Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Savor Scottsdale: Stax Burger Bistro

I'm being sent where? I know my work is relatively transient; I work a few weeks at a client before grabbing my laptop and heading out again. In fact, I don't even have a desk. When I go into the downtown office, I have to "hotel" a cubicle. But so far, my work has kept me around Los Angeles. Sometime in January, I was told that I was being sent to Arizona to help with an audit. Although I'm now stuck in Scottsdale for the workweek, I'm armed with a $59 per diem and free breakfast buffet. That's quite a bit of change to explore Scottsdale's dining scene.


Of course, I'd be much more enthusiastic if Arizona actually had a dining scene. As a relatively newly populated area with little but white retirees, Scottsdale has a dearth of novel restaurants. Everywhere I turn, I'm confronted by imported Los Angeles and national chains. On my commute from the hotel to the client site, I pass a Flemmings, Houstons, Fogo de Chao, Mastro's, PF Chang's, McCormick's, and at least a dozen other casual-to-upscale restaurants you'd recognize. I've decided that due to the lack of diversity and youth, there's only a market for recognizable brands of the same boring food. Steak is the lay of the land, even in an area too dry to support cattle. Also, apparently old white people like sushi; though I still wouldn't trust raw fish so far inland.

That's why I decided to write a series on places actually worth trying out if you're ever on some corporate retreat out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Leave the chains; there's more to be tasted.

Hence, the first of my Scottsdale recommendations:

Stax Burger Bistro
4400 N Scottsdale Rd
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
(480) 946-4222
~$4 a slider

On recommendation from a coworker previously sent to this client, I went to Stax after work one night. Things were dying down by that time Thursday night. The location was in "Oldtown" Scottsdale, which only signifies that the buildings are five years older than the rest of town. Across the street from Saddlehouse Ranch, yes there's one here too, is a burger bar specializing in three-ounce sliders.

Though the server may tell you to order three sliders per person, I'd stick with two sliders and split a few sides. The sweet potato fries with various dipping sauces is a great choice. Each sauce is only $.25, so go crazy with the chipotle aioli, red pepper aioli, honey mustard aioli, jalapeno aioli, or just plain ketchup. The mac & cheese and buttered corn were mediocre. Actually, seeing "corn off the cob" on the menu made me think they just uncanned a Jolly Green Giant and melted a stick of butter into a bowl.

The restaurant really shines with its namesake sliders. Although I was bummed that they were out of the exotic sliders (made with boar, ostrich, venison, or whatever cheap wild meat they have that week), the three I chose were plenty satisfying. In the picture above, from foreground to back, I got an original beef slider with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and cheddar, a lamb slider with feta cheese, grape tomatoes and tabouli, and a kobe slider with asparagus. My verdict: order the first two, ditch the last. The kobe burger was a novelty at best; and from a taste test, did not have the marbling of real Wagyu. The lamb was my easily my favorite though. For the lamb lover, the intense flavor of the animal permeated my mouth with the first bite. Ground lamb is an unfortunate rarity in this country, so when you can find it, make sure to indulge.

At a burger bar like this, you can expect a fine selection of beers. With this kind of food, nothing pairs better. My local Tempe brewed Four Peaks Kilt Lifter Ale was no exception.

This is my second week in Scottsdale so far. Stax was one of the first restaurants to show me that there's might be something to eat in this town after all. But over the last few days, I've found a few more that I'd love to share. Support the independent restaurants!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

South Bay Japanese Marathon

What do bloggers do in their free time? We eat; that's a given. But we also meet up to eat. In this case, we journeyed the South Bay one Saturday afternoon, searching for our Japanese fix.


Organized by the multi-talented Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, this marathon had been in the making since our last expedition into the concrete Jungle. We teamed up with Javier the "Teenage" Glutster, Mattatouille, Choisauce, RumDood, Pepsi Monster, and budding blogger Danny for this trip. My girlfriend Yoko proved essential for some of the translations and the photos on this entry.

First stop: Gaja for okonomiyaki, a type of Japanese crepe/griddle cake. Made from yam flour, filled with ingredients, and fried on a teppan, this was my first experience at an okonomiyaki-ya. Thanks to the hot tip from I Nom Things, we were able to discover this fun DIY place. She even has several recipes if you want to try it at home. Of course, if you can't figure out the Japanese instructions, you can also get help from the friendly staff. Remember to proclaim "Yes!" in a tone as to indicate to your waiter your satisfaction for his efforts.

Here's the waiter helping with spicy cod roe, mochi, cheese monja-yaki, a creamier, more gooey relative of the okonomiyaki. The monja-yaki is fried to form a crust, but then mashed and eaten with individual spatulas. This particular monja-yaki had the miniature texture of the cod roe and the runny mochi and cheese.


