Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Getting the Party Started . . .

Throughout last year, one of my unspoken resolutions is to entertain more, which is quite a feat if you've ever been in my living room. Nonetheless, it was a resolution that I've more than fulfilled, with me hosting a "just because" dinner or brunch every one or two months. And it was pretty fun organizing these parties, sometimes with a culinary theme (once I made a beery dinner with New Belgium beers featured in every dish... my fave was a Thai green curry & witbier risotto), sometimes with a DIY element (a wonton-making Superbowl party), and sometimes just a easy, lazy affairs where guests can just pick, nibble & sip away at their leisure.

Tapena Wines
As such, it was pretty thrilling that my last party of '11 was partly hosted by Tapena, which provided wines, a cookbook and a few other nifty trinkets for the occasion. So what better time to share my lessons of throwing a good gathering. Who knows, maybe someone crossing by this blog has a 2012 resolution of entertaining more too...

1) Keep It Simple, Seriously (and yes, there are more crude ways of using that 2nd 'S') -- I know, the 'KISS' rule is a bit clichéd but it definitely holds true for hosting a party. More ingredients & more complicated steps also means more potential for missteps, mishaps and mistakes, resulting in dishes gone awry or long lag times between courses. But most importantly, it'll stress out the host, which definitely makes it awkward for the guests...to say the least.
Kimchi Fried Rice
For this particular party, I try to keep my preparation & cooking efforts minimal -- like this Kimchi Bokkeumbap Bake. I made the kimchi fried rice an hour before party, and when my friends arrive it was simply a matter of sprinkling the shredded Asiago on top and popping it in the oven to melt the cheese and warm the dish. And this spicy, gooey main went great with the Tempranillo.
Cheese Plate
2) Premade / Store-Bought Is OK -- A corollary to Rule #1, I think it's fine to utilize some ready-to-serve edibles when entertaining. That's why wine & cheese parties are so popular, all the host really do is unwrap and uncork and "BOOM!" . . . ready to mingle with the guests while everyone slices in. So, to go with the robust, garnet-hued Garnacha, I picked a variety of cheeses from nearby Cheese Store of Pasadena and served it up with a little habanero pepper jelly, membrillo and baguette slices.
3) Snackages! -- A little finger-friendly bites goes a long way with parties; it's a great way to take care of the lag time (whether from waiting for all the guests to arrive, or the lull between courses.) And the snacks themselves don't have to be particularly fancy . . . if I had more time & energy I might have invested in making my Christmas Coffee Nuts, but this time I went uber lazy casual and stuck with a simple bowl of ripe, sweet cherries (plus a separate dish for the stems and pits) and an open, chilled bottle of the Rosé to keep mouthes happy throughout the occasion.
Spinach Salad
4) Be A Little Creative -- I personally think it's the little signature touches that make the food, and the party, memorable . . . and as such I try to do a little something eclectic with almost everything I serve. It can be turning the fried rice into a crispy and flavorful cheesy bake, or pairing cheeses with a muy caliente jelly, or even serving an otherwise ordinary salad with interesting toppings & dressing (in this case, a bed of baby spinach is adorned with goat's milk feta, mushrooms sautéed with garlic and mirin, toasted slivered almonds and a vinaigrette made with a tres chic Noble Tonic No. 3.) Of course, doesn't hurt to pair a crisp, snappy Verdejo with the salad either.

5) Finally, Be Generous -- Like KISS, this sounds obvious but I've still attended a good number of gatherings where there was barely a bite to eat; it's definitely no bueno in my book to have guests take off and scrounge for grub afterwards. As such, I tend to follow Nigella Lawson's rule in portioning for parties--namely, anticipate half your guests will go for seconds. So for this affair of 8 folks, I made enough to feed 12. This is also handy for any unexpected +1s or "I forgot to RSVP" guests that drop in too. And hey, if there are still leftovers afterwards, think of it as an easy-to-fix meal to make up for all your hard hosting efforts.

Of course, the same rule goes for the drinks, and I always keep an extra bottle out so nobody feels bad about pouring the last glass.

And the remaining Tapena wines did definitely make my dishwashing & cleaning up a lot easier. (wonder if I can patent my SR2 technique: "scrub, rinse, sip, repeat"?)
Garnacha w Cheese Plate
And so, there are some of my tricks to throw a soiree that's full of flavor and free of stress. Here's to a 2012 with more delightful & delicious gatherings.

