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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Umami Burger: Great Patty, Hold the Fries

When I arrived at Umami Burger for my most recent burger club outing, I was surprised to find that it was in the old location of a very bad Korean fast food place on La Brea that held so much promise. Food Darwinism at work, I guess.

I'm happy to report that this was one of the more successful burger club outings. I was impressed with the patty, which was fresh and ground just the right consistency. The meat was seasoned well and cooked just the way I like it -- a perfectly juicy, red and appropriately bloody medium rare. I daresay the patty was on par with my favorite burger from Houston's. Was it as good as Houston's? No. As important as the patty is, a perfect burger isn't perfect if the bun, toppings and sides aren't up to standards.

The bun tasted a bit like the cheap rolls you get at hotel banquets and didn't have enough heft to hold together a full-on burger with the works. I don't have to have a brioche but don't give me a spinless bun. The toppings on my SoCal Burger that included butter lettuce, oven-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, cheese and a thousand island-esque spread made for a good combination of flavors and textures that melded well together. I also had bites of the Umami Burger, which came with shitake mushrooms and similar toppings and the Triple Pork Burger, a pork extravaganza that threw in ground pork, chorizo and bacon topped with manchego and pimenton aioli -- presumably an ode to Spain. I liked both, although I liked my classic one better. I would like to try the six chile burger, the High-end Chili Burger and the Port and Stilton Burger.

You can get relishes like roasted garlic aioli and the special sauce to dip your burger or sides in. My biggest problem with this place was that most critical accompaniment to a burger -- the sides. How can a self-respecting burger joint mean business with such colossally lame fries and onion rings?
First of all, look at the size of that portion. For $3, you get 8 fries at most! Each fry will cost you 37 cents. Now that is a travesty. On top of that, they were not even good -- in fact, they were pretty darn bad! They were advertised as "triple-cooked hand cut fries," but so what if they were triple cooked and hand cut? They just didn't "cut" it for me. They weren't crispy or particularly well-seasoned. They were so chunky that you bit into them and they just about scorched the roof of your mouth. I liked that they weren't oversalted like in many restaurants, but the problem was they were borderline bland. I detected some sort of spice like cumin but it was barely discernible. The "malt liquor tempura onion rings" (guessing the owner is a big fan of Japanese food judging by the name, umami, which refers to the alleged "fifth flavor" and tempura reference) were ok but not great. I initially got excited about the sweet potato chips because I thought they were sweet potato fries but alas, not only was I disappointed to see they were actually shriveled, thinly sliced chips that were greasy and not very crispy either.

It was nice being able to bring your own beer (save money too -- I greatly enjoyed my Pacifico) since it doesn't yet have a liquor license. I was surprised to find a significant line forming outside of the tiny restaurant after 8 p.m.. I had traumatic flashbacks of my Kogi BBQ truck experience and felt like they were rushing us out of there. Service, incidentally, was erratic. Nice and relatively laid-back but our waiter forgot to give some of us waters and it took several asks to get mustard and other condiments. I would return for the burger, however, especially since it's smaller than a Houston's burger and a lot more affordable at $9 a pop. I know I sound harsh but I did like the patty a lot. Still, while it was a satisfying burger, I so lament that the owners didn't take the time to really invest in amazingly good fries -- or even half-way decent fries.

Umami Burger
(323) 931-3000
850 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Monday, March 23, 2009

Anisette: Where's the Chorizo?

The first time I went to Anisette a few months ago, the much-hyped brasserie by the beach in Santa Monica served mediocre food and to say that the service was slow and inefficient is an understatement. Was the brasserie so authentic as to offer French service too? What a downer.

