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Monday, July 27, 2009

Bazaar Redux: Never As Good as the First Time

It's true. The second and third experiences at this restaurant that I mention in every other review have not been as transformational. But while the service was far too rushed and the Jamon Iberico de Bellota wasn't nearly as buttery and wonderful as that first time, I've made at least one other discovery at every subsequent visit. I can't say everything was good, but plenty of winners for sure.

On the second visit, for example, revelation came in the form of King Crab served with some fresh raspberries and raspberry vinegar. It was not only beautiful to look at but the slightly sweet and tart raspberries went perfectly well with the meaty crab flesh.

Other highlights included cotton candy with foie gras -- yes, a tad gimmicky but good -- and the tuna ceviche avocado roll. I liked the cotton candy's fluffy texture of the cotton candy with a sweetness and the "meat" of the foie gras inside. It's fun and good. The tuna ceviche avocado roll was refreshing and the crunchy surprise was the crumbled toasted homini bits sprinkled on top.

I also liked the lamb loin and his take on the classic gambas al ajillo -- garlic shrimp -- was good. I liked that the shrimps were actually large-sized.

My favorite on my third visit was an off-the-menu item that our waiter curiously whipped out well into our dinner -- Japanese baby peaches (the green grape-like fruit on left) with regular Georgia peaches, Greek yogurt, baby arugula, drizzled with olive oil and an excellent vinegar using a grape called Pedro Ximenez and sprinkled with za'atar, which is a Middle Eastern mix of herbs and spices.

I first thought it'd be too sweet like a dessert but the combination oddly worked amazingly well. The Japanese baby peaches, which I had never had, were sweet but not overly so and juicy. I scooped all the parts together and the sweetness of the fruit blended formidably well with the tartness of the yogurt. But the double whammy kickers were undoubtedly the vinegar essence and the za'atar powder that gave it all these layers that had me savor it for a while after popping it into my mouth.

A novelty item that could have had more of a kick was the Rossejat, or paella-style pasta topped with shrimp, which was interesting but was missing sometihng -- more spice, more vegetables, or...It was cooked in seafood broth so I could taste the sea but the shrimp on top seemed to have been steamed separately and therefore didn't seem to blend in as well with the rest of the dish. And it could have used some other vegetables, shellfish or seafood.

Other good but nothing specials included seared scallops with romesco sauce (I like the classic grilled leeks with romesco better) -- the scallops were on the tough side.

The artichokes and citrus salad with orange blossom and pomegranate tasted light and fresh, just a little bit on the bland side.

Then there were items that didn't work as well, such as sea urchin on a bun with jalapeno and avocado, the pisto (vegetable stew with tomato and runny egg that gets mixed in) and my least favorite, the tuna toro “Nigiri” with wasabi, watermelon, red wine, soy and jalapeno. First of all, the toro wasn't that great quality -- it didn't melt in your mouth like the one at Hiko Sushi. Second, the "Nigiri" was drowning in the sauce. And then there was foam. It just didn't work. Flavors didn't meld and the sub-par quality toro ruined it for me.

Our waiter suggested another item off the menu that unfortunately didn't work either. It had grilled figs with jamon Iberico (regular, not Bellota), baby arugula, crumbled toasted walnuts and that ubiquitous Pedro Ximenez reduction.

This dish sounded great on paper but the ham overpowered everything else and didn't let the figs, which should have been front and center.

I was sorely disappointed that they didn't have my favorite dessert with beet merengue, berry sorbets, pistachios and fresh berries. I had the fresh berries with a coconut emulsion on the bottom and topped with a creme fraiche-type cream that had lime bits in it. This dessert was interesting in flavor combinations but ultimately not successful. Apparently it is the brainchild of Albert Adria, the brother of famed chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame. I've also had the Apple Carlota, a warm apple tart with saffron sauce and milk ice cream, which was fine but not out of this world. The classic flan with vanilla and oranges was soft and yet firm enough to spoon into it with the right sweetness and creamy consistency.

I was sad to see that the service had gone from stellar to good. While the wait staff was always helpful and chill, I thought the staff rushed us by coming by and asking to clear our plates every five minutes and some were not that great in their knowledge of the menu -- or would recite things like they had memorized it word-by-word and would utter them no matter what we said. It seemed mechanical and not well-trained to me. I recall the wonderful service I had the first time I went. I guess it's really never as good as...

I would return (in fact, I am returning this weekend) but will try some things I haven't yet, such as canned scallops or sea urchin and Norwegian lobster, to name a few. Stay tuned for another installment of...njeats goes to The Bazaar once again! By the way, the cava rosado was the bomb. Skipped the sangria and it was still good.

