Driftwood Kitchen is the whole package

I’m generally not impressed with restaurants offering a stunning a view. I find them relying on the gorgeous setting and slacking when it comes to the menu. Driftwood Kitchen is not one of those places. In fact, it exceeded my expectations when it comes to stellar cuisine. The ocean backdrop is just the icing on the cake.

We arrive a few minutes before it opened and were ushered into the waiting room. The waves were spectacular, but it was the homey room reminiscent of someone’s living room in the Hamptons, that made me love it even more. The room is cozy and the sofa so comfortable I was reluctant to get up after I had sunk my weary body into it.

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After we were led to our table at the window’s edge, I quickly took a stroll inside the restaurant and was tickled to find that the warmth extends throughout. No matter where you end up sitting, you can be sure it will be a very inviting and gratifying one.

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The cool breeze was pleasant, helping to alleviate the glare of the sun, however, it also meant none of my photos came out. Of course I was disappointed, but luckily, photographer extraordinaire, Anne Watson generously offered her photos for me to use.

** all food photographs courtesy of Anne Watson Photography**

Before anything else, I am presented with a plate of asiago monkey bread accompanied by a pat of butter dotted with black sea salt. A word of warning! It is highly addictive and you won’t want to stop — I couldn’t — however, you will regret it later when you’re too full to eat all the gorgeous dishes you have ordered.

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For example, Cluster Tomato Salad ($14), something I highly recommend ordering, is a must if it’s still on the menu when you make it there. One of the things about Driftwood Kitchen is that ingredients are seasonal and Chef Rainer Schwarz only uses what’s currently available. Therefore, once the tomato season ends, so will this dish. The best part of this salad was the grilled plums, adding another level of sweetness, while Thai basil brings hints of freshness. I especially enjoyed the plum wine vinaigrette dressing and soft mozzarella.

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I don’t know why I love panna cotta so much. Maybe it is the dreamy texture, but I was definitely a little skeptical about the goat cheese aspect of it. Goat Cheese Panna Cotta and Roasted Baby Beets Salad ($12) turned out to be one of the most delectable things I’d ever eaten. The panna cotta is smooth and creamy without the usual grassy, gamey aromas of goat cheese I tend to dislike. Lavender pumpernickel toasts exude floral hints, which, when eaten together with the panna cotta, and the absolutely addicting nature of the pistachio puree, is positively one of the best things I’ve ever eaten!

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My love for raw fish can only be rivaled, by perhaps, scallops. Therefore, Hamachi Crudo ($14) was exactly one of those dishes to whet my tastebuds. The list of accoutrements is unique, including honey dashi Texas grapefruit, avocado mousse, Fresno chili, cilantro/ and smoked sea salt. Take a bite and you’ll only find them all coming together harmoniously in what can be described as heaven on your palate.
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I’m definitely a sucker for soft-shell crabs and Buttermilk Fried Soft-shell Crab ($13) did not disappoint. Crispy on the outside and wonderfully soft on the inside, dip it into the spicy papaya seed dipping sauce and take bites of the green papaya slaw in between. So simple, yet immensely satisfying!

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And on the topic of something else I absolutely adore, New Bedford Sea Scallops ($38) with Alba truffle risotto and portabella mushroom confit is my choice for entree. The scallops are perfectly executed with a mushroom confit so voluptuous and savory you’ll want to lick the plate.

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Another respectable entree was Northern Atlantic Halibut Filet ($18) with Weiser Farm fingerling potato and a deliciously creamy corn fricasse — hidden underneath the fish — in an English pea sauce.

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If you find room to fit dessert in, my favorite was the Gluten Free Rocky Road ($9), a deconstructed Ferrer Rocher, if you will, consisting of crunch bar, marshmallow sauce, chocolate sauce, smoked almonds and chocolate ice cream. Definitely share this as it is decadent and wickedly sinful!

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Definitely a win in my book for an all-around great dining experience, especially if your’e trying to impress someone who also has a refined palate!

Driftwood Kitchen
619 Sleepy Hollow Lane
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-494-9707

Driftwood Kitchen on Urbanspoon

ceviche festival at The Ritz Carlton

Saying I love raw fish is a bit of an understatement. Sashimi, poke, tiradito, ceviche, regardless what you call it, by adding a mixture of salty, sweet and tart, the fish is transformed into something quite mouthpuckeringly (I just made up a word) good.