This time around, however, it seemed like they had gotten their act together compared to when they had just opened. Service was not fantastic like at The Bazaar, but at least moderately timely. The food (I only went for brunch so can't speak for lunch or dinner) was good, if not spare in its portions. I'm no fan of the massive all-American breakfasts, but to have only 4 slivers of very thinly sliced (Spanish) chorizo just doesn't cut it for this carnivore. The poached eggs on a bed of polenta with chorizo and red pepper coulis were an interesting mix of flavors and textures. The oozing egg yolks that popped as you mixed it with the polenta made the polenta creamier with a bit of saltiness. The chorizo added crunchiness as well as a much-needed saltiness and slight spiciness to the mix -- I just wished they were heftier or there were more of them! Once I quickly ran out of my slivers, I used the pepper coulis as a salsa equivalent to flavor the polenta and eggs. I liked it but my only recommendation would be to add more kick to the coulis so it adds more flavor. After all, isn't that what a relish should do?

Oh, and I take issue with the fact that bread doesn't come with the dishes. The breads are indeed very good, as all brasserie breads should be. Its croissants are very good -- buttery, crunchy and soft at the same time as you tear away layers of the beauty. The Eggs Benedict were nothing to write home about. They were ok but not as good as the polenta eggs.

My favorite part of the restaurant is its true Brasserie-like look and feel, straight out of Paris or SoHo (a-la-Balthazar). I may return for the lunch or dinner menu but not anytime soon. When I want a smaller-portioned breakfast/brunch with good bread, I'll return.

The French folks in the table next to us seemed to dislike the service with a passion and couldn't stop complaining to themselves and to the waiter about how the bread was over-toasted and the coffee wasn't right. "Mais il est con!" the old lady kept saying about the waiter.

(310) 395-3200
225 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wurstkuche: Decent but not Great Dogs

Update: I recently returned and tried the Austin Blues, the other spicy dog and liked it a lot better. The fries were also better. Maybe it's because when I went to Top Dog in Berkeley a few months ago, I was let down by its Hot Link -- inconceivable and tragic. I love this place's beer selection. The hefeweizen was very good and good value too, at $5.50 a pop for a very tall glass! I'm a fan.

Wurstkuche sounded promising as a hot dog joint in the artists' district in Little Tokyo, so I went and tried a Louisiana Hot Link with sauerkraut and Dijon mustard. When it comes to hot dogs, I'm in the purist camp where too many relishes and toppings are considered mere distractions. The dog was decent but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, not as good as Top Dog in Berkeley.

Let's talk flavor. The bun was serviceable enough -- soft and warm. But the sausage itself, which I consider the most integral part of the dog, was not as juicy on the inside and crunchy on the outside (that squirting first bite!) as I would have hoped. I could taste the spicy flavors but it was a bit on the dry side. The sauerkraut was probably the best thing in terms of texture and flavor, but that's not an overwhelming endorsement. The green chile and cilantro chicken and turkey dog topped with stir-fried onions was rather bland and unremarkable.

The "Belgian Fries" were a big disappointment. They were practically room-temperature and not in the least crispy. Overall a bit overpriced for what it is. $6.75 for a Hot Link? On top of that, you have to pay for the sauerkraut and dipping sauces? Haven't you been to a Mexican place where all salsas and condiments are free? Might as well charge for the mustard too, which it thankfully doesn't but outrages me nevertheless.

I liked the ambiance a lot. It's a converted loft-type space so it's open with communal tables and the exposed brick walls add a nice touch. I may still return to try some other dogs, like the Austin Blues that has hardwood smoked pork and spices. For the adventurous eater, may I suggest the rattlesnake and rabbit hot dog with jalapeno peppers or the alligator and pork Andouille sausage.

Another reason to return: its extensive beer selection. Interesting German and Belgian beers like Koestritzer Schwarzbier, described as black beer sweet malty and Affligem Noël, a seasonal strong dark ale.


