Monday, April 27, 2009

Happier Hours in Santa Monica

Simply delicious grilled mortadella with pink lady apples at FIG

What's better than a happy hour? A couple of them within walking distances of each other! This past weekend I had a birthday shindig for two of my friends, and just realized how close some of the Santa Monica hotspots are to each other. So what better way to celebrate than to grab a few discounted noshes and sips at each of the places. To add icing on the cake ~ these places have HH over weekends too so no need to race down the 10 like a maniac on a work day.

Here's the SaMo HH breakdown:

Bar Pintxo - from 4 to 7 p.m., enjoy 6 tapas for $6 (they have about 8-10 to choose from on the HH menu) plus refreshing red or white sangrias for $3 and $1.50 Stella Artois. Light and refreshing and perfect for warm and sunny weather - for the tapas I was particularly fond of the crimini mushroom cap stuffed with jamon and diced veggies as well as jamon serrano with fresh tomato on grilled bread.

FIG Restaurant (previously posted on here) - from 5 to 6 p.m. you can enjoy "FIG at Five" where five wines, five cheese dishes and five charcuterie dishes are only $5 a piece. Some of my favorites here include the fizzy Juve y Camps '04 cava (what can I say? got a weakness for sparklies), fresh goat cheese with lavender honey and the grilled mortadella with pink lady apples.

Riva (previously here) - 5 to 6 p.m. on most days (but right now, during Laker games they have HH throughout the game instead) and the deal is $3 draft beers, $4 wines and cocktails and "appetizers" at a discount (I put apps in quotes because their ~$8 happy hour pizzas can easily be a meal for one.) Some other delicoso dishes and drinks include the sparkling Sulla Riva cocktail (prosecco, campari, elderflower liqueur and lemon juice,) San Daniele Prosciutto with their famous pizza bread ($8, or $3 for just pizza bread) and the crispy squash blossoms with local bufala mozzarella, mint and oven-dried tomatoes ($6).

Last but not least, Copa d'Oro (previously here) - with a Happy Depression menu 5-8 p.m. featuring a dozen classic cocktails at $5 (partial list from Caroline on Crack here), as well as beer and wine discounts and their paninis, regularly $6-9, at $4-6. I absolutely love their Jack Rose with applejack, lime and housemade grenadine and the gingery Dark & Stormy, as well as their nutella and almond butter panini on pain de mie bread. Mmm...

And FYI, FIG is dark on Sunday & Monday, as is Copa d'Oro on Sunday. Here's to happier hours (and I definitely don't need a birthday to cheer to that!)

Bar Pintxo on Urbanspoon
Copa d'Oro on Urbanspoon
Riva on Urbanspoon
FIG Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Quickies #56: May Day (almost) edition

Collage of cookbooks whose authors will be attending LA Times Festival of Books, thanks to Michael Weisberg (on the LATFOB staff) for providing individual cover images

Is May already on our heels? April came and went SO quickly! Time really does fly when you're having fun (esp. when eating and drinking with great company, as I did several times this past week -- foodventure posts to come.) But moving onto my brief quickie...

What do you get when you combine cooking, reading books and celebrity gawkage (three of my fave things, by the way) - the cooking stage at LA Times Festival of Books, where nationally and locally-renowned celebrity-chefs, cooks and authors -- from the dashingly charming Curtis Stone to our Two Dudes Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook and the cute-as-a-button Giada de Laurentiis -- will be signing their respective books (available for purchase at the festival) and demo-ing their recipes (schedule of signing/demos here). I'm bummed out about not being to attend this year (had other things in the works before I found out the event was this weekend) but I highly recommend attending. Being the book event of the year, of course there will lots of peeps attending so plan your transportation/parking strategies accordingly.

Also, if you plan on dining out on Thursday, April 30 -- do check out the list at Dining Out for Life -- where a number of eateries around town will be donating 25% or more of their sales to Project Angel Food, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering meals to folks struggling with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. Notable participants include Angeli Caffe, Susina Bakery, Lucifer's Pizza, Jar, The Little Door/Little Next Door and Whist at the Viceroy.

Lastly, another PSA for my other blog; just noticed this week that the comments feature wasn't working there (and thanks to foodblogging friend Diana for pointing it out), so that's been fixed.

One year ago I went ga-ga over LA Mill
Two years ago I had my 2007 splurge meal at Providence

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Favorite Rainy Day Drink . . .

