just remember, the next time someone tells you they are craving pizza, bring them here! You won’t regret it.

Jack’s Bakery, 10515 McFadden Ave, Ste 107,Garden Grove, CA 92843. Tel: 714-775-6773 (corner of McFadden and Ward)
Jack's Bakery

>Splashes at Surf and Sand Resort Laguna Beach

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view from our table

I love lunching with my girlfriends, especially on a lazy weekend enjoying brunch sipping on mimosas or bloody Marys and chilling with the sounds of the ocean as a backdrop.

Splashes is the restaurant located at the Surf and Sand Resort and it has the most glorious view from almost every table both inside and out. When I had to organize a brunch for a mini high school reunion, this place immediately came to mind.

I’ve been here before and absolutely fell in love with how beautiful and relaxing it is to look at the waves break against the shore and seeing blue for miles and miles. The beautiful scenery makes it almost impossible to focus on the menu and our server was returning to our table over and over again with the four of us still unable to make up our minds.

beet salad

Finally, with the help of tables around us with wonderful smelling food, we decide to share everything and started with the marinated beet salad ($13) with ricotta salata, candied walnuts, tangerines and a few greens thrown in. Refreshing and earthy, this salad is a must for beet lovers!

Smoked duck salad ($15) was one of the items all four of us agreed upon. Thinly slices of duck, beautifully smoked and tender sits atop a pear and dried fruit chutney amidst frisee lettuce and some slices of toasted baguettes.The saltiness of the duck was perfect with the tartness of the chutney which was infused with ginger.

smoked duck salad

Dungeness crab and apple salad ($16) consists of crabmeat and apples in a curry mayo dressing. The plate has strips of celeriac (celery root) to add a crunchy component to the softness of the crab. I liked the freshness of the seafood but this salad itself was a little on the bland side.

Seared scallops ($22) are absolutely divine here. Perfect sear marks and tender on the inside, these are what makes the tummy happy. Farro risotto, cucumber, ginger and tangerines complete the dish. I love farro and the one here has wonderful texture. I find the overusage of tangerines in the dishes at Splashes slightly irritating. I understand the need to make a plate look pretty by adding colors, but tangerines are not needed here taste-wise.

dungeness crab salad

Grilled hangar steak ($24) is perfect medium rare and the sweet caramelized onions atop the meat are rich in flavor and color. I like the accompanying horseradish sauce and wish they had put more on the plate. Acoutrements included sauteed spinach and roasted potato. Meat lovers will definitely enjoy this tender and very flavorful entree.

Service is attentive even though the restaurant is packed with diners, although if you need more bread and the complimentary sundried tomato spread you will definitely need to speak up. Otherwise, nobody will rush you through your meal, and you are certainly welcome to enjoy your leisurely Sunday brunch at peace and at your own pace. For the four of us who haven’t seen one another in decades, it was very important to have the time and space to do so, and Splashes allowed us to have a wonderful 3 hours reminiscing about the old days while enjoying good food and good views.

Splashes at Surf and Sand Resort, 1555 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. Tel: 888-869-7569
Splashes at the Surf & Sand Hotel

>Ludobites 6.0

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Yes I admit it, I’ve never been to a Ludobites before this time. Never ever! It was always tough to get up to LA on a weeknight for a 6pm reservation, but before that can even happen, there is that thing we have to do — make a reservation!

I’ve had so many friends tell me that it is close to impossible to get a reservation, Mere mortals have sat in front of their computers and frantically clicking as soon as OpenTable lists the next Ludobites about to happen. I was lucky that my dear friend Holly (Savored) asked if I wanted to come with and I did everything I could to schedule, reschedule so I could make it. Even so, it took Mahesh and I two and a half hours battling rush hour traffic to get to Sherman Oaks and when we finally sat down, all I wanted was a glass of wine.

It was just as well that Holly had already ordered some Riesling and there was part of an appetizer still on a plate, so I immediately dug into it.

We had to get two orders of warm baguette with baratte smoked butter and sardine-Laughing Cow cheese ($5) because I couldn’t get enough of the sardine cheese and used the crusty baguette to literally wipe out the ramekin it came in. Of course I was starving and drinking on an empty stomach, but the second time around was just as good as the first.

marinated mackerel

It was just as well that Holly instructed the server we were ready for the rest of the menu brought out, and when she said that, she meant, the ENTIRE menu. I knew it had been done with two people at a previous Ludobites so the four of us should have absolutely NO problem whatsoever eating the whole menu — or so I thought!

Hamachi, Vietnamese style ($15) — a salad with slices of raw halibut, matchsticks of predominantly green papaya and a bunch of refreshing fresh herbs created a complete taste bud explosion! The crunchiness of the papaya together with the herbs tossed in a fish sauce-based dressing was exactly the thing to start with. The tantalizing and uplifting flavors livened up my palate for what will be a night of feasting.

salmon somen

Barely cooked squid noodles with pad Thai, prawn and black radish ($16) was another nice starter, but the hamachi had a far stronger taste — and a more memorable one at that — so if I had a choice between the two, I would definitely pick the hamachi over the squid noodles, hands down. Both had a slightly tart dressing, one Vietnamese inspired, the other, Thai, so essentially, the flavors were somewhat similar.

