Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pizzeria Mozza: How to woo an out of towner (and a seasoned LA veteran)

"I hesitate to tell you this..." She wrote during our habitual morning gchat session on April 13th. "But I want to so that I can start planning."

My stomach lurched. Was something wrong? My mind began palpitating with worst case scenarios that could have befallen Ashley, my best friend from college.

Did she have the swine flu? Was she about to go into quarantine? Did she need to give up all her earthly possessions including her Anthropologie wardrobe?

"You are making me nervous..." I typed back.

A seemingly insurmountable period of time (2.1 seconds) lapsed before she responded.

"There's a chance I'm going to consider UCLA for grad school and might need to plan a trip to LA... in a week and a half."

"AHHH!" I typed, as I already began visualizing our runs together on the Santa Monica bike path, weekend brunch dates at the Griddle Cafe and 26 Beach, and happy hour sessions on the Westwide.

"I might not go there." She reminded me, but it was too late. My fantasy had reached the French toast after church stage -- our favorite ritual in college.

With less than two weeks before her visit, and only two days to convince her that UCLA and LA are way cooler than Boston University and Boston, I set about planning the best dining itinerary possible to showcase the smoggy city. Dinner on Friday night was a given. I would take her to my favorite LA restaurant, Nancy Silverton's famed Pizzeria Mozza -- with or without reservations.

We arrived at 7:15 pm amidst a flurry of activity at the door. While I've never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a seat at the bar, I knew what this meant -- we were in for a long haul. Forty-five minutes of server-ducking and lively conversation with a charming couple who did their best to convince Ashley that LA is awesome, we were seated in a cozy corner of the regular bar.

"It's been a while." Said Sean, Mozza's long-haired, beloved bartender, as he sidled up to take our order for wine.

I screwed my face up in suspicion. He'd served me nearly seven months ago -- he couldn't possibly remember me! This was LA for goodness sakes! Ordinary people without an IMDB resume don't receive undue attention at the hottest restaurants in town.

Do they?

I smiled and agreed that it had been a while, and asked Sean if he could recommend a wine similar to the Barbera d'Asti - my usual selection. He offered me a taste of another wine from the quartino list, but I ultimately opted for my tried and true Barbera.

He nodded at my selection. "I know how much you like it." He said with a wink, as he poured out the lustrous full-bodied Italian wine for us.

My face turned a fierce shade of red.

Did he really?

After I'd recovered from his flattery, and Ashley and I had a few moments to peruse the menu, Sean came back to take down our order of the crispy goat cheese with Umbrian lentils to start, and the Coach farm goat cheese, leeks, scallions & bacon; and ramps, pancetta, English peas and panna pies to follow.

He bristled at my mention of the goat cheese pie, his lips swiveling about his face in displeasure. "I know you like the goat cheese one, but those two pizzas are really similar. Don't you want to try another one? The burricotta with peperonata, olive taggiasche and oregano is really good..."

I turned to Ashley with a pained face. She knows how much I hate olives.

"I think it's okay if they're similar," she said, leaping to my rescue. "Since we know we like those flavors, why not stick with what we like?"

He shrugged his shoulders in defeat, and I felt oddly sad that we'd disappointed him -- the man who remembered both me and my food and drink preferences. Maybe we should have tried something different, I thought. I'd always wanted to taste the mushroom one...

The arrival of the crispy goat cheese and Umbrian lentils immediately wiped away the burn of embarrassment in my cheeks. While I have sworn allegiance to Nancy's Chopped Salad and the fried squash blossoms with ricotta in the past, I was floored by how good these lentils were. The combination of the sweet stewed lentils, crispy goat cheese and peppery Arugula garnish was nothing short of exquisite. As I scraped the stray kernals from the serving spoon, I knew this would be an appetizer that would embarrass me in front of Sean again.

Ramps, pancetta, English peas and panna pie

Coach farm goat cheese, leeks, scallions & bacon pie

Our pizzas were up next, and as I watched Ashley take her first bite of the ramps, pancetta, English peas and panna pie, I felt overwhelmed with happiness that I could share the Pizzeria Mozza experience with her. Even though I've dined there half a dozen times now, it continues to woo me as much as it did on my first visit, and it was a pleasure to see her be wooed by my favorite eatery as well.

After devouring both pizzas, Sean convinced us that an order of the banana gelato pie with chocolate sauce and candied hazelnuts would be the appropriate end to our meal. Since we didn't want to embarrass ourselves by neglecting to follow his prescient advice yet again, we begrudgingly acquiesed.

The grown up ice cream sundae was everything two sweet-toothed gals could hope for. Pizzeria Mozza (and Sean) had done it again.

Well, maybe.

The verdict's out until Ashley decides whether to go to grad school at UCLA.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bella Pita: Really good food made better by the prices

"Would you like it this much if it weren't so cheap?" My friend Ashley asked me, as she wiped some tahini sauce from her lip.

I paused, considering for a moment. I took another bite of my $5.25, made-to-order chicken wowshi pita that I'd stuffed with tomato cilantro relish, onions, tahini sauce, and shredded cabbage from the condiments bar at Bella Pita in Westwood, and for a moment, felt sure that I would. The pita was reminiscent of the one I enjoyed at Zov's in Newport Coast, but considerably better and considerably cheaper. If I was willing to pay $10 + tip and tax at the cafe down south, clearly it would follow that I would be fine paying more for the superior lunch I was currently enjoying.

Or would I?

The ambiance at Bella Pita is not exactly chic. Certainly no place where I could go for a leisurely lunch with a good friend or boss with a corporate card. It's a no frills, literal hole-in-the-wall that is overshadowed by the other larger, more mainstream eateries on Gayley Avenue (ie. In-N-Out and some questionable looking sushi restaurant). There are only three bar stools available for those who want to eat their pitas there, and the open kitchen manned by three prompt and pleasant gentlemen is not conducive to holding private conversations about life ambitions or that cute guy on who likes to run on the beach and cuddle.

My pita is craveably delicious -- the type of lunch I could be happy eating day after day after day after day, but it doesn't negate the fact that Bella Pita is essentially set-up like a stationary taco truck. It's probably the best pita I've had in recent memory, but I don't know that I would feel so enthusiastic about my lunch if I were asked to pay more than $5.25 (plus $.75 extra for feta cheese) at a place that requires me to get my food to go or fight some punk UCLA student for the last bar stool.

Regardless of the lack of seating, lack of privacy and lack of any visible decor, Bella Pita is still a great option for a quick, cheap and delicious bite on the Westside. I will be back when I have some extra time during my lunch break. And I may even splurge for a bottle of Mexican Coke too.

Bella Pita
960 Gayley Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 209-1050

1945 1/2 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 475-4070

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Return to Huckleberry Cafe

I couldn't fall asleep. It was 12:25 am and I'd been up since 7 am, but I couldn't get my mind to turn off. Unlike my tired limbs and saggy eyes that were begging for relief, my brain was alive and kicking, whirring away like the spokes on the stationary bike I ride at the gym. I should have been worrying about my upcoming move. I should have been worrying about all the bills I have to pay this week. I should have been worrying about what I am going to do with my refrigerator since the apartment I'm moving into already has one.

