Sushi Laguna

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

By pure accident one evening, Andrew and I stumbled upon Sushi Laguna in Laguna Beach. In my ever burning quest to find quality and authentic sushi in orange county, this place has come the closest to the real thing.

Although serving "traditional" sushi/sashimi, Sushi Laguna's strength lies in the chef-owner's innovative interpretation of traditional sushi with modern techniques and local ingredients, thus producing a really fun and exciting dining experience that leaves you wanting more after every bite.

The best thing to do is sit at one of the 22 seats at the sushi bar and let the sushi chef have at it. It is, afterall, his restaurant, and after extensive training in the sushi arts you owe it to yourself to let him show you what he can do.

I recommend starting off with one of the imported sakes or beers and a quick scan of the specials written on the white board. The chef-owner prides himself on freshness of ingredients, and personally visits the local fish market daily as well as imports fish in from Tokyo-Tsukiji Market.

A week ago we sat down for our second dinner here. And here's what we had:

Red Snapper Sashimi style, lightly scorched with blow torch and topped with scallion, sea salt and sweet ponzu sauce.
This was really nice. It's not often I have a "cooked" sushi, but I did enjoy how the warmth of the blow torch created a contrast against the cool ponzu sauce and rice. I'm so used to the sushi/sashimi being on the cooler side, so the warmth was surprisingly pleasant and brought out the delicateness of the fish. The fine sea salt was a nice addition as well (no soy sauce for dipping please!)

Kumamoto Oysters, raw oysters
Officially one of my favorite oysters now. They're smaller but just packed with flavor. I'm a huge fan of oysters in general, but only had them with the traditional western cocktail or mignonette sauces. Here they were served with a dash of soy sauce and sweet pickled ginger (not the pickled ginger with wasabi one usually has). This Asian version was really nice as the soy brought out the brininess of the oyster without destroying its natural sweetness. These are a must have!

Soft Shell Crab Roll
Soft shell crab tempura style, crab mixture, lettuce and roe wrapped and served with sriracha.
I'm not usually a huge fan of soft shell crab, so this roll didn't particularly do it for me. It did score points for me, though, with the sriracha sauce used in place of wasabi. It achieves the same spicy factor but in a new and tangier way. And we all know how I feel about sriracha...

Toro! Toro! Toro Sashimi.
Toro is my favorite sashimi. I once heard it described as "the cadillac of sushi" and I agree. For those of you who don't know it's splendor already, it's the fatty underbelly I believe of the tuna fish. And it is wonderfully tasty and a must-have for me on every sushi excursion.
I'm not sure why this picture loaded vertically, but I'll go with it. Simply served - it's all toro all the time. And with a little wasabi and soy, it's splendid.

Spicy Baby Octopus, marinated in a sweet chili sauce and served cold.

I ain't gonna lie- this was just nasty. And I'm ashamed to say I couldn't bring myself to eat one. Maybe it's because I just had a baby and the fact they were so mini made my psychologically unnerved. Maybe it's the fact they looked like little red aliens. Or the fact it's the entire fucking octopus, not just the tentacles which I can handle if battered and deep fried or marinated and grilled Greek-style. Regardless, I met my sushi match with this one. I've tried the urchin, and I ate the entire nato (which really wasn't that bad), but these suckers destroyed me. I couldn't even taste a little. Andrew did though, so he's the man.

Firehouse Roll, spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber with more tuna on top lightly scorched and topped with sliced jalapeno pepper and sriracha, served with sweet ponzu sauce

This roll was excellent. Again, not particularly traditional, but that's what makes it fun in this instance! If you're up for the spicy, this is up your ally and a must try. The spice was just right and not overpowering, and the ponzu was perfectly complimentary to the jalapeno and tuna. It's almost a cross between Japanese and Southwestern, and my new official favorite roll.

The best part of Laguna Sushi is probably the staff and atmosphere. The sushi chefs are very energetic and very sweet on top of being very passionate and talented with their craft. Everyone's constantly cracking jokes and poking fun at each other and playing tricks, so your dining atmosphere matches the vibrancy of your food.
Here's our chef, "Jose":

Add a bottle of seemingly never-ending imported sake and we had an excellent evening.
Here are some facts if you're interested in visiting:
Address: 231 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Attire: casual
Seating: sushi bar and main restaurant
Full Bar: no
Expense: moderately expensive (depending on type of sushi you get!); rolls $12 on average

Escobar Guido Christmas Party 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

True to form, when we have a party, if I don't take pictures of the food and decorations, no one does. So regretfully, I post this blog sans pictures.

