Thursday, June 26, 2008

Learn About Wine's "The Chocolate Chateau": Like Kids in a Candy Store

There are few things I like better than wine, chocolate and cheese. While cupcakes are a sufficient indulgence for a lazy Saturday afternoon, when I break out my strappy heels and Anthropologie dresses for a night out, I like my diet-bulldozers to match the refined quality of my apparal. Frosting goes great with summer sandals and capris, but does nothing to enhance a fierce Grecian-style dress (other than helping me to fill in the space in the seat).


When a Goldstar schedule summary appeared in my inbox tauting a Learn About Wine event involving all three of my aforementioned post-sunset weaknesses, I immediately forwarded the information to my friend, Lauren. Her enthusiatic response resulted in my subsequent purchase of two tickets to "The Chocolate Chateau," described on the website as a "chocolate dream combining fine wine and gourmet chocolate."

Last night, dressed to the ninety-nines in our bold blue dresses, Lauren and I confidently strode through the glass doors of the Beverly Hills Hilton -- our stomachs primed to be wined and dined via "Australian Shiraz, French Bordeaux, California Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah paired with everything from creamy milk chocolate to brooding and intense dark chocolate of the finest quality." The event description says it all - this is the sophisticate adult's version of a candy store, and Lauren and I were giddy with anticipation as we slapped on our bright orange wristbands and proceeded into the wine cellar/chocolate chateau.

Upon entering the room, Lauren and I each received a single wine glass to sample wine from the six different themed tables with absurdly creative names like "Italy," "California," "the Wild Card," and "Bonus." Each table boasted a wine expert offerring guests information and pours from three to six different bottles of wine -- none of which looked like it came from the bargain bin at Trader Joe's. We also received five tickets that were to be used as currency for our five allotted pieces of chocolate. The chocolate protocol only furthered my impression that Lauren and I had entered a grown-up fun zone -- complete with smoked aged chedder, brie, strawberries, grapes, and two huge catering trays oozing macaroni and cheese.

As Lauren and I began making our rounds from table to table, I found myself enamored with the circus of the fifty or so (mostly female) guests around us. I couldn't help but smirk when a curveless diva went back for a second helping of the decadent macaroni and cheese, and laughed out loud when an older woman gushed to her husband, "This (chocolate) is even better than the first!" Her enthusiasm was contagious -- and just as delightful as the white chocolate covered confection she raved so audibly about.

As the night progressed, each swallow of wine and bite of chocolate whetted my appetite for more. I grew increasingly greedy -- like I really was a child trapped in a candy store with unlimited options (subject to the approval of my parents, of course). The overabundance of wine had worn my patience thin, and the rules of the event suddenly felt like constraints rather than practical lines of protocol. I didn't want to wait in line to receive my pours. I didn't want to listen to the "Bonus" table expert pontificate on the origin of Gewurztraminer. And I most certainly did not want Denise, the bull-sized "California" expert, to correct me with her rude declaration that "Prosecco is not fake Champagne -- it's sparkling Italian wine!"

As I handed my last ticket to the woman guarding the five trays of chocolates, I immediately began plotting how I could steal extra tickets or sneak one more of the champagne truffles. I momentarily contemplated pulling a George Costanza and sorting through the bins of used plates in search of abandoned chocolate soldiers. If my friend Lauren hadn't been by my side and I didn't harbor a mild neurosis concerning germs, I might have actually gone through with it.

Despite my intentions to "Learn About Wine" during the two-hour event, over the course of the night, I discovered more about human behavior than I did about the contents of my (puny) wine glass. I wasn't the only guest anxiously tapping my foot as I waited for a refill of the 2003 Cobblestone Cabernet Sauvignon, nor was I the only guest piling my plate with more than my share of the smoked chedder cheese slices. Apparently, we had all checked our restraint at the door.

When Lauren and I headed toward the door at the end of the night -- her, with wine glass conveniently tucked behind her program, I overheard a stylish fashionista asking her friends, "What do you say girls, should we go in for another round of mac and cheese?" I grinned at their overzealous affirmative responses --shouted out just like they were kids in a candy store.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Susie Cakes' Cupcake-of-the-Month: Get it While it's Hot!

