Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foodventure #61: Easter Brunchin' at Taste (on Melrose) (West Hollywood)

A brunch I've been planning for about two weeks, I chose Taste (on Melrose) because it seemed to be slightly bubbling on the down-low; not entirely obscure, but definitely not the talk of the town. It was only when they put out their interesting-looking Easter brunch menu that I decided it was time to check out the place, seeing that it had a good variety of breakfast and lunch options for indecisive me to mull over (Ok, it was the dessert buffet that sealed the deal.)

On Melrose near La Cienega, it's nestled in a neighborhood of high-end boutiques and design stores and a hop away from Comme Ca. Despite its higher profile competition, the place was pretty full and happening upon our 12:30p arrival. We were quickly seated in their quaint patio, and our knowledgable and enthusiastic waiter explained how the brunch menu worked (as the menu suggested, it is basically 3 shared apps, choice of entree and a help-yourself dessert buffet).

While we were deciding on the entrees, we were brought the pastry basket . . .
consisting of scones, muffins, cornbreads and assorted breakfast goodies and definitely way more than enough for two people! Most of everything we tried were pretty good, the exception being the cornbread which was a bit on the dry & mealy side.

The waiter came back to take our entree order, and we were serve the two other starters:
smoked salmon mousse with red bell pepper and dill on belgian endive and
mac 'n chese with mushrooms and white truffle oil. Both were OK to decent, but definitely lacking the extra edge to make it especially good. I couldn't detect much of the salmon in the mousse, the prominent flavors came from the dill with a backdrop of pepper and sour cream. The white truffle oil overwhelmed the mac and cheese, making the dish as a whole pretty one-dimensional. Still, neither was bad.

After the apps, we nibbled off the pastry basket a little more until the arrival of our entrees. My friend got the
blackened wild salmon salad with roasted tomatoes, goat cheese and capers in a white balsamic vinaigrette which was fairly well executed, with the dressing being pretty pleasant and the fish well cooked. He noted he could've done with less goat cheese (or a less intense version of it) but I had a taste thought it was OK, though not particularly exciting salad-wise.

I got the taste cobb frittata, which was baked with chicken, applewood bacon, green onions, tomatoes and gorgonzola cheese inside and topped with avocado. It was served with gorgonzola sauce, ketchup and a side of their rosemary garlic potatoes.

I guess good news first -- the potatoes were awesome: crisp and aromatic and great with either dip. Of course, me praising the side dish probably gives you an idea of the bad news as well--the frittata was definitely overcooked and was kind of dry and dense rather than soft and fluffy. The ingredients also could've been finer chopped and/or more evenly distributed. Some bites I'd get just bacon and eggs and others I'd be blasted with a giant glob of gorgonzola. It was pretty mediocre overall, I didn't finish it and was kicking myself for not choosing one of the other items I was considering (especially the breakfast burrito that looked so good two tables down). And no fault to Taste, but if I'd known I'd gotten my own whole frittata instead of being served a slice of a giant premade one (as some places do), I would've asked for egg whites only.

But hey, maybe the best part is at the end, so I helped myself to their dessert buffet

and gotten some of their warm chocolate bread pudding, fruit salad, a macaroon and mini yogurt-granola-fruit parfait. All the sweets were solidly good, the winner of the set being the custardy, not-too-sweet pudding.

My friend also checked out the one dessert I didn't try, the chocolate pudding -- which he didn't care primarily because it's room temperature and not cold.

In conclusion, I'm not quite sure what to make of my experience here. Neither so good that I'd recommend it as a destination restaurant (and even iffy as an option in the neighborhood), but not so bad I'd rant much about it either -- especially since I only have one dining experience to go off on and it could've just been an off meal, which isn't uncommon during busier-than-usual special events. Nonetheless, with that frittata, I'm not eager to give this a second go and re-evaluate anytime soon, especially with other restaurants in the neighborhood (the aforementioned Comme Ca, as well as Lucques and Bastide) that I've yet to try. And if my experience is any indicator, I totally get why this place is below the radar.

