Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mini Foodventure #18: Violet Restaurant (Santa Monica)

(caution: restaurant may not be definitely not as violet in real life)

I've only discovered Violet about half a year ago, and while our relationship hasn't been smooth sailing all the way -- I keep finding myself returning to this place, particularly if I'm looking for good contemporary food on the cheap. And this time is no different . . .

Launched in late 2004, Violet's exec. chef & owner Jared Simons (who you'll find often as host, showing off his well-toned, intricately tattooed biceps from his punky T-shirts,) aims to make dishes approachable for everyone and does it in an affordable manner and small plate fashion, definitely unusual for an industry that's been dishing out
larger dish, bigger portions and more calories over the last half a century.

Dining on an early Wednesday evening (and still adjusting to the fact that sunlight goes *poof* by 6pm), my dining companion and I went to Violet to enjoy their 7. before 7 menu - where from Tuesdays to Thursdays they offer 7 dishes (and 2 wines) for $7 each, a discount from their normal prices of about $8-$14. Of course, true to theme & title, this offer only lasts until 7pm. So my DC and I splitted 2 of their discounted dishes, and two courses from their regular menu.

Starting things off is their Za'tar spiced fries with honey curry aioli (around $5.50) which is just as good as I remembered it from my previous trips here. Crispy shoestring fries tossed with a good dose of freshly-fried herbs (rosemary & sage are the only ones I IDed) and served with a curious tasting dip - we finished this dish off with relative ease, the guilt and exercise after is very much worth it.

Moving on to the next small plate: serrano ham slices, ramekin of chicken liver paté and garlic toasts - which was quite yummy, given how I don't care much for liver. DC enjoyed it wrapped up in the paper-thin slices of the cured serrano ham, whereas I prefer to spread it on thick on the toast slices -- followed by us eating it straight out of the ramekin (too bad for us for sending the bread back when the fries arrived.) Not a pretty sight, given how crumbly the dish was.

Somewhere in the middle of our serrano ham-garlic toast-chicken liver dish we got served our "big entree": Lake Superior whitefish in brown butter, leek fondue with baked melon - a mixed dish that evoked mixed feelings - DC thought the fish was a bit off-tasting, I thought the fish itself was fine but too much brown butter & too salty - and both of us love the leek fondue and wished there was more of it and to do away with the melon. Generally, this dish wasn't bad, but certainly not as good as we hoped - filets of well-cooked, flaky fish in a pool of warm grease.

Finishing off our dinner of small plates is a small dessert, key lime custard tart, sandwiched between orange slices - something we both enjoy for not being overly tart or sweet. Simple, creamy goodness.

And of course, in the Violet tradition, our bill (about $31 total for all the dishes & 2 cups of coffee) was served up with cute little shot glasses of milk and chewy, warm chocolate chip mini cookies - which could've came from the Trader Joe's across the street for all I know, but an appreciated lil' something extra, nonetheless.

So concludes my Violet experience, which went pretty much as I expected, overall good with a mixture of perfect hits and near-misses. Can't wait to return with my camera for some great pics. (for those looking for a deal, Violet's also offer a 3-course Sunday dinner for $25 - have yet to try myself, however.)

Violet Restaurant
3221 Pico Blvd.
Santa Monica

Friday, November 24, 2006

My Cheating Thanksgiving Menu . . .

Ok, I copped out & shortcutted my way through Thanksgiving, grabbing a store-bought holiday dinner to bring to my folks' place (with my only from-scratch contribution being the coffee-nut brownies). However, my heat 'n serve dinner from Wild Oats is one of the best and fastest I've ever had -- going from bag to table in less than 90 minutes. The Petit Dinner (for 2-3) included:

~ 3 pounds Plainville Farms all-natural boneless turkey breast (which I roasted with apples)
~ 6 sweet diamond dinner rolls
~ 1 pound garlic mashed potatoes
~ mushroom gravy
~ mushroom & wild rice stuffing
~ garlic roasted brussel sprouts that I sauteed with extra black pepper
~ cranberry relish
~ lattice-top apple pie, surprisingly not-too-sweet and garnered my Mom's (i.e. "That's TOO sweet!") approval.

