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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burger Roundup II: Burger Kitchen a Hit, Houston's Still Rules

Maybe it had something to do with consuming copious amounts of pasta during the Italy trip, but I was so ready for a bloody, juicy burger when I got home. Naturally, I went overboard. Here's a roundup of the good, the bad and the ugly of burgerdom.

I tried lowly burgers all the way up to the lofty ones that break the bank. All the way south to San Diego and north to San Francisco. Disclaimer: the sampling from these cities don't come close to being comprehensive. I happened to be there. I was hungry. And I'm a burger fiend.

If you've been reading for some time, you'll know I'm not one to subscribe to hype. When I heard and read all the hoopla about Burger Kitchen being the only burger joint in LA to serve meat from the famed Pat La Frieda Meats in New York of Minetta Tavern fame (which I tried and thought was just ok), I wanted to verify it wasn't style over substance. More so after reading the nasty exchanges on yelp between negative reviewers and the owners that bordered on the absurd.

I was surprised at how flavorful the $26 "Natural" was. The meat from PLF is described as a "40-day, dry-aged prime mix." Even so, I think it's steep for what you get. Thank god it came with fries, which were crispy and well-seasoned (Had to take back the first set of fries because they were not piping hot and we eventually got an acceptable set). I loved that they had sweet potato fries, although I found myself liking my burger with regular fries better, which is very unusual for me. The $19 kobe beef burger was just ok. But the Natural was really something else. I daresay the patty itself was more flavorful (the good meat taste) than my all-time fave Houston's Cali burger. I give the Natural a big thumbs up, way up there in my top five in LA. I'm definitely returning to try the more affordable burgers ($9) offered but am worried my palate's already been hopelessly spoiled. If you're in the mood to splurge on burgers, there are $39 and a tricked out $50 variations at hand. But honestly, who needs lobster medallions and truffle oil on a burger?

Still, as our burger club members concurred, we still like Houston's Cali more in its entirety for its yummy arugula and avocado toppings and delicious sesame bun.

Speaking of Houston's, Hillstone Group once again delivered on quality with its latest, South Beverly Grill in Beverly Hills. It even has live jazz playing in the evenings. I'll definitely be returning. Its burgers were very good, just as consistently well-cooked (medium rare) as at the other Hillstone restaurants R+D and Bandera.

I've gotten more into pairing food with beers these days, so when I found a pretty good burger (right) at the local gastropub Village Idiot, I was ecstatic. What better than a good, beefy burger with reddish interior and fresh bun to wash down with a local or exotic microbrew? Excuse this brew novice, but I recently discovered Hitachino's White Ale that was so refreshing and the beauty of pairing something like Racer 5 IPA with a meaty burger. Besides, the vibe at VI is great -- totally chill.

Off Vine was another great surprise. I usually consider bacon a distraction in burgers but it was for brunch so I ate it up. The curly fries were a tad disappointing, like something out of a slightly upscale diner (or is that an oxymoron?). The patty was soft and juicy and the bun was on the dry side but decent. I liked the different dipping sauces offered, like some kind of chipotle mayo and garlicky concoction. I really liked the ambiance here. The converted house gave it a cozy feel and outdoor seating area made us feel like we had been transported to some B&B in New England -- very serene.

Now for some disappointments. Westside Tavern, which seems to be the only halfway-decent place to eat in Westside Pavillion, was a downer. Judging by its swanky and dark interior bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Hillstone Group restaurants (I swear I'm not on their payroll), it obviously aspires to be a place like Houston's. Too bad the food didn't live up to its aspirations. Its burger (right) isn't a bad burger. It just isn't on par with the recent onslaught of gourmet burgers on the rise. For the same price or less, one could get a comparable or better burger elsewhere. So unless you're stuck in the pre-theater bind at the Landmark, there really isn't a reason to go.

Salt House (left) in San Francisco supposedly had a serviceable burger. Again, it wasn't a bad burger. But at $14 (yes, I have paid $26 for a burger but it was worth it), I expected this patty to be perfectly cooked with a soft bun that wasn't as dense. The bun was too hard and dense -- overtoasted. The "works" that came with it were nothing to write home about. And the fries. Oh the fries. They were neither crispy nor warm. Bad, bad fries.

Service was horrendous at first but got better. I don't think I'll be returning.

On the other end in San Diego, Burger Lounge (right) serves up a $8 burger that is barely a notch above an In-n-Out burger. Its patty has crispy edges, which I liked. But because the patty is so anemic -- at least compared to the big, fat gourmet ones I like and am used to -- this couldn't possibly be cooked medium rare, and it wasn't. The fries were even worse. Not at all crispy. They need to get their crisp game up, big time. A modern and clean interior alone does not a good burger joint make.

