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Casual Consideration

Research, research.

I’ve zeroed in on casual aspects of dining this time.

I’ve tracked some sandwiches and burgers and detoured to a few restaurants where pizzas and other casual goodies made the show.

I’ve also checked the a la carte menus for dishes that are more upscale in tone—just in case someone dining with you has no interest in anything tucked between bread.

Fifi Chao

There’s a side-order of economic indicators in my research, too.

Yes, the economy still has some hurdles to clear, but some business people tell me that it’s not nearly as bad in Orange County compared to other metropolitan areas. I’m inclined to believe that based on several new restaurants set to open this year. The pending arrivals include a sibling to one of the most famous, Michelin-starred restaurants in London—a place where I’ve dined and have long admired.

More on that in my April column. For now, I offer this look at some of the best in casual dining. We’re fortunate here because casual doesn’t mean second-tier. We’ve long been able to enjoy fine dining offered in casual settings without having to pay the higher tabs that come in many cities that have a big culinary presence.

You’ll find exciting food and comfortable prices in this report.

Relax and enjoy!

—Fifi Chao


ALESSA

234 Forest Ave.

Laguna Beach (949) 497-8222

Pull up one of the few stools at the only mozzarella bar in Orange County and discover how the creamiest and most authentic burrata cheese can send you to gourmet heaven. Do a comprehensive tasting of all the major Italian cheeses—or just a few. Have a combo plate of salami, and some cheeses and olives.

I was taken with the romantic name of a sandwich called Bistecca e Arugula before I even tasted it. This jewel contains grilled rib eye steak, grilled onions, arugula and gorgonzola cheese. It’s substantial and comes with a side of salad or a cup of deeply flavorful minestrone soup.

I staunchly believe that Alessá and Cucina Alessá (sister restaurants in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach) meet any challenge when it comes to Italian food.

BREAK OF DAWN

24351 Avenida de la Carlota

Laguna Hills

(949) 587-9418

Break of Dawn is a darling gem of Orange County dining that’s equal in eloquent taste and presentation to any of our highest-end spots but is priced almost ridiculously low.

There’s one sandwich that pays homage to meatloaf that will change your perception of the old standby forever. But that’s only a smidgen of a reason for dining here.

Imagine entrees between $9 and $17 that embrace both Americana and the best of fusion cuisine. Breaking Dawn is only open for breakfast and lunch, so I’m a pushover for lamb sausage, scrambled eggs and sticky rice early in the day. And when is the last time you had duck with your omelet? No breakfast dish is as you might have imagined, and there’s plenty to choose from.

Kabocha squash with shrimp and lobster rolls also falls into the “best” category. Short ribs come with a mushroom ragout and eggs poached in merlot wine. Pulled pork is paired with a swell corn cake and tropical slaw on a plate. Curried chicken stew is one of my go-to dishes.

Oh, I forgot to mention that you can have a three-course meal for $17.

BRASSERIE PASCAL

327 Newport Center Drive

Newport Beach

(949) 640-2700

My readers can stop asking where to get a good Croque Monsieur—a warm and crispy ham and cheese sandwich with béchamel sauce. Chef and owner Pascal Olhats is making a splendid one and serving it with a side of fries.

For aficionados of sliders, you will find tasty ones at the bar—so keep that in mind for happy hour.

The Hachis Parmentier is no sandwich, but it also makes me melt with pleasure. It’s a mashed potato baked with marinated beef and gruyere cheese.

Every evening except Fridays and Saturdays, Pascal also features many entrees at only $10. This place is all about dining well in pretty surroundings without any pretension.

Relive a trip to France via some coq au vin (chicken in red wine), multi-layered cassoulet, lamb ragout, veal blanquette (stew with cream and mushrooms) and even the roasted game hen with tarragon jus.

This place is the essence of a bistro abroad—attractive enough for romance or gathering with favorite friends, affordable enough to keep us coming back for food that’s culturally interesting.

