Tamarind of London: a new chef, a new beginning

There’s a reason why I have never written about Tamarind of London. It is not because I’ve never visited, quite the contrary actually. Through the years, with every chef change, and then some in between, I’ve always come and left, always feeling underwhelmed. Meals have been bland — yes, something that’s somewhat of a mystery when you think of Indian cuisine — and has never inspired me to write anything, that is, until now.

I entered Tamarind like I have always done so in the past, with a bit of skepticism in my gut. I have been reluctant to come back, but my friend — an Indian food enthusiast — on the other hand, was rather excited. After sitting down, she quite eagerly perused the menu, while I skimmed through it expecting to find some new items to jump out at me. Quite frankly, I’ve tried a good number of the dishes and was not really sure what to order.

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Our server Frankie was delightful. In fact, he was amazing. His attentive and friendly demeanor made for a very welcoming intro to this, possibly my fifth or sixth visit to Tamarind since its inception. On top of that, the promise of a new chef, Imran Ali, gave me a glimmer of hope that this time, it would be different.

Before we even ordered, a basket of complimentary pappadums arrive at the table accompanied by a trio of sauces: the restaurant’s namesake, tamarind; mint and cilantro chutney; plus an absolutely stunning roasted tomato chutney.

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We started with Hara Bara Palak Kofta ($13) a duo of potato dumplings if you will. The potato pancake with bits of carrot was lovely, however, the ‘croquette’ was definitely my favorite. Seasoned potatoes are mashed and coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. It was soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.

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If you’re a fan of lamb, then Lamb Seekh Kebab ($16) is just your thing. These ground lamb kebabs are cooked in the tandoor oven and are reminiscent of kofta kebabs you find in Mediterranean cuisine. Seared on the outside, while remaining moist on the inside, they are too good to share.

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I was stumped when it came to ordering our main courses. We all agreed on Dakshini Jhinga ($28), a coconut prawn curry in a traditional sauce using ginger and coconut milk — which by the way was so good even my son devoured it and he isn’t all that keen on prawns. The heat level is mild, but it is packed with a complex blend of spices layering flavor upon flavor.

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We just could not decide on our second entree, but Frankie came to the rescue and suggested Lamb Vindaloo ($31) — it’s not on the menu, but is a special they often prepare for guests who are looking for something different. The chunks of lamb are tender and the sauce, savory and piquant. Vindaloo may be spicier for some palates, but was perfect for mine. This is a dish I will most definitely order again.

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I am not able to sit through an Indian meal without Bhindi Masala ($15). I absolutely love okra, and here, it is prepared in a tangy tomato paste with onions and tomatoes. The okra links are slightly charred on the outside giving a caramelized finish to the vegetables. Simply superb!

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Dal (lentil stew) is another side dish I always order. I couldn’t decide between the two offered and once again, but luckily, Frankie made an executive decision and suggested Dal Makhni ($15), slow-cooked black lentils with tomato and butter. It was splendid.

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I like to add a few dollops of Cucumber Raita ($4) to the mix, which will help if you find your mouth burning. Not only does the yogurt cool your mouth down, but it also adds a touch of richness to the curries without the heaviness of cream.

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I was really pleased that everything possessed strong, robust flavors which I expect with Indian cuisine. Tamarind of London needs to stay true to itself and not tweak its dishes to what it thinks the local population wants. With Chef Imran Ali at its helm, I hope Tamarind can finally find its rightful place within the realm of stellar Indian fare in Orange County.

Tamarind of London
Crystal Cove
7862 E Pacific Coast Hwy
Newport Coast, CA 92657
Tel: 949-715-8338

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Istanbul Grill: straight up good food

When I received my September issue of Westways magazine (from AAA), I did my usual by flipping straight to the food section. This month’s feature was Istanbul Grill, a place I had not heard of. Very soon after reading this piece, I started seeing friends of mine post photos and praises on Facebook, which piqued my interest even more. So when it came time to lunch with a friend recently, I suggested we hit it up and see what the buzz was all about.

If you’re coming off the 405 you won’t be able to see it clearly. It is right across the street from the Costco plaza, right where Flamebroiler and Cancun Fresh are. We arrived early, in fact, a few minutes before they opened, but there were already others waiting to be seated.

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I wasn’t sure what we were in for when we saw the Lunch Specials ($8.95) but once the items started arriving, we were amazed at what a bargain it was! You start with some pita along with a lovely dip. An appetizer of your choice and an entree before you end with a Turkish dessert.

