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

Connie and Ted’s — a modern day seafood shack

This has been a really difficult post to write. We’d been waiting to eat at Connie and Ted’s since it opened, after all, it IS a Michael Cimarusti restaurant and getting a reservation is no easy feat. However, our experienced was a very mixed one which has been weighing heavily on my heart as I write this.

This casual seafood restaurant serving a menu of all-American favorites is named after Cimarusti’s grandparents, and according to Connie and Ted’s website, pays homage to the English-born couple’s love of fishing together off the shores of New England. I was glad there were eight of us so there was no shortage of food on our menu that evening. In fact, there was a lot of food, some we loved, some we did not. Naturally, a meal with this many people isn’t complete without some cocktails to kick things off.

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Between us, there were a selection of libations including (from leftEndless Summer ($12) coconut-infused demerara rum, becherovka, pineapple puree, lemon juice, angostura bitters; Born In East LA ($12) reposado tequila, tamarind, lime, Mexican mole bitters, hellfire bitters, soda; Little Sicily ($12) white rye, cynar, dry vermouth; Briar Patch ($12) London dry gin, lavender blackberry coulis, rye, marionberry liqueur, lime, soda. Take a guess which one I had several of.

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Our dinner began with Stuffies ($9/2pcs), one of my favorites of the evening. These clams were topped with bits of linguica, garlic, butter and breadcrumbs and browned in a broiler and when you spoon it out, you will get a plump, tender clam with rich flavors and crunchy bits to finish. A perfect umami-filled mouthful you will want more of.

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Jo’s Wicked Good Chowda’ ($6 cup/$9 bowl/$11 sampling) offers up three different types: New England, Manhattan and Rhode Island Clear. Not surprising, the Asians at the table loved the clear over the others, which is reflective of the soups in our culture.

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I’m not a big salad fan, but Smoked Albacore ($16) is presented as such and not as a salad even though there is a hefty portion of arugula, butternut squash and walnuts all tossed in a smoked lemon vinaigrette.

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I’ve had my share of lobster rolls last year and this particular Lobster Roll ($24) is served either hot or cold and is accompanied by drawn butter or mayonnaise respectively. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a lobster roll which stood out even though the lobster itself was sweet and tender.

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My son had The Bacon Hook Burger ($15) and I’ll take his word for it that it was really good. Topped with Nueske’s bacon, Hook’s 4 year cheddar, pickles, onion, lettuce and 1000 island dressing, it sounds rather good for those who aren’t into seafood but came along anyway.

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I wasn’t able to partake in Angels On Horseback ($12/3pcs or $18/5pcs) due to the oysters, however, my chef friend seated next to me insisted I taste the sauce which was lightly creamed and umami-filled! If I recall, these were oysters wrapped with bacon and baked, but please confirm with your server for the exact ingredients.

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Nancy’s Peeky Toe Crabcake ($14) was decent, but didn’t wow. It was definitely light and not overly fiddled with and served with coleslaw and tartar sauce. I think Fishing With Dynamite has ruined it for me when it comes to crabcakes!

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If you’re a fan of Fried Calamari ($10), then by all means get an order of these as well — with marinara or sauce figaro….

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…. Or, I preferred the Grilled Calamari ($12) served in a skillet with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic breadcrumbs and arugula.

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Another of my favorites was Josephine’s Clam Cakes ($18/dozen). These hush puppy-like fritters are dotted with clams and simply incredible. They were awesome on their own but you can also dip it in the accompanying tartar sauce.

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Another was Live New Bedford Scallop ($23) grilled in its shell with lemon and salted butter. It was so tender and umami-filled I wish I had an entire one instead of sharing, but definitely pricey!

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I’m a big fan of cioppino and bouillabaise so when I saw the description for Shellfish Marinara ($16), I knew I wanted it. You can choose between Manila clams or mussels or a combination of both, all combined together with a very piquant marinara sauce served with grilled bread.

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We also ordered Ed’s Portuguese Fish Stew ($22) which turned out to be very similar except there was fish (hake) and linguica as well as the Manila clams and mussels. I preferred this more than the previous one because it was a little more complex in flavors.

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Unless you’re dying to have fish and chips, Joanne’s Fish and Chips ($21) is a give or take with me. It was just okay and nothing to write home about, but the fish is great quality, I just didn’t care much for the batter.

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We also ordered Wild White Mexican Shrimp ($25) which I wouldn’t recommend. The shrimp were grilled with lemon herb beurre blanc but there was a really strong taste of something synthetic we were all getting from them. Some said it tasted like gasoline/butane while others couldn’t put a finger on anything specific.

