Friday, February 26, 2010

Things (burgers) to aspire to...

When I finished off the last bite of my first cheeseburger at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar last Wednesday night, I was pretty proud of myself.

Nay – not just proud – glowing like I’d just accomplished something truly heroic like completing a triple axle double toe loop with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. (For the record: I’m no Michelle Kwan. Or even Tanya Harding for that matter.)

I wanted to shout my victory over the half-pound patty dripping with herb remoulade, sharp cheddar cheese, sweet onion fondue, butter pickles, and arugula from the rooftops. Or, barring that, shout it to the Twitterverse, and I couldn’t wait to get home to upload the pictures of my empty plate so I could show off my superior plate-to-hand-to-mouth skills.

When the post went up first thing the next morning, people cheered, my friend Ali sent me hate mail for ditching her by herself in the anti-cheeseburger crowd, and my mom called to ask if my heart was doing okay.

“Fine!” I said. “Great!” I trilled. “Never been better!” I bragged.

I haughtily thought that my positive experience at Rustic Canyon meant I was now ready to take on any burger with any fixings. Bacon? Blue cheese? A French roll that renders it more of a sandwich than a burger?

Bring it on – bring it all on!

But then I received word that Rustic Canyon is bringing back its popular Burger and Beer Mondays. In addition to the Niman Ranch burger ($16) I enjoyed last Wednesday, each Monday night Chef Evan Funke will add two specialty burgers (paired with specialty beers from artisan producers) to the menu, as well. This past week it was a Breakfast Burger with hash browns, confit bacon, sunny side-up egg and Tillamook cheddar cheese; and a Bolognese Burger made of bolognese ragu and topped with burrata mozzarella and wild arugula.

I'm not feeling so cocky any more...

This coming Monday, March 1st, the restaurant will feature the Breakfast Burger and Lobster Roll Burger pictured above.

I think I may still need a few rounds with the original (darn!) before I can take on a patty with eggs and lobster, but I’ve got this Monday night madness on my radar. One day it will happen. And when it does, I will shout it from the rooftops – even if it is the rooftop of Cedar Sinai Medical Center.

Rustic Canyon Wine Bar
1119 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 393-7050

Picture Credit: Rustic Canyon

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Roasted Fingerling, Green Bean and Shallot Salad: In defense of sides

For some the eternal question is – “What’s for dinner?”

For others (ie. my mother and I) the eternal question is – “What are we going to serve with it?”

“It,” of course, being the meat of the matter – the pan-seared filet with port wine reduction sauce and roasted shallots, the hazelnut crusted halibut, or the slow-roasted BBQ brisket that’s been perfuming the house for the past five hours.

While meat is all well and good, I, like my mother whose friends nicknamed her “Spud” in college due to her affection for potatoes, am a devoted lover of sides. My eyes glisten at the sight of tender slivers of green beans, my heart palpitates when I’m presented with a well-crusted ramekin of mac and cheese, and I am perfectly content to make a meal out of a big bowl of creamy risotto.

If I have some steamed broccoli on the side, of course.

I even go so far as to base my ordering decisions at restaurants on the “with’s.”

“I can’t possibly order the hangar steak if it only comes with arugula!” I’ll say, dismissively.

“Brussels sprouts? Hardly a good companion for duck!” I’ll snivel.

And then my eye will land on the John Dory served with pan-fried gnocchi, chanterelle mushrooms and celery root puree.

“That’s it!” I’ll proclaim. “I’m ordering the gnocchi and mushrooms! Err…I mean, the John Dory.”

Given my ordering behavior (and enthusiasm for potato dumplings), it should come as no surprise that I often enjoy the sides more than what others might consider the “main event.”

Such was the case when I made Orangette’s decadent bouchons au thon for my dinner two weekends ago.

I didn’t intend for it to happen. In fact, I was prepared to have trouble limiting myself to just two of the “tuna corks.” I was as shocked as anyone (and by anyone I mean no one other than myself) to discover that, while the bouchons were very tasty, I only wanted to eat the roasted fingerling potato, green bean and shallot salad I’d made to go with them.

