Grassroots dining at The Ecology Center

When people say farm-to-table, it isn’t always how I imagine it to be. After all, where else would restaurants be acquiring their ingredients from if not from a farm? But the steps in which it actually arrives to the table is another story in itself. This is why the meal events at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano are so incredibly meaningful because a farm-to-table meal here is really that — from the farm to the table.

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I recently experienced the Tuscan Brunch of Late Summer Vegetables & Cook Pigs’ Pork ($55) by Chef Ryan Wilson of Five Crowns and SideDoor fame, and his wife Nikki who is currently at Studio at the Montage. We are welcomed by Evan Marks, Founder and Executive Director of The Ecology Center, who gives us background information of the meal we are about to embark upon. Included are the farms from which all the ingredients have been sourced from, mostly, within 100 miles of Orange County.

I loved the interactive nature of the brunch. We see Chef Nikki at the earthen oven baking the meal’s starters: Baskets of Lungo Bianco Squash Muffins and Fresh Tigelle which is served with cultured Butter whipped with OC Honey.

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Our primi course of Ribolita da Delfina of Summer Shelling Beans (photo courtesy of Austin Trask) is a perfect brunch item for everyone since it is vegetarian offering. The pattie is dotted with dandelion greens and pumpkin topped with runny fried eggs. The early girl tomatoes conserva brings an element of freshness to this hearty start.

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The secondi, or main course of the meal comes in the form of a duo of pork beginning with Porchetta da Panzano, which Chef Ryan has executed to perfection! The skin is crispy, while the meat is moist and well seasoned.

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The second pork item was Salsiccia di Maiale (photo courtesy of Aubrey Devin) is a home-made sausage using Heritage pigs from Cook Pigs Ranch located 90 miles away in Julian.

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Of course, a meal isn’t complete without some sides. Ceci Beans all’Uccelletto (photo courtesy of Austin Trask) is a chickpea gratin offering the ‘starch’ element of the meal.

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Braised Greens (photo courtesy of Aubrey Devin) was possibly my favorite of the two sides, nicely wilted and a good complement to the porchetta.

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In Italy, they eat salad after the entree, not before, so it was refreshing to see Chef Ryan stay true to the authenticity of the Italian brunch by serving Puntarelle (photo courtesy of Austin Trask) after the entree course.

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We finished with Chef Nikki’s Marinated Champagne Grapes & Fresh Figs (photo courtesy of Austin Trask) served with a Californian zabaglione accompanied by fennel & almond biscotti. Zabaglione — or sabayon — is one of two desserts I adore so it isn’t surprising that I relished it completely. The use of seasonal grapes and figs creates a refreshing and light end to the meal.

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The next food-related event at The Ecology Center will be “Fresh Holiday Cooking” on Nov 19th at 6pm. This Farm to Fork adult series of cooking classes emphasizes the journey real food takes from seed to plate—beginning with an exploration of the orchard, vegetable, and herb gardens, and ending with the preparation of a meal. For this event, Chef Linda Elbert will celebrate the holidays and give thanks to the garden! Learn skills, tools & techniques for preparing healthy Thanksgiving side dishes using fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.

The Ecology Center
32701 Alipaz St
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Tel: 949-443-4223

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The Republique of belly busting goodness

I’ve been wanting to visit Walter Manzke’s Republique ever since it opened. In fact, I wanted to visit the minute I found out about it, and that was a while ago when we were dining at Petty Cash and Chef Manzke stopped by our table for a minute to chat and told us about it — his family was eating at the next table. Many of my friends have dined there and I have heard nothing but praises for its libations and its menu.

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We arrived about 30 minutes after the restaurant opened on a Saturday night. We had no reservations and decided to wing it. Luckily, we were seated right away in the front of the restaurant against the window parallel to the bar. It was a good seat, a perfect vantage point for me to people watch. The restaurant is stunning with cathedral-high ceilings and seems to sprawl well on into the far back.

