Thursday, July 31, 2008

Search for Sweetbreads

Restaurant 2117
(310) 477-1617
2117 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, 90025
$30 for three small plates

I had checked the menu before arriving and I promised myself that no matter what I decided to order, the sauteed sweetbreads would be my appetizer. My determination came from the fact that I've just never had sweetbreads before. Don't let the name fool you, as any foodie worth his salt knows, the sweetbreads are the thymus glands generally of beef. Now whereas that should be common knowledge, who knows what thymus gland actually does? According to Wikipedia, in humans it is located in the chest cavity behind the sternum and is instrumental in the formation of infection fighting T-cells. Sweetbreads, like giblets and kidneys are considered offal, organ meats that are not skeletal muscle. Apparently liver is an exception though. Now I've never liked liver as a kid, and my one experience with foie gras wasn't that gratifying; but sweetbreads were my new quest dish, something I just had to try.

Besides having the most difficult name to remember, this restaurant looks very non-discreet. I actually forgot to take a picture of the exterior because it was so plain. The restaurant is named simply after its address. Chef Hideyo Mitsuno makes predominately French dishes with Italian pastas, both accented with Japanese ingredients and flavors. Actually, the menu is very similar to Sawtelle Kitchen, although I'd argue that Sawtelle Kitchen leans more towards Italy while Restaurant 2117 has a Gallic slant.

Since I had just gone to Josie the night before and planned to go to a buffet the next night, I opted for three small plates to get a good sampling of the food. Come to think of it, I probably should've tried the pasta too, but the appetizer menu was too tempting.

Half duck leg confit, ravigote sauce

Following my somewhat disappointing duck confit at Comme Ca, I hoped to redeem my opinion of duck confit. Traditionally, a duck or goose leg is salted and herbed, then submerged in its own rendered fat for preservation. What part of that sentence doesn't sound finger-licking good? This duck confit pictured above had a much richer flavor than the one I've had before. The duck flavor was prominent, as it should be since it is such a delicious poultry. Underneath the meat was something like a relish which contrasted nicely with the salty leg meat.

Kobe beef short ribs, Thai style, spicy lemon fish sauce

What I liked about this dish was its startling simplicity. It really showcased the quality meat, and the sauce didn't distract too much from that. This dish was loaded with umami, and I had that satisfying lip-smacking feeling for an hour or two after the meal. I think if the fish sauce was lime accented instead of lemon, it might have benefited the beef more. At least it would've offered something sweeter to cut through the fat.

Sauteed sweetbread, port wine sauce

Here was the reason I came, those two cripy nuggets on a lake of port reduction. When I say nuggets, I mean McDonald's chicken McNuggets. These resembled them in form; I was actually quite surprised. I've seen raw sweetbreads, but never breaded and fried as they are commonly prepared. Taking a bite, I couldn't keep that thought of chicken nuggets out of my head, and rightly so. These flavors were the same ones I encountered in my Happy Meals as a kid, except much more intense. They were incredibly juicy and the texture was much creamier than that of the mechanically processed chicken. I would best decribe these sweetbreads as super nuggets, or what nuggets would taste like if you paid $10 a plate. I was not exactly disappointed, but I felt like there are many more things you can do sweetbreads.

Overall, Restaurant 2117 is actually a great place to go for some simple French food at an affordable price. The Kobe style meatloaf was delicious, although I still believe that's a waste of good beef. And if it was waste meat anyway, as common in ground beef, would you want to eat a loaf of it? Next time I come, I will try the pastas.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Josie and the FD Cats

Josie Restaurant
(310) 581-9888
2424 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
$80 for my appetizer, entree and dessert

When writing reviews for restaurants, I always run into the question of objectivity. Not in the sense that I might be receiving gifts or special service because I am reporting on these restaurants, but in the sense that I always try to judge a place regardless of my present company. It is much too easy to dismiss a great restaurant when my companions are less than cordial or to trumpet a mediocre restaurant because of the good company. Luckily, in the case of Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica, I'm happy to report both the company and the food made the night.

