Watertable wins my heart on so many levels

Watertable at the Hyatt Huntington Beach has been open around three months, and I’ve already visited seven times. To say I am falling in love with this place is an understatement. If you were a regular visitor of The Californian, you won’t recognize the space. There is not a shred of the former decade-old restaurant to be found.

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The only way I can describe Watertable is a sprawling hacienda-style mansion featuring Andalusian themes. Regardless of what you call it, the restaurant is a sight for sore eyes and my photos definitely does it no justice. It’s something you will have to step inside to really soak in what I’m talking about.

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The metamorphosis is stunning, no expense spared, the intricacies and details are elaborate, but yet, classy and not over-the-top. There are many ways to enjoy Watertable beginning with “the library” to the adjacent gastro-bar, where a different menu may be enjoyed as opposed to the dining room menu offered in the various rooms which lie ahead — including the outside patio and the corridor with iron arches.

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I can truly say, during each of my visits, I have sat in different rooms including “Sofia’s Room”, named for the lady in the painting hanging on the back wall. However, my favorites are the “lounge” situated to the right of the namesake watertable extending as high as the ceiling, proudly situated in the middle of the dining room. This is where all the water you drink comes from.

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We always begin with a few cocktail selections which you will find featured on Watertable’s interactive menu. It is a difficult task deciding on one because there are just so many of them, all enticing and beautiful — cocktails average $12.

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On many occasions we have selected the Old Fashion, or the HB Old Fashion. Then there is the Water Table, also pleasing, leaving a slight sweet finish on the tongue. The one signature tequila cocktail is delicious, with a hint of smokiness from the mescal, but presentation is dated.

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On another occasion we have the light but refreshing version of the Moscow Mule, aptly named California Mule.

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My favorite thing to do is sit in the bar area. There, you will be able to enjoy Watertable in all its glory. Start with a few selections such as the Bar Jars ($5/each) which are served with piping hot epi baguettes baked in-house and brushed with butter. Make sure you don’t over indulge as it is very easy to do. Leave some room for other delectables.

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One of my favorites has been the Herb Grilled Baby Lamb Chops ($14). These succulent chops are served with a sweet onion chorizo-potato hash. Pick them up with your fingers and dig right in. You know I am not able to resist these when I have ordered them on every single visit — well except lunch but I’ll talk about that later.

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Creamer Potato Cakes ($9), is a carb-lover’s dream. An alternative to French fries, these twice-fried potatoes are crispy on the outside with a soft interior. Even more delectable with a quick dunk into the rich, creamy truffle dip, it’s more like a “smashed-potato” rather than “cakes”. Regardless, they’re really good!

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Baja California Yellowtail Crudo ($12), a vibrant palette of colors from pickled cauliflower, avocado, sweet peppers and micro mustard sprouts, creates a picturesque bounty, but unfortunately needed just a touch more acid and salt.

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We were blown away by the sheer beauty of the Iberico and Fig Tart ($11). I’m happy to say, it tasted as delicious as it looked. Iberico ham, crumbled chevre, stone fruit, olive oil and black pepper are laid atop a flaky tart crust. This is a must-try!

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In season right now is Organic Melon ($9), featuring compressed watermelon, ricotta salata, ver jus, golden pea shoots, radish, blueberry balsamic and meyer lemon. So simple, yet sublime. The combination of sweet, tart, salty is indescribable on the palate. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.

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Don’t forget the Grilled and Chilled Octopus ($16), it is one of my favorites. Make sure you get a bit of the salt sprinkled on to the plate to have the perfect mouthful.

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Another item not-to-be-missed item — Grilled White Corn Succotash ($6), an addicting side dish with smoky fire roasted peppers, vibrant baby green peas, and Sriracha butter. It is one of those things I order on every visit.

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Delightful servers — memorable ones include Danielle on one visit, and the delightful Ashley on another — help guide and shape a dining experience with knowledge and humor. Impeccable service and attention to detail makes a meal more enjoyable. We converse often, asking questions and trying to gauge which course of action to follow.

If you are still hungry after all of these, there are entrees to choose from such as the Grilled Veal T-Bone ($45) with roasted shallot, arugula greens, soft polenta, tomato pan jus.

