Restaurant of the Week: Union on Yale

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Union on Yale, 232 Yale Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont

Union on Yale is the second restaurant in the Village by John Solana, who opened the gastropub Back Abbey in 2008 (see my writeup here) and kicked the dining scene in the pants.

Union on Yale, which opened in late 2011, takes the place of Casa Flores, a nursery, across from Rhino Records and uses the old nursery area to excellent effect as outdoor dining. The majority of the seating is outdoors on compacted dirt or concrete, some shaded by trees or an overhang, with a fire pit and, of all things, a bocce ball court.

The menu changes seasonally, meaning that any items mentioned below probably aren’t available now — my meals were in the spring, not the summer — but perhaps they will be again, and anyway you’ll get the general idea. I’ve had three meals and have enjoyed them all. (Find the current menu on their website.)

My first visit I had grilled scallops ($12), wood-fired and presented on a bed of arugula, which proved to be more of an appetizer than an entree. So I ordered a roasted pear salad ($8, pictured) on frisee lettuce. My friend had a turkey, avocado and bacon sandwich ($12), stacked high, with tasty fries. A baby beet salad ($9) has oranges and candied walnuts, and even yours truly, who wrinkles his nose at beets, went back for seconds.

They do pizzas ($13 to $16), baked in a wood-burning oven, that come out charred and delicious, in a credible replica of the Pizzeria Mozza style. I’ve had three: an all-mushroom pizza called the forest floor, which beat the CPK version; one with roasted sweet peppers and housemade sausage; and one with asparagus. That was a friend’s idea, but I didn’t mind at all. (They do have a pizza with pepperoni.)

I’ve tried a couple of desserts ($8 each), the poached pear (pictured) and the citrus menage, which arrived in a mason jar and was as delicious as it was adorable.

The idea is that this is locally sourced, European peasant food, good for sharing and presented in a relaxing outdoor atmosphere. They also have cocktails ($10) and wine by the glass, plus tap and bottle beers. Union on Yale is pretty much unique in our area. Like Back Abbey, it’s closed on Sunday, other than for brunch, but that’s how they roll.

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Restaurant of the Week: zPizza, Claremont

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The Laguna Beach-based zPizza chain opened a location in the Claremont Packing House this spring in the old Maui Wowi smoothie space. I’m a fan of the Upland location, featured here previously, and the Claremont location seems to have the same menu. What Claremont has over Upland is seating: It must hold at least twice as many people.

That makes for a more pleasant experience. Seating is so limited in Upland that even if you get a table, you don’t feel comfortable lingering.

I’ve been to the Claremont location a couple of times so far, once for the Monday special: two slices and a soda for $5. I had BBQ chicken and Napoli (pictured), preferring the latter. On an earlier visit, a friend and I ordered individual rustica pizzas. Mine was pear and gorgonzola, his was curry and candied yams ($9 each); his verdict, with which I would agree: “solid,” “very California” and “delicious.”

They also have sandwiches and salads, and traditional toppings like pepperoni too. Overall, zPizza is more California cuisine than pizzeria, but it’s a nice change from the norm.

Incidentally, Chino Hills used to have a zPizza, but it doesn’t seem to be affiliated with the chain any longer.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pizza n’ Such

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Pizza n’ Such, 202 Yale Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

Not to be confused with Pizza ‘N Stuff in La Verne, its closest cousin by punctuation, Pizza n’ Such has been a Claremont fixture since 1979, family owned and operated.

A college and family favorite, the restaurant occupies a prominent corner downtown in a former bank, later a pharmacy, built in in 1912 — 100 years ago this year! — across from Starbucks and the Village Grille. In a nice touch, the blade sign on the corner is an altered and restored version of the pharmacy sign that hung there for many years.

The interior includes a wooden bar with beer and wine, green booths, dark wood, a high ceiling, original moldings and hanging lamps and fans. It’s classy but casual.

I end up there probably once a year and once had a birthday lunch there with a group. I went in recently for lunch because I had a birthday coupon for a free medium pizza as long as I ordered a starter. So I got the house salad ($4) and then a medium with spinach (usually $14).

