Friday, January 30, 2009

Hummus & Feta Veggie Bagel Sandwich: Bring Extra Napkins


As part of my new life plan to be as financially responsible as possible (when I'm not busy blowing my paychecks on exorbitantly priced meals out), I have recently taken to recreating my restaurant favorites at home. Sometimes I am successful and produce something like my version of the open-faced roasted asparagus sandwich from Zinc Cafe, and sometimes, I am not.

A couple weekends ago, I decided to attempt the hummus and feta veggie bagel sandwich I used to order all the time from Einstein Bros Bagels when I was living in Evanston, Illinois. (Yes, for college.) The bagel sandwich was my way of treating myself when I couldn't stomach yet another one of my grilled cheese or Whole Foods' cranberry tuna salad sandwiches. Today, the sandwich can be seen as my way of fighting nostalgia (and clearing out the fridge).

On the particular day when my recreation efforts were to take place, I was already in possession of four pivotal ingredients for the dish: 1/2 a can of chickpeas, lemon, a red pepper, and feta cheese. Not wanting to waste $3 on a tub of my favorite Tribe roasted sweet red pepper hummus, I endeavored to make my own from scratch loosely based on a recipe from one of my favorite sources of foodie inspiration, Esi at Dishing Up Delights. I changed things up quite a bit (omitting the parsley and paprika, and adding in roasted red peppers and garlic), but the results were still worthy of a spot on my amazing sesame seed bagel from the Bagel Broker.

After my hummus was ready, I sliced up some red onions (that I soaked in water so they'd lose some of their bite), a juicy vine-ripened tomato, and some zucchini and red pepper to roast in the oven. The process of procuring the aforementioned bagel, making my hummus, and preparing my veggies was altogether a bit exhausting, and by the time I sat down to enjoy my lunch, I was ready to start Googling the nearest Einstein Bros.

As I sank my teeth through the toasted top of my sesame bagel, I suddenly remembered why it was I used to eat this sandwich alone. It is really messy to eat. With my precious ingredients tumbling out onto my plate and all over my hands, I became incredibly frustrated. Even more infuriating was my suspicion that the best part of the whole darn thing was the tender, doughy bagel from the Bagel Broker. I ultimately ended up taking the sandwich a part and eating the top with just my splendid hummus topping and a liberal sprinkle of feta.

The following weekend, flush with a rapid craving for another Bagel Broker sesame seed special, I decided to be a little less practical about my lunch. I bought a tub of hummus, an over-priced cucumber and a tomato from Ralph's, toasted that fine bagel up, and then topped each half with a much simpler spread of the aforementioned ingredients. Everything stayed in place and I didn't have to resort to using more than one (err... three) napkins. Sometimes it's just more practical to be a lazy, wasteful bastard. Especially when it involves really good bagels.

Hummus & Feta Veggie Bagel Sandwich
(Inspired by version at Einstein Bros.)

1 Sesame Seed bagel
Feta cheese to taste
Sliced vine-ripened tomatoes
Zucchini, red pepper that have been roasted in oven until tender
Red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in water
Lettuce
Hummus (homemade recipe to follow)

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
(Adapted from Dishing Up Delights)

1/2 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 a red pepper, roasted until tender
1 clove garlic, roasted until tender
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt
Pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processer. Pulse until smooth or reaches desired texture.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 10: Second Chances

If last night's episode of "Top Chef" could be reduced to a single theme, it would be second chances. Second chances for past "Top Chef" contestants who failed to make serious waves in their respective seasons, a second chance for One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo's-Nest Carla and her love-saturated dishes, and a second chance for Fabio, whose overcooked venison nearly sent him home at the end of the episode. Of course, to package the episode into such a neat descriptor would be negligent of me. Kind of like the audience of "fans" who turned the elimination challenge into an episode of "American Idol." But more on that later...

The episode started off in typical fashion. Hosea reminded us that it's down to seven chefs and "there's no room for error," Leah reminded us that she and Hosea drank too much in the previous episode and smooched it up on the couch, and Carla said something, but I was too distracted by her creepy, overextended eyeballs to take notice.

In this week's quick-fire challenge the remaining chefs were charged to create a dish with oats (Quaker in case you missed the overt close-ups of the labels) and items from a specific food group (fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry, dairy, etc.). Fabio drew vegetables and complained, "There is no reason to eat vegetable when there is meat and seafood around." (But what if the meat is monkey ass? Can we eat carrots then, Fabio?) Leah drew fish and once-smitten Hosea looked on in malicious amusement as she tried to extract the bones from her fillets, and Carla staked claim on the challenge with her proclamation, "I'm the oats girl." Too bad Stefan proved to be the oats boy with yet another noteworthy dessert using his key ingredient dairy. Guest judge Scott Conant, chef at Scarpetta in NY, awarded the Mister Clean look-a-like another win, and Hosea whined that Stefan's head is becoming bigger. (Possibly jealous that it is approaching the size of his balloon-sized head?)

As soon as Hosea ended his tirade, Padma informed the chefs that there is a surprise for them in the stew room. Fabio gave the producers another amusing sound byte and guessed it is "A dog?", and then upon discovering that the surprise is football helmets and aprons disguised as jerseys, announced that he wants to "put on the helmet and knock somebody off." (Please let it be Leah, please let it be Leah.)

Dressed in their styling (not really) jerseys that they all pretend to be excited about, the chefs are then given the 411 on the elimination challenge. As the winner of the quick-fire, Stefan is given special consideration in the challenge, a complicated riff on the Superbowl that pits the chefs against competitors from previous seasons. Each cheftestant must create a dish representative of a particular region/football team that will then be judged head-to-head against their "All Star" opponent's similarly themed dish. Stefan is allowed to choose his competitor and football team, and decides he can easily mop the floor with Andrea, who was sent packing in the second episode of Season 1 for all her whole grain, vegetable nonsense. He later admits to having a crush on her and pigs fly as the world discovers that Stefan might actually have a heart. Andrew (Season 4), who claims he will be peeing on the opposing chefs' bodies, apparently does not.

The prep in the kitchen proceeds without much noteworthy action, though in case we forgot, Fabio gives us another reminder that there are "only seven chefs left, and there is not room for error." Right. We got that memo when Hosea told us twenty minutes ago. The chefs are then herded to a culinary institute where they will have twenty minutes to cook their dish for a simultaneous tasting by the judges and five culinary students/fans. The judges' favorite dish will score seven points (ie. a touchdown) for the chef's team, and the students' favorite dish will score them three points (ie. a field goal). The team with the most points wins the "Superbowl," and the chefs with the fewest points will be up for elimination. Simple right? Simple like Jeff's rock shrimp ceviche with sangria sorbet.

The head-to-head cook-offs quickly turn into an episode of "American Idol," as the judges' opinions are repeatedly ignored by the culinary student "fans." (Note to self: Do not wear a foam finger if wanted to be taken seriously.) I would protest further, were it not for the three points they awarded Fabio for his overcooked venison and cheese salad -- ie. monkey ass on a plate. Fortunately, Fabio was not the only one who made room for errors in the challenge. Jeff's ceviche transgressions (sorbet, really?) and Stefan's overly cocky (or googly, love-sick puppy dog) performance landed them on the chopping block, as well. In a weird reversal of last week's episode, the weakest links (Leah, Carla, Hosea, and Jamie) came out on top, and Carla was awarded the victory for her crawfish gumbo made with, you guessed it, love.

