Saturday, December 20, 2008

My First Warm Rice Omakase: Echigo

Nozawa-style sushi has been on my list for some time in all its saucy, warm rice glory. Sushi Nozawa, the home of the original "Sushi Nazi" Chef Nozawa, has been spit out apprentice sushi chefs left and right. Sasabune here, Sushi Wasabi there. I decided to go to Echigo because it has a reputation being a cheaper, more low-end Nozawa sushi restaurant. I wanted to try the warm rice sushi first at an affordable restaurant before going all-out into Sushi Nazi territory.


I felt uncomfortable taking pictures at the Echigo sushi bar. The interior and exterior, part of a strip mall, doesn't scream high-end sushi. Also, since I came to Echigo to celebrate, I wasn't in a photojournalism mood. I was however, in the mood for a glass of jun shimeharitsu junmai ginjo, my favorite junmai at Tokyo Table's sake night. It was clearly as aromatic and crisp as I remembered, no harshness going down, and only a pleasant rice taste lingered on my palate.

At Echigo, the sushi bar is reserved for omakase only patrons. I had braced myself for the sticker price beforehand, and I didn't think I could get a good enough experience outside of omakase. What did bother me was that the omakase was a set course of one sashimi, eight nigiri sushi, and a blue crab handroll. The price is determined based on what's available. So far, my omakase experiences have always been "keep on coming till my stomach or wallet bursts." In the end, I think we received more than the eight pieces of nigiri, but I was still a Double-Double hungry afterward (after the Jungle Food Marathon, I'll measure satiety in In-n-Out Double-Doubles).

The sashimi course was actually three plates, a baby abalone, abalone liver and soft squid stuffed with blue crab. I've never seen a pretty little abalone shell so small, and biting through the crunchy flesh, I felt slightly guilty that whoever farmed it didn't wait for it to reach maturity. Unlike veal, which I have no qualms about eating, there's a catch limit on abalone. I'd rather wait for it to grow fully before adding it to the annual quota. Thought I'd be compassionate for the abalone--nope, it's a shellfish. I'm just thinking in economic terms.

The abalone liver tasted clamy and warm, not a particular inviting combination. Plus the raw taste of iron, which is always a liver deal-breaker, turned me off. Soft squid filled with crab could've just been a plate of blue crab. As I will discuss later with the blue crab handrolls, the crab was the star and the squid merely the container.

Our first nigiri was some surprisingly lean toro. None of that melt-in-your mouth, make you pray to Tuna heaven, deliciousness. The engawa (halibut fin muscle) was served warm, strange since I don't think it added anything to the fish. In fact, I could hardly taste any fish under all that sauce. Such a shame considering my favorite sushi is engawa. The hotate (scallop) tasted strangely more like a fish than a scallop.

Now the fish got a little more interesting. This was my first experience with sayori (needle fish), but again I couldn't taste any of the fish itself because of the heavy use of warm dashi sauce. As far as I could tell, needle fish doesn't have a distinct flavor of its own. Next, I got a pinkish fish that I could only understand as aji no kanpachi. It tasted like kanpachi although I'm not sure what "aji no" means. The chef put a large dollop of yuzu kosho pepper on the fish, giving it a spicy, citrus finish.

This was my first ono (butterfish) served raw. The chef served it with a small dab of sweet miso in the center. Its flavor resembled the miso-cured butterfish I had at Asia de Cuba. I guess ono and miso are a popular pair, although I think the fish has a memorable flavor by itself that may not be supplemented with sauce. The aji (Spanish or horse mackerel) felt cold and lifeless. It had no elasticity biting through the fish. I enjoyed the kinmedai (Golden-eye Snapper) and the spicy skipjack, but both had no memorable attributes besides sweet and tart respectively.

After a service of mostly lackluster, though somewhat exotic, sushi, the night culminated in the famous blue crab handroll. I could sing praises to the temaki, which I fondly recalled for days after the dinner. As far as I could tell, it was simply outstanding crab meat, but it tasted so rich I wondered if there was a secret mayonnaise addition. Echigo even offers a lunch combination of eight pieces of sushi and a blue crab handroll for $13. That would be quite a steal. In total, my omakase experience came out to about $48 pp plus drinks.

None of the sushi was terrible, but besides the blue crab, nothing seemed to stand out either. One complaint I had was that I couldn't taste the fish in some of the nigiri. Either it was masked by sauce or the fish itself just wasn't that flavorful. When it comes to sushi, I guess I like to keep it simple. I had the warm rice, and while it didn't detract too much from the sushi, it didn't seem to add anything to the food. I would be willing to try one of the higher end Nozawa places, but for now, Echigo's fine by me.

12217 Santa Monica Blvd, Ste 201
Brentwood, 90025
(310) 820-9787
Omakase ranges. Mine came out to $48 pp, but it can only go up from there.


Friday, December 12, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be a Blogger?

Looking back through my backlog of entries written by my fellow bloggers, I found Kevin's review on his second trip to Bazaar. Except, this entry was not as much a review as it was an examination of what it means to be a blogger. From his interview with Chef José Andrés and the subsequent comment by Rameniac, I took away something issues I'd like to address on my own.


