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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dong Ting Chun: I Don't Think So

I'm not a Hunan food expert by any stretch but I can say with confidence that Dong Ting Chun doesn't serve good Hunan food. Ok, at least the four dishes we ordered. There's a chance we could have ordered the wrong things after communicating with our waitress using hand gestures galore and asking for her recommendations, but still, the ingredients spoke for themselves.

The pork soup with mushroom didn't have much flavor although it came in a cute little clay pot.
The very thinly sliced lamb stir-fried with Chinese celery (left) was interesting and extremely spicy with tons of chilies, but the quality of the lamb wasn't good, so it tasted very gamey or lamby and not in a good way. The lamb was also very fatty. One thing I liked, though, was the discovery of the Chinese celery. I'm sure I've had it before but I feel like I developed a newfound appreciation for it. It's thinner and I think more complementary to heavy meats than regular celery.

The shrimp chowmien was different in that the noodles were extra thin and the stir-fry hadn't been smothered in too much sodium. I also found the addition of bean sprouts unusual. It's something I see more in Korean food so it was educational to see that Hunan cuisine seems to feature this healthy item too. Only thing was that the addition of the bean sprouts didn't do a whole lot for the flavor of the noodles. They were ok but nothing great.

The dish I was most excited about was a chicken dish that our waitress explained as dusted with cumin and then stir-fried with dry chili, garlic and some cilantro. That's definitely different, we told ourselves. Alas, different it was, but not in a good way. First of all, the chicken pieces that were diced were all bone in! I like bone-in chicken as much as the next chix-lover, but this was ridiculous. I couldn't bite into each chicken morsel without running into yet another piece of bone. Not good...
The cumin flavor was interesting but the kicker was that the whole pieces of garlic it was stir-fried in didn't go with the flavors of the cumin at all. The flavors just didn't meld in for me. It was such a promising dish but we left sorely disappointed.

I know what you're thinking. So why didn't you do your homework and find out what you should have ordered based on message boards? Well, one was time. But the little I did manage to read of Yelpers was all over the map. Some raved about the frog legs, something I'm not keen on. Others recommended "Chairman Mao's Braised Pork with Garlic," which to me sounded like "Gimmicky Pork Dish Watered Down for Non-Chinese Peeps." So we avoided this one too.

One thing we did gain from this visit was the discovery of a massive mall this restaurant is situated in. We had to pay a visit to my candystore in the same mall, 99 Ranch Market. Wow. What a treat. I picked up some lychee wine (not sure if you're supposed to cook with it or drink it but I love lychee so just swiped one) and had a ball perusing the meat and amazing seafood section (think giant live lobsters and fish). And how could we forget the prepared food section? OMG. We splurged on green onion turnovers, taro pastries and barbecued pork baked buns, to name a few. Yum. Glad we at least got to take away something out of this otherwise downer eating experience.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Barbrix: Overpriced and Overrated

This hot spot is tucked away and almost invisible unless you look really hard to find it. Barbrix is an extremely crowded bar/restaurant that serves some Italian, Spanish and French items but ultimately failed to impress. I was excited to see so many choices under cured meats and cheeses so ordered a sampler of five kinds of ham. These included Jamon Serrano, prosciutto, speck, culatello and chorizo. They were all good enough, although the Jamon Serrano was not as fantastic as the Jamon Iberico de Bellota at The Bazaar. I mean, forget about it. No contest. Then the prosciutto wasn't as amazing as the one I had at Girasole.

Don't mean to be too negative here, but it's true that if you're going to offer cured meat plates and such that they be sliced super thin to the point of being transparent. That's really important. But they weren't sliced this way.

There are two things I did like about this place --the bread and the wine selection. The bread was nicely charred and warm, although yes, still not as good as Bouchon's most excellent bread I've been dreaming about since trying it last month.

I'm no big wine expert, but when I saw Lambrusco being offered, I had to get it since so few places offer it. The last time I had it was at Hatfield's and this was a fraction of the price. This sparkling red was refreshing and paired very well with my salty meats. It reminded me of my trip to Italy last summer. Ah, how I wish we had more Lambrusco available here! Not the $3.99 bottle. A real one.

In any case, I found the bar service not up to par although the owner or manager took off an item off the bill when I told the bartender that it wasn't very good and he saw that it stayed on the plate barely touched.

The culprit? This "crispy" pork belly wasn't just not crispy but there was hardly any meat on it. I understand there's going to be fat but this was all fat and no flesh! So as much as I love me some fat, I couldn't get myself to eat these. I found these poorly executed. Maybe they need a lesson from Chego chef Roy Choi of kogi truck fame, who makes the best glazed pork belly chunks.

