Sunday, December 31, 2006

Foodventure #22: Sweet Divas Cottage Bistro (Brea)

And also, my first foodventure filed under Orange County Food Blogs, so for the full review - go here. But here's a picture preview and a wrap-up of the place.

The Bill:
Mrs. Claus' Tea & pre-tax/tip total: 18.95

The Rating:
Ambience - 3/5 (comfortable and functional, but nothing particularly special)
Value - 2/5 (portions are comparatively small to the other similarly-priced high teas I've had)
Service - 7.5/10 (adequate - a bit slow but the servers were swamped with a full floor)
Food - 14/20 (food was overall good & the score would be substantially higher if not for the nasty tea)
Bonus/demerits - no points deducted, but a demerit worth noting for a bad (and possibly confusing) Web site!
Total Rating - 26.5/40 (have mixed feelings about returning, again, due to generally good tasting, but small-portioned, foods and, did I mention this before?, really bad tea.)

Other Notes:
~ Reservations highly recommended, this place is often fully booked - you can do this via their Website, through phone, or on
~ Parking on adjacent streets are fairly easy to find.
~ They also sell cookies / sweets to go, and have special event menus available for baby showers, bridal parties, etc.

Sweet Divas Cottage Bistro & Patisserie
518 E. Imperial Hwy.
Brea, CA 92821

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Foodventure #21: French 75 (Burbank)

After my recent experiences at Chat Noir, I wasn't too horribly excited by the prospect of going to another David Wilhelm's Culinary Adventures establishment - but my dining companion insisted, so off we embarked to French 75 in Burbank (there are a few others in the LA/OC area.)

Situated next to Time Warner Bros. studio (and being a skip and a hop away from Disney Channel, ABC & NBC affiliates' offices,) the place teeming with entertainment execs and agents hobnobbing in the dark bar & dining area over live jazz music and champagne cocktails, which this place is famous for. Maybe I should've dropped a line or two about developing a series about the world of food bloggers . . .

From the start (and throughout the rest of the meal), I'm glad to report the service here was nothing like what I went through at Chat Noir - the staff was friendly, professional and prompt. While we were examining the food menus, the waitress took our drink order: Iced tea for the DC, and a Marie Antoinette champagne cocktail for me:

Yes, it's in a martini glass - and no, it didn't taste like what I'd expected to; that's because I got served a French Cosmopolitan instead. It was still good (made with Grey Goose & Grand Marnier,) so I had a few extra sips before sending it back . . .
Ah, there it is! With champagne (generic ones, I'm sure), Grand Marnier, blood orange & blackberry puree -- look there's even a blackberry to resemble the ex-monarch's cranial stump! Possible grotesque mental images aside - this drink was delicious, and I'd probably down a few more if not for the $11/glass pricetag (which, by the way is halved during their happy hours.) My DC ordered an iced tea, which turned out to be the bottled kind from Republic of Tea (one of my more favored brands among mass-produced teas.)

Properly quenched, we proceeded with our food order - first starting with:
Foie gras terrine with sweet garlic gastrique and brioche toast strips, with olive oil/balsamic & microgreens. Not nearly as delicious as the grilled foie gras at Chat Noir, my first thought when that cold lump was served to me was "Fancy Feast?" But after spreading on the toast with the gastrique, I was reminded of the simultaneously heavenly & sinful taste that is foie gras - duck-flavored butter with the mildest hint of liver - soft enough to spread onto the toast strips with the sweet gastrique.

This was followed by the . . .

Lobster beignets with chive fries and aioli dip - looked more interesting on the menu than it tasted ~ if I didn't know beforehand I wouldn't have placed the meat as lobster - a bit soft, a bit bland, a bit like chicken. The fries and dip are good but unremarkable.
Moving on to the main course: roasted rack of lamb with sweet garlic sauce, fingerling potatoes and asparagus - a wonderful meal all around, the lamb had a slightly gamey taste, roasted just right (medium, even though the server suggested rare) and was very juicy. The accompanying veggies are also properly cooked ~ perhaps just a tad too greasy.
We also got a plate of green beans almondine in hazelnut butter, supposedly the lightest cooked veggie side dish they have. The beans had a crisp snap, and the nutty, buttery flavors of sauce and the toasty almonds complemented the fresh, green taste of the beans well.

