Monday, January 31, 2011

Fraiche Restaurant: How I went from ordering farro to a burger

I was going to get the farro.

I’d been planning on it all week – announcing to anyone that would listen that, no, I wouldn’t be ordering the brioche French toast or the skillet baked eggs with goat cheese or that truffle burger that everyone keeps talking (and raving) about.

I was going to be “healthy.” Restrained. The opposite of what I’d been the last time I’d dined at Fraiche Restaurant in Culver City when I’d enjoyed an epic 3-hour-long, 15-course meal prepared by new Executive Chef Benjamin Bailly.

It had been an amazing dinner – one of the best of 2010 – but obviously not something that I could repeat on a regular basis unless I wanted to spend four hours a day at Bar Method every day for the rest of my life.

So even when I read my horoscope in the LA Times the morning of our brunch, I was still undeterred from my mission to order the farro salad with black rice, goat cheese, cucumber, and tomatoes ($14).

I laughed in the face of the ominous message, even snorting a bit as I read it out loud to my mother, who I was visiting in Orange County that morning.

“You've been so good — sticking to your diet and to your budget, too. So let yourself indulge a little bit now.” I recited with a mocking tone.

“I don’t care what it says,” I continued. “I’m still getting the farro.”

So I did. Both Amy from the Roaming Belly and I did.

Upon receipt of said salads, however, we immediately regretted our seemingly respectable decisions. The black rice grains interspersed between the nutty nuggets of farro were almost entirely uncooked – hard and impossible to chew through. The chicken that we had added for $6 was cubed and similarly unappetizing – not the lean strips of grilled meat that we were expecting. Unable to get past the texture of the overly al dente rice, we quickly summoned our waitress, who graciously offered to replace the offending dishes with different ones.

Amy went for soft polenta with a slow poached egg and wild mushrooms ($12), and after a moment’s hesitation during which I contemplated not getting anything at all, I followed the lead of two of my smiling dining companions and ordered the famed truffle burger with onion fondue, boschetto, arugula, and truffle aioli ($12).

My decision to submit to my horoscope and let myself “indulge a little bit” was immediately rewarded with a well-executed gourmet burger. While I would have appreciated a touch more char on the medium-cooked patty, all the components work well together. The delicate essence of truffle in the truffle aioli and in the boschetto, an Italian cheese made with sheep and cow’s milk, isn’t overpowering to the well-seasoned flesh of the burger. Both applications merely add a hint of luxury to the overall package that is further enhanced by the slick, sweet mass of onions. The pliant brioche bun is similarly well-conceived. It's the ideal match for the burger – it’s not too bready, yet is still able to stand up to its hearty contents. I could easily set the burger down between bites without worrying that the whole thing would deconstruct in front of me.

When the last bite had been secured, I didn’t feel as guilty as I’d imagined I would. I felt happy, satisfied and ready to hit the road for my next little indulgence – a single scoop of coconut pandan ice cream at Scoops Westside.

The stars had finally aligned in my favor.

Fraiche Restaurant
9411 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232

(310) 839-6800

Friday, January 28, 2011

How not to be an animal at Animal

We really were planning to just have one drink each.

We’d laugh, catch up and sip our singular glasses of wine with the restraint and grace of Aubrey Hepburn. Then we’d both go our separate ways – me back to my apartment to make Bibimbapquinoa for dinner, and she out into the great LA yonder for a meal with her significant other.

But as usual, we had more to catch up on than we anticipated, and as any budding social flower with an overactive mouth knows, the giddy exchange of gossip dies without alcoholic fuel.

So our one drink each turned into two drinks each, and before I knew what was happening, her lips were posing the suggestion, “We could go to Animal for dinner?”

On a normal night – a night when I hadn’t consumed two glasses of P. Cottat Sauvignon Blanc on an empty stomach – I would say, “That’s okay… I have quinoa at home. Must eat it before the bed bugs try to steal it away!”

But as any social imbiber knows, alcohol fuels not only gossip, but hunger too – and an appetite for that which one would not normally ingest on a random Tuesday night when one should be eating something much more sensible.

And green.

What one doesn’t know, however, is that a trip to Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal Restaurant – a destination most often associated with poutine smothered with oxtail gravy, and foie gras loco moco – doesn’t necessarily have to be an experiment in over-the-top gluttony.

And contrary to what I believed when I was wrangled into a cab and whisked off in the direction of Fairfax Avenue last Tuesday night, it is possible to eat sensibly at Animal.

The Hamachi Tostada, which Bon Appétit Editor Andrew Knowlton recently named as one of his favorite dishes of 2010, is a study in freshness and acidity. The crisp corn tortilla base is layered with supple pieces of hamachi, crisp shards of green cabbage and crunchy onions and peanuts that almost eradicate the presence of the mild fish. The entire salad is dressed with a smattering of mint, fresh herbs and fish sauce vinaigrette that asserts a strong finishing presence of lime on the tongue. It’s nothing like a traditional tostada that lands with a thud on the palate and in the stomach. It’s clean, sharp and addicting.

