Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tres at the SLS Hotel: Learning To Trust

After a horrendous drink experience at Menage in Pasadena two years ago—I called it the 'Midori Sour Gone Wrong' as it almost cost me my dinner and pass out—I've been avoiding surprises and Midori ever since. Whether I'm at a bar or lounge, I would always order my signature Mojito or Stella so as to prevent any future unconsciousness.

It wasn't until my birthday last month that I broke my own personal rule and learned to trust again. Maybe because I was giddy from my carnivorous-happy meal at Animal beforehand, amazed by SLS Hotel's fetching interiors, or their bartender's recognition of St. Germain (my absolute favorite liquor), but I gave our bartender full reins to create—provided he incorporated St. Germain in his concoction. And boy oh boy, was I glad I made that leap.

After a few minutes in the alcohol filled vault, our trusty mixologist emerged with our drinks in hand. My friends had a Russian version of the Brazilian Caipirinha and Rose champagne. As for me, he created a updated version of the Greyhound. It was bracing and crisp, yet sweet and light—I was blown away.

Seeing how happy it made me or rather, probably tired from my endless profession of love for the cocktail, the bartender revealed his recipe: Grey Goose Poire, St. Germain, fresh-squeezed Grapefruit juice and triple sec.

Simple. Delicious. Greyhound a la Tres is now my new signature drink.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How to Eat Well at the San Pedro Lobster Festival Sans Lobster

This year, prompted by the current recession, the San Pedro Lobster Festival offered their Lobsters at bargain prices circa 2007's $17 for 1.25 pounds of genuine Maine goodness. This promotion worked well... so well then by the time my friends and I arrived on Sunday, they ran out of the festival's namesake.

My fellow foodies and I were crushed—it's a blur now, but tears were involved—ok, not really. But since we drove 30 minutes out to the harbor, we were determined to have a good meal, no matter what it takes. 

We first stopped by the lemonade stand for some much needed refreshments. This was a tip-top specimen with the perfect ratio of sugar to water to lemons.  

In the next booth over, a family hawked freshly roasted corn and potatoes. Perhaps we were all famished, but it was seriously one of the best corn on the cob I've had to date. The corn was first grilled with its husk fully intact. When it was ready, the server pulled back the charred husk and brushed the exposed golden kernels with melted butter (housed in a crock pot, genius!). Next comes the fun part: a serving bar full of miscellaneous seasonings all waiting to be chosen to dress the ears. I chose Parmesan, garlic salt, bacon *flavored bits* and chives. It was simply sublime.

By that time, the festival was winding down and the stands were getting packed up, so we ventured off to the pier for some much needed seafood. We found a lobster claw machine for lobsters, which was a clever, albeit sadistic idea. Right next to the lobster machine however was a griddle displaying a ravishing mix of shrimps, onions and peppers being transformed into shrimp fajitas, the specialty of San Pedro. We knew it was fate then and there and ordered immediately. 

Our order of a pound of shrimp came bathe in a zesty Cajun sauce, mingled with red potatoes, onions, tomatoes and green peppers and piled high on a plastic tray lined with parchment. It's a messy, yet extremely satisfying dish that required deft hands and high pain tolerance as it was scaldingly hot. The crispy garlic bread was a great tool in soaking up all the delectable sauce afterwards. 

To temper with the spice of the fajita, we ordered a pitcher of Horchata, a Christmasy tasting concoction of grounded rice and cinnamon. As we looked out at the sea while rubbing our filled bellies, we all had the same thought, "mission accomplished." 

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Hulk (of the Cooking Variety)

"You're making me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Whenever I'm having a particularly stressful day, the hulk inside of me wakes up. No, not the green, smash-happy one a la Bruce Banner, but rather of the mellower, cook-happy variety. Perhaps it's my natural defense. Whatever it is, I would go into my kitchen in a bout of concentrated trance and create till I'm exhausted, but happily full.

Usually, this happens a handful amount of times per month, but this past weekend was exceptionally taxing. So, instead of one cooking session, it became more of a series of little Hulk episodes. Here were the damages:

"Oliver Twist's Soup"
A soup made entirely out of pantry odds and ends.
Dice up some Salo (Russian cured pork fat), render it in a pan with onions and potatoes. Add chicken broth and simmer for 20 mins, thicken with potato flakes (my secret to a quick soup. Shh.), add seasonings and finish with heavy cream.