Instead, I was thinking about the salted caramel I tasted at Huckleberry Cafe that day.

The one bite my friend Ashley offered me was sufficient in the moment (I'd just eaten half a maple bacon biscuit and a big ole plate of green eggs & ham), but as I lay in bed on Saturday night, my mind was flush with desire for more. I had to go back to get another one.

When I finally conked out around 1 am, I wasn't planning on making a return visit to Huckleberry that day. My intention for Sunday was for church, a brief stop at Joan's on Third for a side container of their righteous tuna salad, a trip out to Mar Vista to collect a clothes rack for my new bedroom (to compensate for the appallingly small closet), and then some quality time with my sweatpants and the DVR. It would be a busy, but pleasantly uneventful Sunday.

Or so I thought.

As I sat in church on Sunday morning, attempting to focus on guest preacher Jesse Lee Peterson's sermon on forgiveness, I was again ravaged with lust for the salted caramel. My mouth watered as I recalled the cool bite of the buttery caramel and the feel of the lustrous dessert on my tongue. I couldn't wait any longer -- I needed it now! Or, as soon as the service ended, and I could make it out to Santa Monica.

When Peterson finished making his point about not allowing anger to control our lives, I tore out of the Bel Air Pres parking and sped down Wilshire Blvd. like a sugar-crazed maniac. I cursed every light that turned red, I pounded my fists against the steering wheel when forced to slow for pedestrians, and I grunted in displeasure when it took me a couple minutes to find an open parking meter. Fortunately, the situation inside the eatery was much less chaotic. The line to order was only a few people long, and allowed me just the right amount of time to decide that I would also be purchasing a small container of their mayo-less tuna salad for $3.50.

When I arrived home, I decided to be a responsible adult and eat lunch before diving teeth first into the salted caramel. I was pleased to discover that the heaping portion of tuna salad made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, parsley, capers, and red onions was more than enough for two sandwiches, and even more pleased to discover how tasty tuna is without the assistance of mayo. Eating it, however, proved to be a bit of a challenge. As I frantically tried to cram the sandwich into my mouth so I could go ahead and eat the caramel already, large tuna chunks kept falling out the middle, forcing me to pick them up and eat them with my fingers. (This is why it is a good thing I am currently living alone.)

After I'd lapped up the final chunks of tuna, I made some vanilla and strawberry green tea and settled down with the true object of my affection. It was just as good as I'd remembered. So good, in fact, that I ignored all the healthy runner instincts that tell me to stop after just a few bites of something that causes my insulin levels to spike, and devoured the whole thing in one sitting. As I licked a stray grain of salt from my finger (again, it is good that I live alone), my mind finally stopped whirring, and a sense of calm descended over my body.

Or at least it did until I remembered that I have less than a week to pack up my apartment.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Huckleberry: (Runny) green eggs & ham, yes, ma'am!

I'm nervous as I stand in the short line of mostly women, who are waiting to place their orders at the counter of Zoe Nathan's Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica. I know what I want -- have actually known for days -- but am still anxious when the bright-eyed counter soldier turns to take down my order.

"I... uhh..." I stumble, attempting to stall for more time.

He cocks an eyebrow, I feel the heat of impatience from behind me, and I start again.

"I'll have the green eggs and ham, and I want the eggs cooked... err... medium?" I say finally, glancing back to my friend Ashley for approval.

She nods, her face stern, but encouraging.

I tag on a maple bacon biscuit and pot of loose leaf green tea, and proceed forward to the checkout.

"Diana?" Asks the fresh-faced woman manning the register. "Green eggs & ham - medium?" She continues for confirmation.

I hesitate. "Does medium mean runny?"

"Yes, the yolk will be runny. Do you want it cooked hard? I can tell the kitchen..."

My head swims as I envision a golden sea seeping over my plate. I don't know that I can do it.


I pay the $20 check, adding on a couple dollars tip for all my trouble-making, and then Ashley and I scout out a two-person table along the side wall of the seemingly perpetually chaotic cafe.

"I should have just gotten it medium." I say, ashamed of myself.

She nods, pouring herself a glass of water from the water jug on the table. "It's so much better -- and you can use the English muffin to sop up the extra liquid. It gives the whole thing so much more flavor."

I debate getting back up to ask for it medium, but am already too embarrassed. Plus, my maple bacon biscuit has arrived and my mouth is immediately occupied with a tender hunk of the lightly sweetened, bacon-speckled pastry.

"So good," I gush, as a flaky piece of the egg-washed biscuit makes a free fall from my lower lip. "You have to try this." I insist, pushing the plate across the table toward Ashley.

She agrees with my rave reaction, likening it to a scone, but turns down my subsequent offers to get her to eat more so I don't gorge on the entire thing before my improperly ordered entree arrives.

We continue to make small talk, and I drink as much water as possible to keep my hands away from the other half of the buttery pastry. I'm starving from our intense 5K workout that morning on the Venice boardwalk, but know that the physical exertion still doesn't justify complete gluttony.

A server approaches our table with plates. "Green eggs and ham, cooked medium?" He asks.

I look up in surprise. They forgot to change it!

I smile and eagerly accept the rustically plated dish, while my friend stakes her claim on the poached eggs over market vegetables and side English muffin with homemade blueberry compote and butter.

Despite the scattered presentation, I am amused by the clever nature of the dish -- two halves of a toasted English muffin have been topped with meaty strips of prosciutto, tender fried eggs, an oil-heavy basil pesto, and a generous heap of Arugula. I marvel at the attention that has been paid to creating my breakfast, but am momentarily paralyzed when I run my knife through the egg and the yolk bursts onto my plate.

I look up at Ashley in alarm.

"Is that normal?!" I gasp, horrified at the golden river oozing across my previously clean white plate.

"Yes, look at mine," she says, tearing her egg open to reveal the runny yolk inside.

I scrunch my lips up in skepticism "Are you sure? It looks like the egg white isn't completely cooked either..."

"It's fine." She insists and takes a big bite of her impossibly thick homemade English muffin.

"Okay..." I say and slowly raise my fork to my mouth.

The peppery Arugula, savory basil and salty proscuitto dance across my tongue like the perfect companions on Dancing with the Stars. As the flavors meld together with the molton fried egg, trumpets begin to sound in my head, fireworks appear in the distance and my eyes roll back in ecstasy.

I look up at Ashley in shock.

"See?" She says with a smirk. "Now use the English muffin to sop up the yolk." She commands.

I eagerly comply with her instruction, no longer concerned about Salmonella, food-borne illness and visits to the emergency room.

We proceed to mop our plates clean, and then Ashley attends to one of Huckleberry's signature sweets - a salted caramel ($2.50) that emerges from the bakery counter still cool from the refrigerator. It is an unexpectedly delightful temperature for the succulent block of caramel that has been gently kissed with sea salt and planted on a tender cookie crust. My one bite engenders a taste memory that will ultimately drive me back to the cafe the next day.

"I can't believe I ate a runny egg!" I sing, after both our stomachs have reached full capacity.

Ashley smiles a smile that needs no words. I know what she's thinking -- "I can't believe you haven't eaten one before today."

