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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunny Spot in Venice: A Ray of Sunlight Among Roy Choi's Other Duds

I was somewhat apprehensive about Sunny Spot by Roy Choi of kogi fame because I never liked those galbi tacos. There, I said it. Love the idea. Hate the execution. I much prefer my braised oxtail tacos if I may say so myself. Then there was rice bowl joint Chego, which was ok but not great. He started expanding like crazy with A-Frame, which was highly disappointing. Thankfully, Sunny Spot was a pleasant surprise.

The vibe and decor of the place immediately made me feel like I was on vacation at some warm and humid Caribbean island with crystal blue water. There was outdoor seating and an overall relaxing, welcoming and eclectic atmosphere. Can I also say I LOVE the seating policy of not having to wait for the entire party to arrive to be seated? Kudos on the customer-oriented policy that other restaurants should follow.

This was a type of restaurant whose cocktails would be interesting, since it had a pretty serious selection of rums and when I think Caribbean, I think yummy cocktail. Ok, and I had a long week. I wanted something citrusy but not too sweet and went with Field & Stream recommended by our server, which had Haitian rum, Orgeat lemon and angostura. And yes, I had to look up Orgeat and Angostura because I'm no Caribbean cocktail expert.

It wasn't a bad cocktail but I must say, I didn't love the almond undertones. I love munching on almonds but I hate the syrup version of it used in drinks or baking.

The best dish by far was the lamb stew. It pays to check out what message boards say so you find the dishes that got the most raves on average and sure enough, we scored. The slow roasted lamb was super tender, of course, and didn't smell too strongly of lamb, which is usually what turns me off to lamb that's not fresh or of great quality. The lamb was seasoned just right, salty with enough kick to warrant calling it a respectable "Jamaican lamb stew," as the menu called it. The chef added his own Korean twist by adding iceberg lettuce wraps and pickled mango on the side to make Korean-style wraps called ssam.

I'm no fan of iceberg lettuce (it's nothing but water!) but tried a few wraps and they were ok but I didn't think the combination worked so well. The lamb tasted best solo and enhanced with some full-bodied red wine.

The calamari was done Thai style, marinated in coconut milk with a passion fruit dip and topped with slivers of bright red chilis and green mint leaves. It definitely made for a pretty picture on a plate and the calamari was good but it wasn't as creative or novel as the other dishes. My favorite calamari done Asian style is at Burma Super Star in San Francisco's Clement Street. They are downright ethereal.

The next nice surprise was the modified mofongo, which is a mound of mashed plantains seasoned with garlic and spices that I first had in Miami at a Puerto Rican/Dominican joint. It was a tad dry when I had it then and this version was anything but. It didn't look like the traditional mofongo -- more like an Indian dal made of lentils and spices topped with fresh cilantro.

The flavor was on the sweeter side because of the plantains but the tiny chunks of bacon gave the dish more substance and a nice balance of savory against the sweet.

The yucca fries were piping hot, crispy and...skimpy. All of six fries to an order. They came with a so-called banana Thai basil ketchup that didn't have too much flavor.

Now let's get to the somewhat ugly. Message boards raved about the burger and being a total burger snob, I was curious yet skeptical. The verdict: downer. Some swore it was the best burger they'd ever had, which can only mean one thing -- that they've never been to Houston's. The burger that came with arugula, herb mayo and tomato jam was a flop. The bun was decent enough -- soft and fresh albeit on the dense side. But the patty? Oh, the patty. It was all the wrong texture -- not evenly ground with some areas being too chunky and others being mushier. More importantly, the flavor was nowhere to be found. The worst offense of this burger was the addition of the all-too-sweet tomato jam that overpowered everything and was the nail in the coffin. It was a more ambitious attempt than the sad, anemic burger I had at A-Frame but still, not nearly a halfway decent burger.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kotosh in Lomita: Refresing Japanese Peruvian Seafood and Tacu Tacu

I finally found a place I like in Kotosh, a cute, unassuming Japanese Peruvian joint in Lomita. Yes, it's a bit out of the way and not close to the freeway but worth the drive. It definitely beats other Peruvian places like Mochica and Inti.
We had the classics, like a yellowtail tiradito, which was sashimi with a light ponzu-like sauce topped with sprouts. I think this was a variation on the traditional tiradito as it didn't have a spicy sauce. Our server offered a creamy, spicy sauce but it was different from the sauce that my dear friend and master chef MO made. 

The tiradito was refreshing and the fresh radish sprouts gave the dish a nice salad feel. Very healthy.

We also got the seafood ceviche, which was a mix of shrimp, squid, octopus and fish slightly cooked in a citrusy juice and accompanied by sliced red onions, steamed hominy, roasted corn and sweet potato.

