Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hearts of Romaine Salad w/ Grapefruit, Avocado and Blue Cheese Dressing

“I don’t know what I want.” I pout, staring up at the menu above the counter at Zinc Café completely perplexed.

I’m not particularly hungry so am not in the mood for the quiche plate -- my standard order at the open-air, veggie-friendly café, but am not too excited about any of the salad options either.

I sigh.

“How do you like the mixed veggie sandwich?” I ask the girl behind the counter, who appears to be growing impatient with my extreme indecisiveness. I don’t blame her. I am feeling equally annoyed by the lack of communication between my stomach, my head and my mouth.

She shrugs her approval. “It’s good.”

“Right.” I pause, wishing that she’d give me a clear sign that the sandwich is the exact menu item I’m craving at this precise moment in time, but she doesn’t. I hesitate one more excruciatingly long moment before sealing the deal.

“Okay, I guess I’ll have the ½ veggie sandwich with the cup of vegetable soup and field greens.”

My mom pips up from behind me. “And I’ll have the hearts of romaine salad.”

As she pays for our lunch, my eyes wander up to the board. I read the description of her salad again.

“Served with fresh ruby red grapefruit, red onion, avocado, crostini with brie, and a delicious point reyes blue cheese dressing.”

I read my sandwich description again.

“Pain rustique bread filled with thinly sliced fennel, celery radish, red and green bell peppers, aioli (homemade basil mayonnaise), olive tapanade, arugula, hard boiled egg and vinaigrette.”

The quiver in my decision-making cortex starts acting up again. I sort of want the salad now instead.

I sit down with our number and see a young man enjoying the hearts of romaine salad at the next table.

“I should have gotten that.” I confide in my mom, my voice flat and thick with remorse.

“Go change your order.” She urges me.

“No, it’s probably too late now.”

“Maybe not. Go check.”

I nod and push up from the table, rushing over to the counter with only one thing on my mind – getting that salad.

“Can I change my order?” I ask the poor counter girl. “I understand if it’s too late, but I just saw someone with the hearts of romaine salad and it looks so good!” I enthuse, hoping my sheepish smile will ingratiate her to me.

“I’ll see if they’ve already finished it – the kitchen’s pretty fast.” She warns, as she turns toward the back.

While I stand by the counter, I see a server carrying two plates over to our table.

“Noooooo!” A voice in my head screams.

It’s too late. I’ve missed my chance to have the perfect lunch experience – a rare moment when I get to eat exactly what it is that I want at exactly the precise moment I want it.

I sit back down at the table, a scowl wiping the pleasantness out of my face.

“I don’t want this.” I say, looking down at the overly bready sandwich with disgust.

“Trade with me.” My mom insists.

“No, it’s my fault. You shouldn’t have to suffer because I made the wrong decision.” I say in a bold display of maturity that is quickly undermined when I don’t say another word for the rest of the meal.

“I’m so mad.” I announce as we walk back to the car after our brief and very silent lunch.

“We can go back the next time you come down from LA?” My mom offers.

I shake my head. No, that’s not enough to rectify the situation.

“I’m going to recreate the salad myself!” I say in defiance, already plotting how I’m going to procure a ripe avocado, segment a grapefruit, concoct a dressing out of yogurt, white wine vinegar and blue cheese, and make a salad so great that it puts Zinc Café’s hearts of romaine to shame.

- - - -

Three weeks later, I produced this salad with a hard boiled egg on top for added protein. And dare I say it? Yep, I do! It’s even better than the original.
Hearts of Romaine Salad
Based on salad from Zinc Cafe
Serves 2
Head of baby romaine lettuce, washed and kept in whole pieces
1 grapefruit, segmented
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1 small ripe avocado, sliced
1/4 red onion, sliced and soaked in water for 30 minutes

1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese
Salt, pepper to taste

Friday, June 26, 2009

LudoBites: The Real Story

I nervously glance at myself in the mirror, wondering if I should wear something a little less bright. Maybe a pale blue dress? Or something white so I appear pure and good rather than dark and villainous?

I sigh, and settle on the bold print I’m already wearing. The dress really doesn’t matter, and I can’t be late tonight. Tonight is too important to be worrying about things like my wardrobe.

As I maneuver my car through the finally idling rush-hour traffic on West Third Street, I am awash with an almost overpowering sense of déjà vu. Has it really only been a six days since I dined at Ludo Bites? It seems impossible. But then again, the entire situation seems impossible.

First, my thoughtless review of LudoBites that I posted early Monday morning. Then my weak defense of said review on Monday night – a desperate claim that “Hey, it’s okay for me to pass a quick judgment on Chef Ludo’s labor of love – I’m just a storyteller!” And then, finally, my decision on Tuesday afternoon to delete everything and bear my Christian soul for the “whole world” of LA food bloggers to see.

The drama of the situation was foreign to me. I wasn’t used to that sort of thing – hurting people. Being hurt. People actually taking notice of what I, a neurotic 25-year-old from “the OC,” had to say. I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of “the Hills,” but without all the staging, hair extensions and trendy clothes.

It was wretched. My heart ached with remorse, and I couldn’t sleep Monday or Tuesday night as I ruminated over my disrespectful actions.

When I’d woken up that morning I’d expected for the day to progress in much the same manner. But then around mid-day, I received an e-mail from Will at Food Digger extending an invitation from Chef Ludo and his wife Kristine for me to join a dining event with fellow LA food bloggers. The eleven course meal would be followed by a special viewing of Ludo’s episode of “Top Chef Masters.”

I was in shock when I read his note earlier that day, and I’m still in shock when I pull up to a meter near Bread Bar at a quarter to 7 pm on Wednesday night.

“Is this really happening? Am I really here?” I wonder in disbelief. My hands quivering, I read and reread the restrictions on the sign in front of my car – a routine action that is unnecessarily difficult in my current state of mind.

“What if this is all a joke? What if they’ve changed their mind? What if Ludo starts yelling at me in French? I won’t know what he’s saying without subtitles!” I think, my head bursting with worst case scenarios.

“What if… what if… what if…” is my chant the entire stretch of sidewalk before the restaurant. It’s my chant as I walk through the painfully familiar glass door. And it’s my chant when I see Kristine, Krissy, across the room – busy making the final preparations for her husband’s special evening.

I arm my face with a smile and walk forward, pleading with God to give me strength to handle whatever might come my way that evening. A painful moment passes before Kristine spies me once again standing awkwardly in the middle of the open-air space of Breadbar. I long for something – anything (except Pink Yellowtail Champagne) to take the edge off, but then Kristine’s face warms.

She’s seen me. And I know that everything is going to be okay.

The evening takes off from there. Will arrives with wine and his Food Digger business partners, Brian and Marshall, and casual conversation begins flowing as glasses are filled with white wine.

“Do you want some?” Will asks me, extending a glass.

I hesitate, apprehensive about how it might appear once everyone else arrives. I’m already anxious about how they will respond when they see me there crashing their party. Even with Kristine and Ludo’s gracious reception, my peers may be less forgiving of my blogging faux pas and unexpected presence.

Finally, I nod. “Yes, I’d love some.” I respond, my voice surprisingly clear considering the emotional dishwasher that is tearing up my insides.

