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


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An LA Institution: Philippe's

Most Angeleno natives have heard of Philippe at one time or another. Since this is only my fifth year in town, I just recently stopped by. What can I say about an institution that has been in Chinatown since before it was Chinatown? What you see is what you get.

More after the jump...

Beef French Dip with Potato Salad, Coleslaw and $.79 Lemonade

This is what I ordered at Philippe. It is nearly identical to the orders of the legions of people in the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. You'll have to navigate through the throngs to find a line at the counter. Whenever you can, snag the attention of one of the people behind the counter to take your order. I have a feeling this system works much better on slow days.

I figured that the beef sandwich would be a safe bet, although I had to fight long and hard to give up on the lamb one. Knowing that these sandwiches have maintained their popularity for so long with hardly a change gave me confidence. However, the sandwich was a soggy mess. I had no idea that the sandwiches are pre-dipped for you, a rather disgusting concept if you think about it. I resorted to picking it apart with a knife and fork. Anytime a sandwich pushes me to those extremes is going to be the last time I eat it. The beef was dry and the jus soaked bread dissolved without imparting any flavor.

The saving grace was the restaurant's amazing hot mustard. If anything, I would just buy a jar and keep it for every sandwich that needs a kick. For the record, I have a jar of Plochman's Stone Ground mustard, which is just as good but without the heat. Also, Sierra Nevada makes a great mustard. I also enjoyed Philippe's potato salad. The dill pickles added sweetness and brine, plus the paprika gave it more spice. The coleslaw was also plain but up to par. If you're looking for cheap drinks, $.79 lemonade and iced tea are refreshing but filled with so much ice that you end up buying two anyway.

What you get at Philippe's is nothing special. The sandwiches, at around $7 are even on the expensive side. But if consistency is what you crave, I'm not surprised that this restaurant is an LA institution.

Also, can anyone tell me if it's pronounced "Felipe" like in Spanish, or "Fill-eep" like in French?

Philippe's the Original Restaurant
1001 N Alameda St
Chinatown, 90012
$7 a sandwich, $2-3 side, $.79 lemonade/iced tea


Friday, October 24, 2008

Cimarusti's Divine Seafood in LA

(For my desserts experience)

Since I started blogging and getting deep into the world of LA dining, I’ve been constantly reminded that I seemed to be the only blogger in town without an entry on Providence. It had been on my list for some time. Last weekend I managed to cross it off the list, along with “best meal yet.”

More after the jump...

Amuse Bouche - gin and tonic, mojito, saffron and fennel

The meal started with an amuse bouche bar sampler. Gin and tonic was molded into a slushy cube, with texture similar to a melting snow cone. At the center was a spherical mojito drop with a thin skin that exploded with liquid. The third was a saffron and fennel drink, intensely saffron flavored. I like to think that the three bites signified a descent into the water since the textures gradually dissolve into liquid. As the dinner began, I imagined wading into the open ocean.

Japanese Kanpachi – red shiso granitée, compressed cucumber, lemon and virgin olive oil

I have always had a fascination with kanpachi. Since I’m a big yellowtail fan, I try to seek out kanpachi when I go out. At one point, I even contemplated buying a chunk of it online for myself. I don’t know if the first course was a crudo per se, but the fish was dressed lightly with a fruity virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Yet, I’d be hard-pressed to call this Italian considering it is a Japanese fish served with red shiso and cucumber. Cimarusti successfully combined the cultures to highlight the magnificence of truly fresh fish. The fish was rather lean, but it didn’t need the unctuous feeling of toro to be delicious. I enjoyed the firm texture, and the more I chewed, the more of the flavors came through.

Point Judith Calamari – Aligio, olio, peperoncino

Now while the last course’s origins may be unclear, this course was certainly Italian. The chef julienned the body of the squid resembling pasta, while the body was coated in semolina flour and deep-fried. Both pieces sat in a citrus marinara that put other tomato sauces to shame. While the dish didn’t seem too elaborate, the simple sautéed squid was at the exact doneness to really excel. My impression of the tentacles was that of tempura with substance.

