Sweet Tooth

Posted November 8, 2007 in Feature Story

Aladdin Jr—Baklava

Tucked neatly away in a small, non-descript strip mall in Pomona lies a late-night oasis of delicious that houses little else than laundromats and discount stores. Granted, the “I can’t believe there’s a restaurant that’s so good, and it’s in a strip mall” kind of reviews are overdone, especially in our little corner of SoCal where seemingly every great restaurant is part of one, but in the case of Aladdin Jr., it holds.

Upon entrance, you first have to walk through their hookah patio—Aladdin Jr. offers every sticky-sweet combo of fruit and tobacco to smoke out of the things—complete with viney plants growing over the patio fence’s black metal bars that transforms the eatery’s space into a portal in space/time that beams you far away from the drab suburban shopping plaza surroundings and into an exotic locale that’s heavy on fine food, hookah smoke and middle-Eastern dance music. Okay, perhaps that’s a little dramatic. The restaurant’s décor might flirt with the campy side of kitsch, but it’s open late—late enough to patronize after a long, late night of drinking—is inexpensive, and has a wonderful menu of Mediterranean dishes. For dessert, their Turkish coffee (spiced just right) and nutty, buttery, delicious Baklava are a perfect combination to ease your drunken munchies and fend off your sure-to-be-hellish hangover. It is a pretty sparse desert menu, to be sure, but at one in the morning when you’re feeling like Dylan Thomas, do you really care? (Phil Fuller).

Aladdin Jr, 3161 Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 593-3887; open until 2am every night


The Bank of Mexican Food—Tres Dulces (Flan, Churros and Fried Ice Cream)

When new owners took over The Bank in February, Temecula mexican food connoisseurs feared that they were being robbed of one of the finest examples of authentic mexican food in south county. However, upon eating at The Bank, those fears are quickly put to rest, perhaps surprisingly, and most definitively, by the restaurant’s dessert menu.          

There are three dulces to select from: homemade flan, churros and fried ice cream. The one most subject to critical scrutiny is by far the standout: The Bank’s homemade flan is a winner. Wonderfully dense, the custard has the viscosity of firm tofu, giving heft to a dish often lacking in substance. But it still melts in your mouth and goes down smooth, topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, and served at the most desirable temperature, chilled (and delicious).

The churro is a rockstar in its own right. Surprisingly served chilled, the fried sweet is nothing like the overpriced imitation from Disneyland. With an authenticity evoking memories of trips south of the border, the dessert has a pleasant crunch on the outside, and a layer of custard within. The slightly oily taste adds a complimentary salt to the sweet, and all is balanced out by a dab of whipped cream on top.

Unlike the other choices on the menu, the fried ice cream is really two desserts combined into one. Surrounded by tortillas fried and sprinkled with cinnamon, it’s surrounded by crunchy goodness that would do well even served by itself. However, the heart and focus of the dish is the ice cream, battered in a mixture of crushed cornflake and fried to a golden brown. This encompasses tasty vanilla-bean ice cream of the highest quality that even after a filling meal, leaves you wanting more. Topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, the only regret that exists after finishing is that there aren’t more choices to select from and continue on with this sugary journey! (Shaun Rosenstein)

The Bank of Mexican Food , 28645 Old Town Front St. Temecula, (951) 676-6160;





Café Champagne—Chocolate Mousse

Worthy of arriving in a limo and being dressed to impress, Café Champagne at Thornton Winery is the type of restaurant where describing the food as “cuisine” seems nothing less than appropriate. But the highlight of the meal comes not from the hunger-whetting appetizers or postcard-worthy entrées, nor even the fantastic wines to pair with each dish. At Champagne, the best is saved for last with world-class dessert options.

Enter the chocolate mousse. Fluffy enough to defy gravity, the mousse is only kept grounded by the weight of its flavor. Followed by a layer of whipped cream, the dessert’s only flaw comes in its third element, the raspberry swirl. While normally necessary in a lesser mousse, this fruity addition interferes with the taste transition from chocolate mousse on top, to the incredible white chocolate layer below. Good enough to enjoy a bowl of the stuff by itself, the white chocolate is the star of the dish, outshining the raspberry and eliminating its purpose (a normally-necessary burst of flavor) at the same time. Finished off with ripe berries and mint from their herb garden, the mousse is a perfect end to a perfect evening. (Shaun Rosenstein)