The other guests begin to filter in, and I discretely sip my wine as I meet Javier from Teenage Glutster, Kevin from KevinEats, Cathy from Gastronomy, Victor from Grubtrotters, Pam from Rants and Craves, Sook from Yutjangsah, Alli from Alli411, and Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas. Everyone is impossibly nice -- completely normal and seemingly nonplused by what has transpired in the past 60 hours. Even Danny of Kung Food Panda and Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, who I had met at the restaurant that past Thursday night, greet me with smiles. I’m floored by their graciousness, but as Will urges us to take our seats, I can’t help but feel the slightest nudge of pressure to have a completely different reaction to Ludo’s food. Everyone’s eyes are kind and disarming, but I know they are all secretly wondering exactly what I myself am wondering.

“Will I/she like it better this time?”

The first course is placed before us – a deconstructed Bloody Mary served in an oversized spoon. Cameras are unveiled, and my comrades light up the table with their flashes. I stare down at my square white plate and take a moment to give myself a pep talk.

“Remember, Diana, tonight is about keeping an open mind, stretching your palate beyond the familiar. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad – it just means you haven’t had an opportunity to experience it yet.” I tell myself. “Plus, different can be good – you’re really different.”

Satisfied, I take a deep breath, slowly lift the spoon to my mouth and slide the playful amuse-bouche onto my tongue.

The first thing I notice is the chill that embraces my mouth. A bolt of tomato and celery leave their identifiable mark, and then an unfamiliar gel-like texture makes a surprise entrance. A blast of heat finishes the experience, and I pause a moment, contemplating what it is that I just had in my mouth before looking up into Cathy’s eyes.

“I should hate it, but I don’t.” I say, a bit thrown. I turn toward Sook. “It’s good, right?” I ask her, desperate for her confirmation that I’m not crazy -- that my taste buds actually do function properly (even whilst drinking wine).

She smiles and nods, and I’m finally able to relax and enjoy the meal that Chef Ludo has prepared for us.

Up next is a tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream, shishimi togorashi and crispy onions. It takes a moment for me to orient myself. Tuna, good. Crispy onions, really good. But ice cream? On fish? I hesitate, before remembering what it is I’m here to do.

I don’t have to love every dish. It’s not about loving every dish. It’s about growing as a diner and experiencing something completely unique – something that I couldn’t get at my favorite Izakaya down the street.

The ice cream is still startling, but not in the displeasurable way I imagined. I finish my plate, marveling over the “trick” Ludo has played on my tongue.

His tricks continue with the chorizo, onion, cornichon soup – a cool emulsion that looks like cream of tomato to my eye, but is redolent with a distinct sausage flavor.

“How is not oily?” I ask Cathy and Sook, confused that the lush soup doesn’t leave a slick trail on my tongue.

They shake their heads, equally bewildered. I take another bite, attempting to figure out how the soup is so smooth – did he puree a piece of frozen sausage? It’s perplexing, and more importantly, thought-provoking. It is the most discussed dish of the evening.

We follow the soup with a cube of king red salmon with smoked vinegar, watermelon, and mint. Ludo instructs us to eat the salmon first in “one bite” and then to immediately eat the watermelon after. The light flavors are refreshing after the soup – it’s a nice intermission that is followed by my second taste of the shrimp with sweet and sour sauce, rosemary and lemon zest.

Our plates are cleared by the present servers and then Kristine approaches with our next course – the foie gras tart on a maple crust served with lemon paste, raw button mushrooms, and four spices.

“Diana’s favorite.” Kristine jokes as she sets the immaculate slice of tart in front of me.

I smile, but my palpitating heart betrays a different emotion. It’s only my third time trying foie gras, and my first two experiences the week before were admittedly a challenge for me. I snap my photos, taking time to capture my food nemesis from different angles before piercing the cold tart with my fork.

“Open mind, open mind, open mind.” I chant as I slide the first bite into my mouth. My French roommate had told me I might like foie gras better cold, but I am still not prepared for what comes next.

The sweetness of the maple crust juxtaposed against the rich foie gras is a mesmerizing combination that is even further punctuated by the burst of fresh lemon. I don’t just like it, I love it.

“I love this!” I tell Ludo with excitement when he passes by the table. He smiles – of course, I do.

“I loved it!” I tell Kristine when she comes by to take my empty plate.

I feel like the small children in the Pull-Ups commercials who declare to their mothers with pride, “I’m a big kid now!” I want to shout it from the roof tops – declare it to the world – call my mom and foodie brother.

DianaTakesaBite likes foie gras now!

The lush seared diver scallop served in a subtle sea of a port wine and crème fraiche emulsion is another of my favorite dishes of the evening. The sweet shallots and subtle kiss of orange zest pair well with the delicate sauce.

The halibut with spiced butter, fresh porcini mushrooms, tonnato sauce, and lettuce that follows is another incredibly thoughtful dish. I can scarcely believe that I had a less positive reaction to a similar preparation with cod the week prior. The execution tonight is flawless – the flavors come together in perfect collusion.

“I’m starting to get that nudge.” Will says to me, as we dig our way through the flaky white flesh of the fish.

It isn’t until he says it that I realize I am getting full as well. I’d been so caught up in the experience that I hadn’t even registered the food baby forming underneath the belt of my dress. Despite the “nudge,” I still clear my plate and do the same with the next – the duck with almonds, crispy skin puree, tapenade and turnips. I love the pairing of the sweet almond brittle with the perfectly pink duck breast beneath, but given my affinity toward things that do not contain olives (I like olives even less than raw meat), I am less enamored with the tapenade on the side.

Our final two courses – the cheese plate with five different types of cheeses and spreads, and the panna cotta with caviar and caramel sauce ends our culinary journey with refinement. The high quality cheeses are superbly paired with their accompaniments, and we easily demolish the two platters set before us. Food bloggers are not shy when it comes to securing their share of a feast – especially a feast like this one.

The panna cotta with caviar and caramel arrives at the table while we are still finishing the cheese course. We are in a hurry to finish so we can begin watching Ludo’s episode of “Top Chef Masters,” and before I can even think about the seemingly bizarre combination I am putting into my mouth, I am swooning over the dish that Kristine likens to “milk duds with popcorn.”

The brininess of the delicate caviar juxtaposed against the silky panna cotta and sweet caramel sauce is revelatory – a ménage a trios of flavors and textures that is impossibly right. It is simple in execution, yet still sends a bold statement.

This is who Ludo is. This is what Ludo does. He takes risks. He plays with unexpected pairings. And he challenges his patrons to think outside their safe, boring box of familiar flavors and familiar preparations.

I get it now, and I can’t wait to go back for more.

LudoBites at Breadbar
8718 W 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Reservations can be made here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Green Eggs and Ham: So much better than the book

I stare into the near boiling water, studying the two eggs laying restlessly at the bottom of my pot. Despite my previous desire for a light salad composed of grapefruit segments, avocado, red onion, hard boiled eggs, and a blue cheese dressing, I suddenly feel repulsed by the thought of ingesting the slick white orbs.

"I don't want you." I tell the pot in defiance. "I don't want you one bit!"