This year, Andrew and I decided to have a Christmas party. We have a fabulous tree with great ornaments, nice house decorations, and I love to make holiday food and cocktails. This year we decided to have the first annual Guido Christmas party, where everything was Italian themed. We had Italian food, Italian wine, and Italian Christmas carols. It was a huge success.

For the menu, I made:

Antipasto Platter with imported meats, cheeses and olives
Shrimp Aragonate
Goat Cheese, Pear and Prosciutto Crostini with Fig Balsamic Vinegar
Gorgonzola Bruschetta
Stuffed Shells with Turkey and Artichokes
Winter Cannelloni
Turkey Meatballs and Mini Bowtie Pasta with Marinara for the kids

Holiday Biscotti

And it was good...

For the Antipasto Platter, I visited my local Guido Mart and got a selection of imported meats: sopresseta, cappicolla, mortadella, salami. For the cheeses I got provelone, castelmagno (which was a fabulous creamy cheese, a lot like the Romanian or Hungarian kashkaval), and marinated mini fresh mozarella. I served two kinds of olives - kalamata (although admittedly greek, not italian, but still rather tasty) and sicilian greens marinated with garlic.

Then I came up with the Goat Cheese, Pear and Prosciutto Crostini. I took some chiabatta bread, drizzled with olive oil and broiled until just grilled, then spread some tangy goat cheese, a thin slice of sweet and ripe bartlett pear and topped with a slice of salty imported prosciutto. I never use domestic prosciutto - I find the taste to be quite inferior and would rather ration my prosciutto intake than dumb it down for my palate. I then drizzled with a bit of fig balsamic vinegar. My original idea was to use a fig jam as opposed to the slice of pear to really get contrast in flavors between the tangy, sweet and salty, but of course my local Vons and Ralph's had to let me down...again...and I didn't have time to visit my nearest Trader Joe's which is 30 min away (!!!).

The gorgonzola bruschetta was a stupidly simple dish - baguette sliced and topped with gorgonzola (I used a fabulous imported one) and baked until the cheese is just melted. Then while still warm, drizzled with clover honey. Omg, it's yum. Clearly you have to have a taste for the bleu to enjoy it, so my guests either loved it or hated it. I for one, loved it. As a general rule for bleu I prefer the more poignant ones - Roquefort as a first choice and English Stilton as an adequate substitute. But in using the gorgonzola I was reminded of its creaminess that the others just don't have. It's making a comback in my house, and I look foward to playing around with some recipes using it!

The Shrimp Aragonate was a great recipe from my Sopranos Entertaining book that Andrew got me a few years ago. It's a hilarious book - the whole thing is written in character form (Carmella writes out the recipes, Silvio Dante offers some advice on something, etc.) and the recipes are totally legit for guido american italian food. This shrimp appetizer is always a crowd pleaser when I make it:

Shrimp Aragonate
1 lb shrimp, deveined and shelled with tails off, and rinsed through then patted dry
2 slices white bread (day old Italian is best)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tspn fresh basil, finely chopped
salt and black pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Space out shrimp into one even layer, and season with salt and black pepper.

In a food processor, pulse the bread until small pea-sized crumbs. Place in bowl. Add minced garlic, parsley, basil and some olive oil until crumbs are just moistened (about 3 drizzles worth), combining ingredients well. Top each shrimp with about half a teaspoon of the crumb mixture and bake in oven about 5 minutes until shrimp turn pink and are firm to the touch.

Serve hot.

The pasta dishes I made were Giada De Laurentiis. The Turkey and Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce was a major success, but clearly the run-away hit of the evening was the Winter Manicotti with Swiss Chard, Sweet Pea and Fonduta Cream Sauce. Omg. Both were excellent and I highly recommend trying out the recipes. With the exception of filling in the manicotti shells, both were very easy to make, using affordable ingredients. And the manicotti was a huge success - the fonduta cream sauce (basically whole milk, cream and shredded fontina sheese) was to die for, and probably my new go-to bechamel-type sauce when I want a cheesier kick to it. I plan to repeat both recipes for our Christmas Eve dinner, and both are definitely getting added to the Escobar dinner rotation.

The struffoli (fried dough balls soaked in honey) and cannoli (ricotta cream stuffed cookie shells) were from the guido mart. I filled the cannoli myself to save money (a tip if you can handle a pastry bag yourself!), and my good friend Virginia and her mom made their killer tiramisu.

