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Sunday, May 29, 2011

A-Frame: Mediocre Picnic Fare With a Twist -- Kimchi Sour Cream, Anyone?

A-frame was disappointing. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise me since I was never a big fan of the Kogi truck food. But the premise of picnic-style food to share was so appealing that I had to check it out.

The Furikake kettle corn didn't have much flavor, and bordered on bland. Different, yes -- unless you're from Hawaii and had it while growing up like someone I know, but not particularly well-executed. I long for the real deal. Like I wrote in my Lazy Ox review, Furikake , the Japanese mix of sesame seeds, seaweed, etc used to sprinkle over rice, is catching on in the fine dining scene. It's everywhere.

Then there was the double cheeseburger. You all know by now that I burger, therefore I am. Granted, I had been warned it'd be two layers of thin meat patties, unlike the chunky, juicy and bloody burgers I like from Houston's and Lazy Ox. This one came with tomato confit, pickled red onions, butter lettuce, hot sauce sharp cheddar and sesame mayo on a brioche bun. While it was a notch up In-n-Out, it was most definitely no Houston's. Ok. I don't think it seeks to outdo the Houston's of the world. But still, if you're going to have a burger on the menu and you're such a pioneering chef, do something more special and keep it bloody, please!

The patties were so anemic that you could barely taste the meat. The bun was good enough and it was messy to eat in a good way. But I won't be ordering it again, if I return, that is, which is uncertain at this point.

The fries were a mix of purple Okinawan sweet potato, yam, and Korean sweet potato with kimchi sour cream as a dip. They were good but nothing to write home about. Ok, the kimchi sour cream was an interesting touch. It could be spicier for sure. I felt like he diluted it a bit for the mainstream audience, which is unfortunate.

Purple sweet potatoes are always a joy to eat. Portions were on the small side so my dinner companion and I only had like three each and we cleaned up the plate.

For dessert, we wanted to be wowed. We ordered what sounded like the most unusual thing on the menu -- black pepper Szechuan ice cream and salted chocolate cookie.

Another disappointment. I like that Roy Choi tinkered with different ideas but I must say they didn't work.

I wasn't a huge fan of Chego either but at least I liked what he did with the pork belly pieces. They were like lacquered pieces of jewels sitting atop the rice with other goodies. The atmosphere was ok and communal tables gave a, well, community feel.

Oh, but I must vent about the poor service we got. It wasn't our server who was the problem. We were eating and a larger party suddenly showed up, saying they would take over the entire communal table we were sitting on the edge. I think it's so tacky for the hostess to pull that crap because it was clearly a way to pressure us to leave. That's SO not cool. That alone made me not want to return. Thank God the food was mediocre.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cooking: Best Crab, Avocado and Sorrel Salad

This salad is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. It's easy to make and when on a white plate, it looks gorgeous and moreover, it tastes like a million dollars!

It's from one of my favorite sources for recipes, Food & Wine Magazine and it's the crab, avocado and sorrel salad with carrot vinaigrette. Crab meat isn't cheap and I'm too lazy to boil a crab myself and extract the meat, but it's well worth it, especially during the hot summer months.

If you like crab, avocado and cucumbers, it's very refreshing and the carrot vinaigrette was a revelation.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lukshon: Great Steamed Fish and Black Rice Bowl

I admit I had pretty high expectations of Lukshon, the first full-fledged restaurant from Sang Yoon of My Father's Office fame. Granted, I was never a huge fan of the Office burger, rather (in)famous for its purist tendency to "politely decline" any substitutions, let alone ketchup. It's definitely above average, but not the kind of burger I crave, like that of Houston.

Anyway, overall there were some hits and a few more misses. The biggest hits were the black rice bowl and steamed sea bass-like fish with tamarind paste and so-called black bean ghee on a bed of steamed spinach. I find it annoying it doesn't have its menu on its site, presumably because it changes a lot but it should still be there. The fish was extremely tender and while I found the tamarind paste a tad too strong, once I diluted it with some of the juices, it was excellent. The cilantro and basil gave it a refreshing touch and the thinly sliced pepper strips gave it a subtle hint of heat. The sambal ijo on the side that tasted like a roasted tomatillo salsa verde didn't quite go with the fish as well but it's apparently an Indonesian staple.

