Seabirds Kitchen offers simple and delicious vegan fare

Vegans living in Orange County aren’t met with a variety of choices when looking to dine out. Even though I can never become vegetarian or vegan, and as long as I’m not forced to eat a plant based diet, I actually enjoy eating it from from time to time because it can taste pretty good depending on where you go.

The newly opened Seabirds Kitchen came out of the Seabirds gourmet food truck which Stephanie Morgan started. While I wasn’t fond of the truck — it was always on the bland side for my palate — I was hoping that this wouldn’t be the case with the brick and mortar, and I’m happy to say, it wasn’t at all!SEABIRDS KITCHEN1 (640x384)

The minimalist decor and use of natural, earthy colors create a space ideal to enjoy this genre of cuisine at. Besides a row of two and four seaters, there is also a communal table with high stools for larger parties wishing to dine here together.

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We began with Burnt Brussels Sprouts ($5.95) which possessed lovely tart flavors from the lime and dijon mustard. I would have liked them a little crispier but they were very tasty.

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Organic Beet & Cara Cara Orange ($5.95/half $10.95/full) was so good my son kept asking me if I could make this at home for him. I love cara cara oranges and the sweet segments added a wonderful citrusy freshness to the greens. Roasted local beets and kale, both from Tanaka Farm in Irvine are sweet and crunchy and a wonderful way to get your antioxidants into your diet in one dish. I loved the crunch from the candied walnuts and the smoky coconut bacon added depth to the salad.cara cara salad (640x425)

For a nice starter to share, choose the Tahitian Squash Flatbread ($11.45) a Tahitian squash puree is spread over flatbread and topped with caramelized onions, smoked paprika, chopped Tuscan kale and aged balsamic. The richness of the vinegar really brings the whole thing together.

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I wasn’t sure if I’d like BBQ Jack Sliders ($7.50/2pc) seeing I’m not a huge fan of barbecue sauce, nor pulled pork, which is what this vegan version is mirroring. Shredded young jackfruit is grilled and then seasoned with Kentucky BBQ sauce before it is assembled on whole wheat slider buns and topped with Seabirds slaw and caramelized red onion and pickles. They were absolutely delicious, so packed with flavor with the salty, sweet, tart flavor profiles.

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Our last savory dish, Zippy Tofu Plate ($11.95) is a version of something Morgan’s mom used to make while she was growing up. Brown rice is topped with grilled Hodo soy tofu, creamy green chile cheese sauce, broccoli and topped with tortilla strips for crunch. An ancho salsa is served alongside and gives it an elevated flavor if you like a bit of spice. It is even good the following day warmed up in the microwave!

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Chaffle ($8.95 feeds 2-4) is a churro waffle topped with coconut sorbet, chocolate sauce and chopped pecans. The coconut sorbet is from Vitaly, across the street at The Camp and makes this generous portion a meal in itself.

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You can be a carnivore and still enjoy vegan cuisine once in a while. I definitely need a break from time to time, and Seabirds Kitchen has a great selection for you to cut your teeth on.

Seabirds Kitchen
2930 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-549-2584

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Bestia is well worth the drive to LA for

Bestia is no stranger to accolades and last year, appeared in almost every single “best of” lists of restaurants in LA. I’ve been hearing Bestia this, Bestia that, and my frequent dining companion The Hungry Dogg was there a month before he coaxed me into driving up to LA with him so he can visit again.

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Getting a reservation here is no easy feat, so we decided to just chance a walk-in. I had no expectations to get a table as there was already a line at 5.45pm (they open at 6pm) and we were 6th from the front. I had even lesser expectations when I heard repeatedly “we don’t have a reservation” from those ahead of us.

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When we reached the front, Austin asked the hostess if we could sit at the counter by the pizza oven and we were lucky enough to be graced with those spots for an hour and a half (they needed the seats back by 7.30pm) with a clear view of the entire restaurant.

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I quickly perused the menu, took my pen out and marked off which items I wanted to try. Our server Zach was rather helpful in helping us finalize our decisions.

