Thursday, July 29, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, Episode 7: "I did not touch your pea puree"

Things aren’t so cozy in the “Top Chef” household as the 7th episode gets underway. Kenny "the Beast" still thinks his competitors sabotaged him during last week’s “Cold War” challenge, and Angelo’s making sad puppy eyes because he no longer has Tamesha under his thumb (among other things). Tiffany, however, is on to Angelo’s mind game shtick. She’s also on to Ed’s stick. I mean shtick.

For this week’s Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are introduced to Representative Aaron Schock from Illinois who is the youngest congressman in the House. He tells them that the first day on the job is spent discussing ethics and a good deal of that discussion is based on food to ensure there isn’t any undue influence between lobbyists and members of the House. To make sure congressmen aren’t swayed by lavish meals, any meals served at a lobbyist event must be served on a toothpick. Stephen totally gets this. He says, “It makes sense because lobbyists could buy themselves some laws.” Lightbulb alert! The scarecrow finally got his brain!

In this “toothpick” challenge, the chefs will have 30 minutes to make a delicious h'ordoeuvre that packs the punch of a full dish. Winner gets immunity and $20,000, so the stakes are high and the kitchen is gettin’ a little crazy (i.e. Amanda is running around like a bull again). Stephen’s feeling good about his dish – a scallop and beef kabob with crispy potato. He totally feels the win in his stomach, though we suspect it might also be indigestion from tasting his last dish.

Alex the Molester is also confident. He says, “I’m great at party foods.” You know, stuffing canapés with ruffies, baking pot brownies, spiking some punch… good times, good times. Amanda’s not having as much fun because she doesn’t like making h’ordeourves. We’ve heard this before. She doesn’t like making pies. She doesn’t like emu eggs. She basically only likes cooking with Sherry. For children. Who she wants to run over in Whole Foods with her cart.

Kelly, Alex and Ed are on the bottom for failing to pack a punch on their picks, and Stephen, Angelo and Kevin are singled out for their dishes. Aaron loves all the meat on Stephen’s toothpick (he says, "Mmmm, meaty" when he tastes it), but is ultimately won over by Angelo’s cucumber cup with spiced shrimp and cashew that Angelo had been embarrassed to serve. Apparently cucumbers are like way “old school,” so Angelo seems genuinely humbled when he wins. It’s kind of shocking. Has the tinman finally gotten his heart too?

In this week’s Elimination Challenge, the top chefs will be taking on the Washington “Power Lunch.” They will take over the kitchen of the historic Palm restaurant where they will need to make lunch for 24 diners using 5 of the main ingredients on the menu – lamb, porterhouse, salmon, swordfish, and lobster. Each will draw knives for their protein, but the ten chefs will be competing against everyone regardless of their ingredient. Tiffany and Andrea pick swordfish, Kevin and Kenny will be working with lamb, Kelly and Amanda will be battling with porterhouses, Alex and Stephen will be swimming with salmon, and Angelo and Ed must contend with huge 4-lb lobsters.

Angelo and Ed are immediately at a disadvantage because of the time it will take them to break down the crustacean behemoths, but Ed does manage to eke out a pea puree to serve with his lobster by the end of the two-hour prep time. Amanda’s also at a disadvantage because she’s Amanda. And surprise surprise, she’s never cooked a porterhouse steak before.

It’s appalling, and even more so when Amanda begins hacking up the giant steaks. Kelly looks on and horror, observing, “Amanda’s taking her meat off the bone – it’s not technically a porterhouse any more if you take the bone away.” Kelly was so the girl who never let anyone copy her homework in school. We bet she tattled too. And never shared her toys in the sandbox.

Like Amanda, Alex is also a bit unsure of what he’s doing. He does know he wants to cut his salmon into smaller pieces, but when he leaves the kitchen for the day, he still doesn’t have a concept for his dish yet. It makes us a little nervous, but then again Alex always makes us a little nervous. Right?

Flash forward to Palm the next day. Ed’s pea puree has suddenly gone missing, and Alex is suddenly seen with a blender full of pea puree. Coincidence? The other chefs think not and keep saying “pea puree” over and over again like they are trying to start a “Top Chef” drinking game, and it starts to get really annoying, but not quite as annoying as Ed telling us how much he “trusts” Tiffany every... single.. episode.

Meanwhile, Kelly’s put an embargo on her salt and refuses to let Amanda use any. It kind of reminds us of the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry’s girlfriend won’t “spare a square” of toilet paper when Elaine asks for some in the restroom at the movie theatre. Really, you won’t spare a square? There’s no square to spare? “I did not touch your pea puree!”

The salt embargo ends up biting Kelly in the butt – right next to the stick that’s lodged up it. She ultimately winds up in the bottom for oversalting her porterhouse with crispy potato arugula salad and roasted shallot demi-glace. The diners much prefer Amanda’s duo of NY steak and filet. Amanda’s super happy about this. She says with a smug little grin, “Kelly didn’t share her salt. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t share.”