So for all you raw fish aficionados out there, September is the month for you at The Ritz-Carton Laguna Niguel. The ceviche festival runs for the entire month and will see both Raya and 180blũ offering a menu packed with various “ceviches” — term is used loosely as there are several styles to choose from — to tickle your fancy. I attended a preview showcasing what you will expect should you choose to partake in this delicious offering.

If you’re a fan of island style raw fish, there is Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, a stellar interpretation of ahi poke, the jicama and red onion brings a crunch, while avocado adds a creaminess in your mouth. Of course, there has to be a source of heat and tart, and in this particular dish, it is from chile de arbol, ponzu and yuzu. Served with crispy plantain and yuca chips.

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Rock Shrimp is also a staple found on the islands, but given a Pan Latin twist here. For that kick, roasted jalapeno and Peruvian sweetie peppers are used. Yuzu, mint, cucumber and tomato marry together bringing refreshing qualities to the palate. However, it is the white soy which piqued my interest. This version of soy sauce is not aged and un-barreled, which makes it an ideal accompaniment. It is clear and does not visually compromise the final product.

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Mixto is a combination of octopus, mussel, squid, hearts of palm sweet corn, green onion and citrus aji panca. The ingredients come together to create a spicy, sweet marinade for the seafood.

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Baja Scallop is aesthetically presented — in its shell — surrounded by thinly sliced discs of cucumber, enveloped in a tomato and guajillo sauce. Reminiscent of the Mexican coctel, it is a taste I am well familiar with.

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Even though all the ceviches which came before Sea Bass are tasty, I must say, this won me over in more ways than one. Served in a coconut shell, the citrus coconut water bath the sea bass sits in is the perfect balance of tartness on my tongue. Candied yams, red onion, cilantro add a hint of sweetness and spice, while corn nuts gives a really delightful crunch. I could go on and on about this particular ceviche, but I think you should just go and try it out for yourselves.

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Remember, the ceviche festival runs until the end of the month. Make a trip out to The Ritz Carlton and try one of these delicious creations. All the ceviches are available at both Raya and 180blũ.

The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
One Ritz-Carlton Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
Tel: 949-240-2000

a trip south of the border (part 1)

Several weeks ago, I was invited to join a group of travel writers in Rosarito, Baja for a weekend of adventure. Because our schedule was a jam-packed one, I won’t be able to fit everything into one post, but instead, I will space everything out into several stories.

Seeing how Rosarito is a seaside town and we all had an ocean view at the Rosarito Beach Hotel — I thought it apropos to begin with our sea-to-table experience .

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We were brought to the village of Popotla, easily missed if you’re driving from Rosarito to Ensenada even though it is only about 10 minutes away from the hotel we were staying at. The restaurant we stopped at was Popotla Restaurant Bar, hidden within the Popotla Mobile Home Park (click here for directions). Our table afforded us a glorious view of the ocean as we sat down to some drinks, including this refreshing cucumber lime concoction I chose instead of an alcoholic libation.

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A platter of ceviche arrives and we are in awe of its presentation and just the abundance of it all. Seafood is in abundance here and it is not unusual to feast on a myriad of them in one sitting. There is octopus, shrimp, a white fish of some sort, and my absolute favorite, chocolate clam!

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Our second course comes in the form of a bisque. There are bits of chocolate clam dotted in the flavorful bisque. I enjoy this very much.

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We end this meal with plate of grilled seafood. Included are lobster, shrimp, white fish, octopus, and chocolate clam baked in its shell.

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Hours later, we are in Puerto Nuevo, a community located in Rosarito Beach municipality and is known as the “Lobster Village” of Baja California. This of course meant more lobster was in order. We descended upon La Casa del Pescador after dark, which is unfortunate because I was told the view is stunning. The restaurant’s name means “the fisherman’s house”, and as we are serenaded by a trio of mariachis, some guacamole and crab ceviche comes to the table for us to dip our crispy tortilla chips with.

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Soon, a massive of fried lobster halves arrive. I inquired about the lobsters and am told that they range between $22 and $35 depending on size. The crustacean possessed a nice flavor, but our small lobsters were a tad overcooked. I suggest ordering larger lobsters if you want them prepared this way.

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I’m not sure how the other lobster on the table was cooked, however, it was succulent and tender. It’s so good on its own, or, there is drawn butter provided if you want to take a dip.

We were so stuffed at the end of the meal there was no room for more. However, here’s a secret…. pop next door (it’s the store to the right as you exit) and ask for the almond tequila the guy has. He will share a few shots with you and you can continue drinking it back at the hotel. It not only acts as a digestif, but is so smooth going down.

