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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ground Beef Pie from Everyday Food

I cook a lot and like to evangelize about how easy it is to make good food that's also good for you. This one is a bit high in calories because of the phyllo (or filo, or fillo) dough but still has some veggies in it so I will say try it and you'll see.

It's a meat pie recipe that is from one of my favorite recipe banks of all, Everyday Food, a PBS show that I don't really watch but whose recipes I love and swear by, especially when I'm in a pinch.

It simplifies complex recipes that would normally take longer and takes some shortcuts. So while I wouldn't necessarily turn to these for a lavish dinner party, these recipes are literally for everyday cooking. Check it out!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cafe Santorini: Fantastic Grilled Squid

I was so stoked to find a place that served decent squid reminiscent of the gems I had in Santorini overlooking a beautiful, deep blue ocean. Ok, it wasn't as good, mind you, but it was one of the best I've had in LA.

Cafe Santorini
in Pasadena is the kind of place that you'd miss if you blinked. Its sign is barely visible and it's one of those walk-ups like many of the places in Pasadena. But I'm so glad I ran across it in my research for spots to go to after a cool event at the Pacific Asia Museum nearby.

Let's start with the really solid grilled baby squid salad. The squid was soft, charred just right on the edges and while it was a tad on the salty side, it's one of the best squid salads I've had in a while. On top of that, it was great value with generous portions, which is more than I can say about some of the fine dining establishments I've been to over the past few years where the squid or octopus may be passable if not for the measly portions at higher price tags.

The greens could have used less dressing that was slightly creamy but nonetheless they had me at squid (Nothing that a few squeezes of lemon couldn't ameliorate). Will definitely be returning for more.

Even the bread was yummy. It was like flat-bread topped with roasted garlic bits. What's not to like? Plus it was nice and warmed up. Can we say Greek bread sticks? Anyhow, the vibe of this place was interesting. It has a banquet hall-like space in an adjacent room and a leveled private dining area that overlooks the banquet room. Our waiter was also straight out of a foreign film, an older gentleman who was passionate about his food and no-nonsense in an endearing way.

My next favorite item -- it was a toss-up -- was the kefta kebab, which was ground beef formed into patties with herbs and spices (some parsley mix I'm sure) that came with rice, a roasted tomato and roasted bell peppers. I've always liked kefta kebab in Lebanese restaurants but this one was juicy and grilled to perfection. I mean, check out those grill marks.

I wasn't crazy about the rice, which I expected to be basmati but it was too watery and didn't separate easily like I usually expect the rice to. The veggies were ok but the clear winner was the meat.

My third favorite was the cheese borek, an amazing mix of feta and mozzarella cheese with mint and parsley wrapped in filo pasty. It was ethereal and crunchy without being too heavy. Delicious.

We got the mezze sampler that included babaghanoush, cucumbers, stuffed grape leaves, olives, sojouk sausage, grilled hallumi cheese (sheep's milk cheese) and some unremarkable pita bread.
Everything on the sampler plate was just ok except for the borek. The sojouk sausage tasted like chorizo. There's definitely some kind of smoked paprika-like spice in there. The sausage was a bit overcooked so it was hard to taste it as much as I would have wanted to. The babaghanoush wasn't as good as Zankou, my go-to spot for this (called mutabal there).

The tzatziki yogurt dip was really good, creamy and refreshing at the same time. It made for a great dip for the kefta chunks I had one too many of.

The hummus was not that flavorful but I'm looking forward to returning and trying some of their more interesting takes on pasta and pizza, or even some of their kebabs and slouvakis. Yum. What a find!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rivera: Excellent Olive Oil Poached Lobster, Arepas and Soft-Shell Crab

I didn't like Rivera the first time I went, but the second time around, I had great company and perhaps that made the meal a lot better.

Sure, it was gimmicky. It seems into using stencils to lay out cute little messages on the plates, like "Bravo Gustavo," in reference to the Venezuelan-born LA Philharmonic's new conductor Gustavo Dudamel on a plate of Venezuelan arepas with fried soft-shell crab.