I pretend not to notice her amusement -- I'm already composing the Twitter I'm going to post about the experience when we get back to my apartment. Maybe, "Runny yolks are like liquid gold?" Or "I just consumed raw egg, and I'm not dead yet?"

As we push up from our seats, I overhear a server who is delivering another parade of plates to a table of two girls nearby.

"Green eggs and ham, scrambled?" He asks.

I pause and survey the well-done scrambled eggs in horror. "Hmmph!" I grunt in my head with a smugness that I didn't possess prior to arriving at the restaurant.

"Amateur foodie. She's ruined it!" I think disapprovingly and turn away toward the door with my nose held high in the air.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Teaism's Chocolate Salty Oaty Cookie: "I'm eating it now!"

"Oh! I almost forgot!" She says, her eyes sparkling. "I have something for you!"

I smile in lustful anticipation. There is only one thing that my dear friend Ashley would possibly deem worthy of a trip all the way from Washington DC.

With a smirk on her face and skip in her step, she charges out of my bedroom for her suitcase in the other room.

"You probably won't want it now, but I'll give it to you anyway." She announces as she strides back into my room with the telltale Teaism white paper sack.

My heart flutters with giddy desire. "A salty oaty cookie!" I squeal, eagerly holding out my hand to take it from her.

"I got it yesterday, so it might be a little dry..."

"No, I'm sure it's great! Thank you!" I gush, as I gingerly coddle the package in my hands.

She smiles before turning toward the door. "You're welcome!"

I sit cross-legged on my bed for a moment, contemplating the situation. I'd already eaten dessert. And it was late - nearly 11 pm on a "school" night. I should really just save it for my lunch dessert the next day.

Then again it is already a day old, I reason. It won't be nearly as good if I wait until tomorrow...

I slyly unwrap the white package and tear off a piece. It is thicker than the one I had when I visited Ashley in DC over Labor Day weekend.

I sneak a bite.

It's tastier too, I think.

I sneak another bite.

"I'm eating it now!" I call out.

She laughs. "Good!"

I tell myself I'll just have a few more bites -- save the rest for later. I really shouldn't eat the whole thing right before bedtime.

I tear off another small piece. A piece that seranades my tongue with the heady justaposition of sea salt, bittersweet cocoa and the firm bite from the oats. The cookie is moist, but sturdy in texture. Sweet, but not cloyingly so. Dense, but not in a way that makes my mouth run dry.

I bite. I chew. I swallow. I don't even stop for water.

It's so good. It's sooo good.

And then it's gone.

I guiltily brush the crumbs out of my bed. Did I really just eat it all? Without even taking a picture?

Yep, I did. And it was worth every chocolate, salty, oaty bite, I think, as I snuggle under the covers and turn out the light.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chicken, Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa: Guess what? I'm a grown up cook now.

This is the story of a girl. A girl who didn't used to try new recipes. A girl who would idly flip through her mother's cookbooks and the pages of Gourmet and Bon Appetit, pausing only to admire the pictures. She would read a recipe and think, "Hmm... that looks and sounds good," but then continue on her merry way, content to eat grilled cheese sandwiches with canned soup, chicken stir-fry, packaged tortellini, and frozen pizza for her weeknight dinners.

Then, one day last year, that girl started a food blog. She planned it to be mostly about the restaurants she visited, with occasional posts about food products and her standby, tried and true recipes like Chicken Marsala and peanut butter oatmeal, but then something terrible happened. The self proclaimed picky palated princess from the OC realized that she wasn't making as much as she did at her previous job. Her budget for extravagant multi-course meals at Osteria Mozza, Hatfield's and Fraiche was nearly nonexistent unless she dipped into her rapidly depleting savings. Or never bought a new skirt or dress from Anthropologie ever again.

Whatever was she to do? Despite her malnourished funds, she still maintained a taste for the exquisite, and a lust for flavorful meals that challenged her tongue and satisfied her demanding stomach. Plus, she had a food blog to worry about! If she couldn't write about restaurants, she would have to come up with something else to say!

It was at this critical juncture that this girl decided it was time to get creative in the kitchen. No longer would she turn the other cheek at recipes that called for ingredients she didn't normally purchase. No longer would she read a food magazine without tagging pages to come back to later. And no longer would she subsist on meals originating from boxes or cans! She was going to cook, gosh darn it! Cook until her arms were scarred with burn marks and her fingers scarred with cuts!


I originally saw this recipe for black bean and tomato quinoa in the July 2007 issue of Gourmet magazine. I had just started using quinoa as a sometimes replacement for a side of brown rice in my stir-fries and ho-hum baked chicken dishes, and was intrigued by the idea of trying it as a base for a salad. Of course, because I was still in the packaged tortellini stage, I didn't even bother to clip the recipe out. When was I ever going to buy a big bunch of cilantro? I bookmarked the recipe in my mind (my memory does not allow me to forget about food very easily), but had no intention to make it in the near or immediate future.

Earlier this week, as the temperatures in Southern California climbed far beyond the standard 73 degrees I've come to expect from the territory, I began scouring my favorite food blogs and sites for recipes that did not make me want to crawl out of my skin and die from heat overload. My first stop (as usual) was Esi's Dishing Up Delights. Her recipes are always accessible, and because she is also typically cooking for just one, I don't have to worry about recalculating proportions and nixing ingredients that just don't work for the single diner. Since I had quite a bit of quinoa on hand and have been wanting to try a quinoa salad, I did a search for quinoa on her blog. At the bottom of the results page was the recipe for the black bean and tomato quinoa I had lusted over nearly two years ago. It felt like a sign.

I took on the recipe this past Tuesday evening, improvising a bit to make it into a full entree. I added pieces of chicken that I briefly marinated in red wine vinegar and lime juice, I mixed red pepper pieces in with the quinoa to give the dish a bit more veg, and I topped the affair with some feta cheese. I also cooked the quinoa in chicken broth for additional flavor, and played around with the dressing some -- reducing the amount of olive oil and replacing it with a bit more lime juice and some red wine vinegar. The end result was a deliciously palate-pleasing dinner that tasted perfect on the hot night, and equally swoon-worthy last night when I heated it up and served it warm.

The recipe is in many ways a symbol of how much I've grown in the past two years. Not only as a cook, but also as an eater. I think this is part of why I knew I had to make the recipe when I came across it on Esi's blog on Tuesday. I wanted to prove to myself that I have come a long way from the days of plain provolone grilled cheese sandwiches and Amy's chunky tomato soup. I'm not the girl who is afraid of new recipes any more. I'm the girl who can't wait to try new recipes.

Chicken, Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa
Loosely adapted from Esi's adaptation of Epicurious' recipe

Makes 2 entree-sized portions

2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
3 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 red pepper, diced
Zest of 1/2 lime (approximately 1 teaspoon)
Juice of 2 limes (approximately 2 1/2 tablespoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt, pepper to taste
Feta cheese

Whisk together lime zest, 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and salt and pepper to taste.

Use remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon olive oil as a marinade for the chicken. Salt and peper to taste. Let marinate for approximately 15 minutes. Cook in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat until cooked through.