I slide the lid over the top to finish cooking the eggs, but my mind is already elsewhere.

I know what I want instead -- the dish I've been craving since I first ingested it nearly two months ago at Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica.

My name is not Sam I am, but I want -- no I need -- green eggs and ham.

A quick glance to the clock reveals that a drive from my parents home in Orange County to West Los Angeles would be illogical if I plan on actually eating my lunch within the next hour, so instead I opt to do the unthinkable -- recreate Zoe Nathan's signature brunch dish myself.

I eye the carton of eggs still resting on the granite counter top, my head a pink pong table of inspiration now that I have a more agreeable lunch plan. With the leftover basil and prosciutto from the grilled shrimp and pesto linguine (recipe forthcoming) I made my parents for dinner the night before, I'm only two ingredients away from green eggs and ham bliss.

Or green eggs and ham disaster. (It can go either way when I'm working with eggs.)

One quick trip to the grocery store later to procure Thomas English muffins and arugula, and I start making a big mess of the kitchen my mom just cleaned up. I whip up a quick pesto with basil, lemon juice, olive oil, water, salt, pepper, and Parmesan, in her food processor, and as I crisp up the arugula in the salad spinner she gives me a "you're crazy" look.

"I can't believe you go to all this trouble for yourself." She says in disbelief, pretending to ignore the pesto that is now dirtying another of her bowls.

"But it's soooo good." I insist.

She shakes her head and leaves the room when she sees me making puppy dog eyes at the lush yellow yolks of my frying eggs. (She hasn't yet come around to liquid gold. Yet.)

While the egg whites are firming up, I toast an English muffin and top each side with some prosciutto. I lay the tender eggs over the top, spoon a generous amount of pesto over both halves, and then cover the whole thing with arugula.

"Mom!" I scream at the top of my lungs. "You've got to see this!" I continue with pride.

There's no answer.

"Mom!" I scream, as soon as I take a bite of my solid recreation of my current favorite brunch dish.

Again, no answer.

"Mom?!" I try, one last time.

With no response, I give up and devour the rest of my meal like a rapid animal.

One of the best parts of photographing all my food? I can always force her to "ooh" and "aah" over the pictures later.

Top Chef Masters Season 1 Episode 3: "Oui, Chef!"

What is there to say about an episode of "Top Chef Masters" that I watched one foot away from contestant Chef Ludo Lefebvre?

"Oui, Chef, you were robbed!"

And Rick Bayless has a really annoying voice.

Thank you, Chef Ludo and Kristine for including me in your special evening. And thank you for not making me eat raw meat.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"I didn't know you were a Christian"

"Wow, just reading your 'leaving bread crumbs' blog..absolutely love it, didn't know you were a Christian :)" reads the direct Twitter message from Matt of Mattatouille at 10:36 AM this morning.

I smile, momentarily flattered. Nobody (aside from my mother) reads my blog about my experiences as a Christian woman living in LA.

Of course, I don't blame them. I haven't posted anything new on the site in three months (been too busy eating, cooking and photographing food), and the entries don't exactly lend themselves to enticing pictures. Unless a meadow or field or ray of light is enticing.

I respond back to Matt, excited to learn that he too is "gaga" for God, and we proceed to "Tweet" back and forth about that, as well as my controversial review for Ludobites. He encourages me to try the restaurant again - insisting that Ludo and Kristine really are remarkable people, and I agree that I'd like to return to see if I might have a different reaction to some of the dishes.

For a brief blissful moment, I feel the best I have in 24 hours. I'll go back. I'll have another (ideally more positive) "story" to tell about Ludobites, and everything will be fine. Hunky-dory in Twitterland and the LA food blogosphere. Kumbaya and all that jazz.

But then, right in the middle of my productive efforts to update an Excel spreadsheet, that darn voice in the back of my head starts peskering me again.

"Something's not right here." It says.

I scratch my head and say, "Head, what you talkin' bout? People are now aware that I have always known that steak tartare is raw meat, I think they know I wasn't actually drunk, AND I got an 'Amen!' on my 'I'm Not Sally Field' post! Everything is fine!"

The voice ignores my weak defense. "Something's not right." It repeats.

I try to push it aside to focus on my work. But then another e-mail pops up in my inbox from Matt. His words from this morning flash in front of me again... "I didn't know you were a Christian."

And suddenly everything is clear. I know what to do.

I am removing my Ludobites post again -- for good this time. Not because I have suddenly had this grand epiphany about Chef Ludo's vision (that's still to come if Ludo and Kristine will be gracious enough to allow me to experience Ludobites again), but because it's what the folks back home call "the right thing to do."

I want to be honest with my readers about my experiences, but at the end of this day and the next day and every day that follows thereafter, I report to a higher authority -- God. Despite how it might appear on this blog, I'm not on this earth just to eat and write and make a mess of things. I'm here to serve Him and to show His love to everyone on this crazy planet through my hopefully honorable actions -- even to that jerk in the Prius who cuts me off on the 10 FWY.

Chef Ludo and Kristine are not bad people, and they are most certainly not bullies. They are good people who, just like me, are struggling to make a living and struggling to make their dreams come true. Would I like it if someone blasted my Excel spreadsheets for being lackluster? No. I'd probably have a few choice words to tell that person. Hopefully not four letter words (Jesus don't like the swearin'), but sometimes they do slip out. Especially when I'm driving. And hungry.

The point is that my post hurt Chef Ludo and Kristine, and as a Christian, I can't justify that -- especially considering the superb service that our party received from them on Thursday night. I may not be able to say I loved all the food I put in my picky little mouth that night, but I can say that they were incredibly gracious hosts, and as such, deserve my respect. They deserve to be treated with that Golden Rule that's all the buzz in churches across America. "Treat others like you want to be treated."

I realize a lot of damage has already been done, but I'll be saying an extra prayer tonight for them. And maybe a little one for me too. That next time I feel the urge to post a negative review I'll spend a little more time considering the effect my words might have on those who read them.

(Insert rainbow image here. Smiling children holding hands, optional.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Top Chef Masters Season 1 Episode 2: F'ing Redemption

I wasn't feeling very optimistic as I settled unto my couch last night to watch the second episode of "Top Chef Masters." I'd been more than disappointed with the first outing of the charity-fueled competition that was a virtual love fest between the talented chefs and judges who were decidedly not Tom, Padma and Gail. All the compliments and back-patting put me to sleep faster than an Ambien + wine cocktail, and I wasn't particularly excited about watching yet another round of hugs and kisses XOXO Gael Greene, Jay Raynor and the bald guy from Saveur.

I prepared myself for the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when Episode 2 some what redeemed the sins of episode past. Thanks to the colorful personality of Wylie Dufresne, his artful use of the f-word, the friendly rivalry between Dufresne and Graham Elliot Bowles, and LA homegirl Suzanne Tracht's mad skills in the kitchen, I finally got a taste of the "Top Chef Masters" that I expected from the network that has redefined reality TV.

When Chef Graham Elliot Bowles stomped his way on screen declaring himself a bit of a punk rocker, I had my doubts. Was he supposed to be this round's version of Tim Love, the "big Texan cook?" The underdog who is not really an underdog at all because this is "Top Chef Masters" and nobody sucks?

