Cathy’s Picks: 2011 Best Restaurant Dishes

Chefs, Cooking, Recipes, Restaurants By Jan 01, 2012

I tossed and turned last night, my sleep interrupted with quandaries that whirled like a high-speed blender gnawing on a stubborn chunk of concrete.

How could I select just five favorite dishes from 2011 when I’ve tasted at least 50 that I absolutely adored?

What could compete with the roasted pig that my niece Holly Sue and nephew Don (both chefs) prepared for a party honoring my brother and sister-in-law?

They roasted that beauty outdoors in a “pig box” – La Caja China. Every bite o’ that hog was luscious. Mmmmmm.

Orange County is awash in culinary talent, and my palate was treated to sampling myriad world-class dishes. From appetizers to desserts, I downed mouthfuls of perfectly executed dishes, everything from comfort casual to fancy schmancy.

In a list-loving, food-lusting spirit, I’m checking my guilt at the door. I’ll sleep peacefully tonight because I resolved that next year rather than five, I am going to go whole hog and list fifty. Won’t that be fun?

Fried Brussels Sprouts with Chinese Sausage, Cilantro and Sweet-Sour Sauce from Executive-Chef-Owner Amar Santana (Broadway by Amar Santana, Laguna Beach)

This delectable dish turns even the staunchest Brussels-sprouts-haters into devotees.  I hear it all the time, usually in a tone oozing with disgust, how they used to find these tiny cabbage-like vegetables stinky and bitter. Overcooked or cooked in too much liquid, they take on an unpleasant sulfur smell. Their crispness turns soggy. Their spicy-sweet taste turns bland.

Santana cooks them to perfection, halving medium-sized orbs and deep frying them only about a minute, just until tender and starting to lightly brown. He fries the Brussels with slices of lap chong, dried, smoked Chinese pork sausage that is spiked with aromatic spices.

They would be delicious just like that, but he makes them absolutely irresistible by tossing them with a sweet-sour sauce with a subtle vinegary edge. Oh, and a pinch of fresh cilantro.

Pan Seared Halibut with Sweet Corn Puree, Irvine Ranch Vegetable Succotash and Chicken Jus from Executive Chef Jean-Pierre Dubray (Pelican Hill, Newport Coast)

It’s hard to hold back an audible sigh of approval when you taste Chef Dubray’s jus.

Jus, the French word for “juice” refers in this case to jus de viande and the mouth-watering essence of reduced chicken stock. The jus is lovingly tended and enriched along every step of its preparation. Chef Dubray leaves nothing to chance, boosting the flavor of the stock by slow-roasting the chicken bones with a mirepoix of diced carrot, onion, and celery, plus a little garlic before adding the whole shebang to an already-flavorful chicken stock. He often adds the trimmings of fresh porcini mushrooms, or the “flour’ made by grinding dried porcini. After it gently simmers for one and a half hours, it’s strained and reduced to a mahogany-colored syrupy sauce. On the plate, the sauce puddles around a pan-seared halibut filet that is served atop a puree of fresh sweet corn.

Dubray goes to the Irvine Ranch every Thursday to do his produce shopping. The vegetables he used in the dish were purchased there, and the corn he utilized was at its late summer best when I tasted the dish. And the sautéed succotash that served as a hearty garnish showcased a mélange of wax beans, green beans, artichoke hearts and lima beans. Delicious.

Heirloom Melon “Gazpacho” with Yuzu Salted Mango Sherbet from Chef de Cuisine Ryan Carson (AnQi, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa)

Carson uses a variety of modern cuisine techniques in his dishes, but my favorite is the way he teams compressed melon with a fruity-slightly salty sherbet. He vacuum-seals watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew cubes with lemongrass syrup, a process that removes air from the thick plastic bag that encloses the fruit prior to sealing. The process intensifies the melon’s flavor, making the texture denser and the color more jewel-like.

The melon cubes sit in a shallow pool of cold orange “soup” a mixture made by bringing orange juice, lemongrass and star anise to a boil; once strained, a smidgen of unflavored gelatin is added for viscosity.

In the center, a regal scoop of mango sherbet is lightly dusted with his yuzu salt, a concoction made by combining Maldon sea salt and with just enough yuzu juice to cover (yuzu is super fragrant Japanese citrus). The salt-juice mixture sits overnight at room temperature, then is strained and placed in a dehydrator to dry.

The dish is garnished with leaves of micro (baby) basil and tiny arugula leaves. It is served as a dessert, or in a smaller portion as a palate cleanser between savory courses as part of a tasting menu.

