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

Mesa on Urbanspoon

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

Elbows Mac n' Cheese on Urbanspoon

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

Brio Tuscan Grille on Urbanspoon

fall menu items at Fig & Olive

Each season, Fig & Olive features new menu items reflecting the abundance of the new bounty. The food has always been safe, staying within the confines of what Newport Beach will accept. For me, it is a tad boring and never has that “wow-factor”, but that’s changed with the launch of some fall menu items this week.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by the flavor profiles in the new dishes. As always, crostinis are a signature item at Fig & Olive and with the new season, there are new offerings.  Crostini Trio ($12) started the meal:

Grilled Vegetable crostini was rather tasty. The vibrant use of colorful vegetables made this a feast for the eyes as well. The crostini is first smeared with ricotta and olive tapenade before it is topped with an assortment of grilled vegetables.

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Heirloom Carrot crostini with charmoula and carrot tapenade was another delight. In fact, I loved the vegan and vegetarian offerings most the season. The carrot puree is delectably smooth and various forms of carrots provide nice textural balance to this item.

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Pata Negra crostini is always a favorite (even though the other two options won hands down this time around) with the ever so delicious jamon Iberico as the centerpiece. The blend of tomato and peach adds both tartness and sweetness to each bite while parmesan and ricotta gives a salty rich finish to the crostini.

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Each season, I find a favorite salad at Fig & Olive, usually having burrata as one of its components. The Heirloom Baby Beet & Burrata ($16) is the current winner. A generous serving of lusciously creamy burrata is surrounded by red, golden and candy stripe beets. A few slivers of mandarin oranges add some fresh citrus hints to the dish.

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If you’re at Fig & Olive for lunch, I highly suggest indulging in the Maine Lobster Roll ($17 not available for dinner). Your sandwich will include grilled lobster tails enveloped between a thyme brioche bun. The accoutrements for the sandwich includes apple, celery root, harissa and a lot more. Each bite is heavenly because the plump chunks of lobster are abundant and each bite will leave you feeling more than satisfied.

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If you’re looking for something light, definitely choose the Mediterranean Branzino ($29).  The fish is moist and flaky with accompanying flavors including fig and 18-yr-old balsamic vinegar. The mashed potato is unique in that olive oil replaces butter and cream. An absolutely savory dish without the extra calories.

DSC05023My past visits to Fig & Olive have always been filled with hits and misses. I’m happy to say this is one where every dish has exceeded its expectation and I look forward to returning again for the lobster roll.

Fig & Olive
151 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 949-877-3005

Fig & Olive on Urbanspoon

AnQi’s “GourMondays” kicks off smashingly

AnQi by Crustacean at South Coast Plaza launched a new concept series yesterday entitled “GourMondays”. On the first Monday of every month, the restaurant will present a pop-up dinner offering a lavish menu with wine pairings. A different theme will be featured each month.

AnQi’s CEO, Elizabeth An, is not only fashion and style savvy, but philanthropy is near and dear to her heart as well. She says OC has over 4000 non-profits, most are grass-roots organizations and those need exposure and support. She sees GourMondays as a “cause and cuisine” campaign and at the same time, drawing in the intense, no-holds barred foodie who is open to a unique dining experience.
To kick off the GourMonday series, Elizabeth will donate 100% of the gross sales from the first GourMonday, last night, to benefit SPIN (Serving People in Need). That means, ALL of it! Thereafter, every GourMonday will support a different OC non-profit with 20% donated to the organization.
The inaugural dinner, held in AnQi’s private room (photo courtesy of AnQi) is aptly named “Pure Indulgence”, and the 9-course menu was exactly that — a culinary journey of decadence and extravagance.
AnQi Chefs Table

The Egg
Tatinger Brut Reserve Champagne NV

I was immediately transported back about 20 years ago the minute I took the first bite of this delicate concoction of soft boiled egg topped with citrus cream and Osetra caviar. My first memory of a similar dish was presented to me by Chef Alain Verzeroli, a student of Joel Robuchon’s, who now heads Joel Robuchon Tokyo. When Alain served Robuchon’s version to me at Petrus restaurant in Hong Kong, he told me it was a Robuchon classic, and it is something I have never forgotten. Melisse in Santa Monica does one, and AnQi’s is stellar in comparison. Silky, smooth and sublime on the tongue.