The next night I couldn’t wait to heat up my leftover bouchons so I could have the salad again. The rustic potatoes and beans were enlivened by the lemon parsley dressing, and the bright citrus flavor helped temper the richness of the bouchons. The salad is the reason I keep defrosting my leftover tuna corks to have for dinner, and I know it will continue to show up in my meal rotation long after the bouchons are gone.

Even if I don’t have anything to go with it other than a crisp glass of white wine.

Roasted Fingerling, Green Bean and Shallot Salad with Lemon Parsley Vinaigrette
By Diana
Makes 1 entree-sized portion or 2 side-sized portions

4-5 fingerling potatoes cut into pieces
1 cup green beans, cut into inch-long pieces
1 large shallot sliced into thin rings
Handful of arugula
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

Lemon Parsley Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Olive Oil
1 tablespoon parsley, finely minced
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss potatoes and shallots with drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper and begin roasting in a Pyrex dish or on a cookie sheet. After approximately 10 minutes, add the green beans. Stir together and roast for an additional 15 minutes or until beans and potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile combine dressing ingredients with a whisk or fork. Set aside.

When potatoes and vegetables are done, remove from oven and immediately pour the lemon parsley dressing over them. Serve over a bed of arugula.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vinoteque: Give us this day our daily...

In the beginning there was promise.

An atmosphere that felt decidedly like a cavernous wine cellar where covert whispers and raucous laughter are both equally acceptable. A patio that felt decidedly like… a patio. A friendly chap of a waiter who was all too happy to bring me samples of nearly every white wine on the by-the-glass menu until I found one I actually liked (the Chablis Chardonnay).

The cool vibe in Vinoteque, a relatively new addition to the hip section of Melrose Avenue, seemed to assure that my group of snarky gal pals would have a fabulous time. In my experience, wine bars are inherently fun – especially wine bars that serve food beyond the usual nibbles of olives and cheese plates and bacon-wrapped dates. Where wine flows, appetites rage.

Or at least mine does.

At Vinoteque, there are at least a couple dozen “European-sized” small plates to order from the eclectic menu – salads and pasta and ubiquities like short ribs and salmon to temper wine-infused hunger. There are Little Neck clams bursting with a bright bite of cilantro ($10), a vibrant wild arugula salad with preserved lemon vinaigrette and grated parmesan ($9), a relatively bland risotto with a swirl of white truffle oil ($9), and gamey lamb meatballs stuffed with goat cheese that are sadly not enhanced by the addition of mint ($13).

There is no shortage of solid and less-than-solid plates to share with dining and drinking companions. One could leave perfectly full and satisfied from the heartier dishes like the frissée salad with lardons and a panko fried egg ($9) or the duck breast with slow roasted butternut squash ($17). Yet even with the plentiful offerings and charming ambiance, something is amiss at Vinoteque.

It’s not the square white plates that S. Irene Virbila of the LA Times finds pretentious.

It’s not the confusing wine policy that allows diners to open up any bottle of wine in the restaurant if they commit to buying two glasses before donating it to the “communal table” for other imbibers to enjoy by the glass if they so desire.

And it’s not the aforementioned lamb meatballs that couldn’t be finished between a table of four Eaters. (Or more accurately two Eaters since one doesn’t eat lamb and the other is vegan.)

The problem is one of a rather precarious nature -- there is no bread.

Sure, a paltry crostini that accompanies the charcuterie plates, but no meaty hunks of whole wheat or sourdough boules (ideally from La Brea Bakery) that demand one sink their teeth into it immediately upon receipt.

As such, our party of four could only stay long enough to cancel our order of sautéed pea tendrils. The bottle of La Tordera Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($34) we shared (I opted against any of the by-the-glass selections) demanded to be nullified with the sinewy texture of the preeminent carbohydrate.

So we left the cavernous wine cellar where we’d laughed and whispered with equal aplomb. We strode through the patio that is… a patio. And we traversed the stretch of sidewalk toward Eric Greenspan’s the Foundry.

Despite the promise of good things at Vinoteque, bread was calling, and we had no choice but to answer.

7469 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(310) 860-6060

Monday, February 22, 2010

Torturous Chocolate Macaroons

I stare down at the melted chocolate streaked across my thumb. It would be so easy to lick it off – it and the chocolate still clinging to the sides of the glass bowl in front of me.