Fabio, Stefan and Jeff are then paraded before the judges and Fabio-lovers across America immediately begin practicing some Carla-style meditation so he won't be eliminated. Despite his inane defense that the venison was overcooked because he placed it on the hot cabbage, Fabio makes it to the next week, and pretty boy Jeff, who never could keep up with the "bigger guys" when he played football as a teen, is sent home.

In a moment of touching humility (cue collective audience: "Aww"), Fabio tells the judges, "I do believe in second chances and tonight, I think I got the biggest of my life."

That's right, Fabio. Let's keep the monkey-ass to a minimum next week, k?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Omelet Fail

I've mastered (sort of) the fried egg. I've successfully hard boiled eggs without achieving the dreaded grey ring around the yolk, and I can more or less scramble an egg sans catastrophe. When it comes to omelets, however, I fail miserably. More often than not, they become scrambles, or turn out looking like the mess pictured above.

Despite my continued struggles to recreate the golden omelets that I enjoy at my regular brunch spots, I still maintain a secret hope that one day I will achieve three-egg perfection. So when I read an article in this month's issue of Oprah Magazine about how to make said perfect omelet, I decided it was time to try my hand at the skillet once again.

I read over the instructions carefully before I began. I let my three eggs sit out a little while to come to "room temperature," I used a combination of oil and butter in my 8-inch nonstick frying pan, and I whisked my eggs before salting and peppering them. I confidently poured the frothy mixture into the pan (properly heated to medium-high heat) and armed myself with a spatula. As the eggs began to firm up, I ran the spatula under the edges, pushing the cooked bits to the center so the rest of the oozing yellow liquid could cook as well. I don't know when things went wrong, but the next thing I knew, the omelet was done and folded into a state that made it impossible to insert my filling. With my roommate looking on in what I imagine to be mock horror, I sliced the omelet in half, and shoved my cooked spinach and feta cheese in the center.

It was not pretty. Nor was it particularly tasty.

Part of me wants to give up on omelets entirely, but the other part (the competitive freak who gets her thrills from passing slow joggers on the street) can't let go of the hope that someday I will create the "real omelet" that Julia Child called "an art of the highest magnitude."

Until then, it's scribbles with Crayolas. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Riva: Something Special

From the moment I pass through the front doors of the restaurant, I can feel it. Energy. It permeates each corner of the well-lit space, tackling my senses with the ferocity of a linebacker. My breath catches as I take it all in – the overcrowded bar to my right, nearly bursting with post-Happy Hour revelers, the clatter from the exposed expanse of kitchen along the back wall, and the servers parading by with glistening pizzas and delicately dressed salads.

I grin at my dining companion, and he arches an eyebrow in response. He feels it too – the whisper of something great to come.

As we approach the host stand, a fresh-faced hostess embraces us with her warm smile, and assures us it will only be a few moments before our table is ready. My friend and I scoot to the side and wait patiently with the other parties attempting to squeeze into the bar. Their and our efforts are futile, but my name is called within minutes of our arrival and we are soon whisked away from the chaos at the bar to the more pleasant chaos of the dining room.

I spot the table before I even know it is to be ours. It beckons me like a chocolate-dipped caramel, and my heart cinches with excitement when the host presents it to us with pride. He knows and we know – the corner booth table that offers both my friend and I view of the entire restaurant, is the best in the house. We descend into our seats with enthusiasm.

My friend tosses an accusatory eye in my direction. “What, did you slip them a hundred?”

I shake my head in bewilderment. “No, I’m just that special.”

I say it in jest, but in the moment, it feels true. I do feel special, and with that single gesture from the host, every expectation I had for Jason Travi’s new Santa Monica restaurant is fulfilled. The food could be a complete disaster, and I would still leave satisfied by the experience of being seated at such a prime table in the midst of such an energetic space.

Fortunately, the tone set during those first ten minutes continues to play out throughout the entire evening. Our waiter practices the ideal level of attentiveness – guiding us through the menu and wine list, offering us tastes of our by the glass selections before making the pour, and checking in at the appropriate intervals to ensure that our dining experience is seamless. The busboys are similarly attuned to our needs, and despite my friend and my rapid-fire inhalation of water, our glasses never hover below half-full.

The superior service is on par with the superior – though not perfected – menu. My luscious bowl of mushroom, walnut and sage soup is well-balanced and comforting on the rain-soaked evening, and my friend eagerly devours his refreshing blood orange and fennel salad. The starters, however, prove to be needless stomach primers when we see the size of our pizzas.


The cheese is still oozing from the heat of the wood-burning oven when my potato, fontina, rosemary and sea salt pie and his quattro formaggio pie are presented before us. A translucent kiss of olive oil skims the surface, and as I coddle a tender slice in my hand, I understand why LA Times restaurant critic Irene Virbila describes the pizzas as “closing in" on Pizzeria Mozza. While the crust could benefit from a crisper interior, the outside rim is a strip of chewy, salt-infused perfection. It is not to be left behind in favor of the topping-heavy portion of the pie that introduces a chorus of flavors to my tongue that could only be enhanced by a gentler application of cheese. My friend feels similarly about his decadent pizza, and though we both normally favor a dessert-capped dining experience, neither of us can be tempted by the pear tartine or chocolate bread pudding.


As we push out of our cozy booth chairs, our stomachs taxed from our imprudent ingestion of both starters and pizzas, I feel a twinge of sadness that our meal has come to an end. I smile at the hostess who greeted us with such warmth, and make a concerted effort to meet her eye.


“Thank you.” I say with meaning, hoping the words will convey how wonderful it felt to be treated like someone special. It is the type of experience that makes me want to be a regular at Riva. And it is the type of experience that reminds me why it is so pleasurable to go out to dinner.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vibrant Green Beans: Simple and Delicious

"These taste like green bean casserole -- only healthier!" She said, her face flush with enthusiasm as she forked the vibrant green beans into her mouth.

I smiled -- it was the best compliment I could receive from my seven months pregnant sister-in-law. For years, my family has teased her about her love of the canned casserole monstrosity, but she has always maintained a staunch allegiance to her family's favorite Thanksgiving tradition. To hear her praise my addition to her and my brother's baby shower this past Saturday evening, felt like a victory for foodies everywhere.

Green beans don't have to be drenched in unsightly mushroom soup and fried onions to be a crowd-pleaser -- sometimes all they need is a simple treatment -- some fresh herbs, a sprinkle of salt, and a hefty portion of sauteed leeks. This dish is, in many ways, the food version of the little black dress that can be absolutely stunning with just one or two subtle, yet impactful accessories. The green beans were surprisingly flavorful, and by the time we finished eating this Saturday night, the serving dish had been scraped bare.

I'd been wanting to make the vibrant veggies ever since the recipe appeared on 101 Cookbooks this past November. My interest in the side dish only grew after reading Esi's write-up of the recipe on her blog, Dishing Up Delights, and hearing my friend Ashley's praise of the dish as well. It was incredibly easy to prepare (especially with Esi's helpful suggestions to reduce the amount of dill, and saute the leeks for longer than 7-10 minutes), and looked very festive in my mother's frog dish serving bowl. The vegetable passed the once-over test with flying green colors. Just like a little black dress, the beans truly were a show-stopper on the buffet table, and more importantly, won over my casserole-loving sister-in-law with their show-stopping fresh taste.