I made the holiday biscotti and was kinda pissed about this...

One day it came to me to make a biscotti with dried cranberries (red), pistachios (green), and white chocolate (white) for Christmas. I mean honestly, besides the flavors being great the color scheme would be totally cute for Christmas! While pulling up Giada's biscotti recipe I found she fricken makes one exactly like the one I had thought of. Poo on her. So I just used her recipe to save me time, but added a teaspoon of vanilla and subbed orange zest for the lemon because I thought it would go better. And instead of dipping them in white chocolate, I drizzled the chocolate over the them with a whisk creating a "snow" and "icicle" effect that of course no one but foodies picked up on. Nonetheless, they were delicious. Oh! And if you use her recipe, I recommend cutting down the temperature down to 325 degrees - my first batch burned too much and the second batch I used the lower temp and they came out fine. I could, also, have a super-oven... I dunno.

For party favors (which of course I forgot to give everybody) I gave out mini pannetones with a red/gree/white bow on top. My husband, Andrew's idea.

For drinks we had red wines which everyone brought, olive martinis, limoncello, pellagrino, ginger ale, and those limonata sodas that everyone loved. I should have bought more of those...

All in all, a great success, and I look forward to next year's!

Sapphire Laguna: A True Gem in Laguna Beach

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On a recent impromptu brunch, the family and I accidentally stumbled on what turned out to be one of the best brunches I've had in California. Located in Laguna Beach right on PCH with a view of the ocean, Sapphire Laguna offered the trifecta of dining out I've been desperately searching for since moving back to Southern California: great food, great ambiance, and excellent service.

It's continental cuisine at its most fun and finest I've had since NYC. Chef Azmin Ghahreman was born in Iran and educated in Switzerland, and lived and worked all over the world including Australia, Malaysia, Hawaii, Singapore and Turkey to name a few. He was executive chef at the AAA Five Diamond St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa before opening his own restaurant in Laguna Beach. Check out his extremely impressive credentials on his website.

Sapphire is a melting pot (no pun intended) of various international cuisines including French, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian, Pacific Rim, and California. From what I could tell of his menu this season, he's focusing mostly on Mediterranean and Asian flavors with a California twist. His fresh take on classic dishes and colorful yet restrained presentations make for a very energetic and emotional dining experience. When your dish arrives, the colors are dancing off the plate and you're so excited to try it. Every bite delivers one punch after another of flavor combinations that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more. Plainly put: Ghahreman makes you want more and more.

And if the food wasn't enough, the extensive imported and domestic wine list hand-picked by master sommelier Peter Neptune is sure to compliment any meal. If wine isn't your thing, then try one of the updated classic cocktails or "beers from around the world." Sapphire won Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence and the Sante Award for Best Bistro Wine List in California. Yet if you look at their list, it's not that long at all, and I appreciate that. I can't stand going to a restaurant that's going for quantity, not quality; at Sapphire the wines and beers have been narrowed down for you so anything you choose is sure to be nothing short than excellent. And some, downright life-changing.

Although we only went for brunch, it was fantastic, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Here's Trajan sitting by the outdoor crystals and rocks fireplace (don't ask - just go see it for yourself in person), keeping warm on a cooler fall morning:

And here's Catia getting strapped into her high chair ready to sample some "yum-yums." I should also mention that it's surprisingly kid-friendly (for brunch at least). Some places here Laguna and Newport more so scoff at the very idea of children coming to brunch (because God forbid you have a toddler around who might "ruin" your experience, right?). I appreciated that very much. And they had a full kids menu and list of juices, and were smart and kind enough to bring out her food first so we could feed her then enjoy our meal.

For my brunch, I chose the Brunch Box. It came with my choice of mimosa (pictured) or bloody mary and coffee. And these delicious freshly made and served very warm Asiago rolls:

Andrew had a bloody mary for his drink. He said it was one of the best he's ever had:

My "brunch box" was a sampling of the chef's choices for the day, served in a bento box. I thought that was ingenious. I had an orange yogurt with raspberry preserve and mixed fruit granola (top left corner); seared Ahi tuna on mixed greens with green beans, crispy wonton strips and citrus ponzu vinaigrette (middle top row); a deliciously moist southern fried chicken salad with cranberries, candied pecans and corn (top right); maple spiced french toast (bottom left); and scrambled eggs with turkey chili and salsa fresca (bottom right). Everything was a perfect bite and for me, who LOVES to taste things, it was the perfect brunch item:

Andrew had the Turkey Hash which was roasted turkey, poached egg, salsa fresca and potato straws:

Simple ingredients but executed perfectly for a delightful (and healthier!) take on the traditional hash. I would have this again myself.