A dish of sun-dried tomato in olive oil is perfect to dip pita bread in. But don’t fill up because there is a lot more to come.

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My friend and I both order the lunch special — with different selections — along with the Appetizer Sampler ($12.95) to start. We didn’t realize how big this would be and gasped at the platter of hummus, babaganoush, stuff grape leaves, spicy chopped salad and labne, enough for four to six people. I was especially impressed with the stuffed grape leaves because it’s usually not a favorite of mine.

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The appetizer portion of the lunch specials began with Ezogelin Corba, a lentil soup consisting of red lentils, potatoes, celery, carrots and onions. I enjoyed its consistency, however, it was served almost at room temperature — a major turn-off for me unless it is chilled soup. I mentioned it to the server and he told me some customers complained it burned their lips so they are now serving it lukewarm. It mind-boggles me that adults don’t have the common sense to blow on their soup before eating. The soup was lovely, but next time, I am going to tell them I want mine piping hot.

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Ezme was the other appetizer we selected — although if you’re going to order the sampler, choose something else. Finely chopped tomatoes, onions and hot peppers are mixed with olive oil and herbs. Flavors are intricately layered with a hint of heat which hits you towards the end. I loved it.

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I believe one of the most recognizable dishes in Mediterranean cuisine is Doner Kebab. Marinated lamb and beef are placed on to a vertical rotisserie and grilled slowly while it rotates. Slices of the meat are hand carved right before serving leaving it tender and very moist. The accompanying yogurt dip pairs well with the meat.

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We also selected Okra Stew with Lamb as our second entree. I was surprised by the miniature okra in the stew, each the size of half a pinkie and very tender. I inquired about these delightful morsels and found out they are imported brined okra from Turkey. The dish possessed a little too much red pepper for my taste, but it did not overpower the overall composition of the dish. You can opt for the vegetarian version of this sans lamb.

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What stood out most about the food here is how light it was. There isn’t an abundance of oil and the stew wasn’t heavy. It reminded me of very good home-made cuisine, which I’m guessing is the attraction of the restaurant.

Istanbul Grill is definitely worth the hype it has been receiving. Food is good, really good, plus service is so warm and friendly. If you go for lunch during the weekday, I suggest going early or later, as it does tend to packed. I’ll definitely be back to try some new things in a few weeks.

Istanbul Grill
18010 Newhope
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Tel: 714-430-1434

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mouth-tingling dishes at Spicy City

I’d have to say, in the 10 years I’ve been Yelp Elite, I have not been to many elite events at all. In fact, these days, I average about one a year, and that is only because it is a special event, or an outing to a restaurant I have not been to and am interested in trying. Therefore, when the invitation came through to check out Spicy City in Anaheim Hills, I RSVPed and joined other Yelp Elites for lunch on a scorching hot day.

My first impressions of the restaurant is that the decor is very modern and pleasant. It definitely has the universal appeal of attracting customers from all ethnicities. I find that usually, Chinese restaurants do not put the effort into making the surroundings a priority, and it is refreshing to see that it is not the case here.

I have to admit, I’ve been to the Spicy City in Irvine — once. I wasn’t impressed and never returned. I was hoping this location would redeem itself and in turn, I would be able to give the Irvine location another try.

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I’m going to put it out there, I am not a fan of Chinese American cuisine. It is not reflective of what true Chinese food is, and especially, not the food I grew up eating. However, I am aware that it is difficult for a restaurant in the US to offer a completely regional menu because it will not appeal to a lot of customers who are not accustomed to the hardcore traditional foods I grew up eating. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when we were informed that our meal would include both traditional and American style Chinese dishes.

One of the most ubiquitous Chinese American offerings is Walnut Shrimp (核桃蝦 $15.99) often known as honey walnut shrimp. I’m not sure how this became a staple of Chinese cuisine, but all I know is, mayonnaise is not a Chinese condiment. To be fair, I must preface this by saying I detest this dish regardless, so it really doesn’t matter what I think because a lot of people love it. The shrimp in this dish has a nice snap and is not overly battered, while the walnuts are very crunchy. There was just too much mayo smothering the shrimp and walnuts, making it difficult to enjoy the natural flavors of the main ingredients. Less is definitely more in this case.

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Kung Pao Chicken (宮保雞 $10.99) is often the “go-to” dish for people not well-versed in Chinese cuisine, but quite frankly, I love kung pao. I love spicy foods so the dried chile morsels really appeal to me. There are peanuts in this dish so if you have a nut allergy, stay away. This version is respectable and flavorful — I enjoyed it very much.

