TBL3 @ George’s California Modern (La Jolla, CA)

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TBL3 @ George’s California Modern
1250 Prospect St
La Jolla, CA 92039
(858) 454-4244
georgesatthecove.com/tbl3

Wow – let’s just say this post has been in OHT limbo for just about the entire year. I have been pessimistic to the point of not even knowing what to say anymore, because I didn’t think my words would do it any justice. Luckily, all that anyone needs to know is that my dinner at George’s in February, specifically the one at TBL3 (a spontaneous 12-to-14 course dinner prepared for one party seated at the best table in the house once a night – see details in link above), has withstood many, many wonderful meals that followed it to remain as my clear choice for favorite meal of 2014.

Chef Trey Foshee and his talented team are just firing on all cylinders when it comes to TBL3, whether it be the bright vegetarian dishes with the amazing product from Chino Farms, to the local shellfish prep with fennel butter than has become one of Chef Trey’s standbys, to the fun and creative desserts, down to a single fish taco which was my gateway drug  to this man and the restaurant – this is classical and technical perfection taken to the next level by local inspiration and sourcing. This is Michelin-star level execution in a warm atmosphere, all while the kitchen is essentially serving THREE different restaurants simultaneously. The serving was befitting of a classic fine-dining institution, yet had the calm and joy that resonated with the nearby sea. And don’t even get me started on what a value TBL3 is.

Conclusion: my favorite meal of 2014, and even better than my meals at 2-Star Michelin restaurants.

Funny story – so I dined solo here, where I had been chatting with the courteous FOH and briefly with Chef Trey. When I had gotten to the last savory dish, I felt EXTREMELY FULL all of a sudden. Those of you who know me know that I can eat a lot (I did eat 36 tacos at Tacolandia this year), and all I ate beforehand were 2 tacos + appetizer at Taco Maria for lunch. But for some reason it all just weighed down on me, as if I just went 8 rounds at a Vegas buffet. So the belt got unbuckled, the shirt untucked. I even started doing stairs inside the restaurant (it’s 3 floors) between the intermezzo and dessert courses. By the time Chef Trey was sending me off I had a feeling that most of the restaurant was laughing at me – with love of course.

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Northern Divine Caviar – white radish

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Celeryroot – smoked apple, Buddha’s hand, Dungeness crab

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Chino Farms Carrot – whey, chamomile, raisin, fresh cheese

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Fish Taco

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Local Spiny Lobster – fennel butter

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Wild Salad

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Black Truffle Omelet – sea urchin, hollandaise

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Braised Cabbage – smoked bone marrow, crispy rice, bacon-kombu broth

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Rabbit – Chino Farms asparagus, rhubarb, black trumpet mushrooms, tarragon

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Pink Trout – chrysanthemum, bonito butter

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Lamb – cauliflower, sage honey

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Apple Celery Consomme – fennel, confit, sheep’s milk frozen yogurt

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Sarsaparilla Rice Pudding – red kuri squash, madarin, curried pineapple, coconut ice milk

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Peach Blossom – chocolate, marzipan

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
American La Jolla $$$$ A+

George's At The Cove on Urbanspoon

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Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)

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Manresa
320 Village Ln
Los Gatos, CA 95030
(408) 354-4330
www.manresarestaurant.com

Short summary: a great meal. However, with all the accolades and such, this dinner was more of a technically precise meal with impeccable ingredients used than a mind-blowing one that has me thinking about it for days. In the end, I respect Manresa more than I love it, but I sure do like it a lot. The restaurant is like one of those beautiful girls that are perfect both physically and mentally, but given a choice between her and your flawed true love, you still have to follow your heart. Manresa is the restaurant for those who follow their brains.

There are very good reasons why just about everyone in the world sings Manresa’s praises. Having one of the most talented chefs in the country heading the place, using only the best-quality ingredients available, classic fine-dining atmosphere and service – it’s only logical. But for me, the whole package can feel a little stiff for a culinary-uneducated individual like myself. The service issue has been debated before by others, and I understand that they’re striving for that 3rd Michelin star (French fine dining standards), but it’s too TTH for me personally. Still, the service is indeed extremely knowledgeable and attentive. Just not as…happy?

