Counterpoint San Diego is right on point

It isn’t often I walk away from a meal that makes me feel so utterly happy inside. A meal that is consistently good — no, great! — and the food, service, everything about the entire experience is simply top notch. This is one of those times.

Counterpoint in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood has been in business for five years and I’m not surprised that the place is pretty packed on a Saturday night. The atmosphere is casual but absolutely inviting, with a great soundtrack of 70s and 80s’ hits playing one after another on the night of our visit.

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We start with some cocktails: Florida Canyon ($9) to satiate my thirst for tequila, and Counterpoint Gin & Tonic ($9) simply because I am intrigued by the house made tonic paired with the restaurant’s take on the traditional Plymouth gin and tonic. The Rancho Allegre Blanco tequila libation, with pineapple, ginger, sage and lime juice is great, but the gin and tonic wins hand down — I finish it quickly.

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Owner Cam Fomby walk by and stopped to chat for a few minutes. I have many questions which I ply him and he graciously answers them all. An ex-marine with no prior restaurant experience, I am curious, and at the same time, intrigued. He is passionate, that’s for sure, and he is definitely excited about chef Rose Peyron, previously at Alchemy, where I enjoyed a great meal earlier this year. But is is when Fomby tells me all he wants is in “making ordinary things, extraordinary” that my ears perk up and I keep this at the back of my mind throughout my meal.

Our first course of Burratta Salad ($12) arrives with arugula, tomato, dollops of gooey burrata, and smoked almonds. The unique element on the plate is the accompanying leek-bread pudding croutons made in-house — words which will resonate throughout the post.

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Next is Southern Fried Cauliflower ($7) with perfectly fried florets first soaked in a buttermilk marinade, then seasoned with creole spice. The coating is light but flavorful. The honey-hot sauce is slightly sweet with a lovely kick at the end. Pair everything together and it is a delicious mouthful. Definitely a must-order!

fried cauliflower

I always order rillettes because I love it, so Beef Cheek Rillettes ($8) — made in-house — is in order. The smoked beef cheek arrives topped with tomato confit in a mason jar. Toasted baguette — from Bread & Cie, one of my favorite bakeries in San Diego — is a lovely vehicle for the rillettes. Add a little of the grain mustard served alongside.

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Pickles are near and dear to my heart — anything salty and sour actually — therefore Pickle Jar ($5) is not to be missed. A creative assortment of house-pickled vegetables and fruit, which include blueberries, grapes, carrots, wax and cannellini beans, which surprised even me. I’ve never eaten a pickled blueberry or grape before and the taste is strange upon first bite, but it quickly grows on you. An ideal palate cleanser after the unctuousness of the rillettes.

picked vegetables

At this point I am losing the light very quickly and am never thoroughly happy with my photos when there is a lack of natural lighting. So from here on out, the photos won’t be as pleasing, but the food continues to tantalize.

Mac n Cheese ($8) using orecchiette pasta and house-smoked aged cheddar, is rich and decadent. The cheese adds a hint of smokiness without overpowering. The best part is enjoying the left-overs a few days later.

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One of the most over-used vegetables right now is Brussels Sprouts ($7), but I have never been happier eating the ones here. My son takes one bite and says “these are way better than yours” and I’ll have to agree with him. Fried to a perfect char, they are then tossed in a kimchi sauce with a hint of sambal. Those are staple ingredients in my fridge but I don’t have the creativity to step outside of the bacon or pancetta box when it comes to preparing Brussels sprouts. This is one of the best things I’ve eaten in quite some time — simple and addicting.

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Moving on to entrees, the Smoked Duck Sausage Pasta ($15) is a definite hit. The sausage is made in-house with the right amount of seasonings and the ideal texture I want when it comes to sausage. A light lemon cream sauce coats the pappardelle (made fresh by Assenti’s Pasta in Little Italy) tossed with roasted mushrooms, a handful of arugula and shaved parmagiana reggiano. Absolutely to die for!

duck sausage

Sausage lovers can revel in Bangers & Mash ($15) — yes, the bangers are made in-house — with creamy brown butter mashed potatoes and a succulent onion-bacon stout jam. A heavenly, but immensely filling dish quintessential for the cooler weather. Is it bad I just want a few of the sausages and a side of those Brussels sprouts and call it a night?

