955 E. Birch Street
Brea, CA 92821
Today is Mother’s Day, and the entire town is booked to the brim with brunch reservations. Around southern California, Sundays are already a big brunch outing day, and with it being Mother’s Day, well, let’s just put it this way – if you didn’t make a reservation six months ago, you probably ended up at Sizzler.
We, thankfully, did not end up at Sizzler, even though as of late last week I had yet to settle on a place, let alone make a reservation. And amazingly enough, we didn’t end up back in the Rowland Heights area for dim sum or New Garden (imagine that). My parents have moved to Fullerton, and other than two nearby Korean restaurants, Sagan, and Surah, I am pretty much reliant on *sigh* resources outside my own enormous repertoire of personal experiences – ha! – for restaurant recommendations in the area. By means that are too embarrassing to admit in public, I found Renaissance Bistro in Brea, and amazingly, they were able to accommodate our group of seven at high time. Hmm. They weren’t already booked – it made me worry. But just a little bit. If we didn’t have a reservation for Mother’s Day, I wouldn’t hear the end of it from my Dad for weeks. Or at least until I did something wrong for Father’s Day.
The area surrounding the Brea Mall is somewhat of a hubbub of activity, but most of the real action is on the west side, in what’s considered Brea’s downtown. Customers can park in one place, and walk along a sort of promenade. A large Edwards Cinema is the central entertainment anchor. There are large retail chains like Old Navy and Tower Records, and of course, lots and lots of restaurants. An enormous Cheesecake Factory just recently opened nearby, Taps (belongs to the King’s group), and even familiar L.A. restaurants like Pane e Vino and Gaucho Grill have outposts in downtown Brea. These places have been booked for Mother’s Day, from open to close, for weeks.
But Renaissance Bistro is in the Brea Marketplace, a large shopping plaza behind the Brea Mall on the northeast side, whose time has inevitably passed. There’s very little traffic (both car and foot), so only second tier retail shops and food places pay the rent, which is less incentive for local Brea residents to go there. Even discounter like Marshall’s only did a short stint there before moving on to greener pastures. It’s sort of a slow, sad, vicious cycle downward for the strip mall. But Renaissance Bistro, on the far end next to Togo’s, is trying to hang on.
As we walk up to the restaurant, there’s a live band covering Cat Stevens and James Taylor in the open courtyard in front of the restaurant. It was a nice touch for Mother’s Day, but as we sat down at plastic table and chairs on the front patio, Dad started to fidget. The music was too loud. And the chairs were uncomfortable. We asked to be moved away from the music, but looking around at all the tables full of families of six or seven, we weren’t hopeful. The young-ish, chubby, pink-cheeked manager must know he’s got to keep customers coming back, else his job at the Renaissance Bistro will be gone when the restaurant has to shut down. Somehow, he’s found room for us inside, and reminds us again that they are out of Crème Brulee French Toast. We heard him the first time he notified us before we even sat down. Just for that, I was going to order it. Just to make him sweat.
Renaissance Bistro was built for dining al fresco, because the interior of the restaurant has only two tables. The climate is also not meant for the comfort of diners; the thermostat is set for servers who are working up a sweat running back and forth from the kitchen to the patio. My Dad fidgets again – it’s cold inside. We ask the waitress to turn down the A/C, but she simply replies timidly that she can’t. She doesn’t seem too aggressive. Can she ask? I don’t think so, and that was that. My eyebrows are raised as we play musical chairs. My Dad is now sitting on the far end away from the vents, with my Mom’s cardigan over his shoulders. He’s happy. We’re all happy.
With a 12:30 reservation, Dad, who should be a farmer for his waking hours, is inevitably famished. I rapidly scan the menu for something, anything to order as an appetizer. When our server finally returns (not from a trip to the thermostat, of course), we order drinks, and I slip in a baked brie.
I felt sort of bad for our waitress through our brunch because she was horrible, but hopefully only because my Dad made her nervous, and not for simply being incompetent. I am certain we switched chairs long before we ordered our drinks, so I’m not sure why she got every single drink backwards. Two iced teas go down there, orange juice was over here. Or maybe we asians all just look like alike. But even though I wouldn’t expect her to know that in asian culture the oldest man is first (in everything), she must also have forgotten that is was Mother’s Day, because she started with neither of my parents. Bad.
And now it gets a little ugly. In a highly unexpected move, my Dad asked me to split a dish. I obliged. But when he told the server, “My daughter and I are going to share...” she cut him off and said they weren’t doing split order because of the holiday. Dad turned three shades of purple. He muttered (not so) under his breath that the restaurant wasn’t very friendly. I was embarrassed by the way he acted, but understood – I was sort of mad too. I ordered a Caesar salad that I’d be able to ignore to “share” my Dad’s pasta. With a note that she’d bring some bread to the table, the server went to put our order in.
Why the little breadbowl like the ones they have at Fisherman’s wharf overflowing with grainy, overcooked brie came out almost a half hour after I had first ordered it, I have no idea. It couldn’t possibly have taken that long to prepare, since quite obviously, the dry, curling carrot sticks, and brown-edged sliced green apples had been cut that morning. Or perhaps it had been ready 15 minutes ago, and our server just forgot to bring out. Like she forgot to bring out the bread. Which never came out, until our entrees did, another 20 minut
es later. A quick survey and by now, the restaurant isn’t even that full anymore. *ugh*
Finally, bread came out with garlic spiked olive oil, and we attacked it. Starter cream of broccoli soup was great according to two, and so were the baby organic greens. I just cherry-picked the blue cheese from Mom’s plate. Main entrees, heavily Italian-influenced, weren’t horrible, especially at fairly moderate prices, but we ate them – perhaps Dad’s quote of the day, “Hunger is the best chef,” was all too fitting. Accordingly, I ignored my salad and shared Dad’s Seafood Pasta – fettuccine noodles in a spicy tomato sauce with fairly generous shrimp and fish. The scampi and artichoke omelet was overcooked to rubbery dray and the chicken ravioli looked sparse and dry. It was. Dry was the theme of the day, for penne pasta with chicken, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes didn’t even have any sort of sauce at all. Mom’s chicken piccatta “over” pasta, was actually pasta with only a few pieces of, again, dry overcooked chicken.
With the long wait for food, our stomachs must have shrunken, for even with modest portions, everyone (except the pasta Dad and I shared) took half home. No one had room for dessert, but it’s probably more accurate to say we had no patience to wait another half hour for it. Besides, I had a Paper Chef creation waiting at home.