Friday, November 14, 2008

Palate Food and Wine in Glendale

It's easy to drive past Palate because the restaurant is neatly packed into a building that must be the only non-auto dealership on Brand Blvd. in Glendale. What made the place findable was the valet line, which was 5 cars deep when we arrived at 7:30. (Street parking was readily available though…welcome to LA…I guess.)

Inside the restaurant you are treated to a fancy, modern mix of black and purple. The bar is silver and tall - snaking from a doorway leading to the back rooms to the entrance where we stood. Manning the bar was Antoine, an amicable Frenchman who's been in LA for 9 years and has cultivated a first-rate knowledge of all things alcohol (he makes a stellar Drambuie and soda too). The bar was full from waist to ceiling with bottles of wine and there were two small wine refrigerators with vacuum re-corking systems - ensuring that ordering wine by the glass is always a full-bodied experience.

To the left of the bar you find a dining room that seats upwards of 100 people, bordering that is a teeny-tiny exhibition kitchen. We said hello to Octavio - the Chef/Owner who was expediting at the pass - and watched as cooks bumped and jockeyed for position on the line or at the stove. Immediately noticeable in that little dungeon of flavor were truffles, an immersion circulator and...well...I don't know. In such a small space it was easy for 4 cooks to completely obscure the view.

Walking through the doorway at the far end of the bar, you find another dining area of equal size, the cheese cave, charcuterie, and their wine and cheese retail area. It looked very well stocked...but I was more interested in dining-in than carry-out.

The meal started with the "Porkfolio" - Ha! - A platter with two pieces each of speck, prosciutto, salami, salami cotto, pepperoni and a couple others whose names I am unable to recollect. Rest assured that they were all delicious, especially in combination with any of the three varieties of mustard that served as an accompaniment. One mustard was a standout. It could be described as a mustard/Worcestershire sauce mixture and I couldn't identify it - nor could Josh, another glutton whose birthday was the cause for this particular celebration. (If happen you know what this concoction is please tell me 'cause I haven't a clue.)

Other appetizers included Potted Duck - confited and shredded, mixed with its own fat and served in a little white jar. The flavor simple and the texture was stunning - the flesh had a subtle chew like ultra-tender jerky and the unctuousness of the fat provided just the right viscosity and mouthfeel - perfect chewing conditions!! When I die, I would like to be packed in the stuff, mummy-style. An interesting counterpoint to the savory potted duck were pickled sweet onions, one of four pickled veggies on the menu that night. The onions delivered an excellent flash of freshness and vinegared tang, making them ideal for shaking your taste buds out of their duck induced hypnosis.

As we moved on to entrees I felt that the portions were little (all small-appetizer size excepting the pork belly, konpachi, and steak), but no less flavorful than the preceding dishes. None of my dining companions seemed to mind so I let the argument go, though I think that the number of entrée dishes we ordered will indicate that I was of the correct opinion.
Our entrees, all shared, included:
  • Baby Cuttlefish with beans and stewed peppers. Flash sautéed and soft-as-could-be, the meat had a light ocean flavor that matched well with the earthy beaniness of the sauce…so well, in fact, that I was forced (FORCED!) to lift the plate off the table and pour the unforkable portion directly into my face.

  • Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Oxtail - Soft and succulent! Two or three sauces combined to make for an astonishing flavor combination.

  • Fried Veal Sweetbreads – Easily as good as those served at the much more expensive Craft, these sweetbreads were prepared perfectly and the sweet demi-glace sauce was a perfect compliment. Josh went so far as to thank God for the baby cow that lent his supple neck glands to this fabulous dish.

  • Wagu Rib Eye – This one knocked my socks off! Perfectly cooked to medium rare and sliced appropriately, the steak was served with a small portion of rich, creamy scalloped potatoes and two leaves of romaine lettuce. I hadn’t tried the combination of lettuce and steak like that ever before and, please, let me tell you, it was revelatory. The fresh greenness of the lettuce was a perfect foil to the deep and savory flavor of the beef. It is certainly something I will try to attempt to replicate at home…with little success I imagine.

