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Sunday, February 26, 2012

La Mar Cebicheria in SF: Causas, Cebiche, Empanadas & Picarones -- I Want One in LA!

I had heard a lot about Gaston Acurio, Peru's superstaf chef who built a global empire around exquisite Peruvian that goes beyond lomo saltado. Don't get me wrong. I love me a juicy lomo saltado. But my dear friend and superstar chef himself, MO, first introduced me to this guy and his type of cuisine.

Even better, I learned so much about Peruvian cuisine thanks to MO's amazing cooking. Even before I tried Acurio's dishes, my friend's cooking set the bar, very high at that. He made us a fantastic array of causas and cebiches with the most fascinating sauces that tasted great and whose vibrant colors looked even better.

My verdict for Acurio's SF location, La Mar Cebicheria: Very good albeit overpriced.

The causa limena looked and tasted great. Imagine a mound of mashed yellow (more yellow than a standard Idaho variety) potatoes, topped with some crab meat, tomato and finished off with some huancaina sauce and a hard boiled quail egg wedge.

It was an awesome combination -- the mild, soft potatoes with wonderful crab meat, which was fresh -- all with a mild kick provided by the sauce that is made from yellow Peruvian pepper and fresh white cheese, among other ingredients.

I love pisco sour, so an Andean cocktail was a must to get started. I opted for a passion secreta, which included pisco, passion fruit, lime juice, egg whites and some other things. I'm always lured by the idea of passion fruit because of its name and then am reminded I'm not a big fan of the flavor upon consuming it. Silly, I know. Note to self: Make sure to stick to the classic pisco sour next time or at least avoid passion fruit. I love that it also offers Hitachino White Ale, one of my fave beers, and has a great sake selection, presumably as an accompaniment for the cebiche.

Before I get into the cebiche, let me say the complimentary yucca and plaintain chips that came with two sauces, one spicier than the other but not much different otherwise, were good. Crunchy and not too oily despite being deep fried.

The only complaint was that they were a bit fatty rather than watery (high fat content) and they could have used more kick. Ok, those are two complaints but who said I was easy to please?

So the cebiche: we got a mixed one that had yellowtail, squid and shrimp with some red onions and corn in a citrus marinade dubbed "leche de tigre," which literally translates to tiger's milk but really refers to the decidedly un-milky marinade that the cebiche quickly "cooks" the raw fish.

The fish and shellfish were both fresh and again, I could have used more kick but the cebiche was good enough, mixed together with the crunchy vegetables that complemented the softer seafood.

Another standout was the empanada. We got the empanada de tamalito verde, which was a deep fried turnover filled with sweet corn, cilantro, and queso fresco and topped with a salsa criolla and came with a dipping sauce of Huancaina Rocoto (a chili) sauce.

I usually prefer baked but this fried empanada wasn't too heavy. What I loved most was the flavor of the filling that was sweet with hints of cilantro, not to mention a beautiful shade of green. It was very unique in a good way.

The salsa criolla, which consists of the onions and other toppings, was ok. The huancaina rocoto sauce could have used more kick. I detect a pattern here. I think this place needs more kick. I suspect it was to accommodate "milder" palates and I strongly object!

The one thing that was average to below average was the anticucho, the beef skewer that came with cubed potatoes and some other vegetables. The beef was a bit tough and overcooked and the potatoes were nothing special.

I also didn't appreciate the service, which was on the slow side and one of the servers ignored our request for more plaintain chips. I reflect that in the tip I leave.

The view was fantastic. It's right by the Ferry Building so I highly recommend you go for lunch to soak in the scenery.
The saving grace toward the end was the dessert. The pie didn't look good so we went for the picarones, which are basically like doughnuts except they're made from squash and sweet potatoes.

WOW. I thought they'd be super heavy since they're deep fried but they weren't. They were lightly fried, if that's possible, and I really liked the hints of squash and sweet potato flavors that came through. They were so crunchy and the honey it came with was almost unnecessary. I think I had most of the bites by themselves without dipping.

I'm not usually a dessert person but when the opportunity arises to have such delectable sweets that aren't overly so, I'm so there. Check out my contributions to the emerging field of food porn below.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cooking: Pimp My Brown Rice -- With Fish Roe, That Is

I had leftover fish roe and didn't know what to do with them. Then fellow food lover TJ showed me to just top it over rice, so I did. I didn't think I'd like it but it was great over brown rice (which means it can only be better over white rice).