Vibrant Green Beans
(Adapted from 101 Cookbooks)


6 leeks, well washed, root end and tops trimmed, sliced lengthwise into quarters and then chopped into 1/2-inch segments
1/2 cup fresh dill, well chopped
1 1/2 pound green beans, tops and tails trimmed and cut into 1-inch segments
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt

In a large thick-bottomed skillet of medium-high heat add a generous splash of olive oil, a generous pinch of salt and the leeks. Stir until the leeks are coated and glossy. Cook, stirring regularly until a lot of the leeks are golden and crispy. (Roughly 10 - 12 minutes)

Steam green beans until slightly tender, and then add to the pan with the leeks. Stir in the dill and serve immediately.

Serves about 12.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Orzo with Shrimp, Feta Cheese and White Wine: Financial Practicality Doesn't Always Taste Good

Single gals who, like me, enjoy eating (and cooking) adventurous food have a tough lot in life. (And not just because we have to dine solo at the table with only Anderson Cooper to keep us company.) It's far easier (and cheaper) to prepare meals and test out new recipes when cooking for more than one person, and as such, I often struggle with justifying the purchase of lots of ingredients for a dinner that will only serve me. The pockets on my two-year-old Joe's "Honey" jeans only run so deep, and in these difficult economic times, I have to be practical about what I lob into my shopping cart at Whole Foods.

One of the ways I try to save money is by planning out my meals several days ahead of time so that when I try a new recipe I can use up the extra ingredients for other meals that week. This past Friday, I made a delicious orzo veggie dish with feta cheese and garbanzo beans, and on Monday I decided to use some of the feta and orzo to make the highly tauted Orzo with Shrimp, Feta Cheese and White Wine from Epicurious.com. It was a brilliant plan -- until I took a bite.

While the recipe was a snap to make and went together quickly, it was by no means worthy of the four forks (out of four forks) it has received on Epicurious.com. I wanted to love it -- especially since I was being so financially responsible and grown up and all -- but it just didn't wow me. If I were to tackle the recipe again, I would definitely use fresh basil instead of dried, and either substitute fresh tomatoes for the canned or let the canned tomatoes simmer a while to lose some of that tinny flavor.

Regardless of the less than impressive outcome, the dish was filling and did make me feel more adventurous than when I surrender to my singleness and pop a single-serving Amy's Spinach frozen pizza in the oven like I did last night. But not to worry -- I was practical about it and topped it off with some of my extra feta. Because, you know, it would have been extremely wasteful of me to not give my arteries some extra animal fat to play with.

Recipe for Orzo with Shrimp, Feta Cheese and White Wine can be found here.

Applications to become my boyfriend so I can cook beef short ribs and pork tenderloin and fancy things with saffron can be sent here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The 2009 Bloggies!

Even though none of my favorite food blogs were included (an unspeakable travesty!), I still need to do a little shameless promotion for my good friend whose amazing blog Without Baggage is up for Best Travel Blog in the 2009 Weblog Awards. Of course, since his site really is awesome, my promotion isn't really all that shameless! Just a little bit shameless like when "30 Rock" relies on fancy guest stars to garner ratings. Earth to NBC, the show is good without Salma and Jennifer and Oprah!

You can vote for Without Baggage and your other favorite blogs here.

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 9: An Almost Fairy Tale

There was a moment during last night's episode of "Top Chef" when I thought everything was falling into place. Karma would rule over the kitchen, and Leah, the evil witch from the East Coast, would be banished from the premises for her undercooked cod. She would suffer for her cheating lips and verbal indiscretions toward Queen Ariane, and all the townsfolk would rejoice.

Unfortunately, "Top Chef" is a reality show and real life doesn't play out that neatly. The moment passed, and all was not made right. Or at least not in the way I initially hoped.

The restaurant wars episode of "Top Chef" is always one of my favorites. It is, in essence, "do or die" time for the cheftestants, and as such, the drama increases exponentially. While this season has been decidedly less entertaining than previous seasons, the episode did hold my attention -- and not just because I got to watch an impeccably dressed Fabio work his magic in the front of his team's restaurant, the ineptly named Sunset Lounge.

After Radhika and Leah were named the winners of the Quickfire challenge that required them to present a dish representative of a restaurant they would like to open, they were charged to pick their teams for the execution of those restaurant concepts. In an instance of glee-inducing serendipity, European dynamos Fabio and Stefan landed on the same team as lovebirds Hosea and Leah. The pairing couldn't have been better if it had been staged by the producers. Radhika's team included whiny Jamie, googly eyes Carla, and "Top Chef" pretty boy, Jeff. It was clear from this lackluster grouping that the only sparks flying would be in the Sunset Lounge kitchen -- aside, of course, from the love that Carla gave to her disastrous chocolate spice cake.

The action proceeded fairly predictably from there. Stefan did his whole "my way or the highway" bit; Leah pouted and finally made out with Hosea; and Fabio ran around saying things like, "we could serve monkey ass in an empty clam shell, and we'll still win because I'm in the front of the house." In contrast, team Sahana kept their antics confined to the pots and pans (I guess this really is a cooking show?), while Radhika had a panic attack because she doesn't know how to lead or interact with people. The only drama to be found in that kitchen came while watching Tom Collichio's face contort with disbelief when Carla proudly declared that she sent her woeful desserts out "with love." The exchange led to the second best quote of the night from guest judge Steven Starr. "Keep the love in the kitchen, send out good desserts."

Ironically, that statement proved true for the Sunset Lounge team that was saved by European duo Stefan and Fabio. Hosea and Leah shared love (and regret) in their kitchen, Stefan sent out good desserts, and Fabio flitted about the dining room, a charming knight in a sharp grey suit. The team of odd couples won the challenge, and Radhika was sent packing for the greatest transgression of all in reality television -- a weak personality.

While I didn't get the fairy tale ending I hoped for, justice did prevail in the "Top Chef" kingdom. Despite my disappointment that the evil Leah was saved by two European knights, ultimately, a chef who can't take the lead in the kitchen should not be in contention for the crown. Paint the roses red, it's off with Radhika's head. Long live Sir Fabio and his homemade ravioli.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Big Fat Sort of Greek Orzo Pasta

It started with a craving. Not just any kind of craving -- a random, out-of-the-blue, where-the-heck-did-this-come-from sort of craving.

Okay fine, that's not entirely true. I actually did know where it came from. I just didn't know how it was possible that I would actually desire a dish I used to eat in my college dorm cafeteria.

Sargent dining hall at Northwestern University was by no means a source for epicurean delights. Most of the food served was horrifically bad, and I spent the two years I lived on campus subsisting on garden burgers, pasta with runny marinara sauce, stale bagels, and an obscene amount of Captain Crunch. That is until I discovered Sargent's vegetarian section that offered an orzo pasta dish loaded with broccoli and red peppers on Monday nights. My friend Caroline and I used to fill our plates with the pasta, happy to be eating something other than a bagel with peanut butter and an overly ripe banana for dinner.

This past week, my favorite dining hall entree excused itself from the depths of my memories, and popped right into the first row of my consciousness. I wanted to eat the orzo pasta again. Only I wanted it to be better and to pack more of a protein punch.