Halfway through our main dishes, we were asked if we'd like to order their famous chocolate souffle for two (which takes about a half-hour to bake) ~ since DC isn't much of a dessert eater and I am unsure if my stomach can handle it, we passed on that - and opted to split a single serving, quicker-prepped dessert later:
Cheesecake Creme Brulee - again, a course that is better in concept than execution. It was overall too sweet (though not so much if eaten with the tart berries), but without the silky smoothness of a creme brulee or the aromas or flavors of sweet ricotta/mascarpone cheeses. Simply too bad, esp. given how I'm a sucker for most sweet dishes.

The bill (approximation):
Bottled iced tea: $4
Marie Antoinette: $11
Foie Gras: $18
Lobster Beignets: $13
Rack of Lamb: $37
Cheesecake Creme Brulee: $8
pre-tax/tip total: $91

Ambience: 4.5/5 (it seems F75 & the other culinary adventure restaurants rank high in this, but the decor and mood is truly wondrous - good use of furniture, lighting, patio areas & live music to boot.)
Value: 2/5 (even after considering the quality of ingredients used, I can't help but feel that I'm a little bit jipped by the meal. My DC, who works in the food industry, agreed that the dishes ordered should not command that high a price tag.)
Service: 8.5/10 (overall good, and markedly improved over my other CA experience - service lagtime is longer than preferred, but the restaurant was a full-house.)
Food: 12.5/20 (a mixed bag all around, but a definitely downer for a lack of a healthful non-salad dish.)
TOTAL: 27.5/40 (I would probably re-visit for happy hour & bar eats; not likely for a full-on meal)

3400 W Olive Ave
Burbank, CA 91505
(818) 955-5100

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blundered At-Home Foodventure: Homemade "Truffles" . . .

At least I found out with the test version batch before I make the final stuff to give to friends & co-workers.

Yesterday I made 2 ganache fillings for chocoalte truffles: honey-lavender (with real lavender buds provided by a friend) & banana-curry (originally mango-curry, but market had no mangos), both ganaches turns out to taste great, but were way too soft to be made into a truffle for dipping, even after I stuck it in the freezer! At least my guinea pig friend enjoyed them -

I guess I need to alter my flavored cream to chocolate ratio. As soon as I figure out a better recipe - I'll share with y'all!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Opus - a revisit

a.k.a. "I wish I could quit you."

Having to pick up my mom and do some horrendous holiday shopping at The Grove, we decided to ease into the experience by starting out with a dinner at Opus (at my insistence, since I was driving and I recall my absolutely wonderful experience there.)

Wanting to try out a few more different things, instead of each of us doing a three-course spontaneous tasting menu we opted to split a six-course one for the same price ($60), which the exec. chef Josef Centeno agreed to. Oh yea, and the $2 smoked tomatillo-coriander dip for the breads. The dip was very intriguing, somewhere between salsa and a green thai curry ~ not sure if I exactly like it, but it definitely kept my palate occupied.

And what we wound up getting was about 11 plates of pure food goodness. I was anticipating 2 or, if we were lucky, 3 extra gift amuses, but that turned out to be 5-6 ~ and many times we both got an individual serving! Some of the memorable dishes in our "six" course menu included the:

- "Breakfast in a shell" ~ a hollowed out egg shell with its top removed, and filled with poached egg, bacon bits & cream of wheat, absolutely cute to look at & fun to eat - it's been ages since I had a poached egg, let alone this elegant but cozy combo.

- Foie gras custard brulee ~ anything foie gras get my salivatory glands going like a dam overflow - and while this dish didn't have as much fatty liver taste as I expected, it was still an unbelievably velvety savory custard, perfectly set against a thin, crispy layer of burnt sugar.

- Sliced steak & sweetbreads with parsnips and ravioli ~ I *almost* did not miss the foie gras after tasting the delicate sweetbread, which practically fell apart in my mouth into fluffy, buttery yumminess. The steak and the parsnips (in what I presume to be pan gravy) were excellente, and the course was well rounded out with the sweet cheese & slightly "green" tasting ravioli.

- a shotglass of chestnut panna cotta with chives ~ again, not a flavor of panna cotta I would attempt at home, but as usual - a disarmingly delightful treat. You should've seen us jam the too big of a spoon down the shotglass in our vain attempts to scoop out the very last of it (before we figured out we can use the spoon's handle to scrape).

- not 1, not 2, but 3 courses of desserts! The first was a melon granita with ice cream & salted melon, very refreshing after our savory & generally heavy courses of food. That was followed by root beer ice cream in gingersnaps with cranberry sauce & white chocolate glaze, a wonderfully holiday-appropriate delight (but mom thought the flavors were getting a bit crazy.) Thinking we were done, we summoned for the bill, only to have that served up with a mini huckleberry pie with black cherry sauce & whipped cream, a tart and slightly sweet treat that made for a perfect ending - especially since it went so well with the coffee.

