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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rant of the Week: What's the Deal with the Ever Elusive Ttukbokki and Rabokki?

I know I sound like a broken record but I will say it again and again. Why is it that something as seemingly simple as ttukbokki, rice cakes smothered in a blood red spicy sauce, that's so ubiquitous in Seoul so impossible to find in LA? The dish's cousin, rabokki, that adds ramen noodles (hence the "ra") either instead of or in addition to the cylinder blocks of chewy rice cakes, is equally hard to get.

I've scoured the many joints that purported to specialize in this and every time have been sorely disappointed. In Korea (cue broken record), you could find half-way decent to excellent ttukbokki at every street corner stall or mom-and-pop joint. Throw in some fish cakes, hard-boiled egg and lots of green onions and you've got yourself the best snack in the world. Definitely one of those "Oh my God it's so spicy but I'll keep shoving it into my mouth because it gives me so much pleasure"-type of food. Even better with some kimbab rolls to dip into the gooey and oh-so garlicky red sauce.

I may have to resort to trying to recreate the glorious OG at home, and will keep you posted.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tasting Kitchen: Excellent Pasta and Bread but I Don't Like Paying for Bread and Butter

Tasting Kitchen on the trendy Abbot Kinney strip in Venice was good but I couldn't help but feeling a bit ripped off for paying for bread and butter. Who does that?

Yes, the bread was fresh -- crusty and substantial enough to withstand my vigorous butter spreading -- and the butter, well, it was good although I liked the butter at Bouchon Bistro as much if not more. But charge for it? That's outrageous. That's like charging for kimchi and banchan in a Korean restaurant.

My favorite dish was the tagliarini pasta (similar to fettucini) with crab meat and serrano peppers. The dressing was a light cream sauce that was barely there, which was good because the crab was almost sweet in its freshness and deliciousness and it was complemented very well with the kick from the peppers.

I'm a sucker for all things crab, so this was a veritable treat. They thankfully didn't skimp on the crab meat, which was nice.

The second favorite was the fries. My dinner companion and I concurred that it must have been fried in duck fat several times to achieve this kind of extra crispiness. The fries were the only item that came to our table piping hot, straight out of the fryer. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was that the olive oil fragance was too overpowering. I liked the sage touch on them but after the initial euphoria over the texture, the olive oil took over everything and not in a good way.

The flat iron steak with fingerling potatoes and oyster mushrooms was just ok. Considering the caliber (and price tag) of this place, I didn't think the quality of the meat was all that. Hard to go wrong with roasted fingerling potatoes and mushrooms, which they had skimped on (like two each). They hadn't skimped on the quantity of meat but apparently had on the quality, so that's one thing it needs to improve on.

We also had radicchio salad with lemon and olives, which was far too bitter as I had somehow expected the radicchio to have been grilled or slightly cooked to get rid of the bitterness. It had shavings of parmesan cheese but I only had a bite, which I didn't enjoy.

Dessert was a tad disappointing. We were full so got the sorbet and gelato three-scoops combo. We had the coffee and chocolate gelato and lemon sorbet but none was any good. Again, I expected to be blown away like at Gordon Ramsay (not documented in this post but went back recently) when I got the plum sorbet. Now that was amazing and tasted like I was biting into the fruit itself.

I had several other beefs with this place, good-tasting as it was.

All but the fries came out lukewarm, which didn't affect the pasta's taste so much but the steak, oh the steak. Steak's gotta be sizzling hot on the outside, right? It wasn't.

And last but not least, what's with the uber rushed service? I liked the attentive water service, but the rush to get us out was ridiculous. This isn't Fatburger, y'all. This is one thing American restaurants need to learn from their European and Asian peers. Do not clear the table unless the last morsel on the plate is gone. Do not come by five times to check whether we have paid our bill. Do not bring the bill unless we ask for it, for that matter. This is such a basic notion that I'm flabbergasted at how rude some servers at these supposedly fancy restaurants are in bringing it to you. Special occasion meals last for hours and that's why we're here. Get used to it! This isn't some go in, eat and go out-kind of place.

Also, our server was ok but not as good as the down to earth, Danny Meyer-esque trained folks at Jose Andres restaurants. Don't just hire beautiful people. Hire servers who can talk intelligently about the menu and prompts one to want to get that and return for more. Ours didn't.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cooking: Egg and Bread are All You Need for a Tres Bon Breakfast

I had the best soft-boiled egg when I went to Paris a few years ago. The cafe served it with baguette, cut into finger-thin pieces, toasted and with a generous spread of butter over them. I cracked the egg and dipped the bread into the oozing yolk. That stuck in my mind and I've been trying to recreate it ever since.

