Edwin's Top Five Restaurants of 2012!
I always go into these end-of-year lists thinking they'd be be a cinch to do. Then, I actually start doing it and realize how hard it is. No, it's not the writing part--that's easy; it's the winnowing process that's painful. It took me a day of deliberation to pare my original list of ten of the best restaurants I reviewed this year down to seven, and then to five. Unfortunately, South of Nick's and The Playground were number 6 and 7. But herewith is my final list. In each, I highlight at least one dish that made that particular restaurant great.
5. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
Japanese shabu shabu is foreplay compared to Mongolian hot pot. At Little Sheep, you encounter not only the standards of sliced beef, lamb, chicken and pork, but also the decidedly kinkier diversions of tripe, tendon, blood cake, goose intestines and pork kidneys all to be boiled by you in two kinds of broth. No one orders the mushroom vegetarian option; everyone opts for the "Yin Yang", in which a divided cooking vessel gurgles the house-original, milky-white soup on one side, and the "Mala" broth, which translates to "numbing spicy," on the other. It's these soups that make your meal and inspire perspiration. The induction-powered pots you see at every table simmer liquids redolent of dried fruits, herbs and spices--all of them sending such delicious, intoxicating odors airborne that the whole room might as well be cooking potpourri. You don't walk into Little Sheep restaurant so much as wade in, as though you're swimming through a sea of smells. If there were such a thing as odor-imaging, waving your arms would show the turbulence your presence has on the environment.4. Cucina Enoteca
Order the polenta board and the server comes to your table almost fumbling with too many things to hold. In each hand, there's a miniature pot. On her arm, a wooden paddle. She pours the polenta from the one of the pots onto the paddle, smearing it to an oblong shape on the wooden surface. She digs out a well in the middle to receive the meat, which she spoons out from the other vessel. When she finishes, she invites you to dig in with your spoons. This "polenta board" is one of chef Lauren "Lulu" de Rouen's signature dishes and is a revelation--an idea so rudimentarily perfect in what it communicates it makes you wish every Italian restaurant did it.
15361 Culver Drive, Irvine, CA
532 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine, CA
18120 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, CA
696 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA
7152 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, CA