Wednesday, September 30, 2009
And I couldn’t be happier about it.
This past birthday, I received the following from my dear friends: A bag of Little Flower Candy Company sea salt caramels, dark and milk chocolate turtles from Chocolate Soldier, a box of Berger Cookies from Baltimore, a Green & Black organic hazelnut and currant dark chocolate bar, and, the piece de résistance, a box of Compartes truffles from my friend Erin (Dishwasher Ready).
Erin knows that I’m a slave for chocolate – in particular high quality chocolate like the handcrafted truffles at Compartes. I’ve been known to make mad dashes to the chic Brentwood chocolatier during my lunch breaks for one of their honey peanut butter sea salt truffles. (Maybe one of their smoked salt truffles too…) As such, I was clearly more than a little delighted when Erin slid the telling brown box across the table at my party at Bar*Food nearly three weeks ago. (I may have reacted like one of the “woo girls” on “How I Met Your Mother” – “Wooooo!”)
The best part about receiving a box of Compartes truffles (aside from the most obvious reason – not having to pay for it), is the surprise element. When I pick out chocolate for myself, I stick to safe flavors that I know I like – hazelnut, tiramisu, fleur de sel caramel, etc. I enjoy the results, but don’t open myself up to the opportunity to be tantalized by something new and different.
The box of truffles that Erin selected for me allowed me the chance to be the adventurous eater that – despite my best efforts with foie gras – I’m not. Mixed in with my favorites (the aforementioned honey peanut butter sea salt, smoked salt and fleur de sel caramel) were funky flavors that I found just as appealing, if not more appealing, than my standbys. The lemongrass, jasmine tea, caramelized banana curry, and blackberry sage truffles delighted my palate and senses. I couldn’t help but close my eyes when savoring one so that I could concentrate on the distinct flavor combinations that somehow worked perfectly when embraced by the premium dark chocolate. Eating a Compartes truffle didn’t just satisfy my chocolate cravings (or pull the plug on a bad mood); it gave me a unique experience every time I reached my hand into the box.
For the past two weeks, I’ve felt a little bit like Forest Gump – I never knew exactly what I was going to get when I bit into each piece of chocolate. Of course, when the box of chocolates is from Compartes, not knowing isn’t a liability – it’s the best part.
912 South Barrington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Phone: (310) 826-3380
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Recently, however, a startling change has come over me. In an attempt to counterbalance my more frequent indulgences at restaurants and gelato shops across town, I’ve started cooking with the nutritional powerhouse more often. Not just as a substitute for brown rice in my stir-fries or as a side dish for baked chicken (that’s all kid’s stuff, really), but as the central focus of my meal.
First quinoa black bean salad, then quinoa with roasted veggies and eggs, then quinoa risotto...
I could go on, but I won’t. It’s painful enough already. My roommates are starting to show concern, my dad is upset that I’m becoming a quinoa-pusher, and my countertops are perpetually littered with the tiny kernels -- a physical manifestation of my affliction.
It’s hard for me to admit this, but I know it’s time. My name is Diana Takes a Bite, and I’m addicted to quinoa.
The realization hit me this Saturday afternoon. I’d just finished eating a big plate of my take on 101 Cookbooks' Quinoa and Grilled Zucchini recipe and was feeling rather blissful. Almost like I’d just eaten a big fatty piece of chocolate rather than a healthy lunch. I couldn’t stop thinking about how good it was, and how I wanted to make it again – though next time with black beans instead of the hardboiled egg, and with fresh corn instead of the frozen I’d added to the salad.
As I snuggled up on my bed to upload the pictures on my laptop, I started to do a mental count of how many times I’d eaten quinoa that week. I came up with five different times. In six days. Yes, different preparations, but still! Five times in six days?!
I immediately confessed my sins to the Twitterverse and felt a bit better after receiving affirmation that there are worse things to be addicted to (crack, porn, "The Hills"). I then proceeded to make quinoa for dinner last night and Sunday night. Because if the Twitterverse says it’s okay, then it must be okay. And while I'm on the subject, this dish, my friends, is more than okay.
Quinoa and Grilled Zucchini
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
¼ ripe avocado
1 tablespoon cilantro
½ garlic clove, finely minced
1 tablespoon plain Greek nonfat yogurt (I used Fage)
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons water
Sea salt to taste
1 hard boiled egg (or substitute ¼ - ½ cup black beans)
1 zucchini, cut into ½ inch thick strips
¼ cup quinoa
½ cup chicken broth (to cook quinoa)
¼ cup frozen or fresh corn
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds (101 Cookbooks’ recipe calls for pine nuts)
1 tablespoon goat cheese, crumbled
Handful of arugula (optional)
Cilantro to garnish
Combine avocado, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, yogurt, water and salt. Using either an immersion blender or blender, mix together until creamy and smooth. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare quinoa according to package instructions. When all the chicken broth or water has been absorbed, uncover and add in the corn. Stir together until corn has heated through, and then set aside.
Grill the zucchini using either a grill pan or a bbq. When just tender, remove from the grill and cut into chunks. Toss with quinoa, and then add the black beans or egg (depending on what you are using). Combine quinoa mixture with dressing to taste (there will be extra) and then place salad over optional bed of arugula on serving plate. Top with goat cheese, sunflower seeds and extra cilantro.
Monday, September 28, 2009
On the left – Sook from Yutjangsah, who has eaten her way through the tasting menus at both Providence and Hatfield’s, and recently completed a 5-mile San Gabriel Valley food marathon.
The scene of the gorge-fest: Osteria Mozza for the Amaro Bar menu that offers patrons the choice of an item from Nancy’s Mozzarella Bar, one pasta, a dessert, and a glass of either Bastianich Friulano or La Mozza Morellino di Scansano for $35.
The time: Thursday, September 24th at precisely 7 pm (7:17 pm once Sook and I were both seated and drinking).