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I love the homage to Marco Pierre White, the original celebrity chef and enfant terrible (bad boy) of the culinary world — way before Gordon Ramsey or Anthony Bourdain made it fashionable.

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Our server Rosie was absolutely delightful. I had a lot of questions and she answered everything she could. Whatever stumped her, she immediately went to seek out answers.

We started with the essential cocktail, a Whiskey Fix ($12) comprising lemon, berries and rye whiskey. It was refreshing and not harsh at all which is really surprising. Even I liked it. If you prefer wine, there is an extensive wine list and there is a sommelier available to help you out if you’re unsure of what to select.

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The breads here are simply incredible. Complimentary baguette is brought to the table on a wooden block with butter. However, I highly suggest ordering the Normandy Butter ($5) as well as a side of Wood Oven Pan Drippings ($5) which arrives in a baby Staub cast iron cocotte. Be careful when you lift the lid as it is still steaming.

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The butter is creamy, thick, salty, everything I want butter to be. We slather it onto the warm baguette slices and watch it sink into the bread, melting into the crevices, before devouring it. The pan drippings are a whole ‘nother story. Dotted with bits of onion, this is what dreams are made of — well, MY dreams anyway. We went through the initial baguette, PLUS two more refills and we still could not finish all the drippings and butter on the board. This is definitely worth the 10 dollars, and I highly recommend it especially if you love good bread.

If you’re a Charcuterie aficionado, definitely order a board ($28/or $7pp) as everything is made in-house (I can see the meats hanging from where I’m sitting). It is simply breathtaking and absolute debauchery!

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If you’ve been to Chef Manzke’s Petty Cash, you will understand the concept of this next dish. Chips & Dip ($14) is Tasmanian sea trout tartare cubes topped over essentially what we know as raita (cucumber, mint, yogurt, cumin seed). But the best part is the cone of crispy pork rinds sprinkled with espelette pepper, za’atar and salt to use as your “chips”. At Petty Cash, Chef Manzke offers them with a guacamole topped with uni. It is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

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On the topic of uni, Manzke is a man after my own heart. His love of uni is possibly equal to mine. Therefore, when I scanned through the menu and did not see any uni in sight, I was perplexed, but also, disappointed. Turns out, the restaurant did not receive any uni shipment the day of our visit and therefore, no uni was offered. Guess I’ll have to make another trip.

Eggs on Toast ($11) typically with uni on top of scrambled eggs is instead substituted with smoked yellowtail and a disc of breakfast radish. This might be my least favorite dish of the night. Perhaps it was my pre-conceived notion of it having uni on top, but nevertheless, it was the only item I wasn’t excited about.

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If you happen to see Charcoal-Grilled Santa Barbara Spot Prawns ($16 each), order it. The tender flesh almost melts in you mouth and I can’t stop myself from sucking on the head for every drop of the shrimp tomalley (it is actually hepatopancreas in shrimp but tomalley sounds so much better) I am able to find. The corn, peaches and peanut accoutrements are surprisingly well-paired albeit, the Thai curry was a tad on the mild side making it difficult to detect.

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Crispy Fried Maryland Soft Shell Crab ($26) is possibly the priciest soft shell crab I have ever eaten. The crab is perfectly crispy accompanied by a Santa Rosa plum sauce, blistered green beans, slivers of garlic and julienned ginger. There is chile, but not enough to cause much damage. It is delicious, possessing familiar flavors of Asian cuisine.

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We finish with Spaghetti Rustichella: Carbonara ($19) style. The noodles are sublime, perfectly seasoned and unctuous on the palate. Unfortunately, the bits of pancetta are fatty and gristly. We move them to the side and polish off all the pasta.

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The restaurant becomes extremely loud as the evening goes by. The hoards of thoroughfare going through the bar area is frustrating. There is little space for people to hover — yet they do — while trying to snag a bar seat as soon as someone vacates their spot. It reminds me of dim sum in Asia where people are waiting for you to finish eating so they can take your table.

