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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Madang Gooksu: Knife-cut Chicken Noodle Soup

On cold days like these, there's nothing better than a piping hot bowl of kalgooksu, which literally translates to knife noodles because they are hand-cut using knives. And there's no other place in LA that does it better than Madang Gooksu. The thick, rich broth has hints of dried anchovy (myulchi), chicken and garlic and the classic chicken kalgooksu comes with shredded chicken, huge chunks of potatoes and zucchini. Because it doesn't come fully seasoned, one can customize one's desired level of saltiness and spiciness with the accompanying seasoning sauce consisting of soy sauce, red pepper flakes and green onions (and probably other ingredients I'm missing). If you're nursing a cold, it doesn't get more comforting than this. The complimentary kimchi side dish will awaken your congested sinuses too. The kalgooksu portions are large. One order could easily feed two.

The (hot stone) dolsot bibimbap was also decent. The kimchi was ok but not as good as the one at Hanbat, which serves my favorite bowl of sulleongtang.

In short, the thing to have at Madang Gooksu is, uh, gooksu, which means noodles. In the summertime, this place serves an excellent konggooksu, which is a cold, soybean-based noodle dish that I can't get enough of. The ice-cold, milky broth is basically ground soybeans that have been soaked, peeled (it's a lot of work to make it at home but well worth it) and pureed with some water and then seasoned with some salt. Add thin noodles, a wedge of tomato (odd, I know, but indispensable), cucumber strips, half a hard-boiled egg and voila.

Madang Gooksu
869 South Western Avenue, Suite 1
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 487-6008

Monday, December 14, 2009

Soup's On: Simple and Easy Entertaining

It's time for our quarterly dinner party extravaganza again. My cooking-mate, YT and I decided to do something with seasonal vegetables, themed around harvest. We leafed through vegetarian (I know!) cookbooks and many others and the results were an eclectic mix of healthy dishes that brought out the best of the ingredients' flavors and textures.

It being cold outside, I decided to do a soup sampler and we altogether made four soups, including mint pea, roasted red pepper, red onion and corn with chipotle. Yes, I did color-coordinate it somewhat, but flavors ruled.

Before I go into the meal, let me tell you about the appetizers we served: bresaola with persimmons and fennel, cheese puffs and dried apricots stuffed with a goat cheese and mango chutney mixture, each topped with a single jewel of pomegranate seed.

The beauty of these dishes is that they were so simple to make. It was just a matter of finding the right combination of ingredients to create magic. The saltiness of the thinly sliced, air-dried beef went so well with the sweetness of the persimmons (I used ripe fuyu) and licorice taste of fennel as well as its crunchiness. Just drizzled some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the layering and voila. It looked and tasted like a million dollars. The cheese puffs were soft, warm and cheesy -- what's not to like? I had to stop myself from consuming one too many to save room for what was to come.

The apricot and goat cheese appetizer was good but not fantastic. There was definitely a novelty factor but not sure I'd make it again.

Let's get into the soups and main dishes. The soups were all excellent. I had always fantasized about serving the soups in small shots like they do in restaurants so it was nice being able to do that, in various colors to boot.

It's hard to come up with a favorite soup as they were all delish.

Sampling the soups was like a wine tasting -- there seemed to be a proper order depending on the intensity of the flavors.

I slurped the corn soup first and savored with delight the concentrated corn flavor spiked up with roasted chipotle peppers. This recipe came from the Greens cookbook. I only added a touch of cream so it wasn't too heavy. Even though corn isn't in season, it was a wonderfully comforting soup. As was the mint pea soup topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. This soup is versatile because frozen peas are always "in season" and the bright green lights up the table. The mint and pea combination is a classic one, of course, and it was nice complementing it with the saltiness of the salmon and the creme, which is always welcome as long as it doesn't overwhelm. The roasted red pepper soup, given a slightly Indian take with cumin and cilantro, was an unusual combination that worked very well (the lovely orange hue further brightened the table). The recipe from Food & Wine Magazine (one of my favorite recipe sources) called for seared scallops on top that I skipped. I had the red onion soup last because it was the heartiest. It also had the most texture with chunky onion strips that were sweet from caramelization and floating in this delectable deep red concoction. This recipe was from the Greens cookbook as well.