And even after the 3 of us had our fill, there was PLENTY of leftovers -- so this weekend I'll most likely simmer a lean turkey noodle soup on a crock-pot that I can dish out whenevers and enjoy with leftover stuffing and a glass of wine. Here's to hoping this weekend will be a chilly one.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Recipe Time #3: Coffee Nut Brownies with Cafe Au Lait Ganache Glaze

A wonderful recipe I've adapted from Bon Appetit's Jamaican Coffee Brownie (a magazine I subscribe to and read almost religiously)- it's fairly easy and good enough to make anyone swear off making brownies from a boxed mix - particularly for those who are sticklers about ingredient quality. And a little slice of heaven for me, a combination chocoholic & caffeine addict; the intensity of this treat is like eating a cafe mocha (the version with full-fat milk and real chocolate.)

The below recipe is for a 13x9 pan -- which can be cut into 8 to 16 decent pieces. Of course, for different sized pans, adjust ingredients proportionally and/or the cooking time.

Coffee Nut Brownie Ingredients:
15 tablespoons unsalted butter (chopped into small cubes/pats)
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Valrhona)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons finely ground coffee (at least espresso fine)
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
about 1 cup walnut pieces

Cafe au Lait Ganache Glaze Ingredients:
1 cup bittersweet/semisweet chocolate chips (I used Callebaut's 56% semisweet)
1/3 cup strong, freshly-brewed coffee (or re-heated to simmering)
a splash of heavy cream

Optional toppings:
Walnut halves (1 for every piece of brownie)
Chocolate covered coffee beans (ditto)

First, heat a saucepan of water till simmering, and put butter, cocoa, sugar & coffee in a large bowl. As you can tell from below, my butter cubes aren't particularly small, which meant more elbow grease work later . . .
Stir the ingredients over the saucepan of boiling water ~ a process made much easier with smaller butter pieces and if brought to room temperature. Be sure to also scrape the sides frequently to make sure everything is well-mixed.

Even when properly combined, it should be very thick and gritty.
Remove from heat and let it cool down (so that the eggs they won't instantly cook when mixed in) ~ meanwhile preheat the oven to 350. When the mixture is lukewarm, stir in eggs and vanilla extract. After blending that in, sift the flour into the batter and whisk away.
It should be a thick batter-like consistency by now, so throw in the walnut pieces, give it a few quick whiskings.
Afterwards, spread it on a 13x9 pan and pop it in the pre-heated oven for 25-30 minutes. (Of course, employ the toothpick test to see if it's done ~ poke it in the center of the brownie and see if it comes out pretty clean.)

While the brownies are baking, you can clean up the prep area and also begin making the simple Cafe au Lait ganache glaze. Alternatively, you can make this glaze a day ahead of time.

Simply throw in the semisweet chips, hot coffee & the splash of heavy cream in a small bowl. I advise using a fairly strong brew of coffee so the flavor really comes through.
Then mix until smooth.
Then set aside or chill. You can heat this up (gently, over a saucepan of simmering water) for spreading.
When the brownies are done, remove from oven and let it rest for an hour:
As you can see, not the prettiest baked good on the block -- which is where the glaze comes in! Be liberal, there's plenty to cover the whole thing (and even some extras for you to lick off the spoon.)
Afterwards, put in fridge for at least 30 minutes to let the glaze settle a little, then chop it up. If so desired, add a few decorative & tasting toppings (I opted for a walnut half and a chocolate-covered espresso bean). And of course, everyone's favorite part - eating it all up!

Just like the magazine that inspired this dish - Bon Appetit!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Recipe Time #2: Spiced Brown Butter Sauce

Brown butter sauce seems to be all the rave as of late, and I agree it is quite the bomb, for tastebuds as well as hardening arteries. It's got great toasty, nutty flavors, a hint of caramelization, and a great conduit for whatever herbs & spices that are thrown in. And a little goes a long way.

It's also an incredibly easy and fast sauce to make, so save yourself the time gussying up for a restaurant (and the money for this oh-so-sophisticated dish) and just whip it up yourself.

Basically, all you need is butter (unsalted is better, so it's more easy to adjust the preferred sodium level) and what ever herbs and spices you want to accent the sauce with. Sage & rosemary are particularly popular for brown butter, for this time around I decided for a dash of garlic salt and a good dose of fresh ground pepper. (and 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of butter is plenty per person - can even get away with less if pasta is tossed well with the sauce.)