Sea Scallop (Hokkaido, Japan) – Coleman Farms arugula, truffle vinaigrette, juliet tomatoes

Ever since my unforgettable scallop dish at La Terza’s 5x5 by Alain Giraud, I could not get enough of scallops. A simple sautéed scallop with butter can be amazing in itself. While the scallop at Providence was certainly at the caliber of the restaurant, it was not especially memorable. Stranger still, it smelled like Chinese honey prawns, which slightly turned me off to the whole thing.

Day-boat Halibut (British Columbia) – fried burdock, shiso, lemon

This dish was impossible to photograph without excellent white balance. One of the purest things I have ever seen on a plate, the white fish looked saintly. I was shocked when the waiter told me this was steamed halibut. I feel like the flavor of the fish would be lost in the steaming process; and as anyone who has been to Alaska knows, good halibut is unforgettable. However, the heavy sauce played contrast to the lightness of the color. There was so much umami in the sauce that I found myself scrapping the bowl and licking my lips.

Grilled Columbia River King Salmon – roasted musque de province pumpkin, port wine reduction, sherry vinegar, Neuskes bacon, dandelion greens

Having read many reviews of my blogging counterparts, I highly anticipated the salmon course. From what I’ve seen, Cimarusti seemed to redefine salmon in his dishes. However, this one failed to amaze me. It was certainly one of those dishes where you can’t try all the components at once, and so the whole thing seems disjointed. The salmon was at an awkward doneness, not raw enough to be enjoyed rare, nor cooked long enough to flake. I found myself picking reluctantly at the salmon while loving the bacon and pumpkin. Those two components stole the dish from the fish. Around the plate was a slight dusting of star anise; I was uncertain whether the aroma added anything to the salmon.

Tenderloin of Veal – chanterelles, Weiser Farms torpedo onion, celery root purée

Since the menu was dominated by aquatic creatures, I didn’t expect to encounter veal underwater. However, I appreciated the choice of veal for the main meat course; because of its light texture, it did not distract too heavily from the other courses. The sous vide style of preparation, sealing the veal to roast in its own juices, resulted in fork tender meat. While extremely flavorful, I felt that it may have been too salty. Considering the cooking method, I guess veal does belong in a seafood restaurant.

Market cheeses – served with apple jam, candied walnuts, olive marmalade, dried figs, fruit bread

I won’t claim to remember all the cheeses I by name or even by description. If I tried, it would sound something like “the hard, nutty one” or “the runny bleu.” I did enjoy the spectacle of having an entire cheese cart pushed out and explained. My suggestion, avoid the strongly flavored cheeses because that taste just won’t go away. Above all, stay away from the buffalo milk cheese. It tasted like ashes. I did enjoy the apple jam and candied walnuts with some of the hard cheeses though.

Raisin, pear, ras el hanout & hazelnut

To cleanse the cheese plate in preparation for dessert, we received a miniature mug with a sweet cracker on top. The liquid was a pear soup with heavy flavors of melon and other spices. From what I can tell, ras el hanout can be a combination of dozens of different spices. This was certainly refreshing, but I wouldn’t call it a proper course.

Kalamansi Gelée – white chocolate coconut soy milk soup, litchi-shiso sorbet

Filipino lime, tapioca, coconut milk, lychee, shiso? Did this dessert manage to hit every major cuisine in Asia? An intensely tart gelée floated in a creamy coconut soup with tapioca reminiscent of Chinese tapioca desserts. Amazingly, the lychee and shiso flavors both came through in the sorbet in perfect balance. Eating a spoonful of sorbet, gelée and a dash of coconut milk made this the one of the best, unconventional desserts I’ve had.

Pistachio macaron, espresso truffle, olive oil gelee

I also want to make special mention of the bread. Three kinds were served with dinner, including: chive brioche, nori foccacia, and bacon brioche. I don’t commonly see these flavors infused in breads, but they would make a meal in themselves. With the check came a plate of petite fours: espresso chocolate truffles, olive oil gelée, and pistachio macarons. The truffles were an after-thought; the olive oil, an intrigue; and macarons comfortingly familiar. Imagine fruity olive flavored gelatin dusted with sugar.

While the kanpachi, and halibut certainly stood out, none of the courses were sub-par. Each displayed the creativity and care of detail I would expect from a newly awarded two-Michelin-star restaurant. At La Terza, I had the honor of meeting Chef Cimarusti. From the brief conversation with him, I could tell that he takes his job very passionately. Both him and the co-owner Donato Poto show the professionalism and excellence that only true dedication can bring. What other maitre d’ would prepare live roasted Santa Barbara prawns tableside (a dish unfortunately off-menu)? While I couldn’t return too soon for fear of diluting the pleasant memories of this dinner, I would be honored to come back. If Providence is divine care, I’m in heaven at Cimarusti’s table.

