Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top Ten Bites of 2015

I wasn't entirely sure that I would bother this year. Beyond the obvious that I've only posted seven times (!!!) since the 2014 iteration of this list, I've also struggled to come to a clear resolution about what I want to include. Not necessarily because, in hindsight, nothing seems all that noteworthy, but rather because as someone who occupies space on the periphery of the food industry, I feel as though I ought to be waxing poetic about uni squid ink housemade pasta with fermented chilies, and seared foie gras lobes with pickled cherries and saba rather than things like bread and butter, and oatmeal.

While there are certainly a handful of those highfalutin dishes that stand out to me from this past year, it's hard to strip a dish from the context and the company with which it was consumed. So much of the pleasure of dining is derived by the experience and occasion -- the ambiance of the restaurant, the hospitality of the staff, and, perhaps most significantly, the dynamic with one's dining companions. 

Even after seven or so years of said occupancy in the industry's periphery, I'm still amazed at food's ability to connect people who might not normally be, well, connected. It breaks down geographic, political, and ethnic barriers, and has the power to spawn and nurture friendships… even inspire love.

For, you know, people who are not me.

So, while 2015 didn't bring triple red heart emojis, it did illicit rib-bruising laughter and strengthened and built new relationships with the incredible people who make up the fiber of the food community in Los Angeles. It took me around the country to dining meccas like Chicago, New York, Portland, and San Francisco. And it brought these transcendent ten dishes into my orbit… and, now, perhaps yours.

Rugbrod bread and salted butter at Esters Wine Shop and Bar in Santa Monica
The product of a partnership between Los Angeles culinary royalty Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, and Rustic Canyon restaurant’s wine director, Kathryn Coker, and her husband, Tug, Esters is quite literally a labor born out of love. It's easy to be dazzled by the high-vaulted ceilings and eggshell blue walls of the interior, or the twinkling lights strung over the Instagram-friendly tile tables that line the narrow, street-facing patio, but the chic space doesn't rest on style alone to convert the throngs of Westsiders who have made it their home away from home since Esters' opening this summer. There is Coker's thoughtfully curated wine selection, of course, but that too would be rendered incomplete without the foil of Chef Jeremy Fox's succinct menu of snacks, charcuterie and cheese supplemented with bread sourced from sister property Milo & Olive. While appraising words have certainly been said about the grilled cheese, kouign amann cheese twists and lavender almonds, during a spontaneous mid-week happy hour with friends this past December, it was a simple loaf of freshly baked rugbrod bread with salted butter that captivated my full attention. With the companionship of a glass of something Italian and red (again, the bread had captivated my FULL attention), and the companionship of my fellow partners in carb crime, it was the perfect weeknight dinner. 1314 7th St, Santa Monica, CA 90405, ((310) 899-6900 

Kimchi fried rice at Baroo in Hollywood
On a recent visit to the signless East Hollywood strip mall prototypical "hole-in-the-wall," my party and I tried to pinpoint when it was that Baroo burst onto the radar and into the hearts of LA's foodarazzi. My initial introduction was via a food editor who had declared it a must-try when we met for drinks this past October at another new LA gem, Everson Royce Bar, and soon after our exchange, it seemed that the chorus of critical acclaim was echoed everywhere by everyone.

It was with much anticipation that I finally visited Owner and Chef Kwang Uh's "free-style experimental kitchen" for lunch with a friend the last week of 2015 (followed by a subsequent return to finish sampling the menu three days later). It would be easy for me to stop here with a declaration that the 16-seat restaurant and oft-mentioned kimchi fried rice bowl are "worthy of the hype," but to do so would be to strip Uh's passion project and the dish of its soul, and underestimate the potential for Baroo's longevity within our community's (and the greater public's) imagination.

It, the soul, was immediately perceptible in the meticulously crafted rice bowl featuring pineapple fermented kimchi, amira basmati rice, a 63 degree sous vide egg, gremolata, pineapple jalapeno salsa, purple potato chips, roasted seaweed, toasted buckwheat and quinoa, and micro greens that each appear to have been prepared with individualized attention in a way that mere mortals would be loath to attempt in a home kitchen. Baroo is the reason we, as a collective body, go out to eat. Not just for the sensory appeal nor the communal experience of sharing a meal, but for the delight inherent in discovering something utterly surprising -- whether it be a bracing house elderflower kombucha, an artistically plated tangle of handmade celeriac pasta noodles dusted with celery ash, or a curl of pickled onion that is oh-so-subtly fragranced with rose. 5706 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038, (323) 819-4344 

Chocolate Rye Pie at Odys + Penelope in Mid-City
Another of my favorite new restaurants of the year, husband and wife team Quinn and Karen Hatfield's self-described "churrasco and grill" paradoxically won me over with items that never even came into contact with the advertised open grill or wood-fired smoker. First, a farmer's market salad (pictured) that mesmerized with not only the breadth of raw and roasted vegetables tucked within the pile of just-plucked lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, but the unexpected smear of pepita butter unceremonious painted across the plate as though an afterthought. (It was far from an afterthought.) Then there was a creamy cauliflower and millet risotto-esque side, hidden near the bottom of the menu and humbly scooped into a small cereal-sized bowl with a verdant walnut pesto. Finally, the piece de resistance, Karen Hatfield's chocolate rye pie -- a hauntingly complex iteration of chess pie whimsically presented with salted Spanish peanuts and malted ice cream. The dessert could very well teeter on the edge of too sweet, too rich territory, but the assertive tang of the, dare I say, "wholesome," rye crust brought the pie straight into the realm of the sublime…and straight into the confines of this list. 127 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036, (323) 939-1033