Do you have any favorite party advice or recipes to share? Would love to hear about it in the comments!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

No. 212: A few favorite winter cocktails around town

Now that the cold weather is really upon us (OK, comparatively speaking), what better occasion to warm yourself up with a wintery cocktail? Rather in the form of actually high temperature toddies or teas, or just warming from the spices and aromas, here are a few of my faves from the recent weeks:
Holiday Champagne Cocktail @ Cole's

Holiday Champagne Cocktail @ Cole's - this aromatic sparkler, which to me is the lovechild of a standard Champagne cocktail and a French 75, combined Mumm's Brut with Hendrick's gin, mulled spices syrup, Angostura and a pinch of ground cinnamon. I love how the warm, sweet spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are amplified by the fizzy bubbles and that the gin gave it an extra oompf (that we ALL need in Winter) plus a floral bouquet subtly reminding me that Spring's not that far away.
Western all'Italiana @ Drago Centro
Western all'Italiana @ Drago Centro - more than just a fun wordplay on Spaghetti Westerns, this cocktail contains both American and Italian flavors--a spicy High West Double Rye is mixed with Cointreau, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, cranberry+oregano infused molasses & finished with Honeycrisp apples, resulting in a well-rounded cocktail that's edgy with familiar flavors, fruity without being too sweet and deceptively potent. Just ask Connie, Jenny or Andy!
7th St Toddy @ Seven Grand
7th Street Toddy @ Seven Grand - A fun South-of-the-border spin off the traditional Hot Toddy blending Glenfiddich 12 year with Mexican chocolate, Agave nectar and plenty of mint leaves -- all three of which added a delightful vibrancy to the cocktail, like a warmed-up Mint Julep kissed by your Abuelita. And still just as soothing for the throat...
Earl the Pearl @ The Roof on Wilshire
Earl the Pearl @ The Roof on Wilshire* - So simple yet so fun, this DIY drink features a shot of dark rum, a stick of cinnamon, a jar of honey and a pot of Earl Grey de la Creme tea -- all ready for your to mix to your liking. And it's a lovely, well-balanced combination -- the spicy rum is nicely tempered by the sweet, rich honey and both are rounded out by the tea (which complements the rum & honey just enough - the vanilla - without being too matchy-matchy - the bergamot.) As an added bonus, the pot contains more than enough tea for you to have a second cup on its own. And, as my drinking & dining companion Caroline on Crack can attest, this place's got an amazing space & some worthy noshes too!
Cranhattan @ Border Grill DTLA
Cranhattan @ Border Grill Downtown* - Definitely one to file under "don't judge a book by its cover;" despite its Cosmopolitan-esque apperance, it is considerably more mature and regal with a flavor profile that's surprisingly close to a real Manhattan, thanks to the Herradura Añejo that's oaked over two years, a cranberry & orange pureé utilizing the fruits' skins and zest to add a balancing bitterness, a cranberry-brandy liqueur for depth & richness and of course, a skewer of brandied cranberries that's infinitely better than the neon red stuff. Alas, this drink recently rotated out of their menu, but here's the recipe for you to recreate at home--it's worth the effort especially for a gathering! Update: Just heard from Border Grill that they can still make this for a few more weeks - yippee! So get it while it's still around.

*Disclaimer: I sampled the Cranhattan at a hosted tasting, and the Earl the Pearl wound up being comp'd due to a mishap; the others, however, I've tried on my own dime.

118 East 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA

525 S Flower St #120
Los Angeles, CA

515 W 7th Street, 2nd Floor
Los Angeles, CA

6317 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA

445 South Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dr Chocolate Appointments w Trader Joe's, Chocolove & Vosges

Everyone may be making New Year's Resolutions, but I'm certainly not giving up on my Dr. Chocolate sessions; here's a recent few that I partook in:

Trader Joe's Caramel & Black Hawaiian Sea Salt bar

Photo courtesy of The Daily Morsel
Cost of Session: $1.99 for 3 oz. bar

Physician Marketing: "...filled with a buttery, burnt sugar caramel & Hiwa Kai, a blend of sea salt and volcanic charcoal harvested from pristine Hawaiian tide pools. The exterior of the bar is garnished with Maldon sea salt harvested from estuaries in Great Britain. The combination of luscious dark chocolate, rich caramel and crunchy salt crystals is simply sublime."

Patient's Notes: Just like their walnut-pecan toffee bar I highlighted in a previous Dr. Chocolate post, this is thinly-veiled copycat version of Vosges' Black Salt Caramel Bar

And the flavor combination is simply amazing! The bold dark chocolate is nice foil for the buttery-rich caramel, and it's elegant accentuated by that perfect sprinkle of salt.

The only demerit is that this bar is rather messy to eat, the caramel is runny & liquidy and the bar rarely snaps at the demarcated boundaries. Of course, this makes portion control hard since you'll be tempted to just eat the whole bar rather than deal with a sticky mess for the next sitting.

Likelihood of Rebooking an Appointment: 7/10, would be a 9 or 10 if not so gosh darn messy to eat.

