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.

THE ECOLOGY CENTER

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.

muffin and bread

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.

ceci pattie

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.

porchetta

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

San Diego’s DaoFu takes home-made to another level

I am always excited when I find a little mom and pop spot regardless of where I am. On a recent trip to San Diego, a friend, who had been to DaoFu previously, brought me here because he thought I would love the food.  He wasn’t wrong. The sign alone intrigued and piqued my curiosity: “Home-made tofu and soy milk.”

The restaurant is small and the cozy nature of it really appealed, not to mention the smiling face of the lady who seated us. I found out later that Maggie is the owner/chef’s wife.

Naturally, on a first visit, I always order way too much food because I want to try everything, but before we even ordered, a complimentary salad arrives with some home made tofu alongside. The beet and raspberry salad dressing — also made in-house — was delightfully tart with a hint of sweetness. The tofu was absolutely incredible. Not only was it texturally pleasing, but it possessed the robust flavors of soy beans that I know and love.

salad

This is why we wanted to encompass more tofu into our meal. The Lily Flower with Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms ($12.98) was selected because I love lily flower. It was just a bonus that a wedge of fried tofu was present on the plate. All plates arrive with your choice of white, brown or half/half rice. We opted for brown throughout.

veg plate

When asked what spice level you want, don’t go crazy like I did. I told Maggie 10. She put me in my place when she told me 5 was sufficient. We negotiated a 5 for the first dish and later, I went up one level to 6. Seeing I am able to eat habanero-level heat, and a 6 was hot enough, I would like to warn others before they try to order on the Orange County heat level I am accustomed to. Trust Maggie when she tells you it’s hot enough!

We started with some Chicken Salad Rolls ($8.28), a take on the Vietnamese rice paper rolls stuffed with lettuce, mints, cilantro, bean sprouts and rice noodles. They are cut in half and sits on a plate of house sauce similar to the dressing on the salad, but just a hint sweeter.

chicken rolls

Both my friend and I love chicken wings so an order of Garlic Chicken Wings ($8.36) was on the agenda, but first, I had Maggie confirm it wasn’t a sweet sauce the wings were doused in. She assured me it wasn’t. These fried chicken wings are coated with a savory garlic sauce which are perfect on their own, or accompanied with a bowl of steamed rice. So good!

chicken wings

Maggie recommended the next dish, Stuffed Tofu, Eggplant and Peppers ($12.11), what we refer to as ‘yong dao fu’. The tofu, eggplant and peppers are stuffed with fish paste and lightly pan fried before they are topped with a piquant spicy sauce. Typically, fish paste tends to be hard and with a fish ball-like texture. Here, it is soft and complements the vegetables perfectly, especially the tofu.
stuffed vegs
Wild Steamed Red Snapper Rice Pot ($13.88) was positively our favorite. Brown rice is topped with steamed snapper fillets with a sauce seasoned with ginger, garlic, wine, scallion and cilantro. The delicate fish is not inundated with sauce so you’re able to taste it on its own, or, with the sauce-seasoned rice. The shiitake mushroom slices enhanced the flavors providing us with various tastes with each mouthful. We couldn’t stop eating this!
fish rice pot
When we were done, Maggie brought complimentary ice cream (all guests receive this) to us and continued chatting to me in Cantonese. This is when I found out that her husband Eric started making tofu with no experience whatsoever, perfecting it through the years. She is delighted that her customers love their food and especially, the tofu. She explained that the tofu is organic and Eric insists on creating everything from scratch right down to making the noodles they serve. I was bummed I didn’t know about this sooner, but will definitely return and order noodles on my next visit.
There are a ton of vegetarian dishes available which appeal to non-vegetarians as well so there is something for everyone. I wish we had something similar in Orange County, but the closest thing we have is Dao Son, a shop selling home-made tofu in Westminster. There is no Chinese chef in OC making his own tofu and noodles that I know of. Do you?

DaoFu
3332 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-281-6888

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Mesa’s new chef delivers a respectable menu

The last time I dined at Mesa was about three years ago — maybe more — when a group of us came here for dinner and drinks after the OC Auto Show. The only thing I took away from that experience was, well not much, seeing I never returned again.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to dinner at Mesa and I’d be lying if I said I was excited. However, that soon changed when I find out that the new chef, Niki Starr, is from the same school — maybe “family” is a better word — as some of my favorite young chefs in OC, including Aron Habinger and Joshua Han.

