Pine and Crane warms my soul

Several months ago, while spending the day with my BFF up in LA, we decided to have lunch at Pine and Crane, a restaurant I had read about located in Silverlake. A few weeks ago, while up in LA for a conference, I returned again and decided to see if my return visit warranted the same love I felt on my first trip here. It absolutely did.

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It is hard not to love Pine and Crane. From the moment you step inside the clean, minimalistic decor of this modern eatery, a feeling of serenity washes over you. Pick up a menu by the door, and when you’re ready, walk up to the counter and order.

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On my first visit, we order Dan Dan Noodles ($7.50), usually served cold or at room temperature. The one here is warm, tossed with a sesame peanut sauce, chili oil and topped with julienned cucumbers and crushed peanuts. We order this on the second visit as well and I noticed a lot more noodles this time around, not always a good thing because there wasn’t enough sauce to go with it. The noodles are delicious and nicely al dente.

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Beef Roll ($6) is the staple of any respectable Taiwanese meal at a restaurant. The one here is very tasty, but on the small side. Usually, when ordering this at a restaurant, I like to have at least three to four people to finish this. Here, you can easily polish an order off on your own. The pancake is not greasy and the beef not overly sweet. Just perfect. (please excuse this photo as I took it with my phone).

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“San bei ji” is Three Cup Jidori Chicken ($12) while I love this dish, traditionally, it is served bone-in and tedious to eat. Here, only chunks of chicken meat is used with one of the lightest, yet so very flavorful soy and rice wine sauce combos around. Chinese basil (or Thai basil) adds to the aroma of this savory dish. We loved it (sorry, this photo was taken with my phone too).

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On my subsequent visit, we enjoyed Zha Jiang Noodles ($8), something my mother makes all the time when I was growing up. Here, a ground Kurobuta pork with black bean sauce mix sits atop the noodles with julienned cucumbers and scallions. It tastes pretty close to my mother’s version and the best part? The hints of fresh garlic! — at home, we would take a nibble off a fresh clove of garlic and then a bite of noodles.

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I love Mapo Tofu ($9) and even though I try to make it at home, it never quite comes out the way I want it to. Here, bits of ground Kurobota pork is nestled between the soft cubes of tofu seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns. It is not greasy at all! In fact, everything here is not greasy, a really difficult feat to make Chinese food taste good at a restaurant.

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Don’t forget to order some greens, which comes from the owners’ farm in Bakersfield. Sweet Potato Leaves ($6) is my favorite as I don’t often find it at the farmers market. So tasty and addicting I can polish an entire plate on my own.

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We didn’t eat the next two items, but I asked some people sitting at the next table if I could take a photo of theirs. Pork Dumplings ($5) look just the ones I’m used to eating — very respectable! I’m definitely trying these next time.

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Beef Noodle Soup ($9) is usually on the oily side, but I did not detect a drop of oil in this bowl of deep, dark, beef broth swimming with beef shank, baby bok choy and preserved mustard greens. I wish I was bold enough to ask if I could taste it — but that would have been rude.

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Pine and Crane is one of those places I wish was right here in Irvine, but then again, I’ll be broke because I would eat here every single week — maybe even several times a week!

Pine and Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Tel: 323-668-1128

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a long awaited revisit to Quinn’s Old Town Grill

The last time I was at Quinn’s Old Town Grill was seven years ago, and according to my Yelp review dated May of that year, I was not impressed. Last week, some friends decided to gather here for brunch and I was skeptical, but joined in mostly out of curiosity, but also, because I had heard that the restaurant had undergone some changes including a management and staff overhaul.

We arrived at 10am on a Sunday to find the place completely packed in both dining rooms as well as the patio. It was definitely bustling with even the bar stools taken up by customers.

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I wasn’t interested in drinking so early in the morning, but my friends were, so a round of Bloody Marys ($8.75) and Mimosas ($11.95 free flowing) were ordered. The other thing I’d like to mention is that the busboys fill the water glasses up with ice, which is a huge plus. I hate room temperature water and always have to ask for ice. I loved how I didn’t have to do that here.

