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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cafe Surfas: Avoid Food, Keep Shopping

After hearing raves about the kobe burger at Cafe Surfas, I had to try it, although not without skepticism. The verdict: completely overrated. Not only was the burger overcooked when it should have been medium rare, but the patty didn't taste fresh (nor did it have a reddish hue that fresh meat patties have when cooked medium rare right). The bun was too dense and the works, including arugula, red onions, tomatoes, cilantro avocado spread, smoked paprika mayo and aged white cheddar cheese, didn't mesh very well together. I think the quality of the meat just killed it.

We're glad that they made the burger again after we sent back the overcooked one, although it came with less than forthcoming service (actually, the service was pretty darn bad throughout except they did try to do some damage control after the fact and comped our desserts).

There was something odd in the air among workers there -- like they were all miserable and therefore weren't going to bother with dealing with customers. When we asked for condiments, one had the audacity to tell us to go buy it inside the store. What?!

The pastrami panini that was like a melt was nothing remarkable. All sandwiches came with a salad that seemed too heavily dressed.

As for the mac-n-cheese, oh my, the pasta was overcooked and it basically tasted like plane food. It was painfully obvious that it had been made hours ahead of time and had been sitting there for a long while.

This cafe has so much potential but I felt like its management must have slipped because the items were interesting but just not well-executed at all.

The biscuit with "homemade raspberry butter" was underwhelming, not least because the butter was neither melted enough to spread it nor flavorful in the least. A minor point: the top of the biscuit had a sheen like a croissant, when in fact the authentic Southern biscuits I'm used to seeing usually do not have a sheen (probably glazed with egg yolk in the baking process).

I will be returning but not for the food. Surfas is like a candy store for me, after all -- I could spend hours browsing the isles of their gourmet foods and restaurant equipment. A major complaint about their food section: can you believe that they carry one single brand of radish kimchi and that the company is based out of none other than New York City? And we're in LA, capital of the best Korean food outside of Korea, no less. Outrageous. Surfas' management will be hearing from me for sure.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Brunch Roundup: Best and Worst Pancakes in West LA

I usually don't like to go out for breakfast or brunch but circumstances have "forced" me to eat out on these occasions and as a result, I've sampled seven places famous and not.

Here's my rundown:

Although I can't say I've tried all joints offering French toast, I can safely say that Amandine Cafe on Wilshire serves up a pretty good one. It's two slices of what tasted and looked like brioche bread, well-toasted on the outside and soft on the inside, and you can top it with your fruit of choice (I chose bananas once and strawberries another time). The cappuccino was also good. I would skip the omelet and stick with what it does best. The plain and chocolate croissants weren't bad but not as good as in Bread Bar.

The space is a bit cramped but it has its own parking lot so that's always a draw. I haven't tried the sweets but I'm sure they do a decent job of those.

I liked Bread and Porridge's sausage that are locally made gourmet sausages that come in seven varieties. Being a spice fiend, I, of course, chose spicy Portuguese and it didn't disappoint. Besides being a good sausage to begin with, the sausage was grilled to perfection, complete with beautiful grill marks. As I bit into it, I tasted the smokiness from the grill and the juiciness from the inside exploded with spicy and salty flavors.

The nice thing about this place was that it didn't look like the kind of place that would but accompanied with our order came a small bowl of black beans and another bowl of pico de gallo -- that wonderful fresh salsa! Unexpected but a very pleasant surprise that definitely complemented the food very nicely.

The other stuff, on the other hand, were nothing to write home about, including its supposedly famous corn bread, which was bland and dry, and its pancakes, which were mediocre.

Speaking of which, I'm not even a huge pancake person but I have to give it up for John O' Groats close to Westside Pavillion for making the lightest and fluffiest buttermilk pancakes this side of town. Its biscuits aren't bad either, but its ethereal pancakes will lift up your spirits, no doubt.

Ok, maybe the corn-based arepas from Venezuela aren't that exotic. But when you're not in the mood for the same ol' same ol', head over to Coupa Cafe in Beverly Hills for some hearty Venezuelan fare.

There is a special breakfast arepa that comes with scrambled eggs, gouda cheese and bacon. Not your thing? An item called perico has an arepa with scrambled eggs, peppers, onions and tomatoes. The latter, according to the menu, is allegedly a favorite dish of the new big-haired conductor at the Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel, who's Venezuelan.

It's worth trying their other non-breakfast-y items like empanada, which is deep fried corn dough filled with anything from ground beef, chicken to "fresh young shark," which I haven't tried.

The pabellon, filled with shredded beef, black beans, sweet fried plantains and queso paisa (stringy white cheese), was delicious. I also liked the sauces it came with, some infused with cilantro, parsley and some kick. Gotta love kick.

The Venezuelan coffee was not too shabby either. It also has outdoor seating, which makes for good people watching, if that's your thing. On one lazy Sunday a while back, I saw a sunglasses-wearing Julianne Moore walking by. So LA...