For salads, we had a cornucopia of winter vegetables that included leeks, cauliflower, squash, baby carrots and turnips to name a few, with a garlicky parsley dressing that added just the right amount of flavor and color to the winter veggies.

We also had an arugula and serrano ham salad with slivers of shaved ricotta salata topped with pomegranate seeds. This salad is one of my favorite salads, not only because it looks beautiful but also tastes so good.

Ok, it's not exactly guilt-free because of the ham but it's only dotted with ham, not overwhelmed by it. And the pomegranate salsa using pomegranate molasses is the perfect dressing for this salty, crunchy and slightly sweet salad. It's so easy to make, looks gorgeous on the table and tastes great -- a surefire winner at dinner parties! You'll notice I've made this for a Spanish fiesta before to much raves.

I also made a dish with brussels sprouts, my current obsession. I had cooked with them before but had never roasted them. David Chang was famously quoted as saying that "you can't f**k them up" and true to this statement, his rendition of brussels sprouts became the most popular item in his restaurants.

I was given a cool-sounding recipe from GQ's blog and first tried the one in italics on the bottom of the entry. The healthier version was out of this world, so I had to try the spicy one using Sriracha sauce Chang had.

OMG. The thick-cut bacon bits cooked to crunchy perfection certainly helped and squirted with some "death ketchup," Sriracha sauce, it doesn't get any better. The version using olive oil, lemon juice and almond slivers was just as delicious, if not as decadent.

I highly recommend anyone try this recipe immediately. If it conjured up some bad dinner table memories associated with brussels sprouts, this may just be the opportunity for you to rid yourself of this once and for all. It's a nutritious, readily available vegetable that's very versatile, after all. Ok, I need to stop raving about this. Focus on the entire meal.

For the two main meat dishes, we had a wonderful leg of lamb stuffed with bacon and sage -- the perfect winter dish -- and cornish hen roasted with whole garlic bulbs, shallots and grapes.

This recipe came from one of my favorite cookbooks, Great Food Fast, but most of the recipes are available online because they were featured on the PBS show, Everyday Food. I don't watch that show as much but love its simple and easy recipes. The hens were moist and juicy and the grapes imparted a great sweetness to the whole dish. Some of my guests simply took a whole roasted garlic bulb, scooped out the caramelized garlic and consumed them solo -- like morsels of garlic candy.

I made good use of the carcasses to make yummy broth with some veggies and ginger for aroma.

We also had a side dish of potato provencal with tomato and red onions but I didn't care much for this dish. It didn't toast easily on top despite spreading some butter on and it was on the bland side. I probably wouldn't make it again. I have a good potato gratin dish that's a bit less healthy but a lot more flavorful.

If you have a lot of strong-flavored dishes, like very spicy items, this potato dish may temper those flavors because it is mildly flavored.

It just wasn't anything special.

We also had a celery root puree as another starch that was good.

For dessert, YT made an amazingly good pear tart in a cast iron pan. The crust was perfectly crunchy and crumbly at the same time, much like puff pastry but less buttery than that.

All in all a successful dinner party. A big shoutout to our resident mixologist who made the best pomegranate margaritas, complete with salt-rimmed glasses and jewels of pomegranate seeds floating in the glasses.

YT and I used to make it a point to make the most elaborate things but now with a few dinner parties under our belts, we're veering toward simple, hassle-free cooking that is all about the flavor that leaves enough time to enjoy the company of our guests. Not that we hadn't done this before but you know what I mean.

We also used the Zuni Cafe cookbook for some of the recipes.

Happy eating!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Best of NY Part III: Squid Ink Paella at Midnight

Here is the third and last installment of NY eats that were most memorable.

1) Socarrat

One of my biggest gripes about L.A. was that it didn't have serviceable Spanish food. Then The Bazaar came along, except Jose Andres decided he wasn't going to serve paella, the classic Spanish rice dish that had so eluded me both in the kitchen (could never get it to cook evenly) and restaurants (yuk). So when I heard about this "paella bar" that specializes in this dish and also got an overwhelming endorsement from a fellow NY-based foodie, I had to try it -- even if it was after two bloody burgers and a good chunk of a divine porterhouse earlier in the day.

