Friday, August 20, 2010


Finally, after four years of living in Los Angeles, I can finally consider myself a "Los Angelino" (not that I necessarily want to, but I could if I did).  Why?  Because today I tracked down and visited the famous Kogi truck.  It's like a right of passage here to have experienced Kogi.

Kogi essentially started this huge revolution of gourmet and ethnic "taco trucks" that drive around LA and serve food out of a truck on the side of the road or in a random parking lot.  Typical taco trucks have been around forever and usually have some amazing street tacos, but it's pretty ingenious of these guys to put a spin on it and throw down some Korean BBQ tacos.  Many have followed suit and we now have oodles of fancy food trucks driving around LA.

"So..," you ask, "...where's this Kogi truck?"  Well, I don't know actually.  It could be anywhere.  Today it was in the parking lot of a Chevorlet dealership in Orange County.  Tomorrow it might be in the parking lot of a Target in Long Beach (I have no idea if a Target actually exists in Long Beach, I'm just assuming to make my point clear).  The thing is, you never really know where these silly trucks will be and that's why the 'food truck revolution' is so typical LA.  You have to twitter the Kogi truck to find it's location on any given day.  "What's twitter?"  I don't really know and I don't really care.  Fortunately I waited long enough and the Kogi truck now has a website detailed it's location so I don't ever have the need for a Twitter account (that is, until there's a cupcake truck...)

As I said, Kogi is somewhat of a Los Angeles legacy.  Anyone who's anyone has twittered, driven all over town, and waited in an hour-long line for a short rib taco or a kimchi quesadilla.  I sometimes hesitate to follow trends, especially given today's horrific fashion trends, but I had to assume that for people to be so loyal to a glorified taco truck, someone at some point thought the food was really something special.  So, since I was outside of my bubble anyways, I made the trek to Orange County to see what the truck was all about.

I was shocked to find the truck at a car dealership, shocked at how short the line actually was, shocked at how amazing the truck smelled, and shocked at how much a couple of tacos and quesadillas could cost.  Did I mention the cockroach running around outside the truck?  Not shocked.  They nickname food trucks roach coaches for a reason, right?  The food?  Shocking.  Literally, the best tacos I've ever had.

The smart thing to do here is order some tacos because they're small enough that you can get a few and taste the bold, delicious flavors they've got going on inside this incredible roach coach.  They also have burritos, but really, one burrito and you're done, so you have to choose wisely between short rib, spicy pork, chicken, and tofu.  Don't knock the tofu! I had a tofu taco that blew me away.   Besides tacos and burritos, they have kimchi quesadillas, which are spicy, but the most flavorful I've ever tried (no need to be afraid of the kimchi, as I was; any harsh flavor is masked by spice and delicious sauce), and kogi sliders, which are essentially tiny korean short rib sandwiches.  They're also delicious, but if I must be ever-so-slightly critical, I might have appreciated less mayo.  Orange soda washes it all down quite nicely, and to offer a friendly and helpful suggestion, get extra napkins and pick up a couple sporks - you'll need them!

I suppose I'm now believer in the magic of the Kogi truck.  It's definitely one LA trend worth following.

OK, Cupcake Truck, I'm waaaaiiiiiiitttttting...

Friday, June 4, 2010


Animal was another Food Network recommendation.  The episode was "The Best Thing I Ever Ate...With Bacon."  Doesn't bacon make everything taste better anyways?  Duff Goldman's (of Ace of Cakes) "best thing...with bacon" was the chocolate bacon crunch bar from Animal in Los Angeles.  Chocolate and bacon?  I don't know about that.  I think I'll have to try it.  And so continued the quest for the "best of's" in Los Angeles.

A week in advance we were only able to get a reservation for 9:15pm the following Saturday evening.  I suppose that makes sense for dessert, but I'm not gonna haul all the way out to West Hollywood just for dessert.  So dinner at 9:15 or nothin.  The good thing about a late dinner, though, is you can park right across the street from the restaurant and the meters are free!  We arrived at the restarant a good 30 minutes early (you never know with LA traffic), and the waitress seated us immediatly.  OK...why could I not get earlier reservations if you could seat us early anyways?  No matter.  As long as I could eat...and soon...

The wine menu looked pretty fantastic, but at 9:15 at night, I'd be lucky to keep my forehead out of my food as it was, I certainly didn't need wine to encourage any sleepiness.  For some reason, the Fresh Mint Tea sparked a ridiculous amount of interest, and despite the fact that it was really hot in the restaurant, I ordered the hot tea.  It came out in a clear, individual sized tea pot with a tiny cup for me to pour.  I couldn't help but wonder if I'd ordered myself a pot of hot water with mint leaves in it.  But you know what?  It was just what I needed and turned out to be a most perfect palate cleanser in between courses, so what the heck, I'll pay $5 for some minty hot water since they're smart enough to put in on their menu.  It's not like they'd let me bring my own minty hot water into the restaurant anyway!

The menu intimidated me a little bit, actually.  There were a lot of obscure meats on the list and some unusual combinations.  I was pretty sure everything would be good, I just wasn't sure how much I'd like the meatiness of it all.  But really, the restaurant is called animal...not vegetable...what did you expect to be on the menu?  Gotta trust the chef!  We ordered six of the small plates, which turned out to be the perfect amount for two (we were starving).

