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Monday, April 27, 2009

No to O Burger

I hate to keep being the bearer of bad news but I must say that I checked off another bad burger place off of my list -- O Burger in West Hollywood. It had some promise, with its organic, grass-fed beef concept and decent prices. I had the cheeseburger combo that came with shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, grilled onions as well as fries and iced tea. The only things I liked were that the crinkly fries were hot (but not that good) and the herbal rooibos tea option. Not exactly an overwhelming endorsement of a burger joint. Its Pinkberry-like cutesy decor and larger-than-life flat-screen monitors couldn't salvage the burger that tasted like a Big Mac. The first red flag was when I saw that all burgers are cooked medium. They need not have bothered, since the patty was more anemic than Posh Spice. But seriously, I couldn't taste anything grass-fed because of its flimsiness. I definitely wouldn't return. It sounds like it's trying to branch out as a franchise but it doesn't stand a chance unless the flavor and texture improve. In-n-out is a far better choice for this kind of burger.

O Burger
8593 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(310) 854-0234

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Street: Bland and Overpriced

I admit I was very skeptical of Susan Feniger's Street from the first time I heard about it on KCRW's Good Food. Unfortunately, my suspicions were thoroughly confirmed. Granted, I haven't tried every single one of the items on the fairly extensive menu. But I feel like I've tried enough. It's a no go.

It's not a matter of authenticity. I didn't hold it against her that mung bean pancakes aren't really street food in Korea. But overpriced bland food? I don't think so. The only thing it has going for it are the ambiance, especially the outdoor patio that had a great vibe, and beer list (great hefeweizen).

We had what's called Thai Bites (above), which were baby collard leaves with an assortment of stuff such as coconut, peanuts, lime, red onion, dry shrimp and chilies cut into tiny pieces, to be had with a dab of tamarind palm caramel. It was interesting and refreshing but nothing special. It was advertised as a "flavor explosion" but wasn't really.

I liked the look of the complimentary snack in the beginning. I expected it to be nice and crunchy, like rice puffs. But alas, it was a seemingly Indian-inspired grain concoction with spices that wasn't at all crunchy.

The service was decent but I didn't like that we got the check before asking for it. I also think it should have a better cocktail selection. I mean, come on, the world is your oyster, for crying out loud. However, we greatly enjoyed the two hefeweizen offered, a Bavarian one and a Japanese one.

Don't mean to be a downer all the way, but I also dislike it when restaurants get gimmicky by calling a dumpling "Mandoo Vegetable Dumpling," which is the epitome of redundancy -- like saying dumpling vegetable dumpling. Then to add insult to injury, it describes it as "Asian vegetables and..." which is an immediate red flag for me. What menu item would describe something as "European vegetables" or "Middle Eastern vegetables"? Final question about gimmicks: What is Korean about the Korean Rice Salad? I'm baffled.

The Turkish Zucchini Spinach Cake in puff pastry (didn't taste like it) with thyme, feta and red pepper sauce was so incredibly bland and unremarkable that I'm not even going to show you a picture. I couldn't taste any of the ingredients listed here. Strike 3.

The Singaporean Kaya Toast tried to come to the rescue but alas, it was a lost cause. The toasted bread spread with coconut jam served with a runny egg, dark soy sauce and white pepper had promise but I much prefer the French version with crusty bread instead. The thick coconut jam was so distracting, like a thick mound of butter that was overdone and not in a good way. I always like an egg so that was a no-brainer but the bread itself, which is so important in such a dish, wasn't good.

Then came the biggest disappointment of the evening: Egyptian Style Baked Fish. It was cod baked with roasted lemons and sea salt. It came with braised collard greens and Kushary, which is spiced rice, lentil and macaroni. The red pepper sauce was barely noticeable. The cod seemed fresh enough but it was hardly seasoned. Spiced rice? What spice? It was literally a mesh of stuff on a plate that couldn't be tasted. No texture distinctions. I couldn't help but ask our waiter to bring us something with a kick. Thankfully, the kitchen whipped something up from sambal, olives, water and some other ingredients that our waiter dutifully recited but I forgot. It wasn't super spicy but definitely helped. We smothered the fish in the sauce. It's a bit obscene to charge $26 for this dish. And this from someone who paid $35 for a plate of jamon iberico de bellota. Now that was worth it.

The last savory dish was called Vietnamese corn, cooked with green onions and pork belly (my favorite part). It was good, but only because bacon or some iteration of it makes everything taste good. This was probably the better dish among all the things we tried, but that's not saying much.

If at least the dessert were good, I would have given this place a better wrap, like with the Foundry. But no. The selection was unimpressive and what we did get, the Turkish doughnuts, were not as light and fluffy as I would have wanted. And I didn't care much for the strong cardamon taste that came from simmering doughnuts in cardamon-roasted syrup.

I don't think I'll return simply because why go there when I could have a much better meal for a fraction of the price (or same price) elsewhere?

As a street food-lover, I'm saddened that this experiment didn't work out. Maybe it'll improve over time but until then...