To make the sauce, simply melt the pats of butter on a skillet, swirling constantly to prevent burning and to heat evenly. When it gets light to medium brown, take it off the heat source and add your spices / herbs of choice. Swirl a few more times and voila! sauce is ready to drizzle, toss, pour over your favorite pasta.

One tip though, make sure your pasta is thoroughly drained -- helps it cling to the sauce better since, afterall, oil and water don't mix.

In my case - I used my black pepper/garlic brown butter in smoked mozzarella & spinach/ricotta ravioli (both from Surfas) and a good helping of assorted mushrooms, just to make me feel less guilty:

I used a little over 2 tablespoons of butter, and that turned to be way too much, as indicated by this pool of nutty, spicy goodness of liquid fat that collected when I tilt my plate slightly:

And I decided to be healthful and not mop it up (a.k.a. I ran out of bread...) - so down the drain it went :(

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Foodventure #17: Il Fornaio (Pasadena)

Yes, Il Fornaio is a chain - but I usually dig their Festa Regionale offerings which, if nothing else, is a great PR & marketing tactic. For those not familiar with Festa Regionale, it's basically a two-week long event focusing on a cuisine specific to one of Italy's regions (Lombardia, Veneto, Toscana, etc.) where they have a limited-time menu utilizing the ingredients and recipes from that region (alongside their regular yearlong menu.) I particularly like this because every month I can go in and have a whole different set of choices to choose from.

On top of that, Festa Regionale diners get a passaporto which rewards them for sampling these regional cuisine (sometimes it's a nice trinket such as wine charms, other times it could be a biscotti or a bread from their bakery.) Have a fully stamped passaporto (six months in a row) and you get a special ceramic plate & an entry for a trip to Italy. Talk about a great way to retain a loyal customer base.

And so, off I went to my local Il Fornaio - in the heart of Old Town Pasadena in the One Colorado Plaza.
Being a mildly cool day, I took a seat in their lovely patio area, which looks out into the rest of the Plaza, where an occasional short artsy flick may play on the giant screen above the Sushi Roku.

Of course, when handed the menu my eyes made a beeline for their regional specialty, this time focusing on the Northern
Aosta Valley - known for their mushrooms, truffles & fontina cheese (think Swiss but nuttier and less fat.)

Having my eye on a rather heavy looking dessert, I decided again to go for 2 lighter courses for dinner, first off:
Zuppa con Porcini e Castagne (Porcini & Chestnut Soup), topped with foccacia crouton. If there was ever a soup that was perfectly salted, this would be it, with just enough to add the needed character but not a maddeningly dehydrating bowl of liquid sodium chloride. That being said, I didn't care much for the combo in flavors -- and guess the mushroom-chestnut mix looked better in text than it does in taste. There were chunks of sweet, firm chestnuts and the soup had woodsy-earthy flavors of a porcini, but together it was just kind of unremarkable - as if the two cancelled each other out.

Moving on, I decided upon an appetizer for a main course:
Polenta Alla Boscaiola, basically polenta with chicken breasts, crimini mushrooms, a gravy & white truffle oil. The polenta had a very good texture, like moist fluffy whipped potatoes, except with corn meal. The chicken strips were juicy and soaked up the flavors of the gravy and aromatic white truffle oil really well, and the mushrooms were not bad, could've been more flavorful. But all in all a good dish that didn't fill me up, leaving me room for . . .
Tortino al Cioccolato, flourless chocolate torte on top of a thin biscotti pancake, with raspberries, chocolate syrup and cremé anglaise. So rich I'd swear it had a gravitational pull of its own, with no resistance from my spoon or willpower. Less sweet than its other flourless chocolate cousins, I can actually eat a few bites w/o thinking, "Geez I need coffee/water pronto!" However, it was a bit sticky which, combined with its density, meant I had to literally suck the thing off my dessert spoon.

And of course, I had my passaporto, which meant this time around I got a mini-loaf of their porcini ciabatta bread to take home - crusty and firm, sliced up these made for great soup dunkers!
Of course, now I can't wait to go for my sixth time, where, along with my taste of Umbria's offerings, I'll also get my commemorative plate -- to my ever growing mismatch set of chinaware--Pier 1/Ikea eccentricity without the hefty pricetag.