Perhaps. But whereas Tim Love's story ended where it began - ie. bad ass Texan cook proves he really is a bad ass Texan cook when he overcomes the obstacles of freezing all his food -- Graham Elliot Bowles actually rolled out a few surprises. The lovable Chicagoan cooking for the American Heart Association immediately ramped up the stakes of the competition with his revelation that he and molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne enjoy a friendly rivalry in the kitchen. Yes, Bowles cares about winning for his nephew who is awaiting a heart transplant, but he also wants to win so he can essentially rub it in Wylie's face. This is the stuff that great TV is made of -- this is the stuff that was missing last week.

Further piquing my interest in the episode was the inclusion of Los Angeles wonder chef Suzanne Tracht of Jar and delicious pot roast fame. Even though I've never been to her restaurant and pledge my allegiance to the US of Mozza (ie. Nancy Silverton), I immediately became like a fair weather Lakers fan and started rooting for my hometown's chef. Especially after hearing the words "Avant Garde pastry chef" that were used to describe Elizabeth Falkner (aka the Suzanne Powder look-a-like) from San Francisco. I like chocolate chip cookies, but do not pledge allegiance to bad hair cuts and sweets getting too close to my savories.

With inconsequential stakes finally on the table (ie. stakes that do not make me tear up over someone's sick nephew), I was completely checked in to the episode by the time the Quickfire challenge got the four chefs up and running (especially Wylie Dufresne who's strategy seemed to be sprinting from one side of the kitchen to the other). The challenge afforded the four chefs 30 minutes to make amuse bouches out of vending machine ingredients a la the chefs from Season 2. In an extra special twist, former contestants Ilan, Betty and Michael would be judging their dishes. The inclusion of the "Top Chef" alums was a nice touch, as were the clips that showed Michael's phallic-like amuse bouche from his turn at the Quickfire.

The challenge also proved to be a real challenge for the chefs -- particularly Tracht who is used to working with fresh ingredients and doesn't even know where to find a vending machine. It was fun watching her transform potato chips and Dr. Pepper into something truly spectacular. Though not as fun as watching Dufresne's reaction when he realized he'd screwed himself over with his grilled cheese sandwiches and syrupy Dr. Pepper reduction sauce. The F bombs flowing from his mouth were like little gifts from Heaven -- the perfect antidote for the decorous behavior of last week's cheftestants.

Ms. Tracht's fried shallot rings were unsurprisngly the decided victor of the Quickfire, with an appreciative nod to Graham's tuna salad which Betty likened to tuna salad that came from an Ivy League School. Good stuff coming from the queen of grilled cheese and soup. With the initial scores set, the chefs were then presented with the Elimination Challenge - cooking a meal using fresh "Island" ingredients and preserved ingredients (ie. canned stuff) for the creators and writers of "Lost."

While the "Lost" Supper theme was a bit campy and egregious to my cynical insider, the light banter between Dufresne and Graham kept my groans in check. The juxtaposition of their playful cheffing with Tracht's methodical preparation of her dish transformed the battle into one of styles as well. Would Dufresne's cooking voodoo with eggs and chicken win over the judges? Would Graham's crazy tuna three ways make a splash? Would Falkner shake things up with her zany papaya mash? Or would Tracht's elegant touch make mincemeat out of the motley crew?

It was fairly clear from the judges' comments at the dining table that Tracht would be asked to stay on the island for ever and ever, but the predictability did not irk me in the same way that Keller's victory did last week. She wasn't playing it safe with her uni risotto, mango salad, boar strip loin, oyster beer sauce, and baked yam like Keller was with his mac & cheese. She presented a dish that was a challenge to her taster's palates, and as such, was rightfully rewarded the victory over her folksy competitors.

Furthermore, even with her seemingly inevitable win, there was still some element of suspense left for viewers to nosh on during the judge's table. Dufresne and Graham's dual in the kitchen could not have ended more perfectly if it were staged by the producers of "the Hills." The chefs' final scores were only a 1/2 point a part, an excruciatingly joyous outcome for any rivalry that ends in a "neener neener" type crown.

This is the "Top Chef Masters" I was patiently waiting for while watching episodes of "The City" and "My Boys" and the pilot of "Glee" this spring. Thank you, Mr. Dufresne for bringing the kitchen back to life. And giving Bravo reason to bleep out half the episode.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Peanut Butter Brownies: Good, and that's all I have to say about that

I'm not gonna lie, I was reaaally excited about my greedy gobbler Riva post yesterday. As soon as my friend Hank logged on to AIM yesterday, I immediately bombarded him with the following instant message.

"I posted about Riva!"

He promptly signed off.

Approximately an hour and a half later, I tried again.

I lured him in with an engaging opener about churros (specifically Xooro that will be opening a location on Melrose in WeHo this coming Monday), and then I brought it up again.

"Did you read my Riva post?"

"Yes." He responded. "I thought it was too long, but liked seeing the tasty pizza."

I immediately balked at his criticism -- too long? Nobody ever critisized Tolstoy for Anna Karenina's length!

"Well there was a lot of food to discuss!" I protested. "I couldn't exactly cut out a course!"

"I think you need to make harder choices about which things are the most important." He clarified.

"But all the food was important. It would be like leaving out words in a sentence. Or notes in a symphony. Or not wearing pants!" I typed back, desperately trying to prove him wrong.

At this juncture, the conversation went off on a completely unrelated tangent, but his words did linger in the back of my head for the rest of the day. I reviewed my most recent posts and realized that I have become a bit overly verboise in my enthusiasm to describe every inch of my dining experiences. While rambling is one of my favorite pasttimes, it isn't much fun for the person on the other end of the rambling.

Today, I am going to keep things short. There isn't really anything for me to prattle on about with regards to this recipe for peanut butter brownies that I found on Two Peas and Their Pod. They are fudgy, but not overly dense, and so chock full of peanut butter goodness that I almost developed a nut allergy ingesting one.

Well, not really. I'm not sure how that could be possible, but the point is that they are really peanut buttery and I'd probably cut the pb back a bit if/when I make these again. Either way, they are good because they have chocolate and sugar and mini peanut butter cups in them and those things generally go well together. Especially when smothered in vanilla ice cream.

Recipe for chocolate peanut butter brownies can be found here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Riva Wine Class Dinner #2: The greedy gobbler emerges

A funny thing happens when I am hungry, drinking wine and in the proximity of delicious food (or any food, really). The faux displays of gastronomical restraint that I normally exhibit when not under the influence of the grape become severely compromised by a survival of the fittest mentality. In this animalistic state, my heart begins to beat a bit erratically. Conversations about non-food related topics fail to hold my attention, and in the most dire of circumstances, I turn into the most loathed of all dining companions --the greedy gobbler.

Such was the case at the second tasting menu and wine pairing ($40) that my friends and enjoyed at Riva this past Sunday night.