Almond Apple Croissant at b. patisserie in San Francisco
This croissant, secured during a spontaneous 24-hour trip to San Francisco, was, like the trip itself, not supposed to happen. I had visited the fanciful Parisian-style bakery for Pastry Chef Belinda Leong's prized kouign amann, but couldn't resist the behemoth American proportioned pastry, clearly the product of a well-conceived, cross-pollination between a croissant and slice of apple pie. I obtained the multi-layered monstrosity right before I hopped in my car to begin the six-hour drive back to Los Angeles, and made it a heroic 2 hours and 33 minutes before tearing into it, fully intending to save the second half for later. Suffice it to say, later never happened. 2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115, (415) 440-1700

Brûléed oatmeal at Gravy in Portland
Weekend brunch in Portland is a blood sport. You wake up at an unseemly hour for a Saturday or Sunday when one is supposed to be lazying about drinking way too much coffee in a pair of sweat pants that have seen better decades, and then proceed to wait an hour outside in the probable rain for a small square of table real estate that will be turned faster than a jug of milk left out in the August sun.

Given said obstacles, you would think that a visit to a brunching hot spot like Gravy in Portland's North quadrant would inspire at least one order boasting the restaurant's namesake dish, or, barring that, something similarly over-the-top to justify the time invested in the mid-day meal. It would not follow that you would soldier through exhaustion, inclement weather and personal space invasion for… oatmeal. Unless of course it's steel-cut oatmeal baked in a ramekin over a slurry of mixed berries until the mass of nubby grains are coaxed into a consistency not unlike that of bread pudding. And just when you think there is nothing that could possibly improve upon the gold standard by which all other oatmeals will henceforth be compared, the good folks at Gravy go ahead and brûlée the top with sugar. This, my friends, is oatmeal on steroids. 3957 N Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR 97227, (503) 287-8800

Chicken wings at Pok Pok in Portland
If you are walking by Pok Pok's flagship restaurant on SE Division Street when there is less than a 20 minute wait for a table, you stop. Even if it's raining (it will be), even if you've just eaten half your weight in oatmeal on steroids from Gravy, and even if you have no plans to order anything more than the chicken wings and a pomegranate drinking vinegar. By this juncture in Pok Pok's esteemed history, Chef Andy Ricker's signature chicken wings need no further introduction, but lest you think I'm being negligent in my lack of description, I'll simply say that they are a sticky, sweet, spicy edible addiction wholly worthy of their iconic status. 3226 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202, (503) 232-1387

Passionfruit Ice Box Cake at Elysian in Atwater Village
Scheduled for the day after I got home from an indulgent 48-hours in Portland (See: Brûléed oatmeal, chicken wings), my Sunday brunch at the multi-use event and sometimes restaurant space in Atwater Village was meant to be a relatively redemptive meal. I'd already zeroed in on a brown rice and lentil bowl with accompaniments that read like an ode to a local farmer's market, and had no plans for further nourishment outside of a stern cup of English breakfast tea. Naturally, all my intentions to exhibit self-restraint were eradicated when a friend placed an order for a slice of Pastry Chef Sarah Lange's passionfruit ice box cake. I ate more of the towering dessert with its transfixing layers of tart ice cream, toasted meringue and delicate crumb crust, than anyone else at the table -- including Los Angeles' pre-eminent authority on sweets who, as it turns out, found it similarly irresistible. 2806 Clearwater St, Los Angeles, CA 90039, (323) 522-6625 

Whitefish salad bagel at Sadelle's in New York
I went to Sadelle's, the new Soho hot spot and darling of the New York food media, at the recommendation of my (and many Angelenos') most trusted resource for restaurants and bakeries. While the visuals most commonly associated with the brunching and dining destination are the batons of glossy-skinned bagels, immaculate smoked fish towers, and co-owner and baker Melissa Weller's Van Gogh-esque chocolate babka, the bagel sandwich game here is not to be overlooked.

The whitefish salad poppyseed bagel I ordered at the to-go counter for a casual breakfast was both refined and revelatory -- the meaty salad finding textural juxtaposition from a smattering of plump capers and precise slices of tomato, cucumber and onion. It was so unreasonably good I woke up early the next morning to get one more before leaving to catch my flight back to LA. This alone would be reason enough to include Sadelle's in this list, but the experience was only further heightened by the hospitality of the staff and the bloke who, after recognizing me, threw in four exquisitely cinnamon-scented sticky buns for my trek home. I triple heart emoji New York. 463 W Broadway, New York, NY 10012, (212) 776-4926 

