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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

Orange Burger Boss Plots New Concepts

Jahmal Gillespie, executive chef and general manager of Orange’s recently opened Core Burger Grill, counts a well-traveled gastronomic résumé, shaped by Orange County.

He was born in Grants Pass, Ore., but grew up in the area. He’s worked at several prestigious restaurants including Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, Chai’s Island Bistro, Harold & Belle’s, and Bludso’s BBQ. His culinary tastes include Pacific Rim, Asian Fusion, Japanese, Creole, Southern, American Dive, barbecue, Italian, and California Wine Country cuisines.

Unlike many chefs who are trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Gillespie enrolled in the Orange Coast College (OCC) culinary program.

“They were the top junior college for culinary, and won competitions seven years in a row,” said Gillespie, who wanted to attend CIA but after finding out how much it costs per year, opted for Costa Mesa’s OCC.

Fortunately, he had a friend who lived in Coto de Caza with his parents. They’d often dine at the restaurant there, helmed by a chef who trained at CIA. He obtained a job in the kitchen, so he got dual training from OCC and the CIA by way of the Coto chef.

Iron Chef, Sutra Nights

After a brief vacation in Hawaii, Gillespie applied for a job in Honolulu and moved there in 2003, affording him the opportunity to work side by side with Master Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai, who came to Hawaii for a series of tsunami relief events.

He went to Japan working as a chef and GM, tried to get a visa but “they don’t give visas to chefs or cooks.”

He ended up at Sutra in Costa Mesa, a restaurant and nightclub that closed several years ago, but in its heyday was an OC hotspot.

“That was wild,” he recalled. “I never know who I’d be cooking for that day—which sports star, which movie star, which musician. It was fun. That was the first place I was able to have my own menu from top to bottom, how I wanted to serve it.”

His stint at Jazz Kitchen was, according to Gillespie, “an awesome opportunity. My family originated in New Orleans, so the southern cooking techniques, the flavors, have always been a part of my family.

At Jazz Kitchen it was important for me to learn how to produce that style of food on a commercial level, to prepare it the same way every time.”

Dual Role

And then came Core.

Gillespie was applying for jobs in early 2020 when he saw an ad for an executive chef, and then another one for a general manager—both at the same place. He went to an interview and told the owners—partners Sunny Hussain and Daniel Nguyen—that they didn’t need two people, just him.

The partners had never been in the restaurant business but had a dream of owning a burger restaurant, so getting a chef/manager like Gillespie was a perfect fit.

It’s taken three years to hone the concept, find a spot, build the restaurant, and create the menu, although most of the items are part of the chef’s culinary arsenal.

“Most of the menu has been cooked at a number of those places I worked—some here, some there. They are proven recipes, and proven approachable for the public.”

Long before Core opened, Gillespie rented a kitchen space at The Hood Kitchen in Costa Mesa and spent a month working on his recipes. He brought friends and colleagues to The Hood every Friday and held food tastings.

“It was spot on every time,” he said. “From that point on I knew what I needed equipment-wise.”

The time-consuming component was locating the right spot for the burger concept. After much trial and error, they landed on a location at the corner of Tustin and Chapman avenues, a block from the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway and close to other businesses and not far from Chapman University.

GM Duties

In addition to the fun menu which includes chicken and waffle sliders and crispy fried chicken, Gillespie has focused on the hospitality culture of the restaurant, something that often takes a back seat at many fast-casual concepts.

“I want to bring a level of hospitality that you’d see at a country club,” he explained. “Like going to Coto de Caza.”

Gillespie said the Core partners have other concepts in the works, including a cloud kitchen focused on Italian cuisine. Another cloud kitchen that may become brick-and- mortar planned for later this year is Ghost Town BBQ, which will have a ghost town theme and a Texas BBQ menu.

“I want to make it the best barbecue in Southern California.”

Core Burger Grill: 1610 E. Chapman, Orange, (714) 744-4100, coreburgergrill.com

The OCBJ Review

I’m always on the lookout for new dining spots. I’ve been driving past Core Burger Grill in Orange, which opened this month, and recently had to get a flat tire fixed at the America’s Tire store across the parking lot from Core, so I popped in for lunch.

I had perused the succinct menu online so had an idea what to order. I also read Chef Jahmal Gillespie’s bio and was curious to see what this well-traveled chef was doing with a burger menu at this fast-casual concept.

I ordered the Core signature burger with a special ground beef blend plus Andouille sausage, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, pickles and Dijon aioli. I added a side of truffle fries.

This is an impressive burger, cooked medium, juicy and a handful to hold. This is a four-napkin burger, a lovely mess that was impossible to put down. The burger was cooked as stated, the sausage added a layer of fun, and the aioli supplied the perfect layer of sauce.

The fries were tasty with a good amount of truffle oil, parmesan and sea salt.

The prices ($12 for the burger, $8 for truffle fries) were lower than I expected for that quality of food.

