Thursday, June 28, 2012

Anniversary Trip Part 2: Trip Summary

It was such a quick, short trip to Orange County. Originally we planned on staying around the resort, but we ended up venturing out to other parts to meet up with friends. So we ended up not staying at the resort area much. We didn't even get a chance to check out the pool!

As usual, we always eat well in SoCal. I think Korean food still appears to be our favorite and something we always try to hit at least once when we're in the area.

We really liked the resort and wouldn't mind staying there again in the future, and hopefully next time we can stay put and enjoy the resort facilities more.

This was also my last full week of my personal leave before I had to go back to work. It's been fun traveling to Indonesia, Chicago, and Orange County these past few weeks...but I guess eventually I had to go back to reality. :)

We made one quick stop to a Hawaiian shave ice shop in Irvine before driving back to John Wayne Airport. It was surprisingly quite good and so refreshing on such a hot day. And with that, our trip came to an end.

Until next time....

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anniversary Trip Part 2: Tapas, Brunch & BBQ in Orange County

This is a continuation of our Orange County Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here.

K'ya Bistro
1287 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 376-9718

For our first night's dinner, we didn't want to drive all the way to LA, so I checked on Yelp for some good local suggestions and settled on K'ya Bistro - a tapas lounge located not too far away from our hotel. Since we didn't make reservations, we were seated inside - which was fine (if you made reservations, you could reserve seating at their rooftop terrace with sea view). The inside lounge was very noisy and dark, and the tables were very close together.

The prices seemed quite decent, and we ordered a couple things to share. First was the grilled flatbread with hummus and feta. The dish was actually quite good. The flatbread was served warm, but the potato, cheese, and arugula were served somewhat colder. It made for a refreshing dish.

Wild hawaiian ahi poke with onion, seaweed, avocado, spicy soy

The second dish was the wild Hawaiian ahi poke, served with crisp chips. The sweet soy sauce was a bit strong but overall still was a very good dish.

Grilled filet mignon with spinach ,organic polenta, and blue cheese

The filet was not bad for a non-steakhouse place. It was cooked medium and served with polenta, blue cheese, and spinach. We also shared their famous lobster & mushroom risotto, which was probably my favorite dish from this place! It was a bit heavy, so creamy and cheesy, but I LOVED it! :)

Overall we thought the place was pretty good if you like tapas style food, where you can actually try more dishes since the portions are smaller. Prices were not bad although we did end up spending quite a bit because we ordered a couple of things which added up.

Stacks Pancake House
34255 Pacific Coast Highway #110  
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 429-2222

This breakfast place was located very close to our hotel, so after checking the reviews on Yelp, we decided to give this place a try.

A lot of people recommended ordering the Captain Crunch French Toast, and I was so glad we ordered this! The Captain Crunch crust was very crispy, and the inside of the bread was warm and soft. It was really good.

Since I got a sweet dish, Dan ordered the loco moco fried rice. Talk about a heavy breakfast! It was not quite like the loco moco that we got in Hawaii, but it's honestly not too bad. 

We were happy we tried this place; the Captain Crunch French Toast was definitely a winner!

Mo Ran Gak
9651 Garden Grove Blvd 
Garden Grove, CA 92844 
(714) 638-1177 

We always try to get our Korean BBQ fix whenever we're in the LA area. We didn't want to drive all the way to Koreatown, so we found a place in Garden Grove that was rated pretty high on Yelp called Mo Ran Gak. We had to wait around 20 minutes for a table during lunch, which wasn't too long.

Typical to most Korean restaurants, we got a number of ban chan side dishes which were all pretty good. We ordered one of their BBQ packages--$34.95 for 2 people which included thinly sliced beef brisket (cha-dohl-bae-gi), short rib (galbi), and the black pork belly (sam-gyup-sal), as well as a soybean stew and steamed egg dish. We also ordered a side of naeng myun (Korean cold noodle) for only an extra $5 add-on to the BBQ package.

The BBQ package for 2 was definitely PLENTY for us. Food was pretty good, and I LOVE eating the meat with the Korean rice paper (duk).

Overall we liked this place. Quality was similar/comparable to Shik Do Rak, another popular place in Garden Grove. Dan mentioned of another place called Gen that he tried recently that was really good as well. Definitely there's not a shortage of good Korean BBQ place in SoCal. I wish they would have similar places here in the Bay Area!

Next Post: Trip Summary

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anniversary Trip Part 2: Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa

This is a continuation of our Orange County Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here.

