Friday, October 31, 2008

Scharffen Berger Dark Chocolate Nibby Bar: Just Right

I don't normally succumb to check-out stand temptations. The allure of a Snickers bar or Twix just isn't as potent as it was when I was a small child with indiscriminate taste buds. My tongue has become accustomed to higher quality chocolate -- chocolate that is dark and rich and deep with cocoa flavor. Such chocolate doesn't typically hibernate near the cash register -- unless of course, the cash register is at Gelson's market, a truly "super" market with the price tags and shiny, unblemished apples to prove it.

A couple months ago, as I was checking out of my local Gelson's, my eyes fell upon a display of Scharffen Berger Dark Chocolate Nibby bars. I appreciated the small size (and the sale price of $1.50), so I impulsively added one to my loot. I didn't care to partake in the bar that day, so relegated it to a place in my office desk drawer until desire struck. The bar was all but forgotten until last Friday, when I finally decided it was time to give my deep dark chocolate cravings a kick in the pants.

When I unwrapped the 1 oz. bar, I was somewhat surprised by its girth and size. The four substantial pieces seemed far too big to only contain 160 calories. I immediately logged onto the site and found the nutrition information. Yep, only 160 calories and 11 grams of fat (7 grams of the pesky saturated kind). Nonplussed by my mental images of the saturated fat clinging to the walls of my arteries, I took a sip of my green tea and dug in.

The chocolate snapped off in my mouth with authority, immediately blanketing my tongue with a rich chocolate duvet of flavor. I was heady with pleasure as I proceeded to bite my way through the decadent bar. The cacoa nibs added just the right amount of crunch without becoming a distraction from the bitter dark chocolate, and the contrast of textures made it some what remiscent of a Krackle bar -- albeit an upscale, adult version. (I doubt that many kids would find this treat as enjoyable as a Snickers.)

While I find some dark chocolate (specifically Green & Black Organic) to be too bitter for my palate, the 62% cacoa in Scharffen Berger's Nibby offering was perfect. As I polished off the last square of my mid-afternoon treat, I felt a little like Goldilock's. I had found my "just right dark chocolate bar." It is simple, yet profound. It makes a statement, yet isn't overbearing. It is indulgent, yet not a diet destructor.

And it gives me a reason to impulse shop every time I check out at Gelson's.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Farfalla Trattoria: Too Good for Leftovers

I told myself that I was going to save half for my dinner the next night. I psyched myself up for it the whole day -- I would be one of those model citizens of good health who proudly leaves a restaurant with a "to-go" box in hand. The reviews of Farfalla Trattoria, the cozy Italian eatery in Los Feliz, all insisted that the kitchen doled out large portions of their al dente pasta. If I just ate plenty of calamari and bread, I'd be fine to eat only half my trough of noodles. Right?

The evening started out well. The bread basket, served with sun-dried tomato-infused olive oil was standard but tasty, and my dining companions were amenable to ordering the lightly-battered calamari rings and tentacles ($12.75) as an appetizer. As I dunked the tender rings into the spicy arrabiata sauce, I was convinced that I would be able to resist consuming my entire order of Fusilli with shitake, leeks, artichokes,white truffle oil and aged ricotta ($16.75). I smugly sipped my full-bodied glass of Syrah, relishing the spicy bite of the bold house wine.

When our entrees arrived at the table, I was further convinced that I would not be able to finish the lofty proportion of pasta. I laughed quietly to myself -- Diana would not be the "Big Fat Ugly American" tonight! I carefully began forking my way through the dish, pairing each fusilli noodle with one of the meaty shitake mushrooms and tender leeks. Laced with just a hint of luscious truffle oil, the combination was addictive, particularly with the fine quality dried ricotta cheese. The pasta was perfectly cooked, the flavor profiles were spot on, and I found myself struggling to slow the pace of my fork-to-mouth action. I tried to distract myself by tasting my dining companion's polenta with wild mushroom sauce ($12.50), a decadent appetizer that is the quintessential comfort food, and it seemed to work. Especially when she insisted I finish the last two bites. I set my fork down, and confidently asked the busboy to wrap up my leftover pasta.

Our party of six capped off the evening with an order of a some what lackluster chocolate cake ($7.50) for the table, and while I wasn't completely satisfied by the couple bites I managed to pilfer, I felt comfortably full by the time we rolled out of the restaurant. I contemplated stopping by Pazzo Gelato for a scoop of pistachio gelato on my way home, but decided to eat one of my freshly baked chocolate and oat cookie bars instead.

When I arrived at my apartment, I couldn't resist a sneak peak at the contents of my white to-go box. What had looked like an ample portion inside the restaurant looked stingy in the light of my kitchen. There really wasn't that much left. Definitely not enough for dinner the next night. I poked around the container with my finger. It was still warm. The smell of the truffle oil and mushrooms was intoxicating, and my stomach suddenly groaned with lust. Before I could stop myself, I dumped the remaining noodles into a bowl and popped it straight into the microwave. Approximately a minute later, I was nestled on my couch, digging into Monday night's dinner like the good old American that I am.

I finished the whole thing. And then I ate a cookie bar.

God bless America. And truffle oil.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Trader Joe's Lumpy Bumpy Bars: A Workout for the Jaw

The moment I saw Futile Sniff's post about Trader Joe's new Lumpy Bumpy bar, I knew it would be mine. Not only is the name seriously fun to say, but the description seems to have been lifted straight out of my deepest chocolate-related dreams. Creamy caramel and peanut nougat drenched in dark chocolate? To steal the words right out of Meg Ryan's mouth in When Harry Met Sally, "Yes, yes, yes!"

I wanted what Futile Sniff (coincidentally, her name is Meg too) was having, and that very day, I rushed over to the Trader Joe's near my office to purchase one of the $1.99 bars.

The two ounce bar isn't exactly the daintiest of desserts. With 290 calories and 14 grams of fat (6 saturated) per bar, the treat is definitely an indulgence akin to downing an entire Snickers bar (270 calories, 11 grams of fat) in a sitting. I wasn't exactly in the mood for a belly ache, so I sliced the very lumpy and bumpy bar straight down the middle and saved half for the next day.

With my bar rations set, it was finally time to take a bite. I sank my teeth through the dark chocolate shell, careful to position my mouth at the proper angle to get a taste of the peanut, caramel and nougat all together. And then I chewed. And chewed. And chewed. I chewed so much that I was beginning to feel like one of those annoying people who don't swallow their food until they've masticated it an obscene number of times. Not because I'm also annoying and have some weird complex about the way I devour my food, but because it took some major jaw action to get through the nougat and caramel.

