Thursday, December 28, 2006

Taléo Grill (Irvine, CA)

Taléo Grill
3309 Michelson Dr, Irvine, CA 92612
Thu 12/28/2006, 08:05p-09:20p

We actually decided to come to Taléo to try one dish, their pastel de tres leches. It's a dessert we first encountered at Gulfstream in Newport, one that has quickly become one of our favorites. Could any restaurant's possibly come close to Gulfstream's?

We have here the specials and regular menus (signed by Chef Acevedo). Click for larger versions.

On the left we have Taléo's drink menu (click for larger version). Apparently, the restaurant is known for their margaritas, so we decided to order up three ("Cadillac" style with Grand Marnier), one each with Corazon, Patrón, and Don Julio (I believe that's what it was). We unanimously preferred the Don Julio.

Complementary chips served with two salsas. The less spicy one is shown.

Sea Scallops
Pan seared, bacon-wrapped jumbo sea scallops in a chipotle peppercorn sauce. This was originally a special entrée that they made into an appetizer on our request. The scallops were well cooked, giving them a firm yet pliant texture. The bacon added a nice bit of saltiness.

Sampler of toasted masa "boats" with pork carnitas, beef rib meat, and chicken. Topped with thin sliced cabbage, tomato and Mexican crema. Actually my first experience with sopes, I ended up with the pork I believe. Tasty.

Carne Asada
Grilled prime marinated NY Strip steak with pico de gallo, grilled onions, habanero salsa and guacamole. Served with Mexican rice and frijoles charros. All the entrees came with beans and tortillas.

Chef Jose's family recipe of house-made tender pork carnitas caramelized to perfection, served with Mexican rice and frijoles charros. This was my entrée. I was a bit let down, as I had heard that this was Taléo's signature item, so I had very high expectations. Taste was good, it was mainly the texture that bothered me; it was too tender, I would've preferred it a bit firmer.

Beef Ribs
Tender, meaty ribs slow cooked and drizzled with our original mustard-guajillo barbeque sauce. Served with French fries and vegetable of the day. This was an experimental item, boneless ribs, since the restaurant had run out of the beef ribs my dining companion ordered originally.

A really big flan, or crème caramel as they tend to say in Europe. It was quite tasty though, with rich, creamy custard and nice layer of caramel on top.

Pastel de Tres Leches
Finally we get to what we came for. Tres leches is basically cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and either whole milk or cream. I'm glad to say it was comparable to that at Gulfstream: sweet, creamy, delicious.

Executive Chef Jose Acevedo, as he came out to sign my menu.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bluefin (Newport Beach, CA)

7952 E Pacific Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, CA 92657
Wed 12/27/2006, 01:00p-03:00p

Takashi Abe honed his skills under the legendary Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (of Nobu fame). Some years ago, he left Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and created his own restaurant, Restaurant Abe, on the Newport peninsula. It was there that I honed my penchant for sushi over two years ago. However, in 2005, Abe-san sold his namesake eatery for reasons unknown; but word quickly spread that he was to open a new place, Bluefin, overlooking the Pacific at Crystal Cove. My foodie friends and I patiently waited for Bluefin to open; and when it did, we and other faithful were quick to test it out. Unfortunately however, we all felt that some of the magic was gone. It was good, but not as good as the old Restaurant Abe. We knew something was missing; perhaps Bluefin was just going through growing pains. So we decided to wait it out. And so we waited, over a year, and now we're back.

People often complained about Restaurant Abe's decor; fortunately for them, Abe's new space is much improved. It is a stark, modern space, with light colors and dark wood, a waterfall feature, and a lighted sushi bar. Unfortunately however, the new space is also smaller, and as a result you are often privy to the conversation at the next table over. Bluefin is usually crowded during peak hours; the photo above was taken at about 3PM, in between lunch and dinner services.

Here we have the sushi menu and the regular menu. There is also a specials board with the day's special items (e.g. Kobe beef carpaccio, kinki fish, halibut jalapeño, live octopus, etc.). Based on my experiences, I recommend ordering omakase or from the specials board (and make sure to get the unlisted halibut carpaccio too, an old favorite from the Restaurant Abe days). This particular day we had the 5-course lunch omakase plus a few extra items. Note that I had Abe-san sign the sushi menu; he seemed almost embarrassed when I asked him to do so. Click for larger versions.

I ordered the "Bluefin sake flight," which consisted of one glass each of junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo sakes. I found the daiginjo to be the most floral and fruity, while the middle ginjo was the most biting. My favorite however was the junmai, due to its heady overtones of rice and mellow finish. In addition we also ordered two large bottles of Asahi later on.

Kobe Beef Carpaccio
Served with onion, radish, greens, and ponzu. The beef had a nicely marbled complexion typical of Kobe-style beef. However, I tasted a bit too much ponzu, which competed for my attention with the flavor of the meat. I would prefer that a high-quality cut of beef be prepared more simply, to let the flavor of the meat stand by itself.

