Friday, November 1, 2013

Hinoki and the Bird – Los Angeles, Ca

Bird is the word
This is what I imagined the upper echelon of garden sheds to look like – four-star all the way. We were led to an outside booth padded with dark denim cushions, and the rusty, metal frames surrounding the windows were faded with an antiqued grace instead of looking like ravaged corrosion. Multiple varieties of greenery and vegetation sprouted from behind a row of bench-seating, boxing out the back wall and gaining plenty of natural light from an open air roof, which began closing in multiple, corrugated sections at varying degrees throughout the meal.

When we’d passed through Hinoki and the Bird's interior, a dining room dressed head to toe in wood (appropriate since hinoki was a type of Japanese tree known for its valuable timber), I was once again reminded of the simple things in life elevated to first class – this was high society’s rumpus room. But there was no need for a TV or a game of Twister since guests could swivel their necks and get a Bird’s eye view from the almost wall-sized, rectangular cut-out that looked directly into the kitchen.

Top Chefs
And the Bird’s chefs were used to the attention. Executive Chef David Myers had opened several restaurants, including Michelin-starred Sona and his LA eatery, Comme Ca, which boasted a second location in Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel. Chef Kuniko Yagi, who had competed as a contestant on Top Chef (Seattle), was also present in the kitchen…and at the table directly behind us. Both she and Chef Myers made an appearance just a few feet away, where they spoke at length to a brunette woman with her back to Bubba. *cue Madonna music* “Who’s that girl?” I'd have to find out, but first, a cocktail.


Seasonal Fix - gin, rum, vodka or tequila, served with fresh lemon over muddled seasonal fruit: This was like a choose-your-own-adventure drink. Pick your liquor. Pick your fruit. Options were: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and/or grapes - pick one or all to be muddled in the mix. Our choice: vodka, blackberries and strawberries. An avalanche of crushed ice filled the glass, while the vodka and mashed berries swirled into every available crevice and created the ultimate alcohol snow cone = best brain freeze ever.

Tommy’s #2 - tequila or mezcal, lime, orange and agave: This was served in an Old Hollywood style champagne glass with a wide rim to fit all of its citrusy, sunny, brightness (see picture below with lobster roll).

Drinking To-do: Their list of clever cocktails would undeniably lure me back with concoctions like the Griffith Park Swizzle (bourbon, mint, lime, bitters & absinthe) and the Gordon’s Cup (gin, muddled lime, cucumber, Szechuan pepper, salt). Next time.

Eats sharing plates and tasting multiple courses is encouraged

Half dozen oysters with pear mignonette: We had to try the Forbidden Oysters, since they sounded so off-limits, but they were pretty tame in their briny, squishy presence and the pear didn’t offer much flavor to the run-of-the-mill mignonette.

Lobster roll, green curry, Thai basil: I had specifically picked the Bird because it sounded more my speed than some of the trendier spots with menus that flew right over my head - sorry, Michael Voltaggio, but to me, your “charcoal waffle” just sounded burnt. Though here I was, enjoying what looked like a croissant that had been left in the oven and charred to a crisp…but that was all part of the edible illusion.

This black bread had abracadabra-ed itself into a buttery, moist compliment to the simplicity of the Maine lobster – like sporting a Mohawk with a Channel suit - classic charm while working a fresh angle = black bread is the new black. Green curry was the-barely-there binding agent instead of mayo, but present enough to enhance the lobster’s sweet nature, along with Thai basil and strong blasts of heat from Thai chili and sour hits of lemony citrus. I’d come back for a few of these and some cocktails alone – let the good times (lobster) roll!

Chili crab toast, spicy cucumber, coriander: I pictured this more like shrimp toast - a greasy, deep-fried triangle with shredded crab stuffed into its interior, but instead we were brought slices of toasted baguette topped with shredded crab and chili paste, resembling the color and texture of pulled, barbeque pork. The cucumber beneath the crab ran the length of the bread, but lost some of its crunch under the hot mixture. Overall, it was a bit bland and nothing special.