Wait for my next installment, where we will be experience a farm-to-table adventure unlike the ones you’ve probably experienced here.

 

 

 

 

 

Selanne Steak Tavern is a definite winner

True story… I thought Teemu Selanne was Samoan. Going off the name, I seriously thought he was Samoan. Then, I was told he is Finnish. Boy did I feel stupid. From everything I’ve heard, Teemu Selanne is a class act, and so many of my friends have been raving about his Laguna restaurant, Selanne Steak Tavern. I finally made my way down to see what the fuss was all about.

First off, if you are planning to come here, I suggest using the valet parking. It is accessible via Mountain Road into the alleyway. Then, it is a short walk around the corner into the restaurant. I was a little taken aback by how beautiful the restaurant is. Since I’ve never been to French 75 before, I had no preconceived ideas as to what the space looked like. However, my dining companion informed me that they had definitely turned it from a duck to a swan.

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The restaurant is not small by any means comprising four dining areas: the patio, the bar, a dining room downstairs and a secluded upstairs room perfect for a private party. The white theme is consistent throughout, creating a rather elegant feel while still retaining a casual beach city environment.

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We started our evening at the bar for drinks with our friend. I was so thrilled to see Michael, the previous barkeep at 370 Common, another favorite of mine in Laguna Beach. Michael makes awesome cocktails like the Manhattan using rye bourbon.

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To accompany the drinks, we nibbled on the Artisanal Cheese & Charcuterie Sampler ($22), a chef’s daily selection of artisanal cheese and cured charcuterie served with the chef’s homemade jams, candied walnuts and fruit.

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After bidding goodbye to our friend, we moved into the dining room to partake on other delectables the menu had to offer. We were seated in the room on the left upon entering the restaurant. Our server Stephen was delightful and really knowledgeable. We asked so many questions and at times, he had to run back to the kitchen to garner an answer for us.

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Our meal began with an Amuse Bouche of sweet corn bisque, a silky smooth soup embodying the fresh fragrance of the beautiful corn currently in season. It was SO good I wanted more!

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Scarlet Beet “Ravioli” ($14) — ravioli in quotes — are beet slices cut and shaped like ravioli. Artisanal goat cheese is layered in between two slices and topped with mache, arugula and frisee. The greens are dressed with a warm golden beet vinaigrette and sprinkled with crunchy hazelnuts. Candied orange rind add some sweet tart flavors to the dish. The plate was bursting with a palette of spring colors and tasted just as gorgeous as it looked.

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I will never pass up a chance to order scallops and Pacific Diver Scallops ($19) is a must! These sushi-grade beauties were executed to perfection, so tender and absolutely delightful. Accoutrements of cauliflower and pickled shimeiji mushroom, in a white balsamic reduction with butter and black garlic, brought the entire dish together. It was sublime, with a rich luxurious finish and a hint of tartness. This is the dish I will be returning for again!

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When Stephen brought out our intermezzo of raspberry sorbet topped with Sofia champagne, a smile came to my face. It was so refreshing to see a restaurant go the extra mile by offering each and every diner this course. I remember my dad taking us to fancy restaurants when we were young and explaining to us this course, usually, a sorbet of some sort.

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We couldn’t forego the Forest Mushroom Risotto ($28) and were very pleased we ordered it. The risotto was prepared with canaroli rice, butter, onion, garlic, white wine and vegetable stock creating an undeniably savory finish. The combination of trumpet, shimeiji and shiitake mushrooms blended together for an exuberant heady aroma which was so addicting we couldn’t stop eating it. Add to that mascarpone and parmesan foam, with an ever so light hint of truffle oil, and it was out of this world!

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Our entrees of the evening was first, a New York Strip 12oz prime ($45) with a smidgen of Bordelaise sauce on the plate. I highly suggest ordering a side of this delicious sauce ($4) as you will definitely want more of it.  Topped with a bone marrow butter infused with parsley, chive and chervil, this was one of the best steaks I’ve ever experienced.

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One of the things I noticed is the use of chervil recently. First, at A Restaurant, and now here. I truly believe it is a highly underused herb and I’m glad to see it represented more lately.

We chose the other entree purely because the description Stephen gave of the Maine Lobster ($40 half/$76 full) was too good to resist. He tells us that the lobster is removed from its shell and placed in a cryovac bag. It is then run through a warm bath, not quite sous vide as that requires it to actually sit in the bath. Once at the desired temperature, it is then returned to the shell. The portion from its neck to head is removed and mixed with white wine, butter, cream, herbs, vegetables and crushed Ritz cracker. This creates a stuffing-like mixture which is then returned to the head part as a stuffing. The lobster is presented in a pan immersed in about a quarter inch of an intensely flavored saffron beurre fondue (like a beurre blanc but with saffron). I have no words to describe this except, ORDER IT!