Other green plates that explode on the palate include a composition of Romanesco broccoli, or Roman cauliflower, with sultry golden beets and parsley; and a jarringly acidic salad of raw baby kale, pecorino, crumbled croutons, and lemon chili vinaigrette. The kale beats one’s mouth up with its rough, lemon-dredged edges, but it’s a masochistically enjoyable experience. The flavors on these vegetable-heavy plates are as bold as they are in the meat dishes. Even when it goes green, Animal still takes no prisoners.

Because even Aubrey Heyburn couldn’t subsist on vegetables alone, the sweet, lacquered Thai BBQ Quail served with a rough heap of cabbage and indulgent drizzle of green onion sauce is the perfect transition into the animal kingdom. Ladies who have wined feel free to nibble on the bones. And feel free to use their finger tips as utensils to secure the remaining dredges of sauce.

On this night, the decadence that the meat-heavy restaurant is famous for is most apparent in the black cod with creamed spinach and caper brown butter. The sweet, deathly kiss of butter and cream oozes forth from every crevice and corner of the plate. A few bites more than satisfies the urge to engorge the waistline.

Until, of course, a sly server sneaks the dessert menu onto the bar.

Because even when a lady is being sensible at Animal, there is still no excuse not to order the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper anglaise.

Especially when she’s, oh so very graciously, served a shot glass of beer to go with it.

Animal Restaurant
435 N Fairfax Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90036

(323) 782-9225

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Olio Pizzeria and Cafe: Barely able to contain my delight

I’ve never understood the statement that all pizza is good pizza. All pizza is not good pizza. In fact, I might go so far to say that most pizza is bad pizza – exhibit A being my first two attempts at making it from scratch, and exhibit B being anything that emerges from a Domino’s or Pizza Hut oven. I also don’t consider cold pizza with its congealed layer of cheese and chunks of hardened grease to be particularly compelling either.

Regardless of my state of sobriety.

But pizza in its best form – the kind that has a slightly salty, crisp, yet still somewhat chewy crust – is my favorite thing in the world to eat. It’s the dish I want served, buffet-style, at my wedding, and the food item that I am always in the mood for, no matter how tight my jeans are fitting.

It’s always a bit of a gamble for me to go to a new pizza place. While I have previously professed my affection for the scandalous thick-crusted BBQ chicken variety and have no qualms about consuming flatbread styles, I take “serious” pizza rather, well, seriously. I want it to be worth every indulgent bite. And I want it to move me – to strike that chord that makes me close my eyes and exhale slowly, unable to contain my delight.

This past Saturday evening, I experienced a similar moment with West Third Street newcomer Olio Pizzeria and Cafe’s Margherita Plus with crushed tomatoes, Gioia burrata, Grana Padano and basil infused olive oil ($13.99). While the thin crust is a touch flimsy in the center of the simply dressed pie, the slightly charred, smoky flavor from the natural wood-burning oven is apparent in each bite. The chewy, breadstick-like edges are particularly noteworthy – this is not the kind of crust that one leaves in a heap on the side of the plate.

The toppings are no less enthralling. The sweetness of the tomatoes, subtle pronouncement of basil and sultry puddles of fresh mozzarella flooded my mouth with memories of Lombardi’s margherita pie in New York City. It’s not the same – Olio’s pie is made Neapolitan-style and Lombardi’s is made New York-style – but the classic flavor profile is decidedly similar (and decidedly well-executed).

While my dining companion and I also ordered (and enjoyed) the Tartufo Bianco white pizza with fresh spinach, seasoned ricotta, heirloom tomatoes and truffled cheese ($13.99), the more decadent toppings do seem to diminish the integrity of the crust. I also found myself wishing that a lighter hand was used to dress the Arugula and Fennel Salad with toasted almonds, shaved fennel, French feta, and spiced yogurt “ranch” ($11.29), as well. It’s a nice salad, but the creamy yogurt overwhelms the delicacy of the other components.

My return visits to the casual eatery on the corner of Crescent Heights and Third Street will no doubt be inspired by a craving for that classic margherita plus pie. I’ll sit at the pizza bar, eyes fastened to the wood-burning oven that the entire space is fashioned around, and I’ll wait in rapt anticipation until it emerges, charred and bubbling for my immediate consumption. I’ll snatch a slice before it has time to cool, fold it in the center, and then take a bite, letting the cheese ooze across my tongue. I’ll close my eyes, exhale, and take a moment to appreciate the pure delight of a really good slice of serious pizza.

Olio Pizzeria and Cafe
8075 West 3rd St., Ste. 100
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 930-9490

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Roast Lemon Chicken and Couscous Salad: Surprising recipes courtesy of my surprising friend

The first time my friend Ali called me on the telephone the summer before our freshman year of college, I had no idea who she was.

“Who is this?” I asked, while I mentally scanned the list of few friends I had in high school. At the time, I didn’t have the social grace to pretend that I knew her.

“This is Ali,” She repeated, before explaining that she was one of my future cross-country teammates at Northwestern. And that we had been corresponding on e-mail for the past two weeks.

“Ohhh… Ali!” I exclaimed, embarrassment flooding over my body.

