Rustica at Fashion Island

I am always honored when invited to take part in previewing a restaurant’s menu, and on this occasion, shared a meal at Rustica with fellow bloggers at a tasting showcasing Chef Renieri Caceres’ menu selections.

Chef Ren, as he is fondly referred to, comes to Rustica with an impressive resume having worked alongside culinary stars such as George Blanc, Martin Berasategiu, Gordon Ramsey and San Francisco’s own Michael Mina.

Rustica is located at Fashion Island which isn’t known for its mind-blowing culinary offerings, and situated right next to Nordstrom’s at that! As always, whenever visiting a new restaurant, I try not to arrive with too many expectations and remind myself to keep an open mind throughout.

The restaurant has a trattoria feel about it, chic and trendy, but I think everyone was most impressed by the red Murano chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The bold color stands out in a sea of muted colors and you can’t help but be drawn towards them.

I think I was pretty much sold the minute the bread basket arrived. I don’t have to remind you that one of my biggest pet peeves is a lazy bread basket, lazy because no one put any thought into it, This is a restaurant’s introduction to its customers. It says “hello, this is what we have in store for you, this is a testament of things to come”. The bread basket is the “first date” if you will. It HAS to impress or at least, be interesting enough for me to want more.

As owner Mark David — who later joined us — tells it, they taste-tested a myriad of breads before deciding on these ones and I’m glad they did. The pretzel bread was truly addictive. With a smear of soft butter, it was simply divine. Something SO simple but so delicious, I was afraid I might fill up before our first dish hit the table but let me repeat once again that it took a lot of willpower for me to resist.

Our tasting menu begins with Dungeness Crab Salad, a playful arrangement of crab meat topped with crostini and frisee lettuce.

The plate shares its space with apple, cucumber, citrus and mint, juxtaposing a bounty of refreshing components coming together to make way for the star — the crab — which, needed just a touch more salt.

Our second dish of Char-grilled Baby Octopus ($12) was decoratively plated in a ‘deviled-egg’ tray allowing each octopus to be displayed in its own little dish.

I loved how tender and how perfectly charred the octopus was. This isn’t  a fussy dish, in fact, I was impressed by how the emphasis was on the cephalopod’s natural flavors and its flavors unmasked by unnecessary elements.

My heart beats as I highly anticipate our next tasting. I love foie gras like any other foodie and Pan Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($18) absolutely did me in.

I can safely say we were all blown away by how perfect the seared foie gras was, the exterior nicely crusted while the inside, soft and creamy. The slightly sweet, but tart, huckleberry compote, a bold and unique accompaniment, reflect Chef Ren’s ability to utilize ingredients outside of the ordinary. I was sad when I put the last piece in my mouth, pushed my plate back and let out a satisfying sigh.

Homemade Butternut Squash Ravioli ($16) was my least favorite dish of the evening but I think it is a solid vegetarian selection.

I’m not fond of sweet on savory (savory on sweet I love!) so the sweetness of the butternut squash, as well as the Amaretto cookie crumb sprinkled on top, didn’t appeal to me.

I think if I’d only eaten the Crispy Skin branzino ($29) that evening, I would’ve left happy and satisfied. I mentioned to the others how Holly, Mahesh and I had experienced a branzino disaster at the now defunct 1-star Michelin restaurant, Ortolan, where the branzino arrived not only resembling like jerky, but the fish was overcooked to a crisp.

In fact, I was a little fearful at first but as soon as I cut into my succulent piece of Mediterranean seabass, my doubts vanished and I marveled at how well seasoned and beautifully prepared it was. The crispy skin added a delightful contrast to the delicate, flaky fish. Bravo!

I wasn’t sure I had enough room after the branzino to fit in any of the “21” Spice Bone-In Rib Eye ($38), but chef was mindful enough to served this dish family style, along with a few side. The steak was a perfect medium rare and the special rub coating the outside gave it a nicely seasoned crust, but never compromising the flavor of the meat.

Our side dishes of Brussel sprouts, smashed potatoes and sauteed mushrooms were all lovely, but I was definitely drawn to the smashed potatoes more (yes, the “not a fan of potato” me) than the others.

