Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mini Foodventure #37: eat. on Sunset & eyeing rising moons . . .

A little more deet on my recent Twitter update (yes, I've followed the way of This Delicious Life and taken to lazy super-mini-entry updates too.)

I was working an American Idol finale related PR event last night involving my guests going to live taping of the show, so I had a 2.5 hour break while they were in the
Kodak and I was out on Hollywood & Highland. I was going to brush it off as a long window-shopping, coffee-drinking, celeb-spotting session while grooving to my mp3 player--then I realized I didn't bring headphones.

Psycho I went, yes indeedy.

So what did I do in full work-clothes attire? No, not to the nearest electronic store to buy an inexpensive set, I'm too cheap/crazy for that. Nope, I walked over a mile to see if
the Hungry Cat opened its doors yet. Doors still closed, so instead of waiting another 15 minutes, I walked further eastward to eat. on Sunset, looking forward to enjoying some discounted grub & drinks, with time to sober up before I have to meet my AI-attending compadres.

No photos this time around (nothing seemed worthy of a snapshot, anyhow) - the margarita ($6) was nicely made and deceptively potent, and their house white wine ($4), a pinot gris, was crisp, refreshing and appley. Food was not bad, but nothing to write home about either - I got the salmon lollipops ($6) in a rather bland chili-soy glaze (I'd prefer the BBQ sauce accompaniment from a while back), and the crispy (margherita) pizza ($6) that was just OK -- the basil flavors were there, but the tomatoes & mozz definitely went MIA on my tongue.

For a similar price ($11.25 - no HH discount), I'd rather order their Toad in a Hole instead of the salmon & pizza. I remembered loving that combo of creamy-jiggly eggs, crispy bacon and buttery brioche the last time I was there - hopefully that remained unchanged.

Also disappointing was that they eliminated the Tuesday $25 three-course prix-fixe, replacing them with available-anytime $20 "TV dinners"; you can choose either a "hungry meal" of meatloaf or a "healthy meal" of fish. (menu for reference) I say *hic*, I mean, "meh" to both.

More interesting than the food were the service & staff - most notably the bartend was wearing jeans too low-rise for his own good. Thankfully he wasn't bad looking, but still - over the course of 30 minutes I've observed at least two plumber-crack shows and four tugging up of the jeans. Once is cute, twice is questionably amusing, but by the third time I'm seriously wondering why he didn't tighten his belt or get better fitting jeans (and furthermore, why no flack from management about it). Also, the manager and staff loudly inquiring about scheduling and the missing host(ess) while on the floor - kinda comical/unprofessional in my opinion (but I had two drinks and used to work in foodservice, so I leaned towards the former).

So my almost-$25 happy hour there didn't quite make me happy, despite the nice buzz from the wine and the 'rita; however, I fixed that fast on my mile-long shlep back -- made a stop at
Skooby's for a boatload of their garlic fries.

Oh yea, I saw Blake in person as he walked past me with camera crews and a small legion of fans in tow - funny how that comes as an afterthought; I'm more jaded in entertainment-related public relations than I thought . . .

eat. on Sunset
1448 N. Gower (cross: Sunset)

Monday, May 14, 2007

PSA: Free Scoop @ Haagen Dazs Shops

In case you ever wondered what happened to the "everyday people"-invented & selected new flavor search contest of this year? Well, you still have to wait to find out as they narrow down between 3 finalists (winner to come in September); in the meantime you can check out their corporate-invented, lab-tested, marketing tasting panel approved new flavors: Cinnamon Dulce de Leche and Sticky Toffee Pudding. But being free almost makes up for all of that.

Haagen Dazs shops will be giving out free scoops of these two flavors 4-8 p.m. on May 15.

If you happen to live near one of these shops and the flavors pique your interest, maybe worth a trip - this Free Scoops Day doesn't seem to have the popularity (and the consequent throngs) of B & J's or Baskin Robbins -- alas, none are near my work-home commute. Too bad free minis aren't given out at markets (though I'm sure workers there are mightily relieved.)