What do others say?
- Yelpers give it
four out of five stars
- Chowhounders offer a
mixed bag of opinions

Other notes:
- Recurring special events here include 1/2 Wine on Mondays, and special prix-fixes on full moon nights featuring aphrodisiac foods
- Valet & street parking available
- Overall dining area is pretty small, so do make a rezzie with larger parties (or parties of any size on busier times.)

The bill:
2 Easter brunches (includes soft drink) @ $34/person - $68
Glass of sparkling wine - $7.75
Pre-tax/tip total - $75.75

The ratings:
Ambience: 3.5/5 (a pretty nice space given the small area they have to work with, could be romantic at night but nothing particularly remarkable)
Value: 3/5 (on the higher end for a brunch, but we definitely got to try a lot of different dishes)
Service: 9/10 (the highlight of the meal, all the staff were attentive w/o being fussy and no major delays)
Food: 13/20 (there were some good items, but nothing great; and there were some mediocre stuff, but not super bad. But given how most items were around the OK range, I'm basically unimpressed.)
Bonus/Demerit: N/A
Total: 28.5/40 (a barely passable C- if you do the numbers, wouldn't go out of my way to dissuade others from going, but no recs either)

Taste (on Melrose)
8454 Melrose Ave
West Hollywood

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mini Foodventure #60: Box of Delights from Boule Atelier (Beverly Center area)

Finally had the opportunity to stop by Boule Atelier, the reincarnation of Boule two buildings down. Everything looks heavenly, and here's the box of fancy schmancies I took home:

Canelés: Caramelized and crunchy outside, custardy and tender-soft inside -- both the vanilla and chocolate versions were a joy to munch on.

Macarons: Crispity, airy cookie sandwiches - a bit larger and more flavor-forward than those of
Jin Patisserie's, all the varieties I had (meyer lemon, pistachio, vanilla-olive oil, caramel-sea salt, rose and café) were pretty good, though the lemon & caramel flavors were particularly outstanding.

Paté de Fruits (wrapped in photo above): I got the pear-vanilla, calamansi lime and pink grapefuit, all were bursting with juicy sweet flavors with just the right texture in firmness & chewiness!

In short, it was worth every penny of the nearly $30 I spent here -- and I sure had a swell time polishing these off over the next three days. Can't wait to go back to try some of their decadent cakes and pastries, luscious ice creams, exotic-flavored chocolates and, of course, the
Oprah-raved caramels (had to skip on all these goodies this time since I had a few afternoon errands and don't want the sun to ruin them.)

What do others say?
- Foodie Universe finds their exquisite sweets are worth every penny, too
- Caroline on Crack
feels worlds away taking a tea & dessert break here after shopping
- Eating L.A. is
pretty impressed by their offerings at their opening preview party

Boule Atelier
408 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Quickies #19: Economy-Related "Specials" and Cooking at Home

Hard Times Deals: Diners are economically squeezed everywhere, with the economic slowdown, higher gas prices (which not only raises costs for transporting food, but also just getting around in our car-crazy state), higher food costs in general and let's not forget the recent entertainment industry shut down from the writer's strike, which definitely took a toll on places that caters to the sets and thrives on power-lunches and deal-closing dinners.

So it's no surprise that a few restaurants in the area are marketing themselves as being more budget-friendly to the increasingly frugal diner by offering special deals.
Table 8 for example, is offering a "Inflation Libation" ($18/person for a glass of beer or wine with two small plates) and "Recession Concession" ($38/person 3-course meal). David Wilhelm's Culinary Adventures restaurants (French75, Savannah, Sorrento's) are doing a "David's Stimulus Package" with $16 dinners.

As much as I like a good dining deal (and kudos for the rhyming words), I find myself questioning the sincerity of these special offerings. Are they really doing it to for the customers' sakes? Or are they trying to keep themselves afloat now that customers have less discretionary income to spend on eating out?

Regardless of intentions, it's a lofty approach to getting your word out there. As
Jonah from LA.Foodblogging noted, if I really needed to pinch my pennies, I probably wouldn't shell out for a dinner that's nearly $50 a person, even if it is a bargain from the usual prices. And as much as I'd enjoy a discount, I don't want to be reminded of our current economic state while eating out and that I *really* should've just saved my dollars going to a cheaper place or, better yet, cook at home. It just creates a cognitive dissonance that inevitably asks for a backlash like reactions to Campanile's soup kitchen deal during the strike. Now, I don't mean to bag on the restaurants and am well aware of their generally thin margins and that chefs & restauranteurs are usually charitable people. It's just that this particularly form of outreach doesn't jibe with me.