BRUXIE

292 N. Glassell St.

Old Towne, Orange

(888) 927-8943

Another bit of Belgium. This one’s rather new and marks the first time we’ve had thicker and tastier waffles from Belgium in Orange County.

The offerings include the special Liege waffles that have pearl sugar dabs in them. The dabs are slightly melted and make for a cookie-like taste.

I grew up with these gems, which are considered street food in Belgium, and I can vouch heartily for the ones here.

And—surprise!—there are some very interesting ways to make great waffle sandwiches. The basic Bruxie waffle is light, crisp and yeasty —and not sweet. That makes it an interesting receptacle for sandwich fillings.

There are seven savory sandwich possibilities. I don’t need to go any further than the prosciutto and gruyere cheese tucked into one of these crispy holders for deluxe European flavors.

A classic burger translation gets an extra layer of intrigue from the waffle that holds it all together.

I’m also quite happy with the smoked salmon and dilled cream cheese combo.

You absolutely must do the Liege dessert waffle at a time of your choosing. Savor it with any of their sweet toppings or eat it plain out of your hand like the Europeans do.

Just the mention has put me in a crav- ing mood again—and I’m off to Orange.

CANYON

5775 E. Santa Ana Canyon Blvd.

Anaheim

(714) 283-1062

This is the not-quite-year-old sibling of Sage in Newport Beach, and it’s finding appreciation in the restaurant-needy region of Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda.

No wonder, since owner and chef Richard Mead is a leader in the locavore movement and goes to extraordinary lengths to acquire the best products for his California-forward creations. That means working with top local growers and food artisans, and regular treks to the famed Santa Monica Farmers Market, of which he was a founder.

Rich makes a fine signature burger accented with pancetta and quality trappings as well as perfect fries and a seriously interesting Asian slaw. Sip a glass of Stolpman Syrah or Trinitas Old Vine Zin as you munch. On weekends at the bar, delicious little sliders appear.

You might get sidelined by much else on this menu. I’d go for some crispy tempura green beans, Asian-inspired short ribs and the chile relleno stuffed with steak. Do not miss the vanilla bean cheesecake with strawberry/rhubarb compote on the side. And check out their take on the root beer float.

CAPITAL SEAFOOD

2700 Alton Parkway

Irvine

(949) 252-8188

This is not a sandwich place at all—but it sure does offer a mind-boggling way to enjoy a very different lunch in a pretty lovely atmosphere.

Every day, during extended lunch hours, there are carts and more carts pushed up to your table, each loaded with small plates and tiny steamers of vegetables, meats, stuffed buns, fillings of seafood and meats within pasta envelopes—almost a hundred kinds of dim sum, including desserts. You might end up ordering far too much food—but you can eat these truly marvelous goodies pretty cheaply and leftovers travel home nicely.

Capital has other restaurants, but this is the first in Orange County. It’s been so successful since its debut 18 months ago that another will open later this year at Irvine Spectrum. After you’ve been wowed by the strolling cart attendants, go back for another meal and wander through the vast menu. Order the French-style filet mignon cubes, whole Peking duck for only $12 (special of the moment, Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.), lobster dishes at only $13.95 per pound, the crisp whole flounder, clams with basil sauce, or Kung Pao pork chops with Asian seasoning.

THE CATCH

2120 E. Katella Ave.

Anaheim

(714) 935-0101Cut the award-worthy Primanti Brothers sandwich in half and share it with a pal to cement your friendship. This beauty is a pile of moist pastrami, provolone, terrific slaw and rosy tomatoes in between toasted sourdough bread.

I can’t do justice to the unique Napa Valley sandwich, but it incorporates a Port wine sauce, goat cheese and a few other unexpected indulgences for a taste that’s not replicated anywhere else.

Another strong choice is a Cuban-inspired sandwich of sliced roast pork and ham layered with pickled onions and gruyere cheese with a slather of mustard aioli. Divine!