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The Catch of the Day (market price) was another item I don’t recommend. I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, but it was a white fish prepared either with an herb crust or with herb oil and lemon, we opted for the latter. The fish wasn’t anything special, a little bland even and really did not stand out among all the others. I would totally recommend skipping this as well.catch of the day (640x425)

Some of the sides were ordered as well such as Hot Buttered Rolls ($5) served in a skillet and is scorching when it hits the table. It’s great slathered with butter, but they were similar in texture to Hawaiian rolls which I’m not a fan of.

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The Weiser’s French Fingerlings ($5) were okay, again, not worth bothering with when there are so many other things to try.

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We also shared two desserts but neither were stand-outs enough for me to want to write about them. Connie and Ted’s is worth a visit if only for the experience itself. The restaurant is unique and the cocktails delicious. Order a few items to share and call it a night. Just be prepared in advance that it won’t be a cheap meal.

Connie and Ted’s
8171 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tel: 323-848-2722

Connie & Ted's on Urbanspoon

Bonefish Grill opens in Tustin

I was invited to a preview of Bonefish Grill months ago and returned again because what little I tasted was only a teaser and I wanted to try more before giving a verdict. Although the restaurant is part of a chain out of Florida, the restaurant does not have a chain feel to it. In fact, each location has its own unique design and this particular one is no different. I especially love the bonefish design on the back wall created with little pieces of metal components.

Start with a non-alcoholic refresher such as the Blackberry Smash ($3.50) in lieu of the regular soda or iced tea. We loved this fruit-filled drink which isn’t overly sweet either.

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We started with Bang Bang Shrimp ($10.90), something I tasted at the preview and is Bonefish’s signature dish. The lightly battered shrimp are tossed in a creamy sauce with a hint of spice and they remain crispy even till the very last one. It reminds me of a very good honey walnut shrimp — a dish I really dislike — without the cloying heaviness of mayo overuse. This is highly recommended.

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Singapore Calamari ($9.90) is another great appetizer to share. The calamari is flash-fried with thin strips of red and green peppers and served with a sweet spicy Asian-inspired sauce.

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I love soup and naturally, Corn Chowder + Lump Crab ($6.90/cup or $7.70/bowl) caught my eye. It was a little thick for me, but the flavors were incredibly rich comprising a smokiness from the bacon and a subtle sweetness from the corn. There were bits of crab in every mouthful, leaving you feeling extremely satisfied indeed.

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On Tuesdays, there are lobster specials and I wasn’t about to forego the Lobster Sliders + Fries ($7.90) I was teased with at the preview. These sliders are served on brioche rolls and there is a generous portion of lobster sandwiched in between. I like how it is not mayo-heavy and the bits of crunchy celery makes for delicious eating with great textural contrast. I was told they weren’t going to be on the Tuesday menu for much longer, so I hope you get a chance to try these before they disappear completely.

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Our server suggested the Tilapia Imperial ($20.50), stuffed with a mixture of shrimp, scallops, crab meat, Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses drizzled with lemon caper butter. It was a bit heavy for me and the portion was pretty big so it can easily be shared.  

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If you are into surf and turf, the Lobster and Steak Duet ($16.90) off the specials menu may be the best bet. For under $17, you get a 6oz sirloin steak and a cold water lobster tail complete with a butter dipping sauce on the side. For $6 more you can upgrade to filet mignon.

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With your entrees you also have your choice of sides. Butternut Squash Ravioli ($3 extra) are four raviolis stuffed with a sweet butternut puree enveloped in a brown butter sage sauce.

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The Garlic Whipped Potatoes is a must because it is light and airy, yet decadent. I am always surprised when potatoes blow me away because the only potatoes I like are crispy French fries.

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Those with a sweet tooth will love the desserts. I’m partial to the Key Lime Pie ($6.70) with a roasted pecan crust. The filling is wonderfully tart, just the way I like my sweets, and the crunch from the crust adds a fantastic component to the finished product.

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If you’re a chocolate fan, Macadamia Nut Brownie ($6.70) is the one you must choose. The flourless brownie comes with raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream and is sprinkled with crushed macadamia nuts.

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Bonefish Grill is located at the Tustin Marketplace and there is ample parking so take your family for dinner because it’s definitely a family-friendly establishment.

Bonefish Grill
3040 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782
Tel: 714-368-7613

Bonefish Grill on Urbanspoon