Toast Enoteca — San Diego

On a recent trip to San Diego, we stopped by Toast Enoteca for some dinner. It is technically a wine shop/bar with a restaurant attached so you can either purchase the wine to take home, or enjoy the wine on the premises. If you decide to drink the wine at the restaurant, there is a $7 corkage fee, which is nothing when you compare the prices of the wines they offer. There is barely a mark-up, which works well in the diners’ favor. Or, if you just want to sample some wines at your leisure, there is a wine dispensing machine which you can peruse and pour yourself.

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We decide to have a glass of wine with our meal, and our server was nice enough to offer us a taste before committing. We didn’t have to ponder much before deciding to have a bottle instead.

The menu is simple and prices are extremely affordable. We begin with Crostone di Polipo ($12), an interesting dish which uses local Baja octopus, fresh arugula, roasted potatoes, black olives, capers and spicy vinaigrette dressing, served on top of crostone. The flavors are nice, but the crostone becomes soggy once the dish has been compiled on top of it. I was also fishing for the octopus which are cut way too small. I would really like to see the octopus be the star of the plate instead of hiding among the rest of the ingredients.

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I was impressed by the many made-in-house items on the menu so we decided to try as many as possible. We first try Pizza alla Calabrese ($12), topped with mozzarella, salami, caramelized onions and fresh mixed greens. It was a tad too sweet for my palate, but still, decent. I really like having fresh greens on top of pizza.

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For our second, we decide to go half half on the Pizza al Prosciutto  ($14/whole pie) with pomodoro sauce, mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma; Pizza al Gorgonzola e Peperoni dolci  ($12/whole pie) pomodoro sauce, organic sweet peppers, pine nuts, Tropean red onions, mozzarella and gorgonzola. We loved both of these, especially the latter. I really liked the texture of the pine nuts on the pizza. The crust is different as well, a little crispier rather than chewy.

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My favorite of the evening was definitely Tagliatelle alla Bolognese  ($14) which comprised homemade tagliatelle pasta and a rustic style bolognese sauce. It is hearty but not heavy.

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I also enjoyed Pollo Parmigiana  ($18) a different take on the usual chicken parmigiana. Instead of a cutlet, the chicken is served bone-in and oven-baked skin on. The chicken breast remains moist and even though I saw “dried fruit crust” on the menu, it wasn’t sweet on the palate. The tomato sauce and parmesan sauce is nice and light but packed with flavor. Very nice!

I like the concept of Toast Enoteca. If you want to meet a friend for a drink you will find an extensive selection of wines from varying price ranges to suit everyone. This is a spot where I will meet my friends for a drink after work, and if you decide you wanted something to eat as well, then there is that option. It is casual and the environment cozy and inviting.

Toast Enoteca
927 J Street
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-269-4207

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Brick Pizzeria: not just a pizza joint

I first encountered Brick Pizzeria at the Orange Coast Magazine’s 10 Best Restaurants event this year. There wasn’t any food to try that evening, so I moved along and didn’t pay much thought to it. Months later, a reader of mine was raving about this restaurant and I thought it was about time to try them out.

Over the course of several months, I have visited Brick a handful of times. It started because I was lunching with a girlfriend who lives in Oceanside and we were looking for a half way point to meet. We were blown away by how good — REALLY GOOD — everything was. Start with some cocktails, they’re pretty good too.

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I then returned with a group of friends for lunch a month later and managed to eat through an array of dishes before returning yet again for another round.

There is a wood-fire oven where a lot of things are prepared, including the hand-made pizzas. However, Brick Pizzeria is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, pizzas are a thing here, such as this Salsiccia ($16) topped with house-made sausage — house made is a word readily used on the menu because pretty much EVERYTHING is — caramelized fennel and fennel pollen among other things.

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But please don’t just stop at the pizzas. I know it is natural to automatically expect you’ll order pizza when you come to Brick Pizzeria, but let me just clear that up right now. It is MUCH more than just a pizza joint, SO much more.

If you’re in the mood for a salad to share, the Caesar Salad ($11) is insanely good. So simple and not overly dressed — one of my pet peeves — the leaves are left whole which adds an extra crispness to the mouthfeel. Of course, one of my favorite ingredients — anchovies — are also included.

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Right now, the autumnal produce are at its peak which means a lot of fall flavors and colors are showing up on menus across the board. I highly suggest starting with Roasted Acorn Squash Antipasti ($14), a dish I’ve had a few times, but definitely one to share. The squash is roasted until soft, then a dollop of burrata is placed inside. Crunchy roasted hazelnuts, crispy sage and a drizzle of balsamic are all this simple, yet satisfying dish requires.

