Harlow’s Kitchen & Craft Bar

I’ve been watching my friends post photos of their meals at Harlow’s, month after month on Facebook, and those months have turned into more than a year, so it is definitely time to pay them a visit. The restaurant is cozy, with several dining rooms to suit your every occasion. We sit in the room adjacent to the bar which is bustling from the activity from the bar itself.

Our server Marc brings us a loaf of freshly baked bread with house-churned butter. Delicious and addicting, it is so hard to eat only one piece, but I do, and then, I push it away to the other side of the table. So dangerous!

DSC06036Almost everything is made in-house including the syrups and mixes for the craft cocktails on offer. We are intrigued by the house-made ginger beer and decide that a Moscow Mule is definitely the way to start. Besides the Mule, I opt for something with tequila in it and the Harlow’s version of margarita is suggested (cocktails range between $10 and $12).

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The menu is straightforward, featuring seasonal ingredients and simple preparation. Seasonal Oysters ($15/6pc) is a great way to start — well, not for me — and Kusshi from the Pacific Northwest is the featured oyster of the night. My dining companion relish them with delight!

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The Caprese Flatbread ($12) is a must try. The baby heirloom tomatoes are ripe and bursting with flavor, while burrata adds creaminess. The flatbread itself is lovely too, crispy and not at all dry, just the way I like my flatbreads/pizzas. Arugula pesto is an added bonus to an already delicious appetizer.

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I love Tuna Tartare ($17) and here, it is well-seasoned and topped with black tobiko. The quail egg adds an element of lusciousness to the tartare, but it is the housemade sriracha which wins my heart. Hints of ginger, a lovely heat with a touch of tartness adds a kick to the whole dish. Served with rounds of crispy taro chips.

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While I’m not usually fond of salads, Harvest Salad ($9) was rather pleasant. The spicy bitter flavors of arugula melded well with the sweetness of the roasted apples and pears. Add to that crunchy watermelon radish and you have a really lovely salad. The cider vinaigrette is subtle and never overpowers.

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For entrees, there is Seasonal White Fish ($26), which changes regularly. On this particular evening, it is grilled sturgeon accompanied with a sweet pea puree, radish arugula salad and a delightful tempura cauliflower which I wish I had the room to finish.

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However, it is the Colorado Rib Eye Cap ($38) which won me over. Yes, the sturgeon was delicious, and ordinarily, I will always choose seafood over meat, but the beautiful char on the steak is incredible and so utterly packed with flavor, I am not able to stop eating it. The charred tomatoes and Bloomsdale spinach are nice accoutrements, but it is the demi glace that is to-die-for.

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Not that we needed any extra food, but if you’re in the mood for sides, definitely order the Brussels Sprouts ($8) with house cured pork lardons!

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Harlow’s is not only a great neighborhood eatery, but also, one which offers a stellar menu which will definitely entice me to drive to. The dishes are simple, yet well thought out, and the generous portions means you’ll never leave hungry. Harlow’s is a south county gem worth noticing (if you haven’t already).

Harlow’s Kitchen
31111 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Tel: 949-240-8100

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Old Town San Diego’s El Agave

I remember the first time I visited San Diego’s Old Town. My son was little then, and I remember walking around, reveling in the historic buildings and most of all, lifting him up so he could watch the women making tortillas by hand through the window of a restaurant. What I also remember is that we ended up eating at a place with mediocre food and I vowed never to eat Mexican food in Old Town again.

That was a long time ago, and while on a recent trip to Old Town, we stopped by El Agave, an establishment which also serves as a tequila museum housing more than 5000 bottles of the agave spirit on display, an impressive 500 of which are available for order.

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I opted to sit on the enclosed patio to take advantage of the natural lighting.

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With all the tequila available, I asked our server to surprise me with a cocktail. I let him know I like spicy and tart flavors and he brought me this. I can’t remember its name, but spicy and tart it definitely is.