The title of this entry is phrased as a question precisely because I am not sure what responsibilities a blogger has. The evolution of communication has created this sub-class of journalists open to anyone with an opinion and a clever (or not so clever, as in my case) blog name. I remember before the term "blog" was even coined; my friends and I traded URLs to our then "online journals." It's something we seem to take for granted these days, the empowerment we gain from such easy access to publication. I started many blogs in my lifetime, but always as journal for myself. As such, I sometimes forget that this blog isn't a diary; it's written for an audience.

So now that my readership has expanded beyond just myself and one or two loyal friends, I encounter the issues of responsible blogging. This is the area highlighted by Chef Andrés to Kevin, I found most thought-provoking. I do believe that bloggers should be held to a higher standard in their field of self-prescribed expertise. By broadcasting your opinion, you have assumed authority in your subject matter. There are even places like Article Writing Services that will provide you with alternative viewpoints on whatever your subject matter is. Of course there are many people who write with no authority, but at what point can you continue to write ignorantly, especially when you have gathered a sizable readership? Of course Kevin has grabbed this horn by the bulls; his research and thoughtfulness is easily apparent. Personally, I enjoy food research, so I try to be informed about what I write. I try to make my blog more than a collection of places I ate and what I found delicious. Food writing shouldn't simply be a documentation of food. A major benefit of blogging versus Yelping is the personalization of the eating experience. Exceptional food writing inspires me to eat or to find joy in eating, not just tell me how salty the fish is at so-and-so restaurant.

Another issue brought up in Rameniac's comment was the need to "blog with a conscience." The consequences of our writing actually has a real impact on restaurants. Something I may have lost sight of, in an effort to become more critical, is that restaurants are businesses. Reviews are an important metric related to financial success. Therefore, I will strive to be more considerate of the things I write. Although, nasty food will still warrant nasty comments.

As I mentioned before, actually having readers certainly shifts the focus of the blog. Now that I'm writing for others instead of just myself, I feel like I have a duty to present honest criticism of restaurants. It is the balance between the conscientious blogging concept and the duty to readers that will be increasingly difficult to uphold. Ultimately, I believe we should write honestly, but make that writing as accurate and informed as possible. And if that's not hard enough, make it fun and delicious to read as well.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Big Black Noodle House: Daikokuya

Ah, living in Los Angeles with an affinity towards Japanese food, it's inevitable that I would stumble upon Daikokuya. But why does this little noodle shop gather so many supporters? As Rameniac, astutely points out, it is always overrun by "Giant Robot subscriber" hipsters searching for the newest "it" place. Certainly now that Daikokuya has been overhyped, it's on it's way down like the left-over noodles circling the garbage disposal. Those who are still waiting for hours outside the borderline sketchy part of J-Town are probably just a little slow on the times. Or maybe they really do find something special in each greasy bowl.


I ordered the kotteri style ramen, extra fatty like I thought I would enjoy. In retrospect, enjoy is a tough word to apply when I felt sick to my stomach after eating a bowl of so much fat. Maybe it was my mistake for choosing the fattier bowl, but the normal bowl didn't look much lighter. Although the menu says the broth is prepared overnight and flavored with special sauce blends, I didn't get that much depth in my spoonful. The noodles didn't stand out in any way, a big disappointment in a famed noodle house. I suppose Daikokuya's fanbase comes from the Berkshire kurobuta pork, but watching the cooks slop the cold chashu into a bowl made the entire thing several notches less appetizing. The runny soft-boil egg was the most enjoyable thing floating in there.

Way overrated ramen

Besides the ramen, the salads served with each meal had some appeal. Chopped cabbage topped in the creamy Japanese dressing, it's simple but satisfying. Both the unagi donburi eel rice and the tonkatsu pork cutlet were also decent. That's the thing: Daikokuya makes good food, just not that spectacular a ramen. Of course, I do admit I have an udon bias, but I would not wait in line to get this ramen. In fact, we had to wait twenty minutes to eat at the counter at 4:40 in the afternoon. I'd much rather go to the nearest Santouka and not feel as sick afterward.



Unagi Donburi

327 E 1st St
Little Tokyo, 90012
(213) 626-1680
$8.50 a bowl of ramen


The Rise of the McDouble

The New McDouble. Looks pretty familiar, but with one important difference

I love McDonald's. There, I said it. Shower all the hate and shame you want on me, but I don't think it's a paradox to be a foodie and like McDonald's. I've posted about it before on a lighter note, but now I have some grave news. I went into the restaurant today for my $3.25 lunch of double cheeseburger, McChicken and small fries, only to discover that the double cheeseburger is no longer on the Dollar Menu.


I never understood how the double cheeseburger costs the same as a regular cheeseburger. No wonder it was the best selling item on the wildly successful Dollar Menu. According to the LA Times, it costs McDonald's $.06 for each slice of cheese. In an effort to cut costs, the double cheeseburger has been removed and replaced with a McDouble, the same thing minus one slice of cheese. I applaud McDonald's effort to maintain the Dollar Menu, which makes up 14% of their sales. It takes a lot to maintain that Dollar Menu when so many other places have opted for "value menus" instead. And I'll be honest, I ate the McDouble and didn't miss that extra slice of cheese. Would I pay $1.15 for the extra cheese? Nah, definitely something I could live (longer) without.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Into the Darkness: Jungle Food Marathon

In the vein of Neil from Food Marathon and Joseph Conrad, nine hardy adventurers took to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles in search of victuals. One day, five stops, four meals, this isn't just a food marathon, it's the Jungle Food Marathon. Fitting with this blog's name, here are five jungle dining destinations along the coast of Los Angeles.