I immediately scoured the Internet for hot orzo recipes that included feta, garbanzo beans and veggies, but came up blank. Apparently, orzo is not so hot-to-trot among recipe-makers, or if it is, the orzo is supposed to be served cold as a salad. While I do enjoy salads, I have weird hang-ups about the temperature of my dinner. I need it to be hot. Yes, need. Unless, of course, it is 90+ degrees out and the pasta salad is being served alongside a barbecued chicken breast and ear of corn. Given that it is currently the middle of winter (or supposed to be), that isn't an option. Plus, I wanted my orzo dish to be a meal in itself. An all cold dinner just doesn't do it for me. One could say that it leaves me "cold." Har har har.

Faced with no viable recipe options from Giada or Ina or my other faves, I decided to do something rather dramatic.

I put on my chef hat (in my imagination it is pink and poofy with a big white bow) and made up my own recipe.

While I doubt my plate of crazy-style Greek orzo pasta is going to make the rounds on the foodie blogosphere like it would if it originated in Martha's head, I already know it's going to be a staple in my dinner line-up. I devoured my plate, and then went back to finish the rest of the orzo in the pan. The stars had aligned, and in that magical moment I felt like a pregnant lady who dips her pickles in peanut butter. I fulfilled my craving. And it was good.

My Big Fat Sort-of Greek Orzo Pasta
(Serves 2)

1/2 cup orzo
1/3 cup garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup shallots, diced
Broccoli florets
Red pepper, cut into strips
Handful of spinach
Feta cheese (to taste)
Toasted slivered almonds (or pine nuts)
Tablespoon of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 1/3 cup chicken broth (I used Swanson's)
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

1. Heat teaspoon of olive oil in sauce pan. Add shallots and orzo, and saute over medium heat until orzo is toasted and shallots are slightly transluscent.

2. Add chicken broth, a 1/2 cup of water, pepper to taste, and reduce heat until just boiling. Add additional liquid as needed until the orzo is tender and has absorbed all the liquid like a risotto.

3. When orzo is nearly done, add the lemon juice, broccoli, red pepper, and garbanzo beans. Cook until veggies are tender. Serve over a bed of fresh spinach or toss the spinach in with the orzo (After trying the former option, I recommend the later).

4. Top the dish with a generous sprinkle of feta, the toasted almonds and a sprinkle of lemon zest.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Frosty Date With Myself: The World is My Oyster

It was 3:20 pm and I wanted ice cream. I'd been wanting ice cream since Sunday afternoon when my mom and I were strolling around Balboa Island -- right by Dad's Donut Shop & Bakery that is famous not for their balls of fried dough, but for their frozen bananas and chocolate covered "Balboa" ice cream bars. As we passed by a cadre of individuals devouring their drippy ice cream treats, I hinted to my mom that I "kind of wanted one." She moaned something about being "too full" from our lunch at Zinc Cafe and I pretended I was too.

I wasn't. I was just too embarrassed to get one by myself.

24-hours later my tongue was still lusting for contact with some great ice cream. Not frozen yogurt, not Pinkberry tart faux-yo, but real ice cream -- silky smooth and made with ingredients I can pronounce.

I wanted Pazzo Gelato.

Never mind that it was at least a twenty minute drive from my apartment. Never mind that no one was available to go with me (spontaneous outings with friends do not exist in LA), and never mind that I would have to sit alone and eat my scoop in the presence of canoodling couples. I didn't care. It was my day off and I could do what I wanted with it.

So I drove. And drove. And swore at some slow-moving cars. And then I waited in line behind the canoodling couple trying to decide which three flavors they wanted to share. They were still debating over brown butter pecan and chocolate orange when I sat down with my single scoop of almond fudge swirl (Brief aside: I accidentally just deleted the picture, but will update with the swirly goodness later today!) I smiled at the dad helping his daughter eat her eggnog scoop, I nodded at the two hipster-esque friends chatting at a nearby table, and then I turned my full attention to the luscious gelato. I savored each spoonful - marveling over the creamy texture, the decadent dollops of fresh fudge and well-balanced proportions of chocolate and almond flavor.

"This really is the best in LA," I thought, echoing S. Irene Virbila's sentiments in a recent posting on Serious Eats for the LA City Guide.

When I finished my gelato and started toward my car, it struck me that I didn't want my date with myself to end. I'd been wanting to see Frost/Nixon since reading the gushing review in the LA Times, and knew there was a 4:35 pm showing at the Arclight -- a 10-15 minute drive from Pazzo Gelato.

I glanced at my watch. 4:10 pm. I could make it if I hurried.

Seventeen minutes later, I handed the theatre cashier my $25 Arclight gift card and placed my order for a single ticket. Much to my delight, she gave me $10 back in cash -- an amount that more than paid for my ice cream and $2 parking. I couldn't help but remember that the last time I went to a movie on a date, I ended up paying for both my ticket and my clueless companion's. The irony didn't escape me that I was coming out ahead on my date with myself.


I settled into my seat just as the usher was coming forward to announce the film, and spent the next two hours fully immersed in the story and Frank Langella's Oscar-worthy performance as Richard Nixon. While I normally gravitate toward romantic comedies of the 27 Dresses variety, the film was easily the best I have seen this year. Funny, poignant and chock full of the juicy historical nuggets that kept me on the edge of my seat in my history classes in college, Frost/Nixon is an amazing work of cinema. I say this not to sound pretentious and like those know-it-alls in my one and only Radio Television Film course, but because it truly deserves the acclaim.

As I pulled onto my street last night, plotting my plan of attack for the orzo shrimp dish (for one) I was making for dinner, I felt flush with the same excitement I feel after a really great date with a cute boy. I wanted to tell all my friends about the amazing ice cream, I wanted to rehash all my favorite parts of the movie, and I wanted to go right back out and do the whole thing over again. But more importantly, I felt an incredible sense of pride that I had the courage to get out there and live instead of hibernating in my apartment and spending the afternoon organizing my closet by color.

It was one of those "aah-ha," "gotcha" moments. My life needn't stop because other people have plans. After all, the phrase is, "the world is your oyster" -- not, "the world is our oyster."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Zinc Cafe: Re-spreading the Love


Is it really necessary for me to write a third post about Zinc Cafe, my mom and my favorite new lunch spot in the OC?

No.

But there is a reason why I named my blog "Diana Takes a Bite." Errr, there are probably several reasons, but for the purposes of this entry, I only need reveal one. I love talking about my culinary and restauranting escapades and the food I eat along the way -- regardless of whether it is old, new, borrowed, or blue to my audience. I know my mom probably gets sick to death of hearing about every breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, or snack I consume, but I can't help it - when I eat something delicious and exciting, I feel compelled to share it with the people I love!

Zinc Cafe makes me feel super compelled to spread the good word about its menu's deliciousness - especially their quiche plate, that comes with the mini quiche of the day (spinach pictured above), a cup of either chili or the soup of the day (mushroom celery root above), and a heaping portion of their awesome mixed greens with tomatoes and a generous sprinkling of feta. The grand total for all that amazing food is an exceedingly un-whopping $8.25. If that rhymed with "mind," I'd be definitely screaming out, "$8.25? Are you out of your mind?!" But it doesn't. So I'll come up with a new rhyme. "$8.25? What are you, a dive?"

As if!

But even if it were, I'd still eat there on an absurdly regular basis. And blog about it. Over and over and over again...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday Mornings with Tea: A Match Made in Coffee Bean Heaven


"What should I write about this morning?" I asked my mom, as I stared blankly at the empty blog template. I scrunched up my shoulder to hold the cell phone to my ear and scanned my blog drafts for inspiration.

