Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Test Kitchen LA: Michael Voltaggio

“Guess whose food I’m eating tomorrow?” I text my older brother on Saturday night.

An instant later his response lights up the screen on my Droid.


I quickly type back, “Did Mom or Dad tell you?????” I had, in typical over reactive fashion, already phoned home to tell them about my dinner the following evening at the new Test Kitchen LA with special guest chef Michael Voltaggio.

“Nope. I’m just good.” He responds. “Just had to think about who you would be excited about…”

But it isn’t that he is “just good.” Any one who had read my embarrassing “Love Letter to Michael Voltaggio” after the first episode of last season’s “Top Chef” would have been able to guess the answer to my question.

I hadn’t been exactly… subtle.

Even though my (mostly) exaggerated “crush” graduated to a more respectful appreciation of Voltaggio’s culinary skills as the season progressed, the “letter” continues to haunt me. It’s the third search result that pops up when someone Googles, “Is Michael Voltaggio married?” And it is part of the reason that Kevin from KevinEats invited me to join his reservation for Michael Voltaggio’s one night of service at Test Kitchen, a restaurant arena for chefs and restaurateurs to test out new concepts and experimental dishes for one or more evenings of service.

My excitement in accepting Kevin’s invitation, however, is not necessarily because I had at one point in time written a cringe-worthy post about Voltaggio. I’m excited because I’ve come to admire the attractive chef’s passion and vision in the kitchen. During his stint on “Top Chef,” he took risks, he blurred conventional lines and – perhaps most impressively -- he poured his heart into every dish he served. It’s why Voltaggio was ultimately crowned the victor of Season 6, and it’s why I'm texting my brother and calling my parents at 9:00 pm on a Saturday night.

Despite my anticipation about the dinner, I’m not sure what to expect when I walk into the darkened foyer of Test Kitchen the next evening, fifteen minutes before my party’s reservation. I don’t know what’s on the one-night-only menu. I don’t know if I’ll get to see the famous tattooed chef. And I don’t know if I’m even going to like Voltaggio’s experimental style of cooking.

It’s not exactly… subtle.

I do know, however, that I’m going to have fun in TK masterminds Brian Saltsburg and Bill Chiat’s lair. The room seems to thump with a pulsating energy. It’s not the music that swirls with random tunes like Alvin and the Chipmunks, nor is it the conversations wafting between revelers hibernating with ambitious cocktails at the bar.

It’s a charged energy peppered with excitement from diners. Excitement from the chef for the evening – Voltaggio, who is an arm’s distance away in the open kitchen. And excitement from everyone involved in the operation. There’s a distinct unspoken sensation that nothing like this night will happen again. It’s quite literally a once in a lifetime dining experience.

I pinch myself that I’m so lucky to be there for it.

Voltaggio’s menu for the evening is broken down into two amuse bouches and ten tracks, or courses, that are meant to be shared between two diners. The concept of the $69 tasting is easily discernable from the names ascribed to each track, like “Fish and Chips” and “Melon and Proscuitto.” Voltaggio has reconceptualized traditional dishes with untraditional preparations. This I know for a fact. The rest is akin to a game of charades between myself as a diner and Voltaggio as a mad culinary genius.

I don’t pretend to automatically understand all the flavors I am experiencing in every dish. I know the “Petit Befores” – a savory mushroom canapé with goat cheese crema and truffle oil, and a salted gelatin tomato pop – are meant to be a play on “Petit Fours,” but I don’t know why or how the pop tastes and feels like the sort of gummy candy I could become addicted to if it were stockpiled in my office drawer at work.

Can I count it toward my daily servings of fruits and vegetables?

It’s uncertain. But I’d like to.

Everything seems to move at a dizzying speed once our first official track, the “Mole” hits the table. Little cups of queso fresco ice cream are paired with a coquettish pot of edible flowers and Padron peppers that have been dusted with mole “soil.” My first bite of the pepper is marred by punch of heat that is a bit spicy for my palate. I dig out some of the seeds before venturing in for another bite with the tangy ice cream – much better.

Our server warns us not to eat the fried balls in Track 2, the “Fish and Chips,” in one bite. “It’s tartar sauce,” he tells us before disappearing toward the kitchen. Two seconds later, I instinctively plop the ball into my mouth, completely forgetting his blatant warning. It’s delicious. As are the thin slices of yellowtail, malt vinegar “caviar” and the delicate fried potato chip – all components that the tartar sauce was meant to be eaten with to achieve the “Fish and Chips” sensation. Oops.

I manage better with the “Caprese” that plays with the concept of the mozzarella, basil and tomato salad that is typically simply dressed with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. On this plate, the salt and vinegar have been replaced with briny flavors exported from the sea – freeze-dried calamari chips, squid ink, sea beans, and green and red cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in dashi (bonito flakes). The effect is startling similar to the original, but is a more potent, texturally interesting version.

I’m a little leery when Track 4 hits the table. While the two “McNuggets” look innocent nestled into the cloth-lined shopping cart with a precious cup of rhubarb ketchup, I know the golden, curry-dusted fried coating is not a cloak for chicken. Voltaggio can’t fool me. I can read menus (even if I do have trouble listening to verbal instructions).

The “McNugget” is actually a fried lamb sweetbread. And even with the knowledge that a sweetbread is thymus or pancreas, I’m going to eat it. And love it.

Voltaggio’s version is far better than the actual McNuggets I used to pretend to like as a kid so I could order fries on the side to eat as my actual lunch. I feel no need to pretend here. (Though I do make a concerted effort not to look at exactly what’s inside the crisp, seasoned package of creamy, glandular goodness.)