Sitting at the counter has its perks as pizza chef (he introduced himself as Josh) swiftly whipped out a bowl of Beef Meatballs ($13/3pc) and placed it before me stating it was “on the house”. These tender meatballs are ideal in texture — light and airy — and seasoned to perfection. Braised beet greens, soffritto and tomato makes for great accoutrements for the meatballs.

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Chef’s Selection of house-made charcuterie ($15) is impeccable, which includes black peppercorn and orange fennel salumi, chicken liver, coppa di testa and an array of accoutrements which pair perfectly with the meaty offerings on the board. I was surprised I loved the coppa di testa seeing it was mostly fat, but it was so delicate that it melted in my mouth leaving a hint of the seasonings it was created with devoid of the usual unpleasant greasy finish of fat. Absolutely stunning!

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The Creamy Polenta ($8) was just like how I’d imagined, a blend of cornmeal, potatoes and sweet onions blending together for the silkiest, most decadent mouthful ever. Rich, decadent, and utterly sinful.

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I’m a huge fan of gizzards, so when I saw Pan-roasted Chicken Gizzards ($14) on the menu, I had to have it. The initial piece surprised me because I’m used to gizzards having a slight crunchiness to them, but this was soft and meaty. It took a few before my palate grew accustomed to the texture, but flavor-wise, it was the ideal marriage of sweetness from the roasted beets, a touch of bitterness from the Belgian endive with saltiness from the aged capra sarda (a semi-hard goat’s cheese).

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Sitting in front of the pizza oven meant there was no way we were leaving without trying one. The Alla’nduja ($18) appealed to me due to the housemade spicy ‘nduja. I watched Josh put together our pizza of sausage, San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella topped with wild arugula but was concerned by the heavy drizzling of olive oil he was gracing it with. Therefore, I was not surprised when the pizza was over wet with only the outer edges of the crust containing any semblance of cohesiveness, leaving me no option but to eat the drippy morsels with a knife and fork. It was a shame because the flavors were incredible.

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Spaghetti Rustichella ($25) screamed my name due to the sea urchin, and I was so excited when our server placed the bowl before me. Topped with squid ink botarga, the pasta was perfectly executed to a toothy al dente with hints of garlic and Calabrian chilies, and of course, topped with slivers of my beloved uni. I took my first bite and it didn’t blow my mind only because it was under-seasoned. Pulling out my trusty salt grinder and sprinkling it with a little Himalayan sea salt, the dish was instantly transformed into what my mind had culled it to be right before I put the first forkful into my mouth.uni pasta (640x425)Never one to think about desserts, I do however, love a well-made zabaglione or panna cotta. There wasn’t really a doubt in my mind that I would pick Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta ($9) and I was glad I did. It was spot-on in both texture and consistency with tangerines adding a citrusy freshness to the luxuriously creamy pudding. The accompanying meyer lemon cookies were great, but I was happy with the panna cotta alone.

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This was indeed a hugely satisfying meal and I am looking forward to returning again soon. Service was beyond satisfactory especially in a bustling packed restaurant and Zach was knowledgeable and informative. Definitely worth a visit if you haven’t already been.

Bestia
2121 7th Pl
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tel: 213-514-5724

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San Clemente’s Vine Restaurant & Bar plus a giveaway

I had never heard about Vine Restaurant & Bar until I was invited to check them out last week. Under new ownership by a trio who’s culinary resume includes Fleming’s and Charlie Palmer’s, Vine is an impeccable cozy spot worthy of the drive down to San Clemente for.

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Executive chef and partner Jared Cook’s menu comes from a place dear to his heart — the garden he has planted behind the restaurant where he reaps and sows the incredibly fresh produce he utilizes in his dishes. He is also the one thing that has withstood the changes (he was sous chef under the previous owner) which helps cement that loyal fan base the restaurant has enjoyed through the years.

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We started with a charcuterie board comprised of Domestic Cured Meats ($10/$18) and Domestic Cheeses ($10/18) to whet our palates and senses. The array of colors can only be described as an artful palette in which we prepare our tastebuds for the tasty journey ahead. Various salumi are flanked by cornichons and goodies such as olives and ripe, tantalizing cheeses making a perfect accompaniment for your drink of choice.