A better marketing/PR campaign would shift the focus to something like "indulge a little for not a whole lot", keeping in line with the thoughts that dining out is -indeed- an indulgence while also offering a subtle suggestion for budget savvy diners, or even something philanthropic-sounding like the
help the Citrus farmers dinners from a year ago, which reminds potential diners that there are others even more hard hit and appeal them to shell out a bit more to help their fellow folks.

Home Cooking Foodventures: Speaking of cooking at home, I've been doing more of that than usual -- partly to save a little bit more of moolah (to blow on some uber-meal later on ;) ), but primarily because opportunities came about, and being single, I don't get the chance to cook-completely-from-scratch often so I seized them with gusto. Three days ago, for a healthy recipes contest I made a caprese style sandwich (inspired from
my Doughboys trip), two days ago I made a cuatro leches cake for an office birthday party (basically a tres leches plus coconut milk, the last ingredient added on an impulse after seeing it featured as Chow.com's recipe of the day), and last night made some super easy chocolate-dipped mini-macaroons with the leftover coconut flakes.

And tonight, a simple DVD movie night dinner with a friend - popcorn with a drizzle of white truffle oil, a tofu stir-fry with brown rice and a pear-honey-vanilla martini (still working out the recipes in my head) and maybe some fruit and chocolate for dessert. But yeah, definitely fun times in the kitchen!

And wow... Easter is already around the corner. I guess I'll report on my
vegetarian phase next week; in short, nothing mindblowing, but did come away with a few interesting revelations.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mini Foodventure #59: M Cafe de Chaya (Mid-City Los Angeles)

After making the recommendation for Kirby to try M Cafe de Chaya after she announced she's going on a "(Sort of) detox", I got the cravings for the place myself (moreso after she posted about her trip there), so a little foodventure I embarked.

Sitting near on the corner of Melrose & La Brea (yes, close to the not-so-healthy Pink's), M Cafe has modern European tavern feel to it, with planters of flowers and herbs lining the patio fence, and large communal wooden tables in the interior dining area, and plenty of sunlight spilling in from the full-length South-facing windows and doors.

Of course, all that played second fiddle to its display case of pastries and deli selections, which were vibrantly colorful and absolutely fresh- and yummy-looking. I had a hard time choosing one deli salad to go with my wrap, so the cashier gave me a few forkfuls of the sweet potato-wasabi salad and the curried cauliflower salad to sample:
Both were delightfully delicious. The sweet potato salad was slightly sweet, had a mild wasabi aroma and was exceptionally creamy-smooth (particularly surprising since they don't seem to use dairy in the foods here.) The curry salad was more complex and had a wonderful mix of textures and flavors, from the spicy, aromatic and tender cauliflowers to the crunchy, nutty cashews and the sweet and chewy dried apricots. Definitely a hard choice, but I went with the latter to go with my Madras-Tempeh Wrap
featuring masala-baked tempeh, almonds, raisins, "frizzled" onions and fresh veggies in a whole wheat lavash bread with a side of curry-soy dressing. It was light yet satisfying, the wrap tasted great on its own but the dip definitely takes the flavor up a notch. Thankfully, they didn't try to make the tempeh taste like meat, it had a smoky-nutty-spicy taste and a substantial texture that was unique and complementary to the other ingredients in the wrap -- I didn't even miss the meat here.

Unfortunately, due to a planned sweets run later on that day and how full I got, I had to skip on trying their baked goodies. The green tea-pistachio pound cake was mighty tempting, though.

But carnivores do not need to fear coming here; being a
Macrobiotics-fusion restaurant, as opposed to strictly vegetarian/vegan, they do offer a few seafood options. But given their food philsophy of lots 'o whole grains and vegetables as well as minimal processing, no matter what's on the menu, expect the food to be very fresh, wholesome and tasty too!