We booked Monday night because of their relaxed corkage policy. With a twelve person party, we'd be giving them plenty of business anyway. The exterior is unassuming, actually difficult to spot from the street. Even with the combined intellects of my friend and I, plus our arsenal of iPhone, GPS and other smart devices, we still had to call to find the place. Inside, the lighting was low and the waiters genial, all the amenities you expect to find in fine dining establishments. We took full advantage of the Monday BYOB with a Bordeaux, California cabernet, white rioja, champagne and a rather alcoholic petite syrah. We would be making our own wine pairings. (For pairing suggestions, consult me for the FD Tip/Pairing chart)

Each of us received a slice of wild mushroom and gruyere quiche to start the night as an amuse bouche. This French term, translates into mouth amuser, is a a chef selected bonus. While the quiche may not be a true amuse bouche because it consisted of more than a few bites, it certainly amused my taste buds. The firm crust held in a rich mix of cream and cheese with the flavors of mushrooms peaking over the top. The little slice I had was the perfect amount, but it may have been too rich to start the meal. I was amused, but it could've been more playful.

My end of the table split four appetizers and two entrees, so I got a wide variety of tastes. We were all slightly disappointed that they didn't have the advertised Elk steak special that night, but that didn't deter us from getting a solid selection of dishes. I tried out my new iPhone camera, which could not get very good pictures in the low light. To compensate, I will of course describe to the best of my ability the layers of flavors I experienced. The white sea bass salad was an unlisted special for the night. I've always considered sea bass one of my favorite fish, and this simple salad highlighted its flavors. The tender white flesh of the fish was smoked to give it much more complexity and balance. Also, the fish matched well with the bitterness of the arugula salad. My crispy Berkshire pork belly with accompanying watermelon, cilantro and red onion salad was decadent. I've heard that pork belly is the new "it" dish and I'm not surprised. Good pork is so flavorful that it really puts American commercial hogs to shame. By itself, it was a little salty, but paired with the watermelon, the sweetness cuts right through the meat. I used to be skeptical about sweet and savory pairings, but not anymore.

California white sea bass salad

Berkshire pork belly with watermelon salad

The other two appetizers I tried were the sauteed frog legs with over a celery root puree and bacon-wrapped grilled quail. Now I've had frog before in Chinese cuisine, but never with a Gallic slant. They failed to impress me. The flavor of frog always seems to be the same, that bland protein flavor of white meat chicken. However, what the frog legs failed to be, the quail stepped up. Though the meat may be scarce on that little bird, what was present was rich and satisfying. Barding, the process of bacon-wrapping, makes a huge difference in delicate meat that tends to dry out.

Halfway into our dinner, Jono figured out a better way to take pictures. We combined the flash from his camera phone with my iPhone camera to get some much nicer photos of our entrees and desserts. Him and I shared the dry-aged farmed venison chop and the special cap steak. Now although we came hoping for the elk, which I've heard is the best kind of deer meat, I was not disappointed by the venison. The meat had the qualities of a good steak, rare and tender on the inside and seared on the outside. A poached pear paired with the chop to cut through the gaminess. Now when I heard Josie served wild game, I was expecting wild game. This venison was unfortunately farm-raised, thereby lacking much of the leaner flavor I expected from a truly wild animal. It definitely had a more complex flavor than beef, but it was not as unique as I had hoped. The cap steak on the other hand, elevated beef to another level. Granted, Josie is not a steakhouse, but I'd put money on that steak against some of the other chain steak places. Cap steak is taken from the same area as the rib-eye, which is my favorite cut of beef. It surrounds the "eye" next to the fatty tissue. The crust conveyed so much flavor deep into the meat that I would've been perfectly happy to sit there all night chewing on it. Luckily for me, the meat was tender enough that hardly any chewing was necessarily, and unluckily, it was soon gone.