bangers and mash

Beef Tongue Pastrami Sandwich ($13) is one of those things which can either be really good, or really bad because everyone loves pastrami, but tongue? The thinly sliced tongue is sandwiched between a rye roll along with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, spicy aioli and house pickles. The flavor profiles come together so harmoniously and I wish I have more room to take another bite. I end up eating it for lunch the next day after warming it up a tad in the toaster oven. Still good! And don’t forget the generous portion of house-made black pepper chips which sits alongside. You won’t be able to stop eating even half way through.

tongue pastramiIt has definitely been a while since my last encounter with a little restaurant where the chef takes pride in creating as much of the menu in-house as possible. Counterpoint is definitely impressive with tasty cocktails and solid fare, most of which are familiar, but take on a different approach. I think the menu is a clear indication that Cam Fomby’s vision of ordinary things being extraordinary has come to fruition. We will be back, my son will make sure of it.

Counterpoint
830 25th Street
San Diego, CA 92102
Tel: 619-564-6722

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comfort food at Elbows

It was so ironic that my son had asked me if we could visit the mac n cheese place we went to years ago. He was craving it he said and I had to crush his hopes because I told him Artesia was too far away. Fast forward two weeks later and a friend of mine asked if we’d like to join her and her family for mac n cheese at Elbows. Apparently, they’ve opened a new location in Brea — okay, still not close, but at least it’s in OC.

Naturally, the kids were excited, I was too because there were so many of us which meant we could order a lot to try. It has definitely been too long. I didn’t remember this many selections before and, there were now sandwiches and salads as well.

My friend and I wanted to start off with a salad and Chinese Chicken Salad ($5.50/$7.50) of mixed greens, green onions, carrots, mandarin oranges, grilled chicken breast topped with crispy wonton stripes and sweet oriental ginger dressing was good. I liked how it is served in a to-go container so if you wanted to pick this up for lunch, it’s quick and easy.

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I was definitely partial to the Green Bean Fries ($5.95). Seasoned and battered, these crunchy sticks were absolutely delicious — too bad the kids didn’t care for green beans. More for us!

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What everyone fought over was the Chipstix ($4.95), a potato that’s been “fan-cut” and fried. They taste like potato chips, but are so much better!

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Classic Grilled Cheese ($4.95) might be the best choice if you have young kids. This simple sandwich filled only with cheddar cheese will be agreeable to even the pickiest of eaters.

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One of the kids wanted the Philly Cheesesteak Melt ($6.95) but I didn’t care for it. Filled with steak, onions, peppers, provolone and American cheeses, I thought the flavor was one dimensional and flat, requiring more seasoning in the steak.

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When it comes to mac n cheese, the options are pretty endless. There’s Wingin It ($8.65/$11.65) which is good for those who love buffalo wings. The menu description says sharp cheddar with buffalo sauce, but if you don’t mix everything together, you will only taste the buffalo sauce on the boneless buffalo chicken on top. I highly suggest you mixing it all together so that every mouthful will have some sauce, crumbled blue cheese and scallion.

wingin it

The kids loved Easy Cheesy Caprese ($8.65/$10.65) perhaps due to its simplicity. Roasted tomatoes, fresh garlic and basil with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I didn’t care for the cold tomatoes on top, so mix it in if you don’t either, it’ll take the chill off.

caprese

Do You Want A Pizza Me ($8.65/$10.65) is self explanatory. Comprising mozzarella cheese, Italian herbs and spices topped with marinara, pepperoni is garnished on top just like a pizza. You can have this as a vegetarian dish — so no pepperoni and with vegetables instead.

pizza

I thought Chillin’ Out ($8.65/$10.65) would have been the perfect chilli mac, however, the homemade chili was very bland and desperately needed some punch. Had the chili been stellar, this would have been my favorite dish. I did like the use of chickpeas though.

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We loved the name Living Fajita Loca ($8.65/$10.65) so decided to give it a try. I think after several variations, my general observation is that although the options are endless, every single mac and cheese started to taste the same underneath the toppings. One suggestion would be to mix the sharp cheddar and pepper jack together with some of the toppings INTO the mac n cheese, then finish off with the remainder of the toppings to set each one apart. Right now, if you’re getting a spoonful of the mac n cheese without the topping, they all start to taste the same.

