Al Bacio successfully delivers authentic Italian

In December of last year, we visited Al Bacio for a media preview. There were so many people and the meal felt rushed and I was uninspired by the whole experience. I generally do not like to gauge a restaurant by a media tasting alone anyway, preferring to return again on my own at a later date. By visiting again several months later also gives the restaurant and its staff a chance to work out any opening hiccups they might have had during the preview.

So we returned recently to re-visit Chef Christian Simionato, previously sous chef at Pelican Hill Resort’s Andrea Ristorante, and give it another try. We find Al Bacio offering a menu of dishes showcasing the best of regional Italian cuisine with a myriad of top quality ingredients imported directly from Italy.

Al Bacio

While we perused the menu, a basket of bread arrives. There is a house-made focaccia and surprise surprise, slices of a rustic loaf from Orange County’s premier bakery, OC Baking Company! When asked why he didn’t source bread right there in LA, Simionato’s response was “I give my customers the best of every ingredient, so why not the bread also”.

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An amuse bouche of gianchette (whitebait) with artichoke is served in a jar with a thin piece of crisp bread. It was definitely an “amuse” to my “bouche” with its tangy bursts tantalizing my tastebuds.

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I love octopus and have been known to order it whenever it is on the menu. Therefore, it was a no brainer that Polipo all Griglia ($15) would be the logical choice to kick the meal off with. Octopus, which has first been braised, is finished off on the grill for a char, intensifying its flavors tremendously. Paired with a red pepper bagnetto — red pepper sauce — and a lightly dressed mixed green salad, make sure you gather all three components for each mouthful as they work together in perfect harmony.

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Scallo Scottate in Padella ($16) is a dish of seared scallops with Sicilian caponata and topped with to-die-for crispy pancetta. No additional words are required.

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If you’ve never had white asparagus, you won’t know how delicate and sublime it tastes. However, if you have, then its distinctively aromas will hit you immediately. Vellutata di Asparagi Bianchi ($13) is a white asparagus soup finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and topped with a sauteed spot prawn. We mmm-ed and ahh-ed with each spoonful and I delighted in sucking on the spot prawn head drawing out every last bit of its umami goodness.

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If you don’t order the way we do when you dine out, and you’ve only a three course meal planned (or just an entree), I highly suggest a pasta dish. Tagliatelle al Ragu di Agnello ($18) is a good choice simply because the tagliatelle is made in-house and served with a lamb ragu enveloped in a rich hearty savory sauce.

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Or, if you’re looking for a “secondi” course as they do in Italy, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16) is perfect for you to share. A simple, yet utterly delicious spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, you will want to eat mouthful after mouthful, and won’t be able to stop.

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Moving on to entrees, I was intrigued by Orata “al Cartoccio” ($30), a whole sea bream “al cartoccio”, meaning it is wrapped in parchment paper like “en papillote” in French cuisine. The fish is de-boned and stuffed with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, black Taggiasca olives into its cavity. The result is moist, flaky flesh with the beautiful amalgamation of flavors from the vegetables. I ate the entire fish — well, almost!

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Meat lovers should find Guancia di Manzo Brasata al Barbaresco ($29) incredibly satisfying. Beef cheeks braised in Barbaresco (wine) is so tender you wouldn’t need a knife to cut it. The “mulino sobrino” polenta is light, perfectly textured for me, although a little too thin for my dining companion. The sauce is rich and I wanted more of it to accompanying the sauteed mushrooms with.

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The unassuming restaurant sits on the very busy Sunset Blvd. Drive a little faster and you will miss it completely. However, if you take a moment and step inside, you’ll find some heartwarming and very stellar dishes that will surely surprise and tantalize you.

Al Bacio
8741 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: 310-657-1182

Al Bacio Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Lantern Cafe has decent oxtail pho

Aside

My friends and I are always thrilled to check out a new restaurant. My girlfriend who lives in the area spotted this new Vietnamese restaurant and we decided it was going to be our next lunch destination. I meet up with these gals once every few weeks and it’s not only a time for us to share a meal, but also, share the on- goings in our lives we wanted to talk about. Lantern Cafe was a no-frills place located in the same strip mall as The Meat House. The decor is sparse but it was clean and service attentive.

