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Seven Days, 150 Restaurants, One Critic, One Fork

The 10th annual Orange County Restaurant Week, which runs March 4 through 10, presents a dilemma. Dozens of restaurants throughout the county are tempting diners with exclusive lunch and dinner menus, but there’s barely enough time to hit a handful of eateries in those seven days.

Here’s the deal: Select restaurants in 18 cities are offering prix fixe lunch menus for $10, $15 or $20, and dinner for $20, $30, $40 or $50. There are even a few $80 “luxe” menus featuring dinner with wine or cocktail pairings.

The idea is to draw new diners to a restaurant or give fans another reason to return. The variety of price points is helpful in narrowing choices. Want a simple lunch? Plenty of $10 and $15 menus to be had. Looking for a special outing at a new restaurant? Splurge for a $50 menu or even a “luxe” dinner.

I perused some of the menu options on OCRestaurantWeek.com and found that most restaurants are offering signature dishes at prices that made me want to spend the entire week eating out.

For example, Matador Cantina in Fullerton has a $10 lunch with a choice of three starters, three entrees, and dessert, while Taco Rosa in Irvine and Newport Beach offers a choice of six complete lunch meals for $10 each.

On the other end of the spectrum, nearly two dozen restaurants list a $50 dinner menu, including Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, The Ranch in Anaheim, and Steakhouse 55, a hidden gem inside Disneyland Hotel.

There are four $80 “luxe” restaurants: Hana re Sushi Bar at The Lab in Costa Mesa, The Capital Grille in South Coast Plaza, The Country Club on 17th Street in Costa Mesa—which I raved about in a recent column—and Michael Mina’s new Bourbon Steak Orange County at the Monarch Beach Resort. Bourbon Steak opened last month, and I’m due to pay a visit soon and will report back in an upcoming column.

A couple of my favorite menus this year: Bruno’s Italian Kitchen in Brea has a three-course menu for $30 with a choice of six starters, nine entrees, and four desserts. The price alone is a steal, the number of options a definite plus; Chapter One, the modern local in downtown Santa Ana, has $20 lunch and $30 and $40 dinners, each with a variety of options for “Preface,” “Body” and “Climax” courses.

But it’s tough to beat what Chef Ross Pangilinan is doing at Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana. He left his longtime gig at Leatherby’s Restaurant at Segerstrom Center to open Mix Mix in the fall of 2016 inside the old Little Sparrow space, and it’s been heralded as one of the best new restaurants in the county. I concur—having dined there multiple times, I’m consistently impressed by the creativity that goes into every dish, and the way Chef Ross blends his Filipino heritage into the cuisine.

That creativity is on display with the Mix Mix Restaurant Week menus, which include a three-course $20 lunch menu and a four-course $40 dinner menu. Each menu includes a rum cocktail, plus many Mix Mix signature dishes, including albacore tostada, char sui short rib fries, pork cheek adobo, and the marvelous dulce chocolate panna cotta dessert with vanilla Chantilly and chocolate pearls.

List of restaurants and menus at OCRestaur

antWeek.com; restaurants searchable by city, price point

Table for Ten

Chefs are some of the most charitable people I know. They may not have millions of dollars to donate, but they give back in time, talent and cuisine.

A good example is Chef Bruno Serato of the Anaheim White House Restaurant, whose nonprofit arm, Caterina’s Club, feeds several thousand underprivileged kids a pasta meal every day. By the way, Chef Bruno is getting ready to reopen The White House, which was destroyed in a fire a year ago but has risen from the ashes.

Chef Bill Bracken helmed the kitchen at The Belvedere and The Island Hotel (his truffle mac and cheese is legendary) before starting a consulting business and launching Bracken’s Kitchen, a reverse food truck of sorts that cruises around OC providing free meals to the homeless, as well as other needed services.

This month, three dozen noted OC chefs come together for the annual Table for Ten charity event, a culinary extravaganza where each creates a memorable multicourse meal prepared tableside for 10 diners. This year’s event is March 11 at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in Dana Point.

