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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Red Medicine: Good Amberjack and Chinese Lion Peppers (?), Save Room for Dessert

I wasn't sure what to expect at Red Medicine, which makes it abundantly clear on its site that it does NOT serve Vietnamese food. Rather it serves Vietnamese-inspired food. The chef/owner did stints as pastry chef for both Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz of Alinea (in Chicago) fame.

Overall nothing too special. The best savory dish was the amberjack served raw with something called succulents, which tasted very fresh and looked like thin asparagus spears; deep fried lotus roots that gave the dish a crunchy texture; red seaweed that didn't do much for the flavor but looked pretty -- all on a bed of buttermilk and tiny tapioca balls that doubled as dipping sauce for the fish pieces.

The next best savory dish was something we got because we happen to take the Brussels sprouts back. The sprouts were supposed to be caramelized with fish sauce and vermouth, topped with those shrimp fritter you get out of a box. We took back the sprouts because they were beyond caramelized. They were burnt. So were the new ones we got.

On the house, the kitchen sent over what were called Chinese lion peppers, smothered in some ground almond (the menu said "almond skin" so that was curious), honey, soy, and garnished with some slivered dates and violet basil leaves.

The nuttiness reminded me of the nutty Korean drink in its powder form, misugaru, but I digress. The peppers were roasted or flash fried and weren't that spicy. The nutty almond powder and spicy peppers liked each other, as Jaimie Oliver would say. Some bites were accentuated by the occasional sweet and chewy date slivers. The violet basil gave a subtle but decidedly aromatic basil presence to the mix.
We naturally had high expectations for the dessert, since he made his name as a dessert guy. They didn't disappoint.

The more memorable one was coconut Bavarois, which combines coffee, condensed milk, Thai basil frozen balls like beautiful green gems and peanut croquant (French for "crisp") that were like crunchy and soft peanut cakes.  Once mixed with all the other components, made for a creamy and delicious dessert I'd never experienced before. Approved!
The other dessert was rhubarb leaves atop a mountain of lemongrass meringue and cream (fancy name: mahlab cremeux) that, in turn, sit atop a biscuit with hibiscus jam. The whole thing was decorated with rhubarb that had been sliced uber thin and deep fried (we first thought they were beets) and some gorgeous violet flower petals known as gentian.

The verdict? Too much going on, unfortunately. Beautiful, no doubt, but not sure it lives up to the insane description or aesthetic.

Service was ok until it made the cardinal sin of all time -- brought the check before we asked for it. It doesn't matter if we've ordered all there is to order and we've had our dessert and said we didn't want coffee. I don't think any fine dining establishment should do this, regardless of how packed it is -- and this place most definitely was not packed at all. That is a HUGE pet peeve...Done ranting now.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cooking: A Simple Fried Egg and Jalapeno Quesadilla with a Cold Brew

I'm no beer snob or connoisseur, but every once in a while I like to try new beers at a fave gastropub or at a local market and then get excited when I find one I liked. I recently found that I liked Indian Wells' Silver Sun. It says it's a "premium lite lager," which doesn't mean a whole lot to this beer novice. But I do know that it had a rich flavor without too much bitterness, which I really liked.

No glass of beer is complete without the right anju, as Koreans would say, or pintxo, as Spaniards would say. So of course, I whipped up a quesadilla with a whole wheat tortilla, a shredded cheddar and monterey jack cheese mix, some pickled jalapeno slices and the venerable runny fried egg to bring it all together.

They went perfectly well together. The glass nicely painted by OK (those are really her initials) made it even better.

For best results, pre-heat a pan in medium high heat, place tortilla in pan, place cheese and other ingredients on half of the tortilla and fold into half. Flip the tortilla once the cheese starts oozing (about 3 minutes) and cook for another minute. Slice into two or three pieces and enjoy!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Yamadaya Ramen: Weak Broth, Go for the Chicken Karaage

I had high hopes for Yamadaya Ramen, which recently opened outposts in Culver City and Westwood. I should have been more skeptical in retrospect, considering I haven't been able to find a bowl of ramen better than Shinsengumi's, with Santouka's a distant second. The post on Shinsengumi was my very first post back in April 2007. How quickly they grow!