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We happily sipped on cocktails while munching on the complimentary chips and salsa provided. The black bean is our favorite, but I suggest not overindulging on this because it is so easy to do.

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One of my favorite things to eat is raw seafood, therefore, Ceviche del Mar ($16) absolutely appealed to my senses. Octopus, shrimp, cherry tomato, baby corn, onion, grilled red pepper, lemon, olive oil and chile morita sauce marry together to create a perfectly tart marinade for the seafood. I want more of the serrano pepper oil served alongside as it lent a lovely kick to the ceviche.

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I love the authenticity of the menu and Ensalada de Nopal ($12), or cactus paddle salad is one good example. Cactus is widely eaten in Mexico and here, it is roasted and then cut into strips before it is assembled into a ring form with diced tomatoes, cilantro, onion, oregano and topped with avocado. You may find it a little ‘slimy’ but no worries, that’s because it’s been tossed with olive oil. Cotija cheese is sprinkled on top to add a salty finish.

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Tlacoyos Cuitlacoche ($16) was probably my least favorite dish of our meal. It wasn’t bad, however, it didn’t stand out. Blue corn masa ‘cakes’ are stuffed with black beans and then topped with cuitlacoche (corn smut, sometimes referred to as huitlacoche),  salsa verde, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. Don’t let cuitlacoche scare you off, it’s actually really tasty, and we’ve eaten it many times before, including a topping on burgers among other things. There just wasn’t enough flavor on this dish for me to want to order it again.

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Therefore, it was just as well we ordered another dish with cuitlacoche in it. Crema de Chile Poblano con Cuitlacoche ($14) is served tableside. A creamy soup seasoned with chile Poblano and cuitlacoche, it is all blended together until smooth and enhanced with spices. A perfect amount of heat accompanied the gorgeous sage-hued concoction. It was so good we were all fighting for the last spoonful!

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I was very surprised by Tacos de Atun ($14) because I generally am not fond of cooked ahi tuna. Here, it is panko-crusted and lightly fried, then topped with parsley, cabbage, red onion and cilantro. The light habanero and agave nectar dressing does not overpower. Served with agave rice and poblano chile strips, these tacos were perfect both in textures and flavors.

tuna tacos

However, the biggest surprise was Enchiladas de Mole ($14). I am very picky when it comes to mole and more often than not, tend to dislike what’s put in front of me. The mole poblano sauce smothering these chicken enchiladas is actually very pleasant. I like its rich, robust flavors, without any of the sweetness usually associated with mole.

enchilada

If you’re looking for a unique destination while visiting San Diego, then El Agave is a respectable choice, especially if you’re down around Old Town. Authentic Mexican ingredients are skillfully used to prepare these dishes and present it to a mainstream clientele. I enjoyed my meal here and would love to return for that stunning soup sometime soon.

El Agave — Old Town
2304 San Diego Ave
San Diego, CA 92110
Tel: 619-220-0692

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birthday dinner at Pinot Provence

The last time I had a birthday dinner at Pinot Provence was in 2011. I remember it well as foie gras was not yet a contraband, and the meal ended with one of my favorite desserts — sabayon. Fast forward three years later and I am again at Pinot Provence for my birthday, this time with the talented Alfonso Ramirez at the helm. My party of eight left the menu pretty much in Chef Alfonso’s hands, except I had just one request, one of my favorites at Pinot Provence.

We begin with Tartare  “Crabcake” topped with a fried quail egg. Big chunks of crabmeat are tossed lightly in a delightful dressing, never overwhelming the crustacean. A delicate dish packed with flavor, it is devoured ever so quickly at both ends of the table.

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The second item is Hamachi Crudo. Luscious slices of yellowtail sashimi is paired with avocado mousse, citrus, pistachio and coriander vin. Just a hint of ponzu brings it all together. My penchant for sashimi means this is right up my alley!

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I absolutely adore octopus and the Octopus here is tender and delicious. Paired with fingerling potatoes and micro greens, you are able to taste each component as a separate entity wonderfully, and then together as a whole with the salsa verde.

