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It’s my birthday today, so I’m indulging in a post devoted to chocolate πŸ™‚

As fellow chocoholic Laura Florand will attest, there are countless chocolatiers who craft delectable treats in shapes, forms and combinations that will entice you to try them all. Depending on where I am in the world, I have different favorites, and even those favorites evolve with the arrival of new talent and new discoveries.

I recently discovered Amella’s agave chocolate sea salt caramels, made here in California. If you aren’t sure you like caramels, or sea salt, or dark chocolate, try these. They are not too sticky, too sweet, too salty, or too rich, so if you like a smooth balance of flavors this is the perfect introduction to caramels and sea salt.

I found these at the Conservatory for Coffee and Tea, but if you have trouble finding them, try their website or Whole Foods.

If you are more adventurous, go to John Kelly Chocolates in either Santa Monica or Hollywood. They are also available online or at Neiman Marcus, but fresh is best. These are everything Amella’s are not, with larger pieces (1 oz) and bold rich flavors.

DSC_0013-1The three pictured below are all truffled bites: Dark Chocolate Pink Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt with caramel, Dark Chocolate with Habanero and JalapeΓ±o, and Dark Chocolate with Gray Sea Salt. If you like spicy, they have mild or hot; I chose the hot and loved it, but there is a milder Chipotle and Ancho version.

The gray sea salt interior with rich truffle filling and generous sea salt.

The Pink Alea Hawaiian Salt Truffle bite with a thin layer of caramel.

Of course there is still my favorite all around chocolatier, Madame Chocolat, who will ship her gorgeous glitter truffles throughout the US. I love her regular truffles, even without the glitter πŸ™‚

IMG_3963Her chocolates are the closest to French chocolatiers I’ve ever had in the states πŸ™‚

So many chocolates, so little time πŸ™‚

John Kelly Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Madame Chocolat on Urbanspoon

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Even though school has started for many, the Summer lingers on all year long for adults who live by the seashore. My friend Robin recently moved and I went down past the “Orange Curtain” to see her new place and to spend a day by the pool. One of her friends is living on the beach for the month of August, and as the sun set, we decided to go get dinner. Even though I know and love many places in Laguna, like Sapphire and 230 Forest, I’m always happy to try new places suggested by locals.

After going through a list of possibilities, we were driving up PCH when we drove past Mare and both my friends literally swiveled their heads and said, “Let’s go to Mare”! Since they both thought it was a better place than the other options they had suggested, we pulled into the one remaining parking spot behind the Holiday Inn. Ok, I admit, going to a hotel restaurant, especially a Holiday Inn hotel restaurant is not normally my choice for dinner, but when two local food lovers literally decide in chorus that it is the best idea, I put my skepticism aside and enjoy the journey.

The outdoor space is absolutely lovely with flickering candle lights and a wall of warmth. Triangular canopies provide shade in the day but add a nice architectural feel at night. The style is casually elegant with wrought iron railings and a modern interior. Definitely sit outside if there is a table and wait if there isn’t a table.

The first taste of this bright garlic, olive oil, and parsley dip for the bread was addictive. We ate it so fast we asked for a second plate before we even ordered our appetizers.

The second plate of dip ended up being a zesty sauce for the $13 fried calamari we ordered to share as well. The sauces that came with the perfectly crisp squid were fine, but nothing exquisite, so we asked for more lemon and used the the garlic bread dip as our calamari dip!

Since we all loved carpaccio, we also shared the $14 filet mignon and although the picture does not do it justice, this was a great version of the classic, with quality olive oil and generous arugula, capers, and Parmesan.

I ordered the chef’s special, a $22 spaghetti verde with shrimp and peppers that was the definition of summer on a plate. The home made pasta was cooked al dente, the shrimp were tender and the zingy little peppers added just enough color and pizazz to make the lemon and butter based sauce sparkle. Everyone at the table loved this dish and I would gladly order it again. After the hearty appetizers, I barely made a dent in this bowl of pasta, so it became my lunch the following day, and it reheated to be as tasty as it was the night before.

The friend who was living on the beach decided while we were still in the parking lot that she wanted the $24 limoncello infused radiatore pasta* with Maine lobster, shallots and a pinot grigio sauce. If I had not ordered the special, I would have ordered this delightfully rich sumptuous dish.

My friend Robin ordered the $19 chicken with portobello mushrooms made with a Sicilian Marsala wine served with sauteed spinach and rosemary potatoes. The chicken breasts were tender and moist and the sauce was complex but I felt it need just a touch of salt.