All the effort was slightly distracting. The taste was good, but my jaw was not happy with how hard it had to work to get through the lumpy bumpy bar. As I neared the end of the half, I also noticed that the peanuts had been concentrated in the middle. The last few bites were completely devoid of a nutty crunch, and with nothing but the caramel and nougat to attend, I found myself a little less than impressed. It wasn't bad, it was just too much work for my poor mouth!

Eating the second half the next day only reconfirmed my original conclusions. I also noticed that because the dark chocolate melted away soon after I took a bite, I didn't get the full impact of all the flavor profiles together. While the taste has the potential to rival my favorite See's chocolate, the dark nougat, the firmness of the caramel and nougat complete eradicates the possibility for comparison. It's simply not worth the jaw strain, nor is it worth the 290 calories and 14 grams of fat that could very well lead to some very lumpy and bumpy thighs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Chocolate and Oat Bars: Made with Hate, but Taste of Love

"I don't know how any one could eat more than one." My boss said.

I nodded in agreement. "I know! They're very rich."

I didn't mention that earlier in the day I had consumed two. In a row. I hadn't even really wanted the second one, but the act of resisting the decadent treats for the previous five hours had been disastrous for my iron will. I hadn't been able to stop thinking about them since cutting them that morning. It didn't help that I had to stare at them throughout the entire hour and fifteen minute corporate meeting/pseudo-birthday celebration for my boss. Nor did it help when my colleagues moaned and groaned about how good they were. My mouth was watering like a hose by the time I finally sat down with one after lunch. I shoved it in my trembling oral cavity with reckless abandon and then immediately reached for another that I told myself was "too cute to resist."

Approximately five minutes later, my stomach ached in protest, and I sincerely wished that I had resisted. But the bars were good. Really good. So good that I almost felt guilty for all the hate that I baked into the batter.

I didn't want to make the bars. I don't do a lot of baking in my apartment (iron will issues), so the only dry ingredients I have on hand are oatmeal (for my breakfast), flour (for dredging), and cinnamon (for the aforementioned oatmeal). My cabinets are loaded down with herbs and spices, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and various other items that have nothing to do with destroying my diet. I can bake like a miniature, poncholess Martha, but that doesn't mean I spend my Sunday afternoons toiling away in the kitchen so I can bust the zipper on my skinny jeans. I like to spend my weekends toiling away in front of the television.

Because I don't have loads of baking ingredients idling away in my cupboard, I was slightly resentful when I was charged with the task of bringing in a treat for my boss' birthday celebration. While I knew that I could probably skate by with some stale cupcakes from Ralph's or fake and bake with Nestle Tollhouse refrigerated cookie dough, my pride wouldn't let me do it. "Diana Takes a Bite" does not do store-bought, and I most certainly do not do mixes!

A quick flip through my mom's Great American Brand Name Cookbook brought me face-to-face with the solution to all my lean cabinet woes. I had made the chocolate and oat bars before and knew that they were a relatively simple, yet delectable treat that was sure to impress even the stodgiest of my co-workers. I planned to put a minimal effort into the bars, but pan problems and various other egregious happenings quickly steered me off my no-fuss/no-muss course. I whined. I groaned. And I nearly chucked the whole thing in the garbage when the pan emerged from the oven spewing up the sweetened condensed milk I'd used for the center. My roommate and her boyfriend were more than amused -- convinced that all my negative energy would transfer into the bars by osmosis.

Yet as I sat down to sample one later that evening, I was shocked to discover that my ill will had not impacted the integrity of my baked good at all. Despite my worst intentions, they were more than okay -- a verdict that my boss and fellow co-workers also reached the next day when they begged me to share the recipe.

I suppose those bar-swippers aren't so bad afterall, but I think I'll stick to "Project Runway" reruns next Sunday.

Chocolate and Oat Bars (Great American Brand Name Cookbook)


3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup quick-cooking oats (I used regular oats)
1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter (one stick)
6 oz chocolate chips
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk

1. Grease a 13x9'' pan (except don't use a 13x9'' pan -- there is NO way that batter is making it across a pan that size. I opted to use my roomie's 8.5x11'' glass pan, but I recommend finding one that is slightly bigger if you prefer a thinner bar).

2. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees (325 if using a glass pan).

3. Toast 1 cup chopped walnuts until just fragrant. (Keep a close watch on them so they don't become over toasted and turn bitter!)

4. Mix softened butter with brown sugar. Add flour and oats.

5. Press half of the batter into the pan and bake for 10 minutes (may need to bake a couple minutes longer if using a smaller pan than recipe calls for).

6. Decorate the cookie bottom with chocolate chips, walnuts and sweetened condensed milk (use less than the whole can if using a smaller pan -- gotta make some judgment calls when messing with any recipe!). Cover with the rest of the batter.

7. Return to oven and bake for another 25-30 minutes (again, add more time if using a smaller pan). The bars are done when they are slightly brown on top (see above).

8. Let cool a couple hours before attempting to eat one. Mouth burnage is a serious possibility and these bars taste exceedingly better at room temperature.

9. Serve with milk or tea -- not hate! And do not, under any circumstances, eat more than one in a sitting.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bar Hayama: Making New Friends

I made reservations at four different places -- Comme Ca, Akasha, Anisette, and Nook. I read Yelp reviews, blog reviews, Chowhound posts, and sought out the advice of three different Westside foodie friends in my quest for the perfect restaurant for a reunion with my dear college friend Kyna. She was in town from Portland for just a week, and I had one night to "wow" her with great food and an atmosphere that was fun, yet quiet enough to hold a conversation. As I weighed the pros and cons of the various eateries I had originally zeroed in on, I asked her for some guidance. She provided me with only word: Sushi.

I immediately cancelled my reservations at some of the most sought after tables in town, and called Katsuya Brentwood. "We have 6:30 and 9 pm available." The woman who answered the phone told me. "Or you can sit at the bar." I kindly refused the less-than-desirable offers, my stomach swaying with disappointment. There would be no baked crab hand rolls for Kyna and me that Thursday night. Feeling slightly defeated, I picked up my cell phone and punched in the number to Bar Hayama, the secret Sawtelle sushi joint that my most trusted foodie friend had recommended. They could do 7:30 pm, inside or out. I selected inside (I chill easily) and sighed with resignation. I didn't even have to fight for the reservation -- good food couldn't come that easily, could it?

It could. And it did.

After spending three glorious hours dining at Bar Hayama last Thursday evening, I am convinced that they should change their name to Bar HaYUMa (har har har). I have eaten at some of the best/most popular sushi restaurants in the city -- Matsuhisa, Katsuya (Studio City), Izakaya by Katsuya, Koi, Sushi Roku, Hirozen, and the tragically hip Geisha House -- and Bar Hayama's quality fish and creative touch outshines all of them.