The black rice came with Chinese sausage slices, stir-fried onions, pieces of beautifully roasted whole garlic cloves and a fried egg on top. I love black rice, garlic's a no-brainer and fried egg makes anything better, so what's not to love about this dish? It was Korean-style black rice, as opposed to black wild rice found in western markets. I personally like the Korean black rice better. It's a bit stickier and a shorter grain. If you've ever had purple-hued rice in Koreatown restaurants, that's usually because the restaurant mixes a bit of black rice and the resulting color is from the dyeing of the regular white rice with a few pebbles of black rice. My only complaint was that the portion was too small.

All the other dishes were unremarkable to outright duds.

We started with the steak tartare and spicy chicken pops appetizers but they weren't anything special. The tartare placed atop a slice of pickled (although couldn't really taste it either) cucumber didn't have much flavor. I couldn't taste the chile, herbs or aromatic rice powder that were supposedly included.

It has promise but didn't deliver. He should have placed it atop a slice of Asian pear, Korean steak tartare-style called yukhoe.

As for the spicy chicken pops, it was raved about on message boards but it also disappointed. It was spicy alright, but the flavors didn't meld well together. I could get better tasting spicy chicken from Kyochon.

The squid looked beautiful -- its legs were deep fried and were the best part of the dish. But the rest of the Chinese sausage-stuffed squid bodies that had been seared were bad. Bottom line: the pasty texture of the sausage didn't work well and the flavor of the sausage clashed with the flavor of the squid. The mint and candlenut sauce was good but couldn't really save it. It was topped with fresh Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) leaves that were refreshing but again, couldn't save it.

The brussels sprouts were overdone, overseasoned and oversauced. Didn't enjoy these much although I usually love them.

The biggest disappointments were probably the foie gras ganache and garlic pork belly stir-fry with rice cakes.

The foie gras' mix of sweet (dusted what looked and tasted like cocoa powder but may actually have been something else that I'll get into) and savory didn't work for me. It had a lot of fancy things in it, including carob -- often used as a substitute for chocolate -- ceylon cinammon, tamarind gastrique -- which I just learned is a syrupy reduction of vinegar or wine and sugar -- almond and puff rice. For all the detailed description and monikers, it fell flat and I usually love foie gras. The foie gras "lollipops" with cotton candy at the Bazaar were a lot more successful.

The biggest letdown, perhaps because I was excited about this dish, was the garlic pork belly with rice cakes and green cabbage. It seems to be a take on dakgalbi, a spicy Korean chicken dish prepared similarly with rice cakes and cabbage. Instead of Korean red pepper paste, he uses do ban jian, a spicy fermented broad beans and soybean-based paste often used in Szechuan cuisine. This dish had several problems. The pork belly wasn't properly seared and therefore not crunchy on the edges. Not good. Then the paste didn't work well with the pork belly and the cabbage.

The only redeeming factor was that the rice cakes were browned and that give them a crunchiness. It's not a good sign when the only thing I could think of when I bit into it is how I should repurpose it at home since this simply won't do.

I usually like pork belly chunks that are roasted or seared so the outside is crunchy and once you bite into it, they come apart -- much like the ones at Chego, whose review is pending.

The drinks menu was good. It's heavy on the whites and given we were having a lot of spicy foods, we went for a 2007 Riesling kabinett from Mosel, that was touted as "sunshine in a glass." Although I didn't get that, it was very good and went very well with our food.

It's nice we got complimentary desserts, like everyone else. They were mango-papaya lassi and coconut tapioca, which was very good; lychee-mangosteen granita with rau ram-lime sorbet poached pineapples, which was ruined by the sorbet that didn't work; and cinnamon custard graham cracker streusel with Thai chile-sweet potato ice cream, which was ok but not fantastic.

Besides the food, the decor was very well done. I loved the little Korean touches here and there. The restroom had a really nice feel to it, and my dinner mates and I all fell in love with the beautiful red sink with flowers that could be mistaken for Rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Anyway, service was good and the space was pretty small but love love love the booths! Very comfy and private.

Despite the misses, I appreciate what he's doing by mixing flavors and frankly, offering a new kind of "Asian fusion" beyond the usual addition of ponzu or kimchi to western ingredients. I certainly learned a lot of new Asian sauces, pastes and condiments I wasn't as familiar with. It's tempting to think that I could drive to San Gabriel Valley and get the same steamed fish for a fraction of the price, but perhaps it's about the experience of trying mixes and matches of different foods of Asia and smelling the wonderful bouquet of a glass of Riesling and sipping away. Now that you won't get in SGV.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cooking: Rice Bowl with Seaweed + Green Tea = Perfect Breakfast

I know I've been sounding like a commercial pushing products lately, but I can't hide my enthusiasm when finding something so healthy and delicious. I have to share it with people. I swear I'm not getting a commission.