The Bazaar

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Lowdown on Downtown Lunch

It's been fun exploring all the new and more exciting lunch options around downtown. I found a good falafel place, Bar-B-Kosher; the very promising Sandwich Shop serving Bahn mi that also has some creative sandwiches like a Philly cheese steak sandwich using bulgogi as the meat; the disappointing Cole's French dip and unremarkable Colori Kitchen for Italian.

The broiled chicken breast pita sandwich at Bar-B-Kosher was good. I could tell they used quality ingredients, like the chicken that tasted fresh and the diced cucumber and tomatoes. It was a salad in a plain pita. Owner said the place would soon offer wholewheat pita as there seems to be enough demand. For those who like strong flavors like me, the sandwich tasted a lot better after I added some of the spicy green sauce you need to ask for that seemed to be garlic and parsley-based.
The sandwich came with the familiar bright fuschia pickled radishes a-la-Zankou and a cole slaw-type side that were both so so. Still, I am looking forward to trying other things on the menu, like the falafel or shakshuka, described as 2 eggs over a tomato and bell pepper stew. It also offers an array of salads that you can order as a combo, such as roasted eggplant, chopped tomato and cucumber, hummus, tabouli, Moroccan style carrots and beets, to name a few. I tried the eggplant, carrots, hummus and cucumber tomato and they were good if not fantastic and I could definitely tell the ingredients were fresh. The owner seemed to take great pride in that.
The place also has outdoor seating, albeit not the nicest ambiance amid the downtown traffic.

Another spot for a quick lunch is Sandwich Shop, owned by a Korean guy who concocts creative sandwiches and offers many different types of sandwiches like Vietnamese Bahm mi sandwiches on baguette, Cubano or a Gaucho with steak topped with a garlic and parsley mix that is chimichurri sauce. I tried the Bulgogi Cheesesteak and to my disappointment, the meat was not good quality meat so it smelled a bit and the marinade was far too sweet. I think the idea is great but he should use better ingredients to really make it work. The pulled pork special was ok but again, the pork could have been braised for longer. It wasn't as fall-off-the-bone as it should be.

Still, I'd like to return to try the Bahm mi and other sandwiches. Some promising ones include the French Onion, featuring caramelized onions and gruyere cheese on pressed walnut raisin bread or the Turkey Avocado Cheddar Melt, with smoked turkey, avocado, cheddar, chipotle spread and romaine lettuce on pressed ciabatta.

Cole's Original French Dip sandwich had all the makings of a down-home original joint -- quaint decor and a passionate owner who restored the original to its current state. But alas, the namesake sandwich was nothing special (meat was tough and dip was not that flavorful) and the sides including coleslaw and mac-n-cheese were below average. The coleslaw had too much mayo and the mac-n-cheese was bland. The only thing worth salvaging was the potato salad but maybe it had something to do with the addition of bacon bits in it. I wouldn't return. As for how it ranks against Philippe's, I think it's better than Philippe's but that not saying much because I thought Philippe was downright bad. I know it's a beloved institution but it just ain't good.

I had heard much raves about Colori Kitchen and got the standard spaghetti and meatballs in tomato sauce. I usually order spaghetti bolognese as a way to gauge Italian restaurants (utterly unscientific, I know), and also because I tend to love this dish.

I wasn't happy that it didn't offer Bolognese. Strike one. Then the meatballs were dense and seemed to have spicy Italian sausage with fennel in them, which I didn't like. Nothing like the delicious meatballs in Pizzaiola in Oakland. The tomato sauce was fine and the pasta was al dente but it was nothing special. The caesar salad was good and not dripping with dressing. The tiramisu was moist but had too much cream on top and I could tell it had been made ahead of time so cream was a bit hard. Maybe I'll return if I get desperate for Italian but I won't be rushing.

113 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 623-4995

Sandwich Shop
531 West 6th Street
Los Angeles CA 90014
(213) 627-1508

118 East Sixth Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-4090

Colori Kitchen
429 W 8th St
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-5950

Monday, July 13, 2009

Inti: Peruvian at Its Best

I'm so glad I finally found a decent, no-frills Peruvian joint that's both good and easy on the wallet. I had never been too impressed with Mario's or Los Balcones del Peru, to name a few, so there was some trepidation entering this restaurant in a non-descript minimall. But the friendly staff and delicious food quickly won me over.

The bread and salsa brought before the meal were good starters. The bread itself was nothing special but it was warm and fresh, which is more than I can say for some of the fancier venues that charge an arm and leg.

The green salsa it came with was very spicy and flavorful. Besides milk, which gave the salsa a creamy consistency and likely tempered the heat, the salsa also contained habanero, which made it so spicy and condiment-worthy.

The ceviche mixto included raw shrimp, squid, halibut and octopus slightly cooked in citrus. They were topped with red onions, spices and cilantro, among other things. I loved that it came with toasted corn kernels that added a great smoky and crunchy texture to the mix. It also came with boiled potatoes whose mild flavor counterbalanced the sourness of the juice well.