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This is why When Pigs Fly ($8.65/$10.65) was my favorite, not only because it is the closest to a classic mac n cheese, but also, there were bits of applewood smoked bacon dotted throughout the mac n cheese. This was an absolutely delicious dish, one I would keep coming back for again and again. The Swiss and gruyere cheeses were prominent, and I could taste every single ingredient in each bite. This was the only item with all the ingredients baked into the mac n cheese and not just used as a topping.

when pigs fly

Having said a mouthful, and even with the few misses, I still love Elbows. It is a great concept, and one I will visit more frequently if it was closer to me. I know how time consuming it is to make a really good mac n cheese, and who has time for that? Plus, my son loves this place! It’s a win-win all around.

Elbows Mac n Cheese
215 W Birch Street
Brea, CA 92821
Tel: 714-784-6613

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the comforts of home at Georgia’s

Last week, we visited a new restaurant located at Anaheim Packing District. A friend of a friend introduced us to Nika Shoemaker Machado and Marlon Machado, a husband and wife team who owns Georgia’s. We were lucky enough to have Nika sit down with us while we ate to listen to her story.

Georgia’s is a tribute to Nika’s mother who owned a catering business with her father, but gave it up when Nika’s father passed away many years ago. Even though the business was no longer, the love of home-cooked meals remain a fixture within their family, which eventually turned into the birth of Georgia’s.

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Nika was born and raised in southern California and insists that the menu at Georgia’s is not southern soul food by any means. She calls it southern-inspired comfort food, the kind of meal friends would enjoy if they were visiting her home.

In order to do that, Nika uses her mother’s recipes as the bulk of the restaurant’s menu. It is a family affair with Nika, her mother, Marlon, as well as Nika’s daughter who works the front of the house.

We began with some complimentary corn bread muffins, a delicious morsel with good textural bite. It isn’t overly sweet and a smear of butter gives it a hint of saltiness I do love.

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I want to point out that none of the photos depict the a la carte portions. Thanks to Nika, we were able to taste a wider variety of menu items in small bite-sized portions. To give you an idea of what you will get, I have a photo or a full size sandwich as guidance.

Chicken Wings ($8.95/6pcs) come in four flavors: BBQ, hot, mild and lemon pepper, we tried the latter two. I definitely preferred the buffalo sauce flavor even though it is mild. I was told the hot is nice and spicy — definitely for next time.

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There are four sandwiches available and we were able to taste three of them. Grilled Chicken ($9.45) has nice flavors and I like its simplicity with just tomato and lettuce and a little aioli.

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The BBQ Chicken ($10.45 — full portion shown) is topped with onion straws which gives a wonderful textural contrast. I think when you’re very texture-oriented like I am, this will appeal to you a lot more, however, I liked the flavor of the grilled chicken itself over the BBQ. I forgot to ask if we could add onion straws to the grilled chicken sandwich, but that would be perfect!

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I’m not usually a fan of pulled pork so I wasn’t all that excited about the BBQ Pulled Pork ($10.95) sandwich, but surprisingly, I enjoyed it. The barbecue sauce is not sweet and does not overwhelm the pork — a very important thing in my book when eating this style of cuisine.

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Of course, if you’re a fan of barbecue, the BBQ Ribs ($13.95) are not to be missed. These incredibly delicious ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and not smothered with sauce. There is just the right amount to season the meat, while still keeping the integrity of the natural flavors of the pork. The barbecue sauce — like the pulled pork — was not overwhelmingly sweet. My son will love these ribs!

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Of course, I always prefer Fried Chicken ($11.45) over ribs and these are definitely worth eating. The chicken is first brined which means you will taste seasoning all the way inside the chicken and not just on the surface. I was delighted to find how moist it was on the inside. The exterior is coated with a cornmeal crust, giving it an extra crispy crunch that is different to the usual batter fried chicken is usually covered in.

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The same cornmeal crust can also be found on the Fried Catfish ($11.45). Again, the fish is very moist and flaky, which makes for really enjoyable eating. With the chicken, catfish and ribs, there is also a choice of two sides which comes with the plate.

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My favorites are always the sides and the Collard Greens are pretty good and I don’t say this lightly because I make it at home.