I have no trouble taking in Track 5, the “Greek Mezze” plate with sous vide tentacles of octopus, fried falafel balls with liquefied centers, tangy yogurt and a smoky accompanying sauce that mimics the flavor profile that would be achieved if the octopus had been grilled. It’s quirky, but accessible – a refined version of some of my favorite (not always refined) Greek/Mediterranean eats.

When first presented the menu for the evening, I had mentioned to Kevin that I might struggle with Track 6, the “Melon & Proscuitto” plate reimagined with Wagyu beef tongue, arugula, dehydrated arugula, smoked mayo and a concentrated block of sweet cantaloupe. Tongue always makes me think of the Ramona Quimby book where Ramona and her sister discover the mystery meat their mother served them for dinner is tongue. The girls are horrified, and, as a child, I was horrified just by reading about their fictional experience. Tonight, however, I put my childhood prejudices aside, and dive into the long strips of sous vide beef tongue.

Everyone’s eyes are on me as I nervously drape a piece of the tongue over a sliver of melon. I take a breath and slide the tongue into my mouth. I smile.

“Voltaggio slipped me the tongue.” I say with a wink. “And I loved it.”

I also love Track 7, the “Maryland Crab Feast,” with soft shell crab, corn scramble and Old Bay. Instead of being seasoned with Old Bay and steamed like in the traditional East Coast Crab Fest fashion, the soft shell crab is appropriately fried with the Old Bay seasoning appearing on the plate as a sauce. The intensely spiced sauce is a nice counterpoint to the sweet corn pudding accompaniment. I want more of everything – especially the crackly fried pieces of crab.

Track 8, the “Veal Picatta” is another favorite. The tender veal cheek has been braised down to the consistency of a short rib – albeit a much more luxurious one. Even with the dehydrated caper dust and the dehydrated cauliflower delicately perched over the top of the veal, this is a plate that anyone could appreciate. The cauliflower puree and chanterelles round out the dish well – this is comfort food, Voltaggio-style.

For dessert, Voltaggio takes on two classics – “Carrot Cake” and “Tiramasu.” Carrot cake has always been a favorite for me, so I find it a bit disconcerting to experience it in its deconstructed form. The carrot has been taken out of the spiced cake and applied in the form of an intensely carrot-y sorbet instead. Plump raisins are strewn along the edges, a thin thread of yuzu is glazed over the top, and the plate is finished with a dusting of powdered cream cheese frosting. Taken together, it certainly tastes like carrot cake, but I find myself missing the original.

I do, however, prefer Voltaggio’s reinterpretation of tiramisu as a creamy soy budino topped with coffee beans and mascarpone beads. I love the intense coffee flavor, the subtle kiss of chocolate and the crunchy topping. It’s like a grown-up ice cream sundae made with pudding, and I happily acquiesce when Linden from Gastronomnom, my track-sharing dining companion, tells me to finish it.

It’s hard to get up from the table and walk away after such an intense and highly anticipated meal. We all want to stay – to sneak a peak inside the kitchen and bother Voltaggio for a picture (can be viewed at the bottom of KevinEats' review).

When I do finally leave 45 minutes later, my mind is still in the moment – still reeling, still analyzing and still tasting that once-in-a-lifetime meal. I may never completely figure it out, but I can’t wait to see what other tricks Voltaggio has in store for LA in the future.

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Phone: (310) 277-0133

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zengo: Fusing the infusable

I get a bizarre sense of pleasure when I tell people I put peanut butter in my oatmeal. I love watching their faces contort with revulsion as I describe my favorite breakfast in lurid detail.

"First, I cook the oats on the stove top with dried cranberries, green apple, cinnamon and a pinch of salt." I say, as though I'm telling a ghost story. "Then, when it's nice and thick - so thick that it's almost paste-like, so thick that it could be used to spackle a wall -- I stir in a big tablespoon of ooey gooey peanut butter."

My former roommates have been horrified by this. My mom, who usually likes my various recipe concoctions, refuses to even taste it. And for some reason, this makes me love the oatmeal even more.

It's something that shouldn't work. The ingredients don't really necessary go together. And the combination should be repulsive -- not something that I crave and look forward to eating every morning.

But it isn't repulsive. To me, it's mind-numbingly good. I love the weirdness. I love all the different elements, textures and sweet and salty flavors. Even though I eat it with absurd regularity, I always feel a bit giddy when I sit down to my dining room table with a big bowl of it.

While sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who enjoys feasting on bizarre combinations, unexpected pairings are a growing trend in the dining scene. Mozza tops one of its popular pies with speck, jalepeno and pineapple. Ludo puts foie gras frosting on his chocolate cupcakes. Quinn Hatfield makes his croque madame with yellow tail and quail egg at Hatfield's. And at the new Santa Monica Place restaurant Zengo, Chef and Restaurateur Richard Sandoval fuses Latin and Asian flavors together.

At first glance, the two cuisines seem vehemently opposed. When I think about Mexican food, the first thing that comes to mind is "heavy." Followed by "cheesy." Followed by "stomach bomb." When I think about Asian food, I often conjure up images of lighter foods - sushi, stir-fried vegetables and delicate noodles. On the surface the only commonality between Asian and Mexican seems to be the abundance of rice.