If you are unlucky enough to sit with your back against the bar, it will be inevitable that you’ll be knocked about by passersby who are trying to squeeze between you and the lingerers. There just isn’t enough room for so many people to be in one area without strangers touching you for no reason. My suggestion? Make a reservation and ask not to be seated by the bar.

Republique
624 S La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: 310-362-6115

République on Urbanspoon

 

a trip south of the border (part 2)

A continuation of my recent trip down to Rosarito, Mexico and we are on our farm-to-table experience. Our first farm visit is to Rancho Las Ilusiones, a farm with a restaurant attached, which opens only on Sundays for breakfast and lunch. I’ve come to realize that it is virtually impossible to remember the path we are taken on, and I will definitely have trouble finding these places if I’m wanting to come again on my own. Rancho Las Ilusiones has a Facebook page which may help guide you to it.

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We began with breakfast in a very crowded room. It was also the day Mexico was playing The Netherlands at World Cup so the buzz in the room was electrifying. Our group sat towards the back and soaked everything in. The menu is simple, with lamb and rabbit the stand-out features which they raise on the farm.

La Consentida (70 pesos/$5.40) is shredded braised rabbit, served with chilaquiles rojos (in red sauce) and frijoles (refried beans). The rabbit is good, not gamey but flavorful enough to call it rabbit — not chicken.

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Another respectable dish was Barbacoa de Borrego (99 pesos/$7.65) a hefty plate of braised lamb with beans and rice.

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I should have selected one of those but I wasn’t terribly hungry so opted for Huevos Rancheros (60 pesos/$4.65) which was on the bland side. Prices are very reasonable, and after your brunch, feel free to roam around the farm. All guests are welcome to tour the farm when they visit the restaurant.

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Moving on, we are taken on a tour of Rancho Guacatay, a farm which houses a variety of animals raised for meat, including deer. There is a chapel on the property which reminds me of something out of a Lord of the Rings’ set. It was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. We took a few moments walking around and taking in the intricacies of this rustic building. There is no website for Rancho Guacatay, but if you’re interested, or for more information, you can go to Facebook and message them.

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After the tour, we visit El Nido restaurant, owned by the same people of Rancho Guacatay. I’m guessing you’ve already figured out by now that we are about to eat a menu comprised of everything raised on the farm, plus more. I was immediately won over when I entered the restaurant. It was like an enchanted forest.

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Then, I saw the lady in the corner making tortillas by hand. Oh yes, I could not wait to sink my teeth into these!

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We order a selection of lamb, rib-eye, quail, and of course, venison. When the platter arrived, one of the bloggers jokingly said “you know we’re eating a relative of the deer we saw earlier right?” to which I replied, “and..?” and speared another slice of meat with my fork.

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The tortillas here are exquisite! They are chewy and have a wonderful texture unlike any other tortilla I’ve ever eaten.

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For those who aren’t red meat eaters, there are many seafood selections including these shrimp in garlic sauce.

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Farm-to-table in Rosarito is exactly that in every sense of the word. The carbon footprint is non-existent, and you can be sure everything arrives super fresh to the restaurant ready for preparation.

Stay tuned for my next post where we will visit the only winery in Rosarito and the surprisingly delicious street foods we encountered.

 

 

a highly respectable menu at Fireside Tavern

I first experienced Fireside Tavern at its grand opening a few months ago. From the tidbits we sampled, I knew immediately that this new restaurant will be a winner. Why you might ask? Well, in my decades of experience, if the food you’re eating at a cocktail event, a wedding, or anything where food is served to the masses is actually delicious, then just think what they are able to accomplish when they’re cooking just for you and your party.

FIRESIDEChef Scott Brandon (photo courtesy of Bob Hodson) helms the kitchen and my knowledge of him was only limited to burgers (Crow Burger) and hotdogs (LinX). This is the first time I’ve had “real food” by this incredibly talented chef. Honestly, this guy can really cook!