I stare at the shreds of sweetened coconut littering the countertop. It would be so easy to pluck a strand off and munch it while I tidy up the kitchen – to savor the sugary taste of an item I normally don’t even particularly like.

I stare at the neat rows of chocolate macaroons cooling on a wire rack. It would be so easy to reach down and take one. My mind flashes back to the previous Tuesday night when I made the delicate cookies for a co-worker.

Tuesday night, I think.

It feels like an eternity ago. My last bite of chocolate – and incidentally my last bite of dessert before I foolishly decided to give that up for Lent as well.

I hadn’t expected to like the cookie/macaroon hybrids as much as I did. I don’t even particularly like traditional macaroons due to the overabundance of coconut (and, of course, lack of chocolate), but these were different. The melted chocolate chips that I carefully folded into the egg white batter rendered the cookies decidedly brownie-like. The chewy interior was a delightful contrast to the light, crisp outer shell. I ate two of them that evening.

Tuesday night, I think, again.

My head aches with lust as my eyes fondle the 45 cookies that I’ve made for the Stir It 28 cocktail fundraiser for Haiti relief that will take place the following day.

Torture, I muse, as I wash the chocolate off my hand and watch it slither its way down the drain.

I clean the bowls, wipe up the counters and put the macaroons into an air-tight container.

Out of sight, out of mind, I tell myself.

But the aroma lingers in my apartment. My tongue moistens at the thought of crushing one of the cookies between my teeth. If I close my eyes, I can almost taste it…

Instead, I drink tea and calculate how many days it will be before I can savor my favorite form of emotional therapy again.


It’s going to be a long six weeks. I think, and take another sip of my very unsweetened tea.

Chocolate Macaroons
From Bon Appétit’s fast easy fresh cookbook
Yield: Makes 30 (Note: Recipe can easily be halved)

1 1/3 cups mini semisweet chocolate chips (about 8 ounces), divided

2 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper (I used a slip pad). Place 1 cup chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl; microwave on low setting at 10-second intervals until chocolate is melted, stirring occasionally. Cool just to room temperature.

Using electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, then vanilla, beating until whites are thick and glossy. Fold in melted chocolate and coconut, then remaining 1/3 cup chocolate chips.

Drop batter by heaping teaspoonfuls onto prepared sheets, spacing 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake cookies 10 minutes or until tops are dry and cracked and tester inserted into centers comes out with moist crumbs attached. Cool cookies on sheets on racks. Store airtight at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bouchons au thon: In defense of cream

As much as it embarrasses me to admit it, I’m sort of… kind of… that girl.

The one who provokes eye rolls from servers. The one who Ina Garten would find loathsome. The one who guys live in fear of dating.

“Does the soup have cream?” I’ll ask when presented with a menu option of butternut squash or broccoli soup. I’ll bat my eyelashes innocently, as if to shield myself from their scorn, but secretly I’m cringing at the thought of the lush liquid polluting my body with fat.

Like many girls of my persuasion, I avoid cream like I avoid butter – somehow convinced that the two substances are evil items that should never be ingested outside of a dessert course. I’ve never even considered ordering fettuccini Alfredo at a restaurant and even when a recipe I’m making at home calls for cream, I’ll generally substitute milk or a marginal amount of half-and-half instead.

Such was the case when I decided to make bouchons au thon from Orangette’s recipe/story book A Homemade Life two weekends ago. I blanched at the instruction to include a 1/3rd of a cup of crème fraîche for the 8 tuna quiche cakes, and stubbornly decided to use nonfat Greek yogurt instead.

“I won’t be able to tell the difference.” I thought. “There’s enough cheese and egg in the recipe to make them plenty decadent!”

I completely ignored Molly Wizenberg’s chapter about cream-braised cabbage where she too admits that she “used to be a little scared of cream” until discovering how delicious it is in winter dishes like the aforementioned cabbage. The story seemed to scream at me, “Diana, embrace the cream! It is not the devil’s juice!” but I still couldn’t go through with corrupting the innocent bouchons with so much fat.

The resulting tuna cakes were nowhere near as delicious as I was expecting from Molly’s description.