We started with Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn $4.50), fresh rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, vermecelli rolled in rice paper. The accompanying hoisin based sauce is good, topped with crushed peanuts.

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The Spring Rolls (chả giò $4.95) are fried perfectly crispy and I like them rolled with the lettuce and cilantro they provide you with on the plate. The nuoc mam dipping sauce is mild and subtle but sufficed especially with a squirt of sriracha.

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I saw Lotus Stem Salad (Gỏi Ngó Sen $9.95) on the menu and was immediately excited. Unfortunately, this was the only disappointing dish we ordered (or should I say, “I ordered”) as the lotus stems were scarce and there was a ton of daikon cut the same size as the lotus stem tossed in to make it look like there was more. They were generous with the cha siu (barbecued pork) and shrimp, but I wanted more lotus stem and there wasn’t much of it — yes I picked through it!

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We were very excited about Oxtail Pho (Phở Duôi Bò $7.75) on the menu. Very few restaurants outside of Westminster serve oxtail pho, and having said that, only a handful of the thousands of restaurants in Little Saigon offer oxtail pho. The one here is decent and the broth is flavorful. There wasn’t much MSG detected either so that’s a plus!

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I’m a huge fan of Claypot Rice (Cơm Tay Cầm $8.75) so to find it here was great. The toppings on the rice were flavorful with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables including baby corn. I was hoping for some crispy rice on the bottom of the claypot but there was none to be found.

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Combination Chow Fun (Hủ Tiếu Xào Thập Cẩm $9.50) was actually very tasty albeit some of the noodles were clumped up. One thing I noticed is they do not skimp on ingredients. There was ample chicken, vegetables and cha siu (barbecued pork) on the plate.

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The food here is decent. Little Saigon it definitely is not, but when I don’t feel like driving out there, this place suffices, especially when I’m in the mood for oxtail pho.

Lantern Cafe
103 E 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Tel: 949-515-9090

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visiting the original Cafe 21

Two years ago, I was introduced to Cafe 21 at Gaslamp and fell in love with it instantly. Since that initial visit, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to it, each time with gratifying meals shared with friends and loved ones. So it was indeed an exciting day for me to visit Cafe 21’s original location at University Heights and introducing my best friend to it for the first time! I’d been raving about the food ever since that first time and now it was time to share it.

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This location is cozy and ever so quaint. I’ve always loved the eclectic nature of Cafe 21 and here, it is even more evident with vivid Moroccan and Turkish themes throughout. Naturally, we began with some cocktails — even though it was lunch — and I suggested one of their famous Sangrias ($9/glass) made in-house….. I, on the other hand, opted for their green Bloody Mary ($14) made with green tomatillo, instead of the traditional tomato juice base, infused with spicy vodka.

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I had seen a photo of the Cafe 21 Breakfast Board ($17) on Facebook the day before, and couldn’t get my mind off it. Therefore, it was the only way to kick off our brunch that day. Two pieces of filet mignon, house-cured salmon, beet infused egg, Venissimo cheeses: Big Rock Blue (from Paso Robles) and Bucherondin (one of the first French goat cheeses exported to the US), pistachios, cranberries, rhubarb compote and lavash complete the platter. I love the presentation, staying true to the Moorish theme.

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Flight of Mimosa ($18) at the next table caught our eye and of course it was too pretty to miss out on.

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I have enjoyed the Cafe 21 “cakes” before but never the Chicken Curry ($13) option. Shredded roasted chicken breast tossed in yellow curry, bits of celery, red onion and saffron cream sauce was delicious as is, but topped with two perfectly runny poached eggs? That made it as decadent as it was tasty. We both oooo-ed and ahhh-ed as we took a mouthful proclaiming it one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. The oozing poached eggs were just the icing on the cake (no pun intended).

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I love Dutch baby pancakes and here, they offer it two ways. Savory Cast Iron Pancake ($11) is baked with house made sausage, bell peppers, onion, tomato, rosemary and goat cheese served with a house made ajika (red pepper sauce). Reminiscent of a mix between a pancake and quiche, the texture was very pleasing and ajika adds another level of depth to the dish. It keeps well too so take your leftovers home for the following day!

