Bella Cuba is a beautiful foodie destination indeed

I was seriously excited when I heard that a new Cuban place had opened in Orange County, because until now, the only way to find good Cuban fare meant driving to Versailles in LA.

Yes, I know there are a couple of “Cuban” places here in OC, but please don’t get me started because honestly, they’re not really good — not at all actually.

I’ve been back several times and the minute you sit down, water is brought to the table along with garlic bread. You can’t help but gobble these down and then find yourself eagerly nodding yes when the server returns and asks if you want more.

We started with Yuca Frita ($4.95), chunks of crispy fried yuca served with the tastiest mojo sauce ever! In Cuba, mojo applies to any sauce comprising garlic, olive oil and any kind of citrus juice. The one here is all that and more! The garlic is overwhelming — but in a good way — and the lemony tartness made my mouth pucker, wanting more. This sauce is good on practically EVERYTHING!

I’m a big fan of the Cubano sandwich and very few places make one that is close to perfect. Here, the Sandwich Cubano ($9.95) is served with fries and is packed with flavor. The bread is toasted to perfection on the outside, giving it a crusty exterior with the combination of ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles, mustard melding together to create a salty and slightly tart finish.

I’d never had Vaca Frita ($12.95) before, but managed to get a taste of it off my friend’s plate. Grilled shredded flank steak is pan-fried with onions, garlic and lemon possessing that ubiquitous acidity common in Cuban cuisine. It is something I love and crave which means vaca frita is now a dish I will add to my future repertoire!

My very first foray into Cuban food was Lechon Asado ($11.95), traditional Cuban roasted pork marinated in mojo sauce topped with onions. Because I loved it so much, I’d never venture too far from it whenever I eat Cuban, going from pork to chicken and back again. Here, the pork is beautifully greasy, moist and tender. The mojo sauce’s acidity cuts the grease and seasons the accompanying rice, making it one of those comfort foods you can’t get enough of.

If you can’t decide, I highly suggest getting the Combinacion de Pollo y Puerco ($14.95) a generous plate of roasted chicken and pork smothered with the onions and the mojo sauce. Entrees are all served with rice, plantains and a bowl of black beans. I mix my rice with black beans and drizzle mojo sauce over it. I crave the sauce and find myself wanting it on absolutely everything.

I save the soft caramelized plantains for the end because they are sweet enough to have for dessert!

One of my favorite dishes is Camarones al Ajillo ($15.95) and I couldn’t resist ordering it. The garlic shrimps were so freaking tasty but I was disappointed that for $16, there were only six shrimps. Really? Not even eight? I had really expected 10 shrimps, but they tasted so delicious my sadness soon dissipated and I tucked into them with relish.

A plate of rice, plantains and black beans accompany. Mix the rice with the sauce and it becomes the most amazing mouthful ever! 

Not that I needed dessert after the huge meal, but I was curious about the Flan Cubano ($3.50). It looked like it would be rich and overly sweet, but surprisingly, it wasn’t too sweet and had a rich caramel flavor. The flan itself was a little too dense for me as I had expected it to be softer and lighter, but it was decent, just nothing I’d order again.

Service is friendly, swift and combined with the great tasting food, Bella Cuba is fast becoming one of my favorite places here in the OC. If you’ve been craving some seriously good Cuban food, you need to try them out. The menu is the same at lunch and dinner so you won’t be missing out on anything no matter what time of day you visit.

Bella Cuba
3940 S. Bristol Street
Santa Ana, CA 92704
Tel: 714-545-5711

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a long awaited visit failed to impress

On the actual day of my birthday, my friends and I made the trip to San Juan Capistrano and brunched at Ramos House Cafe. It is quite amazing that only two people in my party had been there before and it took us THIS long to finally give it a try.

The restaurant is basically a cottage, but you won’t be dining inside. Instead, tables and chairs are set up in the ‘garden’ patio area making you feel like you’re eating in someone’s back yard. It is quaint and extremely charming.