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I should have been mindful while enjoying the cheese and meats, but of course, between sipping on the cocktails and chatting to my friends, I lost track of what I ate, so when we moved onto the actual dinner portion of our meal, I was already feeling the consequences of the gorgeous nibbles I had ravished upon.

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House Made Pumpkin Ravioli ($13) are so light and pillowy and even after a few minutes of photography, they were still really tender. I’m usually not a ravioli fan because I’m very critical of the pasta, but these were of a perfect thickness to hold the pumpkin within, yet thin enough not to be doughy and obstructive on the palate. The white truffle brown butter was subtle, allowing the ravioli to shine. Crispy sage and pecorino cheese added piquancy and a touch more salt to the end product, while toasted pumpkin seeds, a textural crunch.  

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I’m a huge fan of duck wings and when Crispy Meyer Lemon & Honey Duck Wings ($14) hit the table, there was no happier person than I ready to dig into them. Meaty “duck drumettes” — if you can call them that — are coated with a sweet, tart, spicy marinade which left me puckering my lips for more. I could have polished off that entire bowl, but it was just as well there were others I had to share them with.

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Entrees arrived next and American Kobe Wine Country Burger ($13) was huge, requiring a steak knife to hold it together. The pattie is juicy possessing a nice smokiness, and together with caramelized shallots, Mahon cheese, marinated tomato and pickled onions, make for an absolutely stellar burger between a soft brioche bun.

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The burger was served with House Made Herb Fries ($4) and some bowls of these crispy delights were set down for the rest of the table to share.

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Pan Roasted Loup De Mer ($27) consists of a well-seasoned butterflied fillet of Mediterranean seabass served with fingerling potatoes, Riesling raisin, cauliflower, baby endive and pistachio brown butter. The fish is moist and the accoutrements married well together.

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However, the piece de resistence of the evening was Pork Schnitzel With Wild Mushrooms ($23) a generous pork cutlet, breaded and fried to absolute perfection. Honestly, I didn’t need any of the delightful butternut spaetzle or the hearty winter vegetables, but they were delicious and a thoughtful pairing for the schnitzel. Grainy mustard and cider gravy were ideal accompaniments should you choose to utilize them, but the schnitzel was definitely the shining star on that plate.

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I liked how each dish was put together in a very thoughtful manner, where the star of the dish is never overshadowed by its supporting acts. Each element comes together in a cohesive manner whereby the flavors are an enhancement of the other. Very nicely played! This is definitely a restaurant to watch out for in 2014!

This week I have a $50 gift certificate to give away courtesy of Vine Restaurant & Bar. Please leave a comment with your FULL name telling me why you would like to visit the restaurant and whether you’ve had previous experience with Vine in the past. You have until Sunday, 26th to enter. Good Luck!

Vine Restaurant & Bar
211 N El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
Tel: 949-361-2079

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a mixed feeling at Voltaggio’s Ink

We have been waiting to dine at Ink for as long as it’s been open. Again, we’re so late to the game but the restaurant is still a popular one and the restaurant is packed and bustling on the night of our visit.

Our server was really awesome and I must preface by saying, the service here is exceptional. Even with a packed dining room, the service did not lose a beat with everything running so smoothly and with great attention, leaving us all very impressed by this fact.

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The first thing which excited me was the special of the night… Brioche ($28) served with complimentary foie. Awww man, I was ALL over that… there was no doubt we were having this and everything was rather excited. The texture of the foie terrine was so smooth and creamy and while that part of pleasing, I was longing for a stronger more robust flavor. I took several bites hoping to satiate that desire for that livery goodness to make my eyes roll in utter satisfaction, but it never came.

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Dungeness Crab ($19) wasn’t one of my favorite dishes. The textural composition was strange and the crab did not leave my mouth longing for more of its umami brininess because there was none. House tofu and leeks were floating in a broth which didn’t help much either. The sea lettuce was the best part of the dish.