The bill:
Porcini/Chestnut Soup: 5.95
Polenta: 8.75
Chocolate Torte: 6.50
Coffee: 2.00
Pre-tax/tip TOTAL: 23.20

The rating:
Ambience/Decor: 4.5/5 (Great atmosphere and nice patio area)
Value: 3.5/5 (Nothing is a particular bargain, but I definitely didn't feel ripped)
Service: 9.5/10 (Exemplary, especially when the staff & manager handled a neighboring table's complaint with marvelous professionalism ~ basically he ripped his jacket on a loose nail on the wall and their first offer was to pay for tailoring fees.)
Food: 15/20 (This particular meal was good, but not a hit - but I never had anything bad here.)
Bonus/Demerit: +1 for constantly rotating menus
TOTAL: 33.5/40 (A ole reliable in my book - decent place to go to when I'm not embarking onto new foodventures.)

Other notes:
- There's a valet on Colorado Blvd. that they validate for, but I've never had trouble finding metered street parking nearby.
- On top of regional foods, they also rotate various Italian wines to go with the food (which I usually get, but opted out of this time.)
- You can also get a passaporto by going to their Web site.

Il Fornaio (Pasadena)
1 West Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA

Special Foodventure #16: 2nd Annual LA Tamale Festival (E. Los Angeles)

Ok, two days have past and I'm still savoring happy taste memories (and take-outs) from the 2nd Annual Los Angeles Tamale Festival, which took place this past weekend (Nov. 10-12) in MacArthur Park (Alvarado & 7th) in the East Los Angeles area. Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe , one of the principal backers of this event, is located on that block.

Being a 3-time goer of the
Indio Tamale Festival (a good two hours drive away), I'm glad that finally there's one going on much closer to home (and I'm sure many Angelenos feel the same way.) However, being only in its second year -- the event is still in its infancy and nowhere close to the size and popularity of the Indio Festival (which will be doing it's 15th Annual this year.) Compared to Indio's 50+ tamale vendors covering a few blocks, this one only took one side of a block, and I don't think there are even 10 tamale boothes.

But I figured there are probably masa-coated gems to be had here, so on a foodventure I went. First stop - the store behind it all - Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe!

They were selling a variety of Mexican foods and an interesting selection of tamales, with various regional variations (with their respective chilies, moles and sauces) and some contemporary ones (I recall one made with a guava filling). Being my first tamale of the day, I got something a bit more traditional -

Adobo Beef - with some kickass oregano flavors, juicy beefiness and a spice level that left my tongue tingling with glee. The masa is a bit on the dry side - perhaps inadequately wrapped or a steamer that's low on water? Nonetheless, after tasting I bought more to take home - upon revisiting with my own re-heating, the masa was moist and soaked up all that great beef & adobo marinade flavors.

Second stop, Gourmet Tamales - where I got a slightly-offbeat Pork Verde Tamale:

Even though the masa-to-meat ratio is a bit higher than what I would've preferred, the masa in this sucker is so moist and fluffy, every bite reminiscent of a pillowy gnocchi. The pork was a delightful surprise, evoked the lime-tangy and mildly hot verde sauce - which also made this extra-carb-loaded tamale light-tasting and easy on the stomach.

While looking for a dessert tamale to finish off (pineapple seems to be pre-dominant one here,) I passed by this joint:

Where the lady boasted winning the Tamale Contest for this festival (and a 3rd place winner @ Indio in '04) and that it's a must-try. I took a look at the short and simple ingredient list - which included shortening. OK - I'm sold, and I bought two frozen pork & red chili ones to take home - and boy were they good. The shredded pork practically falls apart without any chewing, and the added fats made this tamale particularly filling. Just one and I'm done!

A finally, a sweet ending - at one of my favorite LA-based tamale vendors: Corn Maiden.

Specializing in Euro-Mex foods, they have a share of traditional-style tamales, but it's their eccentric fusion stuff that I love best from this place - such as sweet yellow corn-cheddar tamales with a tomatillo sauce & lobster with ginger & coconut. And of course, my dessert favorite-

Belgian chocolate with caramelized walnuts & raspberries - every forkful is heavenly - sometimes a chunk of crunchy walnuts, other times the aromatic tang of raspberries, and just subtle-but-noticeable chocolate nuances throughout, a wondrous experience I attribute to the clever design of this tamale with the "filling" being more-or-less distributed throughout the masa.