  • Konpachi – Yellowtail, delicately cooked in butter, the fish was soft and sweet while a quick sear to doneness added a delightfully crisp aspect. The vegetables accompanying it were snappish and fresh. My dining companions found this to be one of their favorites.

  • Trotters – It was my first time eating pig’s feet. They were more gelatinous than I expect, but no less delicious! They were stuffed with chestnuts and cooked with just a bit of caramelized crispness. I encourage everyone to give trotters a try…especially if you have the distinct pleasure of eating them here.

  • Pork Belly – This generous portion of stunningly supple pork had an ideal ratio of fat to flesh. The fatty portion was so soft it could be spread on toast, and the full-bodied pork flavor rang out loud and clear. So loud and so clear in fact, that I have zero recollection of anything else that was on the plate with it.
Desert was the one confusing part of the meal. What was described to us as a Persimmon Pudding had the flavor and texture of a carrot or pumpkin cake – nuts and all. It was delicious, but none of us could find any sign of persimmons. Oh well.

All in all, it was an extraordinary experience. The technique was truly skillful, which was to be expected, considering that the aforementioned Octavio co-founded the inimitable Patina Group. Each ingredient was fresh and treated with the utmost respect – preserving and amplifying the natural flavors.

The 4 of us ate for $164.55 before tip and we all believed that it was a bargain. Though portions were small, the bold flavors, exciting, inspiring textures, and a thoughtful, creative, wide-ranging menu provided more than enough sustenance to keep us running, ranting and raving.

Do try Palate Food and Wine in Glendale.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Hot Wings Cafe - Melrose and La Brea

I love me a hot wing! It is one of the foods that i think about for days before engaging in it's consumption. If you too get a hankerin' for Buffalo's favorite finger food check out Hot Wings Cafe on Melrose, just east of La Brea. The price is fair and the wings are prepared perfectly.

Their wings are un-breaded, which is how i prefer them. They are fried crisp and tossed in your choice of sauce; hot, super hot, BBQ, etc. Their "mild" version was garlicky and delicious. The hot variety are nothing to sweat over, but I imagine that their spicier varieties get very hot, very fast.

I checked this place out on a Friday with a few friends from work. We engaged in a wing eating contest during lunch and, I'm proud to say, took home the crown with 29.5 wings...yes, i count "halfsies." There was some conjecture regarding the rules of the contest, the time frame and the true meaning of an "eaten wing." To me, if there is anything left on the bone, you are doing it wrong.

I have a special wing eating technique, taught to me by my mother. It works only on the "wing" not the drumette - which is fine, because the drumette is - to me - the inferior chicken part. here's how the technique works: You take the wing with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the top end of each bone. Tear the two bones apart and choose whichever of the two peices excites you more. Dip it in the sauce of your choice - bleu cheese, ranch, vinagar, or dry if you please. Then, grasping one end of the half-wing, put the whole deal in your mouth and use your front teeth to cleave flesh from bone. Repeat with the other half, and smile...with your mouth full...of course.

When done correctly, you will remove all edible parts in one fell swoop. It creeps out a lot of people because you'll be eating the crispy cartilage and occasionally some bone too. To me, if it comes off the's for eating. If it stays on the bone, its for making stock.

It's been two days since gorging at Hot Wings Cafe, and I'm already excited to go back.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

José Andrés: My most favorite coming to LA!

In Washington, DC there are five restaurants that have one special thing in common: José Andrés. He is above all a Chef, though he is also a cookbook author, TV host, victorious Iron Chef America contestant, and one of the premier culinary innovators of our time.

His west coast outpost will be on La Cienega in the new SLS hotel. The very moment it opens I will be certain report back, but for the time being, i know only that there will be as many as 5 different dining experiences in the one restaurant: A molecular Gastronomy thing, a tapas/dim sum thing, a fine dining experience and two other joints that are sure to drown you in "mouth-water."