The grilled spanish mackerel with fava bean salad and magna cauda, is light and fresh and incredibly flavorful. The rabbit loin with country ham, haricot vert, and spetzel is incredible;  I have a whole new appreciation for spetzel now.  We also had duck confit with apricot, marcona almonds, dates, and arugula, which was very good.  All I really have to say about this is that marcona almonds are far superior to regular almonds, and they taste really good with dates.  Lamb meatballs are good, but not nearly as good as the gold rice, green garbanzos, and creme fraiche they are served with.  Quail fry with grits, chard, and slab bacon is a nice play on southern comfort fried chicken.  The grits are even "spiked" with a surprising smoky flavor that makes this really fun to eat.  Of course, we had foie gras, which is served on top of a biscuit that's smothered in maple sausage gravy.  It was good, but a little to heavy.  I actually really like all of the food and found the presentation and combinations of food to be incredibly creative, interesting, and packed full of flavor.  Each dish had a meat that the dish was based off of, but I found myself appreciating the "other stuff" on the plates much more than the meat itself;  the meat didn't necessarily take over the dishes, and I really appreciated that.

We were obviously up for dessert after the meal, since that was the idea behind this adventure to begin with.  I was hesitant to grab the bacon chocolate crunch bar immediately, though, as our last couple dishes were heavy on sausage and bacon flavors.  We decided we'd throw in an additional dessert to break from the bacon before embarking on a bacon dessert adventure.  We ordered the tres leches with dulce de leche, was unbelievable.  This might have been the first time I've ever had tres leches cake and I can't believe I've been missing out my whole life.  It was life-alteringly delicious.  Then we ate the bacon chocolate crunch bar and, well, I don't know.  It was not "the best thing I ever ate...with bacon."  I'd venture to guess that it's also not the best thing Duff ever ate with bacon, but it sounds good to say so on television because bacon and chocolate is novel and interesting and attracts  It worked on me.  I tried it.  And I'd even go back...but not for the crunch bar...for the hot mint water and the spetzel and the tres leches cake...because those were "the best I ever ate."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cafe del Rey

I cannot fairly write this review without admitting the fact that we did, in fact, know the chefs at the restaurant. That may have had an effect on what and how they served us (although each dish was, indeed, on the regular menu), but it had no effect on my opinions of the food I was being served.  My review here is completely and honestly what I thought of the food, and the chefs have and had no idea that I would be writing this review.

Now, with that out of the way, I can rave about Cafe del Rey without feeling that I'm hiding something from the general public!  My trip to Cafe del Rey in Marina del Rey was, hands-down, one of the most incredible dining experiences I've had...ever.

We approached the evening with the hopes that we wouldn't have to decide for ourselves what we'd be eating, that we could just ask for recommendations and be open-minded about what we'd get (this is my new favorite way to dine out, by the way).  This turned itself into a tasting menu designed by the chefs just for us.  I always say surprises make everything taste better!  The best part was that the chefs themselves graced us with their presence to deliver almost every single course.

We shared two flights of wine (3 half-glasses in each flight), one white and one red because we didn't know what we'd be drinking them with!  Better to be 'too-much-wine' safe than 'drinking-white-wine-with-red-meat' sorry

They started us off with oysters.  Good choice.  I assume that's a standard starter for a "date" table?  So, in general, oysters are oysters.  You shuck them, put them on a pretty plate and serve them, maybe with some tabasco or horseradish cocktail sauce. It's up to the ocean to deliver the taste.  At Cafe del Rey, though, the oysters come dressed with a sherry vinegar and shallot concoction that is light and tangy and, really, quite perfect.  I've never enjoyed an oyster more, and it's nice to see some creativity and bravery in dressing the oysters.

For our next course, they brought us two different crudos to taste: Scottish slamon with cucumber, green apple granite, and smoked paprika oil; and tai snapper with cucumber, tomatillo, esplette pepper, and pork cracklings (I did in fact refer to the menu for this detailed memory skills are not that impressive).  Crudo is similar to tartare in cooking method...specifically, the lack of cooking.  Living in California, raw seafood preparation can be found on every corner, usually as sushi or tartar.  I'm tired of it, honestly, because it's always the same.  This crudo, though, was not the same.  There were new flavors and new textures in this crudo, and it was California fresh without the tired, overdone preparation.  I mean, really...have you ever heard of esplette pepper?  Or had pork cracklings or green apple granite (which was delicious, by the way) served with your sushi?  I didn't think so!

"The next course is our take on peas on carrots."

Really?  Why did I come here for peas and carrots? 

(plate on table)

Oooooh....that's why.  Creamy carrot soup, topped with something scrumptious, was served alongside english pea agnolotti in browned butter.  This is my favorite food.  Ever.  Agnlotti, by the way, is just like ravioli.  I'm sure there's a technical reason they call it agnolotti instead of ravioli, but I'm pretty sure it's also because this agnolotti is magnitudes better than any ravioli ever created.  And I must say, browned butter over any pasta beats a complicated sauce  Details?  Ok, but I may have to cut it short to prevent computer damage due to the drool coming out of my mouth.  The carrot soup is creamy but not too heavy, and has a very pleasant presence of carrot that's accompanied by something else that effectively tones down the sweetness of the carrot to leave a very balanced soup consistency and wonderful flavor.  The agnolotti, in all seriousness, were very well prepared. The pasta itself is slightly thicker than I've had, but it is cooked perfectly to al dente, and the smooth english pea center is incredibly light and flavorful.  The browned butter balances the "healthiness" with a dose of fatty sinfulness.  I'll eat my peas and carrots at Cafe del Rey anyday.