Joining Kelly in the bottom are Andrea for her pan-seared swordfish with risotto-style couscous, asparagus and vanilla beurre-blanc sauce; and Kevin for his double-cut lamb chops with olive and goat cheese rissole, mache and tomato concasse. Even though Kevin overcooked his chops and his tomato concasse was too spicy, Andrea is sent home for the overpowering vanilla flavor in the beurre-blanc and her mushy couscous. All three contestants get a bit emotional about it – like actually emotional, not Angelo’s kind of fake emotional, and Padma is not a fan. “That’ll be all, thank you.” She says with a huff, dismissing the disgraced chefs to the stew room with a glare that could scare the grin off Stephen’s shiny scarecrow face.

Ed, Tiffany and Alex are in the top for the challenge. The judges love Tiffany’s swordfish with olive raisin tapenade and are also smitten with Ed’s poached lobster ballotine with eggplant caviar and English pea-asparagus fricassee. It’s a nice moment for lovebirds Tiffany and Ed who both thought they would be in the bottom, but it’s made bittersweet by Alex’s eventual win. Guest Judge Art Smith from Art and Soul restaurant tells Alex he could have eaten a bowl of his pea puree before announcing him as the winner. Ed and Tiffany exchange looks, but say nothing. Cut to Alex telling the camera, “You gotta cook from your own heart and soul. It’s gotta be your own food on the plate.”

It seems the mystery of the pea puree will never really be solved. It is clear, however, that none of these cowardly lions found their courage this week.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bastide: A taste of France, the comfort of home

I don’t want to go. I’m tired. I might be getting sick. I had a bad day. I’m feeling sad. I just want to stay home. Eat frozen pizza. Watch last night’s Mad Men and drink tea and wallow in my threadbare 10-year-old sweatpants and fuzzy purple slippers. I don’t want to be social. I don’t want to take pictures. I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to kiss cheeks and shake hands and be “on.”

My mind is whirling with negativity as I walk toward Bastide, an acclaimed modern French Bistro on Melrose Place, for a special hosted dinner on Monday evening. I take a deep breath as I approach the entrance to the restaurant – I’m not quite sure I’m ready for this. Part of me still wants to turn around and walk back home to my apartment a half mile away in West Hollywood.

Part of me wants to melt away into the dusky night air.

But then I step inside the door and get my first glimpse of Bastide’s patio that is already littered with diners and revelers who are taking advantage of the restaurant’s new Monday night $15 cocktail event that takes place from 5:00 – 7:00 pm every week. They seem so relaxed – so the opposite of my mood – as they sip their cocktail or glass of wine and nibble on small bites from the menu.
It’s not hard for me to see why. The patio is beautiful. Not in the fussy way that one would imagine from such an esteemed restaurant. It’s a homey beautiful. Quiant. Comfortable. Accessible. Like the slippers and threadbare sweatpants I left by my bedside at home. I want to curl up under the trees with a book, have lunch with a girlfriend at one of the shaded tables, and sip a breezy white wine from Manager/Sommilier Dario Dell’Anno’s thoughtful wine list on a week night when I should be going to a Bar Method class instead.

Smiles extend a welcoming hand from the patio space outside the entrance to the eclectic interior of the restaurant. I walk forward, confident now. A glass of champagne is placed in my hand, a pork rillette crostini with pickled cherries and cashews is proffered from a server nearby, and my initial hesitation to leave my apartment vanishes.

A yellowtail tartare coquettishly served in a spoon with coconut, cilantro, capers, and lime dances on my tongue with its playful flavors. A chilled corn soup with poached shrimp, orange and curry oil is equally amusing to my palate -- the orange segment hidden at the bottom is a pleasant surprise that brightens and enhances the flavor of the sweet corn.

Then again, everything about this evening seems to be a pleasant surprise.

After all our glasses of champagne are empty, we proceed to our table nestled under the boughs of the tallest tree on the patio. As I tear into the fragrant bread basket and massage a warm onion focaccia roll with an obscene amount of the house-made salted butter, I can’t remember why I didn’t want to come now. At the moment, all I can think about is how I can’t stop drinking the crisp Viognier from the Rhone Valley (apparently I am in the mood to drink) and can’t stop eating the butter like it’s a more innocuous spread like hummus.