He has 5 restaurants in the DC area:
  • Cafe Atlantico: Nuevo Latino inspired and exciting as can be. Standard portions are available during the week, but the best time to go is between 11:00am and 1:00pm on Saturday or Sunday. That's when you can order Tapas-style: Thirty or fourty little dishes...3 or 4 thrilling bites.
  • Jaleo: Find it in Downtown DC, Bethesda, MD or Arlington, VA. Solid Spanish Tapas. Lots of seasonal ingredients, the preparation of which is always fantastic. Excellent deserts too - great textures and temperatures.
  • Zaytinya: Serves mezze, the small plates of the Mediteranean (Greece, Turkey and Lebanon) in an astonishing environment. Glass vases of all sizes sit full of olive oil (Zaytinya means olive oil in Turkish), lemons and nothing. Tall celings and unique bathrooms...yeah. The food is another study in textures. Excellent preparation and lots of fun to eat. If they have grilled or fried whole fish, be certain to eat it.
  • minibar by josé andrés: This is where the Chef Andrés' signature cuisine in a small space. $120, 30-35 small courses, six diners, three chefs, two seatings a night.
  • Oyamel: I haven't been. Wikipedia says "authentic Mexican tacos and antojitos, margaritas with salt air. Reopened in Penn Quarter in February 2007. Originally located in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, VA." What did you think?

I'm just so pleased that José is coming to cook in LA! Get your gullet ready, cause it's gonna be a show!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Perfect Bite

When I talk to people about restaurants or about food in general, I frequently refer to "perfect bites."

To me, a perfect bite is one that combines all of the flavors on your plate. Protein, vegetable, sauce and, sometimes, garnish. Perfect bites sometimes need to be bigger than what is considered reasonable for public places. It doesn't bother me though.

The flavor, if you're eating someplace that's worth its salt, should be exactly what the Chef had planned. Part of that is the presentation - how things are laid out on the plate. Part is how you attack it; which bites you take and how you choose them. It's a combination of all of the individual flavor profiles that he's put in front of you and I lose my mind when they all line up.

What's your perfect bite?

Haru Ulala - Izakaya

Click Here for a Quick Recap

Haru Ulala, at the east end of Little Tokyo on 2nd street, serves what the Japanese call Izakaya. Prices are moderate (about $30 per person for lots of food and plenty of beer) and the staff is very friendly. It is very authentic, and perhaps because of that, the service staff speak primarily Japanese. It can be tough to get a special request across, but if you make your self clear you've got nothing to worry about. I made a point of telling Shim, the grill cook (and very friendly, smiley man), that I wanted to eat exactly what he would have wanted to eat. He replied with a big smile and delivered unto us an exciting, challenging, strange and all-together delicious experience.

The beauty of Izakaya (to me) is that the food, all small plates consisting of between 2 and 10 bites a piece, works in tandem with your choice alcohol to create an experience that pleases the entire palate. The experience is similar to Tapas, the Spanish style of serving small plates that were originally meant to fit over the top of your glass to protect your booze.

It's interesting to compare bar culture in different parts of the world, and to put Izakaya in the same realm as Tapas is an appropriate designation. Both of these dining experiences are best shared with friends. With that in mind, I visited Haru Ulala with Reino, a friend who, with his wife, moved to Los Angeles a few years before Kat and I. Reino eats most things, but he set out a clear line of demarcation regarding things that he WOULD NOT EAT. That meant no Crispy Squid Lips for Max. (By the way, I believe squid have beaks, not lips. If someone can show me where the lips are, I'd appreciate it.)

Because the flavors of Izakaya - which frequently consists of fried, grilled or pickled dishes - it pares well with sake and beer. Tom and I got a pitcher of Kirin Ichiban Draught (for a very reasonable $12) and found that its light, crisp qualities worked as an excellent palate cleanser and a very refreshing compliment to the food. We did not order sake, but I did spy a bottle of one of my very favorites - Wakatake's Onikoroshi (Demon Slayer). Without tasting it with the food, it's best to leave that out for today. It is safe to say though, that Haru Ulala's sake selection may be limited, but it is also of high quality.

It's going to be easiest for me to list the dishes that we ate in order, because there are no proper "courses," just a sporadic flavor flow. Dishes showed up in the order that they were completed. First there was...