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Or, create your own from the “Your Menu” section where you can pair a protein of your choice such as Organic Chicken Breast ($19 6oz/$24 8oz), with a house-made scratch sauce — salbaxitada is amazing — and a side.

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When it comes time for desserts, there is a good variety of sweet offerings. The best part is that they change seasonally to ensure optimum flavors in everything you put in your mouth.

If you happen to come during lunch, the menu is limited. There are some salads and a few sandwiches. However, the Chilled Avocado Gazpacho ($6) is what you should come for. It is absolutely breathtaking. Silky smooth avocado puree with chunks of blue lump crab makes for an ample lunch, especially when there are those addicting epi baguettes involved.

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Orange County has definitely been waiting for Watertable. It may not know it yet, but once you experience this elegant but unpretentious destination, you’ll understand why. Service is stellar, paired with an incredible menu, this is the very best of everything under one roof. Plus, complimentary valet is offered — what more would you ask for?

Watertable
21500 Pacific Coast Hwy
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: 714-845-4776

Watertable on Urbanspoon

the rebirth of Cafe 21 San Diego

Those of you who have been following my blog know my immense love for Cafe 21. It is a love affair which begins several years ago, almost immediately in fact, after my first bite. As the years fly by, that location soon becomes a vital part of my life, providing so many fulfilling memories for my friends and I. We always leave with a stomach full of delicious food, perhaps, a tad intoxicated by the creative cocktails and sangria, but always extremely happy and satisfied.

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That is many years ago, and through time, as time often does, takes on a new meaning, a new journey if you will, towards bigger and better things. This is certainly the case with Cafe 21, who now resides in its new spot just a block or so away from its previous Gaslamp location.

Cafe 21 is one of those restaurants which I feel has been with me through my life’s journey the last four to five years. I doubt this love affair will ever end. I’ve been waiting to visit the new place and am excited to see what it looks like. As I eagerly wait across the street, I see it is busy with people, and a warm fuzzy feeling comes over me.

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The decor is stunning, and my photos definitely do not aptly capture the essence of its entirety, or the soul of owners Alex and Leyla Javadov. You will have to take my word for it until you have the opportunity to step inside and experience it for yourself.

There are traces of the Javadovs’ Azerbaijani roots, mostly visible in the upstairs “loft” area, but overall, the chic and modern decor is exactly what 2014 calls for. Besides the loft, there is a patio, bar and dining room area — a different experience can be had depending on where you sit, but it will always be one that is etched in your memory long after your belly is full, days and months down the road.

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It is morning, but that does not stop some people from enjoying a cocktail or two. Cafe 21 is famous for its house-made sangrias — six are available on any given day — take a peek when you walk in the door. If you are not able to make up your mind, you partake in a flight for a taste of them all.

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Another popular cocktail is the signature Bloody Mary — there are four to choose from — here’s a glimpse of the Prawn Star ($15) and the California Greenin ($15) which uses a tomatillo mix created in-house.

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However, it is too early to drink alcohol, so we start with some Loose Leaf Tea ($4) — you choose either hot or cold. Of course we choose the latter. A variety of Scottish Caramel Pu-Erh, Raspberry Lavender and Green Sencha arrives. I love the vessels they come in.

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Once the tea has enough time to steep, position it over a large glass and release the tea over the ice and voila, your ice tea is ready! The server is happy to provide this service, but I am like a child in a candy store.

The caramel pu-erh is intoxicating. The deep amber liquid is sweet to the nose, and rich on the palate. I buy some to take home for another day.

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I am mesmerized by the teapot, so when our next round arrives, I want to photograph the procedure once again!

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The first of our meal comes to the table, Blueberry Pancakes ($11 choice of 3 short stack or 5 full stack) is on the ubiquitous stainless steel platter Cafe 21 is known for. These are fluffy and delicious. The house-made blueberry compote is not overly sweet, retaining the natural flavors I so love. They are generous with the butter, but you don’t have to use it all.

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The Shrimp Cast Iron Omelet ($13) is an ideal brunch item comprising eggs and a protein of your choice. We choose pesto marinated shrimp which nestles atop, and in between the light fluffy eggs, along with tomato, spinach, pesto sauce, feta and mozzarella.

