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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bottega Louie: Get Pampered, Skip Dessert

I like that Downtowners now have more lunch options beyond the old-school steakhouses and chains, thanks to eateries like Bottega Louie, that's part of the boom of fancier restaurants popping up in this office-filled area. It's a beautifully converted space with exceptional service and good food -- just short of fantastic to match the ambiance. Of the small plates and pizza our group shared, here are my favorites.

The calamari was crispy and soft on the inside, with a light batter and a slightly spicy cocktail sauce.

The portobello fries were crispy but in a different way. The batter was a bit thicker than the calamari but it somehow worked. It helped that it came with a wonderfully garlicky aioli dip spiced with a bunch of herbs. Delicious.

The Bianco pizza topped with fresh arugula was light and the greens added a crunch to the cheesiness. The ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese combo wasn't overly heavy and the crust was thin and much better than the complimentary dry and mediocre baguette slices before our meal. The butter was great but what's with the bread? I used the crust as the bread and slathered the butter on it to good effect. I'd say it was on par with Pizzeria Mozza, except the ones I had at Mozza had more interesting toppings.

Other dishes were just ok, including peas with prosciutto, asparagus with hard-boiled egg, burrata with tomatoes atop a pesto sauce and my least favorite, risotto rice balls.

The peas were serviceable but nothing to write home about. I think the prosciutto chunks made that dish and it was probably meant to be like a deconstructed pea soup (with ham hocks).

The asparagus were just blanched and topped with what was described as "sauteed egg" but basically appeared to be chopped up hard-boiled egg that was likely sauteed. It was fine but again, a bit on the bland side.

The burrata was ok but my palate had recently been titillated by the sumptuous burrata at Cube so this one didn't seem as good. Maybe it was the pesto sauce that it sat on top of that I wasn't a big fan of. The grape tomatoes on the vine were not that sweet. Maybe once tomatoes are in full season, this dish may improve.

The deep fried risotto balls were crispy but the parmesan cheese for some reason had too strong a smell that ruined the experience for me. I usually love parmesan cheese so it's a bit puzzling but I won't be ordering that again.

I absolutely loved the service, which was efficient, attentive but not solicitous, knowledgeable but not snooty and plentiful (lots of wait staff standing around in case you needed something). Amazing how a bit of investment and training can make a difference in one's experience.

The adjacent bakery was such a joy to behold when I walked into the restaurant, tantalizing me with colorful macaroons neatly displayed alongside other baked goods. But alas, the chocolate eclairs I got were overly sweet and utterly unremarkable. In fact, I would go as far as saying they were bad. For the price and type of place that probably prides itself in its "patisserie," it was a sore disappointment. I also tried its pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant), which was just slightly above average. I think I had better at Breadbar and even Le Pain Quotidien. And don't get me started on its apple turnover. It was bad. It was non-traditional because it didn't have the apple paste inside, just chopped apple topped over the croissant. It didn't do it for me. Croissant wasn't as flaky as it should be.

Bottega Louie

(213) 802-1470
700 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cube: For Food and Wine Lovers

Some of you may know my obsession with ham and one ham in particular -- the mother of all hams that I've oversold to the point of raising suspicion whether I was on The Bazaar's payroll. Jamon Iberico de bellota of black-footed pig fame. I had a sublime ham experience at The Bazaar and wondered if this transformational experience would be replicated at Cube.

The food was very good -- especially the braised octopus, scallop crudo with peaches and blood oranges and the super crunchy and creamy mac-n-cheese. The one disappointment was the ham that wasn't quite as good as that place.

But the atmosphere was great, service was generally good (except when the bill arrived unsolicited -- ok, they were closing) and I would definitely return. Let's start with the octopus. It was tender and rich in flavor, sitting atop a bed of charred radicchio and cipollini onions. I usuallly find radicchio too bitter but charred, it tasted nice and smoky.

The scallop crudo was very refreshing. The combination of thinly-sliced scallops and super sweet and juicy peaches drizzled with blood orange juice and some peppery greens was divine. I mean, look at that beauty! It tasted as good as it looked on the plate.

