visiting the original Cafe 21

Two years ago, I was introduced to Cafe 21 at Gaslamp and fell in love with it instantly. Since that initial visit, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to it, each time with gratifying meals shared with friends and loved ones. So it was indeed an exciting day for me to visit Cafe 21′s original location at University Heights and introducing my best friend to it for the first time! I’d been raving about the food ever since that first time and now it was time to share it.

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This location is cozy and ever so quaint. I’ve always loved the eclectic nature of Cafe 21 and here, it is even more evident with vivid Moroccan and Turkish themes throughout. Naturally, we began with some cocktails — even though it was lunch — and I suggested one of their famous Sangrias ($9/glass) made in-house….. I, on the other hand, opted for their green Bloody Mary ($14) made with green tomatillo, instead of the traditional tomato juice base, infused with spicy vodka.

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I had seen a photo of the Cafe 21 Breakfast Board ($17) on Facebook the day before, and couldn’t get my mind off it. Therefore, it was the only way to kick off our brunch that day. Two pieces of filet mignon, house-cured salmon, beet infused egg, Venissimo cheeses: Big Rock Blue (from Paso Robles) and Bucherondin (one of the first French goat cheeses exported to the US), pistachios, cranberries, rhubarb compote and lavash complete the platter. I love the presentation, staying true to the Moorish theme.

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Flight of Mimosa ($18) at the next table caught our eye and of course it was too pretty to miss out on.

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I have enjoyed the Cafe 21 “cakes” before but never the Chicken Curry ($13) option. Shredded roasted chicken breast tossed in yellow curry, bits of celery, red onion and saffron cream sauce was delicious as is, but topped with two perfectly runny poached eggs? That made it as decadent as it was tasty. We both oooo-ed and ahhh-ed as we took a mouthful proclaiming it one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. The oozing poached eggs were just the icing on the cake (no pun intended).

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I love Dutch baby pancakes and here, they offer it two ways. Savory Cast Iron Pancake ($11) is baked with house made sausage, bell peppers, onion, tomato, rosemary and goat cheese served with a house made ajika (red pepper sauce). Reminiscent of a mix between a pancake and quiche, the texture was very pleasing and ajika adds another level of depth to the dish. It keeps well too so take your leftovers home for the following day!

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The sweet version — Drunken Cherry Cast Iron Pancake ($14) — is a Dutch-style pancake baked with Bourbon soaked cherries and served with a tart raspberry sauce. The pancake itself wasn’t sweet which totally appealed to my palate. The raspberry sauce was more like a puree than a sauce and was perfect as an accompaniment for the pancake, but we were discussing how it would be great over some vanilla ice cream as well.

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We were stuffed, but ended the meal with Creme Brulee Cheesecake ($8) something I’m more than familiar with. I’ve had it the traditional way and also, pumpkin style during the holidays. The version here has a layer of custard giving it a different mouth-feel which we both liked a lot. The side of Blackberry Cabernet Sorbet ($4) was incredibly refreshing and a perfect end to the perfect meal.

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Although both locations have almost an identical menu, you will find several dishes exclusive to each location. I’m excited for the new Gaslamp location in a few months, and will definitely return to see what it has in store for all of us who love this place so much.

Cafe 21 — North Park
2836 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-640-2121

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

waterfront dining at Sea 180º Coastal Tavern

I met a new friend at the end of last year, at a holiday party, and we had been trying to organize a meal together. A new restaurant, Sea 180º Coastal Tavern, was suggested and I made my way down to San Diego to find al fresco dining at its best, right on the beach! There is nothing better than that on a clear day in southern California, and although I don’t like sitting directly in the sun, I like the visuals of the ocean, boats and the horizon in a distance.

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I was surprised to find Sea 180º Coastal Tavern located within the Autograph Collection by Marriott in Imperial Beach, but this boutique hotel offers the privacy of a secluded beach with unobstructed views of the ocean, not easily found in tourist-ridden San Diego. The restaurant reminds me of a chic gastropub, but the only difference is, the ocean is right outside. Every single table offers that gorgeous view, so regardless of where you’re sitting, you won’t miss out.

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The menu is also well represented by offerings that appeals to a wide variety of palates. Since it was lunch, I didn’t look at the wine list, but the Ginger Swizzle ($5) was a refreshing light ginger beer infused with pomegranate and blueberry syrup and bitters.

