Thursday, September 28, 2006

California Eatin': Quick Restaurant Reviews

During my recent trip to CA, I ate out a lot. Even though I had a "suite" with a mini fridge and a minier microwave, it was far easier to partake of the bounty of restaurants in the area. I miss living in an area with lots and lots of good restaurants, where one runs out of the number of meals to be eaten far sooner than the number of restaurants one would desire to try.

Breakfasts were eaten at the hotel's free breakfast buffet because they did have eggs and sausage. I need two things in the morning: protein and coffee.

McDonald's: Ok, technically this was in the Denver airport, but I needed coffee and I needed it fast and for some reason there are no good coffee places in Terminal B/United. Ok, there's a Seattle's Best, but it's all the way down the other end of the terminal and the coffee isn't that good. McDonald's was there.

The coffee wasn't half bad. It may be their new coffee, it may be that I had one of the first cups out of a new batch, but it was quite acceptable and a step up from Village Inn or Denny's coffee. The Egg McLugnut, however, was execrable. How you can ruin something so simple is beyond me. The hash browns were worse. I spit out the one bite of them that I tried - they tasted like rancid oil - and threw out the rest.

Chicken Dijon: A chain in Southern California that specializes in roasted chicken and things to do with it. We'd found it quite by accident during our last trip and really liked the food - it reminded me of Pollo's in Northern CA, but with a Greek/Mediterranean twist rather than a Mexican.

I had the house sandwich and a side salad: the house sandwich is chicken pieces, lettuce, tomato, mayo, some dressing, and a side of a yogurty garlic sauce. The side salad is a basic tossed salad. It's good, filling, and relatively in plan. I like the well-cooked chicken they have - I'm of the school that chicken needs to be cooked until DONE and tender, not just until the juices run clear.

Coco's Bakery Restaurant: This meal was far more about the company and conversation than the food, so Coco's was a fine choice. There used to be one here in Colorado Springs, but it's long gone - apparently there are some left in Colorado somewhere, but they're really not worth searching out. Not since they discontinued the fried chicken dinner many years ago. I had a nice BBQ chicken salad which was remarkably tasty, and a nicely adequate slice of coconut cream pie. And a lot of good company and conversation.

LA Food Show: Technically part of the California Pizza Kitchen empire, this one off restaurant has its own unique menu focused on the cuisines of California. I think I'd call it Cheesecake Factory, Lite - it's trendy without being too out there, but the food is good. I had the Avocado Egg Rolls, technically an appetizer, but plenty of food for a light lunch, since they come with two sauces and a dollop of whiskey blue cheese slaw.

Avenue: This is a little gem of a restaurant on Manhattan Ave in Manhattan Beach, just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I was staying. I knew I wanted to eat at least one interesting meal while I was out there, so off I went to search eGullet's California subforum for recommendations. One of the folks who knows that whole area had listed Avenue, and a quick trip to their website showed me that this was exactly the kind of menu I was looking for.

I admit I was a little nervous about finding parking, but going latish on Sunday evening proved to be an effective strategy. I found lots of parking and had no trouble walking in without a reservation.

I started with the Warm Mushroom Tart, Melted Brie, Balsamic Reduction. The mushrooms were served over a square of puff pastry, topped with the brie, the balsamic reduction scattered artistically about, and a few leaves of arugula. I love mushrooms and I love brie, which is why I chose this appetizer. The balsamic reduction added the needed punch - with it, the flavors came alive. Bites without it were rather flat.

I drank a glass of Snoqualmie Gewurztraminer with this - flavors of grapefruit and honey, complemented it perfectly and cut through the richness of the brie. This was my only drink as I was tired and driving.

For an entree I'd been torn between the pork rack and the braised lamb shank when I happened to catch a glimpse of the entrees being served to the table next to me. When I spied the large chunk of meat looking like something straight out of the Flintstones, I decided immediately to have the lamb. It was an excellent choice: lots of tender, falling apart lamb with some snow peas, carrots, and gnocchi underneath. And even more importantly, it was perfectly salted so the flavors just popped.

Dessert was the hot chocolate cake with a toasted marshmallow spoon. The cake is a liquid center cake, but amusingly baked in a coffee cup to look like it's hot chocolate. A dollop of marshmallow fluff on a spoon is served alongside, torched to brown it a little. I wasn't quite sure exactly how to eat it, so I pushed the marshmallow into the liquid cake, like I would with a mug of hot chocolate, and licked the rest off the spoon. The chocolate cake wasn't too sweet so I could really taste the chocolate and cocoa in it.

Heck, even their coffee was good. Definitely a place I'd like to eat at again.

Beaches: I found myself with some free time before my flight back, so I went back down to Manhattan Beach and spent some time walking around the downtown area and out on the pier. I ended up at Beaches restaurant for lunch, which is right on the beach and has some amazing views from their tables. I ate my Coconut Crusted Mahi Mahi with Thai Red Curry Sauce watching the palm trees and the white sand and the surf. The fish flaked apart, the sauce was nicely spicy with good Thai basil flavors, the rice alongside was tasty, but the bread had been over-reheated to the point where the crust was vulcanized. This is a place where the view is as important as the food.


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