Not terribly appetizing in appearance, but fun to eat nonetheless

Our Modern Mix Okonomiyaki had beef, squid, oysters, noodles, egg and preserved ginger, a seemingly odd mix, but formed a satisfying pie. Topped with the special sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes, this could easily make a decent meal for the hungry traveler. Unfortunately, the life of a marathoner is tough; it was one slice, then out the door for our next stop.

Second stop: Patisserie Chantilly, a delightful Japanese desserts shop. The picture at the top of the page is from Chantilly. Our large group rolled in and took over the small place. We laid down $3 each and partook in a foodie communism experiment. A communal order of three macarons; black sesame, vanilla, and chocolate profiteroles; passionfruit mousse; cheesecake souffle; cheesecake bar; chocolate tart; and a white sesame blanc manger was put down and quickly devoured. Luckily, Pepsi Monster bought additional treats and donated it to the still hungry citizens. Funny how even in desserts, communism doesn't work.

If given the chance, make sure to try the souffle fromage, it is cheesecake heaven; at least you'll feel like you're eating clouds.

After a failed stop at Otafuku, our valiant troupe ended up at Hakata Ramen. Given that our soba stop fell through, we entered into a furious debate over a suitable replacement (I only say furious because at this point we were starting to get hungry again). Before our table was ready, we hopped back into the caravan and drove down to Ichimiann Bamboo Garden for homemade soba

It certainly doesn't take much to constitute a "bamboo garden." But I guess if it took acres of bamboo to be considered a forest, pandas wouldn't be so endangered. Of course I quickly got over the lack of foliage when I sat down to my platter of cold zaru-soba, a refreshing mound of buckwheat noodles served with accompanying dipping sauce. I found each noodle to have springy integrity...chewy, a little before al dente. According to Matt, the sauce is mixed with soba water afterwards and drank. I preferred the brown rice tea instead.

Last stop: Izakaya Bincho, the charming mom and pop restaurant with extremely demanding chef/owner. On that day, the staffing situation was even worse. With a sick wife, the husband manned the entire place by himself. Although it's not unheard of for him to turn away customers, the restaurant stayed especially empty that night. This was my first visit since its closure last year as a yakitori. The tsukune chicken meatballs, which were godly last time, disappointed this time, probably due to the lack of bincho charcoal. Juicy as usual, but there just was no depth of flavor you'd get with the ashy charcoal. Instead, the braised pork belly shined. Despite the overexposure of pork belly these days, the chef managed to bring out the melty texture of the pork and supplement it with a rich braising sauce. He doesn't rely just on the fat of the dish as so many restaurants do. In fact, the long braising time made the whole slab fall apart enough to eat with a spoon. The tebasaki fried chicken wings with sweet and spicy sauce stole the show. Amazing flavors hit me all at once, intense at first, but gradually fading and lingering on the palate. The wings were deep-fried, but they didn't weigh me down. All I could feel was the crispy skin and the sticky sauce. With the decline of the tsukune, I believe the tebasaki is the new gotta-have-it dish. Though I will still give runner-up position to the agedashi tofu. The chef's dashi shows amazing care in its umami complexity. Plus large slabs of silken tofu make this a hearty dish for tofu.

Braised pork belly

Tebasaki (Deep-fried chicken wings)

Agedashi Tofu

As I've settled into my home in LA, I've found so much diversity in the cuisine. I don't know if there's anywhere else in the world with so many ethnic options within driving range. With denser communities, they start to blend and lose some of their uniqueness within each cuisine. LA's just large enough that you can find places that just specialize in okonomiyaki, Japanese desserts, soba and izakaya. We have so much at our fingertips; it's a shame if you don't take advantage of it. I appreciate that I can have a Japanese food marathon without even once mentioning sushi. That's the kind of dining city that LA is.

2383 Lomita Blvd, Ste 102,
Lomita, 90717
(310) 534-0153
$18 per okonomiyaki though that can probably feed 3-4

Patisserie Chantilly
2383 Lomita Blvd, Ste 10
Lomita, 90717
(310) 257-9454
$3-4 each dessert

Ichimiann Bamboo Garden
1618 Cravens Ave
Torrance, 90510
(310) 328-1323
$6 a bowl

Izakaya Bincho
112 N International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach, 90277
(310) 376-3889
Get here early on a non-weekend and pray for a seat
~$20 per person if you're eating at the end of a marathon


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where Concert Patrons Go: Patina

For my birthday, my girlfriend surprised me with a dinner downtown. We drove up to the Disney concert hall and I knew right away where we were going.