The arepas, or corn cakes, were hot and crispy. The arepas paired very well with the crab, which added more flavor since the arepas alone would have tasted bland. The crab sat on a bed of quinoa, which was ok, drizzled with some chile-based sauce.

The best dish, though, was the melon del mar -- or more precisely, olive oil-poached lobster with tiny cubes of cantaloupe and honeydew melon, that also came with tiny jelly cubes of chile verde (called "gelee" on the menu).

I'm not sure I could taste the olive oil in the lobster, but it was so soft and tender that I couldn't get enough of it. Tasted like luxury itself.

The main dishes were not as strong. The grilled white sea bass fillet with mofongo, a Puerto Rican delight of mashed plaintains with garlic, on a bed of a tomato-y sauce was refreshing and I could tell the fish was pretty fresh, which isn't always the case even in some fancy restaurants.

The other main dish was dubbed Costa Rican pork, which was coffee braised pork tenderloin with sugar cane sauce and some spicy beans. I was intrigued by the coffee-braised part, although in execution it wasn't as apparent in the flavor.

Also, the pork was probably my least favorite dish in that the meat was a tad overcooked. Because pork tenderloin is on the leaner side, it tended to dry up.

I was a tad annoyed the chef felt compelled to quote Madoff -- "Dont Stop 'Till You Get Enough" (after all, he could have easily quoted MJ instead) through stencils on the plate. Think he likes to think of himself as a provocateur of sorts.

The roasted turnip, yam and purple potato on the side didn't have that much flavor. But that helped to balance out the rather strong coffee and reduction sauce the pork came with. The random greens on top were a curious addition that didn't gel as well but I appreciated some greenery.

Now on to dessert: upon our server's recommendation, we went with the lemon olive oil cake with creme fraiche ice cream, strawberry sorbet and a vinegar reduction.

It was beautifully plated with rose petals and all. I liked the fresh strawberries with the cake but with a dollop of the sorbet, it was a good match. The creme fraiche ice cream was a bit heavy, but the sorbet worked ok. The sorbet wasn't the best I've had but good enough.

All in all, not bad. It has a weird system of limiting what one can order depending on the room you're sitting in. Different menus focusing on Mexican, Latin American or Spanish cuisine, respectively. We sat in the Latin American room and hence the mix of Venezuelan and Costa Rican, etc.

Service was poor. For a place like this with these prices, I expect much better service but everything was delayed and we had to ask several times for things, etc.

Also, this place is very loud so be prepared to shout at your dining companion. Oh, and I had the siesta cocktail, which was tequila-based and had grapefruit, Campari, lime and garnished with an orange peel. It was very good although it wasn't consistently made (second one was off).

It may be a decent place to get a drink and have small plates for happy hour or some such.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mayo Clinic Cookbook Rediscovered: Yellow Split Pea Soup

Wanted to post some cooking ones since it's been a while. It's not because I haven't been cooking. I cook plenty. In fact, I've been on a semi-healthy cooking kick, and I'm revisiting the Mayo Clinic cookbook.
I remember leafing through it years ago after I bought it, but not finding any recipes that really looked interesting. Well, how I have changed. I flagged a ton of recipes and made this yellow split pea soup that is nutritious, good and looks even better.

Think the "real-way" came out fairly close to the "run-way" image on the Mayo site, no? Yes, I was pretty happy with myself. The green swirls coming from the yogurt-based chive cream look so wonderful in the yellow split pea backdrop. The icing? The beautiful pink morsels of ham that you sprinkle in the end.

The chive cream really added a refreshing dimension to the rather stodgy flavor of the split pea that I'm usually not a big fan of. And the ham gave it a saltier edge. Altogether a great way to consume fiber with flavor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

La Boheme: Persimmon Salad Delights, Other Dishes Fizzle

La Boheme's decor was very goth, with exquisitely elaborate chandeliers (which weren't goth but reminded me of the set for a vampire movie) and different kinds of seating available -- everything from a cool booth to a round table or an intimate table on the top floor overlooking the entire dining room.

The food? I wasn't blown away but I did notice the interesting touches here and there of the chef's Japanese American background -- the persimmon salad was excellent. It came with arugula, prosciutto and deliciously creamy burrata. It had everything, salty from the cured ham, slightly sweet and tart from the fruit, creamy from the cheese and of course, the crunchy texture from the greens and fruit that brought it all together.

