Saturday, January 28, 2012

Romancing the '80s at Michael's

Last night it was time for restaurant #2 in our dineL.A. Week, which meant Michael’s in Santa Monica. This restaurant has been around for 33 years, which the jovial and dinner-jacketed Michael gladly told us as he personally greeted us, and everyone else, at their tables. Maybe that’s why it’s been rolling for so long, because people like to feel like they can go somewhere to eat where the owner cares enough to say hello and will remember their names on recurring visits.

I think that kind of congeniality goes a long way. Especially for this place, that I had totally forgotten I had been to years ago on a Museum trip, that resides in a house off the bustling Santa Monica 3rd street promenade strip, catering to May-December romance couples and society ladies out for a bowl of their favorite tried and true fricassee salad or roasted veggie soup.

I went with the Cute Gardener and we both agreed that the food was done well, even if it were food that was introduced as haute cuisine in the 80s, and that since we were being re-introduced to it now twenty years later although it had been served consistently to customers the entire time, that we would relegate it to the nice, cozy annals of comfort food in order to give it the credit it deserves. Yes, it’s a little scary that we can reminisce about the ‘80s as something that happened 20 years ago and relegate it to nostalgia fare.

A rosy glow of candles and couples, on Friday it is clearly a place for date nights so we settled in to enjoy being part of that crowd. We started off with a potato agnolotti, a rectangular ravioli cooked perfectly al dente stuffed with potato and laid upon a transparent sliver of salmon that added the perfect saltiness to every bite. 

Also, a lovely pair of Maine diver scallops on white curly frisee, sweetened subtly with a hint of cardamom and tangerine segments. 

Everything was tasty even if the descriptions of things on the menu didn’t quite pair up with the actual dishes that arrived. My sea bass on goat cheese polenta with wild mushrooms and Greek yogurt was super tasty but I wasn’t expected a grilled, charred slab of fish. It does make sense that it was cooked that way though as it was titled Mediterranean. I ended up trading with the Cute Gardener for his duck, which included a meaty, dense and smoky candied textured shredded thigh or leg or other deep meaty pocket of flesh that made me melt.

I was pleased that Michael clearly loves art even if every piece of art on the walls added to the seemingly frozen in the 1980s ambience. Red lipstick glamour paintings and power suited females on the walls and the beginning of bleeding watercolor portraits that inspired a whole generation of today’s romantic, female contemporary painters. 

I enjoyed the panna cotta dessert swimming in a nice honey sauce although it was absent of the saffron promised in the name and textured more like a custard and not as light as I was expecting. Half of it was consumed with a perfectly paired Japanese Tokaj wine that added some spice and zest to the last part of this meal.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dimly Lit at Lucques

dineL.A. began last weekend and it gave my culinary co-pilot and myself an excuse to throw three reservations onto the agenda that we might not have normally scrambled to make. We chose Lucques first because I have been itching to eat at Chef Suzanne Goin's French-California place but a little leery about the prices in my current budget and it was an excuse to try it out for the $44 prefixe event menu. My boyfriend, who hadn't been in four years, told me it was a place that women seemed to like more than men and this was apparently true because it was filled with three quarters of the female sex compared to the male. And it reminded me of a younger, more chic and less self-conscious version of one of my favorite desert restaurants Le Vallauris so I immediately warmed up once sitting amidst the warm outdoor space with olive green vines covering the linen colored walls.

Classy and elegant, beautifully candlelit and lending itself to intimacy, I cozied up to the experience right away enjoying the olives and boiled almonds offered on a plate with deliciously flaked salt and pads of clean tasting butter to accompany a bread basket filled with a toasty, porously-creviced and mild sourdough with a nice dark and rindy crust. Just the night before this, I had reveled at another olive plate, eaten at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, where the olives were spritzed with a cool lemon water and rosemary bath that reminded me of why I love the miniature globes when at their immature aged best.

The root vegetable fattoush was calling my name for a starter. As I have mentioned before, I love tubers, and was recently disappointed in my efforts at finding a good salad anywhere. This one was great: parsnips, pearl onions, turnips and beets all cooked to perfection and caramelized on the ends and sliced in julienne style so that they were reminiscent of French fries in a salad of artisanal greens and fluffy bits of feta. I didn’t see the fried pita chips that were purported to come with the salad, which is weird because technically fattoush means a Levantine bread salad, but was thrilled with the taste and it was a salad I would order again. 