Susan Feniger's Street
742 No Highland
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 203-0500

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Good Girl Dinette Opens to a Good Start

By virtue of knowing some of the people involved in the making of a cute little restaurant called Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park, I walked in as one of the first few customers on opening night Friday. The vibe upon entering was phenomenal -- the decor was airy with exposed brick, fantastic retro chairs (more on those later) and everything about the place said "comfy." Then the air emanated this amazing aroma of curry spices and bread baking, further adding to the wanna-curl-up atmosphere.

For purposes of disclosure, I know the two chefs and some of the people who helped to make this a reality for owner Diep Tran and one of the cooks, Hae Jung Cho. So yes, I want them to succeed. And that's why my review will be honest and coming from a good place.

The food was good and innovative but needs slight adjustments here and there. The service was a bit rough but it was opening night so I can understand it will take some time to become a well-oiled machine.

Let me start with the food. I had heard great things from the soft launch a few days earlier and knew what I wanted: the fresh rolls, chicken pho, mushroom sandwich, curry chicken pot pie and maple bread pudding. The fresh rolls were my favorite savory offering. The tofu strips were deep fried and seasoned quite a bit (a bit overseasoned, actually) so it gave a lot more flavor than the standard bland tofu in the fresh rolls you get at other Vietnamese places. The addition of the Vietnamese perilla leaves was a great touch. I'm a huge fan of the perilla leaf in Korean cooking, and this version really enhanced the flavors of the other fresh ingredients such as mint, lettuce and pickled carrots and radishes.

The only thing that I would tweak is the tofu's seasoning so it's not overpowering the entire roll. Next we got what the menu said was Roasted Oyster Mushroom Sandwich but was actually a button mushroom sandwich. I'm usually not into button mushrooms because they don't impart as much flavor as the wonderful shitake or oyster mushrooms. Still, once a bahn mi lover, always a bahn mi lover, so I relished the crispy and fresh baguette, filled with mushrooms, cilantro and the works. The mushrooms could have been less salty. And I missed the jalapeno slices found in most bahn mi sandwiches. The sandwich came with a slaw with some soy-ginger-type dressing that was good but the slaw was a bit wilted.

Next came the pint-size chicken pho. I'm sorry to say that the broth was weak. Then again, maybe that's what people like in a chicken pho. I personally would not order a chicken pho if there were a beef pho on the menu (there wasn't). So there's my red-meat-loving bias. The broth was like pho light. It was definitely serviceable but not fantastic.

The curry chicken pot pie was the most anticipated of all dishes. The sheer idea of it had my mouth watering from the moment I heard the buzz from the insiders.

Besides, the enticing aroma of the curry combined with the baking smells in the room had raised expectations even more. I had heard the crust was an issue that needed to be improved on and I have to say I agree. This dish has so much promise its very survival and rise to stardom depends on it. As usual, I couldn't hold my tongue to the wait staff who asked if I liked it and had to tell her that the crust needs to be softer and flakier, like puff pastry. What's inside: upon digging into the crust, the piping hot curry popped up so invitingly and I was momentarily distracted by its uncanny resemblance to Japanese-style curry.

Then I tasted it and found it was indeed different from Japanese-style curry but had too much salt in it. And because the crust was too hard, one couldn't eat the curry with the crust to balance the saltiness. So what did I do? Stuck the curry into the tiny end of the baguette sandwich, of course. It was pretty darn good, if I may say so myself. I actually suggested they add a chicken curry sandwich and one of the cooks seemed intrigued by the idea, so if it's ever offered, you read it here first!

I love this concept but it needs less seasoning for it to really work.

On to dessert, where my research found maple bread pudding to be a clear winner. And it was. It was soft, warm, not overly sweet, with some creme fraiche on top. At the risk of sounding like a snobby hater, if they could, both of us who ate it thought it may taste even better with the addition of somethin' somethin', like apple slices, raisins, hazelnuts, caramel or chocolate sauce or some kind of hazelnut ice cream or gelato. I know. Get over yourself. You're not at The Bazaar.

Bottom line is I would definitely return and hope that Tran and Cho heed to the calls to make what is already good even better.

Tran has a blog about the making of the restaurant, which got coverage in the major papers as well as KCRW's Good Food. She got a call one day from a friend who spotted the perfect chairs in a San Francisco thrift shop. Without seeing them, Tran asked the friend to go for it. I had some serious chair envy when I saw them. Go Good Girl Dinette!

Good Girl Dinette
110 N. Ave. 56
Los Angeles, CA 90042

Thursday, April 9, 2009

D-Town Burger Bar: Go For the Fries

The only saving graces for D-Town Burger Bar are its fries and the old-school diner decor. The fries were a mix of potatoes and sweet potatoes, which I loved. They were crispy, thin and piping hot, just the way I like them. The decor was 1950s diner-style -- a little contrived (fake jukebox -- couldn't they have invested in a real one?) but cute. The art hanging on the wall was interesting but a good burger joint that does not make.