M Cafe de Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mini Foodventure #58: Waffly Opinion about The Waffle (Hollywood)

Specialty waffles? Available after midnight? Is it a drunk foodie's dream come true? Since nearby Hungry Cat is celebrating its 3rd birthday (very good oysters & drinks, by the way), my friend and I decided to kill two birds with one stone by sobering up at the Waffle. The reviews are all over the map, so might as well go and see if it's for us.

For starters, I would have to agree with what most other say about the decor (think Hannah Montana's alternate universe form, an emo girl with a dissociative identity disorder). Downstairs basically reminded me of a Norms diner with an even more depressing color scheme: 70s-era faded browns, dark yellows and muted oranges (the dreary palette would've been actually good for the sobering up drinker not looking for a lot of visual distractions, but I probably wouldn't have chosen vomity hues!). Upstairs is a bar/lounge area that's, well, abandoned. The maple martini did sound interesting, 'cept I gotta drive and there are already no shortages of consistently good alchy in that area of Hollywood.
I had frosted pecan waffles ($8), which were a little beyond pass-able; definitely better than eggos, but despite its special batter with pecan meal mixed in, it strongly reminded me of the "make-your-own-waffles" from brunching days at college dorm or restaurants doing the Sunday buffet. The frosted pecans and maple syrup were good, but I'm sure I could've gotten better versions of both @ a market. I wished I'd taken our very friendly waitress' advice and gotten the less mediocre sounding Sticky Bun Waffle.
My friend felt pretty much the same way about her applewood smoked bacon waffle ($9); Not having tried bacon & waffle together, she loved the sweet-and-salty combo of flavors, but agreed that the bacon-embedded waffle itself was nothing special and there are probably better stuff to be had in L.A. And both of us felt the prices were definitely on the high end for just two slightly-better-than-OK waffles.

And so ended our brief and unremarkable foodventure @ the Waffle. While it's unlikely that I would re-visit strictly for the food, given its late closing times (2:30a weekdays / 4:30a weekends) -- I may return after another bar trip and cross fingers that their non-Waffle items are better and more price deserving.

The Waffle
6255 W Sunset Blvd.

Finally, kudos to my friend Conbon for photos.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Friday Quickies #18: Food Fightin' @ Farmers Markets and More Events!

Happy St. Patty's weekend, everyone! With work on Monday, I think I'll lay low on the alchy (and definitely not http://www.carolineoncrack.com/2008/03/13/st-patricks-day-pubs-open-in-the-am/).

Farmers Market Food Fight: An interesting
article from front page of Sunday's LA Times, highlighting how LA area chefs are outraged at not being able to buy produce @ Farmers Markets (due to companies having pre-ordered them). I don't find myself sympathizing with the chefs that much. For one, there's no shortage of Farmers Markets in the LA area and for another, like Campanile's exec chef Mark Peel noted, the average joe shopper has been feeling the produce pinch when the chefs invaded the stands. Yes, it sucks not to have that sensual experience of tasting that batch of fruit & veggies before committing to a large buy, or to find out that some seasonal goodies ran out, but the rest of us dealt with it -- you should too; either place your advance order with the farms, explore a few more other markets or, gasp, creatively make do with what's left over available!

More Foodie Events: A few more delicious-sounding things coming up soon . . .

The famous
Cheese Store of Beverly Hills is partnering with Rustic Canyon for a scrumptious sounding six-course cheese-themed dinner on March 24, with each course featuring specialty cheeses from several animals and around the world, concluding with a cheese course that I'm sure won't disappoint. $75; wine pairings for an extra $20.

Artisan salt maker Saltistry
is hosting a Salt Party at Food Court LA on March 31 from 6 to 9 p.m. It will feature many apps and sweets, paired with drinks, to highlight their uniquely-flavored salts: On the menu are items such as Melons with Coconut Black Salt, Kumamoto Oysters with Citrus Salts, Dark Chocolate with Popcorn Salt, Sea Salt Caramels with Lavender Gray Salt, "Saltinis" with Six Pepper Salt and more! $25 at the door, and saltistry products will be available for purchase at the event, should you find something (or everything) to your liking. ;) For more info, contact Denise @ the Saltistry 310.621.6015.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Special Foodventure #57: Farmers Market Dinner at Auntie Ems (Eagle Rock)

Thanks to heads-up from Pat @ Eating LA, I found out that Auntie Ems is hosting their occasional Farmers Market dinner last night (and tonight). At $32/person for a five-course meal made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, an option to BYOB. Well, save me a seat.