The stakes: None. (That I know of.)
I knew Sook could eat – had even witnessed her prowess at PF Chang’s that past Sunday, but was confident that I would have no trouble meeting her bite for bite in a head to head match. Or at least I was until we sat down at the Amaro Bar (the less chic one) at Osteria Mozza on Thursday evening for my last birthday hurrah…
“So you want to get the octopus, right?” Sook says, referring to my favorite appetizer in LA – the grilled octopus with potatoes, celery and lemon.
“It’s amazing – if you’ve never been here before, you have to try it.” I gush, already salivating over the mental image of the tender charred tentacles bathed in a lemony vinaigrette.
She nods, then turns back to the menu. “Do you think we should get another starter? A salad maybe?”
I blanch. “Umm…”
“Do you think it’s going to be enough?” She presses, looking genuinely concerned for the well fair of our bellies.
My throat tightens. I stare regretfully at the crumbs from the slice of whole grain bread I’ve already devoured.
Sook can’t be serious, can she?
“Well, we are already getting the shared starter on top of a mozzarella dish, a pasta, and dessert…” I say finally, trying my best to disguise my horror that she doesn’t consider three and a half courses plus bread plus an amuse bouche enough food.
She looks doubtful.
“Let’s just start with this, and if we want more, we’ll order more?” I reason.
“Okay.” She agrees after a moment’s hesitation.
Our first dish of the evening, the aforementioned octopus, arrives alongside our mozzarella dishes that came highly recommended from our server – the mozzarella with shell beans, pesto and bitter greens for me, and the burrata with speck and pickled spring onions on crostini for her.
The octopus is, as usual, fork fight-worthy, but we both restrain ourselves in an honorable attempt to match our decorum to the restaurant’s formal setting. (Secretly, I think Sook wants to take me out with her knife…)
We also make a great show of how eager we are for the other to try our mozza plates. Her selection is decidedly heavier than mine with all the bread, succulent strips of meaty speck and three dollops of burrata cheese. All the components work really well together (the pickled spring onions are a highlight), but with all the food coming our way, I am happy to be noshing on my lighter dish. The bright pesto and greens are the perfect counterbalance to the rich mozzarella. I have no trouble scraping my plate, and even use my bread to sop up the extra pesto. I know I’ll be able to take down my pasta and dessert with no problem.
Sook, who has been diligently working her way through her crostini, looks over at me with a slightly pained expression on her face. “I hate to say it, but…”
“What?” I ask in concern. Does she want to order another starter? Another round of mozzarella? Two entrees?!?
“… I’m getting a little full.” She confesses, hanging her head in shame.
I’m a little stunned at first – is she admitting defeat? And more importantly, does this mean I’ll be the sole clean plate diner in our party of two? I don’t want to be the overeater by myself! It was bad enough being the only one to order a shared appetizer, entrée and dessert at Tavern the previous week! Her stomach has to rally – it just has to!
Fortunately, my concern is for naught. Sook doesn’t hesitate when her hearty portion of the tagliatelle verde with lamb ragu and mint arrives. Despite its robust size, she finishes every al dente noodle, while I attend to my standby favorite, the orrecchiette with sausage and swiss chard. The bite I try makes it clear why. The dish is a knock-out, and I’m a little jealous that I didn’t order it for my pasta, as well.
To finish, we both go with our server’s recommendations for dessert. Sook opts for the bombolini with mountain huckleberry compote and vanilla gelato, and I select the rosemary olive oil cakes with olive oil gelato and rosemary brittle. I’d been leery to try the olive oil cakes in the past because I fancy desserts that error toward the sugary sweet side of the equation as opposed to the savory side, yet, I can’t stop thinking about Tony of Sino Soul’s recent post about the dish. It inspired him so much that he went home and made his own (delicious) version of the olive oil gelato with rosemary.
As soon as our plates arrive, all my concerns immediately disappear. The warm made-to-order cakes are sweet, moist and pair well with the subtle olive oil gelato and sweet rosemary brittle. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and well-executed plate – the best of any of the dishes (sans octopus), I’ve had/tried that night.
Sook’s bombolini, while also warm and served with the lush housemade gelato (a most desirable set-up for any dessert), is, in my opinion, the weaker of the two, but is by no means unworthy of praise. I’m just glad I ordered the olive oil cakes. (I love winning the battle of the dishes!)
By the time we hit the exit, both of us are in pain from our all-out eating efforts. Neither of us left a crumb, blob of sauce or stray noodle on any of the plates that graced our stretch of the Amaro bar highway. Even though Sook may deserve the nod for getting through two of the heartiest plates of the evening, in my mind, we are both victors. But then again, anyone who dines at Osteria Mozza is a victor. It’s just that good.
6602 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Friday, September 25, 2009
It’s a serious table of “foodies.” Sook recently dined at Providence, a two-star Michelin restaurant, Sonja has been making the rounds at LA Essential's Animal and Bistro LQ, and Krissy regularly noshes on foie gras terrines and fettuccini carbonara with duck bacon courtesy of her husband, Chef Ludo Lefebvre.
I know I’m about to embarrass myself in front of them, but I can’t seem to stop myself. A spread like the one before us is too impressive not to capture for posterity.
“I can’t resist.” I stammer, my cheeks burning with shame, and then I begin readying my camera for action.
I hear some riffling to my left. Sonya and Sook are digging for their cameras, as well, and seconds later are following my lead. Flash bulbs light up the dark space of our booth table as we position and reposition the dishes for optimal images. Krissy smiles in amusement and takes a picture of the scene on her iPhone. Moments later the image appears on Twitter.
One would think that the four of us are dining at one of the top restaurants in LA or, at the very least, an exclusive eatery with an impossible reservation system (oddly enough, this turns out to be slightly true for our location). Instead, we are at PF Chang’s, the Americanized Chinese chain restaurant that is conveniently located at many a mall across the United States.
