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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Comfort Food in the Comfort of your Home




Before the weather gets too warm, you may want to try making this ultimate comfort food that will make you want to curl up on your couch.

It's daube, that classic French beef stew that you bake for hours until the meat is so tender it melts right in your mouth. The following recipe is likely from The French Farmhouse Cookbook. Thanks to DJ for making it for us again and again.

Beef Daube

3 pounds lean stewing beef cut into 2.25 x 1 in pieces (lean, boneless beef
roast)
Put in large earthenware bowl
1 1/2 cups dry white wine (or vermouth or red wine)
1/4 cup brandy (or gin)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp thyme or sage
1 crumbled bay leaf
2 cloves mashed garlic
2 cups thinly sliced carrots
2 cups thinly sliced onions

Put beef in bowl and mix with wet ingredients and vegetables. Marinade for
at least 3 hours (6 if refrigerated).

Cut 1/2 lb lean bacon into 1-inch slices and simmer for 10 minutes in 2 quarts water.
Drain bacon (spoon out).

Remove beef from marinade and dry beef (do not dispose of marinade).

Line bottom of casserole with bacon and add 1 1/2 cups of mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups of ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced and chopped.

Layer all ingredients including beef, rolling beef in flour before layering.

Pour marinade over everything. Bake for 2-4 hours in 325-degree oven until it simmers.

Serve over mashed potatoes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Most Sublime Dumplings in America




Here it is, the mother of all soup dumplings -- Din Tai Fung. I never thought I'd say this, but it does live up to the hype. The photos don't do them justice. They make them look like any old dumplings at other dimsum or Shanghainese places. Well, I went. I ate. And I'm officially hooked.

I also discovered the wait isn't as bad if you go to the newly opened wing around the corner that's almost as good as the original location.



Let's focus on the flavor and juice. The moment the wait staff sets the steamer on your table and uncovers the lid to reveal ten perfectly steamed "juicy pork dumplings," as the menu states, you have to grab one quickly. Be gentle so as not to puncture the delicate skin or you will lose the essence of these little morsels. If you are right-handed, take the spoon on your left hand, grab the dumpling with your right hand using chopsticks and place on the spoon. Make a small incision in the top part of the dumpling to let the steam out as the soup inside the dumpling is scalding hot. Suck out the juice. What heavenly juice it is. Not a hint of overpowering pork smell. Instead I taste all the goodness coming from the broth that has been simmering for hours. Not too salty and seasoned just right. I left some juice and dipped the dumpling into the vinegar sauce, topped it with some fresh ginger strips and in my mouth it went. I tasted the pork, ginger, maybe green onions, revelatory with the delicately flavored soup. They were simply the best soup dumplings I've had in this country.



The second-best dumplings we had were the pork and crab soup dumplings (above). The soup alone wasn't as flavorful as that of the pork-only dumplings but it was very good consumed in its entirety. The extra-thin skin helps keep the xiaolongbao, or "xlb," as the soup dumplings are called among the cognoscenti, light and airy. Perhaps the downside is that you don't quite feel full until you've had one too many.



Another must is the steamed chicken soup, which is so comforting and palate-cleansing that even non-chicken lovers relished it at our table. I myself don't usually like chicken soups unless I have the Korean kind with lots of ginseng and spices to temper the strong chicken smell and fat. But the chicken in this soup had been steamed before it was even dunked into the soup, so there is very little fat. The broth had hints of ginger that made for an incredible combination with the chicken meat, which had a mild flavor. The star of the chicken soup is undoubtedly the broth. It tasted a bit like the "supreme soup stock" at Triumphal Palace that made those bean curd rolls so sumptuous.



It helped to have some sauteed spinach with garlic to balance out all the meat and shellfish we were eating. Other non-soup dumplings were ok but nothing special, including the fish dumpling, which I found too dense and not as flavorful; vegetable and pork dumplings, which had a strong sesame oil smell that didn't go too well with the dumpling; shrimp and pork dumplings that didn't seem as well incorporated; and vegetarian dumplings that I found tasteless.



Other dishes were ok but again, were overwhelmingly overshadowed by the superstar of this meal. The Shanghai rice cake dish was sliced rice cakes sauteed with some greens and onions in a slightly salty and sweet brown sauce. It was amusing that the rice cakes bore a striking resemblance to the rice cakes used in Korean rice cake soup (ttuk guk) that is eaten to celebrate the new year (or maybe our rice cakes bear a striking resemblance to the Chinese version). The shrimp fried rice was fluffy and mild-tasting with an occasional shrimp thrown into the mix. It seemed purposely neutrally seasoned not to steal the limelight from the boldly-flavored dumplings.