Café Champagne at Thornton Winery, 32575 Rancho California Rd., Temecula, (951) 699-0088; www.thorntonwine.com/cafe


Café Sevilla—Dessert Sampler

It is hard not to get distracted at Cafe Sevilla. Whether by the bumpin’ music emanating from the bar upstairs, the faux-Spanish villa interior (adding to the ambiance, not detracting), or all of the pretty people at the other tables, there is plenty to divert a foodie’s attention. However, the main focus at this upscale restaurant in downtown Riverside should be the food, especially the desserts. And Sevilla knows how to showcase these goodies: don’t ask for a dessert menu (there isn’t one), just feast your eyes upon the tray of sweets brought tableside at the end of a delicious meal. With so many selections, it may be hard to narrow down the choices so, for the indecisive crowd there is the fantastic dessert sampler. This smorgasbord features an apple tort, bread pudding, flan, walnut tart and espresso crème brûlée, with strawberries and whipped cream filling in the (very few) gaps on the plate.

While flan can sometimes have a less than desirable consistency, Sevilla’s was firm and flavorful, a sweet custardy dessert drizzled in a light caramel sauce. The bread pudding with almonds and raisins is sort of blandish, but the apple tart infused with brandy sauce is moist without being soggy—a perfectly executed combination of fruit and pastry, neither element overpowering the other.

Everything you love about pecan pie is found in the walnut tart, only better. Drenched perfectly in caramel sauce, the walnuts (high quality, nothing that has sat on a shelf losing crispness) lend a distinct taste to each bite, but do not dominate the dish, instead working in harmony to come together in a flawless dessert. But the best of all is by far the espresso crème brûlée. With an Amelie-worthy crunch on top, the smallest bite is bursting with rich flavor. The dish is both light and powerful, topped with powdered sugar and chocolate chips, which also cover the bottom of the bowl. Finishing off the sampler are fresh, delicious strawberries and whipped cream which seems damn near anticlimactic. (Shaun Rosenstein)

Café Sevilla, 3252 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 778-0611; www.cafesevilla.com/Riverside


Coco Palm—Flan de la Casa

Flan is relatively simple, but the Coco Palm Cuban/Spanish hybrid restaurant is not. The entrées range from the mediocre (nothing is worse than Spanish food spiced up to appeal to SoCal palates) to the damn tasty (the Parrillada Argentino, meat, meat, and more meat). The service is helpful, if a tad hurried. The mojitos are both potent and potable, and after you guzzle down a few you’ll wish it wasn’t illegal for you to go to Cuba and hoist a few. You may also wish you hadn’t volunteered to be the designated driver. While you’re waiting to sober up, sit back with a cappuccino and take in the spectacular view from the dining room. The 10 freeway has never looked so amazing.

But try the flan de la casa. Flan, the plain custard crème with a layer of soft caramel crème is done up to near perfection at the Coco Palm. There’s nothing overly fancy added here, no bizarre flavorings, just the vanilla; but the custard itself has a thicker texture than most flans. The thicker consistency makes the dessert more substantial somehow. The presentation is also well done, with small dollops of strawberry and apricot dressing lining the plate, along with a sprig of mint and two sweet strawberries thrown in for good measure. If your only experience with flan is one of those nasty instant pudding versions one sees in the supermarket you need to stop by and sample both it and the view at the Coco Palm. Add mojitos and you’ll leave all your earthly stresses behind. (Bill Gerdes)

Coco Palm, 1600 Fairplex Dr., Pomona, (909) 469-1965, Closed on Mondays


Hip Kitty Jazz & Fondue—Chocolate Fondue

For those of us who live a tad deeper into the IE often feel a bit of a pang when we head west toward county outposts like Claremont for a meal. For the most part, the better and more original restaurants in the Inland Empire tend to be farther west. The addition of the Hip Kitty to the Claremont/Montclair area only furthers the imbalance. The Kitty is no mere dining hole though; it’s more of a jazz/dinner club with fondue and an attitude. Half of the Kitty is U-shaped bar, the only real difference from many other drinking establishments being the glorified hot plates that serve up the fondue piping hot. On the walls neon velveteen paintings line one side, juxtaposing nicely with the quasi-Impressionist klatch on the other. Leather upholstered clamshells ring the stage (which features live music nightly), while cool, undeniably groovy glass lamps hang from the ceiling. The Hip Kitty is indeed hip. 