If you don't really know what to eat but want something healthy and good, go for a drive to Malibu and get thee to Inn of the Seventh Ray.

It's run by a bunch of new age hippies who appreciate solidly-made food. I usually don't like buffets unless it's Indian food, but this one had a variety of interesting salads, grilled vegetables and flavorful sauces that came with grilled fish. I didn't mind the steamed crab legs that I made sure to grab enough of. Another perk is the beautiful outdoor surrounding. You're smack in the middle of nature. It's also romantic if you need an unusual date spot. The ocean-side drive there filled with greenery is also spectacular. I felt transported out of the urban craziness and into the serene nature.

Now for the duds --places that get a lot of raves for certain specialties but did nothing for me. Wouldn't return to any of them.

Most overrated pancakes, fried chicken and waffles: Pann's Restaurant (Dry chicken, flat pancakes and waffles and hash browns that were drowning in bad-quality butter.)

Most overrated (and overpriced) pastries: Huckleberry (I love Rustic Canyon, as you may recall my recent post raving about its burger that just may rival my all-time favorite one at Houston's. But the brunch items were bland and weak.)

Worst overall brunch experience: Jack n Jill (That this place has lines despite poor food and mediocre service is a clear indication of a dearth of good brunch places in Santa Monica. So unremarkable.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Starry Kitchen II: If You Don't Like the Food, Get Out and Don't Come Back!

I belatedly found out that my negative (gasp!) review of cult-favorite Starry Kitchen had caused somewhat of a stir on its fan page with all sorts of haters out there for yours truly. That explains the huge spike in visitors that one day, I told myself with some amusement.

What was truly disturbing, however, was the reaction from the owner when I went to pay the restaurant another visit to see if I'd like it the second time. This was before I knew about the outrage among fans. He, who usually borders on solicitous to incoming customers as he gregariously sings the virtues of his food, how to order, etc., took one look at me and blurted out, "You hate this place" and moved right on to the next customer standing in line behind me.

I don't expect to be given favorable treatment when I visit a restaurant but I don't expect owners to be rude to me when I give them a negative review. In fact, I've had owners and employees of restaurants write to me apologizing for the bad experience and letting me know they take what I wrote in stride and hope I will return for a better experience.

If it had been a scathing review that was malicious, that'd be a different story. But I had merely pointed out that the fried pork in my sandwich was cold and the sandwiches were bland and flavorless. I felt the same way about the curry rice that came as a side. Don't even get me started on the unremarkable japchae.

Ironically enough, the crab cake wrap I had on my second visit was a lot better -- the crab cake was actually warm and while it was still on the bland side, I guess that's what the Sriracha sauce is for. I just wish that restaurants wouldn't have to tone down their flavors and heat quotient to cater to a certain type of customer base.

The owner proceeded to "diss" me one more time throughout the course of my second visit although eventually he was "forced" to take my order. It's really no skin off my back if he treats all unhappy customers that way. I just think that it violates the fundamental notion of hospitality, which is to make it a pleasant experience for your customers -- whether that is through the food, ambiance or perhaps most importantly, the service.

True, it's his establishment and he can refuse service to anyone. But as a budding restaurateur, would you really want to be in denial about the existence of anyone who says anything negative about your food? Do you think that your food is that perfect? Well, it isn't and this is true for any startup restaurant that is test-driving different menu items. Things like serving a fried sandwich that is cold isn't a matter of taste or preference. It's a given that certain foods must be served at certain temperatures.

I wish I had tried food from its NoHo days but all have to go by is its downtown location. There are far too many restaurants I want to go to for me to be compelled to return to this one, but all I have to say is that arrogance was never a virtue for a restaurant.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Paella At Home, At Last

I finally got around to using one of my most prized possessions, the paella pan with the beautiful red handles I got for Christmas last year, and I'm smitten.

I probably avoided making it because of my streak of unsuccessful paella ventures over the past, oh, decade-plus, that resulted in one too many porridge-like things, under-seasoned things and unevenly cooked things. I won't even call those "errors" paella. Back then, I could at least argue that I didn't have the right equipment. No longer. And it came out well, if I may say so myself. Here are some pointers that I took away.

First, there was the issue of deciding what type of paella to make (the pan gift came with a paella cookbook with back-to-back paella recipes -- gracias, mj!). After a not-so-impressive black squid ink paella I attempted to make during my latest trip to Korea, I opted to veer away from seafood.

As I narrowed down the choices canceling out fish and shellfish, I decided -- chicken. I went for one that features chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, crimini mushrooms and onions. I used organic chicken breast meat from a Japanese market (Nijiya) that I found to be a lot more tender and juicier than those found at other mainstream stores. The breast meat also looked fresher with a brighter pink hue to its color and didn't look as chunky as if they'd been injected with hormones. I also liked the slightly sweet flavor from the sherry that soaked the sun-dried tomatoes and also added into the rice as part of the liquid besides chicken stock to cook it.