Of course, baguette and butter that good are hard to come by. I've experimented with different kinds of bread, butter and even tried it with olive oil. It takes me back every time.

I recently craved a simple breakfast that doesn't involve chopping any vegetables or anything too elaborate. So I soft-boiled the eggs -- it's important to submerge the eggs (I cooked two), lower the heat once the water reaches a boiling point and boil for another 3-5 minutes max. If you leave it for any longer than that, it won't have the oozy consistency that lets you dip your bread. If you like super oozy, do 3 minutes, if you like some oozy, do 5.

I also drizzled the bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of butter and it tasted great. A "cafe creme" would have been the perfect accompaniment to this breakfast, although I just had diluted grapefruit juice.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Iota Coffee and Bakery: Killer Space, Decent Desserts and Pastries

If this ain't food porn I don't know what is.

I'm not one to like glitzy cafes that are all style over substance but I was curious about Iota Cafe on Western, which replaced the old Eewhajang that had since become Goolhyang, an oyster specialty joint that was just soso.

No less than three permutations later, the makeover is remarkable. The space has high ceilings, is airy and I must admit, a very cool space.

That's precisely why I was apprehensive at first though. The displayed pastries were awkwardly labeled with some labels outright missing. When I asked the guy behind the counter what a pastry was and why there weren't any labels, he said it's because the items changed daily. That's fine but he should still know what they are, even if the pastry chef isn't there (that's the reason he gave for not knowing). That's not good. I didn't buy it.

Had a small coffee-flavored roll called curiously called loti that was good but tasted just like the coffee breads Korean bakeries sell. The chocolate one tasted like chocolate cake except less sweet. Loti is apparently a staple at Japanese bakeries in Little Tokyo.

The yam cake topped with some blueberries and a blackberry was pretty good, not too sweet and just what we wanted after a heavy meal. Well, technically, we didn't need to eat anything but we did. Don't judge.
I later had a beef curry pastry, flaky and baked like an empanada, which was pretty good but not Chilean empanada good. I really wish we had a Julia's Empanadas in LA. I'll save that for a rant later.

The tea selection was pretty good and it looks like it takes its coffee seriously but who knows, this is K-town, after all.
This is a great place to come after a meal to chat with your friend for hours on end. I'm not a huge fan of the massive screens with K-pop idols gyrating and music pumping but it's certainly better than ESPN if you ask me.

Warning: parking sucks but street parking isn't bad.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rant of the Week: Why Can't I Find Awesome Tonkatsu in LA?

Apologies for my delayed post but here it goes -- What's with the lack of really good tonkatsu joints in LA? I mean, with the vast Japanese, not to mention Asian, population who are clearly a tonkatsu-loving bunch, you'd think there would be at least ONE place in LA where that's the ONE thing they do and do really well.

You know, those places in Tokyo or Seoul where the house specializes in deep fried breaded pork tenderloin, chicken or fish (not as good). In fact, thanks to my food aficionado friend SY who directed me to a place in Tokyo that serves nothing but tonkatsu, I was able to savor the best, fluffiest and crispiest piece of meaty tonkatsu I've ever had. It was piping hot and crunchy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside with a tiny dollop of mustard and sauce, it was oishii for sure! Oh, and don't even mention Wako in Koreatown to me. Myungdong Donkatsu in Korea's downtown Myungdong may be acceptable, but this place blows big time. I've had to resort to making at home when cravings hit and you know how cumbersome it is to flour, egg and bread these babies and dip them in the fryer! I don't want to do all the work, darn it -- although this video got me to make tonkatsu curry the same week I watched it. And it was worth the effort. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Palsaik Samgyeopsal: Take Your Pork Belly Pick (Choose Spicy)

Palsaik Samgyeopsal, translated as eight-colored pork belly in Korean, sounded a tad gimmicky. "Pork belly, marinated and seasoned EIGHT different ways!" The verdict is that it was good but there wasn't a big difference in flavor among the different marinades.

Adding to the gimmick radar was having a sloped grill, presumably to allow fat to slide into a receptacle; a wooden plate when all the pork belly slices first come out that is labeled in three languages (Korean, Japanese and English) what the marinade or seasoning is, suggesting the sequence in which they should consumed (from mild to spicy).

The eight kinds include red wine, plain, ginseng, garlic, herbs, curry, fermented soybean paste and spicy red pepper paste. I was ready to savor the pure flavor of the meat and fat, but I didn't like the milder ones. The wine didn't add anything, the meat wasn't flavorful enough to warrant a full-blown appreciation of the plain one; the ginseng was barely noticeable (read: bland); the herbs (I tasted some parsley but it was probably a mix) one wasn't that good either; the curry one wasn't bad but call me a traditionalist, my favorite was hand-down the last one -- the most strong flavored one. The dwenjang (fermented soybean paste) one was ok but not good enough to warrant anything more than a brief mention.

