Another year, another list of favorites. This compilation contains two types of lists— one for cocktails and one for dining. I recount my most memorable sips, then jump right into my fab five restaurants.
5. Bourbon for Breakfast from The Corner
If the “hair of the dog” is supposed to cure your hangover the next day, consider this its evil cousin. Hel-lo, 102-proof Medley Brothers bourbon! We enjoy your hint of cocoa, which blends well with earthy NOLA Coffee Liqueur from St. George—its chicory component being the inspiration for this cocktail. Our brief moment of caffeine buzz is thwarted by the complexities of Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth. Contributing to the breakfast theme is that bit of sweet maple. A twisty lemon peel makes it almost approachable, but beware of bitters ahead. This modern marriage of Manhattan and espresso is a stiff drink. Sipping and conversation are recommended, as well as an order of those 48-hour fries Chef Chris Grodach is legendary for.
4. Poke and a Smoke from 25-Degrees
Justerini & Brooks Scotch Whiskey makes way for a pleasing poke of Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur. Thankfully, its heat isn't overpowering. We pick up hints of fruity flavor, probably from the smoke of apricot bitters. To balance out an intense vibe, it's finished with grated lemon zest. Served simply, the quirky cocktail packs enough punch to keep anyone coming back for more.
3. Bloody Mary Cart from Fig & Olive
“Do you like it spicy?” said the manager, in his noticeably French accent. After I responded in the affirmative, he went to work assembling our beverage. Belvedere vodka, Peligroso tequila and Tanqueray gin were part of his arsenal. Depending on his mood, you may end up with a Bloody Maria— tequila, Sriracha, diced jalapeno, lime juice, chili rim and olive finish. If that's not your fancy, ask them to pour from carafes of orange or grapefruit juices. Our second round included a celery salt rim, sliced cherry tomatoes and cornichons. The wine glass is a nice touch, but proceed cautiously when taking a swig. It's completely made to your liking, making it a winner in our book.
2. Ortica Vesper from Pizzeria Ortica
A grappa-based cocktail isn't the first thing that comes to mind when ordering. But push those boundaries a little (it's the point of the drink). A barrel-aged blend of Candolini Classica and Candolini Ruta, this alone is still pretty harsh on the throat. The awesomely named Aristotle Altstaetter and his boss, head bartender Joel Caruso, factor in Contratto Vermouth Bianco and Lillet vino, plus a bar spoon of small batch tonic. He gives it a shake, shake, shake over ice, finishing with a peel of lemon. The result: Unexpected balance. Vesper is smooth as silk.
1. The #1 cocktail from The Back Room at Mr. BBQ
Only available within the confines of The Back Room, they are named simply by number. A supremely well-balanced sip, you'll be impressed by this complex potion of sorts. Your foundation is infused with apple and tarragon. Fruity Lillet Rose wine adds a burst of flavors, while house-made orange bitters and crimson tea syrup jump in for good measure. Frothy egg whites and a zing of lemon bring it home. Gorgeous presentation is a bonus! Think of The Back Room as your appetizer. Maybe by then, your pager has finally gone off.
And now, the restaurants:
5. TAPS –
I used to say that the only thing preventing me from going to TAPS more often was its distance (and subsequent traffic). Well, that changed as soon as Irvine opened its doors. From their memorable brunch spread that includes a pint of beer, to a happy hour that kicks off at 2 p.m. (!!), my biggest struggle is remembering to bring leftovers to work the next day. While I didn't write up a cocktail from here, my preferred place to sit is at the bar. Hands down the best dining option at The Market Place. Order the Farmhouse pizza for roasted garlic, mushrooms, house ricotta, heirloom spinach and that hen egg. If the powers that be are reading this, please retool the fish and chips and put 'em back on the menu.
4. The Coconut Truck
To be honest, I almost didn't consider a luxe lonchera, until I had the pulled pork taro fries from Makara and Chad's colorful truck. Already named by us Weeklings as best in class, their Cambodian cuisine was something I didn't realize was missing from my life. Hell, they make a damn tasty chicken rice bowl as well. Their menu pairs nicely with a good brew, as I've seen them roll up to Noble and Bottle Logic for service.
3. The Back Room – Fullerton
Surprisingly found on both lists, this relative unknown is part of Premium All You Can Eat Korean spot Mr. BBQ. Despite cranked up air conditioning and an extra dark dining room, this soju-driven bar makes the wait next door much more tolerable. Chicken wings take the longest, so request them if they're on the specials board. The menu's already gone through at least one update since my first visit, yet their cocktail list remains solid. Snack on a plate from neighboring Masterlink Sausage, or slurp a bowl of steaming mussel and clam soup.
2. EATS Kitchen + Bar –
Jason Montelibano was under the radar his first few months over at Hotel Irvine, as he shaped the menu at this corporate gastropub. Open a year ago this month, he manages to integrate Asian and other ethnic flavors without sticking an Irvine price tag. Montelibano rotates options with the seasons, but delivers a diverse selection of small bites, shareable plates, burgers and house specialties. He keeps things modern and upbeat in an environment more conducive to being bland and stuffy.
1. Tackle Box – Corona del Mar
My favorite spot this year is down at the beach. Big CDM beach, to be exact. Brian Huskey's quick casual concept has us happy as a fried catfish roll. While seafood is featured, it isn't pushed hard. Cranking out both a breakfast and lunch menu, you'll enjoy a peaceful oceanfront property during the week. Creature comforts like buffalo cauliflower and Cali cheesesteak are worth the wait, as this former Top Chef alum prepares each dish to order. This is how everyone should spend a leisurely afternoon lunch.