I then proceeded to engage in the most high-pitched, overly excitable telephone conversation of my life as I tried as hard as I could to be that “cool California cat” that I desperately wanted to be once I arrived at college.

“You like J. Crew too?!” I practically shouted into the ear piece, while my mother silently observed me from the kitchen where our landline was connected.

Despite the shaky start and my excessive volume, Ali and I actually ended the phone call on a good note, and our conversation made me all the more excited to get to Evanston so I could meet her in person.

As long as I could figure out who she was, of course.

To this day, Ali still finds ways to surprise me when I least expect it. Sometimes it’s a silly e-mail that pops into my inbox about Blair’s latest dress on “Gossip Girl,” other times she’ll send me a cheesy “chic lit” book that she knows I’ll love, and occasionally she’ll just call, much like that summer afternoon when she first telephoned her way into my life.

This past Christmas, Ali surprised me yet again with a package from that she cleverly had sent to my parents’ house. As I tore open the cardboard box, I was delighted to find that my dear friend had given me Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a book she noted that “every chef should have in their collection.”

While the 932-page cookbook is a bit daunting at first sight, once I dug in, I was completely entranced by Hesser’s descriptions of all the recipes. I wanted to make everything – even Thomas Keller’s butternut squash soup that is supposedly an all-day cooking affair.

For my first run, however, I chose something a bit simpler – Elizabeth Frink’s roast lemon chicken served with a light couscous salad. Both recipes were easy to follow, and most-importantly, well-received by my parents when they came over for dinner a couple weekends ago. Not even my quinoa-hating father could find fault with the delicate, saffron couscous or the tender, lemon-scented bird.

I might have even recommend the roast chicken recipe to Ali for one of her dinner parties in Chicago if she hadn’t just sent me the following e-mail:

Saturday night, I made the chicken thigh and celery root soup that I love from Serious Eats, and I was literally gagging while cutting up the chicken. It's so icky, and it takes me so long to disinfect the kitchen afterward!

Even after 10 years, the girl still knows how to surprise me, delight me and get me to laugh at an excessively high-pitched volume.

Elizabeth Frink's Roast Lemon Chicken
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook
Serves 4

Adaptations: I used a slighter bigger bird (3 ½ pounds instead of 3), cut out a tablespoon of the butter/oil, and added lemon thyme. I also preheated the oven at a higher temperature and then reduced the heat to 325 degrees once I put the chicken in.

1 3 ½-pound chicken
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 lemons
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon fresh lemon thyme

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in a large baking dish and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Rub the peel of one of the lemons over the outside of the chicken. Then cut the lemon into 8 pieces and squeeze juice over and into the chicken. Put the lemon pieces inside the chicken along with the garlic cloves. In a small pan, melt the butter in the olive oil and pour on top and inside the chicken. Tie the legs together with kitchen string.

When chicken is seasoned, put it in the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Roast the chicken for 1 1/2 hours, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the leg registers 180 degrees, basting every 15 minutes with pan juices. Half an hour before taking the chicken out, pour the juice from the second lemon over the chicken and sprinkle with parsley and thyme.
Couscous Salad
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook
Serves 4-6

Adaptations and Notes: The original recipe calls for 3 cups of couscous (with a yield of 16 servings!) so I made only a third of the recipe (hence the somewhat awkward measurements). I also greatly reduced the amount of oil, adding only a tablespoon at the end. I highly recommend making this recipe the day before you want to eat it, like the recipe suggests. The saffron becomes much more pronounced as the couscous “ages,” and I actually found that it got progressively better as I ate up the leftovers that coming week. I made the recipe again this past weekend, and I have been tossing it with chickpeas and arugula dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice for my lunches this week.

1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken broth
1/12 teaspoon saffron (a large pinch of the good stuff - Trader Joe's just won't cut it!)
¼ teaspoon ginger (use a touch less)
1/3 cup green onion, finely sliced
¾ cup celery, finely diced
½ cup carrots, finely diced
¼ cup currants
¼ cup Medjool dates, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon finely minced parsley
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Bring chicken broth, saffron and ginger to a boil. Add the couscous and let it continue at a slow boil until the pearls start to absorb the broth (approximately 1 minute). Remove from the heat, stir in the currants and dates, and then cover. Let stand for approximately 10-15 minutes, or until broth is absorbed. Fluff with a fork, then stir in celery, carrots and green onions.

Combine lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Whisk together and then add to the couscous. Stir until well incorporated, breaking up any lumps. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to intensify. When ready to serve, top with toasted pine nuts.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Osteria Mozza's La Spinetta Wine Dinner and the Secret to an Enjoyable Life

It's been four and a half years since the sticky summer evening in July when my older brother first took me to his favorite Italian restaurant, Supper, in New York City. As he led me through the cavernous space with the narrow stairways that wind into the various basement dining rooms, I was both enchanted and suspicious about our destination.

"Where is he taking me?" I thought at the time, my eyes floating over the exposed brick walls and mismatching clusters of tables and chairs.

It was my first time visiting Richard in the city – the first time the two of us had spent "quality" time together since a memorable evening the night before his law school graduation when we bonded over generic wine, mixed drinks and 3 am burritos at Cosmic Cantina.