Hot Buttered Rum
Given these cooler nights are probably the last we'll see for awhile, I figure I better get on this cocktail recommendation stat while the weather's still appropriate to slowly sip a steamy cup.

While my previous 2-3 visits to the Varnish didn't leave a particularly stellar mark in my mind (admittedly all my prior swing-bys were to a pretty packed and happening joint, so the bartenders are harried, backlogged and obviously a little less careful,) one drink that I fondly enjoyed on a chilly night was their Hot Buttered Rum.

A simple drink made with aged rum, a little honey, lots of hot water and a dollop of butter -- it's a cocktail Paula Deen will definitely approve, even if she's on a quest to kill us all. Truth be told, it didn't taste too greasy and the butter taste was a wonderful complement to the honey's sweetness and the rum's spicy-sugary aroma. A potable kettle corn, so to speak.

So if there are any more rainy days slated for these next few months, you know what I'll be enjoying at Cole's backdoor speakeasy.

The Varnish Bar
118 E. 6th St, Los Angeles, CA
(213) 622-9999

The Varnish on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mini Foodventure #118: Tea Rose Garden (Pasadena)

Afternoon Tea @ Tea Rose Garden
No matter the weather, even this sudden heat wave, afternoon tea is probably my favorite food-oriented ritual. Calm, relaxed pace, lots of tea and conversation, and a good sampling of different savory and sweet foods. And one of my favorite spots for everyday, casual afternoon teas that won't break the bank is Tea Rose Garden in Pasadena.

Part tea room, part florist - it's a small and cute shop on Raymond just on the edge of Old Town Pasadena. Filled with delightful china, giftshop knick-knacks (leaning a bit heavy on bridal / baby shower stuff, for obvious reasons) and wonderfully perfumed with the smell of fresh-cut flowers, it's a delightful escape from the hub-bub of the city, particularly if you sit in their quaint little courtyard in the back.

Their afternoon tea is $18.95 and includes a pot of tea - with a pretty vast selection for you to choose from - and the following foods:

- a refreshing spring petal salad (not pictured) with mixed greens and edible flowers tossed in housemade raspberry vinaigrette

- six pieces of tea sandwiches and you can choose up to three flavors (my faves are the spicy salmon tempter, the cranberry chicken and goat cheese & sun-dried tomato)

- a warm scone of your choice (rarely do I see a teashop where you can choose your own scone, so far my preferred ones here are maple pecan, candied ginger and lemon-blueberry), with Devonshire cream and raspberry jam. Crumbly, creamy goodness!

- mixed fruits (also not pictured)

- a chewy, mildly-sweet rose sugar cookie

- tea time sweets: bite-sized squares of lemon bar, vanilla cheesecake, apple crisp and walnut brownie.

Even if I'm starving, I'm generally beyond stuffed after the scone and wound up taking the cookie and sweets to go. But the food and tea here are solidly delicious, and it's a great way to relax after an afternoon of errands or shopping, or to get sugared up for an evening of festivities . . .

A few tips/observations: they DO host a lot of showers and parties here and it's pretty small place, so even if you have a party of two, best to call a day or two ahead to reserve a table (esp. for weekends.) Also, a 15% gratuity is added to every check, but feel free to add more as you see fit.

What Do Others Say?
- Solid four stars from 46 reps of the Yelperocracy
- Best of LA wrote about it on LA.foodblogging, loved the sandwiches and got surprisingly full too

Tea Rose Garden
28 S Raymond Ave
Pasadena, CA
(626) 578-1144

Tea Rose Garden on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 20, 2009

Introducing Foodie Fitness

Some equipment at home to keep the bulges at bay...

Since LA Times just put together a fabulous issue today on a DIY weight loss plan, I guess now's a good a time as any to reveal the project of my not-so-secret other half: Foodie Fitness.

I guess this new blog is inspired by my reading other foodbloggers, where every so often the salient theme of "having to eat healthier" and "getting into shape" comes up -- along with the occasional post on a crazy detox/diet plan and Spartan exercise regimen. In a way, I just want to show that you can still enjoy great-tasting foods, have a life outside of a gym and still stay in comparatively good shape. Sounds cliched, but it's all about balance and moderation as well as small-but-progressive steps to improving your lifestyle.

I am by no means the gold standard of fitness (and anyone who seen me in my skinny arm glory can attest to that) but I'm definitely proud of the milestones I've achieved and maintained, including a 40-pound weightloss, shedding 8-10% body fat and a 6 inch waist shrinkage for the past three years.

