There are no Pepsi Perfects or re-hydrated pizzas a la Back to the Future 2 in this list of top 2015 drinks and eats—just good stuff from the very best places your humble food scribe has had the pleasure to drink and eat at this year. Herewith is my top five drinks and restaurants of 2015.
5. Prego Martini at Prego
My Happy Hour drink of choice at Prego in Irvine isn't the $4.50 draft beer nor the $4.75 house wine, but the drink that bears the restaurant's name: The Prego Martini, a pinkish cocktail whose fruitiness is sweet but never cloying. Since it's essentially just a mix of the blueberry and pomegranate flavor of vodkas from Pinnacle—a brand that I found out later boasts a Cinnabon and pumpkin pie flavor, if you can believe it—it's not really a martini. But the drink does have a splash of cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime, which tastes especially good against the cheese and seafood-heavy apps.
4. Dave's Famous Margarita at Famous Dave's
"Dave's Famous Margarita" is so out of place at Famous Dave's, you kind of have to order it on general principle. It's the first thing listed on their "Award Winning Beverages" list and also happens to be the most popular drink to guzzle with their sticky-sweet-and-smoky meats. It's a normal margarita, made with Sauza Gold and Cointreau and off-the-shelf margarita mix, but it's served in a thick chalice that could double as a sports trophy that's rimmed with enough salt to season a medium McDonald's fries. Most importantly, it's a lot of margarita. As a finishing touch, it's also topped with a shot of brandy that disappears into the drink.
3. The Kettle Cup at Kettlebar
Kettlebar's signature cocktail of the house, The Kettle Cup, has more components than Mardi Gras has beads. The list of things they pour into it goes like this: Capano Antica, Aperol, Brooklyn Gin, Reagan's Orange Bitters, Peychaud's Bitter, and finally, Ginger Beer. What matters is that it's served in a tall, sweaty glass with perfect cubes of ice, and a taste that's reminiscent of a Hawaiian passionfruit-ladened tiki drink with the bitterness of lime zest at the end.
2. Lemon Drop at Bistango
Bistango's Happy Hour isn't where you should settle for just beer and hot wings. What you want are the scallops with risotto, and to drink: classic cocktails like the Lemon Drop, which happens to pair quite well with the shellfish. It's a standard-tasting Lemon Drop using Grey Goose Le Citron, Dr. Swami & Bone, and Day's Sweet & Sour. But for every sip you take from the sugar-rimmed martini glass you discreetly tongued earlier, you realize how sophisticated this simple drink is, even if it is essentially alcoholic lemonade.
1. Sangria Sampler at Lazy Dog
Lazy Dog's house-made sangrias sampler is made up of three good sized mason jars of sweetened wines flavored with pomegranate, peach, and raspberry. The White Peach tastes like a potpourri-scented lemonade; the Raspberry Moscato is like a Hawaiian punch with the alcoholic sting coming at the end; and the Pomegranate Red has the most body, the one that tastes the most like actual wine and perfect if you happen to have ordered a rare burger.
And now, the food!
5. Spencer's Bistro
Spencer's Bistro is not in a location where you'd expect to find anything featuring the word bistro. It's behind a Del Taco in a gritty, treeless parking lot, next to a lawnmower repair shop and a liquor store in a dilapidated strip mall that looks as if it has been around since Elvis topped the charts.Yet on the menu you see confit and velouté, fresh-made pastas and creamy risottos, crudo and ragout. Owner Spencer Kim is the kind of chef who seems to insist on making everything from scratch, even when he doesn't have to. Kim makes his own cheese curds to melt over a mound of fries topped with chicken confit and pan sauce. He makes the graham crackers and the marshmallows for his S'mores dessert. Heck, he makes his own hot sauce!
4. Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana
At Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana, everything that counts comes from Naples. Extra-fine Caputo flour is used to make the dough. San Marzano tomatoes are imported not just because they're required for certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana—a group that designates whether a pizza is truly of the Naples style—but also because they happen to taste the best. But perhaps the most important Italian import at Fuoco is the pizza maker himself. Owner Franco Ceccarelli is so charming he might have stepped out of a Fellini flick. Each pie Ceccarelli produces is bigger than most Naples-style pizza, enough for two. The base margherita features the usual puddles of melted cheese against painterly swipes of tomato sauce. But the keystone is still the crust: ebullient, smoky, wonderfully elastic, and tender where it isn't cracker-thin and crisp. Ceccarelli's crust is the benchmark against which all other OC crusts now get to be judged.
3. Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong
Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong's grills are a work of pure genius: as the fat melts off the pork you sear, it cascades into the well of beaten egg, turning the mixture into the world's best scrambled eggs. On the other side, in another compartment, shredded cheese and corn kernels melds into the Korean bar staple of corn cheese. And when you do get around to eating the pork, the jowls gush juice amid their tender chew and the slabs of pork belly are flawless, rippling morsels of fat you dunk into a saucer of sesame oil and salt.
2. Garlic & Chives
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A shower of golden fried garlic bits adorns Garlic & Chives' salmon-belly dish, already perfect in its own right, but further elevated by it. But it's in these lightly floured, crispy-fried curls of fish that the restaurant has introduced Orange County to its most inspired salmon dish. You don't eat this dish; you experience it with wide-eyed disbelief that salmon could melt so readily in your mouth, as though it were ice cream. There are other appetizers using the salmon, such as spring rolls but it's you have to order the salmon belly first and foremost.
1. Napa Rose's Chef Counter
Your dinner will consist of about seven courses in all, including an amuse bouche, a salad/appetizer course, a fish course, a cup of an ultra-savory soup of some sort, a meat course, another savory course after that, a dessert, and finally, a tiny box of chocolates you'll need to take home and eat two days later because it will take you that long to digest the meal that preceded it. And it's not just a meal that changes seasonally every time you visit; it changes during the same night. The chefs cook individual meals for every member of your party. If you dine with three other people, you will potentially get to sample at least 20 distinctly different dishes. You won't ever see the same dish twice. No other restaurant you might know of that offers prix-fixe meals does this willingly. Napa Rose thrives on it.