Chocolove's Ginger Crystallized in Dark Chocolate

Cost of Session: $2.50 for 3.2 oz. bar

Physician Marketing: "Australian crystallized ginger in smooth Belgian 65% cocoa content dark chocolate. Upon eating, the chocolate gives way to soft sugar-coated moist chunks of ginger. The transition from chocolate to ginger on the finish leaves you feeling surprisingly stimulated and wanting more."

Patient's Notes: Anyone who's gone eating or drinking with me knows I'm a sucker for ginger, and this certainly delivers on that front -- there are plenty of this palate-pleaser throughout the whole bar. A little spicy, a little chewy and a little crunchy (from the sugar coating,) it's a delightful palate-tingler.

As for the chocolate itself, it's decent if a bit a generic -- dark enough that you taste the cacao, but not much else. It's also ever-so-slightly waxy, making it more of a chewing chocolate rather than one you simply allow to melt on your tongue. Not necessarily a bad thing, given the chewy of nature of the encapsulated ginger anyways.

Likelihood of Rebooking an Appointment: 8/10, affordable and tasty overall - only wished the chocolate was more of a "meltable on tongue" kind.

Vosges' Smoke & Stout Caramel Bar
Cost of Session: $7.50 for a 3 oz. bar

Physician Marketing: "Rogue's Chocolate Stout + Alderwood smoked salt + burnt sugar caramel + 70% dark chocolate . . . Your senses of sight, smell, and taste will collectively surrender to the inebriating potion that spills out of this chocolate bar. Rich, dark chocolate stout and Alder wood smoked salt are combined with soft, oozing caramel and encased in deep, dark chocolate."

Patient's Notes: Reading the description, I can see so many ways this bar can go wrong (is it going to wreak of stale beer or overpowered with smoke like a BBQ gone awry?) but being a longtime Vosges addict fan, I trust them to know what they're doing. And indeed, this bar is a wonderful balance of flavors, the stout & smoke notes come in kisses & whispers, making this bar a curiously addictive one.

And while the flavor profile is overall better than the TJ caramel bar, it too suffers the problem of too-runny caramel and unreliable bar breakage. And oh yeah, it's also over three times as pricey.

Likelihood of Rebooking an Appointment: 7/10, also marked down for caramel runniness -- tempted to also demerit for pricetag, but the eccentric ingredients & combo of flavor (how often are you going to find a beery chocolate?) makes a worthwhile... if occasional... treat.

Monday, January 09, 2012

No. 211: Off-the-Strip in Vegas - Alizé

Having been to Vegas so many times in my past (it's practically an annual tradition for me & my friends from high school,) I am no stranger to all the places to eat & drink on the Strip. The buffets! The happy hours! The late-night joints for post-clubbing nosh! All of which are kinda yawn for me by now (especially given their recent proliferation of ripoffs from LA, SF, DC & NY restaurants.) So on my excursion last month, I made more of an attempt to wander off Las Vegas Blvd. for some truly distinctive bites & sips.

Palms Exterior
Which brings me to Alizé at the Top of the Palms.
Lower Lobby
Even though the meal is partially-hosted, my attempt to give it a preliminary incognito checkout @ the bar was foiled, as there was a receptionist checking me in @ the ground level elevator.
And... they certainly weren't kidding about the amazing view from the 56th floor. This photo doesn't do justice to the gorgeous panorama of scintillating lights and sparkles of the Strip & the city itself.
Wild Turkey Manhattan
While deliberating on what to order, I got a Wild Turkey Manhattan. Purists might scoffed that it was not stirred, but it was not quite shaken either -- rather, it was more of a gentle rolling slosh in the shaker, and the resulting drink was still rather smooth and velvety with a nice balance of the vermouth & bitter aromas with the snappy, spicy bite of the rye.