Marinated mackerel with leche del tigre, baby leeks and Verdolagas leaves ($15) was pure perfection. The skin of the mackerel was crispy while the flesh was nice and moist. Verdolagas, a creeping weed, is also an herb and resembles watercress. I actually thought it was watercress when I first put it into my mouth but then checked the menu and saw “verdolagas”. Grilled whole green onions added a slight bite to the other components when eaten together with the fish and weed. The textural composition in this dish is what sets Chef Ludo apart from the others.

scallop with celery root remoulade

Salmon a l’huile somen noodles, carrots, red wine vinaigrette and grilled salmon roe is a very light and subtle dish. The carrots are so thinly sliced that they are translucent ribbons and the torched salmon roe adds a nice smokey salty dimension. I really enjoyed it as a shared dish, but if I had to eat it on my own, I think I would’ve been a little bored.

Scallop with celery remoulade, red port, walnuts and dried fruit ($24) — what an innovative and interesting plate. When I saw the walnuts and dried fruits on the menu, I immediately grimaced at the thought of them together, but it was so minimal and the crunchiness of the walnuts and the tarty sweetness of the fruit created a whole eating experience which the scallops on their own could never achieve. The scallops were absolutely perfect in execution, so tender on the inside with that brown seared crispness on the outside. I wanted more of these but we still had many more dishes to come.

Oriental mussels veloute

Black sausage “paramentier”, apples, mustard ($18) was not something I thought I’d enjoy considering I’ve had black sausage/boudin before and never enjoyed the grainy, dry, livery texture. The black sausage here was a surprising hit with all of us. This creamy concoction was the richest and most heavenly mouthful you will ever experience. The reaction at the table ranged from “wow, this is amazing” to “Chef Ludo is a genious”. We couldn’t stop eating it. The apples and mustard added a sweet finish while the vinegary mustard helped cut down the richness of the black sausage. Absolute poetry!

Oriental mussels veloute, heirloom tomato, small fries ($18), was a bit confusing to me. First of all, the mussels veloute didn’t have the umami flavor I was expecting when I spooned it into my gullet. I was also a little confused about the tart heirloom tomato in the veloute which didn’t add anything for me. The small fries were absolutely delicious though! They were as thin as fried onions and so good that we all fought over it.

chicken sous vide

Poached roasted pickled foie gras, acacia honey, autumn fruits, rose flowers ($34) was the absolute favorite. If you’re a fan of foie gras, there is no real need to describe the sensation one gets from eating this little piece of luxury. The melt-in-your-mouth orgasmic appeal speaks for itself. It even got Holly jumping up and down in her seat like a little girl!

While I loved everything on the menu which came before, what arrived after did not wow me as much as I hoped. John Dory, potato, herbs, brocollini flowers, green jalapenos nage ($26) while cooked perfectly was underseasoned and seemed really bland to me. The green jalapenos nage was lovely on its own, but when eaten with the fish seemed to lose its subtle personality.

John Dory

Half chicken, poached egg, chanterelles, chorizo ($24) sounded divine because I love poached eggs, however, the chicken, cooked sous vide, though tender and moist was again, underseasoned. Even the chorizo couldn’t help bring out the blandness of the chicken. I took a couple of tastes and continued onto the next and final entree.

Marinated Korean steak, crispy kimchi, bone marrow, shiso ($29) was probably my least favorite of the lot. Perhaps it was the marinade used on the Korean steak, perhaps it was the severe chewiness of the steak. Whatever the reason, after feeling like a cow chewing on grass for longer than I would’ve liked, I spat out the meat and wasn’t about to eat more. The kimchi, bone marrow and shiso were excellent accompaniments, but the Korean marinade was rather overpowering and not the usual Korean seasonings I’m accustomed to. This is something I would not order again.

Korean steak

Needless to say we were pretty full by now, but there were still two desserts to plough through.Warm carrot cake, coconut, Thai curry, mango sorbet, kaffir lime oil ($10) was strangely unappealing to the eyes but I loved the moist and soft warm carrot cake. The side accoutrements of Thai curry cream and kaffir lime oil were terribly unpleasant on my tastebuds. The oil reminded me of Asian medicinal rubbing oil and although it had the wonderous aromas of the kaffir lime, its taste was just the opposite.

caviar panna cotta

Creme fraiche panna cotta, caramel, caviar ($15) is one of the most innovative desserts I’ve had in a while. I’m not a fan of caramel so I didn’t feel it added anything to the panna cotta, but I would’ve been happy with just the panna cotta and caviar on their own. The light panna cotta was quite exquisite when eaten with the salty caviar. I love sweet and salty desserts!

Thus our meal came to an end and even with a few misses, I am impressed with the creativity of Chef Ludo’s dishes and how he is not afraid to combine exotic flavors onto one plate. I guess there is a reason why Ludobites reservations are so hard to come by because everyone wants a chance to taste what this master has to showcase time and time again.

I’m hoping the next Ludobites will not be so far away that I’ll have to travel yet another two and half hours to get to. But even so, I think I would suck it up just to catch a taste of what’s on offer next.

Click for more information on Ludobites or Chef Ludovic Lefebvre

***Photography by Mahesh***

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