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There are specials every single day and on this particular one, the Stuffed Flatbreads ($15 choose two out of three options) is a recommendation I, at first, am hesitant to order. However, a little bit of convincing later and I am enamored by both the vegetarian selections. Cheesy organic spinach with pesto, goat cheese, feta and mozzarella cheeses is vibrant, however, it is the creamy potato and onion with locally grown cauliflower that wins hands down all around. The lilac hues of the cauliflower peek through when you cut into the flatbread, but it is robust aromas of this cruciferous vegetable that blows our minds.

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We are quite full by now, but there are two more items to hit the table. Lagman Pulled Pasta ($14) with hand-pulled pasta, bell peppers, tomato, onion, butter sauce with lamb meatballs (not listed, but you are able to choose this protein) — more like a dinner item than a brunch due to its sheer volume. I am only able to take a bite. I wish my stomach is bigger, but the lamb meatballs are seasoned perfectly and the vegetable accoutrements colorful and inviting.

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Seared Grouper Sandwich ($14), another special of the day sees a generous piece of fish sandwiched between a brioche bun along with lettuce, tomato, onion, chipotle aioli and a side of your choice. Again, I only manage a bite.

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I am always so happy when I leave here, and especially so when I am able to introduce new people to this extraordinary eatery. Whenever any of my friends ask for a San Diego recommendation, I always say Cafe 21. In fact, last week, while dining at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach, a couple sitting next to us overhears me talking about Cafe 21 and interjects. They tell me about their visit back in March and how amazing it is. This is exactly the thing I like to hear. If you haven’t yet experienced Cafe 21, do it soon. It is so worth it.

Cafe 21
802 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-795-0721

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

a long awaited revisit to Quinn’s Old Town Grill

The last time I was at Quinn’s Old Town Grill was seven years ago, and according to my Yelp review dated May of that year, I was not impressed. Last week, some friends decided to gather here for brunch and I was skeptical, but joined in mostly out of curiosity, but also, because I had heard that the restaurant had undergone some changes including a management and staff overhaul.

We arrived at 10am on a Sunday to find the place completely packed in both dining rooms as well as the patio. It was definitely bustling with even the bar stools taken up by customers.

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I wasn’t interested in drinking so early in the morning, but my friends were, so a round of Bloody Marys ($8.75) and Mimosas ($11.95 free flowing) were ordered. The other thing I’d like to mention is that the busboys fill the water glasses up with ice, which is a huge plus. I hate room temperature water and always have to ask for ice. I loved how I didn’t have to do that here.

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But I was famished as usual, and could not wait to dig into some food. The kitchen was on the slow side this morning but when the food started to hit the table, I was not disappointed.

One of my usual gauges for breakfast is always eggs Benedict. We decide to steer away from the traditional, and instead, opt for the Irish Benedict ($11.50) with corned beef rather than the Canadian ham we are all familiar with. The corned beef is a great choice — tender, moist, and not overly salty. I loved the hints of citrus in the Hollandaise sauce, something I’m really picky about. My only complaint is the slightly overcooked poached eggs, but overall, I was happy with this dish.

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Corned Beef Hash ($10.25) is something I shun because so many restaurants open a can of mush and call it corned beef. These days, there is dog food that is far more sophisticated than a can of Libby’s and just the smell of the canned stuff makes my stomach turn. You won’t have to worry about that here. The generous chunks of house-made corned beef is interspersed with chunks of potatoes — not all smashed together might I add — is hearty and very good. It is what I will compare all corned beef hash to in the future.

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I am a huge fan of sausages and therefore, when someone ordered Bangers & Eggs ($10.95) I did not object. The bangers are grilled, albeit required a few more minutes on the flattop, possessed nice flavors and definitely something I would order again.

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We could not leave without trying the Chicken & Waffles ($13.50) and it was absolutely stellar, with perfect crispiness on the outside and juiciness on the inside. Why would I need to drive to Roscoe’s when Quinn’s offers up a comparable option so close by? The other thing worth mentioning is that the waffle is indescribably good. I am not a fan of waffles and I could not stop eating it especially slathered with the butter and a drizzle of syrup. The salty sweet gooey softness was addicting.

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Since it was brunch, some lunch items were also featured including the very stellar Alaskan Cod Fish & Chips ($14.50/2pc or $15.75/3pc). The fish is nice and flaky, very moist, and I was okay with the amount of coating although just a hint less would be even better. The most impressive thing was the perfectly cooked steak fries. Each piece was browned well and stayed crispy throughout the meal.