Entering this narrow joint with one long, communal table just before closing around midnight, I wasn't hungry but this paella tinted in black squid ink and topped with shrimp, almost raw slices of scallops, pieces of fish, squid, fava beans and slivers of piquillo peppers was a revelation. It came with an aioli that I used to dip the meaty shrimp and sometimes spoonfuls of rice. Socarrat refers to the crusty layer that forms at the bottom of the pan. In short, the best part of the paella. The leftovers tasted almost as good when heated from home hours later (our server urged us not to microwave the paella -- I dutifully complied). I still dream about this paella.

259 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 462-1000

2) Russ & Daughters

This place is an institution, and conveniently located adjacent to Katz's, so I sampled its famed bagel and lox. The salmon was pretty darn perfect, but I wish I would have gotten a plain bagel as the one with everything on it was too salty for my taste. The saltiness of the salmon made it sodium overkill but besides this minor detail, what's not to like about a bagel with smoke salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions? Ok, I prefer warm bagels and this one wasn't. Not sure if that's the way I'm supposed to have it but I like them heated because otherwise the bagel felt too dense and not soft enough.

Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4880

3) Kefi

This shrine to nouveau Greek cuisine helmed by chef Michael Psilakis is a bit hectic and cramped but the grilled octopus salad on top of beans was by far the best dish. The octopus was smoky and soft and complemented the almost pureed beans very well. It had a slight crunch from diced onions that also gave it a refreshing bite.

505 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-0200

4) Artichoke Pizza

Here was another 2 a.m. pizza run but imagine my surprise when I see a long line outside of a tiny storefront waiting at that hour, in the rain. Obviously, this joint has some serious fanatics. Everyone has their favorites but I liked the Margarita. Fortunately, it only serves four kinds of pizzas besides Margarita: Sicilian, which is the square one, artichoke, which is like a slightly fancier version of cream of mushroom soup on pizza dough (this doesn't mean I didn't like it) and finally, the odd crab pizza. This last one I didn't get but of the other three, Margarita had the best combination of thin crust, cheese and tomato. My partner in crime who stood in line and kept me company in freezing rain liked the Sicilian. The debate goes on...

Artichoke Pizza
328 East 14th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228-2004

5) Ippudo

I'm always on the hunt for fantastic ramen, so had to try this NY outpost of a Japanese chain that got raves from NYT critics and message boards alike.

It was unfortunate that I had it as my first meal of the day, which, despite its soupy goodness, was on the heavy side, even for me. I mean, I usually live for that stuff -- milky broth full of porky flavor and robustness. I got the Shiromaru Hakata Classic with the works, slices of pork that deliciously dissolve in your mouth from lengthy cooking, green onions, bamboo shoots, egg, red pickled ginger slices and wood-eared mushrooms. I also tried the Akamura Modern, which had a stronger flavor that I didn't like as much. The base of the broth was the same but the strong flavors came from garlic oil and miso mixed in.

While it was a good bowl of ramen, I like the Hakata ramen at Shinsengumi here better.

65 4th Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 388-0088

6) Il Laboratorio del Gelato

Now onto dessert: This gelato shop is so small, blink and you could miss it, but the green tea and hazelnut flavors were definitely worth stopping by.

I've always hated green tea ice-creams that look green but taste like anything but green tea -- you know, the watered down flavor. I could actually taste the green tea in this one. The hazelnut wasn't as good but equally deep in flavor.

95 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 343-9922

7) Donut Plant

I'm not one to crave anything too sweet for breakfast or in general, but one bite of the plain glazed yeast donut was one of the most comforting ways to start your day.

The donut was soft as I bit into it and the sugar on the glaze, yes, the sugar was plentiful, but nothing that a dunk in some strong coffee can't remedy.

I had the plainest kind to really see what this donut shop is made of, but it offers a huge array of wacky varieties.