But don’t get me wrong – Manresa is an amazing restaurant. Next to my meals at Red Medicine, I’ve never appreciated the vegetable-centric dishes more at a restaurant. Every dish we had was indeed delicious and executed to near perfection from the technique and plating perspectives (except for the loin in the lamb dish – overcooked). The butterscotch dessert was one of the most inspired ones I’ve had this year, but I wouldn’t say that any of the savory dishes had a similarly lingering effect. It’s less of “man this dish was fucking awesome and I need to have it again now” and more of “oh okay that was a very good dish, but it’s supposed to be.”

These little imperfections at a “perfect” restaurant keep it from getting my “perfect” grade. Yeah, this post makes the restaurant sound somewhat indifferent, but that’s because an “A-” is disappointing for what is considered an “A” restaurant that has “A+” aspirations. Still, if you got the money, Manresa is still one of the flag-bearers of New American fine dining cuisine, and should be on every enthusiasts’ to-dine bucket list.

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Red bell pepper pate de fruit, black olive madeleine

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Gazpacho, 25 tomatoes

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Local milk panna cotta, Monterey Bay abalone, breakfast radishes

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Moroccan octopus, summer beans

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Fava bean risotto, porcini mushroom, sheep’s milk cheese

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“Into the Vegetable Garden”

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Black cod, tomatillo, cassava, roasted bone sauce

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Lightly smoked albacore

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Roasted duck, fennel, fig, milk, honey

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Napa Valley spring lamb, dates, olives

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Butterscotch, plum, buckwheat

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Raspberry, chocolate, tonka bean

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Strawberry pate de fruit, chocolate madeleine, cocoa & basil bonbon

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Chocolate brioche

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
American Los Gatos $$$$ A-

Manresa on Urbanspoon

Orenchi Ramen (Santa Clara, CA)

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Orenchi Ramen
3540 Homestead Rd
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 246-2955
www.orenchi-ramen.com

And I thought ramen was popular in LA…

Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara has been dubbed the most popular ramen shop in America by multiple sources (along with ~2600 Yelp reviews). We had to get there over half an hour before they opened at 11:30am just to ensure a minimal wait upon their doors opening for lunch, as the restaurant is quite small (Will said that if we didn’t get there when we did, we would’ve had to wait over an hour). There were all sorts of people waiting – locals, nearby workers, and Asian tourists with cameras (probably where I fit in). But was it worth the wait, especially for someone who slurps noodles on a regular basis?

In a word: yes. By now you all know the drill with tonkotsu ramen – pork-bone-simmered for long periods of time, chewy noodles, slices of chashu, etc. Orenchi’s bowl also includes menma (fermented bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), scallions, nori, marinated soft-boiled egg, and a bit of black garlic oil and sesame seeds. First of all, the broth here is quite fascinating. It’s essentially what we would consider kotteri-style, with plenty of visible back fat particles floating on top. Yet, the base isn’t too overpowering with the heft and the saltiness – quite balanced and refined, actually.

The other components aren’t as memorable as the broth, but competent in their own rights. The noodles aren’t glorious, but they have enough chew and bounce to match the broth well. The toppings are all nice touches, and I actually liked that the black garlic oil wasn’t used liberally, as it’s beginning to get hot at ramen shops, and I feel that more than a little is somewhat of a overkill. But the chashu and egg are especially noteworthy, if for different reasons. The good news: that soft-boiled egg was cooked perfectly. Also nicely marinated. The bad news: there were maybe 2 paper-thin slices of overcooked, lean pork. We also split an order of chicken karaage – not bad.

This is definitely a bowl of ramen worth waiting for, but do go early, for the reasons I gave above, and the fact that they only serve 500 bowls a day (and apparently only 15 servings of their tsukemen). Service is efficient and friendly. The bowls are fairly-priced. Also, I read that they plan to open a second location in the Mission district of SF, and that they’re opening a robataya right next door to the current location (saw some construction while waiting). But they do need to step that chashu game up…

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Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Japanese Santa Clara $ B+

Orenchi Ramen on Urbanspoon

Benu

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Benu
22 Hawthorne St
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 685-4860
http://www.benusf.com/

I wasn’t planning on going too crazy dining-wise during my recent trip to NorCal, as it was around Christmas time, and I didn’t want to splurge after dining out so much during the month and buying gifts for the family. But I wanted to go to one nice place in the city, and I wanted it to be Benu (reservation which Lawrence was able to get on fairly short notice). Besides all the accolades the restaurant has received (i.e. 2 Michelin stars, 4 stars from SF Chronicle) and Chef Corey Lee’s resume (long stint as Chef de Cuisine of The French Laundry), Benu was doing something I haven’t seen any other restaurant do successfully: legitimizing formal Asian cuisine.