Zengo Santa Monica, the fourth Zengo location in Sandoval's restaurant empire, delves below that surface with its playful menu of shared small plates. Yes, there are dishes like Edamame with XO sauce ($7), sushi rolls, and a standard Hamachi (young yellowtail) with sriracha and mint ($13) that are more explicitly Asian in nature, but there are a number of plates where the lines between Asian and Latin are more obviously blurred. There are Charred Tuna Wonton Tacos with sushi rice, mango salsa and guacamole ($12) that marry together sushi rolls and tacos. There are Peking Duck-Daikon Tacos ($12) made with duck confit, jicama tortillas, orange-coriander sauce and curried apple. And there's a Chipotle-Miso Glazed Black Cod with daikon radish and lemon-togarashi aioli ($16) that turns the traditional preparation of miso cod on its head with a tangy Latin twist.

While such experimentation can often result in muddied flavors that compete with one another, Sandoval's Braised Beef Short Ribs ($14) with manchego cheese-huitlachoche potato puree, shiitake mushrooms, and dragon sauce are delightfully cohesive -- just as comforting as the ubiquitous rendition served with stewed carrots, onions and plain mashed potatoes. Not like how mom makes them, but still the type of dish that one would crave on a cold night. The Scallops Al Mojo de Ajo ($14) -- two fat scallops served with bacon-corn-edamame salsa, roasted garlic soy and yuzu-sriracha aioli -- is more challenging in terms of the different flavors and textures, but still works. The scallops are cooked perfectly, and the crunchy bite from the corn-bacon-edamame salsa is a welcome and addictive distraction.

Of all the dishes, however, the Crispy Tofu ($11) with napa cabbage, lemon aioli and sesame chile sauce is perhaps the biggest surprise. From one perspective, it feels like a deconstructed vegetarian version of a fish taco. From another, it's a dressed-up panko-crusted tofu that is decided Asian in nature with the cabbage and sweet chili sauce. But perhaps even more notable is how the inventive plate wins over both carnivores and vegetarians alike.

Maybe that's the biggest secret to Richard Sandoval's success. Not just his creativity in fusing seemingly infusable cuisines, but in the way that fusing them creates a middle ground where diners with different palates can meet. The girl who only eats fish and vegetables and the guy who only eats meat and potatoes can both find plates to enjoy at Zengo. And the girl who stirs peanut butter into her oatmeal can discover more bizarre food combinations to enjoy-- and to repulse her friends with.

395 Santa Monica Place, 3rd Floor
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 899-1000

*Note: My meal at Zengo was hosted by the restaurant.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, Episode 11: "To have a skewer in your mouth like that… it’s not easy”

Everyone seems to be losing their marbles as the eleventh episode of “Top Chef” Season 7 kicks off. It’s the eleventh hour – make it or break it time, and the six remaining chefs are feeling the pressure. Ed tries to relieve the tension by prancing around the house in one of Tiffany’s dresses, and Angelo reacts by talking to himself. He also reveals that when he was young he used to cut out pictures of all the famous four star chefs, put them in a special room with candles and kneel and pray before them everyday.

Yep, golden boy definitely flew over the cuckoo’s nest with this one.

But Amanda is more concerned because he reads books and that’s like way freakier. Who does that?

Rick Moonen from RM Seafood is this episode’s guest judge for the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. Apparently, it's now a requirement for all chefs to be on “Top Chef Masters” if they want to be a guest judge on the show. Or just be short enough so that Padma looks like a giant in comparison.

This week Padma is super excited because she gets to say “top dog, “top banana, and “the big cheese,” to describe the Quickfire. It’s what she makes her lovers call her in the bedroom -- before she eats them like a Praying Mantis and then spits them out for being undercooked and too sweet.

The challenge this week is all about idioms – specifically food idioms that the chefs must use to inspire their dishes. It’s all very clever (i.e. obnoxious). The chefs draw knives and then select their idioms – Kevin picks “bringing home the bacon,” Amanda picks “the big cheese” because she likes cheese, Tiffany picks “spill the beans,” Angelo picks “bigger fish to fry,” Ed picks “hot potato,” and Kelly picks “sour grapes” because she always looks like she’s sucking on one. Winner of the challenge won’t win immunity or $10,000, but their dish will be made into a Schwann frozen food. We aren’t sure what that has to do with idioms. Maybe because only idiots eat frozen food?

Now that Alex is gone, Ed is focusing his hatred on Amanda. He tells us, “I’m not a big fan of Amanda. She’s annoying. She’s a slob. She has no technique.” It sounds like super familiar. Like when he said of Alex, “His thought process is underdeveloped, he’s a slob, he has no technique…” Ed is getting a little sloppy there with his insults. He might need to use a little better technique – put a little more thought into his processes. Or just finally sleep with Tiffany so he can stop being such a Mister Cranky Pants. Kevin is not much more profound. He says of Angelo, “Eccentric people sometimes cook eccentric.” Bravo, Kevin! That is quite the deduction there! Way to bring home that bacon!

Kelly’s just above it all. She says, “I’m like a really organized person. The other chefs seem really disorganized.” Her organization doesn’t pay off in this week’s Quickfire, however. She lands in the bottom for her pan-roasted chicken breast with caramelized Brussels sprouts leaves and red grape sauce that Rick Moonen finds out of sync. He also calls out Amanda for her macaroni and cheese with bacon and a pork chop that he describes as “kind of like a sledgehammer to the gut.” Amanda proceeds to throw herself a pity party and whines to the camera, “Nothing I’m going to make is going to be any good, so it really doesn’t matter what you make does it?” It’s kind of like a sledgehammer to our heads.