Donut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 505-3700

And finally, there were two disappointments: Shake Shack, whose famed burger underwhelmed me, and Joe's Shanghai, which I should have known better not to go to. What was I thinking when I have Din Tai Fung right here at home?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Best of NY Part II: Momofuku Ssam Bar

Out of all the eateries listed on my New York list, there was only one "must" -- the beyond-hyped Momofuku Ssam Bar. It was a production to book a table for bossam, but it was worth a try. I liked the braised pork a lot as well as his version of the Korean bossam, complete with super fresh oysters, decent kimchi and other less traditional condiments like bibb lettuce (instead of red leaf -- perilla leaves would have been a nice touch) a gingery scallion topping and a pureed version of the same kimchi. The best part of the pork extravaganza was by far the extremely tender pork that had been braised for hours and hours, and that most importantly, sported a nicely charred and wonderfully caramelized crust that gave it a slight crunch.

It was supposed to feed a party of 6-10 but the eight people around our table weren't able to finish it off, as good as it was. Still, upon the descent of the massive pork plate, the usual onslaught of raves associated with braised pork poured -- "fall off the bone," "succulent," and my personal favorite, "like buttah."

The traditional bossam I adore features steamed pork belly. As much as I love that version, this one was very good. But blow my mind it didn't. Maybe it was because bossam isn't new to me. I think the raves it garners may have something to do with the novelty of this dish as well as his interpretation of it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a hater. I'm heartened that David Chang is so explosively popular (not that what I say will make a dent in his continuing meteoric rise to the top) and hope his success helps to spread the word a bit about Korean food beyond barbecue, bibimbap and soontofu stews.

Here is what I would do differently. I would offer perilla leaves because as you know, those are underused greens that are incredibly fragant and delightful, especially when paired with heavier meats. I would also spice up the kimchi more. Not sure if he makes it in-house, but let's kick it up as those back alley hole-in-the-wall joints would in Korea! No watering down, please. The ssamjang, a salty and spicy paste that accompanies all wraps made from fermented soybean paste and red pepper paste known as kochujang, was also not as punchy as it could have been.

I was very impressed with the oyster selection, however. I'm not the biggest oyster fan, but these were so fresh and meaty I could have slurped them down solo. It almost made it redundant to wrap both the pork and the oyster in one lettuce goodness.

Besides the main attraction that was the pork, I liked our starters but again, not blown away. Naturally, we ordered even more pork. I had to since I had heard so many raves about those famous pork belly buns. I thought they were pretty good, though not fantastic. They definitely melted in your mouth but the buns weren't as pillowy as they could have been and something about the combination of pickled cucumbers and hoisin sauce didn't do it for me.

The duck breast came with lobster mushroom, daikon and orange for sweetness. It was ok but not great.

Smoked octopus with a dollop of creamy guacamole imparted an interesting flavor combination. The smoked octopus was clean-tasting and I love anything charred and smoky. It came with shishito peppers and cantaloupe that gave it a bit of sweetness.

I had to eat these starters sparingly to save myself for the star pork but next time, I'd like to try other dishes at Ssam Bar as well as check out his other restaurant that only offers tasting menus, Ko.

For dessert, we headed to Momofuku Milk Bar next door but were utterly underwhelmed with the samplings of funky ice-cream flavors like stuffing and cereal, not to mention the cornbread and cookie selection offered.

Skip dessert and take the leftover pork (and bones for broth) home and make carnitas tacos out of them! Definitely worth trying at least once.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave. (at 13th)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500
(takes online reservations only)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Best of NY Part I: Porterhouse, Burgers & Pastrami

I've never had so many meals in a day and consumed so much meat within such a short period of time as I have during a recent New York City trip. Back-to-back steakhouses, paella at midnight and pizza at 2 a.m., although not all in one day.

I mostly ventured to new places this time around, except for my all-time favorite pastrami joint that's filled with equal numbers of tourists and locals during its bustling lunch hour, Katz's Delicatessen. But more about that later.

First I want to come out and say that the best meal I had -- and I qualify -- during this trip was the perfectly cooked, bloody pieces of sirloin and filet mignon with the delightfully charred edges at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn.