Not only did the food elicit several "wow" choruses over the course of the night, but the service was impeccable. Our server Colin steered us through the multi-page menu featuring Kozara (small plates), sushi, sashami, specials, and entrees with the confidence of a seasoned sea captain. Kyna and I yielded to his power and left with smiles so big that they competed with the brightness of the roaring fire pit on the patio outside. As we shook chef Toshi's hand on our way out of the quaint yet stylish eatery, I couldn't help but feel overcome with joy. My stomach purred with contentment, my heart was seized with nostalgia for "the good old days" of undergrad, and my head was buzzing with the new memories I had made that evening with my friend.

When I arrived at work the next morning, my joy was still present, but somewhat deflated by the realization that my closest friends live so far away -- in Portland, Washington DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia. They are the friends that I consider my "gold" friends. The ones that will be in my life forever -- no matter how much time passes or how much distance comes between us, just like that cheesy song my troop leader forced us to sing in Brownies. "Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold."

I will always be sad that I can't see Ali or Caroline or Ashley or Kyna whenever I want, but I can take comfort in the new friends I have made since moving to Los Angeles in July 2005. I know I will be taking a lot of comfort in Bar Hayama and the new "silver" friends I made there on Thursday evening...

The garlic edamame appetizer ($5) that left my fingers sticky, my mouth stinky, and my taste buds very happy.

The shrimp cigar rolls with a spicy apricot sauce ($9) that were packed with plump shrimp.

The crispy rice and spicy tuna with balsamic vinegar sauce ($12) that were too big to be eaten with chopsticks, but that delivered a pop of flavor that superseded even Katsuya's version.

The calamari, asparagus and tomato salad ($10) with a sweet vinegar dressing that sounded weird, but was refreshing, refined and texturally pleasing.

The albacore carpaccio with diced chili ponzu warm olive oil ($14) that was the best dish of the evening, and the best dish I've encountered at a sushi restaurant. Tender, succulent pieces of melt-in-the-mouth perfection. Exquisite presentation and flavor profiles, this one is a must order.

The Hayama Crunch Roll (spicy tuna with crunch) ($12) that gave Kyna and I eight more reasons to love spicy tuna.

And the finale, a complimentary bowl of their famous miso soup that was a soothing way to end one of the best restaurant meals I've had in recent memory.

For only $99 ( before tip, including 4 glasses of wine), friends can be bought pretty easily at Bar Hayama.

But I'd say the restaurant is worth more than that. It's worth it's weight in gold.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fruited Wild Rice: From My Family to Yours

Family dinners at my parents' home in Newport Beach can turn into quite the production. Ma and Pa H. raised a household of foodies, and we all bring lofty expectations when we gather together around the dining room table. This past Saturday was no different. What was supposed to be a simple meal centered around a barbecued pork tenderloin quickly turned into a feast fit for Tom Collichio himself. With both my parents and my hands in the pot, we created a rustic, yet refined meal of pork tenderloin with a balsamic shallot apricot sauce accompanied by a fruited wild rice. It was the perfect fall meal -- even if it was 80 degrees outside.

When my mother decided that we would dig on the pig Saturday morning, we were faced with the usual dilemma of a pork-based dinner. We knew we wanted to use the fabulous reduction from the Kitchn's Chicken with apricot-shallot sauce recipe, but struggled to come up with an appropriate side dish. Our favorite sweet potato casserole would be too cloying with the already sweet sauce, but baked sweet potato fries seemed too boring. As my mother and I sat in quiet contemplation, we serendipitously arrived at the same conclusion -- fruited wild rice.

With a twinkle in her blue, sometimes hazel eyes, my mom lept to her feet. "I have just the recipe!" She exclaimed, skipping across the kitchen floor toward the book shelf full of tattered cook books.

When she returned to the table with 365 Favorite Brand Name Stir-Fry by Publications International, I was a bit concerned.

"Um, Mom?" I said, my eyes glazed over with doubt. "That's a stir-fry cook book. We are having rice?"

She nodded enthusiastically as she confidently flipped through the earmarked pages to the fruited wild rice recipe. I looked over her shoulder and was aghast to see that it contained soy sauce.

"It's really good." She insisted. "When I made it for a potluck at school, it was the first dish gone."

My green, also sometimes hazel eyes, popped in surprise. "Before the desserts?" I asked. "And there were teachers there?"

She grinned in response, and I was sold. My mother and I were off to the store to track down all the ingredients.

As my parents and I settled around our oak dining room table that evening, I couldn't help but feel proud of our efforts. The pork, courtesy of my father, was tender and moist, my sauce was the perfect consistency, and the rice my mother and I slaved over together, was a cornucopia of textures and flavors. We all agreed that it was better than most of the restaurant meals we'd eaten recently. I'd like to say it's because it was "made with love," but I'm just not that cheesy. It was definitely because of the seriously righteous rice and my parents and my seriously righteous skills in the kitchen.

Fruited Wild Rice (From 365 Favorite Brand Name Stir-Fry)


(For approximately 4 side servings)

1 cup wild rice
*1/3 cup toasted pecan pieces
1 cup chopped onions
10 dried apricots, chopped
1/3 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries (we used dried cranberries)
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
Red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon grated orange peel
Chicken broth

*Original recipe calls for a mix of pecans, walnuts and almonds, but we only used pecans.

1. Cook wild rice according to instructions on box. For 1 cup of rice, use 2 cups of liquid -- preferably a combination of water and chicken broth so the chicken flavor is not too potent. Wild rice typically takes approximately 50 minutes to cook.

2. When the rice is almost done, heat oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions to skillet and cook until tender and translucent. Add apricots, dried cranberries, ginger, and red pepper flakes and cook for 5 minutes.

3. While the onions and dried fruit mixture is getting hot and heavy, whisk together the honey, soy sauce and orange peel in a small bowl. Dump into the rice pan with the onions, fruit and toasted pecan pieces. Mix together and then serve. With love. (Or sarcasm.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Double Rainbow Chocolate Sorbet: My Newest Form of Chocolate "Insurance"

In the July issue of Self magazine, Renee L. Todd shares her successful weight loss tactic in the article "I'll have that brownie tomorrow." Rather than depriving herself of even the possibility of consuming the treats she craves, she hides a Toblerone bar in the back of her sock drawer as an "insurance plan." Because the Toblerone bar is always accessible to her if she wants it, she doesn't have to "worry about a future without chocolate." It will always be there for her, and as a result, she no longer feels compelled to eat something she doesn't necessarily want just because it won't be there the next day.