At least depriving myself of those luscious sugar & fat calories will be good for the body (and it's hard to imagine a better H-D flavor than Vanilla Swiss Almond, or that they can do better than Scoops or Fosselman's).

Friday, May 11, 2007

Recipe Time #6: Simple "Kobe Beef" Noodles . . .

My dad, who has some connections with the local butchers, managed to secure some Kobe beef. Now I am not sure if he meant American Kobe-style beef or, much less likely but plausible, the real deal from Japan. Nonetheless, when I visited him this week, I scored an ounce and a half of the finely marbled meat.

The amount seemed a bit small to be worth searing, so I opted instead to make the meat stretch a little by incorporating it in a pasta soup with what I had on hand.
- scallions, 1 stalk chopped
- 6-8 cremini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
- a handful of baby spinach leaves
- 3/4 cup whole wheat rotini pasta
- 16 oz. Trader Joe's soy-ginger broth, with a pinch of ground ginger and a few cracks of peppercorn for extra flavor
- 6 oz. water, to compensate for broth reducing in the heat
- of course, the beef -- which I chopped to make the sizes consistent (of course, any good cubes/slices of well-marbled meat would work here too.)
Preparation was a snap, boil the broth & water, throw pasta in and reduce to simmer - stirring occasionally. 8 minutes later I tossed in the veggies, and 4 minutes later I tossed in the beef for a 15-second simmering before serving it up in my bowl. How did it taste? Great -- it's definitely better than the best prime-grade shabu shabu beef I've had up until now, texture reminds me of a land-variant of the otoro sashimi, very buttery but with a little firmness and beefiness. The broth and veggies quickly saturated the meaty flavors, so it was definitely good to the very last drop.

But I am not sure if it is "OMG Heavenly!!" enough for the price it commands (Beverly Hill's Cut sells a 6 oz. portion for $120)--doesn't seem so in a brothy soup, but maybe it a more naked preparation it might be.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Foodventure #36: Campanile (Los Angeles / Hancock Park)

Before Nancy Silverton came into fame in Pizzeria Mozza, some of us know her as the partner and bonafide bread-o-phile of the once-rustic and now-everywhere La Brea Bakery and the pastry chef of its adjacent restaurant, Campanile.

So, after being basically 'wow'ed out of my mind with
my Mozza experience, I decided to take a trip to Campanile to discover its origins and to taste the creations of Mark Peel, who has been running this place since it opened in 1989. Incidentally, he himself was a pastry chef at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, before moving on to work at Spago, Maxwell's Plum in NYC and, finally, starting this joint venture with Silverton.

Campanile is located on La Brea just south of Beverly Blvd., in a building from the early 20th century designed for Charlie Chaplin. The dining floor is divided into three sections, the front area is an open, airy, almost ethereal patio with a fountain and a tree, plus full-pane windows and skylights that let you look out onto the bustling boulevard or up into the starry sky (or, if going during the day, would flood the area with radiant sunbeams). The middle section looks like a classy, Old World cafe or bistro with its stone walls and gothic arches, straightened rows of tables and a complete view of the kitchen as they're whipping out courses. Finally, the more refined and romantic backroom, with soft beige lighting, carpeting and cream colored drapery.

I was seated in the front area, and I didn't have to look at the menu to know what I wanted -- the Monday night special ~ $35 for a three-course prix-fixe. (Note: price has now risen to $40/person)

Shortly after my order, a dish of amuse came out:

assorted olives, marcona almonds and roasted garlic cloves marinated in olive oil
I honestly can't comment a whole lot about this dish since I hate most olives. In the spirit of being foodventurous, I did taste a few (at least one of each color), none of them are the exceptionally rare ones that I can tolerate, on the other hand, none are especially horrible either. The almonds and garlic cloves are alright, however.