Ed and Kevin are singled out for having the best dishes, but Ed ultimately wins it for his herb and roasted garlic gnocchi with spring vegetables and mushroom fricassee. Angelo’s pleased with the victor, saying, “I can totally see his face on the packaging. I think it would look really amazing.” We can see it too – under the caption, “You’re a slob, you have no technique, so eat my hot potato.”

For this week’s Elimination Challenge the chefs will need to create fine dining versions of concession stand fare to serve to 150 fans at the Nationals Baseball Stadium. Amanda immediately thinks, gee, sounds like the perfect place to serve tuna tartar! That I’ll cut the day before! By grinding it through a meat grinder! Just like Angelo, the mind possessor, tells me to do!

And Ed thinks she has no technique.


Ed, who is making 500 corn and shrimp fritters, is feeling the heat. Not even Tiffany is safe from the steam that’s pouring out of his ears. He screams at her about a tart, but Tiffany just does her thing – she’s super pumped to be rolling out her own balls for her Italian meatball sandwich. She better watch out though. Ed might start calling her a slob for making something so messy to eat. Ugh. So gross. So underdeveloped.

There’s some back and forth about who is going to take food orders at the game – Angelo had originally volunteered to take on the role, but then starts to back out once he realizes Ed will be responsible for plating his dishes. Yadda yadda yadda – it’s really just annoying filler where everybody gets to use their whiny voice.

During service, everyone wants Tiffany’s meatballs and Kelly’s crab cakes. Really, I think they just want an excuse to say “balls” and “crab” over and over again. I want the balls! I’ll have the crabs! Can I get those together? Take me out to the ball game, indeed.

Like the fans, the judges are super impressed with Tiffany’s balls also. Though Eric Ripert finds her Italian meatball sub with fennel, basil pesto and mozzarella a bit messy to eat, the judges universally enjoy the flavors and thought behind it. She and Ed are singled out for having the best dishes of the challenge. Ed’s shrimp and corn fritters with jalapeño aioli, which by the way are not the work of a slob at all, is ultimately named the best dish and Ed wins a trip to Australia.

The judges have issues with all of Kevin, Kelly, Angelo and Amanda’s dishes. They are not impressed with Kevin’s hard-to-eat chicken kabob with romesco sauce, shoestring fries and smoked paprika that forces diners to deep throat a skewer to eat it. Eric Ripert says, “To have a skewer in your mouth like that… it’s not easy.” Women all around America nod their head in agreement.

While the judges appreciate the flavor of Kelly’s open-faced crab cake sandwich, they felt the texture was too soft, and also find Angelo’s hot dog buns to be too soft and sponge-like for his overly sweet glazed pork with sesame pickles. Angelo’s sweet pork and oversized hot dog buns are not, however, the worst transgression of the challenge. The judges are all turned off by Amanda’s gray tuna tartar. Even though Tom is appreciative of the fennel, shitake mushrooms and meyer lemon and fava bean puree accompaniments, Amanda is sent packing. Tuna tartar should never be gray. Eric Ripert’s hair on the other hand…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Izaka-ya by Katsu-ya: A beacon of light for sushi phobs

Growing up I was scared of everything. Not just the ordinary things that most children are scared of like the witch in Sleeping Beauty and the monsters that were supposedly hiding under my bed, but other, less ordinary things also.

I was terrified of doing somersaults for fear of cracking my neck. I refused to go on Splash Mountain or Space Mountain at Disneyland because of the warning signs about the “high speeds and sudden drops.” I was afraid of getting sick on airplanes, afraid the dolls in my bedroom would try to kill me in the middle of the night if I didn’t tell them I loved them before I went to sleep, and, at one point, was even afraid to eat rice because I had eaten it before getting the stomach flu and in my illogical mind that was the reason I’d been sick.

I was kind of a hypochondriac.

Scratch that, I am a hypochondriac.

Even today, I am overly cautious and paranoid about getting sick -- especially from food poisoning. I use special designated cutting boards and utensils when working with raw poultry or eggs and wash them with a separate dish scrubber afterward. I boil water to pour over said utensils and boards, and I refuse to touch a carton of milk or carton of eggs past the sell-by date.

Given my extreme paranoia about salmonella, e-coli and other food borne illnesses, it’s always been a little hard for me to swallow raw fish without pause. Even though I generally legitimately enjoy tuna tartare, yellowtail carpaccio and ceviche, every time I eat it, a little voice in the back of my head starts shrieking out a warning call.

“Ingesting raw or undercooked fish can lead to food borne illness caused by bacteria, parasites, and toxins! Eat at your own risk!”

Usually I kindly tell the voice to quiet down unless the item in question looks or smells off, but the paranoia does tend to rob me of some of the enjoyment of slurping down raw fish. Or at least it does at most establishments.

When I dine at Izaka-ya by Katsu-ya, an off-shoot of the original Katsu-ya in the Valley, that little shrieking voice is more of a dull whisper. I’ve dined at the West 3rd Street restaurant at least a half dozen times over the course of my LA residency, and have never felt concerned or anxious about any of the dishes I’ve encountered in the perpetually chaotic, yet always friendly space.

While sushi purists might raise eyebrows over some of the accompaniments and preparations of the somewhat Americanized offerings, it’s the perfect place for a phob like me to break out the chopsticks and wasabi. Not only can I get fresh slivers of silky seared albacore topped with crispy onions (think of it as a Japanese green bean casserole) ($12.50) and the now ubiquitous crispy rice with spicy tuna ($9.50), but I can drown them in as much soy sauce and wasabi as I like without raising the ire of the sushi chef. With a crisp glass (or bottle) of Gainey Sauvignon Blanc on the side, if I close my eyes really tight (just like I did when Maleficient came on the screen in Sleeping Beauty), it’s almost as though I’m not eating raw or undercooked fish at all.