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The sweet version — Drunken Cherry Cast Iron Pancake ($14) — is a Dutch-style pancake baked with Bourbon soaked cherries and served with a tart raspberry sauce. The pancake itself wasn’t sweet which totally appealed to my palate. The raspberry sauce was more like a puree than a sauce and was perfect as an accompaniment for the pancake, but we were discussing how it would be great over some vanilla ice cream as well.

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We were stuffed, but ended the meal with Creme Brulee Cheesecake ($8) something I’m more than familiar with. I’ve had it the traditional way and also, pumpkin style during the holidays. The version here has a layer of custard giving it a different mouth-feel which we both liked a lot. The side of Blackberry Cabernet Sorbet ($4) was incredibly refreshing and a perfect end to the perfect meal.

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Although both locations have almost an identical menu, you will find several dishes exclusive to each location. I’m excited for the new Gaslamp location in a few months, and will definitely return to see what it has in store for all of us who love this place so much.

Cafe 21 — North Park
2836 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-640-2121

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

Tommy Bahama’s Fish Fridays + giveaway

It’s been a while since I last dined at Tommy Bahama Island Grille. I love the tropical atmosphere and on this day, we opted to sit out on the patio to take advantage of the glorious day we were having here in southern California. The cool breeze made for a very leisurely afternoon indeed. The restaurant has launched Fish Fridays which offers an array of fish dishes for lent and will run until April 18th.

Even though it was lunch, we decided to have a drink because it was just too beautiful a day not to. Raspberries & Rye ($12) with Old Overholt, orange, lime, orange bitters, fresh muddled raspberries was fruity yet strong at the same time. If you like rye whiskey, this is the drink for you. I, on the other hand, loved the Mango Habanero Margarita ($12) complete with Milagro Silver, orange Curacao, mango, scratch sour, habanero and Hellfire Habanero Shrub. Fruity and spicy! Right up my alley.

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If you’re looking for good fish and chips, the one here is stellar but you’ll have to visit on a Friday for this. Stone IPA Battered True Cod Fish & Chips ($18) has really fresh fish pieces dipped in batter and served small enough to eat by hand. The fish is moist and flaky and the batter is seasoned well. Served with a Oaxacan chili vinegar, it was a perfect accompaniment, a Callifornian version of malt vinegar, if you will. The jerk seasoned fries were so addicting we couldn’t stop eating them.

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New Zealand Green Lip Mussels ($16) was incredible and I’m so happy this will be served every single day until the end of the month! Perfectly tender and wonderfully plump, the mussels were spot on in texture and flavor. The miso broth, with hints of tarragon was so umami-filled if was difficult to not fight for every last drop of that broth. I dipped the accompanying garlic grilled baguette into it and left the plate clean.

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I was surprised to see such a generous portion when the Blackened Fish Tacos ($16.50) arrived. I’ve never had these before even though it’s a permanent item on the menu. Topped with a tomato relish, chipotle aioli, lime sour cream and a refreshing Asian slaw, I could only eat 2 of these tacos if I ate nothing else. The tortilla is a special blend of flour and corn giving it a really unique chewy texture. A side of mango salsa adds a sweet tart finish to these awesome tacos.

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Another great fish dish is the Teriyaki Grilled Steelhead Salmon ($24). I loved the citrus soy dressing which looked like it could be too sweet, but I was happy to find that it was salty tart. The baby pea sprout salad was very creative as was the baby bok choy which add more greens but in a unique way to go low carb. This will also be available every single day before they take them off the menu! The mussels are calling my name!

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One of the dessert specials was Hawaiian Malasadas ($6), sugar-coated doughnuts served with a tropical fruit curd. The tart curd was heavy on passionfruit flavors which made us very happy. This was indeed the ideal way to finish an absolutely delightful lunch al fresco!

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Tommy Bahama is offering one of my readers a $100 giftcard to go check them out. Leave me a comment and tell me how you will be celebrating with your giftcard to be entered in this giveaway. Entries close on Sunday 23rd. Good Luck!