Their crusts are soft and doughy and the pizzas generous with the tomato sauce. The result is a bit bland, but fair. By personal preference I’m more of a thin-crust guy, and with zPizza, Union on Yale and La Parolaccia all in the Village, Pizza n’ Such might be my least favorite Village pizza. (Prompting a question: Why hasn’t someone capitalized on the local nomenclature to open a Village Pizzeria?)

Pizza n’ Such, though, is a lot of people’s favorite, and if it’s not my first choice, and often I kind of overlook it, I’m always happy if a friend suggests meeting there: Oh, yeah, Pizza n’ Such.

Service is friendly and generally provided by high school or college students. Besides pizzas, they have sub sandwiches, salads and pastas, and for dessert they have Dr. Bob’s ice cream, a local favorite. That’s the n’ Such.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fattoush

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Fattoush Mediterranean Cuisine, 428 Auto Center Drive (at Indian Hill), Claremont

Debuting in December 2011, Fattoush is next to the new Super King market. The two of them add a welcome touch of the Mediterranean to the neighborhood.

My friend had the mezza platter ($14, pictured above), a sampling of appetizers, which has, clockwise from left, tabbouli, falafel, spinach pie, grape leaves, hummus and baba ganouj. I sampled them myself and we agreed they were all good to very good. The tabbouli, which appeared to have been made moments before, was especially fresh and tasty.

I had the shawarma combo ($12.50, pictured below), which had beef and chicken with tahini sauce, garlic dip and a house salad. Pita bread for both of us was also delivered in a basket. The beef and chicken were both marinated and flavorful. The salad, which can be ordered separately, was okay but nothing special.

My friend, who’s Turkish and knows the food, really liked Fattoush and wants to go back. I would eat there again too.

The interior is modern and minimalist, with parquet floors, two-tone walls and subtle pink lighting near the ceiling, evidently a hipster touch. They have table service and you get actual silverware and plates. The menu is more ambitious than the restaurant appears to have originally planned; a copy handed out to my friend before the opening had more sandwiches and fewer entrees, and everything was $1 or $2 cheaper.

Now you can get shrimp kabobs ($18) and lamb chops ($20). But you can also get a rotisserie chicken sandwich for $5.59.

The restaurant’s website can be viewed here and the menu here.

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Restaurant of the Week: Norms

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Norms, 807 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Auto Center), Claremont

Norms, which opened in Claremont next to the 10 Freeway in August, was the most-anticipated Inland Valley restaurant arrival since Five Guys Burgers in Rancho Cucamonga.

All this fuss for a sort of upscale Dennys? This says a lot about the essential working-class character of the valley, as well as the numbers of repatriated Angelenos in our midst, as Norms’ 18 locations are scarce in our part of L.A. County.

The 24-hour diner, heralded by a very un-Claremont sign that looms over the freeway, is still busy a month after its opening, so timing your visit carefully is advised.

I had breakfast there with a friend recently. At 8 a.m., the restaurant, which has an occupancy of 221 seats, had plenty of empty booths, but by the time we left at 9, every seat was full and there was a line to get one. Ditto with a lunchtime visit a few days later; at 11:45 a.m., 25 people were waiting to be seated and there was a line at the cashier to pay. By 1 p.m., when we left, the crowd was thinning out and the pace slowing.

It’s a comfortable, coffee shop vibe, with browns and oranges in the color scheme, plush booths, counter seating and tiled walls. One friend said the interior, with its high ceilings, hanging orange lamps and expanse of windows, reminded him of the old Henry’s drive-in. There’s a surprising amount of outdoor seating as well, wrapping halfway around the building.

At breakfast, I had the Jump Start ($4.99), with eggs, bacon and toast. It was what you’d expect. For an extra buck I could’ve had the Bigger Better Breakfast, which comes with eggs, pancakes, ham, bacon and (not or) sausage. That’s a lotta meat.

My friend had the Country Cookin’ ($8.79, pictured below) with chicken fried steak, his baseline meal, and two eggs and hash browns. On a 1-to-10 scale, he gave the steak “a good 8.” The steak was processed rather than made on the premises, but the gravy was pronounced “excellent.”

Coffee, at $2, was a little steep, my friend said, but Norms is making a fuss about the quality of its coffee, and refills were offered every few minutes.