I really hate to ask. I'm an independent spirit -- I don't want to rely on you or your favors to get what I want! Unless they are party favors, but even then only if they are good favors like Godiva truffles or one of those fancy vanilla-scented candles that I probably won't ever burn, but will still look nice on my coffee table. What's that? Get to the point? Well, fine. I suppose you don't really care about my coffee table accesories. I'll just go ahead and ask then.

I was wondering... can you... err... do you think it's possible to... err... oh heck! Will you please just go and get one of Susie Cakes' June cupcakes-of-the-month before they are gone like Arrested Development?

I know, I know. Vanilla cupcakes studded with strawberries and white chocolate chips that are covered with a hefty spread of vanilla buttercream frosting are not as cool and trendy as red velvet cupcakes, but trendy is not always best! Do I need to remind you of my feelings about people who wear UGGs with mini skirts, or leggings under dresses? No? Oh. Ok. Well, for the record, I think they super suck!

You know what doesn't suck? What's that? Ah, yes, you do make a good point -- I think cream cheese frosting doesn't suck either, but have you even tried Susie Cakes' buttercream variety? It's not too shabby. And by "not too shabby" I mean "awesome." Not gritty at all either! I know you get concerned about the propensity for sugar overload when feasting on the buttercreams, but don't fret, my pet, Susie Cakes' version is luscious and delicious! It pairs excellently with the moist vanilla cake -- I didn't even miss the cream cheese!

No, you didn't hear me incorrectly. I did say, "moist." Haha, I totally agree -- "moist" is a gross sounding word! You know what isn't gross? Strawberries and mini white chocolate chips invading the nooks and crannies of a "moist" vanilla cupcake. Ok, fine. I'll stop saying, "moist." Moist. Moist. Wait, don't go! I'll stop! I promise! Moist. I swear that was the last one! But seriously, it is. You won't get a Sahara tongue by ingesting this cupcake. Unless you are taking some prescription drug that causes dry mouth. You aren't still doing that, are you? Good. Sugar highs are much cheaper! And yummier!

Phew! I feel so much better. I'm glad you think it's ok that I asked. $3 really isn't that much for a cupcake. You can't even buy a gallon of gas for that!

So, you really think you'll go get one before June is over? You better hurry -- there are only a few days left! And I'd feel so very sorry for you if you missed out on such a great cupcake, because you are lazy or worried about looking good in your bikini. You might as well just give up on that, BTW -- no one looks that chic in a bikini aside from Heidi Klum and Giselle. You, my friend, are no Heidi Klum. I know! She totally does have a super cool accent! I sort of like Victoria Beckham's better though. She's super fierce. You know what else is fierce?

Aww. That's so sweet of you. I really do make an effort to exude fabulousness and excellent fashion sense! And you are so right, I am a good friend to tell you how delectable Susie Cakes' June cupcakes are. I know you're going to love them! I just have one last favor to ask...

... will you let me know what you think when you try it? You will? Thanks! You're THE best!

Hah, I know. I was just kidding. I really am the best, aren't I?


"No, Diana H., actually I'm the best. Just look at my succulent chunks
of strawberry, cute little white chocolate chips and adorable dollop of frosting!"

Friday, June 20, 2008

Susie Cakes and the Importance of a Cupcake Partner


I have a lot of quirks. Quirks about the type of silverware I use. Quirks involving the preparation of my oatmeal. And quirks about the proper ingestion of the cupcake, the uber-trendy treat that I hate to love, but can't seem to stop eating for reasons that completely perplex my inner health nut and independent spirit.

First and foremost on my list of cupcake regulations is the requirement that any cupcake I consume must be consumed in the presence of another consumer. Just like watching an episode of "The Office" is not nearly as funny as it is when there is someone next to me on the couch to laugh with, eating a cupcake alone is not nearly as fun or tasty when done solo. While I have eaten the occasional cupcake without the visual assistance of another person, I always feel a bit pathetic. Like I'm the comic strip character "Cathy," or a gluttonous closet-eater with no sense of self-control. It's nearly impossible to enjoy the experience when I am busy visualizing my butt expanding with each lick of the tangy cream cheese frosting. It makes me feel like I am barrelling down the pathway toward a lifetime of Hawaiian mumu's and a Ben & Jerry's pint-a-night ice cream habit.