At the Ford's Secret Pork dinner, Matt of Mattatouille let me in on the upcoming marathon he was planning. This would be my first, something I've been wanting to do for some time. Going with a large group to multiple restaurants in one day would be a great way to experience a multitude of cuisines. During the drive, there was quite a bit of driving, I found a real appreciation for Los Angeles' diversity of cuisines and cultures. As Neil pointed out, we were probably the first people in history to eat Nigerian, Peruvian, Cambodian and Vietnamese food in the same day. I picked up Fiona of Gourmet Pigs in the morning, met up with HC the LA OC Foodie, Javier the Teenage Glutster, Matt of Dig Lounge, Christine and my brother. We hopped in three cars and sped down the 405 for our first stop.

A minor detour took us to Nkechi African Cafe since Saaris was closed. Luckily, Nkechi also served Nigerian cuisine. Personally, I had to be sure that there were jungles in Nigeria before I could count this as a Jungle Marathon stop. Also, I'm sure it would offend someone to just categorize all African cuisine as jungle food. We strolled into the empty restaurant manned by one friendly waiter/cook/everything. We split a bottle of palm wine/juice between the nine of us, since none of us really wanted to drink too early in the day. Also, the beverage tasted somewhat nutty, sour and wheaty, not all that delicious. The first dish of the marathon was jollof rice topped with "mixed meat." It was a rice dish flavored with tomato paste, a few spices, and various fried meats. I may have had a piece of beef. Yes, I'm going to go with beef. The egusi soup was reminiscent of curry in color and slightly in texture. According to Wikipedia, egusi is made with ground melon seeds. On the side was a mound of sticky white yams with the consistency of glue. It made eating with my hands a mess. There were some odd flavors, but nothing too off-putting, unlike the last dish at Nkechi. Oh ogbono soup describable best by Conrad himself: "the horror!" I can easily say that ogbono soup, made from African mango nuts, was the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth, food or otherwise. The smell you get when you brake hard on the freeway, imagine eating those tires cooked with fish topped with a nauseating bleu cheese scent. I gave it a shot, I even tried it a second time. I tried it with and without the eba cassava paste still no luck. For our group of adventurous eaters, this dish will forever be off-limits.

Emu Palm Wine

Jollof Rice with Fried Plantains

Fish Ogbono Soup with Eba

We unanimously agreed that Nigerian food first was a wise choice. If that had been our last stop, we would've been in for a tough time. But since most of the food wasn't particularly palatable, we had plenty of room for the next place--El Rocoto in Gardena. Seeing as how I just returned from Peru a few months ago, refer to my Destination Peru series on the bottom left, I wasn't thrilled to include Peru in the marathon. But I knew firsthand that Peruvian cuisine was delicious, so I didn't mind making this stop at all. The ceviche mixto, while not as magnificent as the one I had in Lima, still had all the right components. The tart lime juice balanced out the brine of the whitefish, shrimp and squid. Raw red onions cut through the other flavors. The seco de cordero, lamb cilantro stew, had all the deep, hearty flavors of a mature animal. I love the flavor of lamb, and especially in a stew like this, the natural gaminess of the meat must come through. I'm always disappointed when the lamb tastes indistinguishable from beef, no matter how tender. I noticed that lamb and cilantro is also a common combination in Chinese cooking; I wonder if there was some Chinese influence for this dish or if those ingredients just naturally go so well together. I'm not a fan of tripe, so I didn't like the cau cau tripe casserole, though I know it is a common Peruvian dish. Our pollo enrollado and saltado de mariscos had similar flavors due to the liberal use of oyster sauce. Peru's got its share of decent Chinese food and these two were no exception. A special mention goes out to the aji rojo and aji verde made with jalepeños and the green sauce with mayonnaise. Both were amazing on top of bread, on top of everything really.

Ceviche Mixto

Seco de Cordero and Cau Cau

Pollo Enrollado

Rolling off Peruvian, we headed to Long Beach where apparently a sizable Cambodian population lives. Our destination was Siem Reap, a self-proclaimed "world famous" restaurant. I don't know if it's just a coincidence, but the old Cambodian restaurant in my hometown also had a dance floor and karaoke like this place. It seems as if many Cambodian restaurants double as banquet halls for your Cambodian wedding or drunken Dhoom Dhoom sing-along. The fish salad with bitter sadao leaves tasted exactly as named, fishy and bitter. The leaves were crumbled and impossible to remove, so I assume they are critical for the salad's integrity. Our lok lak came in beef, not the deer we had hoped to try. Although it was served with lemon juice, salt and pepper, the beef cubes had enough flavor themselves without the sauce. The hot and sour fish soup had familiar Chinese and Filipino flavors. It tasted like a cross between some of the Chinese vegetable soups I've had at home and Filipino sinigang. The French style tender beef and anchovy salad displayed some French influences, similar to Vietnamese cuisine and had Cambodian olives. The fish paste wasn't thick enough; it smelled like feet, and didn't taste much better. I liked the ground pork curry the most. Though it appeared thin, it had an amazing amount of depth in flavor similar to Thai curries. As a group, we had a minor mix-up with a durian and jackfruit shake the included a moment when everyone thought they overcame durian's rancidity and became spiky, smelly, fruit lovers.