Venison chops with wild rice

Cap steak

Discovering our cool new trick to photo dining, we eagerly took pictures of three of the desserts that arrived. My flourless chocolate hazelnut cake with a cookie crust and chocolate ganache filling was so dense that I could stick a heavy fork in it. Makes me wonder if the missing flour would have made it any lighter. But I was soon dwelling on the sinfully delicious cake instead. The pots de creme brulee, a collection of chocolate, orange and espresso creme brulees was a cute idea and tastefully presented. I only tried the orange one, and it was indeed robustly flavored. Finally the lemon sabayon cake resembled more of a strawberry short cake than a light custard as the name implies. The summer berries were refreshing.

Chocolate hazelnut cake

Three flavor creme brulee

Lemon sabayon cake

As our three hour meal came to an end, our group had scared everyone else out of the restaurant. The food may have been the draw, but the company was the focus. We had all worked hard to get our site up and running, and how else can foodies celebrate but by indulging in some quality cuisine. On our site, you can rate restaurants based on "food, service and vibe," but those three small words come way too late; I know now that a true rating is about the experience and that will always trump those three apart.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Oh Yum, a Big Heaping Plate of Macrobiotics

Melrose Muffaletta with Scarlet Quinoa Salad

M Cafe de Chaya
(310) 838-4300
9343 Culver Blvd,
Culver City, CA 90232
$10 salads and sandwiches

Out of my element. That's the thought that came to mind when I stepped into M Cafe. The exterior seemed tame enough, patio seating and a chalk A-board displaying the daily specials. But once I saw the menu, I felt a little lost. Granted, I've been to Native Foods in Westwood and health food hasn't been completely left off my radar, but this was a far cry from my usual calorie and fat-laden meals. This was macrobiotic cuisine; it was supposed to be good for me and taste good too. For me that's almost always been a paradox. The truth is, fats and sugars carry flavor. That bold little triangle at the top of the old food pyramid was the source for all gastronomic indulgence. So admittedly, the seitan and whole grains were a little off-putting.

Macrobiotic, as sterile as it sounds, is described on the M Cafe website as
"stressing the importance of whole, natural foods eaten in season, and as minimally processed as possible." The basis is "a theoretical foundation rooted in traditional Oriental medicine" with attention on balance and purity. I can believe this, no one ever has anything bad to say about natural diets. I was more concerned about how they're going to make all those nice-sounding words taste delicious.

I chose the Melrose Muffaletta, recalling my muffaleta experiences in New Orleans. I've been to Central Grocery, which claims to be the origin of the Sicilian loaf with olive spread, salami and provolone. Curiously, I ordered the macrobiotic version to see how good their fake meat could be. In retrospect, I probably should have just ordered something that doesn't pretend to be anything else, enjoy it for what it is, but I've never had seitan before and it was something I was curious to try. Seitan (pronounced Satan, as humorously pointed out by Scott Gold in The Shameless Carnivore) is processed wheat gluten. Wait, processed wheat gluten? Doesn't sound that macrobiotic to me, at least according to M Cafe's definition. And in fact, the fake salami tasted bland and had an eerie texture to it. The miso-cured tofu cheese was also a turn off. Not only did it look like cottage cheese run-off, but it tasted more like tofu than cheese. That wouldn't be a bad thing, if it wasn't posing as cheese. The order came with a side of quinoa salad. It was cooked with beets and had a shocking deep red. It actually tasted pretty good, but I couldn't get over the unease of not knowing what it was at the time I had it. The texture was similar to cous cous.

I think I approached this macrobiotic thing from the wrong angle. I shouldn't have ordered a food posing as something else. Rather, I should've embraced it for what it was. I liked the quinoa salad because I wasn't eating it while thinking of something else like I did with the seitan salami or the tofu cheese. I might come back in the future for the organic fries which looked delicious, but I doubt I'll frequent places like this until I cannot sustain my current diet anymore. I'll save the health food for when I'm dead...or close to it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wakasan This Way

(310) 446-5241
1929 Westwood Blvd.,
West LA, 90025
Omakase only for $35 per person

I'm not entirely sure why the sign says Japanese charcoal cuisine. Out of the twelve courses, only one dish may have been grilled. Still, the podium outside announced that they only serve omakase prix-fixe style dinner with multiple izakaya dishes. The explosive popularity of izakayas may be following the small plates trend paved by Spanish tapas. I like to think that izakayas are no so popular simply because they serve good food in a manner conducive to shared company. Who doesn't like to have drinks with a good group of friends and share all types of delicious food?