On my lunch visit, I had a tuna melt ($7.69), my own baseline sandwich by which to judge a diner. It was a decent version and the fruit on the side, thin-sliced crescents of melon, provided a nice balance. My friend had the Avo Gobble ($8.29, pictured at bottom), a turkey and avocado sandwich. (At Nancy’s in Rancho Cucamonga they call something similar the Turkado.)

That friend’s verdict: “The food’s pretty good. Everybody’s nice and friendly. They come by and ask how you’re doing.” Of the crowd, he said: “You wouldn’t know there was a problem with the economy.” He also observed that the diners didn’t look like Claremont people, being working-class types and retirees.

I’m looking forward to dinner there sometime, and maybe to a middle-of-the-night visit too, if only I could stop sleeping soundly and induce insomnia.

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Restaurant of the Week: Loving Hut

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Loving Hut, 175 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

Loving Hut is a chain of vegan restaurants. There’s one in Upland (903 W. Foothill) and one opened this month in Claremont’s Village West. Each Loving Hut is united by its name and concept but each, interestingly enough, has its own menu.

Claremont’s location is next to Le Pain Quotidien and the Laemmle Theater facing the public plaza. I’m a proud meat eater but one open to vegetarian or vegan cooking. For a better test, though, I brought along a vegetarian friend.

The menu has veggie lasagna, penne pasta, fajitas, tacos, salads, pizza, sandwiches and smoothies. (For comparison’s sake, here’s Upland’s menu, which is indeed quite different: some fried items, a heavier Asian influence, cheaper beverages and more desserts.)

I had the Gardein burger ($12; photo at upper right), which puts a chicken-flavored soy patty on a wheat bun with tomato, lettuce, avocado, onion, pesto and spicy mayo, with a small salad on the side. My friend had the tacos diego ($12; photo at lower right), with beef-flavored soy strips in corn tortillas with lettuce and flour-based Daiya cheese, with beans, salsa and avocado on the side.

My sandwich wasn’t as dense as chicken but did taste similarly. (Of course, doesn’t everything taste like chicken?) My friend thought his tacos were fine if bland, and his beans were dry.

Because most of the beverages are $7 or $8, we stuck to water.

So, eating here is a bit more expensive, and whether it’s worth it is an individual decision. My friend’s opinion is that vegetarian options are fairly easy to come by anymore, usually for less than Loving Hut was charging. Still, Loving Hut is a nice alternative to almost every other restaurant in the Inland Valley.

Tableside service was pleasant and helpful and the dining room is mod-ish and comfortable in a fast-casual way. Surprisingly, days after its opening, a B grade from the Health Department appeared in the window. *(By Aug. 5 it was an A.)

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Restaurant of the Week: Eureka Burger

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Eureka Burger, 580 W. 1st St. (at Cornell), Claremont

When it was announced that Eureka Burger would take over the Claremont Packing House space formerly occupied by the high-end steakhouse Three Forks, I was skeptical. Sure, the economy had crashed, but going from steaks to hamburgers seemed like quite a comedown, even if Eureka has only two other locations, in Redlands and Fresno.

A peek at the online menu near the restaurant’s opening, however, showed off some mouth-watering burgers. And a recent visit with a group of friends proved Eureka to be a winner.

The wood-intensive interior still seems high end, there’s a bar with craft beer and there’s service at the tables, about half of which are outside on the deck.

Burgers range from $8.75 to $10.50. I had the Pearl Street Blues ($10), which is premium Angus ground chuck topped with melted bleu cheese, wild mushrooms, grilled onions and chipotle ketchup. It’s served on a sesame bun and was large enough to use a knife to cut it in half. The burger was, in a word, outstanding, among the best I can remember.

Everyone else liked their burgers as well. One got hers rare and remarked, “There’s not many places you can get a rare burger.” We also enjoyed a couple of orders of the enormous onion rings ($4.25), which use panko bread crumbs for a light batter. The menu also has salads and other sandwiches.

Eureka would seem to be in direct competition with the Back Abbey, another fancy burger and craft beer place two blocks away. Back Abbey is usually jam-packed, which I hope means both places can thrive because they both deserve to do so.