She writes, “With a texture somewhere between the filling of a quiche and a freshly made country pâté, they tamed the flat pungency of canned fish with the sweetness of tomato and rich butterfat of crème fraîche. We ate them warm with roasted potatoes, and, for lunch the next day, cold with a green salad. They were unlike anything I’d ever had. They tasted like what I imagined France itself would taste like, if it were small enough to fit in my mouth.”

My bouchons tasted like tuna salad. Tuna salad with lemon after I doused them with massive quantities of the acidic juice to make them seem less like cat food. This was not the fancy feast I was anticipating.

I went to bed angry that night – flush with irritation at my “sensible” behavior. I knew I had to make them again the next day – with my arch nemesis, the dreaded crème fraîche.

This time they were good. Very good. Well-balanced, creamy and delectable with the roasted vegetable and potato salad I made on the side. I sheepishly finished my plate thinking, “Well how about that, cream is not so bad after all!”

I even saved the leftover crème fraîche to use over a Skor Bar cake I made for a dinner party the following weekend. When no one was looking, I may have even licked the serving spoon…

Bouchons Au Thon
From Orangette’s A Homemade Life
Makes 8 bouchons, enough for 4 light eaters

1 6-ounce can tuna packed in water, drained well (I used Crown Prince chunk light)
1 cup lightly packed finely shredded Gruyère
1/3 cup crème fraîche (not Greek yogurt – embrace the cream!)
3 tablespoons tomato paste (I used Hunt’s to fine effect)
3 large eggs
¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease 8 cups of a standard-sized muffin tin.

Drain and rinse the tuna and then dump in a medium bowl. Using a fork, break the tuna into small pieces. There should be no chunks larger than a dime. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well with the fork, mashing a bit as you go, until the mixture is thoroughly combined. It will be a soft orange-pink color.

Divide the mixture evenly among the 8 prepared muffin cups. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (mine were done in 20), or until the bouchons look set on top and around the edges. Transfer the tin to a rack, and let cool for 5 minutes. Carefully run a small thin knife around the edge of each bouchon to make sure it isn’t stuck, then carefully remove them from the tin. They will collapse a bit as they cool.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: I will be serving the bouchons au thon at the Stir it 28 cocktail party/fundraiser at a private Hollywood residence this Sunday, February 21st from 4 – 7 pm. Tickets are $30 in advance, and $35 at the door. All proceeds will be donated to Share Our Strength and Yele to support the Haiti relief effort.

To buy tickets: Visit or and click the Stir It 28 logo to go directly to the Paypal portal, which is automatically set up for the purchase of one $30 ticket. Click the link that says "Special instructions to the merchant" and indicate what city you wish to purchase a ticket for.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My First Cheeseburger

It had to be on my terms.

There would need to be a (good) red wine – a peppery Cantina Tre Seerre Barbera ($9) that glistens on the tongue.

There would need to be a mound of hand-cut seasoned fries that I could count as one of my daily servings of vegetables.

There would need to be soft lighting – all the better to conceal the sloppy process of consuming the item in question.

And there would need to be pickles.

There had to be pickles.

Rustic Canyon would be the place. 8 pm on Wednesday, February 17th would be the time. And Nastassia of Let Me Eat Cake, would be by my side – urging me on if I tried to chicken out and order the pappardelle with braised duck ($15) or pan roasted branzino ($30) instead of the cheeseburger we’d come for. She wouldn’t protest when I ordered it medium rather than medium-rare. And she wouldn’t find it repulsive if the herb rémoulade dripped on my fingers.

And I licked it off.

So I made a reservation. I booked a spot in a Bar Method class before said reservation in order to work up an appetite (and eradicate some of the guilt), and then I snapped my mouth shut lest anyone try to convince me that my choice of restaurant for my first ever cheeseburger was a terrible decision.

Of course, even if they had I wouldn’t have listened. I’d made up my mind -- Rustic Canyon was it.

I could hardly contain my excitement when I woke up yesterday morning.

“I’m going to eat a cheeseburger today!” I thought happily as I selected my attire for the evening – a pair of not-so-skinny jeans with room to grow around an expanding stomach, and a comfortable sweater that I wouldn’t need to dry clean if I happened to get grease on it.