As far as I know, izakayas are not generally served omakase. I think that having a set menu limits some of the fun of the izakaya experience. Choice and spontaneity make up a large part of the fun. It is nice though, to be served things I wouldn't usually order by myself. But given the choice, I wouldn't have ordered such an expensive meal either. Walking into Wakasan, I realized quickly that my friend Ed and I were the only non-Japanese patrons--usually a good sign. While I was pleasantly satisfied with the dishes I received, I was disappointed to see another table get an order of live shrimp that I never got. The waiter explained that it was an extra item that I'd have to pay more for, but I never saw any sort of menu to order from anyway. I wonder if not being Japanese had something to do with it. I've had omakase at sushi restaurants before and noticed that I receive better food when I'm with my Japanese girlfriend. While it makes sense that the chef will serve you based on your preferences, I don't like to be judged just because of race. I can eat with the best of them, but they may never give me a shot if I'm not Japanese. Perhaps next time in an omakase context, I will need to show them my familiarity with the cuisine and hope for the best.

Courses 1-3

These three dishes came out first. The bottom one on the right is some sort of seaweed salad which didn't appeal to me. It tastes bland and wet, not much more than that. I forgot what the center dish was, but the texture had a chewy consistency, probably some sort of pressed tofu product. The left bowl is pickled daikon and carrot and octopus salad. Vietnamese fans will probably recognize the pickles, an item I will explore in more detail in an upcoming blog entry. Of the three, I liked this one the most. The sweet and sour pickles paired well with the octopus. From my experience at Sasaya, I think that marinated octopus is truly delightful on top of a salad. Just a little rice vinegar, sugar and wasabi can go a long way.

Courses 4-5

The grilled salmon came with a wedge of lemon that I eagerly drizzled over the fish. Picking up a piece with my chopsticks, I expected an intense citrus flavor followed by the familiar taste of salmon, but instead the overwhelming flavor was sake. I'm not sure what they did with the fish, whether a marinade or a quick glaze, but it was delicious and different. The sashimi plate consisted of three small cuts of tuna, another white fish I couldn't identify, and squid wrapped in shiso. As taken from my Sawtelle Kitchen post, "Shiso is the herb perilla most commonly known by its Japanese name." The flavor is that of a less obtrusive mint. It actually paired nicely with the oil of the raw squid, and in these little pieces, the chewiness of the squid is not overwhelming.

Course 6

Ah the crab course. The delicately sweet meat of the snow crab is prepared simply as it should be. The flavor of the crab can speak for itself. While I definitely enjoyed this, the simplicity did not really impress me.

Course 7

The dumplings served in a light broth was my favorite item of the night. They come with two quail eggs which are always a joy to eat. Quail eggs have a much more elastic texture than chicken eggs and the flavors are more complex in my opinion, but it was the dumpling that captured my attention. Though they look like wet gyoza or Chinese dumplings, the dumpling skin was thin more like a wonton. The filling, presumably pork, was seasoned to perfection and generously filled the wrapper. The soup also was flavorful, but light.

Course 8

The chicken karaage, small pieces of deep fried dark meat, was also very well done. As a fan of fried chicken, I liked the juicy interior and the crisp exterior. Eaten with a dollop of what I assume is Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon, the chicken gave weight to an otherwise ethereal meal. Still, it was good to limit the chicken to three pieces. Any more, and it would have been too heavy.

Course 9

Although it looks like a richly opaque soup, this is actually an egg custard. The texture was that of silken tofu. While I didn't care much for the custard, when I reached the bottom, I found surprises of fish cake, shiitake mushrooms, ginko, shrimp and chicken. Those little prizes made me feel like a kid opening up a cereal box and finding the prize or an archaeologist finding little treasures.