With cupcake bakeries popping up across Los Angeles like Starbucks, it is of the utmost importance to acquire a cupcake partner who will be by my side when my blood sugar drops too low or my PMS levels surge too high. While it is fairly easy to find someone eager to abandon their diet in the name of overpriced baked goods, it's not so easy to find someone who meets the following list of requirements for an optimal cupcake partner.



1. Thou shalt not use the phrase, "I feel so fat" after the consumption of the cupcake.
2. Thou must not roll thine eyes at me if I wish to be dainty and use a fork, or turn away in disgust should I wish to be animalistic and swallow the cupcake hole.
3. Thou must encourage me when I express the desire to go back for another free sample, post-cupcake. (Particularly applicable at Susie Cakes)
4. Thou must be desirous for a hot or cold tea beverage to accompany the cupcake.
5. Thou must make occasional, but not excessive "yummy" noises whilst consuming the cupcake.
6. Thou must not distract me with perplexing life questions during vital chewing and savoring moments.
7. Thou must not suggest we split a cupcake. Cupcakes DO NOT split.
8. Thou must always finish thine cupcake.
9. Thou shalt not judgeth me for licking the crumbs off my plate and/or cupcake wrapper.
10. Thou must be a good friend and not detract from the experience with an undesirable personality and poor aura.

While I didn't tear this list up and throw it in the chimney a la Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, I was still able to find my ideal cupcake partner -- Miss. Lauren M., a fellow Yelper and appreciator of sweet treats and tea. With that crucial matter settled, I can now report on Susie Cakes so as to maintain the integrity of my post title.



Over the course of our two cupcake outings to the Susie Cakes in Calabasas and the newly-opened Susie Cakes in Newport Beach, Lauren and I have come to the conclusion that red velvet cupcakes are good. Especially when moist, covered in ample cream cheese frosting and filled with a tiny dollop of extra frosting in the center. As for comparisons to other red velvet cupcakes from Sprinkles, Sweet Lady Jane, Crumbs, and Doughboys, I can say with complete authority that I don't really care to bust out the excel documents and in-depth analysis of the texture, frosting to cake ratio, size, and moisture index. As long as I have my cupcake partner with me, the cupcake will most likely be pretty darn good. Unless the frosting runs out on the Doughboys' monstrosity. That cake is horridly dry when eaten without adequate proportions of the lard-o-licious icing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chicken with Shallot-Apricot Sauce: My New 30-Minute Meal


Trying new recipes can be super scary. Even when the recipe in question comes with on-line commentary and ratings from others who have made it, I am still somewhat apprehensive about giving it a place on my week night dinner itinerary. I'm a picky gal, and my tastes are not always congruent with the inferior buds of many Americans who frequent places like Woodranch BBQ and think that Rachel Ray is a culinary genius. More often than not, the recipes I print off end up unused and/or forgotten. Why risk a disappointed tongue when I can be assured of a delicious meal of Chicken Marsala or meatless meatballs and spaghetti?

Of course, if I never try anything new, I'll end up just like those inferiorly budded Americans that I loathe. There's a reason why they only eat at chains and make casseroles with Campbell's condensed soup. They are afraid to challenge their palate with something different. While I like my regular line-up of dinners, I do like to stir up the pot a little, and this past Monday, armed with a cupboard already stocked with all the ingredients needed to make The Kitchn's Chicken with Shallot Apricot Sauce (http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/main-dish/recipe-chicken-with-shallotapricot-sauce-046297), I decided the time was ripe for experimenting.

While I normally stick fairly close to the instructions when following a recipe for the first time, I did feel compelled to change this one up a bit. I know what works best for me -- I don't need some other chef to tell me how to cook my bird! Of course, that doesn't stop me from telling other people how to cook their birds. But really, why should I when my tongue and I know best?

Below is my slightly amended version of the Chicken with Shallot Apricot Sauce recipe. I am still single in the smoggy city so make it for one, but feel free to add in an extra breast if you are cooking for two. Though the original recipe is for four servings, I only cut the sauce in half. I like my chicken saucy. It did end up looking like a lot when the final product was waving hello to me from its place in my pan, and I started by only ladling half over my chicken breast, but ended up going back for the rest of it. Mmmm sauce...