Back in LA, I tried the dive bar institution, Chez Jay (left). It doesn't get more old-school than this. I feel bad ragging on the burger because our server was nice enough to accommodate our request for a burger at dinner time when it's not usually offered. But look at the inside of this burger. There's not a trace of red, which equals no juice or blood, which equals dryness and no flavor. An overcooked burger through and through! Having said that, I loved loved the chunky potato wedges. But needless to say, I won't be returning. Other dishes weren't good either. I wanted to like this place but alas, I didn't.
So tell me, what's your fave burger?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rome, Italy: Microbrews and Killer Carbonara

I've only been to Rome once before, and wasn't a big fan of it. Maybe it was because I hung out around the biggest tourist traps. I was excited about seeing and experiencing a Rome from a local's perspective thanks to our fearless friends who live there.

We were first transported to microbrew-land at bir & fud, a great spot in the Trastevere area serving any kind of microbrew your heart desires. The master beer guy with the crazy curly hair just asked us what kind of beer we liked and wanted and presto, he'd hand us one of the many beers on tap, cut the foam with a knife (I think that was a knife) and then -- the epitome of refreshment itself.

I heard the "fud" or food there is also excellent but we were saving ourselves for our late dinner. The platters that were being delivered to each table looked mouth-watering, from a massive pile of mussels to piping hot and cheesy pizzas.

I wanted a light-tasting beer with some citrus flavors to beat the dead summer heat and what I was handed was exactly what I wanted. Ditto for the next glass, which I said I wanted something heartier but not too heavy.

Then came a full-on dinner at Trattoria dal Cav. Gino, a tiny joint that could be missed if you blink. Tucked away in a small alley near the Parliament building, everything tasted like home-cooking at its best. The frutti di mare pasta, carbonara, amatriciana, etc pasta were all delicious. Perfectly cooked noodles with a light sauce. Everything tasted extremely fresh with intense flavors.

The main dishes were also eclectic, including rabbit, short ribs, lamb and tripe. I can't say I like tripe but all the other dishes were braised and slow-cooked with a lot of care. The meats were soft and blended very well with their respective sauces and juices, some tomato-based and others flavored with herbs like rosemary.

We also got a dish of stir-fried greens that counterbalanced some of the heaviness from the meat dishes perfectly. The greens had a bit of a bite.

Needless to say, I can't think our hosts enough for showing us the real Rome once and for all. Wish we could have stayed longer...

This is definitely a restaurant out of the tourist path that is a must for anyone visiting Rome. Don't miss out. Book a table there today!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sorrento, Italy: Is Don Alfonso the French Laundry of Italy?

I was surprised to find that one of the best, fanciest restaurants in all of Italy was situated in a small town adjacent to Sorrento, a port city where many people take the boat to go to the islands of Capri or other picturesque waterfront towns. Dining at Don Alfonso was a fantastic experience, both for the meal itself as well as the stellar service. It's what I would imagine dining at French Laundry would be like -- excellent food, super attentive service in a quaint setting.

We tried two of the tasting menus, one more elaborate than the other (guess which I had). What followed was a parade of beautifully constructed, innovative Italian cuisine where each of the courses were in harmony with each other to culminate into a well-balanced and satisfactory meal.

Curiously, one of the most memorable dishes of the eight-course meal I had wasn't even mine. The ricotta cheese that was part of my dinner companion's six-course meal was what stuck in my mind. The antipastwas called "panzarottino," "arancino" flavored with chocolate, green pepper stuffed with tuna and anchovy of Cetara, grilled and marinated zucchini, salami and daily (which I think should be "dairy," hence the cheese) products. Yes, a mouthful to say and to eat.

The cheese was so flavorful that I could only extol the virtues of Italian milk and water. Why else would this humble ricotta cheese taste so darn delicious? Panzarottino is like a calzone and an arancino is like a deep fried rice ball. This one didn't have rice in it, probably an interpretation of the original. I'm not sure about adding chocolate to a savory dish (I'm not a huge fan of black mole either) so it didn't work for me but the combination of the textures definitely wasn't lost on me -- the warm, crunchy ball that was salty with the charred, smoky grilled zucchini and chewy, salty charcuterie, topped off with the creamiest ricotta cheese ever. How I long for this cheese in the US...To no avail.
My tasting menu started with this beauty to the left -- fried pepper with whipped cod fish, salmon eggs and dehydrated green olives with dried cod emulsion with yellow tuna mousse. Ok, I wasn't crazy about the idea of a "whipped cod fish" but it was ok. Again, the varying textures really sang in my mouth. Plus, I always like to pop fish eggs in my mouth even though I find them too salty.