In addition to the fresh cuts of seafood that decorate the roster of sushi rolls and special sashimi plates, as an Izaka-ya, the restaurant also offers diners a comprehensive menu of cooked options as well. Katsu-ya’s epic baked crab hand roll ($6.00) litters almost every table in the space at some point during a diner’s meal. In my mind, it’s a lighter, less-carby version of a lobster roll, and lives up to its fame and popularity.

Other noteworthy hot dishes include the sodium-rich sautéed green beans ($5.50), a miso cod ($11) that doesn’t immediately conjure up a comparison to Nobu’s version, and, for more indulgent evenings, creamy rock shrimp tempura ($9.00) that burst in the mouth. Tatsuta Age, seasoned deep-fried chicken, ($7.00) also offers another compelling reason to limit the amount of sashimi and sushi dishes ordered. The thin disks of white meat are fried to a lusty golden brown, and while slightly bland on their own, soar when smeared with wasabi-rich soy sauce. Paired with the light greens on the side that are dressed with a sweet rice vinegar and sesame dressing, it almost tastes like a Chinese Chicken Salad.

The best part about dining at Izaka-ya – other than the warm toilettes proffered upon arrival (yay for clean hands!) – is that it allows me to scratch my sushi cravings without having to stray into uncomfortable territory. Given my propensity toward paranoia, I appreciate going to a Japanese restaurant where I can have well-executed raw and cooked dishes, and I don’t have to worry about everything I put in my mouth. Lord knows I already do plenty of that when I’m preparing chicken or eggs for myself at home.

Izaka-ya by Katsuya
8420 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA‎
(323) 782-9536‎

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gianni's Pizza and My Neverending Love for Bad Pizza

No matter how old I get, no matter how many restaurants I try and no matter how developed my palate becomes, there will always be a special place in my heart for bad pizza. While I love the thin crust, artfully-topped pies at Mozza like they are my next of kin, and can’t visit NY without stopping for the quintessential margherita pizza at Lombardi’s, when I’m really craving comfort, I inexplicably gravitate toward the other end of the pizza spectrum.

I want a thick crust that is so doughy it almost renders the toppings negligible. I don’t want the cheese to be layered on with such liberation that grabbing a slice results in what some describe as the coveted “cheese pull,” and I want the pie to be smothered in something sacrilegious like barbecue sauce, chicken, cilantro, and red onions.

I love this template for the oft-loathed BBQ chicken pizza. Crave it. Drive down to Orange County in rush hour traffic so I can eat it with my parents at Gina’s in Irvine amidst a sea of starving college students.

It tastes repulsively good to me. And not even in a way that can be attributed to sentiment or fond memories honed during my childhood. I just like it. Just like I like watching ABC Family movies, and letting the little black hair on my wrist grow instead of plucking it out, and wearing frumpy socks with my purple athletic slides from Northwestern.

There is something sort of intoxicating about going against the grain of society – being a “rebel” with a lame cause. In a strange way, I’m proud of my lust for bad pizza – so much so, that I was positively giddy when I happened upon Gianni’s Pizza in Monterey during my trip to Pebble Beach.
“Heaven on Earth,” I thought as I strode through the glass door of the expansive restaurant, my eyes glistening with joy as I took in the red checked table cloths, powder-filled parmesan shakers and oversized patrons.

It was perfect for my mission that last evening of my trip – to comfort my work-weary soul with cuisine that would make my food-loving counterparts in Los Angeles cringe with horror. I grinned as I attacked the foot-long garlic bread stick with accompanying marinara. It tasted like heat lamp. I inhaled every chewy, garlic-laced bite.

I happily punched my fork into my side salad of straight-from-the-bag romaine lettuce, carrot shavings and boxed croutons. It didn’t even need the sherry vinegar I requested on the side to be palatable. It was gloriously gruesome on its own volition. I only paused long enough to Tweet of its existence, loudly proclaiming for my followers to hear, “Eating wonderfully bad garlic knots and house salad while I wait for my bbq chicken pizza. I'm a classy brod tonight.”

The pizza itself was everything I imagined it would be. The mini-pie ($8) was a vision of thick crust, restrained cheese, meaty chunks of white meat BBQ chicken, and clumps of cilantro. While a more substantial presence of saccharine sweet BBQ sauce and slightly undercooked red onions would have taken this pizza from bad to very very bad (ie. my version of pizza perfection), I ceremoniously devoured the entire thing in less than ten minutes.

With a knife and fork.

I snuck back to my hotel feeling a hot rush of guilty pleasure. It felt liberating to be free of the obligation and duty I usually feel to always (attempt) to “challenge my palate” and eat outside my white girl box. There’s no story of growth here. I didn’t conquer any fears or check off any items on my “to-eat” list that is still embarrassingly long for someone of my gastronomical persuasion. But it was exactly what I wanted. Exactly what I was craving. And exactly what I am going to continue to crave until the pizza crust is too thick to eat with dentures.

Gianni’s Pizza
725 Lighthouse Avenue
Monterey, CA 93940-1009
(831) 649-1500

Monday, August 23, 2010

Buttermilk Barley Salad: Completely reasonable - and completely delicious

The day before I left for my trip up to Pebble Beach, I got it in my head that I wanted to make peach and blueberry buttermilk oatmeal muffins to take with me to the airport the next morning. In my illogical mind, it made perfect sense. I’d make a quick dash to Gelson’s Market after my 6:15 pm Bar Method class for the necessary carton of buttermilk, cook dinner, make the muffins, write a quick post, finish packing and still have time to watch “Huge” on ABC Family before going to bed at a reasonable hour.