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The first thing that caught everyone’s eye was  Huevos “Diablos” Truffled Duck Eggs ($9.95). I didn’t realize it was a deviled egg-style dish utilizing duck eggs as its base until it hit the table. Topped with crispy house smoked ham and chives on a bed of frisee lettuce, these eggs were creamy with well textured egg whites. 

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Another item which stood out was Smoked Beef Tongue ($12.95). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was thinly sliced, served warm with cherry mustard and cornichons on the side. The tongue is smoked in-house and even though the presentation could have been a little better, it was tender with lovely smoky aromas.

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Hearth Baked Clam Flat Bread ($11.95) is assembled “white” style topped with clams, oyster mushrooms and garlic. The chewy base is good and I liked how it was different to the familiar tomato based toppings usually found on flatbreads.

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Green Olive Pesto Calamari ($9.95) was outstanding. Both the rings and tentacles were perfectly cooked without a hint of toughness. We all agreed that calamari served au naturel without being fried was the best way to go. The savory sauce adhered to the zucchini noodles very well making it an all around delicious item — I wish I didn’t have to share this!

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The Fired Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($8.95) was a huge hit. Tossed in a balsamic glaze and bits of house smoked crispy ham, the hints of sweetness paired with saltiness was too enticing on the palate. We couldn’t stop eating it.

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I chuckled when I saw Duck “Canarditas” ($15.95) and thought it was such a smart name for it — ‘canard’ is duck in French. Caramelized onions, pineapple salsa, aged goat cheese all come together to make this a gourmet taco indeed. Salty with hints of sweet and tart were perfect accompaniments for the duck.

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Seafood Pot Pie ($12.95) was not your traditional pot pie. Comprising a blend of fresh seafood including fish, shrimp and scallops, there is also carrots, fennel, salsify and saffron, all topped off with an Old Bay spiced crust.

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If you’re looking for something different, or just to escape from it all, come for a meal and pretend you’re on vacation for a few hours. Diners receive 3 hours complimentary parking underneath the hotel with validation.

Sea 180º Coastal Tavern
800 Seacoast Drive
Imperial Beach, CA 91932
Tel: 619-631-4949

Sea 180° Coastal Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Sliding Door is a must try!

I love a tale of fate and karma, one of those “it was meant to be” stories where the universe conspires to get you to the place you’re supposed to be even if it means decades later. That’s what happened with the owners of The Sliding Door Cafe & Bakery. When Catherine Del Casale (one half of Off The Menu blog) told me the story of co-owners Kevin Cahalan and his fiancee, Natalie Sarle, I was intrigued, yet not surprised by how “if you’re meant to be, you’re meant to be” came into play here.

The two were in 9th grade together, went on one date at a roller skating rink, and nothing came out of it, that is, until 30 years later, when they reconnected online and six months after that, they were engaged.

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Kevin is also the restaurant’s Chef and his resume is an impressive one, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park and worked alongside some of culinary’s best, including Bradley Ogden and Wolfang Puck. Then, the native New Yorker relocated to southern California from Long Island, to be with his sweetheart Natalie, and as they say, the rest is history!

I couldn’t stop thinking about The Sliding Door after Catherine’s story and how much she loves the food, so much she’s been back numerous times. I then bumped into her Off The Menu partner in crime, Christopher Trela, and mentioned to him about it and before long, he had planned a gathering of people to go try out this place.

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I was immediately enamored by this cozy spot located in Balboa Village, only a few doors down from one of our favorites — Mint Leaf Thai. The cafe exudes a charming ambiance with a secluded alcove perfect for romantic dinners.

Sure, I like cute decor like everyone else, but I was here for the food and our table soon was filled with plates of beautifully plated dishes waiting to be devoured. Goat Cheese Fritters ($12) were delightfully crispy on the outside with a lovely soft filling. The goat cheese is subtle and the chili aioli dipping sauce mild and flavorful. They were scorching hot even after many of us had taken photos. Delicious!

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I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a Lobster Mac n Cheese ($13) and many places in OC feature it on their menu. The one here comprises four different cheeses: aged cheddar, provolone, Jack and smoked gouda tossed with fusilli. The sauce is rich and gooey, the chunks of lobster ample. I especially liked the crunchy breadcrumb topping which added a nice textural component to the dish.

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I’m a HUGE fan of scallops so when Pan Seared Diver Sea Scallops ($28) was brought out, I knew I had to get to it STAT! I was even more tickled when I saw Israeli cous cous as an accompaniment along with bacon, winter squash and mushrooms. The scallops were flawlessly prepared, tender and absolutely exquisite. Yes, I was very happy!