The starter for my dinner companion was stewed octopus on a bed of couscous with vegetables and a foam of Provola cheese (delectable smoked buffalo mozarella) and cinnamon. You can see by the ingredients they used like couscous that unlike some of the most emphatically purist chefs, Don Alfonso is more embracing of non-traditional Italian ingredients. I fell in love with all things smoked cheeses at this last trip. It imparts a type of flavor that's so unique and adds such an interesting dimension to run-of-the-mill cheeses (not that this one would have been ordinary if it weren't smoked).

The second course was duck breast scented with cacao, orange compote, banana puree and red wine reduction. I found the duck a tad gamey despite the infusion of all these sweet and yummy things. It wasn't earth-shatteringly original either. Not my favorite.

The third course was like a matzo ball soup that used ricotta cheese for the balls and fish consomme broth instead of a chicken broth. The broth was actually infused with verbena, lemon zest and nettle, which gave it a clean, refreshing taste that was not at all fishy. I didn't love the textures of the ricotta morsels but their saving grace was that they were made out of ricotta, my newfound love.
My pasta course was a dumpling stuffed with chicken, Genovese ragu, a fondue of Parmesan cheese topped with vegetable chips. Maybe Don Alfonso was a disciple of Ferran Adria (kidding) but he had its share of foams, emulsions and Adria-esque concoctions. It was good but again, textures were what spoke to me. Soft, crunchy and creamy at the same time.

My companion's pasta course was ravioli stuffed with a decadent soft cheese called caciotta, marjoram and tomatoes with a mozzarella sauce. A bit on the heavier side, but creamy and the fresh basil leaves it came with made it more refreshing.

For the main fish course, I had grouper flavored with vanilla and lemon, string bean, horseradish croquette and colatura (salted anchovy sauce) foam. The grouper was perfectly cooked, soft and juicy. I've never met a croquette I didn't like, so that was a no brainer. I also love spicy, so the horseradish croquette was probably my favorite item on the dish.
I've never had vanilla-flavored fish before, so that was a unique treat. The aroma wasn't too strong so it didn't overpower the flavor of the fish. As for the crunchy croquette with an oozingly soft interior...need I say more?

The other tasting menu's main dish was a poached fish or acqua pazza, in a tomato sauce. It was decent but again, nothing to write home about.

My meat course was a guinea fowl stuffed (what's with all this stuffing?) with goose liver, a saffron potato puree, spicy tomato, green anchovy sauce and fried spaghetti. I felt like there was too much going on and the meat was a bit gamey for my taste.

Now onto the fantastic cheese course. Wow. I was already taken by all the wonderful cheeses I had encountered during my trip so far. This was a sampler of the best cheeses this region had to offer, so what's not to like?

The desserts were just as beautiful but I have to say, none blew me away. What did blow me away were the selection of local wines. We had the option of ordering specific ones or just going with sommelier's choice of red, white, sparkling (spumante) or dessert wines.

Every time we asked for one, it was a revelation from my formerly very limited knowledge of Italian wines. I'm no expert now but at least I appreciate the fact that there are so many other wines besides just Chianti or Prosecco.

This restaurant also runs a very fancy bed and breakfast and has a library of cookbooks as well as a world-renowned cellar next door.
Both the manager and Don Alfonso himself stopped by our table to check in on us. Actually, the manager stopped by several times. The meal isn't cheap by any stretch (I didn't like that the menu didn't show the prices) but may be worth going at least once if you can afford it and want a memorable meal while traveling in Southern Italy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Naples, Italy: Da Michele, the Birthplace of the Perfect Pizza

I had heard a lot of warnings about walking around in Naples' shady neighborhoods but was motivated by one thing and one thing only -- to get our hands on the alleged best pizza on earth at L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.

So we braved the rough stradas of Naples, home of the pizza, about a mile's distance from the train station, and found our holy grail, or rather, holy dough.

The storefront was nondescript and unassuming, without so much of a line with throngs of people waiting hours to quench their hankering for the perfect pie.

I loved the simplicity of the place -- spare and clean. It wasn't free of tourists but it didn't have the traits of a tourists' trap so it was fine. Plus, I was, after all, a tourist too.