Since all of us barely managed more than two bites of our entrees after eating all of the bread and appetizers, we all went home with lunch for the following day. And even though we didn’t order it for ourselves, one of the friends took home some meatballs for her boyfriend which she said were the best meatballs she has ever eaten. I would have taken an order home if I was not already bursting at the seams with an entree to take home already.

A wonderful night ended with the sight of a full moon as we walked out of the restaurant πŸ™‚

*For people who are allergic to gluten they offer gluten free pasta for $3.50 more or whole wheat pasta for $2.50 more.

Mare Culinary Lounge on Urbanspoon

There’s no “Cronut” here on the West Coast yet, but several places are making a croissant & doughnut hybrid so I decided to try the “Crumbnut” at Crumbs Bakery. Since this bakery originated in New York, I figured they probably had the best chance of making a Cronut facsimile.

There was only one left when I went in at 2pm so I saw that as a good sign, and the Crumbnut itself looked enticing.

Cutting it in half showed all the layers of the croissant like interior. Biting into it I was relieved to find it neither too greasy nor too sweet, but I was dismayed with its slightly salty aftertaste. It’s not supposed to be a savory and sweet pastry like the Kouign Amann. I found this a confusing taste combination because the saltiness did not enhance the flavor as salt does with caramel, instead it detracted from what could have been a good breakfast pastry.

I had to try some of their cupcakes, especially after giving away several party packs with 12 mini cupcakes in assorted flavors for $24 to friends for their birthday. They have “Colossal” cupcakes that truly live up to their name, enough for at least 2 people to share, or the regular sized classic ones that I got this time. The Blackout is chocolate cake filled with fudge mixed with vanilla custard, topped with chocolate cream cheese frosting and chocolate crumbs drizzled with chocolate.

It’s one of their “signature” series with extra frosting in the center. The cake itself was moist, richly chocolate and delightful. I prefer the chocolate ganache of La Provence‘s chocolate cupcakes, but for those who like less densely rich, more creamy frosting, this would be a good choice.

The Going Coconuts, a coconut cake filled and frosted with coconut cream cheese frosting topped with toasted coconut, was my favorite. I remember trying the coconut at Sprinkles, but I hated its dry dense texture. I loved the Crumbs Coconut cupcake; it was perfect!

Just the right amount of vanilla frosting with toasted coconut on a tender moist cake. I might have been able to eat one of the “Colossal” sizes of this one πŸ™‚

Maybe everyone should stick to what they do best. Crumbs makes wonderful cupcakes in flavors ranging from cannoli to s’mores. If I ever go back to NYC I will try the actual Cronut at Dominique Ansel’s Bakery, but I will pass on trying anymore facsimiles.

Crumbs Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

The idea is simple, make Korean inspired fast food. Kogi did it, but Seoul Sausage Company has done it with their own twist and style. Having won the Food Networks Great Food Truck Race #3 (A certificate is prominently displayed by the food pick up area), these guys know how to cook, market, and serve their clientele.Β 

The small storefront off Sawtelle has been open less than a year, but there are already regulars and lines out the door. The vibe is funky Asian, with hip music, kitschy anime toys, and a minimalist decor; you have a choice of eating at a stand up counter inside, nabbing one of the 8 seats at the picnic table outside, or taking your order to go. All the food is either wrapped in paper or delivered in paper boxes. This is an eco friendly place, but with their seven item menu and limited space, do not expect them to cater to your whimsical preferences.

I tried nearly half the menu, starting with their most popular ball, the Flaming Ball with DMZ sauce for $3. It’s a fried ball of rice, kimchi, cheese and served with a spicy dipping sauce.

If you like the Italian arancini di riso, this is a spicy Korean version. It was great plain without the sauce, but if you want to add a bit of spicy creaminess, the DMZ sauce is a great accompaniment.

Because it’s called the Seoul Sausage company, I had to try one of their sausages, so I went for the Galbi for $7. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw them pour a line of wasabi mayo onto the bun, but it wasn’t too much and it added just enough viscosity.

I was pleasantly surprised by the “relish” of diced kimchi at the bottom of the roll, and the bread had just the right amount of “toothiness” to make this a great sandwich. If you love sausages, you will love this version!

One of their specialties is the “Da KFC” served with a kimchi cornbread and pickled daikon radish for $8. A mix of both light and dark meat with a slightly sweet “BBQ” sauce on the bottom of the box, this tasted like a cross between Japanese karage and Chinese sweet and sour. It is an addictive version of KFC, and in this case, I have no qualms about being addicted:)

I thought the cornbread was half the box, but it turns out, it covered more chicken! There was no way to finish this after eating the ball and tasting the sausage, so I saved it to reheat for another meal.

Their menu offers Poutine and Spam, which are both low on my list of cravings, but if their versions are as good as what I’ve tasted so far, they may convert me.