I could write about the See's dark chocolate and almond bar I ate a few weeks ago that failed to impress... or my first encounter with "peeeecaaaan pie" from Let Them Eat Cake... or...

"Your dinner last night?" My mom suggested, interrupting my internal debate.

I made a face. "Nah, I want to save that for a week day post..."

It normally isn't this hard, I thought bitterly, wondering if I should just forgo my post this morning and start packing up my things so I could get on the road for my nearly ritualistic weekend trip home.

I immediately blanched at the thought. I was enjoying my quiet Saturday morning in my apartment -- the soft background noise of my default channel, CNN, percolating the room, the unseasonably bright sunlight streaming through the translucent curtains, and my teapot of Coffee Bean Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl sitting beside me.

"Mom, I gotta go." I said, flush with inspiration.

How is it possibly that I have gone nine months without ever posting about my favorite tea and my favorite morning, afternoon and post-dinner pastime? I thought with bewilderment.

I don't just love tea, I live by it. It is as much a part of my morning routine as my morning workout or my breakfast date with the semi-egregious LA Times newspaper (compared to the NY Times). My cupboards are stocked with the stuff -- Whittard of Chelsea's Green Peach, Tazo Zen, Tazo Calm, Le Palais de Thes' Brioche, The Republic of Tea's Blueberry Green (great for making iced tea), and of course, my favorite, Coffee Bean's Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl.

I wish I could wax poetic about the delicate well-balanced flavor, but my palate is not as fine-tuned to the complexities of tea as it is to, say, the complexities of chocolate. Or ice cream. Or wine and cheese. Plus, that whole "it tastes of earth with the essence of rose petals" nonsense can sound a bit pretentious, and tea time is not pretentious time. Except maybe in London. Or at the London Hotel or one of those other posh Beverly Hills hotels that serves high afternoon tea with miniature scones and smoked salmon finger sandwiches. I'm sure that is all fine and lovely, but I'm perfectly content sitting at my dining room table whilst I drain cup after cup of Coffee Bean's Jasmine tea without any absurdly small food products. I can slurp it down like I'm a college student guzzling from a 40-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and still want more. Regardless of the pace at which I drink my favorite hot morning or afternoon beverage it always calms me -- puts my mind at ease, prepares me for my day and recharges my spirit.

Or some other goobly gook like that. I'm not so into the whole Zen, serenity now, chi stuff -- I just like the tea. And the ability to linger in my apartment on a beautiful Saturday morning.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Disneyland: Still the Happiest Place on Earth - Regardless of the Food

For the "happiest place on Earth," there isn't much love out there for the dining options at Disneyland. Foodies love to complain about the lackluster pizza, burgers and other "abominations," but oddly enough for someone who lives and eats by her picky palate, the underwhelming cuisine doesn't particularly bother me -- it merely adds to the charm and carefree experience.

Now that I am an adult, a trip to Disneyland is like taking a trip back to my childhood -- to the days when my biggest concerns were whether I was going to get the holiday Barbie for Christmas or how I could get my older brothers into trouble. Today, I worry about being able to pay my bills, I worry about achieving a sense of professional satisfaction, and I worry that I am not truly living my life according to God's plan for me. The burdens of adulthood seem to put a constant weight on my shoulders, and there are very few times when I can completely shut off the constant hum of ruminations in my head. Most often, I turn to exercise, cooking and trashy television as a form of mental therapy, but this past Friday, I was able to play my worries away at Disneyland with one of my dearest friends, Ali.


Over the course of our day at Disneyland, it struck me that the park isn't just "the happiest place on earth," it is a reminder of how to be happy -- how to forget responsibility and be a kid again. As such, it doesn't really matter what there is to eat. Would Disneyland be the same experience if I went there and feasted on caprese sandwiches, filet mignon and baby beet salads? The bad food makes it all the more of an authentic regression to my childhood, a time when I didn't care about the texture of a dish and the harmony of flavors. A bowl of Top Ramen (my favorite food as a youngster) and a can of Coke was enough to put a smile on my face for a week.

As Ali and I ate our way through the park -- quenching our hunger with cheesy slices of thick-crust pizza, chocolate from the shop on "Main Street" and cinnamon sugar-coated churros, I felt completely satisfied with my day of child-like eats. Inside the park walls, it didn't matter that the pizza wasn't thin crust or laden with dollops of fresh mozzarella and shreds of basil. It didn't matter that the chocolate wasn't dark chocolate from an epicurean boutique, and it didn't matter that my afternoon snack was essentially a donut instead of my usual piece of fruit. The sun was shining, the lines in the park were short, and I got to spend the day screaming and laughing and running around a giant playground with my best friend.

While a nice meal out is still one of my favorite ways to unwind after a long week, there isn't any five-star, Zagat-rated, Chowhound-approved restaurant that can provide the same sort of release that Disneyland can. The opportunity to be a kid again --bad food and all -- is one I'd leap for any day of the week.

Especially if it means eating churros at snacktime.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 8: Missed Connections

It was a good idea. Inspired even. Start the show off with a quick-fire that allots the cheftestants fifteen minutes to create something brilliant from canned and packaged items, and then end on an elimination challenge that requires them to make something from the freshest items available. From cupboard/freezer to farm? From canned peas and marinated artichokes to seasonal fresh berries and heirloom tomatoes? Someone over at Bravo had their thinking cap on. It's really a shame that the concept failed so miserably.

From start to finish, the eighth episode of "Top Chef" was a disaster of the fallen chocolate souffle variety. It seemed overworked, overbeaten and teased into a lifeless puddle of prime time mush. In other words, I didn't want to swallow any of it. I wanted to send it back, and receive something more palatable in return. I wanted something I could connect with.

The problem with formulating an episode around an elimination challenge that requires the contestants to use seasonal ingredients is that by the time the episode comes to air, those ingredients are four-five months past their prime. While the weather in Southern California is nearing the 80s at the moment, it was still incredibly disconcerting to watch the chefs, divided into teams "chicken," "pig" and "lamb," prepare a summer luncheon with their aforementioned protein and sweet corn, green beans, berries, and tomatoes, in the middle of winter. One of the main reasons I enjoy "Top Chef" is because of the way the show coaxes its viewers into a relationship with both the chefs and the food. In seasons past, I loved watching Hung break down duck and chicken, I loved watching Marcel whipping up his silly foams, and I loved watching Sam... well, I just loved watching Sam.

Because the chefs in last night's episode were working with ingredients that are so far removed from what Americans are currently eating and preparing, it was nearly impossible to connect with the dishes. How am I to feel inspired by corn and green bean salad, fried green tomatoes, and a fresh fruit creme brulee, when I am ordering butternut squash soup at restaurants and tooling over pasta recipes with kale and collard greens? I can't.

My inability to connect with last night's food was only further exacerbated by my continued inability to truly connect with any of the chefs other than Fabio. I just don't care strongly enough about any of them. Yes, Carla and all her crazy talk about "peace" and "love" is kind of annoying, but not enough for me to really hate her -- especially when she keeps rolling out those fabulous fruit tarts. And yes, Stefan is egotistical and moody, but he's European -- what else would he be? The whole lot of them (again, excepting Fabio) are, to steal a line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, like "dry toast." I don't have a strong opinion about any of them. And it appears the judges don't either. At the end of last night's episode, the entire team chicken was lumped together as "the winner."