Also hard to pass up is the Biloxi-style barbecued meat (in a vinegar-based sauce) that’s stacked within a brioche roll. The 12-ounce burger gains fans because of its quality meat and stacked accoutrements within the tender bun.

The menu is extensive. Alternative dining can take you on a journey through distinctive tacos, a wide range of shellfish, fresh fish choices, steaks and chops, and much more. Do it all while ensconced in casually deluxe surroundings next to The City National Grove and Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

CHEF CHEN’S

5408 Walnut Ave.

Irvine

(949) 786-8898

Hands down the most interesting, addictive sandwich I’ve found in Orange County comes from chef Robert Chen’s kitchen.

Simply called the Chinese roast beef sandwich, everyone I’ve introduced to this unique item has fallen under its spell. You’re a foodie outsider if this isn’t on your radar.

It’s amazing how he gets a freshly made tortilla-like crepe crackly crisp and then layers Shanghai-style roast beef, a secret brown sauce, julienned scallions and sprigs of cilantro before rolling it up. Cut into six large pieces, this blissful creation can feed two. And, at $7, it’s an absolute steal.

Consensus is broad among gourmets that this is a haven of authentic Shanghainese cuisine, which has a reputation of appealing to more sophisticated tastes.

Though small, the restaurant’s decor suffices and, most important, the 227-item menu can accommodate all Chinese food fans.

Among the Shanghainese stars are WuXi spareribs that have earned a silk-purse reputation, hot pots of mixed veggies and meats or fish, stir-fried lamb and wide, handmade noodles cooked in soups, and stir-fry combos. Crispy salt and pepper squid also marches along as a real patriot of taste and refinement.

DEEMER’S AMERICAN GRILL

27221 La Paz Road

Laguna Niguel

(949) 425-8770

My good friends Rich and Judy Maggio, residents of Nellie Gail Ranch, alerted me to this one. They are adept at finding fine establishments and the best casual food for all those other times. I thank them for what they found here: hand-crafted burgers that seek perfection.

This place begins with premium Angus beef that’s grilled as you prefer it—ground turkey burgers and a grilled chicken breast are alternatives. The buns are fine, fresh affairs but the burger melange also can be tucked into lettuce leaves and eaten as a low-fat selection. You have many options in building your burger with dozens of additions to the patty available.

This Grill harks of Americana and gives off vibes of comfort and relaxation. It also offers a trio of sandwiches plus a good array of salads made to order with farm-fresh ingredients and dressings made daily, along with a good selection of side orders.

DG BURGERS

South Coast Plaza

Costa Mesa

(714) 361-4264

This is a lunch-only venue for the venerable Charlie Palmer, with daily service from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s the best use of a room that’s usually vacant at that time of day—at night it turns into a separate banquet space.

This is also the first attempt at lunchtime burgers for Palmer, and he might expand it to other locations within his umbrella of restaurants.

Palmer’s reputation as chef and owner made it clear he would roll out a fantastic burger experience, and he doesn’t stray from the expectation. It’s a simple menu of stacked and tasteful burgers, fries, a couple of salad selections, a trio of meats and veggies on skewers and milkshakes to top it all off.

Take a serious semolina and potato bun, add a generous patty of Angus beef, the chef’s signature sauce, tomato, onion and shredded cabbage and you have this compelling burger.

For those of you looking to take a break from the office or to have a meal with a friend in an unobtrusive but comfortable place, DG should do just fine.

FLEMING’S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR

455 Newport Center Drive

Newport Beach

(949) 720-9633

Fleming’s “5 for $6 ‘til 7” promotion is a fun way to go for casual dining.

There are five hip cocktails on the agenda, five wines by the glass and five appetizers: tenderloin carpaccio, sweet chile calamari, roasted mushroom ravioli, seared ahi tuna and jumbo shrimp cocktail. They also offer an impressive prime burger at only $6. Hours currently are 5 to 7 p.m. for this menu at the bar.

