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Laguna Hills
Friday, Dec 9, 2022

New Offerings Offer Multitude of Tasty Dishes

Hendrix at Laguna Niguel’s Ocean Ranch Village is brand-new, good-looking, very energetic and delicious. It’s part of the Sentinel Restaurant & Hospitality Group, the team behind Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck in Laguna Beach. That means that acclaimed chef Rainer Schwarz is the man behind the menu and in charge of the kitchen.

Walls of glass reveal a massive rotisserie as you enter. The big space is packed with customers. Five friends meet us to see what the excitement is about. The noise level is high in the main area, and we luckily have nabbed a large, quieter booth in the enclosed patio skirting the dining room.

A round of craft cocktails at $10 and $12 allows time to peruse the menu, and the reasonable prices are the first thing to impress: $5 to $15 for all small plates and first courses, $16 to $28 for entrees, except for a large bone-in rib eye for $48.

We could have called our parade of first courses the total meal. So many interesting things. First out was a plate of Roti Fritters with chicken and fine prosciutto dancing through the crispiness. Next, soy-yuzu-cilantro sauce enhanced slices of Big Eye Hawaiian Tuna. Zucchini-strewn Corn Bread with honey butter and sea salt kept pace.

By now, we were well into our Prisoner red wine at a mere $67. Creamy Potato-Garlic Soup and the Warm Muffin appeared. Everyone was smitten with Baked Lobster Mac & Cheese, a creamy concoction beneath a crusty intro.

Black Bass was interestingly partnered with caramelized cauliflower and a sprinkling of figs and olives. Spaghetti with Lobster was also ordered—I liked the soft egg atop the strands.

The top of the one-page menu lists three specialties: Rosemary Lemon Chicken, Porchetta, and Leg of Colorado Lamb. We ordered all of them. The chicken, from the rotisserie, is succulent and not overburdened with the herbs. The lamb was fine, but for some of us, the porchetta is the hands-down winner. A thick slab of utterly moist and flavorful pork comes with its layer of tremendously crisp skin. Every bite was a joy. All entrees come with appropriate accompaniments. The desserts didn’t sell this time; the gourmands were too stuffed.

Sounding interesting but left for another time were Curried Mussels, Icelandic Salmon, Beef Shoulder, and Gnocchi with Spring Peas. We heard that the Roti Chicken Salad and the Whole Bone Marrow salad are also quite nice. Those could be our first courses.

Kudos also for the 40-label wine list that covers plenty of flavors, and at the most lovable prices ever. 32431 Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel, (949) 248-1912

Hot Commodity

The Japanese call one of their culinary specialties Shabu Shabu. The Chinese call it Hot Pot. Same idea. It’s accomplished with a hot broth kept bubbling over individual burners at each place setting. Platters of chosen meats and seafood, vegetables and noodles, if desired, are placed on the table, and one cooks his or her own dinner in the broth, dipping each morsel into selected sauces.

HiDiLao Fusion Shabu in Brea is the latest of this casual-style dining to open in Orange County. It’s part of a large chain from China.

We corralled a table for five of us and ordered a wide array of items from the menu, which is pretty short and candid.

We tried all of the five appetizers. Edamame, of course. Steamed Egg comes in a creamy version with bits of mushrooms. Gyoza, steamed meat- and vegetable-filled dumplings that are crisped on the bottom, were pleasing. Potato Shrimp was the winner in this category. Large shrimp were wrapped in potato threads and deep fried for both crispy and tender textures and fine taste. The Salmon Salad was a mix of greens with tidbits of unimpressive salmon.

The next part of the experience is to choose a broth from seven mild to spicy choices. Pork-flavored Tonkatsu Broth, a mild one, was my choice; I found it very good. A mushroom broth, and one with seaweed, are also mild. One of our friends ordered the Szechuan Spicy Broth, and it was so fiery hot it overshadowed every ingredient cooked in it.

Then you choose a protein. The meats—four kinds of sliced beef (stick with the rib eye), lamb and pork came thinly sliced, rolled and attractively laid out on platters. Mexican Wild Caught Jumbo Shrimp were a big hit. There’s also salmon and chicken, which we did not taste.

All broths come with a heaping plate of mixed vegetables, which also go into your soup pot, a little at a time. This is not a meal to be rushed through.

The final part of the do-it-yourself casual meal is to select a dipping sauce in which to douse each protein or vegetable morsel as you take it out of your hot broth. There are half a dozen of varying flavors.