Pine Nut Coffee Cake was certainly a lovely finish, it was moist and flavorful and would’ve been sufficient to end the meal ……

…… had Mark David not insisted we try the Baked Rustica. When it arrived I was instantly transported back to my childhood where Bombe Alaska was frequently the dessert served after a fancy meal. I remember the waiters in tuxedos splashing rum over the baked Alaska and lighting it on fire. It made quite an impression on my tween self.

The Baked Rustica is a version of Baked Alaska with hazelnut, pistachio and vanilla ice cream as its center and covered with torched meringue on the outside. It is shaped like a pine cone, similar to the one atop the fountain right outside the restaurant, as Mark David pointed out! Very nifty! Very tasty! This absolutely won over the coffee cake — sorry.

As we took our last bite of this delicious dessert, I looked around the table and realize how lucky I am to be enjoying a meal with people who were brought into my life through a common love — good food! Holly, Marian, Mahesh, Mona, Paul and Mark David, each and everyone of us with stories of the good eats we’ve experienced. This is what I live for…. good food, good friends …. this is what I love!

1133 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 949-706-8282

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Ramen Yamadaya — hearty bowl of goodness

Why is it so hard to find a decent bowl of ramen in Orange County? It’s very frustrating, but my schedule doesn’t allow for a drive to the Torrance/Gardena area whenever I’m hankering for a bowl of ramen.

When my friend Cynthia flew in from Toronto — Canada that is — I took this as an opportunity to detour from LAX to home for a bowl of piping hot ramen.

Two other friends arranged to meet us at Yamadaya, a very small, cramped ramen joint with only a few tables. Parking sucked and I finally had to park across the street at the McDonald’s parking lot and dashed across the street before all the tables were taken up.

It didn’t take long after ordering before the food arrived. We started off with gyoza ($3.80), pork and vegetable potstickers. The filling was moist and flavorful and although it was predominantly pork,  it was dotted with a few vegetables here and there. They were a little greasy but the dipping sauce was slightly acidic, helping to cut the oily taste.

Chicken kaarage ($5), or Japanese fried chicken, is perfectly golden brown, and surprisingly, very moist and tender. Traditionally, mayo is used as a dipping accompaniment and that is what you get here. The coleslaw is nice and refreshing and gives a nice crunchy and palate-cleansing contrast to the chicken.

Our ramen arrived piping hot. I had ordered my Spicy Ramen ($7.95) at a #2 spice level because the server told me #3 would be too much. I wasn’t able to detect any spiciness so asked for more chili paste. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t spicy enough for me, however, the broth was hearty and I could taste the richness from the hours of simmering. I ordered mine with an additional seasoned egg ($1) and chashu ($2).

Yamadaya ($9.95) is the house specialty, using the same soup base as the Spicy Ramen, just without the chili paste.You pretty much get the same toppings: half an egg, chashu, scallions, but the Yamadaya also comes with a big piece of nori (toasted seaweed, some kelp and a small piece of fatty pork.

Cynthia and Tim ordered the Kakuni Ramen ($10.95) and this bowl frightened me with its huge chunks of fatty pork belly. I’m not a fan of fatty meat but those who love it relish it with vigor. I watched as Tim savored his piece of kakuni, sending shivers down my spine, and as I make a face at him, he smiles and takes his time taking one bite after another in pure enjoyment.

I hope it doesn’t take Cynthia’s next trip for me to visit Yamadaya again, but it is unfortunate that I’m not close enough to make it a more frequent lunching spot. At least I know that when I’m in the area, I can make it my once in a while special ramen treat.

Ramen Yamadaya
3118 W 182nd Street
Torrance, CA 90504
Tel: 310-380-5555

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Roosters Fun Bar — a slice of Americana

Would you believe it if I told you a new restaurant has opened inside Traveland USA, the RV sales lot in Irvine? I’d heard from several people about how good the food is but I wasn’t in a rush to check it out. Then, a few more people mentioned it and it was time to go see for myself.

There is only one way into the lot so maneuvering through all the parked colossal vehicles is inescapable. But once inside, Roosters Fun Bar is like any other sports bar you’ll find serving up simple but hearty all-American fare. I’ve been several times now and I’ve become rather enamored with the place.

We usually have Sherene serving us. She’s very bubbly and sweet and makes the experience so pleasant. After just one visit, she remembered us on subsequent visits. This is the kind of service I like!

The food is Americana. A bowl of tortilla soup will set you back $5 and was soup of the day on one visit. It arrived with colorful strips of tortilla on top.

