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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mori Sushi: Overpriced & Overrated

I must document the outrage I felt after having tried Mori Sushi for the first time. My first choice, Hiko Sushi, was closed for the holidays, so I figured I'd give Mori, which I had heard was decent, a shot. How would I describe my experience there? Sheer highway robbery.

First of all, restaurants or bars without signs are a pet peeve of mine. A drawing of a fish displayed outside doesn't count as a sign. Let's drop the gimmicks and focus on the food. It's also a bad sign when a supposed sushi joint serves things like "miso cod" and has different kinds of omakase (chef's choice) by price and number of pieces. Then I made the colossal mistake of ordering the all-out omakase that would later set me back quite a bit of dinero.

The first thing was good -- lobster tossed with some citrus juice that made the texture feel like the lobster meat was the actual citrus pulp. Then came two kinds of raw oysters and another two poached kinds. I'm not a big fan of oysters but they were fresh enough. Then came crab soup with fish in a pretty bowl that left me perplexed. Wasn't this supposed to be omakase as in sushi and sashimi? The soup was a bit salty but fine. But that's not what I had come here to eat. I decided to take matters into my own hands and asked the waitress to give us sushi and/or sashimi -- "no cooked foods, please." This was the first incident where I ruffled the sushi chef's feathers.

So they brought out two to three different kinds of sushi on a plate at once. I like innovation as much as the next person but there's probably a good reason sushi is traditionally served on a small plate either as a single piece or two pieces. It keeps it more fresh. There was a parade of sea bass, three different kinds of tuna and other more fishy sushi that were highly underwhelming. I asked that the wasabi be placed not between the fish and the rice as it is too strong for me (that even the notorious Hiko sushi chef Shinjisan gladly does for me) and I prefer to dissolve it in my soy sauce but the chef politely declined. There were some eyebrows raised for ruffling his feathers again.

I happen to be partial to sushi that is paired with warm rice and this one didn't even come close. The rice was cold to room temperature but more importantly, had been made a while back and was crumbly and flavorless -- just awful. The fish was not that fresh and I soon found myself seeking refuge in some sake. I couldn't get over the container it came in -- what looked like vintage crystal that I remembered seeing a lot of in Prague. Sake drunk in beautiful Czech crystal glasses? Nice but one more reason to believe this place seem to put style over substance. And yes, there was one final thing I asked for that probably didn't endear me to our waitress. I know this was omakase but given that the fish wasn't anything to write home about and our bill was adding up by the minute, I flat out asked for uni (sea urchin), one of my favorite things in the world, as our last one.

As it turned out, this was the best one, its final redeeming offering. It served Japanese uni and uni from Santa Barbara (the one on the right in first picture), the latter of which was creamier and delicious (minus the bad rice, of course). The anti-climactic finale came with dessert that was a tangerine jelly (when what I craved was tangerine sorbet or something more refreshing than, uh, jelly -- given the price tag, I think they can afford to do something a tad fancier than jelly). How could a place like this stay in business? Totally beyond me. To think that I spent upwards of $100 on this bad to mediocre meal is mind-boggling. But at least you won't have to make the same mistake. In fact, I won't even tell you where it is. If you want quality sushi, get thee to Hiko today!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Get Your Burger Fix

After many disappointing outings, our burger club resumed to mild success at Fix Burger in Silver Lake. While the beef burger cooked medium rare with avocado, American cheese and barbecue sauce on the side was above average, the patty was a bit pasty for my taste. I loved that it offered sweet potato fries, but was bummed to see that the fries had been fried a while back and flash-fried just before coming out. I could tell because they were crispy but too hard. Just didn't taste as fresh as, say, the amazing sweet potato fries at Mr. Bartley's in Cambrige, MA (which, by the way, has great burgers too).

Let's talk about the burger. The bun was too flimsy and didn't hold its own to the patty and toppings. This place apparently specializes in unusual burgers like ostrich and buffalo burgers, and also has vegetarian options (but you know how I feel about that). I've had buffalo burgers before but I'm not feeling the ostrich kind, not least because I like my burgers pretty bloody. The thought of consuming a bloody ostrich burger (if they'll even cook it that way for me) isn't too appealing but I will probably try it one day.