The circumstances that brought us together aren’t really important. There was some tweeting, some very un-foodie confessions, and then, quite suddenly, I had myself three Sunday night dates for Girl’s Night Out at PF Chang’s. I didn’t know whether to be excited or repulsed.
I chose excited.
While the food was, predictably, just okay (twas a bit over sauced and tasted like it had been prepared factory-style), I couldn’t help but enjoy the process of eating it. I liked chomping my way through the lettuce wraps with ground chicken and water chestnuts, and I found myself going back for seconds of Sook’s favorite lemon pepper shrimp with bean sprouts, leeks and transformative chunks of lemon (rind attached). I was also happy to claim portions of my previous favorite – the crispy honey shrimp, the restaurant’s signature dish – the Mongolian beef, the slightly spicy Dan Dan Noodles with ground chicken, and the cleansing Buddha’s feast of stir-fried veggies and tofu.
Lemon Pepper Shrimp
Crispy Honey Shrimp
I wasn’t ashamed to fill (and clear) my plate, and later, I wasn’t ashamed to eat both my complimentary bowl of coconut ice cream that our server brought each of us and a significant hunk of the New York-style cheesecake we ordered for the table. The coconut ice cream was delightfully chock full of chunks of coconut, and the cheesecake was more than “just okay” with its raspberry and white chocolate sauces and fresh berry accompaniments.
Ultimately, however, the food wasn’t really the point. The point was to eat, drink and be merry that Chef Ludo was conveniently on a plane to France so that Sook, Sonja and I could steal his lovely wife away for an evening. I hope the next time we dine together we’ll be toasting our wine glasses (filled with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc) for a different reason – a new location for the dearly missed Ludo Bites. (I call dibs on the first foie gras croque monsieur.)
Thursday, September 24, 2009
It's an interesting start to a "Top Chef" episode. Nobody dyed their hair sultry black when hubba hubba Sam Talbot left in Season 2, but apparently the whole house was uber attached to Mattin and his little Frenchie squeals and giggles. They all march into the GE kitchen with red neck scarves under the guise of showing solidarity for their dearly departed Frenchman, but deep down they really just want to make it clear that they hate Robin.
Robin isn't scared though. She's like all fired up because her simple food is going to set her apart! Just like it did when she was in the bottom for her simply repulsive grilled romaine and drunken prawn salad. Mmmm chlorine.
The Quick-Fire challenge is relatively dull compared to past episodes. The loser doesn't have to go home, the audience doesn't have to worry about whiny Eli winning $15,000, and there are no weird or gooey ingredients to work with. The chefs are charged to make a duo of dishes that represents the constant battle between the devil on one shoulder (ie. Robin) and the angel on the other (ie. Michael). James Beard winner Michelle Bernstein will be the guest judge.
The cooking itself is a total yawn. Everyone starts making scallops because it's "Top Scallop" not "Top Chef," and Robin persists in her mission to make everyone hate her even more. While Michael is perfecting rilletes of salmon, Ash is screwing up complex custards, and Kevin Red Beard is doing something porkolicious as usual, Robin is making salad. And apple crisp (because she had to give up sugar when she was diagnosed with cancer). It's so blatantly counter to what everyone else is doing that it seems destined to win. And it does. And everyone glares. She's granted immunity and Eli the Evil one complains, "That's a great way to win a Quick-Fire -- tell everyone you had cancer."
Apparently he's vying to take over Mike Isabella's spot as most obnoxious contestant of the season. We sort of hate Eli now. (Mike's doing better, but is still on thin ice for comments like, "It's foreign to me!")
In keeping with the whole duo theme, Penn and Teller -- a dynamic duo -- enter the "Top Chef" kitchen where they will begin their roles of being completely useless. They start doing some weird trick with a lime (no idea), and then Padma tells the chefs they will be deconstructing a classic dish for the Elimination Challenge. Michael is like reallly excited because deconstruction is like is favorite thing in the whole wide world (aside from beating his brother), and everyone else is sort of scared because they can't rely on Robin's f-ups to get them through another round.
Mike Isabella and Jenn C. are particularly nervous. Mike doesn't know what eggs florentine is and keeps trying to get everyone to laugh at his bad joke (see: "they're foreign to me!"). Jenn C. is freaking out because she drew meat lasagna (like major ew!) and doesn't deconstruct things other than the egos of the male chefs who she makes cry. The rest of the crew seem to be fairing okay except for Ron who can't stop screaming "paella!" and poor Laurine who has to work next to motor mouth Robin. Laurine is already struggling to make chips for her fish and chips deconstruction, so is not amused when Robin narrates every single move she makes in the kitchen.
Laurine basically wants to kill her.
It's kind of nice to see some emotion bubbling up from the previously complacent lady chef. For a second, her angry eyes almost remind me of Jenn C. Except Jenn C. doesn't make soggy chips.
By the time Tom meanders into the kitchen to do his little Q&A's that make everyone super nervous instead of comforted like when Tim Gunn does them on "Project Runway," it's pretty clear how things are shaking out. Laurine is in the weeds, Ron is clueless and doesn't actually know what deconstruction means, Michael is going to clean-up at the Judge's Table, and Jenn will most likely overcome adversity and triumph over her demons. It's a nice little story arc that the "Top Chef" producers have been keen on in episodes past. Plus, she's Jenn C. She eats adversity (and fetuses) for breakfast.
The chefs will present their dishes in pairs to the judges for the evening -- Toby Young, who Ashley describes as the "meanest guy in food criticism;" Penn and Teller who are, as mentioned, completely useless; Michelle Bernstein; and Tom, Padma and Gail. The dinner is sort of a snore -- Toby seems to have left his claws back in Season 5 and Teller's mimes are almost as annoying as Robin's incessant chatter. The only redeeming moment comes courtesy of an awkward/slightly forced exchange regarding Eli's pork rilletes.