And apparently I did. Because the second course, my lusted after and much anticipated fresh ricotta dumplings arrived on an identical root pile. I understand that at times like dineL.A. when a restaurant is looking for things to serve for an inflated crowd on a limited menu, it’s easy to want to buy things in bulk and make them go a long way so it’s not too surprising that the same items would appear in multiple dishes. But this is something I feel the wait staff should have been savvy to so at least they could warn diners when dishes were all too similar. It makes a smart impression and avoids the irritation that occurred when I did realize the entrée was so close in foundation to the starter. That being said, my dumplings were beautifully handmade items of pillowy bliss. Not too doughy, the steamed exteriors melded beautifully with the grainier fresh ricotta texture within giving me pleasure with very bite. Served perfectly plain and absent of sauce was a nice choice as they didn’t need anything to mingle with their sublime-ness. I could only finish three of them, they were so densely filling. 

For dessert, I chose a bitter chocolate torta with coffee ice cream and mascarpone cream. Each piece of that dish was impressive on its own, top notch in quality and all bathed in hints of smoky flavor from the few hazelnuts that studded the plate. The texture of the torta and the way it melted in my mouth was orgasmic. Best slice of chocolate anything I have had in a long time.

If I were rich, I would eat here more often. Because I am not, I will check it off on my list as a place officially conquered.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unorthodox Meals: Passion-Inspired Rustic Tomato Soup

The tomato is the perfect symbol of passion in the vegetable world. It’s a plump, red, round gem that produces an exquisite juice and symbolizes the shape and depth of a ripe heart overflowing with goodness. I have been reminded of this time and again over the course of the last two months as my boyfriend with the green thumb has been depositing a fresh batch in a brown paper bag on my counter on his visits to pick me up for our whirlwind of various dates. So forgive me if a little romance sneaks into my blog this time because I made a soup with his latest batch that makes my heart swoon and my belly bulge with warmth. Food is also a metaphor for comfort, nurturing and love and what better way to express that than a warm and simply good soup.

I scoured the web for an appropriate recipe to depict my latest endeavor with the homegrown tomatoes and found nothing but pureed versions. I didn’t want to create something that was pureed into an equal and base consistency but wanted something that had a little more depth and oomph to fully express my multi-textured feelings poured into a pot to produce something rich and worthy.

So I read all the pureed version recipes and adapted them all into my own recipe which I proudly now call “Hearty Rustic Tomato Soup.”

After making this, I discovered that it is perfect served hot in small ceramic bowls that keep the chunks warm. I also laid some Whole Foods brand horseradish cheddar spread onto dark rye crisps that when dipped into the hot sop, melted into a deep and toasty moment of bliss that crunched in the mouth ever so slightly; a perfect accompaniment in lieu of bread for the dish.


2 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes cut into one-inch wedges
7 cloves peeled garlic
2 small yellow onions, sliced erratically
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
3/4 quart chicken stock
2 bay leaves
4 Tablespoons of butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Spread the tomatoes, garlic cloves and onions onto a baking tray. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until caramelized.

Remove roasted tomatoes, garlic and onion from the oven and transfer to a large stockpot. Add 3/4 of the chicken stock, bay leaves, and butter. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid has reduced by a third.

Remove the bay leaves. Use a hand potato masher to loosely mash the soup so that all the roasted veggies are broken down into a consistent texture but not pureed. Continue to heat on low after seasoning to taste with salt and pepper for about ten minutes on low. Serve garnished with a dollop of heavy cream in the center.

Friday, January 20, 2012

CorkBar's Gnarly Roots

I am a true blue tuber girl. One of my favorite morning eats is in San Francisco at La Boulange consists of a root veggie pastry where the beets, turnips and carrots are cooked simply right. I like my root veggies to be soft but not texturally diluted, dense with flavor and slightly charred on the sides for a nice caramelizing in the mix.

This past week before the LA Art Show I met two artist friends Gesso Cocteau and Jim Morphesus at CorkBar in downtown LA to share a glass of wine and a quick toast before the onslaught of art perusal. Jim mentioned that downtown has changed a lot and is now teeming at every corner with USC students, which was truly the case at CorkBar. Every table filled up during the hour we were there with sprightly young and eager people conglomerating over wine and eats.

It almost felt like we were in New York in the chic bar with the lovely rudimentary wooden tables and tall ceilings and glass windows opening onto the panoramic skylines of L.A.’s glistening urbanity. 