The desert fondue at the Kitty comes in three varieties of chocolate—milk, white, and dark. The bartender then brings out the steno bowl in which the fondue prepared in and adds the heavy cream, chocolate, and a dash of cognac, and presto—it’s 1976 all over again. The dark chocolate is delicious, and although you can add various infusions such as peanut butter or syrups there’s little point—unless your goal is instantaneous diabetes. The Rice Krispy squares go wonderfully with the fondue, but the chocolate bars are a bit of a sugar overload. The real kickers are the pieces of strawberry and banana when they’re dipped in the bowl-sublime yumminess. For you fondue first-timers make sure to keep stirring the bowl or it will soon resemble a pot of old chili you’ve left out overnight. And when your fondue’s done, sit back hep cat and watch some dynamite local music, baby. At the Hip Kitty fondue and hip are back in a big way. (Bill Gerdes)

The Hip Kitty Jazz & Fondue, 502 W. First St, Claremont , (909)-447-6700; www.hipkittyjazz.com; Open until 2am, Wed.-Sat


Jammin’ Bread Bakery Café—Lemon Cream Cheesecake, Lemon Bars and Lavender Lemonade

Follow your nose to this small bakery café that churns out nine artisan breads daily and an array of orgasmic desserts. Skip the urge to consume the carob-tasting cream cheese brownies for the luscious crop of cookie bars—raspberry, lemon and pecan panning the saccharin index from somewhat diabetic-inducing to glycemically toxic. The raspberry bar is all hazelnut-filled crustiness, sandwiching a sweet, tangy layer of raspberry jam. On the other end of the spectrum is the pecan bar, all nutty and lustily delightful with its mix of brown sugar, caramel, sweet cream and honey turning cartwheels in your mouth. The not too sweet, not too tart lemon bar with its shortbread crust is a house favorite. Yet, even tastier than the bars is the Queen of all Sweet Treats, the lemon cream cheesecake, whose tart and creamy layers are topped off by a crown of blackberries. The perfect accompaniment to all these vittles—an order of freshly squeezed lavender lemonade is worth the six minutes it takes the staff to whip up in the back. It’s all refreshingly herbal perfection, absent of saccharin preservatives that spoil its natural acidity. (Nancy Powell)

Jammin’ Bread Bakery Café, 5225 Canyon Crest Drive, #17A (in the Canyon Crest Towne Center), Riverside, (951) 369-1869


The Magic Lamp Inn—Cherries Jubilee

For over 50 years, a fiery neon sign has beckoned hungry motorists cruising down Route 66, casting a mystical spell on their palates. It’s the Magic Lamp Inn—enter, and you are thrust into a transcendental world of steak, seafood, stained glass and Cherries Jubilee.

Oddly enough, the Magic Lamp doesn’t have any Arabian food on the menu, preferring good old American top sirloin and prime rib, although a touch of exotic splendor can be detected in European delicacies such as the Escargot Bourguignonne and Duck Confit. But perhaps it’s the post-entrée menu that keeps them coming. If the Magic Lamp genie appeared and granted you three dessert wishes, what would they be?

Likely it would be the Chef Mario’s crème brûlée, served with berries and an edible flower and a looong thin crust of caramelized sugar. Second would be the Tiramisù, an Italian treat of ladyfingers stuffed with Mascarpone and soaked in espresso, Marsala and chocolate (note: also contains edible flower). But for the truly indulgent, there is your third wish—the Cherries Jubilee, featuring large heart-shaped Bing cherries, flamed in their own juices, smothered in liqueur, with vanilla ice cream on the side and served tableside. Yes, that is meant to read: TABLESIDE. (Kevin Ausmus)

The Magic Lamp Inn, 8189 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 981- 8659; www.themagiclampinn.com or www.myspace.com/magiclampinn


Mario’s Place—Millefoglie of Lemon Cream

We’ve found the perfect pucker, and we’re not talking ‘bout the one we’ve been practicing on our pillows since puberty. Mario’s Place, known for its contemporary Italian cuisine—and mainly we just want to know how they get the wee squash blossoms filled with goat cheese the perfect crispiness without suffering from sogginess—is also known as a “sure thing” date spot, a place you take a gal you plan on taking home to mom, or er, taking home. With the three handsome Palagi brothers at the helm of their late father Mario’s legacy, the restaurant is a textbook case of how a family that works together as chef, general manager and business manager stays in business together. So it’s no big surprise that these guys know how to wrap up a romantic evening with a lil’ sugar. Go for the Millefoglie of Lemon Cream, a tangy lemon cream layered with thin delicate cookies, garnished with fresh raspberries, but stay for the Hot Parcel of Chocolate and Raspberries, crispy fillo dough filled with molton ganache, raspberries and chocolate sponge cake. And don’t forget the blackberry sorbet on the side. Leaving room for dessert won’t be the only thing that’s easy by the end of the night. (Arrissia Owen-Turner)