Bread, really?
OK, this was the major let down of the meal; I don't think I'm being unreasonable when I expect above-average bread from a restaurant that's partnered with a well-renowned bakery. But this basket 'o carbs was not that good even by regular standards -- cold, hard and borderline stale, as if they were sliced that morning and stuck in a fridge for the day, being pulled out just minutes before tables needed them. I can't imagine how Nancy would ever let this slide, except for the fact that she's spending all her time at Mozza.

Thankfully, the major bummer moment was quickly cut short with the serving of appetizers . . .

Oysters Rockefeller
Oh yes! Fresh bivalves baked in a white wine sauce with aromatic garlic and herbs -perfectly cooked, the sauce perfectly complemented the succulent and slippery meat that glided on my tongue for awhile before I bite, releasing the sweet and briny juices in my mouth. Enough said ~ and I swear I didn't rudely sip the remaining liquids off the shells *cross fingers*.

Tally so far: one 'meh', one bummer and one heavenly, how will that change with the main course?

Chicken & Lobster Pot Pie
Fortunately, for the better - the flood of flavors is nothing short of amazing. Nestled under flaky layers of puff pastry is a rich, slightly-sweet stew full of firm meats melding with earthy mushroom slices, fragrant pearl onions and sweet carrot coins. And that hint of sugar not only helped the flavors combine, it also made this sauce feel a bit less heavy too by distracting the creamy mouthfeel with that tinge of unexpected taste.

Now, if I had to be nitpicky, the only downside I see to this pie is the lack of a side & bottom crust. I know, I know -- lots of pot pies are top-crust only and a puff pastry side & bottom crust for this pie would probably be just soggy layers of flour and butter, but having been raised on passable and occasionally-really-cheap frozen Marie Callender's pot pies in my high school and college years, I always sob a little on the inside when eating restaurant pot pies (or cobblers for that matter) and sensing my fork hitting the pie tin or dish without that crusty resistance.

Green Beans with Whole Grain Mustard and Bacon
Ok, upon tasting this side dish I forgave the restaurant for that whole lack of crust thing earlier. These beans were perfectly cook, tender but still with a definite snap upon biting, nicely tossed with tangy mustard and crispy bits of bacon. It was one of those few times that I ate all my veggies . . .
. . . only to not finish the pie! (I think I had three or four more forkfuls after this picture) And unfortunately, wasn't able to even doggy bag the goodness since it'll just be growing bacteria for the 4+ hours in my car while I'm at another late-night event. At the very least, I managed to get enough of second wind for dessert.
Vanilla Panna Cotta with Raspberry Reduction and Fresh Raspberries
Luckily, dessert was relatively small (use the raspberries as a scale) so I did manage to eat the whole thing. A simple yet elegant dessert, I particularly love the use of actual vanilla beans in this dish; along with a decent cup of coffee (comes along with the prix-fixe), this was a nice ending for an overall good meal.

Would I return again? You betcha, despite my reservations about the bread. On top of an overall good meal, I give amazing creativity kudos to Mark Peel for switching up the Monday menu (and the more expansive and expensive Wednesday prix-fixe) EVERY week for a price that's completely reasonable. And of course, I have to come back to check out their infamous grilled cheese Thursdays, which I hope are on better slices of wheat.

The Bill:
Monday Night Dinner Special Prix-Fixe: $35 (includes coffee or tea)

The Rating:
Ambience: 5/5 (I love the 3-in-1 space going on in this restaurant, all three are nice in their own way, but it also gives diner a bit of a choice depending on the mood & occasion -- the more casual patio & bistro would be great for meeting with friends and business colleagues, whereas the back area is great for more intimate dining.)
Value: 4/5 (Very reasonable for all the stuff I'm getting, the rating sticks even after the price went up by $5)
Service: 7.5/10 (Solid and professional, could be friendlier though)
Food: 16.5/20 (Overall very good, though the portions are a bit gianormous. Oh yea, and the whole bread thing! - I'm not consideirng the olivey amuse in this since that's such a personal pet peeve of mine-)
Misc. Bonus/Demerits: N/A
TOTAL: 33/40

Other Notes:
- Valet parking available, watch out with street parking, lots of 'no parking' times and restrictions in the area.
- As noted before, they also do a Wednesday chef tasting menu ($85/pp) and are well known for their Thursday grilled cheese nights. Also brunch on weekends.