It's the perfect summer dish and like always, I was relishing the combination of flavors and textures. You got crunchy, slightly sweet, tangy and chewy. It was a winning mix. The seafood was all very fresh and hominy perfectly steamed just so.

These two appetizers were good but the biggest surprises in a good way were the Tacu Tacu and Cusqueno beer. Tacu Tacu is a rice and beans pancake that comes out as a omelet with a side of your choice. The sides could include plantain and a fried egg on top. You all know how I feel about a fried egg on top. It makes everything better.

The choices at Kotosh, run by Peruvian Japanese servers named Carlos and Christine, included lomo saltado and Tacu Tacu could also come "stuffed" with seafood or beef. I had never had this so went for Tacu Tacu Lomo Saltado -- combining the familiar with the new.

How amazing was that rice and bean pancake! It was like fried rice except with much less grease and fluffy like a real omelet but there was no egg in it. I couldn't stop eating the rice and beans, especially drizzled with that spicy, creamy sauce (see photo above).

I must say the Lomo Saltado wasn't the best I've had. The fries, tomatoes and onions were very good but the quality of the beef could have been better. Ok, I get that filet mignon is expensive. Maybe it's also my aversion to well done beef but the meat pieces were a bit rubbery. I would have liked them more tender. Still, I had the veggies with the rice and paired with the sauce, my stomach was what I was stuffing.

We tried both Cristal and Cusquena (for hard core soda lovers, it has Inka Cola) and liked Cusquena better hands down. It was smooth without being bitter. Can't explain it but it tasted like it had character, I swear to God.

After all this food, we had the audacity to get alfajores for dessert (I resisted getting the flan too). I mean, I wasn't about to pass up a shortbread cookie filled with dulce de leche. It was solid. The cookie crumbled wonderfully when halved and out oozed out the deliciously sweet dulce de leche, or manjar, as I like to call it Chilean-style. Let's just say I could have had many more but I extricated myself.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fusion Burgers in Highland Park: Wanted to Like it But No

I know I've been on a panning binge with all the restaurants recently but keeping the faith that I have a good find waiting for me very soon.

I heard about Fusion Burgers from a friend so had to try it, although she had a turkey burger that I wouldn't be caught dead having. So our burger club went but was sorely disappointed.
I wanted to like it. It seemed like a family-owned business and very down to earth neighborhood joint kind of place. Had the classic burger with lettuce, not-so-classic sun dried tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and thousand island dressing. But the first burger came out overcooked. Then the second burger was cooked right but the patty was not great quality meat.

The bun wasn't bad although a bit on the dense side. But it was warm and fresh. The sun dried tomatoes didn't work at all. The other components made for a good combination. But please, chuck the sun dried tomatoes. There's nothing classic about it.

The fries that we got on the side were nothing special -- not too crispy but at least hot when they came out. They were no Pastis fries a la NY bistro that I still daydream about.

We also had a starter beet salad that was interesting, with arugula, candid sliced almonds and some kind of creamy ricotta-like cheese. It was refreshing and a nice variation on the standard vanilla green salad. The dressing was light and the almonds gave it a nice crunch. The beets weren't all that sweet or flavorful but we just wanted something healthier to balance out the burger.

I recently had a refresher with my fave Houston's burger so maybe I was even harsher than usual with this one. But the fact is it's an average to below average burger. Super nice service but I wouldn't return. Sorry.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mochica: Disappointing Food and Drinks, No Go

I was fortunate enough to go to the "Friends and Family" pre-opening event at Mochica a few weeks ago and had mixed feelings about it. I wanted to like it because I love Peruvian food but the verdict was promising but not quite there. I mostly had seafood and veggie dishes because of my party so I also wanted to try the meat dishes. So I returned.

Confession: I've been to its former Mercado La Paloma location and didn't like them then either. 

I recall the highlight of my last visit during Friends and Family being the octopus, so got that. It's grilled octopus with potatoes and jalapeno sauce. It was a bit heavy on the sauce but the octopus was cooked right and the sauce gave it a nice kick. It was solid this time around as well.

I can't say the same for the alpaca stew that seems to be one of its signature dishes. Loved the idea of slow cooked alpaca, paired with some noodles and topped with a fried egg. What's not to like, right?

The alpaca meat didn't have too much flavor. It was soft and tender but tasted bland. Don't get me started on the noodles. They were totally overdone and that alone ruined the dish. It held so much promise -- slow cooked meat + noodles + fried egg whose yolk is oozing and blends into the sauce. Alas, it didn't deliver. Extremely disappointing. It didn't matter the egg was "organic fertile."

The so-called quinotto was interesting. I love risotto so this was a nice variation using quinoa that actually worked. The wild mushrooms emanated a strong mushroom-y flavor and aroma. It was drizzled with some parsley-infused oil that I didn't think was necessary but it wasn't bad either.