It wasn't Momofuku's pork butt extravaganza braised for 10 hours-plus, or the piping bowl of ramen at Ippudo that everyone raved about. This signature bone-in porterhouse (for two supposedly but really for four) came sizzling on a plate that was so hot our server said we could cook the meat some more on the side of the plate if it was too rare for us. It wasn't. I'm not even a huge fan of steakhouses in general, always saying grumpily that a steak is a steak and I could cook steak on a home grill with better results. Have I been proven wrong. This meat was ridiculously tender, juicy -- yes, all the cliches stuck. The sirloin had a bit more fat so tasted a bit juicier than the leaner filet mignon. But the difference was very subtle and didn't deter from the sublime experience.
I could actually taste the meat -- and couldn't stop despite the fact that it was lunch time and we also ordered a burger to share, as if we didn't already have enough meat.

You know I'm a burger snob. I have very high standards for my burger and at every bite, I deconstruct and analyze before devouring a good one or dismissing a mediocre one. This burger was on the rare side, rather than medium rare, but was definitely above average. Still, the bun was on the dense and dry side for me and the patty was not as juicy as it could have been.

Speaking of burgers, I had three different burgers during this trip. All hyped and all good. I'll get into my favorite burger on this NY trip in a bit, but this one wasn't it. It was a decent burger but it wasn't as good as Houston's in LA (I know. Broken record). The best burger I had was from Minetta Tavern. By some tight scheduling that was at times hard to stomach, we landed a table at this hot spot that is a recently converted old-school steakhouse nearly as old as Peter Luger. I had to try restaurateur Keith McNally's latest project since I love his other joints like Balthazar, Pastis and Dr. Schiller's Liquor Bar so much. This burger wasn't the infamous $26 Black Label burger that has prime dry-aged beef but the relatively quotidian Minetta burger (still not chump change at $16) was good enough. I read that a superstar butcher supplies a patty that has a custom-mix of different beef parts, which was apparent in its great texture and flavor. I didn't love the brioche bun as much -- could have been less dense. The caramelized onions were on the sweet side for me but I liked the melted cheddar cheese topping.

Service, however, left a LOT to be desired at Minetta. Granted it was crowded with a huge line of people waiting, but that's no excuse for curt service. Our female server barely cracked a smile and wasn't helpful or attentive. I lost some respect for McNally, whose other restaurants always had impeccable service (but not as good as The Bazaar -- yes, I couldn't omit mentioning it -- or even Osteria Mozza).

While we're on the subject of sandwiches, can't neglect to mention the always reliably fantastic pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen. I dream about this regularly. Needless to say, it was my first stop. This time around, though, I discovered another thing it does very well. Matzo ball soup! Ok, I don't even like this modified chicken broth with a huge ball of dough floating on it. But wow.

This soup really blew me away. The broth was light, tasted like chicken but not overpowered by it and the dough was not too dense or "doughy" and complemented the delicious broth so perfectly I couldn't help but be a little verklemp.

I'm a new fan of this soup that never sounded appetizing to me. Turns out I just hadn't had good matzo ball soup.

It's also the best way to warm up in cold weather. I heart NY.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 E. Houston Street (at Ludlow Street)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2246

Peter Luger Steakhouse
178 Broadway Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 475-3850

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Animal: House of (Delightful) Pork Worship

Back to LA eats. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know by now that I'm adamantly anti-hype. But being a pork lover, I couldn't resist trying Animal, a tiny neighborhood joint a stone's throw away from the venerable Canter's but serving pork every way imaginable. The two chefs were apparently on the Food Network -- which I hardly watch anymore (Talk about losing touch with your viewers. Am I the only foodie who feels like the Food Network has it ALL wrong?) -- as the Two Dudes or some such purportedly catchy moniker.

I loved almost everything I had with my dinner companion. The chicken liver spread on toast (right) topped with a sweet onion compote was creamy and delicious. And I don't even love chicken liver.

But the biggest surprises of the evening were the entrees: 1) The chefs' intepretation of poutine, which, by the way, is Canada's greatest contribution to mankind; 2) the deep fried quail topped over grits and seared pancetta; and drum roll please...3) THE PORK RIBS!!