My latest discovery is wakame chazuke, which combines the two words, wakame, edible seaweed, and chazuke (a.k.a. ochazuke), which is rice in a bowl submerged with either green tea, dashi or hot water topped with some savory toppings.

I've had ochazuke at izakayas before and have liked them. But never have I thought of it as breakfast -- until now. I mean, what healthier and heartier meal is there than brown rice with some dried seaweed and rice balls submerged in green tea?

Ok, it may not sound too appetizing, but trust me. I give it my little twist too. I use brown rice, and add a ton of grains that are super foods such as lentils, red beans, millet and barley. Oatmeal's got nothing on this one, I tell ya. Then I added some of the jangjorim I made separately. Jangjorim is a classic Korean side dish consisting of beef braised for a long time in a liquid of soy sauce, sugar (or agave, in my case), garlic and some peppers.

I scoop rice made the night before (making new rice every time you have this would be a royal pain, so making a big pot of rice to last you the week is wise -- it's been fine in my experience. Alternatively, there's always pre-cooked rice in those little plastic bowls you can nuke), add some of the dried seaweed and rice puffs from the jar onto the rice, pour green tea (ready-made also comes in handy -- thank you, Ito En) so rice is submerged, add sliced jangjorim and microwave for about 1-2 minutes.

If you don't have meat, you can fry an egg and have that as a side dish. The only downside is that you can't have this on the go while you drive or commute to work. But I found that I don't get hungry until closer to 11:30-noon when I have this for breakfast, as opposed to the usual 10:30 pang of hunger.

Traditional Japanese toppings include pickled vegetables, dried or pickled fish, etc.

The seaweed is pretty much like the miyuk in Korean cuisine, except there's no cooking necessary and they're finely shredded. I love me a good miyukguk or seaweed soup to be had on my birthday according to Korean custom, but it is a lot more work than this. I'm hooked.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lazy Ox Canteen Redeemed On Second Visit: Excellent Burger and Small Plates

The first time I went to Lazy Ox Canteen, I wasn't in the least impressed. It was a while ago, shortly after it opened last year. I had the burger and it was pasty and not at all well executed. I wrote the place off as mediocre and not worth returning.

Then I heard all the raves about its burger at LA Weekly's 30 Burger in 30 Days series, which I didn't much agree with but noticed nonetheless. Then recently, I needed a place for a large party (8) that's relatively central and easy to find. With its extensive small plates menu, "the Ox," as it is apparently dubbed by its fans, seemed just the place. And the right occasion to give it a second chance since I'd be trying a variety of dishes.

It didn't disappoint. I'm not one to be swayed by any reviews, but I must say the burger was indeed very good, no comparison to the mediocre version I had at my last visit. The patty was not at all pasty -- it had a delicious meaty flavor with some smokiness from the charred edges. I had it cooked medium (as opposed to medium rare) as I was sharing but it didn't distract from my enjoyment. It came with butter lettuce, red onions and Cantal cheese, which I later learned was a hard cheese from France. The combination worked very well.

The other revelation was the yellow tail crudo. Sure, I've had sashimi pieces of hamachi before, but the way they were combined with green papaya strips, mint, scallions and a piece of grapefruit (that looks like a tomato in this photo) was pretty phenomenal. The kicker were the rice puff balls that added a crunchy texture and nuttiness to the flavor, as well as this Japanese herb mix (I think the waitress said it was furikake, which seems to be taking off these days as chefs' favorite condiment -- A-Frame's Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame uses it to make popcorn like many Hawaiians have for years and I'm going next week so stay tuned!) that includes variations of seaweed, sesame seeds, salt, dried or ground fish, sugar, among other things. It added a very distinct and refreshing dimension to what should become a staple summer dish for me.

My next favorite dish was the brussels sprouts. I've always loved roasted brussels sprouts, and one of my favorite recipes is David Chang's in GQ where he adds bacon bits and sriracha sauce (can't beat that). But these came with not one but two strong contenders -- chorizo bits and parmesan (or pecorino?) cheese melted on top. Pile on the sodium, baby. And the caramelization. Probably too much to just eat all by yourself. That's why we ordered other healthier dishes to balance out this one, like grilled cabbage with piquillo peppers and almonds (which looked beautiful but was just ok) and grilled asparagus with manchego cheese, romesco sauce and peppers, which was also just ok (asparagus were a tad overcooked too).