The soup is thick and filled with black beans, corn and kidney beans. We enjoyed its southwestern flavors but I’m just smiling because it was served piping hot. Nothing worse than lukewarm soup.

They tell me that the pizza dough is home made which to me meant the pizza was made in-house. The kid was all over that! All pizzas are $12 and there are a few choices. The New York includes sausage, pepperoni, onions and garlic and we requested it to be on thin crust. I thought the middle of the pizza was a bit soggy, but other than that, it tasted good. The kid was quiet throughout so I know he liked it.

On another visit we had the BBQ chicken pizza and forgot to request thin crust. I actually liked it much better. The regular crust is not thick at all and held the ingredients and sauce so much better. It wasn’t soggy! The barbecue sauce wasn’t overly sweet either which was great.

Old-fashioned burger ($5.50) was a really good sized burger on a toasted roll.

The patty is grilled on an open fire and you can really taste the smokiness. The burger comes with lettuce, tomato, red onions and pickles. It was a really stellar burger especially for the price.

Burgers and sandwiches all come with a side of fries, potato salad, or coleslaw. Everything is good. Fries are perfectly fried, crispy and not limp — a bit TOO much salt though. Potato salad is awesome and this is coming from someone who doesn’t like regular potato salad. The one here has bacon and corn in it. If you want an extra side, it is only $1.50 more!

I am always on the lookout for a good club sandwich ($8) and the one here is outstanding.  Turkey, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato is stuffed in between perfectly toasted sourdough and takes a bit of work to get my mouth over.

It was piled so high I couldn’t even bite into it whole. This is the biggest club sandwich ever! I made the mistake of ordering it on my own the first time and decided to share it on another visit which, turned out to be the best decision ever!

Breakfast is served on the weekends until noon and an array of bar foods like buffalo wings, nachos, sliders are available throughout the day. In the evenings, the atmosphere is chill and sometimes, there is even live music.

This is fast becoming a to-go-to place for sandwiches and burgers for us, especially since it’s just down the road and I’m not terribly fond of Knowlwood, which is across the street. Definitely a great hidden surprise for an affordable, yet tasty meal.

Roosters Fun Bar
6441 Burt Road, Ste #55
Irvine, CA 92618
Tel: 949-559-9026

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Haven Gastropub & Proof Bar — Mon 28th fundraising events

I’ve sat here and watched CNN for weeks now wondering what I can do to help the situation in Japan. With all the things going on in Orange County: people organizing bake sales, businesses doing their bit, I am glad I can do something in a small way, and that is to help promote these two upcoming fund-raising events.

HAVEN GASTROPUB: Monday, March 28th, 2011 — dine here any time of the day and Haven Gastropub will donate 100% of their profits during normal business hours (11am–2am) to a Japan Relief Fund through Mercy Corps. This will help families in Japan affected by the disaster.

The staff are also volunteering by donating any gratuities earned that night. With Haven Gastropub doing SO MUCH to help this effort, the least you can do is stop by, even if it’s only for a beer! And don’t say you didn’t have the time they are open 15 hours — you can find 30 mins to drop by and do your bit!

PROOF BAR: Monday, March 28, 2011 — (9pm-11pm) — Proof Bar is re-launching its Monday night karaoke and we’ve made it even better. Fellow blogger Marian The Foodie has organized a Japan Relief Fund event featuring tasty fare from Piaggio On Wheels, Tapa Boy LA, Chomp Chomp Nation and Rolling Sushi Van, as well as Wicked Wiches. Please see the below flyer for more information.

NO EXCUSES!! Come out and support these two events and help raise some funds for those who have been so tragically devastated by the disaster. I will be there, along with fellow bloggers and Yelpers at both locations! Come by and say hi!

Haven Gastropub
190 S Glassell Street
Orange, CA 92866
Tel: 714-221-0680

Proof Bar
215 N Broadway
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: 714-953-2660

Anepalco’s Cafe — a step above the rest

Several years ago I saw the buzz about this place on Yelp and wanted to visit. However, I wait (like I usually do) until I was sure it was truly deserving of the accolades, before making my way there.

I’m a huge supporter of small hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop establishments and Anepalco’s epitomizes this. Hidden in a small nondescript strip mall, it is easily missed if you aren’t looking for it. Once you enter though, the hustle and bustle of people inside, combined with the friendly staff makes you feel so very welcomed.