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A small group of us were invited for a taste of the menu offered at Fireside Tavern recently, please note, prices listed are a la carte prices and do not reflect the portions depicted in the photos. We started in the lounge area for some cocktails and appetizers before heading into the dining room for a meal served family style.

Please note: some items are not featured on the menu but are reserved for special occasion menus.

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One of my favorite starters was the Royal Red Rock Shrimp Hushpuppies ($11) with Creole remoulade and green tomato chow chow, a relish made with green tomatoes, napa cabbage, green and red peppers, sweet onions and jalapenos. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, these are awesome accompaniments to go with our drinks.

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Not being a big pork belly fan, the Berkshire Pork Belly Sliders absolutely won me over. The well-rendered slices of pork belly are sandwiched between Rockenwagner salt & pepper brioche buns with apricot mostarda, pickled shallots, wild rocket (arugula) and reggiano. I loved the sweet tart flavors of the mostarda which helped balance the unctuousness of the pork belly along with the pickled shallots.

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We moved into the private dining room to continue our experience at a larger scale. The first thing we were presented with were these incredibly fluffy Tillamook cheddar cheese biscuits ($5) dotted with bacon and chives served with hand churned butter. I was trying to pace myself but devoured an entire one. It was hard to resist.

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One of my favorite items of the evening was Pickled Wild Gulf Shrimp, a delightful array of my favorite things in a jar. I loved the fennel, the beautiful array of radishes, and especially the pickled quail eggs. Of course the wild Gulf shrimp were delicious too, but those quail eggs won me over. This item was featured on the Mother’s Day menu this past Sunday.

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We sampled three entrees, all of which were pretty outstanding. Chef Brandon is a master when it comes to seasoning proteins. I was highly impressed by how everything was salted to absolute perfection.

Cedar Plank Loch Duarte Salmon ($24) was melt-in-your-mouth tender with a really distinctive taste which I love in Scottish salmon. Accompanied with twice cooked fingerling potatoes, creamy kale and preserved kumquats, the latter is an accoutrement I did not expect to work with the dish, but it was genius.

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I was so impressed by Pan Roasted Mary’s Chicken (served as half roasted chicken on the menu for $21) which was moist and juicy and of course, beautifully flavored. I’m not a huge fan of panzanella even though this particular one embodied some really rich roasted tomato piquancy.

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The one which blew everyone away was Grilled Tavern Steak Bone-In 20oz Greater Omaha Ribeye ($35), at a perfect medium rare with an outstanding bone marrow butter on top. I was so full and took only half a piece of the steak, but ended up reaching for another half piece because it was just THAT good. If I had more room, I would no doubt have polished off half a piece of this.

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Dessert was an Icebox Cake ($8) which was very interesting to me. I love how this is a no-bake cake using chocolate wafers and is layered with a mocha mascarpone cream, chocolate ganache and drizzled with raspberry coulis. I think even I am able to make this! So simple yet really pretty.

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I cannot wait to return to Fireside Tavern to try more of what Chef Scott Brandon has to offer. This man can seriously cook, a highly attractive trait in my book!

Fireside Tavern
at the Crowne Plaza Hotel
3131 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-3000

Fireside Tavern on Urbanspoon

dining at the historic US Grant Hotel San Diego

Several years ago, the Grant Grill served as a respite for a day of shopping and wandering around town, but I also wanted to check out this beautiful historic building as well. I remember that day vividly as we sat at the bar, sipping on drinks while we tried to agree upon the next course of action. I also remember why we didn’t end up eating here, but that’s not a story I wish to tell. Instead, what I choose to remember of that visit was of the grandeur, the old school charm and decor the restaurant seemed to exude, one I would have liked to explore further.

Fast forward to present day and here I am again, this time, guaranteed a dining room experience at Grant Grill. We entered the bar area, past the stools I sat at those many years ago, and into the casual elegance of the dining room. The booth was perfect, allowing me a view of the entire space while we perused the menu.