For kids menu, Cati enjoyed the scrambled eggs, maple bacon and potatoes:

And with a fantastic main course, we couldn't pass up trying dessert. We got the passion fruit pavlova with berries and mango sauce that dame highly recommended by our waiter:

I've had better pavlovas in the sense that I found this one to be a little soggy, but the flavor combinations were excellent and I really liked the fresh take with the passion fruit and mango on the common berry pavlova. I probably wouldn't have this again as I'd want to try something else, but if you're interested in a very light and fruity dessert, this hits the mark.
Andrew and I want to return for dinner and drinks, where Sapphire takes you even further west and east on your culinary adventure. Stay tuned for Sapphire Part 2!
In addition and right next door is Sapphire Pantry which if you're a cheese lover like I am, you MUST go visit. Various hard-to-find authentic imported cheeses from around the world including Chimay, real Roquefort (where you can actually buy a wedge, not just crumbs at the market) and excellent various goat cheeses from around the world. I highly recommend going here for a visit. The Pantry also imports hard to find items like HP sauce from the UK, truffle oils and actual jarred in oil truffles. You can't find this stuff at your local anything market.
Looking forward to going back soon!
Bon apetito!

Thanksgiving 2008

This year's Thanksgiving was a nice, quiet one with just us (me, Andrew and the kids and pooches). I have to say, I think I might make a tradition to have every other year be just us because all the usual holiday pressure is totally taken off and it makes for a very lovely Thanksgiving. No worries about getting everything done in time - you eat when it's ready. No rush to throw something on or risk getting your nice dress or shoes dirty with turkey grease or cranberry stains. No, this year we had a pj thanksgiving and it was wonderful.

Here's the setting in our dining room:

We actually got a chance to put our fireplace on as it was a wopping 60-something degrees in orange county! Woo hoo!! Hey, we'll take it.

And here's the place setting:

Nothing terribly fancy, but we do break out the crystal when we can because we do actually enjoy drinking from it and aren't scared to break anything.

But let's get on to the food!!!

This year I tried something new and stuffed our 9 pound turkey (named Chuck) with fresh herbs, onion, garlic and apples. A simple herbed butter rub all around the outside, some salt and freshly ground black pepper inside and out and roughly 3 and half hours later we had a very tasty bird.

With the turkey prepped and in the oven, we enjoyed some appetizers courtesy of Gourmet Magazine. I made the Sweet Potato Chips with Fried Sage and Goat Cheese Marbles. We also enjoyed the Beaujolais Nouveau that came out the same week. No, not the greatest wine, I know, but it's a tradition Andrew and I have since back east a few years ago.

The appetizers were extremely easy and tasty and we were very pleased with how they turned out. The sweet potato chips were very tasty (although I must mention I technically used yams) and I loved the contrast between the salt and sweetness of the "chip." And we didn't feel too quilty eating them because they were baked in the oven! The sage added a nice earthy spice to it too.
The goat cheest marbles were fantastic. Fresh goat cheese seasoned with cumin seeds and fresh finely chopped rosemary rolled into a bite-sized ball then rolled in brown sugar candied finely chopped pecans. I loved this appetizer and will probably make it again for Christmas this year. Both are definately going on my go-to appetizer list for parties and dinners.

Now on to the dinner!

Because I loaded the pictures out of order (and I'm too lazy to redo this whole blog), let's start with the sides.
Voila the simple yet delicious roasted brussels sprouts:

And instead of my usual mashed potatoes, this year being just the two of us I did a stuffing for the starch. We settled on trying Gourmet's Apple, Leek and Chestnut Stuffing:

And after 5 years of Thanksgiving dinners, I've finally found The One. It's a considerably drier stuffing, so if you like a wet one this is probably not your thing but definately still worth a taste. And so simple! Sauteed celery, leeks and apples tossed with bread and cream and seasoned with salt, pepper and lots of thyme, then baked until golden and delicious. I think the thing I love the most about this stuffing is its simplicity retains the integrity of the ingredients, and you can taste the earthiness that is supposed to be harvest. Love it.
And for tradition's sake, Green Bean Casserole:
Tender green beans tossed in a Parmesan-Gruyere cream sauce and topped with canned fried onions (because let's face it...there's just something about canned fried onions that is so naughty and good). Not the most sophisticated dish, but it's a nod to tradition.