It's cool that the restaurant (which also sells specialty mostly Italian foods on the expensive side) changes its menu weekly to offer what's in season. There were some things that seemed to get more raves than others by folks, like the burrata, which was decadent and creamy. It's definitely not for the faint of heart (or the lactose intolerant). The one complaint about the burrata was that the price was a bit over the top at $16 per order. However, I really liked the burrata and nibbled on it throughout the entire meal with a wonderful Merlot.

Speaking of cheese, I also tried tetilla cheese that's a semi-soft cheese from Spain. It was good but a bit on the mild side for me. They gave us a sharp cheddar cheese on the house, which was, well, sharp. The ham and cheese tray came with cashews and dried cranberries but while they looked pretty on the tray and I like cashews and dried cranberries, I didn't want to waste my stomach space with these things. Mere distractions that didn't add too much to the ham and cheese experience.

Now on to the mac-n-cheese, which was one of the favorite things I had. It was piping hot when I tried to poke it with my fork. Check. After blowing on it, the first bite was crunchy, creamy and deliciously cheesy all at once. Just the right amount of breadcrumbs that were toasted just right to reveal a scorching hot cheese-fest of goodness underneath.

The bacon (fried guanciale to be exact) daintily placed on top predictably gave it an extra layer of crunch and punch of saltiness, but it almost didn't need it. Did I just say bacon wasn't necessary? Well, this mac-n-cheese was that self-sufficient.

The classic margherita pizza was good but a bit on the cheesy side for me. I couldn't help but reminisce about the really thin-crusted pizzas I had in hole-in-the-wall joints in Bologna that had minimal cheese on them and let the other ingredients shine.
We also had the tiramisu for dessert and it was moist enough and went well with the berries it came with. I'd probably try another dessert next time.

The ham and cheese selection is mind-bogglingly extensive so if you're a ham or cheese fiend, this is the place for you.

(323) 939-1148
615 N. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nickel Diner: Great Vibe & OK Food

I finally tried the much-talked about maple glazed bacon donut at Nickel Diner. It was nice that we got it on the house after we made our lunch order, but alas, I was disappointed. We got donut balls, probably because they were free samples, but they were dry, like they had been out for a while. The crispy bacon bits sprinkled on top were crunchy and made me feel like I was having breakfast, but that's true of bacon on anything. I'm told one should have it first thing in the morning, fresh out of the, er, fryer, for the real deal.

What I loved was the vibe and decor -- felt like I was in New York. I had the spicy pulled pork sandwich that came with an unremarkable salad. The texture of the pulled pork was nice and soft and the flavor was spicy enough but what got me was a slightly porky smell that threw me off. It was like they had either used mediocre quality pork meat to begin with or hadn't seasoned it right to mask that smell. The bun was good, just dense enough. The accompanying salad was nothing to write home about. I was surprised they used iceberg lettuce -- who uses those flavorless greens anymore? They also added black olives to the salad, which was odd. I didn't think it went well, as much as I love olives.

I also tried the stuffed avocado with quinoa, black beans, corn, red peppers and cilantro, among other things. This was mild-flavored and healthy, but then again, I don't go to diners to eat healthy food. The "Nickelcoise" salad with seared tuna, green beans, tomatoes, red onions, black olives, artichoke hearts and greens was refreshing but someone mentioned the tuna was a bit overcooked.

I would like to return to try other things, especially their breakfasts. Maybe their decadent-looking desserts. But the donuts? I've had better. Service left some to be desired too. There's something to be said for hiring full-time wait staff instead of relying on friends, family and associates to fill in.

Nickel Diner
524 S. Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Honey, I Shrank the Pig

I've written far too many downers lately so figured I'd give it a jolt with this pleasant surprise of an experience I had at Honey Pig in Koreatown. It may not be the best time to tout pork but it's totally safe when fully cooked so here goes my plug for pork. I had my initial doubts about the kudos this place that allegedly specialized in pork belly got. I recalled the dingy hole-in-the-wall joints in the alleys of Seoul where they brought out frozen pork bellies that were cooked tableside and washed down with soju.