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Other sides which I really enjoyed was the Hoppin’ John ($7.25) which is black eye peas and rice. There is also Red Beans and Rice ($7.50) but I am partial to the Hoppin’ John for sure.

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The Mac and Cheese was also delicious! It is creamy and decadent! I brought a tub home for my son and when I went to pick him up from school he couldn’t even wait until we got home, he ate it in the car!

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If you have some room for dessert, try the Peach Cobbler. It will definitely end your meal on a sweet note.

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While you’re dining, if you happen to see Nika roaming around the restaurant, make sure you say hi. She is the heart and soul of the restaurant and will be happy you stopped her. And ask her how she met her husband! It’s one of the cutest stories you’ll ever hear!

Georgia’s
440 S Anaheim Blvd
Anaheim, CA 92805
Tel: 714-906-1900

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a visit to Grandmas Kiwi Kitchen — Down Under

On my recent trip to Australia visiting family, I caught up with several old friends and naturally, food was involved. One of the restaurants my friend Charlie, who is originally from New Zealand, took me to — TWICE — was Grandmas Kiwi Kitchen. This little eatery is run by a family and you immediately feel the welcoming warmth the minute you enter.

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The food is cooked to order and I love the sign displayed at the front proclaiming that you’re not getting fast food here! I will gladly wait for good food cooked to order.

20140808_113515We started with some cappuccino and iced coffee — the latter was an insane mason jar filled with coffee, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream — not just an iced coffee, but a dessert in itself.

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Our meal began with an order of Steak Eggs & Chips (AUD18/$16.80) a piece of Scotch fillet, or what we know as ribeye, two fried eggs, and chips (fries). Kiwis like their meat well done so if you want it cooked less, let them know.

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One of the best omelettes I’ve ever tasted is Whitebait Fritter (AUD8.5/$7.90), a perfectly fluffy omelette generously dotted with whitebait, a baby fish widely consumed in New Zealand. Delicious and a perfect breakfast item.

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Kiwis love fried foods so Battered Mussels (AUD6.5/$6) is right up their alley. Plump New Zealand green lip mussels are battered and fried creating a beautifully light mouthfeel. The home-made tartare is lovely but a squeeze of lemon suffices.

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Fush & Chups (AUD9.5/$8.85) is fish and chips pronounced the Kiwi way. You can select between battered and fried or oven baked. We chose our hoki (blue hake) fillet oven baked which arrives topped with spinach and tomato slices en papillote (wrapped in a parchment paper parcel). Served with chips (as everything is) and house-made tartare sauce, I really enjoyed the steamed fish, allowing its own flavors to come through. Nothing is overly seasoned and the freshness of each ingredient comes together harmoniously.

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If fried fish is your thing then opt for the Hoki Fish Sandwich (AUD12.5/$11.65). Battered hoki is sandwiched between toasted Turkish bread. Lettuce and tomato, along with beet slices and a fried egg are added. Aussies love beets in their burgers and sandwiches so I wasn’t surprised to see it in the sammie.

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An array of house-made desserts are available ranging from carrot cake to these deliciously rich fudgy chocolatey biscuits (cookies).

If you’re ever in Brisbane and want to get some really good homey grub Kiwi style, stop by this spot and enjoy. On the weekends, they offer hāngi — a method of cooking similar to how kalua pig is prepared, under the ground with hot rocks.

Grandmas Kiwi Kitchen
Shop 6/1, Murrajong Road
Springwood, QLD 4127
Tel 0403-143-201

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a perfect meal at The North Left