The entire New York trip had been akin to the trust-building game where a person allows themselves to fall backwards – trusting that their partner will be there to catch them. Each day, Richard enthusiastically told me what we would do, where we would eat and what I would order. And each day I would nod my head obediently – trusting that my older brother knew what he was talking about, and trusting that he wouldn't trick me into eating something like small intestine.

That particular evening was no different. Before I had a chance to look at Supper's simple Northern Italian menu he informed me that we would be ordering bruschetta, two orders of the spinach gnocchi and, to drink, a bottle of La Spinetta “Ca’ di Pian” Barbera d’Asti.

"It's one of my favorite wines," he explained as he carefully poured me my first glass of the peppery, fruit-forward red.

Once again, I nodded obediently, and then studied the rhino on the blue label, committing the unfamiliar bottle and unfamiliar varietal to memory.

In the years since that dinner, La Spinetta's Barbera has become symbolic of the relationship that Richard and I developed after we stopped hating each other as children. He opened the first bottle I gave him the night he signed the papers to buy his house in Phoenix. He opened the second bottle I gave him on the three-year anniversary of that night. And when I forwarded him the announcement that Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles would be hosting a wine dinner with Giorgio Rivetti, Owner and Winemaker of La Spinetta, he immediately called to insist that we reserve our spots at the private dinner.

Again, I nodded my head obediently.

With its epic Mozzarella bar deftly manned by Nancy Silverton, al dente pastas peppered with luxurious drizzles of olive oil, and expansive wine list, I've long considered Osteria Mozza to be my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. It never fails to wow me, and it always feels like a special occasion when I'm ensconced within the walls of the perpetually busy, cosmopolitan space.

Even so, in the lead up before the dinner last Thursday, I couldn't help wondering if the meal would be worth all the effort and expense. My brother was flying in from Phoenix just for the night, and at $150 per person, the five-course paired dinner prepared by Mozza's Executive Chef Matt Molina was not exactly an every day kind of affair.

It was, however, a once in a lifetime opportunity, and Richard and I leapt upon it without too much hesitation. Flight arrangements were made, reservations were confirmed and before we knew it, I was leading my older brother through Osteria Mozza to the private, sound-proof room in the back of the restaurant. As we entered the richly festooned dining room with its tapestry-lined, window-less walls, I briefly wondered if he was thinking, "Where is she taking me?"

Most of the fifteen diners were already present when we arrived – sipping glasses of La Spinetta’s 2003 Langhe Bianco Sauvignon Blanc and making small talk about the unseasonably warm weather. The special events manager greeted us with our own glasses of the spritely wine before we were chaperoned to our seats at the large square communal table.

As I took in the platters of prosciutto, the carefully coifed table that had been impeccably set with silverware and goblets of still water, and the army of servers that would be silently attending to us for the next three hours, I experienced a glimmer of what it must feel like to be royalty. In this scenario, Giorgio Rivetti was the humble self-described “farmer” who rose up to become King, we were his loyal knights, and Osteria Mozza’s wine director, Jeff Porter, was the Prince.

After a brief introduction from Rivetti about La Spinetta’s wines and his passion for creating a quality product, we dug into our first course of the evening – Bufala Mozzarella with crushed lemon bagna cauda that was paired with the Sauvignon Blanc. In Italy, bagna cauda, a mixture of garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and parsley, is traditionally served as a dip or spread for bread. In Molina’s interpretation, the pungent, pesto-like sauce was generously ladled over a bulbous round of imported fresh mozzarella. The acidity from the lemon. herbaceous bite from the parsley, and briny finish from the anchovies helped temper the richness of the cheese, which begged to be eaten with a fork and knife like a steak. Despite the assertive nature of each component, everything worked together harmoniously.

The harmony continued with our second course of the evening – Risotto ‘al Barbera which was paired and prepared with the 2007 “Ca’ di Pian” Barbera d’Asti. The al dente beads of risotto were luxuriously strewn over a bed of sweet carrot puree and then dusted with a delicate shower of parmesan. To the eye it looked mundane, but it was a strong finisher on the palate. The sweetness of the carrot puree helped relax the acidity in the wine, and added further depth and character to the overall plate. This was not just a standard by-the-book risotto dish – it was focused, refined and not assaulted by an excessive amount of butter or cheese. As they cleared the table for the next dish, I whispered to my brother, “Can we open up one of your Barberas to make risotto like this at home?”

He shook his head with an emphatic, “No.”

Before our next course arrived, we were presented with three glasses of La Spinetta’s collection of 2003 Barberescos. Each wine is made from grapes from a specific vineyard in the Piedmont region – Starderi, Gallina and Valeirano, and by tasting them together we were able to see the nuances that are created through the geographic discrepancies. Upon my first sips, the Starderi stood out to me as having the most balance in terms of acidity and fruit, but as the Valeirano opened up, it also became rounder on the tongue.