Seoul Sausage Company on Urbanspoon

Sometimes going to the dentist is a great excuse to take a break, especially when the trip involves only routine maintenance and the dentist is Washington Dental in Tijuana. I went early in the middle of the week and was done and back across the border by 1 PM, so I took the opportunity to stop in La Jolla for lunch and some shopping πŸ™‚

My former favorite restaurant in La Jolla Village, Acqua, no longer exists, so I wandered around looking for a place with a view. I ended up at the perennial favorite, George‘s. The top deck was packed, and the lower level was only open for dinner, so I ended up in the much calmer and equally beautiful middle level. When I walked in there was only one other table, but by the time I left the place was packed. I was glad I came “early” enough to get an oceanfront table with this gorgeous view*.

Since the middle level is technically the bar (even though there were kids there because they serve food), one of the menu items that caught my eye was a half bottle of 2009 Montelena Chardonnay for $58. I had never seen wine from this famous** winery on any menu, so I was tempted, but the combination of a half bottle, plus having woken up at 5AM to drive, and having a 2 hour drive ahead was too dangerous!

The special of the day was a yellowtail ceviche which was beautifully presented. Unfortunately the chips were greasy even though they were freshly made, and the ceviche itself left much to be desired compared to places like Flores. The main flavor was citrus and the fish was cut in strange long stringy pieces. Adding some of the spicy condiments helped tremendously. The service was excellent, even after the place got full, my waitress still kept every table serviced. I would say come for the view and some drinks, and perhaps the Niman Ranch burger, which looked fantastic.

Before leaving I had an espresso at George’s to fortify me for my drive north, and even though it came with perfect accompaniments, it came lukewarm. Oh well, the view alone was worth the stop.

After my day in La Jolla, I met a friend at Del Mar’s Taste of Thai. My friend has a gluten allergy, so Thai food is one of the cuisines he can enjoy. We shared a spicy rice noodle with beef and compromised on a heat rating of 5 (I wanted an 8, he wanted a 3). It was a delicious and ample serving, with tender slices of beef and not at all greasy (many places add so much oil to keep rice noodles from sticking that the plate looks like an oil slick).

The spicy duck was equally well executed, with robust flavors. We opted for a 5 heat rating on this dish too, but I thought it tasted more like a 3 (since my friend is a regular and always orders this dish, I think they made it for his taste:).

Even though I was only gone for a day, it felt like a week-end away, so I would gladly go to the dentist again for another “holiday”!
*All the photos from this post were taken with my new Xperia Pro phone, an early birthday present from the ever generous @John8600, merci Jean:)

**Made famous by the movie “Bottle Shock” and as the first California winery to win in a blind tasting against French wines in France. One of their bottles is in the Smithsonian πŸ™‚

Taste of Thai on Urbanspoon

George's At The Cove on Urbanspoon

I went to Paul Martin’s last year to meet a friend who just had a baby, and I went back this year because she had another πŸ™‚ I started with one of their spicy house made Bloody Mary’s for $10, but because my friend is breastfeeding she opted for an Arnold Palmer. I loved the zing of this freshly made cocktail and it was a great way to start off an afternoon!

I chose the special of the day, which was fried chicken with either salad or soup and ice cream. I was very hungry, but when the huge salad arrived my face must have shown my surprise and my waitress said, “Yes, you’ll be taking some of the fried chicken home”, warning me that all their portions were equally abundant. The salad was nicely dressed and included some cherry tomatoes for color.

The ample portion of fried chicken with buttered mashed potatoes was definitely enough for two meals! The good thing was that the chicken was moist, crisp, and well seasoned, so I was happy to eat it and looked forward to eating it again for another meal. Yes, I ate the skin, and yes, it was delicious! *

My friend wa craving protein, so she ordered the pulled pork sandwich with regular fries. It came with cole slaw and fried onion rings on a freshly made bun. She finished her entire meal, but then being a working mother with two young children burns calories better than any exercise program. Our entire bill including tax and tip was about $70.

Since I barely ate half my fried chicken, the waitress kindly waited awhile to bring out my ice cream dessert with two shortbread cookies. I shared with my friend since I could barely manage even a spoon of each just to taste the flavors. The chocolate was my favorite of the trio, but none of it wowed me. If I were to have this kind of dessert I would go to Paciugo just a few miles away in Hermosa Beach.

I think I’m pretty lucky to have had a meal with my friend who has two children under the age of 3 at an adult restaurant without her children….maybe it’s time to go buy a lottery ticket πŸ™‚

* Why would anyone order fried chicken and NOT eat the skin unless it was badly made?

Paul Martin's American Grill on Urbanspoon

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