Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Foodventure #96: Spago (Beverly Hills)

Ok, I finally did my '08 splurge meal at Spago -- and that's likely to the delight and relief of anyone who hung out with me for the latter half of the year, where I kept bringing up "I finally saved up for Spago, I just have to take the time to actually reserve and eat there!" Hey, at least I didn't wait till New Year's Eve.

After last year's splurge at Providence, I figure this year I should do something more classic but still with a modern touch. Spago, Wolfgang Puck's signature brand which existed in its first incarnation in '82 in Hollywood with the flagship transferred to the opened-in-'97 Beverly Hills when the original location closed in 2001, fits that bill nicely. And though I have a special curiosity for CUT, I am not particularly fond of the dog-and-pony show of displaying the various cuts of raw beef in a cart, and I don't want to risk being nauseated by gianormous portraits of faux-lebrities. Guess I can live vivaciously through others on that one for now.
Being a rather brisk and cold evening and wanting to capture better photos and get a better view of the operations, I opted out of courtyard seating and took a side table inside. For a space that large and a restaurant this upscale, I am surprised by how welcoming and homely the Spago dining area, like the large communal dining hall of a family-run farm or winery. Could be the beige earthy tones of the walls, the sordid mix of art -- ranging from giant rustic hand-painted plants of edibles, to large portraits of harvest and farm-life -- or the pleasantly soft ambient lighting with points of bright spotlights on the table so diners can appreciate the visuals of what they ate (and so folks like me can take half-decent photos.)

Christian, the waitress, greeted me with the menu and the immense 60+ page binder of a winelist but I really took thirty seconds looking over at each; I am doing the tasting menu and opting out of wine pairings in favor of the curiously-crafted cocktails I've eyed on their bar menu when I was waiting for my table.
Svenalicious Cocktail
My first cocktail was the "Svenalicious"; I know, I mentally rolled my eyes too at the hokey-sounding name but the ingredients were more sophisticated than the label: diplomatico reserva rum, sherry de jerez, cointreau noir, huckleberry, cloves and peppercorn with a pepper-salt rim. And it turned out to be a wonderful spicy little number, complex with sweet and fiery spices, dark molasses and dried red fruit aromas and a surprisingly light mouthfeel, it was like drinking a fluffy homemade gingerbread loaf studded with crystallized fruits made by someone with a love for all things hot. Great way to open up the nostrils and palate!
After a few sips came first of amuses, spicy tuna roll in a sesame-miso cone, a nice take on the familiar Americanized temaki. Even though the tuna wasn't really spicy (especially compared to my drink) I love how the edges are softened by the nuttiness of the sesame cone and the mellow savory flavors of the miso dressing, letting more of the raw tuna fattiness shine through.
Then the bite-sized variant of toad in a hole with a poached quail egg embedded in a brioche with a black truffle flake. Now this is a great amuse in the truest sense! I loved how the warm, rich yolk bursts my mouth with the very first bite and is immediately soaked up by the bread while still on my tongue, with the truffle contributing that bonus flavor of earthiness.
Finishing the amuses was a freshly-baked bacon en croute, taken apart here to display the interior. Crispy exterior, steaming fattiness within -- hard to go wrong there. If these savory small bites were a sneak peek of what exec. chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Thomas Boyce have to offer, I'm certainly in for a treat.