Meanwhile, prepare quinoa according to package instructions with 1 cup chicken broth. Approximately five minutes before done, add the red pepper. When the broth has been absorbed and the white shells have separated from the kernals, fluff the quinoa with a fork, remove from the heat, and add the black beans, tomatos, scallions, cilantro, and chicken. Pour dressing over the mixture and toss until coated well. Serve warm or at room temperature. Top with optional feta cheese.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ben & Jerry's Free Scoop Day: Okay, I sort of get it now

It's no secret that I have a sweet tooth strong enough to mop the floor with Goliath. It's a rare day that I don't have at least a piece of chocolate after both lunch and dinner, and more often than not, I'm noshing on some sort of frozen product while watching Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Grey's Anatomy, or another show that undermines my intelligence.

Given my affinity for wreaking havoc on my insulin levels, it would seemingly follow that I also adore Ben & Jerry's-- the premiere premium ice cream on the market. It is a rare person who doesn't go all glassy-eyed and weak in the knees at the mere mention of Cherry's Garcia, Chunky Monkey or the classic Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Decadent full-fat ice cream, chock full of big chunks of occasionally bizarre, yet mostly delightful ingredients? What's not to love?

A lot.

That's right, friends. I, Diana Takes a Bite, the queen of sugar, the chocolate princess, the cupcake glutton, am not a fan of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

I won't try to pretend like I've never waded my spoon through an entire pint of Oatmeal Cookie Chunk, Chubby Hubby or Half Baked over the course of a single night. I've done it. And during college, I was just as excited as my friends when Free Scoop Day rolled around every April. But just because I've gone the distance with and for Ben & Jerry's, doesn't mean that my heart goes all a flutter when I scoop up a creamy bite.

My problem with Ben & Jerry's is two-fold. First, it is too rich and decadent. No matter how little I eat, I am always left with a stomach full of guilt and pain. Just a half cup can have up to 30 grams of fat --over 6 times the amount in one serving of my favorite Dreyer's Slow-Churned flavors. Why would I want to limit myself to a tiny portion of Ben & Jerry's Mint Chocolate Cookie, when I can have a double serving of Dreyer's Mint Karaoke Cookie and still come out ahead?

Second, the chunks of mix-ins are too big and incongruent with the inherent nature of the product. Premium ice cream is an indulgence. Something to be savored, relished and coddled on the tongue. The large pieces of cookie dough, chocolate chunks and assorted other ingredients require the ingester to take a hefty bite of the product in order for the mix-in to be in proper proportion to the ice cream base. This does not work for me. I'm a girl, my mama raised me right, and I like to take small bites -- especially when I'm eating something that I want to last for more than 30 seconds. As such, I am faced with a dilemma when consuming Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Do I eat the whole chunk sans enough ice cream for ultimate satisfaction? Do I choke down a large bite? Or do I go for the mannerless option -- chomping the piece into smaller bits and leaving some on the spoon for the next moderate spoonful of ice cream?

It's a tough call. And not one I want to have to make when I'm supposed to be enjoying a special treat. As a result, I have only had Ben & Jerry's one time in the four years since graduating college, and up until yesterday, felt no inclination to make it even an occasional perpetrator in my sugar line-up. I didn't see the point.

But, I maybe, sort of, kind of see it now.

I don't know if it was the 95 degree temperature, the lure of something free in a world that seems intent on eradicating every last cent in my bank account, or a recent dearth of material to write about, but yesterday I decided that I needed a free scoop of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. At approximately 1:30 pm, I told my boss I was running out "for a few minutes," and made a mad dash to the Ben & Jerry's scoop shop on Main Street in Santa Monica. As I walked down the street toward the ice cream parlour, I felt absurdly giddy, nearly breaking into a full-on skip as I tried to beat two girls on the sidewalk next to me who were also aiming for the shop.

The line was surprisingly short and didn't allot me nearly enough time to make my scoop decision. While I was busy debating the virtues of Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road vs. Seven Layer Bar in my head, I had to let three customers go ahead of me (yes, even those two girls I beat to the line). I finally decided on a scoop of the Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road, and moments later I was sitting down to Elton John's special edition flavor -- a delectable combination of chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brittle, and white chocolate chunks.

I let it melt down a bit before beginning (hard ice cream displeases my palate immensely), and once it had reached the optimal state of soupiness, I dove in.

"Oh." I thought, as the rich chocolate oozed over my tongue.

"Oh." I thought, as I nibbled through a chunk of peanut butter cookie dough.

"Oh." I thought, as the crunch from the butter brittle provided a burst of contrast against the tender dough.

"Oh! Oh!" I thought, as a prodigious rectangle of white chocolate materialized on my spoon.

It was great. It was grand! It was everything Ben & Jerry's is for most individuals who are not me!

Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road -- this may be the flavor that is actually worth my mannerless mix-in consumption, and the stomachache I felt later in the day.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It's too hot to blog about food

I don't deal well with heat. At all. I don't like sweating (unless I'm working out or eating something really spicy), I don't enjoy sleeping with a fan blasted directly at my barely pajama-ed figure, and I can't stand the sticky film that forms between my thighs when I'm sitting down (or standing up). Everyone always asks me how I dealt with the cold Chicago weather while I was attending college there, but it wasn't the blistering winds or sub degree temperatures that bothered me.

It was the heat.

I have horrible memories of the last couple weeks I spent in Evanston in June 2005. Nights that were so hot I had to keep a bowl of ice water by my bed to splash over my body. Days when I would call my mom crying because the third floor apartment I shared with my two roommates didn't have air conditioning. It was miserable.

While LA is no Chicago in terms of extreme temperatures, we've been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave these past couple days that is a punctuated reminder of those horrible summer days I spent on the North Shore. I'm cranky. I'm lethargic. I don't want to eat anything that is prepared in a skillet or oven. All I want to do is consume massive amounts of ice cream, frozen or iced tea beverages like the California Green Tea pictured above from Cha for Tea in Irvine, and sit in front of an air conditioner. Doing any sort of work or activity that requires thought seems too burdensome in these conditions. 90+ degree heat is not kind to productivity. And it is certainly not conducive to blogging about food I have no desire to look at or eat.

So, I won't discuss the spinach and ricotta topped chicken breasts that are so good that I always forget how annoying they are to make. And I won't wax on about my favorite food stands at the Farmer's Market at Third & Fairfax, and why I enjoy spending my Sunday afternoons there. And I certainly won't be rolling out a long charade about how my recent training runs have made me ravenously hungry and capable of consuming huge omelets stuffed with chunks of prosciutto, Manchego cheese, artichoke hearts, red peppers, and Shiitake mushrooms. I'll save those for another day. A day when I don't want to jump into a giant pool of ice.

Today, I will settle for tea. And later on, I will settle for a trip to Ben & Jerry's for a free scoop of ice cream.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Warm Quinoa, Green Chard, Shiitake, and Chicken Salad: Worth the two month wait

I bought the quinoa from the bulk bins at Whole Foods as soon as I read the recipe for the warm quinoa and chicken salad on Dishing Up Delights two months ago. I bought the sealed container of feta a month ago. And I bought a big bunch of green chard two and half weeks ago with the specific expectation that I would use it for the dish that coming Monday.