That terrific prime burger, with your choice of cheese and thick bacon, is available after 7 p.m. for $13.

For a lighter appetizer, I like the lump crab Louis wraps, which are butter lettuce tacos you make with crab, avocado and other garnishes complemented by Thousand Island vinaigrette.

This restaurant group paved the road to wine fame by the glass with Fleming’s 100 and international wines that introduce the public to extraordinary finds.

Try the wine flights with a trio of 2-ounce pours served in a clever “wine vine” holder.

And don’t forget that Fleming’s also is home to fine steaks, chops and seafood, and is one of the best places to host a business or private event.

GRILL AT PELICAN HILL

22701 Pelican Hill Road South

Newport Coast

(949) 467-5802

I am tremendously fond of this dining room and adjoining bar—one of the most luxurious bar lounges in the county, and fully affordable—for a variety of reasons. All of them have to do with the food and wines, but the elegant surroundings are undeniably calming in their understated beauty, too.

It hardly sounds like a place to talk about burgers, but they serve a first class one that starts with a half pound of ground prime sirloin of beef. Imagine that sitting atop the Grill’s signature brioche bun, along with your choice of aged cheddar, Swiss or artisanal blue cheese (I opt for the last).

The presentation is perfect with fine tomato slices, thin onion rounds and a gathering of sauces on the side. It’s yours to make into a personal taste treat and it comes with salad, fries or Asian slaw.

I also have to give accolades to the Grill’s Maine lobster roll and BBQ prime rib sandwich. I’m working with limited space here, and I could use all of it on the salads and entrees that I am so fond of as well. The fig and prosciutto salad and the butter lettuce salad are amazing, and thoughts of the short ribs in red wine reduction and the Kurobuta pork chop have me ready to hop in the car right now.

Soaring windows, cushy seating, fireplaces, ocean and golf course views, suave service and complimentary valet makes this place even more special. Add decent pricing and it’s all the more compelling.

HAVEN GASTROPUB

190 S. Glassell St.

Orange

(714) 221-0680

It didn’t take long for this lively gastropub (pub-like places with gourmet level food) to get a lot of good word-of-mouth going. Oozing friendliness, it’s what I call a kick-in-the-pants place. Brazen and unafraid to give us outré cuisine, it presents the most eclectic menu in Orange County.

Before I even speak of the jaw-dropping burgers, let’s meander down the menu a bit more.

Appetizers of roasted cauliflower and crispy liver with onion jam, tartare made with wagyu beef and a superb salad of mixed greens, cabrales cheese and apple all grace the menu.

Entrees take us down a fascinating lane as well. A different take on shepherd’s pie, prawns wrapped in bacon, a decidedly epicurean version of macaroni and cheese, crisply braised pork belly, escolar crusted in red wine powder, oxtail braised in wine and those burgers all are tempting.

The burger thing goes like this: big, bold and enticing. It comes with pickled red onions, roasted red bell peppers, wild arugula and St. Agur cheese. I also will guide you to the short rib tacos and the lamb burger on a rosemary brioche bun.

One more note: if you’ve lived in the South and know chicken and waffles, that’s on the menu too.

The menu suggests some wine matches with various foods. I like that part a lot.

LAZY DOG CAFE

13290 Jamboree Road

Irvine

(714) 731-9700

1623 West Katella Ave.

Orange

(714) 769-7020

16310 Beach Blvd.

Westminster

(714) 500-1140

A fun name and some really good food keep us amused. There’s a family background at the restaurant, so Lazy Dog knows about consistency and quality and it is noticeable in the big menu.

There’s something for everyone, from snacks to a bit of cultural diversity in the entrees and sandwiches, as well as many classic American items.

Burgers—seven of them—take on the essence of American barbecue, Mexican Baja style, Asian flavor in a tuna version and traditional offerings with various cheeses and popular accoutrements.

The slaw that comes on the side is fine, but the sweet corn salad has my heart.