The words repeated in my head all day, and I felt a rush of excitement every time I thought about it – like I was going to a movie premiere or flying to Paris or doing something considerably more exciting than eating a cheeseburger. For a girl who typically opts for fish over steak or fruit over a side of fries, however, it felt decidedly rebellious.

Arriving at the restaurant last night, my appetite raging from my difficult workout class, I was flush with lusty anticipation for the burger to come.

This is it. I thought. No turning back now.

A cursory glance at the menu did nothing to steer me off my course.

“I’ll have the burger,” I said proudly to our server. “Medium.” I finished more sheepishly, knowing that my male friends and foodie counterparts would be gouging their eyes out if they heard my request. But I was being a rebel tonight. Rebels buck tradition. Challenge authority. Defy expectations.

Just like the Niman Ranch burger ($16) at Rustic Canyon.

After 26 years of avoiding cheeseburgers, and nearly five years of snubbing burgers, I thought I was setting myself up for disappointment when I finally broke down and ate one.

It would be too greasy. It would fall apart in my fingers. It would be undercooked. Overcooked. I would feel sick after.

But biting into that thick patty of beef that is caressed by a pliant brioche-style bun from Rockenwagner Bakery, and lovingly topped with sharp cheddar cheese, sweet onion fondue, bread and butter pickles, herb rémoulade, and arugula, was a moment akin to my first taste of the squid ink pasta at Babbo in NYC three years ago.

I closed my eyes, searing the flavors into my memory.

It was bliss.

My subsequent actions are not fit to be shared with the general public, but there was a considerable amount of moaning, groaning and excessive dipping of the thick-cut fries into the accompanying aioli sauce during the next fifteen minutes.

The end result was not a pretty sight, but as I waddled to my car (thankful I’d thought to bring the un-skinny jeans with me that morning), I felt overwhelming happy.

I’d eaten a cheeseburger.

And, more importantly, I'd loved it.

Rustic Canyon Winebar
119 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 393-7050

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chocolate Soufflé Cupcakes with Mint Cream: Till death do us part

I stare agog at the screen in front of me.

“Chocolate soufflé cupcakes with mint cream,” I read, my eyes salivating at the title of the post on Smitten Kitchen.

I know before I even see the recipe that they will be mine – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

Forever and ever, amen.

For once, I don’t look for the flaws – the recipe deal breakers that might dissuade me from making them.

“It’s too fussy and complicated.”

“It’s asking too much of me.”

“It’s not the right time – I’m not in the right place to commit to this right now.”

I don’t care that the recipe is inherently risky. Souffles are notoriously finicky – the type of dessert that can go terribly right or terribly wrong with the slightest provocation. I know that I will have to apply a delicate hand to the egg whites lest I crush their soft peaks with my spatula. I know that even if I do tread lightly, the flourless cupcakes might still fall flat into the depths of my muffin tin.

The thought is terrifying, but also exhilarating.

I want to take a chance on them. In fact, I’m giddy with excitement about the possibility that I might discover something better than I ever could have imagined in my wildest dreams.

So I print the recipe.

I buy the white chocolate and peppermint extract.

And I commit to starting a relationship with the chocolate soufflé cupcakes.

There’s a lot of chopping and beating and mixing in the beginning – at one point I even take out the food scale for the effort. An oven is preheated, a muffin tin is buttered and filled, and suddenly they are done.

I tenderly drop a dollop of mint cream over the top of the fattest in the bunch, sprinkle it with chocolate shavings and ready my fork.

One thing leads to another…



Let's just say I’ve recently updated my Facebook status.

For better, for worse. Till death do us part.

LinkRecipe for incredible, amazing, best-I've-ever-had chocolate soufflé cupcakes with mint cream can be found on Smitten Kitchen.

Checkers Downtown: More than worth checking out

I stare at the Google directions in my lap in frustration.

“Where the heck is this place?” I gripe as I drive by the LA Convention Center for the fourth time in fifteen minutes.

The clock reminds me that I’m now ten minutes late for dinner at Checkers Downtown at the Hilton, and I pull over and begin frantically punching commands into my new Motorola Droid, a phone that I am clearly not equipped to use. Especially considering that one of the taglines for the device is “never get lost again.”

I tear my eyes over the Google map on the screen – again it is showing me a picture of a star next to the Convention Center.