What Do Others Say?
~Erin of Erin's Kitchen
went here for brunch, also finds it yummy and reasonably priced
also did brunch here, also liked but felt it was a bit pricey
~The Delicious Life's Sarah, too,
had good eats and a good time at brunch
~L.A. Ritz
went for the tasting menu in '05, liked overall despite a few hiccups; also seemed to enjoy Grilled Cheese Night a bit more

624 S. La Brea
Los Angeles

Sunday, May 06, 2007

LA Times: Fix Everything -- And the Kitchen Sink!

In today's Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez's Points West column wrote about all the regulatory red tape restauranteurs go through when opening or expanding a restaurant, highlighting in particular the woes of Larkin's and Oinkster in Eagle Rock (both of which had their openings delayed for months), Delilah in Echo Park (which opened in January after nearly a year of fighting red tape) and Joan's on Third's expansion setbacks in Los Angeles (which LA Eater has chronicled).

One bit that particular striked me in surprise about the bureaucratic obstacles an aspiring eatery owner must go through:

"Instead of running a bakery, [Genevieve Ostrander's] full-time job for nearly a year was the fight to open Delilah, and she ran up a debt of $120,000."

Of course, I understand the city's need to make sure all new/expanded businesses abide by their regulations (whether parking issues, environmental concerns, structural proofing, etc.) but as Lopez pointed out in the article, it'll be great if the process is more streamlined and that the standards and inspections are more consistent so that one person's go ahead is not another inspector or department's no way, Jose.

As Larkin Mackey noted in the article, "Sometimes you get different instructions from the same inspector . . . it just depends on how they feel that day."

Definitely a worthwhile read, and a call to arm for us foodies to provide support for the small food places we love best, 'cause chances are that the chef-owners have given their every last penny to pursue their dreams & passions and they are probably still struggling to get out of the red.

This Past Weekend: Elite Restaurant & Rule of S. Irene Virbila

Since Eat Drink & Be Merry's review of Elite Kitchen (formerly New Concept), I'd been waiting for a weekend when I'm jones-ing for dim sum to go. That came on today and I went on an impulse, totally forgetting that LA Times' S. Irene Virbila gave it a pretty positive review this past Thursday ~ 2.5 stars.

Thus, even arriving after 10 a.m. for a small table, there were already about 20 people lingering about and I waited 40 minutes before getting seated.

(Sorry, food pic-o-philes, forgot to bring my camera this time -- but I had many of the same items EDBM had ~ so check out photos there.)

Overall, the place matched my predictions almost too perfectly: upscale food and service reminiscent of Mission 261 before they downsized their creative and delightful menu (for a nostalgic trip - read J Gold's 2004 review here).

Like most other higher-end dim sum joints, things are ordered off a checklist menu (available in English & Chinese, with an accompanying picture chart to tell you what's what) rather than having to hail down a surly cart lady bejeweled with jade accessories.

The shu mai (pork-shrimp-mushroom) dumplings were among the best I've had in a while, which may have to do with them being topped with bay scallops. I was also pleasantly surprised by the lo mai gai (chicken & assorted meats wrapped in glutinous rice and steamed in a leaf), which had just the right amount of fattiness from the chinese sausage and delighted me with a succulent slice of abalone. All went well with the very nicely prepared chrysanthemum black tea, one of the most fragrant that I've had. Finishing off the meal were the flakey macau egg tarts, with a subtly sweet creamy custard that practically liquifies in your mouth.