Let's start with the modified poutine. Poutine is basically a platter of French fries splashed with some beef gravy and sprinkled with fresh cheese curds. I may have to disclose that I've never actually had the real deal. But with pulled oxtail gravy and cheddar on top, it was the ultimate thing one would crave right around 2am after a very late night drinking, dancing or singing... Brilliant.

The deep fried quail was perfectly crunchy on the outside and delectably juicy on the inside. I'm sure the fact that it's a smaller bird than chicken prevents it from drying out. It doesn't hurt that it came with slabs of seared pancetta and some creamy, grainy grits. I could have gobbled that quail in one sitting, but wanted to save myself for the pork ribs and boy was that a wise decision! The meat didn't have any gamey flavor so I could tell it was fresh. Lovely.

The mother of all entrees, however, was the grand finale. When the sprawling row of pork ribs with a dark glistening balsamic vinegar glaze landed imposingly on our table, I wondered if it would be as good as some of the barbecue I've had in Atlanta or Texas. The ribs were the best homage to the pork they seem to hold is such high esteem -- and with good reason.

The flesh was so soft and the seasoning and glaze were not overpowering the meat. It gave the meat a sweet and slightly tangy note but not overly so. This is another dish I could have easily torn apart in one sitting but you gotta leave some for later. The meat wasn't as tender when I reheated it, of course, but it was still delicious.

The succotash-type side it came with was a good counterbalance to the heavy meat (as good as it was). It was a light mix of green beans, zucchini and corn.

I would definitely return to Animal. The menu changes daily and I'd like to try the pork belly with kimchi dish because I'm curious how their take on this Korean favorite is. I'm also interested in the grilled squid dish we actually went to sample but wasn't served the day we went.

435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 782-9225

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Burma Super Star: Super Star Indeed

I was so pleasantly surprised when the hype around Burma Super Star in Clement, San Francisco's other Chinatown, turned out to be true. Most everything we had was delicious and for this Burmese food novice, a complete joy to discover new combination of flavors (fermented tea leaves) and textures (fried garlic, peanuts).

Let's start with the chicken casserole with cardamom cinnamon rice, that was a cornucopia of braised chicken, shrimp baked with biryani rice and raisins and topped with peas, cilantro and sliced almonds. The dish was as good as it sounds. The soft chicken and sauces melded very well with the rest of the ingredients, such as the crunchy almonds.

My favorite dishes hands down were the starters, however. The tea leaf salad was almost beyond words. Who knew fermented tea leaves could add such a nice edge to a plain ol' romaine lettuce and tomato salad? The leaves were slightly bitter but blended so well with the sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and peanuts. The salad barely had any dressing but wasn't dry at all. If you're going to order one thing, this is it. Plus, it's guilt-free. I could easily have this every time I go. It was also a treat seeing our server toss the salad at the table -- although it did feel a bit gimmicky. I mean, do they really do that in Burma, I wonder?

The fried calamari was a thing to behold to begin with but could the batter be any lighter and fluffier with so much flavor? It was straight up fantastic. It came with some kind of lemony sauce that made something fantastic even better, if that's possible.

The calamari was also virtually flash-fried so that the flesh was soft and not overly chewy and tough. I could have this for breakfast. And lunch. get the idea.

Another winner among the appetizers was the samusas, similar to Indian samosas, filled with curried veggies in what seemed like filo dough-type skin and deep fried with a delicious sauce. The samusas were crisp and not too greasy, and the filling was perfectly seasoned and the slightly spicy dip made it all come together.

The main dishes were good but not nearly as good as the starters. I already mentioned the chicken casserole. The other one was a noodle dish served room temperature with cucumber, potatoes, onions and chicken, which was mediocre. This one was probably the only one I wasn't crazy about.

In any case, go early as the seats fill up very quickly by 11:30 am on weekends.

Burma Super Star
309 Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 387-2147

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cork Bar: Go For the Wine, Stay (and Return) for the Food

I found a good place for happy hour or just dinner in downtown LA -- Cork Bar on Grand and 12th just a few blocks east of LA Live. It's also good for pre-concert meals and you get hassle-free, free parking to boot.