"Is it masago?" TJ cried when I told her about it. They were regular (bright orange) and wasabi masago that was a bright green. Because they're salty to begin with (although not as bad as caviar, which I'm not a huge fan of -- except maybe with some blinis and creme fraiche?), they go very well with the mild rice.

What I also loved about the fish roe was the gorgeous crystal-like colors in my otherwise drab-looking brown rice. Who knew brown rice could be blinged like this?!

Some may question its high cholesterol levels but everything in moderation, right? It's the perfect accompaniment to perk up some boring old rice. I would have only thought of having them with sushi but I can't believe it just dawned on me to have it with regular rice as a rice bowl too. Do it!

Experiment with different kinds of fish roe but they're readily available in Asian markets. Go crazy!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

101 Noodle Express in Alhambra: Noodles, Beef Rolls and Dumplings, What's Not to Like?

It's always a treat to venture out to San Gabriel Valley to have some seriously good Chinese food. So it was with much anticipation that we nabbed a shared table, dimsum parlor-style, at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra (it opened a location in Culver City but as this review of Yamadaya shows, it may not be the same as its original location).

We got the dan dan mian, which was very similar to jjanjangmyun, the black bean noodles that is the classic Korean Chinese dish, except its sauce is a lighter brown color rather than jet black. It was topped with cucumber strips, just like the Korean Chinese version.

The noodles that are handmade were thick and chewy. But the kicker was the sauce. Yes, it was greasy, as you can see in the picture. But so much flavor. It had ground pork in a sesame-like, nutty flavored sauce that was so comforting. It's probably too greasy to consume by itself. The fresh cucumber slices on top helped to balance out the heaviness from the fat.

That's the beauty of the menu here -- we also got the famous beef rolls, greens, dumplings and some spicy greens mixed with peanuts, edamame and tofu cubes, but more on that later.

The beef rolls: an amazing array of deli-like beef slices, fresh cilantro smothered with some sweet and salty sauce, all rolled into a thin, flaky scallion pancake-like wrap. It's like nothing I've tasted before -- salty, sweet and crunchy from the cilantro and the warm, toasted skin.

It was very good and interesting but got a bit salty after a few bites. I couldn't wait to pair it with other things in the wrap, like, yes, you guessed it, a fried egg to balance out the saltiness, or some (gasp) shredded cheese mix. The re-purposed roll was a bit better for me as they weren't as salty.

The restaurant specializes in cuisine from the Shandong region. Other things we had included steamed pork and leek dumplings, which were excellent. No weird porky smell or overly doughy skins.

To round off all the meat and fat, we balanced it out with some greens stir-fried with garlic, which were the perfect accompaniment to the greasy fare we had.

The chopped steamed greens with peanuts, tofu cubes and soy beans seasoned with a bit of spice was another healthy side with some kick. I could have that solo for lunch and some brown rice for lunch for a high protein, low-fat alternative.

The green chili sauce that the lady we shared the table with warned me was spicy wasn't too bad. It went well with the beef roll initially but then it got too salty and spicy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rant of the Week: What's the Deal with the Uber Dense Buns at High-end Burger Shops? Short Order -- I'm Talking About You

I get that buns can be dense in places that don't purport to be the end-all, be-all burger joints. But any self-respecting, self-proclaimed "burger joint" that calls itself Short Order should take care to ensure the buns are NOT dense and in perfect harmony with the patty and the works.

As I've said over and over again to the point of sounding like a broken record, the perfect burger is the sum of all its great parts. The patty was cooked medium rare but it wasn't particularly flavorful.

Burgeries take note: do not overdo any part of the bun, whether the upper or lower half. This was especially disturbing for a place owned by none other than the queen of breads, Nancy Silverton, of La Brea Bakery and Pizzeria Mozza fame. Not to mention the wait.

Yes, the bottom line is, Houston's burgers are the best, including their buns.

Full review coming soon...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Soban in Koreatown: Raw Garlicky Marinated Crab + Rice to Soak Up the Salt

I've always been a big fan of kanjang kyejang, or raw crab marinated in garlic and soy sauce. It's a pain to eat but well worth it. I'm pretty picky about my raw crab so I hadn't had it in LA, especially after having such good versions in Korea on a recent trip.

But I had heard about Soban from a fellow foodie friend who raved about it. So I checked it out and was pleasantly surprised.