For a fair that's still starting out, they definitely pick out some winners for their boothes (and a relatively inexpensive foodventure, with everything costing $2-3 a pop) - and even though I will continue hauling my ice chest to the Indio festival, I will definitely add this on my epicurean calendar (and hope that it becomes as vast, popular and tasty.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fast Food Nation - The Movie.

You've read the book, and seen "Supersize Me", now watch "Fast Food Nation", the movie - free and before its official premier this Friday . . . thanks to a screening by Fox Searchlight Pictures (and also Slow Food L.A.'s Website, which informed me of this.)

Where: ArcLight Theaters, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (close to the Hungry Cat, Magnolia & Bowery, among other restaurants)
When: Wed, November 15 7:30 p.m.
RSVP info: Go to the the Fast Food Nation Webpage and click on the upper-left corner ("Attend a Free Screening") - and they ARE required for entry.

Alas, I have prior engagements for Wednesday night -- but I will be watching this, even if I have to pay.

Upcoming Foodventure: Holy Tamales (Indio, Dec. 2-3)

A heads-up to fellow foodies reading this, Indio will, again be doing their International Tamale Festival on the first weekend of December (2nds and 3rd) - their 15th annual. Go early and bring an ice chest & some freeze-paks!!--there are dozens of tamale boothes - selling both traditional and modernized varieties. Stomachs being large as they are (unless you participate in competitive eating), there are plenty you'd want to bring back on your long drive home. Frozen baggies & sharpie markers also help--it's easy to mix 'em up, and if you're like me, you wanna keep a record of what's good and what's not.

Based on my 3 years of experience with the Indio Fair, here are some delicious boothes to watch out for:

*Grandma Lupe (always an hour wait at least, but her strawberry & cream cheese, as well as her traditional beef & pork, are SO worth it - and she only makes tamales for this event!)
*Corn Maiden (for those interested in the more modernized stuff, I have a weakness for their sweet yellow corn + cheddar cheese as well as their belgium chocolate + caramelized walnuts + raspberries)
*Molly's Tamales (hailing from Phoenix, Arizona - last year their salmon tamales, made with wild sockeye salmon, according this Arizona Republic article, converted me to seafood tamale fillings)

And of course, I went to the
L.A. 2nd Annual International Tamale Festival that took place this past weekend, but that holds no candle to the 15th Annual Indio one (which I've attended for 3 years straight). And yes, I will be posting a special foodventure for the former very soon.

Hope to see y'all @ Indio! (if you see someone hauling an ice chest on wheels with a digi-camera, probably me ^_~) - for more info (directions, parking, vendors, etc.) go to www.tamalefestival.net.

Mini Foodventure #15: O-Bar (West Hollywood)

Every other time I'm in or passing by the WeHo area w/o other dining plans, O-Bar's on my mind, and usually I cave and visit, tonight being no exception.

O-Bar is a Thomas Schoos creation that just recently celebrated their 3rd anniversary. Their drinks are always yummy (and a potent bang for the buck), food are consistently good (and I definitely go ga-ga over their seasonally-rotating desserts - thanks to their in-house pastry chef Lyn Meadows), and they have 6-8pm happy hour with half-priced drinks - every single day! (not to mention some of the best tasting mojitos around - runner-up only to the ones I mix myself ;) - and the varieties include Scarface, with champagne & S Guaro, a premium blend with 10 Cane Rum, Eden with apples & bananas, and the straight-up "missionary style".)

Not wanting to risk DUIing since I'm driving myself home - I opted out of their famous & strong mojitos (comes in a shaker - 2-3 drinks worth) and went for my other favorites . . . the first being Apple-Ginger Martini ~ a fairly stiff apple pie in a glass!

And at the bartend's suggestion - a Washington Apple (a mix of bourbon, Apple Pucker & cranberry juice) ~ I can taste the apple & bourbon, but it lacks that one level extra (mintiness in mojitos, the gingery-bite in the above martini) -- not bad though, and I did ask for something lightweight.