The grilled lettuce was on the bland side, even with the addition of smoky piquillo peppers, which I usually love.

A dish worth mentioning is the fried fish with some spicy aioli on the side and the cauliflower with pine nuts, mint and chile. The cauliflower was roasted and while it wasn't much to look at, the nuttiness plus refreshing mint did enhance the flavors. The chile didn't do much to spike it, though, as I could hardly taste it.

Other dishes we had included spaghetti squash cooked with a dollop of butter and a garlicky French parsley sauce called persillade.

It was a bit too buttery even for a butter-lover like me. Maybe they should try an olive oil version that's less heavy.

One of the first dishes I had after I sat down was grilled shishito peppers. They retained their gorgeous green hue with some charred sides and topped with some bright pickled red onions that made them look so picture perfect. They tasted ok, but then again, they were a bit spicy so not sure how many I could have back to back.

The desserts were nothing to write home about, so I won't. They were overly sweet, dense and overall unremarkable.

The service was ok but a bit harried and spotty. It got extremely loud and a bit chaotic but for a large group, not a bad place. If you're in for an intimate dinner, thi s isn't the place for you.

Parking is street parking free after 8pm and if you're like me and hate to pay for parking at the risk of parking at a shadier area, there's plenty of parking south of Third Street where it starts to get a bit less safe but hey, it's free after 6pm!

I'd love to return to try some other dishes like the grilled branzino, ribeye steak or iberico ham, although it probably won't come close to my favorite jamon iberico de bellota at the Bazaar.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cooking: Miso Mayo is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Ok, so much for my hyperbole. But I can't believe I just discovered this gem when the entire time it was right there under my nose!

This Miso Mayo is a sure-fire way to get kids -- and adults like me -- to eat more veggies like broccoli. I don't usually like to eat broccoli unless it's in some pureed form or we're talking about baby broccoli, which I like to stir-fry with garlic.

A friend recently introduced me to this beauty. Wholefoods has it in its produce section. It's not exactly mayo. It's just miso diluted with some cider vinegar and a bit of oil. It's lower calorie than real mayo and tastes a lot better than Nayonaise, the soy-based "mayo."

Just steam or blanche some vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower and dip away! It's so delicious and you feel less guilty, unless you're worried about sodium intake, which could be high.

The bottle says this can be used for all sorts of things like fish tacos and tuna salads, but not sure I'll venture that far just yet. I'll update this post if I ever try them.

It comes in various flavors but I just got introduced to the original so will go with this for now and expand into spicy or whatever other flavors.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Gjelina: Very Good Pork Belly, Margherita Pizza and Mushroom Toast (Read on to find out what this is)

After many failed attempts at nabbing a table at Gjelina, my friend and I finally made it to this prized local gem. We're both big eaters wanting to try everything on the menu, so when it came time to order, we weren't shy. That is to say, we grossly over-ordered. "We could always take the leftovers home," we reasoned.

We duly researched what the most raved about dishes were on Yelp and adjusted to our own preferences. The verdict is that it is very good, even excellent, but a lot of the dishes were very salty, service by the model-lookalike wait staff was spotty and the noise level made us feel like we were in a stadium watching the World Cup's final match.

Still, the quality of the food was superb and I would return in a second, given, of course, I can get a table (They're not on Opentable, which makes it cumbersome to actually dial the number on your phone and talk to a human being).

The highlights were: Miatake mushroom toast with creme fraiche and truffle oil (which was the #1 raved-about dish online and didn't' disappoint); a refreshing kale salad (more details later); the Margherita pizza (almost as good as Mozza); grilled radicchio; and the braised (oh so soft) pork belly.

In retrospect, the only dishes that weren't as memorable were the variation on lasagna with beef cheeks and the dessert -- a black berry and chocolate bread pudding.

Let's go back to the dishes that were worth the trip. The mushroom toast was like a fancier and decidedly more scrumptious cousin to the lowly cream of mushroom. Ok, that may be offending the dish and the chef but I can't help it if that's my only reference. The point is, it was velvety and creamy with very strong mushroom aromas and flavors. To borrow the now-cliched phrase, it was decadently good.

