Thursday, May 27, 2010

Diabolical Vanilla-Scented Granola

I peer down into my bowl of vanilla Greek yogurt, blueberries and banana.

“That’s all I get?” I think, pressing my lips into a thin, dissatisfied line.


The one-fourth cup of vanilla-scented almond granola from Bon Appetit magazine (via Dishing Up Delights) looks rather paltry amidst the thick mass of yogurt and fruit. I contemplate inflating the serving size, but remind myself that I’ve already piled 150 calories on to my breakfast and will be meeting friends for lunch at Huckleberry Cafe in just a few hours.

Eggs, cinnamon-sugar donut holes and a food coma are in my future.


Resigning myself to a virtuous, nutritionist-approved breakfast, I carry the bowl to the table with a large pot of strawberry vanilla green tea.

“It’ll be fine. I really don’t need a lot – just a little crunch for textural contrast.” I reason, readying my spoon for the first bite.

I dish up a plump blueberry and sliver of yogurt-covered banana and cautiously let a few flakes of the granola ease onto the spoon as well. I raise it to my lips and bite.

“This is why I stopped eating granola after college.” I think, as I blissfully close my eyes to savor the sweet vanilla cereal that is reminiscent of cobbler topping. I could easily go back and devour the entire cup and a half I’d made the night before.

And eight years ago, in the days when I’d regularly eat two-collegiate sized bowls of granola sans milk after cross-country practice, I would have done just that.

Today, as a 26-year-old with a decent amount of self-control (sometimes), I stretch that fourth a cup out as long as possible – ruminating over every perfectly toasty nibble.

I’m ultimately satisfied when I scrape up my final bite of yogurt, but the granola has left an indelible mark on my tongue that I know won’t be erased until I have more.

Granola this good shouldn’t be legal.

And I blame the evil temptress Esi from Dishing Up Delights for bringing it into my recipe repertoire. I may never be able to make another dish from her site ever again.


Vanilla-Scented Granola
Adapted from Dishing Up Delights who adapted it from Bon Appetit, March 2002

Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 tablespoons golden brown sugar (unpacked so I could feel “healthy”)
1/4 teaspoon salt (original recipe calls for less)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (original recipe calls for less)
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon honey (I used orange blossom honey because I didn’t have regular)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Position rack in middle of oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Lightly spray large baking sheet with nonstick spray. Mix the oats, almonds, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon in large bowl. Combine oil, honey, and sugar in small saucepan; bring to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Pour hot liquid over oat mixture; stir well. Using hands, toss mixture until thoroughly mixed.

Spread granola on prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes (Note: Mine was done in 25 minutes). Transfer sheet to rack; cool granola completely. (Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store in airtight container at room temperature.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nakkara on Beverly: I really did go back this time

I was a little apprehensive when I titled my recent Nakkara review, “Nakkara on Beverly: I really will be back this time.” While I meant it in the moment (I get effusive and hyperbolic after satisfying meals), I also know myself and my dining tendencies. I wasn’t sure I would be back to the one-room upscale Thai-inspired eatery in the immediate future.

Despite the positive experience and the subsequent rebirth of my love affair with Thai food, my dining life went on as usual. I ate a lot of quinoa. Then, I compensated for all that healthy, virtuous behavior by gorging American-style on pizza and ice cream and French toast.

And then, horrified at myself, I went back to eating quinoa again.

But throughout this entire cyclic period of eating and retreating, Nakkara was lingering in the back of my mind. I did want to go back – not only to prove myself right, but also because I really wanted to experience the restaurant again.

So when my friend Anna from Banana Wonder and I couldn’t decide where to go for dinner when she was staying with me last weekend, Nakkara made a flying leap from the back of my mind to the front. (In the interests of full disclosure, the BYOB policy was also a strong selling point in pushing it in the forward direction.)

I felt a little guilty going back to my trusty Thai spot when there are other more authentic options just a hop skip and car ride away in nearby Hollywood – Jitlada, which I’ve yet to try, and Pailin Thai, which is a favorite of Tony's from Sino Soul – but my heart was set on Nakkara on this particular evening. There would be no substitute for my sanitized Thai craving.

