Event - Savoring Shades Restaurant & Bar Samples at The Waterfront Beach Resort (and Giveaway)

[GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER] I've driven by the hotel many times on cruises up PCH always noting the street before it being called "Twin Dolphins." How cheery a name! The Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach (a Hilton property) resides among the other coastline HB hotels, and its signature restaurant, Shades Restaurant and Bar, completes the corner of the property, viewable from the street and showcasing a beachfront sight for diners. We were invited one evening to celebrate in the appointment of a new Executive Chef via tasting menu. The man of the night was Executive Chef Benoit (Ben) LaFleche, a proven case of the hotel's commitment to its own staff and their development. A graduate of the Canadian Culinary Institute of Montreal, Chef LaFleche has a career of cooking in hotels (including a ski resort in Whistler, British Columbia and Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal) and has been at the Waterfront Beach Resort for 12 years! He had worked his way up and now leads the culinary program there with an emphasis on fresh, sustainable, and quality ingredients. Not bad for the son of a career butcher!

The restaurant itself is very easy to find once you've valeted your car. Scott O'Hanlon, Director of Marketing and Advertising, gave us some insight into the restaurant's customer-driven focus, only fitting for a venue based on hospitality. I was surprised to learn that Shades even texts guests (and others who've opted into their SMS list) about specials, events, and so forth. That's a neat way to keep updated on what the restaurant is doing. When looking over their menu, we saw the familiar menu sections of Small Plates, Cheese, Charcuterie, Entrees, Salads, and Appetizers but what apparently is quite popular is their 5-7pm Happy Hour where everything on that specific menu is $5. There is also a rotating daily Signature Dishes section and several unique day specials such as Wine Tasting Thursday, Friday night roasts, Saturday's Burger of the Day, and even a Sunday brunch with close-up, tableside magic by a Magic Castle magician.

In terms of the tasting itself, we started with their "Lazy K Lemonade," named for a bartender named Kyle, which was made of pomegranate liqueur, pomegranate juice, Smirnoff blueberry vodka, and lemonade. Everyone seemed to enjoy this one, and the alcohol was quite subtle. Hors d'oeuvres for the evening were their Coconut Milk-Braised Pork Sliders with Pickled Mustard Seeds and Rooster Sauce ($8 - with pickled cilantro), Italian Sausage Risotto Stuffed Piquillo Pepper with Chili Aioli ($8 - with Jack cheese), and "Taste of HB" winner Shades Signature Mini Blue Crab Cakes with Roasted Garlic Aioli ($15 - with chervil). The crowd favorite seemed to be the sliders which was savory and spicy with small pops from the mustard seeds; we also found out at the bread was from Sadie Rose so perhaps that was a factor! The stuffed peppers were enjoyable particularly because their roasted flavors played well with the umami from sausage. As for the crab cakes, these contained about 98% crab meat instead of filling, admirable but for some reason, a little mushy that night. We would have preferred a harder crust on the top and bottom ourselves. Wines paired for the evening were the Zaca Mesa Viognier, 2010 and Cain Cuvee NV9.

The next round of food came primarily from their proposed Lunch menu; we sampled their Fiscalini Vintage Cheddar Mac n' Cheese ($13 - with Hook's four-year aged Cheddar, radiatore pasta, and pulverized duck fat crouton crust), Housemade Grilled Flatbread with Ochoa's Chorizo, Roasted Tomatoes and Mozzarella ($12 flatbread usually with garlic goat cheese, mushrooms, salami, and tomatoes instead), and PB&J with Housemade Bourbon Peanut Butter and Jalapeno Jelly. The mac and cheese took advantage of a more unique type of pasta that not every person may have seen but which was a good choice for this dish. The cheese was able to seep into all of the crevices of each pasta piece, giving each bite a bit of wholesome-ness and the simple comfort food feeling Chef LaFleche wanted to achieve. We thought it could have used more dimension (perhaps with shallots?) but if you wanted an uncomplicated mac and cheese, go for it! The flatbread featured a fun find for the guests in the form of chorizo, apparently sourced from a small "Mom and Pop" shop in Santa Ana on Main & Warner that is known for having amazing product. It only makes sense seeing as it's the only product they sell! As for the favorite in this trio choice, everyone adored the PB&J for its warmth, spicy kick, great toasting, and nostalgia.

As we ate, O'Hanlon explained more about their customer-driven approach by showing us an innovative app called Dropthought. They present it to guests as a way to communicate with the manager and the chefs themselves in case there are issues with the food and not. This instant access and feedback benefits both sides by giving the diners more control of their experience and the kitchen more information about the night. It was quite the neat idea and definitely one that I'm sure has been very helpful to the staff.

The entree round swung by next despite our fit-to-burst bellies. This consisted of Eight Hour Lamb Belly with Korean Chili Glaze, Black Beluga Lentil Salad, and Yogurt Sauce ($12), Braised Duck Ragout and Pappardelle Pasta ($24 - with garlic toast), and Pan-Seared Barramundi with Lobster Risotto, Pickled Black Grapes, and Pea Tendrils ($28). Though the size of the lamb belly was substantial in our opinions, we learned that it is actually served at two times the amount as just an appetizer. Understandably, it is the best selling appetizer, and it turned out to be the favorite among the crowd that night. The yogurt cut through the potential heaviness of belly, and the meat itself fell away easily underneath the slight pressure of my fork. The ragout was a tiny bit too tangy for my liking but some enjoyed it. As for the barramundi, it had a wonderful sear on the top, and I really wish that it had not been served skin-side down on risotto since the skin on it must have been crispy when first plated. Being served skin-side down, it quickly became soggy.

Lastly, we got a glimpse into the magic behind their "Ingredient of the Month" contest. As a way to engage their customer/fan base, Shades offers on their Facebook the ability for people to suggest an ingredient with which Chef LaFleche is to make dishes with for the month. Ours for the evening was his Tangerine Mini Cupcakes with Basil Meringue Icing in honor of tangerine. They typically opt for ingredients that are seasonal during the choosing. These ingredients are suggested by people from all over, and the one that gets picked receives the lovely prize of a Sunday brunch for four with an overnight stay. In terms of restrictions, the ingredient must be able to be made into 4-5 dishes for the month (one per week). For the tangerine month, they also made a tangerine julius and tangerine pannacotta. If you're curious about February, the month's ingredient is pear!

Our thank yous go out to the Shades staff, Chef LaFleche, Scott O'Hanlon, and Jane for having us. Also, they were generous enough to donate a $50 gift card to the restaurant that I will be giving away to one lucky reader. Check the details below and tell your friends!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

Shades Restaurant, Hilton Waterfront on Urbanspoon

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The giveaway will run until 2/14/14 at 11:59pm PST. Winner will be contacted upon winning and has 48 hours to respond before another winner is drawn.