I liked the kale salad (second image up top) that came with shavings of mild ricotta salata, shaved fennel, radish, lemon and bread crumbs that gave it a crunchiness along with the crunchy texture of the raw kale ribbons themselves. I'm always up for new and interesting ways of eating superfoods like kale, so this was a nice take. I've only stir fried kale with some olive oil and garlic but this one seems like a winner for the summer.

I also liked the Margherita pizza, which had an ultra-thin crust that was chewy with nicely charred edges that gave it a nice crunchiness. The tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil were very good. Like someone yelped, possibly my second favorite pizza in LA after Mozza.

The pork belly. It's hard to go wrong when you have a whole layer of fat that by default is going to impart a ton of flavor and juiciness. Braise the baby for hours and you're likely to have a winner. Ok, the flavor of the pork was also pretty good. This was clearly no cheap pig (hailed from Niman Ranch). The glistening pork from the caramelization came on top of a bed of polenta, bitter greens and apple cider that gave it a tartness and sweetness at the same time.

Another vegetable I don't cook much with is radicchio. I'm not a fan of the raw version, but when grilled, it takes on a whole new identity -- the bitterness becomes subdued with the smokiness from the grill. In short, wonderful.

We chose a few healthier dishes to balance out the heavy meats and stuff with creamy goodness like the mushroom toasts. Oh, did I mention that the bread used for the toast was excellent? It was like a French peasant bread of sorts that held up nicely to all that topping.

The issue with the beef cheek lasagna variation was that it had a slight unpleasant smell from the meat (maybe cheeks have a distinct smell that I wasn't aware of, perhaps like liver or tongue?). In any case, it distracted from the main flavors and while ok, I wouldn't get it again. It did, however, fare better when I repurposed it at home with a runny fried egg for breakfast. Yes, that's my go-to breakfast makeover strategy and it works most of the time. This one tasted decent and I'd venture to say even better than the original, if I may say so.

The dessert sounded promising -- black berry and chocolate bread pudding but truth be told, I think one of the reasons we couldn't fully appreciate it was that we were stuffed, even after having packed a lot of food to go. Then again, the bread pudding wasn't anything special either. At least not nearly as revelatory as the one at Tartine in San Francisco anyway.

I'd definitely like to return and try some other dishes. This place has a very extensive menu. Wasn't crazy about its by-the-glass wine selection but wish it offered BYOB. The outdoor patio was also very nice. It wasn't cold with some heat lamps and I'd imagine it's only going to get better with warmer weather.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cooking: Leftover Lechon? Repurpose as Tacos

A while ago, I had the fortune of having a bunch of leftovers from lechon, prepared the Cuban way. It was tender and served with pickled red onions that gave it the tangy flavor that balanced very well with the heavier lechon.

Well, there's only so much lechon we could have solo. So I made repurposed the lechon with some fire-roasted tomatoes with green chiles, added some spices here and there, and voila -- lechon tacos were born.

I also made guacamole, where I like to add diced pieces of raw jalapenos for kick.

Sprinkled with some cilantro on top, these tacos were pretty darn good, if I may say so.

I liked the addition of roasted tomatoes and chiles because they tempered the strong porky smell of the lechon a bit. As much as I like pork, I don't like some of its strong aroma sometimes so it was a good match.

I also used very good hand-made corn tortillas from a Latino store near Koreatown that were so much better than the commercially available ones. It made a huge difference.

When I got sick of the tacos, I switched it up a bit and made quesadillas out of them with some shredded cheese mix of cheddar and Monterey Jack. Hard to go wrong with those.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lucille's Smokehouse BBQ: Ask for Newly Made Baby Back Ribs

My litmus test for all barbecue joints has to be the baby back ribs. I happen to be a rib fiend, but that's besides the point. So I shared an order of the combination rib and brisket with sides of potato salad and collard greens.

I liked the ribs. They were well cooked, with just a hint of sauce. I wasn't crazy about the various BBQ sauces on the table, and after trying a few, I decided I liked the original sauce the best.

The brisket, however, was simply inedible. It was like cardboard -- dry and unappetizing. So we sent it back and asked them to give us more ribs. Curiously, the second batch of ribs were a lot better. They were more tender, warmer, and freshly charred at the edges -- as if they had just come off the grill or smoker.

The potato salad was fine, nothing special, but the collard greens were really disappointing. They were limp and tasted like they'd been stewing on the stove for days. Not good.

I really enjoyed the second batch of ribs, which is what I'll stick to next time I go there. But not sure about some of the other stuff.