And thank goodness I called in my rezzie, the place was a full house, with crowds spilling out onto Eagle Rock Blvd., upon my arrival with my dining companion. After the staff nearly finished bussing all the 6:30 seating tables, we and the rest of the 8:30 crowd got seated.

(yet another) bad photo disclaimer: the dining area lights were turned off shortly after our first course, leaving me with only a cell phone's backlight & a candle to work with -- apologies (I tried the flash with a napkin trick but found that potentially too annoying for neighboring tables).

Anyhow, the staff wasting no time dishing out their delicious fare (made easy given that it's pretty much a prix-fixe with only choice in the main course) -- starting with:

Pureed carrot soup with orange - Very smooth but also with a little bit of texture -- like porridge-style polenta or creamy grits -- and the aromatic scent and ever-so-slightly bitter flavor of the orange added just the right amount of zip to this familiar, comforting soup. My companion and I both lapped this up to almost the very last drop!

Mixed greens and arugula salad with asparagus, edible flower in a lemon-garlic dressing - light, refreshing and balanced - the fresh greens and buttery and tender asparagus were a good platform for the more peppery arugula and the subtle enhancement of the dressing, leaving me very surprised that the pungent-sounding name turned out to be not overpowering at all. I had a few petals of the flower, but they didn't impart much of a taste asides from the delicious sauces it soaked up.

For main course I had the wild mushroom lasagna with bechamel sauce which was mostly well done -- the earthy, meaty and woodsy fungi melded beautifully with the al dente pasta, molten mozzarella and the flavorful ricotta cheeses. However, I am sure I could've done without the bechamel sauce, despite the nice crispy burnt top that it provided, since it made the dish a little too rich and definitely too salty for me. Regardless, I pretty much finished this up (as well as more than a goblet's worth of water).

My DC opted for the Moroccan lamb stew with carrots and baby turnips over cous cous (not pictured) that she found delicious, particularly pleased the lamb wasn't too gamey or mushy. Still on my vegetarian kick, I only tasted a little of the cous cous but found it wonderfully cooked with a pleasant touch of fruitiness (maybe there were raisins in the dish too?).

Next came a delightful cheese plate with blueberries, almonds and baguette slices - From left to right, a 10-year-old aged cow's milk cheddar (Hook's), a sheep's milk cheese from the same company that makes Humboldt Fog, and a seasonal creamier cow's milk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Everything was delicious, but my DC and I agreed that the Hook's aged cheddar was the best (especially when eaten with an almond). The ripe blueberries were juicy and ripe.

While nibbling on the delicious cheeses - I think I spotted and heard Mo Rocca ~ but can't be 100% certain due to the dark room lighting and me without my glasses. From what I was nosing around overhearing, he was talking about social media with his 3 dining compadres.

Concluding the meal, almond cake with strawberry-lavendar sauce and whipped cream, a substantial, not-too-heavy dessert that had a wonderful mix of sweet perfumes from the nut, the blossom and the fruit ~ an innovative spin on the traditional strawberry shortcake. Like most of the other courses, we practically finished this despite how full we were.

In all, a very delightful and pretty affordable meal that's definitely worth checking out -- I already can't wait for the next one to roll around the corner. And this time, I'll bring a friend who drinks so we can shlep a bottle from the nearby Colorado Wine Company (I think we were the only wineless table there!)

And of course, returning to Auntie Ems in general for their famous breakfast/lunch/pastries (including, of course, their famous Red Velvet Cake).