A Watermelon Salad with fried chicken, tomato, feta, mache, and aged sherry emulsion is the first course to arrive at the table. The plate immediately makes me think of summers at my grandma’s house in Sioux Falls, South Dakota when my family and I would pick up fried chicken from a local hole-in-the-wall and enjoy it with fresh tomatoes from the garden and ambitious slices of watermelon. Bastide’s dish is a refined, modern take on a typical summer BBQ meal. The flavors of the farmers’ market fresh produce explode, and the thin coat of breading on the chicken provides a welcome sinful counterpoint that is well-balanced by the more virtuous components of the plate.
The Squid served with chickpeas, cucumber, chorizo, and fennel further exemplifies the careful balance that Executive Chef Joseph Mahon applies to each dish. While I always appreciate a good char on my cephalopods, the smoky flavor and rougher texture from the grill would undermine the delicacy of this plate. Every element of the starter – even the nibbles of chorizo – seems to be muted to allow everything to sing together. It pairs well with the buttery, unoaked Chamisal Chardonnay from the Edna Valley. I’m surprised at how much I enjoy the wine – surprised at how much I’m enjoying everything on a night when the couch had seemed to be the most pleasurable place to spend my evening.

The Tomato Risotto with artichoke, herb salad and goat cheese (an off-the-menu item) sings even louder than the squid. I love the crunch from the croutons – an astute interruption to the creamy risotto and spritely endive salad. There’s a lot going on, but the risotto isn’t lost amidst the (welcome) chaos.

I’m delighted to see Salmon with beluga lentils, snap peas and port wine sauce arrive at the table with a light red from the Rhone Valley next. I’d been hoping for wild salmon even though it’s at the tail-end of the season. The fatty fish has always been a comfort food for me, and on this night Bastide’s preparation is no exception. The sous vide salmon is lush and rich – a robust piece of flesh that could hold its own against heartier proteins. The port wine sauce and snap peas accentuate the natural sweetness of the fish, while the lentils counter with earthy undertones. It’s my favorite dish of the night.
Our final savory course -- Lamb with carrot puree, olive, grilled zucchini, and natural jus – seems slightly less bold than the proceeding dishes, but is well-executed. While I’m used to more overtly sweet accompaniments with lamb, I appreciate the understated carrot puree that is tempered by the addition of cream and further toned down by the grilled zucchini. The chop itself is blissfully lean with just a shy whisper of fat around the bone that I happily extract with my teeth. I don’t want to waste a single bite of this restorative meal. Looking around at all the empty plates, I see my dining companions feel the same way.

The night concludes with a soufflé-like Chocolate Pudding Cake topped with peanuts and coconut rum ice cream. The high quality bittersweet chocolate punches the palate with richness, but isn’t overbearing like many interpretations. Sugar has been applied with a delicate hand – its presence only detectable by the caramelized edges along the walls of the bowl. The coconut rum ice cream is a refreshing counterpoint to the warm cake and the peanuts punctuate the sweetness with salty relief. It’s a beautiful, soul-satisfying dessert.

I don’t want the night to end now. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to retreat to the mundane space of my apartment and the tattered sweat pants that await me on my bed. I want to stay within the comforting walls of Bastide’s enclosed patio – sipping wine, smearing butter on their house-made bread, and kissing cheeks with the friends and colleagues who lifted my spirits tonight.

It was the perfect evening. And Bastide was the perfect place to release the tension that was previously wrapped around my heavy heart.

8475 Melrose Place
Los Angeles, CA 90069-5311
(323) 651-5950

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Vat of Street's Burmese Melon Salad

“I now know how to answer the question: If you had to eat the same thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? BURMESE MELON SALAD. Hands. Down.” My friend Ashley wrote in response to my review of the Saban Clinic’s Extravaganza of the Senses last week.

I chuckled at her enthusiasm – clearly an exaggeration – but agreed that, yes, I did want to eat a vat of it. And then another vat.

Street Restaurant’s offering at the Extravaganza had blown both of us away with its unique flavors and textures, and despite the wide array of selections at the event – including a slider from 25 Degrees and some addictive jicama shrimp tacos from Reservoir – it was our favorite item of the night. Both of us agreed that we would have been perfectly content popping a squat next to Street’s booth with huge bowls of just that salad.

After Ashley and I went back for our third bowls of the refreshing dish, we tried to pry the recipe out of the representatives from Street. They told us there was ginger, lime juice and sesame seeds involved, but didn’t elaborate beyond that. I left the event thinking I would have to go back to the restaurant in order to get another fix of our beloved Burmese Melon Salad.

The next day, however, I was shocked to find the recipe had been published in the June issue of Oprah Magazine – a magazine I regularly read for work. I eagerly printed it out and made plans to make the salad the following weekend.

While the recipe in Oprah is not quite the same as the version Ashley and I enjoyed so much at the Saban Extravaganza, it was still as addicting as it was at the event. I ate the entire vat for lunch on Saturday, and then another vat for dinner on Sunday night with some quinoa and shrimp on the side. I might not want to eat the salad for the rest of my life like Ashley, but I would certainly be okay with eating it for the rest of this summer.