caviar egg

Kobe Vietnamese Tartare
Gunderlock Jean Baptiste, Riesling Kabinett, Rheinhessen, Germany 2001

The second course is a true reflection of what AnQi stands for, bringing forth a perfect fusion dish. The tartare is seasoned with miso egg sauce and chimichurri, but what makes it unique is the hint of fish sauce in the tartare. It enhances the flavor without the pungency normally associated with the condiment. Traditionally, bánh tráng (Vietnamese sesame cracker) is used as a vehicle to scoop up salads while adding a textural component to dishes. Here, the more familiar prawn cracker sits in its place.

tartare

Toast with Love
Hugel et Fils, Gewürztraminer, Alsace, France 2009

This course was something I was definitely looking forward to. Comprising soy bean-cured foie gras torchon (don’t ask, don’t tell), a round of truffle brioche, a quenelle of 5-spice squash and micro vegetables, it was undoubtedly a favorite. The only sounds I heard were the muffled ooos and ahhs escaping from many mouths around me. There are no words needed.

foie gras torchon

Matsutake Garlic Soup
Kenzo Estate “Yui” Rose, Napa Valley 2013

Not simply a soup, this dish was beautiful, but to me, one of the most perfect creations of the evening. Bringing together various flavors and textures in one bite, it was one of the most tantalizing sensations in my mouth. The prawn is wrapped in noodles and deep fried — resembling a bird’s nest. Served with garlic soup infused with one of the most sought-after mushrooms in the world, we enjoyed the crispy prawn on its own, then dipped it into the luscious soup for a different experience.

shrimp

Hand Rolled Noodles
Four Graces Pinot Noir, Dundee Hill, Oregon, 2011

There is no better example of fusion cuisine than this dish. One of my favorite Cantonese sauces — XO sauce — envelops tender morsels of lobster. XO sauce is a luxurious condiment, one I will often eat with a bowl of steaming hot rice. Here, a small bundle of hand-made fettucine in a rich, silky buttery sauce accompanies. Eat them separately, then together. You wouldn’t think the Cantonese dish would work with the Italian flavors, but the two meld together in perfect harmony.

lobster

Hokkaido Scallop
La Doucette, “Baron de L” Sauvignon Blanc, Pouilly Fumé, France 2009

Unfortunately, my photo does not do this dish justice. The scallop is accompanied with sunchoke puree and curry cauliflower. I was afraid the curry might overpower the delicate scallop, but it did not. The curry was mild and flavored the cauliflower without overwhelming the mollusk.

scallops

Lemongrass Wagyu Ribeye
Delas Châteauneuf du Pape, Southern Rhone, France 2010

Our final savory dish is perfectly executed at medium rare. Bone marrow adds another level of unctuousness to the meat, should you choose to enjoy them together. I was afraid that the black bean demi glace would overwhelm the steak, but it did not. An elegant plate with very refined balance of Asian and Western ingredients.

wagyu

Viet-jito

A Vietnamese snow cone, if you will, is our first dessert course. Essentially a granita with refreshing fruit and hints of mint, it is so refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser after all that we’ve eaten.

vietjito

Fire and Ice
Chateau Rumieu-Lacoste, Sauternes, France 2010

Our final dessert of the evening is one we all enjoyed. Traditional banana Foster and cà phê sữa đá ice cream are prepared tableside for the finale.

chefs

The Vietnamese coffee ice cream is luscious and I devoured it quickly, wishing I had more.

banana foster

This Pure Indulgence experience featured 9-courses with wine pairings at $198++ per person. Tax and tip not included. Each GourMonday will be priced differently depending on the number of courses, ingredients and wines selected.

The next GourMonday will be “China Poblano”, to be held November 3rd, and will feature a menu of Asian and Latin flavors. For more information, or to secure a seat at the table, please call AnQi by Crustacean directly at 714-557-5670.

AnQi by Crustacean
3333 S Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-5670