Short Order: Babette’s, Crystal Cove

Babette’s (photos by Brad A. Johnson)

Babette’s is beautiful. This sexy little spinoff of the East Hampton original opened last month at the Crystal Cove Shopping Center. The kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. It’s not a very big place, with only a dozen tables inside and maybe just as many outside on the olive-tree-lined patio. The patio is where you want to be.

The patio feels extra luxurious thanks to its plush indoor furniture. The music — soft rock from the 1970s, mostly — is perfectly calibrated so that it fades in and out as conversations crest and lull. Life feels so easy here. The bar is crowned with a breathtaking skylight, and unless you’re sitting at the bar, you would hardly notice it. It would be a shame to miss it. Continue reading

OC Review: Waterman’s Harbor, Dana Point

Waterman’s Harbor, Dana Point (photos by Leonard Ortiz, OC Register)

“Harold! Come look at this place,” yells a woman whose wind-sculpted hair and well-worn boat shoes suggest she’s just spent the day at sea.

She has just walked into Waterman’s Harbor, a new gastropub in Dana Point, where I’m perched at the bar eating oysters and enjoying a pink margarita that’s not nearly as girly as it sounds. The woman is calling toward her apparent husband, who lags 10 steps behind and is just now coming through the front door.

“Look at this place, Harold. Can you believe it?” she says, still using her sailing voice, which briefly overpowers a classic tune by The Eagles that’s playing on the stereo. “This is the nicest restaurant in the harbor.”

Harold looks around, suspiciously. “Those oysters look good” he says, pointing to my plate. Continue reading

Short Order: Wheat & Sons, Anaheim

photo by Brad A. JohnsonPorchetta at Wheat & Sons (photo by Brad A. Johnson)

If you’ve been to the Anaheim Packing House you undoubtedly have seen the ridiculously long queue at The Kroft sandwich shop on the lower level. Most diners in that line will order the porchetta sandwich. Their porchetta (rotisserie pork) is very good. But what most people don’t know is that there is an even better porchetta sandwich next door at Wheat and Sons Butcher. Continue reading

Viral Video: DiverXO, Madrid

Wow. This is such an awesome video from DiverXO restaurant in Madrid, which recently earned their third Michelin star. It begins with, “The next time you hear my voice, you’ll be on the floor scooping up bits of your brain.” And they are not kidding. Awesome video. Watch it. I can’t wait to eat here.

One Dish: keema pav at Adya, Anaheim

Keema pav at Adya (photo by Brad A Johnson)

Apparently there’s something in Indian cuisine called “pav,” and it’s a lot like a Sloppy Joe. In fact, it’s exactly like a Sloppy Joe, only better than any you’ve ever had.

At Adya, the quick-serve Indian restaurant inside the Anaheim Packing District, the pavs come in a variety of flavors, including one made with chicken and another fashioned entirely from vegetables. But the one that I am most excited to discover is the keema pav, which is made with ground lamb.  Continue reading

OC Review: Pueblo, Costa Mesa

“Pan con tomate,” says the waitress as she places a complimentary dish on the table.

I look at it suspiciously. It doesn’t look like pan con tomate, which is Spain’s most famous and simplest snack, after ham, of course. Pan con tomate, literally bread with tomato, in its most traditional sense is little more than a piece of toast upon which a clove of garlic and a raw tomato have been rubbed. Spanish loaves are generally rough-textured, so the toast acts like sandpaper for the garlic and tomato, which shred into a velvety mush atop the crusty bread.

But that’s not what the waitress has just presented. Continue reading

That giant slurping sound in OC? Here’s where it’s coming from.

Beef noodle soup at Tai Chi Cuisine (photo by Brad A Johnson)

It’s been three months since Din Tai Fung opened at South Coast Plaza, and the wait for a table can still stretch well beyond two hours, even on a Monday or Tuesday.

The Taiwanese chain is most famous for its Shanghai-style xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings, which are sometimes called juicy dumplings. Perhaps that has something to do with the sudden proliferation of dumpling restaurants. Super Juicy Dumplings debuted in Brea in October, and hanging in its window is a newspaper article about xiao long bao from Din Tai Fung. The article is meant to convey, I suppose, the popularity of this type of dumpling and, by extension, their own relevance.

Meanwhile, Tai Chi Cuisine recently opened in Irvine in the same shopping center as Wei Shian Noodles and 101 Noodle Express. The menu focuses on all kinds of Chinese noodles, including the shop’s own take on soup dumplings. Theirs involves a much thicker, chewier dough. And then there’s the Capital Noodle Bar, a new casual offshoot of Capital Seafood.

Here’s how everyone stacks up:

Continue reading

2014 O.C. Restaurant Awards!

Chef of the year? Best new restaurant? The greatest desserts … ? To condense a year’s worth of dining into just six awards is a daunting but delicious task. The possibilities were numerous, but the awards are few.

To arrive at these selections, I dined more than 400 times, driving more than 8,000 miles from one end of the county to the other in a never-ending search for something great to eat. In the end, it comes down to this: the best of the best for 2014. Continue reading

OC Short Order: MCow Yakatori (with a barf sink!)

Sake and soju at MCow Yakatori (photo by Brad A Johnson)

On my first visit to the new MCow Yakitori in Irvine, the first thing I do is go to the restroom to wash my hands. What I find in there makes me want to turn around and run.

No, the restroom isn’t dirty. In fact, it is spotless. But between the hand sink and the urinal is something I’ve never seen before: a barf sink, clearly labeled as such. I can’t imagine why a modern restaurant would feel compelled to install a tall, deep trough for people who might need to vomit. Do they expect their customers to drink until they puke? Should I be concerned about food poisoning? My mind races. I’m confused, and more than a little grossed out. Continue reading

One Dish: Pork shank at Mi Mexico Lindo, Santa Ana

photo by Brad A JohsonPork shank at Mi Mexico Lindo in Santa Ana (photo by Brad A Johnson)

There are lots of reasons to dine at the newly relocated Mi Mexico Lindo Grill in Santa Ana. Some come for the weekend karaoke and pitchers of cold beer. Others eye this place for breakfast, when the kitchen serves enfrijoladas.

But really, the best reason to come here is the house specialty called chamorro Mi Mexico Lindo, served for lunch and dinner every day. Continue reading

OC Short Order: Nam Vietnamese, Santa Ana

Nam (photos by Brad A Johnson)

Nam opened in August in Santa Ana. The cute new Vietnamese cafe across the street from Santa Ana College brings a refreshing, independent spirit to a shopping center dominated by the likes of Subway, Taco Bell and Carl’s Jr.

Nam seats only about 30 diners, so at lunchtime it’s not unusual to encounter a short wait for a table. Continue reading

The New Italian: A revolution in SoCal

Bestia1House-made salumi at Bestia in L.A. (photo by Brad A. Johnson)

The future of Italian cuisine has arrived. And while it’s nothing short of a revolution in Los Angeles, it’s a movement that has mostly evaded Orange County.

It used to be that if you went out for Italian cuisine, you knew what to expect. You knew before you got there exactly what you would be eating: Caprese salad, fried calamari, bruschetta with tomato and basil, arancini in marinara sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, linguine and clams (in which the clams too often came from a can), chicken Parmigiania, veal Milanese, tiramisu …

Restaurants bent over backwards to conjure romantic images of Sophia Loren, Federico Fellini and Frank Sinatra. Tables were always set with bottles of Italian olive oil. Waiters offered Parmesan cheese with everything, even the fish. And while that’s still pretty much the norm in Orange County – with some exceptions, see the list of Top 10 local Italian restaurants below – it’s become a different scene entirely in Los Angeles.

Continue reading