Fish salad with bitter sadao leaves

Ground Pork Curry

Fish Paste

By now, the sun was setting over our last meal stop, Quan Hop, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon. Usually, my Vietnamese food is pho and banh mi, nothing more than $6-7. Quan Hop is a different experience--clean, comfortable and relatively expensive. In a market like Westminster and Garden Grove, they occupy a sweet niche of "high-end" dining. Matt and Christine had been here before, so they offered their recommendations, including the banh beo rice cakes and banh it ram potstickers. Though the banh it ram was listed as potstickers on the menu, they were much odder, consisting of a fried ball and topped with rice paste. They were delicious none the less. The banh beo reminded me of Chinese rice noodles served at dim sum with slightly sweet soy sauce. Encouraged by the jackfruit shake at Siem Reap, we ordered a jackfruit salad. This was my first experience with banh hoi thit nuong, thinly sliced sheets of vermicelli noodles with grilled pork. The flavors were familiar Vietnamese, but I've never seen this presentation. We finished with goi cuon nem lui shrimp paste spring rolls.

Banh beo

Banh it ram

Jackfruit Salad

Shrimp Paste Spring Rolls

Filled with food, we needed something refreshing and sweet. It wasn't the quantity of food that bothered me; we had just been eating for six hours. When your stomach's been digesting for so long, your entire body get exhausted. We drove a few blocks down to Nuoc Mia Vien Tay market for freshly squeezed sugarcane juice with kumquats. It tasted too sweet for me, but had a pleasant tangerine flavor.

Driving back from such a long day of eating, I was more spiritually satisfied than bodily. Some of the food had been above par, but many others weren't too appetizing. That didn't deter me though, the adventure had been well worth it. I came back out of the jungle a little more worldly, and a lot more full.

Nkechi African Cafe
2717 W Manchester Blvd
Inglewood, 90305
(323) 541-1265
$7 per person

El Rocoto
1356 W Artesia Blvd
Gardena, 90248
(310) 768-8768
$8 per person

Siem Reap
1810 E Anaheim St
Long Beach, 90813
(562) 591-7414
$11 per person plus $4 drink

Quan Hop
15640 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 689-0555
$7 per person

Nuoc Mia Vien Tay
14370 Brookhurst St
Garden Grove, CA 92842
(714) 531-9801
$2.75 small drink


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who Needs Stars in LA? Not Joe's in Venice

I've been tracking Joe's in Venice for some time now, but it took a $35 prix fixe dinner from Open Table's Appetite Stimulus program to bring me in the door. Part of the intrigue came just because of Joe's long-standing popularity in an industry that feeds on fads. The restaurant celebrated its seventeenth anniversary this year. There was renewed interest when it received a Michelin star last year, but lost it in the 2009 ratings. I wanted to see first-hand what it takes for a place to lose a star. What I realized was that Joe's never deserved a Michelin star in the first place.

Here's why...
When I say that Joe's does not deserve a star, I don't mean that it does not deserve high marks and recognition. I mean it in the sense that Joe's seem to fit in with the Michelin list. What I noticed most about the place, noting the blood red decor, exposed wood ceilings, colorful paintings and friendly staff, was this certainly wasn't a fine dining restaurant. Rightly or wrongly, Michelin has always been about high-end dining; therefore, most of Los Angeles' casual dining scene is left out every year. I'd say that Joe's captures LA but not Michelin, which is perfectly acceptable and even preferable in this Socal dining environment.

I usually hate to simply list the menu, but since this was a special case, I'll explain what Joe's had to offer for $35.

First Course
Mixed green salad with pumpkin souffle, roncal cheese, pomegranates, roasted shallots, pumpkin seed brittle and apple cider vinaigrette

Tuna tartare on smoked salmon with sliced cucumbers diced tomatoes and lemon oil

Both appetizers were expertly prepared, though the tartare lacked elegance in presentation. A mound of chopped tuna could have looked more appetizing. I enjoyed the lemon oil, which added the fruity flavors with barely a hint of tartness of the citrus. Smoked salmon played a compliment to the freshness of the tuna, giving me both flavors prepared and straight from the sea. The salad showcased many seasonal flavors of pumpkin and apple cider. It definitely tasted November, assuming Los Angeles had seasons.

First and a half Course
Honey-scented rabbit tenderloin with confit filled tortellini, shisito, chevre, pomegranate, brown butter apple vinaigrette

This course wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, but it was a component of the regular $75 tasting menu that sounded too good to pass up. Luckily, I didn't stick with just the Open Table menu; the tenderloin was my favorite dish of the night. The confit tortellini made me imagine potstickers; something about it, whether the texture or the taste felt oriental. The tenderloin itself didn't stand out, but the sauce made up for it nicely. Brown butter apple vinaigrette reduction certainly tasted as good as it sounds. Little bits of apple brought sweetness while the sharp vinegar cut through the luscious melted butter.