Then there's also the element of the all-too rapid expansion. It took Shinsengumi years to open that many locations, but Yamadaya's seemed rushed. Just like a burger, the best ramen consists of all its excellent components working in perfect harmony together.

So let's dissect. The first things I dig into when tasting a bowl of ramen are 1) broth and 2) the noodles. The broth of the Yamadaya Ramen, which is allegedly a result of bones boiled for 20 hours plus, was so weak it was embarrassing. Ok, a reliable source told me it wasn't anything like this one in the original Torrance location and I believe her. But this was ridiculous. Diluted. Watered down. No self-respecting ramen joint would ever call this tonkotsu ramen broth.

The noodles weren't exactly overcooked but weren't as katame (al dente in Japanese -- thanks MN!) as I usually like them. Hate to belabor the point but Shinsengumi is probably the only ramen shop where you can choose the hardness of the noodles (and the strength of the broth and oil level).

Yamadaya offers fresh garlic to be minced table side into your broth. I loved the concept (and cool-looking retro tool) and I ended up adding some as a last ditch effort to salvage my sad broth. But no amount of garlic could bring this liquid back to life. Sigh.

The other works, like bamboo shoots, green onions and chashu, were fine. I particularly liked that the hard-boiled egg half was done just enough for the yolk to be soft but not oozy and not completely solid. That and the chashu pieces, which were soft and not at all too porky-smelling, may have been the best parts of this otherwise below average ramen.

The ramen that came with a massive block of pork belly was another disappointment. That pork belly should have been crumbling at first bite, dissolving softly in your mouth from 20-plus hours of slow cooking. It was tough and didn't fall off at all. It's a travesty not cooking a great part like pork belly right.

To be fair, Yamadaya raised our expectations by serving excellent chicken karaage before our ramens arrived. We just wanted a good appetizer to go with a nice cold brew, but we got crispy and perfectly-seasoned fried chicken (usually dark thigh meat) that exceeded my expectations. The meat inside was juicy and soft. Little did we know that we were in for a free-fall soon.

The gyoza arrived late, which was odd because those usually get to the table before the ramen too. These were hands-down the worst thing we had there. They were greasy but most importantly, the pork filling smelled really bad -- like the pork was either quite old or just not good quality when purchased.

You really need to step up your gyoza and broth game, Yamadaya.

I used to be biased against ramen joints that opened on the west side because I've never been impressed with their ramen. I would like nothing more than having that myth dispelled because it's close to where I am. For the time being, I'll have to venture to Santouka in Venice for immediate cravings and drive down to South Bay or Little Tokyo for Shinsengumi and other joints I have yet to try.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cooking: Greens and Other Side Dishes Make for Great Home-made Bibimbap

I tried to recreate all the amazing greens and namul (side dishes) that some of the best home-cooks made in Korea. Not surprisingly, the ingredients weren't as good out here so it definitely wasn't the same, but they were still good.

I made my version of bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables -- usually meat is added but I left it out to keep it healthy) out of the bean sprouts, spinach, radish, nengi (aromatic greens attached to a tiny root that is cleaned and consumed), carrots, shitake mushrooms and sauteed kimchi, topped with an oozing fried egg. Since all the vegetables had been blanched, boiled or stir fried with some garlic, green onions and slightly seasoned, they melded well together, as some less salty veggies complemented the saltier ones I seasoned with duenjang, fermented soybean paste.

It also made the rice very healthy, using brown rice and adding barley, red beans, black beans, millet and other grains and beans packed with fiber and other nutritious stuff. I also added buchu, a green I had raved about in a recent Korea post.

Usually a red pepper paste mixed with sesame oil is added to mix the rice and vegetables but I didn't need it here because the sauteed kimchi did the trick. I added extra sesame oil, and it was good. I felt so nourished after eating this and I didn't get sick of it despite eating it over and over again. It's that good.