(213) 687-4444

800 E. 3rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90013

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Alibi Room: No Go Kogi...Again

Just a quick note to say that Kogi BBQ once again failed to impress at the Alibi Room location. The Kogi menu there is more extensive than at the trucks and there is a shorter wait while guzzling some beers. The rib taco that they ran out of at the truck was just like the spicy pork one I had at the truck -- one big mush of unidentifiable meat with an overdressed and over-vinegared cabbage mixed in. The hot dog promised "kimchi sauerkraut, cabbage slaw and Korean ketchup." First of all, not sure what's special about Korean ketchup. More watered down? Then the relish was once again overpowering whatever meat could be found. When you tasted the dog, it was like the cheapest sausage you could find at the isles of Ralph's. That mystery-meat, factory smell and taste. And don't get me started on the kimchi quesadilla. Throw in some melting cheese with chopped kimchi into a tortilla and there you have it -- oh, and don't forget to plop down some thousand island dressing type sauce to dip this so promising-but-unremarkable concoction in. I know I'm being harsh but alas, the food spoke for itself. I'd like to believe it was better before as some of my friends have insisted, but I'll never know unless the owners get back into gear. Alibi has a decent beer list though. The Echigo Stout was good, if you're a dark beer person. Ditto the Hefeweizen. Haven't tried the daily specials and tortas, but I'm not returning.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beretta Overshadows Bar Tartine in SF

I've always believed that L.A. is a better eating city than San Francisco (I know I'll be flamed for this) but there are definitely some things you just can't get here, like an incredibly juicy Hot Link from Top Dog, the wonderfully cheesy and tomato-ey Chicago-style deep dish pizzas from Zachary's Pizza in Berkeley or the sumptuous quiches, bread puddings and crunchy breads at Tartine Bakery. So naturally, I headed straight for the oldies and also made some new discoveries along the way at Beretta.

Before I even go into new discoveries, let's take a moment to appreciate the classics, so perfect that you can't help but return over and over again -- even if it means standing in line in cramped quarters. Yes, that's the downside and the charm of Tartine bakery. It's a quaint little place where lines begin forming early even on weekdays. The quiches are incredibly hearty, creamy, perfectly salty with a crunchy top. There's something in that dairy (creme fraiche) the bakery uses. I think this is a case of excellent ingredients combined to produce the most exquisite breakfast, brunch, snack, whatever. I'm not even a big quiche person but no matter. I can't get enough! Then there are the plain and chocolate croissants and amazingly delicious bread pudding. I've tried the banana and apple bread puddings and I like the banana one better but they're both solid. I got greedy and brought one chocolate croissant to L.A. and can I say, that following morning's breakfast in my car was one of the best I've had in a while? Warm croissant with coffee for the road...Traffic? What traffic?

Finding a new gem is almost as satisfying as the tried and true and thanks to my foodie hosts, I did just that at Beretta. As much as I like the deep-dish pizzas, I am more particular to thin-crusted ones that aren't as heavy. I initiallly didn't think I'd like the combination of potato, rosemary, radicchio and crescenza that much but behold the first photo on top. Isn't that a beauty? We substituted gorgonzola on the menu with the creamy crescenza cheese I don't I was familiar. Apparently it had been recommended by a food critic and she was right on. The razor-thin slices of fingerling potatoes with the rosemary and grilled radicchio (which I usually find too bitter raw) all mixed with the buttery texture of the crescenza cheese were fabulous.

The cannellini beans and pancetta with pepper bruschette was also the right combination of salty and creamy with a bit of a bite. A note to self was to cook more with cannellini beans, especially in mashed form, since they're good for you and tasted so good here. Another revelation was the porcini mushroom risotto with barbera (red Italian wine grape variety). Everything about it was right -- the deep mushroom flavor, the creamy texture and the al-dente rice pellets, dyed a light burgundy from the barbera with a touch of grape flavor. It was so comforting, much like jjuk, Chinese or Korean porridge, only its flavors were stronger.

One thing that was off, however, was the margherita with burrata pizza. This is my favorite kind of pizza and my pizza-meter, if you will, since everyone has it on the menu and mastering this most basic pizza would pretty much be a vote of confidence for everything else. Complicated California-style pizzas a-la-Wolfgang Puck? No, thank you. Although the crust was great and the burrata was creamy like buttah, this margherita had too much tomato sauce that it overpowered everything. The crust and burrata reminded me of the margherita I had at Pizzeria Mozza, which was very good albeit overpriced.