While waiting up for my first non-amuse dish, I struck up a conversation with Michael and Pam, a real foodie couple from the O.C. (been to Per Se, Michael Mina and other places I can only dream of now); they sat about 10-15 minutes after me and are also doing the tasting menu, but they're in the same section in me so their tasting soon caught up on speed and pace with mine, and I felt a little bad since I'm eating at a pretty brisk solo diner tempo and didn't mind the lack of lagtime, but I am sure they'd want a little more of a break so they can talk between dishes, bites and sips (to showcase the velocity at which the staff serve and bus versus their rate of consumption, one time Pam had three courses' worth of wine pairings on her table!)
But back to the food, my first actual course was the japanese cucumber sorbet over a relish of ume boshe and daikon -- if it was bite-size this would truly feel like an extension of the amuse, it was very refreshing and palate-cleansing. I loved the brightness of flavors that ran throughout the relish-sorbet combo. And being a lover of unusual-flavored ice creams already, I certainly didn't object to the comparatively innocuous cuke sorbet.
Next up was the fricasee of maine lobster, veal sweetbreads and black truffle with crispy rye bread and apple-celery root puree. With so much going on in there I wasn't sure if this would work, but it turned out well. The sweetbreads was more meaty than fatty, so it blended well with the lobster meat and the meaty-earthy truffles. I love the extra contrast added by the crunchy greens and bread and the creamy-smooth puree, with the ever-so-slight celery root zing. In hindsight I wished I followed Michael and Pam's cue and used bread to mop up the remaining juices and puree (sidenote: great bread service, almost every 15 minutes someone is passing by with a tray full of assorted carbs ranging from a standard sourdough to a crispy-thin lavash to rustic walnut and olive breads; I had four slices, frankly three-and-a-half slices too many considering all that I am going to eat tonight.)
Then came the seared maine diver scallop with pea shoot salad, pad thai noodles and red curry sauce (I took a slight objection and a note that the menu indicated the plural 'scallops' but only a single one is served, maybe I am more offended than most since I could never get too many of my favorite bivalves.) The pad thai in the red curry is prepared and plated tableside, which was a nice touch. While the sauce had the wonderful nuances of ginger and lemongrass that went great with the perfectly-seared scallop (crispy-caramelized outside, creamy-rich inside) and the peanutty-sticky noodles, it was also restrained on the spiciness especially compared to an actual Thai curry. The sticky noodles, with a tendency to clump, were also tricky to eat with a fork and I think there was too much of it. The first few bites were amazing, but towards the end it lost some luster and felt actually a bit too sweet and overbearing on the palate and nostrils.
Lily White Pear Cocktail
Since we're midway through the tasting menu, I took the moment order another drink: the Lily White Pear with Hangar One spiced pear vodka, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, asian pear puree and a caol ila rinse. While it didn't have the flavor slam-bang of the svenalicious, it was equally complex with its fruit and floral notes and the occasional tinge of fresh herbs and warm spices. Again, it'd make for a great starter drinks but was delightfully refreshing and palate-cleansing between courses as well.
Soon arrived the dish I was anticipating the most since I saw it on the menu (and Christian readily admitted to being her favorite): roasted Italian chestnuts-mascarpone agnolotti with italian white truffle shavings. Having only enjoyed black truffles and white truffle oil (but at least it's the real deal and not synthetic) so far, it was certainly a treat to taste actual shavings of the Italian white variety on these pasta. And it's definitely in a class of its own, worlds apart from the others I've had. Its complex, hard-to-describe but easily distinctive and heavenly aroma works so well against the backdrop of the tender, slightyly-sweet pillows of pasta and the light cream sauce. I was surprised such a few thin flakes could change the flavor profile so much, and can easily see why these hard-to-forage fungi are still worth hunting for and fetch the prices that they do.
The last of the savories was a duo of grilled snake river ranch "kobe" new york steak with black trumpet mushrooms, sauteed brussel sprouts, rutabaga puree and an armagnac-peppercorn sauce poured tableside (in hindsight I really should've asked the waiter to hold off and do it myself later so I can better capture the rare steak on camera). Again, pretty good stuff -- the perfectly-cooked, nicely-marbled steak requires minimal chewing and really just melts in your mouth. Like everything else I've had yet, the sauce was complex, rich and flavorful. The rutubaga puree and mushrooms were also nice on their own but both were easily overwhelmed by the sauce when eaten in combination. I also would've like a few (ok, a lot) more mini-leaves of the wonderful brussel sprout.
Finally, the sweets and where stuff really wound up going a bit south. The main dessert was Sherry's pannettone with tangerine sauce and butterscotch gelato. The sauce and the gelato are great, but the actual dessert itself is a fruity Christmas bread that was lacking in finesse and flavor, basically a lighter fruitcake that's also pretty dry and needed the sauce or gelato to be palatable. Michael and Pam also commented on the disappointment of this dessert too, noting that this not up to snuff compared to the desserts of their previous Spago visits. But at least the espresso I ordered was well-pulled, even after being made more of a coffee snob from reading this.
The mignardises consisted of a thumbprint raspberry-spice cookie, pistachio and rose macarons, chocolate cookie and mini opera cake. It ranged from OK to good and none are particularly memorable, though I was saddened by the macarons, which had wonderful flavors but were way too chewy and almost gummy.
Thankfully, not all hope was lost with sweets here since Michael and Pam were in the know and ordered a Kaiserschmarffen, an Austrian dessert (literally "Emperor's mishmash") that consisted of a haphazardously stacked pancake, a custard cream and berry sauce. Don't let the humble mishmash looks fool you, they let me try a spoonful and this was way more on-par than the other stuff on the menu. The combo of the airy, soft cake, the luscious custard and the fresh sauce yielded a combo between a light bread pudding and a souffle and definitely unique and delicious. Thanks to them, my final impression of Spago was not on a sour note.

Last tidbit worth mentioning: Spago automatically tacked on a 20% "service charge" even for my party of one. That auto-tip slightly threw me off, though I am giving them the benefit of the doubt since Beverly Hills is a tourist-attracting neighborhood, and other global diners may not have the same tipping customs (read: they don't tip) so I can see, even appreciate, Spago's stance to avoid their very professional and pleasant waitstaff from being stiffed. But 20% still felt a bit high for me.