Since it was Sunday, a prix fixe menu ($35) is the only option. This includes a glass of champagne, mimosa, juice, tea or coffee as well as a starter and an entree.

I highly suggest the Bloody Mary ($13) even with its hefty price tag, and is not one of the included drinks. I seriously thought about drinking my brunch instead of consuming it. The cocktail is bloody delicious, complete with pickled green and wax beans plus a crab claw to boot.

There were six Small Plates to choose from and most of us opted for Basil Cured Salmon Lox which were thinly sliced lox accompanied with chopped boiled eggs, red onions, chives and microgreens. Out of all the small plates I tried, this was my favorite.

A few chose the Apple Cinnamon Beignets which were stellar as far as beignets go. They weren’t too dense and didn’t taste overly greasy.

A very healthy individual went for the Citrus w/Toasted Almonds & Farmers Cheese but none of us felt obliged to sample his plate so I can’t comment on it.

Fresh Baked Huckleberry Coffee Cake was devoid of any huckleberries in the slice of cake itself although the plate was dotted with a sprinkling of them. The only memorable thing about the cake was how bland it was.

Moving onto the Large Plates, or entree portion of the meal, we found ourselves once again leaning towards the Crab Hash & Bacon Scrambled Eggs & Citrus Cream. Nevertheless, some of us changed our orders to sample a wider variety of dishes. Needless to say it was a good idea at the end of the day because the crab hash was good, but not outstanding.

The black board featured a few items and we ordered the Scotch Quail Egg to try. It was well …. a Scotch quail egg. As far as Scotch eggs go, this was on the decent side — for America — cute but not the best.

Spicy Crab Cake Salad w/Cranberries & Pumpkin Seed Dressing was disappointing. The crab cakes were very mushy with way too much mashed potatoes as filler and not enough crab to really garner them “crab” cakes. They were more potato cakes with crab really.

I did enjoy the Fried Chicken Scramble w/Warm Apple Sauce & Waffles, but just the scramble portion. The waffles were sub par and tasted like they had been earlier and warmed up before serving. The chicken scramble itself was very tasty and I actually preferred it over the crab hash.

Smoked Bacon Scramble w/Wilted Rocket & Apple Fried Potatoes was my favorite of all the dishes the table ordered. But then again, anything with bacon is a sure win, right? The thin slices of fried apples were a great addition and a unique contrast to the usual fried onions or regular shoestring potatoes.

The biscuit which accompanied was the best part of the meal. It was really quite fantastic. I don’t even like biscuits and the one here was fluffy and not the least bit dry.

That’s it for the brunch portion. Desserts are an extra $7 each. We ordered one dessert, Ice Cream Sandwich of the Day which was ginger cookie with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream sandwich isn’t exactly an ice cream sandwich per se but a deconstructed version of it. It was okay, nothing to write home about.

They brought me a dessert for my birthday — Apple Buckle w/Molasses Ice Cream — which frankly was rather nasty. I passed the plate around so everyone could have a taste and the consensus was that the apple buckle was really dry and the ice cream didn’t help much either. Some of us thought it was way too sweet and between the 9 of us, no one wanted a second taste. If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what would.

At the end of the day, Ramos House Cafe is a good “special occasion” place. The atmosphere is what I will remember most about our visit. The food did not impress enough for me wanting to pay another visit any time soon.

Ramos House Cafe
31752 Los Rios Street
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Tel: 949-443-1342

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Bruxie opens 2nd location in Brea

Ahhhh what can I say about Bruxie that hasn’t been said already? The original Orange location is an institution and now, with its second bigger flashier location in  Brea, you know they’re here to stay!

The waffle-like exterior is impressive, standing out among the chain stores and chain restaurants in the area. The garage-feel is edgy and there is a lot more seating here both inside and outside. The staff has always been amazing and they continue to shine here.

One of the original favorites is Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffle ($6.95) with chili honey and cider slaw. This is a bit too sweet for me, but as far as chicken and waffles go, you know they’re a marriage made in heaven.