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But I was famished as usual, and could not wait to dig into some food. The kitchen was on the slow side this morning but when the food started to hit the table, I was not disappointed.

One of my usual gauges for breakfast is always eggs Benedict. We decide to steer away from the traditional, and instead, opt for the Irish Benedict ($11.50) with corned beef rather than the Canadian ham we are all familiar with. The corned beef is a great choice — tender, moist, and not overly salty. I loved the hints of citrus in the Hollandaise sauce, something I’m really picky about. My only complaint is the slightly overcooked poached eggs, but overall, I was happy with this dish.

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Corned Beef Hash ($10.25) is something I shun because so many restaurants open a can of mush and call it corned beef. These days, there is dog food that is far more sophisticated than a can of Libby’s and just the smell of the canned stuff makes my stomach turn. You won’t have to worry about that here. The generous chunks of house-made corned beef is interspersed with chunks of potatoes — not all smashed together might I add — is hearty and very good. It is what I will compare all corned beef hash to in the future.

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I am a huge fan of sausages and therefore, when someone ordered Bangers & Eggs ($10.95) I did not object. The bangers are grilled, albeit required a few more minutes on the flattop, possessed nice flavors and definitely something I would order again.

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We could not leave without trying the Chicken & Waffles ($13.50) and it was absolutely stellar, with perfect crispiness on the outside and juiciness on the inside. Why would I need to drive to Roscoe’s when Quinn’s offers up a comparable option so close by? The other thing worth mentioning is that the waffle is indescribably good. I am not a fan of waffles and I could not stop eating it especially slathered with the butter and a drizzle of syrup. The salty sweet gooey softness was addicting.

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Since it was brunch, some lunch items were also featured including the very stellar Alaskan Cod Fish & Chips ($14.50/2pc or $15.75/3pc). The fish is nice and flaky, very moist, and I was okay with the amount of coating although just a hint less would be even better. The most impressive thing was the perfectly cooked steak fries. Each piece was browned well and stayed crispy throughout the meal.

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The only dish I did not care for was the Patty Melt ($10.95) which comprised of an under-seasoned Black Angus beef patty topped with grilled onions and cheddar cheese. The menu stated Jewish rye bread, but it arrived on white. The entire sandwich lacked flavor and texture, with the bread not completely toasted all the way through. I took the leftovers home, warmed it up in a pan so it crisped up and added some spicy mustard to it. It was definitely far tastier this way.

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I am glad my friend lured me back to Quinn’s. The food has definitely improved tremendously. Make no mistake that this is indeed old school dining, even so, a little work to improve the plating is definitely needed in the near future.

Quinn’s Old Town Grill
405 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: 714-731-2263

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Sea and Smoke — San Diego

I had seen friends posting about Sea & Smoke for quite a while now, so on a recently visit to San Diego, we decided to stop in for dinner to check it out. It is right off the 5 freeway in Del Mar in a plaza I’m quite familiar with. The restaurant is impressive which puzzles me why they have chosen this spot to open. But then, we see Cucina Enoteca just down the way in the same plaza. I guess the whole place is getting a face-lift with new restaurants and renovations.

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The interior is classic but modern, the bar area seems to be the most popular spot with people hanging out and converging. However, my favorite area is the outside courtyard, reminiscent of a beautiful garden on a luscious estate. The color scheme also makes for a rather relaxing experience.

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We settled in for an early dinner beginning with some cocktails. Barolo Manhattan Rye with Barolo Chinato and House Bitters ($12) and a Kentucky Punch Bourbon ($9)  refreshing and light with citrus, green tea and wine.

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Although I was not able to partake in the Oysters Del Mar ($15), my son devoured his portion with gusto. These broiled oysters smelled incredible prepared with a spinach mornay, topped with parsley bread crumbs and of course bacon.

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I’ll always order octopus when I see it, I just can’t help it. Charred Octopus ($13) was flavored nicely, all the way through even at the thickest part. Roasted ancho pepper romesco is a good accompaniment and made for a colorful plate, but I did not feel it was required. Warm frisee, golden raisins and green olives seemed a strange pairing at first, but worked well together. The octopus was slightly over-charred in some areas, but on the whole, a lovely dish.