Toby Young: "They look like bull's testacles."
Padma: "I've actually had bull's testacles."
Penn (meaningfully): "I bet you have."
I know I'm meant to laugh out loud, but instead can only mime my reaction.
The Judge's Table plays out as suspected -- Michael makes waves with his fancy egg emulsion, homemade brioche bread and Parmesan jelly (a sore Bryan labels him a "show-off" for his efforts), and Jenn pulls out a mean, albeit messy, deconstructed meat lasagna.
The big surprise of the evening comes from Ashley, who despite being too poor to eat meat as a kid (wah wah), kicks ass on her pot roast. Kevin Red Beard also impresses the judges with his perfectly balanced chicken mole negro. The biggest shocker? The dish doesn't even contain pork! Sadly, he only receives some lame Calphalon Unison Nonstick cookware for his win. He pretends to be uber thrilled -- even squealing "Ta-da!" in slightly Mattin-esque fashion -- but the pans are clearly a product placement, not a prize.
Ash, Laurine and Ron are in the bottom for their failed attempts at shepard's pie, fish and chips, and paella, respectively, and even though Ash and Laurine screwed things up pretty bad, it doesn't take some crazy mind-reading voodoo to figure out who's going home. Ron is set out to sea for his overcooked, fully-constructed paella. As Michelle Bernstein aptly puts it, "It doesn't have to be genius; it just has to taste really good." Ron is no genius, and he certainly isn't turning heads with his overcooked seafood and mushy rice.
Next week I expect everyone to speak in gibberish in honor of his departure.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
“What kind of pear should I get for a grilled sandwich with ham, goat cheese and arugula?” I ask.
“Hmmm… maybe Bartlett because they are sweeter and will offset the arugula?” Ali responds after a moment’s hesitation.
I scrunch my nose up at the rows of under ripened Barletts in front of me. They certainly won’t do. And even if they were ripe, I’m not so sure they’d hold up to the heat of my oven.
“What about red pears?” I counter.
“I don’t know… I actually don’t really know much about pears.” Ali admits.
We hang up, and I begin fastidiously studying the red pears. Something in my gut (my gallbladder perhaps?) is telling me “red pear, red pear, red pear.”
After ten minutes of obsessive searching, I find a suitable one, collect the rest of my fixings (some Black forest ham since I’ve already got the arugula and goat cheese in my fridge) and then head home to make the savory sweet grilled cheese sandwich that’s been dancing in my head all week.
The sandwich, as is typical with most things I do, quickly becomes a complicated affair. I roast shallots alongside my pear to add another savory note, I make my own balsamic honey dressing, I toast a few walnuts to add some crunch, and then I neurotically pick out the fatty bits in my slices of deli ham. My efforts, while seemingly ridiculous for something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich that takes less than fifteen minutes to eat, ultimately pay off. My lunch is an unequivocal success. And as is the case with most of my kitchen successes, I feel compelled to follow it up with a repeat performance the following day.
Grilled ham, pear, goat cheese, arugula sandwich
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 ounces Black forest ham (fatty bits extracted)
½ a small red pear, sliced thin
1 shallot, sliced thin
1 tablespoon walnuts, chopped and toasted
1 ounce crumbled goat cheese
Honey balsamic dressing (Made with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, honey, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss shallots with olive oil, salt, pepper and roast approximately 20-25 minutes. 5 minutes before they are done, add the sliced pears to the pan.
Meanwhile, prepare dressing by combining balsamic vinegar, olive oil, honey, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste (I never measure – I just throw things in until it tastes yummy.)
Top one slice of bread with de-fatted ham and roasted pears. Sprinkle walnuts, shallots, goat cheese over the pears, and then finish with arugula. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and then cover with the other slice of bread.
Bake in oven (at 375-400 degrees) on a cookie sheet for approximately 5-10 minutes or until both sides of the bread are toasty and the arugula is wilty.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I wanted to avoid the whole charade after a less than successful dinner last year (and the year before and the year before), but ultimately, the thought of eating an Amy's frozen spinach pizza at home alone on my birthday left me feeling more than a little depressed. So I corralled together five of my closest friends and made a reservation at Tavern -- Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's much-praised and occasionally maligned restaurant in Brentwood. I was nervous about trying a place I'd never been to before for my birthday, but my food lovin' friends convinced me that, at the very least, it was worth a visit for the “Snickers bar” dessert and stunning atmosphere alone.
They were right.
And though I don’t regret selecting it as my special occasion resto (I only regret my choice of entrée), it wasn't quite the unequivocal blissful birthday experience I desired.
Walking through the restaurant last Tuesday night in my brand new belted dress (from Anthropologie, of course), I felt flush with excitement. It isn’t often that I cheat on my weeknight meals of quinoa and veggies for a night on the town with my friends. I’m typically only a weekend warrior when it comes to the ingestion of excessive amounts of food and wine, but birthdays are exceptions. I was going for the gold that night – wine, two slices of the freshly baked sourdough bread (with the absurdly hard butter), a shared appetizer, entrée and dessert. My mission? I wasn’t leaving the restaurant until my wallet was empty and my stomach was engorged.
As my five dear friends and I settled around our corner booth in the atrium a little after 8 pm, none of us could get over the beautiful interior.
“I want my apartment to look like this.” Hank commented.
I nodded. I wanted my apartment to look like it too. Though maybe without the trees. And I definitely didn’t think I’d ever get used to the bizarre hand-drying machines in the bathroom. But the rest? Absolutely. The libarary-esque bar would suit me just fine when I feel the urge to drink away the blues at home, and I could certainly go for the muddied grey and earthy tones that ensconced the space of the main dining room. I felt happy to be in such beautiful surroundings with my beautiful friends – the setting provided the perfect tone for what I knew would be a memorable evening.