If you have room for dessert, the sweet red bean dumplings are decent but a bit too sweet for my taste. I would recommend walking off those dumplings by heading a few steps over to JJ Bakery in the same minimall. JJ has an immensely popular array of baked goods, including red bean bread or plain old white sliced bread that people were standing in line to buy in bulk. The bakery has an impressive dessert selection such as mocha mousse (which was just ok), black cherry mousse and green tea mousse that I have yet to try but looked promising.



If you want to get really adventurous with dessert, however, you'd have to drive another 10-15 minutes to Rowland Heights, which we only recently discovered thanks to our very well plugged-in friend. Class of 302 (site is currently under construction), an unlikely name for a place serving such an ethereal dessert and allegedly the only place in LA or possibly America, that serves it. Think dark green tea ice cream that isn't just dyed green but truly tastes like green tea. Now think that ice cream has been shaved into fluffy layers and topped with red beans and chewy mochis (rice cakes). It was massive, but two of us managed to finish it because it was so incredibly delectable. This was after a full Din Tai Fung meal, mind you.



Others ordered a fruity version featuring vanilla or cream ice shavings topped with chopped fresh mango and strawberries, which was very refreshing but not nearly as good as the green tea version. This differed from one of my favorite Korean desserts, patbingsoo, with shaved ice topped with red beans, fruit, milk and rice cake in that the shaved ice is made out of ice cream or cream instead of water like the Korean version.

Quick shoutouts to AC for letting us shadow him in SGV, QL for helping with equipment and KD for the dessert shots!

Din Tai Fung
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 574-7068

(This is the original location's address. The new wing is between the minimall of the original location and Wells Fargo Bank)

JJ Bakery
Multiple locations
1130 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 574-5866

Class of 302
1015 South Nogales Street #125
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
(626) 965-5809

Monday, March 10, 2008

Soup Dumplings Without the Wait



Consider this a prelude to the big one -- a teaser to the mother of all posts on soup dumplings. Discovering San Gabriel Valley has become an addictive pastime lately, and Mei Long Village deserves at least a brief mention as a semi-find in San Gabriel.

The pork soup dumplings were tasty -- juicy and not too porky-tasting. The pork dumplings were better than at Triumphal Palace, our go-to dimsum place that does a bit of everything and doesn't seem to specialize in any one thing (but is decent). I didn't care for the pork and crab soup dumplings, however.

Being Shanghai food novices, we weren't sure what to order so we went with what we know, even though some may frown we had a Szechuan dish in a place specializing in Shanghai cuisine. We got the mabo tofu that ended up being pretty solid. In fact, we had been on a "Harold & Kumar"-type of a quest for mabo tofu in LA and had been repeatedly let down. One of my fellow dinner companions went as far as to declare this the best mabo tofu in LA. Still, for me, the search continues.



The other dishes were nothing special but comforting. They were shredded bean curd stir-fried with beef strips and shrimp with egg that was basically a massive omelette peppered with large shrimps. There were three Shanghai-style restaurants lined right next to each other in a small mini-mall with Beard Papa and $15 foot massage places.

The moral of the story is Mei Long Village will do if you are unwilling or unable to wait for hours on end at Din Tai Fung, which is coming soon to a blog near you.

Mei Long Village
301 W. Valley Blvd., #112
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 284-4769

Saturday, March 1, 2008

There Will Be Bloody Burgers



I was happily redeemed from my bad burger experience in LA (twice in a row -- Lucky Devils and the Stand, but that's another post) thanks to a long-awaited trip to delux in Phoenix during a recent visit.

I had read much about this place on message boards and admit was a bit worried it may end up being more of a 25 degrees-kind of place with a scene and buzz but disappointing food. So it was with some trepidation that I walked into the ultra-chic delux, complete with communal counter-top-style table in the middle with cozy tables lining each side of the smallish place.



As soon as I bit into my perfectly-cooked medium rare standard classic burger with the works, I was sold. It helps that the place uses both stickers (rare, medium rare, medium, etc) and wooden sticks to keep track of desired level of doneness, which I consider the second most important thing about a burger after the actual meat quality (bun is third in my book). The menu boasts that the meat is "freshly ground, all natural, grain-fed, certified premium beef" that is an exclusive blend from Harris Ranch." And it shows. The meat had enough fat (or "marble" depending on who you ask) for it to be juicy and the meat tasted fresh.