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The next dish is another favorite of mine, but I’m not sure how it differs to kung pao chicken except the chicken is first deep fried before it is stir fried and there are no peanuts. Deep Fried Chicken Cubes w/ Red Dry Chili (辣子雞 $10.99) is dotted with dried chile bits similar to kung pao, but this dish is served without a sauce. Just choose one or the other — ordering both is a bit redundant.

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Shredded Pork with Peking Sauce & Lotus Buns (京醬牛肉絲荷葉餅 $12.99) is presented with baos for you to sandwich the meat in. This was delicious, but a tad too saucy which made them very messy to eat.

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For me, the traditional dishes are always most reflective of a restaurant’s quality and Spicy City did not disappoint.

Hot Sauce Beef (水煮牛 $12.99) is something I always order when I visit a Sichuan restaurant. It is spicy but extremely piquant and savory. The Napa cabbage is infused with all the great flavors, but I found the sauce a little too “corn-starchy”. We had the beef, but you can also opt for fish instead.

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A perfectly executed Fried Rice Yangzhou Style (揚州炒飯 $9.99) arrives and I am impressed. The rice is a perfect consistency with the right amount of “wok hei” (鑊氣) — the heat needed to char and season the ingredients — to give it that taste I want with fried rice.

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But there is one more dish, my favorite item of the entire meal. Steamed Fish Fillet with Hot Pepper (剁椒蒸魚片 $18.99) was enjoyed by all because of its complexity overall balance of flavor profiles. I especially loved the fried shiso leaves which added a burst of freshness to the palate. I highly suggest this when you dine at Spicy City.

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I will always recommend traditional over American style dishes when eating Chinese. After all, Spicy City specializes in a regional cuisine not often prepared well here in the US. If you’re going to eat American style Chinese, then why bother going to Spicy City? There are a ton of others which will equally provide you with what you’re looking for.

Spicy City
5555 E Santa Ana Canyon
Anaheim, CA 92807
Tel: 714-974-8889

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a new-found San Diego love: Zymology 21

We have reservations elsewhere on the day we make our way down to San Diego. However, even though we are more than 30 minutes early, we are unable to find a parking spot due to Little Italy’s weekly farmer’s market in full swing. As our reservation time draws near, I call the restaurant and inform them we are not able to join them.

Our next course of action is to head to the Gaslamp and try our luck at the new Cafe 21, but of course, when we arrive, there is a crazy line with at least an hour’s wait. No way! I ask if their new concept Zymology 21 is open and am delighted to hear it is, so we cross the street to the old Cafe 21 spot and step into Zymology 21.

The space is empty except for one table, no wait at all. On the day of our visit, the restaurant is not officially open — soft opening stage — which explains why there is no one there. The concept here is different. You are given a menu and ordering is done before you sit down. It’s a fast casual concept with a sit-down feel. I can still see hints of the old Cafe 21 here and there, but ultimately, the environment is completely revamped, with an updated, and uber cool vibe.

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The definition of “zymology” is simply, “a science that deals with fermentation”, and here, you will find that this refers to the process of at least one ingredient in each dish or libation. Naturally, we begin with one of their fantastic cocktails, BloodieZ ($9) a bloody Mary that’s unrivaled, even from some of the most distinguished establishments around. It is served in a beaker, on a tray, accompanied by a test tube of beet juice. Use it or don’t, it’s up to you. A skewer of garnishes including olives, half a jalapeno, watermelon cucumber and micro carrot is very pretty.

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Whiskey Sour ($11) using Old Forester whiskeym with an egg white foam, is also presented in a beaker — you will find almost everything has that scientific approach here — but snap your photo quickly, otherwise, the lemon rind garnish will sink rapidly through the foam and end up like my photo, to be no where in sight. Surprisingly, I really enjoy this!

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None of us are real coffee drinkers, but the Syphon Coffee ($8) is too unique to resist. We order one to share. The truth is, we want to experience it more than drink it, although we enjoy the high-quality, full-bodied roast.

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The first thing which catches our eye is Shrimp N Gritz ($15), comprising grilled sweet shrimp marinated in garlic. It sits on top of home style parmesan herb, creamy grits and surrounded by fried julienned leeks. The shrimp is incredibly fresh and I couldn’t help but suck on the heads, enticing all the shrimp butter out of its shell. The grits are creamy and the leeks provides a crispy contrast.