(photo below courtesy of Mesa)

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We were presented first with an amuse bouche of steak tartare. After the first bite, I already knew this meal would go in a very positive direction. It was perfectly seasoned, and there were inclusions of ingredients which made it a little different from all the other steak tartares out there. Besides chives, there was watermelon radish to give the tartare both color and texture. The minute I tasted the mayo, I knew it was Japanese Kewpie mayo — the only mayo I have in my home — and a sprinkling of togarishi added a touch of heat to the finish.

(all food photos courtesy of Bobby Navarro)

tartare

Our first course of Beet Salad ($10) comprised roasted gold and red beets, nice chunks of Humbolt Fog blue to give it an element of saltiness, and an array of citrus which cleansed my palate between each bite. The orange and grapefruit were expected, but the one meyer lemon segment was definitely a surprise, making us giggle as the tartness surprised both my friend and I simultaneously. The prosecco vinaigrette is light and does not overwhelm, while the pistachio dust added a textural component to the dish.

beet salad

If you only order one dish at Mesa, make it Chef’s Spanish Style Mussels ($16). It was fun to watch as the sizzling hot plate makes its way from the kitchen to you. Black Prince Edward Island mussels with slivers of bilbao chorizo, tossed in a white wine sauce possess hints of smoked paprika, and is not to be missed. The flavors were intoxicating and you’ll want to soak up the juices with the grilled bread from OC Baking Company served on the side.

mussels

But perhaps, the simplest of all items is always the best. Holiday Sliders ($12/2pcs) were created in the spirit of Thanksgiving, but instead of turkey, Chef Niki uses shredded duck confit. A smear of potato puree on the mini potato bun serves as a base for the duck and then, it is topped with a festive cranberry orange compote. The sandwich brings the spirit of the holidays closer, but it is the gravy dipping sauce that’s really to-die-for!

turkey slider

Steelhead Salmon ($20) arrives with flaky fish under the crispy skin, and seasoned to perfection. Fire-roasted cauliflower and confit carrots accompany, with a spoonful of  stone ground mustard seed beurre blanc, and finished off with micro dijon.

salmon

I would have been happy after the salmon, but there was one more course to eat. Kurobota Grilled Pork Chop ($22) is drizzled with a smoked blackberry jus prepared using the pork belly braising liquid, and seasoned with a touch of blackberry liqueur. Sweet potato puree and flash fried Brussels sprouts are good accoutrements, adding a hint of sweetness to the pork.

pork

Although dessert isn’t always on my dining agenda, I accept a taste of my friends’ Bread Pudding ($8). Vanilla maple bacon adds a touch of saltiness to balance out the dulce de leche on the plate. I love the variety of textures Chef Niki features on every plate and here, cashew bits add crunch to the softness of the pudding and ice cream.

dessert

Mesa’s reputation of its menu being an after-thought to its libations will soon be a thing of the past if Chef Niki continues at the helm. The food is simple, but packed with appealing flavor profiles which even the fussiest of palates will appreciate. I, for one, was highly impressed by her ability to season her proteins perfectly. In time, the late night gourmands will find their way here and hopefully, change the perception that Mesa is only good as a drinking spot.

Mesa
725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-6700

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Moulin will take you to Paris without leaving OC

I’ve been to Moulin as many times as I can count on one hand — perhaps more — since its opening almost a month ago. Maybe it is the quaint French charm, or the very attractive staff owner Laurent Vrignaud has employed, Or just maybe, it is just simply the fact that the food is really good. For me, it has to be the food which draws me in. Decor helps, but it is only secondary to its culinary offerings.

This little French bistro and cafe, which took over the Pascal’s Epicerie spot off Bristol, is everything that appeals to my senses. The food draws me in, the inviting space coupled with warm, friendly people, makes me stay for a while. Put that all together and the result is my desire to keep coming back again and again with friends in tow.

moulin

The food is simple. Typical French fare at a cafe you might chance upon while strolling through the streets of Montmartre, Paris, where Laurent is from. It is his longing for the foods of his childhood which led him here, to open Moulin.