I loved the Turkey Club ($7.95) with Boar’s Head roasted turkey, gruyere, avocado, applewood smoked bacon and pesto aioli. This hefty sandwich will satiate even the hungriest bear. The stuffing is generous — a little too generous even … did I say that? — and puts many a club sammie to shame!

Albacore Tuna Melt ($7.95) actually surprised me. I wasn’t ready for a tuna sandwich to taste THIS good. Cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato in between a crispy waffle is just what mom ordered! It’s such a shame my son doesn’t like tuna. The secret to my perfect tuna sandwich are tomatoes!

If I died and went to heaven, the Hot Pastrami Bruxie ($7.95) is what I was probably sinking my teeth into a few minutes beforehand. Boar’s Head Pastrami with gruyere, cider slaw, spicy brown mustard, and half sour pickles stuffed into the perfectly browned waffle is indescribably delicious. I believe this has now become my absolute favorite!

And should you be dining with some friends and you’re the one on a diet — too bad for you — then get yourself the Grilled Chicken Caesar ($7.95) served with the most delicious parmesan waffle bowl. I wish they sold this cheesy waffle bowl on its own because I’d buy a dozen and take them home to enjoy slowly!

Bruxie Salad ($9.95) is another good choice. In fact, the grilled chicken is very moist and the romaine, arugula, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, avocado, lemon vinaigrette and balsamic reduction toss together makes for one of the tastiest salads I’ve had in a long time.

Of course, we can’t walk away without trying at least one of the sweet waffle offerings. Lemon Cream and Berries ($6.50) is so lemony tart and pops with flavors from the seasonal berries — raspberries to be exact — that I wanted to stop but had a little more than I should have.

Who knew that a humble waffle could be transformed into so many delicious variations? If you’ve never been to Bruxie in Orange, now’s the time to check out Bruxie Brea. Now I hope they will consider opening a Bruxie Irvine!

Bruxie 
215 W Birch Street
Brea, CA 92821
Tel: 714-255-1188

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MB Post won me at first bite

A trip to MB Post was a long time coming and to finally make it there was elating and exciting. A few days after my visit, the 2011 Eater Awards LA announced David Lefevre won Chef of the Year and I smiled knowing he full well deserved that accolade.

The restaurant is housed in an old post office. I love the brick walls and the general hustle and bustle of the dining room. The energy is pulsing and the open kitchen adds a certain je ne sais quoi to it.

Our servers — yes plural — brought out two wooden boards of goodies as our first course. The first was filled with the three breads on the menu.

Grilled Flatbread ($4) was a soft puffy bread served with harissa yogurt sauce. The sauce had a great kick to it and was a great first bite to what was yet to come.

The house-made (not that the others aren’t made in house) Fleur de Sel Pretzel ($4) was salty, warm and soft. Dipped into David’s nuclear horseradish mustard, this is exactly the sort of thing you’d want to munch on while enjoying a beer or two.

My favorite of the three was definitely Bacon Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits ($5). Everything is better with bacon but for someone who doesn’t like biscuits, I certainly found myself unable to stop after one bite. The accompanying maple butter added a touch of sweetness making it a salty-sweet delight. More please!

The other wooden platter was charcuterie comprising La Quercia Organic Prosciutto ($12) from Kathy & Herb Eckhouse, Iowa, Picante Salami ($10) from Christiano Creminelli, Utah, and Mycella Blue ($10) a cow’s cheese from Michael Staub Holm, Denmark. They were all equally good but I was especially enamored by the blue cheese.

You can order accoutrements to go with your charcuterie like Assorted Pickles ($5) which is insanely good for someone who loves pickled vegetables — ME! — and there included cauliflower, carrots, pickle, cippolini, with thyme and bay leaf to add an aromatic finish.

Apart from the pickles, there are Mustards ($2) — red wine, stout and pink peppercorns — as well as Fruit Spreads ($3) — persimmon-cranberry, plum-thyme, apple fennel — if you so choose.