At the time, I didn’t think about the extra effort it would take to add a baking project to my already hectic evening. I thought it was completely logical – and very Martha Stewart-esque.

“Just think of all the time I’ll save not eating breakfast before I leave for the airport. I can take the muffins with me and savor them at my gate while everyone else is stuck noshing on limp McDonald’s hash browns and tepid Egg McMuffins!” I reasoned with pleasure.

It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to suck it up and force down (shudder) airport food like the supposedly palatable oatmeal from Starbucks. And I certainly didn’t consider the logistics of transporting two freshly baked muffins in a tote bag that would be shoved around and rifled through by security courtesy of my Droid smartphone that was a little too smart for the x-ray machine.

“I’m being domestic! Stepfordian!” I thought on Monday night, as I baked every ounce of my energy away.

I was not feeling quite so domestic the following morning when I arrived at my gate exhausted and blurry-eyed with two very squashed peach blueberry muffins. As I sipped a cup of hot green Tazo tea and nibbled on the sad little pastries, I soon discovered that they were not nearly as delightful at room temperature as they are when fresh out of the oven. The whole affair was a fail.

A big one.

When I returned from my trip last Monday night, I was further shamed for my foolishness with the nearly full container of buttermilk that I’d left behind in my fridge.

“What am I going to do with all this buttermilk?” I thought with disgust. After all my indulgent eating in the Pebble Beach area, I was not keen on the idea of using it to make pancakes, buttery biscuits or cupcakes. All I wanted to eat was salad, whole grains and vegetables.

Lots and lots of vegetables.

It didn't occur to me that I might be able to use up my buttermilk and eat my antioxidants too until I stumbled upon Heidi Swanson’s recipe for Buttermilk Farro Salad that she had posted on 101 Cookbooks the weekend prior.

After three nights of eating the fiberlicious salad, I wasn’t feeling quite so foolish about my failed buttermilk muffins any more. I felt a little wicked smart, actually. And maybe even a little Martha Stewart-esque too.

Buttermilk Barley Salad Recipe
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
Serves 4

Notes: I used pearled barley instead of farro, reduced the amount of olive oil in the dressing, added tofu for more protein, increased the amount of dill and vegetables, used dried thyme instead of fresh, and omitted the chives.

10 small radishes, sliced paper thin
3 small zucchini, sliced paper thin
1 large head of fennel, trimmed and sliced paper thin
1 cup pearled barley
2 cups vegetable broth
12-ounces extra-firm tofu cut into cubes
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Olive oil

1 medium cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon fine grain sea salt
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup good-quality white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Rinse barley thoroughly. Heat large frying pan over medium-high heat, add barley, and toast until lightly browned (approximately 5-7 minutes). Heat two cups of vegetable broth to boiling in medium-sized saucepan, add the barley, reduce heat and cover. Simmer approximately an hour to an hour and 15 minutes or until barley is tender. Add additional water as needed.

While barley is cooking, prepare the dressing. Combine the garlic and salt on a cutting board. Mash into a paste using the flat side of your knife. Place in a medium bowl or jar, then add the buttermilk and vinegar. Whisk together and let sit for 5 minutes or so. Gradually whisk in the olive oil, then the herbs.

When barley is finished cooking, uncover, and set aside to come to room temperature. Heat frying pan over medium-high heat, add a splash of olive oil to lightly coat the pan and then add the tofu cubes. Stir-fry over medium heat until browned and slightly crisp to the touch. Stir in the tablespoon of dill, and then turn off the heat. Add the barley, radishes, zucchini, and fennel to the pan. Add a half cup of the dressing, toss together, and then let sit for ten minutes (again, with the heat off). Taste, and adjust with more dressing, if needed, and salt to taste.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fried Egg Sandwiches on a Pretzel Roll: My new obsession

As someone who spent the first 20 years of her life hating eggs, my childhood and adolescence and even college years were remarkably devoid of the incredible edible embryo. There were no scrambled eggs next to my peanut butter toast as a child, and while I regularly partook in the Easter ritual of dying hard boiled eggs, I wouldn't touch them once they hit the brunch table.

Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is my lack of exposure to the fried egg sandwich - an item that almost everyone has encountered in some form whether it be the Egg McMuffin at McDonald's or a drippy, bacon-laced concoction from a local greasy spoon diner. During my pre-egg eating years, I was appalled by all the people at the airport who would arrive at the gate for an early-morning flight with Egg McMuffins and hash browns in tow. I'd gag over the stench of the microwaved eggs and oil-saturated hash browns, and wonder how anyone could eat something so repulsive that early in the morning.

What I didn't realize then -- and am actually just realizing now -- is that fried egg sandwiches are the Holy Grail on a breakfast menu, and they're even better when eaten for lunch. Served on toasted bread with the appropriate fixings, the egg sandwich is the perfect cross-over item to marry together the two meals. So much so that I've kind of become obsessed with them. Or, more accurately, obsessed with the version I've come up with using the Rockenwagner pretzel rolls I pick up on Sundays at the Brentwood Farmers' Market.

I've always been an obsessive salter when it comes to my eggs, so in my mind, a pretzel roll is the perfect vehicle for transporting a fried egg into my vessel. To counter the salty kick, I've taken to spreading one of the toasted sides with goat cheese and then layering sauteed spinach and caramelized shallots on top of the fried egg. The simple ingredients meld together perfectly, curing both my hunger and my craving for a slightly debaucherous lunch. I always eat it way faster than I should. I always drip and spill stray onions and spinach onto my plate. And I always finish it, thinking, "I can't believe I wasted 24 year of my life not eating these."