But then my throat starting doing that sore thing it does when I'm on the verge of disease. And neither quinoa nor the word "salad" sounded particularly appetizing. At all. I could practically feel the scrape of the nutty grain sliding down my inflamed esophagus. I couldn't possibly eat the salad that night. I needed something comforting -- something brothy and soothing. Something like my good ole standby, Chicken Marsala. So I threw caution to the slight So Cal breeze, made a quick dash to my local Trader Joe's for a bottle of Columbo dry Marsala wine, and found a new application for my defrosted chicken breast. The quinoa recipe would have to wait. Again.

A week passed while I battled the almost disease with oranges and Zicam. And then it was Easter weekend and I found myself gorging on chocolate cake and short ribs and egg casserole and blueberry muffins and pasta with spicy clam sauce. And then I spent all last week looking at apartments and searching for a new home. I couldn't possibly take the pressure of making a new recipe on top of the pressure of figuring out my living situation too! It was too much! Chicken Marsala, meatless meatballs and frozen pizza ruled over my week.

But then things settled down. I found an apartment (with an appropriately sized kitchen with gorgeous lighting for picture-taking), the almost disease became a distant memory, and the temperature in LA did what it's supposed to do (ie. stay really hot). The 85 degree heat wave this past Saturday made it the perfect day for a salad. Even a warm one.

Armed with a fresh bunch of green chard (my new go-to sub for spinach), a new package of extra lean chicken breasts from Gelson's, and some other odds and ends, I finally made my way with Esi's adaptation of Martha Stewart's recipe for the warm quinoa, spinach and shitake salad. I did all sorts of funky things to it -- reducing the amount of olive oil to the scantest amount possible, adding a bit of lemon juice to balance out the vinegar, cooking the quinoa with chicken broth and some minced shallots because I have a mild obsession with the sweet onion, and letting my green chard cook completely before serving. The result was a delicious and healthy meal that was well worth the two month wait. So good in fact, that immediately after I finished eating it, I logged onto Gmail to send Esi a message with the subject line "YUM."

Warm Quinoa, Green Chard, Shiitake, and Chicken Salad
Loosely based on Esi's/Dishing Up Delights adaptation of Martha Stewart's recipe

Serves 1

1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed
1/4 cup shallot, minced
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 chicken breast, sliced
2 tablespoons crumpled feta cheese
4 Shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 cups green chard, washed and torn into manageable pieces
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Pepper, salt, to taste

In a small bowl whisk together 1 teaspoon olive oil, red wine vinegar and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. In another bowl, pour half the dressing over sliced chicken breast -- set aside to marinate for 15-20 minutes.

Heat one teaspoon of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Saute shallot until slightly translucent, and then add quinoa. Toast for 1-2 minutes before adding chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed (approximately 15 minutes).

Meanwhile, cook the chicken in a medium sized skillet. When cooked through, toss in Shiitake mushrooms and chard (or spinach) until just tender/wilted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add quinoa and dressing to the pan, and toss together until well incorporated. Top with feta and serve immediately.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Joan's on Third: I'll take both

It came out of nowhere. One minute I was happily munching away on my cranberry tuna salad sandwich, and mere minutes later I was experiencing the early symptoms of cookie monsterism.

Hormanally inspired? Perhaps. But whatever its origin, there was no disputing that this craving was big, bad and all sorts of ugly. The type of craving that inspires erratic driving, crazy hungry eyes and the inability to formulate full and sensical sentences.

Last Friday afternoon, at approximately 2:03 pm, I was hit head on with a nasty case of the sugar munchies. I had to have a cookie. And I had to have it right away.

It didn't take long for me to pick my destination. Celebrity noshing hot spot Joan's on Third is a mere 5 minute drive from my apartment, and boasts an entire counter full of buttery cookies, impeccably frosted cupcakes, indulgent pastries, and other items that make me glad I don't follow a low carb diet. I found an open meter across the street from the perpetually bustling cafe and after emptying out my wallet to pay the absurd $1.50 for a mere hour and a half of parking, I darted through the oncoming traffic with no regard for my safety.

Upon entering the Dean & Deluca-esque cafe, I was dismayed to discover that every single table was taken. Even the outside tables where overwhelmed with sunglasses-wearing patrons and their miniature dogs. I stared at the dessert counter for a couple minutes, but didn't know what I wanted and didn't want to get it to go. I had planned on finding a cozy empty table to park out at for an hour or so. I had even brought reading material with me -- the aptly named How to be Single by Sex & the City writer, Liz Tuccillo.

Annoyed with the imperfectness of the situation, I tootalooed my way out of there, and decided to go to one of my favorite local bakeries, Susina on Beverly Blvd. instead. I parked a couple blocks away on an unmetered street, and told myself that my crazy behavior was actually quite prudent. I was totally burning off like 1/16th of the calories I would soon be ingesting! I told myself the same thing when I walked back to my car approximately two minutes after entering the bakery. Just like Joan's on Third, every seat was taken, and unlike Joan's on Third, there was not a single item that appealed to the cookie monster in my belly.

By the time I was back in my car, the craving had morphed into an epic-sized animalistic hunger. I couldn't hold out much longer. Despite my concern that someone would recognize me as the girl who "looked and left," I went back to Joan's on Third. This time I would not leave until my itch had been scratched.

Once I got there, however, I was again faced with a sugar dilemma. Did I want the lemon bar that everyone and their Maltese raves about? Or did I want the peanut butter & jelly bar? I asked the pleasant man behind the counter what he thought.

"The lemon bar is fruitier, and the peanut butter bar is sweeter. It depends on what you want." He said.

Fruity? Sweet? I didn't know what I wanted! My head started pounding, my forehead started beading with sweat, and my stomach started groaning with ambition. It was too much -- I couldn't decide!

"I'll take both!" I shrieked. "And, umm... a large citrus chamomile tea." I added more quietly.

A few moments later, I finally sat down at an empty table with my two oversized treats. Completely ignoring my book that I placed on the table for show, I dug into the lemon bar first. My mouth was immediately romanced with the perfectly balanced tart and sweet flavors. It was everything everyone said it was, and I easily chomped my way through the half portion I'd cut off.

I then attended to the peanut butter & jelly bar -- a dense peanut buttery monstrosity that would pair better with a tall glass of milk than a citrus-infused cup of tea. It was a bit heavy after the lemon bar, and ultimately, was not quite the cookie my belly beast was craving. Despite the server's claim that it is "sweeter" than the lemon bar, I found it to be less so. It cried out for a thicker application of raspberry jam, and perhaps a more restrained cookie top coat. After just a couple bites, my inner cookie monster deemed the lemon bar the victor.

Of course, that didn't stop him from reemerging later that evening to devour most of the leftovers. (He's not a particularly discriminating monster.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter Brunch: Blueberry muffins and egg casserole and fruit and croissants, oh my!

I have a little problem.

Whenever I visit my parents' home, I tend to overindulge. A lot. I'm not sure if it's the free flowing wine, the ability to go back for seconds (or thirds), or a Pavlovian-type response to being in my childhood environment, but once I enter through that front door, I eat (and drink) like I'm storing up for hibernation.

This past Sunday was no exception. With an Easter brunch spread of homemade blueberry muffins, ham & egg casserole, buttery croissants with herbed cheese spread and brie, and a platter of fresh fruit, my stomach was doomed before I even sat down to the table.