The wine list was impressive and my $15 Keenan, 2006 Napa Valley Merlot was generously poured and jammy with blackberry and raspberry nuances. But before I could get too excited my disappointing root veggie salad arrived. A huge pile of thick-stemmed arugula was dotted with a noticeably sparse smattering of root vegetables. The carrots were disgustingly watery in texture and not cleaned or peeled. I understand the allure of “rustic” and “authentic” presentations but I could taste the dirt in the crevices of the carrots that tasted like old lady-fingers boiled to oblivion. I couldn’t really taste the other more subtle vegetables that I am assuming were things like parsnips and beets because the arugula was so peppery and spicy and overpowering that all other flavors got lost in the dish.

Maybe the USC students have become such a staple to the place that considerations on making really nice food for foodies and the like have been washed under the bus. To be fair, the menu boasts other things I would like and I should try more than a salad before making any final opinion on the place but if you can screw up something as simple as greens on a plate, other options become ever more forbidding.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sunday Morning Bagel Sandwich Redemption at The Oaks

I had a really horrible meal Saturday night in Pomona at 2nd on 2nd. I was really disappointed because I have not had a meal in as long as I can remember that actually almost compelled me to send the plate back or ask for a refund on my check. True it was the cheapest dinner I have had in a long time but does that excuse the fact that there was a hard, white slice of tomato with a gnarly, scarred center on my burger or that it tasted like set-in-the-sun cardboard with a coating of black ash? I left most of the dish but picked out the soggy fried jalapenos from the slab because I was hungry. The waitress didn’t even charge me for my glass of wine, but it wasn’t because she was making up for her bad service and the meal, it’s because she wasn’t present enough to recall that I ordered it.

All this being said, it made me realize that I should take more time to note the everyday and simple eating experiences I come across that may not be worthy of a Michelin five star rating but are reliable sources of simply, yummy food time and again.

The next morning my palate was redeemed by such an experience at The Oaks Gourmet Fine Foods andSpirits market in Hollywood, where we stopped for a quick breakfast/lunch on our way to see The Artist. One fourth gourmet foods and condiments market, one fourth wine store shoved into an upscale, strip mall, one fourth bustling coffee shop and smoothie shack, and one fourth café serving fare like pizza, burgers, sandwiches and salads to order. As small as the space is and as much is crammed in there to choose your experience from, I still fell in love with its charm due to the good food and the variety of people who were there obviously in on the secret of the place’s merits as well; even if you had to sit at a communal table in the middle of the store to enjoy the fare without a plate or utensils. That kind of DIY smorgasbord of people on laptops, in couples, or in for a rushed bite, added to the allure.

The menus boasts one of the Top Five Burgers in LA according to the LA List and my boyfriend, being a burger whore, had that. I thought the meat was very flavorful and the ingredients were above par but he said they weren’t distributed evenly. 

I am a bagel sandwich aficionado. Chances are, if it’s the early half of the day and I am hungry I will opt for this standard combination of egg, cheese and bagel with additional stuff thrown in. So far, my favorite had been the red pepper and Swiss version at Koffi in Palm Springs but now The Oaks has stolen my heart with its perfectly combined fried egg, grated cheddar cheese, black forest bacon that melted on the tongue with bits of pepper spice, and shaved onion and roasted red peppers. It was the kind of sandwich served warm where textures and temperatures all perfectly blend and the “everything” bagel was soft and not too hard to squeeze the life out of the more tender things like egg and cheese.  

If I lived close by I would come often to eat the bagel sandwich or buy things like the tiny Ding-Dong reminiscent monkey cakes in a non-guilt-ridden two-bite portion, the fig olive oil or one of the varieties of artisan tampenades.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Eternal Hunt for Convenience Ramen

Looking for a quick bite before a major night of Culver City art gallery openings, my mate and I decided to try a Ramen Yamadaya noodle joint. A chain from Japan, the place was small, boisterous and filled up quickly after we initially sat down at one of the 15 or so four seated-communal tables, welcomed by loud hellos from the entire staff. Considering this franchise is akin to an American fast food restaurant only Asian-style I wasn’t exactly expecting four-star food and it’s hard to go wrong with a bowl of ramen anywhere. It’s the kind of cheap and quick meal that satisfies the soul with warmth and provided fuel for the exhibition hopping that was about to ensue. 

I had the Yamadaya ramen house specialty with tonkotsu shoyu (soy) broth that boasted lots of pork. I was satisfied because for the ten dollar price tag the bowl was large and swimming with at least seven slices of yummy plain cooked pork. A nice fatty pork belly slice adorned the top along with two nicely hard-boiled egg halves, lots of skinny ramen noodles, sheets of seaweed, assorted black noodles and green onion bits. The bowl could have arrived a bit hotter in the broth department but I wasn’t going to complain, as it was a quick-fix fast meal.