As for my foodie fitness blog, I still am trying to figure out the direction I'm going to take (and it's definitely in the rough right now). Partly it'll be sharing some helpful eating/exercise tips I've come across (like in today's LA Times), partly to share my own experiences and challenges when it comes working out and eating right, and time allowing, I definitely look forward to profiling some other fit foodies and discovering their secrets to balancing great tastes with overall wellness. And of course, blogging about my routine is a great way to hold myself accountable, too!

Nonetheless, I definitely hope you'll join the fitventure journeys of my other half and chime in with your own comments, questions and opinions.

Now back to your regularly scheduled foodventures programming...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Quickies #55: Events for After Taxes Edition

Assorted cheeses served (and paired with vodka) at the Artisan Cheese Gallery

Whether you had to pony up or getting a refund, I'm sure we're all glad that another year's worth of taxes are filed are done with. Fortunately, this coming week has a trio of events that suits every budget.

On Monday, April 20 - Rustic Canyon Wine Bar is pairing up with Andrew Steiner from Andrew's Cheese Shop to do an artisan cheese dinner highlighting unique, craftsmen cheeses in a variety of familiar and eclectic dishes. The menu include crispy morels stuffed with Red Darla cheese from Washington, Purple Haze goat cheese ravioli with brown butter and hazelnuts and brown sugar creme fraiche trifle. The delectable five-course affair costs $55/person (wine pairings and an additional cheese course available for extra.) To RSVP call 310.393.7050

This Thursday, April 23, AMMO is kicking off Small-Batch Social highlighting top-notch distillers, winemakers and microbrewers. This month's event will highlight single-estate small-batch Tequila Ocho, with tastings of their 2008 Plato, Reposado and Anejo served sangrita-style (each tequila accompanied by a "shooter") along with passe hors d'oeuvres. $20/person - reserve at 323.467.3293

For those who are really pinching pennies, $5 will earn you admission (and a chance to judge) folks facing off at the 1st 7th Grilled Cheese Invitational in downtown LA, where you can taste and judge dozens of entries and deem who is the head cheese of them all. The three judged categories include the standard missionary (just bread/cheese/butter), the exotic kama sutra (with additional ingredients) or sultry honey pot (kama sutra with a sweet twist.) Arrive early, there's bound to be crowds and only 1,700 attendees can sign up to judge. If you're so inclined to show off your grilled cheese making skills, registration as a competitor is only $10 (plus the costs of your ingredients) and you get all sorts of GCI goodies to show for it too.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mini Foodventure #117: Merkato (Little Ethiopia)

Having been a while since I explored eclectic ethnic eats, my last one being that Jungle Foodventure Marathon, I jumped at the chance of checking out Merkato's when Wandering Chopsticks, Gourmet Pigs and I decided on having an Ethiopian foodventure. While that section of Fairfax offers a plethora of Ethiopian eats, we chose Merkato because 1) they were open for lunch on weekends 2) they serve meat dishes and 3) they have a picture menu (online) to help make ordering all the easier. So off we went in mid-March.
Part marketplace, part restaurant, the interior of the restaurant is quite a sight to behold - rich with colorful tapestries, ceilings decorated with vibrant upside-down umbrellas, and even saddle-like seats and barrel-shaped straw-woven tables called mesobs. Alas, we opted for more boring standard tables and chair so we can get better photos of the food.

With a pretty accessible menu, a fairly helpful waitress and a time-crunched schedule, we got our order in pretty fast, all of which were served on the same injera-lined platter (with extra injera on the side to scoop up the various dishes)
Lunch Platter 5
To break it all down, our order consisted of:

* Awaze Tibbs ($8.99): "cubes of selecte beef with onions, tomatoes, hot red peppers and spiced butter"
*Combo Platter of Yebeg Sega Wot and Yebeg Alicha ($10.99): former is "strips of beef braised in red pepper sauce and spices" and the latter is "mild lamb stew, delicately spiced with garlic, ginger and other spices"
* Veggie Combo ($6.99): a hodgepodge of seasoned and spiced collard greens, stewed peas and lentils, steamed cabbage and tomato salad