Courses 10-11

The inari sushi came with a bowl of what I assume are shirataki noodles. The inari is a sweet tofu pouch of rice, my favorite as a kid. I still enjoy them as a snack. The noodles, from what I learned on Wikipedia are apparently very low in calories and carbohydrates. While I don't know anything about that, I know it was a light way to fill up the rest of the way. At this point, I was quite full, not so much because of the quantity of food, but because the spacing gave me time to feel it. Each dish came out probably between 5-10 minutes of each other.

Course 12

My last course of the night was a green ice cream that I didn't photograph because it didn't look especially different than all the other green tea ice creams I've come across before. However, after tasting it, I wish I had taken a photo. The flavor was more complex than green tea. There may have been a green tea base, but the flavor was fruitier than just tea.

After those twelve courses, I felt full and satisfied. I was glad for the diversity of dishes. There wasn't any dish I particularly hated, but I would feel sorry for the picky eater who can't enjoy the food here. When putting your trust in the chef, as omakase roughly means in Japanese, you have to be open to a wide variety. Knowing that I was getting an omakase meal, I knew it would be expensive; but now that I know Wakasan only serves omakase, I wouldn't be inclined to go back anytime soon. It is more of a special occasion restaurant.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Taco You Don't Need to Catch

El Super Taco
Corner of Pico and Sawtelle
Los Angeles, CA 90189
$1.25 per taco

El Super Taco is basically a sedentary taco truck. The food is the same as you can get from any of the many mobile eateries around LA. Meat choices include carne asada, pollo, chorizo, lengua, cabeza, tripe, al pastor, and a few others I can't remember off the top of my head. The tacos are cheap, three or four make a good meal. The salsa bar had many choices, including a refreshing avocado based salsa thinner than guacamole and a formidable habanero salsa.

I ordered three tacos: carnitas, cabeza and lengua. To be honest, the cabeza and lengua looked good, but tasted pretty similar, just chewy beef. The carnitas was sadly dry and plain. I can make better carnitas than that and I can hardly be considered a Mexican cook. Dry carnitas are just about the worst kind of meat there is. The bland pork almost feels like it's leaching flavor from anything else you put it next to, a kind of flavor abyss or blackhole. Luckily a little bit of salsa made it bearable. Next time I will try the torta though. I'll still prefer a random truck to this place, although the parking is useful.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Movie Tangent: The Dark Knight

It's not often I deviate from the purpose of this blog, to explore good food, but it's not often that a movie comes out that makes me feel so inclined to review it. Last night I went to the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, the next installment in director Christopher Nolan's reimagined Batman franchise. I daresay this is by far the best Batman movie, not to mention one of the best movies I've ever seen. It transcends genre, leaving behind the fanboys and embracing a larger audience ready for more mature subject matter to evolve from a hijacked comic book figure. Batman is the Dark Knight after all, and too long have I bemoaned his denigration to 1970s camp. This new movie understands that title clearly and the moral ambiguities that come with it as well. Ultimately, I would be hard-pressed to call this a comic book movie rather than the crime thriller that it really is.

There has been an astounding abundance of hype surrounding the late Heath Ledger's role as the maniacal Joker. I went into the movie expecting much, and I'm glad to say I was not let down. If acting is an art, then he truly is a virtuoso in the performance. Although I don't know if he will be the second person to win an Oscar posthumously, I do believe he deserves the nomination. Joker is an insanely satisfying villain, the counterbalance to the dark avenger. Forget the super-human abilities, his prowess is in sheer terror. In fact, the movie as a whole is deeply emblamatic of balances and two sides of the same coin, a trope richly explored in Harvey Dent (Eckheart). This is the first Batman movie not to have Batman in the title, and rightly so. Although Batman/Bruce Wayne is the protagonist, he is delegated to more of a supporting role for Joker and Dent. It is these two other figures that captures the attention of the audience, these two figures who truly resonate.