The point of the article was striking to me. For years I have been doing the same thing, without even realizing it. My office drawer at work is packed with a variety of chocolate goodies like Trader Joe's chocolate covered cashews and See's Candies, and my supplies at home often push the capacity limits on my freezer space. The piece seemed to justify my expenditures on Trader Joe's Ice Cream Bon Bons, Soy Creamy ice cream, and Jell-o Pudding Snacks, and after reading it, I began buying with even less restraint than before.

A couple weeks ago, when I opened my freezer to an avalanche of edamame pods and frozen corn, and I noticed that the expiration date on my pudding (10/16/08) was drawing disturbingly near, I realized I had a problem. By having so many options available to me as a form of chocolate "insurance," I had grown incredibly wasteful and financially irresponsible. Plus, after my recent discovery of the Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip ice cream, I was having a hard time getting through the rest of my stockade of desserts. I hadn't even touched the Double Rainbow Chocolate Sorbet that had been hibernating in my freezer for the past six weeks.

After cleaning out a few unnecessary items from the dark corners of the space (including the seriously underwhelming TJ's Mini Mint Ice Cream Mouthfuls), I made a promise to myself that I would not purchase any more "insurance" until I had cleaned out what I already had. First up was the nearly expired pudding, and then, this past Thursday, I took my first dip into the Double Rainbow Chocolate Sorbet.

I was skeptical at first. Sorbet has never been something I particularly crave or covet. Sometimes in high school I would buy a carton of Dreyer's lemon sorbet to help me get through a particularly arduous study session or paper, but aside from those few occasions, I kept my eyes focused exclusively on ice cream or frozen yogurt. But when I saw the Double Rainbow chocolate sorbet at my local Trader Joe's, my hand instinctively reached for it. I had to have it.

Some quick research on the Internet uncovered that Double Rainbow was actually the first company to make chocolate sorbet, and the San Francisco Chronicle had even named it the "Flavorite Calorie Correct Indulgence." With only 1.5 grams of fat and 120 calories per 1/2 cup serving, I could see why. But still, could any frozen dessert that is 99.5% fat free possibly be any good? It's chocolate -- doesn't it need the fat and dairy to be a tasty form of dessert insurance?

With only moments to spare before "the Office" began, I brushed my apprehensions aside and scooped myself out a restrained serving of the surprisingly dark-colored sorbet. It looked almost fudge-like, but with little crystals of ice from the time spent in my freezer. I let the sorbet sit a couple minutes (because ice cream and faux ice creams are so much better when melty) and then swirled it around a bit with my spoon so it would reach the perfect soupy consistency.

Unlike other sorbets that turn runny almost as soon as they hit the bowl, I liked that the Double Rainbow sorbet held some of its form. It was almost like a frozen pudding snack, a comparison that struck me again when I took my first bite. Yet as I continued to spoon the soupy chocolate sorbet into my mouth, I marveled at how rich it tasted -- almost like a dark chocolate bar. I did somewhat miss the luxurious texture of a traditional ice cream and almost wished I could insert some heavy cream into my bowl, but overall, I found the sorbet to be pleasurable.

That night I came to the conclusion that I probably wouldn't purchase the sorbet again, but after finishing my second and third bowls earlier this week, I was a bit sad that it was gone. I almost wished that I had purchased more chocolate sorbet insurance instead of the chocolate bon bons that I am now working my way through.

With two days to go before my next TJ's run, I may just break my original promise to clean out my chocolate reserves before investing in more. I think Ms. Todd would approve. (Even if my freezer does not.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Le Pain Quotidien: It's Fun (I think) Being French (Err... Belgian)

The Belgian bakery/eatery Le Pain Quotidien is somewhat of a head-scratcher for me. I can never seem to spell or pronounce the name correctly, and up until I "Googled it" and discovered that the chain of restaurants was founded by Belgian chef Alain Coumont (Wikipedia), I was under the impression that it was French. It's not.

Despite my ignorant misconceptions and confusion over the popular cafe that is famous for their decadent fudge brownies and communal tables, I was eager to give Le Pain's offerings a test drive on my tongue. It's overt chaininess didn't particularly appeal to my snob-like sensibilities, but several little birdies (including those pesky 'hounders and yelpers) made it clear that Le Pain Quotidien is far superior to the woefully generic Panera or Cosi. Plus, I really liked the sound of that chocolate hazelnut spread that they give patrons to smear on slices of their freshly baked bread.

This past Sunday, unable to get back to my West Hollywood apartment due to road closures for the AIDS walk, a friend and I descended upon the Beverly Hills location in search of something cute and... err... Belgian to munch. As usual, I arrived at the sunshine soaked cafe with a side dish of indecisiveness. My stomach was purring with hunger-induced lust, and as I eyed the various tartines and omelets emerging from the kitchen, I wanted it all.

When our waitress arrived with menus, I asked for her recommendations on, well, everything (with the exception of my lackluster love life). So great was my indecisiveness, I couldn't even pick out a flavor of iced tea without her assistance. Throwing caution to the subtle Bev Hills breeze, I snubbed my usual green tea for her suggestion -- the Chamomile Mint ($3.50), which came in a glass with real mint leaves floating at the top, as well as a carafe of the delectable beverage for some do-it-myself refills. This tea was crazy good, and I may be inclined to follow the lead of fellow foodie blogger Jen ("Becoming a Foodie") and make my own at home. (Stay tuned...)

As I sipped my beverage, I continued to host an internal debate regarding the merits of the asparagus and goat cheese omelet vs. the chicken curry tartine with harissa cranberry chutney. The omelet did come with the bread and hazelnut chocolate spread that I had heard so much about, but our waitress was very animate about the popularity of the chicken curry tartine. Whatever was a hungry foodie to do? And how did a lazy Sunday brunch become so stressful? Could it be because Le Pain lists the calories in their dishes right on the menu (570 calories for the tartine)? Or could it be because I'm just a neurotic nut case?

I finally settled on the chicken curry tartine ($10.75) and was, again, thrilled with our extremely patient waitress' suggestion. While I felt somewhat like I was guest starring in that "Seinfeld" episode where people take to eating Snicker bars and donuts with a knife and fork, it was nice to finally relax and take a break from all my neurotic musings. Eating the open-faced sandwich with a knife and fork allowed me to eat slowly and methodically -- just like a French... err Belgian... woman would. I didn't feel compelled to shovel the delicately spiced chicken salad into my mouth, nor did I mind that the portions were understated. The one slice of cantaloupe melon and two slices of mango were perfectly ripe and sweet, and the accompanying tomato, cucumbers and radishes were of similar fine quality.