Second Course
Cavendish Farms roasted quail with wilted mustard greens, carmelized parsnip, wild rice, quince verjus, beet chips

Scottish salmon with spinach, maitake mushrooms, potato linguini, onion soubise, basil pistou

After that night, I don't think I will ever order quail at a nice restaurant ever again. There's just too little meat, however succulent, on those tiny bones. There doesn't seem to be a way to eat quail effectively and politely. Though the quail itself was not spectacular, the parsnip sauce and quince verjus made the poultry much more interesting. Quince is a sour fruit and the verjus is the sour juice squeezed from said fruit. I was underwhelmed by the salmon; I have yet to have a mind-blowing salmon at any restaurant that wasn't raw and wild. Soubise is a bechamel-based sauce. From what I understand, pistou is pesto without pinenuts.

Third Course
Autumn crumble of persimmons, quince and apple with almond topping, orange sherbet and candied ginger
Flourless chocolate cake with walnut ice cream
At this point my camera died after CUT and Ford's. But the desserts weren't pretty enough anyway. I've been seeing flourless cakes more and more recently; I wonder if it's another dessert trend. Since I'm not a baker, it boggles my mind making a cake without flour or any leavener. From my research, it seems that these ultra dense tortes are made purely out of eggs and butter. I guess the gluten-free diet doesn't coincide well with the low-fat, healthy diet.

Joe's is a nice restaurant, just not a fine one. But really, in Los Angeles, the best food isn't served on starched white tablecloths. Although I did see the buser at Joe's ironing the tablecloth before setting a new table. I also noticed that they still have their Michelin star placard above the bar. I'd say to Chef Joe Miller, banish Michelin, you don't need it! You may have lost your star, but LA has too many anyway.

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd
Venice, 90291
(310) 399-5811
$35 for this menu, but usually $10-20 appetizer; $20-40 entree


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Secret Pork: Ford's Filling Station's Special Pork Dinner

What do pig eyes taste like? It's more texture than taste. Last week FoodDigger graciously hosted a special menu dinner at Ford's Filling Station. These FD invites have gotten so competitive; I was certainly lucky to get a spot at Chef Ben Ford's Culver City restaurant.


I won't write an encyclopedic entry on every minute item I had at Ford's. For that, you're better off reading Kevin's entry. I could tell you about the unbelievably supple pork confit or the mouthwatering porchetta roasted pig with fennel. I could even tell you how panchetta wrapped pork loin is an amazing idea. Wrap pork with more pork; how can that fail? But the best memories of the night weren't the things on the table, they were the people seated around it. Fiona, HC, Kevin, Ila, Matt, Javier, Matt, Sarah and of course Will, Thi and Marshal truly made the night.

The dinner started with a flourish as Ben Ford came out to introduce himself and the menu to our table of hungry bloggers. We gave him the paparazzi treatment of course with questions and camera flashes going off in all directions. Of course, he could always take celebrities cues from his father Harrison Ford. He explained that the pork dinner is special for him--much fun to do and eager to present. The menu is by special request only with advance notice. After all, he needs to buy the two fifteen-pound baby pigs and brine overnight. Nightly, he makes his own headcheese, but rarely does he get the opportunity to work with the whole animal.

We had a few side dishes to start: brussel sprouts, cavalo nero & escarole, roasted carrots with pomegranate, and kabocha risotto. The risotto was a letdown, undercooked and underflavored. It's a pity since the kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin, has such a great flavor. In answer to the universal childhood fear of brussel sprouts, Ford says cook with bacon.

The stars of the night came dressed in their finest--on a silver platter served by Chef Ford himself. The fancy platter consisted of the porchetta, whole roasted pig with fennel and onions, pig's tongue and ear salad, deep fried pork eyes stuffed with ham hock, and panchetta wrapped loin chops, pulled pork and pork rinds. I was personally most impressed with the salad, since beef tongue is so common now, pork was a different treat. Fried eyes tasted how I imagined Rocky Mountain Oysters would be like. Breading and frying any gelatinous organ can cover up the taste of eyes as well as testicles. The texture was the only thing that set it apart. Eyes have a gummy resistance, best reserved for non-organ foodstuffs. Amazingly, none of these pork products relied on heavy sauces. The meat was tender and juicy enough to stand with relatively simple seasonings. The pulled pork was no exception; the only good pulled pork I've had was doused in sauce or in the form of carnitas.

Pork rinds, pork loin, and confit flanked by carrots and risotto

Porchetta, whole roasted pig with fennel and onions

The second platter of pork had the confit cooked in goose fat, crispy smoke pork legs, and a rather unhappy looking pig head. As a rule of thumb, when eating the heads of animals, empty eye sockets make the creature much more menacing. The confit was certainly as notable as its reputation would suggest. After being featured on Bizarre Foods, this was a dish I couldn't overlook. It almost had the flavor of a roasted turkey leg, smokey and deep. The night finished with a moist Hawaiian bread pudding and a disappointingly dry chocolate torte. Dessert wasn't the key to the dinner. Maybe if it featured bacon more prominently...