Street’s Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
Adapted from recipe in June 2010 issue of Oprah Magazine
Serves 1-2

2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut chips (I found them at Whole Foods)
½ tablespoon white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger (from a 1-inch piece)
2 tablespoons lime juice
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon sugar
1 shallot, thinly sliced
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, and/or watermelon), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup shredded green cabbage
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts, toasted
1 1/2 tablespoons mixture of chopped basil and cilantro

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add coconut and toast it, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.

To make dressing: Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add sesame seeds to skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until golden, about 2 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon peanut oil and ginger; cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and whisk in lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar; set aside.

Heat remaining teaspoon peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, about 30 seconds. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.

To make salad: Combine dressing, melon, peanuts, herbs, coconut, cabbage, and shallots; salt to taste. Toss well; serve immediately.

Monday, July 26, 2010

CASA: Modern Mexican that's worth the indulgence

“There’s a lot coming.” She says to Neil from Food Marathon as I shove a second Flautas de Pollo into my mouth.

The fried flour tortilla stuffed with tomatillo marinated shredded chicken breast, jalepeno-cilantro salsa, smoked queso and guacamole crunches under the pressure of my teeth, and I gulp self-consciously. I can already feel the impending fullness – the engorged belly that will keep me up all night like it has on so many occasions after attending a media or tasting dinner.

Tonight’s meal at CASA, a modern Mexican cantina in Downtown LA, won’t be kind to my waistline. Executive Chef Alex Moreno who has worked at Melisse, Jiraffe, Spago and Bastide, is preparing nine different dishes for us to taste. There will be nine different ways for me to overeat. Nine different ways for me to spend all night hugging my belly in pain, thinking, “Why, why, why did I find it necessary to eat the second flautas de pollo or that third helping of carnitas?”

I swallow and cleanse my mouth with a sip of the hip restaurant’s strong margarita. It’s pleasant as margaritas go – not too sweet or cloying on my liquor-phobic palate. Even so, I still find myself pushing it to the side, fully aware that hard alcohol and I don’t get along.

"Tonight I will be the picture of restraint," I tell myself. "For once, I won’t overexert myself gastronomically."

My plan starts off fine. I manage to cast my eyes away from the chips and guacamole after just two “tasting” bites to confirm that the are indeed tortilla chips and the guacamole is indeed made with avocado. I tackle only one of the Pork Belly Sopes topped with salsa negra and queso fresco that are slightly reminiscent of the version at Rick Bayless’ Red O. The smoky flavor of the braised pork reminds me of BBQ sauce, but it is a pleasurable nibble that doesn’t take up too much precious stomach real estate.

Neither does the Carnitas Torta Slider with a smoky sweet tinga sauce, pico de gallo and crema. Much to the horror of the dining companion to my left, I ceremoniously remove the supple pork to eat sans bun – an action that she immediately attributes to a carbohydrate phobia.

“Oh no!” I burst out. “I’m just saving room. There’s a lot coming.”
She nods, but I’m not quite sure she believes me. Especially when I stop eating mid-way through Chef Alex’s Chicken Taco, an understated Yucatecan style taco served with chilled, shredded chicken breast, cabbage, cotija cheese and mild habanero salsa in a lightly crisped corn tortilla. It’s even harder for me to abandon the Taco de Camarones Fritos with lightly battered shrimp that are tossed in a spicy crema and served with caramelized pineapple, cabbage and house candied almonds. While I do set the flour tortilla aside after a few bites to, again “save my stomach,” I actually discover I prefer the taco fillings sans carbohydrate shell. The kick from the crema juxtaposed with the sweetness of the pineapple really comes through without the typically welcome distraction of the tortilla. The crunch from the almonds and cabbage are also more pronounced on my palate without the soft wrapper to contend with.

At this juncture in the meal, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I’m flying high, feeling good – not anywhere near stomach-rubbing status.

"I’ll surely sleep like a baby tonight," I think smugly.

Then the Carnitas arrive – large chunks of shreddable pork shoulder served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, pickled red onions and chile guajillo sauce and lime crema.

I gulp at the sight of the behemoth before us. It’s massive – so large that I can barely fit all of the components on my camera screen. There’s a lot going on. Seemingly too much going on, and I’m fully confident that I’ll be able to coast through this course without overindulging.

Or at least I am until I taste it.

As I reach for the serving spoon again, I realize that this is what I’ve been saving room for. It’s the reason I was abandoning carbohydrate soldiers right and left during the preceding courses. It's the reason I didn't eat my weight in chips. It's the reason I didn't knock off the entire plate of chicken flautas.

The char on the pork shoulder is a compelling contrast to the tender shreds of flesh, the sweet onions dance with the caramelized pork bits and potato hash, and the lime cream adds a welcome cooling element to temper the bolder flavors. After three helpings, I know I’m in for it. I’m barely able to touch the less flavorful Braised Beef Short Ribs Birria with beef broth and goat cheese stuffed peppers and crostini garnishes; or the pleasantly sweet Tamale de Elote with chile sauce, goat cheese crema and addictive house candied pepitas.