The Laguna Cliffs Marriott was probably one of the nicest Marriott hotels that I have ever stayed in. It felt more like a Ritz Carlton than a Marriott. Although I've never stayed at a Ritz, so I don't really know. :p  But it was a really nice Marriott. The hotel had a Cape Cod style, and even though the buildings were a bit older, the whole hotel just completed renovations not too long ago, so everything still felt pretty new.

The one thing we didn't like about the hotel was the forced $29.00 daily valet parking. We tried to look for street parking but couldn't find one, so we ended up doing the mandatory valet parking. The valet attendants all looked very young--made me think that they were on their spring/summer break or something. :p

The lobby area was very nice and there's this glass wall with water trickling down.  The property was not quite beach front but it was close to a pier. Around the area there were other really nice properties such as the Ritz Carlton and the St Regis, and I think those resorts were beach front.

Since we booked via Priceline, we got the lowest level room which was a resort view room. The receptionist asked if we wanted to upgrade to a partial ocean view room for a fee, but we decided to stick with our resort view room.

The resort was actually pretty big. We had to walk a LONG way to get to our room. I really liked the color scheme of the room, beige/soft blue/white, which was somewhat similar to the color scheme at our house. :)

The King bed was HUGE and there's a flat screen TV, desk area, and a small balcony. The bathroom looked a bit dated (maybe they skipped the renovation on the bathroom?) - but it still looked fine overall.

Our balcony overlooked some parking area and the city of Dana Point. We didn't spend too much time outside, but it was nice to have a balcony.

We actually didn't try any of the on-site restaurants, but there was an outdoors tapas/bar area that would be nice for an afternoon snack and drink.


Overall we really enjoyed our stay at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott. We actually didn't get to enjoy the pool.  We ended up venturing out a lot and didn't get to experience the hotel much. The Marriott appeared to be one of the more reasonably priced hotels compared to the other high end hotels in the area, although the downside was that the hotel was not a true beachfront hotel. It's still a really nice hotel and we would recommend it if you are around the area.

Next Post: Tapas, Brunch & BBQ in Orange County

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Anniversary Trip Part 2: Orange County Trip Planning

I am usually the travel planner for my family's travel needs. So when we went for our Mediterranean cruise last September, I booked the entire cruise trip via Priceline, and scored some hotel vouchers from booking through Priceline. We used some of the hotel vouchers to book a stay at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott in Dana Point, which looked like a great resort. As mentioned previously, since we had just gotten back from South Africa, we wanted to go somewhere close for our anniversary, so we thought we would get some beach time in Orange County.

Due to the timing of the trip, we actually tied this trip together with our Chicago trip, so we flew directly from Chicago to Orange County. Because of that, we really didn't plan much for this trip. Actually, I didn't book any activities or restaurants prior to the trip, which was a first in my book! We were just going to take it easy and enjoy the hotel and the surroundings. Or at least that's what the original plan was. :p As usual, we ended up doing a bit more than we planned...he he.

Laguna Cliffs Marriott

Here's the breakdown of our trip:
Orange County Trip Planning
Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa
Tapas, Brunch & BBQ in Orange County
Trip Summary

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicago Anniversary Trip: Summary

This is a continuation of our Chicago Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here. 

Downtown Chicago

The highlight of our trip was definitely the dinner at Alinea. It was such a unique experience, and the food was amazing! We truly enjoyed the experience and would highly recommend it. As we mentioned on our post, we would recommend getting an earlier dinner reservation if you can. For our next trip to Chicago (whenever that is), we want to try Alinea's sister restaurant, NEXT. Apparently reservations are next to impossible to get since they use a "ticketing" system, where you prepay for your ticket in advance, much like a concert ticket. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

We also enjoyed the Chicago architecture tour. If you haven't done it before, I would say it is a fun way to see Chicago.

We always get these two things when we're in Chicago: Garrett Popcorn and Deep Dish Pizza. So definitely add those to your list when you're in Chicago. :)

We also enjoyed all the food places that we tried this time around: Bongo Room's red velvet pancake, RPM Italian (maybe you can rub elbows with Bill & Giuliana), and Churros at XOCOs. Another place that is really famous but we didn't get to try this time is Hot Doug.

What we always notice whenever we're in Chicago is how CLEAN the city is. For such a big city, it is quite a big accomplishment to be that clean. We were blessed with pretty good weather in May for the most part, although it was still a bit chilly at times, but nowhere near the Chicago cold weather in the winter.

That's it for now :)...until next time!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chicago Anniversary Trip: Food in Chicago

This is a continuation of our Chicago Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here. 