I also liked the simple menu : Pizza Margherita or Pizza Marinara, with the option of extra mozzarella cheese. You can wash it down with some beer, soda or water.

Not to belabor the point about simplicity but this Pizza Margherita was indeed simplicity at its best. Tomato, mozzarella, olive oil and basil. That thin crust was probably the best darn crust I've bitten into in my life. It was crunchy and soft at the same time, charred just enough to give it smokiness. I guess it's true what they say about the ingredients mattering the most. The water in Italy was incredibly good. I'm sure the other ingredients for the dough and dairies used in the cheeses, etc. are also excellent.

The Marinara wasn't too shabby either, consisting of tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil. A great option for the lactose-intolerant...I just loved how light the pizzas tasted. No huge lumps of melted cheese and crazy toppings a-la-CPK. I respect one's right to add whatever one wants on a pizza but it's definitely worth trying in its purest form.

There's a reason this place has been in business since 1870 and its Neapolitan pizzas are so famous worldwide. I spotted a celeb shot with Julia Roberts on the wall. I think she muttered something about a "no-carb-left-behind" diet in her latest film that I won't be seeing.

But I digress. If you ever make it to this side of Italy, this place is an absolute must. The walk over wasn't too bad. Just make sure you do it during daylight.

On your way back, you can stop by one of many bakeries lining the roads and satisfy your sweet tooth with zeppole, a traditional Neapolitan pastry that had custard inside. It was worth trying once but not to die for.

Did I mention the pizzas were a steal at five euros for a large pie?

It's a shame that one has to pay an arm and a leg at places like Pizzeria Mozza that serve similar pies and yet not quite the same in any case.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Panzano, Italy: Famed Butcher of Tuscany Butchers the Burger and Meatloaf

If you're obsessed with food shows like No Reservations, chances are you've heard of the Butcher of Tuscany, Dario Cecchini, who is probably the world's most famous butcher. He runs a most humble butcher shop in the tiny town of Panzano near the Tuscan wine country. His meats are so famous that he opened several restaurants nearby. Naturally, we had to pay it a visit.

As most "underground foodie" joints go, this one didn't have an easily visible entrance. Some random guy at the butcher shop asked us if we were looking for said restaurant and it turns out we had to go through the actual backside of the butcher shop and up a stairway to get to a very bright and airy restaurant called Antica Macelleria Cecchini. We had a star-struck moment when we actually ran into the man himself on our way to our table -- wearing red pants. Molto Italiano.

First of all, let me rant a bit about the odd hours these restaurants have. The guidebook said this restaurant would be closed on Wednesdays but we went anyway. We were in the area, after all. It was open but this one was a more casual one that served his version of "fast food." It offered a meat sampler menu and another one with just a burger. Red flag: there's a reason burgers are called All-American. The burger was utterly disappointing but that was to be expected at an Italian joint.

Even more disappointing was the fact that all the meat dishes, including a pulled pork dish, meatloaf-like concoction, steak tartar and another pork dish were bland and not flavorful in the least.

In fact, the huge crudites bowl of raw vegetables that included fennel, red onion, carrots and celery that came with an olive oil-based dip was the best and most refreshing thing on the menu.

Out of all the meat dishes, the most memorable one was steak tartare, which was dubbed "Chianti sushi" on the menu but no amount of marketing would have made me love this dish. I would have taken the Korean version of the dish, yookhoe topped with fresh slices of Korean pear any day. The quality of the meat just wasn't mind-blowing, I'm sorry. I've had a lot better.

The meatloaf was also something he shouldn't have attempted until he perfected or improved on the best American version (or even Tyler Florence's version I have made at home to great results!).

The meatloaf was devoid of much flavor and again, the quality of the meat was unimpressive.

The two pork dishes were ok but on the dry side. One was like a pulled pork dish that it called "Chianti tuna," which didn't help in making the dish taste better either.

One was pork roasted with herbs and garlic. Bland. Dry. Meh.

The other pull pork dish was, well, not too bad but nothing to write home about.

All in all, a big let-down. Granted, I haven't tried his famous steak florentine and those raw meats on the meat counter downstairs did look pretty good.

Guess I'll have to pay him another visit and try his more formal restaurants nearby.

The view from the outdoor dining area of his restaurant was fantastic. I heard that he was going to discontinue his fast food operations he calls "MacDario." That's probably a wise decision.

He should stick to what he's good at. I appreciated the casual atmosphere and ability to have a light lunch with his meats but maybe his meats were meant to shine like divas.

Stay tuned for my next post on one of the best pizzas I've ever had...