Restaurant of the Week: Nara

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Nara Japanese Restaurant, 3277 Grand Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Chino Hills has a fair number of sushi bars. Nara is the oldest, opening in 1996, which in Chino Hills terms is practically the dawn of time (cityhood was in 1991). Like everything else in Chino Hills, Nara is in a shopping center, this one across Peyton from the Shoppes. The sign reads, generically, Japanese Restaurant, a hint that the sign was a way to introduce the pioneering restaurant to a skittish city.

Inside, the feel is much more promising: small, intimate, quiet on a Tuesday evening despite the presence of several diners. It’s arranged such that you could have a semi-private meal here even though the space is about the size of your living room.

I sat at the sushi bar and had a nice meal with sushi off the regular menu and off the specials board. Live scallops ($7.50) came from a shell pried open in front of me; black cod ($8.50, pictured top right) and Oregon albacore tuna ($7.50) were both tasty; and the salmon skin cut roll ($4.95, pictured below right), one of my standard orders, arrived in larger rolls than I’ve usually seen it. It was intricately prepared, the skin crisped in an oven.

Ojiya and Rokuan are other above-average Japanese restaurants in Chino Hills that I’ve tried. It would take a more expert diner than me to rank them, but Nara wouldn’t seem out of place in their company.

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Restaurant of the Week: Wood Ranch BBQ

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Wood Ranch BBQ and Grill, 3335 Grand Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Wood Ranch is a chain, and while I rarely spotlight chains here, I do so on occasion when one has only a few Inland Valley locations. Such is the case with Wood Ranch, which has a spot in the Shoppes at Chino Hills and otherwise nothing closer to us than Corona.

There’s an outdoor patio, covered, a bar with copious seating and a spacious dining room with a beam ceiling, lots of wood and ample, comfortable booths. It’s not overly light and not overly loud. Upscale and tranquil for a barbecue restaurant — which will be either a turn-on or a turn-off, depending on your tastes. At least it’s not hoked up.

The menu has beef ribs, tri-tip, chicken, burgers and salads. I got the immodestly named America’s Best BBQ Tri-Tip Sandwich ($12) and a side of smashed sweet potatoes. Those could be America’s Best Smashed Sweet Potatoes (they were excellent) but the sandwich was more like America’s Most Adequate BBQ Tri-Tip (it was fine but didn’t wow me, and the sauce was sweeter than I’d like).

My lunch companion, who eats there all the time, had the pulled pork sandwich (price forgotten), also with potatoes, and enjoyed it.

Later a foodie friend told me she loves the salmon. Well, maybe another visit. I’d give the edge to Lucille’s (which also has a Chino Hills location, as well as one in Rancho Cucamonga) for chain barbecue, but I’ve got no beef with Wood Ranch.

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Restaurant of the Week: Seoul Garden

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Seoul Garden, 4200 Chino Hills Parkway No. 130 (at Pipeline), Chino Hills

Seoul Garden is in a sort of casual-restaurant row near Indian, Mexican and other ethnic eateries clustered in an outlying building in the Chino Hills Marketplace center. It’s small but makes good use of the limited space, with cheerful yellow walls, a few partitions and exotic decor.

A couple of us had lunch there recently. Seoul Garden has various lunch deals, some depending on the day of the week. I had the Korean BBQ lunch box ($8.45 on Mondays) and my lunch companion had beef bulgogi ($5.45). A Korean food first-timer, he found the bulgogi (chopped, marinated beef) tender and very tasty. “I’m going to drag some people here,” he vowed. My short rib lunch was also pretty good. Service was friendly.

As Korean food goes, not outstanding like Young Dong Tofu House elsewhere in town, but pleasant.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mes Amis

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Mes Amis, 14720 Pipeline Ave. (at Chino Hills Parkway), Chino HIlls

Mes Amis opened in January in half of a contemporary glass and steel building just north of a busy intersection. My Chino Hills friends found it on Yelp (where Mes Amis currently gets 4 1/2 stars) and that night four of us had dinner before watching “Lost.”

The interior is sleek, with plenty of natural light, tables and no booths, a gold and rust color scheme, tasteful decor and a TV silently playing in one corner. Most of the cooking can be seen from the dining room.

The novelty, as outlined in Friday’s column, is that Mes Amis has two locations: London and Chino Hills. (Perhaps Paris was too crowded.) The owners are brothers, a continent apart, and although the menus are similar, each owns his own location.

The menu is Lebanese, but with a modern take, and the food shows a high level of care. We had a “journey,” one of four appetizer plates that cost $9.95 (for now). It had four items, like a bento box, and divided among four people, it was almost a meal.

Our entrees included mixed kabobs with lamb and chicken (pictured) and the Double Treasure, which is lamb patties with two sauces. The entrees were around $15. After the “journey,” we probably could have ordered two or three entrees instead of four. The meat was tender, the grilled vegetables delicious, the presentation thoughtful. We all liked our food quite a bit.