I hadn't planned for it to happen. I'd eaten a good sized bowl of Kashi Go Lean Good Friends Cinnamon Raisin cereal with banana that morning, a chicken wrap at my niece's baptism luncheon at noon, and arrived at the Santa Monica eatery at 5 pm with only the beginning hints of hunger. Yet, as my friends and I began to sip our Borgo Magredo Prosecco and nosh on savory bites of crostini with parmesan-laced braised greens, and miniature meatballs, something inside me began to stir.

I tried to stop it by cutting off the flow of Prosecco at two half glasses, but the amuse bouches had done more than just tickle my palate with their amusing flavors. They'd awakened the beast in my belly -- teasing it with their diminutive size and saucy deliciousness. Not even two of each could satisfy the alchohol-fueled hunger that was slowly gaining ferocity.

I wanted more.

Particularly after the second glass of wine, a 2007 Lungarotti Torre di Giano, was presented to our table.

"Will we be receiving bread?" I asked a server in the sweetest voice I could muster to disguise the greedy gobbler.

He nodded, and moments later, a bastion of servers descended upon the three tables in our private dining room with herbed butter and baskets of warm bread rolls. I removed the largest roll from the nearest basket before passing it along to my fellow diners.

This was not a good sign. I had become ruthless in my quest for sustenance.

Fortunately, my hands and mouth were soon occupied with our second course -- the burrata peperonata with creamy mozzarella and roasted pepper salad. Yet even with my own plate of the luscious cheese to devour at my will, I found myself immediately comparing its girth to the size of my companions' servings. Satisfied that I'd received a plentiful portion, I was finally able to focus in on the interplay between the sweet peppers and marshmallow-textured burrata.

With the bread and second course now securely in my belly, I thought I might be able to relax and enjoy the rest of the evening. My pour of the complex white wine had been restrained enough to soften the effects of the previous glass of Prosecco, especially with the fat that now lined my stomach.

But then the 2007 Umani Ronchi Montepulicano D'Abruzzo arrived at the table with three different kinds of pizza -- a Funghi with mushrooms, taleggio and fresh oregano; a Peperoni pizza with bell peppers, salami, black olives, and marjoram; and the Spring Onion pizza with sweet onions, fontina, and thyme. I was defenseless against the platters of my belly beast's kryptonite -- smooth red wine and cheese-laden carbohydrates. Before I knew what was happening, my hands were grabbing indiscriminately at every serving platter in sight. Three slices of the funghi pizza, one of the peporoni and one of the spring onion were soon happily hugging the sides of my overly ambitious stomach. I cursed the wine for its disastrous affect on my decorum.

Where oh where had the sweet Diana gone? The girl who opens doors for strangers, says "please" and "thank you," and bakes cookies for her friends was no where to be found.

The prodigious amounts of pizza tempered the beast until our fourth course, an Angus flat iron steak with polenta fries, mustard greens, caramelized onions and brandy sauce, was served. Paired with a 2005 Contratto Barbera "Panta Rei," my favorite wine of the evening, it was exactly what the greedy gobbler needed to pay adequate attention to my friend's discussion of her impending date later that evening. Things were suddenly becoming clear again. I laughed at jokes in between bites of the succelent steak. I made jokes, as well, and I was even able to channel the real Diana long enough to offer my friend half of one of my four polenta fries.

The greedy gobbler seemed to be retreating. Or at least he did until the servers starting approaching our tables with more of the spicy full-bodied Barbera.

The fuzz in my head came back full force as I drained the contents of my second glass. The timing couldn't have been worse. It was at this critical moment that the desserts arrived with the 2007 Marenco Moscato d'Asti. The spread was intense -- two tiramisus, a torta della nonna with blueberry compote and mixed berry sorbet (not pictures), and the piece de resistance, the chocolate peanut butter cup with banana ice cream, peanut brittle and caramelized bananas.

With four desserts to share between nine people, the greedy gobbler reached his most potent level of the evening.

"Pass that down here." I demanded when I saw my companions demolishing the torta della nonna. The one delicious bite I was able to secure was maddening to the beast, and when I saw the chocolate peanut butter cup was disappearing as well, I reached across the table and stabbed as much of the impeccably presented dessert as possible. My hungry eyes met my friend's across the table. She seemed to have caught the gobbler disease from me. Her hand flew up to catch a passing server.

"Can you bring us another of the chocolate peanut butter cup since we didn't really get to taste it?"

The greedy gobbler's heart seized up with adoration for my friend -- a kindred spirit in the quest for total, overindulgent satisfaction. If she were of a different sex, I would fancy her my soulmate.

The additional bites of the chocolate peanut butter fantasy dessert soothed my tongue and comforted my belly beast. The sensuous chocolate mousse lulled the gobbler to sleep, and I sighed with relief when the final crumbs of the tart were finally gone. I looked around me, attempting to orient myself with my surroundings. Had I spoken to the man on my right? I remembered asking him to pass down a plate, but couldn't remember his name or astrological sign.

My friend and I left the restaurant in a haze. I felt ravaged inside -- like my body had been taken hostage by an evil force of nature. I didn't like it. Aside from being disturbingly full, I was repulsed by my behavior and the storm the greedy gobbler had unleashed upon my table of friends. I cursed the generous pours of wine again. I cursed the deliciousness of the food that made it impossible for the gobbler to stop. And I cursed myself for losing control of my senses and grabby appendages in such a fine establishment.

But there is hope -- future wine events, courtesy of my new friend Shelley's company Vinovents, and more Sunday night tastings/pairings at Riva, as well. Only time will tell if the greedy gobbler can keep his hands to himself, but I do know that these events will always satisfy my thirst for good wine, hunger for good food, and need for really great company (even if I do ignore them when there is chocolate on the table).

Monday, June 15, 2009

230 Forest Ave: A night to be nostalgic over

"[Your dad] mentioned going out for dinner Sat. night. Any suggestions? Something to think about today." My mom wrote to me in an e-mail on Friday afternoon.

The words made my heart sink. Out to dinner? I twisted my lips downward into a pouty face.

I didn't want to go out. I was already going out on Sunday night for a $40 wine tasting/food pairing multi-course dinner at Riva in Santa Monica, and knew that the indulgence would be a significant one. The kind that makes one want to avoid rich, heavy foods and alcohol for the next week. Or month. Or year.

"I'd sort of prefer eating in on Saturday since I am eating out Sunday and Thursday nights. I can make scallop risotto again?" I wrote back, hoping the lure of the bacon-dressed risotto would change my dad's mind.

It didn't.

On Friday night, the topic came up again. And then again on Saturday morning after my high school's 5K charity alumni race that I was semi-forced to participate in -- my first race since cross-country Midwest Regionals in November 2004. I was nervous and grouchy before, and when it was all over, and I realized that I still sort of "got it," I was elated and ready to celebrate with a meal out -- just like my parents and I did after track meets in HS. Back then, a PR (personal record) in the mile was all the justification we needed to go out for Chinese food at my then favorite chain, PF Chang's.

Since all our palates have improved considerably since my awkward HS track years, we opted to celebrate my 19:53 5K (sadly, over two minutes slower than my college best) at 230 Forest Avenue restaurant in Laguna Beach instead. 7:30 pm reservations were secured, and despite my earlier protestations, as the day wore on, I became excited about getting all dolled up for a night out in the Southern OC town.