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Creamed Polenta ($16) is one of those vegetarian dishes even a carnivore will love. In fact, it was so good I had not one complaint about it, except how huge the portion was — not really a negative, I know. Topped with an incredible tomato eggplant caponata, currants, green olive, rapini and parmesan, I’m not sure the currants added much except to give it a little sweetness, but it was perfect without.

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We were looking for some entrees with more protein involved and naturally, the boy leaned towards the Niman Ranch Burger ($13). I took a bite of it and was highly impressed by the perfectly medium rare temperature — as we had ordered it. The smoked onion jam was robust and so rich on the palate. Using both Swiss and cheddar cheeses also added to the decadence of this burger. Definitely a respectable dish all around. You can add bacon or avocado for an extra $2 each.

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I ordered the Local White Seabass ($25) and was delighted to find it perfectly executed. The outside was well-seared and the inside remained moist and fork-tender. Accoutrements of black olives, orange and fennel worked together and the brown butter potato puree was light.

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I really enjoyed our meal here and was elated that the chef put together a menu with ingredients I don’t ordinarily see together, and didn’t think would work together. Definitely a worthy dining choice when you are down San Diego way.

Sea and Smoke
2690 Via Mar Valle
Del Mar, CA 92014
Tel: 858-925-8212

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celebrations at Habana

It is a little shocking that I’m not able to find a website for Habana in this day and age. I’ll have to admit, it’s been many years since I was last here. In fact, I’m thinking more than six years ago, perhaps, even longer. I remember my that meal, with a friend from San Francisco who asked to eat at Habana, so I complied.

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Last week, we were here for a friend’s birthday and even though I remember the food to be hit and miss, I have to agree, this is a perfect spot for a celebration with a group. We begin at the bar with a round of drinks: Raspberry Mojito ($11) Rican Soul ($10) Sangria Roja ($9) — all tasty and rather strong.

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Shortly after, we move onto the patio where the atmosphere is lively and bustling, so very different from the dining room itself. Another round of drinks and we settle in to some complimentary buns which arrive on the table before our appetizers arrive.

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Spanish Flatbread ($12) sounds better on paper than it is in reality. The bread portion is very dry and the longer it sits on the table, the worse it gets. The toppings of goat cheese, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and finished with fresh rosemary is good.

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Handmade Empanadas ($8) are decent. We order both the chicken and vegetarian versions. Drizzled with crema fresca with an accompanying ramekin of banana-habanero dipping sauce, the mixture of sweet and spicy is pleasant.

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My to-go-to dish at Habana is always Ropa Vieja ($17), shredded Cuban beef pot roast with peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes. The maduros (plantain) on this dish is crispy rather than grilled or sauteed. Served with black beans and white rice, I like both the starches, however the dish itself is not as tasty as I remember.

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One of my favorites of the evening is Skirt Steak-Estillo Churrasco ($24) a well-seasoned piece of skirt steak, first smoked, then grilled, and topped with chimichurri and grilled red onion. I ask for more chimichurri as there isn’t enough for all the steak on the plate.  I like the Spanish rice, but it is the grilled chile lime corn on the cob with cotija that wins hands down.

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The rest of the dishes are all new to me. El Puerco Primo ($18) is a generous pork osso-buco first slow roasted and then flash fried. Garlic mashed potatoes and braised bacon collard greens accompany and it is the latter that I wish there is more of — maybe an entire bowl? The greens are seriously flavorful and prepared perfectly!

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I am never sure it is a good idea to order paella in the US, although there are a handful of places which offer a passable one. Paella a la Habana ($22) is by no means authentic, but still, we agree it is tasty. Marinated chicken, Bilbao chorizo (spicy semi-cured sausage), green peas, black tiger shrimp, fresh fish, mussels and clams served with saffron rice. The chicken is a tad dry and the seafood sparse, however, if you don’t go into it expecting a traditional paella, you won’t be disappointed.