Kyejang should be garlicky and meaty, with plenty of sodium to go around so you crave rice - a lot of rice. Soban's wasn't as meaty as the ones in Korea but perhaps it's unfair to compare it to the OG, so to speak. Ok, the Korean version in America was not bad. The crab was fresh and it was plenty salty.

I liked that the banchan, or side dishes, were just as plentiful. They didn't blow me away but they were, for the most part, mild, simple and complemented the strong flavors of the crab well. None of them was particularly memorable.

The brown rice with grains was a nice touch and we also ordered the fish soup, which was just ok. I heard some talk about the galbi jjim, or braised ribs, but frankly my dear, I've never had galbi jjim at a restaurant that was better than home-cooked ones, but I do give a damn about this dish (you're my generation if you get the reference) so I usually just make a mean one at home.

The bottom line is, go for the crab if you want to try something new or you're just a plain old crab fiend because it's definitely not cheap.

For the finale, make sure you add some of the rice onto the crab carcass and mix it in with the juices. It's probably the best part of the meal after you've totaled the fleshiest part of the crab.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cooking: What Does Slovenian Prosciutto Taste Like?

If you've been following my blog for some time, you probably know that I'm big on ham, especially cured like prosciutto or Jamon Iberico de Bellota. It was such a treat trying prosciutto from none other than Slovenia thanks to VT, a colleague who brought it from her trip back home.

She was nice enough to bring some crusty bread and gouda cheese with it. I promptly made myself a nice afternoon snack by heating up the bread, slicing the cheese and peeling one layer (ok, maybe two) of the prosciutto. I didn't even know Slovenians ate prosciutto.

She brought one fatty kind and one drier kind that she liked. I, being the fat-lover that I am, preferred the fatty one over the dry one.

The quality was really good and I basically couldn't stop eating it. At one point, it didn't even matter that there weren't any of the fatty ones left. I'll take the dry ones, I found myself saying, and gobbled up four prosciutto and cheese sandwiches, back-to-back, without taking any breaks in between.

And then I felt sick from so much porky goodness and couldn't stomach anything else for the rest of the day. But I was still happy because I can't get enough of the salty and fatty aspects of the cured meat. I craved oatmeal after this pork fest but it was worth every bite.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

dineLA Roundup: Scallops at Culina, Lobster Veloute at Tar Pit and Cauliflower Almond Soup at Sotto

I inadvertently booked mostly Italian restaurants for DineLA this past week, and by the end of the week, I was completely Italian food-ed. It'll be a while until my next pizza or pasta bite.

Overall I wasn't blown away by the three joints I tried, which were Culina, Tar Pit and Sotto.

There were, however, some notables. I'm going to start with the good dishes.

As an entree, Culina in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills served seared scallops with fennel and grapefruit that was well cooked, crispy on the edges and served very warm, which was good. The scallops were on the gigantic side and were extremely meaty. I wasn't crazy about the licorice taste of the fennel with the scallop (I don't mind it with the right combination, though) but the citrus flavor and texture of the grapefruit went great with the scallop, which was fresh.
The Tar Pit also served scallop but a single one atop a delectable lobster broth that our table couldn't get enough of (we asked for bread to absorb all that goodness). The menu called the broth veloute, as in velvety in French. It was also topped with tobiko, fish eggs, but I'm not a fan so skipped that. The rice puffs didn't add much to the dish.

The charred octopus at the Tar Pit that came with smoked paprika and white cheddar grits was a tad chewy but a nice starter. You know how I feel about white cheddar grits so I won't repeat myself but suffice to say that the octopus, soft grits and smoky paprika were a good match.
The cauliflower and almond soup at Sotto was very innovative and good. The texture of the soup was pretty thick, which I didn't mind, and super soft. This creamy soup was dotted with spicy chilies, briny capers and golden raisins. I love being pleasantly surprised at flavor and texture combinations and that's exactly what this dish offered. I liked tasting the cauliflower and nutty almond paired with some kick, saltiness as well as sweetness. If the flavor components don't work well together, I'd say it was a bad flavor explosion but that wasn't the case here.

I also liked the grilled mackerel scapece over a bed of chopped cauliflower (I'm not a cauliflower junkie, I swear) and other goodies at Sotto. Scapece is the Italian equivalent of escabeche found in many Spanish-speaking cultures, meaning grilled or poached protein (fish or meat) that's been marinated in some kind of vinegar or citrus-like mixture.