I was pretty sure that I'd be somewhat disappointed in the rest of the food following that performance.  But it didn't stop at peas and carrots.  Seared ahi and maine diver scallops were up next...

You really can't go wrong with scallops...unless, of course, you cook them improperly or serve them with mustard.  You can go incredibly right with scallops, though, and that's what happened here.  They were served with wild mushroom and english pea risotto, and topped with a lovely foam that gave the dish a nice ocean-y feel.  I ought to take this time to point out that it's obvious that the ingredients we're getting here are fresh and in season; English peas are beautiful right now and I'm happy to see them finding their way into delicious preparations. 
The seared ahi is served over potato puree and some tomato or pepper sauce.  On top of the ahi, though, the place a tad of reserved garlic piperade.  I have no idea what this is and I've never heard of it, but I love the idea of having such a unique ingredient sneak it's way unassumingly onto my plate.  Again, I must thank the chefs for avoiding the cliche ginger-soy flavors that so typically accompany ahi.  It takes guts to offer new and unique combinations of flavors in a city that's so obsessed with trends.  Mom, you'd love this...three times over.

By this point, it was clear that these courses were intended to be paired with our white wines.  And they were.  I expected that our main course was up next so that our reds weren't neglected.  We'd had the fish main course, and usually, the meat main course would follow.  I was wrong.  The started us over and brought out the meat-based appetizers for us to intiate our red wines. That's what I consider paying attention!

They brought out two red-wine-appropriate appetizers: niman ranch crispy pork belly with bbq beans, and seared foie gras with strawberries and rhubarb.

 I was never really comfortable with the concept of foie gras, but was always very intrigued because, well, it's popular amongst those who know food.  Thanks to Cafe del Rey, though, I get it now.  Apparently, with the right pairing, in the right bite, foie gras gives you the opportunity to experience texture and flavor that can't really be explained with words that are in my vocabulary.  In one bite, you get sweet strawberry and rhubarb, crispy buttery brioche, and the seared caramelization on the smooth and rich foie gras.  It's...well...truly something else. 

Next to the foie gras, the pork belly seemed silly.  I'm not much of a pork and beans kind of girl as it is, and I had never before had pork belly, so I can't really say whether or not this was good.  You can't win them all, chef.

Few tasting menus leave you without the token meat dish.  I generally don't care much for the meat dishes, mostly because, usually, I've pretty much already eaten too much food, and meat is just so darn heavy that it's hard to get it all down.  Chef presented our dish as "Colorado lamb" and I stopped listening at that point because I was so excited that he said Colorado.  Weird, I know.  Colorado makes everything much better.  That may have been the reason that I loved my lamb.  That's right, I loved my meat course!  The lamb is crusted in olive tapenade and served with peas and carrots (fresh ones) and lamb jus.  It's very simple, which makes it seem light and manageable.  The lamb is incredibly tender, and the typical strong, gamey lamb flavor is amazingly subdued, leaving a wonderfully pleasant bite. 

It was a good thing I wore a dress instead of pants that night because apparently they like to bring the cheese plate between the dinner and the dessert, and I obviously would have had to unbutton to fit much more in.  But as I can't turn down cheese or dessert, I had to find room.

Our cheese plate had four cheese, and each was paired with something homemade to eat alongside the cheese that would complement the flavor.  Again, it's obvious they pay special attention to detail here. Not many places make the effort to give you much more than honey or dried fruit with your cheese.  The triple cream was paired with pickled raspberries, and was probably my favorite cheese; there was a slightly softer cheese that was served with sugared jellied guava candies; the hard and sharp (parmesan-like) cheese was served with dulce de leche "blob" of sorts, which was my favorite pairing; the blue cheese was served as a mini-sandwich on homemade black pepper bread with fresh, raw honeycomb.  The whole thing was a work of art and was absolutely amazing.  I'd go back just for the cheese plate.

...and then there was dessert.  I didn't really need dessert, but really, I always need dessert (yes, I meant that).  I always need to try the desserts, especially when they look as cool as they do at Cafe del Rey.  Every dessert here, or at least the ones (that's right, two) we had, were works of art.  They obviously take much pride in making their desserts unique and visually appealing.

We had the chocolate and popcorn dessert, which has a piece of chocolate cake, a giant swirl of chocolate ganache, homemade chocolate gelato, a hazelnut powder, and an edible decoration that resembled stained-glass and tasted like popcorn.  It was very...curious (to borrow from Alice and Wonderland, which suddenly seems appropriate).  I'm pretty sure this was not meant to be eaten piece by piece, but rather mixed together in one big bite somehow.  It was a little too big and too complicated for that, in my opinion, so I ended up taking bites of each component, but this is where I thought the dessert failed.  The chocolate cake by itself was not impressive, and the ganache was overly sweet and very thick.  The gelato was unique and tasty, but without a well-executed chocolate presence, it's purpose was a little lost.  We also had a lemon meringue tart, which was of a similar and confusing nature.  It was served with a red pepper gelato that was actually spicy.  Both desserts were conceptually too weird to really impress me with flavor, but I will give them honorable mention for creativity because I've never seen, and may never again see anything like these desserts.

