So, with awareness of the uphill battle that lies ahead, the PR and marketing folks behind South Coast Plaza invited a dozen or so bloggers and journalists to check out the various eateries, hopefully elevating the shopping center and the county's food cred. And, having already had a plesant meal at Marché Modern in the past and curious about checking out Charlie Palmer and Pizzeria Ortica, I accepted their generous, and gluttonous, offer.
Since I pull a 9-to-5, I was unable to check out their first stop at Hamamori around 3 p.m. and joined everyone else at the NapaStyle shop, where we sampled some of their signature salts, olive oils alongside wines from Michael Chiarello's winery. All of them were pleasant and quite a bit of a surprise, actually. The wines, made from big red varietals like petit syrah and zinfandel (and named after his family), were shockingly smooth and silky and easy-to-drink right out of the bottle. Meanwhile, the various nuances that were coaxed out of the different salts and the oils will definitely disarm notions of what salt and olive oil should taste like (personally, I was most fond of the intense, zingy Hawaiian red salt while the majority of the others were ga-ga overed the truffle-infused one.)
Afterwards, we were taken to Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's, where we were led into their chic basement wine cellar for a few cocktails while the sommelier demonstrated CP's e-wine-menu, which slices and dices their wine selection pretty much any way you want (by region, varietal, price-point, paired cuisine, etc.) to find that perfect glass. The drinks definitely impressed, being a wonderful mix of flavors driven by quality spirits and fresh fruits and herbs. My favorite "tastings" included the Blackberry Beso (which I dubbed "Gin Thyme" before I had a chance to see the menu) and the Spicy Seduction, with Ketel One vodka, peppers, citrus with a candied jalapeno (a hot drink in more ways than one!)
And I'm definitely glad to find out about their happy hours, when all cocktails, beers and wines by the glass are half-priced from 4-7p and 10p-closing every day! I felt the cocktails were worth their $14 price tag, but $7 is a definite deal for something so fresh and handcrafted.
Shortly after drinks came the "small plates tasting" -- though the publicist forewarned us that the kitchen's interpretation of small is usually anything but. Sure enough, exec. chef Amar Santana (whose voice bears a semblance to Wolfgang Puck's) sent out quite a few plates of food, from sliders to crispy risotto cakes to steamed mussels with saffron aioli. My personal faves were the bone marrow with sweet raisin marmalade and the burrata with arugula pesto and roasted baby tomatoes (I actually liked the tomatoes more than the cheese!)
Lastly, desserts and coffee at Marche Moderne, and we were treated to several sweets, nothing that I'd complain about, including delicate green tea and apricot macarons and a sugar-coated beignet with orange creme anglaise. Adequately hypered up from all that sugar and caffeine, I drove back home to sleep with sweet dreams (many other bloggers actually took the PR folks' offer on a night's stay at the SCP Westin.)
Next morning I woke up early, got my workout in vain hopes of undoing some of the previous night's caloric damage, then headed back down in time a continental breakfast at the rustic-yet-refined looking Pinot Provence. The spread, which included a popular smoked salmon plate that disappeared almost instantaneously, was decent, and we had a good time listening to exec. chef Lauren (Lu Lu) De Rouen talk about her culinary career and journeys while waiting for the coffee to jolt us awake on Saturday at 9 a.m.
Following the eye-opening meal, we stopped by Pizzeria Ortica, David Myers' place of much acclaim, for a pasta-making session. Exec. chef/partner Steve Samson and pizza/sous chef Zach Pollack pretty much demonstrated how pastas are made from start to finish, making the process of dough-making, rolling, folding, filling, storing AND cooking look like a breeze (though I'm sure if I tried to replicate at home my own kitchen I will just wound up with a floury mess of nuclear fallout proportions.) But at least I learned that if you're going to make up a pasta name, say it confidence (and possibly a mock Italian accent!)
Obviously, the best part of all this is tasting the resulting pastas; the one I adored the most was the sweet-nutty-savory pear-pecorino raviolis with a brown butter-sage sauce (right). Very subtle and very sublime.
And since the place IS called Pizzeria Ortica, we couldn't get away without trying a slice. So the gracious Zach lit up the wood-fired oven and popped up a couple of marvelous margherita pizzas with a lovely crust that's crispy char on outside and chewy within.
Since so many of us are LA foodbloggers, the OC restaurants were well aware that this is one of few chances to leave an impression with us -- which meant more food swag than I've ever received before, ranging from beans, a half-bottle of wine and a T-shirt at Pizzeria Ortica, a canister of gray salt and a bottle of blood orange-infused olive oil at NapaStyle, macarons from Marche Moderne and a $25 gift card for a return visit at Charlie Palmer (I'm barely scratching the surface here!)
And, as an added perk to get folks to swing down and share the word, the SCP folks also extended $100 gift cert offers for frequent live-tweets and prompt post-event blogging. Being a bit erratic with both, I already knew I wouldn't be timely or regular enough to qualify (tweeted less than 10 times throughout my stops -- and WAY past overdue with the blogging), but wound up getting extended the offer anyways. So there's THAT extra long disclaimer for you.
But wrapping it up, I know OC foodies who seriously make frequent drives up to LA for fine dining and never bat an eye at some of these places, which I dare say hold their own against some of the LA restaurants of similar style, ambience and price-point (and in some cases, even better quality for the value!) And even though we were treated to every meal here, I'm definitely left with positive enough an impression to make a return trip to do a foodventure on my own dime.
And you can certainly expect me to be that person to go "Well, not exactly . . ." the next time someone decides to unilaterally bash on mall eats. Ditto for the person who gives me the "What's there to eat in the O.C.?"
P.S. Thanks to E*star for saving my butt with the NapaStyle and Charlie Palmer cocktails photos, inadvertently lost about a 100 when uploading (and forgetting to double-check before deleting from camera... *sigh*) But the rest of my photos on flickr here.
P.P.S. speaking of other bloggers, here are a few other reports on the same excursion (including that Hamamori first stop that I missed) from E*star, FoodGPS, Gourmet Pigs, Pleasure Palate and Cork&Rind
3333 Bear St
Costa Mesa, CA
Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdales
3333 S Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
3333 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
686 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
650 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626