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If you’re looking for a side dish to accompany your entrees, the Trumpet Royale ($12) is awesome. Meaty trumpet mushrooms are cherrywood smoked, and then finished with an aged sherry.

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When you leave your dinner and pick your car up from valet, you will find some mints on your dashboard with a little card thanking you for dining at Selanne Steak Tavern. Once again, a lovely touch found regularly at high end hotels in Europe and Asia. My friends were not wrong when they say Teemu Selanne is a class act! Every little detail of our dining experience is a true reflection of that!

Selanne Steak Tavern
1464 South Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9881

Selanne Steak Tavern on Urbanspoon

Oceanside’s Hello Betty Fish House is a breath of fresh air

While having lunch with a San Diegan friend of mine recently, I was told that downtown Oceanside has been getting a face-lift of late with new restaurants and businesses sprouting out of nowhere. So when I drove down to have lunch with a friend of mine who lives nearby, I made sure to be mindful of this fact. Traversing through downtown Oceanside, the abandoned storefronts still exist, but once I turned on to Mission Avenue, things started to look different.

Therefore, when I arrived at Hello Betty Fish House and saw this beautiful restaurant sitting at the edge of the street just steps away from the beach, I was utterly blown away. This is exactly what Oceanside needed, a beautiful restaurant with an even better view!

This modern seafood shack reminds me of Connie & Ted’s in LA, except this eatery actually has an ocean view. I would call the ambiance nautical shabby chic —  with heavy rope as part of its decor, as dividers, as part of the banquette new, but with the illusion of vintage. I love the use of heavy rope almost everywhere, including the cushions and also, interspersed into wooden planks dangling from the ceiling. If you’re not sitting facing the water, no problem! You will see its reflection off the mirrors aligned against the wall.

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When gals get together, there will always be cocktails involved, especially since we haven’t seen each other in almost a year. Our selection included: She’s A Betty ($8) on draft, Mt Gay Black Barrel, Cruzan Blackstrap, pineapple, lemon, tea syrup, Kraken float; El Toro ($9) Cazadores Silver, Licor 43, raspberry, cilantro, jalapeno, lime; Beach Break Therapy ($8) Hangar 1, kaffir lime, Sugar Island coconut rum, pineapple, lime, bitters. We agreed, the El Toro was definitely our favorite followed by She’s A Betty. 

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The first thing I popped into my mouth was raw Littleneck Clams ($10/6pcs), filled with that umami taste I love so much. Served with a jalapeno mignonette and cocktail sauce, the former was definitely the favorite dressing between the two.

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Hamachi Crudo ($14) was possibly the favorite dish of our meal. Generous slices of hamachi is topped with wasabi caviar, sliced red jalapeno chile, crispy shallots, radishes, cilantro and drizzled with a delicious citrus soy. The salty tart flavors were so addicting we were fighting for the last piece.

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I love salmon rillettes and the Smoked Fish Spread ($9) is exactly that! Served with crackers and toast points, the salmon is nicely textured and seasoned well.

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Another favorite item was Steamed Mussels ($14), so fresh and tender with bits of salty chorizo giving it an extra oompf. Tomato, chilis and garlic, together with Dos Equis amber combine together for the tastiest broth ever.

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We were rather intrigued by the thought of Fried Avocado Taco ($4.50) and were told it was half an avocado, battered and fried. It was a generous portion and texturally it was great, but needed just a touch more salt. Served on corn tortillas made fresh daily, it is an ample portion to share or just on your own. Vegetarians will revel in this!

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Our server Rachel recommended the Smoked Pork Belly Carnitas Taco ($5) and I’m glad she did because it was really delicious. For pork belly, it wasn’t fatty at all, well-rendered through and then finished off on the flattop for that bit of crispiness on the edges. Topped in the traditional style with onions and cilantro with a side of guacamole, I wanted something spicy, perhaps a side of salsa, to go with it.

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I saw the loco moco burger on the menu and asked why they didn’t have it the traditional way. Luckily I asked because they did and I had my Loco Moco ($13.75) over a bed of rice. The one here is fantastic because not only do you get the hamburger pattie, but you also get a slice of spam with an onion gravy slathered on top PLUS a runny fried egg. My son loved it and proclaimed it pretty close to the ones he used to eat as a child in Hawaii.