It doesn't feel like a bar per se -- more like a wine bar that has really good food. Although I like wine as much as the next glutton, I'm no wine buff. Still, I would return just for the delicious if not expensive crab cakes, creamy and luscious mac-n-cheese with a slight kick from pasilla chiles and its hard-to-beat $2 a pop specials on Tuesdays where the chef uses customers as willing guinea pigs to try out new dishes. Outdoor seating is great in the summer before it gets too crowded.

The crab cake was perfectly seared and very meaty, thankfully, since it cost $17. None of that doughy, breaded stuff distracting us from the glorious white flesh. It was advertised as "spicy" crab cakes and truth be told, they weren't very spicy but I didn't hold it against them. They came with an avocado crème fraiche and topped with a cactus and corn relish that gave them a nice sweetness.

The mac-n-cheese mixed three kinds of cheeses, including the best melting cheeses that also happen to be very flavorful -- fontina, cheddar and asiago. Roasted pasilla chiles did give it a spicier dimension but these chiles are usually fairly mild, and given chef seemed to have gone easy on the chiles here, I could have used more but was still content with this dish.

The $2 a dish on Tuesdays for trial dishes is a fantastic deal, and they serve them until they run out. On a recent Tuesday, that dish was, lucky me, slices of beef tenderloin cooked medium rare on top of a green sauce and some turnips that seemed to have been pan seared. The relish on top was chopped chives and some tomato-y mix. I obviously didn't pay as much attention to the rest of the dish but the "meat" of the dish was superb. As a side dish, this came with a little cherry tomato and raspberry drizzled with some kind of balsamic reduction whose sweetness really complemented the tartness of the berry and the slightly sweet and slightly acidic tomato.

I liked it so much I think I must have had at least six orders. Honest to God. You can't go wrong with $2... On second thought, you can go wrong but not here.

I also liked the various soups they serve daily -- the potato one was excellent, as was the carrot soup. The soups are definite keepers.

The white bean puree toasts were also nutty and it felt good having something that's healthy and a joy to your palate.

I've also had the endive, cashews and grapefruit salad with a lavender-honey dressing that was very refreshing and just the thing for a hot, summer evening.

One thing that could be improved is the burger. I admit I'm a big time burger snob, but for an eatery of this caliber, the burger should have a juicier and bloodier patty, a softer yet sturdier bun and the toppings should be more interesting. I mean, if you're going to do potato gratin pieces instead of humble fries, the least you could do it fancy up the burger with some avocado or arugula or something. Ok, I'm comparing it to the gold standard -- the Houston's burger again (By the way, I discovered that the same restaurant group owns Bandera, which has an equally royal burger).

Service also left some to be desired, especially during the later, busier hours. We were told it was because of a large party in one corner but don't think that should be an excuse not to check up on us for a long time and not giving us our food, etc.

Cork Bar
403 W. 12th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 746-0050

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Church & State: Delightful Ode to Fat

I've been lax. The good news is, I have so many places to review and rave about. Of course, also some to rag on but let's focus on the positive. I'd been reading good things about Church & State and it is located in the hip artists' district near Little Tokyo so it showed a lot of promise. And it was one of those meals that are so bad for you it's good. The chef seems to worship anything lard and meaty, which I totally approve of.

A group of us started with the charcuterie sampler that had all sorts of delicious and delightfully salty (and fatty) cured meats and as if that weren't enough, we also got pate with port jelly that came with a perfectly toasted brioche.

We didn't even bother balancing these out with anything remotely resembling greens. The other items weren't as successful as these first two. Not sure if it was the fat overdose, but the short rib sandwich (that actually did come with greens), the mushroom and cheese tart and the roasted bone marrow weren't nearly as melt-in-your-mouth as the pate.

The short rib sandwich, in particular, should have been like buttah. But alas, while not terrible, it disappointed.

The mushroom and cheese tart was too cheesy for me but that may have something to do with the fat overload. I should probably mix things up a little more next time.