To be fair, I haven't tried its dinner menu but I feel like I've tried enough. Actually, one of my favorite dishes our party shared was the grilled baby broccoli that was perfectly charred and seasoned. Never thought I'd get excited about a broccoli dish but that's how good it was. Or maybe that's how unremarkable the other meat dishes were, and you know how much I love meat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Haru Sushi and Roll Cafe: Just the Uni and Butterfish

I know I've often used uni (sea urchin) as a leading image but I can't help it if they're the most photogenic and yummy ones. Haru Sushi and Roll Cafe was no exception. It's somewhat hidden (I won't call it a gem and you'll find out why shortly), located in the no-man's land area on San Vicente between Wilshire and 3rd, just next to the not-so-good Spanish place, La Paella (avoid).

Haru is decent value but the sushi didn't exactly made me want to return. We had the standards, including albacore tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), toro (fatty tuna), red snapper and uni. Some unusual picks we had were butterfish sushi and crispy spicy tuna rolls.

None of the sushi was remarkable, except for the uni, as mentioned earlier, and the butterfish, which was pretty good, soft like buttah. That butterfish sushi (left) alone made trying this place worthwhile. I haven't seen many sushi joints carry this one, so it was a treat.

I would say my gauge for a sushi place is its toro, hands down my favorite kind of sushi. The excellent quality ones I've had were darker red in tone, almost like red meat, and tasted as meaty as well, ultimately melting in my mouth.

Unfortunately, while serviceable, this toro wasn't nearly as meaty and delicious as the one served at my perennial favorite, Hiko (and Sushi Zo: honorable mention although sushi chef isn't as nice as Shinji-san at Hiko). I also don't know about the cuts as shown in the toro at right. I understand the need to do that for, say, scallop or shrimp but not regular fish. I think it distracts.

I also wasn't crazy about the ponzu sauce happy chef, who seemed to drizzle every other sushi with the citrusy sauce and top them with chopped green onions. I like it sometimes, but not all the time.

Ironically, when the sushi could have used something, it came out bare. Like the scallop, for instance. Unless it's super fresh, I do like a bit of rock salt on top. This one would have benefited from this touch of saltiness but came solo. Still good, but could have been excellent.

Now for the kicker: the utterly reproachable crispy spicy tuna rolls. I'm immediately skeptical of anything that sounds gimmicky or catering to God knows what, like these crispy spicy tuna rolls.

We ordered them after Yelpers raved about them. I guess we never learn our lesson. They weren't good. Sauce was too sweet, quality of the tuna wasn't good (felt like spice tried to make up for a lack of freshness or natural tuna flavor) and the "crispy rice" wasn't really crispy. Ah, we'll know better to avoid these in the future. Remember Yatai?

Having said that, the service was good and prices were fine. Still, given the choices, I don't think I'd return. Well, maybe for the buttahfish...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Enoteca Drago is a Drag

I should have seen it coming. I was never a big fan of other Drago joints like Drago Centro but I've wanted to try Enoteca Drago so dinela was a good excuse to do so. The food was utterly disappointing, as was the service, especially for a place with that kind of reputation and prices. For the first course, we had shrimp ravioli with lobster sauce and zucchini puree. Everything about this dish was a dud. The shrimps that came on top of the ravioli were not fresh-tasting. I couldn't taste the lobster in the sauce at all or the ravioli itself. Oh my: the ravioli seemed to have been hurriedly thawed from the freezer after having sat there for one too many days. Pretty awful.

We got adventurous and tried vitello tonnato, a dish that our server described as veal carpaccio that had been slightly seared. Well, this one seemed to be an interpretation of the classic as it didn't come in a creamy sauce flavored with tuna. Instead, it came with a caper and sundried tomato vinaigrette. First of all, I think the servers are doing a disservice to the restaurant by associating it with carpaccio, which it most definitely is not. There was nothing raw about it. So better to adjust expectations beforehand. I love being surprised, except this wasn't a pleasant one. The dish was bland period.

Unfortunately, the main courses weren't any better. The fish came pan-fried on a bed of lentils, some parsley flavored oil, tomato marmalade relish and topped with some fresh arugula. So bland. So blah.

The braised short ribs with far-too buttery mashed potatoes, onions, pancetta and mushroom ragout (not listed on the menu but I thought I also tasted some diced collard greens that actually added a nice bitterness) was alright, but I've definitely had better short ribs. It went well with the more full-bodied red wine we got as part of a three-wine flight (we love flights). There were some steamed carrots. Meh.