"I’m done," I tell myself. "Cooked. Out for the count."

Or maybe I’m just saving room for the Mexican Chocolate Pot de Crème with caramelized plantains, peanuts and whipped cream that is far better than most of the desserts I’ve encountered at a Mexican restaurant.
“Just one bite,” I think when it’s presented to me.

“Just one more.” I think a moment later as the salty and sweet elements blissfully collide on my tongue..

“Okay, this is really the last one,” I think after four additional spoonfuls disappear into my mouth.

My stomach groans in protest, but when I finally do lay my spoon to rest, I feel completely satisfied. Tonight, the pain will be worth it.

I’ll do “restrained” tomorrow.

350 South Grand Avenue
2 California Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Phone: (213) 621-2249

Friday, July 23, 2010

Summer Salad 'Session

“It’s the sweetest corn you’ll ever have.” She says, locking eyes with me.

I study the yellow and white teeth of the corn at the Brentwood Farmer’s Market stand. It does look good – like the corn my family used to get in Sioux Falls, South Dakota when we were visiting my grandma as kids.

But corn isn’t in my menu plan for the week. I have a tofu stir-fry planned, my stand-by Chicken Marsala, and I already know there will be a few quinoa dinners lobbed in mid-week as well.

Even so, I can’t resist it. I have to have the “sweetest corn [I’ll] ever have.” Even if it’s not the sweetest corn I’ve ever had or will have. And even if I do have to eat it for dessert or breakfast so it doesn’t perish in the bottom of my vegetable crisper like the dried out broccoli that met the garbage bin that morning.

I am similarly unable to resist the mango nectarines and the crunchy Persian cucumbers. They sing to me from their stands – begging me to purchase them on a whim like the dresses I can’t help myself from buying every time I walk into an Anthropologie. Ten minutes into my farmer’s market adventure, my grocery tote is full of produce and threatening to disrupt my balance. It’s a clear sign that I need to leave. Immediately.

On the drive back to West Hollywood, I think about just eating the ear of corn and nectarine for lunch along with some other nibbles. But what I really want is a big salad of everything mixed together – a summer farmer’s market salad. A salad that tastes so fresh one could almost imagine it had been picked straight off a tree rather than assembled by a man or neurotic woman.

I boil my corn until is bursts with yellow color, dice my ripe nectarine into sweet fleshy chunks, slice the cucumber, cook some shelled edamame, and whip up a light lime-honey vinaigrette. Quinoa and green onions will inevitably fall in my salad bowl as well, and the whole thing will ultimately be topped off with a soft goat cheese I’d spontaneously purchased at Whole Foods the previous day.

When I finally dive my fork into the heap of fresh ingredients, I can’t help but think that the salad was meant to be. The varying flavors and textures explode in my mouth. It only takes one bite to know that this will be my new summer salad obsession. I’ll make it again. And again. And again, until the corn isn’t sweet any more, and the nectarines are upwards of $5.99 a pound. Or until I find a new salad to obsess over. And a new ingredient I just have to have at the farmer's market.

Corn, Nectarine, Cucumber and Edamame Quinoa Salad
Serves 1-2

1 ear of yellow corn, boiled and cut off the husk
½ cup shelled edamame
1 small Persian cucumber, sliced and cut in halves
2 green onions, sliced into thin slivers
1 ripe nectarine, chopped
¼ cup quinoa prepared according to package instructions
1 ounce goat cheese

Lime-Honey Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
Salt, pepper to taste

Combine salad ingredients (aside from goat cheese) in large bowl. Toss with dressing to taste. Serve immediately and top with crumbled goat cheese.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, Episode 6: "The one that tries to possess people’s minds”

Cherry blossoms are in bloom in Washington DC as the sixth episode of “Top Chef” Season 7 gets under way. The sky is blue, the birds are chirping, the air is perfumed with the scent of spring flowers. Is love finally in the air?


Unless, of course, Ed and Tiffany or Angelo and Tamesha finally decide to release some… tension. Or Alex finally gets his hooker and eight ball.

All the chefs are a little down now that father figure Timothy is gone, though we mostly suspect that’s because they could also count on good ole Tim to always take the fall at Judge’s Table. It’s scary when the bottom dwellers leave and everyone is forced to start seasoning their food and adding delicious fenugreek broth to everything.

Andrea, who has been on the top the past two challenges, isn’t too worried though – or at least she’s not worried until she sees the guest judge for this week's episode. Michelle Bernstein, a James Beard Winner and Head Chef at Michy’s restaurant, will be judging the Quickfire and Elimination challenges. Michelle and Andrea both have restaurants in Miami and are apparently big time rivals. Like HUGE. Like Andrea’s hair and Angelo's ego big.