I won't post the recipes for each of the vegetables because they're so simple. Check out the post I did on the nengi namul using duenjang as seasoning.

Or, you'll just have to buy my cookbook someday!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Steingarten LA: Lackluster Burger & Sausage, Barely Redeemed by Beer List

I always go to where a supposedly good burger resides so made my way to Steingarten LA in West LA. I was sorely disappointed. Not only was "The Works" burger overcooked twice (I gave up after the first time taking it back) but it wasn't even that good. In fact, the patty was flavorful enough but the sum of its parts, including the bun, toppings, etc, just didn't cut it. It's not even an average burger, I'm afraid.

The bun was far too dense and while I liked that it was toasted, that didn't help the fact that it was still too dense. I didn't feel like a lot of thought had gone into the toppings, which included tomatoes, cheddar cheese, lettuce, raw onions and Thousand Island dressing.

We tried the Bratwurst because the owner was raving about them. Disappointing. It didn't even come close to the ones I had on the streets of Germany years ago. Then he played up the dipping sauces that he makes in-house, including a very good garlic and herb-based green sauce, that was hands-down my favorite. I think that was the one good thing about the place and smothering that sauce on the burger helped a little bit (but ultimately didn't save it).

The beet salad was too heavily sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, defeating the purpose of salad. I liked having an extensive beer list but I could get that at Biergarten, Village Idiot, Congregation Ale House in Long Beach, heck even in My Father's Office that I don't frequent much.

Sorry but I'm not returning to this joint. There are simply too many far better options out there for the same price, or even less.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cooking: Winter Salad at its Best -- Spinach and Persimmon Salad

I love winter salads and the combination of fruit, nuts and greens. So this spinach and persimmon salad was the perfect counterpoint to the heavier braised oxtail dish I prepared for a recent dinner with some of my dearest friends who happen to be crazy food people (ok, maybe that's not so shocking).

Our host, GS, presented this delightful salad and even gave it her own spin, using almonds instead of pecan and adding pear slices in addition to the persimmons. I actually like almonds more than pecans so it was a great substitute for me. And what's not to like about pears in a salad? They added a touch of sweetness and soft texture.

The kicker for this salad, however, is the entirely unexpected aroma of toasted sesame oil that hits you when you take a mouthful of the greens and goodies into your mouth. It only takes a teaspoon but a little sesame oil goes a long way and it sure did in this salad. It wasn't overpowering and melded so well with the sweetness of the fruit and freshness of the spinach.

A winning salad that seems simple to make and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser at any potluck or dinner party table.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mas Malo: Hold the Ceviche and Guac Fries, Good for After-Work Cocteles

I've never eaten at Malo, but checked out Mas Malo, which is an offshoot and wasn't blown away. The space was gorgeous, similar in vibe and decor to Bottega Louie down the street. The service was appalling and most importantly, the food was average.

Ok, the carne asada and al pastor tacos (had to specify "soft tacos" as opposed to hard ones -- who in her right mind gets hard tacos these days? Ok, I won't judge or hate.) were actually good and one of the spicier salsas was the saving grace. But overall, I'd say it's more of a happy hour-kind of place than it is a fantastic eating experience.

The shrimp and seafood ceviche on tostadas was just a notch above average. The seafood tasted fresh enough but there wasn't too much flavor there.

There were a few salsas and I must say I'm not a huge fan of pico de gallo. I'm a roasted salsa-kind of person who likes her salsa smoky with bits of black roasted pepper and tomato bits floating -- although I know they are carcinogenic and I should reduce my consumption but they're so darn good... One of the spicier roasted salsas was interesting but not quite at the excellent level.

The guacamole fries held so much promise on the menu but alas, the guac was bland and the cheese sprinkled with some cotija-type cheese was the only flavor I could detect.

I looked up the menu online and it looks like it doesn't offer the ceviche or fries anymore, unless it's not publishing its happy hour menu. If it discontinued them, it may be good news as they needed to go or get some flavor infused. Guac fries was a great concept but it failed in its execution. Of course, that didn't stop me from eating the fries, which were decently fried but I dipped them in the salsa out of desperation for some semblance of flavor.