Auntie Ems Kitchen
4616 Eagle Rock Blvd.
Eagle Rock

Friday, March 07, 2008

Friday Quickies #17: Convenience, Comfort Soup, Easter Brunch & Auntie Em's

Convenience Cooking: Eat your heart out, Rachael Ray. The Chicago Tribune shows readers how to whip up a meal in 10 minutes. Granted, most of these are one dish entrees and involve a lot of half-baked convenience items like precooked rice and polenta and already cut veggies, but it still looks comparatively less processed and more healthy than the stuff featured on those convenience cooking shows. On a sidenote, are Americans *that* incompetent at cooking? Only asking because I seem to see a surge in a quick 'n easy recipes/cookbooks/cooking shows like the aforementioned column and Chow.com's recently-started Recipe-Free Cooking series. Oh well, I guess it beats greasy takeouts or sodium-saturated stuff to pop in the microwave. On a related note, NY Times did an article a while past showing that sometimes these convenience recipes aren't all that, well, convenient.

Comfort Soup Mix: Speaking of lazy ass convenience dishes, I really enjoyed the comfort soup mix that's sold at Whole Foods. It's really nothing more than a batch of chopped up veggies (squash, zucchini, onion, potatoes, scallions and carrots) but it makes for a wonderful, hearty meal perfect for a brisk, cold night. Simmer it for 20 minutes, a quick seasoning and finish it with a little cream if you prefer (I used some pureed corn soup). The best part? Not having to deal with fractions of leftover vegetables in my fridge. And even though it is from Whole Paycheck Foods, this is pretty cheap -- the ~$4.50 mix of veggies is enough to make 5 gianormous bowls of soup (or 10-12 servings if it's not the meal itself.)

Easter Plans: Wow, can't believe Easter is already around the corner . . . anyways, this year I plan on
Taste, whose e-newsletter caught me at the right time (before dinner.) But seriously, it looks like a pretty well rounded menu with lots of goodies (read: "dessert buffet!") and not too shabby for $34/person. But if Taste is not for you, here's what many other LA & OC restaurants are doing for bunny day.

Auntie Ems Coming Up: Looks like I'm checking out Auntie Ems for their
Farmer's Market Dinner on Mar. 11 -- can't wait to check them out, especially after reading Pleasure Palate's delicious remarks on them. Will report back and hopefully have lots of good piccies to share!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mini Foodventure #56: Violet & Air Conditioned (Santa Monica)

This past weekend we celebrated my friend's birthday by going to Violet, a neat little spot on east end of Santa Monica that I've been to before and have been jones-ing to return ever since I got a press release on their re-design about a month back.

Anticipating the dim lighting of Violet past, I didn't bring my camera; that turned out to be a mistake since the new ambience had pretty good natural soft-white lighting. Also worth mentioning is lots of wonderful artwork hung around the dining floor, including one wall that splashed across with brilliant swirls of blues, grays and greens -- the ocean, I presume, in its more pristine, less polluted times (a little reminder of San Diego coastline that chef-owner Jared Simons brought with him, since I doubt any beach in LA have waters of this color).

Thankfully, lots of things still stayed the same. Chef Simons is still the quiet but nice host that wasted no time accomodating our party of 11. And the menu still had my memorable favorite items such as the woody, nutty and earthy mushroom ravioli in sage brown butter sauce and the aromatic za'atar spiced fries with aioli & ketchup dips.

New things I tried this time included a tasty grilled romaine with pomegranate vinagrette, pomegranate seeds, ground hazelnut and gorgonzola and their special of the day, a creamy polenta with mushroomms. Don't have much to say about either other than that they're yummy. The
wine list is pretty small but a diverse and interesting mix.

After the eats, we hauled our almost-a-dozen, slightly-buzzed butts to nearby
Air Conditioned, a wine bar that was unusually happening with the younger crowd on a Saturday night (think Hip Hop music, lots of body grinding and guys and gals calling yelling for sake shots). They, too, have a nice selection of wines, many available by the glass. I took the opportunity to get acquainted with a few Italian varietals, including a sparkling red lambrusco and a spicy and flowery barbaresco. My friends ordered quite a few glasses of sangria, which turned out to be very bland and unremarkable (and probably not even worth the $15 for the all-you-can-drink on Wednesdays).

They also offer martinis, though they are probably made with soju/sake (it seems like they only have beer/wine license).

Overall, it was a pleasant evening that was just naughty & debaucherous enough w/o major embarassing moments to be regretted later on. And I already can't wait to return to Violet and check out their meaty dishes after Easter.


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