Sunday, April 01, 2007
The OC and I have a complicated relationship, going all the way back to my college days at UC Irvine. Irvine was not my first choice of school - in fact, it wasn't even on my radar screen, but after a long ordeal - the details of which I will not bore you with - it is where I wound up earning my degree. The full effect of the Orange Curtain wasn't quite as obvious then. The area wasn't quite as upscale as it is now - but it was always wound a little tighter than San Diego.
As much as I hate the cookie cutter atmosphere - a result of the ubiquitous iron fist of the Irvine Company - I have to admit there are some things to like. For some reason, Orange County-ites are blessed with more shopping and dining options than we have here in San Diego, including a number of chains that we don't have - most notably Houston's and it's various incarnations - Bandera, Cafe R&D, Gulfstream, etc. Don't get me wrong - I am not saying we need more chains in San Diego, but it wouldn't be a bad thing if some of the ones we do have were replaced with some better ones. I can virtually guarantee that if you opened a Houston's somewhere out here in the East County it would become the new Brigantine, so crowded you couldn't get near it
Orange County also has the lovely little burg of Laguna Beach - notable for the fabulous Pageant of the Masters, as well as the television show named after it. (Aren't you glad Lauren finally dumped that loser Jason??) And of course, who doesn't like Disneyland?
This trip to the place I love to hate was motivated by three purposes, to visit a couple of stores, have lunch with my parents who were up there visiting, and see my friend Patty, who just had her second baby - a gorgeous little munchkin named Connor.
My first stop was the Crate and Barrel in South Coast Plaza, to check out their outdoor furniture. I love that this store is directly next to the parking lot - very convenient for dashing in and out. It's a two story behemoth, stocked to the gills with every Crate and Barrel product and a full furniture selection. We're actually getting on in San Diego this fall, at the UTC mall.
After that I was planning to meet my parents for lunch - but they were running a bit late, so I headed over toward Fashion Island to the new Sprinkles cupcake store - in the Corona Del Mar Plaza just south of the mall. This little mini-mall is sort of a turbo yuppie center, with a Gulfstream restaurant, Sur la Table, Bristol Farms, and of course, Sprinkles. When I arrived around 12 PM, there were a few people in line, but nothing outrageous. I went ahead and ordered my cupcakes, and decided to come back and pick them up so I wouldn't have to tote them around.
I then went over to the Bristol Farms and roamed the aisles, snarfing up samples. I had ham and turkey, which I coupled with the jalapeno cream cheese and crackers at another station, a chocolate madeleine, fresh ground peanut butter and jelly, and some cheese and crackers. A yummy snack.
Next stop was Sur la Table, where I fawned over this Mario Batali dutch oven, and looked for the pastry mats that we used in my class this week - they're used to make those decorative strips you see around fancy cakes, where there's a chocolate pattern in the cake. They didn't have them, but I snapped up a mini-popover pan and a marble pastry board that seemed a bargain to me at $39.95. (I've been meaning to go to a stoneyard to pick up a sink cut for free, but just haven't had the time. )
I then headed up to the Marriott to meet up with the parents. They actually live in San Diego - but are huge Marriott point collectors - to the point where they sometimes go on trips like this one just for the points. I'm generally not a fan of chain hotels, but this one is actually pretty nice - it's been fully remodeled in the style of a W or Westin, with the nice fluffy white bed and stylish common areas.
From the hotel we walked over to the Cafe R&D at Patty's suggestion. When she told me about it she said that it was hugely popular and we should get on the waiting list ahead of time, which I had. I suspected from the look of it that the restaurant was part of the Hillstone chain - as in Houston's - which it turns out it is. Patty was right - it was mobbed when I arrived and put my name in, and by the time we got back there (and we didn't rush) we still had a few minutes to wait.
The menu consists of sandwiches and salads, with a few sides for the table. The simple concept is interesting, but also a little irritating - it's not exactly cheap, and you don't have much choice. I was really surprised there wasn't an option of a chicken sandwich - one of my favorite dishes from the Rutherford Grill menu (dressed with watercress and lemon.) The available options included a cheeseburger, a french dip, a "suburban" tuna salad sandwich, a reuben sandwich, and sides including french fries, deviled eggs, warm potato salad, and I think a regular potato salad. I should have nicked a menu, but I wasn't really thinking.
The salads are basic for the most part. Spinach and chicken with cheese, nuts and apples, ahi tuna tartare, a seared tuna, a steak option, chinese chicken, chopped salad, and one with beets I think. We were eating late and wanted to keep it light - so we decided to split two things between the three of us, a cheeseburger and a spinach salad - and a side of fries. They were fresh and skinny, and the burger was fantastic. It was fat and juicy and dressed with just the right amount of pickle, mustard, shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese, on a tender spongy brioche bun. The kitchen had assembled it and cut it into thirds for us, but ordinarily it comes to the table open face. The salad was also very good, with tender chicken - lots of nuts and cheese and a nice dressing with good flavor - if a little sweet.