To pair with these slightly sweet, full-bodied reds, Molina prepared Capalletti with duck liver and black truffle. The delicate pillows of precisely cooked tortellini-like pasta were the perfect vehicles for the subtle foie gras filling and intense shaves of black truffle that, while potent, were not overpowering. I felt most like a knight while consuming this indulgent dish – particularly when the servers came by to spoon extra pasta (and truffles) on each of our plates.

For our final savory course, the Veal Osso Bucco, we were poured a glass of the heaviest hitter of the group – the 2001 “Campe” Barolo. The hearty wine was a strong match for the braised veal shanks that were served sans accompaniment aside from a tempering smatter of parsley leaves. It's a satisfying finish – the veal was prepared simply, but the execution was spotless.

We ended the evening with the first wine that La Spinetta produced – the Moscato d’Asti. It’s a sweet wine, but full of citrus, and was a lively companion for the Limocello Zabaglione with pandolce and coserva di arancia. The almond-dusted sweet bread was almost reminiscent of angel food cake in terms of flavor, but was more similar to a pastry in texture. The lemon custard strewn over the top added a welcome note of decadence, and the segments of orange contributed an additional layer of brightness to the plate. While I don’t usually favor citrus desserts, it was the perfect companion for the 2010 “Biancospino” Moscato d’Asti, and the perfect light ending note after the hearty preceding courses.

After the last drops of wine were gone, and we had said our final thank you to our esteemed King Rivetti, I whispered to my brother, “It was even better than I expected.” As the words tumbled out, my mind traveled back to the beginning of the dinner when Rivetti told us that we need to seek enjoyment in life – through food, wine and good company. Many people will opt for the cheaper, okay bottle of wine to save a few dollars, he continued, but for just $5 more you can have a great bottle.

That night, Richard and I had the best bottle – impeccable food, impeccable wine and impeccable service. More importantly, we created a new memory to supersede those from the days when I used to pinch his arms and scream “I hate you” down the hallway of our parents house.

We’ve come a long way since that time – perhaps because when he tells me what to do, I now know it really is best to nod my head obediently.

And perhaps because we both strive to find Rivetti’s version of the good life – through quality time with family, through a bowl of truffle-topped pasta and through great Italian wines.

Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 297-0100

Information about future wine dinners at Osteria Mozza can be found on the restaurant’s event page.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bibimbapquinoa: My newest compulsion

I received a text message from my friend Sam Kim yesterday that reprimanded me for my compulsive quinoa consumption and excessive Bar Methoding. Over the course of our five minute conversation, he told me that I couldn’t engage in either of these compulsions until I returned to Scoops Westside, the ice cream shop that has, incidentally, become the source of another compulsion.

I laughed at Sam’s command, but secretly chastised myself for being so predictable. Especially since I was actually at Bar Method at the time.

And was planning to eat bibimbapquinoa for dinner.

Bibimbap seems like just the type of thing I’d enjoy bastardizing with quinoa and my other food fetishes (edamame and kale). Yet, the recipe (and idea) actually didn’t originate from my perversely predictable brain – it came from Pam of Rants and Craves, who modified the Korean favorite while she was participating in the “Biggest Loser” contest at her office. Lizzie of Food She Thought jumped on the bibimbapquinoa wagon this past October, and I finally followed suit by making my own version of the recipe this past Saturday.

As usual, I took many many liberties, transforming the veggie-heavy rice dish into something that is barely recognizable as bibimbap aside from my woefully fried egg and carefully compartmentalized units of carrots, bean sprouts, zucchini, braised kale, and edamame. But by making it my own, I also partially captured the spirit of bibimbap as a self-constructed meal that can be tweaked and adjusted, and mixed and mashed together according to personal preference.

The recipe that follows is my personal preference. And I will personally be compulsively making it until I find a new preference to obsess over.

Inspired by Rants and Craves and Food She Thought
Serves 1

¼ cup quinoa
½ cup chicken broth (I use ½ teaspoon Better than Bouillon Chicken Base mixed with ½ cup water)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large kale leaves, chopped (approximately 1 compact cup)
1/2 medium-sized zucchini, sliced into thin half-moons
1 carrot, sliced into thin pieces
½ cup bean sprouts
1/3 cup shelled edamame, cooked
1 fried egg
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Olive oil
Sriracha for serving (traditional bibimbap calls for gochujang, a chili pepper paste)

Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh colander. Bring ½ cup chicken stock to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until quinoa pearls have absorbed all the broth and the shells have separated from the kernals (approximately 15-20 minutes). Fluff with a fork.

While quinoa is cooking, heat a splash of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook together until slightly translucent (approximately 5 minutes). Add the kale, a pinch of salt, and then reduce heat. Cover and let simmer for approximately 15 minutes.

When kale is done, remove the lid, push the kale to the side of the pan, and reduce heat to low, while preparing the other vegetables. Heat another large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat, add a spoonful of water and then the carrots, cooking for approximately 2 minutes so they just lose their bite. Remove carrots, and set into the large pan with the kale. Cook the bean sprouts using the same method and then also set into the large pan in their own space. (The cooked edamame can also be added to the pan at this juncture.) Finally, cook the zucchini for approximately 30 seconds in the frying pan. Add that to the pan with the other vegetables, then rinse out the frying pan to prepare the egg.