Visually, this is another stunning movie. The hospital explosion scene in particular looked amazing. Gotham is not as dark as the first movie, reflecting the mood of optimism led by Dent's crime clean-up. The obligatory chase scenes manage to avoid banality, and the introduction of the Bat-cycle is a giddy thrill for the fanboys. Still, the Bat gadgets are kept to a minimum, Batman doesn't even use the Batarang to my knowledge. Like Casino Royale, the gadget are dropped in favor of brutal action, making the movie much easier to stomach.

Batman is not a happy comic book. This movie is certainly not happy either. Don't bring the kids. Reading some of the rotten review on Rotten Tomatoes, I find the consensus seems to be the audience's willingness to swallow the pessimism of the movie. Instead, I find that pessimism to be the driving force of the film. I came out acutely aware I watched a tragedy more than an action movie. The script and performances were masterful, moving, poignant, and except from the wickedly bad Batman voice Bale provides, perfect.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'd Like My Sushi De-fused Please

One of my pet peeves when evaluating a restaurants is any variation of the word "fusion." Commonly seen as "Asian-fusion" it's supposed to mean some sort of combination of ingredients, techniques or flavors. When I see fusion, i just think "pass." It's a shame really; after all, there are few cuisines I will judge right off the bat based solely on a name, but fusion restaurants just tend to fail.

It's not that I'm against combining cuisines. To me, authenticity is one thing, but good food can benefit from spanning other cuisines. New creative combinations, while often fail, can open new venues for gastronomic delight. Take for instance, New American, Nouvelle French and Nuevo Latino. My issue is with the word "fusion" itself. The only time I want to see fusion is in the colorful blue and orange commercials for Gillette razors. It has just been degraded into a new "it" word that everyone says but no one really understands. Actually, in most cases, the creative effort is nothing more than slapdashing a few ingredients that don't actually belong together. Proper culinary innovation involves science, logic and experimentation. But don't dare experiment on me and charge me for it. Many restaurants have picked up on this trend too and are moving away from referring to themselves as such. Junnoon in Palo Alto actually called me and told me that I could use a picture for FoodDigger so long as I make sure not to call them fusion cuisine.

I'm not discouraging the practice of creative combinations of cuisines. Food is an art too, and as such, needs innovation to stay alive. Just don't call it fusion, unless you're really trying to run your restaurant into the ground. Sawtelle Kitchen serves somewhat fusion cuisine with Japanese ingredients often prepared in Italian and French techniques. It's an example of responsible fusion. But they know not to call themselves by that wretched name. Oh, and also avoid saying anything is "infused" with flavor, it creates the same sense of disgust in me.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Great, Another Fro-yo Place...or Maybe Not?

3835 Main St,
Culver City, 90232
$2.75-6.25 + $1.50 for three toppings

As I see it, the frozen yogurt market is oversaturated. In Westwood alone, I can count six yogurt places off the top of my head. It's the new frozen treat that's low in fact and healthy because it's yogurt right? Well I don't know exactly how nutritious it really is, but then again, when is the food I eat about nutrition anyway? If, unlike me, you do care about nutrition, you might be interested in But just because a market is oversaturated, that doesn't mean there isn't room for a new competitor to dethrone a reigning yogurt king.

What I like most about Cantaloop, is the difference in yogurt texture. Too many of these fro-yo places are too similar to differentiate. They are highly elastic goods, almost pure substitutions to most people. Given the choice between Pinkberry and Red Mango, I would simply choose the cheaper. Due to this factor, the yogurt shops have been tinkering with formulas to achieve some sort of individuality in their flavors. Cantaloop realizes this and sells a yogurt skewed to the tart lovers. The texture is icy, not as creamy. It reminds me of frozen Yakult. While that flavor may not be that popular to the American palate, I know plenty of Asians that would enjoy it.

Cantaloop currently offers two other flavors of yogurt--mango and pomegrante. While the pomegrante lacked dimension, the mango definitely had a personality of its own. It may be a little tart, but swirled with the original, the two make a balanced taste.