Bottom line is that Fix ranks higher than Lucky Devil's, the Hungry Cat's Pug Burger and Weiland Brewery's burger for its taste and value, and similar to the one at 25 degrees in Hollywood, but nowhere near, yes, my all-time favorite Houston's California burger. Granted, Fix's quarter pounder is half the price but also half the flavor, half the juiciness, you get the idea. I think key is the fat content of the patty that will make it juicy. The way it's ground also matters so it's not too pasty but just chunky enough.

It's strange. Everyone at the burger club agrees Houston's has the best burger and yet we've never gone as a group to savor it. It's like we're forever in a quest for a better burger in L.A. but inevitably we haven't found it. We are limited by our budgets but I am willing to try Comme Ca and other high-end burgers (although heard Grace's burger was underwhelming, agree?).

The atmosphere was a bit sterile (Pinkberry meets Yogurtland -- wait, don't they have the same decor?) but service was fine and it was so baby-friendly that almost all the other customers seemed to have babies in tow. Its shakes are supposed to be good but alas, I'm no shake fan. I am a fan of BYOB, though, which I happily complied with by bringing my own Pacifico.

Stay tuned for my best of 2008 list!

Fix Burger
2520 Hyperion Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 661-8494

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hot Off the Grill in Tehrangeles

Angelenos on the West Side are fortunate enough to have Tehrangeles, that enclave of Little Iran where stores sell books in Farsi and ice-cream parlors have saffron or rosewater ice-cream that some naysayers say tastes like soap (but I like). I finally ventured to Shamshiri Grill after frequenting Shahrzad a few doors away for years. I couldn't resist the fresh-out-of-the-oven breads at Shahrzad that came with butter that I would bury between breads to melt and later spread on the slightly toasted bread (not sure what this bread is called but it's a type of flat bread like nan). I would always have to pace myself since the pending koobideh portions were quite massive. I'm glad I tried Shamshiri. Its fish kebab (pictured above) was excellent and lamb shank fantastic. The fish was sea bass, I think, and very fresh. It came with herb rice, a nice variation from the standard saffron basmati rice. We can't forget the usual accompaniments of perfectly charred tomato, green pepper and onion. It's grilled right in front of you in the kitchen that's separated from patrons by glass. Seeing rows of tomatoes and peppers on huge metal skewers on the grill only add to the anticipation when waiting for our food.

Fortunately, my eating partner had ordered some baba ghanoush as a starter so we dipped away with the bread. I liked that the fish kebab came with a choice of tabuli or a cucumber and tomato salad called shirazi (pictured below) that was very refreshing. The mint and tang in the vinegary dressing was a good counterbalance to the meats, although the fish was definitely lighter than the lamb shank dish (Shirin Polo, which came rice mixed with slivered almonds, pistachios and orange peel that added sweetness -- delicious).

I also tried the bamieh (pictured below), which is a stew with okra, onions, potatoes and mushrooms in a saffron tomato sauce. Buried inside the red mass of goodies was a sizable chunk of lamb shank, just like the Afghan treasure I had in Tempe, AZ. As you may know, I'm a huge fan of Persian cuisine. So much, in fact, that I made a Persian feast with my cooking buddy for the Persian New Year. I will keep on cooking but in the meantime, I'll be stopping by these neighborhood joints that have the kind of atmosphere you only get around the Westwood Blvd. stretch between Wilshire and Santa Monica/Olympic. Service was also very good and one order could easily last at least two subsequent meals because of the portions.

Shamshiri Grill
1712 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 474-1410

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Spanish Fiesta Just Because

What better time to whip out the Sangria and paella than the end of the year, the supposed festive time of the year? I was never a big fan of the holiday madness but my partner in crime and I just wanted an excuse to make simple fare with lots of wine flowing and Spanish food seemed to fit the bill. It definitely was not inspired by Spain On the Road Again, that annoying PBS show that should really be dubbed Beauty and the Beast. First of all, it's not really a food show because the footage of Mark Bittman canoodling with eye candy in the form of a gorgeous Spanish woman young enough to be his daughter around Alhambra is longer than a two-minute meal they have. The other eye candy is Gwyneth Paltrow driving around with Mario Batali in a convertible making the car sponsors happy. I mean, she doesn't even eat meat! Hello? The only redeeming part was the episode where they all go to Albert Adria's (Ferran Adria's brother) joint Inopia in Barcelona for a positively amazing-looking Spanish feast.