Nonetheless, despite the dessert courses, this was certainly a meal to remember and treasure (and certainly one of my most memorable of '08) and a restaurant that certainly worth re-visiting if and when I can afford it. So a thanks to Wolfgang for starting this up (he was actually making the rounds and greeting diners by the time I was leaving), to Lee and Thomas for running the kitchen and creating such wonderful dishes, and Michael and Pam who became instant foodie-friends and hopefully look forward to meals in the future!

Tasting menu - $105
Cocktails - $32 ($16 each)
Espresso - $3.50
"Service Charge" - $28.10
Pre-tax total - $168.60

Ambience: 4/5 (comforting, rustic and artsy without being distracting, I also loved the acoustics too, even as the room was being packed with diners it never felt too noisy)
Value: 4/5 (overall not bad even in light of the auto-tipping; $105 felt right for the menu; cocktails, though well-crafted, were on the pricier end)
Service: 9.5/10 (the staff all-around was great from the hostess who carried my glass of water as I was moved to the dining area, to Christian the waitress and Eddie the lead busser who were a professional team and Mike the front-end manager who was checking up just enough to make us feel "taken care of" without being overbearingly interruptive; my next table foodie friends may give a considerably lower score due to the synchronized single-diner pacing, though.)
Food: 17.5/20 (despite the desserts, the meal was pleasant with plenty of high-notes that make it especially memorable; the taste of the Kaiserschmarffen also redeemed the sweets department somewhat)
Bonus/Demerit: N/A (was tempted to do a -.5 for the auto-gratuity, but giving the benefit of the doubt -- so just fair caution/warning)
Total: 35/40 (easy to see why it's a michelin two-star restaurant)

The Delicious Life had reservations given Wolfgang's empire (read: selling-out), but quickly gave into the fabulosity of the place
The husband-and-wife duo of Infinite Fress had more divergent opinion of the place
KevinEats also checked out this iconically L.A. restaurant; hilarious final photo after 10 glasses of wine from the pairing
ExileKiss had a good time here, and actually inspired me to try Spago sooner rather than later
And of course, the Yelperocracy, which gave it a four-star.

176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 385-0880

Spago Beverly Hills on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 29, 2008

Special Foodventure #95: Full of Bull Event at Breadbar (Los Angeles / Mid-City)

3rd Street Breadbar Exterior
In my foodventures with others, I've learned that most foodie folks can be divided into ethnic purists and fusion thrillseekers, I tend to think of myself as falling in the latter camp -- even though I've appreciated many an authentic cultural meal, I also love it when the kitchen get creative and blends different influences together for something distinctively unique. Why not take the best of both (or more) worlds?

And that's what I had in mind when I booked myself for Breadbar's CRUSH event, where Adam Sobel of Full Belly Group (who had cheffed at Vegas' Guy Savoy and Bradley Ogden, among others) put together a special $55 menu showcasing global street food with influences from all over with dishes like marinated bay scallops with young coconut and kaffir lime vodka (I presume Hangar One?), liquid center potato gnocchi with fontina cheese and chanterelle mushrooms, and a curiosity-beckoning pineapple in all forms.

Alas, that wasn't meant to be -- since the day I was available to swing by Breadbar, they decided to showcase his other restaurant concept, Full of Bull, a more casual-Americana restaurant showcasing roast beef, burgers and other diner fare with a Sobel signature. I was slightly disappointed, but also considerably pleased that the meal will now be $20/person and there's no corkage.