A slight disappointment was Tartine Bakery's offshoot, Bar Tartine, which served mediocre food with inefficient and somewhat snooty service. We had many things with long and fancy names like cauliflower soup with meyer lemon, piment d’espelette and cilantro pistou; truffled grill cheese with king trumpet mushrooms, thyme, red onion and small salad; Liberty farm duck confit panini with blood orange marmalade, mizuna and shoestring fries; open face pork belly sandwich with avocado, egg salad, pickled jalapeno and shoestring fries and polenta hash with braised brisket, celery sofrito, parsley and fried eggs.

I lament to say that the best thing about the restaurant was the bread -- fresh and sturdy peasant bread with a great crust and moist interior. Much better than La Brea bakery and on par with Acme or Balthazar's bread in NYC. The duck confit panini was completely overpowered by the blood orange marmalade, which was a very bad match -- stuck out like a sore thumb. The open faced pork belly sandwich was ok but a royal pain to eat (open faced sandwiches simply should not exist). The polenta hash with braised brisket was probably the best dish by a small margin. I think the fried eggs did it for me. Like Anthony Bourdain said in a recent episode, "is there anything that doesn't taste better with an addition of a gratuitous egg?"

The soup looked beautiful and tasted decent but a bit thin and not as deeply flavored as it could have been. The shoestring fries were virtually cold, my biggest pet peeve being served lukewarm food that's been sitting underneath the lamp. They tasted kind of stale too. Unacceptable. The grilled cheese sandwich was good but not transporting. Next time I'm in town, I'll probably skip Bar Tartine (maybe give it a second chance for dinner) and go for the crusty pizzas at Beretta and dessert (or breakfast or brunch) at Tartine Bakery.

1199 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 695-1199

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 487-1600

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 487-2600

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kogi BBQ: Off-Night or Overrated?

After hearing an earful of rave reviews from my friends, then reading about it in the food sections of every major newspaper imaginable, it was with some trepidation that I embarked on trying Kogi bbq, a much-hyped Korean taco truck. But truth be told, I wanted to like it. Honest to God. The verdict: overrated. Not worth the long wait.

Ok, let's assume they had an off-night (it was the Verde truck at UCLA). Highly possible, considering 1) they expanded to two trucks and static location so the chef is no longer making all of them and 2) quality control is diluted. That night, they had run out of what many consider their best items, short rib tacos and kimchi quesadilla. And their ultra-slow service left much to be desired.

But I digress. I had the spicy pork, chicken and tofu tacos as well as burrito. The biggest disappointment was that I could barely taste any of the meats because all three of them were literally drowned in this vinegary sauce that would have been a great in a much smaller dose. A touch of acidity combined with a hint of sesame oil would have been the perfect complement to the rather heavy and greasy meat -- much like one would combine daikon radish pickled in vinegar and a bit of sugar to counterbalance marinated ribs (kalbi) or spicy pork bbq (dueji kalbi or dueji bulgoki) found in many a Korean bbq restaurant. The two pictures above show three different kinds of tacos, but they all look the same. Well, unfortunately, they tasted the same too, with the tofu one being the biggest downer of them all. How can they even think about not frying the tofu cubes? That's flat-out wrong. This isn't cottage cheese, people! The cold, watery tofu cubes didn't help in making the tacos any less drippy than they already were, totally smothered in the vinegary sauce.

What happened? I think in the haste of assembling these babies, the folks just squirted this sauce away without much thought. I was looking forward to tasting the great quality meat everyone was raving about, the juicy spicy pork morsels wrapped in a tortilla blanket with crunchy lettuce and green onions. Instead I got one big mush that tasted like an overdressed salad.

Then there were coordination and service issues even though I didn't expect it to be a well-oiled machine. Guy taking the order didn't know they had run out of kimchi quesadilla until the guy giving out the food called out our names and said they were out. "Do you want a burrito?" Sure. What choice did we have? We had waited for over an hour, were cold and were pretty much starving (not to mention suffering from a backache). I don't even know what was in that burrito. The few bites were unremarkable except for a very large and spicy piece of kimchi that I bit into. Then I tasted it again -- that pesky vinegary sauce. Argh.

I'm not a hater. I'm planning on checking out the famous rib taco and kimchi quesadilla at the Alibi Room in Culver City, where I won't have to wait in line for so long or at least be warmer.