Each visit allows me to try different things. The atmosphere is incredible, just buzzing with energy. Breakfast and lunch are bustling with people, music, and the aromas of something delicious. I’ve yet to come at dinner time, and plan to make it to one of the Tuesday “Chef’s Dinner” that features Chef Anthony Bar’s French specialties in a family-style atmosphere. Reservations are a must — walk-ins will be disappointed.

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For now, I can tell you, the regular menu is pretty enticing on its own. For breakfast, try one of their omelettes. I liked L’Omelette Moulin ($12) which includes roasted chicken (from the in-house rotisserie) with herbs and mushroom. They’ll ask if you want cheese with it, I always say yes. It is a perfectly executed omelette, fluffy on the inside and really light — just like they do it in gay Paris.

omelette

La Quiche du Chef et Salade ($10) is another stellar choice. You’ll get a side salad with a slice of whatever quiche the chef has created for the day. Quiche Lorraine was the daily feature, a wedge of eggy goodness dotted with ham and cheese throughout. I don’t remember the last time I had quiche this good. The texture is light as air and rather impressive.

quiche

One of my favorite items is Le Poulet Roti aux Herbs ($8/lb), rotisserie chicken you can see rotating behind the cashier. The chicken breast tends to be a tad drier so I always choose the leg/thigh, make sure you ask for some jus to go with it. There are vegetables as a side option, but what I do instead is, order a baguette ($3), cut a piece off, dip it into the jus and enjoy.

chicken

Instead of vegetables, I prefer the various salads Moulin offers in its cold case. The salad is sold by weight and there are quite a few to choose from. My favorites include: Le Céleri Rémoulade, sliced celeriac tossed in a remoulade; La Pomme de Terre, Lardons en Persillade, baby potatoes with bacon lardons tossed with persillade (a dressing of parsley chopped together with garlic, herbs, oil, and vinegar).

salade

On another visit, we enjoyed sandwiches. Jambon et Fromage ($9) includes wonderful ham (roasted in-house) and gruyere sandwiched between a house-made baguette. This is also a perfect selection if you’re on the run and wanted something quick to go.

jambon fromage

On my son’s first visit, he stood in front of the cold case and immediately points to the Saucisson Sec and Cornichons ($8) baguette. In fact, he kept muttering “this is so good and so simple” the entire time he was eating it. Some dry, cured sausage topped with baby gherkins between a buttered crusty loaf — simple indeed.

saucisson sec

Croque Madame ($11) is a classic French hot sandwich you won’t want to miss. If you’re not familiar with this, it is a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich) with a runny egg on top. Comfort food at its best.

croque madame

I am a huge fan of onion soup, but unless I make it myself, I have yet to find one in Orange County that’s spot on. The French Onion Soup ($9) here is excellent, with a flavorful broth and just the right amount of onions. The crouton and cheese to soup ratio is also correct. My son proclaimed this one of the best French onion soups he’s had in a restaurant.

french onion soup

There is still a lot to explore at Moulin and new items are added daily. The core menu will always be available, but from time to time, you’ll find some specials such as the Brie Tartine ($8) we found on one of our visits. If you see this, get it! Absolutely to-die-for.

brie lardon

Moulin Bistro is one of those gems destined to become an Orange County favorite. I see chefs grabbing a bite with their families, or just popping in for a quick coffee. To see culinary folk flock here affirms that this is a place to watch out for. After all, isn’t that the best compliment and validation of all?

Moulin Bistro
1000 Bristol N
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 844-376-6243

Moulin on Urbanspoon

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.

chilli

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.

fajita

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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BRIO Tuscan Grille: a good addition to Irvine Spectrum

I like that Irvine Spectrum has been adding restaurants to its repertoire left, right, and center recently, however, not all the new eateries are right for this center. Keep in mind that this is a place where families congregate, where people bring their children, it is still surprising to me that not all the restaurants have something kid-friendly on the menu.

Not that this matters to me in any way. My child has not ordered off a kids’ menu since he was three years old, but it is just an observation for when I eat with my friends who do have young children. This is why the new BRIO Tuscan Grille may be a very attractive choice for families — and singles — alike.