Ingredients:
1 chicken breast
1/4 cup chicken broth (Swanson's)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (Trader Joe's brand)
1 tablespoon apricot jam (Trader Joe's brand)
Thinly sliced shallots
Olive Oil
Flour for dredging
Pepper and Salt

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350. Slice shallots into thin pieces and place in oven safe bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and pepper. Roast in oven until soft.

Step 2. While shallots are roasting, season chicken breast with salt and pepper, and dredge in light coating of flour. Heat olive oil in sauce pan over medium heat and brown the chicken on each side.

Step 3: When chicken is brown, add chicken broth to deglaze the pan, and immediately after, the two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (you can use less if desired). Reduce heat to low, throw in a little pepper and the roasted shallots, and cover. Let the chicken simmer in the sauce for 5-10 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.

Step 4: Remove chicken from pan, and add the tablespoon of apricot jam. Turn the heat up to reduce and thicken the sauce. Once sauce is beginning to get thick (but not too thick, this is a sauce, not a marmalade!), return the chicken to the pan to reheat.

Step 5: Plate the chicken and then pour the sauce over the top. Serve with brown rice (or brown rice pilaf - pictured) and steamed vegetable of preference.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Diana Takes A Bite.... of the Big Apple

Despite my loud pontifications about how much I love Newport Beach/Orange County, California, I have a major crush on New York City. While I am fully aware of its limitations and shortcomings, and know that I probably would not enjoy it quite so much if I moved there and had to rely on public transportation or my feet for any and all excursions, I still harbor a fantastical image of what it would be like to live there. (The image more-or-less resembles Carrie Bradshaw's life in Sex and City - complete with fabulous shoes and fabulous job that I spend 2.5 hours a week doing.)

Whenever I visit the City, I play this game where I pretend that I actually do reside there. I refuse to do lame things like take pictures, ask for directions or go anywhere near Times Square, and I adopt this crazy walk where I essentially sprint down the street, weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic like I'm back home in LA on the 405 freeway. It's not a pretty sight.

Due to my intense desire to make myself appear as NYC cool as possible, I do not have photos of any of the wonderful food stuffs I ate on my last trip to the City for my college roommate's wedding. I would rather maintain the allusion of my innate NYerness than maintain the integrity of my blog. (Plus I didn't want the waiters to hate me.)

In place of a photo essay, I have a list of the seven best food items I encountered over the course of my three day stay.

In no particular order (other than the order that I ingested them):

1. Seppia e Gamberi con Ceci e Rosmarino Antipasti dish from L'Impero - sauteed seppia and shrimp with chickpea creama and rosemary oil

2. Semifreddo di Pistacchio dessert from L'Impero - pistachio semifreddo, dark chocolate cake and mousse

3. Margherita pizza from Lombardi's - This one deserves more than just a mention. I'm not afraid of the bold statement... it's the BEST PIZZA EVER.

4. Crisp Fried Calamari with spicy marinara sauce from Piccola Venezia (taking rings of squid to a size unseen before by my mankind!) Notable mention for their luscious shrimp scampi hot antipasto, and Fusi alla Grappa Istrian bowtie-shaped pasta with mushrooms, grappa and parmigiano. Ok, and the halibut sauteed with lemon-butter and capers was pretty lip-smackingly fabulous also. I just really liked this restaurant. A lot. Possibly because they gave me samples of the Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz before I settled on the Cabernet. Possibly because it was a rehearsal dinner and all of the above was paid for by a source other than my bank account. And possibly because it's in New York (errr Queens) and becomes exceedingly cooler and yummier by association.

5. The warm cinnamon raisin bagel monstrosity from Better on a Bagel in Port Jefferson Station. What goes better on a bagel? Peanut butter. Lots and lot of peanut butter.

6. The filet from Tavern on the Green. I realize foodies aren't particularly fond of Tavern's fare, but that perfectly juicy filet and I were very happy together at the wedding reception. I'd take a dance with him over a dance witih the hunky ex-swimmer groomsman who walked me down the aisle any day of the week. Or not. My life doesn't always revolve around the contents of my stomach.