Drunken duck breast: This was from the ‘simply grilled’ section of the menu and served with sliced pears. I was instructed by our waiter to cut my duck lengthwise, which proved a bit of a task since my two pieces were short and stubby, so it was hard to get a good hold on it while seated. I would have preferred that they’d sliced it in the kitchen, but I felt like a baby asking for someone to cut my meat, so I sawed away, stabbed a pear and was finally rewarded with a fowl and fruit combo that played off each other’s sweet and earthy notes in varying degrees – a perfect “pearing”.*

Sonoma rack of lamb, patty pan squash, arugula, cumin yogurt: These were some big chops - the kind that should be waved above your head at a feast, but they were a touch underdone and the sauce was scarce. The precious drops I did taste were ideal, blending the spicy, loamy taste of cumin with yogurt's tart cream and the mild game of lamb.*

*I’ve had better duck and lamb dishes before, but I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed my surroundings as much while having those better duck and lamb dishes.

Dining To-do: Next time I’d try the hinoki scented black cod with sweet potato and pistachio (served with a still-smoking piece of wood) and the caramel braised kurobuta pork belly with radish and mustard greens.

Side show(stoppers)
Sweet potato with lardons, crème fraiche and piquillo peppers: This wasn’t what I’d expected at all. I was picturing a mashed concoction, heavy with cream and bacon. Instead it arrived in the simple disguise of an ordinary, out of the oven, cut in half, still in its skin, sweet potato topped with a smattering of crisp lardons (fat, little fingers of bacon), a scoop of crème fraiche and thinly sliced piquillo peppers. But this unassuming spud held secrets within its straight-laced skin that made me question what happened next.

This sweet potato = the singing frog from the old Looney Tunes' episode. You know the one I’m talking about. Whenever the frog was alone with his owner, he’d belt out, “Hello, my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal!” But if the owner tried to show-off his singing pet to others, the frog would only answer with, “Ribbit.” Well, on the plate, this looked like a “Ribbit”, but when I placed that fork in my mouth, the music started and a well choreographed number came to life on my tongue. I couldn’t believe that just a few well-placed components on this “frog” could transform it into such a prince.

Braised shiitake mushroom, yuzu kosho: The mushrooms arrived in a flimsy, silver plastic disc that looked like a coaster for beneath a flower pot, which was appropriate since its contents seemed to have been plucked directly from the earth and placed on the plate. Braised mushroom heads puffed up next to a brownish-green clump of something growing in the corner and that something = the best condiment ever: yuzu kosho (a paste made from chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt, then allowed to ferment). This salt-cured condiment worked as a truth serum on the shiitakes and drew out their raw essence in a salty, spicy, funky, fabulous way.

Vietnamese coffee “snow cone”, nata de cocoa, condensed milk: As if my alcohol snow cone wasn’t enough, dessert gave me another opportunity to fill the void left by my Snoopy Snow Cone Machine decades ago. Shards of toasted coconut built a roof atop the pungent coffee, hitting me just as I was blindsided by a blanket of condensed milk that put me to out like a handkerchief full of ether. Somehow it was strong, crisp, refreshing, toasty and decadent all at once and was simply divine.

Cotton cheesecake, rhubarb, raspberry, strawberry yogurt ice cream: I was about to order the miso doughnut, when I went with the cotton cheesecake instead, a Japanese version that was similar to the porous texture of pound cake. But it didn't move me in any way and I felt like it was something I could get from the grocery time I’d order the doughnut.

Meathead, Marty McFly and the Mystery Woman
I’ve never been someone that’s really into the celebrity scene, though I have to admit that I got a little giddy when I saw Rob Reiner seated on the other side of the dining room. But what made me really lose my shit was when Michael J. Fox sat (diagonally) across from me. I had to keep myself from shouting, “Flux capacitor ready!”, and instead, I just gave him a nod, as if to say, “We’re all just eating dinner here, buddy.” As for the brunette who stole the chefs’ attention at the beginning of the meal and had several visitors at her table throughout the evening, we walked directly in front of her as we left, but I couldn’t place her Barefoot Contessa-esque countenance…I still don’t know who we missed.

Waiting on a Friend
Our waiter Daniel was probably one of the most exquisite courses of the meal. Between his recommendations (“You probably want the lobster before the crab toast since the lobster’s more delicate”) and his genuine warmth (as well as the attentive and friendly, bow-tied maitre d’), we were treated as if we were Michael J. Fox – A-list all the way. The Bird’s special brand of service and laid-back setting made it hard to leave the nest.