Burger at Au Cheval in Chicago
Before I proceed any further, I must provide full disclosure: This is the only burger I ate in 2015. While this revelation might seemingly strip me of all credibility, by my approximation, my lack of proclivity toward burgers only corroborates its inclusion here. The takeaway? If I'm selecting a burger as one of my favorite bites of the year over spaghetti carbonara, ice cream or some form of avocado toast, it must be superlative. And is it ever. The two four-ounce, griddled patties are a study in why char is an essential component of any burger, and the restrained construction – melted cheddar cheese, dijonnaise and a few whisps of housemade dill pickles – punctuates the point that high-quality ingredients have no need for window dressing when treated with a deft hand. The burger is a taste of childhood, reconfigured for an adult palate. Even an adult palate that is more accustomed to quinoa and kale salads. (It is worth noting here that for those who share my predilections, the raw shaved vegetable salad with pungent nubs of blue cheese is also not to be missed.) 800 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60607, (312) 929-4580

Fig lasagna at Maude in Beverly Hills
It was, as the cliche dictates, a once in a lifetime opportunity – not only because of the challenge involved with securing a reservation at Curtis Stone's seminal 25-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills, but because the featured tasting menu of the month, a tribute to figs, would never be available again. So, when I received a last minute invitation to join two friends for dinner at Maude on a Saturday evening this past August, I immediately scrapped my plans to eat braised kale and watch "Gilmore Girls" re-runs at home.

What would follow would be one of the most memorable and unique meals of 2015. From the service, both warm and professional, to the charming plating of the chorus of courses that brought to mind that of a more understated Eleven Madison Park, to the fluidity of the comprehensive dining experience, there was a palpable feeling within the four walls of the restaurant that we were all in on something special. For the three hours that my party spent at the chef's counter observing the synchronized dance taking place in the open kitchen, the world outside ceased to exist. There was only the moment. And a fig lasagna squatting under a lacquer of brûléed cheese that would transcend all other moments there within. (My grainy, dark photo will never do it the justice it deserves.) 212 S Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, (310) 859-3418

Honorable mentions: The bread/toast at The Mill in San Francisco (pictured at top); the avocado toast situation at Lodge Bread in Culver City (pictured above - are you sensing a theme?); the quintessential meatballs with ricotta at Jon & Vinny's; the perfect iteration of spaghetti carbonara at Maialino in New York; the greenmarket salad with baby lettuce and green goddess dressing at Charlie Bird in the Village; the rustic red cabbage salad with delicata squash, pepitas and apple butter vinaigrette at Ned Ludd in Portland; the carrot hummus with warm flatbread at Lincoln in Portland (one of my favorite meals of 2015 - the hospitality!); the salmon with pea puree at Blackbird in Chicago; the vanilla bean yeast doughnut at Doughnut Plant in Chicago; the vegetable caldo soup at Xoco (Chicago, again!); and many MANY things and ice cream I ate at clients that I can't honorably mention here because it wouldn't, well, be honorable to do so.

And, now, for funsies, my 2016 (LA) Restaurant Bucket List: Alimento, Arthur J., Broken Spanish/B.S. Taqueria (clam lardo taco!), Dune, Hachet Hall, Little Sister Downtown, Lodge Bread for Sunday night pizza (check, as of tonight!), Madcapra, Otium, Redbird, Rose Cafe (check, as of yesterday!), Taco Maria, Taco Nazo (according to my NYE Uber driver, their fish tacos are serious business), Viviane, and many many more that I'm forgetting now because, tired.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Make it Happen: A Caul to Action

Last Monday I made the below list of ten things I wanted to accomplish during the post-Christmas, pre-New Year's lull, and then uncharacteristically shared it on Facebook with the request that my friends & family hold me accountable for achieving its contents. I didn't think anyone would pay much attention, particularly since there was no accompanying photo, reference to the new Star Wars movie nor anything of value to anyone other than me, but for some reason it seemed to resonate with people.

At least more than the article I shared the previous week about how to make eggnog with avocado. (Bueller?)

The supportive response and comments, including those from friends who were eager to help me cross things off the list (strangely, only for the goals that involved food rather than, ahem, paying my rent on time), inspired me to not only take each item seriously, but gave me a fresh perspective on how I want to approach this new year.

While I'm not one to make any specific resolutions along the lines of, say, spend less money at Blue Bottle, or commit to a dry January (Oh. The. Horror.), the concept of resolving to be a better version of myself is always appealing. In years past I've told people that I aspire to say "Yes!" more than I say "No," but in 2016 I'm channeling the underlying philosophy that informed my incredible last week of 2015 with so many of my favorite people.

Make it happen.

Whether it be attempting a new recipe, planning a trip to someplace I've never been before, eating somewhere that is not a.o.c., Sqirl, Gjusta, or a client, or simply doing something outside my comfort zone (ie. an activity that doesn't involve eating or drinking), I want to move forward with this simple three-word anthem.

What I discovered this past week was that much of my hesitancy to accomplish certain tasks was not necessarily attributable to a lack of desire, but rather to an aversion to being uncomfortable or, perhaps more potently, to some modicum of fear -- even if the fear was as minute as not wanting to get stuck in rush hour traffic on the 10 to get to the Santa Monica farmers market by 9 am. 

Crippling thoughts like…

What if my iPhone really is broken forever, and I have to spend $500 to buy a new one, and it will be a total waste because the 7 isn't even out yet, and then when the 7 is introduced, I won't want to get it because I'll have just bought the 6?