Our evening at the open-air, modern space on Forest Avenue began auspiciously with an order of the proscuitto wrapped shrimp with tomato, mozzarella, herb pesto and young basil ($12). The large prawns required steak knifes to cut, and a bit of a balancing act to create the perfect, all-inclusive bite containing all the components of the dish, but our efforts were rewarded as soon as the complex combination of flavors hit our tongues.

"Oh wow." My mom said.

"So good!" I concurred, already thinking about how I could recreate it at home on Father's Day.

"I'm just going to eat mine off the plate." My dad announced to no one in particular, using his generous slab of fresh mozzarella as a sponge to mop up the extra basil-infused oil and syrupy balsamic vinegar that danced across the rectangular plate.

Despite my desire to use my piece of warm French bread as a mop as well, I busied myself with a much more laborious task -- deciding what I was going to order for my entree.

It was a tough call. The Chilean Seabass with baby spinach, roasted cipollini onions and smoked bacon, served over chevre goat cheese mashed potoates and a blackberry pinot noir butter ($32) was an immediate contender. As was the special Copper River Salmon entree that came with a corn taquito and some other things that I didn't commit to memory because I was too focused on doling out a flirty smile while our cute waiter Max was talking. There was the always swoon-worthy hazelnut-crusted Alaskan halibut with papaya relish, a duo of sauces, sweet potato mash, and yam and taro chips to consider ($28) as well, and finally, the pan-seared day boat scallops with butternut squash porcini risotto, sweet corn nage and white truffle oil ($29).

"I need some help." I said to Max, staring up at him with big, wide eyes.

He smiled, tilting his black-rimmed glasses back onto his nose with authority. "What are you deciding between?"

I nibbled my lower lip. I could hardly say I was considering four different entrees. While my parents are fully aware of my complex mind, I didn't want Max to see just how deep my complexities go. I quickly eliminated the salmon because my dad had barbecued it the night before, and nixed the halibut as well since I'd already had it there twice.

"I think the seabass and the scallops." I said finally.

"The scallops are my favorite thing on the menu." Max responded without hesitation.

I grinned. That was the answer I was looking for. I'd wanted the scallops, but as usual, needed confirmation from the waiter (or a similar authority) that what I wanted was in fact the right thing to want. His approval immediately tempered the anxiety in my head, and I was finally able to sit back and enjoy the dry punch of our bottle of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, while happily rehashing the morning's events with my parents.

After an in-depth discussion about how the "popular" kids from HS find me acceptable to talk to now, my order of the highly-acclaimed scallops arrived at our table with a prodigious tuft of fried leeks over the top. The presentation was impeccable -- and the scent wafting up from the plate, intoxicating.

"I can smell the truffle oil!" I gushed to the waiter.

Max nodded. "Enjoy." He said with a wink and turned on his heel to let us dig into our generously portioned dinners.

"Oh Diana, you have to try this broth." My dad moaned, holding up a spoonful of the saffron-rich tomato-based liquid from his Cioppino ($32).

I made a face. "That's okay." Despite our blood relation, I wasn't keen on slurping up soup out of his spoon.

"No, you have to try it." He insisted, holding it out across the table for me to take.

After a moment's hesitation (involving some neurotic rumblings about the cleaninless of his mouth), I took the spoon and quickly sucked the liquid up before I had time to reconsider.

My eyes shot open in surprise. "I can taste the saffron!" I enthused.

He grinned. "Isn't it good?"

I nodded, and then set about destroying the art work on my plate. While the truffle oil is slightly overpowering, the dish is the type that one would expect Jamie from Season 5 to whip up on "Top Scallop." The over-sized scallops are crisply seared on the outside, yet pliantly buttery on the inside, and pair well with the tender bite of the squash and porcini risotto. I immediately understood why Max was so smitten with the entree, and when he passed by our table mid-way through the meal to check on our status, I rewarded him with a Siskel and Ebert two thumbs up. (The wine had fully kicked-in by this juncture in the evening.)

My mom was equally in lust with her hazelnut-crusted halibut, which she declared was the best they'd ever prepared it. After stealing a few bites from her plate (just to make sure...), I came to the same conclusion. It is divine -- a bold portrait of colors and textures that is not only visiually pleasing, but assertive and complex in flavor, as well.

When my dad finally reached the bottom of his seemingly endless bowl of lobster, shrimp, scallops, Manila clams, greenlip mussels, calamari and salmon, I took advantage of my parents' state of post-delicious meal bliss with one final request.

"Do you think we can... uh... get the... uh... chocolate croissant bread pudding ($9)?" I asked, looking into both their eyes with the same puppy face I used when I was a child and wanted ice cream or a can of Coke.

"You know, for SugarBomber." I clarified, when their faces contorted into looks of pain. "I need to keep my dessert submissions coming!"

My mom broke down first. "Of course we can."

Max smiled when I put in the order for the restaurant's most popular sweet ending, and his obvious approval assured me that I'd chosen well yet again.

The warm chocolate-studded bread pudding with bourbon creme anglaise and vanilla bean ice cream was the perfect night cap to a near-perfect meal at 230 Forest Avenue. I was glad that my dad and mom surrendered their forks half-way through our consumption of the succulent bread pudding, and lost in the moment, I devoured the rest without given a single thought to my impending meal at Riva the next night. I was in high school again, and the extra calories and fat grams didn't matter. The celebration of my sort-of comeback mattered. The time with my parents mattered. And the new memories that we made that night -- laughing and eating way too much, mattered.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Foodie Nibbles: Chocolove Cherries & Almonds

This is a blurry picture of the Chocolove Cherries & Almonds dark chocolate bar I ate last week when I was in desperate need of some chocolate with a bit of substance. Hershey Dark Chocolate Bliss pieces are good when one is in the mood for a small sugar fix, but I had some serious craveage for the type of chocolate experience that can only be achieved when sinking one's teeth into a bar. My sweet-toothed companions know what I'm talking about.

I wanted "the snap."

As in, the bar snaps when I bite into it, evoking a pleasurable sensation akin to popping open a can of Dr. Pepper or chomping down on a hard-shelled crunchy taco.

It is a feeling worth fighting for -- a feeling that not even the highly-revered Vosges can engender due to the exceedingly creamy texture of their bars. As such, I was happy to discover that Chocolove's dark chocolate (made with 55% cacoa) has the snap factor on lockdown. Even more importantly, the bar is easy to break into pieces to allow for partial consumption -- ie. eat some now, save some for tomorrow and the next day (barring any disasters/hormonal fluctuations).

My one "beef" about this snapolicious treat that boasts 160 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving (30 g) is that the "cherries" are sadly lacking. While there is a distinct possibility that I got a bad bar, I only found three dried cherries during the entire course of my three-day ingestion process. Not ideal, my Chocolove friends, not ideal at all.

Regardless, this is a good chocolate bar, made even sweeter by the sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that is printed on the inside of the label.

"If thou must love me, let it be for naught
Except for love's sake only...."