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A meal is definitely made better when you have a good server, and ours, Cyrena, was perfect. She was attentive without being intrusive, and if she didn’t know the answers to my myriad of questions, she found someone who could answer them for me. Absolutely delightful.

A basket of complimentary bread arrives — the crisp bread is addictive — and I suggest you do not overindulge in either because you’ll regret it when your meal arrives — portions are generous!

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Since we aren’t able to decide on a bruschetta, we opt for Bruschetta Quattro ($15.45) which offers a selection of Roasted Red Pepper bruschetta, fresh mozzarella, basil, parmagiana reggiano, balsamic glaze; Roasted Tomato & Herb Pesto bruschetta, grape tomatoes, ricotta, parmigiano reggiano, fresh thyme, pistachio mint pesto; Sliced Steak bruschetta, gorgonzola, arugula, charred tomatoes, parmigiano regginao; and the Chef’s Seasonal bruschetta (bacon onion jam). Although each is tasty in its own way, my favorite is the roasted tomato with ricotta.

bruschetta sampler

Our next appetizer, Spicy Shrimp & Eggplant ($11.45) of Romano crusted eggplant topped with pan seared shrimp, served in a black pepper cream sauce, sounds better on paper. The Romano crust is too thick and overwhelms the delicate eggplant — I am not able to decipher the eggplant at all. The shrimp is nicely prepared, however, the sauce is bordering on the cloying side.

shrimp eggplant

There are different sections on the menu and I like “The Lighter Side of Tuscany” best. These dishes are all under 600 calories per plate but none of the many dishes I have tried suggest compromises in flavor. In fact, I prefer them over the others.

Take for instance Campanelle Carbonara ($16.85), which is nice, but not a traditional carbonara since it clearly states “creamy Alfredo sauce” on the menu. The pasta to ingredients ratio is extremely generous and offers plenty of grilled chicken slices, crisp bacon, Parmesan and my favorite, spinach.

carbonara

The next selections are the ones to keep on your radar. Grilled Salmon Fresca ($18.95) sits on a bed of sweet potatoes, spinach and roasted peppers tossed in a pesto vinaigrette. Then, grilled asparagus, feta, diced tomatoes are added before it is finished off with a drizzle of balsamic glaze.

grilled salmon salad

Chicken Pomodoro Classico ($15.15) might possibly be one of my favorite entrees here. The tomato sauce is fresh and the penne has soaked up its great flavor. They do not skimp on ingredients and there is as much pasta as there is grilled chicken, pine nuts, basil, parmagiano reggiano and cilantro pesto. An incredibly respectable starch/protein ratio in every bite.

chicken pomodoro classico

Another dish is Chicken Piccata ($12.95). There really isn’t much to say except those who aren’t adventurous will really love it because it pretty much stays true to the classic. This version is served with roasted vegetables, so if you want it with mashed potatoes, order the Mezze Chicken Limone instead.

chicken piccata

Shrimp Mediterranean ($14.95) with an orzo and farro pilaf is one I’m truly enamored with. Spicy grilled jumbo shrimp are plump with a great snap, and the use of colorful vegetables such as broccolini, asparagus, tomatoes, and spinach really brightens up the plate, and also makes it a healthier option all around.

shrimp mediterranean

If you’re desperate for meat, then choose the 5oz Filet Brio ($19.95). The accoutrements of sweet potatoes, spinach, roasted peppers and grilled asparagus are great, but if it is steak you want, I would really get it elsewhere. There are so many other great things on the menu for you to choose from, there is really no need to get this.

filet Brio

What I can definitely say about BRIO is that you will always know what to expect each visit after your initial one. The food is consistent and once you find your favorites, you’ll probably stick to them — like I have.

These days, I’ve been holding most of my giveaways on my newsletter — if you haven’t subscribed yet, please do so at the top right hand corner of this page. However, this week, I do have a giftcard courtesy of BRIO to giveaway valued at $50. Please leave a comment and tell me where your last memorable dining experience was and tell me why, for a chance to enter.  

BRIO Tuscan Grille
618 Spectrum Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618
Tel: 949-341-0380

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