I would not return for a burger. The burger was like an In-n-Out burger, except it cost at least 3-4 times more, didn't have the yummy Thousand Island-type sauce on it and just wasn't as good. In fact, it was pretty bad. The patty was so skimpy and unremarkable I don't even want to waste this space describing how bad it was. The cheeseburger came with onions, iceberg lettuce, a tomato slice and pickles. Classic? One could say so. Boring? Definitely. Even the mustard on the table was blah.

For a far better burger nearby, I recommend O Bar and Kitchen on Flower Street, which has good sliders. You know it's a bad sign when you're not asked how you'd like it cooked. What a downer. I may return just for the fries, though. Umami Burger should learn how to make fries from this place. That would be a good match. I'm headed to Cafe Metropol's burger night Mondays next week so stay tuned.

D-Town Burger Bar
216 West 6th Street (between Spring and Broadway)
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 228-0022

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shinsengumi Yakitori Shabu Shabu: Worth the Trek

I'd been searching LA for good Shabu Shabu for some time so I was stoked to discover Shinsengumi Yakitori Shabu Shabu in Monterey Park a few months ago. Kagaya in Little Tokyo is beyond my budget although I will try it one day. Shabu Shabu seems like it would be easy to get right but I found that it isn't at all. Like I wrote in my Shabu sen posting, it has to be the right combination of good quality meat that's sliced razor-thin, the dipping sauces -- nutty sesame and tangy ponzu, your personal pot of furiously boiling water and good sides to blanch like nappa cabbage, vermicelli, shitake mushrooms, carrots, tofu, green onions and some other greens.

This Shinsengumi location (I'm a huge fan of its ramen joints as well as other chanko nabe and original yakitori in Gardena) is a bit of a drive but it's worth it for its very good grilled dishes and Shabu Shabu. The yakitori menu is pretty extensive and I am particular to the crab croquettes and various skewers we had. The croquettes were piping hot and creamy with slivers of crab on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Not as perfect as Bazaar's croquetas, but good nevertheless.

We got chicken, pork and bacon-wrapped quail egg on a stick and they were all excellent. The waitress recommended the "chicken hip," claiming it was the most tender part of the chicken. "It's today's special," she said. Sure, why not? I'm all for tender. And boy, tender it was. It was also juicy with some crunch on the outside -- very good. The pork belly was fine. The bacon-wrapped quail egg? It had bacon in it. Need I say more? It tasted like breakfast on-the-go. My fellow eaters commented it would taste good with beer. Indeed, I should let you know about its happy hour specials 6-8pm on weekdays and 11:30am -6pm on weekends. Its draft beers go for a mere $1 a pop for a glass and something obscene like $5 for a pitcher. It's a pretty good deal, except it doesn't come with a happy hour menu. All the food is still regular price -- not that they're exorbitantly priced. The shitake mushroom yakitori was a bit on the dry side so I would not order that again. And of course, all this tastes better when washed down with some sake. I learned once that really good sake should be drunk cold rather than heated, but sometimes I just want a nice warm glass of sake.
After the yakitori, we were ready for the real deal, the reason we drove out to San Gabriel Valley in the first place. It offers different kinds of Shabu Shabu and we got the cheapest kind called Washu beef for $22 a pop. We only got like 4-6 large slices. I have to say I was a teeny bit disappointed by the quality of the meat. Not sure if the economy has affected them so much that the owner is skimping but the meat simply didn't taste as clean and good as the first time I had it a few months ago. The meat was also not sliced as thinly so it didn't cook as quickly as it should. The sauces, however, were intact and so were the sides (although those are just served raw and we're supposed to cook them so no cooking involved). Sigh of relief. One interesting thing it offers is spicy broth from which to blanch your meat instead of the regular broth. I don't recommend it. I detected some fermented soy bean paste and red pepper paste (tasted an awful lot like a mix of duenjang and kochujang) in the spicy broth. A bit distracting for me.

Before I go into some of the criticism (mostly about service), I should say that I really like the Shinsengumi franchise. I think more people should know about it and go eat at its various locations. The guy owns 12 locations including a soondubu place in Tokyo (he's a fan of Korean food as he is of food from Kyushu). He runs a tight ship where there is a strict hierarchy of servers and cooks depending on the mastery of grilling and service, etc. This is how he maintains quality control of the food. That is why I was disappointed at the shoddy service we encountered at this latest visit. It's not a huge deal because I value food more than anything else and service was friendly, just not very efficient and spot-on. Got the order wrong and didn't bring us things like water or tea when we asked for it.

One thing I appreciated is that in line with the times, it offers a lunch special (I think it still does) that's the biggest steal in town -- $5.99 or something for Shabu Shabu! Of course, I took advantage of it once but it isn't easy because of distance. Also, on the 29th of each month that it declares the Day of Meat, it offers 1/2 off Shabu Shabu at $5.88.

It's a good place to hang out with friends and have a drink with some good bar food. And you can have the sukiyaki or other brothy stuff should your heart desire them. Parking is a breeze. Dessert isn't its strong suit. There will be a lot of yelling by wait staff but they're just trying to make you feel welcome, complete with a ceremonial "kanpai" number.

Shinsengumi Yakitori Shabu Shabu
(626) 943-7956
111 N. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754