Deep Dish Pizza at Giordano's

You can't go to Chicago without trying their world famous deep dish pizza. There are a couple famous places for deep dish pizzas such as Lou Malnati's, Unos, and Giordano's. We decided to go to Giordano's because it was within walking distance from our hotel. We had been before on our previous Chicago trip and remembered it being good, so we decided to go back. We went on a Monday night and the restaurant was packed! We waited for 15 minutes before we were taken to our table.

The pizza took a while to bake, but it's understandable considering how deep the pizza was!  I really liked the pizza, and the dough was very good. It was super heavy and thick, but I really liked it. :)

RPM Italian

I am a big, big fan of Bill & Giuliana and follow their reality TV series, so I was excited to try their new restaurant, RPM Italian.

The restaurant was located pretty close to the Magnificent Mile.  We came around 4:30 PM, so there was no wait at all.  My first impression was just how clean and sleek the restaurant was. The main color theme was black and white--even the servers were wearing white jackets.

I was also impressed by how affordable the dishes were, especially the pasta. They were around $10-$15 each, which is quite reasonable considering how fancy the restaurant was.

We ordered the squid ink pasta which was cooked al dente and tasted great. We didn't order much else because we were supposed to meet our friends for dinner at XOCO.

XOCO by Rick Bayless

XOCO is one of Rick Bayless' restaurant, and it's located just down the street from RPM, next to Frontera Grill, which is Rick Bayless' other restaurant. My friend recommended this place and said their churros were really good.

There was a long line already when we came for dinner, and the restaurant was set up such that you placed your food order first before getting seated. Since we was there with a group of friends, it took a while for the six of us to get seated. And the manager who assigned the seating put us on the bar stool seating area which was not conducive for conversations, even though we specifically asked for a table. He later apologized and gave us free churros for dessert.

We shared the Pepito Tortas which was a short rib sandwich, served on toasted bread. It was quite tasty. We also ordered the Azteca hot chocolate which had a slight spicy kick which I enjoyed.

The churros were served piping hot and glazed in sugar and cinnamon. We dipped the churros in the hot chocolate, and they were so deliciously addictive...warm and crunchy, chocolately, soft and sweet; it was fantastic!

Overall it was a good place, although it would probably be better for lunch as opposed to dinner. Also be wary of the long lines, so come early.

Bongo Room

My friend recommended this place for brunch, and specifically the red velvet pancake. I went during a weekday around lunchtime, and the place was actually quite full, though thankfully I didn't have to wait for a table.

I ordered the red velvet pancake dish, which comes with 3 pancakes, but asked if I could order only 2 pancakes instead, and they allowed it. I waited in great anticipation and was really excited to finally try it.

The pancake was AMAZING! It was probably the best way a red velvet cake could be made into a pancake. It was served warm, and I could really taste the velvety cocoa, combined with the sweet cream cheese frosting and crushed pecan. It was heavenly! I would definitely recommend visiting this place to try their red velvet pancake. :)

Next Post: Trip Summary

Friday, June 15, 2012

Chicago Anniversary Trip: Dinner at Alinea

This is a continuation of our Chicago Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here. 

One of the main reasons I tagged along on this trip to Chicago was because we wanted to dine at Alinea, one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world. I first heard about Alinea from reading a magazine article about the chef who battled tongue cancer and his 3 Michelin star restaurant in Chicago. The more I read about the restaurant and the cuisine, I became really intrigued. The restaurant was also recently featured on Andrew Zimmerman's bizarre food in Chicago.

Alinea is one of the few "molecular gastronomy" restaurants, which is a very modern style of cooking ingredients very uniquely, in a state that we're not used to seeing.  For example: frozen olive oil (vs. traditional liquid version), helium/gas candy (vs. typical soft chew version).

I made reservations about two months in advance by calling the reservation line and was able to get a table pretty easily, although only the 5 PM and 9:30 PM times were available. We took the 9:30 PM reservation since we weren't sure what time Dan will be done with his work. When I made the reservation, they also asked if we have any food preferences or allergies, since they typically serve a set menu.

We actually took the train from the hotel to the restaurant since the red line goes to Lincoln Park, where Alinea is located. The area seemed like an upper class neighborhood with various shops and restaurants. We walked a couple blocks and saw the small sign for Alinea. The building looked very unassuming from the outside.

We were greeted warmly and the host took my coat. We came a bit early, so we waited around 10 minutes and watched the busy kitchen. I was surprised to see that many people in the kitchen. 