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When I saw Whole Fried Fish ($25) I was really excited because a lot of restaurants have been serving fish whole lately. However, here, they fillet and chunk out the red snapper, coat it with a corn meal crust before frying to perfection. The fish is moist inside and crunchy outside. They also fry the fish carcass and serve it alongside the fish nuggets. I would have preferred the fish served whole, but I get how that might freak some people out. The salsa verde and chipotle tartar were great dipping options although I loved the salsa just a little bit more.

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You also get a plate of red rice and beans with the fish — big portion — which was tasty, especially the rice.

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If you still have room after your meal, I highly recommend ending with the Horchata Sundae ($5.50). I am a huge sucker for ice cream and this one is fabulous. Creamy horchata ice cream is scooped over hot fudge and caramel sauce — a little too much for me — with bits of caramel krispies, fresh cream and topped with a crispy Mexican buñelo triangle. I couldn’t stop eating it but had to stop and give in! It was a very big bowl of ice cream goodness.

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If you’re ever in Oceanside, stop in and grab a bite! It’s a beautiful restaurant to stop into especially on a beautiful day!

Hello Betty Fish House
211 Mission Avenue
Oceanside, CA 92054
Tel: 760-722-1008

Hello Betty Fish House on Urbanspoon

Tommy Bahama’s Fish Fridays + giveaway

It’s been a while since I last dined at Tommy Bahama Island Grille. I love the tropical atmosphere and on this day, we opted to sit out on the patio to take advantage of the glorious day we were having here in southern California. The cool breeze made for a very leisurely afternoon indeed. The restaurant has launched Fish Fridays which offers an array of fish dishes for lent and will run until April 18th.

Even though it was lunch, we decided to have a drink because it was just too beautiful a day not to. Raspberries & Rye ($12) with Old Overholt, orange, lime, orange bitters, fresh muddled raspberries was fruity yet strong at the same time. If you like rye whiskey, this is the drink for you. I, on the other hand, loved the Mango Habanero Margarita ($12) complete with Milagro Silver, orange Curacao, mango, scratch sour, habanero and Hellfire Habanero Shrub. Fruity and spicy! Right up my alley.

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If you’re looking for good fish and chips, the one here is stellar but you’ll have to visit on a Friday for this. Stone IPA Battered True Cod Fish & Chips ($18) has really fresh fish pieces dipped in batter and served small enough to eat by hand. The fish is moist and flaky and the batter is seasoned well. Served with a Oaxacan chili vinegar, it was a perfect accompaniment, a Callifornian version of malt vinegar, if you will. The jerk seasoned fries were so addicting we couldn’t stop eating them.

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New Zealand Green Lip Mussels ($16) was incredible and I’m so happy this will be served every single day until the end of the month! Perfectly tender and wonderfully plump, the mussels were spot on in texture and flavor. The miso broth, with hints of tarragon was so umami-filled if was difficult to not fight for every last drop of that broth. I dipped the accompanying garlic grilled baguette into it and left the plate clean.

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I was surprised to see such a generous portion when the Blackened Fish Tacos ($16.50) arrived. I’ve never had these before even though it’s a permanent item on the menu. Topped with a tomato relish, chipotle aioli, lime sour cream and a refreshing Asian slaw, I could only eat 2 of these tacos if I ate nothing else. The tortilla is a special blend of flour and corn giving it a really unique chewy texture. A side of mango salsa adds a sweet tart finish to these awesome tacos.

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Another great fish dish is the Teriyaki Grilled Steelhead Salmon ($24). I loved the citrus soy dressing which looked like it could be too sweet, but I was happy to find that it was salty tart. The baby pea sprout salad was very creative as was the baby bok choy which add more greens but in a unique way to go low carb. This will also be available every single day before they take them off the menu! The mussels are calling my name!

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One of the dessert specials was Hawaiian Malasadas ($6), sugar-coated doughnuts served with a tropical fruit curd. The tart curd was heavy on passionfruit flavors which made us very happy. This was indeed the ideal way to finish an absolutely delightful lunch al fresco!

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Tommy Bahama is offering one of my readers a $100 giftcard to go check them out. Leave me a comment and tell me how you will be celebrating with your giftcard to be entered in this giveaway. Entries close on Sunday 23rd. Good Luck!

Tommy Bahama Island Grille
854 Avocado Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 949-760-8686

Tommy Bahama's Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon