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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Madang621: Excellent Side Dishes But Mains Fail to Impress

I wasn't sure what to expect from the revamped Bann space in the CGV complex at the heart of Koreatown on Western and Wilshire. I had never been to the previous spot but Madang621 initially looked like style over substance from the outside. Even though it operates as Madang621, it doesn't have a new website or yelp page (I don't get why so few Korean restaurants have websites -- but let me save that for a rant or future business idea). Different priorities...

In any case, I wasn't blown away but I did enjoy some things and here are some highlights.

I can't recall the last time I had yookhoe, super quality raw meat cut in strips and seasoned with soy sauce, garlic and some sweetness, topped with a raw yolk (yes, just like steak tartare!) and garnished with crunchy slivers of Asian pear. The meat was good, if not hard from being frozen (it should be room temperature and soft), and tasted fresh enough. The marinade was just right and combination with the pears was divine. This place drizzled some spicy sauce around the plate but I'm not sure it needed it. Ditto for the greens on top. More for looks.
The meat and shrimp were all ok, nothing spectacular (meat was a bit tough). The real star of this place was hands down the banchan -- the side dishes that accompany every Korean meal.

The offerings were unusual for a barbecue place, including my personal favorites: duduk, an earthy root that's been pounded to soften it and smothered with spicy pepper paste, garlic and sesame oil; kkennip jjangajji, perilla leaves steamed with a spicy sauce; and chuinamul, an aromatic green that's often consumed with ogokbap (rice with five grains) during the full moon holiday after the Lunar New Year.
I also liked the blanched mini-squids (kkoltoogi) that came with the steamed broccoli and bright red spicy, sweet and tangy sauce. The baby squids were tender and dipped in the sauce, were addictive.

The banchan were all solid, just spicy and salty enough to complement the healthy white and black rice with beans.

The duenjang jjigae, or fermented soybean stew, was unremarkable. It tasted diluted -- not salty and hearty enough -- like it had no soul. Go here instead for that.

The dessert was a feeble attempt at replicating a classic Korean summer treat, patbingsoo, which is basically a red bean slush with all sorts of goodies on top, preferably fresh fruit.

It was grandiose in its presentation but besides coming in a bowl made out of slush, we found all of nine little pebbles of red beans. The vanilla ice cream tasted cheap. The red syrup looked and tasted ghastly. The canned fruits were sad-looking. For a place that spends so much dough on decoration, I think it can afford to do better. This didn't even do the namesake justice.

We also had Korean peppers (pootkochu) stuffed with white fish and deep fried but they were kind of bland and dry. The chicken legs that were presented as potstickers and seasoned like buffalo wings were hardly worth mentioning -- dry and too sweet.

If this place is serious about delivering good Korean food, it needs to 1) make up its mind about its identity -- is it a traditional BBQ place or fusion? 2) improve service (place more heat lamps in the patio) and most importantly, 3) improve the quality of the meat (the cooked meat was a bit tough) and the litmus test for many a Korean restaurant -- the soybean stew.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cooking: What To Do With Leftover Basil -- Super Easy Walnut Pesto

I recently bought a bunch of fresh basil to have some Caprese salad but there's only so much basil I can have. So once the buffalo mozzarella or heirloom tomatoes ran out, I was stuck with these super fragrant basil leaves.

I'm usually not a huge fan of pesto unless it's served in small doses as a sauce of some kind to fish or meats. So I took matters into my own hands and concocted my own. I didn't really measure anything. I don't think you need to. Just took the thick stems off of the basil and placed them in a food processor that has a lid with an opening to pour the olive oil into once it starts running. Then I added some garlic, pecans (never seen this done but I had had walnut pesto so figured it'd be ok -- you could probably substitute with almonds or of course, the OG, pine nuts) and grated Parmesan cheese. I turned the switch on and as it went, I slowly added the olive oil through the lid with the opening until I saw a creamy consistency. Then I seasoned it to taste, added fresh lemon juice to get rid of the heavy oil smell that was a turnoff for me and a whiff of agave that I probably shouldn't have added. Finished it off with freshly ground pepper and it was good to go. Oh, I also added some cayenne pepper for some kick and it was barely noticeable but added an interesting layer of flavor.

I tried to recreate one of the few pesto pasta dishes that I will eat -- from all places, a tiny hole in the wall in downtown Seoul called Pomodoro (no relation to the local chain here). It used to serve pesto with prawns and spaghetti. I browned some cut-up shrimp and added the prepared pesto while the pasta was cooking. Once pasta was almost done (after about 9 minutes for spaghetti), I strained it and added the pasta to the pan with the shrimp pesto -- smothered it and presto (no pun intended). Bon appetito~

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shalala in Bay Area: Decent Shio Ramen and Uber-Crispy Gyoza

I'm always on the prowl for excellent ramen, so I was excited to try this spot in Mountain View in Northern California during a recent visit. I haven't had much luck finding a good place in San Francisco so it was a welcome adventure that made the long drive to South Bay worth it just for the anticipation of good food and good friends.

An old friend and I went to Shalala, a small joint in a strip mall near the Farmers' Market area. There was a line forming even before it opened, which was a good sign. The verdict is that I liked it. I got the shio (salt) ramen that came with two dainty slices of chashu in a tonkotsu broth that was delightfully porky.

We also got the mandatory gyoza, which I consider just as important for a ramen joint (ok, that's an overstatement but you know what I mean). Check out the wonderful crust that formed on the bottom of these beauties. It was like all the gyoza were joined at the hip but in a good way! The pork gyoza was solid and got me even more excited to try the ramen.

The broth was strong and good. The chashu was tender, probably boiled to death (also in a good way) and the noodles were just firm enough (how do say al dente in Japanese?)
We also got a radish, greens and bean sprout salad that had the standard soy-sauce based dressing that's slightly sweet.

It had deep fried wonton chips, which I dislike but didn't make much of since I was focused on the gyoza and ramen.

All in all, a happy meal that I hope to return to. Having said that, I don't think it topped Shinsengumi or Santouka here in LA. Did it top Daikokuya, you ask? I'm not going to honor that with an answer. D is one of the most overrated ramen shops in LA, and thank God Shinsengumi will finally give it a run for its money. Watch out, D, Shinsengumi is in town! Must try S's new Little Tokyo location but if the other S locales are any indication, it'll be rock solid. I heart Shinsengumi! Normal broth, low oil and hard noodles, baby!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cooking: A High-Fiber and Delish Alternative to Bagel + Lox

I love having lox for breakfast but I'm sometimes deterred by the denseness and heavy carbs of the bagel it usually comes with. While I love me a great bagel (with everything on it, of course), I like to switch things up once in a while and use wheat toast or lavash bread (Armenian flat bread) to similar effect.

A while ago, I ran into an hors d'oeuvres recipe for a lavash roll that only added cream cheese, arugula and pickled ginger (the kind served at sushi joints). I served it at parties and it was a huge crowd pleaser for the creamy and tangy flavor combinations that sounds gross but was really good. Somewhere along the way, my sister improvised by adding smoked salmon to the mix. A natural extension, right?

And so the alternative lox sandwich was born. I was elated to find that the whole wheat lavash bread I got had a whopping 18g of dietary fiber!

They're so easy to make, taste great and are a great start to a long day of work or outdoor activities. I went a step further and experimented with a bunch of different combinations, adding red leaf lettuce, perilla leaves, avocado, cucumbers and pickled sliced jalapenos (basically anything I had in my fridge). Or if you don't  have much, just cream cheese and salmon works (pictured left).

To make (or assemble, really), cut a large piece of lavash bread off, spread cream cheese in a rectangular area (I used low-fat that tasted just as good), place whatever ingredients you have, smoked salmon (I used wild Alaskan sockeye salmon -- thank you Costco!), pickled ginger, avocado, cucumber and jalapenos and roll it up. Then slice them into once-inch rolls and enjoy! I had mine with an over-easy egg, which went well. Then again, I could have a fried egg with anything and it'd taste good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Salt's Cure: Overrated and Overpriced -- Needs to Use Less of Its Namesake

Salt's Cure is one of those places I had always driven by and been meaning to check out. I finally did and I must say, I was disappointed. Amazingly, I'm somehow willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, saying it must be more of a breakfast or brunch place. After all, I've seen the long lines forming on weekends (although that doesn't necessarily mean it's good -- think Blue Jam Cafe).

Sadly, I wasn't impressed with any of the food except the burger. It wasn't the best one I've ever had, but it was the most interesting and tastiest thing we had. The burger patty was good -- the meat was fresh and I could tell freshly ground -- but there were some fatty parts that I could have done without (you know, when you chew on it and it's so fatty you can't so you have to somehow get it out of your mouth). The cured ham on top of the patty was ok but I don't think it added a whole lot of value in terms of flavor and texture. The house-made poppyseed bun was an interesting touch but ultimately too dense for its own good. The fries looked promising but were a bit greasy and soggy -- just not as crispy as they could be.

We got the potted pork that message boards raved about but it was clearly overrated as it had an unpleasant porky smell and tasted like smelly tuna salad with too much mayo in it. It had the same texture but what was particularly egregious was that it was far too salty. The accompanying (also house-baked) bread was toasted and hard (but not warm) like biscuits. The also house-made pickles were ok but nothing special.

I was excited to try the house-made (ok, they pretty much make everything in-house) carpaccio -- called raw dry aged beef on the menu -- with leeks, parsley and drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Downer: the carpaccio was too salty on top of not being sliced razor thin as they should be and the texture was too chewy, like it hadn't been cured for long enough. It tasted like fake carpaccio. I've had far better carpaccio at other fine dining establishments.

Don't even get me started on the salad. It sounded promising enough: avocado, grapefruit and red onion salad with greens. I'm guessing the place grows the greens too? Well, for a $12 starter salad, I expect it to look a bit more sophisticated looking than this mush of overdressed greens with other ingredients thrown in. If the ghastly-looking thing tasted half-way decent, I wouldn't mind at all. But the lettuce was literally drowning in an overpowering citrusy dressing and as if to stay consistent with the rest of the meal, was also too salty. The dressing was so overpowering that I could barely taste the grapefruit, red onion or avocado. Not good.

I was pinning my hopes on the dessert but alas, it was too sweet. It was raisin bread pudding with caramel. I'm a bread pudding lover but a picky one so didn't find the texture to be substantial enough. It was a bit too mushy. I know caramel is supposed to be sweet but not this sweet! So I only had a bite or two.

Maybe I'll return for brunch but why go here when I could go to the solid Square One?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cooking: The Secret to Quick and Delish Spaghetti Al Ragu

I know that pasta is one of the easiest things to make at home. And among those, spaghetti al ragu, or bolognese as it's known here, is one of the easiest to make. But I wanted to share a revelation I had recently about what makes the sauce taste better.

I usually start by sauteing the ground beef with some minced garlic and chopped onions in olive oil, then add San Marzano canned tomatoes and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. I know the OG recipes for ragu require a mix of ground pork and other meats but consider this al ragu light when in a pinch.

The upside is multi-tasking is easy for this recipe. You can bring a huge pot of water to a boil while you do this so that by the time the sauce has simmered for a while, the water will be ready and you can throw in the spaghetti to cook it for about 9-11 minutes (add salt to the water).

All you need to do for the sauce is season it with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and the secret ingredient to making it taste not as bitter from the tomato sauce is sugar! I add a little bit of agave to the sauce and presto -- you got a nice bowl of spaghetti al ragu. Ok, the OG recipe may call for tomato paste instead of crushed tomatoes and may require a trio of carrots, onions and celery for flavoring but I said it was al ragu light!

This was an epiphany for me (the adding sugar part) so hopefully it is helpful for your pasta cooking adventures too.Sprinkle with some freshly grated Parmesan and you're good to go.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

ink: Excellent, Beautiful and Comforting Food -- Seaweed Mashed Potatoes, Anyone?