Mario’s Place, 3646 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (95) 684-7755; www.mariosplace.com


Napa 29—Crème Brûlée and Tacos Florentine

It’s hard to believe that such a tony establishment could be in stuck in a hellhole, but indeed Napa 29, Corona’s most expensive and well-to-do restaurant, sits in an industrial strip mall off the 91 Freeway, sandwiched between a fitness shop and furniture store. It’s a spot where the sight of jeans, shorts and graphic tees fit in just as well as suit and tie, although the hostess might give you a once over before she actually sits you down waaaaay in the back, away from the well-heeled yuppies and elderly uptights who are more tastefully appointed. 

True to its homage to our famed Northern California wineries, Napa 29 pays true attention to its origins, boasting a wine list that’s more than double the size of the dining menu. The wines, however, are a sight to behold. A glass of Echelon pinot noir with the Seared Sesame-Encrusted Ahi Tuna, Pistachio-encrusted Rack of Lamb or Seared Muscovite Duck’s Breast and Duck Leg Confit hits the spot, so smooth and fruity and aromatically pleasing that it precipitates one to order more than half the bottle. A smarter move? Order an entire bottle and forget the idea about bringing a favorite bottle. The bottle will be cheaper than the corkage fee of $20. And the multiple glasses will come in mighty handy for more than one course, like with that artfully arranged salad or the freshly-prepared Dungeness crab and sweet corn cakes with green apple relish.

As a grand finale try the creamy and smooth Crème Brûlée which tastes like refined vanilla custard, or go with the bold and ask for the Tacos Florentine, a unique creation by the pastry chef unlike any other in the Inland Empire. Taco-shaped shells are stuffed with creamy Mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a chocolate sauce. A fresh berry arrangement finishes the piece. Even if you only sample the desserts, make sure you stop at Napa 29 to see what fine dining is all about. (Nancy Powell)

Napa 29, 280 Teller St. #130, Corona, (951) 273-0539; Open Tues.-Sat. for dinner; Sun. for brunch only.


The New York Grill—Poached Pear in Port Wine

Ontario Mills Mall doesn’t exactly conjure up images of cultured masses dining on gourmet cuisine, especially if you’ve spent any time elbow-to-elbow with slack-jawed baby-trundling patrons at the Food Court. Just outside the discount shopping mall, though, is the New York Grill, a virtual oasis of culinary delights, where hard-carved steak, fine wine, jazz music and, ulp—Nascar!—all come together in serendipitous pleasure.

Your experience starts when you enter the foyer.  The first thing you see is the grand piano located in the bar, where four nights a week noted pianist Dave Mackay holds court. Mackay has been praised by the likes of Rex Reed (how New York!), and you’re not likely to find that at Dave & Busters.

The New York Grill is essentially steak, seafood and salad with an eye-popping wine list, making for a very pricey night on the town. But, after you’ve soaked up every morsel of your Delmonico, they’ll bring by the dessert platter. This is where the true splurging begins.

Though many of the desserts are prepared off-site, The New York Grill does provide its own specialty fare like the Multamava Chocolate Soufflé, that comes to you warm and fresh out of the oven, garnished with strawberries and served with a scoop of Dr. Bob’s ice cream. There’s also a heaping crème brûlée and—if you come during the right time of year—it’s chocolate!

But the pièce de résistance may be the Poached Pear, stuffed with Mascarpone cheese and smothered with a port wine reduction sauce, garnished with kiwi and berries and served with a healthy scoop of Dr. Bob’s on the side. Unfortunately (or is it fortunately?), the Poached Pear is served only on occasion. (Kevin Ausmus)

New York Grill , 950 N Ontario Mills Rd., Ontario, (909) 987-1928; www.newyorkgrill.com; Reservations Recommended



Owen’s Bistro—The Bananas Foster

Nestled indiscriminately between an alleyway and white plaster building in historic downtown Chino is a small, 100-year-old brick building known as Owen’s Bistro, bypassed entirely by foot or car unless one pays careful attention to the wrought-iron gates enclosing linen-covered tables in an otherwise quiet courtyard. During the day the gates stay shut, but at night the patio lights up and the mood brightens as couples and small parties snuggle into intimate tables to enjoy some of the best Euro- and Asian-influenced California cuisine this side of the SoCal border. 