Alas, despite promises of foie gras, duck breast & rib eye on their Chef's Tasting Menu -- I opted for the Vegetarian Tasting Menu instead, partly to take the road less traveled, partly because I've already eaten too much meat & seafood thus far in my Vegas weekender, but mostly because I'm impressed with the variety of items & preparations offered on that menu, instead of looking like a bunch of side dishes cobbled together.
Wine List
Equally impressive was their tablet-based SmartCellar, which made for easy browsing and choosing of their 7,500+ wines--particularly with sorting by price range, regions, varietals, etc. Some of the details do lean on the generic side, but I have no doubt that a knowledgeable sommelier would be on-hand to give personal attention & TLC should the need arise . . .
Butter Lettuce & Beet Salad
Starting off the seven-course tasting was the butter lettuce & beet salad w candied walnuts. Lovely color and I loved the square-cut slices of the beets, and overall the salad tasted as colorful as it looked, with the tender and crisp leaves anchoring the flavors of the sweet and crunchy walnuts and the tender, earthy beets. And the dressing--a citrus-creme fraiche-shallot vinaigrette--was a wonderful combination of contradictions, rich & decadent but also delicate & bright at the same time, with the creamy texture nicely melding with its tangy savoriness.
Piquillo Pepper w Provencal Vegetables
Next up was a piquillo pepper stuffed with Provencal vegetables and herbed cream cheese. It was a festive melange of zesty & bold flavors, reminiscent of a ratatouille given a little more substance & oompf with the cheese. And the colorful streaks of red pepper puree & basil-infused olive oils added even more zippiness to the equation!
Asparagus Risotto
Following that was an asparagus risotto with truffle beurre monte & gruyere cheese. Subtle yet sublime with perfectly cooked rice (tender but with a toothy texture), a sauce that's thoroughly but delicately infused with truffles, and asparagus that retained its snappy-firm texture and bright, sweet-grassy flavor. What I love best is that this, like the salad dressing, felt like an indulgence without being over-the-top, guilt-inducing rich. Definitely gives me something to aspire to in my own risotto-cooking at home, which does lean a little heavier & a little cheesier.
Before moving onto the heartier savories, I was presented with a palate-cleansing intermezzo of tropical fruit sorbet with pomegranate arils. It was indeed refreshing & tangy but may have been frozen a tad too long, it did take a pretty decent hammering with my spoon before the shot-sized scoop broke apart.
Pascual Toso '09 Malbec
To go the more entreé-ish dishes, I ordered a glass of the 2009 Pascual Toso Malbec, which was silky-smooth with soft tannins, a minor kick of peppery bite and pleasant notes of plum, strawberry and cocoa (though not so much that it smells & tastes like a chocolate-covered starburst.) But do note that by-the-glass markup here is on the high side -- this particular Malbec being $16 for a bottle that costs around $9-10 (the general rule of thumb being a restaurant's by-the-glass pour should be around the bottle's retail price.)
Royal Trumpet Mushroom
The first of the mains was a Royal Trumpet Mushroom atop a roasted potato galette in a pool of huckleberry-green peppercorn sauce with microgreens and a caramelized clementine crisp. With the mushroom being braised or poached, I wasn't sure it would hold up to the other more assertive flavors, but it worked surprisingly well -- lending a meaty texture and slight woodsy taste that complemented the latke-ish galette, celeryish greens, and the vibrant citrus & sauce that's fruity without being cloyingly sweet--the last of which I may have impolitely used bread to lap up long after everything else is gone.
Black Pepper-Crusted Tofu
The other entree in the tasting that was a black-pepper crusted tofu spaced with sweet potatoes, topped with toasted marcona almonds and an apricot glaze. Like the mushroom dish, it was a nice contrast of sweet, spicy and savory. I particularly love the combo of the intensely-fruity glaze against the piquant punch of the cracked peppercorns coating the tofu, which has a delightful crispy shell that quickly gives way to a luxuriously creamy interior. Last but not least, kudos to the accompanying vegetables, which still retained their integrity in flavor and texture (unlike many places that oversteam them to a soft & mushy, generic- & greyish- tasting goop.)
Cheese & Apples
Following up was the cheese course featuring rectangular slices of Stilton with Port-poached figs a chocolate covered square of apple. In short, lots of intense flavors on one plate--from the funk of the bleu to the concentrated tangy-sweetness of the figs and the bittersweet dark chocolate--that I loved mixing and matching with. And to no surprise, the apple itself kind of got lost in the whirlwind of sharp tastes, but it did lend a pleasant crunch to the whole affair.
Poached Pear Brunoise
Desserts started with a poached pear brunoise in vanilla broth, topped with Belle de Brillet ice cream. Despite the plain color palette, this tasted heavenly - with an exquisite explosion of ripe, juicy pear aromas and flavors delightfully rounded out by the rich & comforting vanilla.
Raspberry-Filled Cheesecake
Afterwards was a deconstructed raspberry cheesecake of sorts, with a raspberry filled block of cheesecake coated in graham cracker crumbs accompanied by a graham cracker crisp and curls of dark chocolate. The cheesecake was solid (creamy, not-too-sweet, delicate tang with a punch of fruitiness) but felt a bit too cautious compared to the pear & vanilla. I almost want to invert the sweets order, favoring familiar to playful over light to heavy, so the final impression would be more of a bang.

But overall, Alizé certainly delivered on its promises, the ambience and views are amazing, the service polished and professional without being overbearingly fussy and a tasting menu that delightfully dances back and forth between comforting & curiosity-inducing dishes. And a definite top of my list as a recommendation for a "dinner to impress" in Las Vegas, and especially so for vegetarians & or even just veg-lovers... there aren't too many places where you'll find a tasting menu as dynamic and elegant as this one in the land of prime ribs, lobster tails and foie gras.

4321 W Flamingo Road
Las Vegas 89103
(702) 951-7000


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