Since I had just been at my neighborhood restaurant, Anna and I selected items I’d never had before so I could feel slightly more adventurous and less like a foodie fraud. To begin, we opted for the Shu Mai steamed wontons with minced chicken, shrimp and crabmeat ($7).

The recommended starter conveniently included six plump dumplings that were judiciously sprinkled with crispy bits of garlic and accompanied by a hoisin-based dipping sauce.

“Oh good!” I enthused, grateful for both the addition of garlic and the even number that ensured neither my friend nor I would have to be the “good sport” and make the obligatory “You take the last one” concession.

Note: Neither of us likes to make concessions when it comes to food. (Unless, of course, the concession in question is in the form of a stand.)

Eager to freshen up our palates after gorging on cookies earlier in the day, Anna and I promptly zeroed in on the Buddha Salad ($9) with fresh vegetables, boiled egg and peanut dressing for our next dish. The thick peanut dressing was daunting at first glance, but its marinara-esque consistency and heady punch of ginger were a welcome textural and flavor counterpoint to the crisp slivers of cucumber, carrot and wontons in the salad. We devoured every stray lettuce leaf. And then engaged in fork wars over the carrots.
For our main courses, we opted for the Mahatama Curry, a red curry with mixed vegetables and our addition of tofu, and the Spiced Eggplant with chicken, Japanese eggplant, fresh chili and Thai basil ($9). While I had indicated to Anna that I’m not really an “eggplant fan” prior to our ordering of the dishes, I was floored by the preparation of one of my least favorite vegetables. Though the curry dish was nicely spiced (Translation: A little too spiced for my weak-sauce tastes), my fork kept stabbing at the judicious slices of eggplant situated on the other plate at the table.
Unlike other versions I’ve encountered that are flavorless, overly soggy or saturated with unnecessarily amounts of oil, this eggplant had structure – and edge. The prominent addition of basil, and sprinkling of chili flakes that provided just the right amount of heat (Translation: I didn’t need to drain my water glass), livened up the big purple vegetable beyond its typical recognition. I happily acquiesced to Anna’s generous concession to let me have my way with the dish while she polished off the rest of the curry.

To finish, Anna and I shared an order of the Mango Sticky Rice ($10) – the one repeat item from my previous visits to Nakkara. Anna, who had never experienced the Thai treat before, was just as enthusiastic about the dessert as I had been two weeks prior. At the risk of being effusive and hyperbolic, in that good ole back corner of my mind it’s enough to warrant another return visit in a couple weeks.

That is, after I finish my current cycle of eating and retreating.


Nakkara on Beverly
7669 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 937-3100

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stress-free Sea-Scallops with Orange and Rosemary

“There has to be more to it than this,” I think, re-reading the recipe for the fourth time.

Surely there is something I’m missing – an obscure ingredient that can only be procured at a specialty gourmet market, or the small print that informs the cook that the sauce needs to simmer for at least two hours and, oh by the way, a key component of the dish needs to be made the day before.

Sucker.

I re-read the recipe for Sea-Scallops with Orange and Rosemary from O, The Oprah Magazine one last time, scrutinizing every detail, every ingredient, every element involved in the preparation of my Sunday night supper.

There’s nothing – not a single recipe deal breaker nor complicated procedure that will wrankle my nerves and leave me feeling flummoxed and red-faced and ready to chuck a pan out the window.

(I frustrate easily in the kitchen.)

And even though it’s already 8:30 pm, and I’m starving and grouchy about the impending work week and the excel grids that await me in the morning, I don’t feel any trepidation about testing out a new recipe at such a late hour. I tenderly fluff the wild rice I will serve alongside my saucy scallops, and calmly begin assembling the other components. I’m perfectly at ease with this dish.

Everything comes together seamlessly without a single mishap or urge to chuck anything out the window, and a little after 9:00 pm, I sit down to an elegant meal that looks nothing like some of the undesirable offerings a certain high-pitched brunette churns out in 30 minutes or less.

“This, I could get used to,” I think as I sliver off a supple bite of scallop and sip from my glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “Stress-free Sea-Scallops.”

Maybe Oprah really does know everything. Or, at the very least, has an excellent food editor.