The desserts weren't all that impressive either. The churros weren't as good as the ones I had at Ortega 120, which had crispy, airy churros accompanied by the gooeiest (not sure this word exists but whatever), most intense chocolate sauce. These were just meh.

The drinks were interesting, using different kinds of tequila and mixing it with hibiscus. Given I'm virtually addicted to jamaica, it was a great pairing. I had The Senorita, that doesn't come with salt on the rim.

It's worth a trip just to see the amazing space. I would return to try other cocktails but not before it stops charging for chips and salsa, which is like charging for kimchi or bread and butter -- OUTRAGEOUS!

Park in the lot behind Bottega, which is like $3 after 6pm or something so it's reasonable and walkable.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cooking: Spanish Chorizo + Manchego Cheese on Crusty Bread = Best Snack Ever

After all that Korean food, I must say I sometimes got a hankering for some serious cheeses and hams. And what better counterbalance to rice and kimchi than chorizo Espanol with manchego cheese on crusty bread?

I got all the goodies from my favorite online Spanish store, La Tienda, which has a great selection of Spanish hams and cheeses, not to mention olives and piquillo peppers -- the list goes on.

I tried this chorizo Espanol for the first time and it was divine. I usually get the Palacios brand but these were sliced paper thin and seemed lighter (although probably not by much).

Perfect for a Spanish breakfast sandwich-late afternoon snack-cum-tapas-kind of fix.

Try ordering the Jamon Iberico de Bellota if you haven't tried it yet at The Bazaar, which is one of the few restaurants that serve good quality stuff. It's like buttah, I tell you.

Buen provecho, vale!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best of 2011: Short-ribs Gravy over Fries, Fried Chix Sandwich and Pizza that Won't Kill Your Wallet

1. Best Fine Dining: ink
Ok, this is completely predictable but I thought I'd get the obvious ones out of the way. ink was creative, flavorful and well-executed. The chef even impressed me with his version of bokchoy kimchi. The service could be better and I wish it were open on Sunday. I don't want to kiss up too much, but I'd say this joint is one of the best new eats around town too.

2. Best Comfort Food: Son of a Gun
It's no diner, but Son of a Gun manages to take something so close to our hearts like a lobster roll or fried chicken sandwich and elevate it to such heights you tolerate its not being on Opentable for an easy reservation and grudgingly make a call. The chicken sandwich was everything you'd expect from fried chicken and more. The sugar plum sorbet was like biting right into an actual sugar plum, except it was icy and slushy, both in a good way.

3. Best Brunch: Square One
Yes, Square One is hipster central, but it has the nicest patio and serves something different than typical brunch joints. I love its baked eggs with chorizo and gruyere cheese and salsa. Even brunch place standards like french toast and pancakes are well executed and well above your typical joint. I had fresh plums over my french toast as it offers seasonal fruits over them and it was summer time. They were incredibly sweet and juicy. One gripe about this place: get rid of the flies indoors. It's extremely annoying. If I wanted to go to a nature preserve, I would have.

4. Best Gastropub: Biergarten
It's a humble joint located in a non-descript strip mall in Koreatown but I've been repeatedly impressed by the creative menu items and for the most part, being pleasantly surprised at how good they are. Oh, and they're decadent. Behold this short rib poutine, with some blue cheese thrown in. Actually, the first time I had it was the best version. The rib meat didn't taste as good the second time around. They tasted old and I couldn't really finish it off as cleanly as I had the first time. Great concept and decent execution but needs to work on quality control of ingredients used. Great beer selection although I didn't love the beer flight. Other standouts include the excellent German fried rice with a gooey fried egg on top, the above-average burger (save for the bun that needs improvement), the roasted chicken and the fig salad.

Honorable mention: Congregation Ale House  in Long Beach. It didn't make the best of cut because the quality of the burger that was excellent the first time around, deteriorated the second time around. Why did I give a pass to Biergarten for its lesser poutine? Because I'm a hard-core burger person and can't tolerate inconsistent burgers! And the chairs are uncomfortable, unlike Biergarten's cushy booth-like seating where we can spend hours chatting, laughing and stuffing our faces with delicious short rib gravy over fries.

