Saturday, April 23, 2011

Costa Mesa: Native Foods

No disrespect to San Diego’s own Sipz Cafe, Native Foods is one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants. Its unique approach to working with alternative proteins, such as seitan and tempeh in such a convincingly flavorful manner makes it not only healthy, but even desirable by those normally afraid of even the sound of the word tofu.

Served in a casual environment, Native Foods forges accessible veganism not only through an Asian lens, but an altogether multicultural culinary palette.


NF’s taco salad, which went through a recent name change for “Soy Amigo” to “Yo Amigo,” still retains is bright and crunchy taste. Its medley of romaine and cabbage is topped with Native Taco “Meat,: and a tomato salsa. The salad also benefits from corn, green onion, cilantro, and thin tortilla chip strips. The salad’s highlight is the mildly spicy creamy chipotle dressing, which is thick enough to use by dipping your fork into it, then scooping the salad (or vice versa).


Another NF staple is the portobello and sausage burger - grilled portabellas and a seitan sausage patty are dressed in a pumpkin seed pesto and mayo. Warning: This hearty burger is heavy on the roasted garlic.

As part of the “handhelds” portion of their menu the native chicken wings are frankly juicier than any real chicken wings I’ve ever tasted. They come served with a side of ranch dressing.


The most overused alliteration special in the history of restaurants - Taco Tuesday - at NF is comprised of two tacos of your choice ( Tijuana or Baja Surf or 50/50) and a side order of your choice for under $10. NF’s fish taco of battered tempeh is crispy and frankly too big to be sustained by its weak tortillas. While the “fish: was delicious, the meatless ground beef in the Tijuana taco was mealy and too moist for the taco.


As a side order, the vegan posole, was reminiscent of enchilada sauce or tortilla soup. Its tiny maize kernels were tender and tasteful.


Native Foods also brews enticing elixirs, including a lavender lemonade (of French lavender) and an agave sweetened watermelon fresca. Refills are free.


The beauty of Native Foods is that it is easy to forget it is a vegan restaurant. It is apparent in it diverse clientele, which routinely includes all demographics, including the youngest of children. It’s not stuffy, self-righteous, or alienating. It’s just good eating.


Native Foods Cafe
2937 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA
(714) 751-2151

Friday, April 22, 2011

Costa Mesa: 475 reasons to try Seasons 52

The Florida-based chain restaurant Seasons 52 gets its numbered moniker from its ever-changing “season inspired” menu that claims to be borne of food’s seasonal peak all fifty two weeks of the year. In that way, Seasons 52 is the corporate restaurant industry’s response to the seasonal-driven trend. Another, and perhaps more provocative number S52 boasts is 475: The maximum number of calories of every dish on the menu.

Initially, one’s reaction to such a claim, in addition to skepticism, is to assume plates will be miniature. They are not. Then one goes on to assure, “Well it can’t be delicious.” Truth be told, it’s actually not bad.


Unless you’re an antichoke how can one ever pass up on something called artichoke stuffed artichoke leaves? It turns out this is made a reality by scooping mounds of a mixture of artichoke heart and other vegetables onto artichokes leaves. It is served with arugula, Parmesan cheese and balsamic glaze. For the quantity of food, one begins to think wait - is this 900 calories, divided by two? But upon first bite one notices a different taste - a cleanness in restaurant cooking that is the result of an absence of butter or oil. It tastes fresh, healthy. It’s not as good as butter, but it’s good.


A staple of S52’s menu is the flatbread - which is just that - flat, and very selectively accessorized. Here, a footlong serving of spicy chipotle shrimp with grilled pineapple, feta cheese, and roasted poblano peppers is well balanced (sweet citrus and chipotle spice) and again restrained into a skinny man’s version of austerity pizza.


For lunch, S52 offers a buffalo chili with black beans, corn cakes and, a light green cilantro sour cream. The chili is hearty, but only mildly spicy. The addition of corn cakes and the cool and truly creamy sour cream add dimension and texture to what would otherwise be just another bowl of chili. To skimp on calories, the dish’s side salad passes on the dressing.


Another lunchtime main is the all-natural chicken citron with golden beets, broccoli and organic wild rice, which again looks more like 1200 calories than 475. While the chicken was tender and fairly well seasoned, S52 serves it bird skinless. Sure, it’s the right thing to do, especially if you’re watching calories, but there’s no denying it’s the best part when it’s crisp. The plate’s golden beets are steamed and flanked by slices of roasted red peppers and broccoli - it tastes “good for you,” but will not leave you craving more afterwards.


Seasons 52 bills its dessert offerings as “Mini Indulgences.” Two of those selections include the old-fashioned carrot cake and the raspberry cannoli, which were a bit rich but rightly sized.


The recent westward expansion of East Coast restaurants into California is a welcome addition. Seasons 52, now in the South Coast Plaza Shopping Center, is no exception if you’re looking for quality ingredients cooked conscientiously healthy.