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Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of ‘salads’ of any kind, but Little Gems ($13) turned out to be very pleasant. The lettuce was sliced lengthwise and served wedge style (half of a whole). The lemon dressing was embedded in all the crevices of every leaf which made every bite perfectly seasoned but not overdressed by any means. The burrata appealed to half the table while the other half found the intense milkiness on the gamey side. The anchovy cracker added a nice crunch but didn’t possess much anchovy flavor at all.

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Hamachi ($18) was fresh, subtle in flavor especially when paired with green apple and lime. The fresh wasabi wasn’t overpowering which was nice, but the dish was under-seasoned on the whole and needed a touch more saltiness to bring out the flavor of the fish.

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Smoked Trout ($15) with tomato jam, dashi aioli and served with crispy fried yucca was nice but not very memorable.

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However, Corn ($12) was just insanely good. We were all fighting for the plate of creamy corn dotted with green onion, breaking off a piece of the housemade doritos to scoop it with. The doritos were topped with a roasted baby corn adding to its smoky flavor.

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Then came Cereal ($13) which I didn’t care for at all. The amaranth grain provided the cereal-like texture, but maybe it was the goat butter it was cooked with, maybe not, but I couldn’t place a taste I was getting which I disliked. Another friend said the same thing. Even the runny fried egg couldn’t save this for me. I thought the chicken cracklin’ might save the dish, but they weren’t crispy and a tad stale. 

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Of course, after that came the heavenly Egg Yolk Gnocchi ($15) which were pillows of nothing I’ve ever tasted. Simple yet so sublime, the gnocchi is tossed in a mushroom brown butter and topped with hen of the woods (maitake mushrooms).

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Then, another rather uneventful dish, the Potato Polenta ($16) with bone marrow, sour cream and chive.

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Followed by another incredible dish, Lollipop Kale ($14) which were clusters of baby kale crispy along the edges and the crunchiest, tastiest pig ears even the one in our group who normally refuses to eat pig ears ate them. The creme fraiche sprinkled with togarashi is a great dipping sauce for both the kale and ears.

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The entrees arrived next … the Branzino ($33) with roasted cauliflower, capers and fermented grapes was good (shame about the messed up plating) …..

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followed by another standout, the Lamb Belly ($23) which was so unctuous only a tiny piece was needed. The braised lettuce and yogurt curds accoutrements were lovely and topped with “mushroom hay”, thin shredded slivers of mushrooms fried to crispy perfection.

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Of course, that luck ran out again rather quickly when Monkfish ($32) hit the table. Presentation is mind-boggling with winter squash web covering the pieces of bland and slightly over-cooked fish. The saffron-quince added a sweet finish to the entire dish which was very unpleasant for my non-sweet palate.

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Potato Charcoal ($10) is a must when you visit Ink. These little potatoes are roasted with charcoal and arrives looking like little black balls in an earthenware vessel along with house-made sour cream and a spray bottle of black vinegar. Even this non potato lover absolutely loved it. I think it was the Chinese Zhenjiang black vinegar, which was so much fun to spray on and added a really unique flavor to the potatoes.

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I wasn’t excited about the Short Ribs ($30) on paper purely because it was done “pho style” with radish noodles and puffed tendon. My friend Kim (who is Vietnamese) wanted to try it but the both of us were sadly disappointed by the lack of intensity in the broth. Always stick with your first instincts.

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Our last savory dish was a special. The Kuroge ($45) was a gimmicky one which consisted of a large heated stone (700 degrees we were told) with four slices of well-marbled wagyu plus condiments of salt and pickled carrots. The meat is placed on the stone for a mere 10 seconds before it is turned for another 10 (medium rare), but because of its fat content, the meat stays extremely tender. At $11.50 a slice, I’m not sure I would order it again.wagyu (640x425)

There were four desserts on the menu and we ordered them all. Lemon Verbena curd ($10), Mountain Yam ($12) with caramelized white chocolate, popcorn and coconut, Chocolate ($11) ganache cake with cocoa nibs and plantains plus Apple ($11) with caramel shortbread and burnt wood semifreddo. Sadly, none wowed me but if I were to pick, the lemon verbena curd and chocolate cake were the best of the four.

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I was glad I can finally cross Ink off my list, but, with 30% of the meal being spectacular, 50% passable, and 30% not hitting the mark, I’m in no rush to return. Service was absolutely outstanding and if anything, that’s something we walked away marveling at especially when the dining room was packed with people waiting outside.