And of course, I had to get something for my sweet tooth. While the Thomas "O" Cookie (think BJ's Pizookie, but only 100 times better!) is a good ole' reliable, I don't have that big an appetite & wanted to check out one of the rotational items, so I opted for a Gingersnap Cheesecake (with pear sorbet, apple & pecan pieces & pomegranate syrup).

Very light and airy for a Western-style cheesecake - though not a whole lot of spice action (save for the crust made from gingersnap cookies -- which is something I do for my cheesecakes as well.) But overall, this dessert pairs extremely well with the apple-ginger martini - glad I ordered both at the same time.

I can't wait till I can do a full-meal visit of this place -- for researching for this blog, of course ^_-

8279 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA

Friday, November 10, 2006

Foodventure #14: Red White + Bluezz (Pasadena)

Ever since Red White + Bluezz opened earlier this year, my interest has been piqued every time I pass by this place (much of it attributed to their clever naming - it's a wine bar that also features live jazz music, thus the reds, whites, and blues!) It sits on the south side of "Old Town" Pasadena area on Raymond & Green, where there is a growing wine presence in the area, with another fairly new Bodega wine bar in the Paseo, the Nose wine cellar in Playhouse district & the upcoming Vertical wine bistro in the northside of Old Town.

(sorry about dim picture - will see if I can make an improvement on this later.)

Anyways, I was promptly seated and given a large one-sheet menu, one side devoted to all its food - the reverse, to all its wine flights & cheese flight pairings. The prices don't look too bad for what they are, and the menu(designed by Gabriel Contreras, a cordon bleu graduate with cooking experience at Marriot Hotel & the
Parkway Grill) is full of interesting items, familiar foods with a definite twist such as fried mac'n cheese with sun dried tomato fondue, maple-mustard glazed halibut with grilled pineapple, and a pasta carbonara with craisins, pinenuts and applewood-smoked bacon. I think it's a nice mid-way, nothing too boring for adventure-seeking tastebuds, nothing too scary for the conservative eaters.

With blues being a big component to this restaurant, I definitely expected nice decor - which it delivered, the dining area looking like a contemporary villa bistro - accented with brick walls, large oil painting and lighting that's dimmed but also warm and inviting. And of course, groovy jazz music in the background (on Thurs-Sun. they boast live performers in the nighttime.) Very versatile - good for business colleague, group of friends and a date. The hostess was very attentive as well, very open about her preferences on the menu & since dining room is not packed, giving parties option of seating from the quieter corridor to the more bustling bar area, or the window tables for those wishing to peer out into the city streets. (there is also a back area where the jazz musician plays with a limited selection of food served - alas, no performances when I was there.)

Of course, going to a wine bar - I have to check out some wines. Here I decided upon one of their pre-arranged flights (they have 8, ranging from $12-$18) - the one I ordered in particular was the full-bodied blondes:

which includes a French Rosé, a California Chardonnay (Santa Maria) & a Paso Robles Viognier in 1.5 to 2 oz. pours in miniature wine glasses that I first thought was cute, but later discovered to be an impediment to me smelling the wine. I was also mildly turned off by the tasting notes on the wine placemat - relatively experienced wine folks know what to expect and probably prefer evaluating them w/o pre-conceived notions, and I'm sure less-experienced tasters would appreciate the actual waiter or sommelier coming over and briefly talk about it as opposed to reading it off the wine placemat. But having said that, all the wines were good - nice peachy and pineapply flavors (and of course, the buttery toastiness from the Chardonnay).

Along with the 3 wines, I got my appetizer -

Maryland Blue Crabcakes with a Mango-Papaya Chutney & Passion Fruit Aioli - jeebus this was yummy - lightly breaded (my guess would be with panko), full of lightly seasoned crabmeat and barely any mayo or filler, interestingly accented by the fruity chutney & aioli (which has more passion fruit taste than garlic.) The dish paired very well with any of the three wines -- a close-up inside look below:

Wanting to save room for dessert (not to mention some waistline inches and greens in the wallet), I opted for a salad as my main course. At the hostess' and waiter's suggestion, I dove for the:

Watermelon & Maytag Blue Cheese Salad with balsamic-tossed baby greens & a Tahitian vanilla honey drizzle - their signature salad, one of the few that I actually felt worth shelling out money for (though later I discovered that Gabriel disclosed the salad's not-so-secret recipe to Pasadena magazine Arroyo Monthly.) So many different textures and tastes - cool refreshing melon, the sweet wild honey, crumbly and slightly briny blue cheese and the sweet-tart leaves. A perfect summertime salad, even in November (in SoCal.) and went especially well with the Rose wine.