At Tavern, everything sounds appealing. I wanted it all – the halibut grilled in fig leaves ($27) that my friend Ashley ordered, the market fish with yellow tomato confit ($26) that two of my other girlfriends ordered, and the beef daube with ricotta gnocchi ($29) that the waitress claimed was surprisingly light for short ribs. I was a wreck trying to make my final decision, but when our server told me the grilled lamb with polenta, peppers, currants and pinenuts ($27) would pair excellently with our bottle of Cabernet Franc ($38), I decided to trust her.
When our plates arrived, we were all enamored with the presentations. Even though I typically only photograph my own food (I hate to make other people wait to dig in), everyone at the table insisted I take pictures of their dishes as well. (They later insisted I sample their dishes also.)
My lamb, served on skewers, was tender and cooked exactly as I’d requested – medium. I was primed to love it because I’m the eternal optimist when it comes to food (that doesn’t come in a brown bag with golden arches on it), but ultimately struggled to make sense of how the various components on my plate came together. The eggplant and red pepper overpowered the reserved portion of polenta underneath, and I found them to be too oily for my tastes. My friend Anna described the dish as “woodsy,” before eagerly spooning out a portion of her market fish for me to try (a consolation prize, perhaps?). The flavors in her dish were more reminiscent of the appetizer we shared – bright and clean, but the plate as a whole ultimately still lacked the “wow” factor. I liked it – just like I liked the other entrees I sampled – but strangely enough, wasn’t completely overloaded with envy that everyone else had ordered better.
Fortunately, the evening took a turn back toward birthday bliss with the must-order “Snicker’s bar” dessert with salted peanut, caramel and vanilla ice cream ($10). It was everything I imagined it would be – over-the-top decadent in the best way possible. Even though my stomach was screaming at me for an intermission, I made a pointed effort to finish every last bite, because A. It was my birthday, B. I wanted to prove I could do it, and C. It was one of the best desserts I’ve had in LA.
When I rolled home that night – belly engorged, wallet empty, I felt happy with my overall Tavern experience. The setting was right, the people were right (how lucky am I that I have friends who all beg me to eat off their plates?), and the dessert was more than right. Did I wish I’d tried the chicken? Yes. But, I wasn’t completely heartbroken. It just gives me another reason to go back to the beautiful Westside restaurant.
11647 San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
As this summer comes to a close, I’d like to take a few moments to pay respects to my favorite sketchy-looking ice cream place, Mashti Malone’s.
Mashti Malone’s, which is located in a very un-picturesque strip mall containing a liquor store, laundromat and bar (three of my most feared and hated destinations), is one of the only reasons I will show my mug in Hollywood. I tend to avoid the touristy trash trap side of LA town as much as possible unless I’m going to see a movie at the Arclight. I love the Arclight. But that’s another story that I’m not ready to tell just yet. (I wouldn’t want to jinx our love by pontificating too loudly about it like someone else I know…)
For most people who frequent Mashti’s for a scoop of their supremely luscious homemade ice cream, the exotic flavors like the uber popular rosewater, rosewater saffron, orange blossom, and lavender are the big draw. Why else would one brave Hollywood traffic, a barely navigable parking lot and the pain of looking at ugly signage? It certainly couldn’t be for something as boring as chocolate or peanut butter.
Every time I go to Mashti’s, I have every intention of being the bold and adventurous person that I’m not. I sample the rosewater. I sample the orange blossom. I even dabble in some saffron. And then I shake my head and give in to the real reason I schlepped Tiffany Toyota over from my WeHo-adjacent apartment. I don’t come for the crazy, I come for the craziliciously good – the peanut butter cup flavor that makes me want to weep little peanut butter tears of joy.
The intense peanut butter ice cream is loaded with both peanut butter cups and peanut butter ribbons for a peanut butter triple whammy. I like to get it with a scoop of something chocolatey like the fudge brownie flavor, and then I tend to mix the two together into witch’s brew for maximum deliciousness. I’ve also done the deed with cookies ‘n cream with superior results. No, it’s not all that unique, but I’m unique enough already. I need something normal in my life! I wouldn’t want to be completely unbalanced.
No. Just the thought makes me want to cry a peanut butter river like my boy J. Timbo. "You were my sun..."
Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream
1525 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90028-7072
Thursday, September 17, 2009
But then the moment passed, and I remembered I was watching “Top Chef: Voltaggio Bros. and Jenn C. take it all,” not “the Twilight Zone.” Doobie doobie do.
The shake-up started with the high-stakes Quickfire Challenge where the chefs were given a lot of cactus to work with courtesy of the rat bastard audience at home who voted it as the special ingredient for the challenge. Curses, Middle America, curses! Padma channeled her Carl’s Jr, persona and in a breathy bedroom voice told the cheftestants to “[make] something succulent with these succulents” for guest judge Tim Love of the Lonesome Dove Bistro. Succulent. Succulent. Oh yes, the heat is on.
Everyone has a different reaction to the challenge. Mike is excited because, unlike most of his peers, he actually knows how to prepare cactus, Mattin is like so nervous because “it’s like so slimy and has needles in it,” and Ron starts doing his Chewbacca thing. “Rar rar rar, you stay the heck away from cactus!” Apparently, it’s poisonous in Haiti. Or at least, I think that’s what he said…
Unsurprisingly, Mike Isabella, the only one who seems to know what he’s doing, gets the nod and $15,000 for his cured cactus and tuna ceviche. It’s sort of slimy, he’s sort of slimy – it all makes sense. Michael V., who is in the bottom three for his sushi rolls, isn’t so impressed. “I’d rather be able to create interesting flavors than take the slime out of cactus.” You and me both, Michael. You and me both.
With no immunity awarded during the Quickfire, everyone has their game faces on for the Elimination Challenge where they will cook lunch at the Sandy Valley Ranch for two dozen cowboys. This ain’t gonna be no BBQ and coleslaw affair – the chefs can do whatever they want, but it has to be considered fine dining. The kicker (because hello? This is “Top Chef” and there is always a succulent kicker) – they won’t know what the cooking conditions or equipment will be like until they arrive at the ranch. Yeehaw!