I was impressed, so went back two more times and tried the Kobe sliders with applewood smoked bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, beer-battered onion rings and barbecue sauce; $1000 Dollar Burger with American cheese and 1000 Island dressing; grilled chicken masterpiece with provolone; and fire-grilled corn with brown butter sauce and parmesan cheese.

The Kobe sliders were superb, with a nice crunch from the bacon and a layer of flavor from the barbecue sauce. The burger was good, the corn a tasty side dish, and the chicken surprisingly juicy.

Gillespie is cooking up some tasty American comfort food at a great price point.

Whiskey & Wagyu at Bourbon Steak

Chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort celebrated its five-year anniversary last month with an intimate Whiskey and Wagyu dinner featuring five courses paired with Michter’s whiskey.

The evening was special for many reasons: Michter’s reps were on-site to talk about their whiskey, the dinner was limited to 30 guests and held in the restaurant’s private dining room, and Michael Mina himself was in the kitchen helping to prepare the evening’s feast, which began with the celebrity chef’s­ traditional french fries served three ways with three dipping sauces.

“I did that starting with my first steakhouse, and then the upscale restaurants,” Mina told me when he came to my table to chat about the evening’s culinary experience.

“I wanted to immediately break up all the formalities. I want the steakhouse to be super product-driven and technique-driven, but right away I wanted it to be fun, so I want to give everyone french fries—we’re going to get social from the second you sit down.”

The fries are indeed a treat, cooked in duck fat so the outside is crispy and the inside soft and warm.

Once the dinner commenced, my senses were in for a treat. I have dined at Bourbon Steak several times, but this was a special occasion, which called for a special menu.

We began with surf and turf carpaccio—a combination of blue fin toro and American wagyu tenderloin, paired with Michter’s US 1 rye. A lovely start, followed by Wagyu-poached langoustine with smoked beef cracklings, coconut milk and langoustine broth. This perfectly composed dish was paired with Shenk’s homestead sour mash 2022 (made by Michter’s).

Next came Hokkaido A5 with black truffle rosti and bearnaise mousseline, paired with Michter’s toasted barrel finish sour mash. Another beautiful plating, and pairing.

The fourth course was Mishima reserve ultra striploin with composition of sunchoke and Michter’s US 1 bourbon demi-glace, paired with Michter’s 10-year bourbon and 10-year rye.

Watching the thick sauce slowly poured onto the dish reminded me that part of the delight of dining at Bourbon Steak is the show, from the smokey old fashioned cocktails to the steaks delivered under a dome of smoke to decadent dishes like the striploin.

“The pairing of wagyu and whiskey—the smokiness of the whiskey and the fatness of the wagyu, they go together,” said Mina, who told me he had developed the menu along with Bourbon Steak Chef Chris Sanchez and the Michter’s team.

The dessert course was unlike anything I’ve had before: trio chocolate semifreddo with wagyu brownie and cherry gastrique, paired with Michter’s 20-year bourbon. What a way to end a meal.

“This is a special restaurant, the epitome of why you get in the restaurant business,” said Mina, who transitioned his former Stonehill Tavern into the Bourbon Steak concept, which counts a number of locations across the country. “You treat your restaurants like they are your house, and you are inviting guests over, and you have a staff that embodies that idea. I couldn’t be happier.”

Custom Events

While the curated whiskey dinner I experienced was one night only, I learned from Sanchez that he loves to create custom menus for parties of 12 to 24 that can include wine tastings, cocktail demonstrations and tableside presentations.

Executive Meetings Manager Brigitta Gyorfi is the mastermind behind the resort’s Private Dining Program. As the liaison between the chefs and guests, she helps curate the custom experiences.

“We want to make these private events as special and unique and elevated as possible,” Gyorfi said. “So, if you are bringing 20 colleagues for a corporate dinner, guests do not have to lift a finger. I work with a contact of the company to provide a special dining experience.

We have a few custom menus curated by Chris starting with a three-course menu to an elevated five-course chef’s tasting menu featuring seasonal specials. It’s something you would not experience anywhere else, and we can add wine pairings to really elevate those dishes. We also work with clients on décor, and custom menus with company logos printed on them.”

The private dining room at Bourbon Steak can be set up with one long table for 24 guests, or five rounds of eight guests, like it was for the Whiskey and Wagyu dinner.

On a weekly basis, Gyorfi said she curates everything from rehearsal dinners to corporate functions to birthday parties. She can also assist with connecting the resort’s sommelier with her clients to create wine pairings, and they can also curate signature cocktails.

“I have dined at restaurants where things are not so smooth. That’s why I focus on making everyone feels like they are having an elevated VIP experience, one you can only get at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort.”

Bourbon Steak at Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort: 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, (949) 234-3900, waldorfastoriamonarchbeach.com/dine/bourbon-steak

Postino WineCafé Builds Brand in Irvine

Irvine’s Park Place mixed-use campus near John Wayne Airport got a little tastier last December when California’s first Postino WineCafé opened its doors.