Fry egg according to preference, taking caution to maintain a runny yolk so that it can be used as a sauce for the dish.

When all components are ready, plate the quinoa. Add the teaspoon of soy sauce to the kale, then spoon each vegetable in its own compartmentalized space around the quinoa. Place the fried egg in the center.

When seated, mix and mash the veggies, quinoa and egg together until well integrated. Sprinkle with sriracha or gochujang to taste.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Village Bakery and the God of Donut Muffin

My friend Hank recently sent me a link to an illustrated story called “God of Cake” that was featured on the blog “Hyperbole and a Half.” To briefly summarize what really shouldn’t be summarized due to the extreme loss of hilarity – after a four-year-old girl steals a bite of her grandfather’s birthday cake she morphs into a cake crazy beast who overcomes many obstacles (locked doors, parental reprimands) to eat the rest of the cake.

What makes the story so funny (aside from the pictures) is that it is some what true to life. Or at least some what true to my life (see post for Scoops Westside in which I detail visiting the ice cream shop three times in 24 hours).

A week ago Sunday, I had a similar compulsive reaction upon tasting the donut muffin at the Village Bakery, a brunching and lunching carboholic’s paradise in Atwater Village. While the standard egg dishes, salads and sandwiches served at the casual cafe and bakery make it more of a local’s spot than a dining destination, I was drawn to make the trek from my neck of the LA woods courtesy of the 30% Blackboard Eats code that was burning a hole in my Gmail inbox. Tony of Sino Soul and his lovely wife Hayon were happy to jump on board Mission Use BBE Code Before it Expires.

As we stood in line to place our brunch orders that afternoon, I had every intention of keeping my inner four-year-old cake-eating-beast under wraps where she belongs. I would get the Atwater Special composed of a grilled potato leek cake topped with parmesan, scrambled eggs, spinach, tomato and crumbled Niman Ranch bacon ($9.50) and be done with it. Yet as I took in the contents of the bakery’s pastry case my pulse began to quicken with the first symptoms of sugar lust.

Golden bacon maple and apricot ginger scones beckoned me from one side of the case, lusty lemon-rosemary almond olive oil cakes coquettishly winked at me from the other side, and a heaping pile of croissants in the center teased me with the promise of tender folds of buttery bliss. But it was the cinnamon-sugar dusted donut muffins that ultimately instigated my bestial instincts to take over.

As soon as I tore off a piece of the donut muffin’s airy flesh I knew what was going to happen. My simple egg breakfast would be lost in the shuffle as I concentrated on cramming the entire donut muffin hybrid into my mouth at the slowest rate possible lest the sugar beast’s presence be detected by my much saner dining companions. I set it aside so I could focus on my plate of freshly scrambled eggs and humble hash brown/mashed potato cake, but with each passing forkful, the beast’s appetite for more sugar grew.

When the last bite of my savory brunch had been safely shepherded into my mouth, I turned my full attention to the pillowy puff of donut muffin before me. As every cinnamon sugar-crusted morsel disappeared into my bestial vessel, I rationalized my eager consumption by telling myself that at least it was baked – not fried. Had I not been in mixed company, I would have also used that rationalization to purchase several more for the car ride home to West Hollywood so the beast could eat and cram and drip crumbs sans audience.

Restraint had momentarily returned to my body, however, and I left the Village Bakery empty-handed. But in the week and a half since the possession took place, not a day has gone by when my inner-four-year-old cake-beast has not let out a wailing reminder that there are donut muffins that need to be eaten in Atwater Village. One of these days I may just have to listen to her.

The Village Bakery
3119 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90039-1506
(323) 662-8600

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chaya Brasserie's La Petit Menu: A new way to approach a "Hollywood" classic

A few years ago, I read a rather forgettable piece of chic lit about a young ingénue who abandons college to become a fashion model. During the course of her transformation from a wide-eyed Midwestern lamb to a rakish mannequin, she travels to Los Angeles and has a power lunch with the prototypical Hollywood agent at Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

While the name of the book and details escape me now, I still remember my reaction to the way the restaurant, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, is depicted in the scene. It is described in a way that might suggest that the space is forever populated with a set of boorish industry types who find carbohydrates as appalling as they do last season’s trends.

I was somewhat confounded by the portrayal at the time. In my experience, Chaya Brasserie is a far more amiable environment – more of a regular’s spot where friends can catch up over cocktails and couples can enjoy a date night than a place where deals are made and egos are stroked to nauseating levels.
My interpretation of the restaurant as a chic neighborhood locale rather than a destination for hob-nobbers was only reconfirmed last Tuesday evening when I was invited in to sample the offerings on new Executive Chef Harutaka (Haru) Kishi’s “La Petit Chaya” menu. While the requisite older man and young model were present at a table near ours (seemingly a mainstay in any Hollywood restaurant), the overall vibe in the well-groomed space is still as friendly and relaxed as I remembered – in part due to the calm, studied hand of the Chef.