Chef Lee, in my amateur opinion, has succeeded in his approach of creating this “Asian Laundry” with a two-pronged attack: 1) he has effectively recreated traditional Asian (predominately Chinese) cuisine/dishes via traditional/modernist Western methods; 2) he has successfully incorporated more obscure/unknown (albeit traditional/household for most Asians) Asian ingredients into cohesive, formal dishes. That’s why Benu has been more than a welcoming sight for the culinary world, as the food that is being served at the restaurant has been able to break down multiple barriers/perceptions that the general public has regarding whether Asian cuisine can find success in the big boys’ world of formal dining, and whether “fusion” cuisine can be taken serious (if it can be called such).

I’m not sure if a la carte is still an option, but on our night there, the restaurant only had the tasting menu available (which we were going to do anyways) at $180/person. I’m not a wine pairings type of person (too much of a noob to truly appreciate it), so we just split a small bottle of Riesling, which went well with most of the courses. A couple of things before I get into the details of each dish. One, the service was on point – expected at a two-star Michelin obviously, but still nice to have each server actually knowledgeable about the details of each dish, and be around just enough without being overbearing. Two, the decor is VERY minimalist. I could care less about decor at a restaurant, but I’ve seen my share of over-the-top restaurants, and the clean look (that more restaurants are adapting) gave the dining rooms more of an airy atmosphere. Now to the food…

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thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

We started with a mainstay of the restaurant, an amuse I’ve seen on plenty of blogs and expected to have. The potage (French for soup/stew) was like a comforting chowder, with a nice hint of ginger.

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oyster, pork belly, kimchi

We were told that this amuse was time-sensitive, as the kimchi “shell” softens. This proved to be true when I began to eat the dish, as the shell dissolved into a soft gelatin rather quickly. Not sure if this was the intention, but the combination reminded me of bo ssam with oysters.

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potato salad with anchovy

Dried anchovies used in formal dining? Get out of town! Something you’d find in the snacks aisle at an Asian market, the dried fish really made this dish work, as a briny potato salad.

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eel, feuille de brick, creme fraiche, lime

I definitely tasted the eel within the filo pastry here, but the filling didn’t really have that eel flavor I was expecting (though I can’t really put into words what I was exactly expecting). The creme fraiche with lime helped cut down the slight greasiness.

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monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, broiche

What would be the Asian approach to foie gras torchon? A torchon made from ankimo, duh! This was truly an awesome dish – the torchon was creamy and liver-y, and paired well with the persimmon. The accompanying cute broiche was great, too. Really made me miss foie, but if more places can pull off something like this, then I can live easier.

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sake lees, chestnut, satsuma

Effective intermezzo. Enough said.

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abalone quiche, caviar, rousong

This tasted like a quiche, but the appearance gave me the impression of a tart. Again, an Asian market aisle dweller (rousong, which I used to eat straight out of the container at work) makes an unexpected appearance. Its saltiness and flavor didn’t really add much here, however, with the presence of the caviar. I wished there was more abalone, too.

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salt and pepper squid

This was like a shrimp cracker with salt and pepper flavors and tiny cubes of squid. It was good, but thought that it would’ve been better as a complement to something else.

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lobster coral xiao long bao

At first, I told myself (and Lawrence): “oh this tastes just like a xiao long bao. Okay.” Not the most exciting of comments, right? But I thought about it some more, and the brininess of the lobster coral (roe) hit me, and I realized that not only was this a good xiao long bao, but it was a GREAT SEAFOOD xiao long bao. That is a daunting task to succeed at. OKAYYYYY.

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crepinette of sea bass and shrimp, lettuce, fermented pepper

The crepinette was good, but I actually wanted more fat content from the casing. The star here was the sauce, which reminded me of X.O. sauce.