The chefs do their little Whole Foods scramble and are then shuttled off to their destination that, according to the always sound bite worthy Michael V., “[looks] like a scene from a horror movie.” It’s hot, there’s more of that poisonous slimy cactus everywhere and even Ron is getting the heebie jeebies. He’s taking trees apart, talking about voodoo and snakes… it’s all good times on the ranch.
Ashley, Mattin and Robin, on the other hand, are super stoked. Ashley grew up in the middle of the woods, Mattin grew up on a farm, and Robin just loves getting dirty (Ron refuses to comment on that).
In addition to sleeping in tents and tepees, which Eli finds completely “asinine” (way to use your words, “fat” boy!), the chefs must also cook their dishes in cast iron pans on open fire pits – in 110 degree heat. With only an hour and fifteen minutes to complete their dishes, the scene at the ranch is more than a little chaotic. Ron starts screaming for a sword (hopefully to decapitate Mattin whose squeals are growing quite irksome), Robin is talking to her prawns about getting drunk, and Ashley keeps falling down and dropping things. It’s a mess, but a fun mess – like watching Cheaper by the Dozen with food instead of vomit.
Soon the motley crew of ranchers are arriving for the lunch, and Ashley comments that it looks like “They’ve been growing their beards since they were 14.” It makes me wonder, how long has Kevin red beard been growing his? I just love him. LOVE him. Especially when he starts playing with the horseshoes. Did you know he grew up with a regulation size horseshoe ring in his backyard? I kind of want to pinch him and squeeze him all over for that little gem of a revelation. But I won’t since I’m worried that bacon grease might come out and I hear that’s just murder to get out of clothing.
So the chefs start serving their dishes and that whole “Twilight Zone” theme I was hoping for disappears without a trace. It’s pretty clear what’s going down. Mattin’s ceviche three ways and Robin’s prawns are inedible, and Bryan and Micahel V. are pulling out all the stops with roasted pork loin over corn polenta and braised dandelion, and dashi with miso and mirin cured black cod, respectively. While Ashley puts up a fight with her take on a BLT – a halibut dish with avocado mousse, and Laurine impresses with her sautéed arctic char, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure out how things will ultimately play out. Bryan wins it for his dish that Tim Love says best met the specifications of the challenge. Once again, Michael glares. Once again, the ladies are left in the dust.
As for the bottom heap, it’s unsurprising that Mattin gets axed for his foul ceviche that had Tom up and scrambling away from the table as soon as he took a bite. Apparently, it was not very succulent. Mattin must pack his neck scarves and go.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
In my head, I would be wearing a brand new pink dress – a captivating vision in the middle of the buzzing Bar*Food space in West LA. There would be crowds of familiar faces around me -- laughing and slapping one another on the back in (drunken) camaraderie and fighting over who would be next to buy me another birthday drink that I didn’t actually want.
In turn, I would be the perfect hostess – distributing professionally coiffed miniature cupcakes to everyone in attendance, smiling for every camera, and bringing my disparate groups of friends together in a weird, yet somehow sensical, harmony. By the end of the evening, we’d all be singing Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” in a reenactment of the best scene in the rom com flick 27 Dresses.
And I’d be that girl. The one who brought everyone together for her 26th birthday celebration – the charming, effervescent and very pink center of the universe for just one evening.
Instead, I wore a two-year-old red dress. My hair, victimized by a bad hair day, was thrown up into a last-minute messy bun, and since I couldn’t afford to buy cupcakes from any of the posh LA bakeries I frequent, I spent nearly five hours baking five dozen chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. Bar*Food was still almost completely empty 30 minutes after the party had officially “begun,” and as the minutes ticked by, I began to wonder if I’d made a big mistake. That maybe I wasn’t cut out to be “that girl.”
But then people started filtering in, joining the long stretch of tables that my two high school friends, dear college friend and I had commandeered for the evening. My first yelp friend arrived with her boyfriend, Chrystal and Amir from the Duo Dishes followed shortly thereafter, and the paella pals I’d made at La Espanola showed up eager to gorge themselves on my chocolate chip cookies. Soon the space was bustling with food bloggers, former colleagues, church friends, my favorite co-worker, and even a few stowaways and friends of friends.
Nobody seemed to care that my cookies weren’t cupcakes – they devoured both containers with audible signs of approval. Nobody seemed to care that my dress was old and my hair looked funky. And nobody seemed to care that the collective party was a big hot mess of random, and the locale wasn’t exactly Hollywood happening.
No, it wasn’t the birthday party I envisioned in my head, but by the time I sauntered out a little after midnight early Sunday morning, I felt warm with happiness. The tranquil setting of Bar*Food with its long rows of tables and charming staff had been the right choice for my casual shindig. It wasn’t glam, but neither am I.
I’m just a girl who wanted to celebrate her 26th birthday with the people who have made LA a home for me. It’s their friendship and support that make me feel like “that girl” – even when it turns out that I’m not really “that girl” at all.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Truthfully, I’d been a bit frustrated with the lead up to the dinner. My brother thought he might be coming to LA on Saturday, so I’d originally made reservations at Rustic Canyon for that night. Then he decided to just fly in from Phoenix on Sunday so we could grab an early bite before he flew out of LA on a business trip. So I cancelled the reservation for Saturday and then changed it to Sunday at 6:15 pm.
Then on Saturday evening, I found out his flight wouldn’t be leaving LAX at midnight. Once again, I called the restaurant back to change the reservation to 7:15 pm. And then, Sunday afternoon, I learned he wouldn’t be arriving at LA until 7 pm. I called back a third time.
“I’m so sorry,” I gushed to the hostess who answered the phone. “Can we push it back to 7:30, 7:45?”