I was never a big fan of The Crosby’s menu, so when it closed I wasn’t too sad about it. However, the restaurant which now occupies that space is a whole new story. Chef Ryan Adams of 370 Common is one of my favorite chefs in Orange County, and when I heard he had taken over, I was excited and pleased because I knew it would be a place where I would love the food and libations as well. If you’re not familiar with the space it’ll be hard for you to see it from the street simply because of the way the light reflects off the windows during the day. It is right next door to the Starbucks if that makes it easier. DSC04221 Chef Ryan spends his time at both restaurants which means he had to elicit the expertise of some trusted members of staff to keep the place going when he isn’t physically there. One of the notable personalities is Chef Aron Habinger, executive chef of The Crosby since its inception until about a year ago. I’m not a gin drinker, but agreed to try Cucumber Gimlet ($10) because I trust everything Chef Ryan does. The cocktail is refreshing with cucumber and lime with a good balance of sour for my palate. DSC04257 Order Salmon Belly ($14) if you are a seafood fan. The cured egg yolk shavings add a wonderful salty component to the delicate fish. The incredible asparagus spears are sous vide in beef fat — yes! how awesome is that — and light salad is refreshing and palate cleansing. A very respectable offering. DSC04265 I’m torn between the over-use of Brussels sprouts on menus and my love for them, but when push comes to shove, I will always order them, especially when they’re crazy good. Brussels Sprouts ($9) is a combination of my favorite flavor profiles — tart and salty — San Joaquin Gold cheese provides the latter. Hazelnuts add a lovely crunch for textural contrast. Divine! DSC04230 Have you ever had fresh chick peas? If not, Garbanzo ($8) is a perfect place to start. Garlic, chile, arugula, mint, what’s not to love? Squeeze some caramelized lime over skillet and it’s an ideal side for sharing. DSC04242 Even though this is a vegetable dish, Mushrooms ($12) is anything but vegetarian. Discs of King trumpet mushrooms are cooked in wagyu beef fat, topped with smoked maitake possessing a rich, robust flavor I can only smile about. DSC04249 If you’re a fan of Three Seventy Common’s fried chicken, then you’re in luck! You don’t have to wait every month to get some. Chicken Nuggets ($15) are just as good as the fried chicken Chef Ryan prepares at his Laguna Beach restaurant. In fact, I might like these just a tad more probably because they’re just that much crispier. The biscuit is amazing and the maple bourbon barbecue sauce is more tart than sweet — can I say I’m in love? DSC04233 A palette of colors makes Sea Bass ($19) not only pretty to look at, but it is equally delicious in my mouth. Charred pickled onions, espelette pepper powder, cauliflower, pistou, shallot soubise — so many flavors, all mouth-popping good. I love the balance of acid in every dish. Here, the pickled onions are just intoxicating. I want a bowl of it! DSC04253 Scallops $18) with smoked paprika, chorizo, roasted corn, popcorn — yes, popcorn — avocado and lemon is sublime. Now, there are two things I will always order when I see them on a menu. Scallops is one of them. The mollusks are cooked to perfection and the use of avocado works surprisingly well, although I’m not sure about the popcorn. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t sure if adding that texture component was necessary. DSC04270 I don’t need dessert at the end of meal, but when it tastes like this, I say, “bring it on”. Strawberries ($9) is not as simple as it sounds. I have nothing but praise for Chef Andrea Guzman because she got me to take more than one bite — actually, I ate half of this bowl. But then again, panna cotta is one of my favorites and this is exceptionally smooth and the consistency is spot on. The strawberry granita adds some texture, while the cereal adds crunch. This is my kind of dessert and one of the simplest, yet most memorable, I’ve ever eaten. Bravo!

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So there you have it. The North Left is open and it is good. Really good. Grab a few friends and head on down. Sip on some cocktails, share some bites. I am confident you won’t regret it.

The North Left 400 N Broadway Santa Ana, CA 92701 Tel: 714-543-3543

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Watertable wins my heart on so many levels

Watertable at the Hyatt Huntington Beach has been open around three months, and I’ve already visited seven times. To say I am falling in love with this place is an understatement. If you were a regular visitor of The Californian, you won’t recognize the space. There is not a shred of the former decade-old restaurant to be found.

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The only way I can describe Watertable is a sprawling hacienda-style mansion featuring Andalusian themes. Regardless of what you call it, the restaurant is a sight for sore eyes and my photos definitely does it no justice. It’s something you will have to step inside to really soak in what I’m talking about.

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The metamorphosis is stunning, no expense spared, the intricacies and details are elaborate, but yet, classy and not over-the-top. There are many ways to enjoy Watertable beginning with “the library” to the adjacent gastro-bar, where a different menu may be enjoyed as opposed to the dining room menu offered in the various rooms which lie ahead — including the outside patio and the corridor with iron arches.