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One of the biggest surprise dishes is Lobster with Mole sauce accompanied by a kabocha squash puree and baby leeks. I love lobster, but mole sauce, not so much. It usually leans on the sweet side, something I absolutely do not love. Chef Alfonso’s mole sauce is subtle, yet still possesses the hints of chocolate, however, the lobster remains the star and is allowed to shine.

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Buffalo Frog Legs is the item I ask Chef Alfonso to include for the night’s dinner. It is a favorite of mine at Pinot Provence and comes with blue cheese crumbles, celery and carrot sticks. I can eat a whole plate of this on my own. If you love buffalo chicken wings, you’ll love these.

frog legs

My son’s been on an Escargot craze lately and he ravishes the one here, offering me only a taste — since it’s my birthday.

escargot

I loved Mussels and the ones here are plump and meaty. A delicious white wine sauce with slivers of fennel sits underneath flavoring the mussels sits in the cast iron pot. I spoon it and eat it like a soup. The fries which are served alongside is definitely worth the carb calories.

mussels

There are several other dishes but I don’t have any photos for them. I did not bring my camera as I was not planning on writing this up, but naturally, I’m not able to go to dinner and not take any photos. These are shot with my phone so I apologize for them, but the perfect evening shared with dear friends is not something I want to miss out documenting, so there you have it. Until next year…..

 

eat drink and SOCIALize

Costa Mesa is fast becoming the foodie mecca of Orange County with restaurants popping up left, right and center every week or so. Some are good, some need work, while others, well, those we won’t even mention. Social falls into the first category — the good — but it is even better than good.

First off, the strip mall it sits in is a little shady, but if you can get over that, you’ll find yourself in an astonishingly cool space. I really like the use of wood throughout, giving it an edgy environmentally-sound atmosphere all around.

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Secondly, the cocktails are pretty damn good, and it is hard to say no to them when you have to contemplate a passage home. I drink responsibly because at some point I have to drive myself home. However, it is still early, so we start with a Moscow Mule ($7) — ask for the copper mug — and Paloma ($7) with tequila, a house-made grapefruit cordial, lime and “bubbles” off the “Social Hour” menu which is offered between 4pm and 6pm from Tuesdays to Fridays.

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Once happy hour is over, there is a list of “Bespoke Libations” to choose from, including Peace Co ($14), a play-on-word for pisco — which is an ingredient in the drink — with blueberry, lemon, egg white and garnished with an orchid. Border Patrol ($14) is a tequila and mezcal cocktail with deliciously fragrant pineapple juice, lime cordial and chocolate bitters. It is hard to stop drinking this.

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The menu is simple and straightforward making it pretty easy to order. We select Louisiana Seafood Roll ($13), a pillowy brioche bun stuffed with crab and shrimp tossed in remoulade. A fried oyster accompanies. The sandwich offers meaty chunks of seafood in every bite without an overabundance of dressing — very nice!

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Spanish Octopus ($18) is the first thing which catches my eye when I am perusing the menu. I never bypass the opportunity to order octopus and the one here is fantastic. Splendid in texture, it is perfectly seasoned and pairs fabulously with cannellini beans and braised greens.

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If you love mac n cheese but don’t want the carbs, Cauliflower Gratin ($10) is the best thing for you yet. We agree that this tastes just like mac n cheese, but without the carb guilt. Sinful in taste, the aged cheddar mornay is gooey rich, and the use of red fresno gives it just a hint of heat to whet the appetite even further. Definitely thumbs up all around.

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If I have to pick one dish as my absolute favorite, I will have to say the Mussels ($18) wins hands down. Meaty green lipped mussels are plump and succulent, leaving me feeling so utterly satisfied bite after bite. The lemongrass, ginger and coconut broth it is served in is intoxicating and slices of red Fresno chiles add a welcoming heat to the finish. The only issue is that the menu states crispy rice, but we didn’t find any of it in our dish. I would come back for this alone.