I was admittedly sad to see Arianne take the fall for her failure to connect with her team's protein, the lamb, but still couldn't muster the kind of "No!" reaction I had when Tre was eliminated in Season 3. I was more irritated that lifeless Leah wasn't sent packing for her lackluster performance than I was dismayed to see Arianne go.

But, in the words of many of the chefs in previous seasons, "It is what it is." Shrug. Sigh. Upward and on. Here's hoping restaurant wars brings some real heat to the kitchen. Or at the very least, some adorable incoherent ramblings from Fabio.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Uncle Bill's Pancake House and the "Wait/Yum" Scale


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the amount of time one must wait for a table for brunch must not exceed the quality of the food proffered on the "wait/yum" scale. If the wait exceeds twenty minutes, the deliciousness of the food must increase as well in order for it to be worth the diner's while. In turn, at eateries that do not require their patrons to digest the inner lining of their stomach prior to reaching a table, the expectations for greatness are vastly decreased. For example, the oatmeal I make myself every morning is all the more delectable because I do not have to battle a hungover, Juicy Couture-clad army of hungry waifs to get it.

At Uncle Bill's Pancake House, a sun-kissed seaside brunchery in Manhattan Beach, there is a battle of epic proportions for one of the patio or inside tables on the weekends. The time that my two friends and I spent hobnobbing it on the sidewalk this past Saturday morning approximated 20-30 minutes, thus placing Uncle Bill's in a perilous position. Quite simply, the food needed to pull off some serious David vs. Goliath-type bravado to compensate for the dire hunger pangs that were attacking my friends and me.

At first sight, the menu does seem worthy of the sunglasses wearing crowd cluttering the sidewalk outside. I always struggle to make the pivotal sweet or savory decision when going out to brunch, and miss the days when I lived in the Chicago area and omelets came with a side of potatoes and a side of pancakes. Since moving back to Southern California, I haven't found many breakfast/brunch places that allow diners to overload their bellies with such reckless abandon. I was giddy with all the different ways to get my sweet/savory fix -- like the French toast combo with two slices of French toast, bacon and scrambled eggs or the Belgium waffle combo, and even giddier at the exceedingly reasonable prices.

Because I was craving some extra roughage with my eggs (and was starving), I settled on an omelet with feta, spinach and tomatoes that came with a side of hash browns, and my choice of two pancakes (I selected the buttermilk with strawberries for a $1 extra). My companions also selected savory/sweet combos -- one going for an omelet with chocolate chip pancakes, and the other going for the aforementioned French toast combo. The food came out quickly (1 point can be subtracted from the "wait" side of the yum/wait scale), but I was dismayed to see that I had received the wrong omelet. It had spinach, but also a layer of unsightly onions and gross shreds of American cheese.

Not that there's anything wrong with American cheese. I just like my cheeses to be a little bit more ethnic. Like feta. Or goat. Or something I can't pronounce.

While I was tempted to just keep the omelet, my friends urged me to send it back, and our pleasant waitress was eager to accommodate my request (point for the "yum" side). She rushed the omelet back to the kitchen, and I attended to my pancakes whilst I waited.



Considering that the name of the restaurant is "Uncle Bill's Pancake House," I was suddenly faced with another scale. The "promotion/yum" scale. Because the pancakes were being promoted in the name, I was expecting them to be pretty darn smack-my-thigh tasty. Instead, they were a little meh. Maybe I've grown too accustomed to the sweet stacks at the Griddle and Cici's Cafe, but Uncle Bill's buttermilk babies were still a little too understated in the sugar department. The texture --fluffy and moist -- was on target, but there just wasn't enough flavor to give me the "I'm eating pancakes" sensation.

Fortunately, because Uncle Bill's believes in overfeeding its patrons, the pancakes' mediocrity was forgotten as soon as I tore into my well-done omelet. Rolled around a hefty amount of fresh spinach, tomatoes and feta cheese, it was a feast in itself, and I was perfectly content to satisfy my hunger pangs with the nicely executed egg portion of my breakfast. (And two-thirds of my pancakes for adequate sweet-savory balance.) My dining companions seemed equally pleased to devour their plates as well, and we all left the table with that hazy sensation that a food coma would soon be upon us.

Or at least I felt that way.

As for my conclusion about Uncle Bill's ability to overcome the wait time with its omelets, pancakes and other breakfast fare? I'm sort of on the fence.

Of course, it doesn't really much matter since the restaurant is too far from my West Hollywood apartment for me to go to it on a regular basis anyway. Who wants to drive 40 minutes for breakfast? I think I'd need to create a whole new scale for that one...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Osteria Mozza: The Happiest (Foodie) Place on Earth

When my semi-sister Ali told me she was coming to visit me for the weekend, she requested that we go some place I'd never been before so she could be the "star" of one of my posts. While I understood her desire to be the center of attention (I'm the youngest child in my family and only girl), I was reluctant to take her to a restaurant that could potentially offend her picky tongue. I wanted to woo her with my LA dining scene expertise -- I wanted to give her a Mozza experience.

Since I have already written about Pizzeria Mozza twice, and my Long Island born and raised friend is a pizza purist, I decided that Osteria Mozza, the Pizzeria's more sophisticated sister, was the best way to knock her taste buds off. I'd already dined at the two star Michelin restaurant three times prior, but had never written about it before -- a travesty that I am happy to correct here today. Unfortunately, while I wish I could continue letting my dear foodie friend take center stage in my review, there is another lady that requires mention.

Her name is Nancy Silverton, and she is the woman behind both the Mozzas.

After living in Los Angeles for the past three and a half years, celebrity sightings don't give me the same thrill as they did when I was a mail-cart pushing intern and an elevator ride with Jack Black was enough to justify the battle wounds (and blisters) from the experience. Yet, when Nancy strode out from the kitchen to meet the party sitting beside my friend and I on Saturday night, my eyes glazed over and my heart seized up in my chest. I was chef-struck.

And also a little woozy from my quartino of Barbera.

Regardless of the effects of the full-bodied, spicy Italian wine on my emotions, part of me really did want to leap up from my seat on the banquet and hug her. This is the chef that has brought me countless hours of joy over the past two years -- not to mention countless memories with special people like Ali, my brother, my roommate and other dear friends. Ms. Silverton is a genius with bread, mozzarella and dough, and over the course of the past year-and-a-half, she has turned Osteria Mozza into the happiest place on earth (or at least in Los Angeles) for a foodie.

Amuse bouches covered in succulent mozzarella, and thick slices of yeasty, fresh La Brea Bakery bread, immediately set the tone for the Mozza dining experience. It is clear from the beginning that something special is afoot within the perpetually bustling restaurant. Service is respectful and courteous, attention is paid to every fallen napkin or dirty fork, and there is a distinct sense of possibility in the air. Every night in Osteria Mozza is ripe with the opportunity to feast on something extraordinary-- something that the pristinely-attired patrons will not find at any other Italian eatery in town.


Osteria Mozza's uniqueness is best captured by its Mozzarella Bar that offers diners fourteen different ways to consume the succulent fresh cheese. On this particular evening, I select the Burrata with grilled asparagus, brown butter, guanciale and Sicilian almonds, a dish that nearly takes my breath away with its symphony of flavors. The sweetness of the almonds and brown butter, the saltiness of the guanciale (fancy bacon) and the luscious burrata are absurdly well-balanced -- the perfect partners in a crime of gluttony. Even though I have two more dishes to attend to, I can't stop myself from scraping my plate bare with a second slice of mulit-grain bread.