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I can truly say, during each of my visits, I have sat in different rooms including “Sofia’s Room”, named for the lady in the painting hanging on the back wall. However, my favorites are the “lounge” situated to the right of the namesake watertable extending as high as the ceiling, proudly situated in the middle of the dining room. This is where all the water you drink comes from.

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We always begin with a few cocktail selections which you will find featured on Watertable’s interactive menu. It is a difficult task deciding on one because there are just so many of them, all enticing and beautiful — cocktails average $12.

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On many occasions we have selected the Old Fashion, or the HB Old Fashion. Then there is the Water Table, also pleasing, leaving a slight sweet finish on the tongue. The one signature tequila cocktail is delicious, with a hint of smokiness from the mescal, but presentation is dated.

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On another occasion we have the light but refreshing version of the Moscow Mule, aptly named California Mule.

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My favorite thing to do is sit in the bar area. There, you will be able to enjoy Watertable in all its glory. Start with a few selections such as the Bar Jars ($5/each) which are served with piping hot epi baguettes baked in-house and brushed with butter. Make sure you don’t over indulge as it is very easy to do. Leave some room for other delectables.

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One of my favorites has been the Herb Grilled Baby Lamb Chops ($14). These succulent chops are served with a sweet onion chorizo-potato hash. Pick them up with your fingers and dig right in. You know I am not able to resist these when I have ordered them on every single visit — well except lunch but I’ll talk about that later.

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Creamer Potato Cakes ($9), is a carb-lover’s dream. An alternative to French fries, these twice-fried potatoes are crispy on the outside with a soft interior. Even more delectable with a quick dunk into the rich, creamy truffle dip, it’s more like a “smashed-potato” rather than “cakes”. Regardless, they’re really good!

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Baja California Yellowtail Crudo ($12), a vibrant palette of colors from pickled cauliflower, avocado, sweet peppers and micro mustard sprouts, creates a picturesque bounty, but unfortunately needed just a touch more acid and salt.

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We were blown away by the sheer beauty of the Iberico and Fig Tart ($11). I’m happy to say, it tasted as delicious as it looked. Iberico ham, crumbled chevre, stone fruit, olive oil and black pepper are laid atop a flaky tart crust. This is a must-try!

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In season right now is Organic Melon ($9), featuring compressed watermelon, ricotta salata, ver jus, golden pea shoots, radish, blueberry balsamic and meyer lemon. So simple, yet sublime. The combination of sweet, tart, salty is indescribable on the palate. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.

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Don’t forget the Grilled and Chilled Octopus ($16), it is one of my favorites. Make sure you get a bit of the salt sprinkled on to the plate to have the perfect mouthful.

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Another item not-to-be-missed item — Grilled White Corn Succotash ($6), an addicting side dish with smoky fire roasted peppers, vibrant baby green peas, and Sriracha butter. It is one of those things I order on every visit.

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Delightful servers — memorable ones include Danielle on one visit, and the delightful Ashley on another — help guide and shape a dining experience with knowledge and humor. Impeccable service and attention to detail makes a meal more enjoyable. We converse often, asking questions and trying to gauge which course of action to follow.

If you are still hungry after all of these, there are entrees to choose from such as the Grilled Veal T-Bone ($45) with roasted shallot, arugula greens, soft polenta, tomato pan jus.

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Or, create your own from the “Your Menu” section where you can pair a protein of your choice such as Organic Chicken Breast ($19 6oz/$24 8oz), with a house-made scratch sauce — salbaxitada is amazing — and a side.

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When it comes time for desserts, there is a good variety of sweet offerings. The best part is that they change seasonally to ensure optimum flavors in everything you put in your mouth.

If you happen to come during lunch, the menu is limited. There are some salads and a few sandwiches. However, the Chilled Avocado Gazpacho ($6) is what you should come for. It is absolutely breathtaking. Silky smooth avocado puree with chunks of blue lump crab makes for an ample lunch, especially when there are those addicting epi baguettes involved.

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Orange County has definitely been waiting for Watertable. It may not know it yet, but once you experience this elegant but unpretentious destination, you’ll understand why. Service is stellar, paired with an incredible menu, this is the very best of everything under one roof. Plus, complimentary valet is offered — what more would you ask for?

Watertable
21500 Pacific Coast Hwy
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: 714-845-4776

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