Sea Scallops with Orange and Rosemary
Adapted from O, the Oprah Magazine
Serves 1

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
3-4 large sea scallops (about ¼ - 1/3 pound)
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup fresh orange juice (from about ½ a large orange)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange zest (original recipe calls for julienned orange peel)
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
¼ cup wild rice, prepared Saveur-style
Olive oil
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper

Prepare ¼ cup wild rice according to Saveur instructions for perfect brown rice.

Pat scallops dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, and set on fresh paper towels to drain off any excess liquid. (Scallops sear better when they are dry.)

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté shallots over medium heat until soft. Remove with a slotted spoon; set aside.

Wipe up any debris left in the pan (will interfere with searing), and return to high heat. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and sear scallops for approximately 2 minutes on each side. Remove, and set aside.

Add wine, lemon juice, orange juice and orange zest to skillet (the sauce will sizzle and steam). Bring to a boil, and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes (mine took about 2-3 minutes). Taste for sweetness; add more lemon juice, salt, and pepper if necessary. Return shallots to pan and swirl in butter; add scallops to heat through and coat with sauce. Sprinkle with rosemary, and serve with rice on the side.

LA WineFest: Because Napa doesn't have food trucks


Even though I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life and was raised to always drain my glass first and dinner plate second, I’ve yet to have a Napa Valley adventure. My parents keep insisting that we’ll take a family trip there “some day,” and I’ve had many a conversation with my gal pals about a girl’s weekend up north (complete with spas and limos), but sadly none of those plans have ever made it past the fantastical idea stage.

With the summer meandering over with nary a trip itinerary in sight, however, I must resign myself to yet another Napaless year. Fortunately, I don’t need to cry myself a Merlot river. On Saturday, June 5th, I’ll be swirling and tasting and marinating my tongue with wine from 130 different wineries at the LA WineFest at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. The two-day festival (tickets can also be purchased for Sunday, June 6th or for both days) will also feature various spirits, as well as tasty offerings from the Border Grill Truck, the Sweets Truck and the Must Bar.

Even Napa doesn’t have food trucks.

A full list of participants can be found here.

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.lawinefest.com/ for $65 a day or $100 for a 2-day pass. Use Promo Code, Diana, to get $15 off a single day ticket.

LA Wine Fest 2010
Saturday, June 5 and Sunday, June 6, 2010 from 2-7 pm
Raleigh Studios
5300 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-5111

Monday, May 24, 2010

Starry Kitchen: Fun food that brings a smile

He’s moving tables when I arrive. Pushing and pulling them in a way that makes it appear as though he is excited to be doing it – manual labor. Even though we’ve never met, I know the man who is joyfully reconfiguring the patio in a sunshine yellow Starry Kitchen t-shirt is Nguyen Tran, one half of the husband-wife SK team that has taken downtown LA by storm since their restaurant opened in February of this year.

I timidly approach the fence surrounding the space, self-conscious that I am ten minutes early to the popular lunch spot’s 3-Month Late Grand Opening Party on Thursday evening.

He looks up before I can stammer a word, a smile careening across his face.

“Do you know who I am?” I ask, unnecessarily concerned he won’t recognize me without the whipped cream on my nose from my Twitter picture.

“Diana!” He says without hesitation and leaps over the wall to give me a hug.

It feels almost anticlimactic after months of corresponding on Twitter, via e-mail and through mutual friends. I had been expecting something akin to the reunion of a mother and daughter on "Oprah" – or, at the very least, some sort of dramatic display of fireworks to mark the occasion.

Instead it feels like greeting a friend – someone who I’ve known for a while, and perhaps have seen just a few days prior. And it’s better that way. Suddenly, I don’t feel self-conscious that I’m early because it’s just Nguyen – my good ole pal. And I don’t feel self-conscious later in the evening when I work my way through six of Starry Kitchen’s famed crispy tofu balls with spicy aioli.

The party is a hit before it even begins. All the guests, many of whom are food bloggers, are wearing the same expression of expectant joy for the evening to come. They know that the dynamic SK duo, Nguyen and Thi Tran, will take care of them – Nguyen with his ever-present grins and infectious enthusiasm, and Thi with her motherly love and affectionate preparation of each item that is hustled out from the kitchen. (I also hear she is a stickler for cleanliness.)