What if I go out on NYE and get stuck paying 9x the standard Uber/Lyft rate because of surge pricing, and then I'll never be able to go to Maude for the pistachio tasting menu?

What if I ask someone to hang out, and they are "busy," but really just don't want to see me because the last time we got together I didn't want to order the charcuterie to share, and clearly now they think I'm lame and boring and also a meat-o-phob?

Rather than letting these hyperbolic worst-case-scenarios undermine my progress, I opted to drown them out with my newly adopted anthem: Make it happen.

And, with the exception of actually *physically* securing my passport (I filled out the application and have an appointment set for January 11th), and planning the exact dates for the proposed "crazy 48 hour trip overseas for dinner" (hint, hint, R and T), I ended up blowing through every item on my list.

This soup recipe is my response to goal #4 -- a soulful cauliflower puree that I threw together on a whim, and then impetuously topped with leftover parsley walnut pesto and purple potato chips made from the potatoes I purchased from Weiser Farms at the Wednesday market. At the risk of being overly sentimental or obvious, the vibrant colors seem a fitting metaphor for the year that lies ahead.

Here's to living without fear in 2016. Here's to paying my rent on time. And here's to making life happen… with all of you out there who don't think I'm a lame and boring meat-o-phob. 

Cauliflower Soup with Parsley Walnut Pesto
Serves 3-4 (depending on how hungry those 3-4 people are...)

1 tablespoon olive oil
3-4 shallots (depending on size), minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sherry
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into florets
5 cups vegetable broth (I used Better Than Bouillon mixed with water)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4-6 springs fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper
Parsley walnut pesto (recipe below)
Purple potato chips (recipe below)
2 tablespoons toasted walnuts, finely chopped (for garnish)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté for 4-5 minutes until starting to soften and brown. Reduce heat, add the garlic, and sauté for another minute or two. De-glaze the pan with the sherry.

Add the cauliflower, vegetable broth, rosemary, thyme and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, until the cauliflower is tender, approximately 25-30 minutes. Fish out the rosemary and thyme sprigs and discard. Remove the pan from the stove and using a hand-held immersion blender puree the soup until smooth. (Note: You can also work in batches, and puree in a vitamin or blender.) Return the soup to the stove to rewarm.

Spoon the soup into each bowl. Top each bowl with a tablespoon of the pesto, a few purple potato chips, and a sprinkle of toasted walnuts.

Parsley Walnut Pesto
5 cloves garlic, roasted in the oven, unpeeled, at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes
Leaves from 1 bunch parsley
Juice from half a lemon
2 tablespoons toasted walnuts
1/4 cup grated Parmesan reggiano
2 tablespoons olive oil (or walnut oil if you are feeling fancy!)
Water, as needed to thin out

Peel roasted garlic. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend/process until smooth.

Purple Potato Chips
2 small purple potatoes, sliced very thin (you may want to use a mandoline if you don't have a super sharp knife!)
1 teaspoon olive oil (you may not need all of it)
Fresh thyme
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, toss the sliced potatoes with the olive oil, fresh thyme, and salt and pepper. Bake, turning once, until crisp, approximately 20-25 minutes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Lentil Case

I'm almost embarrassed to be sharing this with you. There are a number of far more interesting recipes from my cooking exploits the past few months that I'm sure you'd find exceedingly more appealing.

I should be telling you about the carrot cake scones with cream cheese icing and toasted pecans I made for Easter brunch this spring, or about Joy the Baker's creamy pumpkin pie bars that were as creamy as advertised, or even the maple pecan shortbread that provided steep competition for the family favorite cashew butterscotch bars this Christmas.

Even another quinoa salad would be a welcome alternative to a dish prepared with the most rudimentary of ingredients. An ingredient that is most often associated with the word "humble" or the visual of a hippy, granola nut who can do all those weird yoga headstand poses and never uses any plastic bags ever. Just places the organic kale and unwaxed apples and gnarly beets straight into their grocery tote that was woven together with recycled barley husks and hemp fibers.

I'm under no such illusion that there is anything remotely exciting about lentils -- nor lentil soup for that matter. If there was a Tinder application dedicated to food it would certainly be the dish that was most often swiped to the left while everyone fawned over sexier dishes like runny fried eggs and salted caramel sticky buns and avocado toast.

This is absolutely the part where I should abort mission completely, shout "Just kidding!" and start in on a diatribe about some saucy bucatini number instead. And yet in this particular moment, lentil soup feels… right.

Its simplicity is fitting with the post-Christmas, pre-New Year's doldrums, a period when the excitement from the holiday season has started to ebb, and the blank slate of a fresh year is still simmering on the horizon. It's a time when slowing down feels like the only option, and, for once, an option that no one is inclined to question because they too are slowing down -- catching a breath before barreling forward into 2016.

This lentil soup requires minimal effort, and a scant number of ingredients -- most of which are negotiable aside from the actual lentils. There should be some form of onion sautéed with garlic, a grain of sorts, a few handfuls of something green and leafy to add textural interest, and a vegetable broth that may or may not be flavored with tomatoes, but it's all really just a template.