For the Quickfire Challenges the chefs will need to prepare a delicious dish using what Kevin describes as “nasty proteins.” Padma is more PC, referring to them as “outlandish ingredients.” We kind of prefer Kevin’s analysis. Especially when we discover that Angelo’s protein – duck white kidneys -- is actually duck testacles. Ed’s nonplussed by them. He used to make cock and ball soup with duck testacles when he worked for Todd English and he’s really adept with the cock. And the balls. Did Tiffany hear that? Is she around? Can she stop laughing?

Amanda’s struggling with her emu egg that she is disappointed to discover does not mean the egg has weird hair and is a little punk. We are a little scared when she breaks out the saw to try to crack the egg open after her run in with the potato peeler in the first episode. Tamesha, who isn’t too keen on the spastic grocery cart bulldozer, is secretly hoping Amanda will accidentally saw her hand off and be disqualified. She’s also secretly hoping she can be the one holding the saw.

Midway through their cooking time, Padma announces that they will need to switch "outlandish ingredients" with the person to their left. Amanda’s happy because she can dump the emo egg on Kelly, and Stephen’s happy because he can say, “I went from crocodile to frog legs – not really a big leap. No pun intended.” He so intended that pun. He’s practically giddy over his pun. He’s ready to open up Puns ‘R Us back in Ohio and make puns and beans all day long. Unfortunately, his seared frog leg and frog leg confit fails to get off the lily pad. Michelle Bernstein calls them “insipid.” She’s not much kinder about Alex’s “dry” ostrich barded with caul fat and basil or her nemesis Andrea’s chewy wild boar with wild cherry risotto.

Michelle is fonder of Kelly’s emo omelette, Amanda’s roast llama and Tamesha’s duck tongue in broth with mirepoix, and awards Kelly the win for achieving "great balance on the plate." Kelly is granted immunity and will not need to compete in the Elimination Challenge.

The other chefs will be divided into two groups to compete in a “Cold War.” Each chef will prepare a cold dish that they will serve to both the judges and their competitors in the other group. The chefs will decide which dish is the worst and which is the best and the selected contestants will either be up for elimination or up for the win, respectively. To make the challenge even more "insipid" and worthy of shelf space at Puns ‘R Us, the chefs will plan their menus and “Cold War strategy” while sailing around the Potomoc in the USS Sequioa, which apparently is like the maritime version of Air Force One.

While Angelo is giving everyone advice on how to make their dishes more sexy and delicious, and Kenny is stewing about all the Brutuses in his midst, Tiffany and Ed have a nice little Titanic moment on the deck where they both tell each other how much they trust each other and want to fly like Kate and Leo into the sunset. We’d prefer that this "insipid" flirtation fly directly into an iceberg. It kind of makes us… cold. Pun intended.

Angelo is feeling warm about his “sexy” sockeye salmon and its sexy color and all the sexy things he’s going to do to it with his delicious broths and Tamesha after she strangles Amanda “in a heartbeat.” Andrea’s kind of wishing Tamesha would turn her sights on Michelle Bernstein instead. We’re kind of wishing Tamesha would blow her nose already.

Congestion – not so sexy. Or delicious.

Judge’s table is an all out… (wait for it)… war. Group B which includes Angelo, Tamesha, Stephen, Andrea, and Tiffany ream their competitors out for their dishes. Andrea is rightfully repulsed when she finds a piece of cartilage in Amanda’s chicken galantine with mache and plum compote, and all the chefs are turned off by Kenny’s complicated grilled lamb salad and lamb carpaccio with black eye pea hummus. Angelo says, “The experience with the okra and the carpaccio was not a great one – it just turned into like a slimy… it just like killed the lamb and ate it right there.” Et tu Brutus? Kenny is voted the least favorite and will be up for elimination. Kevin is on top for his tuna and veal with romaine leaves, pine nuts and Mediterranean flavors.

The chefs swap places and Ed, Kevin, Kenny, Alex, and Amanda will now be judging their competitors. Tiffany is universally praised for her peppercorn crusted ahi tuna in gazpacho sauce with cucumber arugula salad, and Kevin singles out Angelo’s poached sockeye salmon with cilantro and chile in a “beautiful” pineapple tea as his favorite of the group. Tamesha’s scallops with pickled rhubarb, cilantro, basil and long pepper in rhubarb jus, and Stephen’s chilled beef with crispy rice and jalepeno oil – both Angelo-assisted dishes – are deemed the least successful. Tiffany will ultimately be up for the win, while Tamesha will be up for elimination.

The judges seem to concur with the chefs’ assessment of their peers. They call Tiffany’s ahi tuna the most refreshing dish they had, and love the textural contrast in Kevin’s dish. Kevin, bless his little sincere heart, comes out on top and wins six nights at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. While he’s not quite as lovable as Kevin Red Beard from season 6, the future daddy is kind of growing on us like a beard. Again, pun intended.