The fish was ok -- could have been a bit more fresh -- but the kicker was the bed of cauliflower, cured lemons, It's a speciality of the island of Pantelleria and a sauce used on fish, made of tomatoes, capers, basil, parsley, oregano, almonds, garlic, oil, chili peppers. There was a lot going on but I liked it. Again, a pleasant surprise.
The "short rib mignon" at the Tar Pit was not bad although not exactly melt in your mouth as ribs should be. Then again it was far better than the outrageously dry braised short ribs at Culina. The Tar Pit's short ribs came with apple-chestnut puree and pickled leeks. Although I could hardly taste the leeks, the puree went ok with the meat.
The tortelloni of sweet potato, amaretti cookies and sage brown butter at Culina was good but not nearly as good as the pumpkin ravioli at Girasole that I have raved about in the past.

The bucatini all' amatriciana at Culina held so much promise but they poured so much salt on it that the only way I was able to enjoy it was at home, topped with an unseasoned fried egg to temper the sodium. The yolk mixed into the pasta and made it more palatable. I'm not big on the hollow pasta either, mostly because I don't think it adds anything in terms of integrating better with the sauce as with farfalle or fusilli and it's darn hard to eat because it keeps slipping!

Don't get me started on the less than stellar dishes. The roasted chestnut, canellini beans and porcini soup at Culina sounded great on paper as I like all three of those things, but was too heavy and needed something light to balance out the starchiness.

The vegetable terrine of roasted vegetables and caramelized kumquats and fried plaintains at the Tar Pit was hard to eat and served room temperature, which I didn't like. The roasted vegetables were hard to mess up, but I wasn't sure about adding the sweet and tart kumquats. As for fried plaintains, what's not to like about them?

Other culprits: margherita pizza at Sotto that looked great but the crust was disappointingly soggy and chewy, instead of being crispy like it should be. The tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil were all great but the crust is half the battle, am I right? If the crust ain't there, forget about it.

The braised lamb ragu with egg and pecorino on casarecce pasta at Sotto was outright bad. The lamb was stinky and just because I don't like to waste food, I did the fried egg trick again but this time, it barely made a difference. Maybe next time, I'll have to add a ton of freshly ground pepper to mask the not-so-fresh lamb.

Ditto for the root vegetable pasta at the Tar Pit, which was bland period. No amount of fried egg-ery could salvage this one. The snapper and crab ravioli dish was probably the worst one of them all. Dry ravioli that's been frozen for far too long, as was the snapper. Awful.

Let's talk desserts. The best was the bittersweet chocolate crostata with hazelnuts and salted rosemary caramel at Sotto. Because I don't have a huge sweet tooth, I liked the sweet-cum-savory aspect of the not-too-sweet chocolate cake.

The cleverly dubbed "gelato pie" (how could one not like something called this?) consisting of meyer lemon, blueberry marmelade and hazelnuts atop some biscuits was too heavy on the cream for my taste.

I haven't met a hazelnut I didn't like. But too much cream is too much cream.

As far as service, Culina was alright but I don't think I'll be returning. Just too many good alternatives for Italian, including Osteria Mozza for special occasion or Girasole for amazing seasonal ingredients prepared fresh and no corkage!

The service at the Tar Pit was, er, pitiful. The owner/chef, Mark Peel of Campanile fame kept a constant watch over the restaurant floor featuring beautiful decor, but service was extremely slow. I didn't care for the live music either that was too loud but my fault for coming to a lounge/restaurant. It's more like a bar than a restaurant. Hard to keep a conversation.

Service at Sotto was curious. They made us wait for our table when we could see there were two tables that were visibly available right by the hostess area. Our server, however, was good.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rant of the Week: Hold the Salt Please

I've been trying out some of the DineLA joints this week and have been consistently disappointed so far. What's the deal with restaurants pouring too much salt on everything?

Take this bucatini all'amatriciana, for instance, at Culina (review pending). It looked so promising but take one bite and it's drowning in salt. That's what the bacon is for! Don't oversalt, people. I know it's supposed to raise your revenue by having customers order more drinks but that's not cool. I can't tell you how many times I've made stuff at home and realized how unsalty a dish could be despite having added a lot of salt -- which led me to wonder just how much salt restaurants actually add to food.

I couldn't finish the pasta but I was able to enjoy it more after I topped it with an oozing over-easy egg -- unsalted, of course.