The works included a choice of american, cheddar or jack cheese (I chose american), shredded iceberg lettuce (I would have preferred arugula), beefsteak tomatoes, red onions and pickles. It was a winning combination. The bun that brings it all together was toasted just right with the right level of denseness. Because the meat was cooked medium rare, the lower bun did soak up the juices a bit but not too much.



I took a bite out of the delux burger that comes with a blue cheese and gruyere cheese blend, caramelized onion and bacon mixture, arugula on a bread it called "demi-baguette." I didn't really consider it a baguette and it was far too dense to complement the meat. I'm also not a big fan of blue cheese on my burger a la My Father's Office in Santa Monica (another hyped burger joint that doesn't measure up).



I also liked delux because it offers sweet potato fries, which I venture to say I like more than french fries. Curiously, few burger places offer this delectable accompaniment to a dripping burger. The best sweet potato fries I've had so far are at Mr. Bartley's in Cambridge. (sidenote: I think it renamed my favorite "Tiger Woods" burger THE TEDY BRUSCHI -- a football player -- and added some pretty offensive names to the menu.) But I digress. Unlike at Bartley's, it's a shame one has to order fries separately in fancy burger joints.



However, I liked that delux has only two burger options, just like my favorite burger place in LA -- Houston's. My all-time favorite burger is the $16 California burger (right, with arugula and avocado, with bbq sauce on the side) at Houston's (the one in Santa Monica seems to be consistently better than the one in Century City mall or Pasadena). The burger at delux was very sumptuous and I liked the $9 price tag, but for the whole package, Houston's still reigns for me despite the sweet potato fries disadvantage.



Even though I'm not a beer aficionado by any stretch, the final clincher for me was the extensive beer selection at delux. It serves local microbrews and a wide array of international ones. I tried the $8 sampler with three 5oz glasses of beers either chosen by delux or you. I chose a local Hefeweizen (wheat beer) called Papago Orange Blossom, which was so light and citrusy that it hardly tasted like beer; a Belgian beer called Hoeguarden that I also liked because it was airy and had hints of citrus; and finally a rich dark stout from England called Young's Double Chocolate Stout that was so incredibly decadent it could have almost passed for dessert. This lovely stout was smooth, creamy and really the closest thing to "dessert beer" I've ever had. The foam on top looked and tasted like milk froth in a tiny expresso cup and I relished every sip. Plus, all three glasses came in a cute little labeled container to make sure you kept track of which is which.



Takeout is available, it opens till 2 a.m. and there's a decent gelato place in the same mall. What's not to like? Warning: the evening scene may be different from lunch, but I would recommend this place nevertheless.

delux
3146 East Camelback Road (Biltmore Plaza)
Phoenix, AZ 85016
(602) 522-2288

Pasty Burgers in Hollywood



A very quick dud of the week regarding the much-hyped Lucky Devils in Hollywood.

I am a huge burger person. I crave it. I devour it. I look for more places that serve it. I recently formed a burger-eating club that meets at least once a month to sample the best burgers that LA has to offer. First stop: a disappointment.

I ordered a Black Angus Cheeseburger that comes with caramelized onions and garlic aioli on a toasted brioche bun with a choice of green salad or carrot slaw. I didn't go for the Kobe burger because it has bacon and blue cheese on it, which I don't like with my burger.

I like mine medium rare and it was medium rare. The problem was the flavor and texture of the meat patty. Flavor was non-existent (no amount of barbecue sauce helped) and texture was like the meat had been ground for too long to the point of being pasty. There was also not enough fat in the patty so the meat wasn't juicy enough. The brioche bun was ok but not enough to salvage the burger.

You know it's not a great burger joint when the best thing about it is the pineapple and balsamic vinegar dressing on the green salad. The dressing was light and only slightly sweet. It helped me feel less full after eating about 2/3 of the burger. The thin-cut french fries were not very crunchy and seemed like they had been refried one too many times.

It's also in an ugly, incredibly touristy part of town (a group of British teenagers asked me if there was an In-N-Out Burger anywhere nearby -- needless to say, they were pretty far off.) As another disincentive, affordable or street parking nearby is impossible.

Lucky Devils
6613 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, CA
(323) 465-8259