Regardless of the disappointing dessert, I left Cafe del Rey perfectly happy. Anyone that comes to visit me in California ought to expect a visit to Cafe del Rey, because I can't think of anywhere better to go for a fantastic display of California cuisine.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I was pretty sure that after my last two-star restaurant extravaganza, I wouldn't be eating at another two-star for a really really really long time. 

Is a month long enough? 

Exactly one month after our trip to Melisse, I received an invitation to a special wine and food event hosted at Providence restaurant, another LA restaurant with two Michelin stars (that I've often seen compared to Melisse).  The event included a wine reception with passed hors d'oeuvres, followed by a 5-course dinner created by the executive chef, and special appearances by the chef and the winemakers.  Pretty cool, huh?  The best part - it was free!  That is, if I was willing to part with a few airline mileage points.  The mileage points cost of two tickets to the event was fewer than 10% of what I currently had in my account, and not even enough for a free trip anywhere, so why not?  How often to you get the opportunity to have a 5 course meal at a two-star restaurant and meet the chef?  Needless to say, we were excited...really excited.  Perhaps too much so...

The wine and hors d'oeuvres reception was a nice introduction to the featured wineries and the restaurant itself.  Pinot gris from Inman winery in the russian river valley region in northern California was the wine chosen for the stand-up portion of the event.  I actually really enjoyed this wine even though I lost my taste for white wine about a year ago.  This one was quite drinkable and very light and I managed to finish the whole glass!

The passed hors d'oeuveres, though, were absolutely delicious.  Waiters danced around with gorgeous displays of skewers with grilled squid and chorizo.   Plain and simple, but absolutely scrumptious.  Attempting to be polite, I turned down seconds three or four times before I realized that they'd keep bringing them around, so I quickly gave up and scarfed down another three or four.  Also floating around were trays of fried clam puffs served with yuzu mayonaise.  These were also exceptional, as the fresh citrus of the yuzu cuts through the fried crust of the clam balls quite nicely, helping to avoid the heavy feeling often accompanying fried appetizers.  I could have eaten 5 or 6 of these as well, but I knew they were fried and served with mayonaise, so my judgement got the better of me (the wine hadn't kicked in just yet).  As the room crowded, it became more and more difficult to get our hands on the last of the hors d'oeuvres, as they disappeared as quickly as in the childhood card game 'spoons'.  Picking up on this, we began stalking the waiters to ensure we'd get to taste the shrimp toasts before they were gone.  Just seconds before being seated, we got our hands on the crispy "shrimp toasts", which weren't toast at all, but some concoction of shrimp and bread crumbs (maybe?) that ended up tasting like a shrimpy piece of crispy toast.  These were great in a how'd-he-do-that kind of way.

To the table!...where there were an additional 4 glasses for wine (I knew I was in trouble).  We sat at a table for six with a bunch of strangers.  This could have been awkward, but we got lucky to have an incredible group of people to dine with, and the conversation flowed easily all night, which may have turned out to be the highlight of the evening (foreshadowing!)

The feast began with a wonderful amuse bouche, actually a series of amuse bouches in my opinion.  The homemade wasabi crusted marshmallow was soft and fluffy and surprisingly very tasty, despite my distaste for wasabi.  I enjoyed the textural contrast of the crispy wasabi and the light squishiness of the marshmallow.
Served alongside was a tiny gougere, a cheesy-puff pastry, filled with warm creamy cheese.  Need I saw more?  It was incredible.  The best bite of food I had all night.  Finally, a tiny cup of trout tartare, which had so much complexity that I can hardly remember what was in the tiny cup (except the gold one forgets gold leaf), but it was really very good.

The five courses that comprised the special menu were good. Not great, though.  I have a hard time really criticizing this restaurant's food, as this was a special menu for a special event which may have had particular limitations that I'm not aware of.  I did go into this with very high expectations, as one ought to approach a restaurant with such prestige as this one, but I certainly can't say that I was "wow-ed" by this meal.

The first course served was a Bobby's Block Island scallop served with rosemary, whole grain mustard, sherry vinegar, and wildflower honey.  Well, this poor course was doomed from the start, for me at least; the rest of the table really loved this dish.  The scallop itself was indeed cooked beautifully.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get it far enough away from the mustard.  I admit that I do have a strong aversion to mustard, but I did give this a chance to win me over.  The problem is that I can't imagine that even if I had liked mustard, that I would have wanted my scallop served with it.  The combination of scallops and mustard is conceptually very confusing to me. I understand mustard with sausage and saurkraut (a la Wurstkuche), and even mustard with chicken (a la Jose Andres), but scallops?  To be honest, I think scallops ought to be treated better than that!  But again, everyone else loved it, so who am I to say who or what scallops should be able to hang out with?  The Mueller winery chardonnay served with the scallops was particularly delicious.  I like when chardonnay tastes a bit like buttered popcorn (I polished this one as well!)

The next course was wild striped bass served with applewood smoked bacon, crushed potato, and bone marrow (and not one, but two different glasses of pinot noir from Inman family winery).  The bass was pretty good, but I found it a tad bit too dry.  I also had a tough time finding a composed dish here.  I found myself eating a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which doesn't entirely work because no one wants a biteful of just bone's like eating fat, consistency-wise.  I will say that I can understand the difficulty in putting together a dish with white fish that pairs with a pinot noir.  This may have been the driver for including crispy bacon and meaty marrow with the fish.  I do commend the chef for his efforts, even though this wasn't my favorite.  I'm sure he did not have the pleasure of choosing the wines, but rather had to create a meal around them.  Quite the challenge for a restaurant that's known for seafood, and wineries from a region known for pinots!