Fried Smelt with Vinegar: I liked this a whole bunch served cold. When we ordered it, I thought it would be hot. My guess is that the "vinegar" was a mix of rice wine vinegar and mirin; definitely zesty, tangy and with a bit of citrus from a lemon wedge, made for a nice round flavor - which did a great job of covering what could have been an overwhelmingly "fishy" experience. The texture was sort of mealy near the belly and nice and chewy and firm along the back, and in the tail and head. I don't think that I would have enjoyed it as much without the thinly sliced white onions that were part of the pickling mixture. They lent a cool, crispy texture with that familiar, sharp flavor which evened out the dish nicely.

Deep Fried Garlic: Top trimmed off, chucked in the fryer, and God-damned delicious. Sharper and firmer than when roasted, the flavor mixed well with just about all of the other dishes. Not much more to say about it. I like garlic, and this stuff was just that.

Shishito Peppers: Mush less greasy than I'm use to - but that's a welcome change. They were crispy and loaded with a flavor that was similar to an extra-piquant bell pepper. The bonito flakes on top added some nice ocean flavor, but I preferred the the peppers *lightly* dipped in soy for a bit more salt.

Beef Tongue: I was expecting to see this on the menu and looking forward to trying it. The flavor was INTENSE beefiness. I can relate it to the flavor of the last 5 steaks that I've eaten, all combined into one instant. I loved it. LOVED IT. We ordered it again, this time medium rare (after re-convincing Shim, that we were eager to eat Izakaya using exactly the same preparation as he would enjoy) and it was a far better rendition than the one that they serve to "American customers." Less chewy and far more succulent, the fat and muscle worked in great harmony and with a very pleasant (and not at all overwhelming) oiliness.

Grilled Shitake Mushrooms: It's easy to underestimate mushrooms. They can be bland and boring, or in some cases their flavor can be completely obfuscated by the rest of a recipe. This was not at all the case at Haru Ulala. The mushroom caps were large, maybe 3.5 inches in diameter. They were prepared simply, spending a few minutes over the coals without any sauce or other preparatory steps. Their texture was similar to raw halibut - chewy, but delicate. The flavor was surprisingly potent. Earthy and sweet, the natural flavor of the mushroom was amplified by the simple yet expert preparation. When you eat these, please focus on breathing out of your nose. There are myriad flavors hidden in mushrooms that only become apparent when sensed through the schnoz.

Squid in Butter with Enoki Mushrooms: Squid is a funny thing. In many ways it is a unique ingredient with a unique flavor. At the same time, it has the tendency to take on the flavors imparted to it by other ingredients. This was the case with this dish. The butter was thick, not unappetizingly so, but the smooth texture and flavor rang out loud and clear. The enoki mushrooms had a pleasant crunch and a light but hearty flavor. The taste of the squid was pleasant, but it's texture was the real high point of the plate. Soft and tender, the squid (when taken as a "perfect bite" with the mushrooms) was very much like a scallop, but with a slightly firmer chew. There was a variant of this dish that came with scallops instead of squid - I'll be sure to try it next time and report back.

Grilled Asparagus: You know what? There isn't much to report here. Grilled to perfection, the asparagus were fresh and flavorful. The sauce they were served with was a Japanese mayonnaise. It was an excellent compliment to the familiar flavor of my favorite green sticks.

Nasu No Miso Dengaku (Eggplant with Miso): This is an excellent example of a mind shattering plate. It's not that the eggplant or miso were truly unique flavors - it's that the way the food played around in my mouth that truly delivered. It can only be compared to a Chery Cordial - the chocolate bonbons filled with a cherry in syrup. A thin Japanese-style eggplant was cooked with a thick glaze of miso and cut down the middle and then into 6 bite-sized pieces, presented (and I think cooked) skin side down. The first bite (taken skin side down) was immediately soft and sweet - like custard - with a crunch in the skin and an intense miso flavor which stopped just short of overwhelming the eggplant. Both flavors were apparent and worked seamlessly together. The second bite was taken skin-up and was less balanced. The miso was the primary flavor, but the texture of the skin of the eggplant provided a great squish and crunch that made my teeth happy.