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duck, cucumber, lily bulb, cherry-black olive, steamed bun

The duck was cooked to a good medium-rare, and it was good, but didn’t necessarily wow me (I can’t remember what the sauce was exactly). The accompanying mantou was nice.

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beef braised in pear juice and charcoal-grilled with winter treasures

This was probably my favorite of the three “mains.” Like the duck course preceding it, there was more sweet than savory in this course, but I found it to be better executed and more balanced here. I have to say, however, that if there was a “weak” link to the entire meal, it was the mains – not as creative/fun in my opinion, but still well-executed and flavors on point for the most part.

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“shark’s fin” soup, dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard

Here was the other mainstay of the menu I expected to see. The black truffle custard sitting at the bottom was rich, but never overpowered the delicious broth made from Jinhua ham (a traditional Chinese execution). The faux shark’s fin was actually the same broth, solidified into a gelatin form – creative.

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shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

The first dessert proved to be more of a palate cleanser for me. Nice and refreshing, especially the shiso sorbet.

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spiced pumpkin, cider sorbet, fruits and nuts

This loosely reminded me of the “eight treasure rice” dessert you’d usually find at the end of Chinese banquet meals. Again, the sorbet here (an apple cider variation) was the star.
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chocolates

I have to say, when we walked away from this meal, I was extremely impressed. But for some reason, it didn’t necessarily directly hit me in the face as one of the best meals I’ve had in 2012. My appreciation for the execution of such refinement and perfection of techniques and combination of flavors (not to mention appreciating the restaurant’s successful role as a culinary pioneer, as previously mentioned) didn’t settle in until I was about going to bed that night. This type of cooking isn’t meant to punch you in the face as if you were in a macho fistfight – rather, it is like a gentle, but deadly, female assassin, killing you slowly and softly via poison. By then, I was lying there on the couch, thinking to myself: “how did Chef Lee pulled off this complete mindfuck!?!” Obviously, I couldn’t go to sleep…

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
American, Asian SF/Financial District $$$$ A

Benu on Urbanspoon

Hachi Ju Hachi

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Hachi Ju Hachi
14480 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070
(408) 647-2258
http://www.hachijuhachi88.com/

My trip to NorCal after Christmas a few weeks ago proved to be not as ambitious as I had initially hoped. For one, I was staying in Mountain View, and destination eats aren’t necessarily the South Bay’s forte. It’s not as if I wanted to make the trek up to San Francisco on a daily basis during the trip. Also, I had just spent a bunch of money on Christmas gifts for the family, and was trying to cut down on expenses (sans one big dinner, which was Benu – post forthcoming). So Lawrence and I scrambled to look for additional places to dine at around the area. He (obviously) suggested Manresa, which I wasn’t down for unless I had my bonus in hand. Scouring various “best of” lists, I found Hachi Ju Hachi on the Bib Gourmand list (“two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less”) of the 2013 SF Michelin Guide.

Hachi Ju Hachi, located in the ghost town known as Saratoga (seriously – walking around Downtown Saratoga on a Saturday night is like being in a dark alley), is a traditional Japanese restaurant. They have sushi, but a) it’s not a sushi bar, and varieties are few, and b) they specialize in hako-zushi (box sushi – something I haven’t had before). This is probably the type of food you’d find in a Japanese home. There’s a kaiseki menu available with advance notice, but a more simple entry into the menu of the restaurant lies in the omakase option (starts at $50). Chef Suzuki will create a menu based on what’s available and good for the night, and continue until we cried mercy (like omakase for sushi restaurants). We have a restaurant in L.A. that takes a similar approach (Wakasan), but judging by the appearance and accolades, I expected better here with regards to ingredients and execution, which was proven correct.

We started with a nasu miso (eggplant marinated w/ miso) topped with yamaimo and dried wakame. It was nice and simple – a good way to pave the way for what was to come. Chef Suzuki then personally delivered the next item – ichiyaboshi, which was mackerel cured and air-dried, then grilled. When serving this dish, Chef was as giddy as a proud father bragging about how well his child did in school, and rightfully so. The flavors were intense, yet never overpowering, and the butterflied mackerel was oh-so-meaty. A matsutake chawanmushi was served around the same time as the fish, which proved to be a smart move. By itself, the chawanmushi was light, perhaps too light (although the matsutake, at the end of its season I think, was fragrant). But alternating between it and the fish, the salty flavor provided a nice accompanying brine.