We were taken upstairs for our dinner. All the servers wore jackets and looked very formal. The room decor was quite minimalistic and very modern. There were 6 tables in our particular section, and there were several more tables in other parts of the restaurant. What was interesting was that EVERYONE was taking pictures of the food. Usually Dan & I are the odd couple taking pictures before each course, but here at Alinea, everyone was taking pictures.

The sommalier introduced himself and asked whether we wanted to do a wine pairing, to which we said no. :)  We each did get a glass of wine though. The first item that was placed on our table was this ice sculpture with 2 holes on top. There was no explanation on what it was or instructions on what to do with it, so it just sat there for a while.

The waiter then came with our actual first course. The portion was tiny but it was very satisfying. The carrot was in a jelly form, and the combination of the sweetness of the carrot and the creaminess of the coconut jelly and the roe's pop was wonderful. We knew we were in for a great night!

STEELHEAD ROE carrot, coconut, curry

The second course was actually four separate bites. The presentation was amazing! There were four shells with various things inside, and they were all set on this big piece of wood covered with seaweed.
Our waiter explained that the leaf tasted like oyster, which it totally did! The rest of the dish was amazing as well and each bite was unique and stood on its own but they were all similar in a way (seafood).

OYSTER LEAF mignonette
KING CRAB passionfruit, heart of palm, allspice
MUSSEL saffron, chorizo, oregano
RAZOR CLAM shiso, soy, daikon

The waiter then brought this contraption that looked like something I used in my high school chemistry lab. The bottom part had boiling water and the top had dried vegetables. The water would boil and move up to fill the top part and then would drip down again and changed color due to the extraction of the juices from the vegetables. It was very interesting to watch!

Here's a video clip that we took:

So we wondered if the meal would be soup? But then the waiter brought out the actual meal which was mashed scallop that tasted like tofu, and the broth from the boiling water was poured over the tofu.The scallop was really good, and the consistency and texture was very much like tofu. The seafood smell was very, very subtle.

SCALLOP acting like agedashi tofu

Our next course was this funny looking squid served on a metal rod with no utensils. Our waiter explained that we were to eat this by basically biting the squid off from the metal with our mouths. The squid itself was served a bit cold and didn't have a very interesting taste, so it wasn't very memorable to me.

WOOLLY PIG fennel, orange, squid

Our next dish was inspired by a "fish bowl." From the presentation, it totally looked like one. :) The best way for me to explain this dish was a cold, green curry with tuna. The tuna otoro was served sashimi style, chopped in small cubes and served with curry foam and what tasted like creamy/cold coconut milk.

OTORO thai banana, sea salt, kaffir lime

The next dish was probably my least favorite. In fact, I had Dan finish mine. The ice block with the beet/licorice drink had been on our table the whole time -- but it wasn't served until now. I guess they wanted to cool the liquid before we drank it. We were given this thick straw, similar to bubble tea straw but made from metal to drink the juice. I don't like beet or licorice, so the combination of the two was just not my thing :p

ICE beet, hibiscus, licorice

The next two dishes were probably my most favorite ones!! The burn morels was different mushrooms cooked in different ways. Every stone had a different taste. They all had a very smoky/mushroom flavor and were wonderful!!! I just remember savoring each bite and telling Dan this was SO GOOD!

The hot potato cold potato was probably one of Alinea's most popular menu items, and one that has been on the menu since it opened. The portion was actually very, very small. The soup was a cold truffle/potato cream, and to eat this, we were instructed to slide the metal out from the bowl so that the hot potato ball with the shaved truffle "falls" onto the soup, and then we eat both the "hot" and "cold" potato at the same time. The hot potato ball was very warm, soft, slightly cheesy, and the combination of that with the cold potato soup with the truffle was so amazing.

For our next dish, we were presented with this tray of 60+ unique ingredients to accompany our meat dishes. Each ingredient was unique, and so the thought was that we choose one for each bite, therefore creating unique flavors for every single bite. It was really cool visually, and the idea was great. But I actually didn't really enjoy this that much. I don't know what each one was so sometimes I got a "surprise" when the flavor turned out different than what I thought it...he he.

I had the chicken prepared 3 ways, and Dan had the lamb, also prepared 3 ways. The meat was cooked perfectly, and the dish itself was great. I just wasn't sure that I liked the tray with all the mystery ingredients. :)

CHICKEN ???????????

Oh and if you noticed the interesting captions--"Chicken ?????????" and "Lamb ????????"--those were the actual names of the dishes printed on the menu. The question marks signified the mystery ingredients.

LAMB ????????

I love everything with truffle. This one was no exception. It was a small bite size ravioli, filled with this yummy broth--reminded me of an Italian version of Xiao Long Bao. The ravioli literally explodes in our mouth and we could taste the truffle, cheesy broth inside.

BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan

The waiter sprayed some fruit alcohol to wipe our table clean, and it was because the next dish was served ON the table. He brought out several spoons which were placed somewhat randomly (or maybe it was in a particular order) on our table, and then we were told to eat one right after the other with the squab at the very end. I liked this dish better than the "60 mystery ingredients." Almost everything tasted good, and it all blended well together. The squab was cooked perfectly and tasted amazing even though it was a bit rare for my usual liking.

SQUAB inspired by MirĂ³

When I heard the description of the next dish, I knew I would like it immediately. It's basically deep fried brie cheese!!! I love brie, and I love deep fried stuff. So this was the perfect combination. :) The fried brie was served on a cinnamon stick which served a dual purpose: as a stick to eat off of (utensil) as well as an aromatic enhancement to our meal. Needless to say, this dish was really good as well.

Ok, this next course was actually my LEAST favorite (tied with the beet/licorice liquid). It was five different fresh ginger, prepared in different ways. I am not a ginger person and some of it tasted very raw to me, so it was hard for me to enjoy.

GINGER five other flavors

Now we moved into the dessert courses. The first one was very interesting. There was a small bowl in the bottom filled with dry stuff that I couldn't figure out exactly, and on the top was a glass plate with blueberry, macadamia, and cream. The waiter then poured what I think was liquid nitrogen into the bowl which started to bubble up and become this "cold, sweet soup" to be eaten with the blueberry & macadamia.

BLUEBERRY buttermilk, sorrel, macadamia

Our next dish was a balloon!!! It was an edible apple taffy balloon. How cool is that? We sucked the helium out of the balloon, and then chewed the taffy to our delight.

BALLOON helium, green apple

The next dish was the dessert finale. The waiter put a rubbery table cloth on our table and brought out the ingredients.
Blank slate for our dessert course. Note that they put a clean tablecloth on our table
Ingredients - close up

A dessert chef then came out and created an art piece on our table. He "painted" and "painted" and at the end, he took the chocolate shell on the left and crushed it on the table

Here's a video preview to give you a better feel of the experience:

Here's what our dessert looked like at the end. Pretty cool, huh? We ate directly off the table, which was kind of weird. The strong flavors were the tangy strawberry and the subdued english pea. I just randomly grabbed stuff that I saw on the table: white chocolate shells, frozen cream puff, cotton candy, frozen cake, merengue, and flower petals.

WHITE CHOCOLATE, strawberries, english pea

At the end of our meal, we were each presented with our unique personalized menus. I counted and there were a total of 19 courses.

The dinner was fixed price for $210 per person ++. You can substitute stuff if you have any allergies, but other than that, the dinner was pretty much fixed. There's not a smaller course option.

Overall we thought the dinner was excellent, and we both preferred it over the French Laundry. The majority of the dishes were excellent and very unique....of course there were some dishes that I didn't care for, but the overall impression was still superb. The presentation was just amazing, something that we had never seen before.

Our reservation was at 9:30 PM, which was probably the last seating. The dinner took around 3 hours total, so it was pretty late by the time we left the restaurant. I would recommend actually getting the earliest reservation if you can (i.e: the 5:00 PM reservation) as opposed to a later one. The reasons are two fold. First, you will actually finish dinner at a decent time. Second, you will be the first one to see all the amazing presentation and food. For us, being on the last seating, we saw everyone else get their food first, so it took the element of surprise away from us. Although, having read this blog, I probably have spoiled it for you also. :)

We were glad we got to try Alinea, and it was definitely a great way to celebrate our 2 year anniversary!

Next Post: Food in Chicago

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chicago Anniversary Trip: Chicago Architecture Tour

This is a continuation of our Chicago Anniversary trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here. 

We pre booked the Chicago Architecture Tour online which actually cost $6 extra/ticket thanks to Ticketmaster fees. Looking back we should have just ordered via will call and picked up once we got there.

The tour was by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. There were actually a couple other river boats that also do similar tours, but I heard this was the better one.

We sat upstairs, so we could see the views of the buildings. The weather was a bit chilly though, so toward the end of the tour we had to seek refuge downstairs.

This was my third time actually in Chicago, but I had never seen Chicago from the river, and it actually did look very different and was a really great way to see the city. Our guide was very informative and explained the different architecture styles and the history of almost every building!!

I don't remember much actually since it's been too long, hehe, but it was a great way to spend our afternoon and I would highly recommend it! I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking. :)

Next Post: Dinner at Alinea