"BLT without the B or the L"
Slice filone bread and grill in cast iron pan with pork fat (Salo fits the bill). Then sear Roma tomato slices with cracked pepper and salt. Assemble sandwich with Prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, grilled tomatoes and basil. Et voila!

"Anchovies + Lemon"
My first encounter with the infamous anchovy... who would've thought they were so delicious? To me, they're the solid version of fish sauce.
Boil pasta in salted water and heat up oil with diced onions. Add diced tomatoes, capers, lemon zest and chopped anchovies and saute till fragrant. Toss in pasta with a little bit of the pasta water and finish with lemon juice, basil and butter.

"Leftovers from Trader Joe's"
Boil pasta in salted water and render Italian sausages. Saute eggplant strips with chopped anchovies in the rendered sausage grease (just trust me). Add frozen artichokes, garlic tomato sauce and pasta. Finish with basil, season and enjoy.

"Lemon Panna Cotta + Port Wine Berry Sauce"
Steep cream and milk with vanilla beans and lemon zest, add gelatin and chill in the fridge till set, which takes anywhere from 6 hrs to overnight. In a small saucepan, reduce down port with mixed berries, lemon juice and sugar. Blend till smooth and serve on top of the panna cotta. Garnish with lemon zest.

"Very Gouda Risotto"
Render Salo and add minced onions. Add Arborio rice and saute till golden brown. Add mushroom stock and cook till the rice is al dente. Add chopped haricot verts, bok choy and tiger shrimp. Finish with cream, pepper and grated smoked Gouda.

"Home in a Bowl"
Mixed ground pork shoulder with grated ginger, chopped bok choy, green onions, cilantro, Shitake and season to taste. Wrap and boil in water. Prepare soup by boiling chicken broth, chiffonade ginger, Shitake and bok choy. Add cooked wontons and finished with minced green onions and cilantro.

Until next time...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Notebook Dilemma at Jar

My experience with Jar can be best liken to Allie's relationship with Lon from The Notebook. For those who haven't watch or read the quintessential romance, the story is about a young woman's struggle to choose between her heart vs. her head. Set in the 50s, when it was unheard of for a woman to support herself, a good marriage is the ultimate goal.  Fortunately (and unfortunately), Allie found herself with two suitors: Noah, her first love, an all-in-all exciting, rousing man but of the blue collar elk; and Lon, the perfect man (ie. rich) albeit rather bland. 

I wanted to love Jar, I really do. You see, on paper, Jar couldn't be any more perfect. Situated in a cozy, dark wooded interior, Jar serves up aptly grilled steaks with solid sides and appetizers. If that wasn't enough, the service was stellar as well—professional, yet friendly. See? Perfect.

Yet, with perfection also comes boredom. Throughout my meal, while every dish was expertly prepared textbook-style, nothing in particular really shone. To explain, here was my meal in detail:

Our server first started my dining companion and I with libations. He chose a vintage red whereas I opted for a classic Sidecar. A concoction of Cointreau, cognac and lemon juice, it was bracing yet comforting at the same time.

Shortly after came the lobster tomato bisque. Exclaimed by the server as one of Jar's signature dishes and prepared sans cream nor butter, it's a briny brew of tomatoes and seafood. Though the lobster wasn't evident except for the one lonely nugget floating in the middle of the bowl, it was nevertheless a good soup better named as tomato bisque with seafood essence (or something to that extent). 

That was one of the few healthful parts of dinner as the following two dishes were deep fried: fried Ipswich clams and crab-stuffed squash blossoms. The clam strips were overpowered by the batter so the dish became an exercise in eating crispy batter. The blossoms fared much better as the zucchini flowers were much more substantial and so held its own to the tempera coating. The mild crab filling and tangy yuzu dipping sauce were nice touches as well. 

For the main show, we each ordered their 14 oz. rib-eye. Since each steak comes with two sauces, we each ordered a different combo to cover all our bases: Bearnaise & Lobster Bearnaise and the Tamarind & Green Peppercorn. Now, their steaks were broiled impeccably, but where was the seasoning? I could detect pepper, but my steak was definitely not salted, which is a pity as properly seasoned food is a fundamental of cooking. 

