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Friday, October 29, 2010

Daisy Mint in Pasadena: For Emergency Thai Cravings Only

Who woulda thunk it? Two words: Thai + Pasadena. I didn't think they'd mix either, but I was surprised at the decent Thai served up in an area known more for housing overrated bakery Europane than good Thai eats.

Daisy Mint looks like it was obviously converted from a bohemian cafe -- judging by the cool art hanging on the walls, what looks like a glass pastry display by the cashier and the prerequisite old-school chandelier.

I had the chicken pad see ew and the tofu penang curry with brown rice. The pad see ew was above average, and I liked that it was stir fried with some black beans to give it a heartier flavor. The chicken tasted fresh and came in generous chunks instead of it being mostly noodles and greens.

The tofu penang curry was on the overly sweet side for me but once I added some hot sauce, it was better. I liked the pumpkin and the other healthy veggies in the curry. Having it with brown rice adds to the good-for-you appeal. I like it better when the tofu is fried but then I catch myself and think, oh, that's right. I was trying to eat healthy.

The worst part was the dessert. I mean, look at this monstrosity! The day's special, banana-stuffed dosa with vanilla ice cream, sounded so good on paper. Unfortunately, it was an awful execution. The deep-fried pocket filled with banana wasn't even warm (we were told it's usually warmed but this one wasn't because it was closing time, so they microwaved it for us, which helped a little but not enough to salvage it.) and the ice-cream didn't taste like vanilla at all. To make matters worse, they drowned, and I mean, drowned it with this awful berry syrup and condensed milk. If there ever was a dessert crime, this would be it.

One interesting thing I noticed from the menu was that it had Korean elements on it, including barley tea, kimchi fried rice and ribs. Although I probably wouldn't go here to get my Korean food fix, I thought it was an interesting mix. I asked if the owners were Korean. It turns out the owners are a Thai woman and Korean man couple. Cute.

Although I'm not sure I'll be returning anytime soon, it is good to know that there is a place to get half-way decent Thai in the middle of Pasadena. Me, I'm lucky to be closer to Thai Town than I was before, so there's little reason to venture out to Pas.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Skip Yatai on the Strip

Anything purporting to be Asian fusion spells trouble for me, so I didn't have high expectations for Yatai on the strip. Well, besides a half-way decent crab handroll using tofu sheets and a theatrical pouring of sake from a giant wooden flute, most of the food wasn't all that.

Message boards exalted the virtues of its tuna sushi over toasted rice but while it sounded interesting on paper, it was much less so in practice. The tuna and the crunchy rice were ok and I liked that it tried to add flavor with a slice of jalapeno over each sushi. But it didn't compare to the fine sushi joints serving tuna sushi.

The crab hand roll that came in a paper-thin tofu sheet was probably the most flavorful of all things we got but again, why have this when you can have a divine blue crab hand roll at Hiko?

Our server repeated a few times that they weren't a sushi place. That's why they don't have the pickled ginger we asked for, she continued.

Then there was the sake pouring out of a massive wooden container that required the showmanship (or woman in our case) of a master.

It was poured into a cup until it overflowed into another wooden cup. It's a pain to drink but apparently that's how some hard-core sake places serve it.

There were some utterly forgettable dishes, including a paprika-dusted squid dish that was so overcooked and rubbery that we mourned the abuse the squid suffered.

There were also deep fried octopus balls that I thought would be like the ones sold on the streets of Tokyo from those molds. But alas, they were like potato koroke, deep fried balls of mashed potatoes coated with panko crumbs, except there were barely any octopus pieces and it wasn't panko.

The other deep fried items were just ok. The fried pumpkin with curry salt got rave reviews on message boards so we ordered that. The pumpkin was well-fried, crispy and light. The curry salt consisted of curry powder and salt. Nothing revolutionary, frankly.

The chicken karaage was also crispy but nothing like the really gingery and soy sauce-marinated flavor you get at real yakitoris or izakayas like Shinsengumi.

Maybe it was because they are neither a real sushi joint or real izakaya. They're fusion.

Not sure I'll be returning here. There are simply too many options serving far better food at similar or lower prices.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Larchmont Grill: Hold the Burger, Go for Calamari

I walked into Larchmont Grill with semi-high expectations from word of mouth and yelpers. I went on its Burger Night (Wednesday) that offers all kinds of different burgers, including a $19 Kobe beef burger that seemed to get mixed reviews, a basic one and a BBQ bacon cheddar burger.

The short end of it is that the burger was definitely above average. The patty was flavorful and I loved the sweet potato fries you could substitute regular fries with. However, it had some issues for this burger-crazed snob.

For one thing, the sesame seed bun was far too dense and dry, meaning it was either not the best quality bread or it was at least more than a day old.