7. Asparagus and goat cheese omelet from Nice-Matin -- the ideal breakfast after a few too many alcoholic beverages at the reception the night before.

Cheers to another great game of pretending to be a NYC resident! Next time I'm going for the gold... acquiring cupcakes from a place other than Magnolia Bakery!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sage Restaurant: My Trusty Orange County Slipper


Orange County isn't known for its eats. Los Angeles foodies love to look down at the community behind the Orange Curtain with bold pontifications that the local cuisine is as void of inspiration as it is void of ugly people. While the jury is still out about the latter point, I can make an authoritative case against the former misconception. Though it is hidden in the corner of a strip mall, Sage Restaurant in the Eastbluff Shopping Center in Newport Beach does not hide the flavor in the eclectic California dishes it sends out from the always bustling kitchen.

Over the years, Sage has become a home away from home for my family and me. The food is reliably good; the service is reliably pleasant and unobtrusive; and the slightly retiree-friendly ambiance is suitable for relaxed conversation and wine sippage. The Sage dining experience is remarkable not just because head chef Richard Mead bases his extensive specials menu on his finds at the Farmer's Market and Santa Monica Seafood, but because it is comfortable, like a pair of worn bedroom slippers that refuse to wear out.

I love the warm rosemary bread served with hummus rather than butter. I love the simple, yet refined wine list that always offers a bright Sauvignon Blanc or balanced white wine to compliment my entree. I love stealing bites of my dad's crab cakes that he sometimes orders as a starter. And I love Greg, the personable server who tells it to me how it is -- never steering me in the wrong direction when I am fretting over my order.



While the regular menu has its memorable items, specifically the Seared Dry Packed Scallops served with green beans, kabocha squash, cippolini onions, spinach, shitake mushrooms, israeli cous cous, mango chutney vinaigrette, sweet and spicy thai sauce, and crispy prosciutto -- a dish that Greg likens to "candy," my eyes always wander over to the specials menu first. The fish dishes are almost always winners, in particular the regularly appearing Panko-Crusted Halibut with soy-wasabi sauce and Asian vegetables. The few misses I have encountered were mostly the result of my own folly -- channeling Sally from When Harry Met Sally and messing with the ingredients. Note to readers: Richard's dishes are a vision -- don't cloud it up with ill-conceived specifications.

Prices are high for a strip mall in "the OC," but nothing out-of-the-ordinary for a restaurant of its caliber. It's worth it for a dining experience that will, for the non-Sally types, be really good. Especially if there's an affirmative roll call for the bread pudding dessert at the end of the evening.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fraiche: Deliciously Disrupting My Beauty Sleep



One morning during my freshman year of college, a close friend showed up at my dorm room door, glossy-eyed and giddy with excitement. After regaling me with all the details of her perfect first date the night before, she sheepishly admitted that she was so wound-up she hadn't been able to sleep a wink.

While I haven't experienced the same joy of date-induced insomnia like my dear friend, after my meal at Fraiche this past Friday night, I can fully appreciate the sensation of sleeplessness due to excitement -- foodie excitement.

As I snuggled under my pink comforter and turned off the light on my bed stand on Friday, visions of the night's spectacular meal kept dancing through my wine-dazed head (courtesy of the generous pour of a vibrant Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc). Each moment of the evening -- from the olive tapenade I smeared over the fresh, but somewhat uninspiring bread, to the sweet bing cheeries nestled in and around the surprisingly light chocolate cherry bowl dessert -- replayed over and over again in my mind. It was like watching a classic Friends rerun, only without the annoying laugh track and predictable jokes.


As my mouth watered at the visual memories of the meal, I closed my eyes, and was immediately transported back to the open-air, formal dining room at Fraiche...

----

My dining companion and I are seated at a slightly disappointing tiny table for two -- mere inches away from the parties to our left and right. Though I am slightly annoyed at the lack of personal space, and yearn to ask our pleasant-faced waitress if we can sit at the table for two with more room to stretch my elbows whilst attacking the impending food, I let neurotic urge #1 of the evening go. Not every battle is worth fighting. (Especially if it means being labelled as the "picky party" by the restaurant staff.)