Service is non-intrusive and leisurely, by design. We certainly weren’t rushed; indeed, our server took our “journey” order and didn’t return to take our entree order until we had finished the appetizer. Owner Sammy Elias later told me that was slower than even he’d like, but that the idea is to slow down to eat as the Lebanese do.

Our suggestion would be a note to this effect on the menu, or an explanation from the server that could begin: “Have you dined with us before? Our philosophy is…” Many diners will embrace the policy, but it may be counterproductive (see the criticism on Yelp about the service) not to tell us what it is.

That quibble aside, we liked Mes Amis very much and are anticipating our next visit, and our next “journey.” The only local Lebanese restaurant at this level that I’m aware of is Casablanca in Claremont, and Mes Amis may be even better.

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Restaurant of the Week: Young Dong Tofu

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Young Dong Tofu, 3233 Grand Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Yes, it’s a name that could launch a thousand off-color jokes, but forget the name and concentrate on the food. Young Dong has locations in Arcadia and San Gabriel besides this one in a neighborhood shopping center with an Albertsons. The Young Dong exterior is floor to ceiling glass, exposing the food hall atmosphere inside: rows of tables, bright lighting, minimal decor and lots of customers.

First they bring out the Korean side dishes: a half-dozen small plates with kimchi, fried pancake, seaweed, etc.

Our table of four ordered multiple dishes. Seafood and beef tofu soup, dumpling tofu soup and mushroom tofu soup ($8.83 each) come in bubbling pots, with a stone pot of rice on the side. Once they stopped bubbling, they were quite good, spiced to order (two of us went with medium, one with extra spicy). Spicy pork and BBQ beef ($13.95 each) were plates heaped with the meat in question, sweet and tender.

I’ve had Korean food only a few times, so I’m still a neophyte, but we all liked our meals very much and would go back. People on Yelp are excited too.

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Restaurant of the Week: Rokuan

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Rokuan, 14230 Chino Hills Parkway (at Grand), Chino Hills.

Chino Hills is home to Ojiya, a Japanese restaurant well above the norm for the 909. Yelp led me to Rokuan, another Chino Hills Japanese restaurant that, like Ojiya, gets great ratings. I tried Rokuan out Tuesday evening with three friends before “Lost.”

Located in a small shopping center with a Stater Brothers market, Rokuan’s sign says only “Sushi” (“Rokuan” appears on the door.) The interior is less generic. It’s small, dimly lit, with five dark wooden booths, without padding, that would each seat eight; there’s also one standard table and a nine-seat sushi bar. A sign warns the parents of noisy children.

Most of the crowd that night was Asian, likely a good sign. Our table got teriyaki salmon with spicy tuna rolls ($20.95), a chirashi bowl ($16.95), a beef teriyaki bowl ($10.50), and assorted sushi: white tuna ($5), scallops ($5.25), squid ($4) and salmon skin cut roll ($5.95).

All four of us were impressed by the quality of the ingredients, their freshness and their taste. Rokuan doesn’t skimp on the fish, either: The cuts were generous. Service was attentive, if perhaps too eager to remove plates as they emptied.

Chino Hills isn’t easy to get to from my home in Claremont or my office in Ontario, but it’s now my favorite city for sushi.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Boiler

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The Boiler, 4665 Chino Hills Parkway (at Ramona), Chino Hills.

Reader Charles Bentley once asked us in vain about the presence of any New Orleans-style restaurants in the Inland Valley, after the demise of New Orleans Express/Crescent City Cafe. Well, we now have one, albeit with an untraditional take on the cuisine.

The Boiler, a restaurant offering “steam kettle cooking,” opened at the start of June in The Commons at Chino Hills. I had dinner there a couple of weeks ago with my Chino Hills friends. (Everyone should have Chino Hills friends.)

The interior is dominated by a U-shaped bar at which most customers sit. The menu is short and almost entirely seafood. They have gumbo, jambalaya, oysters and pan roasts, plus some pastas.

The sauces are made in advance from scratch and once you choose your item and the degree of spiciness from 1 to 10, they quickly steam it in a small kettle in front of you, put it in a big bowl and hand it over.

I had the pan roast house ($18.95) with shrimp, crab, lobster, clams and trinity in a tomato cream-based sauce. My friends had pan roast crab ($17.95) and pan roast clam ($13.95).

We liked the food and took home the extra. One remarked lyrically on the “layers of flavor.” We weren’t convinced of the accuracy of the spice levels, with my “4″ and another’s “7″ tasting about the same, but that’s fine. I never know what the deal is with the sauces they mix at your table at P.F. Chang either. You just accept the gimmick and move on.

The service was friendly, and the person who explained the concept to us and answered our questions turned out to be the owner. Surprisingly, this is a single-location business, although he hopes to expand. He developed the recipes at the Oyster Bar in Las Vegas.

Our group’s only quibble is that the prices (entrees $12.95 to $21.95) might be a couple of bucks high given the fast-casual setting.