Eureka’s service was friendly. Servers all wore black T-shirts with varied slogans. One: “Respect Beer.”

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Restaurant of the Week: King Kong Sushi

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King Kong Sushi, 300 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Bonita), Claremont

King Kong Sushi opened last fall in the Village, in the expansive corner slot with the tower-like roof that formerly housed Kinya, another Japanese restaurant. (When it was built in the 1990s, the original tenant was Koo Koo Roo; later came a Chinese restaurant.)

The name King Kong Sushi was not promising, making me think of low-end party sushi. And in truth, the food was merely okay. We had the Super Albacore Roll ($9), which was too spicy, overwhelming the taste of the fish, and acceptable fatty yellowtail ($5) and salmon sushi ($3.50).

The menu does have some creative-sounding items, such as rolls with rice paper or without rice. But it also has Korean food.

Service was friendly and the interior has been freshened up with white paint and tile. The food is less expensive than Kazama Sushi two blocks away and King Kong may become a favorite of the college crowd. (Although a Claremont McKenna review only recommends the alcohol.)

I may go back, but personally, for sushi in Claremont I prefer Kazama and Hayato.

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Restaurant of the Week: Aruffo’s

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Aruffo’s Italian Cuisine, 126 Yale Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

Sometimes restaurants become so familiar we sort of forget they’re there. I see Aruffo’s all the time and yet don’t see it. Aruffo’s opened in 1986 and it’s near my house, but I’d only eaten there once, maybe 10 years ago, and my memory was of a solid but unspectacular lunch. Recently a friend who loves the place suggested it for lunch and I was happy for the excuse to renew my acquaintance.

And yet I couldn’t pinpoint which street in the Village it’s on, guessing Harvard but finding it one block over, on Yale. Oh, yeah, across from Some Crust. Aruffo’s is quite pleasant inside, with lovely murals and vintage posters and an upscale feel. A delicious round loaf of herbed bread was delivered to our table. I had the salmon Caesar ($14.99, I think), which was topped with ocean-caught, not farm-raised, salmon. It was delicious too. My friend was likewise impressed by her arugula salad.

In other words, Aruffo’s made a strong second impression.

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Restaurant of the Week: Casa Moreno

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Casa Moreno, 101 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 1st), Claremont

Casa Moreno, which opened in July, fills a prime slot in Claremont’s Village Expansion, facing the public square and cater-corner to the movie theater. It’s a family owned place with one other location, in Covina. The Claremont location has a large dining room with high ceilings, a pleasant color scheme and a neat nook as a waiting area, plus outdoor seating with fire pits for cool evenings.

The restaurant is moderately busy on weeknights and busy on weekends. I had dinner there with a friend on Tuesday before seeing “Inception,” which turned out to be great. The restaurant, however, inspired mixed feelings. The service was friendly but the food didn’t live up to our expectations.

The salsa with the chips was very good. Her margarita ($8) was made from a mix. The chicken mole ($15, pictured), a specialty, was, dare I say it, complex (albeit not as complex as “Inception”), but the chicken was dry. The ceviche ($10) didn’t taste especially fresh. The chiles relleno ($15) were okay. They put cheddar cheese on the refried beans and the tortillas were storebought.

Even small taquerias like Juanita’s or Patty’s make their own tortillas, and a meal there will set you back five bucks. It wouldn’t take much effort to make a margarita from scratch, according to my friend. Seemed to us if you’re going to charge three times more than a taqueria, the food should be better than a taqueria, not the same or worse.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too tough on Casa Moreno. The place just opened, and it’s still in the shakeout period. They’re operating with only a limited menu before rolling out the whole thing. Reviews on Yelp are also mostly underwhelmed. Perhaps management will get the message and can inspire the kitchen and bar staff to kick it up a notch. It’s such a great location, especially for diners wanting a meal or drink before or after a movie, that I would go back regardless — although at this point it wouldn’t be my first choice.

(A lot of Daily Bulletin readers were there Tuesday. I ran into several people I know, and reader Barry Miller, at the next table, introduced himself to us. He was so excited to meet real live newspaper people, he bought our dinner. Thanks, Barry.)

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