An appetizer arrived next — Marinated Cucumbers ($8) but this isn’t your typical cucumber dish. The cucumbers are seeded and arranged like towers with a bed comprising Kalamata olives, peppadew peppers, chick peas, avocado, assorted cherry and grape tomatoes halves, pickled onions, and three types of chickpeas in a red wine vinaigrette all around them.

Japanese Hamachi ($12) was a refreshing mouthful with thin slices of yellowtail served raw with yuzu koshu and avocado. Puffed forbidden rice crisps added a beautiful textural component to an already perfect dish.

I was really excited to try Asparagus and Poached Jidori Egg ($12) with mushrooms but it was a little underseasoned and ended up being my least favorite of the night.

One of the specials of the evening was Hawaiian Walo ($15). Grilled over white oak with basil, Kalamata olive in a squash vinaigrette, this was our absolute favorite of the night. The fish was so moist and tender and the salty tart flavors of the dressing was so addicting we were very sad when it was all over.

If you’re a carnivore then the next two dishes will definitely please. Meyer Farm “Never Ever” Skirt Steak ($17) was cooked to perfection at medium rare and the red chimichurri sauce was exquisite! I think I prefer it over the traditional version.

BBQ Moroccan Lamb Belly ($14) is practically sinful. Caramelized harissa onions, Japanese eggplant and an orange puree gave the lamb a sweet coating unlike any other reminiscent of an insanely good char siu.

There was obviously no room for dessert as we were completely satiated after that feast! MB Post is one of those places where the atmosphere is great for a casual dinner, or a celebration, but what will keep you coming back time after time again is the amazing food!

MB Post
1142 Manhattan Ave
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Tel: 310-545-5405

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Memphis at the Santora introduces new fall items

Downtown Santa Ana has seen quite an influx of new, hip, trendy restaurants, but one to start the trend was Memphis. Situated at the historic Santora Building, Memphis at the Santora draws in a huge crows as the evening progresses mainly because they made some of the tastiest cocktails around.

We started with Whiskey Buck which seriously appealed to me even though its base was whiskey. I’m more a tequila or vodka girl, but this particular drink had a touch of sweetness and citrus undertones which worked well for me. Jeffery the bartender had concocted this drink — it’s not on the menu yet — and added some gorgeous lemon and lime peel for garnish.

Gold Rush, another whiskey-based potable was not as palatable. Maker’s Mark isn’t one of my favorites and it overpowered the entire drink.

We came here specifically to try the new fall items which was recently added to the menu. With beets in season at the moment, Roasted Beet Salad ($8) made use of the seasonal root vegetable well with crumbled goat cheese, hazelnuts, arugula, all drizzled with a roasted garlic vinaigrette.

Craw Puppies ($5) were one of our favorites of the night. These hush puppies exposed a little piece of crawfish in the center. Served with Rooster Mayo — using the Red Rooster brand Louisiana hot sauce with mayo — it added a nice kick to the very light craw puppies.

My son was excited about the Barbecued Duck Quesadilla ($13) because well, he just loves quesadillas. When he heard the filling, he said “duck?” but then continued with “I’ll try it”. I’m always so proud when does that. The barbecued duck was a tad too sweet for me, but the kid loved it.

The accompanying black eyed pea salad was also good albeit the peas were a little on the al dente side. I loved how Chef Diego used blue corn tortillas for the quesadillas and the avocado-jalapeno crema was also very flavorful with just a slight kick.

Another favorite of the evening was Barbecued Shrimp & Green Chile Grits ($12). Infused with the flavors of the house cured tasso ham, each bite consisted of succulent shrimp, savory ham and bits of pickled okra added a nice tartness to the mouthful.

Saffron Risotto Jambalaya ($17) uses gulf prawns, Carlsbad mussels, Manila clams and smoked chicken. Served in a paella pan, it was a little wet and on the mushy side, but the flavors were perfect and I enjoyed it regardless.

Old favorites such as the buttermilk fried chicken and meatloaf remain on the menu. I think there would be a furor if they ever removed them — I for one would since in the past, the buttermilk fried chicken was the only thing I ever order with the delicious Hoppin’ Johns that comes with it.