Braised Black Pork (Pork Belly): Originally, I didn't know what gave this dish it's name and I felt silly for not asking. An anonymous commenter let me know that a specific type of Japanese-bred pig called "Kurobuta," (which is Japanese for Black Pig) gives this dish it's name. Regardless of the dish's name or origin, it is very clear that this belly sat in a good, hot liquid for a long, long time. The meat was sweet and the fat was soft to the point where it's texture was almost that of butter with a slight jelly-like feel. I don't know what made up the broth that this cooked in and it's driving me nuts. My best guess is that it was part citrus - maybe orange juice - part soy sauce, and part magic. The flavors reminded me of a chicken dish that my mother use to make, but with a much more subtle tang. The meat was very soft, easily pulled apart with chopsticks, and had a terrific mouth-feel. I haven't had too much experience with pork belly, so my opinion may not be one based on repetition - but I do know what tastes good (to me).

Short Ribs: Very, very tasty. Similar in flavor to typical (and delicious) carry-out-style Chinese ribs, though far smaller (and in some cases boneless). Great mouth feel thanks in part to a light, yet somehow unctuous glaze. They were almost jerky-like, but not nearly as tough. If I was going to be put to death-by-food, these short ribs would be a nice piece of meat to go out on.

Reino and I ate for $64.00, plus tip. It was worth every penny we paid.

Quick recap:
  • An authentic experience to be sure!
  • Beverages are key, beer is pretty cheap and sake selection is limited, but of high quality
  • Friendly staff, but a language barrier can get in the way.
  • Lots of flavors - wide variety.
  • Texture is king here. Explore and enjoy.

Top Dishes:
  • Pork Belly
  • Short Ribs
  • Nasu No Miso Dengaku (Eggplant w/ Miso)
  • Grilled Shitake Mushroom

Recommendation: Run, do not walk, to Haru Ulala. It's a simple, inexpensive exploration of Japanese-style pub food. Try to challenge yourself with a few strange sounding specials and be surprised by how much you like them! Bring friends so you can try as many dishes as possible and be friendly to the employees, there can be a language barrier here, and nice guys always eat best.

Friday, May 30, 2008

craft - Less is Far, Far More

Click Here for a Quick Recap

My Momma's in town. Momma likes to eat well, with a sharp eye on quality, technique and value. In that regard, craft, opened and operated by Top Chef host, and top Chef himself, Tom Colicchio, provided us with an astonishing experience. The man running the kitchen is chef de Cuisine, Matthew Accarrino and the food was brilliant. The restaurant is in a beautiful, low, modern (in a Thomas-Edison-meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright kind of way) building just in front of the new offices of Creative Artists Agency in Century City.

The skill of the folks in the kitchen made it seem like the food was exceptionally simple and the menu was a shining example of how the local-food movement can be a near-perfect thing. Dictated by what's at the farmers market that morning, the ingredients are the same quality as those that you'd find at Campanille, Providence, Father's Office or any other place that gives a damn about their guests (or their reputation). To be clear, everything on our table appeared to have been caught, plucked, dug up, harvested, butchered or in any other way gathered within the last 72 hours. The bread was also delicious. The rich and savory butter came with a few specs of sea salt, and would have made my socks a 3 star experience.

We decided to explore the menu, ordering 4 appetizers to begin with. First came an amuse bouche of calamari on a coconut gelee (fancy, molecular-gastronomical jello) in the bottom of a shallow, heavy spoon with a long curving handle that nearly met it's business end after wrapping around your index and middle fingers - like a super-shallow mug. The textures were a surprise. The squid looked to have been poached, or lightly sauteed then cooled. The gelee was firm at first but melted very quickly, nearly turning the squid into a flavor-vehicle, with only the faintest hint of its own oceanic flavor.

Our appetizers arrived all at once. The wild arugula salad was bright and peppery, topped with ultra-thin slices of lemon and a powder-fine coating of salty, hard cheese. It was dressed perfectly. Then quail with wild huckleberries. Cooked to perfection, the bird was soft and succulent with an intense, round flavor that tasted half-sweet-half-veal-demi-glace. It was the very picture of savory. The portion was on the small side at half a bird (the dark half!), but worthwhile, especially considering the flavor-wallop that it delivered. This was the first dish to truly amaze with its apparent simplicity. The flavor was ideal - an outstanding balance of salt, fat, acid and the spot-on preparation of what can be a very challenging meat.