In the photo, the meat dishes are in the center and the veggies lined the sides. As for the taste? Hard to tell with the individual components, especially towards the end when all the stews and mashes blended with one another - but in general everything was rich with earthy, aromatic spices (particularly the meat dishes) -- like a hybrid between a chili and a mole sauce, but less spicy. The injera was spongy to the feel and slightly tart to the taste, but felt like a naturally perfect pairing to the gamut of courses we had there.
Lunch Platter 1
Even tastier was the injera lining the plate, since it soaked up all the stewy goodness throughout the meal, like using bread to sop up the last bits of soup. The soaked injera was too soft to be picked up by hand so we got another fresh order of injera (complimentary) to pick them up. It may seem weird, but I love my carbs-wrapped-in-carbs - be it zhaliangs, pieorgies or injera-in-injera (trying saying that five times fast!)

Alas, despite how light-tasting the meal was, I felt almost stuffed towards the end. I even skipped desserts after we walked to nearby India Sweets & Spices. Nonetheless, Merkato was a nice eye-opener into the world of Ethiopian foods and I can't wait to try a few more places on those few blocks of Fairfax.

What Do Others Say?
ManBitesWorld did his "Ethiopia Day" here.
- It was fourth place for Best Ethiopian in '07, according to MyFOXLa
- What's to Eat LA considers this "cheap, amazing Ethiopian food"
- Four stars from the Yelperocracy

Merkato Restaurant & Market
1036.5 S Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA

Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 13, 2009

Special Foodventure #116: Opening Night at the Bazaar's Saam (Beverly Hills)

My 2009 splurge meal came earlier than I expected, since my Jose Andres lovin' friend wanted to check out Saam on its opening night this past Friday. Despite my DineLA Bazaar meal being a hit and miss affair, I decided to give the place another shot ~ to see if it lives up to the perfect four-stars anointed by LA Times' S. Irene.

Having arrived a tad early, my friend and I went to Bar Centro area to check out a couple of drinks. I got the Jale Berry, which was still tasty though significantly less spicy than I remembered, and my friend had the bartender's choice (pictured above) - a mix of Partida reposado, lime, mint and ginger syrup that went down really smooth and had a nice bouquet of spicy, minty flavors with the slightest tequila edge. After our drink, we checked in with the host stand to be taken into the Saam section of the Bazaar.
Saam, which turned out to be a Baz*aa*r-ish play on SBE owner Sam Nazarian's name, is situated in a private room situated right behind Bar Centro. With its wood-paneled walls and roof, high ledges lined with kitschy books and knick-kacks, and a winebar smack in the middle, it gives off a den or game room feel, I was even keeping an eye out for a dart board or a box of cigars somewhere. But overall, it was cozy and comforting, and a far-cry from the glitzy-bordering-on-gaudy ambience of the other Bazaar areas and much more appropriate for a tasting menu affair than the noisy hub-bub and visual distractions going on in the Rojo and Blanca rooms.