This is not a great start to the night.

I don’t make it to the restaurant (located near 6th and Grand Avenue) for another fifteen minutes. By the time I settle down at the white-cloaked table next to my two dining companions, my nerves are rattled to a point that is physically destructive for a girl of my neurotic properties. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll be able to relax. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll be able to enjoy my meal and my evening at a restaurant that I wasn’t even sure I wanted try when I first received the invitation to check out Chef Todd Allison’s market-inspired menu last fall.

“Checkers?” I had sputtered at the time. “At the Hilton?”

While the restaurant’s California and French-influenced menu did appeal to me, I’ve always thought that most hotel restaurants are inherently bad – the last resort of stranded guests who don’t know where else to go. But the slew of positive reviews convinced me that Checkers was, in fact, worth checking out, and I eagerly accepted the invitation to experience a five-course tasting there on a Wednesday evening.

Sitting at the table now, however, my brow so furrowed it might not revert back to its normal shape, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve made a mistake in coming. Stress like this doesn’t belong in my usual weeknight regimen. But then the wine list passes under my nose and my eyes land upon the second white wine offered by the glass – Sauvignon Blanc, Kim Crawford, Marlborough, New Zealand.

I smile.

It’s my favorite white wine – the very white wine that turned me into a wine lover when my dad introduced it to me four years prior.

I order a glass and sit back into my chair – I’m ready to relax and ready to be wooed by Sous Chef David Baker, who is preparing our feast for the evening.

Chef Baker, who worked with Head Chef Todd at Studio Restaurant at the Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna before joining him at Checkers, comes by the table to see if there is anything we don’t eat. I surprise myself by shaking my head. I’m open. (Though secretly hoping he doesn’t throw a cheeseburger in there and foil my plans for my forthcoming “ultimate” first cheeseburger experience.)

The engaging chef smiles at our willingness to put our palates in his hands and departs to the kitchen to begin preparing our meal.

I’m flummoxed at how calm he is. One minute shaking our hands – the next expertly searing Ahi Tuna for our first course. The tender pieces of fish are delicately assembled over a salad of shaved red onion, cucumber, celery, and generous smear of dill aioli, and then topped with a smattering of fresh herbs. The bright earthy tones are a classic pairing with full-flavored fish like tuna or salmon, and I devour my plate – now fully on board with hotel dining.

The second course best exemplifies the restaurant’s commitment to using seasonal market-driven produce. A meaty seared Maine Diver Sea Scallop served with blood orange segments, fork mashed fingerling potato and pomegranate glaze tantalizes our tongues with contrasting textures and taste sensations that seem inherently opposed. I’m surprised at how much I like the delicate scallop with the rustic barely smashed potato.

The ubiquitous short rib is up next. While short ribs are as common on restaurant menus as chocolate flourless cake, I can’t help but be smitten by the familiar tender shreds of beef served over a decidedly cheesy sweet pea risotto. The dish imparts a comforting blanket of flavors on my tongue, and I’m perfectly content to enjoy them.

Our final savory dish of the night is my favorite of the evening. Two perfectly pink pieces of grilled filet mignon are unconventionally paired with macerated tomatoes, fava beans and grilled romaine to spectacular effect. The lightness of the lettuce and tomatoes and vibrant beans plays well with the rich meat in this upscale version of a steak salad, and is welcome relief after the heartier third course. This is the plate that I will think about the next morning. This is the plate I want to recreate at home.

We end the night with fried churro sticks accompanied by a dish of chocolate sauce for dipping. It’s a very respectable version that I completely disrespect when I make the executive decision to drink the chocolate directly from the cup. My furrowed brow is long gone at this juncture in the evening -- replaced by giddy excitement about the meal I’ve just enjoyed at... a hotel restaurant.

Checkers? At the Hilton? In Downtown?


And now that I know where it is, I can’t wait to go back to sample more of Chef Todd’s vibrant and focused Cal-French cuisine.

Checkers Downtown at the Hilton
535 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90071
Phone: (213) 624-0000

Note: On Thursday evenings Checkers hosts a “FOURevent” Happy Hour from 4 pm – 8 pm. Diners can enjoy four $4 small plates and four $4 libations that change every week.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Quasimodo Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Baking for One

In a recent post, my dear friend Sook from Yutjangsah revealed that she is, among other things (brilliant, crazy, the possessor of bad cuticles), a “nervous baker.”