The whole thing comes together in less than an hour -- barely enough time to watch an episode of "Jessica Jones" on Netflix, and it will still somehow be perfect in spite of (or because of) the lack of effort that went into it. The ease of its preparation is perhaps as alluring as the soulfulness of its flavor during a time when we could all use a bit more soul. A time when we all need a break from the standard performance of everyday life in a social media-driven world. And a time when it's okay to be unapologetically enough -- without the pressure to be anything more.

Simple Lentil Soup
Serves 4 or so (depending on whether this is the main affair or a side)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (or shallots - which I used in the pictured soup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups vegetable broth or stock (I use Better Than Bouillon base mixed with water)
2 chopped tomatoes, half a can of chopped tomatoes with their liquid, or a tablespoon or so of good quality tomato paste like Amore or San Marzano mixed with 1/2 cup or so of water
A few sprigs of fresh thyme (dried thyme is also fine)
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup green lentils, rinsed well and picked over
1/2 cup quinoa or a quick-cooking brown rice or grain medley (basically look for something with a cooking time that is more or less equal to that of the lentils)
4 cups of chopped kale, chard or spinach (Note: If using kale or chard, don't toss the stems - chop them up and sauté them with the onion.)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes or so. Reduce heat, add the garlic, and sauté for another 1-2 minutes. Add the vegetable broth, tomatoes or tomato paste mixture, thyme, and season with freshly ground pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then add the lentils and grains.  Bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly and simmer, uncovered until the lentils and grains are just tender -- approximately 30 minutes. You want the lentils to be done, but still have some heft to them. Add the greens and simmer a minute or two more until the leaves are just wilted.

Serve immediately -- perhaps with some toasted bread, or perhaps with nothing but a spoon. It's enough just as it is.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

20 Things to Do During 48 Hours in San Francisco

1. Now that BART has a connector transport to the Coliseum station (think "Penn Station" for getting anywhere in the city or East Bay), fly into Oakland Airport and feel really good about your decision to do so. Think, "This is so easy!" as you follow the 10+ signs directing you from Baggage Claim to the BART, feeling a little bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz without the obnoxious Rudolph shoes.

2. Feel less like Dorothy and more like the brainless Scarecrow when you actually get on BART and realize you can't understand any of the stop announcements. "Did he say 'Embarrassment'? Or Embarcadero?"

3. After transferring to MUNI, finally arrive at your destination stop (Castro, which should NOT be confused with Castro Valley). Praise God that you had the foresight to bring a rolling suitcase, because apparently your friend's residence is located at the top of a massive hill that's basically a mountain, and can we just pause and sit down on the sidewalk for a second to discuss who in their right mind would decide to build a city on top of all (gasp) these (gasp) mountains (gasp)?

4. Once inside the house (that obviously required you to climb up two narrow flights of stairs to access), replenish all the fluids you sweat out with local Sonoma-procured wine enjoyed on your friend's rooftop deck. Okay, fine, now you get the whole city built on a mountain range thing. 

5. Call a Lyft to transport you to dinner at Huxley in Tenderloin District which automatically makes you think of pork. Feel immediately charmed by the 25-seat restaurant whose spatial limitations feel far more intentional than the standard hole-in-the-wall. This is a spot for the gastronomically unintimidated -- particularly with the reservation policy that requires a credit card be placed on file to secure. Order the avocado toast with uni on local Jane bread, the charred squid with chickpeas and fermented cabbage, and wild mushrooms with polenta that is reminiscent of a cream of mushroom soup casserole. Finish with a scoop of the malted milk ice cream with medjool dates and hazelnuts that is reminiscent of… butter.

6. Call another Lyft (because when in Rome) to transport you to the Mission District for post-dinner libations that start at Elixir and end at ABV where the menu presentation demands you start by picking your spirit poison. It's a red pill, blue pill moment, but it's 12 a.m. and your final answer is… whiskey.

7. The following morning, take the bus to The Mill in Alamo Square because hills are not an option when you've had that much…poison. Express confusion as to why neither your BART or MUNI cards work, but pay your $2.25 fare without further complaint because #needcoffee. Snack on a loaf of the country bread while waiting for your almond butter-enhanced, cinnamon sugar toast and almond milk cappuccino that will taste suspiciously like it's made with real milk because so good. Even though you are about to eat more bread for your breakfast, continue to tear off massive hunks of the warm, WARM, loaf because… so good.

8. Discover that an outpost of Bi-Rite Creamery is conveniently located two blocks away from The Mill and, when in Rome... salted caramel ice cream for a second breakfast?


9. Walk to see the houses featured in the opening credits of "Full House," which your savvy San Francisco friend informs you are actually called the "Painted Ladies." Whatever, at least you didn't get photo bombed by John Stamos, okay? 

10. Since you're not nearly caffeinated enough for all this dang walking, stop at Samovar Tea for a masala chai or Hong Kong latte made with almond milk that will also taste suspiciously like it's made with real milk. Buy some rooibos tea to take home with you even after you've been informed it's possible to order the tea online. 

11. Continue your urban hike through the Mission District to visit a bunch of boutiques that all carry quirky cards and jewelry and over-priced accessory things that seem instantly more desirable because they are sold in San Francisco rather than LA. Fall in love with at least three dresses at Mira Mira, but only buy one when you remember you have to lug your suitcase down all those damn narrow stairs when you leave tomorrow.