I tried to reign it in a little. Tried to stop after just one small serving of the cheesy egg casserole that my dad told my mom was the "best she's ever made," but then my brother got up for seconds. And then my dad did too. If they got more, surely it meant that it was okay for me to get a tinsy bit more too? It was completely justifiable! Especially since I'd only taken a small portion to begin with. Really just a childlike serving -- a half cup at most!

So I took a little more, and then focused on sipping my tea in a weak attempt to keep my mouth as occupied as possible. I coyly nibbled away at my blueberry muffin, taking time to appreciate the interplay between the fresh lemon juice and zest, and the chopped and whole blueberries. All was going fine and well and dandy, until I noticed the brie that my family members were eagerly spreading over their croissants. My mind started working at foodie warp speed. Brie + fruit = bliss. Therefore, brie + blueberry muffin must equal bliss as well! As my brother looked on in horror, I smoothed the luscious cheese over the interior of my still warm muffin.

"What?" I said, my face reddening under the heat of his appalled gaze.

He shook his head in faux disgust.

I ignored his obvious disapproval and pressed on with my mission to pack as much fat as I could into my bakery-sized muffin. It wasn't soooo bad. Cheese has calcium and protein! I was doing my body good. Plus, I hadn't taken one of those uber buttery croissants, instead opting to fill my plate with loads of antioxidant-laden strawberries and pineapple and grapes and kiwi and berries and oranges, oh my! I was really quite the model of restraint.

Or at least I was until I realized that I never have the opportunity to eat croissants except on Easter. Most days I eat oatmeal or healthy yogurt parfaits for breakfast, and when I go out, I tend toward French toast or omelets -- never pastries. If I didn't eat a croissant right then, I would have to wait another whole year to indulge in one. It would be quite imprudent of me to skip that pivotal portion of our Easter feast!

"Does anyone want half a croissant?" I asked, as I tore a meaty croissant in two. I pretended not to notice that I'd torn off 2/3rds of the oversized pastry for myself. Everyone else had taken a full one, so I was really being quite reasonable with my slightly inflated half. Even if I did cover it with a nice hefty blanket of the garlic & herb spread. Calcium, remember? And the spread has way (err... a little) less fat than the brie!

The brie that I put on my muffin.

That was now gone.

Along with my two helpings of egg casserole.

And half a plate of fruit.

And 2/3rds of a buttery croissant with garlic spread.

"Does anyone want dessert?" My mom asked, holding out a plate of her famous marshmallow cookies.

I shook my head, my stomach finally registering all that I had packed into it. I was done. Cooked. Toast. Out for the count!

Or at least I was until dinner time. Shrimp linguine with clam sauce, anyone? And maybe just the slightest sliver of chocolate Earthquake cake...

Recipe for blueberry muffins can be found here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nook: New Year, New Experience

On October 16th, 2008, I wrote the following about my favorite Santa Monica restaurant, Nook Bistro:

"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."

On January 1st, 2009, I included Nook in my list of "2009 Food Resolutions," and wrote that I wanted to eat there for a fifth time, "So I can finally order something other than the gosh darn pork chop! (ie. the shrimp and grits)"

Then, on April 7th, 2009, I fulfilled the promise I made to myself in October '08 and January '09. I returned to Nook, and I (wait for it)... didn't... order... the... pork chop. After approximately eight months of sporting a green tan for my October dining companion's shrimp and grits, I finally tried the much-praised dish myself. But even more importantly, I finally let Nook show its range on my palate.

To start, my dining companion and I paid no attention to the lure of the luxurious mac & cheese or gorge-worthy Shitake & Gruyere bread pudding that we have both enjoyed on past visits. Instead, we opted for the Market Salad ($9), a fresh affair of baby beets, wild arugula, clementine wedges, walnuts, red onion, goat cheese, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. It is refined, subtly dressed and subtly plated, but filled with quality ingredients that truly sing of their origin. This aptly named salad reeks of farmer's fresh produce. The clementines from Trader Joe's are never this plump and sweet. The beets from Whole Food never taste this meaty or earthy. And the goat cheese is certainly an improvement on the variety I buy.

I continued my mission for an adventurous Nook dining experience with my aforementioned order of the Spicy Gulf Shrimp & Grits ($18) served with Falls Mill Stone ground grits and linguisa sausage. It was a bold move for a girl who up until 18 months ago had never had sausage. And hadn't had grits since she spat her mother's out into her napkin as a picky youngster who subsisted on an all carb diet of white bread, fruit and candy. It was my first experience with the classic Southern dish, and I found it to be every bit as delightful as I expected it to be. It is spicy, but not to the point of necessitating a pitcher of water to consume. The creamy grits provide the right balance against the heat from the shrimp and accompanying sea of indeterminate orange sauce. While I have no basis for comparison, this seems to be a well-executed version of a Southern standard.

My dining companion declared her Organic Half Roasted Chicken ($21) with roasted brussel sprouts, cheesy grits and natural pan jus equally compelling. I cannot corroborate her positive verdict because I don't eat off other people's plates unless they are related by blood or have entered into my inner circle (ie. have seen me when I'm grouchy and still love me), but can corroborate that my friend does know a thing or two or twelve about good vs. bad food. In other words, she is a fellow Yelper and I've read and agree with almost all of her 123 reviews. So when she moaned a bit after extracting a succulent bite of chicken from beneath the golden roasted skin, I'm inclined to believe that she wasn't moaning because the chicken sucketh.
After obliterating every last grain of the craveable grits from our plates, we did something seriously shocking at the bistro famous for its banana chocolate bread pudding. We (wait for it) ... passed on dessert. And even more shocking, I didn't even feel tempted to look at the menu. I was so satisfied by my new Nook experience that I was perfectly content to end my meal with my last swallow of 4 Bears Sauvignon Blanc ($8 a glass/$15 for a carafe). It was fun dabbling in the unknown. Especially since I now have the proper evidentiary support to say the line I quoted in my previous post.

"How do I love Nook? Let me count the ways..."

1. They serve the best mac & cheese in LA.

2. Complimentary boiled peanuts instead of bread? Yes, please!

3. The weird location and lack of signage makes me feel "in the know" when I dine there.

4. Bread pudding comes both savory and sweet.

5. It's perfect for every occasion - a date, a girl's night out, a business dinner, a birthday, or an ordinary day when nothing in the fridge sounds good.

6. When the bill comes, Debbie Debit card doesn't start screaming like Janet Leigh in the Psycho shower scene.

7. The pork here is by no means worthy of its tagline as merely "the other white meat." At Nook, it is the white meat. (Or at least it is until I try the chicken.)

8. I've said it once, and I'll say it again -- banana chocolate bread pudding.

And finally, the reason I've waited eight months to say...

9. The shrimp & grits.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Earthquake Cake: My first post-Lent chocolate experience

This cake (yes, that is a cake) is the reason that mothers teach their children to never judge a book by its cover. While it looks about as appetizing as the brown specked bananas on the 50% off rack at Ralph's, it is actually one of the better chocolate cakes my taste buds have encountered. And not just because it was the first bite of chocolate I'd had in six weeks.