It's Nguyen and Thi’s charming personalities that made me a fan of Starry Kitchen even before I tried their thoughtful Asian-fusion food. As I observe the scene at their restaurant on this particular evening, I can see why they have had so much success since upgrading from an underground supper club at their North Hollywood apartment. Nguyen and Thi’s personable qualities don’t just come across in the familial behavior that makes them so endearing to their fans – those traits come across in their food, as well.

The cuisine doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category. There are banh mi sandwiches on soft French baguettes, but it’s not necessarily Vietnamese. There are japchae noodles, but it’s not necessarily Korean. There is lemongrass chicken, but it's not necessarily Thai. The food can only really be described with overarching adjectives – like, “delicious,” and, perhaps even more important to their devoted followers, “fun.”



The green crispy tofu balls with neon orange spicy aioli look like a child’s experiment with Play Dough – not something that anyone over the age of three would deem edible. Yet, the bold colors seem fitting for the bold tofu balls that can be described as a more virtuous soy version of arancini. And people, including Zack Brooks from "Midtown Lunch", go nuts (no pun intended) for them. I easily eat six over the course of the evening.


The cold japchae, cellophane noodles with shiitake mushrooms and carrots, have similar personality. The slippery noodles slid around my mouth, coating my tongue with a heady bite of sesame oil. The texture is somewhat reminiscent of the jelly fish I tried at New Capitol Seafood, but the flavor is much more pleasurable to my picky palate – I can see why the noodles are such a hit side dish at the restaurant during the day.



And though I do not eat chicken wings (ever), I can’t help but help myself to not one, but two of Starry Kitchen’s tenderly spiced wings. While our face-to-face relationship has only just begun, I trust that Nguyen and Thi won’t let me down – even when it comes to fried winged things.


The excitement that marinates the air in and around Starry Kitchen cannot, however, be reduced to the addictive Shrek-colored tofu balls, some slippery noodles and a rather simplistic descriptor of “Asian-fusion food that’s fun.” The excitement is emanating from Nguyen and Thi. This is their passion. This is what makes them smile – even when they are shoving tables out of the way.

And lucky, lucky them, what makes them smile makes everyone else smile too.

Starry Kitchen is open Monday – Friday from 11 am to 3 pm. Starting this Thursday, May 27th, dinner service will be offered on Thursday and Friday evenings from 6 pm - 9 pm.

Starry Kitchen
350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 617-3474

Friday, May 21, 2010

Roasted Almonds with Lemon and Salt

Just in case there was a pervading concern that I only fed my parents and brother bacon-wrapped dates for "Happy Hour" last Friday evening, those concerns can now be laid to rest.

I also made these lemon almonds.

They tasted like lemon almonds.

With salt.

I consider this a very good thing.

Roasted Almonds w/ Lemon and Salt
Adapted from Health magazine via MyRecipes.com
Serve 4

1 cup unblanched almonds
½ cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350°. Soak nuts in juice for 30 minutes. Remove nuts with a slotted spoon. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet.

Bake at 350° for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes so they don’t burn on the bottom like mind did a little bit (oops). Place the nuts in a large bowl; toss with salt and oil. Return nuts to baking sheet, and bake an additional 10 minutes longer (stirring once), or until lightly browned. Remove sheet from oven, toss almonds with lemon zest and let cool on pan.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I only had eyes for bacon-wrapped dates...

It was haunting me all week.

I begged the Twitterverse for ideas even though I secretly had no intention of following their advice.

I poured over my favorite food blogs – Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, Dishing Up Delights, and 101 Cookbooks – for recipes.

I contemplated baked sweet potato falafels, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with pesto, and endive spears filled with mayo-less waldorf salad, and sent my mother frantic e-mails with recipe attachments for her input as well.

Yet, when I finally made it to the store on Thursday evening to purchase the ingredients for the appetizer I would make for Friday’s “Happy Hour” with my brother and parents, I couldn’t get my original idea out of my head – the idea that had immediately come to my mind when we made our plans for the evening.

I strode past the sweet potatoes, ignored the endive, tossed my hair in the direction of the basil, and made my way directly to the refrigerated produce section.