12. Pause at the entrance to Clarion Alley and engage in the following exchange with your SF host. Her: "This is one of the really famous SF street art spaces." You: "Oh." Her: "Do you want to go look or… you good?" You (after a five-second once-over): "Yeaaaah, think I'm good."

13. Now that you've gotten your fill of culture for the day, get your fill of more carbs at Arizmendi, a worker-owned cooperative that offers one and only one type of (vegetarian) pizza a day. Order a slice of the daily special, along with a seeded cheddar jalepeno breadstick that's longer than your forearm. Feel momentarily special because they gave you an extra sliver of pizza with your slice, only to realize they give everyone an extra sliver, and you are not special at all.

14. On your walk back to Castro, spontaneously stop into an Open House that is amazingly happening on a Saturday (!!!) which is apparently a very big deal in San Francisco, and you've basically just seen a unicorn. Try not to be too horrified when you see the size of the supposed $1 million dollar "steal." THIS CITY IS BUILT ON MOUNTAINS, PEOPLE!

15. After resting your weary limbs back at home, fire up your Lyft app again to get back to the Mission District so you can stand in the line of people waiting for Flour + Water to open at 5:30 pm. Put your name in for a seat at the bar, and then attempt to go to Trick Dog for drinks while you wait. Discover that everyone who put in their name before you had the same brilliant beyond brilliant plan, and take a spontaneous detour to The Homestead for Palomas instead.

16. Once seated at Flour + Water (two hours after putting your name in), decide you've had too much gluten that day and order stone fruit with ricotta... to start. Follow it with any combination of the seasonally-inspired housemade pastas and pizzas; perhaps a pappardelle with corn ribboned underneath coy shavings of summer truffles, or a summer squash-topped pie that you decide definitely qualifies as your sole vegetable serving of the day. When your server asks if you want dessert, say, "The chocolate budino with sea salt." Chocolate + Sea Salt = Good.

17. Adjourn to Dalva for further refreshment, proceeding directly to the back bar, Hideout which, despite the name, doesn't seem all that well-hidden. Still feel pretty dang cool about it because, guess what guys, you're not from around here, and you're like soooo in the know about the bar behind the bar. Order the Hideout Whiskey Cocktail and hang out in the upstairs loft area until it gets too hot/you realize you can drink your fancy cocktail in the vastly more temperate Dalva lounge and still be in the know. You know?

18. On Sunday morning, procure some local kombucha on tap at Atlas Cafe and take an East Bay road trip with a group of friends to feast on Thai food at the Thai Temple in Berkeley. While you wait in one of two lines (vegetarian or meat), play a little game of divide-and-conquer, sending one person to get tokens to "pay" for your food, one to secure papaya salad and mango sticky rice, another to tackle the line for cinnamon kanom krok (fried coconut pancakes), and yet another to find seating on the adjacent communal picnic tables. When you are all in possession of food and begin, well, possessing it, start speaking in hyperbole, declaring the pad thai the best you've ever had. Ignore anyone who thinks you are lame for liking pad thai because you know deep down they red heart emoji it too.

19. With a few hours to spare before your flight home (and no additional space in your stomach for another meal), go hiking in the hills above the Berkeley campus. Think, "Gee, I wonder if all these pretty plants we are walking by are poison oak?" just as your helpful friend announces, "Watch out for the poison oak!" Spend the rest of the hike afraid to touch anything, even the pine needles. Cross-contamination, people. CROSS-CONTAMINATION.

20. In dire need of fresh produce before you hit the airport, make a pit stop at Berkeley Bowl, most accurately described as a farmers' market inside a grocery store. Buy more plums and peaches than you can conceivably eat prior to your flight, and then stand in the parking lot attempting to conceivably eat them all. Vow to get more the next time you're in the San Francisco area because you can already tell you're about to leave a piece of your red heart emoji there.

Until next time, SF.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Balancing Act

Before I go any further, I should probably acknowledge the jurassic-sized elephant in the room: The four-and-a-half months that have transpired since my last post. It's the longest I've gone without writing since I naively started this silly little pink blog in April 2008, not realizing that it would lead me to where I am today -- in a job that I love so much it consumes me to the point where I have little energy left for anything outside of it. The ultimate blessing and curse that often leaves me wondering if I'm living the dream or abiding in a nightmare.

I've missed this space.
I've missed being able to Pollack my thoughts into the universe without thinking about who was reading (or, more accurately, who wasn't reading) because the foremost point was unfiltered self-expression. But most of all, I've missed my identity as a writer and the balance it brings to my life.

I feel grief over it. Sadness that so many of the stories I want to tell are told by others because of the profession I actively pursued and, ultimately, chose four years ago when I ceremoniously retired certain aspects of this site in favor of a career as a restaurant publicist.

I don't regret my decision and would choose the same path again without hesitation, but I do regret that I've let this side of myself shirk to the background while "PR Diana" commands the room. Sometimes I get a panicked feeling that all anyone sees anymore is that girl. I worry that perhaps they (you?) miss who I was before when my hand wasn't constantly clutching my phone, when I remembered to send birthday cards on time, and when I would unearth unedited and uninhibited daily compositions on chocolate bars and quinoa salads as though that was what mattered the most in the world.