My mate had the simple nine-dollar bowl of chashu ramen with the basic tonkotsu broth and ended up dipping into the extra bits of my bowl for added flavor.

Ramen is a current obsession of mine. I grew up eating the poor man’s lame version of ramen noodles that you could buy in the grocery store for under a buck a pack. When I blossomed into a foodie in later years, my first real ramen experience was in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles where I fell in love with the grown up version of meaty noodles in smoking hot flavorful broths. It’s definitely my favorite preference in the warming, soups department.

There are so many ramen joints in L.A. that you can basically find one in every neighborhood. Considering I stay away from fast food chains of the American variety, I might opt for more individual mom and pop ramen places in the future simply because there are so many to choose from and this particular one didn’t exactly fill the niche in my mind for that favorite go-to spot. We both also agreed that we should have opted for fat noodles because the skinny ones weren’t as complementary to the experience as the thicker ones would have been.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Benjamin Button Inspired Caviar New Year's

New Year’s Eve for me has usually meant a sit down dinner of some kind at my best friend’s house followed by karaoke into the wee hours after the clock strikes twelve. But this year, no longer single, it was time to do it up in style with my mate who had recently watched the movie Benjamin Button and was inspired by the “you only live once” attitude of the film wherein the subjects splurge on champagne and caviar. We both are avid foodies and were each quite embarrassed to admit that we had never tried the elegant combination of extravagant fish roe with bubbly. We decided to go decadent and spend time alone at home cooking blinis from DorieGreenspan’s Around My French Table cookbook upon which we would enjoy a tasting of various blends of roe and condiments and decide which libations paired best with each version.

We bought the caviar at Surfas in Culver City, a dream store for chefs and foodies where exotic bits from around the world are sold alongside utensils and equipment sought out by a world of adventurous cooks. We chose three varieties from the lowest priced to the highest priced. First was the least expensive Tobikko, or flying fish roe, followed by the smoky dark grey paddlefish roe of medium sized pearls and lastly, the hundred and thirty dollar jar of inky black Osetra. 

While cooking the blinis we prepared a plate of condiments: thin smoked trout and salmon laid across a plate and tiny bowls of minced red onion, sour cream, hard boiled egg and chives plucked from my mate’s garden.

We also set up an elaborate selection of drinks from a Blanc champagne and a Noir champagne to three types of vodka ranging from the cheap to the priciest. Our goal was to see what pairings tasted best regardless of price or preconceived notion.

Once all was chilled, cooked, diced and ready to go, we laid a table with our wares and embarked on a two hour mix and match-a-thon. 

Our findings were as follows:

By itself, the Tobikko Caviar, the lowliest of the fish roe, tasted smoky and popped delightfully in the mouth. Perhaps because it was the cheapest, it tasted best paired with the Belvedere vodka, which elevated the caviar stepchild to a higher plane of flavor and style. It also went well with the Blanc champagne, which provided a sparkling halo around the lowly roe. Red onion, salmon and egg provided enough peripheral flavor to do the same thing, although you needed a larger portion of the roe on the blini to make sure the essences of the caviar were topmost on the palate.

The medium priced Paddlefish roe tasted kind of musky and fishy on its own and the texture was mushy compared to the others. Being a midrange item, it paired well with the Chopin vodka and the Noir champagne, each finding equal ground to let the roe’s flavor shine through without being overpowering. This is also why the roe went best with the more subtle smoked trout as a bed, accentuated with just a hint of pepper brought in by the red onion.

Surprisingly, the ultra expensive osetra went best with cheap Russian Standard vodka chilled to icy perfection. Best not to have the world-class roe compete with a world-class drink; this was an example where we discovered that opposites do indeed attract. It also went well with the Blanc champagne, which danced electrifyingly with the large pearls on the tongue swirled down the throat in a wash of citrusy bliss. Again the smoked trout provided a perfect blander base than the salmon would with just a dab of sour cream to mingle the flavors.

Of course, by this time in the tasting we were almost as bubbly as the champagne and full bellied content enough from multiple variations on our fabulous buckwheat blinis that we barely even touched our dessert cheese plate. We managed to leave a small spoonful of caviar in each jar for an extra pure bite in the morning. A memorable New Year’s Eve in the spirit of Carpe Diem!