Fried Egg Sandwich on a Pretzel Roll
Serves 1

1 pretzel roll
1 egg
1 shallot, sliced into thin rings
Goat cheese
Handful of spinach
Oil, butter
Salt, pepper to taste
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add a teaspoon of olive oil. Add the shallots, reduce heat and saute until tender and translucent (approximately 10 minutes). Add the balsamic vinegar and spinach and continue sauteing until spinach is wilted and liquid has evaporated. Set aside on a paper towel to absorb any excess liquid.

Slice pretzel roll in half, and toast halves in oven until warm and just toasted. Remove, smear one side with goat cheese, and then place back in the oven while preparing egg.

Wipe the nonstick pan clean and then reheat to medium-high heat. Add pat of butter and then fry egg according to preference adding salt and pepper as desired. Place egg on non-goat cheese side of roll, top with spinach and shallots, then cover with top of roll. Eat immediately.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, Episode 10: "I know how hard a mystery box can be"

The mood is somber in the “Top Chef” house as the tenth episode gets underway. Everyone, especially Angelo, seems a little shell-shocked that Master K went home. “I think Kenny was the most fierce competitor,” Angelo admits, even though he gave no indication of this opinion during earlier episodes when he was making snide faces at all of the Beast’s dishes.

There isn’t much time to mourn or make faces, however. The chefs are soon shepherded into the kitchen for their toughest Quickfire Challenge to date. As they “ooh” and “aah” over guest judge Wyle Dufresne, arguably the most famous molecular gastronomist in the country, Padma informs them that for this high-stakes challenge, they will be working with a “mystery box.” Each chef must create a dish using the contents of the box. More mystery boxes will arrive while they are cooking and they will need to incorporate those ingredients into their dish, as well. Winner receives $10,000 which Angelo really really wants to win because apparently he has a fiancé in Brussels and he needs the money to help her move to New York. A fiancé? Yep, news to us too. We’re also curious as to why Padma stole her jacket from the nutcracker. Then again she has been kind of a ball buster this season…

All the chefs are a little thrown by the challenge and are struggling to figure out what to do with the ingredients in their first box that includes rock fish, fava beans and hominy. It seems the only thing that the chefs aren’t confused about is their collective hatred toward Alex, who every one aside from Amanda wants to shove into one of the aforementioned boxes so they can ship him back to Los Angeles. Or, more accurately, his home planet in a galaxy far far far away. (From here, it looks like the size of a pea.)

Angelo is particularly nervous about working with the mystery ingredients since he isn’t able to solidify his “vision” for a cohesive dish. It doesn’t help that someone from the Matrix keeps popping in with additional boxes containing squid, black garlic, ramps, passion fruit, and jicama. Angelo’s head is about to explode, he's talking to himself and he’s pouring sweat into the food which would be great if one of the mystery ingredients was body fluid, but it’s not.

Ultimately, however, Angelo skates by with his smoky hominy pot-au-feu with squid and rockfish, and Alex and Amanda are called out for having the worst dishes. There's no mystery here. The components in Alex’s rockfish with fava bean puree, ramp fondue and leeks lacked cohesion, and Amanda’s crispy skin striped bass was oily and not all that crispy. Tiffany and Kevin’s dishes receive the highest praise, and Tiffany wins it for her fish stew with hominy, fava beans, saffron and black garlic. Wyle is impressed with her effort – he knows how hard a mystery box can be -- especially one that keeps changing. Alex agrees. Back in LA, it’s really challenging to figure out a box. Which is why the prostitutes and eight-balls come in handy…

For this week’s Elimination Challenge the chefs will be taking over classic dishes and giving them a new identity that disguises the original dish. They will then serve their interpretations to Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, and other CIA officers at the CIA headquarters. The winning chef will receive a trip to Paris that Ed is really jazzed about because apparently (mystery box alert!) he also has a girlfriend. Sounds like the “Top Chef” producers have been doing their own disguising with the contestants personal lives. We also learn in this episode that Alex used to be a videographer which explains so so sooooo much that we finally feel like we understand the tall gangly chef. He claims he used to shoot Bart Mitzvah’s and weddings, but we’re not sure we believe him.

The contestants draw knives for their dish assignments and Amanda draws French Onion Soup, Kelly draws Kung Pao Shrimp, Alex draws Veal Parmesan, Tiffany draws Gyro, Ed draws Chicken Cordon Bleu, Angelo draws Beef Wellington, and Kevin draws Cobb Salad. They’re then off to Whole Foods where Angelo makes the brilliant decision to buy frozen pastry for his Beef Wellington. It’s appalling that the chefs keep making the same mistakes season after season, and we’re kind of wondering if there needs to be caution tape wrapped around the freezer aisle. “Enter at your own risk!! Only bad things will happen!”

Everyone besides Angelo seems super pumped about the challenge, however, because everybody wants to be a spy and have an awesome spy name like Nikita or Nastasshia. Alex just wants to be Get Smart so he can have a phone for a shoe and use it to phone home like E.T. Amanda kind of wishes she could Get Smart too. She’s having a hard time reconceptualizing her French Onion Soup and decides to make… soup.