Eh, that's enough for now. Thou can Google the rest if thou so desires.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why "the Hills" season finale was more entertaining than "Top Chef Masters"

There isn't much to say about the series premiere of "Top Chef Masters" last night. There isn't much to say about the four contestants, Hubert Keller, Tim Love, Michael Schlow, and Christopher Lee, either. And there really isn't anything worth discussing about host Kelly Choi, who, while cute, is about as engaging as a telephone pole compared to the lovely Padma.

The premise of the "Top Chef" spin-off is fairly simple. Each week, four master chefs face-off for a chance to compete in the champions round. The chef who accumulates the most stars from both the quickfire and elimination challenges will move on for a chance to win the grand prize - $100,000 to be awarded to the charity of their choice. Tears will fall, hugs will be shared and the series will most likely end similar to an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

In other words, it will be a snoozefest compared to the cutthroat, drama-laden previous seasons of "Top Chef." There will be no cringe-worthy make out sessions on the couch. There will be no silly Italians mumbling about monkey ass in clam shells. And there will be no drunken antics involving a razor and Marcel's squirrel-shaped head.

Last night's premiere episode made it clear that these serious chefs are above the mudslinging of previous seasons. They are there to cook, win money for charity, and get a little camera time in the process. As such, I was more entertained by the contrived season finale of "the Hills" that I watched after last night's episode of "Top Chef Masters."

Here's why.

1. A lack of rivalries makes for boring television - Even though Tim Love, "the big Texan cook," claims to be the "underdog" in this first episode, he seems fairly complacent with being underestimated. Unlike Hosea, who made a point of declaring his desire to take down the European dynamo Stefan in season 5, Tim doesn't appear particularly hot and bothered about taking down Hubert Keller. Nor do Christopher Lee and Michael Schlow, who spend most of the episode waxing sentimental about their charities of choice.

In contrast, on "the Hills" season finale, the audience was treated to no less than four different rivalries. Spencer vs. Lauren Conrad. Spencer vs. Holly. Lauren Conrad vs. Kristen Cavalieri. Kristen Cavalieri vs. Audrina. Rivalries create stakes. Stakes create tension. And tension makes for entertaining television. Sentimental master chefs who seem to all love each other do not.

2. Too much talent, not enough screw-ups - The four master chefs have already proven that they know their way around a kitchen. Even though Tim makes the critical mistake of putting his food in the freezer instead of the refrigerator, he still, according to the judges, "exhibited cowboy cool under enormously stressful conditions." The other chefs are similarly praised for their dishes and performance, receiving significant praise from the judges. It's not fun to watch accomplished chefs succeed yet again. There needs to be at least some screw-up in the mix to keep things interesting and to keep the commentary biting rather than glowing. There needs to be someone like Holly on "the Hills" who proves to be the worst maid-of-honor ever when she ruins Heidi's purse at the rehearsal dinner and fights with Spencer outside the restaurant. Her screw-ups are a good foil for all the wedded bliss -- a necessary evil that "Top Chef Masters" was missing in its premiere episode.

3. No Suspense, no surprises - As soon as Hubert Keller appears on the screen, muttering about swimming with dolphins and how being a chef is similar to being a DJ, it's fairly clear that he is going to win. He has an accent, he's the most well-known of the four chefs, and he makes "awesome" desserts with swans and mouse tails made out of chocolate. He's a mad genius and everyone on the show and in the audience knows it. There's no nail-biting at the chopping block. It's a done deal.

On "the Hills" season finale, the main action of the show is centered around the question of whether Lauren Conrad will attend Heidi and Spencer's wedding. While it is fairly obvious from US Weekly spoilers that she will make an appearance, the producers on the show do a commendable job of amping up the tension prior to her arrival. The moment when Heidi sees Lauren is actually quite touching -- a sweet cap to what has been a tumultuous four seasons for the girls. Furthermore, the unexpected presence of Kristen Cavalieri amps up the drama to just shy of a cat fight across the aisle. It's brilliant, and the perfect way to introduce Cavalieri into the cast.

4. Who are these people? The judges and host of "Top Chef Masters" are relative unknowns to the "Top Chef" viewing community, and I struggled to connect with anyone on screen last night. While the previews of future episodes reveal that celebrity judges will be thrown into the mix, I already miss the lovable Gail Simmons and quick-tongued Tom Colicchio.

"The Hills" season finale brought back all the usual suspects from the cast of regulars and irregulars. Even the evil temptress Stacie the bartender made an appearance at the wedding. It was nice to end the season with such familiar faces. Even if I do find most of them exceedingly obnoxious and wish I could send the whole lot of them to the chopping block.

- - - -
"Top Chef Masters" has a long way to come before it reaches must-see TV status. As it is now, I'd rather spend the hour reading updates on Twitter about so and so's experience at SusieCakes or the failed execution of a pear crumble.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tasca Wine Bar: A pleasurable, but imperfect evening

I knew what was coming before it came. In fact, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I knew that my meal at Tasca was not going to be the perfect experience I hoped it to be -- the perfect experience that many have had when dining at the West 3rd Street wine bar/small plates restaurant.

I'd been wanting to eat there for some time. I'd salivated over the descriptions of the fried Arancini, the braised short rib over spinach and goat cheese agnolotti with a brown butter sage sauce (swoon!), and the risotto verde. I'd poured over the positive blog reports about the restaurant's stellar wine list and charming ambiance, and had prepped myself for a future meal there by gorging on as many Yelp reviews as possible (141 to be exact -- minus the really long ones that seemed rather useless).

I was more than primed for a wonderful dining experience at Tasca, and when it was announced as one of the restaurants participating in Yelp's first restaurant week, I immediately reached out to four lovely Yelper ladies and secured a reservation for last Wednesday night.

My hopes were high. My stomach was growling with anticipation (or maybe just hunger?). And my excitement level was a solid 8 out of 10. Or at least it was until I read the $30 three-course tasting menu Tasca would be offering us.

1st Course
Boston lettuce, heirloom cherry tomatoes, Stilton cheese, pistachios
Beef carpaccio, shaved fennel, Parmigiano cheese

2nd Course
Halibut en papillote, olives, champignon mushrooms, fresh herbs salad
Pan roasted hanger steak a jus, tomatoes Provencal, roasted potatoes

3rd Course
Chocolate pot de creme, cardamom cream
Panna Cotta, fresh berries coulis

Not only were the Arancini no where to be found, but most of the items selected were vastly different from the real dinner menu. I'd expected short ribs, croquettes, perhaps some sort of delicious cheese plate brimming with stinky bites to be wrapped up in paper thin slices of prosciutto, and I was more than a little disappointed with the seemingly lackluster options. I felt as though they didn't reflect nor showcase the highlights on Tasca's regular menu, and as such, would not afford my party a true representation of the best the restaurant has to offer.

Despite my concerns, I was still excited to see my friends and knew that I would have a great time regardless of the food. Because sometimes it's not just about what I'm shoveling into my pie hole, right? It's about the experience. The time spent with real live people instead of the faceless "Tweeps" on Twitter. And really, for $30, could I really complain? I was still going to be eating steak! And chocolate pots of cream! And there would be wine -- fancy wine that isn't available at my local Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Cost Plus World Market for $9.99 a bottle. A fine glass of wine can solve many a problem.

But not all of them.