Tamesha and Kenny are then called in to receive their verbal lashings. Michelle likens the feeling of eating Tamesha’s scallop to “putting another tongue on top of your tongue,” which actually doesn’t sound all that bad if we are going to be completely honest and a little bit profane like our buddy Alex. Michelle continues her Simon Cowell-esque critiques by telling Kenny that “If I could sit here and actually talk about each piece that was on the dish, it would take me through to the end of the show.” We’re not sure we like Michelle very much right now and are considering printing t-shirts that say “Team Andrea.” Maybe “Team The Beast” too. (Kenny’s still King Caesar Salad in our minds.) In the end, Tamesha is sent home for her scallop dish that Tom calls “shockingly bad.” Angelo pretends to wipe a tear away, but we’re thinking it might just be some delicious tea broth that got in his eye. We don’t trust the “mind possessor” one bit. It’s a shame that Tamesha did.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pecorino Restaurant: "I won't keep you out late - promise!"

“I won't keep you out late - promise!” I write in the e-mail I send to Sarah at 4 pm on Thursday afternoon. We have spontaneously decided to meet for drinks at the bar of our favorite Westside watering hole, Tavern, to catch up. On what, I don’t know, since we are always “caught up.”

Mostly, our last-minute meet-up is an excuse to drink and avoid all the things we should be doing – like working or, for me, watching all the TV that has been stacking up like Dominoes on my DVR. But we’ll get to all that later – after drinks.

Or so we think when we hang our purse straps on the under-the-bar hooks at Tavern.

“Catching up” takes longer than we expect. Three and a half hours pass by without notice, and we emerge from the bar starving and craving carbohydrates to counter the effects of our substantial Rosé appetizer. It’s too late to go home and make some sort of quinoa and vegetable conglomeration like I had planned, and too late for Sarah to go home and work. We stand on the sidewalk torn between our dining options in the area until Sarah remembers an Italian trattoria she’d visited a couple years ago. A decision is made, and we meander around the corner to Pecorino Restaurant, a quiet respite away from the hustle and vapid displays of wealth that often line Brentwood’s San Vicente Blvd. during the day.

The family restaurant, helmed by co-owners Mario Sabatini and Giorgio Pierangeli, and Mario’s brother, Chef Raffaele Sabatini, seems almost out of place in the chic environs of Brentwood. The rustic space is a breath of fresh air – if fresh air smells like guanciale (unsmoked pork jowel) being fried in a skillet for the restaurant’s Spaghetti alla “Carbonara.” (I’m fairly certain it does.)

The restaurant is decidedly romantic, but also low key – the type of spot two friends can tuck into on a Thursday night at 9:30 pm without a reservation. At some places, our unannounced, late arrival would be met with narrowed eyes and a dismissive manner. Not at Pecorino. Owner Mario, who is manning the host stand when we arrive, beckons us inside with a genuine smile before charging us over to a four-top by the window. Menus are ceremoniously planted in front of us, our water glasses are filled (and subsequently, refilled), and bread and a savory white bean spread appear without request. The staff isn’t just eager to please; they are overjoyed to please – as though it is their sincerest mission to make each patron’s stay in the restaurant as enjoyable as possible.

The courteous service notwithstanding, it’s still easy to enjoy Pecorino. The tempura batter that enrobes the Ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms shatters at the slightest provocation, releasing a river of ricotta that oozes onto the tongue like lava. It’s gasp-worthy, and I’m incapable of hiding my affection for the starter, a special at the restaurant that evening. While a shared plate of the pasta special, a hearty bowl of sausage and porcini ragu over al dente rigatoni, is less memorable, the dish is still comforting in its refined modesty – just like the restaurant that serves it.

On this particular night, however, I am more enamored by the Spaghetti alla “Carbonara” ($14.00) with the aforementioned guanciale, egg and a shower of pecorino cheese. I want to lace the pasta noodles around my fork for hours, idling over each piece of crunchy guanciale burrowed within the nest of spaghetti. It’s a traditional Italian preparation – i.e. not as creamy as more Americanized interpretations, but fully satisfying. The quality of the ingredients used shines through with pronounced clarity.
The Carciofi brasati (braised artichokes, $9) that arrives at the table at the same time as the Carbonara is a solid side dish, but its earthy flavor is slightly dulled by the proximity of the pasta. The siren call of the guanciale holds my attention hostage until every stray noodle has been cleared from my plate.
Even though it is nearing midnight, Mario, who opened Pecorino five years ago (ten years after he left Italy for the United States), refuses to let Sarah and I leave without complimenting our presence with dessert. A Pear au gratin with almond cream ($8.50) and “Millefoglie” with almond titles and strawberries ($8.50) are chaperoned onto the table before we can hold up our knives in protest. Despite the late hour and the tight cinch of my waist band warning me to call it a night, the caramelized edges of the pear au gratin beckon my spoon. The danger with this dessert is its understated sweetness that doesn’t preclude the ability to eat multiple bites of the dainty lasagna-like layers of pear and almond cream. It’s an unexpected delightful cap to an equally unexpected delightful evening.