I've always been a huge fan of the Bazaar and considering Michael Voltaggio was partly responsible for that magic, I entered ink with great anticipation.

Thankfully there was no line for walk-ins at 6pm on a Sunday. We sat at the bar and ordered away.

The verdict: loved it! It was almost as good as the Bazaar. As you know, I'm not one for hyperbole and I rarely gush about restaurants unless they truly warrant it.

We started off with a refreshing hamachi sashimi plate with grapefruit, slices of jalapeno and a parsnip-sesame cream. The hamachi was excellent -- velvety and super fresh. It also came with these sponge cake-like things that had hints of sesame in them and texture-wise, the plate was garnished with what seemed like parsnip chips. They were crunchy and complemented very well with the buttery hamachi. The jalapenos were tempered so they weren't super spicy and had just the right hint of heat.

Before staring our food adventure, I got a cocktail of brandy, mint, fig and lemon that was mixed by superstar mixologist Devon Espinoza. I just blogged about how much I love figs so this was a no-brainer. It was delicious and the perfect aperitif to the meal I was about to have.

The bay scallops on a bed of cream of dehydrated potato, tiny potato skins and topped with a type of micro-greens was so comforting. The scallops were seared and nicely browned but super soft on the inside. The potato skins were cute as a button, not to mention crispy and all the good things about potato skins (but without the insane glob of cheese and bacon you get at other joints).

Another highlight was the seaweed mashed potatoes. How good could mashed potatoes be? Mashed potatoes are mashed potatoes, right?

Well, the sea grass flavor gave the super creamy mashed potatoes another dimension of flavor besides a light tint of green. I know I said the scallops were comforting but so were these potatoes. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something about creamy, starchy things that just take you back to that super nostalgic, comfy place. While intoxicated in my state of nostalgic euphoria, I soon found myself scraping the bottom of that dish.

The mashed potatoes were topped with sea beans that didn't have such a distinctive taste but it did give a slight crunch to the decadent potatoes. I wished I were sitting in a booth so I could curl up with a blanket nursing this dish.

The other dish (actually, I loved all the dishes except for two) to rave about was the octopus that tasted smoked and super soft, with some buttered popcorn mash (yes, he literally took buttered popcorn and blended it), piquillo peppers and humble, fresh spinach to finish it off.

The octopus was thick and amazing. The plate also featured an edible band with holes that had been made from compressed piquillo peppers. The band tasted smoky and delicious, just like the real peppers.

The two dishes that weren't as stellar were the crab and squid. The crab came wrapped in seaweed and then again in a thin spring roll sheet that was deep fried, cut at a bias into half and accompanied by bok choy kimchi and drizzled with smoked mayo. Being a die-hard kimchi fan, I was very skeptical about how it'd taste. I assumed it would be watered down but alas, I was wrong. He didn't compromise on the heat. He ground the spicy paste very finely -- so finely that it almost didn't look like kimchi. The red hue was more of a bright orange so that's where my bias came from. I liked the kimchi but the crab rolls didn't jive as well with the garlicky kick of kimchi and the mayo didn't add too much value either.

The squid dish was a giant squid cut into strips like pasta ribbons seasoned with piment d'espelette, a mild pepper often used in Basque cuisine. The "pasta" sat on a squash emulsion and a hazelnut-squid ink pesto. It was garnished with Parmesan crisps.

It wasn't bad but not as excellent as the other dishes.

One interesting thing we noticed and that the restaurant is apparently known for are these huge blocks of ice served with the drinks at the bar. It's a large, vertical block of ice the length of a tall glass that looks like a sculpture. Even the way the ice looks inside is like art - just beautiful. It's a patented type of ice and they were cagey about sharing any secrets to how it's done.

The desserts were good and definitely a treat for their unusual combinations and innovation.

The one I liked better was the grapefruit curd with avocado essence, cilantro sorbet and charred maple-lime. The grapefruit was tart and not too sweet and the avocado added an interesting savory layer to the dessert. My favorite within this dish was the cilantro sorbet. It was a dark green packed with cilantro flavor that cleansed the palate and was a great finish to a meal. I couldn't stop scooping the sorbet. The maple-lime was good but I was happy just with the cilantro sorbet.