Executive Chef James Kelly’s menu is a musical merry-go-round, depending on what he brings in fresh from the market. Some of the local favorites include the crab and shrimp stuffed mushrooms or the wild mushroom topped with blue-cheese crostini for starters. The bacon-wrapped filet mignon with balsamic reduction and jerk-spiced port tenderloin with blackberry molasses glaze pull diners into a dreamy state until jazz virtuoso Henry Iglesias ignites their inner fires with his seductive lullabies. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Kelly features a three-course prix fixe menu with appetizer, entrée and dessert at a fraction of what other five-star establishments charge.

The highlight of the night is Kelly’s personal interpretation of the N’awleans classic, Bananas Foster. Bananas are caramelized in rum, butter and brown sugar and plated artfully next to a bowl of real deal vanilla ice cream. He doesn’t flambé it tableside as is customary (owing to the possible ignition of hair care products permeating the air), but the end product is as any Bananas Foster should be—scrumptious and calorically-rich, vinegary sweetness plying the senses with rapturous delight. Other than Kelly, nobody serves this sinful creation this side of the valley outside of Disney’s Jazz Kitchen. Other desserts, while all good, fail to overtake the hype of Kelly’s signature piece.

Despite his lack of formal culinary training, Kelly’s love of food and experiential know-how shines through, and the results are pure nirvana. (Nancy Powell)

Owen’s Bistro, 5120 D Street, Chino, (909) 628-0452, www.owensbistro.com



The Press—Vegan Chocolate Cake

Don’t pity the vegans. It’s not so bad. While you may have visions of vegans as waify little granola kids, they know how to get down when it comes to chocolate. And when it’s time to let themselves eat cake, the Press in Claremont is the place to indulge. And really, what better way to finish up a serving of lentil loaf and mashed potatoes than to follow it with a little slice of heaven that harkens back to the carnivore days of yore, Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house, the big watoosey of desserts: chocolate cake. The Press offers a decadent vegan chocolate cake, that yeah, maybe doesn’t really stand up to Aunt Louise’s Chocolate Cake, but it at least stands in for it when your dairy and meat eating dinner companions pony up for the sweet stuff. Creamy chocolate frosting. Rich cocoa powdery cake. You won’t even know what you’re missing. Except that, yeah, you will. But vegans are used to making due. The only thing that can make it better is if it’s Wednesday when you’re eating that cake, which as luck has it, is when all bottles of wine are half-off all day and all night. See, no pity party needed. (Arrissia Owen-Turner)

The Press Restaurant, 129 Harvard Ave., Claremont, (909) 625-4808; www.thepressrestaurant.com


Richie’s Real American Diner—Boysenberry Cobbler

Richie’s harkens back to a time in America when people kept their doors unlocked, children played outside without supervision, and food was made without concern for fat content, rather only taste. That same spirit, at least for the food, is still found in this Murrieta diner. Sliding into a vinyl-covered seat, it is obligatory to have a classic American shake (served as it should be, with the extra portion in a metal cup with long handled spoon for gluttonous sampling). The strawberry is simply perfect, everything that’s right about the ’50s is there in your first sip. This is of course topped with whipped cream and a cherry. The shake itself has real pieces of strawberry in it, adding texture to the smooth cream. As with most things perfected over time, it is the classic flavor options (strawberry, chocolate and vanilla) that stand out for being a dependable dessert option.     

When dependable isn’t enough, go for the best: the cobbler. The waitresses at Richie’s will tell you as much. Beginning with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream reminiscent of Thrifty’s drug store, dig down into a mixture of warm chunks of boysenberries intertwined with pieces of crust moistened from being marinated in the ice cream/berry concoction. Each bite warms the belly, and the nostalgic soul—it’s comfort food at its best.