Next up, wild troll caught king salmon (Did a troll catch my salmon, I thought? Are trolls real? Must have been the wine speaking) served with fava beans, french breakfast radish, and delta asparagus.  I actually really liked the salmon.  It was obviously slow cooked, so it didn't have the typical dry texture and heavy taste of cooked salmon, but was melt-in-your-mouth tender and light in flavor.  The asparagus, of course, was a perfect accompaniment, and the salty foam that topped the dish was pleasant and fun.  The radish was just...there.  Paired with two new pinots from Mueller winery.  Salmon and pinot is a perfectly acceptable pairing as is, but I was beginning to slosh, so I quit trying to finish my wines.

The main-er of the courses was a libery farms duck breast served with blood orange confit, braised daikon, and pea tendrils.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by the duck, which was tender and juicy and had a wonderful crispy, flavorful crust.  Again, the composition was a bit confusing to me, as the array of colorful accompaniments to the meat were tasty on their own, but they didn't really bring anything together for me for a composed flavor profile.

Finally...dessert!  I'm always eager to see what kind of fancy shmancy desserts will come out of places like this, and I always expect to loooove my dessert.  Our Providence dessert was a yuzu curd with blackberry sorbet and some homemade meringue.  It was very very good, very very tart, and did not contain all.  Palate cleanser really, not dessert.  It was certainly a pleasant finish to the meal, light and refreshing, but I wasn't necessarily oooh-ing and aahhh-ing over it.

All in all, it was a nice meal, but I'm certainly glad I didn't pay two-star restaurant prices for it!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


They say two Michelin stars is better than one.  I think they really mean that two stars is going to cost you more - a boat-load more.  And you won't be allowed to pull out your chair, pour your tea, or wipe your nose by yourself because the staff will be right there next to you (on your left, of course) waiting for you to attempt to lift a finger so they can stop you and take care of it for you because you're there to eat and pay money, and that's it!

Other than that general stuffiness, double Michelin-ed Santa Monica restaurant, Melisse, was great.  The food was delicious and absolutely worthy of the two stars of fame.  It's the fact that my pocketbook has been so sore from the expense that I've neglected, for nearly three weeks, to put together a decent review of the place.  Now that I'm well on my way through a recovery budget and diet, I feel much more capable of reasoning through an objective review of the elegant food offerred at Melisse.

Our visit to Melisse was for a birthday celebration, so the last thing I wanted to do was say "no, you can't have the anniversary tasting menu, it's too expensive" or "do you really need a wine pairing with that?"  Instead, I said "It's your birthday you can have anything you want."  Ahem...and so it began.  I will say, though, that the 10 year anniversary menu looked so inviting that I had a hard time not wanting to just spring for it, and so we did.  One wine pairing, not two.  One of us has a difficult enough time making it through a single glass of wine, let alone ten (small ones, don't worry).  However, the sommelier (aka wine guy) might have been the personality highlight of the evening, so in that sense it was kind of worth the $$$.

With our extravagant order placed, we settled in and watched the bread guy prance around with a tray full of colorful bread, that's right, colorful.  An assortment of homemade breads is teasingly waved in front of your nose, and you're required to choose from the tempting basil brioche, French country bread, bacon foccacia, olive bread, etc, which the bread man delicately places on your bread plate because that's his job.  I asked for two pieces, which was obviously shocking to the poor man, as I made him scramble back over to my left side to serve me the second piece, taking the long route around the front of the table rather than stepping behind me.  He moved my plate an inch over, too, because apparently I had placed it in the wrong location on the table.  But the bread was fantastic.  The basil brioche is incredibly unique, effectively blending the rich buttery flavor of brioche with the strong fresh flavor of basil.  A slather of butter on the roll perfectly tops this off with cold smooth texture to tone down the richness (so don't forgo that butter!)  The french country roll is much simpler conceptually, but perfectly executed, with a crispy-but-not-flaky, flavorful crust and a soft gooey middle.  Butter or no butter, this one's a winner!  (Yes, I just dedicated a huge long paragraph to the before-meal bread.  It's important.  The free bread is an indication of how much care is going to be in the rest of your meal.  If they served you Wonder Bread before your meal, wouldn't you be a bit skeptical of what else will show up on the table?)

I wish I remembered what the amuse bouche was...there was an amuse bouche...obviously it was not life-changing enough for me to remember it, so I'll move on to the rest of the meal (for which I saved the menu in order to remember what we ate). 

The first appetizer (there were many) was Egg Caviar.  As this was my first caviar experience, I wasn't quite sure I'd like this one, simply based on the fact that I detest the little tiny orange fish roe they constantly slop on top of my California rolls at sushi restaurants that pop in my mouth a million times as I attempt to chew.  The dish came presented so elegantly in an egg shell with the top neatly carved out.  The shell is filled with a poached egg yolk, cauliflower mousseline, and lemon craime fraiche and topped with caviar and chives.  They encourage you to dip your spoon all the way to the bottom to get every layer in your biteful, and they're right - it's absolutely delicious.  I scraped my egg shell so clean I might have made a hole in the bottom.  The salty caviar (that doesn't pop in your mouth!) combines beautifully with the smooth cream, and the lemon and chives add a burst of fresh flavor to lighten the dish under the heaviness of the egg yolk.  It's brilliantly planned in the way it achieves such an interesting flavor profile without adding textural complexity; you get a variety of different flavors, all in a smooth and creamy bite.