Ink
8360 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: 323-651-5866

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Mediterranean delights in Irvine from Doner G

Doner G is no stranger to me, their Anaheim location has been the spot for Yelp get-togethers including a birthday celebration for a Yelper several years ago. So when I heard they had opened a location in Irvine, I was excited and also, not surprised by their expansion. I had been meaning to pay them a visit but didn’t get around to it yet when I received an email from owner Yalcin Aslan (whom I’ve met several times at the Anaheim location) asking me to join him with other media folk for a tasting.

This fast casual spot is situated at Crossroads where the influx of new eateries recently has included Veggie Grill and Urban Plates. When I arrived, Yalcin (pronounced “yal-chin”) immediately greeted me and remembers, after at least four years’ lapse in our last encounter, my love for his lentil soup which he apologizes for not having at this location.

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The menu is pretty simple. Everything is cooked fresh and assembled to order. Two huge spits, one with chicken and the other, beef, is rotating and bits of meat is sliced off as it cooks. The meat is then in turn, assembled into bread or on a plate depending on what you order.

Although there is a lot on the menu, at lunch time, I see most people come in and order the Gyro Value Meal ($6.99) which includes a doner kebab pita sandwich with a side of French fries and a fountain drink.

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That same sandwich is $4.99 a la carte and like the value meal, offers you a choice of either chicken or beef.

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Doner Kebab ($8.99) plate is usually my choice because I like to put my own mouthful together, not already assembled into a sandwich by someone else. Yes, I’m OCD like that! The meat is very flavorful and if you like spice, make sure you add some of the hot sauce they have (ask for it!). You can have chicken…..

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…..or beef.

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Or if you can’t make up your mind, go for the Doner Kebab Mix ($9.49) which offers you both chicken and beef on one plate.

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However, having introduced you to all of the above, I love the Adana Kebab ($8.99) best. Ground lamb is seasoned with herbs and formed into a “skewer” before it is grilled. The savory combination is piquant and the meat, juicy! I don’t detect any heat to the meat, but those of you who don’t like spicy food might find a kick there. Served with rice, salad, jajik and Doner G sauce.

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Most dishes come with both the jajik and the Doner G sauce. Jajik is similar to tzatziki and each culture’s variation is slightly different.

If you’re looking for something light, the Fettush Salad ($5.49) is a great option. Romaine lettuce, red onions, tomatoes and cucumbers are tossed in a simple olive oil and lemon juice dressing. A handful of crispy pita chips are combined together to give it a beautiful crunchiness.

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Of course, you mustn’t leave without trying some of their sides such as Dolma ($4.39/4pcs), fresh grape leaves stuffed with rice, parsley, onions and herbs.

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One of my favorites is the babaghanoush, or there is the Hummus ($3.49/12oz) made fresh and served with pita bread.

hummus (640x425)Those with a sweet tooth can end their meal with Baklava ($2.99/2pcs), a little different to the ones available here. Imported from Turkey, these are smoother in texture and less sweet.

Doner G
3800 Barranca Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
Tel: 949-861-2626

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Lukshon & Godiva join forces for the year of the horse

Last week, I was invited to a dinner at Lukshon in Culver City in collaboration with Godiva who created special chocolates in celebration of Lunar New Year, which happens on January 31st this year — the year of the horse! People born in this year are known for being independent, free-spirited and feisty and the menu this evening featured the Szechuan peppercorn in many of the dishes known for its spicy numbing qualities. Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon also infused many of the savory dishes with Godiva chocolates, making some unique and delicious pairings I’d never tasted before.

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We were really here to be introduced to the commemorative Lunar New Year chocolates which comes in several variations all enveloped in a stunning red box (the color of prosperity in Chinese culture).

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The dinner was served family style and you’ll be happy to know that most of the savory dishes are available on Lukshon’s regular menu. I was tickled to be in the company of Karin E Baker, deputy editor of Flavorpill LA, Tommy Lei, known fashion blogger of My Belonging and Jocelyn Wang, the person behind V3Con Digital Media Conference and currently, President of the Asian American Journalists Association LA Chapter.