I only had eyes for dates. And I only had visions of them snuggly wrapped up in bacon – like cute little edible babies in swaddling clothes.

I’d made the popular appetizer before. They were good – as most things containing bacon are – but some how not compelling enough to make an immediate return to the dining table. I knew I could do better. Knew I could stuff them full of more cheese, and get the bacon a bit more caramelized and crispy for the proper textural effect.

This time they would be perfect.

This time they would induce sighs and gasps of approval.

And this time, they would be gone in less than five minutes.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates
Makes 10

10 Medjool dates
5 slices of center-cut bacon
Goat Cheese
Parmesan

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice dates length-wise to remove the pit. Generously stuff five of the dates with goat cheese and five with Parmesan or another variation depending on cheese preference. Close date around the cheese to seal it in.

Cut each bacon slice in half and securely wrap a half slice around each date. Place dates on nonstick baking sheet and bake for approximately 20 minutes – turning once after 10 minutes. Dates are done when bacon is crispy and caramelized as indicated above.

Remove dates from pan with a spatula and set onto a paper-towel lined plate to allow the excess fat to drain off. Let cool 15-20 minutes before serving. They will be very hot when they come out of the oven.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jeremy Fox takes the Animal out of Animal Restaurant

It’s been a year since my first visit to Animal, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook’s carnivore-friendly eatery on Fairfax Avenue. The occasion had predictably been marked by meat – pork belly rendered down to caramelized hunks of fork-friendly flesh, chorizo luxuriously slaughtered by oozing petit basque cheese, and a pan-fried ling cod with a king crab top hat.

It was an awesome meal, a night to be remembered – another notable page in the history of “Diana’s Bite-Taking,” but the next day I felt like I had been stampeded by the very animals I’d devoured. (The crab simply resorted to pinching the heck out of my stomach.)

I wouldn’t have protested a return visit to the pork-pushing restaurant (I dig the pig), but the opportunity didn’t arise, and since I typically tend to favor meals that are centered around vegetables, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to seek out an opportunity on my own volition. As I regularly tell my fellow grubbers, I’m more or less “a reluctant foodie,” and need a little push to get me to put down the box of quinoa and bag of frozen edamame.

I needed no such push, however, to say “Yes!” to a special vegetarian tasting menu being offered this week at Animal. The feast of unfurry things was to be prepared by Jeremy Fox, Food & Wine’s Chef of the Year in 2008, and was to be enjoyed with a group of some of my very favorite people this past Monday evening. For a girl who eats whole heads of broccoli with her dinner, seven courses of vegetables is akin to winning a trip to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.

Except for the whole turning into a grape part. (I don’t look great in purple.)

The $70 tasting started out with two amuse bouches – Marcona Almonds with lavender sugar, sea salt and olive oil, and Crunchy “French Breakfast” Radishes with nori-flavored soft chevre and mustard. The almonds were, predictably, so addictive that I wanted to maim all the other hands at the table to horde them all to myself. I was less enamored with the radishes that are in general a “take it or leave it” food entity for me. I did, however, love the briny goat cheese by itself, and was not above using my knife to transport it directly into my mouth sans accompaniment. Since I was not eating any animals, it seemed appropriate to act out the part myself.


The next two courses were two of my favorite dishes of the evening. The 2X-Shucked Peas in a Consumme of Shells with white chocolate, “chocolate” mint, and macadamia, was, as I told my friend Sarah, “the type of thing I could eat every day.” If, of course, I had ready access to chocolate mint. And had any idea how Chef Fox prepared his artful plate of peas. Sadly, I’ll just have to stare longingly at the pictures as though it’s the still-life version of the allusive Mona Lisa.