With a litany of other options ranging from strawberry shortcake to German chocolate cake (go supreme—vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts and cherries) and pecan pies and lemon meringue in between, there’s something for every taste and craving. Get there quickly if you want to try the pumpkin pie, as it is available only through the Thanksgiving season. And on your way out be sure to thank Linda, who makes all of them herself. (Shaun Rosenstein)

Richie’s Real American Diner, 40651 Murrieta Hot Springs Rd, Murrieta, (951) 696-5504; www.richiesdiner.com



Saffron’s Café & Bakery—Apple Bread Pudding

“I’m just mad about Saffron’s . . . ”

If the 1960s flower-power songmaster Donovan were alive today he could easily be extolling the virtues of Saffron’s Café & Bakery. Oh, you say Donovan is still alive? Well then, he should catch a Santa Ana wind here and bring his epistles with him. But he should beware the falling avocados. Saffron’s itself is caught midway between modernity and bygone days. The family-run restaurant is tucked in the back of the recently renovated Guasti Villa and to find it takes an eagle’s eye—but it’s well worth the trouble.

Whether you want a gourmet sandwich, a light pastry such as a peach tepanad, or a full three-course lunch offering amuse-gueule soup, rosemary potato tart and pan seared pork chop with mahogany pears, Saffron’s does it. The dessert selections are rotated weekly, and so anticipated are they that a staff member claims patrons “start with the dessert” and pack the rest to go. A typical day’s selection could consist of mocha cheesecake, apple bread pudding cake and crème brûlée. The cheesecake is mucho mocha, like the ’80s era Hostess treat Choco-Bliss on steroids. The crème brûlée is light and fluffy, with just a hint of the burned cream nirvana topping. But the apple bread pudding offers a few more subtle enticements, with a thin squirt of caramel on top.

This is the last chance to see Saffron’s at the Guasti location. Come January they will move to the more spacious and accessible digs of the Riverside Art Museum, and since the cuisine at Saffron’s is a bit like art, that should be an excellent fusion. (Kevin Ausmus)

Saffron’s Cafe & Bakery at Guasti Villa, 2903 Guasti Rd., Guasti, (909) 605-7677


The Seafood Grotto at the Pechanga Resort & Casino—The Pistacio and Chocolate Ganache Tart

Inland Empire chefs received a rude wake up call in 2003 when Jean-Marie Verhoeven and Avelino Miranda, Executive Pastry Chef and Garde Manger at the Pechanga Casino & Resort at the time, took home top honors at the annual Great Chefs of the Inland Empire competition. First competition ever entered by an area casino, first ever won. Hello there, IE snobs! The Pechanga crew had arrived, discarding the notion that only Vegas casinos could produce the goods and notching a spot on the map of Southern California culinary superstars. They haven’t looked back since.

Pechanga’s four fine dining establishments now boast some of the best cuisine in the Inland Empire, particularly with the Seafood Grotto, an underwater cave-like ambience with high blue-backed booths, two-tiered ceilings and arching walls serving as King Neptune’s secret getaway. The Grotto serves market fresh ocean catches five nights a week in the form of an awesome selection of sushi, made-to-order roasts and stews, and classics like the Surf and Turf and stuffed sea bass with lobster covered by a Galliano vanilla bean sauce. 

The jolly Belgian Verhoeven oversees the dessert entourage at the four posh palaces and slightly less classy, but rather ambitious buffet spread, churning out goodies left and right that people blush just to enjoy, treats like his White Chocolate Risotto with Fresh Fruit Napoleon, Basil Mousse with Strawberries, and the little tidbits he cooks up for special occasions. At the Grotto, Verhoeven whips up a mean Pistachio and Chocolate Ganache Tart, creamy and rich pistachio custard covered by a chocolate ganache frosting. Eat this critter and forget that you just lost thousands at the blackjack tables, at least temporarily until the flavenoids wear off and you’re left mulling over your crime of passion. At least the tart made the trip worthwhile. If you’re in need of a sugar rush and the one tart won’t do it, hit up the buffet where the dessert station totally kicks ass over the mass of cooling entrées. (Nancy Powell)

The Seafood Grotto at the Pechanga Casino, 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula, (877) 711-2946; www.pechanga.com/dining/thegrotto.asp; Open Thurs.-Mon. only at 5pm