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Chicken and Wafflez ($14) is always a good choice, but here, you will not be getting it in the traditional style you’re accustom to. I select dark meat (you can choose white) chicken, which is fried crispy on the outside and very moist on the inside. It reminds me of Indonesian-style fried chicken, although the seasonings are nothing like it. The waffle is a house-smoked gouda and herbs egg waffle — like those I remember eating from a street stall in Hong Kong as a child. The spicy lime honey glaze is unique, but only a touch is enough for me. There is a runny fried egg as well, but the waffle and chicken are enough to satiate even without.

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Our next dish is Hay Hash ($16). I am not impressed when it hits the table, however, looks are deceiving. The rosemary potatoes confit are rich in flavor, while the seared steak loin is perfectly tender. The poached egg runs into the herb scented Hollandaise sauce adding a heavenly richness all around. I can not stop eating the potatoes which is a surprise because I’m not usually a big fan of it.

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There are several open face sandwiches on the menu and I’m guessing these will rotate as the days go by. On the day of our visit, we select OpenFaceZ: Duck Rillettes ($6) braised duck topped with pickled cucumber, baby carrots, whole grain mustard sauce and pickled onion. It is decent and well-balanced.

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However, it is the Fungi Trifecta ($6), a blend of lobster mushrooms, cremini mushrooms and oyster mushrooms on top of a French beluga lentil pate, which garners the most ooos and ahhs. The natural umami of the mushrooms is enough to tantalize the palate, everything else is icing on the cake.

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While we are not in the mood for dessert, we are definitely intrigued by the PopsicleZ ($9) which are sangria popsicles. The flavors change weekly and we are presented with the two: apple with beer back and tropical (peach) with wine back. I am a fan of Cafe 21’s sangrias and to find them in a popsicle is not only whimsical, but completely calls out to my love of frozen treats.

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I am sure the next time I visit Zymology 21, the menu will be different and it will be a completely new experience. This is why my love of the “21” brand stays true because it is constantly evolving and never boring.

Zymology 21
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-546-9321

Zymology 21 on Urbanspoon

Driftwood Kitchen is the whole package

I’m generally not impressed with restaurants offering a stunning a view. I find them relying on the gorgeous setting and slacking when it comes to the menu. Driftwood Kitchen is not one of those places. In fact, it exceeded my expectations when it comes to stellar cuisine. The ocean backdrop is just the icing on the cake.

We arrive a few minutes before it opened and were ushered into the waiting room. The waves were spectacular, but it was the homey room reminiscent of someone’s living room in the Hamptons, that made me love it even more. The room is cozy and the sofa so comfortable I was reluctant to get up after I had sunk my weary body into it.

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After we were led to our table at the window’s edge, I quickly took a stroll inside the restaurant and was tickled to find that the warmth extends throughout. No matter where you end up sitting, you can be sure it will be a very inviting and gratifying one.

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The cool breeze was pleasant, helping to alleviate the glare of the sun, however, it also meant none of my photos came out. Of course I was disappointed, but luckily, photographer extraordinaire, Anne Watson generously offered her photos for me to use.

** all food photographs courtesy of Anne Watson Photography**

Before anything else, I am presented with a plate of asiago monkey bread accompanied by a pat of butter dotted with black sea salt. A word of warning! It is highly addictive and you won’t want to stop — I couldn’t — however, you will regret it later when you’re too full to eat all the gorgeous dishes you have ordered.

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For example, Cluster Tomato Salad ($14), something I highly recommend ordering, is a must if it’s still on the menu when you make it there. One of the things about Driftwood Kitchen is that ingredients are seasonal and Chef Rainer Schwarz only uses what’s currently available. Therefore, once the tomato season ends, so will this dish. The best part of this salad was the grilled plums, adding another level of sweetness, while Thai basil brings hints of freshness. I especially enjoyed the plum wine vinaigrette dressing and soft mozzarella.

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I don’t know why I love panna cotta so much. Maybe it is the dreamy texture, but I was definitely a little skeptical about the goat cheese aspect of it. Goat Cheese Panna Cotta and Roasted Baby Beets Salad ($12) turned out to be one of the most delectable things I’d ever eaten. The panna cotta is smooth and creamy without the usual grassy, gamey aromas of goat cheese I tend to dislike. Lavender pumpernickel toasts exude floral hints, which, when eaten together with the panna cotta, and the absolutely addicting nature of the pistachio puree, is positively one of the best things I’ve ever eaten!