After the first course is when the story starts to go awry. We got the burger and the four-cheese mac-n-cheese. The mac-n-cheese came first. Good Lord. It was a blob of overcooked elbow macaroni mixed in with what looked and tasted like Cheez Whiz, no kidding. I couldn't believe that any self-respecting chef would allow something this atrocious out of the kitchen. Crime #1: pasta should not be overcooked. Crime #2: it had no breadcrumbs. Most importantly, crime #3: it didn't have any flavor whatsoever. I asked the server what the four cheeses were and she could only name three and never told us the fourth -- they were cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan and ?

The only reason we decided not to take it back was because we thought we could probably repurpose it at home with some hot sauce or something.

Anyhow, the burger was just an inch above average. The bun bread was so unremarkable -- dense, not sturdy enough and not much flavor. A brioche bun would have been a lot better.

The patty was not bad. The grind was coarse and the flavor of the meat was decent thanks to the slight char on the outside. It was cooked medium rare but because it was on the thinner side so biting into a juicy, bloody patty wasn't to be.

The works didn't work for me. The bacon was too strongly flavored although I must fully disclose that I'm not a bacon in my burger kind of person. The cheddar cheese was fine enough but what's with the lettuce dripping, no drowning in this so-called horseradish mayo that's pretty flavorless and is just soaking my burger? The mayo definitely needs to go. The caramelized onions were ok but I prefer my onions raw (yes, like my fave at Houston's).

On the upside, the fries were pretty good. They were shoe-string fries that came out piping hot and crispy. They had some sort of spicy Cajun-like seasoning on them, which I didn't like much but got over it thanks to the good execution of the fries.

The coolest thing I saw was this device above called a "dumbwaiter," which transported our drinks from the kitchen to our second floor table. We had the old world and new world red wine flights, with everything from a super Tuscan to a Syrah, those two being my favorites in the respective flights. To our surprise, we liked the new world flight better but it's always fun sampling.

Maybe I'll venture out here again for its happy hour, but only because it's close to my 'hood. Keep up the great salads. The mac-n-cheese (and burger, for that matter) department needs a lot of work, for sure. Service was well-intentioned but spotty and a tad frazzled.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Forage: Good Roasted Veggies and Interesting Salads

I love the concept of Forage, which distinguishes itself from other "locavore," "slow food movement" types by offering "best of the backyard" of people. So if you happen to have, say, an avocado tree in your backyard and always wonder what to do with hundreds of avocados each year, Forage can help. It reminded me a of friend in Seattle who had a fig tree in her yard and one summer she harvested so many figs she bought a fig cook book to cook and bake all things fig. But there's only so much you can do that for.

Anyway, I was excited to try this place. It was a much more casual place than I had anticipated. It was like a cafeteria of ready-made food you pick up at the counter, pay and eat at open tables. It was packed.

The verdict is that it's above average but not sure it's a place I would seek out. There are some basic limitations to eating at a place where the temperature of the food served (flank steak that night -- menu changes daily) is an issue, seats are first-come, first-serve and most things are self-service. It's really a cafe.

Now for the food. We got the medium protein plate, which comes with two sides of my choice. One plate was the flank steak marinated in herbs and garlic with sweet potato gratin and mixed roasted vegetables. Second plate was rotisserie chicken with mac-n-cheese and a beet salad.

The steak tasted like galbi -- the classic Korean ribs marinated in soy sauce and garlic plus other good stuff -- which wasn't shocking since the owner Jason Kim is Korean. I found it a tad on the salty side, even for this sodium fiend.

My favorite thing on my plate were the grilled vegetables, which included turnips, carrots and brussel sprouts, to name a few. The vegetables were obviously fresh and grown locally and thankfully, minimal preparation brought out the best of their natural flavors and textures.

The roasted chicken was ok but nothing amazing. I much prefer to buy my own chickens in Japanese markets and roast them myself. The mac-n-cheese was also average -- good enough but nothing remarkable.