Shōgun—Fried Banana a la Mode

Assuredly the Toro is like “butter” at Shōgun, as the sushi chefs will tell you if you’re sitting at the bar enjoying a quick slab, and the New York New York Roll (lean cooked beef and shrimp tempura) is a excellent for those who are opposed to pink slabs of raw tuna belly, but the fried banana a la mode is an unsuspecting masterpiece of ordinary things. Known for its fresh sushi rolls and teppan-style dining, it’s easy to overlook Shōgun’s minimalist dessert menu, which features essentially three choices—all of them variations of one another (green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream and rainbow sherbet). But the fried banana a la mode is straight haiku, so simple and elegant that it’s hard to understand . . . perhaps even a bit reckless. It’s essentially a banana tempura surrounding a scoop of swiftly melting vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce and a light dusting of powdered sugar—and it’s magic, the hot/cold, the crunch/soft, the ouroboros of converging tastes. The green tea ice cream tempura has similar charms at Shōgun, too, but that juxtaposition is too sharp. There’s just something about the fried nanner and vanilla ice cream that follows up sushi like a long contemplative ellipses. It’s like this:

What’s heaven made of?

Fried banana a la mode

Simple is better . . .

(Braxton Leeds)

Shōgun, 275 Teller Street, Corona, (951) 737-3888. Also locations in Temecula and La Verne.


Simple Simon’s Bakery and Restaurant—The Espresso Hearts

A sight not uncommon to locals is the line snaking out the door during crunch time at Simple Simon’s, the Central Perk and gentrified wet dream of the Inland Empire. A stone’s throw away from the Mission Inn, Simple Simon’s happens to be a less wallet-crunching alternative to the upper-crust elitists down the street, a rustically New York-styled deli of redbrick and wood that dishes up a mouth-watering selection of fresh-baked pastries and artisan breads, all set in plain sight before you enter your order for the more substantive fillers. Freshly baked pies, sweet, sour and all manner of breads in the cartloads, gargantuan cookies and bread puddings all nastily tempt your taste buds before you strike gold with the nuggets hidden in the next case—mile-high concoctions like the raspberry multi-layered Sophie’s cake and the fresh fruit tarts. When the season’s ripe for the picking, the strawberry rhubarb tart is an absolute must. The owner’s favorite and fan favorite, though, is the chocolate espresso heart tucked into the left corner of the display case. Nuked in the microwave for a mere 10 seconds and topped of by a dollop of freshly whipped cream dusted by a coat of cocoa powder and a berry garnish, this flourless dark chocolate sensation makes quite the impression with amorous dates. 

The folks at Simple Simon’s are always busy, always hurried, but never rude. While the prices are on the upper end for the main courses, it’s totally worth it. Bring lots of cash though—the owners accept bills only, plus I guarantee you won’t survive on just the sandwich alone. (Nancy Powell)

Simple Simon’s, 3629 Main Street (across from the Mission Inn), Riverside, (951) 369-6030


The Sycamore Inn—Death By Chocolate

Many businesses along Foothill Blvd. seek to cash in on the faux-nostalgia that accompanies the historic Route 66. The Sycamore Inn, however, can go one better—its establishment predates California’s ascension as a state of the union. You see, in 1848, when “Uncle Billy” Rubottom was roaming Bear Gulch he built this tavern and named it Death By Chocolate. It kept the critters away.

Okay, so that’s merely a rural legend. What is fact is the Sycamore survives as the longest operating steakhouse in the region, serving up prime rib, New York, porterhouse and filet mignon cuts in a cozy lodging built during the Prohibition era.

Let’s make one thing clear. When you dine at Sycamore, be prepared to unloosen your belt and empty your wallet. It’s an a la carte menu. You’ll start with an appetizer like the bacon-wrapped jalapeno-tinged Cajun Shrimp. Take a while to ponder the wine list, the size of which rivals War and Peace. And then choose your entrée, potato and vegetable. That’s practically a C-note right there. And. Then. Dessert.

The aforementioned Death By Chocolate, which features exotic French fillings and custards like ganaché and crème anglaise, is about the size of your fist yet could feed a family of four. But if you like lighter fare, take the Sycamore Special, which sandwiches two tiny scoops of Dr. Bob’s Tahitian vanilla ice cream between strips of pastry, topped by caramel sauce and garnished with berries. Sycamore also features traditional cheesecakes and tarts and the requisite crème brûlée. 

      It’s advisable to call ahead at the Sycamore, as it staffs according to reservations. And the dress code is strictly “business casual.” And if Uncle Billy drops by unannounced with a bear fur slung over his shoulders, that’s one thing—but you and I will have to wear a tie.