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Ricotta and Farm Egg Raviolo ($12) had me at first bite. When you break into the raviolo, an oozing farm egg rushes out and creates an even richer sauce when combined with the truffle butter, spinach puree and grana spuma. There’s usually crispy pancetta on the plate but I don’t remember why there isn’t any on this one. Once again, so simple, but absolutely to-die-for.

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If you’re looking for a vegetarian offering, Crispy Zucchini Blossoms ($11) is incredible. Generally, after the delicate zucchini blossoms have been stuffed with an herb ricotta and fried, I find it a tad too heavy. But not here! The perfect amount of ricotta sits within, while the coating is so light it never overwhelms. Served with a house-made marinara sauce, you’ll find yourself sopping every last bit up with the foccacia they serve.

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What puts Brick in a category along with many fine restaurants in OC is that Chef David Pratt will take an entire pig, break it down, and use every bit of it on the menu. But that’s not all, he also hand makes all the pasta so I highly recommend ordering at least one of them.

Orrecchiette ($16/$23) is one of the first I try with house-made sausage, flowering broccoli, a medley of mushrooms and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese. I think this might be one of my favorites on the menu.

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But then again, there is the Pappardelle ($18/$26) tossed in a rich veal ragu and topped with grana padano parmesan. It is so satisfying we fight to get a second bite among our group. I love the mouthfeel of this pasta as it moves around my mouth. It is perfectly seasoned — just like everything else — which, most of you know, is of utmost importance to me.

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Don’t forget the Spaghetti Carbonara ($15/$22) — not like any carbonara I’ve ever made! The ingredients are few, but pork belly confit is one and that alone should tell you how this extraordinary this humble pasta will taste. There are no words when we are eating this, just ooos and ahhhs.

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I am so intrigued by Cocoa Buccatini ($17/$24), so on another visit, I try this. Cocoa is added to the pasta dough when Chef Pratt makes the buccatini and add to that duck ragu, hen of the woods mushrooms, mascarpone and marjoram and this is the best fall dish ever. If you didn’t know there was cocoa in the pasta, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess what it is, except for the fact that it is familiar. (I apologize I don’t have a photo for this).

But there is more! Brick Meatballs ($14/$21) is possibly one of the most popular dishes on the menu and rightfully so. The meatballs are hand-made, then seared in the wood-fire brick oven and then slowly cooked until done. A luscious marinara accompanies these texturally perfect meatballs topped with pecorino. I like them as is served with grilled house-made focaccia, but the kids might probably enjoy it with a side of pasta instead.

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David Pratt is not only one of the best chefs Orange County has, but one of the most humble. If you’ve ever visited Brick Pizzeria, you will find him quietly focusing on his craft in the open kitchen. He is a man of few words — until you get to know him — and stays very low key. I found out from one of my visits that he serves the needy a hot meal he personally prepares on Thanksgiving day every year. I volunteered to help.

On Thanksgiving morning, I brought my son to Brick Pizzeria where so many of Chef David’s family, friends, even the staff, showed up to greet, serve, bus and welcome the guests. My son helped serve and I know he was deeply touched and moved by the energy in the room that day. I know I was. We chatted to many of the guests who expressed gratitude towards the acceptance, generosity and kindness Chef David has shown towards them.

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San Clemente is a 30-minute drive from Irvine, but I will gladly do it just for the food alone. If you see Chef David in the kitchen, say hi and shake his hand. I don’t always agree with Brad Johnson, but when it comes to Brick, I concur 100%. Chef David is truly deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon him.

Brick Pizzeria
216 N El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
Tel: 949-429-1199

Brick Pizzeria 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

jazz and more at Spaghettini

As usual, my skepticism sets in when I hear “Italian”, despite the fact that lately, I have been pleasantly surprised by places I’ve come across.

Spagettini isn’t at all how I imagined in my mind. In fact, my preconceived notions of the restaurant was not at all accurate. Because the restaurant is a hub for jazz musicians — think Dave Koz and the like — there is a lounge area specifically mapped out for this.

My friend and I are led to a booth while we wait for another to arrive. Our incredibly awesome server, Jill, was to be with us for our meal this evening.