By the time we finished our late meal, the restaurant was all but empty. We gathered up and headed across the street for a round of drinks courtesy of Tastespotting. Food may have brought us all together, but it certainly wasn't the only thing keeping us there. It's not enough to love food; you still have to be a genuinely good person to be a part of the community. For all you quiet bloggers out there, all I can say is reach out join the fun.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

CUT Wolfgang Puck Beverly Hills

American Wagyu steaks on top and Japanese Wagyu below

With a stack of steaks like that, who needs the obligatory exterior photo of the restaurant. My trip to CUT was about one thing--meat.


One of my first upscale dinners was at Spago. I knew Wolfgang Puck before I was serious about food; he's in every supermarket. But I didn't choose Cut as my LA steakhouse of choice for him, I was chasing CUT's one Michelin Star.

The restaurant was designed by Richard Meier, architect for the Getty Center, but for all his renown, I thought the restaurant wasn't especially eye-catching. Clean lines and bright whites gave the place a modern look, but maybe I just don't appreciate design at a high enough level. I started with several cheese breadsticks that resembled crackers in crunch. They were narrow and heavily seasoned; I'd be much more inclined to call them crackersticks. The pretzel bread and four gougeres were also excellent starters.

Having just come from a beeftastic dinner at Totoraku, I didn't know how I could handle this much beef in such a short time. Of course that didn't deter me from ordering the veal tongue with salsa verde, artichokes, cannelli beans and basalmic vinegar. The flavor of the veal was much less pronounced than the tongue at Secret Beef for obvious reasons, but it had a tenderness that resembled a filet more than tongue. The only drawback from this dish was the awkward service temperature. The menu had called this "warm veal tongue" and it indeed came out lukewarm. I'm not sure what this accomplished besides confusing my tongue.

Veal tongue

So what steak did I choose for my steakhouse dinner? I was actually on a budget, considering this was a work-related meal, so I opted out of the Wagyu and went for the 35 day dry-aged 10 oz ribeye. Afterward, Kevin told me I should've had the Wagyu instead, but I felt like the raw beef flavor would be overwhelmed by the fat of a Wagyu cow. Especially if I'm eating a whole steak, I'd rather not eat that much Kobe beef. My steak turned out extremely well; I daresay the best steak in my life. A crispy crust of flavors surrounded a juicy interior of medium-rare. The key to the aging process is the concentration of beefiness, something I didn't want masked by fat. Knowing that however, I should've gone with a NY strip or something less fatty than a ribeye. I just can't say no to a ribeye though.

Meat isn't very photogenic

After the meat, we received two petite fours with the check. The ginger and Jack Daniels had little ginger or Jack, but plenty of indulgent chocolate. I enjoyed the cashew caramel much more, although I felt like a dog eating peanut butter as a chewed through that thing.

Cashew caramel

Ginger Jack Daniels

While I never like ordering steak at restaurants because they are typically overpriced, I'll make exceptions for places like CUT. A great steak is truly marvelous, even for $66.

Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel
9500 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, 90212
$40-80 a steak

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Asia AND Cuba both in West Hollywood? Sign me up!

It felt like a dream, driving through the gigantic doors sculpture at the Mondrian last week. The hotel is surreal, as white as a laundry detergent commercial and just as tranquil. The doors leading out to the dining patio were wide open, allowing a breeze to come through the restaurant. Asia de Cuba had been on my overpriced list for sometime, a place I avoided because of the perceived high cost-benefit ratio. I can't speak for the dinner, but I discovered that a relaxing lunch can be just the calm you need in the middle of Los Angeles.


I started with the black bean and chickpea dumplings in a tomatillo-ginger sauce that tasted vaguely like Indians samosas. I'm not a fan of chickpeas, so maybe the appetizer would have been less lost on someone else. The tempura rock shrimp with black bean aioli, jalepeno aioli and sweet chili sauce were much more delightful. Fried just right, these little morsels had a light tempura coating that worked well with each of the sauces. However, the shrimp themselves were small and didn't taste particularly fresh.

Tempura rock shrimp with three dipping sauces

My entree, as well as the entrees of three of my other coworkers, was the miso cured Alaskan butterfish with black bean edamame salad and tempura shisito peppers. The salad was amusing, the green and black colors playing nicely off each other. Flavorwise, it lacked any strong accents. I would have preferred the shisito peppers fried without the tempura coating. The fish had a sweet miso glaze and was grilled to excellent doneness of barely flaking.

Miso cured Alaskan butterfish

Asia de Cuba exceeded my expectations. I'd come back just for the venue, but the food wasn't a letdown either. The gigantic terra cota flower pots housed miniature trees and created a beautiful outdoor dining terrace. It's worth checking out.

Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian Hotel
8440 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, 90069
(323) 848-6000


Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Beef Secret's Out: Totoraku

It may not be so secret anymore, but it surely was not my own doing. Once the reviews started appearing on Yelp, among other places, it was just a matter of time before the Teriyaki House on Pico was known by its true identity--Totoraku, the Secret Beef restaurant.

This dinner had been a long planned event. I had heard rumors of Secret Beef since I started blogging months ago. However, it wasn't until I met Ryan that I had my foot in that beefy door. The novelty about Totoraku was simply its exclusivity. You can't walk in without a reservation. I heard they used to go as far as locking their doors during business hours. Moreover, you can only get the elusive reservation by calling the direct line to the chef. He only grants reservations to people he knows, and he'll only know you if you've been there before. The key is to get in through a connection, then impress chef Kaz Oyama with the wine you're sure to bring. On that note, make sure to pour him a glass of your finest.