Anepalco’s is a family favorite now. My son always orders the Border quesadilla, every single time.

A large quesadilla is filled with tender braised pulled pork and black beans served with rice, pickled onions, and this wonderfully tasty green sauce. It is absolutely delicious!

I’ve had the Cuban sandwich here but it is not the traditional kind I am used to. Here, a large piece of chicken breast, some ham and pork is sandwiched between a ciabatta bun with a chipotle aioli drizzled over. It was a good rendition, but I like the old school Cubano better.

Their other specialty are the crepes, and as much as I’m not a fan of crepes, I thought the ones here were good.

The thickness of the crepe worked for me but I didn’t like the shredded beef filling with the chimichurri sauce. I think a Mexican style crepe would’ve been much better.

The truth is, there are a lot of items on the menu which are really great, however, the star here is the chilaquiles! I’ve had a lot of chilaquiles in my time both homemade and in various restaurants, but hands down this is THE BEST chilaquiles I’ve ever had! I mean WOW! The presentation is very nice, but it is the combined flavors of everything on the plate which makes it out of this world.

Unlike other chilaquiles I’ve had, the one here is served with smashed tortillas and presented in the shape of a rice cake topped with egg, sour cream, pico de gallo, avocado and an out of this world chile sauce around the plate. This is chilaquiles extraordinaire. Not only is it a work of art, but a mouthwatering experience!

Recently, I was introduced to huevos divorciados ($8.49), two eggs on top of tortillas, ham, bacon, avocado and red onion.

It has a yin yang feel about it, one topped with red sauce and one with green. It is almost like eating the chilaquiles (the same red sauce is used) but you get a green tomatillo sauce as well! The dish is not only beautifully presented but absolutely divine.

Prices are so reasonable and the food is absolutely outstanding! I love it when I am skeptical about a place and then I am utterly blown away by it! Anepalco’s is one of those places which always hits the spot whenever you’re wanting that special something something.

Anepalco’s Cafe
415 S Main St
Orange, CA 92868
(714) 771-2333

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Bruxie — wonderful and wacky

An ingenius idea they are, these Bruxie waffles. I wasn’t THAT enamored with them the first time I went, I walked away feeling hungry, and underwhelmed.

I returned again recently, this time with Austin in tow, and we ordered 4 sandwiches between us just to be safe, but more so because it was Austin’s first time and I wanted him to get the Bruxie-virgin-treatment.

We order at the window and I remember how awesome customer service is here. The staff working the windows are friendly, swift and very patient — always offering a smile.

When the food is ready, they’ll call out your name, but then, they bring it to you! Yet another brownie point for customer service.

The concept is simple! Sandwiches using waffles instead of bread! You’ve heard of chicken and waffles so it isn’t surprising that Bruxie serves up a buttermilk chicken waffle sandwich. My first time didn’t wow, I remembered it to be batter-thick and heavy on the honey drizzle.

This time, I was happy to see that they had pounded the chicken breast thinner and perfected it by making it more like a Milanese instead of a clumsy chunk of fried chicken. The honey drizzle is subtle and not over bearing. I seriously enjoyed it!!

Sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and arugula was very pleasing and I can totally see vegetarians going crazy on this, especially if they like goat cheese.

The intense flavors of tomatoes worked perfectly well with the cheese, although I thought there was a little too much cheese, and the arugula lends a beautiful contrast of color while adding a freshness to the sandwich.

Roasted wild mushrooms is on the specials’ board and seeing both Austin and I love mushrooms, we thought, “why not”?

I enjoyed it but wonder if goat cheese is a bit of a menu overkill here. It seems like it is on EVERYTHING and the mushroom sammie is where the term “less is more” should be implemented a little stricter. I think the mushroom would’ve worked better with something truffle-y or just a creamier sauce. No cheese is needed.

Smoked salmon, dill cream cheese and cucumbers was my favorite, probably because I’d been on a smoked salmon kick of late, but also, I simply LOVE smoked salmon. I also love dill and I love cucumbers, nothing could be more perfect than this.

The waffle fries were just okay — I can take ’em or leave ’em. I’ve had them soggy, undercooked, although this time they were good, but nothing special. I’m just gonna stick to the smoked salmon sammie if you don’t mind. That one made me very happy!

292 N Glassell Street
Orange, CA 92866
Tel: 888-927-8943

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