5955 Melrose Ave
Mid-Wilshire/Hancock Park, 90038
(323) 460-4170
$90 5-courses; $120 9-courses; $160 chef's menu


Monday, October 13, 2008

Introduction to Little Ethiopia: Rahel Vegan Cuisine

This is my first restaurant in Little Ethiopia and the third I've been to ever. Usually, I go to Fassica on Fairfax, a little closer and away from the crowds, but this time I wanted to follow a recommendation by blogger Teenager Glutster. He told me that Rahel made their injera (the spongy bread) out of real teff instead of wheat like some of the other restaurants. I was determined to try out teff injera, despite my abhorrence for vegan restaurants.

More after the jump...

Speaking of Javier of Teenage Glutster, check him out October 14th on the Bizarre Foods on Travel Channel at 10pm, along with Mattatouille and Deep End Dining. But back to my review.

Rahel offers several "juice" drinks native to Ethiopia. Not knowing what I was thinking, I ordered the besso barley drink. I don't like barley teas, I don't know why I thought I would like a barley shake. It was thick and definitely had the taste of grain, but actually helped temper the spices of the food. My girlfriend's suff sunflower seed drink was quite refreshing. I'm not too sure how they managed to juice a sunflower seed, but the result was thin, more like a nectar than a shake. The taste was exactly what you'd imagine a drink made out of sunflower seeds would taste like.

Besso & Suff

Between my girlfriend and I, we had the Vegan Feast for two. Out came the sambussas appetizer first. I'm fairly certain that Ethiopian sambussas and Indian samosas more or less the same thing. Maybe they contain slightly different ingredients, but they tasted the same. It also came with a slightly sweet green pepper sauce and a red sauce I swear tasted alcoholic.


The main course came with the fabled teff injera. It came with several menu items including: stewed cabbage, whole lentil stew, split lentil stew, yeatkilt (vegetable) stew, split-pea stew, string beans with carrots, zucchini stew, collard greens, tomatoes, onions and jalepeños. While I've heard that the wats (stews) were good at Rahel, all the various ones on my plate blended together. In fact, due to the stewed texture, I felt like I was eating a big plate of more or less the same thing. I understand that much of Ethiopian cuisine is the wats, but it's just not my thing to eat stew with my hands. I always end up filling up on injera, which seems to expand in my stomach throughout the meal. At which point, I stop with the injera but can't figure out how else to eat with my fingers. I'd rather have a plate of tibs, which sauteed has more substance. The long-awaited injera had a slightly darker gray coloring than the wheat I was used to. It turns out that teff injera is tougher in texture, but besides that, not too different in taste. Both share that fermented sourdough taste that needs a pairing, otherwise is too sour to eat on its own.

Vegan feast

Considering how empty the restaurant was when we arrived, I would've expected prompter service. Things seem to move at a snail's pace at all the Ethiopian restaurants I've been to; perhaps it's a symptom of the cultural like how it felt when I was in Peru. It wasn't a bad restaurant, but I just can't give up meat--even for teff.

Rahel Ethiopian Vegetarian Cuisine
1047 South Fairfax Ave
Little Ethiopia, 90019
(323) 937-8401

Monday, October 6, 2008

O Rly? Actually it's Orris on Sawtelle

Orris, with its whimsical font, has always been in the corner of my eye in the last four years. Everytime I pass through Sawtelle, I always see the purple sign beckoning. But it wasn't until this last weekend that I finally dropped in.

More after the jump...

HC of LA OC Foodventures and I have been planning to come to this restaurant for weeks. Things came up, including a rushed LASIK surgery on my part, and we pushed the dinner back. Eventually, the two of us and my girlfriend found an early Saturday night to try the place. Pronounced "Ore-reese" as explained by the waiter, the restaurant is a Japanese inspired French restaurant serving tapa style small plates. If that isn't a mouthful, the portion-sizes certain aren't either. The menu is split into two simple sections "hot" and "cold." Inside, I found the place tastefully decorated and the waiter knowledgeable and charismatic. In fact, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if this was his day job and he spent his nights rehearsing his audition monologues like the rest of Los Angeles' waitstaff.