The saffron, which also came with the gift (apparently one that keeps on giving!), was excellent quality stuff. I'd been a bit cheap and had used ones that aren't as strongly flavored in Persian markets. The good stuff certainly helped to impart that signature paella flavor. I also improvised a bit, throwing in peas and a finely chopped jalapeno pepper for a bit of kick. The recipe called for dried basil but why use dried when I have fresh? So I sprinkled the finished product with slivers of basil that added a very nice dimension of aroma and flavor.

The only thing I will say is that because my pan is for a party of six, it was larger in diameter than my stove's heating area. So I had issues around evenness in cooking and had to stir the rice around to switch out uncooked kernels on the edges with cooked ones in the middle. And I moved the pan around the heat area to finish off the cooking at the end.

The recipe, you ask? It's easy. I'm guessing this isn't the most typical paella but here it is. I'm not going to specify amounts because making paella isn't a precise science at all. Just make sure it cooks evenly! Sautee minced garlic and one chopped onion in olive oil. Chop chicken breasts and sautee them until browned. Slice sun-dried tomatoes and soak in sherry. Chop the mushrooms, jalapeno (for heat lovers) and sautee with sun-dried tomatoes. Add the rice to the mix, stir a bit and then add chicken broth (1 part rice to 2 parts broth) and a bit of sherry to cook the rice. Twenty minutes later or whenever the liquid is all absorbed, it's ready. But make sure you check on the even cooking. That's critical!

I noticed this recipe didn't call for sofrito, that tomato, garlic and onion goodness slow-cooked and frequently used in paellas as a flavoring base. I have cooked paella with sofrito and it is quite something. But this paella withstood the flavor test even without it, although admittedly, it has all three ingredients of sofrito -- (albeit sun-dried) tomato, garlic and onion -- in it separately.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Could Korean Rice Balls be the next Pinkberry?

Most certainly not. For one thing, Pinkberry's popularity seems to be waning. Also, I love a rice ball as much as the next Famima addict, but these Korean fillings in rice balls are just ok. So why am I reviewing them? Because of their novelty. I usually can't get enough of these rice and seaweed snacks often filled with goodies like tuna mayo or kombu seaweed that’s been cooked in a soy sauce-based sauce until tender and salty.

The ones I recently found at a Korean market were filled with spicy beef, Korean BBQ and kimchi BBQ. The products were dubbed "triangular kimbab," named after the Korean-style seaweed rolls usually filled with beef, egg, carrot and spinach (another snack/meal I absolutely love). Ok, the flavors weren't all that, unfortunately, but they're acceptable if you were to crave some kick. The spicy beef and kimchi BBQ were both plenty spicy if not particularly memorable.

The Korean BBQ filling was just ground beef that had been purportedly marinated in Korean BBQ sauce but it tasted pretty bland and quality of the beef wasn't great. Just a hint of saltiness and sweetness without much flavor.

There is a careful method to assembling this great invention without touching the seaweed with your hands for hygienic reasons.

These things also keep pretty well so I usually don't refrigerate them and that way, avoid tough, cold rice and filling. They don't microwave well either so it's best to eat them before having to throw them in the fridge.

I'm pretty sure Koreans traditionally served rice balls without seaweed but I could be wrong. My memories of rice balls were literally spheres (not triangular) stuffed with ground beef and some finely minced carrots and such, with rice that had been flavored with salt, sesame seeds and a hint of sesame oil.

Somebody needs to come up with better alternatives to these babies, especially for those who don't have Famima at their door step or want something more than just tuna mayo as their filling.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dinos' Burgers: Garlic and Chicken Meet Grill

Here's a very quick one to tout one of my favorite grilled chicken joints -- Dino's Chicken and Burgers. I didn't realize it was a franchise but its website says it just opened a location in Pomona and already has one in Azusa. What makes Dino's chicken better than others? For one, its marinade has a good kick to it, and is nice and garlicky. The chicken is also grilled to charred perfection on the outside while retaining its juices on the inside. But the absolute kicker are the french fries underneath the chicken. They taste like they were freshly cut and fried that day and the garlicky juice that the man behind the counter pours over the fries just before handing you the box of beautifully pinkish (almost like tandoori) chicken pieces on a bed of delicious fries soaking in even more delicious garlic juice.

Did I mention it's a ridiculous steal at about $5 for 2-3 pieces of chicken, fries, cole slaw and tortillas? Sure, the cole slaw or tortillas are not much to write home about, but it's definitely one of the best deals in town.

That said, I wouldn't recommend the namesake burger, although I've only been to the Koreatown location on Pico just west of Vermont.

It's best to do takeout as the ambiance isn't much but there is merit in being able to dive right into devouring the fresh off the grill chicken.

For this westsider, Zankou Chicken still reigns supreme in the bone-in chicken category (and Sunnin Cafe for the ever-so-juicy chicken kebab category) in this side of town, but well worth a visit when you're in that area.