Another surprise is that for an opening night, Saam wasn't very filled -- only about a third to a half of the tables were occupied at any given time throughout our dinner. Then again, the buzz for the opening was kept pretty low (only Urbandaddy disclosed it ahead of time) and the server noted they are in a sort of soft-launch phase to see what works and what could be tweaked.
Snack and Drink
Soon after we settled into our seats, the waitstaff gave a breakdown of how the meal will proceed and asked about our allergies/preferences, then quickly presented us with a "snack and a cocktail" of their salty air margarita and sweet potato chips with tamarind paste and star anise. The margarita was decent and I do like the soft-and-light foam better than the typical coarse grains rimming the glass, but the tequila's harsh edge (blanco, I presume) was a bit too rough for my personal preference. Their spin on chips and dip was delicious, hitting three flavor notes with the slight saltiness of the sweet potato to the sweetness of the tamarind paste and the sourness of the yogurt.
Amuse Quartet
As we finished our sips and nibbles, we were besieged with a quartet of bites. From front-to-back, we had a “olive oil bonbon” with a touch of saffron, caviar steamed bun with American sturgeon caviar, crème fraiche and “lemon air” on a mini bao, the bagel and lox crispy cone with salmon roe and dill cream cheese, and their cotton candy-wrapped foie gras. Here, the two fish egg dishes were wonderful tasting, with the roe harmonizing well with the other components and carrying it through with its briny, fishy (in a good way) flavor. The olive oil bonbon and the foie gras, on the other hand, seemed more fun to eat than tasty themselves. With the former, it was neat to crack the glassy bonbon in my mouth to flood my tongue with the saffron-infused oil, but ultimately it’s just oil on my tongue, albeit a quality olive oil which made me wish I had bread. With the foie gras, there’s that sweet-savory match going on and the expected richness of the fatty liver, but that was it and it felt single-faceted.
It was here that we also mentioned being interested in a wine pairing, and found out that instead of a traditional pairing, they offer four wine flights (self-explanatory Global, Spanish, Sparkling and Fortified) and essentially let the diners do their own pairings. Depending on your take, this can be DIY fun or a bit lazy on part of the restaurant. I started leaning towards the latter after some of my own pairing experiments went awry and resulted in puckery-cringe facial expressions. Also, I got the sparkling flight, which, despite being two 1.5 oz pours of four wines during the meal, didn’t last very well, since the bubbles ~ particularly for the two Cavas ~ dissipates fairly quickly and I really can’t let them just sit at the table and get flat while waiting for other courses to present themselves. A Spanish or a Global flight would work way better for pairing purposes…
After the four amuses and initial sips of our flights, we were presented with another Bazaar signature, the olive spherication, with olive juice contained in a gellified olive “skin” steeped in olive oil. A playful morsel that tastes like an extra dirty martini minus the alchy (though if you order a standard martini at the Bazaar you will get one of these lovelies in your glass.)
Air Bread
Following the spherified olive is Jose's Ham & Cheese sandwich (on an oddly-cute monkey pedestal tray!) with the deliate "air bread" bread filled with creamy La Serena sheep's cheese and topped with slices of jamon iberico. Pure decadence as all the components melded together, the cured, marbled ham with the creamy-yet-assertive cheese with the crisp, cracker-like bread.
Canned Uni
After the monkey pedestal was bussed away, we were served the "canned" uni conservas with flowers and diced vegetables. Since my uni experiences thus far have been in sushi form, it was interesting to see it paired with the more lively veggies, but it worked surprisingly well. The creamy-sweetness of the urchin still came forth, and was nicely contrasted with the crunchy, mildly tart vegetables.
Boneless Wing
The boneless wing was up next, a 12-hour-marinated and breaded chicken with olive puree and iceplant. I like the mild garlicky flavor that was thoroughly infused throughout the moist chicken as well as the accompaniments that gave it a green-grassy note, but not so much the breading that was soggy rather than crispy.
Shrimp Cocktail
Next up, their interpretation of the shrimp cocktail, with a Santa Barbara shrimp studded with petals, herbs and sesame seeds, pierced by a pipette filled with cocktail sauce and shrimp-head broth. Simply heavenly, and tasted every bit as colorful as it appeared; the plump, sweet shrimp was cooked to perfection (tender with that almost-crisp snap of firmness) and that broth-infused cocktail sauce tasted like a spiced-up red chowder. Totally could’ve eaten another few (dozen) of these!