1. Scallop & Uni / Halibut & Ankimo / King Crab / Tiger Prawn
Going from left to right: scallop "ravioli" stuffed with uni, topped with caviar and gold leaf, in basil and peppercorn sauce (very mild surprisingly, a great way to kick things off); halibut wrapped ankimo, or monkfish liver (I'm not usually a fan of ankimo but this was quite good); king crab tempura with peppers (can't go wrong with this!); tiger prawn ceviche with sesame, on a bed of sea cucumber (great taste and texture with the prawn, not sure about the sea cucumber pairing though).

2. Sashimi Salad
Our salad course consisted of ebi, hamachi, and maguro, garnished with cucumber, lotus root, shiso, sprouts, some sort of edible flower petals, and ponzu with grilled daikon. The tuna and the yellowtail (hidden behind the lotus and the flowers in the photo) were nice, and surprisingly so was the shrimp. I usually stay away from cooked shrimp but this was good, with a meatier composition and stronger flavor than I get at most places. And just look at those colors!

3. Trout
What everyone at the table initially mistook for salmon turned out to be trout, stuffed with shitake mushroom, on a bed of scallop, mashed potato, and string beans. Unlike the trout we had at Stonehill Tavern a few days earlier, this trout was almost nothing like salmon in taste or texture, having a richer, oilier taste and a creamier consistency.

4. Mixed Sushi
Our sushi course consisted of maguro (tuna-pleasant, mild taste), kanpachi (amberjack-a bit heavy on the wasabi but otherwise good), hirame (halibut-my favorite of the bunch), ebi (shrimp-again, as in the salad, much better than I'm used to), and shiro maguro roll (albacore-topped with a creamy vegetable oil, tasty!).

Sawara & Aji
Here we have two versions of mackerel: Spanish and Japanese. Both were indeed delectable, but I'd have to give the nod to the Spanish variety, topped here with scallion. It had a lighter taste compared to the Japanese variety, which was sweeter and fuller-bodied.

Toro & Amaebi
The toro was oily, fatty, and full of flavor, as expected, though the texture was not as melt-in-your-mouth as it could've been. The amaebi had the subtle sweetness and freshness I was looking for, but didn't have quite as much "snap" as I'd like. And of course, what better way to finish off amaebi than with their deep-fried heads, replete with tiny eyeballs? Delish.

5. Chocolate Cake
Chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by strawberry, raspberry, and chocolate. The ice cream was the real standout for me here; and overall this dessert was a wonderful way to end the meal.

What a difference a year makes! On our first visit, we complained that the new restaurant lacked Abe-san's touch, his flair, his élan. Guys, I think it's back. We thought that Bluefin would forever remain in the shadow of the restaurant on the peninsula. But no, the old magic is here, and Abe-san even has a few new tricks up his sleeve (his dishes seem on the whole to be much more creative). At $35, the lunch omakase is a downright steal. This is the Abe I remember. Welcome back.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stonehill Tavern (Dana Point, CA)

Stonehill Tavern
1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, CA 92629
Sat 12/23/2006, 05:30p-08:45p

When I think of "hotel restaurant," I conjure up images of tired continental fare at the Hilton or a poor attempt of Asian fusion at the Marriott. Rest assured, Stonehill Tavern is not your typical hotel restaurant. Rather, in the space of the former Aqua at the St. Regis Resort, Mina has created an exciting new eatery serving his interpretation of modern American tavern fare. The space is sophisticated yet casual, sleek yet cozy, the perfect setting to introduce Southern California to Michael Mina.

Designed by Tony Chi, Stonehill's space is suave, modern, awash in dark, warm wood, perhaps a nod to the restaurant's pseudo-tavern essence. You enter amongst an impressive display of steel racks showcasing Stonehill's fine collection of wines. We were seated in the main dining room, overlooking the majestic Pacific. There is also a bar/lounge area with chic glass-encased booths and a private dining room replete with wood-burning fireplace.

Here we have the cocktail menu, the regular menu, and the tasting menu. We started with two servings of Lindeman's (intense bouquet of raspberry jam leading to a sweet, lingering finish) and a Chimay Red (a dark-brown Belgian trappist brew with strong hints of coffee and nuts). On the regular menu, note Mina's signature method of creating three variations of one main ingredient. We were tempted to get the caviar tasting trio but then came to our senses (MP on beluga should scare most folks!). Also, we had no problems getting the tasting menu signed by Chef Keough after the meal. Click for larger versions.

Left: The assortment of breads included olive, cheese, and French-style baguette. The olive and cheese varieties were especially flavorful and didn't even need to be accompanied by butter. Right: Rather peculiar-looking salt and pepper.