While the patty was flavorful and had a red, semi-bloody interior, it was a little more cooked than I would have liked, although not overcooked enough to take back. When biting into the middle part, it seemed ok, but the edges were most certainly overcooked and the patty was hardened and dry as a result.

The cheddar cheese, butter lettuce, red onion (could go easier on those) and what tasted like an heirloom tomato were the works, alongside a side of avocado added as an extra. The barbecue sauce on the side was good enough, although not as good as the sauce from Los Olivos Cafe up north, which I've said I could drink by the bowl.

The fries were crispy and hot.

I also liked its take on fried calamari steaks, which it dusts with rice flour and serves with a tarragon caper aioli and a sweet chili dipping sauce. The calamari looked like chunky home fries, except they were really soft and crunchy squid chunks instead. The rice flour gave it an airiness that made fried food feel less heavy. The dipping sauces went well with the squid, although I personally liked the aioli better. The chili sauce could have used more heat.

The starter salad of butter lettuce, cherry tomatoes, radishes, avocado and pecorino romano shavings with a chipotle ranch dressing was refreshing. It was a bit overdressed for my taste and I wished they kicked it up a bit with the chipotle dressing as I could barely detect any heat. I realized later that the composition of the salad was very similar to the works in my burger, but it didn't matter. I could never have enough of avocado, tomatoes and pecorino cheese anyway.

The dessert was ok but I wished they hadn't dumped so much whipped cream on the ricotta fig tart. The tart itself was good and I loved the fresh berries it came garnished with. But I could barely taste the fig in the compote or jam that was drizzled over the tart and I could have used some condensed milk or better yet, really good, home-made vanilla ice cream or hazelnut gelato, to go with it instead of the dollop of cream that I shaved off.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Yabu in WeHo: Nab a Spot at the Sushi Bar

Just as I am very loyal to my fave burger joints, Hiko has been my go-to sushi place since I first stumbled on it almost six to seven years ago. But I'm also always looking for the next find, the neighborhood gem that has yet to be discovered. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the sushi at Yabu in West Hollywood. Sure, it wasn't a revelation like it was with Hiko, but some of the pieces were definitely worth returning for.

The most memorable was probably the scallop, which was contoured perfectly around the rice bed thanks to the precise knife-work of the chef who put incisions the size of tiny squares for easier consumption. I'm usually not a shelfish sushi person, but the scallop was so fresh and flavorful.

Another shellfish surprise: shrimp. It was so tender and packed with flavor that I vowed not to dismiss shellfish sushi again. It was also contoured to the shape of the rice block. I'm partial to warm rice, which Yabu didn't offer, but at least it wasn't super cold and too sticky.

My favorite kinds, such as toro (fatty tuna) and uni (sea urchin), were ok but not as good as at Hiko. The toro didn't melt in your mouth as much and the uni, while good, wasn't as rich, silky and fresh-tasting.

The giant clam was a disappointment. It smelled too much like the sea for my taste, and not in a good way. The squid, which came with a sheet of shiso leaf, which I don't usually like, was just so so. I don't understand the inserting of shiso leaf at every turn in sushi. I think it ruins the harmony of the flavors but that's just me.

We did omakase (chef's choice) and the chef made us a nifty little uni roll that had been deep fried and came with a side of fancy salt. I liked the interesting mix of textures of crunchy with the soft uni but there's nothing that compares to the great experience of having a fresh uni wrapped in the most delicate and crispy sheet of seaweed, like it's overflowing out of the seaweed (see first picture above). Plain and simple. Why deep-fry something that is perfectly good raw? It was good to see innovation in action but I'll go back to my no-frills uni dish any day. There's a reason I went for sushi. If I'd wanted cooked food, I'd have gone somewhere else. I don't like it when they mix and match raw and cooked food too much.

They made soup out of the shrimp heads left over from the shrimp sushi, which was ok.

I would advise to stay away from the fried calamari, which was so overcooked it tasted like rubber. So bad.

I didn't expect the sushi to be much good here because its west side location is known for its soba (buckwheat) noodles. I'm not a soba fanatic, so only went a few times even when I lived nearby. But the West Hollywood location is convenient, the service is good (we had to take back the sake more than once because it tasted off -- and they obliged and apologized profusely for the inconvenience) and sushi is definitely above average. Not the cheapest but reasonable if you don't go crazy with the expensive sushi.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Girasole: My New Favorite Italian in LA

Ok, so I just got back from Italy a few months ago. But even after all that pasta, a brief hiatus left me wanting more. My dining companion and I ventured out to find the best BYOB in town, so we stumbled upon Girasole on Larchmont.

What a find. I can't believe I'd passed by it so many times all these years and never discovered this truly hidden gem! There are many things to love about this place.