When I spoke to my mom before leaving LA on Saturday morning, she warned me that the chocolate layer cake she made for our Easter eve dinner had fallen apart. I laughed, thinking that she meant a couple pieces crumbled off.

She didn't laugh along with me.

"No Diana, it completely fell apart. I don't think I can serve it!"

"Well... uhh...." I hesitated, torn between telling her it would be fine and telling her to make me something that would be a worthy first post-Lent chocolate experience. "Maybe we can whip up the chocolate chip bundt cake? That's so easy and everyone likes it." I suggested selfishly.

"Maybe. The cake does taste really good though. It's just... not very pretty." She said sheepishly.
I wasn't convinced it could be salvaged. Especially when I arrived home and saw the globby, chocolate-frosted mess. It was worse than I imagined, and I didn't try to hide my opinion of its undesirable appearance. I gasped. I made funny throat noises. And then I guffawed in slight horror.

My mom's lips turned up into a mischievous smile as she watched my contorting face. "I'm calling it 'Earthquake cake!' Do you want to try it?"

I shook my head. "Not now! I just finished a run! I can't eat cake!"

I hadn't actually just finished the run. It had been nearly two hours, and I was a little hungry from the effort. The Rachel's yogurt and fresh fruit I'd eaten after were not keeping the belly beast content. But I didn't want to try it. Not then, not ever.

But then we had lunch. And then my mouth started doing that watering business that it typically does after I eat something savory. I was craving something sweet. Something over-the-top chocolaty. Something exactly like the Earthquake cake.

So I ate some. And then I ate a little more.

"You know, I think we can serve it tonight." I said to my mom through a mouthful of the supremely moist and decadent cake.

She nodded eagerly, scooping up another bite of her deconstructed "piece."

I licked a smear of chocolate butter cream frosting from my lower lip. "Nobody will know the difference if we top it with a little powdered sugar, whipped cream and raspberries."

She nodded again.

So, we served it. And my brothers, sister-in-law and dad ate it up without complaint. No one seemed to notice that the slices were a little messier than the pristine ones my mom doles out from her go-to chocolate chip bundt cake recipe. Only my mom and I knew what lay beneath the tin foil in the other room.

Or at least we were the only ones until my older brother Richard snuck a peak when he went back into the kitchen.

"Mother!" He called, his voice trembling with laughter. "What is this?"

Her face collapsed. He had discovered the Earthquake cake.

"It fell apart!" She pouted. "But it tastes good!" She added, quickly leaping to the defense of the poor cake.

Heads bobbed up and down all around the table -- it did taste good. So good in fact, that I wouldn't be all too disappointed if my mom made the Earthquake cake a new tradition on our Easter eve table.

But maybe next year I'll suggest she make it in cupcake form.

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake aka "Earthquake" cake
Recipe from San Francisco a La Carte

2 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup butter
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, melted

1/2 cup butter
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Measure all ingredients into a larg bowl and beat for 1/2 minute at low speed, scraping the sides of the bowl constantly. Then beat for 3 minutes at highest speed. Pour into greased and floured cake pans: 2 9 inch pans or 3 8 inch pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.

Frosting: In the top of a double broiler, melt butter and chocolate over barely simmering water. Remove from heat and cool. Add powdered sugar, then blend in sour cream and vanilla, beat until smooth.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How I Survived 6 Weeks Without Chocolate

I think next year I'll give up wine. Easier on the wallet. And the thighs.

Happy Easter to all those that celebrate it!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Haagen-Dazs Low Fat Vanilla Raspberry Swirl Frozen Yogurt: A justifiable indulgence

I opened the freezer door and cautiously extended my hand toward the container. Just as I was about to grab it from the shelf, I stopped.

I shouldn't buy it. It's not even on sale! I thought, letting the door fall shut with a clang.

I started to reach for my cart to continue with the rest of my grocery shopping, but couldn't seem to move from my place in front of the ice cream freezer. The green and white container had me transfixed. I started to open the door again.

No, I really shouldn't. It's over $4. For a pint! I can get a big vat of Dreyer's Slow-Churned Vanilla on sale for $3.99!

I glanced over at the rows of marked down cartons. It would be more economical...

The voice of reason interrupted my progress toward the cheaper cartons.

But if I buy the big container of ice cream, I'll eat it all. This way, I'll eat maybe three bowls total and be done! It's much healthier.

I back-tracked toward the Haagen-Dazs section and started to open the freezer door again.

Of course, if I really want to be healthy, I shouldn't buy any ice cream. I should buy fruit -- just like those nutritionists say to do in all those health and fitness magazines I read at the gym.

I let the door slam again.

Fruit is good. I can be one of those people who eats strawberries for dessert. Maybe with a little sugar sprinkled over the top. Or whipped cream. Or ice cream.

I opened the door again, grabbed the carton of Haagen-Dazs low fat vanilla raspberry swirl frozen yogurt and proceeded directly toward the check out.

Those magazines can suck it. I already gave up chocolate for Lent, what else do they want from me?!? I'm going to eat my low fat frozen yogurt and like it!

And I did.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Yogurtland: How NOT to be health conscious

I was the one who wanted to go there. It had been in my head for months. Or more specifically, ever since my friend Lauren described the massive cup of goodness she concocted with various types of fro-yo, like cheesecake and peanut butter, and various types of toppings, like Oreo cookies and yogurt chips. Her face was glowing as she confessed her sweet-tooth sins to me, and I was mesmerized. It sounded like a place where dreams come true -- like Charlie's Chocolate Factory! Or the See's Candy headquarters on La Cienega. I had to go and concoct my own massive cup of goodness, regardless of the potential belly bulge factor.

Months and months and months later (here's where the Notting Hill-esque seasons' changing montage comes in), my friend Joanne and I decided to finally find out what is behind all those four and five star reviews on Yelp. We made a Yogurtland date for last Tuesday evening, and met up at the bright like the sun yogurt shop (ie. hurts to look directly at it) at 3rd St. and La Brea around 8 pm. We had both had fish for dinner and felt totally justified in overindulging in massive amounts of self-serve fro-yo and toppings. Fish definitely negates dessert calories. Especially when said calories come in yogurt form. I mean, hello? Live and active cultures are like so the rage in maintaining a healthy immunity!

I arrived a few minutes before my friend, and spent the time photographing the exterior and dodging small rapid children on sugar-highs so I could peruse the twelve different flavor options available. I watched in horror as a pudgy eight-year-old boy grabbed the largest cup available and proceeded to fill it to the top with several different types of yogurt and toppings. His parents were non-pulsed. Their cups were just as big and just as full. To my right, a fairly trim and attractive couple moaned over their samples of the taro and vanilla wafer cookie flavors, before loading up their extra-large cups as well.

I was stunned. And, to be honest, a little repulsed. This wasn't Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (even though some of the patrons did resemble Augustus Gloop); this set-up seemed straight out of a scene in Wall-E -- human sloths devouring massive amounts of empty calories at the push of a button. Or more accurately, at the touch of a yogurt pump.