Dinner is a little tense. Everybody agrees that Angelo’s Beef Wellington puff pastry pizza is a “poor disguise,” and are grim-faced even when they enjoy a chef’s dish, like Kelly’s spicy shrimp broth with rice and Tiffany’s roasted leg of lamb. Leon Panetta is called away in the middle of service, and Padma asks the CIA officers, “Are you used to Director Panetta having to dine and dash?” She’s really impressed with her alliterative inquiry, but the officers remain stoic. “It happens often.” One responds without humor. Padma looks down at her plate. Who’s cracking nuts now?

Kelly, Ed and Tiffany have the top dishes of the challenge. Everyone loved the flavors in Kelly’s well-disguised dish and felt Ed’s execution of roast chicken with a ham and cheese croquette was spot-on. Ultimately, however, Tiffany’s fancy gyro takes the win and she is awarded the trip to France. The late bloomer is easy to root for at this stage in the competition, but we still feel oddly sad when Angelo is called out on the bottom with Alex and Amanda. Despite his ego and effusive remarks about his flavors and broths, we aren’t ready for the fenu-geek to go home yet.

The three chefs are all reprimanded for the flawed executions of their dishes. Tom says of Alex’s veal tortellini, “I’ve had better tortellini out of a box.” The judges are similarly unimpressed with Amanda’s decision to disguise soup as soup, and were not fond of her sweet onion marmalade either. They also find Angelo’s disguised Beef Wellington underwhelming and are disappointed in his decision to use a tough frozen puff pastry. In the end, however, it’s Alex tough veal and poorly executed tortellini that they find most appalling. The creepy pea-puree stealing chef is finally sent packing. He says of the decision, “There is no margin of error. You screw up just a touch and you’re going home.” It’s a strange assessment considering that he’s screwed up more than just a touch on almost every single challenge, even admitting earlier in the episode that “Alex + Quickfire = Bottom.” Either way, we are not sad to see him go, and mysteriously enough, are pleased to see Angelo live to see another day. We hope he gets his mojo back soon. We’d love to see him and Tiffany duke it out for the win.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Carmel Bakery: The best brownie in the world?

I had one prerogative for my trip to the Carmel area. Not to spot Arnold Schwarzenegger perusing the scene at the Concours d’Elegance car show nor to snag a cute car aficionado’s phone number for my depleted collection, but to get and eat a brownie from Carmel Bakery.

A colleague and I stumbled upon the Carmel landmark that has been open since 1906, two years ago when we looking for a place to grab lunch in town. After gorging on pancakes and eggs at a local cafe, we went back to the bakery to order some of their signature salty soft pretzels to snack on later in the day. On a whim, I asked for a brownie, as well. As we drove back to our work site, I couldn’t help sneaking a bite of the dense, chocolate-chip studded bar.

“Oh my gosh!” I gushed, shocked by how good it was. I insisted that my friend try a bite, but then devoured the rest of the oversized brownie myself.

The brownie is the perfect combination of fudgy and cakey – intensely chocolaty, but not in the way that necessitates a gallon of milk to consume. The top is slightly crackly, adding a nice textural contrast to the soft interior that is further enhanced by the addition of mini chocolate chips to the top. It is the best brownie I’ve ever had – really the only bakery brownie I have ever found as irresistible as the ones I make at home.

On this trip, I made it to Carmel Bakery on my first night in town. Even though I had just split a small ice cream sundae with a friend at the Flying Fish Grill, I couldn’t bear to walk by the homey space with its alluring display of baked goodies without going inside. I also couldn’t bear transporting the brownie back to the hotel without ripping open the bag. I had to know if it was as good as I remembered.

As I drove along the dark, tree-lined streets, I surreptitiously stuffed half of the bar into my mouth. It was still the perfect brownie – and was the perfect excuse to eat two desserts.

Carmel Bakery
Ocean Ave & Lincoln
Carmel, CA 93923
(831) 626-8885

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A few bites from the Pebble Beach road

The problem with going to a beautiful place like Pebble Beach, California for a work trip is that it’s easy to fall into vacation mode. Twelve hour days, early morning wake-up calls and physical labor some how feels exotic when done in the quaint seaside town that is the antithesis of Los Angeles. The crisp, clean air and 55 degree temperatures are refreshing – invigorating to a spirit that has been battered by too many traffic jams and too many inflated egos. Even at 6 am, there’s something magical about the way the fog coats the green foliage in a dewy mist. It breathes new life into one’s soul. And it renders even the warmest of sweaters completely useless.

Before I left LAX last Tuesday morning for my week in northern California, I was prepared to be homesick – prepared to miss my friends, Bar Method classes and quinoa stockpile. But my time in the Pebble Beach/Carmel/Monterey area was a nice break from life as it exists for me in LA. I liked not having to run to five different grocery stores to make dinner. I liked not having to worry about writing, and editing and uploading pictures every night. And I liked using the justification, “I’m on ‘vacation,’ so calories don’t count” to eat whatever I wanted.

Over the course of the week, there were many glasses of wine, an almond-crusted sea bass over creamy mashed potatoes, chocolate bars in lieu of apples, a decadent brownie from my favorite Carmel bakery, two apple tarts with caramel gelato from room service at the Hyatt, hummus, a gargantuan falafel wrap, and, my favorite form of comfort food, pizza. I relished every bite without my usual concern about the impending damage to my figure as though the calories would dissolve away into the fog.

They didn’t.

Back in reality, I’m three pounds heavier. But my heart feels three pounds lighter. So much so that I didn’t even mind sitting in a traffic jam as I tried to maneuver around the Obama road closures yesterday evening on my way home to a fridge full of broccoli. It was an apropos greeting from the smoggy city. Back to life now, Diana. Hope you got your fill of dessert.