What stood out in my companion's plate was the very interesting yellow beet salad that came with chopped up hard-boiled eggs, crumbled feta cheese, green onions and fennel. The flavors melded well together and it was a combination I'd never had before, so it was a welcome surprise.

Now for the biggest dud of all -- the gratin. Whoever said the sweet potatoes had to be drowning in butter for a gratin to be good? It had so much butter that butter was all I could taste. I love butter but not if it overpowers my food. It should complement it. Such a pity, since I love sweet potatoes. But I couldn't finish it. Yuck.

I'm glad I tried it. It's decent food at decent prices but ultimately not enough for me to make a point of going back.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Obika: Step 1 - Order All Samplers, Step 2 - Mix & Match to Great Results

I've been wanting to try Obika, a Mozzarella bar that is an Italian chain with locations worldwide...including two in LA malls, of all places. It was an odd-sounding Italian word, but it turns out Obika means "here it is" in the Neapolitan dialect. The space was quaint and intimate, and we went in famished, longing for some serious cheese pampering (plus some wine, of course).

We went crazy with the sampling: mozzarella sampler alongside a cured meats sampler plus a grilled veggie sampler to save our lives, then onto the dessert sampler. But first things first.

The cheese sampler, called degustazione of buffalo mozzarella, consisted of smoked mozzarella, fresh mozzarella and burrata, which is made from mozzarella and cream and is insanely, well, creamy and delicious. The smoked one was far too smoky for me. Whatever happened to subtlety? The fresh one was fine but didn't blow me away. It honestly tasted close to the store-bought one floating in the water that I get when I make caprese salad. The spinach and utterly flavorless cherry tomatoes and super salty olives didn't help too much. But wait.

Thank God for the match made in heaven -- ham and cheese. We chose as our three cured meats prosciutto, speck and culatello, which came with arugula and cherry tomatoes. Once we started pairing a piece of prosciutto, arugula and a dollop of burrata, forget about it. The combinations were what made this experience so great. The wines by the glass were the icing -- good selection and great pairings.

I also liked that the cured meats where sliced razor thin, just the way I like it! Sure, we only got like two lousy slices for each kind but they definitely did the trick for us. I'd say I liked all combinations of cured meat, burrata plus arugula. The spinach variation wasn't as good, and don't get me started on the bread and quality of tomatoes. I understand it's not tomato season yet but even Trader Joe's has better tomatoes than the ones served here. We'd been warned about the bread, which included different varieties like focaccia and other doughy matter that I didn't care to consume because they were either too dry or flavorless (crazy considering good bakery Breadbar is just downstairs in the Century City mall).

One additional sampler we had was the grilled vegetables one and I do recommend it, and not just because it balances out the meat and cheese. A platter of grilled zucchini, eggplant and radicchio made the ham and cheese experience even better. The vegetables were perfectly charred although they seemed to have been grilled a while back. Still, mix and match the three platters and you'll enjoy the ride. I don't even like raw radicchio but grilled, it has a whole new dimension of flavor and texture. Yum.

We wavered between pasta dishes but ended up getting the spinach and ricotta ravioli. We wanted to compare it to our favorite one from Girasole. Not surprisingly, it didn't come close and we had to salt it because it was pretty bland. I could tell the pasta dough was fresh indeed but the seasoning was virtually non-existent.

The dessert sampler came with a ricotta cheese mousse with honey, orange peel and toasted pine nuts; a torta caprese, which was a flourless chocolate and almond cake; and the classic tiramisu. Of the three, I liked the tiramisu the most, although my only beef was that the mascapone cheese seemed a bit on the overly creamy side. But I loved the moist ladyfingers submerged in the mascapone cheese and expresso, and dusted with some cocoa powder. The cake was dry and tasteless. It should have come with some kind of hazelnut gelato or something. It needs something. Otherwise, they shouldn't make it so dry. The ricotta mousse was interesting but ultimately didn't wow me.

The tables are a bit on close side to each other but nose level is not too bad. I'm not sure if I'd go just to go there but it's an ideal place for a pre- or post-movie hangout to munch on some very fresh (allegedly shipped 3 times a week from Italy) ham and cheese, and sip some wine to boot.