The second appetizer, according to my saved menu, was a duo of hamachi & tuna...because you can't go to a fancy restaurant in California without getting raw fish.  My menu says it was served with celery, meyer lemon, and black truffles.  I'll have to take my menu's word for it because this obviously didn't blow my mind.  And moving on...

White and green asparagus. That's right...that amaaaaaazing asparagus soup.  The soup (there might be a fancier name for it) is rich and creamy and asparagus-y and delicious.  By itself, it's a simple and delicious soup, but they dress it up by adding an asparagus panna cotta, and a crispy asparagus "crouton", this time playing on textural complexity with a singular flavor profile. Clever (and even cleverer that I picked up on the pattern!)

Seared foie gras - the epitome of fancy dining.  This one is served with pink lady apples, pain d'epices (french bread similar to gingerbread), and a vanilla-balsamic reduction.   Foie gras is one of those things that always gets attention when we see it on a menu.  I think that's because it's considered a delicacy, and we feel food-sophisticated when we have it.  Our first "foie" experience was at Tom Colicchio's Craft Los Angeles (which I can't wait to go back to so I can review it), and it was really incredible.  At the time it was hard for me to conceptualize what I was eating, as I was less daring at the time, but I do remember loving it.  Since then, we've compared every foie to the Craft foie, and this one, at Melisse, is the only one that's come even close to compare.  It's seared beautifully to preserve the rich, smooth texture, and the heavy flavor is cut beautifully with the sweetness and tartness of the cinnamon apples.  The pain d'epices provides balance with its mild nutty flavor and chewy texture. 

Since I had to act sophisticated while eating my foie gras, I was pleased that the next dish was a pasta, which allowed me to slurp my food like I normally would in an unpretentious way.  Lobster bolognese with fresh cappelini and truffle frothe.  I'll admit this was probably my favorite.  I do appreciate sophisticated food,  but I appreciate it more when it somehow allows me a slight memory trip back to childhood.  Not that I ate lobster bolognese as a child or had any idea that truffle meant anything other than chocolate, but I certainly slurped my fair share of capellini.  I enjoyed this dish just as much as I enjoyed every single bowl of angel hair with butter and salt that I ate as a kid.

Main dishes generally don't excite me as much as the appetizers or first courses or whatever comes before the main dish.  Our main dishes were New Zealand John Dory fish with chinese broccoli, kohlrabi, and pine-nut cornichon jus, and Cote de Boeuf with potato and braised short rib galette, fava beans, chanterelle mushrooms, and herb jus.  I usually love fish, and John Dory is a great one, but I must not have been wow-ed because I don't remember this one.  I do remember the beef simply because it was super beefy, a little too much so for my taste. The chanterelle mushrooms on the plate were delicious, though!

Our ten course meal came with a cheese course!  I so wish it involved a bunch of cheese, but alas, just one cheese was on our plate.  Luckily it was a super-creamy cheese, just like I like my cheese.   The cheese was paired with black truffle, poached pears, balsamic gelee, and micro-greens lightly sprinkled with olive oil.  Deconstructed balsamic vinaigrette salad.  Tasty.  I would have loved to have some cheeses off the cheese cart that was prancing around the dining room visiting other tables, though.  Oh well.

Dessert dessert dessert!  I was full when dessert arrived but I have this theory that there's always room for dessert.  The chocolate and hazelnut dessert was incredible, as chocolate and hazelnut usually are, and I loved and devoured every bit.  I was more shocked and amazed, though, by the strawberry-rhubarb vanilla yogurt that followed.  It was the perfect ending (almost-ending, actually) to the meal.  Light, sweet, and refreshing, it's as if the chef knew even better than I did what my taste buds needed at that exact moment.  I guess that's what he gets paid for!

Before we got our bill, we got a plate full of tiny cookies and some mini vanilla canelles, just in case we weren't completely full.  Maybe it was to "sweeten" us up before slapping us with the biggest food check I've ever seen.  We expected to pay $$$ for our evening at Melisse, and ended up paying 2x$$$, which came as a bit of a shock. (And FYI...spring for the valet service that costs $6, because if you park across the street from the restaurant, the city of Santa Monica will charge you 10x$6, which isn't pleasant since you've just spent 2x$$$ on your dinner.) 

Was it worth it?  I don't know...maybe.  It was an incredible meal...delicious, artisitic, clever.  I am glad we went for the experience, but I highly doubt I'll go back.  A great experience at a restaurant doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg and a kidney.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lazy Ox Canteen

Every Thursday (and sometimes Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday too), I read the Los Angeles Times food column for restaurant ideas.  I've rarely gotten the 'Oh My Gosh I Have to Go There' feeling from these reviews, however my mind seems to absorb most of the details (this only happens with regard to food, by the way), such that when I need a restaurant idea for a special occasion, I can pull from my gastro-database and remember reading something about some restaurant that was good for such an occasion.

