Best and Worst OC Dining of 2013 (thus far)

Some of the best dishes of the year so far.

Now that summer is here, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at the best and worst of my dining adventures in Orange County since December.

It’s always interesting to look at where I’ve dined and think about all that I’ve eaten. Sometimes I’m surprised by the things that stand out above everything else – like the hauntingly good corn dogs at California Adventure’s Corn Dog Castle, or the chitarra spaghetti carbonara with thick nuggets of bacon and slow-cooked pork belly at Brick in San Clemente. I’m still thinking about the extraordinary escargot dumplings at Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s and the razor clams in a coconut milk broth at Marché Moderne, both at South Coast Plaza.

I’ve found some truly incredible made-from-scratch french fries at EnoSteak in Laguna Niguel, Linx in downtown Orange,The Corner gastropub in Huntington Beach, Lopez and Lefty’s in Anaheim and Broadway in Laguna Beach.

I still dream about the sous vide abalone at The Cannery on Balboa Island, the ever-evolving ramen at Playground in Santa Ana, the smoke-kissed duck confitat Arc in Costa Mesa, the perfect lamb at Juliette in Newport Beach, the old-school cheese enchiladas at El Farolito in Placentia, the massive and refreshingly strong Bloody Marys at Beachcomber Cafe in Crystal Cove, and the sublime sea urchin from the omakase at Sushi Murasaki in Santa Ana.

There have been a few restaurants where service is elevated to an art: The Ranch in Anaheim as well as Capital Grille and Marché Moderne in Costa Mesa.

In the course of dining out eight or nine times a week, it’s inevitable that I’ll encounter a few stinkers. I recently wrote about my misadventures at El Corazon de Costa Mesa, where after multiple visits I just couldn’t find enough reasons to recommend it to readers. I still scratch my head when I think of the horrid mac ‘n’ cheese (I called it mac ‘n’ milk) at Rok Prime Steakhouse in San Juan Capistrano.

I endured a truly lame experience I wish I could take back at Nieuport 17 in Tustin, where I was given toasted day-old baguette slices for the bread service and I picked at the worst Caesar salad in history, with a dressing whose primary flavor was water. The gloppy osso buco might very well have been left over from the day before, or even more likely the day before that. My waiter there rarely showed up.

And speaking of absentee waiters, the service was worse at Mastro’s Steakhouse in Costa Mesa, where I literally had to get up and walk around the restaurant to try to find our waiter – and this is at a place where I was paying nearly $200 per person for dinner? C’mon. I’ll never go back, even though the steaks were some of the best I’ve found in Orange County.

I’ll never forget the astoundingly sticky, gross, dirty tables at Landmark in Corona del Mar, a restaurant that turns into a bottle-service nightclub as the night progresses. And I still don’t understand how a restaurant as otherwise chic as Charlie Palmer can allow its bar scene to become so rowdy, with screaming-loud sing-alongs of “Gangnam Style” overtaking the entire dining area and tainting the overall atmosphere.

I’ve been searching for a good chicken-fried steak, a comfort food from my childhood, but I have found nothing but truly disastrous renditions, like the wretched frozen patty at Schooner in Sunset Beach and the one at Tulsa Rib Company in Orange, where the truly awful gravy was strangely made with white wine. White wine gravy, really?

I regret ordering the brisket plate at BBQ 220. Although the brisket had a nice slow-smoked flavor, they chopped it into minuscule bits, as if I were going to make a deviled beef sandwich. Barbecue brisket, as an entree, should always be sliced. And why are they so stingy with the sauce? They don’t let you pour your own. Rather, they give you one tiny ramekin at a time. Note to the staff: That’s not cool, dudes.

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And so the dining adventure continues. I’m looking forward to the second half of the year, to bringing more recommendations – and fair warnings – to our readers. There are still so many great restaurants to visit and new ones to discover, so many more miles to cover. Along the way, I’ll keep bringing you the best and most important of what I find. And I’ll keep you apprised of the occasional stinkers.

Wish me luck.

I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. (My Instagram feed appears on Facebook.)

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