Putting together a list of my 25 favorite dishes for 1991 was a real challenge. I could easily have done a top 50.
Eating in Orange County restaurants can be exciting, as I hope the following list reflects. Leading off--though the order reflects no particular ranking--are dishes inspired by the cooking of Europe, conceived by such local stars as France’s Pascal Olhats, Germany’s Boris Keller and Sweden’s Ulf (Anders) Strandberg.
They are followed by some resolutely American favorites, comfort foods, essentially, with original little twists. The wonderful cooking of Asia is well represented, dishes that reinforce this area’s growing diversity. And the list ends with some coffee and dessert, the best of all possible worlds.
The vast majority of these dishes are priced well under $10, with no item over $20.
It seems that 1992 has a tough act to follow.
1. Crispy confit of duck salad.
Chef Pascal Olhats takes farm-raised duck from San Diego County and cooks it slowly in its own fat, then sautees the meat until crispy. In the same pan, he prepares a feta, olive oil, sherry vinegar and garlic dressing, then pours it warm over mixed baby lettuces and fresh spinach with tomato and toasted pine nuts. Mmmm. A salad for the entire decade.
Pascal, 1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach. (714) 752-0107. Crispy confit of duck salad, $8.50.
2. Grilled gravad lax with morel sauce.
Most of us know gravad lax as cured salmon, eaten au naturel. This one is different. Gustaf Anders chef Ulf (Anders) Strandberg lightly sears a salty sweet chunk of it, then places a crusty square of skin across the top, Japanese style. Finally, he crowns the fish with a creamy morel sauce, a woodsy, complex sauce with infinite delicacy.
Gustaf Anders, South Coast Plaza Village, corner of Bear Street and Sunflower Avenue, Santa Ana. (714) 668-1737. Grilled gravad lax with morel sauce, $13.
3. Marinated venison loin with foie gras.
This is easily the county’s most rarefied dish, a venison carpaccio, really, swirled with rich foie gras, looking more oeuvre than appetizer. It is also a dish as ephemeral as they come, drizzled with walnut oil and surrounded by light greens. Its creator, Ritz-Carlton chef Boris Keller, is German, but his dish is as close to the three-star cooking of France as the law allows.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, 33533 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point. (714) 240-5008. Marinated venison loin with foie gras, $14.
4. Minestrone di ieri.
The humble minestrone becomes a revelation in the hands of master chef Renato Necci, formerly of Maxim’s de Paris and Santa Ana’s Antonello. It’s a thick minestrone full of carrots, celery, chard and Tuscan white beans, but it is Necci’s French training and a Provencal pistou (pureed basil, tarragon and other green herbs) that gives this soup its extraordinary character.
Renato, 2304 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach. (714) 673-8058. Minestrone di ieri, $4.95.
5. Scampi alla griglia.
Ebullient Neapolitan Massimo Navaretta serves the best shrimp around at Amici. These are great, primal creatures--either from Iceland, the Adriatic Coast or New Zealand, whatever is best at the moment--that you slurp from the shell with gusto. Navaretta prepares them al gusto, five to an order. Try them plain grilled, alla pignolata, with garlic, parsley and frizzled pine nuts, or smothered with tomato and extra virgin olive oil. You just can’t lose.
Amici, 3220 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 850-9399. Scampi alla griglia, $18.95.
6. Pizza con scamorza e radicchio.
After tasting literally dozens of local pizzas, this cracker crisp pie, oozing scamorza (smoked mozzarella), turns out to be my personal favorite. The bitter Italian green radicchio gives this pizza wonderful balance, and Mezzaluna’s colorful wood-burning brick ovens impart rustic flavor.
Mezzaluna, 2441 E. Coast Highway, Corona Del Mar. (714) 675-2004. Pizza con scamorza e radicchio, $9.50.
7. Italian sausage platter.
Italian sausage is raised to high art by the sausage-making Sabatinos, second-generation restaurateurs originally from Chicago. The snake-like coil they serve at the Lido Shipyard Sausage Co., almost a full pound of meat, comes up sizzling on an iron plate with a pile of roasted peppers. It’s chock full of fabulous seasonings--fennel, garlic, red pepper and sage--as well as a soft Italian cheese that comes drooling out when you bite in.
Lido Shipyard Sausage Co., 251 Shipyard Way, Newport Beach. (714) 723-0621. Italian sausage platter, $11.95.