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The only dish I did not care for was the Patty Melt ($10.95) which comprised of an under-seasoned Black Angus beef patty topped with grilled onions and cheddar cheese. The menu stated Jewish rye bread, but it arrived on white. The entire sandwich lacked flavor and texture, with the bread not completely toasted all the way through. I took the leftovers home, warmed it up in a pan so it crisped up and added some spicy mustard to it. It was definitely far tastier this way.

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I am glad my friend lured me back to Quinn’s. The food has definitely improved tremendously. Make no mistake that this is indeed old school dining, even so, a little work to improve the plating is definitely needed in the near future.

Quinn’s Old Town Grill
405 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: 714-731-2263

Quinn's Old Town Grill on Urbanspoon

Book of Mormon menu at Leatherby’s

I’ve been wanting to see Book of Mormon for years now. I had planned on purchasing tickets for a show in New York a few years ago but not everyone in my party was eager to spend the money, so we ended up not going. It was then up in LA, but I didn’t want to drive up to The Pantages, therefore, when I heard it was coming to Segerstrom, I had no doubt in my mind, I was going. I set a note in my calendar and purchased the tickets on the first day they became available.

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Although my tickets aren’t for another week, I visited Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge last night, opening night, to sample the Book of Mormon ‘theater menu’ created by one of my favorite chefs in Orange County, Ross Pangilinan. I’ve been meaning to try one of these every since I heard about them several shows ago. I felt it was apropos to select this particular one seeing I was going to Book of Mormon anyway.

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If you’re attending a show and plan on dining at Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, I highly suggest making a reservation! Every time I’ve been here for a performance and have dined here beforehand, the restaurant is packed. Chef Ross and his team are simply amazing and get you out the door and in time for your show even if you’re enjoying a 3-course menu, but be respectful and give them ample time to appropriately serve you.

My dining companion and I enjoyed the 3-course Pre Theater Prix Fixe Menu with two options available including one that’s vegetarian. It is priced at $45/person and $64 with wine pairings.

First Course entitled “Hello”, was a Soft Egg Raviolo, a beautiful package of fine herb ricotta encased in a thin wrapper, surrounded by a mushroom ragout and beef jus bath. Crispy guanciale is added for texture while parmesan adds a salty component. When you cut into the raviolo, the soft egg gently streams onto the plate mixing with the jus creating a luscious sauce for the pasta. We agreed this was a delicious start to our meal.

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The other option was “Baptize Me”, a Farmers Market Vegetable Soup, and on the night of our visit, we were graced with Thai curry carrot. Though creamy in texture, it possessed no cream or butter — perfect for vegetarians AND vegans. The hints of curry was subtle, but I thoroughly enjoyed the heavy aromas of lime from the gremolata, lending a very refreshing finish, especially on a sweltering day like this one.

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Our Main Course entitled “Making Things Up Again” — all of these titles are songs from Book of Mormon —  included Grilled Barramundi served Moroccan style with couscous, harissa scented vegetables and chickpeas, chermoula and preserved lemon.

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If you are not a fan of Moroccan flavors, I highly suggest the “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (an African saying meaning “paradise on earth”). This Mezzelune Pasta dish offers crescent-shaped pasta filled with a sweet corn puree. They are tossed in a in a lime-brown butter sauce with baby corn, artichoke, oven dried tomato and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. Crispy cilantro adds a perfect crunch to the dish. We were both blown away by how tender the pasta was and how robust the flavors although it possessed no meat.

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Our meal came to a close with “Orlando”, a White Chocolate Key Lime Bar sitting atop graham cracker crumbles with a whipped lime ganache topping. Dots of fragrant cilantro coulis lined the plate and I especially loved the raspberry chips and key lime sherbet accompaniments. The combination of sweet and tart is always so pleasant on my palate.

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Chocolate fans must indulge in “I Am Here For You”, a Warm Chocolate Molten Cake with coconut tapioca and a dollop of diced pickled fruit. The best part of all was the oozing surprise you get when you break into it!

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If you’re not interested in a 3-course dinner, some of these items are also offered a la carte. My only wish is that Leatherby’s is opened on days the performing arts center is not running shows.

Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge
615 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-429-7640

Leatherby's Cafe Rouge on Urbanspoon

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