Gazpacho Mix2
Then came our intermission “show” where two servers almost struggled to push their ubiquitous liquid nitrogen cart in front of our table, to do a full on, cold-fog demo of their nitro gazpacho. For our photo-taking purposes, she really loaded up on the liquid N2 for the mad-science-lab effect. Nice!
As for gazpacho itself, decorated with edible flowers and airbread pieces and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, it was competent. All the expected flavor components were there, and I like the frozen sorbet texture, but the taste didn’t wow me and I actually could’ve used a little less of this since it’s very intense-tasting and left a distinct tomato and vegetal aftertaste that I had to drink plenty of water to get rid of before my next course of . . .
Bluefin Toro
Bluefin toro with 63 celsius quail egg, caramelized watermelon, rice puffs and wasabi. Oddly enough, the fatty tuna belly had more of a salmon sashimi look and taste. The egg, whose yolk is still molten, had a nice richness that binded the flavors of the fish and the watermelon, and I liked the little poppity-crunch from the puffs. But again, another good-but-not-great dish – though I was still wondering about the salmon-y tuna for quite a while afterwards.
Following the toro was the Norwegian lobster with a thin slice of toasted baguette atop a seaweed salad, with a espresso cup of lobster broth. We were instructed to eat the lobster and baguette, have a sip of the broth, then eat the seaweed salad – which worked pretty well, the lobster meat was sweet and succulent, and the broth further brings out the savory flavor, and the seaweeds serve as an efficient palate cleanser, so that I can experience it fresh all over again. Definitely an impressive dish since I’m usually not that fond of lobsters.
Finishing off our seafood experience, smoked sous-vide salmon with a tzatziki sphere, chickpea pancake, dill, pressed cucumber, green chickpeas and olive oil. Rich yet refreshing and reminiscent of Mediterranean cuisine, this course was very delightful, distinctive yet familiar, basically a haute-refined salmon-dill-cucumber-yogurt dip. Definitely spoiled me for any creamy smoked salmon-dill spreads that I’ll encounter in the future!
Mostly-Eaten Caprese
Next is a partially destroyed “Not Your Everyday Caprese” salad because we forgot to take a photo before chomping down. It basically consisted of a liquefied mozzarella sphere with “sexy” tomatoes, airbread pieces, housemade pesto and dots of balsamic. Like the gazpacho, all the flavor expectations of caprese are here, but I don’t necessarily feel it’s an improvement over a traditional caprese and actually prefer a more solid mozzarella.
Wagyu Beef w Mushrooms and Foie Gras
Rounding off the main courses is the Tournedos Rossini 2009, an homage to the famous composer and gourmand, consisting of a A5 Wagyu beef in a black-truffle gel, topped with foie gras shavings, king oyster mushroom and black trumpet mushrooms (mistakenly called “black trumpet truffles” by our server); between the truffle gel, the shrooms, foie gras and marbled beef, it was an attack of richness all vying for attention from my tastebuds. As such, this dish actually tasted better when I ate one or two components with the jus rather than a combined bite, when everything is just overwhelming one another in an orgy of fatty foods and it wounds up being an unappealing glob of heavy oiliness in my mouth. But it was divine when eaten separately, when the individual ingredients really shone in their unique flavors.
Dragon Breath
Transitioning our way into desserts, we got the signature and popular dragon’s breath (actually even too popular, such that the Bazaar won’t serve it unless Jose is in the kitchen). A fun, tasty bite of caramel popcorn, especially when the nitrogen vapors go up the nasal cavity and out the nostrils to produce that infamous effect.
Chocolate Coulant w Cardamom Foam
Our first dessert is the chocolate biscuit coulant Michel Bras, essentially a molten chocolate-souffle inspired by the notable French chef, topped with gold flakes and served atop cardamom foam. Even if the chocolate-cardamom combo isn’t particularly edgy for me, this was a perfectly delicious sweet and I practically spooned every last bit into my mouth.
Coconut on Half-Shell
Second sweet was coconut-in-a-half-shell with an edible white chocolate-coconut shell, coconut sorbet, caramelized banana, passion fruit sauce with seeds and vanilla. Looks very pretty, and like the chocolate, tasted fine but also felt a bit ordinary on the creative scale.
Wrapping everything up, their petit fours of chocolate lolly with candied orange, saffron gumdrop and earl grey chocolate bonbon. All three were good but the gumdrop (with edible candy wrapper) was the most memorable because of its distinctive flavor and texture.