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We began with some cocktails — Blood Orange Manhattan ($14) for the guy, and Water Cooler ($13) for me. Our friend chose wine when she arrived. His Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Domaine de Canton, lemon juice, lemongrass and ginger syrup and tarragon drink is pleasant. However, my Bombay Sapphire Gin, St Germain, watermelon and lime juice, vanilla and mint syrup concoction is absolutely delicious, I have another.

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While we were waiting, some amuse bouche were presented to us while we perused the menu.

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We decided upon Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta ($14/$16 with goat cheese) served with grilled baguette. I liked how they serve the goat cheese on the side instead of slathering it on to the toast. Our server tells me that they do that in case someone is not fond of goat cheese. That’s a brilliant idea because there are times I’m not into a certain goat cheese that’s served.

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Pommery Shrimp ($24) may not look like anything much, but it is absolutely mouthwatering. The sauteed shrimp are plump and has a wonderful snap, however, it is the Pommery mustard cream sauce with white wine and shallots that steals the day. It is so rich and flavorful we were not going to let a drop go to waste. Bits of bread were broken off to wipe the plate clean.

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We thought it might be smart to break up the meal with something green, so Wedge ($15) salad it is. Honestly, this defeats the purpose of a salad, but I can’t think of a more delicious way to eat lettuce when it is smothered in applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, bits of Roma tomatoes and red onions.

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However, it is the house-made pasta that catches my eye. Yellow Corn Agnolotti ($22) are pockets filled with a corn (which is currently in season) puree, tossed in a mascarpone sauce and topped with parmigiano reggiano. The salty sweet flavors are addicting and the perfectly al dente pasta is absolutely delicious.

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Another great choice is Seafood Conchiglie ($29) with lobster, shrimp and Dungeness crab. The cream sauce sits snugly in between the pasta shells and creates a luscious mouthfeel on the palate.

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We shared some entrees between us. First up, Beeler’s Pork Chop ($29), a hefty cider-brined chop with Yukon Gold potato puree and sweet apples. The combination of the three created a nice contrast of flavors, but unfortunately, the pork was a bit overcooked.

My favorite was New Zealand Lamb Rack ($44), a stunning rack of meat prepared perfectly medium rare with a rich, savory port reduction, served with a side of baby spinach and shallot & parmesan potato gratin.

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Come for the food, come for the jazz. If you happen to get Jill as your server, you’ll know your experience is going to be a very enjoyable one.

Spaghettini
3005 Old Ranch Pkwy
Seal Beach, CA 90740
Tel: 562-596-2199

Spaghettini on Urbanspoon

tasty homemade cuisine at Solare — San Diego

I’m usually disappointed by so many Italian restaurants serving mediocre cuisine, however after my meal at Solare, I can safely say, this place has won me over, with a stellar menu and a very passionate Italian chef to boot.

I arrive for a late lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in quite some time. He tells me he is friends with the head bartender here and is excited to try the food after hearing a lot about it. I find out that the restaurant has been around for quite some time, however, the current owner took over about a year and a half ago and hired Chef Accursio Lota, formerly at The Marine Room in La Jolla to head up the kitchen.

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Chef Accursio stops by our table and I have many questions for him, including the “guitar” spaghetti. He proudly steps away and brings back the chitarra pasta maker to show me. He tells me he makes everything in-house, including all the pastas on the menu from scratch. I am well aware that this is a huge selling point for any Italian restaurant, and one that piques my interest. I am excited to try some of these.

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A basket of house-made foccacia is brought to the table for us to munch on while we peruse the menu.

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I order the Carpaccio di Wagyu ($14) mainly because I was intrigued by the balsamico pearls on the menu description. Paper thin slices of Wagyu beef sirloin is topped with arugula and dotted with beautifully colored edible borrage flowers. 20-month parmagiano reggiano shavings sit atop the tender beef sprinkled with rosemary salt. A handful of intensely flavored balsamico pearls are strewn around the plate. I have eaten a good many carpaccios in my life time, and I can honestly say, this is one of the best. The flavor profiles are all there giving a uniform mouthful of salty, tart, and a hint of sweetness.

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Polpette al Forno ($5 happy hour 3pcs/$11 6pcs) is one of those things I generally gauge Italian restaurants by. Every chef has his or her own recipe and it is usually passed down from generations ago. These home-made Sicilian beef and veal meatballs did not disappoint. They are tender, well-seasoned and paired exquisitely with the stunning marinara sauce. Bravo!