However, the next time I return, the shrimp and grits will be added to my usual order plus a few of those delicious Whiskey Bucks!

Memphis at the Santora
201 N Broadway
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Tel: 714-564-1064

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an evening at Pinot Provence

One of the highlights of my birthday celebrations included a meal at Pinot Provence. On the night of our visit there was a table of four seated slap in the middle of the dining room. They were extremely boisterous, often bursting into fits of roaring laughter and conversing about topics which honestly, I would rather they had kept to themselves. But even so, nothing could have ruined the meal Chef Jason Petrie created for us that evening.

Some of the items are off the a la carte menu, some, are seasonal of course such as truffles, but you’ll get a clear idea of Chef Jason’s creativity by the marriage of certain ingredients in dishes as well as the way flavors come to play on your palate.

Our first amuse bouche was Nasturtium Dashi, Market Dashi a broth served in a cup which we sipped from. The intense umami of the dashi was such a teaser on my palate I could’ve had an entire bowl of it, but that would’ve been overkill.

White Chocolate and Burgundy Truffle Frozen Custard was more dessert-like but it was our second amuse with truffle fleur de sel and teenie celery, I love salty sweet flavors and this was exactly what I love in a dessert. I was a little surprised that it arrived so early in the meal, but it was a fantastic palate cleanser all the same.

With fall being the season of root vegetables, our next course of Santa Monica Market Baby Beets was a huge hit with me since I am an avid fan of any type of beets. This gorgeously presented plate encompassed the more readily available red beets and also, golden and orange ones as well. Dressed with local citrus, purple haze and organic hazelnuts, it allowed the beets’ natural flavors to come through. My favorite accoutrement on the plate was the sunny side up quail egg which oozed a creamy coating onto my chunk of beet.

Chef Jason served the Burgundy Truffle Risotto personally and brought his basket of truffles and his shaver with him. The risotto uses Il Caranoli rice,  2-year parmesan fricco (or tuile) and an extremely generous shaving of truffles. The rice was slightly under-seasoned when eaten alone, but together with the fricco, was spot-on. I wanted a bigger piece of fricco but that wouldn’t be a pretty sight I’m sure.

I was so tickled at the truffles and mentioned to my dining companion that if foie gras was on the menu this evening, it would be the best dinner ever! Before I had even completed that sentence, out comes our next course and believe it or not it was La Belle Farms Foie Gras with toasted brioche, Bartlett pear sorbet, spiced marconas and a Chai spiced black rice consomme poured tableside.

I didn’t feel it required the pear sorbet being the purist that I am so I pushed the sorbet to the side and lovingly savored each mouthful of the foie on its own. When I was done, I gazed longingly at my friend’s and I got to eat the rest of that piece as well. Yes, life is good.

The fourth course was Cinnamon Smoked Squab and Pork Belly Sausage served under a smoky dome. When the dome is lifted the aromas waft through the air and up your olfactory senses. A caramelized leek brioche gateau accompanies as well as a drizzling of cranberry squab jus. The squab is so tender and flavorful with just a kiss of the cinnamon smoke while the pork sausage was tasty with the right crunch on the casing.

I’m not much of a dessert fan but when it was brought out and introduced, my heart skipped a beat. I’d never met Chef Jason before and for him to have presented me with this particular item to finish out the meal was as if he read my mind!

Aerated Vanilla Goat Milk Sabayon — I LOVE SABAYON — or otherwise known as zabaglione is served alongside apple sorbet with a sprinkling of shortbread cookie crumble and lavender olive oil.

The light as air smoothness of the sabayon, together with the crunch of the cookie crumble was sublime. I love a variety of textural components together and to have one of my favorite desserts to round out the meal was simply heavenly.

Pinot Provence has a spot in my top 10 restaurants in Orange County. Whether you’re a regular or still a virgin, put it on your list to visit soon. You won’t be sorry you did.

Pinot Provence
686 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-444-5900

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