It's easy to be nostalgic for those days, to see them through 20/20 vision and block out the paralyzing anxiety I felt over "my purpose" during that period of time. That particular memory box is filled with tear-soaked phone calls to my mom, toxic self-doubt, and a pulsating fear that I was never going to be anything more than an assistant who made someone else's travel arrangements. I still get a bit giddy when I present someone with my business card that's emblazoned with a legitimate title. I mean that's really the whole point of having them, isn't it? So there's some form of official documentation that one has achieved an approximation of adulthood? However meaningless it all is.

Naturally, the "achievement of adulthood" comes with a new set of struggles that feel, in many ways, equally paralyzing as the ones that preceded it in my former life. How do I reconcile the "new" me with the "old" me? How do I stop myself from letting a career, cultivated from a passion that first found its voice on this blog, bleed into every aspect of my existence?

How do I find balance?

I've been thinking a lot about that word lately. Last month I joined a group of "career-focused women" at my church that could easily come with the tagline, "The Pursuit of Balance: Learning How to Not Do it All." The subject keeps coming up over and over again in such an avert way that I feel as though I'm in the midst of a giant "wake-up call." I'm starting to realize how much I stand to lose if I don't find some semblance of balance in the months to come: Pre-existing relationships, the potential for future relationships and, perhaps most importantly, a relationship with my true self.

This weekend I went to the Friday night wine tasting at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood, an iconically LA summertime tradition that required me to actually take advantage of our office's "Summer Friday" policy to make it across town in time. I treated myself to a solo lunch of fish tacos (one of my favorite things to eat in the universe) at a restaurant that is not a client, and treated myself to a not-solo dinner with a good friend at the new hotspot in Santa Monica that is also not a client. I spent way too much on another iconically LA tradition, a facial, and I caught up with a friend I haven't seen in nearly six months over too many glasses of wine at Bar Covell.

Most significantly, after four-and-a-half months of deafening silence, I wrote this post… entirely unfiltered, and entirely for myself.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Forbidden Fruit

You were wearing a black Journey t-shirt; and I was in a striped navy, grey and pink dress with pointy flats purposefully chosen to coordinate with my Hobo clutch.

You probably don't remember that part, though; just like you probably don't remember my name (Diana), or that I live in West Hollywood and don't usually get over to the Westside, let alone all the way to Venice, on a Friday night.

Unless, of course, I'm provoked.

Or a friend sends an Uber with the directive, "Be ready in 10 minutes."

What you likely remember is that we sang a duet of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid before we'd even formally introduced ourselves, or perhaps considered whether it would be appropriate to sing Disney in a restaurant bar not outfitted for karaoke.

You probably remember that we inappropriately giggled like 12-year-olds over the size of a poor, unsuspecting bar goer's Adam's Apple.

And you might remember that after we chortled through the lyrics to "Les Poissons," I started to refer to you as Mufasa. (Because Prince Eric, or your real name, Clark, would have been too obvious.)

The whole interaction was easy and relaxed and fun and everything that IT should be.

You know, that connection/chemistry/attraction thing that we are all trying so hard to find on OkCupid/Tinder/Coffee Meets Bagel through gritted teeth, forced conversations and far too much alcohol.

Which is why it was so startling to find IT there, in the middle of the bar at Scopa Italian Roots, while others around us were fumbling through opening lines and throwing back Bullocks-Wilshire cocktails. They, those fumblers, had nothing on us. Mufasa and Sebastian (Ariel or Diana would have been too obvious).

It was irritatingly cute and perfect... except for the minor insignificant detail that you were on a first date with someone else.

And of course she had to be all sweet with her J. Crew necklace and black date night dress, as she insisted that my friend and I stay, talk and keep intruding on your conversation like it wasn't the most annoying thing in the world. And you were chivalrous and found her a bar stool to sit on because her feet hurt, and when it got late, and we ran out of Disney songs to sing, you said you had to get her home without a hint of an ulterior motive polluting your voice. 

And just like that my heart broke into a million pieces for what might have been if you weren't a good guy, and I weren't... me

So, you walked away, and I stayed. And we missed our chance.

* * *

It's probably too late to be sharing these two recipes that call for pomegranate seeds in the precise moment that the season is coming to a conclusive end. In fact it's rather cruel of me to be mentioning them to you at all - parading them before you with the unspoken taunt, "You can look, but you can't touch." 

I fully realize it should be all things blood oranges and tangerines and pomelos at this juncture of winter, but if you can still find a vibrant red pomegranate at your farmers' market, I command you to make both of these dishes immediately.

Before you, you know, miss your chance.

Avocado Toast with Pomegranate, Lime, Feta, and Cilantro

1 piece of thickly sliced bread
1/2 medium avocado
Juice from 1/4 a lime
Salt, pepper
Crumbled feta
Pomegranate seeds
Cilantro leaves

Toast bread.

Scoop avocado into a bowl with lime juice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Smash with a fork until relatively smooth.

Spread avocado over toasted bread. Sprinkle with feta, pomegranate seeds and cilantro leaves.

Quinoa Salad with Black Beans, Pomegranate and Avocado
Serves 4-6

1 cup quinoa, rinsed well
Salt, pepper
Honey lime dressing
Zest of 1 lime
1 small bunch of cilantro, minced
1 14-ounce black beans, drained and rinsed well
4-6 radishes, sliced into thin half-moons
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
Arugula or other greens
1 avocado, sliced
1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Honey Lime Dressing
Juice from 1 lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
Salt, pepper

Combine ingredients in small bowl. Whisk together until well-incorporated.