5. Best Banh Mi: Banh Mi Cho Cu
I haven't tried the Nom Nom truck but judging from all the other less than satisfying food truck experiences, I'm highly skeptical that I'll be blown away. In the meantime, I'll stick to Westminster for my banh mi sandwiches. I so wish there were more authentic banh mi joints closer to me but alas, it is not to be.

The bread was fresh and the meats used were flavorful and not smelly like some bad ones I'd visited.

6. Best New Burger: Lazy Ox Canteen
You didn't think I'd let 2011 pass by without mention of one of my favorite things in the world, did you?

I didn't like the Ox the first time I visited soon after it opened. But it came around on my next visit and then again and again. The burger was perfectly cooked and the patty was juicy and boasted all of its glorious meatiness in one bite. The bun was fresh, toasted and held its own to the hefty patty and the works. Hope it stays that way.

Houston's is still my number one burger but this one is definitely a good alternative, especially now that Burger Kitchen has downgraded its patty meat and parted ways with Pat LaFrieda out east.

7. Best Alternative to Mozza: Olio Pizzeria & Cafe
I know there are a ton of new fancy pizza joints that popped up but I've been out of town so until I visit them, my favorite alternative to the madness that is Mozza is this place, sitting quietly on the corner of Third and Crescent Heights.

No, it isn't as good as Mozza. But the crust is thin and crispy, and the ingredients fresh. A bonus is the house-made sodas that were refreshing and not too sweet.

8. Best Cooking Discovery: Chorizo, parsnips and manchego bites
Since I made these at a dinner party last June, I've made them over and over for gatherings and outings and they're always a crowd pleaser. People often wonder what's the root vegetable -- is it potato? Is it celery root? Radish? Parsnips have a stronger flavor than carrots and potatoes but also have a slightly sweet side -- perfect to pair with the spicy chorizo and nutty manchego slices. Add a fried egg and you've got breakfast served.

Honorable mention: Banana and shiso harumaki dessert

I fell in love with this dessert when I had it at Nobu in Las Vegas. It was by far the best thing on the menu I had that evening. I tried to recreate it several times and after an initial glitch of buying the wrong spring roll wrapper, I finally got it right and made it for my family and boy, was it a hit. The ripe bananas, paired with dulce de leche and shiso leaves, all in a wafer-thin wrapper and deep fried -- throw in some great quality green tea ice cream or such and you've got yourself a fantastic dessert everyone will love. I was initially concerned the sweetness of the dulce de leche would overpower everything but it wasn't too sweet and in fact, people wanted more of that melted goodness to spread on some bread!

9. Best Out-of-town Food Experience: Fried Catfish at Flying Fish in Little Rock, AR
I wasn't sure what to expect when I embarked on a trip to Little Rock, but I had excellent fried catfish at this joint that's also a local favorite. I didn't have great mobility as I was staying downtown but I was very impressed with the quality of the fish and how light it was breaded and fried. I wasn't too fond of the sides but the star of the show was most definitely the fried catfish and that was a success.

10. Best Out-of-country Food Experience: Fresh Grilled Eel in Korea
Besides the delicious homemade meals I had in Korea, the best restaurant food was the fresh eel I had grilled table-side and topped with an array of sides such as pickled perilla leaves, grilled garlic, kimchi or pickled radish. Anyway you enjoy it, it was something I couldn't normally have in LA and all the ingredients were so fresh-tasting and pickled just right that added a tangy and lighter balance to the fatty fish, delightfully complete with charred grill marks and all.

That's it for 2011, folks. Let me know what you think. Thank you so much for subscribing, following me or just plain reading my posts. Hope 2012 will be an even more exciting year for eating and cooking.

Happy New Year to everybody and happy eating!! I made a pretty mean ttukguk (rice cake soup consumed by Koreans on the first day of the year) today after boiling some bones and meat for like 100 hours yesterday. Hope you had your fill of whatever your New Year traditions are!