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Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the Vegetarian Tamale Pie ($16), a baked seasoned polenta dish topped with melted cheddar, fire roasted tomato salsa, jalapeno cream sauce. Served with maduros, sofrito black beans and white rice, it possessed all the flavors of a tamale, but blended together far better than a tamale ever would be.

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The Rum-Pepper Shrimp ($22) is one of three seafood items on the menu. It was a little under-seasoned but this is something I would order again. Plump black tiger shrimps are served in a Jamaican rum pepper cream sauce with red and green peppers (Cuban cuisine seems to have an abundance of peppers), with two whole crawfish which serve no purpose at all except to garnish the plate. This is a dish which had enough sauce for the accompanying rice, which is always a plus.

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If you pick the right dishes, your Habana experience will be very positive. If not, your meal might not be all that great, but you’ll still have a fun time because the drinks are good and the atmosphere, really engaging. Just choose your dishes wisely and all will be well.

Habana
2930 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-556-0176

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a new dawn has broken

It’s been a long three and a half month wait, at least, for those of us in the know. Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills has had to relocate due to the plaza’s remodeling efforts. Yesterday, the restaurant finally opened its doors a few spaces down from the old spot where Chef Dee Nguyen had been for over seven years.

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Those of you who know Chef Dee’s story are always humbled by it, those who don’t undoubtedly will be when they find out. On opening day, a lot of loyal customers and friends showed up to support this beloved eatery as soon as its doors were open at 8am sharp. When I arrived 20 minutes later, familiar faces had already comfortably settled at some tables perusing the menu and enjoying a cup of Joe.

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The familiar menu items remain with a few new additions. Sadly, my favorite dish of scampi is no longer, however, there are so many others to take its place, such as the Bacon and Eggs ($13) which sees house cured pork belly interspersed with tempura eggs, a pinch of Napa cabbage slaw and kimchi-spiced crema. The presentation is gorgeous and what follows in your mouth is equally exciting.

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Another new item is Beef Brisket ($18), an extremely generous portion enough to feed two (unless you’re super hungry or a hearty eater). Tongue ragu, ginger, King oyster mushrooms, and a few shimeiji, are thrown into the mix and served with two Merlot poached eggs. In my opinion, this is a dinner entree, not a breakfast item — kudos to you if you’re able to polish it off entirely.

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Smoked Ham ($13) is a new take on the original “green eggs and ham” and loved by all at the table. Diced smoked ham is tossed together with Brussels sprout hash drizzled with Thai basil-pesto Hollandaise and topped with soft poached eggs. The oozing egg yolk adds a rich, creamy dimension to the smokiness of the ham and potatoes.

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One of my favorites on the menu, Sausage and Rice ($13), remain. Incredibly savory Hawaiian sausage served with Vietnamese rice is enough on their own, but add to that the fresh crunch of green papaya slaw and runny fried eggs — perfection on a plate! My Asian roots definitely approves of eating rice for breakfast.

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Though not one of my favorites, Skillet ($14), a Break of Dawn favorite, I knew this would be left on the menu, or else, would cause a furor among BoD loyalists. A sizzling hot plate of roasted new potatoes, cheddar poached eggs, bacon topped with chipotle sour cream is a hefty meal even for the biggest of appetites. Chef Dee says this is one of the top three sellers of all time and will most probably always stay on the menu.

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Another of my favorites is Smoked Salmon ($15) with a crispy oatmeal pancake, herb poached egg, fennel and preserved kumquat. Although the accoutrements are a touch different to before, the dish stayed very true to the original — I hope this never leaves the menu either.

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If you are an omelette fan, then the Ranchero Omelette ($13) is definitely your choice. Chorizo, charred tomatillo, epazote, queso fresco and avocado — all the ingredients that are needed to make it muy autentica!

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To finish (or to start), there is the Break of Dawn signature French Toast Creme Brulee ($16) of raisin brioche is torched before being topped with Mexican chocolate, chocolate-soy caramel and coconut! It may look super cloying and extremely sweet, but you’ll be surprised once you put a piece in your mouth.