But I digress. Here's our menu:
-Jamon Serrano and Arugula Salad with Pomegranate Salsa
-Roasted Root Vegetables Salad with Persimmons (the only non-Spanish thing)
-Classic Tortilla Espanola and a nuevo version made courtesy of Ferran Adria
-Tuna Croquettes
-Leeks with Romesco Sauce (pictured right)
-Lamb Meatballs with Red Pepper and Chickpea Sauce

As for drinks, we had Sangria, Cava and red wine.

Out of the dishes I made, I enjoyed the ham and arugula salad the most because I usually find salads very boring and this one was both interesting and flavorful. It also met my strange criteria of cooking a first-time ingredient -- and ricotta salata took the prize. I don't like ricotta cheese in its gooey, watery form (let's face it -- we have it because it's good for us). But this hardened, dry version was wonderfully dense, clean-tasting and complemented the salty serrano ham, nuttiness of the arugula and tanginess of the pomegranate dressing perfectly. The ham could have been softer and better quality but it sure saved me a trip (and more) to the Cheese Store in Beverly Hills. Interesting factoid: it's Suzanne Goin's recipe of Lucques and AOC fame although I'm not a big fan of her restaurants.

I also liked the nuevo estilo tortilla espanola made with potato chips (and piquillo peppers and ham) but I think the downfall for this dish was that I premade it too much in advance so the egg part was too hard by the time we reheated it. It was a bit too salty for me as well. After all, potato chips are super salty and even though I didn't add any salt, the serrano ham bits added more saltiness and the result was sodium overload even for a salt-lover like me.

The classic Spanish omelet version (left) was clean and simple. I really liked the broiled leeks with the wonderfully nutty (from the almonds) and smoky (from the roasted piquillo peppers) romesco sauce. I fondly recalled a great No Reservations episode where Spaniards tossed a bunch of leeks in their skins on a massive grill and later delightfully peeled the skins to reveal a perfectly cooked beauty that they dipped generously with romesco sauce and just stuffed into their mouths with their hands. Primal eating at its best.

The unequivocal star of the evening was the paella. It's always a crowd-pleaser to begin with, but think juicy chicken thighs, meaty clams, pale pink shrimp sprinkled with my personal favorite, chorizo slices. It was made on a barbecue grill after browning the chicken on a skillet, which not only gave it a slightly smoky flavor but also delivered the best part of making rice on a pan -- the crunchy, toasted bits that form in the bottom that you must scrape with all your God-given strength (and so worth it).

We made sure to balance out the meatiness with some vegetables and the root vegetable dish (pictured above) was just that. It's decidedly non-Spanish but I had made it before and it's such a winter dish that I had to serve it. It includes rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and carrots that have been roasted and become incredibly sweet in the process. Then tossed with some juicy and sweet fuyu persimmons, caramelized shallots with some oil-based dressing tossed with some Belgian endives and frisee. The icing: blood-red pomegranate seeds adorning the dish like jewels. They make a great garnish for salads and entrees and have such a tart taste and unbeatable texture (pop!) when you bite into them.

There were certainly some misses. I thought the lamb meatballs were far too dense and needed some oil to be added in the patty mixture. The yogurt sauce ameliorated the dryness but not by much. It's Nancy Silverton's recipe but as much as I love her breads and pizzas, these didn't do the trick for me. The tuna croquettes were a disaster. Maybe it was my use of whole wheat flour and lactose-free milk that threw off the recipe.

We finished the meal off with pears poached in wine and other goodies topped with vanilla ice cream. The pears were soft and tinged with the Merlot's deep red color and full-bodied flavor. All in all a good meal and we're already planning for our next one in who knows how many months. We're thinking Moroccan... Stay tuned.

PS: a special thank you to ctg for her great food styling and photos.