Peruvian octopus with Greek yogurt was, for me, OK. But it sent Mom off the wall. Kat liked it too, until I ruined the dish by pointing out that its rich, salty flavor may have been due to something ominously similar to pork. Mom and Kat do not eat meats like beef or pork. Mom is allergic and it makes Kat's morals hurt. Bravely, they stowed their objections, physical or otherwise, and ate everything that hit the table.

Cobia tartar with cornichons was the one real miss of the evening. I was mistaken in thinking that Cobia was a generally mild fish - especially as it was prepared here, seemingly aspic'd in cornichon-flavored gelatin. Its taste was too sharp in contrast to the mellow, soft flavors that the other apps delivered. On a Sunday morning, in a light salad with a hearty bloody mary it might have been delicious...just not last night. We actually asked David (our omnipresent waiter) to take it back. He asked what we thought of it and I told him what I told you. The dish was whisked away and pleasantly banished from the bill.

Then, like Julia Child reaching down from god's kitchen and massaging your whole face with her warm, calloused, wrinkly hands - the sweetbreads and kumquat arrived. A good sweetbread (the thalamus gland of veal) should be crispy on the outside, almost like a chicken nugget, with just enough chew on the inside - like scallops. These were very much that. The flavor of this dish was epic in its scope. From the meaty glands and the piquant citrus of the kumquat to the robust sauce made with some great stock and caramelized onions (and other good stuff) the experience was revelatory - and absolutely delicious. If you get there, try it. TRY IT.

We blindsided David by asking him to choose his favorites for our entree. He sent us two proteins (both fish, he told us, as we ordered wine - Chardonnay for Mom, Albariño for me) and three veggies. David made great choices - every single one.

Scallops in butter with thyme were the best I've ever had. Kat fell in love-at-first-bite with the skate wing and currants. But the real highlight, surprisingly enough, were the vegetables. The braised spring bulb onions were mild, but still crispy, an absolutely addictive texture. The roasted flowering zucchini also had a near crunchy texture, but relented after a chew or two, into a succulent goo that tasted like someone had wrung out the whole garden. Maybe the best dish was the assorted mushrooms. Hen of the woods, trompette royalle, and baby shitake mushrooms were all roasted to a firm, chewy perfection, still clinging to the flavor profile of the dirt from whence they were so lovingly (and recently) picked.

Dessert began with one more amuse bouche - apricot sorbet over panna cotta with another tropical gelee. Kat put it just right when she said that it was like a "Creamsicle for grown-ups." She and Mom shared a chocolate souffle with coconut sorbet which was so intensely flavorful that one bite nearly ended my meal...nearly. My desert was fresh glazed donuts with tangerine marmalade, chocolate pudding and (my favorite) vanilla custard. The donuts came with their tiny, fried holes which I eagerly shared with the ladies. It was just right. Crispy and sweet, wonderfully complemented by the rest of the food on the plate. I grew up in a family that re-fried their Krispy-Kreme donuts in butter, and it seemed that this was exactly what Pastry Chef, Catherine Schimenti, had done. It tasted like my childhood with a professional presentation and an out-of-this-world flavor.

We asked for the check - which was large - and we were given yet more free bites. Something like Turkish delight - but more coarse and crystalline in texture - and some black pepper madellines. Both provided a surprising and pleasant end to the meal.

Quick recap:

  • Knowledgeable, friendly and plentiful staff ( I can't even imagine what it must cost to run that dining room).
  • Great wine selection (and knowledge).
  • Wonderful, fresh, simple flavors.
  • Astonishing technique.
  • Expensive - $90 per person with 2 drinks each, a ton of food and 2 deserts.

Top dishes:
  • Veal Sweetbreads and Kumquat
  • All of the Fresh Vegetables and Assorted Mushrooms
  • Quail and Wild Huckleberry
  • Fresh Donuts with tangerine marmalade, chocolate pudding and vanilla custard
Recommendation: A definate YES! Make the vegetables the focus of the meal with some of the stranger meats as an exciting, if challenging, accent. Veggies also keep the bill down, which can really be an issue here. Open your mind and go, go, go...but save up first.