Next up was a variation of buta kakuni (braised pork belly), where the pork was braised in black rice vinegar. I actually wanted a bit more fat in the pork here (the acidity from the vinegar would’ve gone better with a fattier cut), and slightly less well-done, but it brought back memories of my grandma’s hong shao rou (Chinese “red-cooked” pork). Went well with a bowl of rice, which ended up filling us up (I did sit through a tasting menu at Benu the night before). So we had to put an end to the omakase, to which Chef Suzuki concluded with his box sushi (we were told that it was the standard ending dish). As previously mentioned, it was my first time having box sushi, and to be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the fish-to-rice ratio (probably supposed to be this way though). But I did enjoy it still: Chef’s rice was on the warmer side and more vinegary (think Nozawa-style), and that was actually the right vessel for the salmon/mackerel and the cured kelp. In all, this abbreviated omakase ended up being around $58/person before tax and tip. I feel like this was just the tip of the iceberg as to what Chef Suzuki can do, and I was already enjoying just the tip ;)

Located in Saratoga, I’m sure that most of Hachi Ju Hachi’s clientele are local regulars, and that is exactly the vibe you get from the restaurant. Servers and chefs are all very friendly and inviting, as if you’re entering their home. The patrons seems to be on very friendly terms with them as well, as there was a group of regular seated at the “chef’s table” (it really was so – basically a table next to the kitchen counter) who brought Christmas gifts for Chef’s young daughter, who has her own desk in the vicinity as well. There’s even a playpen of sorts in the restaurant, so that you don’t have to find a babysitter in order to go out for dinner. I don’t think this type of ambiance is achievable in a city like L.A. or S.F., hence Saratoga maybe being the ideal choice for a restaurant like this. But it is a welcoming sight to see for a city boy like myself, and I hope to have an extended dinner at Chef Suzuki’s home again someday.

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Dewazakura Sake Flight ($15)

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Nasu Miso w/ Yamaimo ($6)

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Saba no ichiya-boshi Mackerel, seasoned, air-dried ($30)

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Matsutake Chawanmushi ($10)

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Buta-niku kuro-zu ni Pork belly, black rice ($15 – picture is of 2 orders)

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Sake & Battera Hako Sushi ($12 + $12)

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Japanese Saratoga $$$ B+

Hachi Ju Hachi on Urbanspoon

Anchos Southwest Grill & Bar

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Came here with the Diaz family (Greg and his parents) and Jen on a random Tuesday (since Riverside’s between us and Greg’s parents in Moreno Valley). It was nice catching up with my non-Asian family. Anchos is basically your run-of-the-mill, somewhat Americanized, Mexican cantina-type of place (think Acapulco), with requisite giant portions of dishes. But Anchos manages to stand out due to some solid execution and great service. They even make tortillas fresh (it was flour though), right in the middle of the dining room, and serve them like bread service in addition to the standard chips and salsa (pretty cool).

I ordered the chicken fajitas and chile relleno combination. The fajitas were solid – nothing amazing, but tasted pretty good and went well with the aforementioned tortillas. The giant chile relleno had a very thick batter and was slathered with plenty of cheese and sauce, but ended up working for me. Obviously, I was stuffed after eating so much, and left satisfied. Good thing, because it was a long ride back to West LA…

Chris Hei grade: B-

Anchos Southwest Grill & Bar
10773 Hole Ave
Riverside, CA 92505
(951) 352-0240

Anchos Southwest Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon

Ubuntu

I’ve always fancied myself as a veggie lover despite my love for meats. I was rather excited to eat at Ubuntu after eating at Bouchon and Ad Hoc the day before and ready for some cleansing as well as trying this place in which I’ve heard so many praises about. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; the food tasted like crap.

We decided to get two 4-course prix fixe menus as we weren’t hungry enough to try the tasting menus (probably the biggest mistake I made). 

First courses:

Second courses:

Third courses:


Desserts


Aside from pretty plating, there really isn’t much to write home about for Ubuntu. Ugh. If possible I’d love to try this again but I just don’t know if I will given the number of restaurants in the area.

Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
1140 Main St
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 251-5656