Made with toro and served with toast points, this was one of the specials of the day, which we ordered in addition to the tasting menu. Our server prepared the dish tableside, mixing the tuna with onions, jalapeños, pine nuts, and chili aioli before serving. The photos were taken post-mix; the initial presentation was much neater obviously. I didn't get the typical fatty, oily flavor that I typically get with toro, probably due to the copious amount of garnish applied. In my opinion, toro should be served more simply, to let the flavors of the fish dominate; here I would have a hard time differentiating this from a regular cut of tuna.

Our amuse consisted of foie gras creme encased in Medjool date, topped with hazelnut. The flavor of the foie was very subdued, with the taste of the date dominating. Nice.

1 BLUEFIN TUNA: Cucumber, Shiso, Osetra Caviar
Chartogne Taillet 'Cuvée Michael Mina', Champagne NV
Compared to the tartare, this was a much purer presentation of tuna: let the fish take center stage. The caviar imparted a saltiness that contrasted nicely with the mildness of the bluefin while the small bit of crispy rice added a welcomed crunch to the dish's texture. The Champagne had a strong nose of peach that belied its quintessentially brut finish, a pleasant pairing.

2 MAINE LOBSTER: Pink Grapefruit, Avocado, Pistachio Oil
Henri Boillot Puligny-Montrachet 'Folatieres', Burgundy 2000
The lobster had a delightful texture and provided a nice foil to the grapefruit and avocado. However I wasn't quite as sure about the addition of the pistachio. The white Burgundy paired with this dish was interesting. Initially, the wine had a super-intense, mineral, earthy nose that was reminiscent of refuse according to one of my dining companions. However, once the wine opened up a bit, we got more fruit and even tasted hints of sauternes.

3 TASMANIAN OCEAN TROUT: Cauliflower, Muscat Grape, Capers
Prager Riesling 'Steinriegel' Federspiel, Wachau, Austria 2004
The entire table found this quite evocative of salmon, in texture, taste, and appearance. However it still maintained typical trout qualities (such as the skin) and was enjoyed by all. The Riesling had a floral, fruity, mouthwatering aroma that led to a spicy, dry finish; it went well with the fish.

4 LIBERTY FARMS DUCK: Quince Confit, Roasted Almonds, Pinot Noir Jus
Vincent Girardin Nuits-Saint-Georges 'Damodes', Burgundy 2000
This was probably my favorite dish of the night: tender, fleshy, succulent, and full of flavor. I have no qualms saying that this may very well be my number one experience with duck, though one member of my party thought it could've been juicier. The Pinot jus with the duck connected nicely with the paired Burgundy.

5 COLORADO LAMB: Cappelletti, Braised Artichokes, Sundried Tomatoes
Qupé Syrah Cuvée Michael Mina, Santa Barbara County 2004
A favorite among several members of my party, the lamb was a highlight for me as well. The meat was delicate, juicy, flavorful and was some of the best lamb I've ever had. "Cappelletto" means "little hat" in Italian and indeed, that's what this dumpling-like contraption resembles. Related to the more popular tortellini, the cappelletto is a stuffed pasta, in this case stuffed with the same delectable lamb. The Syrah went well here, it was spicy and forward, though perhaps a bit tannic.

Sirita Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2000
This was also a special, apparently the real deal from Japan, at $15/oz. We were told this was graded A5, the highest in the Japanese system (USDA Prime grades around A1/A2 I believe). The beef was served with chanterelles, cipollini onion, fingerling potatoes, and just a pinch of sea salt. The meat was juicy, tender, and flavorful, but lacked the typical unctuousness, marbling, and rich, gelatinous texture of the Wagyu breed that I'm used to. Perhaps this demonstrates the difference between a sirloin and the tenderloin cut that I usually get. As for the Cabernet, I ordered it separately by the glass; I found it to be a typical expression of California Cab: slight floral nose, medium fruit, softer finish.

6 BUTTERSCOTCH PUDDING: Steamed Custard, Oatmeal Lace Cookie
Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos, Hungary 2000
The oatmeal cookie was topped with crème fraîche and a tuile. It was tasty but I much preferred the pudding, which was served slightly chilled, accentuating the intense, pure flavor of the butterscotch. The pairing of the Tokaji was a good but safe choice. Also I do enjoy Tokaji, I am seeing it a bit too much these days and would've preferred a more creative match, perhaps something like a Muscat.

Two varieties: milk chocolate (garnished with dark and white chocolate spheres) and dark chocolate (topped with toffee). Ice cream filled and a fun, wonderful way to end the meal.

Michael Mina's restaurant empire spans a myriad of locations. With so many eateries operating at once, I had some concerns that there would be problems keeping up quality and consistency. But that was not the case; and in fact, according to our server, Mina meets regularly with every one of his restaurants. With Stonehill Tavern, Mina has exceeded my expectations and redefined what I expect from a mere hotel restaurant. But Stonehill is a great restaurant, not only among hotel eateries, but overall, and stands without qualification. I do not hesitate putting it among the very top restaurants in Orange County.