When I get frozen dairy treats, whether off the marble slab, scooped from the tub, or dispensed by a shiny metal lever, I like gummy bears as a topping. While the fresh fruit is satisfying for tongue and piece of mind, nothing quite beats the chewy texture of a frozen gummy bear. However, I would gladly trade gummy bears for mochi topping. Both harden in the frozen treat and soften in your mouth, a sensation I long for in yogurt or ice cream. Therefore, I ordered the mango and original swirled with mochi and fresh mango topping.

Least phallic yogurt swirl picture

Besides the yogurt, Cantaloop is in a great location. Culver City seems to be the new dining central with restaurant openings all the time. In fact, La Rocco's Pizzeria, which serves delicious NY style pizzas, opened the same day next door to Cantaloop. I'm looking forward to trying Ford's Filling Station, Honey Kettle, Rush Street, Ugo, Bottle Rock, among others. Cantaloop offers free wi-fi, a big incentive for people to hang out at this new yogurt sensation. The interior is sleek and modern, though the color scheme looks vaguely familiar. Still, it looks like a pleasant place to spend an evening.

While the frozen yogurt market may be oversaturated, Cantaloop's yogurt flavors certainly are not. It is a welcome addition to the fiercely competitive market, and I'm confident in this one.

Making Pesto

Actually a picture of reheated leftovers

The other night I made pesto from the basil at Trader Joe's. I'm not going to put up a recipes simply because I don't follow one myself. Just combine fresh basil, oil, pinenuts, garlic, salt and pepper together in a food processor and adjust to suit your taste. The above picture is penne with sauteed Italian hot sasuage. Here are some tips for making pesto:

  • DO try other oils besides olive. I used this bottle of avocado oil from Whole Foods. Much more complex and satisfying than the cheap olive oil I use to cook.
  • DO use a food processor or you can just chop the basil finely and crush the pinenuts
  • DO have plenty of balsamic vinegar, salt, garlic and oil
  • DO roast your garlic before crushing for a less intense flavor
  • DO mix leftover pesto to mix with mayonnaise for a sandwich boost
  • DON'T skimp on the basil; it should be your limiting ingredient.
  • DON'T try to make pesto in a blender. Trust me, it just doesn't work.
Pesto is a good alternative to the jars of tomato sauce you reach for on lazy nights and much healthier than cream sauces. Although I wouldn't say it's easy to make simply because it uses much hardware that's difficult to clean, you can make a large batch that lasts awhile in the fridge and has many applications besides pasta.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Izakaya Showdown: Sasaya vs. FuRaiBo


Welcome ladies and gentlemen! Tonight we have a izakaya showdown between two great West LA competitors in a side-by-side comparison. In the left corner, fighting out of Santa Monica Boulevard, this feisty Japanese establishment refuses to give in to the sushi craze, Sasaya. In the right corner, catering to the Sawtelle crowd, famous for their tebasaki chicken wings, FuRaiBo. We'll see who's cuisine will reign supreme... er, best!

For those of you who have not yet had the experience, izakya is Japanese bar food. It is also commonly referred to as Japanese tapas. Salaried men would meet for happy hour events at pubs in Japan and dine on the equivalent of our buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks, except that their food is significantly healthier and much less saucy.

As a judge, I'll admit that I may not be completely unbiased. I've been coming to FuRaiBo for years. In fact, besides Soup Plantation, there isn't any restaurant in LA I've been to more than FuRaiBo. It was my first izakaya experience, introducing me to an entire new type of cuisine. These izakaya restaurants have elevated Japanese food to one of my favorite cuisines. While I always knew there was more to Japanese food than sushi and tempura, I didn't truly eat Japanese until I started on this journey to find new izakayas.

Starting with the vibe, FuRaiBo felt more Japanese to me. The furniture and decor was simple and refined. They even have tatami floor seating in the back. While I hate floor seating, it's nice to have that option. Sasaya feels much more LA with the stylish decorations. However, Sasaya did have communal long-table seating and a visible bar, two things I believe are elements of a good izakaya. The waitstaff is more personable and friendly at Sasaya. Everyone at FuRaiBo always seems to be in a rush, and several times I had issues getting the attention of a waitress.