Up next on my itinerary for complete gastronomical satisfaction is, in my opinion, the piece de resistance on the Antipasti menu. The grilled octopus with potatoes, celery and lemon, is my favorite appetizer in the city. The caramelized char on the tender, meaty pieces of octopus paired with the bright citrus and tangy green onions is a combination that leaves me flummoxed. I don't understand it, but I love it, and can't imagine dining at the restaurant without the eight-legged squid joining me at the table.

My sentiments toward the grilled octopus are echoed for the orecchiette with sausage and Swiss chard, one of the most popular pasta dishes on the menu, and my personal favorite among the varieties I've tried. While the tagliatelle with oxtail ragu does put up a fight for preeminence, the orecchiette exemplifies why Osteria Mozza requires diners to call a month in advance for reservations. The girthy kernels of sausage are spooned by each al dente earlobe noodle, making it clear that the shape of the pasta is playing a pivotal role in the success of this dish. The toasted bread crumbs add further dimension -- yet another example of how much thought has gone into the plate. It is details like this that make this restaurant worthy of its Michelin fame. And it is details like this that will keep me coming back time and time again.

While I am loathe to end the review with my summation on the dessert, I do feel it appropriate to mention that they do not match the superiority of the rest of the menu. That's not to say I am not impressed by the artistic presentations of dishes like the Apple Borsellino (pictured above), but the desserts are ultimately upstaged by the savory pastas and swoon worthy mozzarella.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Feel free to use the opportunity to order more cheese. Or go in for a second (or third) slice of bread. Or to try something truly spectacular from the secondi menu, like the beef brasato with polenta and horseradish gremolota. There is life beyond dessert. And fortunately for Los Angelos, that life at Osteria Mozza is good.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Inglehoffer Sweet Honey Mustard: Thank God I Found You

Whenever I hear the Dandy Warhol's song "We Used to Be Friends," it makes me think of my friend Hank. We used to watch "Veronica Mars" together before the CW thoughtlessly crushed the brilliant show into oblivion and would sing along to the catchy theme song whenever it was on.

Whenever I hear the song "All I Want for Christmas" by Mariah Carey, I think of my college roommates Ali and Caroline. During our senior year, we regularly blasted the holiday diddy in our apartment and belted out the lyrics like we were auditioning for "American Idol."

And, starting today, whenever I hear Mariah's "Thank God I Found You," I will immediately associate it with Inglehoffer's Sweet Honey Mustard -- the glorious condiment that is the perfect replacement for the late Trader Joe's Hot & Sweet Mustard.

When Trader Joe's discontinued Hot & Sweet early last month, I thought that my turkey sandwiches would never be the same again -- that I would be forever disappointed by inferior sandwich spreads and imposters. I begrudgingly placed my weekly orders for Boar's Head Maple Glazed Turkey, fully aware that the sweet savory goodness would not have its ideal sweet savory companion. After a lackluster experience with Trader Joe's Cranberry Apple Butter, I was beginning to think I might need to abadon sandwiches altogether.

Because what is a sandwich without spread?

Dry. Very very dry.

The dire situation called for immediate remedy, and it was at this pivotal junture that Inglehoffer's Sweet Honey Mustard leapt to my attention. The cute little four ounce jar called out to me from its position on the shelf at my local specialty market, Monsier Marcel at the Third Street/Fairfax Farmer's Market, and I instincitively knew that something truly magical was about to happen.

The next day, I smeared my turkey and provolone with the spread, and tore into the sandwich like it was a meatball sub and I was Joey on "Friends." The pungent mustard flavor immediately pierced into my tongue - rounding out my lunch with near perfect proportions of sweet and spicy goodness. As I made my way through my two diagonally-cut halves, I relished the burn in my nose from the accumulation of heat from the mustard. Despite my adoration for the Hot & Sweet, I couldn't help but notice that Inglehoffer's version posses a great depth of flavor. It is better. Much better.

Today, Hot & Sweet is quickly enroute to becoming a forgotten memory. I'm singing a new tune now, and it goes a little something like...

Thank God I found you
I was lost without you
My every wish and every dream
Somehow became reality
When you brought the sunlight
Completed my whole life
I'm overwhelmed with gratitude
Cause baby I'm so thankful I found you.

Note for interested consumers: Inglehoffer mustards have been spotted at Safeway/Vons/Pavilions markets, and Ralph's.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I'm Alive! (And Really Really Full)

Question: What happens when two foodies with raging appetites get together for three days and three nights?

Answer:

Lobster with sauteed mushrooms and potatoes at Bar Hayama


The French toast combo at Uncle Bill's Pancake House in Manhattan Beach

Chocolate macaron and "Britney" fleur de sel chocolate from Boule/
"Zen Moon" frostea from Dr. Teas

Burrata with grilled asparagus, brown butter, guanciale & Sicilian almonds from Osteria Mozza
Orecchiette with sausage & Swiss chard from Osteria Mozza
Mom's French toast from the Griddle Cafe

Details to come...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 7: Thank God It's a Chef Eat Chef World

Things weren't going so hot for my relationship with "Top Chef" this season. Predictable outcomes, uninspired dishes and the insipid Christmas episode where no one was eliminated had me feeling as unsatisfied as Kiera Knightley after a meal. I wanted to taste blood, sweat and tears. Or at the very least, hear some verbal lashings or quotable quotes like, "I'm not your b*tch, b*tch."

I was starting to think that "Top Chef" had gone soft. That I would need to turn to the "Real Housewives of Orange County" in order to see some cat fights with the sort of drama that inspires viewers to, as Bravo's tagline says, "Watch what happens." I was even beginning to wonder if viewing each new episode when it aired was worth staying up an hour past my 10 pm bedtime. As a single girl without the income to spend on $100 bottles of eye cream/concealer, I need all the beauty rest I can get! (Plus, I really really like sleeping.)

Just when I was about to give "Top Chef" the biggest evil eye in my arsenal of dirty looks (perfected during my ornery teenage years), the fancy TV suits went and did something so wonderful that all my former complaints were immediately silenced.

They gave me episode 7.

From the moment guest judge John Christoff Novelli stepped into the "Top Chef" kitchen for the Quickfire Challenge where the chefs were commissioned to make desserts without sugar, I knew times were a-changin'. His visceral commentary regarding some of the weaker desserts was the perfect amuse bouche for what was to come during the elimination challenge. I could hardly wait for the knives (and Melissa's tears) to start falling.

For the elimination challenge -- a blind tasting where none of the judges would know who cooked which dish, each contestant was given the freedom to create a family-style plate that reveals who they are as a chef. They were then divided into two groups -- group A would cook first, group B, second -- and told that they would be serving their food to the panel of four judges, including Gail's temporary replacement, Toby Young from Britian, as well as some serious "foodies." The "foodies" were soon revealed to be the chefs in the opposing group -- a delicious twist that was further amplified when the presenting chefs were able to see and hear their competitor's scathing critiques. Of course, none of the contestants' surprisingly tame comments could come close to the caustic droppings that emerged, unfiltered, from Toby Young's mouth. As he ranted about Melissa's unadventurous tuna tartar tacos that he likened to "cat food," and made claims that he had "found the weapons of mass destruction" in Radhika's bowl of soup, my love for "Top Chef" was rekindled.