When I finally arrive home at 12:30, my eyes foggy from all the carbohydrates and the wine that Sarah and I enjoyed earlier in the evening, I laugh at the verbiage of my mid-afternoon e-mail.

“I won’t keep you out late – promise!”

Fortunately, I’m blessed to have a friend who completely ignores my promises. And, like Pecorino, isn’t pleased until I’m pleased – and blissfully stuffed with pasta, pears and Pecorino.

Pecorino Restaurant
11604 San Vicente Blvd.
Brentwood, CA 90049
Phone: 310.571.3800

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Saban Free Clinic's Extravaganza for the Senses: A sense of what it must be like to be on "Top Chef"

There are few television shows I love to love and love to hate more than “Top Chef.” Even when Padma is posing for the camera in some inane outfit that makes her look like a penguin or one of the cheftestants is mugging about his delicious broths and delicious male parts, I can’t get enough of Bravo’s hit reality show. The only problem with watching the chefs battle it out in the kitchen is that I inevitably feel jealous of the judges and guests who get to eat their food. My tepid cup of nighttime tea is no match for seared scallops in a fenugreek broth. Or so season seven’s Angelo would have me believe.

As a guest of the Saban Free Clinic’s at their 13th Annual Extravaganza of the Senses at the Sunset Gower Studios on Saturday night, however, I finally had the opportunity to experience what it must be like for guests who are lucky enough to attend the “Top Chef” events. The extravaganza featured unlimited small plates and samples from more than 35 of LA’s hottest restaurants, along with pours from over 80 wineries, including Kim Crawford, Stag’s Leap, Robert Mondavi, and one of my favorites of the evening, the Crossings, which was serving a lovely summery Sauvignon Blanc with an intense presence of grapefruit. It was the perfect way to wet (and whet) my palate on the warm evening.

The food, served by many of the participating restaurant’s chefs or top personnel, was equally impressive. Even though I no longer get my feathers ruffled when I see celebrities out and about in LA, when I approached Jar’s table for a sample of their chopped salad, I was rendered speechless in front of Executive Chef Suzanne Tracht, who was manning the booth. I sheepishly retreated with my salad without saying a word to the famous chef. Moments like this truly made me feel like I was on an episode of “Top Chef” or “Top Chef Masters,” which Chef Tracht competed on.
Just like on the show, there were also clear winners for me on Saturday night. Valerie Gordon and Stan Weightman were there representing Valerie Confections with their pristine white chocolate rose petal petit fours and champagne truffles. Valerie and Stan’s charming personalities are mirrored in their charming confections, and their sweet offerings continue to be one of my favorite indulgences in the city. I was also charmed by Milk’s chocolate-dipped vanilla macaron ice cream sandwiches.

On the savory side, romantic Lauren Canyon hideaway Pace dished up a well-executed sea bass with a refreshing avocado relish accompaniment, and Momed’s Executive Chef Matt Carpenter wooed me again with the restaurant’s famous “Duck Shawarma.” I, along with several of the event's revelers, went back for seconds of the latter.

I also went back for seconds of “Top Chef” Season 7 contestant’s Alex Reznik’s deconstructed bacon-wrapped date which included a piece of caramelized pork lardon, a date and a tempura-battered blue cheese ball that he instructed me to eat in one bite. The famous chef was there representing Hollywood restaurant Ivan Kane’s Cafe Was, and was far more charming in person than he’s depicted on the show.
Despite my protestations that I’m not a burger person, I braved the line at 25 Degrees for one of their sliders which came topped with jack cheese, green chilies and bacon. While some found the meat to be overcooked, the only slightly pink center suited me just fine – if I wanted my meat to moo, I’d go live on a farm. Another favorite for the night was the panko fried shrimp in a jicama taco with spicy aioli and fennel slaw that Reservoir was serving in the VIP lounge. I couldn’t resist eating two of the brightly flavored bites while I was waiting in line for one of the neck massages being offered by Bliss Spa.

No bite, however, could compare to Susan Feniger’s Street’s Burmese Melon Salad with watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, toasted coconut, peanuts, fried onions and a sesame ginger dressing. Over the course of the evening, my friend Ashley and I went back for three generous helpings of the unique salad that was an explosion of textures and sweet, salty and spicy flavors. Even though Susan Feniger didn’t make it to the final round when she was on “Top Chef Masters,” this dish certainly proved she is already a Master even without the title and pat on the back from Tom Colicchio.

It was a sad moment when the chefs at the event began packing their knives to go at the end of the night. It meant back to real life as it doesn’t exist on reality television for me, and back to the kitchen for them. Either way, I can’t wait to go back for season two of the affair next year. I might even work up the courage to say hello to Ms. Tracht.

For more information on the Saban Free Clinic, visit their website.