1) BYOB with no corkage

Can't beat that. Prices are a bit higher than your average Italian joint but then again, this isn't your average Italian joint.

2) Cozy, family-run place

It's tiny so reservations are a must and I don't recommend big parties of more than four. I love the neighborhood joint-feel of it.

3) Last but certainly not least, the fantastic food

I was so pleasantly surprised when I ordered the mixed cured meats plate and got a large board of bresaola, prosciutto, porchetta and a spicy salami calabrese with some arugula and drizzled olive oil. The meats were so fresh -- just sliced off the cutter -- and while it didn't necessarily come close to the cured meats I had in Italy, it was still a world away from those served in some of the average Italian places around this town. This was the first wow.

Then when I bit into the first morsel of the much yelped about pumpkin ravioli with sage and butter, I was hooked.

I'm usually not a big fan of sage but here it worked so well I couldn't just have one. In fact, the sweetness of the pumpkin, strong sage flavor topped with the what's-not-to-like butter were literally singing in my mouth. Washing it down with some Sangiovese made it even better. I was full but couldn't stop eating. Honest to God.

The tagliatelle al ragu was good too. A bit heavy on the sauce for me but still a lot better than many establishments purporting to serve "Spaghetti a la Bolognese," a claim our Italian friends would cringe at.

We were initially disappointed we couldn't find carbonara on the menu, so we made some inquiries and they agreed to make it for us (apparently one other patron had ordered it that evening). We were drinking Syrah and Pinot Noir that evening, and truth be told, this carbonara was just as addictive as the pumpkin ravioli. Ok, not as good as the one my dear friend EB made for me in Bologna, but very good nevertheless. Because it had pancetta, eggs and noodles, I felt like I was devouring a comforting breakfast dish, except I was having it with wine. Again, totally full on my second trip there, but unable to stop myself.

Girasole has single-handedly reversed my aversion for ravioli with its amazing offerings. I tried the mushroom ravioli in a creamy wild mushroom sauce. Ridiculous! I'm usually 1) not a big fan of ravioli as stated, and 2) not crazy about cream sauces because they're too heavy.

Well, this dish defied my expectations once again. Every bite felt like I stuck my head in a bouquet of wild mushrooms. It felt like I was there in the forest, smelling the wonderful aromas of the mushrooms. Did this dish go well with the red wine? Suffice it to say I couldn't stop eating this either.

On another visit, we tried the prosciutto with melon and figs. The menu listed it as one or the other but our greedy selves had to ask if we could get both. Ask and you shall receive.

This was another pleasant surprise. Fresh, just sliced prosciutto, some wrapping uber-sweet cantaloupe slices (like candy) and others adorning a few halves of black figs that had been drizzled with sugar and torched on top to warm and caramelize them a bit. The figs were phenomenal -- fresh and of course went perfectly well with the salty meat.

The only dish that didn't blow us away was the lamb stew that came with plain risotto. While good, I found the stew a tad salty for my taste, like it had been overcooked and its liquid over-reduced.

Some complained about the service but both times we went, we found the service to be good to excellent.

Oh, the olive oil that comes out with the bread (could be fresher) before the meal is interesting. I tasted hints of green tea, of all things, but our server assured us it came from a fine brand from Italy called Genco, as he showed us the large rectangular canister. Some patrons like the olive oil so much they buy it by the canister, he said.

Now onto dessert. We had an orange cake that was moist, very orange-y and delicious. Went great with the coffee.

I can't wait to return to try the braised rabbit that gets raves and other raviolis on the menu. Up to this point, Osteria Mozza had been my favorite Italian restaurant in LA but Girasole is inching up quickly, especially for its value.

Friday, October 8, 2010

RIP Cardinale Kitchen: Please Start an Empanada Lunch Truck

I know it's been a few months now, but wanted to pay respect to CK. Rest in peace Cardinale Kitchen. Cardinale sat on the corner of Melrose and Vine and served the best empanadas with the most garlicky chimichurri sauce. I loved that they were baked, not fried and had boiled egg in some of them, like I remember them back from my South America days. I am crushed that I no longer have a place to get my breakfast empanadas (which tasted great with an oozy fried egg). I think the owners should either start an online empanada-only business or go lunch truck. The other dishes weren't anything to write home about and that's probably why it never caught on. Please come back!

I bet that if they were to start an empanada lunch truck and used social media to have them followed, they'd hit the jackpot. So, ex-owners of Cardinale, what are you waiting for? The masses want more! Don't leave us with the mediocre fried versions from other joints that purport to make the best empanadas in LA! Claim your place in the empanada hall of fame! Los estamos esperando desesperadamente!

The beef was hands-down my fave, but the chicken, spinach, ham and cheese as well as the caprese were all pretty good.