With neither course being too heavy, I felt less guilty about getting my week's worth of sugar, coming in the form of:

Black Forest Cube - with dark and white chocolate mousse over devil's food cake with a cherry within & on top. The wickedly sinful cube is then enrobed in chocolate and covered with sauce (the menu said caramel, but it tasted more like fudge.) The red syrup didn't have much taste (esp. after tasting the cake first), but I suspect that it's made with the maraschino cherry liquid - sticking with the dessert theme.

A peek inside -

A great dessert, just rich enough and very chocolately (though the white chocolate mousse definitely took a backstage to all the other dark components of the dish.) My only regret was not getting a cup of coffee to go along with this - it's just one of those sweets that cries for a caffeinated pairing. And so concludes my mainly-light and mostly-positive dinner at this jazzy joint.

The bill:
Crab cakes - $9 ($10 on menu)
Salad - $8
Dessert - $7 ($5 on menu)
Wine flight - $14
Pre tax/tip total - $38

The ratings:
Decor: 4.5/5 (this atmosphere works for me - there's not much of an outside view, but the combination of music and decorations keeps my attention to the interior.)
Value: 3.5/5 (I felt it was OK to good in terms of value, but I dined on their lighter dishes (which is around the $10 range) - not sure how money-worthy are their heavy entrees, priced around $20-$30.)
Service: 8.5/10 (Overall nice and knowledgable staff, the waiter was however slightly heavy on upselling)
Food: 18.5/20 (Yummy, delicious, Mmmmm...., Wowzers - how many different ways can I put this? nothing I had was disappointing in the slightest - only downer was the small wine glasses for the flights.)
Bonus/Demerit: -1 for actual prices differing from the listed menu ones, and no warnings about such change prior/during ordering.
TOTAL: 34/40 (A few minor miffs here and there - but definitely will be back.)

Other notes:
- Street metered and public parking available - usually not hard to find a spot on the street, so just bring some coins.
- Live jazz starts at 9pm (sometimes earlier, check their schedule) Thurs to Sun.
- They also feature 2 hour wine flight classes with sommelier doing wine lessons (I believe there's also some food served) - ranges from $40 to $60 per person.
- Also a good selection of cow/goat/sheep cheeses available, they even have cheese flights selections ($14) that correspond to their wine flights.

This wine bistro experience is a pleasant one, and while I look forward to other foodventures with other places - this seems like a reliable back-up place to bring out-of-towners or friends who want something a little different.

Red White + Bluezz
70 S. Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Special Foodventure #13: Japanese Tea Ceremonies (Downtown/Little Tokyo)

Of course, what better way to ward off an unlucky review #13 than going to a place of worship? Actually, I found out about this special event almost last minute through Slow Food LA's site/blog. Having had numerous British afternoon teas with scones and finger sandwiches, Chinese "yum cha" with dim sum galore, Indian inspired masala chais and, of course, boba milk teas under my belt, I figured it's time to carve another notch by going to my first ever Japanese Tea Ceremony, taking place at the Zenshuji Soto Mission temple in the Little Tokyo district (which is rapidly becoming gentrified with urban renewal condos, chic shops, and fast casual eateries - something that I'm ambivalent about.) But I digress - and here are some shots of the temple:

The half-day event started off at 11 am with an hour long "chasen kuyo" worship/prayer service with alternating English and Japanese sermons, with a door prize drawing afterwards (various materials [fans, wall tiles, etc.] with japanese kanji calligraphy and some jade/amehyst bead bracelets.) The chasen kuyo ceremony room was very beautiful and ornate with lacquered wooden furniture, gilded decoration pieces, porcelain statuettes and wonderful flower arrangements (but no photos since I'm sure it would be totally inappropriate to be taking them - and the ceremony room was closed-off afterwards.)

After the service, I (along with about a hundred other guests) were free to explore the temple and participate in its epicurean events (2 tea ceremonies and a luncheon.)