You can view the menu online here.

And what is The Commons at Chino Hills? Just off the 71, it’s the latest happening spot in suburbia. There’s a Pei Wei (the 909′s sole survivor after the Rancho Cucamonga one shut down last year), a wine bar with live jazz named Wine Down, a Lucille’s BBQ, Corner Bakery, Wahoo’s and BJ’s, not to mention a Lowe’s and a Toys R Us, with more stuff coming, in theory at least (what with the economy and the developer’s bankruptcy).

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Restaurant of the Week: Masala Bowl

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Masala Bowl, 4200 Chino Hills Parkway, Chino Hills.

Indian food is still a mystery to most of America, unlike many other ethnic cuisines. Masala Bowl is a small chain — locations in Irvine, Tustin, Chino Hills and Plano, Texas, with more coming — that attempts to remedy that by offering a simplified menu and walk-up service.

The Chino Hills location is in the Chino Hills Marketplace, a sprawling shopping center just off the 71 Freeway. Inside there’s a flat screen TV with Indian music videos and a few decorative touches, but mostly it’s the standard exposed-pipe, no-frills interior.

The woman at the counter (who was Indian) explained the menu. They have tandoori-cooked dishes and wraps, but the primary entree is curry. There are seven curries, from mild to spicy, and eight meats or vegetables, meaning 56 possible combinations.

I got lamb tikka masala ($7.49 on its own), which is chunks of lamb in a creamy tomato sauce. It arrived at my table in a plastic bowl with basmati rice. Pretty good stuff. I got the meal as a combo ($9.48) with a soda and samosa bites ($1.19 on its own), crispy pockets filled with potatoes. I also ordered garlic naan ($2.49) and bhel ($3.79), a puffed rice mixture with chopped onions and tomatoes.

The bhel was interesting, a sort of dry, crispy salad, but perhaps an acquired taste. The samosa bites were just okay. I couldn’t finish all this, so lids were brought for the two bowls, which were easily portable.

Well, Masala Bowl is no Haandi, but it’s not meant to be. As a low-priced, casual introduction to Indian food, it’s worth a visit. I noticed another couple of restaurants in the Marketplace I hadn’t tried and another one across the street when I exited the parking lot onto Pipeline, which means I’m already looking forward to my next excuse to head to Chino Hills.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pacific Fish Grill

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Pacific Fish Grill, 13865 City Center Drive (at Peyton), Chino Hills.

Pacific Fish Grill is at the Shoppes at Chino Hills and, from what I can gather, is a single-location restaurant, although it could be a chain in the making. It’s located between a Panera and a Johnny Rockets near Barnes & Noble.

Like Louie’s Chicken and Fish Grill in Upland, featured here last week, Pacific Fish is a rarity, a seafood-based fast-casual restaurant. Grilled fish plates run $8 to $15 and come with rice, salad and pita bread. They also have salads, fried fish, sandwiches, wraps and tacos. View the menu here.

I ate here in February after the library dedication when I bumped into friends and we decided to have lunch. That meal I ordered the tilapia plate ($8.95) with lemon-oregano seasoning. Not bad.

I returned recently (this time with my camera) and ordered a salmon caesar salad with Cajun seasoning ($10.95). I liked it. Not an outstanding piece of fish or anything, but it was fine, and there was enough salmon for each bite of salad.

There’s an open kitchen, high ceilings with visible piping and slowly revolving ceiling fans.

A place like this (or Louie’s) seems like a fairly inexpensive, no-fuss way to get more seafood in your diet. People on Yelp say the fish tacos are good; on Tuesdays they’re 99 cents.

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Restaurant of the Week: City Broiler

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City Broiler, 12959 Peyton Drive (at Rock Springs), Chino Hills.

In a standalone building in a shopping center on the north end of Chino Hills, City Broiler is reminiscent of New York Grill at Ontario Mills. Both are white tablecloth restaurants, lightly swank, with a Big Apple theme. City Broiler took over in 2007 from Peppino’s, a short-lived Italian eatery.

The interior is brick with wood trim, brass and etched glass. There are some stylish B&W NYC photos dotting the walls. The restaurant feels urban, certainly more urban than Chino Hills, even if it is across the parking lot from a Wendy’s.

I ate there Wednesday night with a couple of friends who live nearby and like the place. We sat in the bar area, which I would recommend for a casual experience. We ordered the mini-pizza with mushrooms ($6) and the crab cake sandwich ($8) off the bar menu and the fish and chips ($12.50) off the regular menu. The latter two came with a side dish; we got fruit and mixed vegetables, respectively.

We traded food and none of us were disappointed. I wasn’t blown away, but I would eat there again. Service was attentive and the atmosphere is appealing. It’s nice to see a family-owned sit-down restaurant.

The specialties are steak and seafood, by the way, although they also have sandwiches, salads and pizzas. You can view the menu and photos here.

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