In the category of taste, I initially awarded more points to FuRaiBo after my first visit to Sasaya. However, I ended up at Sasaya two nights in a row, and my second night with friends who knew how to order was much more pleasant. After two dinners at Sasaya, I believe their more unconventional dishes really shine like the marinated wasabi octopus and simmered Kurobuta pork belly. FuRaiBo still has me hooked on the beef tataki and halibut karaage. The tataki is a very rare steak topped with ponzu, onions and grated daikon. The halibut is a baby fish fileted and deep-fried.

For the other factors, I considered accessibility, price, and alcohol selection. Both have parking lots, although each suffers from some problems. Sasaya only had four or five spaces behind the restaurant. FuRaiBo has a much larger lot, but they have a dubious double-parking system where the diner alerts the restaurant which car they are driving and are told to move if they are blocking in a leaving customer. Price-wise, FuRaiBo seems to be slightly cheaper, although I can eat anywhere between $15-30 per person there. At Sasaya, I can easily rack up a bill from $20-50. The issue with izakayas is always quantity. It's great to order many small dishes, but those little prices add up fast. I usually recommend maybe three or four dishes per diner shared family style. Lastly, since izakayas are designed around alcohol, every good restaurant needs a selection of beer, shoju and sake. Sasaya seems to have a much wider selection of sake and shoju than FuRaiBo.

Considering all these factors, both are terrific restaurants that I would frequent in the future. Both serve delicious food, although Sasaya excels on the exotic end while FuRaiBo dominates the more conventional food like yakitori and agedashi tofu. But between the two, I'm not considering which one is a superior restaurant. I'm deciding which one is a better izakaya. Therefore, under that criteria, I would deem Sasaya the winner. Congratulations to Sasaya, although it still can't beat the reigning champion Musha.

(310) 477-4404
11613 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 444-1432
2068 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Friday, July 4, 2008

"Chinese-American Experience" Cookie

Book Review

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
Jennifer 8. Lee

On the record, I've never liked fortune cookies. They taste bland, and even as a kid I knew to spend my calories elsewhere. However, I did like to pulverize them, feeling empowered by my ability to Hulk smash something into dust, then pluck out the little slip of white paper. They were amusements while my relatives chatted on for what seemed like hours after meals. Still, they were more a careless diversion than anything else. The Chinese restaurants my family frequented served desserts like red bean soup and tapioca pudding, not fortune cookies. Right off the bat, I knew they were not Chinese.

Jennifer Lee took what I considered a mere curiosity and made it into the basis for a book. This isn't a book on Chinese food though; it is distinctively Chinese-American. From my perspective, as an American-born-Chinese, it spoke to the same immigrant stories that I have heard countless times. Even though the emphasis at times is on Chinese-American food like the exploration of the history of General Tso, cuisine seems to be more of a launching pad than a destination. Lee uses the shared element of food to characterize the Chinese experience coming to America and spreading around the world. In some ways, the Chinese restaurants represent more homogeneity than the fast food nation. After all, according to her, the forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States outnumber the McDonald's, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. Yet almost each one of these restaurants serves the staple wonton soup, egg rolls, and some sweet-and-sour mess. Her analogy of Chinese restaurants as open-source software is perceptive and thought-provoking.

While easy to read, the style is overly sensational at times. Her experience as a metro reporter at the New York Times creeps through her prose. The book sometimes lacks overall cohesiveness as the anecdotes and tangents often don't tie well enough back into the main narrative. At times I felt like I was being led down a dead-end, or even better, digesting information one slip of paper at a time. In this sense, it felt less like a book than a collection of articles loosely bound under the theme of the Chinese-American experience. Reading it felt like digesting the pastries that were the inspiration fo the book--slightly sweet, but artificial.

Ultimately, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is not what I initially expected. I thought it would be more about the food and less about the people; but getting over that expectation, I enjoyed reading about the spread of Chinese-American cuisine. For a book that actually delves into authentic Chinese cusine, I recommend Swallowing Clouds by A. Zee. I do commend Lee on her extraordinary research. While I did not crush this book like I did with my fortune cookies, I did find little slips of wisdom.