This is precisely how we chose The Lazy Ox Canteen to celebrate a birthday with a small group of friends.  I'd remembered reading about a place that was popular amongst the "locals" for the eclectic, delicious food, a variety of craft brews and wonderful wines, and a cool gastro pub-like atmosphere...sounded perfect for us laid-back foodies.  A word to the wise, though, make reservations early, because the word has gotten out about this place, likely thanks to that LA Times review.  Three days advanced notice got us a table for six at 8:30pm, with a bit of a fiasco once we got there regarding the reservation and the seventh person that showed up with us.  But the staff was perfectly pleasant and accommodating.

The selection of craft beers is quite intriguing and the perfect place to start for a quick drink while you wait for a table.  I started with a St Louis framboise, a Belgian raspberry flavored beer, which I find quite easy to drink.  I think of it as a combination of fruity cocktail without the excessive sweetness, and a light and cool beer without the excessive bitterness.  The more 'manly' Belgian beers that I stole a few sips of are equally tasty and refreshing.  We opted for wine at the table, and our waiter was happy to recommend some off-list wine bottles...and recommend a really fantastic wine, he did!  He also brought us wonderful munchies to satisfy our rumbling tummies (830 is late for some of us!) in the form of homemade corn nuts spiced with cayenne, paprika, and lemon juice, which I couldn't stop eating, even when there was plated food in front of me.

The Lazy Ox food menu...the published menu that somewhat limited.  But every day the chef pops out an assortment of 'specials' which are written in chalk on boards around the restaurant.  Picking up on the small plates trend, Lazy Ox begs you to order as much as possible off the chalkboard menu, simply by appealing to your 'dangerous' side, or willingness to try something new.

***Disclaimer: The following comment is not PETA-friendly***

It would seem that the chef picks up a pig or two, chops 'em up, and uses every single part of the animal he can to create his wild and crazy menu. However, what comes out is not just a plate of pig-meat, but a creation that somehow makes it okay to be eating the same things the thoughts of which would previously have made you gag a bit.  Pig ear 'chicharones' are the mildest example, deep fried and served with a sharp aioli, which go down as easy as crispy, fatty french fries.  Pork trotter meat is shredded and shaped into a round, breaded, and served atop creamy mashed potatoes.  A surprisingly delicious dish that doesn't at all scream "danger" when eaten.  The pig head cheese was one dish I just couldn't get my head around (pun intended).  In case you're wondering what head cheese is, it's not cheese.  Please 'google' it (after you read my blog!) because I prefer not to lose my appetite and yours by describing it here.  They serve the head cheese with a salad similar to coleslaw with a creamy sweet sauce that, perhaps, covers the uncomfortable (to some) texture of the head cheese.

On the 'tamer' side, the lamb hash, topped with a fried egg, carries the flavors of sausage which makes its pairing with the smooth egg yolk work very nicely.  Dashi marinated yellowtail (from the published menu) is light and fresh, and much more delicate than the other meaty dishes.  The dashi flavor is a unique surprise and allows this dish a fresh departure from typical raw fish preparations.  The yellowtail is served with hash browns, fancy tater-tots really, and I'm still not sure I really get this pairing, but I'm not one to turn my nose up at fried potatoes!

Possibly my favorite dish of the evening was an uber-simple, but scrumptious dish of whipped Jersey cow ricotta served with grilled bread.  Sounds boring, right?  Maybe so if you're into head cheese!  But the super-smooth and creamy cheese spread tastes divine on a perfectly charred buttery piece of toast.  It's comforting and interesting at the same time, with very subtle but distinct flavors.  If I could, I'd eat some every day...for breakfast...or lunch...or...dinner...or dessert topped with strawberries. I digress... Another favorite was the dish of brick roasted mussels, which are prepared with basil, white wine, house-made sriracha, and topped with french feta cheese.  The sriracha provided just enough kick and a uniqueness to the mussels, a nice twist on the classic white wine sauce. All I needed was another order of fried pig ear chicarones and I was on my way to a Lazy Ox Moules Frites of sorts!

I left at the end of the evening feeling proud of my bravery and willingness to eat random pig parts, which I learned is much easier to do given creative preparation that essentially disguises the fearful "parts" aspect under a cover of bold flavor combinations that make you go "hmm"...and then "mmm".

Saturday, March 20, 2010

La Botte - Santa Monica

On a particularly crummy day, after a failed attempt at retail therapy, it became apparent that a nice dinner out would be just what I needed.  To me, trying new restaurants is like taking a mini-vacation; it's always exciting.  A spontaneous dinner trip, much like a spontaneous vacation, can cure a bad mood in a heartbeat, especially if the destination is as fantastic as La Botte.

La Botte was on our list of 'restaurants to try', but we had no idea how or why it got there.  Obviously we put it on the list, but couldn't remember where we'd gotten the hint to do so.   'The List' contains all the big fancy restaurants and the big famous chefs we hear about, and some smaller names that we somehow stumble upon.  Knowing very well that a spontaneous trip to the most popular restaurants would leave us without a table, we opted for the lesser known places, and somehow honed in on La Botte.  I consider us especially lucky to have been able to call the restaurant at 730pm on the evening we intended to dine, and make a reservation for 830pm...and it was Friday night!

We walked in and realized, within a couple minutes, that the reason La Botte was on our list was because it's a Michelin-starred restaurant, as we were informed by a large sign with the marshmallow guy waving and smiling at us.  That's right, the same Michelin that brings us tires for our cars also tells us where to eat and who's who of chefs in restaurant-land.  I find it a bit odd that we take, as gospel, the advice on the best restaurants from a bunch of guys that make tires, but the coveted Michelin star (or two or three stars) is like the Academy Awards for restaurants and chefs, and don't we all run out and watch the Oscar-winning movies after they've been recognized by the illustrious Academy?