I was similarly won over by the “Forono” Beet Baked in a Rose Geranium Salt Crust with “fuerte” avocado, pickled green strawberry and pistachio which resembled a savage garden on a plate. The green strawberries looked a little terrifying – like they might poison our palates or illicit hallucinations a la magic mushrooms, but fortunately (or unfortunately), their potent strawberry flavor was a favorable component to the well-balanced dish. The avocado, filling in for the usual cheese suspects (buratta, goat, ricotta, et all.), was an especially astute pairing for the beets.
The Young Favas, Roasted Whole, Then Shucked with salsa maro of the pods, anchovy “flavor,” and parmesan immediately molested our mouths with a hit of garlic. While I regularly triple the amount of garlic called for in recipes I make at home, I felt it and the parmesan overpowered the delicate nutty flavor of the favas. I still enjoyed the dish (it reminded me of a pasta-less ravioli), but I was far more excited by the Heirloom Carrots Rescoldo Style, in Root Embers, with vadouvan spices, coconut labneh and parsnip. If carrots always tasted like this – their natural sweetness accentuated by the curry and coconut, I would probably turn orange from eating too many of them. This was my favorite bite of the night.

Everyone at my table was excited by the next course – the Roast Celtuce Stalk and Fresh Liptauer Cheese with ruta-kraut, pumpernickel and horseradish mustard. Mostly because none of us had ever had celtuce (a stem lettuce that tastes like celery) before, and we had, prior to its arrival, spent a considerable amount of time repeating the word over and over again. I loved the application of cheese here, and am always fond of celery, so was pleased with what was reminiscent of a celery root salad. Despite my appreciation for all things carb, however, I didn’t love the hard nuggets of pumpernickel that seemed to be a superfluous addition to the otherwise successful plate.
Our final savory course that, incidentally, might have actually been intended for a dessert course, was the Sweet Fennel & Puffed Wild Rice Krispie with fennel bulb, “page” mandarin, and bronze fennel. My immediate reaction was that it tasted exactly like Kashi cereal -- a good thing in my mind since I have a fondness for my morning grains. Others were less impressed, but perhaps they are merely egg-types or anti-breakfasters who favor black coffee with their empty stomach? We agree to disagree.
All of us, however, were on the same page about our “dessert” – the Toasted Brioche & Sherry “Crème Brulee” with fried cornbread, chocolate ganache and shiitake. After one bite, every single fork on the table was discretely laid to rest, and we chose to end our meal with an additional pour from our bottle of wine instead.
It was a vastly different experience leaving Animal than the time before when I’d waddled home feeling like a heart attack victim with a Santa Claus bowl full of (animal) jelly. I felt clean. I felt light on my toes. And I felt… hungry. Whereas my first visit was a little too light on the greens and necessitated a salad remedy the next day, this second visit was at the opposite end of the spectrum -- a little too light on the protein and carbs. I loved the overall effect of the menu and enjoyed the experience so much that I didn’t immediately notice the missing starches, but at the end of the night, even a broccoli-loving gal can’t subsist on pretty green things alone.

My real last course of the evening was a piece of Peanut Butter Toast and a Scrambled Egg – made with an extra fat pat of butter – at home. It was a very successful dish, but, as I'm sure Vinny and Jon would agree, would have been even better with a slice of meaty bacon.

Animal
435 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 782-9225

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hatfield's: A worry-free dining experience

I was worried that my absurdly thick raspberry white chocolate macadamia nut blondies wouldn’t be edible.

I was worried that my older brother would judge me for my kitchen cabinets that refuse to close no matter how hard I slam them, or wiggle his nose in disgust at my bathroom sink that is impossible to get sparkling clean.

And I was worried about my bacon-wrapped dates – were they too big? Too crispy? Had I stuffed them with too much cheese? Not enough cheese?

It was a lot of pressure having my parents and older brother over to my apartment on Friday night for wine and appetizers. I wanted everything to be perfect for my perfect sibling’s birthday celebration -- I wanted it to be the type of evening that becomes an instant memory in the scrapbook of our minds.

Yet even with all my excessive fretting about the occasion – my hemming and hawing about what cheese to buy at Whole Foods, and my neurotic cleaning session with the Swiffer – there was one thing I wasn’t concerned about.

Dinner.

We were going to Hatfield’s, Quinn and Karen Hatfield’s critically acclaimed Cal-French restaurant that reopened at its new location on Melrose Avenue in February. There was no reason for me to worry about that part of the evening. I knew everything would be lovely – just as it was when my mother and I visited the first location on Beverly Blvd. four years ago. I also knew everything would be good – maybe not awe-inspiring or transformative, but perfectly satisfying with a thoughtful preparation and precise execution.