Arriving a little earlier than my dining compadres, including newly born foodblogger behind Binary Tastebuds, I decided to take advantage of the just-informed no-corkage policy and headed two blocks down to pick out something go with. Daniela, Breadbar's marketing star, suggested beer (obvious) or a more eclectic pairing with sparkling wine. So that's exactly what I picked out -- an affordable bottle of Blanquette de Limoux from the southwestern region of France.
Limoux Sparkling Wine
It was not bad, good citrus and apple notes with some distinct flinty mineral characters, as if a Chablis had intermingled with a sauvignon blanc. Alas, it was better as an opener or a palate cleanser than something to pair sandwiches and fries with -- but definitely an interesting wine I'd consider checking out again.
Steak Fries
So my two friends arrived and the waitstaff wasted no time getting us started, beginning with steak fries. Thinner than most other steak fries I've encountered but considerably more flavorful (would love to find out what seasoning salt mix were used on these), these fries were pretty good though I wished they were a little crispier, these had a slight limpness suggesting that they weren't fresh out of the fryer.
Slider sandwiches trio
While we were still noshing off our large bowl of fries, the waitress delivered the trio of small sandwiches, which were somewhere between the size of the average slider and the McDonald's hamburger.
Roast Beef Sandwich
The first one I tried was the Original: thinly-shaved rare roast beef with their F.O.B. famous sauce on an onion Kaiser roll. One bite of this succulent sandwich and I'm glad this event didn't take place during Lent - rich beefy flavor (and I believe it was dipped in au jus to further sharpen that) and meltingly-tender. The sauce, which tasted like a subtle thousand island dressing with a horseradishy zip, and the onion roll were good complement to the roast beef, taking the edge of the savoriness which may have resulted into a sodium overkill otherwise.
Turkey Sandwich
Next up, the No Bull: slow roasted turkey with crispy turkey skin and garlic mashed potatoes on onion Kaiser. I am not sure what Adam did to the turkey skin, but that definitely made this sandwich the star of the meal. While it's not particularly crispy, the skin possessed a bacon-like, fatty quality that really binded the flavors of the delightfully-moist turkey meat, the garlicky (but not overly so) taters, the peppery seasoning and the bun.
Fish Sandwich
Lastly, Adam's Fish Sandwich: with a guiness battered fish with cheddar and mayo and lettuce. This one didn't turn out so well. On top of being not crispy (though that may have been because we had this last), it was a clash of overwhelming tastes from the oniony tartar sauce, the sharp cheddar and the pointedly pungent fish, the combo of which left a unpleasant, lingering aftertaste lasting well after the final bite. But hey, two great sandwiches out of three ain't bad -- and in crystal-clear hindsight, I really should've eaten the fried sandwich first.
Adam Sobel serving up soda floats
We also had soda floats, available in root beer, orange cream or vanilla cream, which Adam brought out. The floats were decent, but the conversation was definitely golden as we chatted about his experiences and his upcoming plans, which includes a Full of Bull eatery opening up off the strip in Vegas (close to Firefly on Paradise,) and hopefully seeing his CRUSH conception coming into fruition (and he's open to having this either in the City of Angels or Sin.) So far, both his concepts sounds solid, the execution just needs a little tweaking (particularly the fish sandwich) and I can definitely see great things coming from this rising young chef. And I'll raise a sparkling Limoux toast to that, while eagerly awaiting for my next fusion thrillseeking foodventure.

For my friend's fantastic and humorous take on the same meal, click here; and also here for my other foodventure, a chocolate tasting menu, at the Century City Breadbar.

8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Drinkventure with LearnAboutWine's Palate Builder Class

Tasting over a dozen wines in three hours -- the type of classes I won't mind attending in college and grad. school.

There's a reason why I coined myself as LA-OC-Foodie and not LA-OC-Vino; my taste in wine is not very well polished, an extra shame considering I actually took wine classes when I was in U.C. Davis -- known for its viticulture/enology program and for its patented wine aroma wheel. My limited expertise extends to just telling good wines from bad (well, at least when one's been corked), basic, overgeneralized pairing rules like "white with whites; reds with reds," and a very broad idea of what I personally like (fragrant white varietals like viognier and gewurztraminer, citrusy sauvignon blancs or spicy/jammy reds such as shiraz; OK, and the occasional fruit bombs of a rosé.)

So it was definitely a treat when Ian Blackburn from LearnAboutWine extended an invite to me (to attend for free) and my friends (at a discount) for his Palate Builder class earlier this month, meant for folks who are already somewhat acquainted with wine and want to further develop and hone their appreciation of the stuff. I've been to a few prior LearnAboutWine events, on my own dime, before--and they have always been fun, tasty and educational, whether learning how to pair wines with cheeses, the TASTE series that highlight particular varietals or wine-growing regions, and the occasional non-wine classes (I attended a "Learn About Rum" one where I learned quite a bit about its production, flavor profiles and the tricks to make a mean 'n yummy mojito.)
Upon our arrival at LearnAboutWine central (a snazzy concrete studio loft in downtown los angeles' art district), we were greeted by a long "sensory table" - with dozens of little vials and corresponding postcards letting us experience and learn about the different aromas present in wines, ranging from the fairly common and familiar smells such as berry and citrus to the more exotic aromas of musk and acacia flowers.) It was fascinating taking a whiff of these odors in their purest forms and being able to differentiate between similarly-grouped scents, though now I still probably would fall back on 'stone fruits' and 'woodsy' as opposed to specifying peach versus apricot and cedar versus pine.
After all the participants arrived and had their turn twirling and sniffing around the table, we were all seated and greeted by Ian and the wondeful snack platters with intriguing cheeses (including a cabernet-washed cheddar) and sweet fresh and dried fruits. After a little noshing and a quick primer on wine tasting (most importantly, that the vast majority of the flavor comes from the aromas,) we were doing our first set of tastings, a white wine flight consisting of . . .
. . . four sauvignon blancs; surprised? I was too, considering it was our only white wines of the day. What about all the other varietals? Turns out Ian decided to do an all-sauvignon flight so that he can show how the same grape, grown in different regions, will develop different flavor profiles, highlighting its terroir -- loosely defined as its geographical origin, and how the climate, soils, elevation, even the neighboring plants, of that area ultimately influence the final product. This definitely shown through as we were tasting the flight, with two Californian SBs possessing a ripe citrus-dominated smell, but the Chilean SB had a distinct dirt note attributed to its flat terrain with lots of dusty winds blowing about, and the New Zealand SB that had a zesty, limey (the fruit and the stone) edge the came from the cooler climate (i.e. higher acidity in the grapes) and minerals in the soil that gets taken up by the vines.

