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Saturday, April 26, 2008

What Will It Take to Find a Good Hot Dog?

Must report another hot dog dud: The Stand. I had heard good things about its Encino location and went to the Westwood one that recently opened with some expectations. Alas, the hot dog was so mediocre I would venture to say even the street vendor hot dogs in New York were better.

First of all, many of the dogs were steamed rather than grilled unless requested (if you didn't know this was the case, server didn't ask you either). Then the dogs themselves had no flavor whatsoever. There were many options for types of dogs and toppings but they all paled in comparison to my favorite dog place of all time.

The sauerkraut was not at all juicy and tasted totally bland. I truly don't understand those that rave about this place. Don't even try anything else on the menu. We tried the burger and it was awful. The Stand even has steep discount nights but that isn't going to lure me. I'm saddened that I may have to travel to Hollywood or some other farther away spot to sample a good dog. I just watched "Hot Dog Paradise" on the Travel Channel and boy, did that make me want to visit Chicago.

The search definitely continues...

How timely of the LA Times to do a feature and ranking of best dogs in LA, although two of my duds, including The Stand, are on the list. I will try the other ones on the list with some skepticism and report back.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sweet Lady Jane is No Plain Jane

It may not be picture-perfect, but who needs photogenic cakes that taste like sugar in a bowl? The first time I ever bit into a berry shortcake from Sweet Lady Jane was from leftovers of someone else's wedding cake. I knew then this was the cake I wanted for a special occasion. A few years later, I got my cake know the saying. I got two flat cakes, a berry shortcake and chocolate shortcake, which were both very good although my personal favorite remains the white cake. I wasn't ready to shell out twice the price for a mere tiered cake. Go flat!

I mean, look at the inviting slivers of fresh rasberries, blackberries and strawberries lined with fluffy, soft-as-a-cloud cake and a creamy exterior with just the right hint of sweetness. Its name, Triple Berry Shortcake, alludes to its awe-inducing berry fest.

If berries aren't your thing, the next best thing I would recommend is the banana bread pudding, which comes with cream but doesn't really need it. It's best served warm (low heat in toaster oven for 3 minutes should do it) and is delightfully soft, dense, chewy and banana-y all at the same time.

We've also tried the lemon meringue pie, which was excellent and the capuccino cheesecake, which was a bit too rich and dense for me. But I'm not a huge cheese cake person so you be the judge. The carrot cake was ok but not anything mind-blowing.

Sweet Lady Jane
8360 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(323) 653-7145

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pug Burger Fails to Impress

Here's a quickie report on our burger club outing to Hungry Cat.

You can order the famous pug burger two ways -- with or without a fried egg on top. It comes with bacon, avocado and blue cheese, all of which you can get on the side.

The verdict: above average but Houston's still reigns.

I had it without the egg and set aside the bacon that I consider a distraction from the purity of a good burger. I can have the bacon separately as a side but not as an integral part of the burger when I bite into it.

An overall very tall burger that's hard to eat. Translation: expect smears on your face and stains on your clothes.

The patty: texture was a bit pasty and not as flavorful and glossy as Houston's.

The bun: ciabatta bread was an interesting alternative but it was too thick and dense for me to finish. Super-soft, classic sesame-sprinkled buns are the way to go.

The fixins: I prefer arugula to red lettuce leaf (better for wrapping kalbi!) and the red onions and avocado were fine. I should disclose that I'm not a huge fan of blue cheese so had to scrape off some of it because it overpowered the patty, as did the bacon. I enjoyed stealing tiny bites of the bacon strips between massive burger bites, however.

The fries: underwhelming. They were lukewarm to cold and had obviously been fried one too many times and drenched in oil so tasted a bit stale and not very fresh. Also oversalted.

Soup: we had the smoked haddock chowder with yukon gold potatoes, leeks and bacon. Wrong choice if you're having a burger afterwards because it is so incredibly salty. The smoked haddock is already salty and with the bacon, it's sodium overload.

Dessert: Hungry Cat mildly redeemed itself with its chocolate bread and butter pudding, which was delightfully decadent and delicious. Not too sweet and sufficiently chocolate-y without being too rich. The chocolate beignets, on the other hand, were a dud.