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Our server Natalie was delightful and I enjoyed her knowledgeable descriptions of every question I had for her. Her suggestion of The Mule ($12), a champagne fermented cocktail with vodka, ginger, muscat and cascade hops was an ideal start. I normally enjoy Moscow Mules because I love ginger, but for those who may find it overpowering, this rendition only has hints of ginger. It is light, effervescent, and an all too easy to drink cocktail.

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A skillet of house-made focaccia bread was brought out with a pat of soft delectable butter for us to munch on while perusing the menu. It was difficult to restrain ourselves from eating too much of this.

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After ordering, an amuse bouche of oven baked salmon with vadouvan-spiced onion, ginger carrot puree and sesame seed powder arrives. A piquant and savory bite with mild curry flavors from the vadouvan was a perfect way to whet our appetites.

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Turducken Pate ($16) caught my eye and since my dining companion loves pate, I thought it would be a great start. The pate was beautifully textured and well seasoned. I would have liked more fig bread to pair with the pate as the morsels seemed more decorative than an accompaniment. I absolutely adored the rhubarb & cranberry jam, which added the sweet and tart to the salty. The bacon snow sprinkled around possessed the smoky aromas of bacon, adding another dimension to the dish.

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I wanted to try The Grant Grill Mock Turtle Soup ($12) when I heard it was a signature item. Unfortunately, this was my least favorite item of the evening. The soup, served table side, comprised of the vegetable soup element as well as a braised short rib one, however, the end result was not as cohesive as I would have liked. I tasted the soup and the short rib, but neither melded into the other as one entity.

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I love fowl! Any kind of fowl! Naturally, Quail ($16) caught my eye. It was one of those dishes where you wish the quail was more the size of a pigeon because it was SO good. A perfectly medium rare quail, served in four pieces, is flanked by empire apples from Julian, ricotta cheese, warm prosciutto vinaigrette and dried figs. I think the warm dressing just brought the entire dish together. All the flavor profiles came together as one unit and it made me want more. My dining partner was too lazy to eat around the bones after one piece so lucky me! I got to eat three pieces!

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The menu at Grant Grill is seasonal and Natalie explained to us that the chef is now presenting it like he would a novel. On the night of our visit, the menu was at Chapter One, Volume One — right at the beginning. Entitled “Winter Citrus”, there are libations and edibles all created around that theme. Should I visit several months down the road, the chapters and volumes would have moved along according to season.

Having said that, one of the entrees we selected was Pro Tem Protein ($40). This is something which stays on the menu for a short time — or, temporarily —  so you might not find it again the next time you dine here. On this particular night, it was a Creekstone all-natural Angus prime strip loin with shallot marmalade, roasted king trumpet mushrooms and marrow on a bed of smoked potatoes. Beautifully prepared at a medium rare temperature, the unctuous marrow created a luxurious mouth-feel while the king trumpet mushrooms were meaty in its own way. A robust and hearty dish satisfying even the fussiest of meat lovers.

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I had a difficult time deciding on the other entree, so I asked Natalie for her pick. When she described the Bass ($30) and said “kaffir lime”, that was it. I’m infatuated with that leaf and its intoxicating fragrance. It makes me immensely giddy. This turned out to be a perfect choice as the fish was moist and flaky and the lump crab meat added layers of flavor together with the crisp and refreshing apple fennel salad. The aromatic vegetable broth infused with kaffir lime and ginger was so delicate I was blown away by its sheer simplicity, yet, its ability to awaken all the senses on my palate.

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The Grant Grill is one of those classic restaurants where no matter who you are, the experience will be one you will remember. Service is impeccable and the food meticulously prepared. Valet parking is available for $10/3 hrs with validation at the restaurant.

Grant Grill
The US Grant Hotel
326 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-744-2077

Grant Grill on Urbanspoon

Starting OC Restaurant Week with a bang!