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I don’t think anyone really understands how thrilled I am to see Brick Grilled Chicken ($21) on the menu. Three to four years ago, brick chicken was everywhere! Restaurants were embracing this dish left right and center. Then, all of a sudden, it disappeared. At Last Cafe in Long Beach is one of the few still offering it, and rightfully so since they were one of the first to put it on the menu and it has become their signature dish.

Chef Kevin’s brick chicken is delicious. Perfectly seasoned and prepared, the chicken is moist and so tasty. It is accompanied by truffled mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe, root vegetables in a green peppercorn jus. I would come back for this alone! 

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Non-meat eaters are not forgotten here. Carrot Ginger Risotto ($24) is a creamy blend of pecorino, romano and parmesan cheese with al dente rice dotted with bits of sweet carrots and exotic mushrooms. I really love Chef Kevin’s liberal use of mushrooms — my fave — in his dishes, especially the King trumpet variety!

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The next two dishes are not usually what I would choose when dining out, but they were both impressive. Seared Scottish Salmon ($26) possessed an incredibly crispy skin with unctuous melt-in-your-mouth fish. I loved the use of lentils and cauliflower puree as accoutrements and didn’t expect for red cabbage to work but it did!

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Cabernet Braised Short Ribs ($22) was hearty and robust in flavor. Creamy polenta with seasonal vegetables enveloped with a natural reduction, I was shocked I liked it — a lot!. I usually dislike short ribs because most chefs cannot execute it faultlessly, certainly not the case here! The piece of meat was tender and beyond compare, just superb.

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If you’re a fan of lamb like I am, Grilled Lamb Rib Eye ($32) is a must try. Cooked to an immaculate medium rare, the tender discs of meat sits on top of a bed of basil almond wild rice, haricot verts (green beans), carrots and a top-notch cabernet mint jelly. Between this and the chicken, it’s going to be difficult to choose!

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Chef Kevin also makes all of his desserts ($8). We shared Chocolate Truffle Fudge Cake, Chocolate Walnut Spice Tart with Chinese five spice, White Chocolate Cinnamon Bread Pudding, Cream Cheese Carrot Cake and New York Style Cheesecake. The latter two were my favorites, especially the cheesecake!

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I’m so excited that it’s only March and I’ve already found a few really noteworthy restaurants, so good they will make it on to my “best of” list at the end of the year. If The Sliding Door continues to produce food like this, it might even be nominated at that award ceremony happening end September!

The Sliding Door & Cafe
704 East Balboa Blvd
Newport Beach, CA 92661
Tel: 949-673-7173

The Sliding Door Cafe and Bakery on Urbanspoon

The Bungalow & a giveaway

Last year, I attended a media preview at The Bungalow where the restaurant introduced a new chef, menu, and several other changes to this long-time resident of Corona del Mar. I also remembered enjoying what I tasted, but wanted to return again for a proper dine before I write up a post just to make sure everything was as I remembered. During the preview, we were seated on the outside back patio which was so pretty at dusk. I think it is also rather romantic when the sun sets. On this return visit, we were seated inside the dining room with a great view of the bar.

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The menu consists of a variety of selections which should appeal to all. I didn’t expect Sweet Chili Calamari ($12), an appetizer, to be of such a generous portion. There was enough for four people to share and I’m talking about more than just a mouthful! I loved the addition of bean sprouts, carrots, pea sprouts and peanuts to give it a fresh finish. The sauce was not overly sweet either with a nice little kick at the end.

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I love lamb and couldn’t resist ordering the Lamb Lollipops ($18) also on the small plates offerings. Perfectly prepared well-seasoned lamb chops are served with mashed potatoes, tomato confit topped with a balsamic glaze. This is ideal for those wanting a taste of a variety of things, but I could possibly eat two plates of these as my main course!

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I’m a huge fan of French Onion Soup ($9) so naturally I wanted to try this version. The broth was very hearty however, the only thing I would have liked was for the cheese to be slightly browned on top for another level of flavor.

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Entrees are well presented and nicely prepared. Prime Filet Mignon ($39) is a tender 8oz piece of steak with a savory demi glace and topped with onion strings ($2). The accompanying mashed potatoes were light and relished rather quickly. A little more demi glace would have been even more delightful to go with the potatoes.