And for better or for worse, stomach-space-wise I left the meal feeling satisfied and not stuffed, though I will disclaim that my appetite leans on the lighter side. As for the overall experience of the meal? While it definitely is a mark up from the erratic menu landmine at the Bazaar, my Saam dinner felt less memorable than my previous years’ splurge meals at Providence and Spago, which were almost consistently good throughout the meal whereas with Saam I had greater variances, with some dishes being really good (Santa Barbara shrimp, Tournedos Rossini when eaten apart) and some that just tasted OK (gazpacho, caprese, boneless wing). But it was at least a nice visual treat watching many of these dishes being served (or served tableside!)

For the sakes of opening day, I’d rather not rate them since there’s bound to be a few significant changes over the next few weeks (for one, they’re trying to give Saam its own menu rather than borrowing a few dishes from the Rojo y Blanca one.) But if there’s one thing I’d recommend, it’s definitely to have a sommelier on-site to make appropriate pairings for the dishes. At $120 for the dinner and $40-$55 for the wines, that’s something I’d rather leave to the pros rather than blindly DIYing my way through.

A few more photos from me and my friend's flickr.

Saam at The Bazaar at SLS
465 S. La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles

The Bazaar on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Quickies #54: Reading List

Learning about wine and cheese at the 2008 LA Winefest

These past few days had been fantastic for food and drink articles, so keeping my Friday Quickie short and sweet with a nice reading list from the week that was:

- Slate's noteworthy column on how Yellow Tail single-handedly ruin Australia's wine industry

- 25 common cooking mistakes (and lessons learned) from Chow - I certainly am guilty of a few of these

- Categories of cheap, tasty wines (under $15 a bottle) to keep an eye out for, from L.A. times

- The tables a-turning as workers dish out extraordinarily rude customer behavior on the SF Chronicle

- Chow's interesting "Take Your Lunch to Work" series where one theme ingredient (so far they have roasted chicken, white beans and tofu) is used to make five different lunch meals for the work week. Nice for those looking to eat healthier and/or more economically, it's a good read for the recipes or to inspire your own five-day lunches

- LA Times' Jitlada review, I may not agree with the two stars - but it's vibrantly-written. For another take, check out Mattatouille's post (whom I dined with almost two weeks ago)

- and last but not least, the long-awaited debut of the LA Weekly foodblog, Squid Ink, with posts from Ritz Bites and of course, Jonathan Gold

Happy weekend reading, quiz on Monday! Oh yea, happy Easter too -- don't let the egghunt drag on too long!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Mini Foodventure #115: Brunching at Auntie Em's (Eagle Rock)

Despite having gone to Auntie Em's for two special occasion farmer's market dinners, it wasn't until this past weekend that I finally stopped by for their well-known brunch. I know, a little late to the party, but from the looks of the crowd and the food, it's still going strong - and for good reason!

(Sorry for lack of gastroerotica this time, came here on a spur of spontaneity w/o my camera)

I got their special of the week potato-broccoli-cheddar-gruyere "pie" that was all sorts of sinful deliciousness. Tender broccoli florets, hearty skin-on potato slices were binded together in a moist, eggy souffle with generous amounts of gooey cheeses. Thankfully, it came with a large bowl of seasonal fruits (berries, apples and oranges -- really nice from the usual melons & pineapples mix most other places offer) to offset some of that guilt.

My dining companion got their honey-orange French toast, one of the more memorable ones I've had recently. Airy-light slices of sourdough were dipped in just enough batter to give it substance without sogging up the bread or making it too heavy, and the tartness of the orange and the bread were a wonderful counterpoint to the maple syrup. And like my eggy "pie", this was served with oodles of ripe berries.

With such a nice first impression, an ever-changing brunch menu to reflect seasonal ingredients and $1 all-you-care-to-drink self-serve Intelligentsia house blend coffee, this is definitely going to be one of my regular brunch spots to hit up on the weekends!

Auntie Em's Kitchen
4616 Eagle Rock Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA

Auntie Em's Kitchen on Urbanspoon
A year ago, I reflected upon lessons learned from my Lenten vegetarianism

Two years ago, I lost my XXX-berry froyo virginity

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Foodventure #114: Inaka Seafood Gourmet (Arcadia)

Inaka Gourmet's Chef Nikki and I go a ways back, early 2005, back when she was co-owner/chef at Azami Sushi Cafe at the Melrose/La Brea area, one of my fave spots for cheap-yet-delicious omakase ($35 up), but her co-chef/biz partner/cousin has since moved back to Japan. Nikki held up Azami with other chefs for awhile but ultimately decided to close shop. Sadness indeed.

But then, I found out that she re-established herself at Inaka Gourmet in Arcadia (way closer to where I live) doing reservations-only Chef's Table (maximum 10 peeps per night). The price has been bumped up a bit, a flat $80/person, but it's still cheaper than many of the omakase games in town (particularly the $350-400 wallet-draining behemoth known as Urasawa.) But mostly, I return with friends just to re-experience the simply delicious food prepared by Nikki. And because there's no corkage, I got some sakes - a sparkly Hou Hou Shu junmai and a Tozai "Voices in the Mist" nigori - to go with our meal. (Turns out I could've have brought another bottle of wine for the occasion, the four of us finished those up mid-way through the meal!)
Inaka, which by day is a homestyle Japanese restaurant serving bentos, roll-style sushi and bowl dishes, is easy to miss if you're not looking for it, being a small restaurant that seats about 20 people max. The interior is minimally-decorated, with warm-neutral tones and easy listening music piped out of a docked iPod.