A friend of mine’s birthday falls right around Orange County Restaurant Week, so every year, whenever it came time to celebrate, we have always chosen a restaurant participating in this event. Two years ago, we celebrated at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, which had only been opened a few months at the time of Restaurant Week. I am usually left the task of choosing a restaurant and that year, The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon’s menu stood out more so than any of the others. Needless to say, if you’ve been reading my posts on a regular basis, you will know that it has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in Orange County.

This year, I wanted to start Restaurant Week off right, so I made reservations well ahead of time and gathered some friends together, many who have never experienced The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon before, to eat what is positively one of the best meals this county has to offer.

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Another thing I want to stress is The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon is one of the few restaurants which offers up full-sized a la carte portions of each dish on the Restaurant Week menu so you’re getting a three-course meal like you would if you were a regular diner at the restaurant. Your dining experience will be exactly the same except for the extremely reasonable $40 price tag. In this post, I will be featuring the entire restaurant week menu for you.

Starting with appetizers, Honeycrisp Apple & Endive Salad is a light starter which packs a punch when it comes to flavor. Every component on this plate comes together to form a complete mouthful of perfection. From the saltiness of the St. Agur Blue Cheese, the hint of bitterness from the endive, to the sweetness of the candied walnuts and, the tartness of the cranberry vinaigrette, everything is precisely balanced on the palate.

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Thai Coconut Curry Bisque was so rich and creamy that everyone at the table sang high praises for it. Its wonderful aromas was on the subtle side — I would have liked a heavier scent of lemongrass and kaffir lime, but it was so silky on the tongue I quickly forgot about it especially, when I found those little bits of North Carolina shrimp in my mouth like hidden treasure. Sublime!

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I’ve had the Hand Crafted Asparagus Cavatelli before and took a taste from my friend’s plate, it was just as good as I remembered. The perfectly al dente house-made cavatelli are so delicious with spears of asparagus and balls of home made pork sausage seasoned with Calabrian chili. The little kick of spice you get at the end is such a delight, and I highly recommend this for all pasta lovers.

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On to entrees and I was happy there was at least one each of everything represented at our table. Chipotle & Sun-Dried Cherry Braised Beef Short Rib is not my choice ever because I’m not a huge fan of short rib. Having said that, its hearty California Pinot Noir reduction was rich and decadent and the accompanying white cheddar grits, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts accoutrements were ideal sides for this very robust dish. My red meat loving friends enjoyed it very much.

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Maplewood Smoked California Sablefish was another entree choice and if you’re not familiar with this particular fish, it is pretty much black cod or butterfish. It is an extremely oily fish and some might find it a little too unctuous on the palate. This was beautifully smoked and reminded me of the smoked sablefish from Russ and Daughters in New York City. Sweet potatoes, King trumpet mushrooms, country ham and cauliflower velouté are well-paired with the dish.

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However, what I came here for was the Confit of Muscovy Duck Leg, which I first sampled two years ago during Restaurant Week 2012. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, I wish Chef Michael Rossi would put this on the regular menu so I can come at any time to enjoy this. Beluga lentils with a salty-sweet home made guanciale, cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale) and baby root vegetables combine together for a delightful plate.

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Executive Pastry Chef David Rossi has prepared three desserts for you to choose from. Strawberry Cheesecake with a macadamia nut crust and served with a quenelle of mango sorbet was a huge hit. The cheesecake was light and airy making it easy to consume even after a hefty entree.

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Most of the table ordered Meyer Lemon Creme Brulee, and the ladies were enchanted by the baby blueberry madeleines garnish.

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However, I think everyone was extremely intrigued by the Milky Way With a Twist which was a deconstructed Milky Way bar with Valrhona chocolate, malted nougat discs and quenelles of salted caramel ice cream.

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So there you have it. As always my advice is, if you only go to ONE restaurant, The Ranch is the one to go to. It is always the best of everything from service to quality of food, and you will never leave here still hungry during Restaurant Week!!

The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
1025 E Ball
Anaheim, CA 92805
Tel: 714-817-4200