Well luckily, I know enough of the LA food community now to find a way into Totoraku. Through Ryan and Kevin, we got an early November reservation for twelve carnivorous bloggers and friends. Caroline from Caroline on Crack, Ore from Potential Gold and Fiona from Gourmet Pigs rounded out the bloggers. It was good company, made even better by the copiously flowing bottles of libations. Although I was able to distinguish between the wines, I still wish that I could better appreciate wine. But I'll never get there if I don't practice, and practice last night I did.

The dinner started with a dazzling tray of bite-sized appetizers: melon and prosciutto, lobster salad with jellyfish, asparagus with walnuts, king crab gelatin, Japanese tomatoes, steamed abalone with gold flakes, sockeye salmon, caviar topped quail eggs, and persimmon tofu salad. Considering this was served before most of the wine, I had the clearest impressions of these flavors. As is always the case, I don't think the gold added any flavor to the abalone, but it always does wonders for your self esteem. I had an odd experience with the crab gelatin; imagine little blocks of jello with pieces of crab suspended inside. The cantaloupe and prosciutto stood out as a winning combination. I've been experimenting with savory fruit combinations like apples and cheese, and melon and cured meat were no exception. In fact, Ore brought his smuggled culatello, aged 22 months and full of flavor. There's much tradition and technique involved in the curing of this contraband, but I can't speak on it with much authority. All I can say is that the culatello had an excellent finish, much smoother than the prosciutto served by the Chef Oyama.



The first beef course was a beef sashimi prepared very simply. Ribeye sashimi surrounded a small bowl of special beef throat sashimi. Most notable was the texture of the sashimi, similar to a tartare but with a slight crunch of resistance. Throat sashimi is so rare in fact that a Google search of "beef throat" lists Totoraku several times in the first page of results. See what I mean about it no longer being a secret?

Beef throat and ribeye sashimi

Next came the actual steak tartare, tossed in a Korean/Japanese style. Kevin and I both came to the conclusion that it reminded us of Chinese jellyfish both in texture and flavor. Slightly sweet and incredibly chewy, this was probably as refreshing as beef gets.

Steak tartare

At this point, our table was inundated by raw plates of meat as our yakiniku grill was set up. Beef tongue served with a squeeze of lemon juice and grilled rare was the most memorable item of the night. I've had tongue before, but all too often it is too chewy and thus only good in small quantities. The tongue I had at Totoraku was both luxuriantly fatty and tender. We also had a filet mignon, which was a pass for me. Nice piece of meat, but I never think that filets offer enough flavor for me. We had both the inside and outside ribeye(also known as cap steak. The inside was lackluster in flavor, but the outside could only be described as "genuine beef". It saddens me that there isn't more great cap steak like this or the one at Josie.

Beef tongue

At this point, I was having a hard time keeping track of all the beef dishes and all the wine pairings we matched them with. Whereas the first set of beef plates were simply prepared with some coarsely ground pepper and large crystal sea salt, the last two were marinated. Boneless Korean short ribs and skirt steak rounded off our cow. Though both were delicious, they didn't set themselves apart from any other Korean barbecue. I think that's my issue with much of Korean food, the flavors are very bold, but lack complexity. The only difference between so many Korean restaurants is the quality of the beef--something in which Totoraku excelled.

I had been looking forward to the soup since I read Ryan's entry on his earlier visit. I had expected a hearty big bowl of Alaska king crab with miso and kimchee flavors intermingled. Instead, the soup was so pathetic, I'd rather not write anything more on it. Dessert was a refreshing plate of pistachio, white chocolate raspberry, espresso ice creams, and blueberry and lychee sorbets. The dinner started strong, but died off towards the end. The food just was not hitting on as many levels as I had hoped for the price and the exclusivity. However, my interest in the food had also shifted as more bottles were opened and I enjoyed my friends more and more.

Ultimately, I had a great night, but more because of the people than the beef. Better still, Masi Oka from Heroes was there on a date. It was an interesting experience, but not one I'd like to have again for $180. For the ingredients alone, I didn't see the price needing to be so high. If I'm paying that kind of money, I don't expect hole-in-the-wall style dining. However, I understand that the chef needs to keep his prices that high to maintain his business model. So though it was expensive, I am honored now to be a card carrying member of Secret Beef. Too bad soon it'll just be known as that pricey barbecue on Pico.

Phone number is secret
10610 W Pico Blvd,
Rancho Park, 90064

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wall Street Got Its Bailout, Here's Yours: the Open Table Appetite Stimulus Plan

Open Table has created a new program to heal sagging restaurant business. It's going on in most major cities, including Los Angeles.

More after the jump...

This impressive list showcases many quality restaurants around town. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find any Michelin Stars on there. Most restaurants are hurting these days though, so there are a couple good finds.