We went to the original Hollywood location but it also has a Santa Barbara branch.

The place was packed and reservations on weekends are a must, which led me to wonder whether we had simply ordered the wrong things. Maybe we will try its seafood offerings next time, but I won't be having the pug burger anytime soon. For the same price of $16, I would take Houston's California burger any day. Trying it with the fried egg is tempting but truthfully, I could try that at home. Those who had the burger with the fried egg liked it.

Next stop: Weiland Brewery in Little Tokyo. We need a cheap eat to temper the Hungry Cat meal ticket.

Hungry Cat
1535 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 462-2155

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Cooking Persian at Home

Just in time for Nowruz -- the Persian new year and the first day of spring, my friend and I decided to cook up a Persian feast and if I may say so myself, it was a smashing success.

Considering it was my very first time, I was pretty happy with how the dishes turned out. They included lentil salad (salad-e adas), meat patties (kotlet-e gusht), saffron steamed plain rice, herb kuku (kuku-ye sabzi) yogurt and cucumber dip (mast-o khiar) and pomegranate Khoresh with chicken (khoresh-e fesenjan ba jujeh). My friend made ash-e jow, an aromatic barley soup and rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi), both of which were delicious.

We used the cookbook, New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij, as our guide and purposely made some dishes that are new year staples, such as the herb rice representing rebirth and fish representing life. The herb kuku is made out of egg, which represents fertility.

We started with the barley soup, which was packed with flavor and vitamins. It had herbs, chick peas, kidney bean and everything else healthy and nutritious you could think of. The lentil salad was nothing special. The breaded and pan-fried meat patties were made out of lamb and the accompanying tomato sauce added a refreshing touch to the meatiness and crunchiness of the lamb and potato patty very well.

The herb kuku is essentially an omelet with loads of herbs, including parsley, cilantro, dill and fenugreek, which I had never worked with. Discovering new ingredients I had never used while browsing the narrow isles of Iranian food markets in Westwood was part of the fun. Most of the ingredients are available in any market, however. I found the fresh herbs in the Iranian markets to be much more fresh. We bought lavash bread from our favorite Persian bread place, Shahrzad Restaurant.

The fresh herb rice and roasted striped bass were a great pairing as well. The pomegranate khoresh with chicken was my favorite to make, not only because an Iranian friend had unknowingly challenged me to make it (he recommended against making it because of its difficulty level) but I got to use another new ingredient, pomegranate paste, which was the base flavor of the chicken. I used drum sticks and thighs because I like dark meats and braised them for over two hours. The result was a slight sweetness (from the pomegranate concentrate and butternut squash cubes that were added) and slight nuttiness (from the finely ground walnuts) with a hint of saffron -- wonderful fall-off-the-bone braised chicken unlike any I've had before. This went very well with full-bodied red wine.

I also made white basmati rice for the first time. I had made the mistake of making brown basmati rice in my regular rice cooker before and it had always come out undercooked. I was glad I managed to accidentally make the rice with the crust in the bottom (tah-dig), thanks to my stove that has a function to keep things warm. While I had it on warm, the golden crust formed and gave a great crunch to the rice. The yogurt and cucumber dip was also different from the ones we usually get in the restaurants around West LA. It was so much more complex. It contained raisins and walnuts that added great texture and dimension to the sauce, whereas most restaurants usually seem to keep it simple with yogurt, dill and garlic -- or at least that's all I taste.

The bottom line is, I had a great time venturing into a new cuisine that was totally new to me and discovered dishes not served in restaurants that I would never have a chance to try unless I got invited to a home-cooked Persian meal, which may not happen very often. Thanks to YT for suggesting it and I urge you to try experimenting with new food and ingredients. Now that we've tried these dishes, we feel more confident that we could whip up something more improvised next time around. And the recipes were not that difficult so were less intimidating for first-timers.

We finished our feast off with some freshly made saffron/rose water/pistachio ice-cream from a new Persian store called Super Sun on Westwood Blvd. just south of Sta. Monica Blvd. It was the perfect ending to our Nowruz celebration. So, get out of your comfort zone and try something new! And Nush-e Jan! (I'm guessing this means bon appetit because all the recipes in the book ended with that phrase. Anyone care to confirm this?)