The bone marrow roasted in an oven was the grand finale but I, for some reason, was expecting the marrow cut across like tree trunks. It came cut lengthwise and while good, also didn't meet my expectations entirely. I still finished it because bone marrow is one of favorite things in the world, but left some to be desired.

Happy to report that like any self-respecting bistro, the fries were delicious. They came with an aioli-like dip that was nice and garlicky.

The ambiance and service were both good and I would definitely return. The only thing is all the wonderful fat needs to be tempered by some serious greens or straight up wine. Otherwise, it'll be too heavy. I know I paid for it.

I'm looking forward to trying other standard bistro fare, including French onion soup and steak frites.

It would be great if it offered happy hour but not sure why it doesn't, especially given its location right across Royal Clayton's, that good ol' pub serving all sorts of tempting drinking fare like Shepherd's pie and fish and chips.

Church & State
1850 Industrial Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tel. (213) 405-1434

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Michael Mina's XIV: Great with Some Kinks

I first had Michael Mina's food at Seablue in Las Vegas and liked the way I could sample multiple small plates in one order. As one person dining, this allowed me to try various ways a certain kind of fish was cooked. The food was beautifully presented (for example, a rectangular dish with three pockets featured beef cooked three ways) but more importantly, meticulously prepared with quality ingredients and delicious. Like with Jose Andres from Washington D.C., I was waiting with bated breath for Mina to open an L.A. restaurant.

Amid mixed reviews of his XIV by Michael Mina in West Hollywood, I couldn't resist the multiple-course "light meal" that message boards talked about and so headed over for a special occasion.

The verdict is that some of the dishes on the tasting menu were excellent and others were average to below average, especially for the price.

My favorites were the corn soup, chicken cobb salad and duck. The corn soup was sweet, creamy and featured a perfectly seared piece of pork belly floating, along with what tasted like apple cider foam and cilantro bits. The soup was great in and of itself, but combined with the saltiness and crunchiness of the pork, bordered on divine.

Just as good was the Jidori chicken salad that was a deconstructed cobb salad where all the ingredients were gingerly laid out on the long plate, including a creamy slice of avocado, a lettuce the restaurant dubbed "baby gem" and just-potent-enough blue cheese chunks. I recall other classic cobb salad ingredients, like bacon and hard-boiled egg. The chicken breast was moist and not dry at all, unlike other salad meats. The dressing was light and complemented the components of the salad very well.

The Liberty duck breast came sliced on the bias with plenty of pink inside indicating juiciness, seared foie gras -- which is the best way I like duck liver, tender leg confit and some kind of corn bread. There was pineapple and star anise infused into the aromatics of the dish. One could argue this may be duck overkill, but it didn't taste very gamey or overly heavy.

The other dishes weren't as successful though equally interesting. It's good that we get to pick and choose any eight dishes on the menu. One could get eight desserts if one's heart desires, or eight main dishes if one's stomach is a football field (although portions are reduced for the multiple-course options). I had to order the luxurious-sounding, much-talked about lobster pot pie. I mean, what's not to like, right? Wrong. The pie crust was good enough, but 1) I could hardly taste any lobster meat, 2) the inside of the pie was bland, bland and 3) for the exorbitant price tag, it blows.

I love a good, bloody burger more than I can say, but the kobe sliders were nothing special. The fries were just as unremarkable. I make a better slider, if I may so myself!

We also had a skewer (first image above) of lamb chop, lamb loin and Merguez sausage that came with a hummus-like chickpea paste and yogurt-y raita. It looked beautiful on the plate but tasted just ok.

The naan-like flatbread we got before our meal with some kind of creamy accompaniment was good enough. The wine and champagne selection was extensive.

The desserts were the least memorable. One was a chocolate cake with some sorbet on top and the other was some foamy thing that was refreshing but nothing to write home about.

Service was stellar but I didn't love the tight quarters. For such a fancy restaurant, I'd prefer to have more space between the tables (reminded me of Balthazar in NY or those tiny French bistros where you're elbow-to-elbow with your neighbor).

I probably would return for a special occasion but with so many others to try, it might be a while. It's a bit of scene but go for the food. Valet is steep so park on the street if you can find a spot.

XIV by Michael Mina
8117 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 656-1414