Amazingly, she obliged without sounding the least bit weary of my seemingly never-ending stream of phone calls. (I would have been ready to punch my face out.)
The kind reception continued upon my brother and my late arrival to the restaurant at almost 7:50 pm on Sunday evening. My nerves were shot from circling LAX six times, and I was embarrassed at our tardiness since I am normally obsessively punctual. Fortunately, the hazily lit restaurant/wine bar was not pushing maximum capacity. My guilt quickly abated as the hostess led my brother and me to our table by the window overlooking Wilshire Blvd.
It wasn’t until that moment that I finally let myself breathe. I was with my brother and didn’t need to worry nor neuroticate myself for the next two hours. I could sit back, enjoy the moment and make special memories in the uncharacteristically serene setting of the restaurant.
The best thing about eating with Richard (aside from his eagerness to treat and penchant for fine wines), is that he is exactly like me. (Aside from the blonde hair, pink skirts and affection for cute waiters.)
We are both built the same – tall and thin with voracious appetites, both consider it foul play to leave a restaurant without ordering appetizers, entrees and desserts, and we are both horrible at making decisions.
“What are your favorites?” He asked our adorable waitress when she approached our table.
I smiled to myself, happy that for once someone else was asking the hateful question. Normally I’m the one hounding servers for suggestions and then still taking forever and a decade to decide.
Upon hearing her recommendations, we consulted for a few more minutes about which appetizers would compliment each other best. We opted to ignore the salads (neither of us was in the mood for roughage) and went straight for the beginnings of a food coma with the Niman Ranch lamb meatballs with heirloom tomatoes, pickled chiles, green olives and mint ($14), and H.C.’s favorite sweet corn agnolotti with carmelized corn ($15). To accompany? A bottle of a Penner Ash Syrah that I’m sure I would have no business ordering on my own accord. It was delicious – the type of wine that tickles the tongue and warms the throat. (And, more importantly, takes the neurotic edge off the market for the evening.)
Of the two appetizers, the lamb meatballs were the decided favorite. Lean yet robust in flavor, they paired well with the acid from the tomatoes and bitter tang of the green olives (a food item we both normally disdain). While the sweet agnolotti pillows provided a nice juxtaposition to the savory meatballs, ultimately, Richard and I found them to be better suited for a dessert course than an entrée or shared starter.
I was a bit concerned that my Woodland Farms duck breast with roasted peaches, sweet corn puree and basil ($30) might follow suit, but the sweet and savory flavors were perfectly balanced on the plate. The tender duck, still moist with the fat from the attached skin, was expertly prepared. Paired with the surprisingly savory bite of peach and sweet kiss of the corn puree, the entire entrée was a knock-out – the type of dish that could stop traffic if it were walking across Sunset Blvd. on a Saturday night. Or, more accurately, just stop me from talking.
My brother was convinced that he’d won the battle of the entrees with his striped bass with eggplant capanata ($28), and while the bite I tried was pretty compelling for his case, I was already in full swoon mode over my duck. We both cleared our plates (though he did leave a few stray olives), and then turned our eyes directly toward the dessert menu.
Once again, it proved to be a bane for our indecisive existences as we questioned and requestioned our server about her favorites. I’m sure she was frustrated when we ignored her recommendations -- the hot cinnamon sugar doughnuts and roasted pear and apple turnover, in favor of the peach and blueberry crostata with crème fraiche ice cream ($9), and the flourless chocolate walnut torte with whipped cream ($9), but she never let on if we were annoying her.
Because I love pastry chef Zoe Nathan’s sweets at Huckleberry (in particular the salted caramel which I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to procure), I had high hopes for this course of my brother and my feast. Perhaps a little too high of hopes. While I could detect the effort and high quality ingredients that went into both desserts, ultimately, neither sang to me. My brother and I like our meals to end with something a bit over-the-top – chocolate drenched, ice cream topped and sugary to the max. (Bread pudding is a favorite.) The crostata and chocolate torte were both more understated and refined in their composition. They were fine pastries, but lacked the sweet intensity that my brother and I crave.
Even with the slight misses, the evening was one that will stand out in my mind as one of the definitive memories of my 26th birthday. Not only because the duck and meatballs gave me a carnivoric thrill, but because, quite simply, I love spending time with my brother. If it weren’t so cheesy, I’d steal a line from As Good As it Gets and say he “makes me want to be a better person.”
Instead, I’ll just say that he completes my restaurant self. He asks the annoying questions I hate to ask, he doesn't make me feel like a fatty for wanting two desserts, he insists on paying the bill, and I get to leave with a full belly, a smile on my face and, most importantly, excellent fodder for a new blog post.
Rustic Canyon Winebar
119 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Monday, September 14, 2009
“We’re having salmon tonight.” He boasted. “I picked up a gorgeous piece for $14.99 a pound at Santa Monica Seafood.”
Jealousy immediately flared up in the pit of my belly. “That’s nice.” I said agreeably, while I secretly stewed that I would most likely be eating Trader Joes’ meatless meatballs or something equally unexciting at my apartment that night.
We talked about a few other things – I thanked him again for the amazing walnut and pecan turtles from Chocolate Soldier that he bought me for my upcoming birthday, he told me about how he was going to finish the master bathroom he’s refinishing at my home in OC (I tuned out during this part), and then we exchanged our good byes.
Even though the majority of our phone time was spent conversing about other matters, the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about the salmon I was not going to be eating. It’s been so expensive lately, and I never seem to be able to find fresh wild salmon at any of my markets or grocery stores. Yet, when I stopped at Whole Foods on my way home from work later that day, there it was – a beautiful piece of fresh wild salmon for $13.99 a pound.