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Wild Mushrooms ($14) is umami-filled with mushroom in its own delicious jus over Anson Mill grits, and a slow runny egg to add even more depth to the end result. However, as good as this dish is, I think the others are just phenomenal in comparison, leaving the mushrooms somewhat in second place to the others.

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The same goes for the Chicken and Waffles ($16). While the Jidori chicken oysters blows us away, the waffles do not. The Louisiana hot sauce with its spicy sweet flavors is absolutely addicting. I wish they offer the chicken on its own because that’s all I want. It is a winner through and through, but just as simple to eat the chicken and leave the waffles on the plate.

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If you’re debating on which entree to choose, I highly recommend Akaushi Skirt Steak ($29). I love the use of red Fresno chiles throughout the menu, and here, it is infused within the chimichurri, leaving my mouth with a lovely kick at the end. Bone marrow butter adds another level of unctuousness to the perfectly executed medium rare steak.

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The flavors at SOCIAL appeal to all my senses, and when you’re adding heat to many of the dishes in subtle and effective ways, you’ve definitely piqued my interest. This is one of the most satisfying meals I’ve eaten this year and I hope to return again soon to indulge in those mussels, octopus and the chicken oysters. Next time, I hope to meet the chef who has cleverly tantalized my tastebuds in more ways than one.

SOCIAL
512 W 19th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Tel: 949-642-2425

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Brunch at Solace and the Moonlight

There’s nothing better than a weekend getaway complete with really good food. However, you don’t even need to actually “get away” to drive to Encinitas for weekend brunch. From the center of Orange County, it should only take about an hour before you’ll be in this quaint little town dotted with thrift stores and coffee houses.

The restaurant is a little hard to see sitting almost right on the train tracks between Coast Hwy and Vulcan along E Street. I circled around several times before finding a spot on the street two blocks away. Once inside, you’ll be sitting on the deck of Chef Matt Gordon’s Solace and the Moonlight enjoying a leisurely meal while basking in the sun.

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We started our Sunday brunch (it is also offered on Saturdays) with some Warm Cheddar & Chive Biscuits ($7), made in-house and served with a fragrant orange honey butter, and a piquant smoked tomato jam.

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I am so happy to see non-traditional brunch items featured as well. Fried Green Tomatoes ($11) are perfectly crispy on the outside with a lovely corn meal crust. The slices sit on top of a thick-chop chimichurri topped with salsa fresca and drizzled with a creamy ancho chile aioli. We enjoy it tremendously and agree it is a great plate for the table to share.

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I will most often than not order mussels when I see them. The menu’s Steamed Black Mussels ($14) comes in a smoked tomato butter, however, it is rather deceiving because even though there might be butter in the sauce, it is not a butter. In fact, it is a luscious smoked tomato soup which we eat with a spoon, after we’ve finished off the plump meaty mussels. Not to waste any of it, we then soaked up the remainder with the toasted baguette slices from one of San Diego’s premier bakeries, Bread & Cie.

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There were two soups available: Clam Chowder ($4 cup/$5.50 bowl) with bacon, clams, potatoes and topped with a crispy house-made oyster cracker garnish is decent, however, it was the Creamy Tomato-Fennel Soup ($3.50 cup/$5 bowl) which won me over. The Aleppo pepper crema drizzled on top adds a slight kick to the beautifully tart soup.

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What I love about Solace and the Moonlight is that there is something for everyone. If you’re wanting a hefty meal, or trying to nurse that hangover with something incredibly substantial, then their signature Kitchen Sink ($14.50) is definitely your choice. The sausage gravy is infused with smoked paprika, cayenne, ancho chile and chipotle, giving it layers of flavor, without adding too much heat. There is only a hint from the cayenne at the end which is good news for those who aren’t fans. If you don’t order the cheddar biscuits, then you’ll enjoy it on this plate along with runny fried eggs, Niman Ranch pork sausage and brown sugar slab bacon.