As the namesake restaurant of the Patina Group, which includes such LA eateries as Cafe Pinot, Nick and Stef's, I had high expectations. First of all, what is a patina? It's the oxidized change in color on bronze over time. The reason the Statue of Liberty looks green--false patina. It's a concept I considered when we entered. The small dining room nestled into the Frank Gehry concert hall was comfortably lit and quiet for a late Sunday reservation. We arrived just as the show was starting; an hour earlier and it may have been packed. Our French waiter, yes he spoke French, explained the specials and signaled for the bread cart. Bacon bread--already a good sign.

The amuse of white asparagus and aioli paired with a hot carrot ginger soup certainly surprised me in contrast. The crunchy asparagus in a creamy sauce paired with the soup well, though I expected the carrots to have much more sweetness.

Although this was my birthday, the tasting menu didn't offer anything eye-popping enough. My girlfriend chose the agnolotti filled with buffala ricotta with English peas, braised scarlet turnip, and speck ham. I don't know if it's just a coincidence or if it's a generally accepted practice, but pairing agnolotti with ham is an incredible idea. David LeFevre of Water Grill had served a spectacular dish of agnolotti at the 5x5 dinner. The buffalo cheese gave the delicate pasta a heartiness otherwise absent in the thin wonton-like skins. I was puzzled by the presentation of what looked like a green lawn. The speck ham, what looks like bacon, is actually more like a smokier panchetta from an area between Austria and Italy.

For my first course, I cheated and chose the Quartet of the Sea consisting of four immaculate square plates locked into formation. From the top: smoked trout blini, seared scallop with cipollini onions, lobster citrus salad, and tuna tartare with pickled cauliflower. The trout was much more refreshing than the all-too-often used salmon in this preparation. Grapefruit and orange garnished the lobster salad, though the color reminded me too much of ambrosia (a turnoff). I am a huge fan of seared scallops, and this was no exception. I also see cippolini onions so often at these kind of dinners. Apparently, they have a higher sugar content and the small, flat shape is conducive to roasting. Tuna tartare has been done to death, though the intensely tart cauliflower gave it a contrasting crunch that was innovative.

What makes a veal chop "authentic"? According to our waiter, grain-fed veal is "authentic." But isn't that how all veal is fed? My girlfriend's authentic veal chop with sauteed sweetbreads, maple syrup glazed cipollini onions, and chanterelles tasted better than it looked. The mushrooms were richly buttered and had enough bite to savor each forkful.

One of the reasons that my significant other chose Patina was for the game menu, which varies depending on availability. That night, I ordered the rack of venison with braised chestnuts, celeriac mousseline, and a pink peppercorn quince chutney. Though the smell of the plate had all the intensity of game, the flavor was quite a bit tamer. I'm familiar with the practice of combining gamey meats with fruity compotes, but I always feel like my preference for gamer is much wilder than the average palate. With the exception of elk, gamey is always my choice.

Though my girlfriend rounded off her meal with a coconut soup with a floating island of pistachio ice cream and spherified mango juice "gnocchi" I asked to see the cheese cart instead. We enjoyed the presentation of her dessert, the components sitting in a saucer that's subsequently filled by the waiter. Those little flourishes certainly make the meal more memorable. Having consumed a pack of Red Vines per day at work, I had enough sugar in my system. I settled on a triple-creme brie, a hard Italian pecorino, and a strong roquefort. My waiter actually wasn't much help in explaining the cheeses. By this time in the meal, he had seemed to ignore our table and favored the French speaking tables instead. I hate to perpetuate stereotypes, but the rude French waiter certainly still persists.

As a post-dessert treat, we received a tray of mignardises and a napkin basket of chocolate and vanilla Milano cookies. From left to right, I think the plate consisted of a cocoa nib, passionfruit gelee, orange marshmallow, cashew twill tuile, truffle, and carrot macron. I could eat a million macarons, except they're always so expensive. Does anyone mass-produce these awesome almond pastries?

Stuffed and finished with the food portion of our meal, the manager was kind enough to take us on a tour of the kitchen. Unfortunately, Joachim Splinchal wasn't in the kitchen, but I met his sous chef Santiago instead. He explained the various prep areas of the rather large kitchen. It looked straight out of my Culinary Institute of America textbook. What struck me the most was that the kitchen was almost half the size of the dining room and still heavily staffed.

My overall impression of Patina was that I didn't feel like I belonged there. It caters to the concert hall patrons, the stuffy old white men. As out of place as I was, I noticed an Asian man scurrying his family out from a dinner too expensive to bring children. That's when it hit me. If patinas are meant to convey antiquity, this restaurant definitely has that old-world feel. Patina's certainly not part of the hot LA dining scene, but it could be a dependable standby. Plus a Michelin star doesn't hurt.

141 South Grand Ave
Downtown, 90012
(213) 972-3331
About $200 for the meal...and $8 for parking