Truffle Risotto with Roasted Porcini and Parmesan Emulsion from Executive Chef-Owner Florent Marneau (Marche Moderne, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa)

Teaming the enthralling earthy scent of fresh truffles with creamy risotto is a heaven sent marriage of flavor, texture and aroma.

As part of his fall menu, Marneau featured his mascarpone-spiked risotto topped with a generous amount of thinly sliced fresh black truffles from the Burgundy region of France.

Nutty and pleasingly musky, the truffles seemed the perfect partner not only to the perfectly cooked Arborio rice, but also the fresh porcini mushroom halves. Caramelized in the wood-burning oven, a process that enhances their straight-forward earthiness, the porcini looked plump and whimsical in a glamorous kind of way.

Pan-Roasted Duck Breast with Caramelized Two Apple Salad from Executive Chef Jimmy Schmidt (Morgan’s in the Desert, La Quinta Resort, La Quinta)

Most often duck breast is served thinly sliced; there’s nothing wrong with that but the process limits the area with exterior caramelization to tiny portions. Chef Schmidt cuts the breast into hearty chunks, an approach that seems to make the surface area more accessible – more luscious sweetness and crispness for my fork to pursue.

The raw duck breasts are placed in apple cider brine for eight hours, then slowly pan-seared to render the fat and make the skin brown beautifully and get crispy; they finish cooking in the oven.

The duck is served with an apple salad that provides a just-right contrast to the rich meat. It showcases tart Granny Smith and sweeter Honey Crisp apples and is napped with a cider-red wine reduction infused with fresh ginger and black peppercorns.