With no salt shaker in sight, I quickly reached for the pitchers of sauce. The first was the Bearnaise, an emulsified lemon butter sauce, didn't help the cause. It added to the unctuousness of the steak and not much else. The Lobster Bearnaise was the same except with the added bonus of seafood essence. The Tamarind was better since it wasn't butter, but its sweet, cloying taste also didn't do much for the under salted meat. Fortunately, the Green Peppercorn fit the bill. It had the most sodium out of all sauces and the pepper helped cut through the fattiness of the meat. 

To balance the steak, I ordered sauteed pea shoots. It was nicely prepared with big slivers of garlic. 

For the big finale—the desserts—my friend had their chocolate paradise and I settled on their peach cobbler. Nothing much to say except I couldn't find any faults with them. 

So you see, the  meal (with the exception of the steak) was quite enjoyable, but completely forgettable. Usually, there's always a dish from every restaurant that blows me away and makes me think and crave about long after my visit, which in turns brings me back time after time again. However for Jar, there wasn't any spark. The squash blossoms was very good, but I can find better ones elsewhere with a much cheaper price tag. The same can also be said for all their dishes. 

Every restaurant has its function—if you are looking for a solid meal with no surprises, this is the perfect restaurant. It is the restaurant version of Lon: a place to take your parents to and a place you know will always treat you well. But ultimately, it's one dimensional and lacks excitement. For me, I would rather choose the Noah variety: a restaurant that may not be as well polished, but is able to create a meal that surprises, delights and essentially make me plan the next trip back before the dessert even comes out. 

Church & State, a Food Oasis in Downtown

Located in the heart of industrial (ie. ghetto) downtown LA is Church & State, a quaint French bistro. This unassuming restaurant inhabits the first floor of a biscuit-factory-turned-luxury-lofts-building—a welcome sight for two ravenous foodies. Walking inside the airy space reminds oneself of a lively New York eatery, sans the communal tables. 
Before we had even taken our seats, our server immediately asked if she could bring us a bottle of flat or sparkling water. Notice the key word “bottle,” which equates to “would you like to pay $6 for a bottle of water?” Not knowing any better, my friend and I unwittingly chose the former. 
Minor pique aside, my meal can only be described as a starving man’s foray in a desert oasis—I ate till I could eat no more.

They started us with an amuse bouche of  lighter-than-air Grougeres, a wonderful concoction of savory cheesy cream puffs. 

Next was the freshest baguette I’ve ever had. It had a hearty crust with a fluffy and steaming-hot interior— they must have pulled the bread right out of the oven before rushing it to our table. Magnificent. 

We were barely done with the baguette when our server brought us the beignets de brandade de morue. Or as I like to say, little fried balls of goodness. They take traditional brandade, which is a humble French casserole of cod and potatoes, form the mixture into golf ball-sized spheres, then fried for maximum effect. Paired with saffron aioli, these beignets kick traditional crab cakes to the curb. 

Now we’re warming up. Our next dish was moules mariniere—steamed mussels steeped in white wine, garlic and shallots with fries fried in lard. That’s right, pork fat. Forget about your diet and what you have been told about the evils of saturated fat. Just dive in because this is one of those life experiences that you’ll never forget and will always remember with a smile. 

At this point, I was getting quite full, but our main courses were arriving so the show must go on. My friend ordered the Loup de mer, a solid dish of pan seared sea bass with a caper lemon sauce, while I had the beef short rib a la Bourgeoise. This was the only dish that failed to amaze due to the chef’s liberal use of salt—the tender beef and accompanying fresh vegetables’ natural taste were subjugated by the overly harsh sauce. Even after a redo by the chef, I still had alternate each bite with a sip of water before resigning all together. 

Luckily, my friend suggested we get dessert, which ended the meal on a very high note. We shared their strawberry and rhubarb cobbler a la mode and it was amazing to say the least. A tart fruit mixture, baked with a cookie crust, and finished a scoop of vanilla ice cream made for a delightful interplay of textures and temperature. A perfect end to an (almost) perfect dinner. 