My friend walked in a few moments later and we gathered our sample cups and medium-sized cups (the smallest size available) to create our own versions of a Big Fat American dessert. Despite my disgust at the ostentatious displays of gluttony around me, I couldn't help but be sucked into a similar pattern of sloth-like behavior. I selected three different flavors -- cheesecake (my favorite of the bunch), taro root and vanilla wafer cookie; and then topped it with yogurt chips, mochi, graham cracker crumbs, and in a moment of weakness, cheesecake bites. Before I knew it I had rung up a $3.36 cup of yogurt. I too was guilty of being an Augustus Gloop.

My friend and I paid for our oversized treats and found a place to sit outside. We both commented that we didn't mean to take as much as we did, but it didn't stop either of us from scraping our bowls clean. When we were finished, I even had an urge to go back for more to take home with me. What had happened to the girl who is easily satisfied by two Trader Joe's chocolate ice cream bon bons, or a normal sized serving of Soy Creamy ice cream? At Yogurtland, she was no where to be found.

When the chill in the air started to get a little too chilly for my friend and my thin Southern California skins, we got up from our table to say our goodbyes. As I gave her a hug, two words painted on the inside wall of the yogurt shop caught my eye. "Health conscious." I couldn't help but laugh at the irony of the claim. After my overindulgent consumption, I felt anything but health conscious. I felt like a human sloth from Wall-E.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Corkbar: Fine wine meets fine food in downtown LA

My first thought was, "Google maps is wrong."

As I walked down the block toward 12th street in downtown LA on Sunday night, I was convinced that I was in the wrong place. There was no way Corkbar, a new upscale wine bar specializing in California vintages, could be located in the depressing stretch of concrete that appeared to boast only $10+ parking lots and high-rise lofts.

"Where are all the people?" I wondered, clutching my pearl Hobo bag tightly, as my imagination conjured up the mugging scenes from Ghost, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Friends." If I had any hope that LA's downtown was experiencing a renaissance, my first impression of this particular area seemed to kill it. Or at least it did until I stepped inside Corkbar.

With the large windows providing a full view of both 12th Street and Grand Avenue, the restaurant/bar can do little to hide its somewhat precarious setting. In fact, the somewhat stark, wood-paneled space seems to mirror the bleak stretch of city outside. It's not cozy. It's not particularly romantic. And aside from the shelves of wine bottles that tower over the bar, it's unapologetically minimalist in its decor.

It's a bold statement. By making the wine the focal point of the room, the message is as crystal clear as the long-stemmed wine glasses glistening from the tops of the dozen or so tables -- it's all about the wine here. Of course, like many wine aficionados, connoisseurs and week night sippers know, the experience of drinking wine is only enhanced when consumed in tandem with really great food. It's why champagne is served with strawberries, why many wine shops also specialize in cheese, and why many great restaurants pair the dishes in their tasting menus with specific wines. Corkbar gets this and has devoted a fine degree of attention to creating a farmer's market fresh menu that is as good as, if not better than, the wine that accompanies it.

On Sunday night, I had the privilege of joining a group of serious winos (aka a motley crew of Yelpers with a penchant for the grape) for a special wine and food pairing that allowed us to taste five different California wines with five items from their menu. The experience was memorable not only because of the superb execution of the plates that truly were proper partners with each pour of wine, but also because of the impeccable service. Despite the often negative connotations that accompany the "Yelper" label, our party of approximately 25 was treated with the respect that I imagine LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold receives when he barrels his delightfully over-the-top personality into a restaurant. The servers didn't dumb down the wines or talk above us. They didn't wax on like aspiring actors practicing a soliloquy. And they didn't attempt to cajole us into straying off the $30 prix-fixe menu for additional dishes or glasses of wine.

Instead, they proved that wine bars do not have to walk hand and hand with an air of pretension. Nor do they have to walk hand and hand with inadequate menus of greasy "bar" food. Over the course of our three hour staycation in the dining room, we were lulled into a foggy state of food + wine oblivion through the restaurant's gussied up plates of comfort food.

To start, we received a 2008 Brander Sauvignon Blanc paired with a green olive tapenade, quickly followed by a 2007 Au Bon Climate Pinot Noir paired with a kalamata and goat cheese tapenade. While I typically have an immediate gag-like response whenever my tongue comes into contact with an olive that is not in oil form, when I married the flavor of the tapenade to the wine, I was left with a surprisingly satisfying sensation. I especially enjoyed the former green olive tapenade that was brightened up by a judicious blanket of lemon zest.

The 2006 Keenan Chardonnay paired with shrimp risotto was presented next. I cringed when our absurdly attractive waiter announced we would be enjoying the luxurious dish with a Chardonnay, my least favorite varietal of wine, but the Keenan had a crispness that countered any hint of oakiness. For once in my unsuccessful history of tasting and hating Chardonnays, I didn't feel as though I was drinking wine from a barrel. I was further impressed by the finely executed risotto that was finished with a bold flash of parsley-infused olive oil, and prepared to the appropriate level of doneness. (Ie. the individual rice kernels were not cooked into a state of porridge-like mush.)

Following the risotto was one of the most anticipated dishes of the night -- the mac and cheese. The item has become as redundant on LA menus as San Pellegrino, and as such, needs to be truly exquisite to be memorable. Corkbar's version, a sensuous orgy of fontina, cheddar, asiago and roasted pasilla chiles is right on par with the mac and cheese bar that has been set by restaurants like Nook and Taste. The heat from the chiles juxtaposed against the pungent bite of blended cheese is a flavor memory that I won't soon relegate to the graveyard section of my brain. This is no Must Love Dogs or plate of Toast's French toast. Paired with a 2006 Ethan Sangiovese/Syrah, the mac and cheese was a hit with all parties at my table. So much so that we joked about getting an extra vat for the table. Well, they joked. I was fairly serious.
For our last pairing of the night, we received a 2005 Richard Partridge Cabernet Sauvignon with 6-hour braised short ribs served over cheesy polenta. This sort of combination reeks of big, bold indulgent flavors, but Corkbar's execution was surprisingly restrained enough to not leave me feeling as though I'd swallowed a load of bricks. Lightened up with the prudent addition of fresh parsley, the tender ribs were not cloyingly rich, and made for a fine companion with the full-bodied Cab.
While the tasting menu was meant to conclude with the shortribs, I and the other sweet-toothed individuals at my table could not resist placing two orders for the banana bread pudding with caramelized bananas, spiced hazelnuts and brown butter creme fraiche. The moist pudding, crunchy nuts and pool of creme fraiche presented our tongues with a myriad of decadent textures. It wasn't just good, it was amazingly good. Good in the way that makes dessert at Corkbar an experience that should not be missed because one is trying to fit into their skinny jeans. This dish is worth the extra time on the treadmill, and certainly worth the reasonable $7 price tag.
As I walked down Grand Avenue toward my car on Sunday evening, I couldn't help but think how my perception of the downtown landscape had changed since traversing the same strip three hours earlier. While I was still giving my Hobo clutch a death grip and called my mom immediately after I left my friends, my experience at Corkbar filled me with a sense that life, and by extension, my life, are full of unpredictable possibilities. Great food that does not involve a deep fryer can come out of the kitchen at a bar. Great establishments can take root in somewhat dodgy areas. And great things can happen to girls who take a walk outside their cushy West Hollywood comfort zones.