It’s a simple concept in clean and unpretentious surroundings. They are planning to open another HaiDiLao in Orange County at the Diamond Jamboree center in Irvine. We were told that one will be Chinese centric with added items, such as offal. 1065 Brea Mall, Brea, (714) 990-2732

Love This

Ti Amo, an inviting restaurant that has endured very quietly for many years in South Laguna, has new owners, and the name is now Ti Amo by Il Barone, indicating it’s part of the mini chain of restaurants by Franco and Donatella Barone.

The couple owns the popular Il Barone Ristorante and Il Barone Bottega, a genuine Italian market that also serves panini, savory flatbreads, Italian sweets and beverages, next-door in Newport Beach. They also have Il Barone Pizza e Pasta on Balboa Peninsula and last month opened Il Barone Sicilian Street Food at Pacific City in Huntington Beach.

A couple of phone calls to friends enticed them to share a table with us so that we could try a decent portion of the menu, and we spent a long evening doing so.

Ti Amo—Italian for “I love you”—now has a clean new vibe, and there’s a palpable happiness drifting among the diners. We enjoyed watching the tableside conversations Donatella had with customers as she worked the room. Lots of smiles.

The food is typical of Franco’s savory sensibilities in his sauces and combinations. He’s known for his genuine Italian menus, this one featuring regional specialties.

Franco’s food ignites many memories of our trips to Italy. We begin our meal with Frito Misto di Mare, which brings together squid, prawns, cuttlefish and octopus offering varying degrees of resilience painted with savory seasoning. Since discovering it at Franco’s Newport Beach restaurant, I always order the Facci ri Vecchia. It’s a thin focaccia platform topped with creamy crescenza and mozzarella cheeses and salty Prosciutto di Parma that is also on the Ti Amo menu. Everyone loved it.

There are way too many fine entrees to list. Here are some quick thoughts. In true Italian fashion, we order pasta courses and then secondi. Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu is first-class memorable. Order the Sausage and Mushrooms on angel hair; Gnocchi with tomato, garlic and mozzarella sauce; Pear and Gorgonzola Ravioli; and Neapolitan Lasagna.

Veal Marsala, Veal Milanese and Steak Florentine are all tender and satisfying. A center-cut rib eye and poultry get their own Italian treatment and deliver with every bite.

We didn’t have dessert, but we sure did enjoy some nice wine, thanks to a sensible list of wines that love being married to Italian food.

The restaurant was packed. South Laguna seems excited with this addition. You need to try it. 31727 Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 499-5350

As You Like It

It’s always fun to discover family-owned indie restaurants where the owners have a vision and are working hard to bring good food to us. A friend mentioned to us that he and his wife liked Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill in Laguna Hills. We’d seen the restaurant because it uses part of the huge space that used to be the Elephant Bar. The other part of the former building is now Ironwood restaurant, one of our current favorites.

Our friend was enthusiastic about Cecilia’s made-from-scratch food, the flavored tortillas pressed fresh for each order, and its friendliness. I investigated. It was all true, and I liked it.

This is quick, casual Mexican food that has a soul. Friendly greetings and smiles welcomed us. The no-nonsense decor consists of a long counter where you order and pick up the food, and a scattering of tables around the rest of the space. It is bright and airy, thanks to a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass.

Beginning at one end of the food counter, there’s a menu board suspended from the ceiling. An employee chats with you about the tortillas flavored with jalapeño, chipotle, cilantro-lime or plain. You choose your flavor, and the employee puts raw tortilla dough in the tortilla press and pulls out your savory disc. Choose how you’ll use that wrapper: items such as burritos, enchiladas, tacos, tamales, quesadillas from the menu board. There’s a bunch of freshly made meat, fish and vegetarian fillings and an equal amount of freshly made salsas, veggies and cheese to further enhance your entree.

It all transpires as you walk down the line and your choices are piled on the tortilla that’s just been quickly grilled.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, so breakfast-type eggs and meats are offered as fillings, and chilaquiles also check in. As a surprise, pancakes are on the menu. So far, we’ve found goodness in the tender, juicy pulled pork, steak in a taco, a chicken burrito and a cheese enchilada, along with some traditional sides.

When you are in that area, it’s worth a stop for some fast food made with an equal amount of caring and good ingredients. 25250 La Paz, #140, Laguna Hills, (949) 446-8414

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