Though I enjoyed my light lunch and was impressed with all the attention paid to the details, I'm still scratching my head over the restaurant. Yes, the chicken curry tartine was good, but was it better than my favorite chicken curry sandwich at Urth Caffe? And while it was fun to be all posh and sophisticated with my fork and knife, some of the joy of eating a sandwich was lost in the process. Sometimes I like to cram things in my mouth. Especially when I don't know how many calories are in the product I'm injesting. Because no matter how slowly I eat it, that brownie everyone moans about is still packing 500+ calories. And that's not very French... err Belgian at all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Roasted Vegetable Salad w/ Grilled Chicken and Goat Cheese

It's gotten bad. Really bad. So bad that I'm starting to worry that I am turning into one of those people -- a crazy foodie blogger gone wild. A blogger so far gone that I can't leave home without my camera, I can't stop thinking about my next post, and I constantly insert the phrase "my blog" into every conversation I have had recently.

"What did you do today?" A good friend asks.

"Oh, you know, the usual -- wrote a new post on my blog."

I have become so stricken with blogger fever that when I am not scouring the aisles of my local Trader Joe's for new products to test or devouring foodie gossip about the next restaurant I need to try, my mind is awash with the new recipe ideas. I can't help but feel that preparing a meal or dish that I have already blogged about is a waste. But how can I keep up this pace? How can I afford to keep delving into dark and uncharted foodie territory?

This past Saturday, I stared at the contents of my refrigerator with apprehension. After making grilled goat cheese sandwiches earlier in the week, I had an abundance of left over goat cheese, red pepper and zucchini. I knew that I should use up the ingredients I already had and make another sandwich, but I couldn't help but feel like I was cheating myself out of a blogworthy experience. But could I really shun my stock of veggies and perfectly good cheese for a bag full of pricey new groceries from Whole Foods?

I screwed my eyes up into an angry scowl -- I really didn't want a grilled cheese sandwich. After my heavy dinner at El Cholo the night before, I was carrying a heavy load in my stomach. I needed refreshment, I needed something green, I needed a salad! A salad chock full of fresh veggies, just like the chopped grilled vegetable salad at Sage on the Coast in Newport Beach. Fortunately, I didn't need to chuck all my financial and green responsibilities to make it happen. My mid-day meal would be a deconstructed version of my savory grilled sandwich with a few extra touches to boost the nutritional value and counteract all the ugly I had heaped on my body the previous night.

To start, I chopped up some carrots, red peppers and zucchini, tossed them in some balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and salt & pepper, and then let them do their little roasting business in my 375 degree oven. While my veggies got hot and heavy, I prepared 1/4 cup shelled Edamame according to package instructions (boil water, insert beans, add salt, drain after 5 minutes), and then grilled a 5-ounce chicken breast on my roommate's seriously awesome grill pan. Prior to grilling, I made sure to give my chicken some loving with the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and salt & pepper shakers. Unseasoned chicken is like so 1950s TV dinner, and it just makes good sense to use the same window dressings on all the windows in the house. Or, in my salad's case, all the food stuffs making their way onto my chic white square plate.

When my veggies were tender and my chicken dribbled clear rather than pink juices, I tossed the veggies with chopped romaine lettuce and my standard balsamic dressing made with balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey, olive oil, and salt and pepper. I plated my field of greens and then placed my grilled chicken and goat cheese over the top. And then I took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Until I finally got the right one.

Because, really, what's the use of a healthy and satisfying veggie salad if it doesn't look good on the page?

Monday, October 20, 2008

El Cholo: Green Tamales for "Gringos"

The El Cholo chain of restaurants, particularly the Santa Monica location, would fit in quite nicely on the website "Stuff White People Like." The sanitized Mexican eatery is no taco truck slinging out lardolicious pulled pork or carne asade tacos that leave a snail-like trail of grease on everything they touch. While foodie critics scoff that El Cholo's clean fare comes packaged for "gringos," I like that I don't feel as though I've just given my arteries a sucker punch after dining there. I feel sprightly, I feel happy, and after downing one of their huge classic margaritas (on the rocks) a little lightheaded as well.

Of course, one doesn't come to El Cholo for the margarita buzz alone. Or for the warm, crisp tortilla chips served with a pungently spiced salsa that rips across the tongue with just the right amount of force. While the chicken chimichangas, fajitas and blue corn enchiladas are all popular entrees on their menu, the reason that El Cholo maintains a tiny modicum of respect within the foodie circuit is because of their special green tamales that are only in season from May through October. According to our waiter this past Friday night, "People come from all over for them."

I, on the other hand, only had to drive from West Hollywood.

For weeks my roommate and her boyfriend had been heckling me for my recent confession that I'd never had a tamale. Despite my blonde hair, Orange County roots and pink skin that screams "white girl," I like to think that I am open-minded when it comes to the contents of my stomach. My 25 years of a tamaleless existence was embarrassing. Aside from the four years I spent on the North Shore of Chicago, I've lived in Southern California my entire life -- I might as well have confessed that I'd never been to Mexico. (Which is also disturbingly true.)

With two weeks to spare before I missed out on another green tamale season at El Cholo, I commissioned (ie. bribed with the aforementioned margaritas) a friend to help me rectify my foodie sin. We descended upon the Santa Monica location this Friday night on a mission for all things green.

I was nervous when the waiter told me the green tameles weren't his favorite. And even more concerned when he grimaced and called them "really sweet." While I'm not one to shy away from the sugar bowl, did I really want to eat my dessert for dinner? I hesitated even further when my friend ordered the chicken chimichangas. My mouth oozed moisture as I pictured the crisp flour tortillas with chunks of succulent white meat -- the ultimate indulgence for us "Big Fat Americans." I was almost ready to fold under the penetrating gaze of our waiter, but he assured me that "everyone else likes them." I nodded, placed my order and apprehensively stuffed tortilla chips and chunks of guacamole into my mouth.

Our entrees arrived at the table within ten minutes, and I was immediately comforted by the sight of the black beans and rice accompaniments. Even if I did find the tamales a sad sack in a corn husk, I could at least fill up the properly executed sides! I carefully unwrapped the green husks (after confirming with my friend that I did not eat that part too) and paused a moment to take in the golden corn masa within. It looked like crumbled cornbread. Where was the Cheddar cheese? Where were the Ortega chiles? And why did it taste like a pile of sweet mush? This couldn't be what everyone raves about on Chowhound, could it?

I dumped on some salsa and let the buzz from my margarita take over. It would be fine. It would be great! I would like these tamales, gosh darn it! And then, quite suddenly, I did.

While I'm not sure that I will be going green on a regular basis, when paired with the spicy salsa, I finally understood the appeal of the tamale. The sweet and savory combination is always a winner with my taste buds, and as soon as I discovered I could mess with my corn husks a little, I was a happy camper. So happy that when I finally put my fork down mid-way through my second tamale, I definitely felt a little something stirring in my veins.

