Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Fancy Country Comfort at Great Maple
Hillcrest eatery offers familiar fare with an occasional twist... and donuts.
I liked Brian's American Eatery, it was one of my go-to breakfast spots back when I lived within walking distance. The menu and portions were absurdly gigantic, but the service was consistently friendly and there were plenty of a la carte options for those of us who didn't feel like starting the day with two of everything. So of course, I was sad to see it go -- especially when rumors floated that the reason behind its demise had to do with love lost.
But now, months later, I'm reminded that an equally comforting neighborhood joint has blossomed in its place. The first time I went to Great Maple (a duplicate of the original in Newport Beach), it was to have lunch with a friend and fellow foodie.
We began things off right, with a couple of cocktails. I ordered the Honey Mule, with honey vodka, muddled mint, and ginger beer, served in an adorable honey bear glass.
My friend was interested in ordering a bunch of small plates to share, but I was all about one menu item that my eyes kept drifting back to: the Pretzel Bratwurst, with grilled onions and sauerkraut on a pretzel bun, served with honey mustard and the aptly named "Oh Yes Smashed Potatoes."
It was every bit as delicious as I imagined it would be, and I was mildly irritated when my friend took me up on my offer to split it. In the end, I'm happy I shared, because had I not, I wouldn't have had room to taste from the sampling she ordered.
First there was the creamy polenta with pancetta and shaved pecorino -- I was only able to manage one bite of this. Though tasty, it's richer than a Saudi Arabian sheik.
The mini meatballs were flavorful enough, but a bit confusing -- I didn't realize that was "fried pasta" on the plate beside the bowl of meatballs in roasted tomato sauce. The "pasta" was closer to Chinese food than it was to Italian -- it looked and tasted like crispy deep-fried dumplings.
I loved the mini beef wellingtons, served with a barbecue glaze dip. They were cooked to medium, tender and flavorful, and the dough was perfect.
The special dessert of the day was too tempting to pass up. It's a bummer it's not a regular item on the menu. I can't even remember the specifics, it was some kind of chocolate (but not too rich), melty-brownie pie with caramel ice cream. It was just stupid good, and I don't usually go in for desserts.
My first visit had left such a great impression, that it wasn't long before I dragged David back with me for dinner. Together, we enjoyed the spicy grilled prawns (served with those flavorful mashed potatoes) and the local farmer's beet salad (with pistachio crusted goat cheese, arugula, and champagne shallot vinaigrette).
This time I paired my meal with a darker cocktail, the Raspberry Old Fashioned, with Buffalo Trace bourbon, "suger-fired oranges," muddles raspberries, and orange bitters. It was well-rounded, not too sweet or sour, and just the right amount of boozy bourbon flavor.
Just when we were wrapping up, we were treated to a spectacle with which most Great Maple regulars are familiar -- the sudden giving away of treats. This time, the treats carried around by servers on long wooden boards were an excellent complement to an enjoyable meal: bacon-maple donuts. David and I split one of the savory-sweet treats, and went home happy.
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