Flames singed my brows. There wasn’t a teppan grill or any onion volcanoes in sight—just lovely ladies and glib men with pints in hands, overlooking a manmade lake in Corona. Yes, beautiful lush Corona. There was no fear of the flames in my eyes, just visions of sea bass skipping around in my skull after my first meal at the newly opened TAPS Fish House and Brewery.
Joe Manzella knows exactly what he’s doing. As a third time restaurateur—the first TAPS in Brea opened in 1999, his second restaurant was the Catch in Anaheim that he and his family bought from its owners in 2002—he took 17,000 square feet and created his dream restaurant. The vision includes an oyster bar, fine ales and wines, numerous fire pits (one in the aforementioned table!) and a private dining room overlooking the new Corona, the one where people toast the purchase of McManses over steaks and beer and where well-coifed bikers eat without their elbows ever touching the table.
I started casual, as I do, with a beer at the bar. But what awaited me was the ultimate in lowbrow fine dining. The bar was filled with well-dressed Coronian socialites ready to kick up their Louis Vuitton heels. One customer quipped TAPS’ emergence in Corona is “like an oasis in the desert.” Indeed.
Briefly after getting my pint of brew master Victor Novak’s award-winning Cream Ale (Gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival 2001and 2005! And that’s just the start of his accomplishments), my date and I were seated in a plush booth in the main dining room, overlooking the immaculate (and strangely quiet) kitchen where we got to see the action first-hand. When our necks weren’t cricked 360 degrees, we took in the main dining room with its New Orleans-inspired wrought iron decorative balconies and mantras such as “Eat Oysters, Love Longer” adorning the walls. I took that to heart.
I started with calamari fritti, well cooked with a melt-in-your-mouth finish, before moving on to the fresh oysters with a wonderful mignonette: sweet, juicy and robust. On the greener side, we tried the grilled marinated artichoke gently poached and marinated in herb vinaigrette that, really, should stand on its own. Skip the lemon herb aioli. It only distracts from the smoky goodness.
But that merely set the stage for perfection, my beloved miso sea bass. It came with sticky rice, tri-color pepper jam and wilted spinach, a truly amazing combination—the subtle flavor of the miso mingling with the fresh and tasty sea bass was spectacular. My date was smitten with her three-cheese ravioli in red pepper cream sauce, the latter of which made the prospect of putting marinara on pasta sound as appealing as globbing ketchup on it.
It was all I could do to not order the exact same sea bass during my return visit. I reluctantly went for the rib-eye steak (paired with the porter ale, packed with hints of coffee and smoke). The steak comes in two sizes, 12- and 18-ounce, which was all fine and dandy, but the presentation was weak. Same goes for the colossal surf and turf. When I spend $65 on a plate of food, I want some pizzazz. Reaching over to a friend’s plate, I tried the drunken mahi mahi, which was juicy with just the right spice blend. The risotto on the side was insanely top-shelf cheesy.
As hard as it was, we managed dessert. The flourless chocolate cake was decadently divine, but the waiter ceremoniously poured Bailey’s Irish Cream over it, ruining the entire thing by sheer force. The booze tackled the flavor like a sauced-up constrictor smothering its prey. While presentation can be everything, that point is moot if there’s nothing pleasant to stick in your mouth after the razzle-dazzle.
To satisfy our chocolate jones, we headed to the bar to try the chocolate martini, normally not our cup of vodka, but the appeal was the promise of crushed walnuts around the rim. This, we thought, sounded like a piece of cake. It wasn’t. They were out of walnuts and instead drizzled chocolate syrup in the glass.
But the biggest letdown is one that will be remedied soon. Word is the oyster bar, with its chic glass case sushi-bar-like set up and Champagne bottles, will soon have its much anticipated bar stools, 14 total.
My final moments at TAPS culminated with a glass of fine, single-malt scotch, stogie in hand, on the patio, watching the fire pit crowds commingle, feeling inspired to pitch a new slogan to the Corona tourist bureau: Corona is for Sea Bass Lovers.
But then, that may be a bit tapped out.
TAPS Fish House and Brewery, at The Promenade Shops at Dos Lagos, 2745 Lakeshore Dr., Corona, (951) 277-5800; www.tapsbrea.com/corona/. Open daily.