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Speck & Creme Fraiche Pizza ($15) is next and it is a Napoli style pizza — thin crust — though not cooked in a 900 degree wood fired oven. The smoked speck, creme fraiche, provolone, poached onion and wild thyme blend well together and fresh parmigiana reggiano is grated at the table.

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Because the pasta is made in house, I wanted to try two styles, the first being Agnolotti all’Ortica e Piselli ($19). Agnolotti is a stuffed pasta, and here, these hand-made goodies are filled with nettles. The sauce is light and the stracciatella of burrata adds richness to the dish. I love the English peas adding a slightly sweet freshness to the plate. My only complaint would be that the menu description of crispy prosciutto crudo were not crispy.

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Whether you’re vegetarian or not, Timballo di Melanzane ($17) is sure to please. I love eggplant, and I mean LOVE it. My mother used to be amazed at my ability, as a child, to eat plain steamed eggplants with no seasonings on it. Of course this beautifully presented eggplant timbale is seasoned perfectly and topped with a slice of tomato and fresh mozzarella. A sprinkling of parmagiano reggiano completes this dish.

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But of course, what I have been waiting for is next — Spaghetti all’Aragosta ($21), the “guitar” spaghetti made in-house on the chitarra pasta maker Chef Accursio brought out earlier. The spaghetti is incredible. Its texture is so toothsome and nothing I have ever had before in southern California. The sauteed Maine lobster are tossed with date tomatoes, spring onion and lemon zest. This spaghetti can be prepared with any sauce and the dish would be outstanding.

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We were so pleased with our meal at Solare. This is definitely noteworthy Italian cuisine and Chef Accursio Lota definitely has some major skills. The freshness and simplicity in everything we tasted is exactly what I look for when I’m eating Italian.

Solare
2820 Roosevelt Rd
San Diego, CA 92106
Tel: 619-270-9670

Solare on Urbanspoon

Prego Ristorante is an OC institution

It’s been a few years since my last visit to Prego, a northern Italian restaurant nestled in between office buildings in Irvine. At lunch time, the restaurant is bustling with business people trying to clinch a deal, and, those wanting to impress a client.

So when I received an invitation to check out its “Spring into Summer” menu, I eagerly accepted. I remember the unfortunate fire at the restaurant not too long ago, and when I walked in, I was expecting a change, but was relieved to see they have kept it relatively the same, except for an upgrade to the existing structure.

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We were welcomed by owners Tony and Ruth Bedi, as well as their son Devin, as we joined the rest of the media party on the back patio for hors d’oeuvres while sipping on Sofia blanc de blancs.

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After mingling for a little while, we moved into the private room for our meal prepared by Chef Ugo Allesina, a 25 year culinary veteran who has been with Prego since July 2000.

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We started with Asparagus Delizia, a perfect example of simple hearty Italian cuisine using fresh ingredients. Grilled duo of asparagus — both green and white — are wrapped in Parma prosciutto and finished with shaved parmesan cheese, organic arugula and truffle oil. I like how Chef Ugo has featured white asparagus, a wonderful spring time produce only available for a very short period each year.

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Our primo piatto of Risotto alla Sovaccese was a perfectly al dente bowl of delicate arborio rice, porcini mushrooms, fontina cheese with hints of fresh rosemary. A tad under-seasoned for me, but nothing extra cheese and a touch of salt wasn’t able to fix.

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Cotechino e Lenticchie is Chef Ugo’s homemade Italian sausage with white wine served on a bed of stewed lentils and whole grain mustard sauce. Traditionally eaten during new year’s, Chef Ugo’s sausage possessed wonderful flavors, although texturally, I would have liked a little more contrast. Lentils, also a traditional accoutrement, were hearty and delicious with the mustard sauce adding a good acidity to the dish.

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To finish, we were presented with Tronco ai Cioccolati, a puffed pastry filled with white and dark chocolate mousse served with creme anglaise and raspberry sauce. Chef Ugo explains that this is a dessert close to his heart and reflective of the Piedmont area where he is from. It reminded me of desserts I used to eat as a child when my parents brought us out for a fancy meal.

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Prego is an Orange County institution which has withstood challenges and time. It is still one of the restaurants where business deals are made and anniversaries are celebrated.

This week I have a $50 gift certificate courtesy of Prego Ristorante for one lucky reader to win. Please leave a comment with your FULL name for a chance to enter. Tell me your memories of Prego, or why you’d like to visit. Contest ends Monday, a winner will be chosen and announced on Tuesday.

Prego Ristorante
18420 Von Karman Avenue
Irvine, CA 92612
Tel: 949-552-1333

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