* * *

In a medium pot, bring 1 3/4 cup water to a boil. Add quinoa, season with salt, and simmer, covered, until water has absorbed (approximately 20-25 minutes). Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and let sit for 5 minutes.

Transfer quinoa to a large bowl. Add the lime zest, dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Use a fork to stir the ingredients together. Let cool in the fridge while prepping the other ingredients.

Once cooled to room temperature, toss the quinoa with the cilantro, followed by the black beans, radish slices, pomegranate seeds, and arugula. Serve topped with slices of avocado and the toasted pepitas.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Easy Does It

It's been 39 days since my last real run, and 72 since I sustained "the injury."

The funny thing, or rather, not funny thing, is I felt incredible in the moment when it was happening. It was like one of those poignant Nike ads where all you hear is the runner's breath as she's striding down an isolated trail with her blonde pony tail swinging behind her like Wonder Woman's cape. I was in Phoenix for Thanksgiving, and whether fueled by two helpings of my sister-in-law's righteous pumpkin bread pudding or energized by a fresh context outside my everyday, I felt like a freaking gazelle.

So much so that I began fantasizing about seriously training again - running a half marathon and actually racing it, recapturing a part of myself that I thought I had abandoned when I metaphorically hung up my spikes ten years ago after a less than stellar final collegiate cross-country performance. I pictured seven minute splits. I pictured early mornings cruising past stroller-pushing joggers on the Santa Monica Bike Path. I pictured my dang pony tail declaring, "Eat my dust" to everyone I passed.

And then life happened.

What I originally attributed to soreness from running longer and harder than I normally do, turned into a nagging, sharp pain in my right achilles that I stubbornly continued to ignore because I'm me, and I'm invincible, and obviously a gazelle. Even when I finally decided to "let it rest," I took only two days off before diving right back into my regular exercise regimen.

As I grimaced through a 35-minute run on New Year's Eve morning, I finally acknowledged and accepted what I had intuitively known the first moment I'd felt it. (Because I, you know, read about it on WebMD.)

I had to stop.

There are certain things you realize when you can't do something you love. Namely, how much you really do love that thing, but also how paramount it is to your sanity, sense of self, and, perhaps most significantly, sense of worth.

Fortunately, I've also discovered that public pools that don't feel too public do exist in Los Angeles, and for $15 a month, I can bring back my college coach's preferred form of cross-training, the very glamorous pastime of aqua jogging. While 40-50 minutes of running in place in a therapy lane occupied by women more than twice my age is not exactly worthy of a Nike ad, it's something and has been, more or less, what's kept me from cutting my ear off during this whole ordeal.

Even so, the thing that has been most surprising to me throughout these past six weeks is that I actually am capable of being a patient person. As much as I want to tear the band-aid off, lace up my hot pink sneaks and be a freaking gazelle again, I am listening to my body -- and bonding with 70-year-olds over my new one-piece Target swimming suits in the process. (They approve.)

Ultimately, I know the end result will be worth the annoyance of this current period of physical restraint, not all unlike this slow-roasted chicken that I've been meaning to tell you about for five weeks.

I hope you find it worth the wait (even if you didn't know you were actually waiting for it).

Slow-roasted Herbed Chicken
Adapted from Bon Appetit via The Wednesday Chef

Notes: I waited months to make this chicken for the first time - mostly because life and quinoa kept getting in the way. I finally found an afternoon/night where I was capable of lingering around the house for a few hours early last month, and, as Louisa from The Wednesday Chef promised, this rotisserie-style "stratosphere-reaching" chicken delivered the knockout punch I was rabidly anticipating as it perfumed my apartment for three excruciating hours. I ate the leftovers for four days and then froze packets of residual pieces for literal (and metaphorical) rainy day chicken noodle soup. The final verdict here?  Find the time to make this. (P.S. The original recipe calls for potatoes that you roast alongside the chicken, but I opted for different accompaniments - an herbed quinoa pilaf and roasted cauliflower.)

1 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh marjoram; plus 4 sprigs, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme; plus 4 sprigs, divided
1 tablespoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 3½–4 pound chicken
1 lemon, quartered
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine fennel, red pepper flakes, marjoram, thyme, salt, and pepper. Mix together with a long-tonged fork, then add olive oil, stirring to combine.

Resist the urge to rinse your chicken (splattering potential germs all over your kitchen sink and surrounding counter services), and pat it dry with a paper towel. Using your hands, rub the herb oil mixture all over the outside/inside of the chicken. Stuff the inside with 2 sprigs marjoram, 2 sprigs thyme, the lemon quarters, and the garlic halves. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine.

Place the remaining thyme and marjoram in the center of an oven-safe baking dish (I used a sturdy Le Creuset situation). Set the chicken on top of the sprigs, and place in the oven. Roast, basting the chicken ever hour (I did this using a spoon to, well, spoon the jus over the chicken), until the skin is browned on the outside, and the temperature reads at least 165 degrees in the thickest area of the thigh.

Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before inhaling.