She explains her anxiety as follows -- “I guess when you bake for others, which is always the case unless you're some kind of bake for yourself weirdo, you feel like your cookie, pie or cake has to be perfect and delicious and wonderful and magnificent and witty and well-dressed and brilliant and seductive and above all, perfect.”

I giggled when I read my friend’s pithy observation, but it was a nervous giggle. The kind of giggle a person makes when they’ve been called out on something and don’t know how else to react except through giggling. (This often proved problematic for me whenever I did something wrong as a child – like get into the hidden stash of gummy bears, again.)

While there is no way Sook could have known this, I am the “kind of bake for yourself weirdo,” and at the very moment that I was reading her post, I had a batch of chocolate chip cookies in the oven.

For myself.

Giggle giggle.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done such a brazen self-indulgent act. In college, I regularly made oatmeal muffins for my breakfast, and on one particularly harrowing day, I whipped up some Nestle Tollhouse cookies at midnight to help me get through a night of studying. I thought nothing of it at the time, and was equally nonplussed when I made the executive decision to bake for myself again this weekend.

“You’re about to give chocolate up for Lent,” I told myself. “You deserve your own batch of cookies!”

So I did it. I consulted Sarah’s blog, The Delicious Life, for her inspired take on Alton Brown’s chewy chocolate chip cookies, and then I went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for the much-praised recipe. I didn’t feel weird or nervous at all as I sashayed around the kitchen, melting butter, packing down brown sugar and whisking together flour and baking soda.

I cook for myself all the time – why should cookie-baking be any different?

That night, after the dough had refrigerated for a few hours, I scooped out enough batter for a single cookie and baked it up for my post-dinner dessert. Again, I thought nothing of the effort.

Then, the next afternoon, I extracted the rest of the dough to bake. In the light of day, the resulting cookies suddenly didn’t seem as appealing as the one I’d eaten the night before. They turned dark in the oven and sank in the centers after cooling on my baker’s rack. I frowned at their Quasimodo-esque appearance.

“Is this my come-uppance?” I wondered. “Am I being punished for being ‘some kind of bake for yourself weirdo?’”

The cookie I ate that afternoon felt slick and greasy in my mouth – saturated with the overt buttery flavor I loathe. It was still a good cookie, but I was so disturbed by its physical shortcomings and devilish aftertaste that I couldn’t fully enjoy it.

“Maybe it is weird to bake for yourself.” I thought, as I shoved the rest of the batch into a Tupperware.

Not sure what to do with the rest of my stash, I texted Sook to see if she wanted any (she did), and then I made the executive decision to bring the remainder to work to give to my coworkers.

That Monday, right before I sent the “up-for-grabs” e-mail to the office, I surreptitiously snuck one last cookie to make sure they were indeed palatable for others to eat.

Maybe it was because the cookies had time to cool and lose their intense butter flavor, or maybe it was because I was no longer guilty of baking only for one, but the chewy chocolate chip Quasimodo cookie tasted far better than it had the day before. So good in fact that I momentarily considered hording them all to myself.

Instead, I nervously bequeathed the imperfect treat on my coworkers who didn’t seem to mind that they weren’t TasteSpotting material. They were just happy someone had thought to bake something just for them.

Giggle giggle.

Alton Brown’s “The Chewy” Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
Diana’s attempt at The Delicious Life’s take on Alton Brown’s recipe
Makes 2 ½ dozen cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2¼ cups all-purpose flour (Alton Brown’s recipe calls for bread flour - I chose to follow Sarah's method of using all-purpose)
½ teaspoon salt (reduced from 1 teaspoon per Sarah’s recommendation)
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar (pack firmly!)
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk (I used skim because it’s what I had in the fridge)
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
Additional sea salt

Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.

Melt butter in saucepan (I used the microwave method and think it is partially responsible for the Quasimodo appearance), and then pour into a bowl with sugar and firmly packed brown sugar. (Apparently other Alton Brown cookie bakers say it is very important to pack that sugar!) Cream butter with sugar using an electric beater on medium speed until smooth. Add egg, egg yolk, 2 tablespoons milk and vanilla extract and beat until well combined.