Other offerings that pique my interest include edamame sprinkled with chile flakes to get the taste buds going, a multi-ingredient salad called Maggie’s Snake River, lamb stroganoff, campfire pot roast, a walnut chicken salad sandwich, trout with salt-roasted vegetables and a cinnamon and sugar pizza for dessert.

LUCCA

6507 Quail Hill Parkway

Irvine

(949) 725-1773

There’s so much good going on in this lovable cafe.

I feel you must do one meal of just cheese and charcuterie tastes. There’s a gourmet deli case filled with the best of these two worlds.

For a memorable sandwich, try the Lucca BLT, which includes goat cheese and caramelized onions. Or the Mediterranean veggie wrap and its wealth of healthy and delicious vegetables.

This has been one of my spur-of-the-moment places since it opened five years ago. I respect their commitment to local produce, wild and cage-free fish and meats, and organic, sustainable products.

Chef and owner Cathy Pavlos makes everything from scratch and the food is cooked when you order it. She and her husband Elliott, the dining room host, are passionate about treating our planet right, including total attention to how food affects health.

The whole menu is dotted with appealing items—homemade pastas, a great mixed grill of beef, pork and lamb, seared John Dory, a Greek seafood sampler and much more are available in small or large servings.

MESA

725 Baker St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 557-6700

They get the top award for the best salad in Orange County.

The melange of Pink Lady apple slices, marcona almonds, aged Gouda and a cider-tarragon vinaigrette is heaven.

The Riviera burger impresses big time, arriving with wild arugula, harvati cheese, rosemary-bacon confit, caramelized onions and garlic aioli to party with the meat.

Order the fantastic fried olives and crispy tempura green beans to go with that sandwich.

Pizza might be seen as casual, but a couple of them on this menu are extraordinary. There’s the lamb sausage pizza with caramelized onions and a Midnight Breakfast version that’s slathered with creme fraîche, potato, bacon, egg and fresh rosemary.

I love the look and feel of this restaurant with its banquettes interspersed with fireplaces, couches and coffee tables for cozier seating through the middle of the room. The compelling bar and the general seductiveness of it all add to the ambiance. Hint: this is an evening atmosphere, so it’s only open for dinner with an after-hours drinks and bar menu.

Think beyond casual to things like grilled Thai shrimp, short ribs, mahi-mahi in broth and memorable desserts. Love the friendly prices too and the gracious wine list.

MR. STOX

1105 E. Katella Ave.

Anaheim

(714) 634-2994

We’ll take a dual approach here with food in the dining room as well as what I call the step down lounge because, well, it’s a few steps below the main floor. Mr. Stox isn’t fussy and just calls it the lounge.

At lunch and dinner, this is home to contemporary American cuisine of the highest quality. Dining room lunch specials go for only $13.95 (Monday through Friday). There’s a revolving menu with two entree choices and appropriate accompaniments per day—these are full-fledged offerings.

For a sandwich, I direct you to the turkey club sandwich served on sourdough bread —one of five kinds of bread baked twice daily. Layered with the turkey are bacon, avocado and tomatoes, making for a pleasant palate experience.

If you hit this gem at 3 p.m. or later, take a right turn off the lobby and go into the lounge where the bar menu keeps things casual but tasty. Mr. Stox has one of the county’s finest wine cellars, so order a glass of white or red first.

Macaroni and cheese has a truffle essence, oysters are a natural, Maryland crab cakes are almost all crabmeat and the Angus prime rib with au jus on more of that sourdough bread takes us back to sandwiches.

There’s a pianist playing nightly for your added enjoyment.

OLD VINE CAFE

2937 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 545-1411

Yet another reason to visit The Camp—this is a dream turning into reality and we are all the luckier for it.

Mark McDonald is the chef and his brother, Brandon, is the host. Both had good training before they opened Old Vine, but it took some time for them to finalize their vision.

I assure you that it’s adding a fine layer to our restaurant canvas.