The lomo saltado was extremely forgettable. I mean, using top quality meat is key here and the meat was overly tough and chewy. Not to mention the fries, of which there were only like five. Skimpy.

The fried chicken pieces weren't bad but not nearly as good as the fried chicken sandwich at Son of a Gun.

The ceviches were unimpressive. They were nothing like the ones at La Mar Cebicheria in SF.  The food was better executed there. I haven't been to Picca in LA yet but I wonder if it's just the sad reality of the state of Peruvian in LA...

I tried the Spanish Mackerel tiradito and I didn't get the feeling that the fish was super fresh.

One of my eating partners said the lamb and alpaca burger was dry. I agreed.

The cooked fish dishes were nothing special. One of the things I love about Peruvian food is the sauce. I remember my dear friend and master chef MO made some amazing chili-based sauces, yellow, green and red. We had them with tiradito and causas.

I hate to be so down on this place but the cocktails were left wanting too. I'm a huge fan of Pisco Sour and I didn't think they did a good job of the drink. It didn't have the foam from the egg white. Just didn't taste authentic. It was just uber strong.

The food was also overall over salted. Yes, I'm crying wolf again about the salt.

One big no-no: What's up with the servers so eagerly wanting to take our plates like every five seconds? That's extremely annoying so please don't do it again. Although to be honest, I'm not planning on returning.

For dessert, we had the alfajores, which I usually love but they looked so dry and unappetizing that my mouth just dried up by looking at them.

In contrast, the picarones -- a Peruvian version of the donut -- I had at La Mar were amazing. Ok, I'll stop comparing. Just won't be going here again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mohawk Bend in Echo Park: Great Beer Selection and Ambiance, Soso Food

I loved that Mohawk Bend gastropub is a converted theater. Even the sign outside was left as a marquee. The decor inside was great too. Great selection of microbrews. The problem? The food.

I didn't like the Buffalo style cauliflower but that may be because I don't love buffalo wings. Not my favorite. We also had the chop salad that included corn, broccoli, avocado, romaine, red bell pepper, potato and tomatoes drizzled with roasted red pepper dressing. The vegetables were cooked crisp and the salad was good but it wasn't anything special.

Then we had the namesake burger that came with arugula, pancetta, grated Parmesan cheese, red onion, pickled chili, roasted red pepper and spread on the bun was some rosemary-garlic aioli. I added cheese at extra cost, which is outrageous. And fries were extra too. Inconceivable. We had asked for medium rare and it was a bit overcooked but I didn't want to send it back because I was hungry.

Let's dissect this burger. The bun was fine -- not too dense and soft and fresh enough. The patty was on thin side for a $14 burger. The quality of the meat wasn't stellar. Definitely above average but trailing that of Houston's (of course), Rustic Canyon, Lazy Ox Canteen and Bowery. The patty also wasn't ground evenly so some of the chunks were chewy, which on a positive note could give a sense of it being ground on-site and not at some huge factory that churns out its patties from a metal dispenser machine. But it wasn't a good feeling chewing a bit piece of fatty piece that hadn't been ground properly. The works were fine but as a purist, I contend that there was too much going on. Too many flavors and textures can work against itself. The accompanying cole slaw was bland. Pickle was inedible.

The fries were just fries you'd expect at some dive bar, not a foodie gastropub that takes its food seriously. Disappointed again. I liked that they were piping hot when they arrived and weren't over salted though. Brownie points for that.
Don't get me started on the Margherita pizza. The dough was worse than Domino's (although it's been a while since I've had that) -- thick, overly doughy and tough. Nothing like the airy, fluffy and light pizza crust it should be. The beauty of the true Neapolitan pizza or any pizza I've had in Italy, for that matter, is that they're light, super thin and very easy on the cheese and sauce. Execution on this one was bad.

The garlicky kale salad that came chili and jicama strips was refreshing but as they say, it is hard to mess up a kale salad. Man, that sounded mean. I don't have any hard feelings for this place, by the way. I was just disappointed because I had high hopes and I was so taken by the decor upon entering.

Service was great though and very attentive.

We had the beer flight and those are always a treat. I had one that tasted very unusual -- like maple syrup but more savory -- but of course I forgot the name.

Unfortunately, the finale was disappointing too. The berry shortcake was nothing like I imagined. I wanted a berry shortcake a la Sweet Lady Jane, fresh berries sandwiched between super moist cake and the fluffiest cream. I think I need a refresher at SLJ soon to detox from this dry and overly sweet version.

I'll likely return for the beer selection and stick to minimally prepared foods. Still, thanks EW for introducing me to this neighborhood joint!