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Dubray’s Pan Seared Halibut, Sweet Corn Puree, Irvine Ranch Vegetable Succotash, Chicken Jus
Yield: 4 servings
4 ears fresh corn
2 ounces butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 center-cut halibut filets, about 6 ounces each
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces yellow wax beans, cut into 1-inch long pieces
2 ounces small Blue Lake green beans, cut into 1-inch long pieces
2 ounces fresh lima beans
2 ounces trimmed artichoke hearts, cut into lengthwise slices
2 ounces Campari tomatoes, confit, see cook’s notes
2 ounces Grape tomatoes, confit, see cook’s notes
About 1/4 cup chicken jus, see cook’s notes
Garnish: microgreens and popcorn sprouts
Cook’s notes: To confit 20 to 30 small tomatoes, place them in a single layer on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and top with 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves. Bake in a 250-degree oven, about 3 to 4 hours, or until tomatoes are dried halfway through and skins are wrinkled.  For chicken jus, reduce a rich chicken stock to a syrupy consistency.
1. Prepare sweet corn puree: Cut kernels from cobs and place kernels in blender. Whirl until liquid. Place in a saucepan on low heat; reduce, stirring frequently, until all liquid is evaporated, and you are left with a smooth puree. Add butter and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper; keep warm.
2. Prepare fish: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season halibut fillets on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, ovenproof skillet on high heat. Sear halibut on both sides until nicely browned and place in preheated oven to finish cooking, 5 to 8 minutes depending on the thickness. When removing from oven be careful; the handle will be very hot.
3. Prepare succotash: In a large, deep skillet, heat about 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil on high heat. Add beans and artichoke slices. You can also add additional corn kernels to this mixture if you like. Sauté, stirring frequently until vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Presentation: Place corn puree in the center of 4 plates and place halibut on top of puree. Arrange the vegetable succotash around the fish. Add tomatoes. Drizzle halibut with chicken jus and a small drizzle of olive oil. Garnish with microgreens and popcorn sprouts.
Nutrition information (per serving): 501 calories, 48 percent of calories from fat, 26 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 45 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein, 650 mg sodium, 5.1 g fiber
Source: Executive Chef Jean-Pierre Dubray, Pelican Hill, Newport Coast
Marneau’s Truffle Risotto with Roasted
Yield: 4 servings
5 cups vegetable broth, exact amount varies
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 pound halved or quartered stem-on, fresh porcini mushrooms (another variety of fresh mushroom can be substituted)
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
2 or 3 baby leeks, roots trimmed, white and light green portion only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon finely chopped white onion
2 cups imported Arborio rice, imported Italian Arborio preferred
1 generous tablespoon mascarpone, imported Italian mascarpone preferred
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onion, white and light green portion
1 tablespoon whipping cream, a little more if needed for creamy consistency
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Garnish: shaved fresh black truffle
Garnish: smidgen of extra-virgin olive oil
Cook’s notes: Marneau roasts the porcini mushrooms in his wood-fired oven. Most home cooks aren’t lucky enough to have such a splendid oven, so the directions here call for sautéing them in a skillet on top of the stove.
1. Place broth in saucepan; place on low heat. It is helpful to place a 1/2-cup ladle in or next to pan.
2. Prepare mushrooms: In a large, deep skillet melt butter on medium-high heat. Add porcini mushrooms and cook until tender and nicely browned, about 7 to 10 minutes (depending on size), stirring occasionally (reduce heat to low after mushrooms have browned nicely on one side). Add sliced baby leeks; cook an additional 2 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned and tender. Stir in chopped garlic; cook until fragrant but not browned, about 30 seconds. Season to taste. Set aside.
3. Prepare risotto: In a 6-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter on medium heat. Add onion and stir to coat. Cook onions until soft, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat. Add 1/2 cup warm broth and, stirring constantly, cook until almost all of liquid disappears. Add another 1/2 cup warm broth and stir constantly until almost all of liquid disappears. Repeat process, adding 1/2 cup broth at a time and stirring constantly until all broth has been added (and cooked until liquid disappears); do this until only 1/2 cup broth remains. Add last 1/2 cup broth and cook, stirring, until about 2/3 of the liquid disappears. Rice should be tender, but with a little resistance in the center. Add mascarpone and stir until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano and green onions. When mixture is a good consistency, neither too wet nor too dry, stir in whipping cream, salt and pepper.
4. Divide risotto between 4 large, shallow bowls. Place pocini mushroom-mixture on top. Using a truffle cutter, shave truffle on top of risotto. Drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil and serve.
Nutrition information (per serving): 300 calories, 49 percent of calories from fat, 16 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 30 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 920 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Source: Executive Chef-Owner Florent Marneau, Marche Moderne
Schmidt’s Pan-Roasted Duck Breast with Caramelized Two Apple Salad
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 quarts apple cider, divided use
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
4 large duck breasts, trimmed of excess fat, lightly scored or cut through the skin in a cross pattern without cutting into the duck meat, to release the fat when cooking
1/2 bottle red wine, preferably Pinot Noir or Syrah
1/4 cup artisan apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup snipped fresh chives
2 skin-on Granny Smith apples, 1 cut into wedges, 1 cut into fine julienne with a mandoline, divided use
2 skin-on Honey Crisp apples, 1 cut into wedges, 1 cut into fine julienne with a mandoline, divided use
Sprinkling of granulated sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a large, nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar, kosher salt and 1 quart of apple cider. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the peppercorns and sliced ginger.  Allow to cool completely.
2. Place the duck breast in a shallow nonreactive pan and cover with the brine. Refrigerate for 8 hours.  Remove the duck from the brine and pat dry with paper towels; discard brine reserving ginger slices. Keep duck refrigerated until ready to cook.
3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large saucepan, combine the remaining apple cider, red wine and the ginger slices from the brine, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced to coat the back of a spoon, about 20 minutes. Pass through a fine sieve and reserve the liquid.
4. To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl combine half of the cider-wine reduction and the apple vinegar.  Whisk in the olive oil.  Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.  Add half of the chives.
5. In a nonstick skillet over low heat place the duck breasts, skin side down.  Allow to slowly cook the skin while the fat under the skin is rendered out, the skin will turn golden while the meat is barely cooked. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook until done, about 8 minutes for medium-rare. Carefully remove the pan from the oven remembering the handle is very hot. Remove the duck breasts from the pan and allow to rest for 3 to 5 minutes before serving.
6. Return the skillet to the burner over high heat. Add the apple wedges with a sprinkling of sugar; cook until caramelized, about 3 minutes.  Turn the wedges over to caramelize the other side, about 2 minutes. Add the reserved cider-wine reduction and remove from the heat. In a large bowl combine the julienne of apples, the remaining chives and vinaigrette; toss. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper; toss
7. To Serve: With a very sharp, thin knife cut the duck into thin slices across the grain (or cut each breast into 3 or 4 “chunks”).  Arrange the caramelized apples in a circle in the center of the plate.  Stack the duck slices atop the mound. Spoon a little of the apple juices over the duck.  Toss and position the apple salad at the top of the plate.  Serve immediately.
Nutrition information (per serving): 602 calories, 51 percent of calories from fat, 33 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 854 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Source: Executive Chef Jimmy Schmidt, Morgan’s in the Desert, La Quinta Resort,  La Quinta

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