Service was mediocre - I didn't like it that they brought the fries well before the entrees came out. Were they hoping we would eat them all and order more? I almost wanted to ask them for some fresh ones to eat with the burger. Instead of refilling iced tea at the table, they wait until the glass is empty, then take it and replace it with a new one. Not a bad idea if they are on the ball, but we sat for ten minutes with nothing to drink.
Someone on Yelp mentions that the name of the restaurant reflects its purpose - as research and development for the remaining restaurants in the Hillstone group. This seems odd, since the menu is more along the lines of a 1950's coffee shop. What are they experimenting with?
It seems to me that the draw of this place is really the atmosphere. The bar in the center creates a lively vibe, and the decor is simple but elegant - a cut above most standard chain restaurants. They have cool roll up doors that allow for open access to the outdoor area, lots of wood, terrazo floors, bowls of lemons and limes on the bar - clearly design was taken into consideration. They serve three meals, breakfast lunch and dinner - all with similarly simple menus. If you are ever doing business in the Newport Center/Fashion Island area, it's certainly worth a look.
Sprinkles also uses good design to sell a product that is really more or less ordinary. That's not to say it isn't good - in my mind, there's absolutely nothing wrong with an ordinary cupcake.
When I returned to the store to pick up the cakes I had purchased earlier, the line was unbelievable. At least thirty people. I waltzed past the line (after taking a photo) and went to the pickup window, where I was handed my bag. I forgot to snag a few of their cool little wooden forks and knives - it's touches like those (and the thin disposable wooden plates) that really make this place interesting. I was scolded for trying to take a picture inside, but there is a photo on their own website.
After picking up the cakes, I headed down to Patty's for a visit. I gave her a box of four, and had intended to buy myself a box of four as well, but it turned out there were five flavors I wanted to try, and well, what's a girl to do? I got red velvet, vanilla, dark chocolate, peanut butter chocolate, and banana.
Patty and I each had a little bite - about a quarter of one, just to taste. When I got home though, it was late and I was on my own... so what did I have for dinner? I think you can guess. I polished off the chocolate one myself, and the vanilla with a little help from the dogs. This morning I woke up a little too late to cook, since James had to head to work. So what did I have for breakfast? Yup, you got it. Remember the Bill Cosby routine? "Dad is great, he gave us the chocolate cake?" There's one left, but three cupcake meals in a row would be a bit much, even for me.
On Chowhound and Yelp there are many complaints that the frosting is too sweet, and the cake too dense. I have no idea what these people are expecting. The fact is that you just can't make frosting out of sugar and butter without a hell of a lot of powdered sugar - it provides the texture. The cake is dense and moist - rather than spongy and light, but that's really just a matter of preference. It's a nice tangy sour cream/buttermilk recipe and stands up better to the frosting than most would. It also lasts a while without getting stale. (Not that I would know anything about that!) Of the five my least favorite was the banana - which was a little tough. The moist dark chocolate cake and frosting were really excellent - and the red velvet and peanut butter chocolate are not far behind. The flavor of the vanilla cake was pretty good too, but the vanilla frosting was really cloying. My dog, however loooved it. He sat down on the floor next to the counter where the box was sitting and cried for more. They do sell doggie cupcakes, but they were tiny, and at $2.50 a pop I just couldn't do it. Grown-up cupcakes are $3.25 a pop. That's bad enough.
After digging around a bit on the internet, I came up with the recipe for the frosting that they use on the dark chocolate cupcakes. Note that this is a different recipe from the one that appears on the can of dark chocolate cake mix they sell. Why I don't know - but I am quite sure this one is better, based on the fact that it contains three times as much chocolate (though it also frosts twice as many cupcakes). I intend to try it soon.
Sprinkles Dark Chocolate Frosting
reprinted from Oprah.com
10 ounces of dark chocolate, chopped
1 pound of butter at room temperature
1.5 pounds of powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1 tsp of pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
Melt chocolate over a double boiler or in microwave and allow to cool until just slightly warm. Beat butter until light and fluffy. With mixer on low speed, gradually add powdered sugar. Add salt, vanilla and sour cream, and mix until very smooth. Add chocolate and mix until just incorporated. Don't over-whip; it will add too much air to the frosting. The consistency should be rich and dense, like ice cream.
Fashion Island - Newport Beach
recommended dishes - the Cheeseburger
Corona Del Mar Plaza location - Newport Beach
recommended - Dark Chocolate, Red Velvet and Peanut Butter and Chocolate - the flavors change daily and there is a chart on their website.
Other recommended stops in Orange County:
Zinc Cafe and Market in Laguna Beach
The Shake Shack - on PCH in Crystal Cove between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach
230 Forest Avenue Restaurant
The new Kate Spade and Anthropologie at Fashion Island - heavenly for the eyes, if not the wallet.