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Jun 16, 2014 11:34 AM

Introduction to good food in Orange County.

Hi, i need a restaurant recommendation for a nice restaurant for my parents and I to go with my boyfriend. My boyfriend is coming to visit and my foodie self has fallen for a guy who has not really spent the money for a really good meal. My parents see taking us out to a nice dinner when he comes to visit as a way to introduce him to some excellent food.

So basically we need a restaurant with excellent food, a relaxed but nice atmosphere, and prices that won't make my boyfriend feel weird about ordering something nice (I'm thinking $30/plate max), and a robust wine list. The type of cuisine doesn't matter too much, as we are all pretty adventurous eaters.

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  1. The Playground in DTSA. Good food with casual atmosphere. No corkage as well

    1. I would recommend the Playground...but there is potential for serious misses that might forever make a newbie to food think that "that high end stuff is ridiculous".

      If you wanted to introduce someone to the truths of elevated cuisine in terms of what truly masterful technique does to good ingredients, I would say you should go to Taco Maria. The atmosphere is still casual, and the wine list is much more robust than it is at the Playground.

      I have a feeling your parents would also enjoy it more.

      Of course it is $52/person before tax/tip. Not sure if that's too high, but a $30 entree place would seemingly be the same, or more per person I imagine.

      Your only real options are Playground and Taco Maria at least you have a somewhat simple choice to make.

      Do you have any idea what kind of food your boyfriend currently likes?

      21 Replies
      1. re: BacoMan

        Baco, have you been to Marche Moderne for dinner? I've just been for their 25 dollar lunch special.

        To the OP, that could be worth looking into. The vibe isn't great (its in South Coast Plaza) but Gold raves about it.

        1. re: set0312

          I guess that's true...

          I've only been for lunch as well (though not for $25 special).

          The vibe actually isn't really that bad, maybe a little stiff I guess, but seemed ok to me.

          Hmm...I suppose it's an option. I guess it was an enjoyable meal. Recall it costs about $225 for 4 people (including tax + tip).

          I don't remember it being that mind-blowing. I definitely would say that the food was better at Taco Maria. The food is also usually better at the Playground as well. But MM is really...idk...French. It's hard to say if it would ignite a neophyte's passion for food.

          I haven't been since last year though. The sweet spot might be that lunch option.

          The dinner offers a 5 course meal for $95. That's nearly twice Taco Maria's price. I doubt the food justifies it. From what I recall, Taco Maria's food was a grade above MM's.

          But I should go back I guess. My tastes have evolved a lot over the past year. And J Gold did put the damn place higher on the list than TM or PG...

          But if the meal is a dinner, I just don't see the point in choosing MM over TM.

          1. re: BacoMan

            Totally different types of places. MM is a bit older in vibe and a bit less casual.
            French food has also been known to ignite food passion time and time again.

            Other choices: Pizzeria Mozza; Cucina Enoteca (may be good for less foodie types); Ways and Means; Arc; Tamarind; Mastro's (expensive steakhouse). These choices are more traditional in nature. MM is also a grown up restaurant if that means anything.

            1. re: Searching4Dunny

              Mastro's although very good is very expensive. With decent wine it will easily push $130-150pp.

              1. re: Searching4Dunny

                Pizzeria Mozza would actually not be a bad bet here. I completely forgot that there is one in OC now. That would probably be my frontrunner at this point.

                idk...I've never met anyone that really loves French food beyond croissants and bread I guess. Most people have never bothered to eat French, and it's unlikely that a neophyte has been eating relatively poor quality French food his whole life, as opposed to, say, lower quality pizza maybe. So what is there for the neophyte to compare when he has an excellent French meal? Compare that to the experience of having Pizzeria Mozza's pizza for the first time.

                But I guess anywhere could work.

                Arc could be ok, but I've not found it to be that impressive beyond the immaculate burger really.

                1. re: BacoMan

                  I don't think you need to have a prior experience with a cuisine to enjoy it. Needing to have a basis for comparables seems to imply that enjoyment of cuisine is simply an intellectual exercise where one derives enjoyment primarily from comparing and ranking amongst prior experiences. I think this cuts out a substantial swath of the eating experience where encountering new flavors/textures/etc. can incite a passionate response. This also broadens scope and experience of the diner. Then there is the service/room/intangible aspects that play into the overall dining experience one seeks when they are planning a special night out.

                  1. re: Searching4Dunny

                    "substantial swath of the eating experience where encountering new flavors/textures/etc"

                    Right, but French food, at least the kind served in America, won't be introducing much of that really. It's fairly familiar in terms of the actual flavors, and textures. Compared to, say, going to eat Thai food for the first time.

                    "service/room/intangible aspects"

                    Hmm, yeah. I pretty much totally ignore these aspects myself. The OP originally seemed to specify that this was all about the food by saying the guy hadn't spent the money for good food, and this would be a way of introducing him to it. i wasn't thinking that she meant he was eating in places that were too low-class or something. I guess I might've just missed that part. Obviously Marche Moderne would be a great choice then.