And the most amazing part of all this, despite all the different silverware changes and extra china that they had bring out and bus away (not to mention the extra portions we got of the smaller courses), there was no split plate charge! Gracious for all our good and unexpected eats and feeling extraordinarily bad for the dishwasher, we tipped generously and gave our compliments to the chef.

I have a feeling that a 9-course tasting there is in order in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps I should start an Opus mug alongside my Providence one.

Again, for those who are utterly insane missing out:

Opus Restaurant
3760 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Got Listeria? A Foodventure No One Wants

Just read this Associated Press story about Jamba Juice/FDA issuing a warning about smoothies sold in the Southwest region (SoCal included) from November 25 to December 1(yes, a week ago) may contain strawberries that has the disease-causing Listeria bacterium.

Granted, like most foodborne illnesses, for most healthy people it probably means a 'bout of cramps and irregular bowels and some cold-like symptoms, but yea -- great heads-up (for more info - or if you did get a tummy ache recently after a Strawberry Wild - you may call & complain at the Jamba Juice consumer help line: 1-877-464-5689.)

I'll also be fair to them and note that there should be no problem with going there now as all [remaining] potentially-contaminated fruits are recovered & shipments from that supplier have been halted.

Thankfully, weather has been a bit chilly as of late for me to want a smoothie.

According to the site's press release, I also found it funny how their "limited number of stores" [affected by this] is a list of almost 200.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Special Foodventure #20: Ghetto Gourmet Hits LA again (Silver Lake)

After being bummed out for missing Ghetto Gourmet's L.A. tour last month (the one that attracted a slew of writers & bloggers, who wrote about it here, here, and especially here) - imagine the thrill when I found out that they're doing another LA round this week! (and I didn't even find out about it through their official mailing list, but rather from a e-mail/posting by DailyCandy LA) - so feeling spontaneous - I paid my dues (~$40), packed a bottle of wine (Foppiano 2003 petit sirah, from Russian River Valley [Mendocino County]) & floor cushion, and off I went.

For those not familiar, Ghetto Gourmet started as an informal dinner party at someone's house up in the Bay Area with everyone chipping in for the bill, plus a little extra for the chef & staff. Like a rave or an underground party, exact directions are not provided until the near last minute (you do know which the neighborhood, big plus for commuter-crazy Los Angeles) and sometimes even the menu is a surprise.

This particular event was hosted at a lovely house in Silver Lake (at an undisclosed location - ;) ) - where we dined on low tables in a very chic and artsy den/living room. I was one of the first to arrive at around 7:45 p.m., but within 15 minutes the room was packed, and my table mates and I were already chatting up a storm and sharing our bottles of wine (my petit sirah was very good with chocolately-berry-spice flavors, as were my table mates' cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo, both of which had very good cherry-berry notes and pretty soft on the tannins.) At my table was an actress, a private chef, a tour guide, professional organizer/blogger, interior designer & a sound (for films) professional/instructor - all of us found out about this through DailyCandy.

Soon the event organizer & founder of Ghetto Gourmet, Jeremy Townsend, introduced himself and the gracious hosts that opened up their home for this, as well as our entertainment for the night (a pianist that I swear has a caffeine IV underneath his jacket with his energetic playing styles - and a comic that's charismatic and slightly abrasive) and the chef behind the dinner: Anita Bergmann.

Then started the plates of pass-around appetizers: apricot-stilton grougere, which were basically savory puffs of rich cheese with a slight fruity tang and a sprinkling of chives. Almost everyone at the table, including me, went for seconds.
Second course is a endive/celery root/green apple salad in a curry vinaigrette with curry fried shrimp, which I thought tasted OK - the combination was crisp and cool and you can tell and taste the freshness of the greens, but lacks a Wow! factor (mostly attributed to the dearth of curry flavors, which my tastebuds & nostrils barely picked up.) If I'd known ahead of time the spices was going to pretty mild, I'd probably pick a less peppery red wine (or even a white). The color was a bit bland too. After we finished the salad the musician & comedian had their turns entertaining us with songs & routines, and the audience seemed to have fun - not sure if that's due to their skills or to the alchy we've all downed thus far.
Then came the main dish: Beef short ribs braised in red wine with winter veggies & herbed gnocchi - a wonderful winter dish (would be even better if the night's colder) - it was a steaming plate of comfort-food goodness: meat that barely needs a knife to fall apart, chewy pieces of dough with a tinge of flavor, and wonderful veggies that are thoroughly cooked (one of my food pet peeves: not caring for veggies to be prepared "seared-ahi" style) but not mushy. The reds we had on our table paired wonderfully with this dish.
Finishing off the menu is what Anita dubbed crispy lemon alaskas - which looks and tastes like a sweetened & crisped wonton skins, alongside lemon granita/sorbet with a dab of pepper jelly. A simple dessert, but one that was very refreshing and fun for my mouth (with the contrasting tastes and textures from the three things), and one that I'd wish I had seconds of.