Add flour mixture a little bit at a time and stir until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Chill the dough for at least an hour, or, a la the perfect New York Times cookie recipe, overnight. (I chose the overnight method because I bow at the feet of the NY Times recipe.)

When ready to bake, heat oven to 375 degrees F. Scoop two tablespoons worth of dough into balls and place onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 6-8 cookies per sheet. Sprinkle with optional sea salt.

Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown, checking the cookies after 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning.

Cool completely and store in an airtight container, or give them all away to friends, family and grateful co-workers.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tavern: Please sir, do not pass the butter

I have many irrational fears. Most of them are related to germs and cockroaches crawling over my face while I’m sleeping, but I also fear silly things like forgetting to bring my lunch to work and running out of the dried cranberries I like to put in my oatmeal. Perhaps the most irrational of my fears both food and germ-related, however, involves Paula Deen’s favorite ingredient – butter.

I blame my visceral opposition to the slightly yellowed sticks of emulsified fat on my mother who refuses to touch the stuff outside of cooking and baking (incidentally, she blames her older brother who is the reason she stopped liking it as a child). Of course, to be completely honest, my fear can also be traced back to my feminine desire to continue fitting into my current dress size.

While butter does wonders for a slice of warm bread, it does not do any favors to one’s waistline, and as such, I’ve always approached it with a trembling hand. I cringe when a cookie recipe calls for two sticks, shudder when I see a slab oozing over a steak, and feel the urge to run for the car when confronted with the stench of popcorn at a movie theatre lest it permeate into my fat cells through osmosis. Though, to be fair, I could also be reacting to the high concentration of children in an enclosed space (see germ fears).

Even so, certain occasions demand a pat or two (or five) of butter, and in some situations, I will closet my fears for a brief and dramatic foray with the product.

Birthdays are one such occasion.

A couple weekends ago, Sarah from the Delicious Life/ TasteSpotting, Lauren from Harb Knock Life, and I took Sook from Yutjangsah out for a birthday brunch at Tavern. While I made the tragic mistake of ordering “just a salad” the first time I went to the beautiful Brentwood restaurant for a midday meal, I decided that I could justify being a bit more indulgent for such an important celebration.

Not only did I do something I never ever do – drink alcohol (specifically Prosecco) – before 1 pm, I also ran amuck with my least favorite form of fat. I molested my slice of tender house-baked sourdough bread with the softened butter and accompanying rock salt. I insisted we order the butter-massaged cinnamon monkey bread ($3) for the table (and proceeded to eat three pieces). And, in a move that was so un-me that I think I may have been having an out-of-body experience at the time, I requested the most over-the-top, butter-saturated dish on the menu – the Tavern “benedict” with prosciutto and lemon ($16.).

While my dining companions daintily nibbled on smoked fish with toasted rye ($16), a wild mushroom frittata ($16) with the yellowest eggs we’d ever seen, and a simply dressed spinach salad with fennel, citrus and avocado, I corrupted my vessel with more butter than I ever remember ingesting in a single sitting before. (Aside from the time I inhaled ten of my neighbor’s fresh-from-the-oven snicker doodles...)

My heart glugged with each bite of the prosciutto, cheese-laden brioche bread that was also lavishly accosted with poached eggs and a stream of a bastardized lemon-infused hollandaise. The lemon and endive provided some relief, but ultimately, all I could taste was butter on top of more butter. It coated my mouth, left a grease trail on my lips and oozed out from my pores like a vicious odor. The dish was good in the way that bacon wrapped bacon would be good, but ultimately, too much for a butter-phob like me to handle.

The creamsicle coupe ($10) that Sook ordered for dessert pulled me out from the yellow sea I was drowning in, and I clung to the refreshing citrus segments and orange and vanilla ice cream scoops like they were life preservers. It was the healthiest thing I ate the entire meal.

When I finally laid my grease-stained knife to rest, I felt dirty all over – as though cockroaches had been crawling over my face, and little germy children had been wiping their grubby fingers on my dress. I happily returned to more familiar territory – green vegetables – at dinner time. Try as I might, even on birthday occasions, I will never be Paula Deen.

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