                2. re: Searching4Dunny

                  I would suggest Ortica over Mozza if you wanted to do Italian

              2. re: BacoMan

                As you know, I love dinner at Taco Maria, but I'd worry about the menu being too limited and unusual for some folks. And I think that Playground could be problematic for others.

                Marché Moderne at lunch would work...and possibly The Ranch in Anaheim, although price may be a bit high. They do have a great wine list!

                1. re: josephnl

                  Wow...if the menu at Taco Maria is too weird for someone, I imagine getting them into food is a lost cause. However much I enjoyed my dinner there a couple of days ago, I would not have said there was anything unusual about my meal. Maybe the fact that the chorizo was made out of mushrooms?... But that's just a fact. The actual flavors and textures of the dish were not weird at all. What do you have in mind as being weird there?

                  1. re: BacoMan

                    Lamb consumme (with the birria/lamb chop dish) may not be to everyone's liking. Cracklings also may pose problems for some. Caviar (served with the fish) as well as squid ink may discourage "neophytes" (as you say).

                    None of these are that crazy for those that have more seasoned palates but could intimidate less adventurous diners when they have limited control over menu choices.

                    1. re: Searching4Dunny

                      Sadly, I had none of that in my meal there except for the caviar, which was almost entirely undetectable. And we ordered the entire menu (technically, I think they were out of the squid though).

                      I think they may be going in a significantly less adventurous direction with their latest menu change. Very sad for me, but good for neophytes I imagine.

                      1. re: BacoMan

                        Baco I hope they don't trend that way. I think the aguachile is a very bold dish for neophytes. Spicy, peppery. Intense. Raw.

                        And the squid ink dish is relatively bold? It seems like something that would be served at Animal or SoaG

                        1. re: set0312

                          That's just how augachile is isn't it?

                          I guess that's true. But you can also order a plate of what amounts to tomatoes and cheese that is both very good, and not really bold. Actually, of the two, I feel the tomatoes would be more apt to change a neophyte's world than the augachile would.

                          I did forget about the augachile, but in my meal there, that was the only dish that was even slightly bold. Most of the meal was very familiar, comforting flavors.

                          Looking back at the old posts, it seems like the current menu is particularly tame in its flavors, as well as its presentation.

                          I have been thinking about it a lot, and really I don't know that I necessarily enjoyed my dinner there more than my lunch. The huazontoles I had at lunch were plated immaculately, and tasted incredible. And my mole chicken tacos were just as fasty as the guinea fowl mole entree.

                          Not sure why everyone is so down on the lunch. Now that I'd had the chorizo at dinner, I really want to go back and get that chorizo in the tacos!

                          1. re: BacoMan

                            I've been three times now and not once have I seen that tomato dish. Was it good? Second course or first? See Baco I've had a crab tostada thing there that was truly superb. I do agree that you may have gotten a dull menu.

                            And yes, chorizo tacos, I'll do soon. I was down on lunch bc their fish tacos aren't worth the price of admission

                            1. re: set0312

                              The tomato dish was very good in the way that basic tomato dishes are good. It was mainly about the sourcing of some excellent tomatoes. It reminded me a lot of the BLT salad at Chi Spacca, but without the bacon.

                              Does fish ever really get elevated besides at sushi places? I never feel justified when I eat high-end fish outside of that. I had the salmon dish at Taco Maria, and it wasn't a bad dish, but the salmon wasn't any better than the actual piece of salmon I have made at home. I also finally tried a fish dish at Chi Spacca, the amberjack skewer, and thought it was by far the most "meh" dish I'd ever had there. Fish just seemed unable to be elevated in the same way other meats are by restaurants. In a similar vein, I wonder how much you can really elevate a fried fish taco? It feels like probably not much, if at all beyond, say, Ricky's. Maybe it's just me though...

                    2. re: BacoMan

                      I truly love TM, but I do think that it might not be everyone's cup of tea, and because the dinner menu is so limited, picky eaters and "meat and potatoes" folk might be unhappy. If you know that your guests like inventive and truly delicious food, then TM is clearly a winner!

                      1. re: BacoMan

                        Although I clearly love Taco Maria, if I were to take out folks who I did not know very well for dinner, I would feel much more comfortable taking them to some place like Ruth's Chris rather than TM. This is, of course, not because the food is better at Ruth's C., but because the menu there would be more likely to appeal to pretty much everyone.

                2. Red Table in Huntington Beach, Arc in Costa Mesa, Sol Cucina in Newport Beach,

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Coribdx

                    Is Red Table actually that good?...

                    1. re: BacoMan

                      I have probably had one meal there that I didn't care for. The rest have been very good. We tend to order the specials and the entrees rather than the small plates and sandwiches.

                  2. I like Lola Gaspar in downtown Santa Ana. Relaxing atmosphere with patio seating that serves good food and decent wine. Plates run on the smaller side (though larger than tapas), but definitely in your budget.

                    1. Marche Moderne has the most amazing pomme frites.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: A5 KOBE

                        +1 on the pomme frites at MM. They only make a certain number of orders per day.

                        I think there are enough recognizable items on the menu at MM that you'll have a good meal. As others have said the atmosphere isn't as hip and fun as Playground or Mozza but you'll have a good meal.