An amuse bouche of house-cured salmon over celery root slaw was a pleasant way to begin the meal. Even my mother who doesn’t eat raw fish found the salty salmon juxtaposed against the tangy slaw to be an enjoyable combination. My brother, father and I were all a little disappointed when she scooped up her last bite – none of us would be calling dibs on her leftovers.


The salted warm bread roll was just as addictive to our palates. Despite massacring three bacon-wrapped dates, Midnight Moon goat cheese and lemon almonds prior to our arrival at the at-capacity restaurant, I couldn’t stop myself from finishing my roll. And then requesting another when the bread server came by our table again.
The beloved “Croque Madame” – perhaps Hatfield’s most famous dish – was nothing like how I imagined it when I read the description, but was nonetheless utterly satisfying with its familiar flavors. While the croque ($16) flips the classic sandwich on its head with the inclusion of yellowtail sashimi, prosciutto, a sunny side up quail egg on grilled brioche, my overall impression was that it tasted exactly like grilled cheese. I did find myself wishing that quail eggs could be closer to the size of chicken eggs (that buttery brioche was begging for more yolk), but I was still inclined to believe that it was one of the tastiest “grilled cheese” sandwiches I’d ever had – a coup considering the dish does not actually contain any cheese.
Entrees were, as expected, also very well-executed. My Pistachio & Mint Crusted Lamb with roasted heirloom root vegetables, fava beans, and potato chive puree ($36) was sous vide to the perfect rosy shade of pink. The tender slivers of farmers market fresh carrots added a welcome earthiness to the plate and paired well with the velvety potato chive puree. The flavor profiles were all lovely, but I did find myself craving a more pronounced application of the mint and pistachio. In my mind it was still a successful dish, but I was slightly more enamored by the more colorful flavors in my mom’s Loup De Mer ($26) with haricot vert, red onion soubise, fried caper, and almond dried apricot crunch.

To finish, we all opted to take advantage of Pastry Chef Karen Hatfield’s impeccable desserts. I selected the Cinnamon Swirl Brioche Pudding with pear confit, maple syrup ice cream and a cinnamon toast chip ($11) – essentially a cinnamon roll in bread pudding form, and my brother and mother chose the Chocolate Souffle ($11). Our prim and attentive server was also kind enough to bring out an order of the Banana Cream Dacquoise ($11) with pecan toffee and bitter chocolate sorbet ($11) because she knew I’d had trouble deciding between the bread pudding and the cream puff-esque offering. While our server cited the Banana Cream Dacquoise as her favorite dessert on the menu, my heart could not be budged away from the bread pudding. I had trouble letting my brother try a bite.



As is custom at Hatfield’s, a tray of chocolate-hazelnut pralines appeared with our bill – a final sweet note to our special evening. It was a nice touch and a casual reminder that even in its hipper location, the restaurant is the ideal place to go for a reliably enjoyable fine dining experience.

But truth be told, sometimes I like working myself up into a neurotic frenzy about things like my faulty kitchen cabinets, the contents of my bacon-wrapped dates and a suspect batch of blondies. It makes is all the more fun and exciting when something turns out to be amazingly delicious – just like the absurdly thick blondies that actually weren’t all that absurd at all.

Hatfield’s
6703 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, California 90038
(323) 935-2977

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bakelab: Cookie art with heart

“Sad. My surprise failed.” I punch into my phone on Friday morning. I’m grouchy, disappointed and exhausted from staying up until midnight the night before to bake my mom and brother special raspberry white chocolate macadamia nut blondies for Mother’s Day and my brother’s birthday.

I don’t stay up past 10:30 on a school night.

Even for a new episode of “Top Chef.”

The blondies that required me to delay my bedtime were supposed to be perfect – the ideal collusion of sweet and salty, the optimal texture of chewy in the center and crispy around the edges, and, of course, the proper density for a bar-type item.

They were not supposed to be over an inch thick.

And they were not supposed to end up looking like a giant raspberry-speckled sheet cake.



I’m disgusted with myself and spend the whole day ruminating over my botched batch of blondies.

“Do I need to take out an egg?” I wonder.

“Should I have used less flour? More butter? Or just a bigger pan? Do Pyrex pans from Target even come bigger than 9x13? And if they do, would I want to risk uneven baking by using one?”