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If you’re looking for seafood, Blackened Wild King Salmon ($30) is the way to go. I didn’t think I’d like the goat cheese mashed potatoes but it was subtle and added flavor without the usual overpowering pungency of the goat cheese. I also thought the honey jalapeno beurre blanc would be overly sweet, but our server assured me it was only a hint of sweetness. He was right! I was also very pleased when he offered me extra avocado relish when I mentioned how delicious is was.

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The Bungalow is a great retreat for a romantic dinner, or even a girls’ night out. There is valet parking around the back so you won’t have to drive around in circles looking for parking. To make things even sweeter, The Bungalow has offered a $75 gift card for one of my readers to win this week. Leave me a comment and tell me how you would like to celebrate at The Bungalow. Last day for entries is Sunday, March 2nd. Good Luck!

The Bungalow
2441 East Coast Hwy
Corona del Mar, CA 92625
Tel: 949-673-6585

Bungalow on Urbanspoon

OC Restaurant Week: a worthy $15 lunch menu

If you’re looking for a worthy lunch from the OC Restaurant Week‘s lunch menus, look no further than Starfish in Laguna Beach. I have been to Starfish several times in the past but it’s been at least a year since I was last there. The first thing which struck me was that it wasn’t as dark inside as it used to be. I like it! I am able to see inside the restaurant and most important, read my menu!

There were four in our party and we were able to try a lot of things from the $15 lunch menu which offers up a 3-course meal. For starters, there were 8 items to choose from and then, an impressive 11 selections from the large plates along with three desserts choices.

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Pork Dumplings, filled with ground pork and Napa cabbage, you can have the option of steamed or pan seared. My friend chose steamed. They were decent and the skin to filling ratio was acceptable. I could taste that they were not previously frozen (it says handmade daily) and the wrappers were of a reasonable thickness. The accompanying scallion soy sauce is a good accompaniment. As for chili sauce if you like a kick with your food!

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Crab Wontons are not my thing because I just can’t wrap my head around cream cheese in Asian food. However, none of my friends seemed to mind as they gleefully chomped on the crispy wontons and proclaimed them delicious. The wontons are filled with a blend of stone crab, cream cheese, red and green bell pepper, green onion, then fried and served with a sweet chili plum sauce.

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I loved the Chilled Cambodian Cucumbers and couldn’t stop eating them. Sliced Persian cucumber rounds are tossed in a refreshingly light chili lime vinaigrette along with baby heirloom tomatoes, mint and Thai basil. My friend who ate my portion of the wontons said “you can have my cucumbers” — and I certainly did!

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Chicken Lettuce Wraps were my favorite comprising diced chicken, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, bell peppers and cashews in a savory sauce with a hint of sweetness. I usually dislike iceberg lettuce but they were perfect as cups for the chicken mixture. I could have eaten a few more of these.

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We were all very impressed by the portion size of each item. There was definitely no skimping going on here. When the entrees arrived, we were all pleased with the dishes we selected.

Shiro Miso Salmon Salad was a lot more generous than we had imagined with a nice sized piece of broiled miso marinated Atlantic salmon on top of organic baby greens tossed in a sesame miso dressing. The salmon was seasoned well and prepared to perfection.

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One of my friends is a very picky eater and generally stays away from anything “different”. She picked Mongolian Beef and was so pleased with it I could see she was tickled by her selection. The tender pieces of beef are wok fried in a soy glaze along with snow peas, carrot, scallion and ginger. Because she was so happy, I nudged her to try some other things on the table as well.

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Sichuan Japanese Eggplant was my selection. I am an eggplant fiend and I can eat it any way it is prepared. I can even eat it steamed with no seasonings — which makes my mother cringe for some reason. I’ve had this dish here before and I love it. Sauteed in a house made sambal sauce, Sichuan peppercorn, bell peppers and onions, I’m happy I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it.

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Another really tasty dish was Bangkok Spicy Udon Noodles. It is so unusual for restaurants to be so generous on the ingredients paired with a noodle dish and I commend Starfish here for this. Prawns, grilled chicken, green and red bell peppers, rainbow carrot, red and yellow onions plus Thai basil make up this incredible dish. I almost want to say there was a tad too much of the ingredients and not enough noodles.

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There wasn’t much room left for desserts, but we managed to polish off every little bit on the plate anyway. Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding was absolutely delightful. It was perfectly textured, not too eggy and caramelized bananas and house made cinnamon ice cream alongside.

The Chocolate Flourless Cake was another winner with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. The menu states Thai tea caramel sauce as well but I didn’t detect that at all.