No, not the tingly arms and legs sensation (though I was feeling a bit of that too), but rather the sense that I might crave those little green goblins again. The tamale might just turn into another Pinkberry for me -- a little off-putting at first, but ultimately, supremely satisfying.

Or it might just be one of those "been there, done that" experiences. I really like my fajitas. And chimichangas. Even if those Chowhounders do consider it sanitized "white girl" food.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Diana Takes a Sip: Tamás Estates Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio (known as Pinot Gris when produced outside of Italy) was my go-to wine when I was first developing my wine palate in college. Whenever my girl friends and I went to a nicer restaurant and wanted to appear chic and sophisticated, we would all order glasses (or a bottle) of Pinot Grigio. It was an easy, safe choice -- a light-bodied, crisp and often sweet wine that was easy to drink (and easy to guzzle). (Plus, Kirsten Cohen always ordered it in on "the OC.")

Since leaving the North Shore of Chicago, my appreciation for wine has grown beyond the Pinot Gris/Grigio grape. I lust after bold, peppery reds like Barbera and Malbec, and regularly fill my glass with a full-bodied Petite Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. My tastes in whites have changed as well, as I now prefer sipping grassy, citrus-toned New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region instead of the humble Pinot Grigio.

Despite my newly acquired wine snobbism, desperate economic times have had an undeniable impact upon the contents of my pink-stemmed Riedel glasses. Good wine is expensive, and the $10+ bottles that I prefer to keep stocked in my apartment are not doing any favors for the state of my starved bank account. It's presented quite the dilemma -- a girl cannot subsist on food alone! She needs love, she needs attention, she needs shoes, and --savings account be damned-- she needs her wine!

A few weekends ago, as I was heading toward the check-out counter at Gelson's Market, I noticed a display of Tamás Estates Pinot Grigio on sale for $7.99. I was planning on making Chicken Piccata for dinner that night, and knew that a Pinot Grigio always worked well in the dish. Remembering my parents sage advice to never cook with a wine that I wouldn't drink, I decided to try a bottle. Even if I didn't pour a single sip into my wine glass, at least I would have a week full of delicious wine-infused dishes.

I didn't try any of the wine that night. Nor did I try any the following night. But then, that Tuesday, after I spent an hour driving the 7.8 miles home from work, I was in desperate need of something to calm my unsteady nerves. Insert: Tamás Estates Pinot Grigio.

The light Italian wine with undertones of grapefruit and citrus was crisp and refreshing on my tongue, and enlivened my senses after the arduous drive on the 10 fwy. I was shocked at how much I liked it. I wasn't supposed to enjoy Pinot Grigios any more -- I'd grown up! I'd moved on! I was firmly devoted to my Sauvignon Blancs. Wasn't I?

Apparently not. The $7.99 Tamás Estates Pinot Grigio has become a staple in my cupboard since that day. The price is right, it works well for cooking and sipping, and is the perfect accompaniment to light meals.

Plus, it looks super chic in my pink-stemmed wine glasses.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Nook: A Great Restaurant Disgraced by my Great Foodie Failure

I told myself that I was going to order something different the next time I dined at Chowhound favorite, Nook restaurant in Santa Monica. I told myself that I would be a big and brave and just say "No!" to the lure of the judiciously proportioned Herb Roasted Pork Chop ($19). I really didn't need to order it a fourth time. I knew how it felt to tear my steak knife through the meaty flesh. I knew how well it paired with the accompanying salad of baby arugula, Asian pear, Stilton cheese, pinenuts, and fingerling potatoes splashed with sweet apricot vinaigrette. And I knew that the dish had become decidedly less transcendent over the course of my visits to the charming strip-mall eatery.

Despite my underwhelmed feelings regarding Nook's famed pork chop during my past two meals, I couldn't get myself to order what I really wanted -- the dish my dining partner selected for his entree. When his Spicy Gulf Shrimp & grits with Falls Mill Stone ground grits and linquisa sausage ($17) arrived at the table, my heart was immediately seized with regret. The bright colors of the dish, and his commitment to devouring everything on the plate made it clear that in my quest to "play it safe," I had missed out on something truly special. It is a well-known foodie fact that the first few bites of a new dish always tastes the best. The flavor is fresh, exciting and tantalizing to the tongue, and by sticking to my standby chop, I was depriving myself of a new and enlightening dining experience.

My disgraceful foodie behavior continued throughout the entire meal. Even though I've savored the succulent elbow noodles in the homemade mac & cheese (the best in LA) on two of my previous visits, I insisted that we order a side dish ($7) to share. My dining companion again made the wiser decision -- opting for a bowl of the special soup of the night, a ginger carrot puree ($4) that left an indelible impression on my tongue when I overcame my germophobia to try a bite. I lusted after the bright orange soup -- the perfect blend of sweet and spicy - but was left to merely pick away at the bowl of complimentary boiled peanuts, while my companion attended to his inspired starter. They were the same boiled peanuts I'd munched away on during each of my experiences inside the Nook. The same peanuts, prepared with the same cajun spices, with the same soggy shells.

As I finished the final drops of my glass of a full-bodied Petite Sirah (the only bold ordering decision I made), I couldn't help but curse myself for being so unadventurous in my choices that evening. Nook is still one of my favorite restaurants, but last Saturday's meal offered me no new reasons to love the eatery that hides itself beneath its little blue arrow sign. My most treasured dining experiences have always been the ones where I tried something new, something that I might not like, but ended up loving it -- surprising myself with a new flavor to add to my reportiore.

When I do have the opportunity to dine in the Nook again, I vow to challenge my palate. To turn down the sirens' call of the perfectly crusted mac 'n cheese, to deny myself the decadent chocolate banana bread pudding ($7) that turned me into a bread pudding-ophile, and to give myself a chance to love or hate something new. Because I can't really say "How do I love Nook? Let me count the ways..." until I know all the ways to love it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eating Like a Kid with Jell-o Pudding Snacks