A little bit Asian, a little bit Italian, a little bit California-forward—it’s a menu that is pretty enchanting and just about right for the setting.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this place strives to take us on new culinary journeys for every meal. There seems to be a tasty surprise in every dish. Old Vine indulges us with many small plates so that we can be discreet in tasting many things.

A $20 three-course lunch allows choices within each category. Among the entree selections are an uptown panini-style Reuben sandwich and pulled pork with smoked gouda cheese and homemade barbecue sauce. Both make my list.

On the a la carte menu, there’s a sliced rib roast sandwich with truffled cheese. Need I say more?

Cute and small inside, with garden seating outside, it’s easy to relax and relish the experience.

PORT

440 Heliotrope Ave.

Corona del Mar

(949) 723-9685

While there’s a choice of sauces to add drama to the already dramatic filet mignon sliders on sesame buns (two per order), I recommend the brandy-peppercorn sauce to make its statement and elevate your pleasure.

Crunchy traditional fries or my preferred sweet potato fries on the side fill out a good burger meal. Of course, two of us also have gilded the lily by sharing a side salad that managed to bring into play all the savory components of a Greek salad and the aromatic nuances of a Caesar on one plate.

Have a glass of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc or Decero Argentine Malbec and take time to read the diverse a la carte menu.

On the flip side, Port gives us a menu of Mediterranean-tinged specialties that come to the rescue of anyone not on the sandwich bandwagon. From full-fledged entrees to smaller, tapas-style plates, your palate can dance around Italian and Arabesque dishes. The sweet potato gnocchi is not to be missed. On the Arabesque side, try the mixed kabob plate.

R & D CAFE

555 Newport Center Drive

Newport Beach

(949) 219-0555

A couple of sandwiches here make my A list.

The carnitas sandwich calls out loud and clear with its stack of pulled pork, avocado and zippy slaw within their homemade bun. It’s a fine match of Mexican and Americana.

I’m also in tune with R & D’s version of the French dip—a tender prime rib-and-bun combo with a slather of mayonnaise, and served with a little side dish of authentic au jus for dipping.

They also make a good, if not unique, all-American cheeseburger with a generous patty of meat that is ground in-house each day, plus the requisite lettuce, tomato and onion.

For the rest of your party, the menu has a fine chicken and spinach salad with apples, nuts and bits of bacon thrown into the mix. Go for entrees of meatloaf with wild mushrooms or the fresh broiled or fried fish.

Don’t forget to order the deviled eggs as a side order.

Consider a nostalgic pot de creme for dessert.

R & D also makes the best use of indoor and outdoor space. The fresh air on the patio overlooking the Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus courtyard combines with the comfy booths inside to give two different dining personalities.

SEASONS 52

3333 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 437-5252

Before any sandwich talk, I’m applauding the absolutely amazing flatbreads that are crisp and topped with steak and mushrooms, or fresh figs, chipotle shrimp, and roasted farm fresh veggies. Also of note are deconstructed classics such as Reuben sandwich ingredients as you’ve never encountered them before.

The decor features great use of warm woods and it’s an effectively divided space. There’s a loungy bar area with the only pianist I know who sits center stage behind a big circular bar. A separate, sleek dining room is connected to additional patio seating.

The seasonal menu keeps us marveling at the scope of the delicious food—with no dish going over 475 calories. Seasons 52 does not use any butter, cream or deep fryers and entrees come with veggies and starch that will fill you up.

Plus, the prices are ridiculously affordable.

At lunch, there’s a satisfying buffalo burger with roasted pepper salsa, guacamole and chile sour cream. Another winner is the roasted vegetable sandwich with three cheeses and basil sauce on ciabatta bread.

SIDE DOOR GASTROPUB

3810 E. Pacific Coast Highway

Corona del Mar

(949) 717-4322

Take note that Five Crowns, which shares a building with SideDoor, will be closed on March 20 for approximately one month in order to bring the English inn’s atmosphere into the contemporary scene.

