It's been exactly five years since I was given the honor of writing restaurant reviews for this fine paper. In that time, I've been to what I estimate is about 300 restaurants. I'm not going to start rattling of my favorites, because, well, I and your other humble Forkers already do that with our weekly "10 Great", yearly Best Ofs, and other lists.
In the time that The Retreat was in business, rock-star-by-night, sushi-chef-by-day Cody Requejo produced Japanese food worthy of Iron Chef while his buddy Dave Mau put out BBQ lunches and whatever else he thought was tasty that day. But when The Spa went belly up, so did The Retreat. These days Requejo is reportedly working for Bear Flag Fish Company while Dave Mau still does his Dinners with Dave events at Memphis at the Santora.
Being the darling of Chowhounds and serving great Mexican seafood wasn't enough to save Mariscos Puerta Esperanza. It was situated in a strip mall as most things in Orange are, but in a particularly bad location that wasn't street facing and was notoriously buried from view. The best dish was pescado zarandeado robalo--a whole striped bass, gutted, butterflied and splayed open, the width of an atlas, imprisoned inside a metal rack, placed above a grill, and flipped over and over with a technique that suggested a beach-bonfire cookout.
Blanca was one of the restaurants caught up in the ill-fated, ambitious mess of the Mor Project (read here for the full sordid story on what happened). Chef Nicholas Weber and his amazing crudo creations were the casualty. It was one of the first and so far the only restaurant in OC that focused on the Italian version of sashimi, which included one that had thin-as-a-filament wafers of crispy Serrano ham, spicy Espelette pepper sauce, gazpacho vinaigrette and parsley sprouts topping bite-sized slices of raw fish.
2. May Garden.
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Known to most as an old school chow-mein and sweet-and-sour chicken joint, Chef Eric Shin quietly prepared faithfully authentic Taiwanese dishes on a secret menu to those who knew to ask for it. May Garden has now been replaced with a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, but I'm still looking for a worthy substitute to his "Queen's chicken", which was served cold, bone-in, with its floppy skin jellied and meat tasting of the sweet and alcoholic marinade that permeates down to the bone.
Hidden Kitchen was just a temporary experiment by four friends (none with much restaurant experience) at operating an eatery for two nights a week at the Rooster Cafe. It was, for all intents and purposes, one of OC's first pop-ups. But since all the principals had day jobs (two were medical doctors) plans for a more permanent restaurant never materialized. But I still remember the moist, pan-roasted Atlantic cod they served me as it sat on a bright, chunky tomato sauce with white wine, chile, pine nuts, currants and olives. There was sincerity in each bite as if it were also an ingredient.