8. Belgian waffle.
All pancakes and waffles at the Original Pancake House are made from special batters infused with sourdough yeast, but the Belgian waffle, available plain or with various berry toppings, is about the most perfect breakfast dish I have ever tasted. The batter is whipped until thoroughly aerated, giving a sensuous crunch to every bite, resulting in a waffle that is eggy, crispy and golden brown. I prefer it plain, with lots of butter and just a touch of maple syrup.
The Original Pancake House, 1418 E. Lincoln Ave. , Anaheim, (714) 535-9815, and 18639 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 693-1390. Belgian waffle, $3.95.
9. Homemade cinnamon rolls.
Caffe Teresa, a strip-mall pasta house, makes all its muffins and pastries fom scratch. The real stars here are puffy, yeasty cinnamon rolls, made from homemade dough embellished by the simple additions of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. These are huge, far from the mass-produced shopping mall versions. The brown sugar and butter carmelize on the bottom, and the tops are dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
Caffe Teresa, 18611 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. 963-1440. Cinnamon rolls, $1.25.
There’s nothing like a BLT for a light lunch, but the one at Fashion Island’s Daily Grill goes way beyond that. This is a huge version, served on enormous hunks of sourdough bread baked fresh daily, piled high with iceberg lettuce, large slices of firm tomatoes and what must be half a pound of bacon. I’ve never had a better one.
Daily Grill, 957 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (714) 644-2223. BLT, $6.75.
11. North Carolina chopped pork.
Fred Burrell is Orange County’s undisputed king of barbecue, but he’s still a down-home North Carolinian at heart. In Burrell’s home state, barbecue means chopped pork shoulder, perfumed with hickory, piled high on a bun with sweet, creamy cole slaw, smothered by a rich sauce made from pepper, vinegar and honey. It’s the sloppiest sandwich in the state. Soooey!
Burrell’s Rib Cage, 305 N. Hesperian St., Santa Ana. (714) 835-9936; and 1701 E. Mc Fadden Ave., J, Santa Ana, (714) 541-3073. Also Burrell’s Bar-B-Que, 14962 Sand Canyon Road, Irvine, (714) 786-0451. Chopped pork, $4.50.
12. Oyster combination.
California’s best oysters may be in Irvine, of all places, served forth at McCormick and Schmick, an exclusive chain headquartered in Portland. Oysters can mean anything at this restaurant: tiny Quilicenes, fat Kumamotos, Malpeques, Skookums, Olympias, Snow Creeks, whatever’s in season. The mollusks come on a gleaming platter with nothing more than a few slices of lemon and some optional cocktail sauce. Sheer perfection, from Mother Nature.
McCormick and Schmick, 2000 Main St., Irvine. (714) 756-0505. Oyster combination, $9.50.
13. Carnitas plate with homemade tortillas.
Carnitas, chunky pork cooked in its own juices and generously marbled with crunchy cracklings, is a dieter’s nightmare. But it is heaven for devotees of Mexican cooking. El Ranchito in La Habra has the best around, and their wonderful tortillas, prepared to order, make the ideal foil. For added pleasure, roll it all up with a dab of the restaurant’s dark, smoky chipotle pepper sauce.
El Ranchito, 1351 Beach Blvd., La Habra. (213) 943-6020. Carnitas plate, $7.75. Tortillas, $1.
14. Gulf shrimp and green corn tamale.
David Wilhelm has had quite a run in the last few years, but this Kachina dish remains his biggest success story. It’s a soft, sweet tamale drizzled with green tomatillo sauce and crema fresca, sort of a Mexican sour cream. This tamale would be great even without the good grilled shrimp topping. With it, the dish is celestial.
Kachina, 222 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. (714) 497-5546. Gulf shrimp and green corn tamale, $8.75.
Ka-sen may be the most Japanese of Orange County restaurants; there is no English menu or a single English speaker on staff. Ankimo is equally intractable, rosy pink monkfish liver pate prized by Japanese barflies and gourmets alike. Except for its modest price, it is very like foie gras, dense and rich enough to make you swoon. It is also somewhat hard to procure, and therefore dispensed here on a first-come, first-served basis.
Ka-sen, 9039 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley. (714) 963-8769. Ankimo, $3.50.
16. Goat soup.
This is the most seductive soup I’ve had in years, a rich red bowlful of deep, mysterious flavors served up at the tiny Miho restaurant. Tiny perilla seeds (from the beefsteak plant, shiso in sushi bars) swim on the surface, a surface flecked with red pepper and minced garlic, calling cards of Korean cuisine. Underneath, there is an abundance of shredded goat meat and a vegetable called spring chrysanthemum. Delicious, and a real energizer.