Following the tasting, test time! We got grouped into foursomes for a taste test contest, with the highest scoring group winning a secret prize. We were poured a random white, which turned out to be a curveball since it's a California chardonnay. For fun, Ian also asked us to estimate the price of the secret wine "The Price is Right" style. The guesses went up to as high as $35, and it turned out to be.... Two Buck Chuck! Definitely a shocker to the attendees, but at least the experiment reinforced that tasty wines doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. The 2005 of this cheapy chardonnay is judged the state's best, with a double gold and 98 points, at California State Fair.
Afterwards, we tasted two flights of red, which followed a more traditional arc of different varietals and different regions -- going from the light grenache to a Bordeaux for the International flight and the pinot noir to syrah for the Californian flight. Along the way we picked up some easy-to-remember tips to analyze wines, such as:

1) smelling/tasting for aspects of F.E.W. (fruits, earth and wood) to get a basic idea of the wine's character (and consequently, the varietal, the region, and, for the pros, the vintage).
2) using color as a tool to help identify varietal (with the thinner-skinned pinot noir producing a lighter shade than, say, a cabernet sauvignon)
3) using more appropriate and creative terms to describe wines, such as taking F.E.W. aromas and mouthfeel to put together more complex labels such as masculinity (to describe muscularity, robustness and assertiveness) and femininity (finesse, roundness and elegance).
4) and the obsoleteness of using "dry" as a descriptor -- since almost all non-fortified/non-dessert still wines are dry in the sense that there's very little residual sugar left; more proper terms may be a palate-drying mouthfeel, noting the tannins or acidity on the tongue or highlighting non-sweet smells (e.g. earthy, woodsy, toasty).

Of course, we had a few more testing rounds -- and alas, my more-learned but still amateur wine palate were no match for the pros in the other groups, who ultimately won mini bottles of Alize Bleu with their elite wine analysis skills.

But ultimately, my friends and I had a great time learning how to build our palates and take our wine analysis and enjoyment to the next level. The palate builder class for any budding wine aficionado wanting to further expand upon their appreciation in a non-stuffy, guided but still-structured setting. Or, for those who are really getting their toes wet into wine, LearnAboutWine also does a Intro to Wine Camp class that takes attendees through the basics of wine history, production and tasting with tips on purchasing, pairing and storage (and of course, with samplings of wonderful wine.) And for the more avid winelover or those already in (or heading towards) the wine business, there are a variety of more serious classes too such as the L.A.W. School (with its own B.A.R. exam ;) ) too.

To find out more about upcoming classes and events at LearnAboutWine, click here! Or for regular notes, tips and tidbits, check out the L.A.W. blog.

For more photos of my palate builder tasting, here's the flickr set. And for another take on the L.A.W. classes, check out Gourmet Pigs' German Beer Tasting event here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Quickies #41: End of 2008 Edition

Mixed meats jollof rice with fried plantains

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas (or other solstice-related holiday), for any of you that went out (or ordered take-in) that day (or next week during New Year's) -- it's definitely worthwhile to give an extra thanks to those who served you; they're giving up their holidays and times spent with family and friends so that you can have that experience. Having made that little PSA, here's some food related thoughts for today's quickie:

Whatcha doing on New Year's Eve? Yes, many places will be offering a lot of prix-fixe menus (though comparatively less extravagant given current times) and a few other foodbloggers already have posted on interesting New Year Eve's festivities. For the sake of not re-inventing the wheel, I'll point you guys to Caroline on Crack and FoodGPS's wonderful coverage of what's going down on the 31st, with prices going from free to infinity (at least it seems like it). Of course, there's the lowdown from the likes of Opentable and too. As for me, I'll either be at a house party crafting and mixing a few more (hopefully) delicious cocktails -- or some low-key dining out, such as previewing Rivera with a few sample courses and drinks, or maybe Fraiche's $65 four-course prix-fixe with rabbit tortelli and monkfish francaise, perhaps even dive down to the O.C. for Marche Moderne's special a la carte menu with selections like New Zealand scallops and bacon vinaigrette and noisette of venison, pear and butternut squash.