The Sycamore Inn, 8318 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 982-1104, www.thesycamoreinn.com; Reservations Recommended


Taste of India—Rasmalai and Gulab Jamun

Indian food is usually associated with spicy entrées and curry smells, but one of the delights of dining at Taste of India is found in their desserts—everything’s priced under four bucks. Rasmalai is one such dish. Most Americans would shy away from firm farmer’s cheese in a sweet cream and covered in ground pistachios, but that would be a mistake because this is a truly excellent dessert. The cream is super sweet and the cheese pleasantly crumbles when sliced into, and the pistachios work to bring all the flavors together with a slight crunch.

A more accessible option is found in the Gulab Jamun, which is homemade cheeseballs in light syrup. When soaked in the light syrup, the cheese takes on an almost donut-like consistency, and topped with some of the finest-shaved coconut, the dessert is substantial without being overfilling. The brown color on the outside adds to the donut illusion, which is completed by the intense sweetness of the dish. (Shaun Rosenstein)

Taste of India, 27715 Jefferson Ave., Temecula, (951) 699-4044; www.tasteofindiatemecula.com


Tasteful Cakes—Cakes, Cakes, Bananas Fosters and Cakes!

Theresa and Cornelio Escobedo, owners of Tasteful Cakes in Corona, have to be proprietors of some of the best—if not the best—pastries and cakes in the IE. Or, really, anywhere for that matter. They have a way of exciting (or intimidating) any sweet tooth with Pumpkin Cheese Cake, Bananas Foster’s Cup, White Mango Mousse Cake and a chocolaty Rum Ball (just to name a few). Since November of 2005 Tasteful Cakes has developed a loyal client base with its decadent sweets, and with such a varied selection of treats and first-class service, it’s no wonder the Escobedo’s are always seeing new faces.

“We’re dedicated in making delicious and artful pastries for all people and all occasions,” says Theresa. Delicious just might be an understatement. The Ultimate Chocolate Mousse Cake is to die for with velvety mousse teeming with cakes and frostings, all of the white, dark and milk chocolate varieties. But the Bananas Foster’s Cup, well, that’s about as good as it gets. Containing fresh ripe bananas, Foster’s mousse and white cake all on a white chocolate cup, this dessert seems more suited to a Four Star eatery than a modest family-owned bakery.

Theresa and Cornelio boast over 40 years of experience as pastry chefs and cake decorators. Their custom creations are magnificent, whether you want a quick treat for work, a special birthday or wedding cake or something for the holidays, if you come, they will build it. (Donté Hightower)

Tasteful Creations, 265 Ontario Ave., Corona, (951) 270-0949, www.tastefulcakes.com


Viva Madrid—Crema Catalana

People go to Viva Madrid for the Crema Catalana, a custard dish similar to the Crème Brûlée. People leave having rediscovered not only by far the best Spanish restaurant in the Inland Empire but one of the top five dining establishments period. It may be the décor, a cleaned up and fancified version of many a local eatery one might find throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Strands of garlic cloves hang from the wall, a Quixote-like suit of armor stands guard on one balcony, while bullfighting posters ring the eating area, all contributing to the “this is Claremont, isn’t it” vibe. Or maybe it’s the service, informed and helpful but also willing to give their clientele plenty of time to linger over their tapas. 

But everyone knows it’s the food itself. Try the toast with goat cheese and wine soaked pears with a nice glass of vino—the subtle combination of cheese, pears, and wine make for a taste both tangy and sweet. Or the signature Tortilla Espanola, a quiche-like mixture of potatoes and eggs and experience the real deal without the eleven-hour flight. Or try a bowl of the almejas, the most delicious clams you’ve ever eaten in an amazing broth of onions, leeks, and incredibly powerful amounts of garlic. 

But leave plenty of room for dessert. The Crema Catalana is, well, as damn tasty as most of the other stuff on their menu. Crema Catalana is the typical dessert of the Catalan region of Spain, made with egg yolks, sugar, lemon, milk and flour. The sugar is then caramelized by a special torch, think refined blowtorch, creating a wonderful contrast between the custard inside and the hard sugary shell on top. The cool part at Viva Madrid is that they torch the sugar at your table, making it more of a production. You can smell the sugar as it cooks. The end result is a damn fine Spanish dessert, and you get all the amazing food and wine, tambien. (Bill Gerdes)

Viva Madrid, 225 Yale Ave Claremont, (909) 624-5500; www.vivamadrid.com; Closed Mon.; open 5-11pm, Tues.-Sun.



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