After the bread and tapenade finish teasing my dining companion and my tongues, we are primed for our starters. As two plates approach the table, my stomach again clenches in neurotic fury. The baby beets salad was supposed to come first! THEN the pappardelle with oxtail ragout. I start to pout, concerned that the steaming pasta will catch a draft while we eat our beets, but I am loathe to mess with the proper order of plate ingestion. My similarly fussy foodie companion agrees -- we dig into the beets.

Neurotic musing #2 rapidly fades into the background as the succulent beets, crunchy hazelnuts and silky ricotta serenade my tongue. Everything goes silent for a moment as the textures and flavors swirl around in my mouth like a perfectly balanced Syrah. I want to sing. I want to moan. I want to smack my friend's fork away! Fortunately, I am able to resist all animalistic urges and even insist he take the last bite. He's a guy, I'm a girl -- I have to maintain some of the illusion that I am a delicate flower! Of course, all illusions end moments later when I make a grab for the last hazelnut off the plate. My friend cocks an eyebrow at my right hand. I shrug, pop the errant nut in my mouth and nod toward the pappardelle ragout. He nods back, urging me to take the first bite.


As I stick my fork into the mess of somewhat unwieldy noodles, anxiety hums in my stomach. I was the one who insisted on ordering the oxtail rather than the more gluttonous risotto with bacon confit. What if it is terrible and my friend curses me for an ordering malady? I ease a tender chunk of the oxtail and a manageable piece of the thick pappardelle pasta onto my fork, and take a tentative first bite. My eyes instinctively close as I saver the rustic simplicity of the lean meat and al dente noodles. This is comfort food. I visibly relax as my friend's face similarly contorts with pleasure, and then I immediately begin counting down the seconds before it is proper to dive in for another bite. I want to at least pretend to be a courteous dining partner! Though I secretly wish I could commander every morsel of oxtail into my mouth, I somehow allow several meaty strands to stay on his side of the plate. I try to keep my motions steady and calm, but I find that I am moving faster than he is as I work my way through my modest portion. And then suddenly, just a single bite remains. I urge him on, knowing full well that we both still have our entrees on their way.


I had made it clear when we sat down that I wanted my own main course. He nodded enthusiastically, then paused, "But I get a bite right?" "Of course!" I had responded. "But I may stab you if you get too aggressive." He laughed. I smiled. It was super cute that he thought I was joking!



When the server arrives with my Monkfish "Francaise" and his Steak Frites, I know instinctively that I have won the battle of the entrees. While his perfectly pink flat iron steak and nicely seasoned fries are executed as well as a Steak Frites can be, my dish announces itself like a red glove on a blanket of white snow. I am blown away. So much so that I feel prickles of guilt that my dish outshines his. He takes the conciliatory bite I offer without protest, his eyes glazing over as the monkfish, potato puree and spinach literally melts in his mouth. I know it's coming -- the half-smile and sheepish notification that he likes mine better. I make a comment about the importance of ordering according to mood -- if he felt like a steak, only a steak will do, and then attempt to ignore my nagging conscience as I proceed to devour everything on my plate.


When our embarrassingly bare plates are removed from the table, my friend makes a valiant effort to cajole a bread pudding out of the kitchen. We are told that the pastry chef does not compromise her visions. Or something equally disheartening for our cause. (I stop paying attention as soon as the waitress starts shaking her head.) We settle on the chocolate cherry bowl instead and mere minutes later, it is set before us. My companion marvels over the chocolate cookie crust while I focus my attention on the cherries that decorate the dish. I can't help but think, "If life is like a bowl of cherries, I want my cherries to look and taste like this." I chuckle at my clever joke. By this time the wine has taken full affect on all my sensibilities.

The check comes before we are finished. I shrug at the cost - $112. -- and we both plop our credit cards down without regret.

"Not bad." He says.

"No, not bad at all." I agree.

----

I smile as my foodie visions come to an end. I turn over to flop into "sleeping position," and my overburdened stomach immediately cringes by the disturbance. Yep, I've eaten too much once again. But it was worth it. True love doesn't come without pain, or, as it turns out, insomnia.