Nevertheless, there we were at our first Michelin-starred restaurant, and I have to say, aside from the huge sign, I'd never have gotten the "who's who" feeling from this place.  Not because it wasn't a nice place, but because it was quaint - cute and quiet, with just the rumblings of restaurant, without the noise of the over-dressed, over-excessed crowd of trend-followers.  The decor is simple and lovely  - the room lined with bottles and bottles of wine in a gigantic wooden rack, and tables simply decorated with tea light candles in holders that allowed the light to shine in a sweet pattern on the tablecloth.  The staff is friendly and surprisingly entertaining, goofy almost, which I consider a key ingredient to the experience of eating at La Botte, as so many fine dining establishments train their waitstaff to be uber-professional, which I find stuffy and uncomfortable. 

Everything on the menu sounded incredible, so in order to avoid a drawn-out decision-making session, we opted for the tasting menu.  Yes, it's a lot of food, and yes, it's more expensive, but there's something wonderful about not having to make decisions and something exciting about not knowing what you're going to eat next.  "Please just make my tummy happy, chef.  And yes, we'll have some wine. Red please."

And so our first dish arrived, the cold appetizer - ahi tuna tartar.  Ugh, I thought, tuna tartar is so overdone.  It's lost all sense of intrigue and interest because you find it literally everywhere.  I hoped to be shocked and amazed by this tuna tartar, so I eagerly dipped my fork in the sauce and took a small bite of tartar.  Shocked and amazed and relieved, I was so happy that my tuna tartar did not have the usual harsh ginger, soy, and wasabi flavoring (and why would it? it's an italian restaurant).  This tartar is sweet with a balsamic reduction and accompanied by smooth avocado puree, and is so pleasant and refreshing to eat.  Topped with an edible flower, it's a beautiful start to an incredible meal.  Still, I would have preferred something a little more unusual, a little more Italian.  But that's what you get for avoiding food decisions!

Next up, our hot appetizer - potato leek soup.  Again, I thought, "soup? really?"  Fortunately, I've been on a leek kick lately and was excited about that aspect at least.  Well...I polished off my soup like it was a snowy day and I had just finished shoveling the driveway (which I've never actually done since I have spent most of my adult life here in sunny california missing the fluffy white winters).  The potato leek soup is not on the regular menu, but was a special at the restaurant for the day.  So lucky were we to have gotten such a wonderful off-menu item that we may or may not be able to get ever again. 

Our first pasta dish, a clone of which is currently underway in our kitchen, was a plateful of the most scrumptious gnocchi imaginable accompanied by some incredible flavorful chanterelle mushrooms.  Another off-menu item, which is quite unfortunate, because it is likely one of the best things I've ever eaten (are you listening, Food Network producers of 'The Best Thing I Ever Ate'?)  The tasty little pillow-like gnocchi are lighter and fluffier than I ever thought they could be.  The chanterelles are rich and earthy, but the powerful flavors are restrained enough to play the supporting-actor role to the subtle pasta, allowing the gnocchi to shine in a starring role.  Truly incredible. (FYI...the attempted clone in my kitchen was very good, but not quite La Botte-tastical).

The second pasta dish (two pastas is better than one!) was the pistachio pappardelle with braised lamb ragout, a regular menu item.  This one had a tough act to follow with the gnocchi, but still, it was very good.  I had a bit of a difficult time picking out the pistachio flavor beneath the pronounced lamb flavor.  I generally find that lamb has such a strong flavor that any subtly in accompanying flavors, like pistachio, gets completely overpowered and lost to the meat.  A touch of saltiness might have helped a bit, possibly in the form of parmesano-reggiano generously grated over the top (which the waiter offerred but never returned with).

So...these are all generously sized dishes here.  I'm not talking one or two noodles.  Each of these pasta dishes could have been a nice-sized meal, but we got two, and then a main dish.  By the time the meat came, we were stuffed, but the waiter so enthusiastically shoved plates of meat in front of us and informed us that the main dish was spectacular this evening.  Wagyu beef with chanterelle mushrooms (it must have been chanterelle day at the farmer's market) and roasted artichokes.  Wagyu beef, also known as kobe beef, is well-known for its intense marbling which enhances the flavor and tenderness of the meat.  This was my first wagyu/kobe experience, and I was amazed at how tender the meat was.  The accompanying flavors are quite similar to the gnocchi with the same chanterelle earthiness, but this dish feels much heavier given the intensity of the meat.  Perhaps it was the fact that we'd just polished two plates of pasta, a bowl of soup, and some tartar.  I forced the last biteful of wagyu and prayed that my dessert would still fit.

Sometimes I wish I went out just for dessert.  It is my favorite part of the meal, but I am almost always stuffed to the brim by dessert time.  I commend the chef at La Botte for his choice of dessert to finish off our tasting.  The light and sweet berry sorbet is completely refreshing, and the token chocolate dessert, made with special European chocolate, is creamy, rich and indulgent; a perfect pair of sweet treats to finish of a remarkable meal!

I waddled out of La Botte, plopped myself in the car, unbuttoned my pants for the ride home, and promptly proclaimed, " that's what a Michelin star tastes like!"