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The thing with Break of Dawn is, you either love it or you don’t. There doesn’t seem to be middle ground when I hear people talk about it. The dishes which hold dear to my heart are always the ones I choose when I’m here, as I’m sure is the case for many of its regular customers. What is your favorite BoD dish?

Break of Dawn
24291 Avenida de la Carlota
Suite P4
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
Tel: 949-587-9418

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incredible fare at Pinot Provence

It saddens me to see how empty Pinot Provence is on the evening of our visit. I’ve always loved this restaurant, the service, its menu, albeit the decor is dated and in dire need of a make-over. However, I don’t need decor to enjoy great food and Executive Chef Alfonso Ramirez definitely excels in this department.

On Thursdays, a Chef’s Market Tasting Menu is offered and it changes according to availability at the farmers’ markets weekly. We decide to partake on this as well as eat those delicious Buffalo-style Frog Legs ($9/$5 on Fridays) I had sampled months ago. Only offered on the happy hour menu, which starts at 4pm, I was afraid we had missed happy hour when we arrived, but was thrilled to find out it goes all night long. These tender frog legs are subtly coated with buffalo dressing, allowing the tender frog legs to shine without being overpowered. The accompanying blue cheese dressing is airy, foamy and irresistible. I wanted to take it home, pour it all over mashed potatoes and eat it up — ask for more, they’ll bring you some!

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While perusing the happy hour menu, we spotted several other items we wanted to try. Escargot Provencal ($9) is one. Garlic, diced tomatoes, bread crumbs all play a part in seasoning, but it is the delicate snail which I taste. I would totally order this again.

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Asparagus Gratin ($9) is simple yet filled with bold flavors. A fried egg oozes over the asparagus adding a layer of richness, while toasted brown butter bread crumbs provide a texture contrast. The bits of frico (cheese crisps) topping the asparagus is to-die-for and I could have eaten a plate of it easily.

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Who can resist Truffle Mac n Cheese ($6) and the one here is unique using orecchiette pasta, and possessing only a hint of truffle. The beauty of Chef Alfonso’s cuisine is his balance of flavors, never allowing one ingredient to overpower another, creating a harmony in each bite.

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Moving on to our Chef’s Market Tasting Menu ($75/person, +$40 wine pairing), first course of Asparagus Buttermilk Vichyssoise with burrata and pea shoots is old school with a modern twist. Micro-greens and ribbons of shaved asparagus over a dollop of lemon oil infused burrata is gentle doused in a bath of lusciously silky liquid. Rich on the palate but essentially, very light and immensely gratifying.

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Fresh Cucumber Taziki is a salad of cucumbers both shaved and in chunks. Tossed with lime, crushed pistachios, dill, coriander seeds in a citrusy vinaigrette, it is a great refreshing palate cleanser in between courses.

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I was a little skeptical when I saw Halibut on the menu. It is not a fish I generally order, but I should have been more trusting in Chef Alfonso’s abilities. The halibut is perfectly poached, then finished in the pan creating a beautiful crust. It is paired with carrots three-ways: braised carrots, carrot hummus — a little heavy on the cumin for the delicate fish — and shaved carrots. I especially loved the green olive tomato relish, sauce vierge and pesto accoutrements.

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However, the Venison was the piece de resistence of the evening. The perfectly executed piece of meat, at a medium rare temperature, was so tender we thought was sous vide, but after asking Chef Alfonso, found out that he is not a fan of sous vide (yet another reason why I love the guy). He said “I’m old school!”

The accompanying carrot-infused steel oats were addicting, albeit, a little sweet for the mild venison. Ramps, fava, and a violet mustard of shallot, garlic, olive oil agrodolce rounded the dish off smashingly.

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To finish off, we enjoyed the really delightful Smores! A milk chocolate chantilly dessert coated with marshmallow fluff which is then torched, and served with graham crumble and chocolate pop rocks. The pop rocks are so much fun I keep picking them out and giggling at the sensation they made in my mouth!

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Today is Thursday so make your way to Pinot Provence tonight for the Chef’s Market Tasting Menu. You won’t regret it!

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

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