My first stop was a Ryu Rei ceremony, prepared on a special table with the person seated on a chair. I arrived in the room to find this minimalistic yet elegant set up.

The equipment set upon the beautiful table consisted of a bowl to hold water, a container for matcha tea powder, a bamboo tea whisk & mixing bowl, tea scooper, water scooper, and an iron pot for heating.

Soon the tea preparer came and began her meticulous ritual of cleaning the various tools and, of course, preparing the tea with the utmost care.

As I observed in awe of the attention to detail in this ceremony (from the careful folding and unfolding of the silk cleaning cloth to the delicate handling of the container lids,) we were served tea sweets - which I believe are rice cookies, on a decorated napkin:

Very airy and ever-so-slightly sweet -- it's pretty unbelievable that something so simple can be so good (that can actually be the motto for the whole afternoon.)

Soon after nibbling away at the cookies - we were served our matcha tea -

Definitely very yummy stuff for an unsweetened green tea (served in a thick irregularly shaped bowl with all sorts of bumps, grooves and spotty coloring, which I guessed, and later confirmed, that it was highly prized and a marker of quality craftmanship [hand made]) . The tea itself had great nutty flavors with hints of sweet grass and just enough bitterness to round it all out. I slowly and steadily sipped this steamy, foamy drink away.

After finishing the tea, we were free to examine the bowls, as well as the other equipment used in the ceremony - which gave me an opportunity for a more close-up shot of the pretty wares.

Feeling a bit famished afterwards and seeing the other tea ceremony was still in progress, I went to the basement cafeteria for their vegetarian luncheon ~ again, another delight for the eyes.

A varied mix of veggies from a slaw-like salad to a mushroom-flavored sticky rice, and square of goma dofu (sesame tofu) in teriyaki sauce, and a fried sweet chestnut - served with a hot and soothing winter melon-ginger soup & very smooth sake that smelled faintly of ripe bananas. There were very few seasonings used in this entire lunch, but it tasted anything but bland -- the unadulterated flavors of the various leaves, tubers, roots and gourds shone through in their purest form ~ and they complemented each other very well.

Following the satisfying meal, I head to the Hon Seki ceremony - prepared in a tea room with the hostess in a seiza (a kneel-sitting position which I'd imagine would put feet to sleep in minutes.)

Like the ryu rei area, the hon seki (literally "tea room") is pretty much free of unnecessary adornments - which in turn highlights the few decorations that are there, such as the tea tools, plant and calligraphy wall scroll.

Soon, the guests of honor were escorted onto the hon seki and the tea hostess came out and started her preparations (similar to the ryu rei, except in the seiza position almost all the time - it was interesting - and mentally painful - watching her change positions and shuffle along while maintaining the kneel-sit.)

As she prepares the tea and chats with the guests of honor (interspersed with many bows by both parties), our tea sweets are served.

I liken this best to a red bean mochi, except of course the exterior is yellow sticky rice. Sweeter than the cookies from last ceremony, but still pretty mellow on the sugar.

Soon, our yummy matcha arrives . . .

Again, quite yummy - and I can hear moans of pleasure from the other tea tasters as they slowly sip away.

This time, only the guests of honor were allowed to examine the tools (which I understand, it's quite hard for anyone to move, being super crammed into a small space) but we were free to admire our bowls -

and that pretty much wrapped up my day. Took a stroll at the gift shop where I admired more tea accessories (didn't buy anything) then left - it was 3:30p.m. All in all, a great experience that was worthy of my half-day and my $40 (all-inclusive, and I'm sure a significant portion is donated to the temple). It's definitely something I recommend everyone trying at least once - but do have a lot time available, a lot of patience and an appreciation for minimalistic Zen-style arts. And of course, being prepared to feel like an outsider if you're not Japanese (everyone working the event were very nice people, but like any culturally heavy event - even culinary ones - it can't be helped that certain gestures, actions and sayings are going to be relevant to just that group.)

I believe the Zenshuji Soto Tea Ceremonies are a once- or twice- a year event, but here's their address and info in case you're interested in going there just because (and to keep an eye out for the next one.)

Zenshuji Soto Mission
123 Hewitt St.
Los Angeles, CA


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