And what's with the kimchi chopping and basic prep action happening once they park at a location? Couldn't they do all that prep work ahead of time, like before they even start their routes? Maybe they need to poach some workers from Tito's Tacos because even though I'm not a fan of Tito's by any stretch, there's something to be said for the quick and solid service despite the very long lines there.

My advice to Kogi: post your menu prominently even though most everyone can check on their PDAs or iPhones while waiting or know ahead of time what to get. The biggest pet peeve: folks who would ask at the counter what was on the menu. Come on, people, do your homework for crying out loud! Don't hold up the line or you'll have some very angry and hungry people on your back. The little Korean touches like the shikhe (Korean horchata) and individually-packed Choco pies were cute.

So, you won't see me at another truck location but I may just stop by Alibi, if nothing else to try their exclusive items only served there such as torta and specials of the day, etc. (beer and comfy seats may help). Actually, upon reading the menu at Alibi, I'm very much tempted to check it out soon. Haven't written Kogi off just yet but I may have to urge them to keep a tighter leash on quality control since their very longevity depends on it. We don't want this to be just a passing fad, do we?

The Korean-Mexican fusion trend is certainly catching on quickly. Check out this sign caught at La Taquiza, an old-school Mexican joint near USC. With copycats galore, this may just be the biggest thing since sliced bread!

Kogi BBQ
Multiple Locations

Alibi Room
12236 Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 390-9300

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Taste-less Dinela Duds

Dinela is an addiction. I can't stop. But alas, forces of nature are trying to tell me to back off from the gluttony because the three places I tried, The Foundry, Taste and Smeraldi's were intermittently passable at best and down-right awful at worst. Call me harsh, but after the transporting experiences at The Bazaar and Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, I can't say I was moved in the least by any of the above.

If I were to throw them a bone, I'd say the fried and grilled calamari at Smeraldi's in the Biltmore in downtown L.A. was crispy and good. The pulled slow braised beef lasagna was hearty and comforting. The ambiance was like a bad hotel restaurant, however. I was further horrified when I witnessed a separate lunch buffet stand on my way to the restroom. Indian lunch buffets are the only acceptable buffets in my book. The unfortunate clincher for this restaurant, besides its dubious service, was the desserts. The concoction it claimed was tiramisu was a disgrace to Italian cuisine. 'Nuf said. It virtually redeemed itself with a mango panna cotta but there was no turning back after that kind of damage.

The only reason I'd return to Smeraldi's is if I had an intense craving for rustic Italian standards like calamari or lasagna. I certainly wouldn't come for the decor, service or appetizers/desserts. Oh, and I must say -- it served Chilean sea bass, which is at risk from overfishing and I recommend avoiding as many result from illegal fishing. Believe me, I love this fish more than anyone but not at the expense of our environment. Plus, its mercury levels are apparently high too.

The Foundry had better desserts -- the chocolate banana bread pudding and donuts were winners -- but the food up to that point was somewhat uninspiring and bland. The salmon with crushed potato, orange and fennel was clean-tasting but the chorizo-crusted chicken was ill-conceived and amateurish. The combination of the chicken dish simply didn't jive. The live music (male singer) by the bar didn't help none -- what were they thinking? It was like a bad SNL skit. Thank God we were on our way out.

The biggest disappointment, however, was Taste. It's basically a "see and be seen"-kind of place. Lines were long and the place was filled with hipsters from the neighborhood. The food? An afterthought. The tortilla soup was unremarkable and oversalted. The grilled artichokes were fine but that's hard to mess up. The Kobe beef burger with gorgonzola cheese, onion jam, arugula and tomato on a sesame bun was overcooked (asked for medium rare), the overpowering cheese seemingly a way to mask the mediocre quality of the patty meat. Kobe beef? Pu-lease. The shoestring fries were oversalted and borderline stale. The service? Fogedaboutit. Not returning!

The Foundry on Melrose
7465 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 651-0915

506 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 612-1562

Taste on Melrose
8454 Melrose Ave.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(323) 852-6888