Proceeds benefit The Teen Project, which provides teenagers aging out of the foster care system resources and support to allow them to successfully transition to adulthood, and Vocational Visions, which provides programs, services and personalized support to develop the talents of adults with disabilities.

I’ll be attending Table for Ten again this year. A handful of tickets were still available last week, but it sells out every year, so check the website and see if you can snag a seat.

TableforTen.org, (714) 345-0496, March 11; Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, 25135 Park Lantern, Dana Point

Paso and Zin

Napa may have the name when it comes to wine, but my wine country destination of choice is Paso Robles, home of the best zinfandel labels in California. Yes, I’m a fan of the big, bold, jammy “fruit bombs” that come from Paso, but there are also many refined zins of various styles that have helped put Paso on the wine map.

Zinfandel wines will be showcased at the annual Vintage Paso: Zinfandel Weekend March 16 to 18. The three-day celebration of all things Zin features events at more than 100 wineries. I make a pilgrimage to Paso Robles every year for the event, and always include a visit to Tobin James Cellars, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary of making outstanding wine.

Tobin James hosts a special Zinfandel party March 16 and 17 with about two dozen Paso restaurants offering generous samples of their signature dishes, and four bands performing at various areas on the Tobin James estate. Best of all: Every wine Tobin James makes, from its Ballistic Zinfandel to the Fat Boy Zin, will be open for unlimited tasting.

“Tobin James was the 15th winery in Paso Robles back in 1987,” Lance Silver told me. He’s the co-owner of Tobin James Cellars along with his wife, Claire, and the winery’s namesake, Tobin James. “We’re still doing things the same way, we just have more vineyards. We’re making the same amount of wine we did eight years ago, which is 50,000 to 70,000 cases. We reached the small-winery ceiling.”

Tobin James has the largest wine club in the world, with more than 25,000 wine enthusiasts signed up to receive semiannual shipments—count me among the happy members. The winery makes three dozen wines, including eight zins from various vineyards in Paso.

You can often find Toby, Lance and Claire in the tasting room, interacting with guests and making sure everyone has a good time—which at the Tobin James winery is pretty much a given, hence the size of its wine club. The staff is friendly, the ambiance fun and upbeat, the wine tastings complimentary, which is a rarity in the wine business.

Information on Vintage Paso Weekend at PasoWine.com

Pascal Party

A special shoutout to Chef Pascal Olhats, whom Fifi Chao named Chef of the Decade in this column nearly 20 years ago. Olhats has since become something of a legend in OC. He’s trained countless chefs who’ve gone on to open their own restaurants, including Marche Moderne’s Florent Marneau, and he’s helmed his own culinary empire, which currently includes Pascal in San Juan Capistrano and Cafe Jardin in Corona del Mar.

Olhats is celebrating his 30th culinary anniversary this month. “It will be 30 years in March that I have signed my first restaurant lease for Pascal Restaurant in Newport Beach,” he told me. “I am not sure if I will still own a restaurant for another decade, so it is time to celebrate.”

At his San Juan Capistrano restaurant, diners can enjoy a special “Pascal’s patron’s favorites” menu Thursday through Saturday evenings: three courses for $50, including a champagne cocktail toast. The menu features salade Lyonnaise, thyme-crusted seabass, duck a l’orange and lemon tart. And in his more casual section of the restaurant, Chef Pascal offers a French bistro menu for $15 that includes vegetable soupe du jour, half a roasted chicken, mix green salad, and homemade fries.

His celebration culminates on March 21 with a festive dinner at Cafe Jardin inside Sherman Library and Gardens. The evening includes live entertainment, a cooking demo by Chef Pascal, and a five-course dinner for $85. Part of the proceeds will go to a student grant at Saddleback College, where Chef Pascal becomes Professor Pascal for his culinary students.

By the way, you can include Olhats among the charitable chefs—he just held a fundraising dinner at Cafe Jardin to save elephants in Thailand, and he’s hosting the reception at the Table for Ten charity event.

pascalrestaurants.com

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