SideDoor Gastropub—with its entry door on Poppy Street— will carry on with no interruption.

That’s good news for me because I like to stop by for the delicious-but-casual dining in this cozy room with a fireplace, booths, soft couches and pub-like tables.

Locals also have embraced the place since it first opened in late 2009. SideDoor opens at 4:30 p.m., with the exception of Sundays, when brunch is served from 10 a.m.

As you enter, the charcuterie and cheese station beckons you to its luscious display.

The menu is anchored by some permanent highlights with the rest changing based on seasonal ingredients. A plate of mixed olives always is available.

Outstanding roasted beets with ricotta and pecans are on the current menu. A terrine of duck liver pate is sleek; a Cuban-style sandwich with pork and ham is a plush affair.

It’s a menu full of little joys that turn into big tastes, perfect for memorable casualness.

TALÉO GRILL

3309 Michelson Drive

Irvine

(949) 553-9002

The carnitas here are unparalleled with chunks of pork that emerge crispy on the outside but are falling-apart tender on your fork, with citrusy undertones that take it to new culinary heights.

Tuck this meat into a torta and you have an unforgettable sandwich for a casual lunch.

Do not expect the usual Latin food that is rampant in restaurants.

Taléo dotes on the more sophisticated levels of flavors found in Mexico City. Proof is in items such as beef rib enchiladas, apple chipotle chicken over rice salad, filet mignon tacos and fresh fish of the day in a choice of olive-caper sauce or, my favorite, mojo de ajo garlic-white wine sauce.

Taléo’s version of the tres leches cake for dessert is another incomparable find.

The restaurant succeeds in making dining a unique experience that’s more than a customer might expect. The surroundings are tastefully colorful with good art and a modern vibe. The genial, pretty lounge area is another plus in this satisfying place.

THE WINERY

2647 Park Ave.

Tustin

(714) 258-7600

They’re doing fine without my help, but I’d be shirking my duty not to tell you about The Winery’s Alsatian pizza for comfort food. It happens to be one of the menu items we often order at the bar with our wine.

The Winery also is one of most friendly places in Orange County, with a long bar, lounge area and dining room that is among the best looking around.

The Alsatian pizza is a tribute to the French home region of chef and partner Yvon Goetz. Take a perfectly crisp pizza platform, slather it with creme fraîche, some artisan bacon, sweet onion and the depth of gruyere cheese, and there you have it.

A half-pound burger and a few other sandwiches also impress, but I’m content with the tender beef or lamb brochettes and heirloom bean salad instead.

A charcuterie arrangement brings coveted European flavors.

Whether you stop in for lunch or dinner or just some great morsels at the bar, the global touches in the extensive menu and the reach of the acclaimed wine list indicate that The Winery is committed to memorable moments at the table all the time. Have a glass of refreshing malbec for me.

Z’TEJAS

3333 Bristol St., Ste. 1876

Costa Mesa

(714) 979-7469

This restaurant represents some of America’s most creative ways with food and it does so with contemporary casualness that meets the romance of the Southwest.

Catfish cooked like small beignets are a big hit. I can have those and the spicy shrimp and pork dumplings with a little salad and be very happy.

The menu is not heavy on sandwiches—just four of them—but the hickory burger sure is a tasty one. Its homemade barbecue sauce mingled with a duo of cheeses sets it apart.

Just seeing Voo Doo Tuna as a menu item aroused my curiosity-tasting made it a favorite. Blackened tuna is dappled with vinaigrette and spiked with ginger, then sided with superb green-chile rice and seasonal vegetables. A mix of wild mushrooms inside of corn tortillas makes an enchilada that benefits from a draping of delicious ancho-chile cream sauce.

The street tacos are fun: beef tenderloin, avo-cado, cheese and chipotle sauce. The macaroni and cheese speaks of the Southwest with its five cheeses and chicken flavor with achiote.

Have a glass of wine bold enough to stand up to these intrepid flavors and come down from the overly hyped world and its stresses.

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