I also had their har gow shrimp dumplings and their scallop rice sheet rolls, which was solidly good as well; too bad I missed that they had ja leung on the menu (chinese youtiao doughnut wrapped in rice sheet rolls, usually served with peanut & hoisin sauces and OMG good!)

Not so impressive-the macau roasted pork that's been raved about. It's good (crispy skin, great intermingling layers of rich fat and lean meat), but nowhere delicious enough for me to justify paying $6 for 11 miniscule slices -- where for the same price I could probably get a half pound's worth at a Chinese delicatessen. I don't regret trying it, but I doubt I'll ever get it again.

Asides from the roasted pork, all the dishes are worth its value even with the higher-than-normal price (expect about $15/person when dim summing here), and I expect to return again to sample more of their offerings.

And next time, I'll be sure to take heed to the rule of S. Irene Virbila -- if she reviewed any place with a two star or higher rating, avoid it for at least a month! (When I finished my meal around noon, there were at least 50 people swarming around the place.)

Elite Restaurant
700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 282-9998

Friday, May 04, 2007

Recipe Time #5: Pear-Almond Bread Pudding with Spiced Pear Sauce

Bread pudding is my default "go to" dish for potlucks: simple to make with a definite homestyle comforting flair, and it's a fairly adaptable dish that lets me take advantage of what's in season or have on hand. Which is great because I don't care for raisins (featured in most traditional bread puddings), so I throw in all sorts of different things to fill in the void left by that wrinkly fruit. In this instance, I used fragrant ripe pears and crunchy almonds.

Ingredients for pear-almond bread pudding:
1 French baguette, cut into 1/2" to 1" cubes (normally I'd use about 2 cups of stale bread, but didn't have any on hand that day)
2 baking pears (d'Anjou), peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup sliced almonds
4 eggs
2 egg yolks (I saved the whites for guilt-free omelet later on)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup rum (I used Capt. Morgan Pvt. Stock - if using a non-spiced rum, up the amounts of spices below as appropriate)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

For the spiced pear sauce:
1 stick butter
1/4 cup rum (again, I used Capt. Morgan Pvt. Stock)
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks (again, whites saved)
6 oz. pear baby food (I'm sure pureed pears would work fine here too)

1. Soak pears in the rum in a bowl for about 20-30 minutes.
2. Put the cubed bread in a baking dish; in a separate bowl, combine the eggs, yolks, cream, milk, sugar, spices and extracts, pour the mixture over the bread and let it soak for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 375F.
3. Pour pear/rum mixture and 1/2 cup of almonds into the dish, hand-tossing to thoroughly combine.

(had a little extra, so filled up 2 individual custard dishes as well - which only need 35-40 minutes of baking)

4. Top off with remaining 1/4 cup of almonds and bake in oven for approximately 75 minutes. (covered for first 45)
5. While the bread pudding is baking - use a double-boiler (an actual one, or improvised with a bowl over a pot of simmering water) to melt the butter. A good deal faster if butter is chopped up into slices/cubes.
6. Whisk in the rum, sugar, egg yoks and pear puree/baby food until thoroughly combined.

7. When the bread pudding is done - pour sauce over it and enjoy!
Also great a la mode with vanilla ice cream . . .

This recipe makes about 8-10 servings, so adjust ingredients & baking time proportionally as needed - also the sauce will solidfy if stored in fridge, so reheat when using again.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mini Foodventure #35: uWink, I sigh (Woodland Hills)

Tired of waitstaff trying to upsell you everything from appetizers to desserts, taking down the wrong orders or just rudely interrupting one moment, only to disappear when you need service? Perhaps you're on a first (maybe blind) date and afraid of the seemingly endless silence or generic & cheesy icebreakers. Or, like me, you may just be dining solo and forgot to bring your mp3 player/BlackBerry/book to kill time while waiting for your food appear.