Beginnings and Endings for Bloggers - speaking of one year ending and another one about to start, the same also goes for a few foodbloggers. First off, Man Bites World finally concluded his epicurean experiment, having ran out of countries to taste after Day 102 (and that's after he included some debatables such as Macau and Tibet.) Following his posts over three months definitely open my eyes and tastebuds to the variety of foods available in L.A. and O.C. and made me realized just how big a cultural culinary soup pot we are (I hesitate using the term melting pot since that just presumes all the cultures melt into one, where as with soup analogy I feel that it's more of a two-way exchange between the individual ingredients/countries and the final product/overall food landscape, but I digress...) And in the news of beginnings, foodbloggers Oishii Eats and Eat, Drink and be Merry tied the knot! Cheers to them and good wishes for many wonderful years of good eats (and everything else...) to come. Their love story is a sweet one indeed.

And a little late, but I'm finally squeezing in my splurge meal of 2008 ... at Spago! Granted, the only reservation I can get is a early 5:45 p.m. tomorrow, but at least that gives me time to possibly check out a bar or two afterwards to gather my thoughts and organize my notes on what will hopefully be a very delicious meal. But in the meantime, hope you all, like me, had a year of wonderful foodventures and here's to another year's worth!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mini Foodventure #94: POP Champagne & Dessert Bar (Pasadena)

At long last, a place just for sweets and drinks, brings back such fond memories of my days in dessert bars on the East Coast. And even though POP specialize in sparkling wines and closes comparatively early (1 a.m. at the latest for now), it's in nearby Pasadena and is the only thing like it in L.A. And after months of longingly eyeing that "coming soon" banner, I finally got their grand opening email so I got few friends to join me in popping into POP.

Restaurant Interior
The decor is very chill and relaxing, lots of dark tones with deep purple chairs and booths, dark wood furnishings and a red brick wall; also some art deco elements with the wallpaper and the no-picture gilded frames, a touch of elegance with crystal chandeliers and some mellow jazz and French bistro tunes playing in the background. Particularly catchy was one yellow wall towards the back with many little circular mirrors on it, emulating the sparkling wine look. However, I do agree with my friends that in the day this atmosphere looks a bit dreary, but at night it has good potential for a mellow after-hours spot to hang out post-clubbing, a nice follow-up to a dinner date or even a nice little break before or after an Old Town excursion.

Our server, Gregory, was fairly knowledgeable about and gave good insights on what's popular, what's a good value and what's trendy on the foods and wine menu (which covers more than just sweet and sparklies, they have selections of still wines and beers, and some small plate savories as well).
Flights of Bubbles
Wanting to try a little of everything, we opted for two bubbly flights, a rosé and a true Champagne trio. Between the six wines, we pretty much ran the whole gamut of smells, flavors and mouthfeels from being light, sweet and fairly bland to rich, dry and fragrant, but we agreed with Gregory on his favorites of the flights, finding them tastiest ourselves.
Poached Pear
The first sweets we decided on was a pear poached in a honey-sauternes sauce with pear chip and creme fraiche. While it lacked the visual flair of the red wine poached variety, it was a light, refreshing, not-too-sweet dessert, with the fruit still having a little bit of a crisp. The creme fraiche added a little flavor contrast and richness that my friends liked, but I thought it was unnecessary.
Petit Four Plate
We also got a petit fours plate that included macarons and macaroons, biscotti, chocolate-covered sea salt caramels, truffles and pecan shortbread. We loved the assortment but had mixed feeling about the individual desserts. The macarons, caramels and truffles were a hit, but the shortbread wasn't sweet enough (maybe meant to pair with a dryer sparkly?) and the macaroons were too dry and seemed overbaked.

And just for kicks, we also got something we rarely see, a bottle of Hou Hou Shu Blue sparkling sake, which tasted like, no surprise, sake with bubbles. Ok, to be more specific, I think the carbonation help brings out sake aroma more, and this one was pretty pleasant with a tropical coconut, melon and banana fragrance.

All in all, we left with a positive experience. The place isn't particularly cheap (the bill for what we ordered was around $70) but not super pricey either especially if stopping by for a little wine (ranges from $5-20 a glass or $12-$20 a flight) and some sweets (around the $10 mark), and I hope this makes it in the future since it fills a very unique one-of-a-kind niche, esp. for sweet toothers like me!