Jeremy wrapped it up with some more fun and games, my table-mates and I exchanged contact info & biz cards (the private chef being interested in throwing something similar) and in the night we went - it's a little past 11 p.m. and a work day, but it was an exhiliarating and fun experience & all in all the menu was good (though the beef dish did feel out of place in the menu, considerably heavier than the other light courses). Can't wait to participate (or even volunteer -- polishing up on my foodservice skills) in another one for the upcoming months.

Ghetto Gourmet

for those interested, Ghetto Gourmet has a few more events going on this week before hightailing it for their next set of events at Chicago, so visit their Web site, check it out, and sign up.

P.S. - wow, this week's L.A. series of GG has sold out already - I'm told. Guess DailyCandy has a greater reach than I expected.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Special Foodventure #19: 15th Annual International Tamale Festival (Indio)

There are only a few things that would get me out to Coachella Valley - Palm Springs resorts & nearby gambling (a habit I've cut off long ago), wonderful medjool and deglet noor dates (though I can easily order that online), the Indie music fest, and of course - the International Tamale Festival - a food-crazy affair that takes up four to five city blocks & goes on all weekend long (always the first Sat-Sun in December), and one that I'm gladly driving out two hours for, in fact this is my own fourth annual trip. Of course, while there are dozens of tamale boothes about (I guesstimate 50), there are plenty of other things to check out too, including:

cheap trinkets . . .
bamboo plants . . .
even oxygen bars -- for those going to an inland rave in the night ;)

But my first stop upon arriving at 9:45 (15 minutes before the festival officially opens) is Grandma Lupe's Authentic Tamales stall - where the line is already half a block long.

And went on longer and longer as the day passes on - making this place a favorite camp-out for news crews asking people why they are waiting 3-4 hours for the tamales . . .
. . . because they're da-yum good! This stall consistently wins "best tamale" awards at the festival, and Lupe herself (the cutest little elderly woman you ever did see) only makes tamales for this event.

Fortunately, with my early arrival I waited only about 90 minutes (and had a pleasant time chatting with fellow line neighbors, listening to iPod, surfing on the BlackBerry) ~ but when I got to the front I loaded up at least dozen of those frozen suckers to bring home, as well as 2 freshly steamed ones (and I'm nowhere near the largest single purchase record of 72).

I started off with the pork tamale - fluffy moist masa with just enough red sauce and meltingly tender shredded pork with potatoes, carrots and an olive for added juiciness and flavor -- followed by the . . .
Strawberry & cream cheeese tamale - by far my favorite tamale of all time! (I don't care if it's a bastardized version) - strawberry-soaked masa with a rich creamy center ~ tastes like an insanely delicious combo of strawberry pie, cheesecake & cornbread!
As I was having my religious moment with Lupe's tamales, the next-door stall, and its respectable line, caught my attention . . .
A closer study of the Holy Guaca-moly revealed that this place's guac won awards at 15 different festival, include a "best" award from the avocado festival. Ok! I'm sold . . . but wanting I bought a to-go container to enjoy in the comfort of home, saving my stomach today (almost) strictly for tamales. When I did dive into them with my unsalted corn chips, this thick green dip did live up to its hype - great avocado flavors and buttery textures with a perfect acid touch from lemon juice & tomatoes and the slightest flavor kick from cilantro & spices. My only grievance is that it's maybe a bit too thick; I broke quite a few substantial chips trying to scoop.

But onward with my tamale quest, which brings me to . . .

The Original Shrimp Tamale, which, again tickled my curiosity . . . I like shrimp tacos, and shrimp burritos -- and quesadillas, maybe shrimp tamales will fare just as well.
Or maybe not - the tamale itself isn't bad, but having shrimp (a few measley small pieces, no less) and a somewhat spicy sauce did not endear me to this dish. But at least I gave it a try (and learned to avoid it in the future.)