Those are exactly the kind of problems uWink try to solve by replacing servers with a touchscreen computer on each and every table. Simply punch in your order and an expediter will bring out your grub. You can even play a few games on the screen while you wait; think of it as an adult Chuck E. Cheese, with less kids running amok and no giant rat costumed entertainer scaring everyone (even though the company is founded by Chuck E. Cheese's former CEO).

The idea of no annoyance and fun-while-you-wait sounds too good to be true, and so, I made it a point to check out the place the next time I'm in the San Fernando Valley, which was this past weekend.

The recently opened restaurant is at the Westfield Promenade in Woodland Hills, one of the smallest L.A. malls around (only one anchor department store - Macy's) and quite desolate for a Saturday afternoon. After some store browsing, I hopped in.
Indeed, there were computer screens everywhere - at the bar, at the table, and the host stands (the ones with the keyboards & mice). I was promptly given a seat and a uWink card (which I have to swipe along the side of the screen everytime I order something) and was free to order away.
The computer menu is pretty intuitive and easy to navigate, though the touchscreen is not always precise (reminds me of the PhotoHunt game: "I TAPPED ON THE RIGHT SPOT, DAMN IT!") so I'm glad that a card swipe is needed to place an order.

As for the menu items themselves? meh, basically upscale diner fare and nothing too exciting (PDF of the menu here) - so I settled for a wild mushroom burger on wheat bread with a side of sweet potato fries. I was pleased that every option imaginable can be entered in, great for my more finicky pals who want to go light on this, extra that, with a little something on the side.

Now that I've ordered, time to dive into the fun & games. There are several dozen to choose from, from horoscopes & love detectors to quiz shows and puzzles. You can also view movie trailers (co-marketing revenue?). Most of the games are free, there are a few premium & prize games you have to pay for (including a wine tasting challenge, with a 3-glass flight for $10)

Somewhat lucky in love, eh? Will I be lucky enough to win a dessert for just .50?
$1.50 later -- No! Thankfully, my food arrived so I cut my losses and dove in.

I wish I had better things to report about the food: The burger wound up being way too greasy with its slathering of mayo, cheese, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions, and I can barely taste the mushrooms. The sweet potato fries turned out to be overcooked and soggy. Even giving the benefit of the doubt that it may be the kitchen's off-day, the expediters should know better than to bring out fries that looked practically like charcoal.

There were other indicators that the front-of-house staff may not be at its best that day; even with the clear instructions I provided on the touchscreen, a few service-related mishaps occurred with my order, including being brought hot coffee when I ordered iced and being served another table's order. And from the observing neighboring tables, there was quite a bit of flagging around by other diners to get service - I'm not sure if they needed some corrections too or if they aren't aware that they can punch in drink refills or bus tables on the screen. Oh, the irony of us actually missing our human servers.

And probably the biggest annoyance of all, while noshing I decided to sign up for the uWink club (who knows, maybe a free dessert on my birthday can lure me back). After punching in all my contact information on the not-so-accurate touchscreen (every third key I used was "Backspace" or "Clear"), I found out the "Submit" button doesn't work! Great . . .
I don't think I need the results of a tarot card reading to tell me whether I'll be returning anytime soon.

But honestly, it was an interesting dining experience -- maybe if I went with a group it would be more fun and food would be less of a factor. And given the success of other dining-entertainment establishments like Dave & Busters, GameWorks and, yes, Chuck E. Cheese's -- the food, really, just need to be "not bad"; the target audience aren't foodies, but families and young adults looking for a place to get some decent bites, maybe a few drinks and have some fun w/o having to scope out another venue.

So it may still be worth a shot to try -- just don't have high hopes for the food & service. Just like the Chuck E. Cheese pizzas.

Westfield Promenade
6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd. 2310
Woodland Hills, CA 91367
(818) 992-1100


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