I squealed louder than any person of the age of 2 should squeal and immediately bought a 1/3rd of a pound. From there, I proceeded directly to the produce section – an idea for a side dish already germinating in my head. Since salmon and dill are best friends forever and I am never one to come between friends, I found a package of fresh dill to use as both a seasoning for my salmon and a key component of the accompanying dish. I went nuts over 101 Cookbooks’ vibrant green beans with leeks and dill this past winter and decided to kick it up a few notches by mixing it with whole wheat orzo, a bit of lemon, and some goat cheese.
The end result was so good that I had to make it again two nights later. You know, because I needed to ensure I was getting plenty of Omega-3s. I actually think I’m feeling a little Omega-3 deficient this week too. And definitely a little dill, leek, green beans, orzo, and goat cheese deficient, as well.
Salmon with Dill, Leek, Goat Cheese Orzo
4-5 ounces salmon
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 small leek, chopped (approximately 1/3 cup)
¼ cup whole wheat orzo
1 cup slightly steamed green beans, cut into 1 each pieces
Chicken broth, water mixture
Marinate salmon in 1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon wine in small oven-safe baking dish. Sprinkle with some of dill (reserve the rest for the orzo) and season with salt, pepper. Broil in oven approximately 4-5 minutes on each side (depending on thickness) or until reaches desired doneness.
Heat large saucepan over medium. Toast orzo in a little olive oil, add mixture of chicken broth and water (I start with 2 cups), and season with pepper to taste. Reduce heat and simmer, adding liquid as it needs it. Approximately 10 minutes before orzo is cooked through (will take around 25 minutes total to cook using this method – less if using white instead of wheat orzo), add the leeks. When all the liquid has been absorbed and the orzo is tender, stir in the dill, green beans, tablespoon of white wine, ½ tablespoon lemon juice, and lemon zest. Cook together until all elements are integrated. Serve and top with goat cheese.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
This is what happens when I drink caffeine that isn’t in the form of green tea.
As such, I never order a cup of coffee that isn’t decaf, and when I drink coke (my soda of choice), I have to force myself to not guzzle the entire thing down like those singing people walking down the street do when they are drinking bottles of coke in the commercials. Apparently, drinking coke makes a person want to sing whilst traversing various ethnic blocks in New York City.
It just makes me really giddy.
But, back to the here and now. The reason for my current state of slight hyperactivity is because I just drank this adorable aluminum bottle of coke that Formula PR was kind enough to send me to try. I don’t normally like to receive free samples of things (I hate feeling obligated to write about something that I wouldn’t purchase on my own accord), but I was intrigued by this offer because I actually really like coke. It reminds me of my childhood when my brothers and I would each receive one can of coke on Saturdays and Sundays. It was a treat, and one that I still enjoy today on occasion. (Mostly when I’m super tired from being forced to party the night before.)
Of course, since, as I mentioned earlier, caffeine seems to go straight to my head now, I need to reign it in to keep my heart from beating away from itself. I hate wasting half a can of coke to accommodate this sensitivity, so the size of these aluminum bottles (8.5 ounces) is really perfect for me. A pick me up that doesn’t pick me up and throw me over the fence. Plus, it’s cute and fun to drink – a win, win, win, as those folks who use clichés would say.
Me? I’ll just say this. Even if I hadn’t been sent this item for free, I’d find it agreeable to my nature. Especially since it is helping me feel less deathlike after sleeping less than 6 hours last night.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Similarly, I’m not very good at hiding the truth either. Not because my acting skills are poor (I’ve got plenty of baby mama drama flowing in these veins), but because my conscience never seems to let me. Every time I start to feel a fib tickling the corners of my lips, a little voice starts whining in my ear – “Don’t do it. Don’t do it!”
It’s the same voice that tells me I shouldn’t order a second scoop at Pazzo Gelato, and that I should drink only one glass of wine instead of two. Or three. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as skilled at listening to that voice when it comes to items I bite or imbibe. It only seems to penetrate my consciousness when I want to lie my way out of coffee with a Debbie Downer who wants to whine about her ex-boyfriend for an hour.
As such, I’m going to be brutally honest in this review of the wine tasting Matt of Mattatouille hosted at Silver Lake Wine last Wednesday night.
I don’t really remember anything about what I tasted.
When I drink wine, I live in the moment. I become a brighter, less neurotic version of myself, and I focus my attention on that feeling rather than the flavors swirling around in my mouth. It’s not that I don’t appreciate good wine – I do, and when pressed, can even make a few intelligible comments about detecting a “note of such and such.” For me, however, the experience of drinking the wine is the most pleasurable part about it, and deconstructing that experience kind of takes the fun out it.
That said, even with the brief tutorials on each of the French summer whites that we tasted (a list can be found below), I still had a great time at the event. I learned that I don’t hate all Rose (it tastes nothing like the horrific pink wine my grandmother used to drink at her bridge parties), and I also learned that Chateau de Pinet Picpoul de Pinet 2008 tastes much better after a bite of one of Porto’s Bakery’s cheese rolls. (I didn’t care for the first few sips I sampled sans food.)
What is most memorable to me about the evening – aside from the scrumptious bites of cheese roll, guava & cheese pastry, meat-stuffed potato ball, and two pieces of media noche sandwich that I snacked on – was the time spent with friends in the warm atmosphere of the wine shop. It was a nice break in the middle of the work week and a pleasant escape from the world that exists for me from 9 to 5, Monday – Friday.
This is why I love wine. Yes, it tastes good, and yes, it enhances the flavors in a dish, but more importantly, it’s the perfect excuse to hit the pause button on life. With a glass in my hand, I’m livin’ in the moment of each sip.
Wines Tasted :
Domaine J Laurens Cremant de Limoux NV France
Chateau de Pinet Picpoul de Pinet 2008 France
Le Saint Andrew Rose Vin de Pays du Var
Maison Angelot Bugey Gamay 2008
And a special Rose, Brady 2008, that Matt brought with him from Saarloos & Sons
Silver Lake Wine
2395 Glendale Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90039
315 North Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91203
3614 W Magnolia Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91505