Most importantly, the seafood was fresh. They also don't mess around when it comes to heat. When they asked how spicy I wanted it, I asked for spicy. And spicy it was. I daresay it almost kicked my butt. Delish.

The highlight of the meal, however, was the Bisteck a lo Pobre. A hearty slab of steak topped with an over-easy egg, sitting on a bed of fries, with a side of white rice on a plate whose edges were adorned with fried plaintains. Need I say more?

The meats on these types of dishes in other restaurants are always sub-par quality, but this meat tasted like quality meat (while not grass-fed premium or anything). I usually like my meat bloody -- aka medium rare -- but because it was on the thin side, I let it slide that it was cooked well-done. But it wasn't overcooked like in most other joints either, which was good. The egg could have been a tad less cooked as the yolk wasn't as oozy as I'd like it to be, but I like anything with a fried egg on top so I'm biased. The fries were crispy enough, not too greasy as in many other joints. Ditto the fried plaintains, which are usually an overripe mush dripping in grease. These were on the firm side but still soft enough to savor and with a bit of a crunch from the deep-frying. I didn't love the rice too much, which was on the dry side but not a huge deal.

The Arroz Chaufa de Mariscos -- seafood fried rice with scrambled eggs and green onions -- was good, although not as good as the steak. The dish represents Chinese immigrants' influence on Peruvian cuisine, in the form of chau fan, which I believe is "fried rice" in Chinese. One can find restaurants serving "chifa," Peruvian-Chinese food, all throughout Peru as well as in Chile and Argentina, the latter of which aren't considered as authentic. Don't mean to belabor the point, but I did like that the fried rice wasn't as greasy as I usually find in Chifas and Chinese restaurants. The seafood tasted fresh and my only complaint was that it was on the bland side. Then again, everything else was pretty strongly flavored so it's no wonder that it must have tasted flat in comparison.

Service was great. I didn't like the typical Peruvian drinks but that may be a matter of taste. I didn't care for maracuya juice or the chicha morada, which is made from black maize and boiled with pineapple and spices.

I look forward to returning and trying other dishes, like the classic lomo saltado (more fries!).

5870 Melrose Ave. #105
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 962-2027

Friday, July 3, 2009

Chaya Downtown and Casa: Skip 'Em

Another reason I like summer is happy hour outdoors. Although I don't need an excuse to have a drink, much less one outdoors, summer makes it better. With the onslaught of new restaurants popping up downtown, there was no shortage of options. Chaya Downtown was just slightly above average with some serious infractions and Casa was for the most part disappointing with a few saving graces.

Let's start with the good. The fish and chips were hot and crispy. They came with regular tartar sauce. The lamb sliders were juicy and cooked medium rare with a soft, fresh bun. These came with cornichons, which balanced out the heaviness of the lamb's meatiness. The albondigas (usually pork meatballs but these were chicken, I think) served what seemed Italian style -- sizzling on a hot plate smothered in cheese with some crusty bread on the side.
The meatballs were not too dense and pretty juicy. They didn't impart too much flavor, whether salty or spicy. Too mild for my taste.

Now for the not-so-good. The fried calamari was too thickly sliced and batter wasn't light and fluffy -- or particularly well-seasoned -- as it should be, so it ended up tasting bland and a tad soggy. The accompanying garlic aioili was unremarkable.

I wasn't impressed with the drinks either. A blood orange, lavender, lime and tequila cocktail called Seeing Red was drowning in Tequila and too sweet.

Then it got way ugly. We made the mistake of ordering California rolls and spicy tuna rolls. I'm not sure how an establishment that is purpotedly high-end has the audacity to serve imitation crab in its food! That is outright shocking and outrageous to me.

I'm going to spare you from having look at that monstrosity. No self-respecting sushi joint, even if it's got the fusion moniker, would serve this crap, er, I mean crab. That and the fact that I was never a big fan of Chaya Venice made me write off this restaurant.

A few streets over is Casa, a wannabe fancy Mexican place that is filled with office workers and best to be avoided for its mediocre, overpriced food and less-than airy and clean ambiance. The chips and salsa (that they charge for, gasp!) that came in three flat varieties were below average. Then the guacamole was bland. The ceviche was ok but on the bland side. The deep fried fish tacos were the only saving grace but the tortillas were too thick and except for the fish itself, it was average in its entirety. The carnitas mulita was not bad but somewhat ruined by the too-hard tortilla shell. I'd much rather go to La Taquiza for a decent mulita. I'll spare you the pictures since you shouldn't be going anyway.

For my money, I would hop over to Ciudad or Daily Grill for happy hour any day.

Chaya Downtown
(213) 236-9577
525 S. Flower St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

(213) 621-2249
350 S. Grand Ave
Two California Plaza

Los Angeles, CA 90071