POP Champagne & Dessert Bar
33 E. Union St.
(626) 795-1295

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mini Foodventure #93: Take a Bao (Century City)

Since I made the effort of parking my car during holiday seasons at the horrific lot in Century City Westfield's, I figure I might as well check out one of new eateries that pop up around Century City in addition to the chocolate tasting at Breadbar. Craft? A bit far and pricey at the moment. RockSugar? Um, not really feeling like Pan-Asianed cheesecake. Ooh, speaking of Pan-Asian, how about Take a Bao? It's food-court cheap (well, for C.C. standards anyways, considering their court also has Lawry's Carvery serving up $25+ prime ribs) and it sounds like an interesting, if gimmicky, fast casual concept. Could be cool as long as I don't compare them to the baozis readily available in Chinatown and all over the San Gabriel Valley.
Sample dishes
Like most fast casual places, Take a Bao's menu is basically a mishmesh, mix and match of different already-prepped ingredients and sauces that's plopped onto and sandwiched between flattened and steamed bao dough (or, if you so choose, in lettuce wraps, on a bowl of rice or noodles -- but really, who'd go to Take a Bao to, well, NOT take a bao?)

After reviewing their assorted "Asian-inspired" filling options (including a signature barbecue pork that includes pea shoots and marinated cucumbers, unlike any charsiubaos I've ever eaten -- reminding me again not to evaluate these dishes by real baozi standards), I opted for the spicy sesame citrus chicken standard white bao and a miso beef wheat bao. About $10, ten minutes and one light-up/beeping vibrator later, my two baos and side of chinese napa salad arrived.
Bao Plate Angle 2
As you can tell, the only real difference between the two tacolike baos is the dough, sauce and meat, the veggie stuffings (pickled carrots, marinated cucumbers, radish sprouts, scallions) were identical -- and most of the other fillings have this same combo too.
Spicy Citrus Chicken Bao
I tried the chicken bao first, and it tasted like a poorly made orange chicken (a dish I normally love when I get that faux Chinese craving,) there was way too much of the overly-sweet sauce, and the battered chicken was dense and dry as a brick and not crispy at all (were they trying to compensate for the dryness by overdousing with sauce? well, it didn't work). But at least the bao dough was decent - fluffy, a little chewy, not dry at all and surprisingly holds together well as I took repeated bites of this otherwise sticky-and-syrupy mess.
Miso Beef Whole Wheat Bao
The beef bao was way better, the miso braising liquid was sweet-savory but not overly so and it complements the tender sheared short rib nicely. The crunchy and tarted-up veggies actually provides a nice foil here and rounded out the flavors while contrasting the textures, as opposed to the previous bao where it was just another territory for that crazy citrus sauce to pillage and dominate.

But the part I liked most was the salad (yes, my yellow flag popped up when I realized the side is the best part); it was one of the better Chinese (no-chicken) salads I've had in a while, nice crunchy texture and flavors from the chopped napa cabbage, carrots, scallions, almonds and fried wonton strips and a light, nutty, sweet dressing that's just enough to bind them all together. I would've readily traded the chicken bao for more of the salad.

Summing up, my feelings for this place is mixed given the hit and miss dish I had (though for anyone craving these taco-style baos, I'd surely point them to Cafe Hiro in Cypress for their peking pork appetizer, styled like Momofuku's roasted pork buns and much more memorable than those here!) I am open to checking out this place again, but it's definitely not a destination eatery and it's rare that I'll be at the Century City Westfield so it may be a while for me to re-evaluate. That may be for the better in the long-run, 'cause maybe by then I can finally forget about that terrible super sweet brick of a fried chicken.

What Do Others Say?
Caroline on Crack, while disappointed by the baos, thinks it's a nice change of pace from usual food court offerings
Drink Your Milk actually did not take a bao here and had mixed experiences with bunless dishes.
Teenage Glutster had better opinion (or luck) with both the baos and salads here
but the democracy of the Yelpers gave it a middling 3 stars

Take a Bao
10250 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, 90067

Take a Bao on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Special Foodventure #92: Chocolate Tasting at Breadbar (Century City)