The flame in my love-sick heart continued to grow with each undercooked lamb chop and chunk of raw garlic, and I was nearly bowled over in delight when both Melissa and Eugene were sent packing in a double elimination that more than compensated for the egregious Christmas episode. As I watched them mug to the camera about missing the opportunity to show what they can really do, I was half-tempted to interrupt their cliched reactions with a hearty, "So long, suckaaaaas!" But I restrained myself -- content to wait until today to share my malicious musings with the blogosphere.

It was a delectable episode from start to finish. Plus, it offered the most quotable quote to date from my favorite Italian stallion, Fabio.

As the camera panned over Jamie's scallops, Fabio chortled, "It's 'Top Chef,' it's not 'Top Scallops.'"

And with those words, all was right with the world again.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Old Vine Cafe: A Hidden Treasure

For the past two months, the draft of this review has been sitting idle in my blog post list. My procrastination would logically seem to indicate that I wasn't thrilled with my dining experience at Old Vine Cafe, an eclectic, internationally-inspired restaurant tucked away in the Camp Mall in Costa Mesa.

But remember, I'm not the most logical of gals.

My belief is that I subconsciously waited to write this post because I didn't want to share the 411 on my special new brunch, lunch and dinner spot with the greater masses of Orange County and Los Angeles. I wanted to keep it all to myself -- a quiet respite for me to grab a panini with my mother, an order of pumpkin French toast with a friend or to share a bottle of wine with a special someone who does not seem to exist. Yet to keep the good news a secret would be negligent, and while I may not always be the most logical of thinkers, I am certainly not negligent! Excepting, of course, when I forget to return my books to the library. Again.


To that end, it is my duty to describe the humble restaurant dwelling and the novel details, like the menus that are stapled to picture canvases, that make the Old Vine Cafe such a hidden treasure. My mother and I were smitten upon arrival. Or, at least smitten upon looking at the lunch and brunch menu that tempted us with omelets stuffed with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, shitake mushrooms and manchego cheese; freshly baked cinnamon rolls; and porcini mushroom mac & cheese. The illustrative descriptions had us reeling for at least ten minutes before we finally decided on the soup of the day, a squash puree with fried leeks, and an order of the beef & truffles panini with thinly sliced prime rib, Italian white truffle cheese and garlic aioli, to share.


Our soup arrived first -- confusing me for a moment, as I had planned to do the panini dip and dunk, like I do when I eat grilled cheese and Trader Joe's red pepper and tomato soup at home. My mom shrugged at my concern and dove in with her spoon, piercing through the drizzle of olive oil to the earthy puree beneath. We both marvelled over the clean flavors and texture of the crisp leeks that provided the perfect contrast to the luxurious soup. I was suddenly glad the panini didn't come out until we were finished so I could focus all my attention on my starter instead of washing the intricate flavors away with bites of crusty bread.
Despite the success of the soup, I was slightly concerned about the beef & truffle panini. Roast beef can often be laced with unsightly fat globules, and I was already anxious enough about the presence of truffles in the grilled sandwich. Not because I have anything against the exorbitantly priced fungus, but because my mother is typically opposed to the consumption of anything shroom-related. I too am a bit put off by certain varieties of mushrooms, but over the years have come to appreciate the porcini, shitake, and most certainly the truffle -- particularly in oil/butter form. My mom questioned my proposal to order the beef & truffle panini when I first proposed it, but I was a bit of a sneaky Serena (yes, like the Serena on Gossip Girl who tricks awkward male artists into taking her on exotic trips right before she dumps them) and convinced her it was just a type of cheese.

It is, right? ;)

Fortunately for my conscience, the panini did not send off any mushroom alerts in my poor mother's head, and didn't set off my gag reflex with any unwanted chunks of animal fat. The roast beef was lean, tender and perfectly complimented by the restrained use of cheese and aioli. The four sandwich triangles were more than enough to share, and my mom and I were equally (thank goodness!) pleased with our lunch selections.

As we sipped our post-meal pots of tea, content to linger in the now, nearly-empty restaurant, we eagerly made plans for a return visit. To try the pumpkin French toast, the cinnamon rolls, and the seasonally-inspired dinner tasting menu that has gotten rave reviews around town.

While the restaurant may be called "Old Vine Cafe," the only thing old about this fresh face in the OC dining scene are the bottles of wine in their wine cellar/shop. And maybe that truffle cheese as well...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Edelweiss Chocolates: The Perfect Way to Clean up the Diet

No, the title is not a typo. I didn't mix up this post with my post about tofu, and while I do enjoy the sarcasm (when it is funny and not mean - see next paragraph), my wording should not be spoken with a caustic tongue. Through the process of elimination, that would seemingly leave only one other scenario -- that I've gone completely mad and am one bad day away from shaving my head bald and running about town in a hot pink wig.

I do venture into neurotic territory from time to time and quite enjoy the color pink (which isn't clear at all from my blog's template), but don't have any desire to put fake hair on my head nor am I inclined to see what my scalp looks like underneath all the blond stuff. In simple terms, I'm not crazy. (Yet.)

The reason Edelweiss' chocolates are the perfect way to clean up my act after six weeks of raking in the cookies, beef, cheese, nuts, pizza, enchiladas, etc., is not because they are made with mocklate or have been injected with illegal weight loss supplements, but because, in the words of Barney Stinson on HIMYM, they are "awesome."

Of course, not all Edelweiss chocolates are created equal. My roommate finds the fudge "too soft" and noted that the tiny $3 wedge she purchased there yesterday collapsed on her finger when she held it up. Over the course of my several visits to the cozy Beverly Hills chocolate shop, I also found Katherine Hepburn's favorite, the dark chocolate turtle, to be too small and deficient in the pecanage. I like my turtles to be over-sized and chock full of the nuts, like my favorite version at the Chocolate Soldier in Laguna Beach, and Edelweiss' offering is definitely one of the slower turtles I've encountered throughout the course of my chocolate + nut combo research.

But I'm not hanging out on the podium to be a Negative Nancy. I only say these critiques as way of warning to all those who might need to improve their diets with Edelweiss Chocolates and aren't familiar with the best the specialty shop has to offer. When I speak of the awesomeness, I am speaking specifically about the chocolate-covered marshmallows that are so transcendentally delicious that sweet tooth satisfaction can be achieved with just one piece. Rather than trying to avoid all treats post-holidays, I have found that it is far better to seek out small pieces of the best stuff available in order to ease the chocolate beast into submission. Startling said beast into post-holiday deprivation only makes him angry, and when the beast is angry, he will consume everything in sight without any regard to my health-conscious protests.

My careful research has concluded that savoring Edelweiss' lusciously smooth dark chocolate is the only way to tame the beast. Always freshly-made and pungently chocolaty, it is the perfect coating for the shop's homemade marshmallows. While there are several types available, including plain, mocamallow, mintmallow, walnut marshmallow, and coconut, my favorites are the aforementioned caramallow (caramel + marshmallow) and the toffeemallow (a toffee flavored marshmallow enrobed in chocolate, sprinkles and tiny toffee pieces).

For $5.25 total, my three chocolates were pricey, but it's all in the name of good health. I know my heart is thanking me for not gorging on a red velvet Sprinkles cupcake instead. I do right by my little pumper. Or more accurately, Edelweiss Chocolates does her right.