 Here are the things I liked most about this joint.

1) The spicy red pepper paste pork belly (gochujang): the spicy marinade hit the spot but I did miss the most complex marinade for pork ribs and bulgoki that also includes garlic mixed with some sweetness.
2) Upon pre-heating the sloped grill, the server dumps these huge heaps of kimchi on one side and another pile of semi-spicy kongnamul, or soybean sprouts.
3) Pickled daikon radish that you can use to wrap the morsels of pork with. As pretty as it looks, I didn't love the bright pink coloring action. But they tasted good and a must for any heavy meat fest like this one. It acts sort of like a cleanser to balance out the greasiness. Wonderful combo.

I wasn't impressed with:
1) Greens selection and quantity: They gave us lettuce, Korean green pepper and perilla leaves but unlike other joints, this place decided to skimp as much as possible and give out perilla leaves in multiples of three leaves. That was annyoing. We kept having to ask for more. "Please give us more than three sheets."
2) Anemic vegetables selection: The combo we ordered came with some vegetables but they merely included a single slice of sweet potato, an even smaller slice of yellow pumpkin, two sad slices of oyster mushroom, two button mushrooms and some garlic and pepper slices. Oh, and a radish cube on a stick our server used to flavor the grill. I couldn't taste but it was different, I guess.
3) Green onion and lettuce mix: This is the stringy green onion and shredded lettuce mix that also wasn't flavorful or as plentiful as I'm used to in other joints.

Did I mention the combination is a great deal? There's plenty of food for a party of four and after the meat-grilling is over, we got the seafood soup, which was good. It had some crab, which is always challenging to suck out the flesh from but a nice change from the usual fermented soybean paste stew. The seafood was fresh, which was a nice surprise.
Then, as if we weren't already beyond stuffed, we were offered complimentary cold buckwheat noodles that Koreans have at the end of a barbecue meal. Cleanser #2.

The noodles were just ok but at least very cold with ice broth floating, which is always a good thing. I'm still in search for excellent nengmyun, the Korean name for this noodle dish.

Made from beef broth, it comes with sliced radishes, one slice of Asian pear and half of a hard-boiled egg. Usually there's a slice of beef but not in this version and that was ok.

I know it's crazy that I was even expecting to get complimentary dessert like at other barbecue joints (a glass of shikhae, a cold rice drink or at least a slice of orange!) but alas, there wasn't any.

While I do like pork belly, I think I liked Dongdaegam better for its variety and fried rice at the end (this would be what people call mindless eating).

Honey pig is a close second. Gimmicky? Yes. Worth the hype? I think I'll venture to old standbys DDG and Honey Pig for now.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cooking: Recreating Banana, Shiso and Dulce de Leche Spring Rolls from Nobu

This was how my harumaki, Japanese spring rolls that I stuffed with banana and dulce de leche, were supposed to look like. But I made the mistake of using thicker Chinese spring roll skins, so they ended up looking more like the below.

What is the difference, you ask? The thickness of the skin! It turns out that Japanese spring rolls, the crunchier kind, is a lot thinner than the Chinese skin, which tend to blister when fried.

They still looked pretty good but they just weren't the same.

Anyhow, I wanted to recreate a dessert I had at Nobu Las Vegas years ago, although it now serves a difference version. Miami's location serves a similar one too.

The one I had was truly phenomenal. It was shiso leaf-wrapped bananas with dulce de leche in a spring roll, with a side of chocolate dipping sauce and sesame brittle ice cream. It was better than any of the sushi I had at Nobu's sushi bar.

Of course, I had to improvise because I couldn't readily find the brittle ice cream (Scoops makes it but didn't have it at the time and ordering a pint or whatever would have been too much) and used store-bought chocolate sauce, which wasn't the same but not too bad.

What I'm probably most proud of is making dulce de leche in my pressure cooker. That little can of condensed milk was simmering in water for hours on end and cooled for at least 24 hours. Wow! Call it dulce de leche or manjar, which I'm more used to from my South America days (still searching for some decent mil hojas), that camel colored goodness was dangerously addictive (gotta watch my sugar intake). I thought it'd be too sweet but I added a bit dollop for each roll and it was excellent, if I may say so.

I usually don't like shiso but it went well with the combination of the sweet and savory. I used hazelnut and vanilla ice cream, which was good albeit not the same.

One of the best parts was that I had some leftover dulce de leche and thanks to SC's suggestion, I decided to spread it on some really good baguette from Bread Bar. Heat up some bread and spread it on like buttah. Best snack in the world.