A simple but satisfying medly of sauteed wild mushrooms:

For Thanksgiving I used creminis, shiitakes, and white buttons for really simple mushroom flavor. They're tossed with fresh garlic and the slightest amount of thyme, then kissed with brandy. The outside has a nice caramelized crust, the inside is moist, and the herbs and garlic just add so much flavor. It's a signature dish for me.

And finally, the turkey. Usually I make an herbs de provence turkey stuffed with garlic, fresh herbs and citrus, but this year Andrew wanted to try apples. With an herbed butter outer rub and fresh herb, apple, onion and garlic stuffing, the turkey came out perfectly this year:

And no, I didn't use a bag! Thanks to Giada's turkey roasting recipe, it came out moist, juicy and so flavorful. We really enjoyed this year's version, so I'll probably add it to my rotation.

And for cranberry sauce, I made my now-famous Cranberry Citrus Relish Laced with Bourbon:

Fresh cranberries, orange juice and zest, sugar, vanilla bean, black pepper (sounds odd, but it's great) and of course, Maker's Mark makes up my wonderfully tart yet sweet cranberry relish. It's great with the turkey and awesome in sandwiches the next day.

With a bottle of pinot noir, that completes our dinner. Now, on to the desserts!
Because I gave birth to Trajan just 7 weeks ago, I was looking for some low maintenance desserts to make this year. Usually I make Andrew's Favorite Pumpkin Pie but considering it takes me a good 12 hours to do, that so wasn't happening this year. Instead, I got a little help from Williams-Sonoma and made their Pumpkin Quick Bread:

To dress it up a bit I made a vanilla bean and cinnamon whipped cream. I originally was planning to do a vanilla bean and cinnamon cream cheese frosting, but I forgot to buy cream cheese. Oh well!

But this year I was particularly happy with the dessert I made up myself: Cranberry Pear Pecan Tart:

I was too excited to taste it, so I forgot to take a picture before. I took Ina Garten's plum tart recipe and tweeked it a bit by replacing the walnut crust with pecans, and chaning the plums with cranberries, pears, vanilla, and cognac. The result was a tart but sweet fruit filling with the cognac really rounding out the fruit flavors, and a nice pecan crust and crumble topping. I had to guess on the sugar proportions when I made it and was lucky to have guessed correctly. (Yay me!) We finished off the tart in 2 days!! And for me, was probably my favorite part of the whole dinner.

To wash it down, I made Irish Coffees with Jameson:

Unfortunately I don't own (yet) the clear Irish coffe mugs I'd prefer to use, so I had to use these suckers from my casual china set. I hope someone (Andrew, hint hint) will pick me up two sets at some point before Christmas. :)
All in all it was a wonderful, relaxing, tasty Thanksgiving and I tried out a few recipes I can add to my culinary arsenal.
Now... bring on Christmas!!!

The Enchanted Spoon

Friday, November 28, 2008

Because I'm so into food and love talking about restaurants, new recipes, and sharing some of my experiences with cooking and going out, I've decided to create a new blog seperate from A Mishy's Perspective that talks about all things food, all the time.

I've always loved food. Growing up in my family, with big feasts for every holiday and where I was the most popular kid to play with because my mom and grandma would set out a huge spread for an average dinner, I've been around food and the celebration of food for all of my life. It was only recently while in law school, though, when I discovered my passion for it. In the chaotic life of a law student, I found comfort in preparing food and delighted in the celebration of consuming it with Andrew and my friends. It's hard to explain, but I found such comfort in chopping vegetables or stewing a pot of soup for hours and then seeing other people enjoy it. Over the years I started throwing dinner parties and other themed parties (Annual Escobar Family Wine Tasting, Escobar Family Harvest Party, etc.) and this year had the honor of catering my good friend Wendy's house-warming party. To put it simply: I love food.

I'm obsessed with learning more and more about it. I used to watch Foodnetwork religiously (before having two small kids and before, well, it got kinda stupid with all the new people they have on now), and I've been trying out new recipes all the time. I love going out to restaurants and trying new things, and living here in Orange County, being new, I've found some great places but continue to be frustrated with the lack of good cuisine. And I'm frustrated with the unreliable reviews online as well. My friend Maryn has a great blog where she talks about some of her adventures on the OC culinary scene, and it's inspired me to write more about my own adventures.

This blog, therefore, will be dedicated to the discussion of food: culinary adventures, recipes, party ideas and any other food-related discussion.

I hope you will be as excited to read it as I am to write it!