I recently read an article where a woman discussed how eating like a child helped her learn to appreciate food and overcome her struggles with her weight. In the piece, she describes the experience of savoring a bowl of ice cream -- swirling the ice cream around in her bowl and letting herself truly enjoy the treat. While in many ways, the article was another version of "Why French Women Don't Get Fat" (they eat really slowly and actually like everything they put in their mouths), her words stuck with me (even if her name did not).
When I was a young girl, I had a love/hate relationship with food. I loved bread, fruit and anything containing sugar, and hated everything else. I turned up my cute button nose at cheese, eggs, steak, seafood, even rice, and would regularly drive my mother crazy with my pickiness. Dining out in restaurants meant that I would order a well-done burger and fries, fill up on bread and coke, take two bites of the burger and declare, "I'm full." I would then spend the rest of the meal playing with my french fries (plain with no ketchup) and attracting the ire of my temperamental father who would threaten to make me sit in the car if I didn't keep my fingers folded neatly in my lap like a good little girl.
I was not good. But I was on to something. Aside from missing out on vital nutrients, I had achieved something that millions of Americans struggle with on a daily basis. I ate only the foods that I really liked, and when I was full, I stopped eating.
Today, while I can't say that I always stop eating when I'm full, I can say that I do only eat the foods that I like and (try) to always take the time to enjoy every bite. Now that my taste buds are fully developed, the foods I like are no longer limited to junk or simple carbohydrates (unless I'm eating at Angeli Caffe or am PMSing). Eating like a kid does not mean subsisting on a nutritionally defunct diet of Kraft singles, canned Spaggetios and Wonder Bread, but there are certain foods that I still enjoy from the years I spent with a sieve over my mouth.
Cupcakes are an obvious way to harken back to the days of knee scrapes and jump ropes, but they do not necessarily adhere to proper serving sizes for either kids or adults. Other foods taste great through the eyes of a child, but lose their appeal when the child grows up. Jell-o pudding snacks, however, seem to have stood the test of time, maintained by the adoration of dieters and foodies alike, and today, is still one of my favorite post-dinner treats.
Last night, as I watched "Fringe" with my roommate, I slowly spooned tiny bites of a creamy chocolate vanilla swirl pudding cup into my mouth. I licked the lid, I attempted to eat the vanilla and chocolate parts separately, and when I was finished, I was finished. I didn't need anything else. The 110 calorie cup (with only 1.5 grams of fat!) was enough for me. As it will be for my future little niece, who will be making her foodie debut into the world this coming March.
For the sake of my brother and sister-in-law, here's hoping she's a little less picky than her aunt. But if she's not, at least I know that she's got good genes. (And is on track for a future lifetime of exquisite eating habits.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Say "Hello" to Fall With a Grilled Goat Cheese Sandwich

This past Saturday I woke up to the sound of a blustering Santa Ana wind rattling my bedroom window. As I drew my fluffy pink down comforter closer around my shivering body, I realized that summer truly was over. The air outside was crisp and dry on my morning run, and when I arrived home with rosy, wind-burned cheeks, I knew it was going to be a grilled cheese and soup day. After months of cold turkey sandwiches and fresh fruit salads, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into something warm and comforting.

After scouring the contents of my fridge and cupboards, I discovered that I had all the fixings for something truly special. This would be no ordinary grilled cheese. While a sharp Cheddar on buttered white bread is fine for some occasions (ie. childhood occasions), I am an adult now (sort of). I have refined tastes, a dexterous chopping hand and a recently acquired obsession with goat cheese --I can do better than what can be found in any greasy spoon diner!

I started out by roasting some shallots, red peppers and yellow squash slices in the oven. I tossed my veggies with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a good shake of pepper and salt, and placed them on a cookie sheet. It took about 15 minutes for them to get tender, but I kept a close watch to ensure that they didn't burn onto my pan (an absolute horror to clean up!).

Once my vegetables achieved the optimal roasting state, I placed them on a slice of Milton's Whole Grain Plus Bread. I sprinkled liberal chunks of goat cheese over the veggies, and then drizzled a balsamic dressing made with balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey, olive oil, salt and pepper, on top. I secured the contents with another slice of bread and then heated a small amount of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan. Once hot, I used my spatula to spread some of the oil on the top slice of my sandwich. I placed the other side down in the pan and reduced the temperature. (Note: Grilling at a lower temperature ensures that the sandwich will heat through without burning the bread.)

Because grilled cheese sandwiches and soup go together like peanut butter and oatmeal , I paired my hot sammie with a bowl of Trader Joe's Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato soup. Topped with some toasted walnuts, it was the perfect fall lunch. Plus, I got to test drive my fierce new yellow soup bowl from Anthropologie ($4.95). Fall is no excuse to abandon bright colors in favor of frumpy fabrics and place settings! Yellow is like so the new brown! And goat cheese is definitely the new Cheddar.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Angeli Caffe: Where Carbohydrates are a Girl's Best Friend

It's going to come out sooner or later, so I might as well just make the confession now. My name is Diana (fill in the blank) and I am a carboholic. I am afraid of eating meals that do not contain some sort of starch, rice, pasta or grain product, I get grouchy and irritable when I go more than four hours without simple or complex sugars, and I judge restaurants by their bread basket.

It's a tough lot being stuck with such a demanding stomach, especially in a city so committed to demonizing the humble carbohydrate, but I've managed to eke out a somewhat normal existence. It helps that Evan Kleiman's Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue is a few short blocks from my apartment. When times get dark, I know that I can always score a hit of quality glucose at the quaint Italian eatery that serves the best bread basket in town. (And it doesn't even come in a basket.)

The complimentary pizza bread arrives at each table steaming hot from the wood-burning brick oven. It is almost too warm to touch, but I can never resist immediately tearing through its crusty exterior to scald my tongue with the doughy interior. It doesn't even need the olive oil and fruity balsamic vinegar served on the side, but does benefit from a swirl or two of the superior quality products. I would be perfectly happy if my meal began and ended right here (as long as I had wine to wash it all down) were it not for the lasagna.

Okay fine, and maybe the perfectly crisp, tender rings of fried calamari. Oh, and definitely the Insalata Forte with locally grown organic baby greens, fennel, and Belgian endive dressed with a garlicky parmesan viniagrette too. The pizza should probably also be included, but since I can never get myself to order anything other than the lusciously decadent Lasanga Angeli, a meatless lasagna of fresh pasta, seasonal veggies, tomato-basil sauce, ricotta, bechamel and parmesan, I cannot personally vouch for the pizza's yumminess. I can vouch (and throw a parade) for the lasagna. My friend Joanne says it "Melts in [her] mouth." I say, " (groan) It (groan) melts (groan) in (groan) my (groan) mouth (groan)." And then I use the extra bread to mop up the sauce left in the bare bowl. (Groan groan.)

While I have eaten at (or ordered take-out) from Angeli at least a half dozen times since living in Los Angeles, I have never actually made it to dessert. I always want to save room for the chocolate chunk bread pudding (which I hear is divine), but like any good carboholic, cannot control my bread/pasta ingestion. No matter how hard I try to not finish the lasagna, or not tear into my third chunk of pizza bread, I always end up surrendering to the call of the glucose. And then I groan. And moan. And rub my overly-distended stomach until the pain goes away.

And when it does, I go back for more. Every single time.

Note to my fellow carboholic readers: Angeli is now offering patrons 15% off Tuesday-Thursday.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Great LA Chai Hunt

I discovered chai lattes during the fall quarter of my sophomore year of college. As a born and bred Southern Californian unaccustomed to bone-chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures, Chicago falls and winters were murderous to my thin skin. I spent seven months out of the school year with a perpetual coat of goosebumps. Unless of course, I was suffocating in an overheated lecture hall, or downing a hot beverage.