Here's the recipe for a version of the harumaki with passion fruit and merengue that I found online from Nobu:

Banana Harumaki from Nobu Las Vegas

Serves 8 (2 pieces per person)

4 fresh bananas, cut into quarters
16 spring roll wrappers (7-in square)
16 shisho leaves
2-4 tablespoons dulce de leche
1 egg yolk, beaten, for sealing the wrappers
vegetable oil for deep frying
4 passion fruits
yuzu meringues
sesame ice cream

  1. Lay a spring roll wrapper on a flat surface and spray with water. Place a shiso leaf, then a banana quarter on the wrapper. Place the dulce de leche in a pastry bag and pipe out, from left to right, 2 tsp to cover the top of the banana. Roll in the wrapper. Brush the egg yolk on the edge of the wrapper and seal. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers.
  2. Fry the rolls in 325 degree oil. Transfer to a paper-lined plate to drain any excess oil and allow to cool slightly.
  3. Cut each roll in half on an angle. Arrange two halves on individual plates, or arrange all rolls on a platter. Cut the passion fruits in half and squeeze the runny flesh and seeds on top of the rolls.
  4. Crumble the yuzu meringues in a plastic bag. Sprinkle around the sides of the rolls and top each roll with a scoop of sesame ice cream.
How to make dulce de leche
Makes 14 oz

One 14oz can sweetened condensed milk

Remove label from the can and put in a pot. Add enough water to cover the can by at least 4 inches. And bring water to a boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer for 6 hours. Do not forget to add water to keep the level above the can, or the can may burst. Leave the can in the water to cool, then remove from the pot. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature before use.

*My notes: If you use a pressure cooker under relately low heat, you can get away with simmering for 2.5-3 hours.

Enjoy and let me know how they turned out!

(photo credits: this blog and this site)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Slaw Dogs: Is the Spicy Polish Dog Spicy Enough? Good Fries and Beer Selection

I'm still in search of my fave hot dog -- well charred, juicy and super spicy. Add some sauerkraut, mustard and fresh bun and I'm good to go. It had been Top Dog in Berkeley for some time but a recent visit left me sorely disappointed.

I had heard about Slaw Dogs so checked it out recently. The hot dogs were disappointing but the fries weren't bad and I liked its beer selection that included Allagash, a white ale from Maine and Hitachino, one of my favorite beers of all time.

I first had the spicy Calabrese, and hated it as soon as I bit into it. It was the fennel in the sausage. I asked the guy over the counter if I could swap it for a spicy Polish and he generously gave me a new one.
I added sauerkraut, grilled onions and bbq sauce as toppings that came with it. The dog was not bad but just not excellent like the hot link at that certain Berkeley joint (at least until recently).

I got it charbroiled as opposed to steamed, which is how I like it. The bread was fresh enough and the toppings were fine. The sausage itself just wasn't the same.

The sweet potato and regular fries combo basket was good but nothing mind-blowing.

It's a cute place and maybe I will try the Thai dog or other specialty ones others have raved about. But I much prefer the ambiance at Wurstkuche with the communal tables in Little Tokyo. It is a bit out of the way but maybe good for a quick bite if you're in the area.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rant of the Week: O, Galchi, Where Art Thou?

To mix things up a bit, I've decided to start a Rant of the Week section and alternate with the cooking tip/recipe of the week. Yes, it's not the most constructive use of our time but hey, maybe it can lead to something good.

So my inaugural rant (cue patriotic music) will be on the sad state of Korean seafood in Los Angeles and the US in general. Since LA boasts the largest Korean population outside of Korea, I'm going to guess that if it isn't sold here, it isn't sold anywhere else in the US.

What am I talking about specifically? If you've ever been to Korea or Cheju Island on the southern tip of the country, you can get the meatiest, fleshiest and most delicious galchi, which is translated as silver fish or belt fish. It has a beautiful silvery skin (pictured above) that gets even better when broiled with some salt.

It's that good. It doesn't need anything else but salt and some heat. If I'm craving something spicy, then a braised galchi jorim with red pepper flakes, red pepper paste and a ton of garlic and radishes would be perfect.

But alas, none of the Korean markets carries half-way decent galchi (believe me, I've tried) and the fish isn't sold in any other markets. Hence my rant -- why doesn't the US import galchi from Chejudo? Maybe it's one of those supply issues where there aren't enough to go around beyond domestic consumption. For the time being, then, we'll have to console ourselves with mackerel that's readily available for now. But it's just not the same. If anyone knows of a good fishmonger that carries fresh, fleshy galchi, let me know!