We decided to order two dishes each, a hot and a cold. In the end, six dishes for three people was slightly too little so we topped it off with a dessert. The crab and cucumber salad had a creamy ginger sauce but otherwise tasted plain. I could see it being a more successful dish if the crab itself was better. Being from San Francisco, I tend to be a dungeness crab snob. Also, a crab salad should not have pieces of shell. The braised duck breast with yuzu chili paste did not have much duck flavor and should be avoided.

Crab and cucumber salad

Duck breast

The star of the night was ordered by HC--trio of smoked salmon croquettes with caramelized onions, creme fraiche, and flying fish roe. The amazing combination of both tastes and textures could hold its own as either an appetizer or even a light main course. Sweet onions combined with the tart cream and smokey salmon to top the hashbrown consistency of the potato pancake. Little tobiko bits brought briny flavor grainy texture. I'm beginning to think that smoked salmon makes anything better, just as my previous theory with bacon at Fogo de Chao.

Salmon croquettes

For the heavier side of the meal, our Berkshire pork medallions were tender but not much more. The heavy peppercorn sauce covered everything. The shrimp mousse in the ravioli was hardly a factor in what amounted to more of a wonton than a ravioli drenched in a shiitake mushroom sauce. Served with a side of bread, the shiitake sauce made a great dip. Our foie gras in sweet-soy reduction finished it off with a nutty seared texture. I'll admit, I rarely have foie gras, but it always reminds me of uni. It's something I'll eat, but probably not order exclusively.

Pork medallions


Foie gras

The banana and fig flambe lacked the tableside pyrotechnics I like to see in flambes. Also, the menu said blueberries, which were clearly lacking in our dessert. It was the first time I've seen figs with ice cream, but they did a great job cutting through the sweetness. My greatest discovery was actually my beverage for the evening--Asahi Black. Unlike most Japanese beers which are far too light for my tastes, this one had body and depth, but still tasted pure and refreshing. Overall, I wasn't too impressed with Orris. But if I'm looking for something Japanese with a little more French, I'd return. If I'm looking for Japanese with a little more Italian, it's off to Restaurant 2117.


2006 Sawtelle Blvd,
West Los Angeles, 90025
(310) 268-2212
$10-15 per plate


Friday, October 3, 2008

Don't Forgo Fogo de Chao

The Fogo de Chao line of churascarias brings Southern Brazilian barbecue to the US in style. With thirteen locations in the States and six in Brazil itself, Fogo has established itself as a decent brand. I cannot say how authentic it is; I could very well be praising the Brazilian PF Chang's, but it is worth a visit. Last night I had a chance to go to the Beverly Hills restaurant with several fellow bloggers.

I met...

Gauchos, or friendly waiters, bring around hefty skewers threaded with fourteen kinds of meats to your table. A simple green-red card lets the servers know when you're aching for some bacon bursting at the seams (there is no in between at Fogo). Since this was a blogger meet-up event, I spent most of my attention on the people over the food. I know, food is always the priority, but I've been here before so I can speak intelligently enough about the dishes.

Well, not so much dishes as heaps of meat. I passed on the sides of plantains and mashed potatoes. From the extensive salad bar, I picked up a few cucumbers to clear my palate between the meat. If you're anything like me, your first reaction hearing that there are fourteen meats is to ask for a list. Hence, here it is with my favorites bolded:
Picanha - Garlic beef sirloin
Filet Mignon - Nothing special, but make sure to get the bacon-wrapped one
Alcatra - Top sirloin
Fraldinha - Bottom sirloin
Costela - Beef ribs
Cordeiro - Lamb chops and leg. I preferred the leg
Lombo - Pork loin with parmesan
Costela de Porco - Pork ribs
Frango - Chicken legs and chicken breasts wrapped in bacon
Linguica - Pork sausage
Ancho - Ribeye

Just make sure whatever option you choose, to ask if there is a bacon-wrapped version. Even if you don't eat bacon, anything bacon-wrapped always tastes better, even fruit.

More importantly, I got a chance to meet Famished LA, Grubtrotters, Kevin Eats, Teenage Glutster, Foodie Traveler, and see Wandering Chopsticks again.

Salad Bar