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However, everyone agreed, Mango Pudding was the best of the lot. Silky mango pudding with vanilla bean coconut tapioca and diced fresh mango was just a perfect finish to the absolutely enjoyable meal shared with friends.

Starfish Laguna
30832 S Pacific Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9200
Starfish on Urbanspoon

Starting OC Restaurant Week with a bang!

A friend of mine’s birthday falls right around Orange County Restaurant Week, so every year, whenever it came time to celebrate, we have always chosen a restaurant participating in this event. Two years ago, we celebrated at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, which had only been opened a few months at the time of Restaurant Week. I am usually left the task of choosing a restaurant and that year, The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon’s menu stood out more so than any of the others. Needless to say, if you’ve been reading my posts on a regular basis, you will know that it has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in Orange County.

This year, I wanted to start Restaurant Week off right, so I made reservations well ahead of time and gathered some friends together, many who have never experienced The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon before, to eat what is positively one of the best meals this county has to offer.

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Another thing I want to stress is The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon is one of the few restaurants which offers up full-sized a la carte portions of each dish on the Restaurant Week menu so you’re getting a three-course meal like you would if you were a regular diner at the restaurant. Your dining experience will be exactly the same except for the extremely reasonable $40 price tag. In this post, I will be featuring the entire restaurant week menu for you.

Starting with appetizers, Honeycrisp Apple & Endive Salad is a light starter which packs a punch when it comes to flavor. Every component on this plate comes together to form a complete mouthful of perfection. From the saltiness of the St. Agur Blue Cheese, the hint of bitterness from the endive, to the sweetness of the candied walnuts and, the tartness of the cranberry vinaigrette, everything is precisely balanced on the palate.

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Thai Coconut Curry Bisque was so rich and creamy that everyone at the table sang high praises for it. Its wonderful aromas was on the subtle side — I would have liked a heavier scent of lemongrass and kaffir lime, but it was so silky on the tongue I quickly forgot about it especially, when I found those little bits of North Carolina shrimp in my mouth like hidden treasure. Sublime!

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I’ve had the Hand Crafted Asparagus Cavatelli before and took a taste from my friend’s plate, it was just as good as I remembered. The perfectly al dente house-made cavatelli are so delicious with spears of asparagus and balls of home made pork sausage seasoned with Calabrian chili. The little kick of spice you get at the end is such a delight, and I highly recommend this for all pasta lovers.

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On to entrees and I was happy there was at least one each of everything represented at our table. Chipotle & Sun-Dried Cherry Braised Beef Short Rib is not my choice ever because I’m not a huge fan of short rib. Having said that, its hearty California Pinot Noir reduction was rich and decadent and the accompanying white cheddar grits, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts accoutrements were ideal sides for this very robust dish. My red meat loving friends enjoyed it very much.

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Maplewood Smoked California Sablefish was another entree choice and if you’re not familiar with this particular fish, it is pretty much black cod or butterfish. It is an extremely oily fish and some might find it a little too unctuous on the palate. This was beautifully smoked and reminded me of the smoked sablefish from Russ and Daughters in New York City. Sweet potatoes, King trumpet mushrooms, country ham and cauliflower velouté are well-paired with the dish.

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However, what I came here for was the Confit of Muscovy Duck Leg, which I first sampled two years ago during Restaurant Week 2012. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, I wish Chef Michael Rossi would put this on the regular menu so I can come at any time to enjoy this. Beluga lentils with a salty-sweet home made guanciale, cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale) and baby root vegetables combine together for a delightful plate.

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Executive Pastry Chef David Rossi has prepared three desserts for you to choose from. Strawberry Cheesecake with a macadamia nut crust and served with a quenelle of mango sorbet was a huge hit. The cheesecake was light and airy making it easy to consume even after a hefty entree.

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Most of the table ordered Meyer Lemon Creme Brulee, and the ladies were enchanted by the baby blueberry madeleines garnish.

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However, I think everyone was extremely intrigued by the Milky Way With a Twist which was a deconstructed Milky Way bar with Valrhona chocolate, malted nougat discs and quenelles of salted caramel ice cream.

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So there you have it. As always my advice is, if you only go to ONE restaurant, The Ranch is the one to go to. It is always the best of everything from service to quality of food, and you will never leave here still hungry during Restaurant Week!!

The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
1025 E Ball
Anaheim, CA 92805
Tel: 714-817-4200