The apple creme caramel came with burnt wood sabayon, and topped with a merengue dome. I didn't care too much for the whole thing but I liked the little apple-flavored "grapes" made from compressed apples with some liquid that makes it look like these beautiful translucent gems.

All in all, ink didn't disappoint with creative but not gimmicky (ok, maybe a little gimmicky) dishes that push the envelope and make for a great food adventure. Unusual combinations and textures are the name of the game here and I can't wait to return to try the meat dishes. My dinner companion and I also thought the prices were reasonable for what we got -- for the most part, art on a plate.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cooking: Fig Withdrawal Coming Soon, Have it While You Can!

Just wanted to thank the 16 folks who are following me and many others who come here regularly to read my rants and revelations! Let me know what you think of the places I review or recipes I share. Would love to hear from you~

Ok, so this post isn't so much about cooking as it is about assembling. I'm desperately trying to stretch this year's fig season -- that is, trying to find figs until the very last moment. I like black figs better than green ones as I find them sweeter and juicier, but then again, maybe I haven't had a fantastic green one.

Anyhow, I got into this routine of having a quick and delish dinner on weekdays where I slice a bunch of black figs in half and alternate my bites of figs with pairings of 1) a slice of prosciutto or 2) a slice of super rich and creamy cheese (I tried Lingot D'argental). You feel a tad guilty having pork and gooey cheese for dinner but that is tempered by the rationale that I'm eating fruit so in the end, I feel ok. And completely satiated and titillated by the explosion of flavors including salty, sweet and slightly bitter as well as textures like crunchy (from the fig seeds) and creamy.

I daydream about the excellent, razor-thin prosciutto and caramelized figs served at Girasole. Until my next trip there, this trio of home-assembled fig concoction will have to do.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jang-an Duenjang: Excellent Duenjang Jjigae, Stew with Serious Soul

No, it isn't photogenic by any stretch, but solid, perfectly salty and stinky in a good way duenjang jjigae, or fermented soybean paste stew, is the ultimate comfort food for me. But sadly, it isn't easy to come by in LA's Koreatown. And that's why you must venture to Jang-an Duenjang. Jang-an is one of those places where everything is only in Korean, including the mini-mall sign, the sign outside the actual restaurant and the menu. Basically, it hasn't bothered trying to market itself to the non-Korean population because it figured it was self-sustaining within the community. But that would be a huge mistake because it serves a really mean duenjang jjigae that behooves it to be shared.

Salty? Check. Potent? Check. Big chunks of tofu, zucchini, onions and potatoes? Check. Just the right ratio of water to duenjang, the paste, gave it the right consistency and stinky goodness.

What I also liked about this place was the side dishes like the kimchi, which is made here and was unlike the commercial ones sold in bulk at the markets. I could taste the freshness and it was just the right level of spicy.

It also had bean sprouts, or kongnamul, that had been blanched and seasoned with some garlic, salt and sesame oil. The other banchan included daikon radish strips pickled with rice vinegar and red pepper flakes with a hint of sweetness added for a refreshing finish. The tofu side dish was a bit hard and tasted like it had been sitting on the counter for a while. Not the freshest tasting.

We also got an order of pan-fried flounder-like fish, in Korean it's anmyunsoo, which was not the fleshiest of fish but fresh and delicious.

Again, not photogenic at all (quite scary-looking, actually) but I'm telling you, it's good and worth getting. Grilling or broiling is probably healthier than pan-fried like this (similar to the fried whole fish you get at Thai restaurants) but it's still relatively healthy. It's not often that Korean restaurants serve good seafood. I still haven't found a good fish market in Koreatown, but I'll save that for a rant later.

So if you'd like to try some rustic Korean stew that's got soul and a ton of sodium that will be balanced out by some clean protein in the accompanying fish you'll order, get thee to Jang-an Duenjang, located on the corner of Olympic and Berendo in Koreatown just west of Vermont.