Tommy Bahama Island Grille
854 Avocado Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 949-760-8686

Tommy Bahama's Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

Ikko disappoints in a major way

It has been almost five years since I last visited Ikko. I remember the reason why we didn’t come back was due to their inflexibility when we dined with my son who wasn’t as savvy an eater as he is today. Ikko was one of those places which didn’t allow substitutions of any kind, nor will they make an exception when you’re dining with children. We ended up venturing to other Japanese restaurants which were more kid-friendly and I guess, just didn’t come back again.

Last night, we came here for a friend’s birthday. It really upset me a lot for me to stay up all night to write this. I took a look at my old Yelp reviews and saw that I had lavished them with a 5-star rating two times before, but sadly, after this visit, that had to be dropped immediately.

It started off rather well. The Carpaccio of Salmon ($15.75) with squid cartilage rolled within the slices was delicious with a sour plum sauce which brightened the salmon and enhanced its flavor.

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Assorted Fish Bones and Fish Skin Crackers ($2.95) — which we were told when ordering is only fish skin and no fish bones — is really tasty. Crispy like chicharron, but so much healthier for you. This I would totally order again.

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Then came an array of miso soups. Mushroom Miso ($3.25), Baby Clam Miso ($3.85) and Shizimi [sic] Clam ($3.50). The mushroom miso was overly salty but both of the clam miso soups had a balanced flavor. My only issue with the baby clams was that they were gritty. I got mouthful after mouthful of sand from eating the clams.

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We also ordered both the chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) choices offered. Sea Urchin sauce & Black Truffle Chawanmushi ($8.75) was a waste of uni as the sliver was steamed along with the egg making it a crusty mess. Its texture was awful and was more for show than taste.

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Chawanmushi with Crab & Mochi ($7.50) was bland and frankly, the simple version I make at home from time to time is better than this.

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I was glad to have a decent dish arrive at the table. Japanese Eggplant Tempura with Wasabi Smelt Eggs and Spicy Tuna ($13.95) was a nice mouthful with beautiful textures and good flavors.

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Black Truffle & Seared Beef Tongue Carpaccio ($20) topped with a soft boiled egg on top was literally, four mouthfuls. I remember lamenting about the four pieces of wagyu we had at Ink but this is far worse because tongue is not an expensive cut of protein. Perhaps the minuscule bits of truffle warranted the price of this dish, but my mouth doesn’t agree. The tongue was overcooked and chewy and no amount of seasonings could take away from that.

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We also ordered some sushi including uni, blue fin toro, welk and black sea bream. The total of our sushi order alone was $76.90. The only thing I liked was the welk. The uni and toro had no umami whatsoever. The sea bream was okay, but none of it was seasoned correctly and they do not allow soy sauce at this restaurant.

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Smoked Orange Clam Adductor with wasabi ($4.50) was nothing special. It tasted like overcooked scallops.

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One of the best items of the night was Carpaccio of Octopus ($10.50) topped with a yuzu kosho vinaigrette topped with fried leek shards. I love yuzu kosho so the flavors were very pleasing. The octopus was also nice and tender.

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Deep Fried Soft Shell Shrimp ($11) was also good. There were quite a few things layered on top of roasted zucchini rounds including three cheese sauce, sweet and sour red pepper and green tea salt, then topped with a fried soft shell shrimp.

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The biggest disappointment of the night was Grilled Channel Rock Fish ($12) with saikyo miso (a yellow miso paste from the Kyoto/Kansai region of Japan) and plum soy milk espuma (foam). The fish was overcooked and very tough. One would think with miso and plum soy milk, the end result would be one that was salty with some tartness, but the overall product was just bland. The fish needed salt and was such a let down on the palate.

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I think the general consensus was, if you’re going to be dictatorial about soy sauce (they do not allow soy sauce) or other condiments on the table, or even when asked, then season your food properly. It is highly frustrating when you are in the hands of chefs who do not salt proteins correctly.

We did end with two desserts, the Rose Ice Cream ($4.75) with rose petal tempura topped with rose sugar sounded good on paper. I did not like the icicles in the ice cream at all. The rose sugar was devoid of any rose, not even a hint.