I’m not sure. About any of it.

And it’s driving me crazy.

I want to get back in the kitchen right away and try again. And again. And again – until I finally get the recipe right and make the ultimate raspberry white chocolate macadamia nut blondie that will spur everyone who consumes one to gasp and moan and take pornographic pictures of it to put on their blogs – just like I do on Saturday afternoon when I bite into my first chocolate chip cookie from Bakelab, a wholesale and retail bakery in Los Angeles.

Link“She gets it.” I think, as I move on from the ultimate chocolate chip cookie to the sugar-coated ginger cookie that is both chewy and crunchy, sweet and spicy, familiar and unique all at once.

“She is sure.”

“She” is Pastry Chef Kristin Feuer, the apron (and brains) behind Bakelab, which specializes in modern interpretations of classic desserts like the snowball, 7-layer bar and s’more.


And she has spent more than just a day ruminating over how to perfect the recipes for an iced oatmeal cookie that is reminiscent of the signature Mother’s version, or a peanut butter sandwich cookie that contains a dollop of creamy peanut butter in the center.


Feuer was trained at Le Cordon Bleu and has worked at Clementine in Century City, LaMill Coffee Boutique in Silver Lake and Providence in Hollywood, but it’s her passion for baking that is perhaps most impressive. For her, sugar is not just a sweetener, a spatula is not just a tool to scrap the bowl of a mixer, and a freezer is not just a place to store cookie dough until it’s aged long enough to bake. The sugar is her paint, the spatula is one of her paintbrushes, and the freezer is a means to creating the beautiful picture she envisions in her head.

In short, Feuer is an artist.

And her cookies, cupcakes, snowballs, cakes, bars, and brownies are her works of art.

I can’t help but blush when she gives me and the other food bloggers and media attending the complimentary Bakelab cookie party on Saturday a demonstration of how to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Even with my occasional kitchen mishaps and blondie blunders, prior to her lesson, I thought I knew my way around a cookie. Cream softened butter with sugar, add the eggs and vanilla, fold in the flour/dry ingredients, and then pour in the chocolate chips – I can do it with my eyes closed.

But there’s more to the perfect cookie than that. Butter and sugar should only be creamed for one minute and thirty seconds, the vanilla should be added before the eggs so it penetrates the butter, and the flour should be mixed in two seconds longer than when it’s first incorporated to generate the right amount of gluten for optimal chewiness.

“Gluten, what?” I think, feeling like I’m back in high school Calculus and Mr. Weyrauch is lecturing about derivatives again. My inch and a half thick blondies seem like an even bigger “fail” now that I know that my butter was the wrong temperature, I didn’t cream it with the sugar for the proper length of time, and I added the vanilla after adding the eggs.

Feuer doesn’t flaunt her expertise though. She wears an apron/lab coat that has been silk-screened with her doodles. She tweets about eating gummy cokes and having “sweet teeth.” And she giggles when she recalls a request that she received from a Playboy bunny for pink snowballs to serve at the Playboy Mansion.

She’s charming – the girl you want to invite over for pizza and wine and “Sex and the City” reruns on a Saturday night. Especially if she’s bringing the dessert.
Bakelab’s cookies are the best I’ve had. Even though I instruct the others attending the party to slap my hand away if I eat too much, I clear every crumb off my sample plate.

And then go back for a second peanut butter cookie and two samples of Feuer’s pristinely frosted cupcakes (also divine) as well.


Because she gets it.

She’s sure.

And while I still don’t know how to fix my blondies, I am sure that I will be ordering an assorted box of her goodies while I figure it out.

Bakelab treats are available for order online at http://laurelavenuebakery.com/ or http://laurelavenuebakery.foodoro.com/store/ and by phone at (310) 330-9055. Treats are available for nationwide shipping and are also sold at the following vendors:

Yummy.com in Playa Vista, Santa Monica and West Hollywood
Oaks Gourmet in Franklin Village, Los Angeles
Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

Bakelab will also be donating pink elephant cookies and snowballs to the EAT MY BLOG charity bake sale at Zeke’s Smokehouse & BBQ on Saturday, June 19th.