As much as I reminisced about those times with some semblance of romanticism (ah, those carefree days!), I didn't necessarily associate that pork belly with quality meat. It was the experience that counted more than the actual flavor. But Honey Pig gave me flavor. The little pork belly rectangles weren't frozen. In fact, they came looking more fresh than I've ever seen pork belly served. The color was a dark pink that looked very fresh. Then when the meat hit the dome-shaped grill and they dumped the bean sprouts and red-hot kimchi, I knew I was in for a treat.

The grill dutifully melded the flavors of the pork, kimchi and nuttiness of the bean sprouts, resulting in a complex blend of soft pork texture and crunchy kimchi and bean sprouts. In short, I was converted. It helped that the dome-shaped grill got rid of the fat dripping from the pork. How about them low-fat pork bellies! The restaurant usually gives you some other veggies to grill, including pumpkin, tofu, potatoes and onions. If you want to wrap it in something, you have the thin rice cakes with either the red, Vietnamese-esque dipping sauce or the garlicky fermented soybean paste mixed with some red pepper paste, called ssamjang.

In the olden days, pork bellies were wrapped in lettuce or kennip or some mixed greens, but the popularity of places like Hanyang (my personal favorite) and Shik Do Rak have given way to the rice cake wrappers. I don't mind it. It's just different.

Then came the kicker -- the fried rice on the grill. I know I've belabored this point but the fried rice will never be as good as Dong Il Jang. Let's just say that up front. And it wasn't really "cooked" tableside.

Still, while it may not look like the most appetizing finish to a meal, it was good. It's also a lot of food, so if you're a party of two, one order suffices since it comes with so many things. My favorite part of the meal was undoubtedly the soft and fresh pork belly meat, which was a world of a difference from the rubbery frozen kind I was used to seeing and hence didn't like so much. And the combination with the kimchi is always good. As Jamie Oliver would say, pork bellies and kimchi really like each other. I would definitely return, although not your everyday restaurant because pork belly is still pork belly. The dome grill can only do so much to make it healthier. Unless you've got metabolism on your side, of course.

Honey Pig
3400 West 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 380-0256

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Local: Flavor Wanted

Why does organic have to taste so bland? Local in Silver Lake prides itself in serving, well, local food that's good for you -- organic, etc. The online menu looked so promising, filled with items like pork belly with apples and wilted spinach and osso bucco style braised pork shank on brioche. Well, I was sorely disappointed. The semi-outdoor seating and vibe were great, but the food sucked!

I had the artichoke and goat cheese croquettes, which sounded great on paper and tasted just ok on execution. I liked that it came with a green salad to balance out the heaviness from the deep fried goodies. The creamy crab croquettes at Shinsengumi Shabu Shabu were far better, if we were to compare with other Japanese-style venues (our waiter told us the chef came from Matsuhisa -- too bad it didn't show).

Then came the main course, "Japanese-style" osso bucco pork with garlic fries. I was expecting tender as buttah but the pork was hard, a total disappointment. The marinade was sweet and salty, ala teriyaki -- hence the "Japanese-style" moniker -- but it was far too sweet and not salty enough. The garlic fries were fine but they had already lost me at bland.

I also tried the albondigas burger, a pork burger made in the tradition of Mexican meatballs, and fried yams as a side. The burger was bland again and no amount of queso fresco sprinkled on top could give it the flavor it deserved. The fried yam wedges were fine. They weren't particularly crispy but I'm partial to yam or sweet potato fries so I still enjoyed them, dipping them in the creme fraiche provided.

I have to lament, I have yet to like a restaurant in Silver Lake. I liked canele, but that's in Atwater Village, right?

I welcome any suggestions. I need flavor!

One thing I didn't like about the service was that same old practice of giving us the bill before we ask for it. Don't do it. It's a REAL turnoff, especially if there isn't a line of people clamoring to get a table. It's BYOB so bring your fave booze. Parking on the street was easy.

2943 W. Sunset Blvd.
(323) 662-4740