Despite his extensive international experience working with acclaimed chefs like Joël Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay, Chef Haru is a humble presence in the room. When he approaches our table to greet us before the dinner begins, he walks with a graceful step that doesn’t demand attention. He quietly describes his recommendations from the La Petit menu – available to diners who want to order a la carte items in the lounge dining room – his voice and face devoid of any expression of narcissism. He also graciously tells us we are welcome to sample any items from the prix-fix dinner menus – a three-course menu for $39 or a five-course menu priced at $65.

My party of three opts to stick to the offerings on the La Petit menu, which is comprised of sushi, shareable “bites,” rice and noodles, and entrées that include the miso marinated bass from the restaurant’s original menu. We choose to begin with the Hamachi Mole Pressed Sushi ($12), House Cured Salmon Rillettes with Wasabi Cream ($8), and the Roasted Beet Salad with Orange, Arugula, Campari, and Goat Cheese ($9).

The hamachi is as appealing to the palate as it is visually appealing to the eye. I love the inspired mix of seemingly opposed flavors – the smoky heat from the mole perks up the mellow fish in a way that feels organic rather than jarring. Haru brings similar harmony to the flavors in the salmon rillettes, a recipe that apparently took him years to perfect. Unsurprisingly, everything is extremely well-balanced – the salmon is appropriately brightened by a satisfying punch of lemon, and the wasabi cream does not overpower or muddy the fish.

The spritely beet salad is a nice, fresh counterpoint to the two preceding dishes. While a beet salad is as ubiquitous a plate on a menu as beef shortribs, this is a solid version that is turned slightly on its head with goat cheese rounds that have been coated in puffed rice.

To cleanse our palates between our starters and next round of courses, Chef Haru sends out a consommé with foie gras ravioli from one of the prix fix menus that evening. While the consommé presents on the palate like chicken noodle soup, it’s an elegant interpretation that feels both luxurious and restorative. The tissue paper-like ravioli is a delicate pillowcase for the thin shard of foie gras that doesn’t over assert itself in the broth. It’s a thoughtful, refined dish.

Our next three courses include the Hokkaido Scallop Pot Pie ($14), the Japanese Rice & Wild Grain Risotto with Maitake Crisp ($17), and the Green Tea Fettucini with Wagyu Bolognaise ($18). While the scallop pot pie is a beautiful study in what butter can do for a crust, ultimately I am not quite as won over by the pie’s contents as my dining companions. On my tongue, the cream, potatoes and scallops rounds present like cream on cream on cream, and it’s a bit heavy for my tastes. I far prefer the playful take on risotto that is far lighter than most versions because of the nutty texture of the wild grains and lively garnishes, and I am even more smitten by the green tea fettucini – my favorite dish of the evening.

Though the al dente noodles do not exhibit a perceptible green tea flavor, their texture is well-matched with the meaty bolognaise and dried shiitake mushrooms. I appreciate the lightness of the interpretation that leaves me plenty of room to sample the salted butterscotch pudding, matcha tiramisu and classic warm chocolate croissant bread pudding for dessert. Of the three, my tongue is most teased by the bread pudding with its tender tufts of chocolate-kissed croissant, but on this particular evening, I find myself more enthusiastic about the preceding savory dishes.

With Chef Haru at the helm, Chaya Brasserie is entering its 26th year with a new level of accessibility for its cadre of regular diners. This isn’t the restaurant that was featured in that forgettable book with the forgettable characters and forgettable situations. It’s a pleasant place to come after work -- with friends, with a significant other, or, in the case of our friends at the next table, a much older gentleman. All “types” are welcome at Chaya. And I suspect that all types will be able to appreciate Haru’s approachable menus and gracious, very un-Hollywood personality.

Chaya Brasserie
8741 Alden Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 859-8833

Monday, January 17, 2011

Roasted Pears with Brown Sugar and Vanilla Ice Cream: The perfect simple dessert for a simple Sunday supper

It was supposed to be just a simple Sunday supper -- something I could throw together without much effort and anxiety. I had a busy day planned -- a trip to the gym, church, a two-hour wine tasting at DomaineLA -- and I didn't want the dinner I was preparing for my parents that evening to be a big deal.

But when I sheepishly told Kristin Feuer of BakeLab that I wasn't even going to make dessert, her mouth formed into a horrified round "O." She urged me to do something -- to at least go buy something. I nodded, pushing the curried chickpeas I was enjoying for lunch around my plate with my fork. I knew she was right, knew that a dinner party really isn't complete without a sweet ending, but was already nervous about getting everything prepped and cooked, and my apartment cleaned.

Even so, the image of her disappointed face stayed with me after I'd finished fiddling with my curried chickpeas and the rest of my salad trio plate at Joan's on Third. My plan for a "simple Sunday supper" wasn't going to be enough -- I had to do more.

As soon as I got home, instead of scouring every corner of my apartment lest my parents discover I have dust bunnies and food particles lining the base boards, I began tearing through various websites for an ice cream recipe. During my arduous hunt for something that wouldn't require too much effort, but would still be impressive to plate, I stumbled upon Giada's recipe for Roasted Pears with Brown Sugar and Vanilla Ice Cream. Because she did not include a recipe for the ice cream, I took it to mean that I was justified in picking up a pint of Haagen-Dazs Five.