Miho, 9735 Garden Grove Blvd., Unit B, Garden Grove. (714) 539-5064. Goat soup, $10.
17. Garlic-centered beef.
Beef with garlic--what could be simpler? The Vietnamese are the beef lovers of Asia, and their reputation as garlic lovers is unimpeachable. Thien Thanh restaurant takes a good cut of beef, makes a hollow tunnel in the center, stuffs it with fresh garlic and sizzles it on an iron grill. Warn the vampires.
Thien Thanh, 5423 W. 1st St., Santa Ana. (714) 554-7260. Garlic-centered beef: small, $8.95; large, $11.95.
18. Sai kok and khao neau.
Roughly translated, the names of these dishes come out as barbecued sausage and sticky rice. Something is lost in the translation, though. Thai Nakorn’s ruddy pork sausage is crisp and peppery, charcoal grilled and eaten wrapped in cabbage leaves. Sticky rice is glutinous Thai rice that you eat with your fingers from little bamboo containers. The combination is absolute magic.
Thai Nakorn, 8674 Stanton Ave., Buena Park. (714) 952-4954. Sai kok and khao neau, $7.50.
19. Round dumplings.
Dumpling lovers rejoice. Sun Hai, a recently expanded Garden Grove emporium, offers Orange County’s best Chinese dumplings, in a variety of shapes and sizes. The best here are round dumplings, aka shao loong bao. They are only little balls of white flour dough, pinched together with a minced pork filling and steamed. But what flavor! The Chinese douse them with rice vinegar, or red chili paste.
Sun Hai, 8942 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove. (714) 534-9670. Round dumplings, $3.80 (six pieces).
20. Shredded duck and mustard green fried rice.
Eat a dish like this once and you will never go back to barbecued pork or sliced chicken fried rice. Duck, oily on its own, blends in perfectly with fried rice, even more so when cut by the sharpness of minced mustard greens. This Dynasty version is a heaping platterful, perfect for two.
Dynasty, 9200 Bolsa Ave., No.215, Westminster. (714) 898-3189. Shredded duck and mustard green fried rice, $6.95.
21. Lahori korma.
This korma, spicy lamb stew hailing from the city of Lahore, is a Pakistani staple. The Rim Jhim kitchen trims lamb while still on the bone, then braises it slowly with slivered almonds in a cumin- and garlic-flavored yogurt reduction. The result is meat that is remarkably tender and gamy, in a rich sauce redolent of sharp, pronounced flavors.
Rim Jhim, 18687-89 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 963-6777. Lahori korma, $8.95.
22. Orange ginger creme brulee.
Bistango’s chef Paul Gstein is from Austria, a land with great dessert traditions. His remarkable orange ginger creme brulee is the best custard dessert I’ve ever tasted, a burnished top covering a rich eggy suspension. The tiny slivers of ginger and orange zest add remarkable flavor and texture, but don’t get too psyched just yet. At the moment, Gstein’s brulee employs fresh blueberries. His orange version is on temporary hiatus.
Bistango, 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 752-5222. Creme brulee, $4.75.
23. Hot double Belgian chocolate souffle.
Order this souffle, with the main course; it takes at least 20 minutes because it is made entirely from scratch. Most Orange County souffles are starchy and flavorless. Bistro 201’s is egg rich and intense with chocolate, even without the dark sauce that the server spoons on top. A bowl of hand-whipped cream means the rich get richer.
Bistro 201, 18201 Von Karman Ave., Irvine (714) 553-1122. Hot double Belgian chocolate souffle, $6.95.
24. Special halo-halo.
This icy parfait of fruits and confections may be a bit far out for conventional palates, but no one can deny its uniqueness. Tita Emma crams a veritable rainbow into one glass; leche flan, a dense egg confection; buko, young coconut; sago, a kind of tapioca; sweet corn; jackfruit; pineapple, and gulaman, cubed, cloud-colored jelly. The whole thing is then snowed under by, get this, purple yam ice cream.
Tita Emma’s, 2413 S. Fairview St., Unit R, Santa Ana. (714) 434-1944. Special halo-halo, $2.75.
What better place to end than with a good cup of coffee. No, make that a great one. With apologies to Diedrich’s, Bistro 201 and several other locations, the Berkeley-style Cafe Zinc (which also makes all its own pastries) is still my favorite local haunt for a good cappuccino. Cafe Zinc’s version comes in a large bowl, intensely flavored and topped with foam dense enough to windsurf on. Wonderful country, America.
Cafe Zinc, 350 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach. (714) 494-6302. Cappuccino, $1.65.