Our party of five arrived at the cavernesque wine bar prior to our reservation to take advantage of their Happy Hour. From 5 to 7:30 pm the work-weary can absolve their daily battle wounds with $3 glasses of Sangria and $5 glasses of robust red wines like the Nero d’Avola, DiGiovanna that we all enjoyed. (Perhaps a little too much.) The wine quickly wore down our resolve to make the evening an economical one, lowering our inhibitions to a level where we deemed it completely appropriate to stray from the tasting menu for a couple orders of the famed Arancini balls.

Twenty dollars later, we came to the conclusion that the balls, delicately constructed with a nutty wild mushroom risotto, are good. (Because fried food generally does error on the right side of deliciousness.) We were equally enamored by the accompanying truffle sauce which also proved to be a fine companion for the complimentary warm slices of bread that were served with a respectable eggplant spread and a tapenade that was fine for those who do not loathe the olive with the heated passion of a thousand suns.

By this juncture in the evening (ie. a glass and a half of wine and three slices of bread in), we were all ready to get started with the tasting menu. After a moment's hesitation, I opted to stick to the Yelp offerings rather than foraging the menu for a few tasty small plates, and selected the butter lettuce salad, the hangar steak and the pot de creme for my three courses. The salad arrived first (because that's typically how these things work unless one is dining in a hoity toity place that serves it as the "refresher" course prior to dessert), and it look exactly how I pictured it would in my head.

Like lettuce. With a few sliced tomatoes, a restrained sprinkle of Stilton cheese crumbles, and what I suspect were almonds -- not pistachios as previously indicated. The salad was the type of salad that comes free with an entree at many a generic restaurant. It's the kind that registers as a 2.5 on the Richter scale of salad deliciousness (Fraiche's beet salad/Nancy's chopped salad at P. Mozza registering at 10), and the kind that I could easily throw together at home with minimal effort and expense.

My two friends who ordered the beef carpaccio seemed happier with their selection, but I gamely ate my healthy greens, comforted by the knowledge that at least my heart was grateful for the roughage. It helped some that I knew my stomach would soon be rewarded with animal flesh.

My much-anticipated hangar steak arrived at the table in beautiful, perfectly pink, lean strips. I was pleased. Tickled pink, really. Though less so when my nostrils caught wind of the fishy odor that permeated our nook of the ambiant space from the halibut that three of my companions selected. While they insisted that the fish itself was not fishy, they all agreed that they were jealous of the potatoes served alongside the steak. I had no real qualms with the delicately fried wedges of taters, though did find them a tad tired compared to the flavorful pieces of meat that I eagerly massaged with the sea of au jus underneath. My friend who also ordered the steak found the sauce too salty for her palate, but since I am fairly attached to my sea salt shaker when I cook at home, I was pleased with its composition. I like my meat to be well-seasoned and was glad that I didn't need to track down our courteous server for a salt shaker.
The night came to a conclusion with a third pour of wine for each of us vino-loving ladies, four orders of the chocolate pot de creme with cardamom cream, and one lowly order of the panna cotta with fresh berries. I was more or less happy with the light chocolate mousse and its abundant chocolate shaving topping, but the experience of inhaling my dessert before my mind could register its caloric content was somewhat hindered by the sounds of displeasure coming from my right. My poor friend who'd opted for the panna cotta found her choice to be less than compelling and I couldn't help but feel self conscious as we all devoured our desserts.

As we strode out of the now bustling restaurant, each $58 lighter, I felt a distinct sense of regret. Regret that aside from the wine, Arancini and steak that I enjoyed, I didn't have the noteworthy Tasca experience that many have marvelled over. In fact, the most noteworthy aspect of the evening was the fun I had with my friends. The stories that were shared about Match.com dates gone wrong, the juicy gossip about so and so and their so and so, and an in depth discussion about all the other restaurants we want to try. (Because that's what foodies do when they get together.) My fond memories of the evening will be reserved for those moments.

And maybe for the Arancini and truffle sauce too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sweet Pea, Leek, Bacon Risotto w/ Seared Scallops

Even though my nut ball of a family is of German/Danish descent, we behave like the stereotypical version of full-blooded Italians (sans accent and mob affiliations).
  • We pride ourselves on our ability to drink vast quantities of good (red) wine
  • We are loud when provoked (or when not provoked)
  • And we show our love for each other with food
In early May, my mom and dad were kind enough to spend an entire weekend helping me move apartments. My mom sat beside me as we scrubbed the floors of my old place, my dad loaded an obscene amount of furniture into the back of my brother's pick-up truck, and then they both returned the next day to help me hang pictures and hooks in my new bedroom because I am useless with a hammer and drill. It isn't an exaggeration to say that I couldn't have done it without them, and to show my appreciation for all their efforts, I decided to make them a grand feast a couple weekends ago.

I'd been toying with the idea for a sweet pea, ramp, bacon risotto ever since my friend Ashley and I had the amazing seasonal sweet pea, ramp, guanciale, parma pizza at Pizzeria Mozza in April, and the "thank you" dinner for my parents seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a test drive. My plans were somewhat hindered by my inability to find ramps at my dad's produce store, Whole Foods and some other rando grocers that I called, so I had to improvise with leeks and scallions instead. I also added seared scallops that I pan-fried in bacon fat, to beef up the meal into a full entree rather than just a baco-licious side dish. The end result was a restaurant-worthy, surprisingly light dish that more than proved to my parents that I actually do love them. Even when my dad opens a bottle of Chardonnay just to spite me (I do not feel kindly toward oaky whites).

Sweet Pea, Leek, Bacon Risotto w/ Seared Scallops
By Diana
Makes 3 generous portions (we are the hungry sort)

1 pound large sea scallops
1 cup leeks, chopped
2 scallions (green ends only), coarsely chopped
6 strips center-cut bacon (I used Oscar Meyer's)
1 cup fresh peas, shelled and steamed until just tender
1 cup risotto
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup wine
Salt, pepper to taste
Chives to garnish

Combine white wine and chicken broth in a saucepan and slowly bring to a slow boil.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan over medium heat and saute rice in a little olive oil until the edges of the rice turn translucent. Add some of the hot chicken broth/white wine mixture and season with pepper to taste.

While the rice cooks, warm a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and add 3 strips of chopped up bacon to the pan. Cook until the bacon starts to crisp and release its fat, and then add the leeks. Season with salt and pepper, and let cook together until the leeks have partially caramelized (approximately 5 minutes). Add the mixture to the rice.

Continue adding the warm broth/wine little by little, stirring occasionally, as it is absorbed. The rice/leeks should simmer at a slow boil until it reaches a somewhat soupy, slightly stiff consistency.

Approximately 7 minutes before risotto is done, heat the remaining 3 pieces of bacon in the 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Season the scallops with ground pepper and salt. When the bacon begins to release the fat and become crispy, remove the bacon from the pan and add the scallops. Cook until golden brown on both sides (approximately 2 minutes per side depending on thickness of scallops). While cooking, microwave the three slices of bacon until extra crispy. Reserve for garnish.

When risotto is done, stir in the peas, Parmesan and green onions and serve immediately. Top with scallops, crunchy bacon bits and chives.