Exterior of Century City BreadBar
One of the things I love about Breadbar, on top of its phenomenal range of artisanal baked breads and goodies, are their fun events held in collaboration with other chefs and restaurants. Sometimes it could be a fondue night with their breads in eclectic melted cheeses, other times it may be a wine and dish pairing like RED with LearnAboutWine, and then there's the guest chefs events like Ludobites last year that was like a huge hit! Of course, the event with my name all over it is the 'Chocolate Tasting' held in collaboration with ChocoVivo's owner/chocolatier Patricia Tsai. So I met up with Fiona from Gourmet Pigs for this $30/person event.
ChocoVivo's Patricia Tsai
Held in their newer, swankier Century City Westfield Mall location, which has the most horrific parking I've encountered this entire year, the event started off with Patricia giving us a brief lesson of how the cacao bean transforms into the chocolate that we consume, along with her fascinating stories of traveling to Mexico and Central America to observe the cacao plantations and select the ones that ultimately goes into the ChocoVivo products.
Chocolate Liquors
We also lived her lessons along the way, sampling the chocolate in various stages of processing from the crunchy cocoa nibs to a intense, thick and bitter pure chocolate liquor (and later a more palatable version with sugar added, though I personally loved combining the two for a bittersweet experience.)
Chocolate Daisy Hot Cocoa with Chamomile, Cinnamon
That was followed by tastings ChocoVivo's signature hot chocolates, including the relaxing Chocolate Daisy with chamomile flowers and cinnamon and an exotic, Asian-inspired Shangri-La with goji berries and roasted sesame seeds. Defintely tastier than the plain ole mix-with-water cocoa in an envelope (which we did a side-by-side blind tasting of with their Simply Chocolate hot cocoa, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone as to which one won.) Being a choco-addict myself, I can definitely confirm many of Patricia's points about artisanal v. mass-produced and very processed chocolates, the latter having lost a lot of the subtle nuances, aromas and even textures -- producing a unremarkable product that's just sweet with a very flat, generic chocolate taste.
Breadbar's Rogelio Marhx Demo-ing How Chocolate is Stone Ground
While we were tasting all these chocolates, Breadbar's executive chef Rogelio Marhx came out and demonstrated how the cocoa nibs are stone-grounded (eventually into the chocolate liquor that he'll use for his mole sauce.) All in all, a fun half-hour lesson and Q&A about chocolate production.

Moving onto the actual food portion, the five-course tasting menu! Already anticipating the the dark cocoa flavor in many of the upcoming dishes, I tried ordering a glass of Syrah only to find out I've been trumped by all the other event attendees and that Breadbar ran out of both Syrahs. But the nice server gave me a glass of the Rhone wine at a reduced price, which made interesting pairings with the chocolate dishes too.
Flank Steak Tartar in Goji Berry-Chocolate Bread, Cocoa Nibs and Chestnuts
Our first is a flank steak tartar with chestnuts and cocoa nibs sandwiched between a goji berry cocoa bread. I love the cute little raw hamburger presentation, and it was a fun and amusing first course -- with the soft flavorful meat juxtaposing against the crunchy bread and the earthy flavors of the cocoa.
Arugula Salad with Roasted Duck Breast, Foie Gras Terrine and Chocolate Vinaigrette
Next came the arugula salad with roasted duck breast, foie gras terrine and chocolate vinaigrette. Here the chocolate taste was muted given the powerful flavors of the fatty duck breast slices, the peppery arugula and the salty terrine. But nonetheless it was a great salad and I had fun mixing and matching the different components of the dish.
Beef Short Rib with Chocolate Mole and Kabocha Squash Polenta
The star of the meal was definitely the main course, braised short rib in a chocolate mole with kabocha squash polenta. The mole was insanely delicious, and a delightful mix of chocolate, chili, sesame and about a dozen additional ingredients pounded and blended in a rich, complex paste that's a great balance of spicy, smoky, nutty, sweet, bitter and chocolatey. The tender rib was a wonderful backdrop to soak up the mole as was the polenta with the subtle tinge of the squash.
Molten Chocolate Souffle
Fourth course is a molten chocolate souffle cake with olive oil and salt. As big a sucker I am for rich chocolate desserts and sweet-savory combos, I didn't care much for this dish due to the mouthfeel of the center, which was rather fluid and liquidy and made me think that it was underbaked batter rather than an intended molten core.
Chocolate Beet Cupcakes
Next sets of desserts came out better, chocolate beet mini cupcakes that were moist, not-too-sweet, and had an interest tart contrast with the beet frosting. I ate up two of these fast (and got another two take home!)
S'mores Set
Finally (yes, there's a sixth course), their variant of the traditional s'more with chocolate marshmallows that we toast ourselves and spread onto Breadbar's bread chips. Without a pure chocolate element, the cocoa flavor here is more subtle than the traditional campfire version but it was still gooey delicious.
S'mores - Chocolate Marshmallow on Breadbar Bread Chips
Overall and in spite of the souffle, I think this was one of the better themed tasting menus I've had -- which reflects chocolate's versatility as both a savory and a sweet ingredient and Chef Marhx's expert execution of these dishes. And yes, I'll even endure Century City parking (got charged $10 since I went over three hours here) to check out their future events, or even to casually dine in the rare instance that I shop there.

Breadbar in Century City
10250 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90067

Breadbar on Urbanspoon


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