My friend Kyna was the one who first turned me on to chai. I hadn't yet acquired a taste for coffee and was bored by the tea bag, but still needed something to sip when I thought my fingers were going to fall off from frost bite. Then, when I was at Kyna's parents' home for the Thanksgiving holiday, she pulled out a canister of Big Train chai from Trader Joe's. She made us each a cup, and as I savored the creamy, sweet and spicy beverage, I knew I had found the perfect antidote for my cold weather blues.

Chai got me through the rest of my three years at Northwestern and continues to be a comfort for me whenever the temperature gets low enough in Los Angeles. Sipping a foamy chai latte brings me back to one of the happiest times of my life. It reminds me of my good friends, of our marathon study sessions at Borders Cafe in Evanston, and of my sophomore year dorm room, where I made myself a cup of chai every afternoon after class.

Throughout the past three years that I have lived in LA, I have tried many chai lattes in my quest for nostalgia and comfort. I'm not sure that I have found the "ultimate" chai latte yet, but I am always on the hunt for the perfect blend of sweet and spicy. As of now, the version at Aroma Coffee and Tea in Studio City is my favorite. My current list (a rival to Laist's Top Five Chai Lattes) is as follows:

1. Aroma Coffee and Tea (4360 Tujunga Ave, Studio City) - Creamy, sweet and subtly spiced, this latte is more decadent than savory. While it is an indulgent treat, it is not cloyingly rich, and pairs well with any of Aroma's baked goods. I highly recommend the freshly chocolate chip cookies as a companion piece.

2. Groundwork Coffee Company (1501 Cahuenda Blvd in Hollywood/2908 Main Street in Santa Monica) - While obviously made from a mix, this chai also passes my creamy/sweet test, and is delectable either iced or hot.

3. Massimo's Mudspot (759 S. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles) - Made from Tiger chai mix, this chai has serious bite. Regardless of the size ordered, they use the same amount of mix, so request a larger size to lessen the potency of the spices. If it is still too intensely flavored, check out the Cacao chai which is akin to a spicy hot chocolate - rich, creamy and oh so delicious.

4. Coffee Bean - While it pains me to admit it, on a rainy day, a Coffee Bean chai latte tastes pretty darn good. And it should with a big old scoop of their famous vanilla powder packed into the cup. At 220 calories for a small nonfat version, it's definitely an indulgence, but sometimes I enjoy giving into temptation. And when I don't, I just request that they use 1/2 the vanilla powder.

5. Novel Cafe (212 Pier Ave. and 2901 Ocean Park Ave. in Santa Monica/1101 Gayley in Westwood) - Because I have downed 200+ cups of Big Train chai throughout the past six years, I know a Big Train chai when I taste one. Novel Cafe's vanilla chai is undoubtedly made with the BT vanilla chai mix, and that's not a bad thing. Unless you are like me, and have a bag of the stuff at home. (Note: Big Train chai can be purchased on-line or in the Nordstrom's cafe at the Grove)

6. Starbucks - Made with Oregon chai mix, the Starbucks version is nothing that is going to knock anyone's socks off (unless you aren't wearing any to begin with), but it's a decent latte nonetheless. It is not nearly as sweet as Coffee Bean's version, but the spices are more discernible as a result. I've heard a rumor that it is possible to get a Pumpkin or Eggnog chai around the holidays, but I have yet to taste an adulterated version of the standard 'bucks' chai.

7. Peet's Coffee Tea- Insufficiently flavored, all I tasted was milk when I gulped down a cup at the Peet's on Larchmont. Severely disappointing -- especially considering how much I enjoy the other lattes and teas on the menu.

8. Milk (7290 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood) - My only encounter with this chai was from a single sip I took of a friend's iced beverage, but it was more than enough. Sickeningly sweet with an odd aftertaste, it was quickly apparent that Milk doesn't shine at everything containing dairy. (Even if their banana dulce de leche ice cream is one of the best flavors of ice cream I've tasted in LA.)

9. Urth Caffe (2327 Main Street, Santa Monica/267 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills/8565 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood) - While I adore Urth Caffe's honey vanilla latte and wide range of loose leaf teas, their naturally decaffeinated chai latte is abominable. My experience with the hot version left me with a mouth full of unsweetened warm milk, and my experience with the iced version nearly scarred me. It just tasted off -- like milk gone bad. Very very bad. Yes, it is spicy, but not pleasurably so. Even though I was on a date and was playing the whole "I'm-not-a-snob" game, I could barely stomach more than a few swallows. Those few sips left a foul imprint on my tongue for the rest of the night. (I'm still making my mind up about the date.)

Still on my radar: Susina Bakery, Literati Cafe, Intelligentsia Coffee

Where do you find your favorite chai latte?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip: Beyond Compare

My initial plan for this post was to do a side-by-side comparison of Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert and Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Frozen Yogurt. But then I threw the Ben & Jerry's carton away before I remembered to take a picture of the outside, and I didn't much feel like pulling a George Costanza. I'm not fond of touching garbage. Even if it is in pursuit of a donut and/or for the sanctity of my blog.

I contemplated purchasing another carton of Cherry Garcia, or just taking a quick picture during my next grocery store run, but then it hit me like the dodge ball the older girls used to pelt at me during dodge ball...

TJ's Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip "ice cream" is beyond compare. There is no contest -- it blows Ben & Jerry's cherries completely out of the bowl.

Not only is it packed with gobs more of the sweet cherries and dark chocolate chunks I crave, the consistency is much creamier. It's hard to believe that at 190 calories per 1/2 cup, the Soy Creamy version has only 30 more calories per serving than Ben & Jerry's. To spend an entire post even pretending to find merit in Ben & Jerry's weak attempt at a low-cal treat would be a waste of time. To borrow the words of a former superior, it is quite literally "dead to me."

TJ's Cherry Chocolate Chip is not. In fact, it is so alive that at 8:00 pm last Friday night, my craving for the lusciously sweet goodness was so strong that I surrendered my primo parking spot right in front of my apartment just to go pick up a carton. Of course, as luck would have it, my Trader Joe's was out. As was the other location I tried.

Fortunately, I had a small portion left in the carton in my freezer and was shockingly able to ease my ravenous hunger for indulgence with a puny half-cup serving. I suspect it might have been even less than that, but it was a striking moment: TJ's Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip is so satisfying, I can actually (gasp gasp!) adhere to serving guidelines!

Of course, I'd much prefer my serving to look a little like this:

Oh what a world it could be, if my life could always be a bowl of those TJ's Soy Creamy cherries...