From November 17-21 $35 dinner, $24 lunch per person for three-course meals. Make sure to ask for the Open Table menu. I just want to warn you when selecting restaurant to do some research beforehand. At some of these places, you really aren't saving much money paying $35 anyway. And I wouldn't be surprised if they cut portion sizes and other amenities to hit that price. So be vigilant! Report any corner-cutters here.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Cool Things to Do with a Blowtorch and Fish: Kiriko Omakase

I recently tried Kiriko as part of my journey to eat at every restaurant on Sawtelle. Don't ask me for the exact parameters of my dine through Sawtelle journey since I am still deciding whether or not to go to Bar Hayama. But I did know that Kiriko, as one of LA Magazine's Best 75 Restaurants in LA, was on the top of my list.

More after the jump...

Finding myself alone for dinner on a Friday night, I decided to resume my list of Sawtelle restaurants. It wasn't until I was parking at a meter on Olympic that I decided which restaurant to try. I wasn't in a particularly spendy mood, but that had to change when I decided to go for sushi. The restaurant is small and subdued, nothing flashy or obtrusive to the meal. Even on a Friday night it was suspiciously vacant. There were a few tables and a couple finishing at the bar, but not as packed as I was expecting. This is usually not a good sign at places like sushi bars that require quick turnover on their fresh ingredients. However, after my dinner, I am glad that Kiriko is lesser known and I can get a seat at peak hours.

I mistakenly order a salad and an adult yellowtail sushi to start. I mention specifically adult yellowtail because this was listed as buri on the menu, which refers specifically to older specimens on their way to spawning. The flavor was therefore much more pronounced than it would be in a younger fish. Sufficiently satisfied with the buri, I decided to go for an all-out omakase.

Buri sushi

Shinji, my chef for the night, guided me into the dinner with a tai red snapper topped with grated wasabi and squeezed with lemon. Since tai tends to be a more delicate fish, it was nice to have some acidity in the citrus. I glanced at a bowl sitting above me on the countertop; sure enough, they had real wasabi root. I asked if I was eating the real thing or the imitation paste. He glanced in front of me, and placed a dollop of something slightly duller green next to the heap of wasabi. Real wasabi, a true rarity, tastes much more herbal and earthy than its doppelganger. There isn't as much eye-watering either. Given the chance, make sure you look for the real thing.

Next was a bonito with a little fried garlic on top. It tasted sweet, meaty and wholesome. No wonder bonito flakes seem to be used everywhere. But this was my first time having it as a sushi. The chutoro medium fatty bluefin tuna belly was satisfyingly melty, but not as decadent as some of the truly fatty toro I've had before. Next came a fish I'd never heard of prior to Kiriko - kinmedai Goldeneye Snapper. Besides sounding like a villain from a James Bond movie, the fish also has a soft white flesh similar to tai. Of course I didn't get much of that delicate flesh because Shinji went to town on it with a blowtorch. This wasn't a dinky brulee torch either, it actually enveloped the counter in flames. I later saw him do the same thing for a seared scallop sushi. It may be partly for show, but who doesn't love the tricks at Benihana.

I generally like ebi more than amaebi raw shrimp, but the one I had today was clearly very fresh, thereby incredibly sweet. It even tasted almost like lobster. Of course, the waitress later brought my the fried shrimp head, something I've never figured out quite how to eat.

Tempura shrimp head served with ponzu

Shinji served me wild king salmon with caviar next. I never had wild salmon sushi before, though I had heard that some people refuse to eat farmed salmon because it was terrible in comparison. Now I know exactly how those people feel. As with game animals, wild salmon had much higher concentrations of the flavors that make salmon what it is. Too often have I had buttery salmon that is indistinguishable from any other heavily marbled fish. The mirugai geoduck had a few drops of lemon to mask the ocean flavor. I had both aji jack mackerel and saba blue mackerel. Though saba tends to have a heavier vinegar flavor due to the preparation process, I found this saba to be almost as subtle sweetness as the aji.

I'm not usually a fan of ikura salmon roe, but this one was juicy and not at all briny. Too often it suffers from an overwhelming fishiness, but this ikura lacked it completely. It probably was a function of freshness. A good fish market should never smell like fish! I felt pretty full at this point and asked for one last piece. Shinji pulled out a tub of thick, brown sauce and stirred gently as it warmed. This was unagi freshwater eel sauce, not to be confused with the separate sauce they use for anago saltwater eel. I'm usually turned off by the sweetness of the eel, but there was none of that this time. Still, eel just didn't appeal to me as a sushi. I wouldn't mind it as part of a donburi instead.

Ikura salmon roe

With the sushi portion of the meal over, I asked for a dessert menu. I had heard that Kiriko prepared homemade ice cream that was amazing. Unfortunately, they do not allow customers to have dessert only, according to a Yelp review. The bark menu listed wild honey vanilla, honey sesame, bitter green tea, and brown sugar and ginger flavors. Upon recommendation by Shinji, I chose the brown sugar ginger. Turns out that the sushi chefs know their desserts too, otherwise every one of their ice creams is top notch. Be sure to try one on your own visit.

Physically and spiritually content, I rose from my chair and bid farewell to my chef, who had been the most important person in my life for the last hour. I reached to shake his hand, but realizing that it would probably have been a health code violation, he gave me an appropriate fist bump instead. I regret not chatting him up more, though I can rest assured there will definitely be another trip. Even better, I got out of there for less than $90.

Kiriko Sushi
11301 W Olympic Boulevard
Suite 102
West LA (Sawtelle), 90064
(310) 478-7769
I had omakase for around $70 with the above listed items