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My love for raw fish can only be rivaled, by perhaps, scallops. Therefore, Hamachi Crudo ($14) was exactly one of those dishes to whet my tastebuds. The list of accoutrements is unique, including honey dashi Texas grapefruit, avocado mousse, Fresno chili, cilantro/ and smoked sea salt. Take a bite and you’ll only find them all coming together harmoniously in what can be described as heaven on your palate.
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I’m definitely a sucker for soft-shell crabs and Buttermilk Fried Soft-shell Crab ($13) did not disappoint. Crispy on the outside and wonderfully soft on the inside, dip it into the spicy papaya seed dipping sauce and take bites of the green papaya slaw in between. So simple, yet immensely satisfying!

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And on the topic of something else I absolutely adore, New Bedford Sea Scallops ($38) with Alba truffle risotto and portabella mushroom confit is my choice for entree. The scallops are perfectly executed with a mushroom confit so voluptuous and savory you’ll want to lick the plate.

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Another respectable entree was Northern Atlantic Halibut Filet ($18) with Weiser Farm fingerling potato and a deliciously creamy corn fricasse — hidden underneath the fish — in an English pea sauce.

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If you find room to fit dessert in, my favorite was the Gluten Free Rocky Road ($9), a deconstructed Ferrer Rocher, if you will, consisting of crunch bar, marshmallow sauce, chocolate sauce, smoked almonds and chocolate ice cream. Definitely share this as it is decadent and wickedly sinful!

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Definitely a win in my book for an all-around great dining experience, especially if your’e trying to impress someone who also has a refined palate!

Driftwood Kitchen
619 Sleepy Hollow Lane
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-494-9707

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Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen is soul food and more

If you’re craving some soul food from the islands, there is no other place than Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen. The place is on PCH, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. I know because I’ve done it on more than one occasion! The restaurant is vibrantly hued, reminiscent of the islands and its tropical vibe. It is warm, inviting and filled with enticing aromas wafting through the entire dining room.

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Add to that your hostess, Eva Madray, a beautiful Guyanese lady with the warmth and heart to fill your soul, and that is even before you taste her cocktails and her incredible home-made cuisine.

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The menu consists of many choices, even for those who are not apt in consuming mouth-burning spices, but it is those dishes which hurt my mouth, that I love the most.

A piping hot bowl of Callaloo Soup ($5.50 cup/$8 bowl) is exactly the way to start your meal. Here, spinach is used together with okra, and coconut milk from Trinidad. Using a clam and lobster base, the soup is seasoned with thyme, garlic, shallot and is packed with flavor. Absolutely delicious!

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If you’re seriously into spicy food then Cajun Prawns ($11.75) is a must. These black tiger shrimp are marinated in lime, then dredged in a house-blended Cajun spice mix, then cooked to perfection. Even my high tolerance for heat found these a tad too much, but oh aren’t they so addicting. Even my son kept eating more. Take a bite of the accompanying grilled pineapple, roasted peppers, and passionfruit relish to cool your mouth down.

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For those of you less adventurous, there is Punani Shrimp ($11.75), Eva’s version of coconut shrimp. Jumbo shrimp are seasoned and breaded with coconut, then fried to perfection. Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Served with a sweet mango chutney, this dish is definitely reminiscent of the islands.

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Aubergine Choka ($11) is right up my alley since I love eggplant in any shape or form. Here, they are flame roasted after being stuffed with garlic, then sauteed with shallots, chiles, onions and seasonings. It is served on top of toasted pita bread. So flavorful!

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When it came time for entrees, we all had our choices, but allow Eva to surprise us with a special not on the menu. Secret menu Chilean Seabass ($36) is tender and topped with a tomato-based sauce. Like everything Eva does, it is so piquant but not at all spicy. Flavors pop in your mouth and makes you want for more.

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If you’ve ever had anything prepared with jerk seasoning, then you are in for a surprise. I have never had anything prepared with jerk that isn’t spicy. Jerk Pork Loin ($25) is a boneless cut of pork loin marinated in dark Puerto Rican rum, garlic, and the other secret stuff, then grilled. The pork is tender and the best part is that the seasonings are infused all the way into the loin. The jerk here is not spicy at all but perfectly savory. Served with garlic mashed potatoes.

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Creole Stewed Fish ($24) was another pleaser. A generous New Zealand Orange Roughy fillet is marinated in Caribbean seasonings and stewed in Eva’s Creole Voodoo sauce. It sounds spicy but it isn’t. I love how there is always enough sauce to eat with the side of rice!

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You will always have a good time at Eva’s. If you love good food and enjoy a sip of something with rum, this is the place for you. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen
31732 Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-499-6311

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