Seasons 52
3333 Bristol Avenue
Suite #2802
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Los Angeles: Yxta

To be upscale, Mexican, and in Los Angeles is a bit of a challenge for a restaurant. Big named competitors like Bayless’ Red-0, Feniger’s Border Grill, and Sedlar’s Rivera, to name a few, get first dibs for buzz and flavor. Then there is the whole hole-in-wall thing - it is after all, Los Angeles - here, the walls are like Swiss cheese when it comes to homestyle Mexican food. Because of this, places like Yxta are sometimes forgotten or always second place.

Located in Downtown LA, Yxta serves traditional Mexican fare served simple, clean, and visually updated. With a few shout outs to regional Mexican details (think pineapple slices garnishing pork adobada tacos), it deserves a gentle nod for traditionalism, alongside a bit of apathy for playing it safe.


Most items are reasonably priced at around $12. Yxta also offers an enticing and thoughtful happy hour menu. Below, the real piña is a concoction of silver tequila, muddled pineapple, cilantro, and jalapeño.


Yes, you should judge a Mexican restaurant by its salsa - Yxta’s traditional salsa Mexicana is fresh. Other selections are righteously smoky and spicy.


Ambience is dark, sparse, and makes good use of Downtown’s warehouse decor. No whips or Aztec calendars in joint - it’s a metropolitan and modern mealtime.


One of Yxta’s appetizers, or antojitos, are the empanadas – corn pastry turnovers filled with meat, and dressed in crema fresca and salsa brava. Toothsome and not at all greasy, they’re good eating.


Taco plates are served in trios with a mound of cilantro lime rice or Mexican rice, depending on your taco selection. These street sized tacos are tasty, but would be better served on fresh handmade tortillas. Yxta’s rice, too, made for merely okay cuisine; it was a rather soft and overcooked.


Above, the tinga de pollo are tacos of pulled chicken seasoned with chipotle, served with Mexican rice and a side of frijoles de olla (unfried).
Even better, below, the al pastor tacos, are marinated pork with pineapple, red onions, cilantro, cilantro lime rice and frijoles de la olla, as well.


Yxta serves their beef tacos with Arrachera – marinated skirt steak – along with pickled red onion, guacamole, Mexican rice, and frijoles de la olla.


It’s not that Yxta’s bad or notably lackluster - it might do better in a town like San Diego (it’s for sure, better than Ponce’s) - but the city’s stiff competition put this otherwise enjoyable restaurant, somewhere near the middle of anyone’s list. Yxta does deserve kudos for both its food and lack of pretension.


Yxta (Eeksta)
601 S. Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tel: 213-596-5579


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Los Angeles: Culina

The past year’s rise of “pay now, eat later” deals the likes of Groupon, Bloomspot, and The Living Social have largely predetermined where I was to eat on any given month (all based, of course, on expiration date). Along the way, there have been culinary hits and misses. as well as undeniable steals and the occasionally questionable deal. Sometimes, it happens that a deal is both right taste and price. Los Angeles’ Culina, in The Four Seasons Hotel, had such an offer: Through Travelzoo, they pitched an $89 five course tasting menu for two, with a few other perks included.
Billed as Modern Italian cuisine, Culina’s setting embodies its culinary aesthetic: elegant, almost understated, and carefully composed.



Culina’s first course, a flight of crudo, includes (from left to right), a Loch Duarte salmon with caper salt and blood orange, hamachi with orange and star anise, and an ahi tuna in a ginger oil sheen, coriander seed, and lemon salt. Fresh cuts and a restrained seasoning allowed each selection to flourish in its natural taste.


A Mandarino salad stands as the second course. A cluster of wild arugula and shaved fennel is adorned in pomegranate kernels, hazeluts and black olives, all dressed in a tangerine citronette. The salad was a good balance of sweet and bitter. The arugula and pomegranate’s tangy aftertaste, melds well with the tangerine dressing.


Culina’s third course is an open fisted portion of pasta. This simple composition of tagliatelle ribbons coated in ragu bolognese is a tender and delicate pasta.


As a fourth course, Culina serves a wonderfully crisped and moist wild striped bass propped up on Tuscan kale. For sweetness and tang, the fish is complemented with a roasted blueberry glaze and lemon.


In addition to the five courses, Culina whets whistles with a choice of a flight of flavored grappa or a glass of housemade limoncello. A standout among the three is the chamomile flavored liqueur.


For closure, the fifth course is a trio of profiteroles, sandwiching three tiny mounds of espresso, vanilla, and pistachio gelato, all topped with a light smathering of chocolate sauce.


As a take home gift, dinner receive two miniature bottles of house pressed olive oil.


Culina’s service was spotless; and while the casually dressed were initially diverted to the heated but elegant patio, the staff’s attention to detail was undisparaging cordial.

300 South Doheny Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90048