Our server, who also came from Azami, was a delight. He quickly took away my sake bottle to chill and was pretty good with the pacing throughout the meal, which consisted of (in order):
Lobster in Salmon
smoked salmon-wrapped lobster with creme fraiche, chives, fried potato strands and dashi reduction -- great layering of flavors between the rich, velvety salmon, the firm, sweet lobster and crunchy taters, the chives and creme fraiche played nicely against the salmon's smokiness too.
trio of kumamoto oysters accented with, from left to right, orange caviar, yuzu-lemon and ponzu sauces -- I love the variations in taste, but they all seem to play up the creamy, slightly-briny flavor of the oysters (and the combination between the oyster liqueur and three accompaniments was slurppably good, we had no shame raising the shell to our lips and sucking every last drop.)
a seafood quartet from left to right: tai (red snapper) sashimi in ponzu topped with black truffle, hamachi (yellowtail) and mirugai (geoduck clam) sashimi and ankimo (monkfish liver) with ponzu gelee -- A great combination showcasing the spectrum of flavors and textures one can derive from raw seafood. While I honestly don't care for the crisp, chewy and relatively bland mirugai, I was pleasantly surprised by the ankimo, which was rich like a pate and nicely paired with the brightness of the gelee.
steamed sea bass with mountain potato in a dashi broth -- simple yet lovely, it has been a LONG time since I had bass cooked like this and I love how the delicate flavors come forth in this lighter and less-adulterated preparation. The broth-soaked potato had a nice woodsy, earthy flavor, almost like mushrooms.
scallop and shrimp ravioli with diver scallop, uni (sea urchin) butter and deep fried seaweed: the four of us all raved about this one, particularly the uni butter that was a nice, rich, slightly-briny foil against the creamy scallop and the mellow pasta. The potato-chip like fried seaweed adds a pleasant light crisp too.
Beef Chestnut
kobe beef on yukon gold potato and pan juices with young chestnut and young broccoli floret, divided by a smear of freshly-grated wasabi -- a decent preparation of kobe, which melts on your tongue like butter leaving a lingering taste of beefiness, and I love the potato on bottom which soaked all those wonderful juices up. The chestnut had that raw, crunchy texture that I am not too fond of, but I finished it nonetheless. Wish I saved some of the beef to try with the wasabi though, which is world aways from the green-colored horseradish.
a lineup of sushi, from left to right, toro (fatty tuna belly), hamachi belly, saba (mackerel), amaebi (sweet shrimp), shiro maguro (albacore) and uni -- practically every piece was wonderful, and it brought back such delightful memories of the Azami omakase (which was more sushi-centric). All of them were fresh and delicious in their own way, exuding the expected flavors from the fattiness of the toro and hamachi belly to the creamy and "sea-like" taste of the uni. And even though I'm not usually big on saba 'cause of its fishiness, I ate this one up no problemo. And of course, the honeyed ginger is the perfect palate cleanser between the pieces.
finally (almost sadly) desserts of green tea creme brulee, freshly baked mochi with azuki beans and fruit -- simple, subtle and sublime. Both desserts were only mildly sweet, and I love the crusty-chewy texture of the baked mochi. The creme brulee is lighter than most, and I love the wisp of the grassy, nutty green tea flavor, just enough to assert its presence without dominating the entire dish with bitterness.
Chef Niki and My Friends
after we finished our sweets, Chef Nikki came out and greeted us all -- exclaiming how I haven't looked different after all these years. We talked a bit about her business and her current plans, all the while thanking her for slaving away in the kitchen for three hours over our meals. It's considerably different from the Azami omakase, but I liked the greater variety of dishes we've tried, and Nikki enjoyed the extra freedom in creativity she can employ.

And of course, it's something I definitely look forward to checking out again.

Ambience (4/5) - enjoyed the homely feel of the small restaurant: like a converted living room to accommodate extra guests
Value (4.5/5) - the food felt very worth the amount paid; did I mention no corkage too
Service (8.5/10) - overall very friendly and nicely-paced but could be a bit more polished (server mis-identified a few dishes)
Food (18.5/20) - the meal was heavenly; the dishes each have their own signature but harmonized very well with one another
Bonus/Demerit - N/A
Overall (35.5/40)

Other Notes:
- please contact 7-14 days in advance if you plan on Chef's Tabling here
- during days, they also serve modern-homestyle Japanese fare (salads, noodle bowls, etc.)
- street parking readily available

What Do Others Say?
- 4 stars from the Yelperocracy
- a positive 90s score from FoodDigger
- and even more nice words from the Chowhounds

Inaka Seafood Gourmet
838 S. Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 254-9926

Inaka Seafood Gourmet on Urbanspoon


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