My next stop? Nini's! That fabulous Whittier-based joint I discovered at the other tamale festival. And the guy recognized me. "You drove all the way out here for tamales? You must be crazy about them . . ." why, yes, yes I am--
Being too full to eat anything else but remembering how well they kept in the fridge from last time, I bought two beef tamales - yes, made with shortening - and stuffed them into my bag. If they taste anything like their porky variants from last time, I have much to look forward to.
Afterwards, I stopped by Gourmet Tamales - which was the Best Commercial Tamale winner of 2005 ~ and I couldn't figure out why. I got a sweet corn tamale to take home, it was rather grainy masa and there was no filling, so just tasted sweet & corny but otherwise a bit bland. Spreading some Holy Guaca-moly on it did improve the dish though--only if because it reminds me of the guac-laden sweet tamale cakes that Cheesecake Factory serves as appetizers (but more than filing enough to be an entree.)

Finally, my last 2 tamale stops . . .

Mecca Apostolic Church (best non-profit tamale of '05) and Indio-based Ricon Norteno Restaurant, where I got the Cheese & Chicken-Tomatillo tamales, respectively. Have yet to try but can't wait to dive into.

And of course, before actually leaving I let myself get tempted by the dessert stalls -

and the Glazed Almonds lady coerced me into buying a small bag of sweet, glazed, fragrant almonds by offering me free samples. The nerve! But really, who can say no to a healthy dose of healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E? (especially when it's covered in sugar, vanilla & cinnamon.)

While I wanted to make a stop at a few more stalls (namely Corn Maiden & Molly's), I had no vendor booth directory and my wallet is feeling empty & the bags full (not to mention wanting to race home to catch the Big Game!). So concludes my somewhat abridged annual journey to the Tamale Festival. But like the previous three years, I left with much preciousness - that I'll devour two at a time throughout this month.

PS - tamales here cost around $2.50 - $3 each, but even then it shouldn't cost more than $10 to fill yourself up with masa goodness!

Indio International Tamale Festival
Indio, CA

Friday, December 01, 2006

Recipe Time #4: Tangerine-Vanilla Panna Cotta

A delicate but substantial dessert, panna cotta is literally "cooked cream" and is pretty simple to make, despite its fancy name. My version, tangerine-vanilla, is a little tangy (from tangerine & sour cream), a little sweet and very aromatic. Paired with a citrusy granita or sorbet, this can pretty much be a grown-up's creamsicle.

This dish should be made day/night before serving because it needs a bit of time to chill and set. And of course, the panna cotta can have a myriad of other flavors -- but I am not as adventurous as some other folks (like the good chefs at Opus and their celery seed & chive version) so I went for something classic, but still slightly jazzy.

Ingredients for about 6 servings:

~3 cups heavy whipping cream
~little over 1/2 cup sugar
~2 tsp. vanilla extract
~1 vanilla bean, cut lengthwise
~little over 1 tsp. tangerine oil (available @ specialty food markets, alternatively 2 tsp. of tangerine zest will work)
~1/2 envelope (1/8 oz.) unflavored gelatin powder
~3-4 tablespoons cold water
~8 oz. sour cream
~tangerine segments (canned or fresh)

First, measure out the cream and heat in a saucepan -- stirring constantly and keeping it barely simmering during the whole time it's being "cooked." You can add the sugar & scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the cream before it simmers. Also, while cream is heating you can combine the gelatin & cold water in a glass to let it set.
After cream is starting to simmer, you may add the vanilla & tangerine extracts, as well as the set gelatin (below). If you want a softer panna cotta, use less gelatin. Beat fairly rapidly to blend all the ingredients thoroughly, while still keeping just a simmer.

After the cream mixture is well-blended, set aside from heat. Put sour cream in a large bowl - and slowly incorporate & whisk the cream mixture from the saucepan (I did it one ladle-full at a time.)
After fully incorporating it, give it a taste test and make adjustments as needed (mine could've used more vanilla, so I added another 1/2 tsp. in addition to my original 1 1/2.) Then ladle them into the container of your choice (ramekins, tart pans, plastic cups, glasses...)

Cover the containers and put in fridge for at least 3 hours to let the panna cotta set (overnight is optimal.) After that, this velvety, creamy delight is ready to serve! (I personally added more color to the dish with tangerine segments and a raspberry puree.)



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