This all-day wine bar and café offers seasonal and locally inspired food, a curated beverage program, and a fun décor with designs by regional artists—including a solid wall of boomboxes.

“We’re thrilled to bring our wine-and-food-enthused, vibrant community to California with the opening of Postino’s first West Coast outpost,” said Lauren Bailey, Postino WineCafé co-founder.

“Postino prides itself on providing a space for all people to connect over wine, with selections designed for a range of gatherings, from special to casual everyday dining, plus an all-day menu that satisfies any craving.”

Postino WineCafé was born in a historic 1940s-era Arizona post office in 2001 and has since been dedicated to giving customers a hyper-localized dining experience within the community.

Postino co-founders Bailey and Craig DeMarco built the Postino brand on a foundation of revitalizing buildings and creating spaces that are integral to the neighborhoods that surround each location.

Postino now has 20 locations in several states with more on the way, including two in San Diego.

Arizona Ambiance

So why open the first West Coast location in Irvine?

“We have been coming here—it gets hot in the summer in Arizona, so we visit you,” Bailey said. “We have traveled in your area and have eaten a lot around there and did not find a place to have a great glass of wine and hang out. The more we learned about the area and got tips talking to people, we realized our people are there. There is a lot of action happening there.”

As far as design elements, Bailey said she now has a team who works on putting those elements together. That’s a relatively new concept for them, as Bailey said Postino was self-funded until 2019 when they partnered with a Santa Monica-based private equity group called Brentwood Associates, whose portfolio includes Blaze Pizza, Lazy Dog and Snooze.

Postino locations each has its own unique vibe, so the boombox wall in Irvine will never be replicated elsewhere.

“We have 12 to 15 pickers, like the show American Pickers, that we work with, and we have a 40,000 square foot warehouse where we store vintage items,” said Bailey, who admitted that she never expected to have 20 restaurants with more on the way.

Building Community

That concept harkens back to their original Postino location, and the idea that Bailey and DeMarco could not find a good place in Phoenix to have some vino and a nosh.

“We wanted a place where people can pop in and have a glass of wine, meet friends, maybe have a full meal, in a great community. It was a simple idea, and we did not lose sight of that. Finding a great community has become the foundation of everything we do.”

In addition to its regular menu, Postino has a daily “$6 ‘til 5 p.m.” wine and beer list, and “$25 Bottle & Board” on Monday and Tuesday evenings (a bottle of wine and a board of bruschetta are $25 after 8 p.m.). Postino’s weekend brunch offers a selection of farm-fresh comfort foods like scrambled egg with crèma and white truffle, crispy oyster mushroom, and Parmigiano Reggiano atop a toasted ciabatta.

Postino WineCafé at Park Place: 2981 Michelson Dr., Ste E, Irvine, (949) 336-2600, postinowinecafe.com

The OCBJ Review

I made it to the Irvine Postino WineCafé for the first time earlier this month to sample the food and ambiance.

It was a Wednesday evening and Postino was busy, which tells me the concept has found favor with local businesses and the residents of the nearby condos and apartments.

The menu is deceptively simple, with a mix of “snacky things,” paninis, soups and salads, and signature bruschetta boards.

My friendly and knowledgeable server, Liezelle, guided me through the menu and suggested I start with the crispy cauliflower with raisins, capers and romesco. I also could not resist ordering the OMG grilled cheese with gruyere, goat cheese, white cheddar, brie and smoked bacon, accompanied by a small bowl of thick tomato bisque for dipping—although every item on the menu sounded fun and intriguing.

And I had to try a bruschetta board, Liezelle said. There are a dozen options for toppings, ranging from brie, apple and fig to ricotta, dates and pistachios. I opted for mozzarella with tomato and basil, warm artichoke spread, mushroom and mascarpone, and sweet and spicy pepper jam with goat cheese.

I was expecting a small plate of cauliflower chunks, but what arrived at my table was a huge head of cooked cauliflower, with raisins and capers on top, surrounded by a moat of romesco sauce.

I cut off a piece of cauliflower and savored the flavors and textures. This was a sensational and unusual dish, surprisingly savory with the romesco kicking it up a notch. I dug into the dish but had to set it aside for the OMG grilled cheese—a satisfying comfort dish with thick bisque perfect for dunking.

The bruschetta board was colorful, and my selections rewarded my palate with a variety of taste sensations. The bread was cut into four small slices, making them easier to eat.

I accompanied my meal with a glass of zinfandel. What struck me as unusual was the lack of recognizable names on the wine list, which displayed reasonably priced selections from around the world.

“We don’t want average wines,” said co-founder Lauren Bailey. “Our beverage director­, who is working toward his master sommelier, works closely with winemakers to do proprietary projects that you can only get at Postino, for a value you cannot get anywhere. We wanted to have a wine program that is not intimidating to people.”

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.

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