The desserts were really not even worth mentioning, except for the orange black pepper sorbet and almond ice cream. They sounded so promising (chocolate hazelnut crunch bar and peach Napoleon with peach chutney) but they both fell flat. The sorbet and ice cream were all we scooped out.

The service was spotty. I expected it to be more adept. Maybe they were busy tending to actress Milas Kunis sitting a few tables away? In any case, I didn't like that they kept trying to take our plates away before we were done -- a major pet peeve -- and that they didn't think we had enough of leftovers on our plate to box them. Hey! If we're going to pay for them, we're taking it all. We insisted, of course, and later repurposed the fish by adding more salt and pepper to good results. I think the leftover rib meat was used for some breakfast quesadilla...

I most definitely will not be returning. I don't think this place caters to food-lovers like myself anyway. It's more of a see-and-be-seen kind of place at the heart of Beverly Hills, where you could presumably people-watch or star-gaze. It's not even close to being a quality food joint. I've never been to Drago in Santa Monica but after being disappointed twice in two of his restaurants, not sure what would compel me to go. I'm sticking to my favorite Italian places, Girasole and Osteria Mozza for now!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bouchon: Fantastic Bread, Superb Pork Belly, Soso Everything Else

Thomas Keller's Bouchon surely opened to sky-high expectations, given his stature and the hype surrounding his other restaurants, the famed French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York City.

I haven't been to any other two and our server at Bouchon reminded us more than once that one should not expect to be blown away by a meal at Bouchon. After all, he said, Bouchon is a bistro and in short, is no French Laundry or Per Se. This was a place chefs from these haute cuisine joints would go eat after their shifts ended.

I'll say this. I was blown away by the bread. It was just the kind of baguette that one craves when you're wanting to just munch on cheese, salami, or just really good butter. The crust was perfectly crunchy without being too hard. The inside was soft and basically, I couldn't stop eating the bread although I usually try to save room for the starter and main dishes.

This one was an Epi Baguette, shaped like a wheat stalk. The good news and the most ecstatic moment of the evening for me was when our server told us that this goldmine of a bread will now be available for purchase at the Bouchon Bakery that will open in a few months at the bottom floor of the premises. Hopefully the bakery will have not just baguettes but eclaires, chocolate croissants and apple turnovers, which are my favorites.

Anyway, let's focus on the food that is available for now. The best dish was the braised pork belly on a bed of mixed beans (first photo). The menu described this as "glazed pork belly with a cassoulet of pole beans & mustard scented pork jus." There were chick peas, black eyed peas and canellini beans. The pork belly was soft and juicy and paired perfectly with the jus reduced to its deep-flavored essence with just the right saltiness.

Since we were at a bistro, we had to have the closest thing to the classic steak frites -- a perfectly seared bloody steak with the best fries. This one was a flatiron steak, which our server explained was a much derided shoulder area of the cow but that this restaurant cuts it differently so as to impart flavor, etc. Well, the steak didn't walk the walk, so to speak. It was good enough, but didn't have too much flavor, a-la Jar's excellent rib-eye steak. Sure, I'm guessing rib-eye may have more marbling and hence more flavor and juiciness, but in any case, not blown away. I later re-seared the leftovers over a bed of arugula and after seasoning the meat a bit, it tasted a lot better. Not much complaints about the fries. They were hot, crispy and delicious. Very generous portions too.

Perhaps the most disappointing dishes of the meal were the starters. We had, as part of the Dinela menu, ham hock terrine with pickled vegetables and good bread, as well as the mixed greens with red wine vinaigrette and warm goat cheese.

The terrine smelled too porky for me and this from someone who absolutely adores pork. I wasn't impressed with the quality of ingredients. The bread was good but I had to repurpose the terrine as a hash where I added scrambled egg, home fries, some shredded cheese and some red pepper paste. It made for a great brunch.

Oh, it also came with some garlicky canellini beans paste to spread on the bread (also complimentary for the table with the lovely previously mentioned baguette) but I wasn't into this at all.

I was also disappointed at the butter served with the baguette of my dreams. It tasted fine but really, real yummy French butter should be saltier and yellower. Call me crazy.

Desserts were nothing to write home about. The Pot de creme was some ginger-infused custard served with gingersnap cookies. This number to the right is the namesake of the restaurant -- bouchons -- basically brownies with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream. A bit on the sweet side. Just ok.

The vibe reminds me of places like Balthazar and other cool Keith McNally-owned places in New York City. Granted, he probably modeled his bistros after real bistros in Paris, as did Keller.

Our server urged us to return for regular prix fixe lunch menus (albeit not listed online) even on off Dinela periods. Maybe once the bakery opens so I can stock up on bread on my way out.