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Pescatarians can choose Wild Sockeye Salmon Benny ($16) served on cheddar biscuits with poached Eben-Haezer eggs, sauteed spinach, ancho chile Hollandaise and breakfast potatoes. I loved everything about this dish except the skin left on the salmon. It is not seared, therefore, does not impart a crispy element to the dish, and adds fishiness to the final product.

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Your server will tell you to order the Best Darn Buttermilk Cinnamon Roll ($3.75) because they run out, usually by noon. The cream cheese icing is ample and the Butter Pecan Sauce ($1) sweet. I suggest asking to have it on the side.

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But it is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($10.50) which blows this non-sweet palate away. Fluffy, light pancakes are hinted with lemon and moreso enhanced by the strips of candied lemon zest tossed on top. Fresh raspberries are always the best pairing for lemon and there are a few thrown in for good measure. I did not even need the maple syrup to enjoy these absolutely delightful pancakes.

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Regardless how big or large your group is, there is something for everyone, including various areas to sit in. We loved the “spool” table on the patio and I would like to sit on the large community table on a future visit with a group of friends. Service is great and the atmosphere inviting. Now, I’ll have to come back and try the dinner menu!

Solace and the Moonlight
25 E East Street
Encinitas, CA 92024
Tel: 760-753-2433

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Dublin 4 Gastropub: South County’s hidden gem

I’ve had Dublin 4 Gastropub bookmarked for a really long time. Too long. Therefore, I was so pleased when a fellow foodie — who absolutely adores this place — agreed to have lunch with me here. Those of you who don’t know how the name “Dublin 4″ came about will be interested to know that it is actually a postal code (similar to our zip codes) and services an area which houses University College Dublin, as well as several foreign embassies. In current culture, “Dublin 4″ or “D4″ is used to represent the more affluent lifestyles of the residents in that area.

So with that out of the way, I am excited by the menu, as there are so many things I’m eager to try. I consult my friend who has dined here numerous times on our menu for the day.

So many things piqued our interest so we decided to order as many we were able to put away starting with D4 Reuben Rolls ($13), egg rolls stuffed with house cured corned beef, house-made sauerkraut and Blarney Irish cheddar. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy these but I was wrong. They were absolutely delicious.

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D4 Seasonal Soup Selection ($9) was mushroom bisque and it was delightful. Earthy and so umami-filled, each spoonful was relished with pleasure.

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I love smoked salmon and the House-Cured Smoked Irish Salmon ($16) caught my eye. It was even better than I had expected. Succulent slices of luscious salmon were served with dill creme fraiche, chopped egg, pickled onions, and slices of rustic wheat baguette. I didn’t need any of the accoutrements because the fish was incredible on its own.

salmon

I wanted to try a sandwich and the lamb burger was a highly recommended suggestion, however, I wasn’t in the mood for a burger, so we selected Niman Ranch Pork Belly BLT ($16). Thick slices of pork belly, wild arugula and heirloom tomato were topped with house-made sweet onion and bacon marmalade. The flavor profiles were great, but the bread was a tad soft bordering on mushy — maybe toasting it a little longer would help.

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I had heard so many great things about the Dublin Lawyer Lobster Pie ($21) and I was glad it was a lot smaller than I had initially expected. Chunks of Maine lobster are bathed in a cognac cream sauce dotted with fresh shucked peas. The pastry is nice and flaky while the filling is perfectly seasoned with the right consistency — not too thick and not watery. Well worth the price!

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Fish & Chips ($20) is always a favorite of mine, but few restaurants do it well. The one here is good, but not perfect. The fresh Norwegian cod is incredible, flavorful and moist. The Avery White Rascal beer batter was too greasy and caused the bottom of the fish sitting on the plate to be wet and soggy. The crushed garden peas was absolutely stunning, I wonder if they offer it as a side.

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This little unassuming spot is a definite winner, offering hearty and comforting food that will surely appeal to all. Its location is convenient, located right off the freeway. I will be back!

Dublin 4 Gastropub
26342 Oso Pkwy
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
949-582-0026

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