Jollibee: For The Young at Heart/Stomach

If you were to ask my 7-year-old self what would be served in the perfect dinner, I would have described a elaborate three-course meal. The first course would be a plate of expertly made spaghetti swimming in a meaty tomato sauce—after watching Lady and the Tramp, I thought it was the most romantic dish ever created. After the primi, it’s time for the main course: juicy fried chicken, preferrably dark meat and from KFC cause the colonel knows his stuff. After washing it all down with a glass of icy coke with a squeeze of lemon, the meal ends with a delicate apple pie from McD’s. To me, that is perfection in itself.
Since then, my palate has matured (a little), and yet, I’ve always wondered about that envisioned meal. So imagine my surprise when I walked in Jollibee, pass their smiling mascot and up their counter. There, in the menu, was the dream: Jollibee spaghetti and Chickenjoy combo meal.

I eagerly ordered the meal and after waiting a few restless minute, dug into a grand spread. In honor of my childhood fantasy, I started with the spaghetti, which was cooked past al dente, but of decent quality. The sauce was a new experience, tomato sauce made sweet with ketchup, with ground pork and hot dog nuggets. A little cloying, but satisfying overall.

Next up was the chicken. My, oh my, it was to die for. Although the drumstick may have made its final journey in hot oil, the crunchy coating it sported remain dry and delicate. At the same time, the meat itself was cooked just to the right point, preserving all of its juicy goodness. As a bonus, it comes with a tiny cup of gravy (as if it needed any help), but it made for a delicious pairing. 
At this point, I was pretty satisfied, but seeing that Jollibee served pie, I couldn’t resist and sprung for the peach-mango one. It trumps over McD’s version because it was deep fried, rendering its crust to superstar status and its filling lava-hot. Wow.
The kid in me danced a happy dance as I staggered to my car afterwards. Adieu Mr. Jollibee, but I’ll be back. 

Stinking Rose: Rabbit on Easter?

This past Easter Sunday, a sudden wave of lethargy hit my boyfriend and me right around dinnertime. With it being a major holiday, we didn’t want to make this meal into a major production by shopping around for ingredients, taking chance that the grocery store might be closed, then lugging back all the fixings to fix supper.

Instead, we picked up the phone and called The Stinking Rose, made a quick reservation, then drove on over to La Cienega restaurant row to have the restaurant to take care of business. We were not disappointed.

They started us off with a plate of warmed rolls, a glass of refreshing mojito and a jar of wonder sauce. Don’t know what its true name is, but all I can say is wow. A Chimichurri-esque relish made of chopped garlic, parsley, oil and seasonings, this wonder sauce should be in the arsenal of a pixie, spreading garlic joy to all. Add some to a roll, bam! You now have a garlic roll. In the restaurant’s case, sprinkle some on french fries and shazzam! Heavenly garlic fries.

To be fair, their garlic fries wasn’t just great because of the wonder sauce, although that played a major part. What made their fries amazing was the expert way they were prepared by the fry master: a shattering crispy exterior, fluffy magma-hot interior that was not a bit greasy. We lovingly devoured the entire plate within minutes.

By then, we were getting stuffed, but the show must go on. I had their short ribs, which was fork-tender, literally. One gentle poke from my fork’s tines broke the connective tissues holding the tender beef fibers, making the entire structure collapse into the rich garlic red wine sauce below.

My boyfriend ordered their roasted rabbit and isn’t it a beaut? I had heard it tasted like chicken so I had to try some. And guess what, it does taste like chicken, albeit a muscular, “I work out daily” one with none of the flabby bits. The roasted olives and garlic made a wonderful supporting cast for this fabulous dish.

As I helped clean, ok, more like mooched off the plate, a thought came to mind… isn’t it sacrilegious to eat rabbit on Easter, aka Bunny Day? The thought quickly disappeared however as I speared up a particular succulent piece. Perhaps we are honoring this hare by eating reverently.

All I know was that this moment was ecstasy. Gastro induced euphoria, or as I like to call it, Gastrophoria. This the raison d’etre for my blog: to catalog and share moments (both big and small) of food bliss and other food-related news. Thanks for reading and bon appetit!
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