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The Black Sesame Ice Cream ($4.50) with hot coffee and sesame seed paste sounded so good and I think we expected it to arrive like affogato would. Unfortunately, the plate arrives with a small scoop of ice cream already inside the pool of hot coffee. The ice cream was melting rapidly and I was lucky to get a shot of it before everyone dug in before it disintegrated.

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A subpar meal paired with lazy service just puts me over the edge. I don’t expect you to be at my table every five minutes asking me if my food is okay, but what I absolutely DO expect is that you check to see if my water needs to be refilled every 15 to 20 minutes. Or perhaps you can stop by to see if any empty plates needed to be removed? When our desserts arrived, our table was filled with empty plates which I had taken the liberty to stack, hoping they would take them away.

What really was the icing on the cake (not in a good way) was the $300 check at the end of it all.

Ikko
735 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-556-7822

Ikko Sushi on Urbanspoon

waterfront dining at Sea 180º Coastal Tavern

I met a new friend at the end of last year, at a holiday party, and we had been trying to organize a meal together. A new restaurant, Sea 180º Coastal Tavern, was suggested and I made my way down to San Diego to find al fresco dining at its best, right on the beach! There is nothing better than that on a clear day in southern California, and although I don’t like sitting directly in the sun, I like the visuals of the ocean, boats and the horizon in a distance.

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I was surprised to find Sea 180º Coastal Tavern located within the Autograph Collection by Marriott in Imperial Beach, but this boutique hotel offers the privacy of a secluded beach with unobstructed views of the ocean, not easily found in tourist-ridden San Diego. The restaurant reminds me of a chic gastropub, but the only difference is, the ocean is right outside. Every single table offers that gorgeous view, so regardless of where you’re sitting, you won’t miss out.

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The menu is also well represented by offerings that appeals to a wide variety of palates. Since it was lunch, I didn’t look at the wine list, but the Ginger Swizzle ($5) was a refreshing light ginger beer infused with pomegranate and blueberry syrup and bitters.

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The first thing that caught everyone’s eye was  Huevos “Diablos” Truffled Duck Eggs ($9.95). I didn’t realize it was a deviled egg-style dish utilizing duck eggs as its base until it hit the table. Topped with crispy house smoked ham and chives on a bed of frisee lettuce, these eggs were creamy with well textured egg whites. 

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Another item which stood out was Smoked Beef Tongue ($12.95). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was thinly sliced, served warm with cherry mustard and cornichons on the side. The tongue is smoked in-house and even though the presentation could have been a little better, it was tender with lovely smoky aromas.

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Hearth Baked Clam Flat Bread ($11.95) is assembled “white” style topped with clams, oyster mushrooms and garlic. The chewy base is good and I liked how it was different to the familiar tomato based toppings usually found on flatbreads.

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Green Olive Pesto Calamari ($9.95) was outstanding. Both the rings and tentacles were perfectly cooked without a hint of toughness. We all agreed that calamari served au naturel without being fried was the best way to go. The savory sauce adhered to the zucchini noodles very well making it an all around delicious item — I wish I didn’t have to share this!

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The Fired Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($8.95) was a huge hit. Tossed in a balsamic glaze and bits of house smoked crispy ham, the hints of sweetness paired with saltiness was too enticing on the palate. We couldn’t stop eating it.

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I chuckled when I saw Duck “Canarditas” ($15.95) and thought it was such a smart name for it — ‘canard’ is duck in French. Caramelized onions, pineapple salsa, aged goat cheese all come together to make this a gourmet taco indeed. Salty with hints of sweet and tart were perfect accompaniments for the duck.

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Seafood Pot Pie ($12.95) was not your traditional pot pie. Comprising a blend of fresh seafood including fish, shrimp and scallops, there is also carrots, fennel, salsify and saffron, all topped off with an Old Bay spiced crust.

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If you’re looking for something different, or just to escape from it all, come for a meal and pretend you’re on vacation for a few hours. Diners receive 3 hours complimentary parking underneath the hotel with validation.

Sea 180º Coastal Tavern
800 Seacoast Drive
Imperial Beach, CA 91932
Tel: 619-631-4949

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