To, you know, keep things simple.

The best part about these pears is that they really are just that -- simple. The only effort that was required prior to my parents' arrival at 6:15 yesterday was buying the necessary ingredients -- apple juice (I used the apple cider I had in the pantry), dark brown sugar, butter, Bosc pears, and the ice cream. The rest could be completed after we'd finished dinner in less than 10 minutes time.

With a smattering of toasted hazelnuts tossed over the top, it was a sophisticated plate to serve and enjoy. I think even the pastry chef would approve. Or at the very least, keep her horrified facial expressions to herself.

Roasted Pears with Brown Sugar and Vanilla Ice Cream
Lightly adapted from Giada De Larentiis
Serves 6 (when I made the recipe last night, I cut the proportions in half)

1/3 cup apple cider
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 firm Bosc pears, peered, halved and cored
Haagen-Dazs Five Vanilla Ice Cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toast the hazelnuts in a small dish in the oven while peeling and preparing the pears. Remove the nuts when the skins are starting to crack and they smell fragrant (approximately 5-7 minutes). Set aside to cool and then coarsely chop.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

Arrange the pears cut side up in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Whisk the apple cider and sugar in a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the butter. Pour the sauce over the pears. Bake until the pears are crisp-tender and beginning to brown, basting occasionally with the juices, about 35 minutes.

Spoon the pears onto plates. Top with ice cream. Drizzle with any juices, sprinkle hazelnuts over the top and serve.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Don Dae Gam: And the little piggy went wee, wee, wee...

There’s a neon pig sign outside Don Dae Gam, a Korean barbecue restaurant that specializes in cuts of swine. The rotund outline of a pig – complete with curly-q tail – seems to indicate that the animal is attempting to run away from the restaurant’s diners. When I look up at him from my place on the strip-mall sidewalk, I can’t help but think, “This little piggy is attempting to go ‘wee, wee, wee all the way home.’”

In a way, I’d like to go with him. I’m not much of a meat eater. And I don’t like smelling like my food or smoke or anything other than the scent from my unscented body products that still seem to smell of something even though they aren’t supposed to smell of anything at all.

But I’m in the company of friends – and the company of Sam Kim, who is somewhat of a restaurant consultant to the LA dining community on Twitter. He knows good food like I know good… well, health food.

He insisted that I’d like it. He said it in a way that indicated that Don Dae Gam is slightly more upscale than other Korean barbecue restaurants in the area. His careful choice of words made it clear that the sister restaurant to the widely-revered Park’s BBQ would be a good place for me to flirt with the cuisine that I am still woefully unfamiliar with.

I know Sam hasn’t led me astray when I pass under the poor neon pig sign and enter the nicely groomed space. The powerful ventilation system has drained the restaurant of excess smoke, leaving only a subtle fragrance of grilled meat and charcoal that is not entirely unpleasant. I drink it in, inhaling the scent of seared flesh with the sincere hope that it will awaken some sort of carnivoric lust inside of me.

Yet when I’m seated at the linear table that’s already been accessorized with side dishes and complimentary banchan, I realize that I am more excited about the contents of those bowls and plates than I am about the neat strips of beef rib, pork belly and pork neck that are awaiting their fate on the hot steel grill.

“What are these?” I gush to Sam as I lean over the table to snag a bundle of fried rice that’s been wrapped in a thin fried egg wrapper.

I don’t wait for him to answer – I plop the conveniently packaged seasoned rice into my mouth before it has time to fall from my precariously-held chopsticks. I’m similarly enthused by the other savories on the table – a delicately dressed green salad, the various kimchis positioned in a semi-circle around the grill, a slurpy egg custard, a crisp kimchi pancake, and one of my favorite dishes of the evening, the sizzling pork ddeokboki. I dig through the kimchi, tender pork pieces and glossy chili sauce for the discretely-sized rice cake pucks underneath. As usual, when presented with a platter of meat, I am still quick to make friends with the carbohydrates first.

The beef bulgogi (thinly sliced prime rib) bathed in a fatty broth that contains slippery strands of japchae fights back for my attention. It’s luxuriously rich – verging on over-the-top – but I’m nevertheless drawn to it. It’s horrible, artery-clogging stuff, but seems somehow more intoxicating because of its sinister properties.

When we begin grilling the raw proteins, I make a concerted effort to act just as excited as my companions about the jerky-like pork neck and varying cuts of pork belly.

“This is my favorite,” someone says, lifting up a shriveled slice of pork belly, their voice caked with reverence.

I nod ambiguously and tentatively pick up a piece of the pork neck with unsteady chopsticks. The grill has imparted a smoky mark on the meats – claiming each piece as its own. “This is man-food at its best,” I think, then turn my gaze longingly toward the now empty plate of fried rice bundles.

Even with the ventilation, the well-maintained grills and spotless marble tables, Korean barbecue still has not captured my heart by the end of our revelrous evening. It’s a path I’ll be willing to tread again, however – as long as I have the right carbohydrates and right people by my side as guides.

Don Dae Gam
1145 South Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006-2314
(323) 373-0700