Our first course is a platter of Duck Popiah which we all zoomed in to take photos of. Popiah is a Singaporean fresh roll and here, Chef Sang has filled it with duck confit and a wonderful dark chocolate hoisin sauce which was so subtle none of us could detect it. However, we all agreed, it took the edge off the hoisin by giving it a smoother, more balanced flavor than pungent hoisin alone. Pickled stem lettuce added a touch of crunch and acidity to the dish.

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I was so excited when Crispy Whole Fish arrives. An entire fish is presented beautifully, curved and fried to perfection. I was given the task of breaking apart the fish which revealed moist, tender flaky white fish morsels which we drizzled with the accompanying pecel (a spicy, sweet and tart sauce originating from Indonesia). Wok charred cucumbers are heavenly and possessed the intoxicating flavors of Szechuan peppercorns. I couldn’t stop eating it was so addicting!

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Chinese Eggplant was soft with a crispy exterior and tossed in panch puran, an Indian five-spice mixture topped with a dollop of fennel raita and shards of crispy eggplant. The menu also stated cocoa nibs as an ingredient and again, it was so deftly added to the dish without overpowering.

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The bowl of Crab Fried Rice was devoured so quickly we didn’t have much time to think about it. The blue crab infused jasmine rice had bits of pea tendrils, serrano chile and egg combined together and was so decadent it would have made a meal in itself.

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Our next dish was Beef and Broccoli but like no other I’ve ever tasted before. Tender slices of hanger steak prepared in a black bean cocoa butter sauce was so rich and savory we all took more than a piece. Gai lan not only added color, but also, a wonderful vegetable component to the dish. I prefer Chinese broccoli over regular because of its leafiness. Puffed tendon added another textural dimension to this mouth-watering dish.

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The Brussels Sprouts were also highly addicting and we were thrilled they placed two bowls on our table. The chile garlic vinaigrette possessed hints of sesame, coating the slightly charred Brussels sprouts which were eaten with glee.

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And if we thought the crab fried rice was good, the Heirloom Black Rice made us even happier. Savory lap cheong (Chinese sausage), onion, roasted garlic are prepared with the rice and topped with a runny Lily’s farm fried egg which added another dimension of richness to the already perfect rice.

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However, if there was to be a piece de resistence of the meal, I’ll have to say, Spicy Chinese Ramen was it. The broth was absolutely impeccable with so much depth and layers of flavors in every spoonful. Ma la (the flavor given to Szechuan peppercorns) bamboo, pork belly and crispy ear were ideal accompaniments but all I wanted was to slurp up all the broth.

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By now I was really quite full but every one at the table was excited about the desserts about to hit the table. There were four desserts including Godiva White Chocolate Vietnamese Iced Coffee spiked with White Lion arrack. Arrack or arak is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, fruits or sugarcane, but not the same as the anise alcoholic beverage consumed in eastern Mediterranean countries or north Africa. It was incredibly strong, both the coffee and the spirit and we wanted to take it with us to drink the next day but due to the alcohol content, was unable to take it with us.

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Godiva Milk Chocolate Cherry Shooter also had some sort of alcohol in it. I wasn’t able to “shoot” it, but instead, took a small spoonful to taste from the crushed candied almond-rimmed glass.

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Chocolate and Pear “Donut” had specks of gold all over it which created the most visually stunning edible ever, unfortunately, the photo doesn’t do it justice at all. With chicory, kecap manis caramel, fresno chile and puffed rice.

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The item I was most looking forward to was Macadamia and Black Sesame Dumpling. New years generally includes “tong yuen” which is a mochi based dumpling with a filling of some sort, traditionally, peanut, black sesame or red bean. I wanted only a bite but it was a difficult task so I popped the entire thing in my mouth.

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Even though our meal was part of a celebration that can’t be duplicated, you can visit Lukshon and put together your own lunar new year dinner, or, any time of the year. That ramen is to-die-for and should not be missed.

Lukshon
3239 Helms Avenue
Culver City, CA 90034
Tel: 310-202-6808

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