Friday, December 18, 2015

Lardo Love: Dirty Fry Fetish (Portland, OR)

Anything with the word, “pork scraps” in its description commanded my full attention. And I had to admit that this massive pile of pig and potatoes from Lardo, which would normally be considered a side dish, was possibly my favorite meal of the trip. Here’s why:

1) The component that I originally turned my nose up at, ended up being my favorite part (I secretly poo-pooed the banana peppers' entire existence in the dish. What a fool I'd been!).

2) The strange simplicity of three or four ingredients, the likes of which I’d seen and tasted a million times before, combined in a way that made me feel like we were meeting again for the first time.


Dirty Fries: pork scraps, marinated peppers, fried herbs, parmesan ($7)

What exactly was a pork scrap? Well, apparently it was all the crispy odds and ends left over from Lardo's array of pork parts which graced their menu. 

Dirty fries were the potato equivalent of a Ben and Jerry’s pint chock full of chunky treasures, but instead of chocolate chips and cookie dough, pockets of bacon curls and shredded pork popped up between crackly trees of fried parsley and basil. Half melted pearls of grated parmesan were melted just enough to wrap it all together into one cosmic cocoon of cheesy, pork fatty, potato goodness.

But what really threw me were the marinated, banana peppers. I was worried they were going to overwhelm the dish, the way many marinated items often do, their liquid seeping heavily from their pores into every aspect (I’m talking to you sundry tomatoes!).

But this stayed balanced with sour bursts comparable to English “chips” doused in malt vinegar; dressed, but still with an audible crispiness and stiff heartiness that easily bore the load of toppings with the effortlessness of Atlas. It was a feat of French fry strength, and I couldn’t wipe the pig-eating grin off my face.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Donut Duel:Voodoo vs. Blue Star (Portland,OR)

Voodoo Donuts (22 SW 3rd Ave)

No matter what kind of research you did on Portland, Voodoo Donuts was bound to come up, so we hit the dingy section of Skidmore (immediately sending my sophomoric mind to the thought of "skid mark", which wasn’t too far off from the general vibe of the neighborhood), and went to see what all the hubbub was about.

Out of the grungy gray (catty-corner to the, “Keep Portland Weird” sign), pink and purple peeked out  like an arrow pointing to a larger than life gingerbread man impaled with a pretzel stick stake through the heart - we had arrived.

Illuminated dessert cases spun in hypnotizing circles of doughy offerings mounded with fruit loops, Oreos, candy, meats, and mayhem. It was like a child playing dress up and covering their face in lipstick, not knowing where to draw the line (literally). But that’s what gave Voodoo its spark – the novelty of it all; the lack of rules; the countless options that pumped fresh blood into that childlike artery, that rarely tapped vein of endless possibilities.

ODB: Of course, I got carried away with the over-stimulating visuals and silly names, so I inevitably opted for an, “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” (circular, no-hole donut topped with chocolate, peanut butter, and crushed Oreos), which was better in theory than flavor. The mixture of peanut butter and Oreo cream gave a weird (Wu) tang to its tongue-searing sugar content, and caused me to go “taste-blind” for a while, much like seeing spots after a camera’s flash, but burning my tastebuds instead of the corneas.

Pumpkin Spice:  Unfortunately, my petite, pumpkin treat was fully muted by ODB’s residual waylaying of my palate, but when I went back and ate the other half a couple of hours later (yes, I saved my donut!), the nutmeg and pumpkin spice were fully present, though it was nothing special enough to order again.

Maple Bacon Bar: But Voodoo did come through on the maple bacon bar. Ah, yes – bacon maple donuts were everywhere nowadays. The new “thing” as it was. Most bakeries (including duel opponent, Blue Star) opted for the classic circle donut, coated in maple glaze with a handful of crumbled bacon on top. And though this may have looked more appealing, the fact was, I really didn’t want a donut full of Bac-Os.

The whole point was to recreate the magic that happened on a breakfast plate when pancake’s syrup snuck over to the bacon’s bedside for a salty/ sweet serenade that evolved into a love affair whose likes hadn’t been seen since peanut butter and jelly first shimmied between two slices of bread together.

Voodoo pinpointed the vulnerability of that romance, stretching out two strips of bacon on a fluffed, queen-sized mattress of square dough, fitted with a smoothed, flat sheet of maple glaze. This was a romance (and a donut) for the books.

Blue Star (1237 SW Washington St)

As much as Voodoo resurrected the kid in you, Blue Star brushed you off, cleaned you up, and snapped you into adulthood. They were, in essence, the fine dining of donuts. But just because Blue Star took their work seriously, didn’t mean they were stuffy by any means. 

I considered them to be the Mary Poppins of pastry. The type of adult you wanted to be: inventive, intelligent, fun-loving, but with a precise, professional nature which saw work as an opportunity to excel, while still keeping it enjoyable. Flour flew around the open kitchen and a tower of to-go boxes balanced to the tippy-top of the ceiling like a child’s building blocks constructed with an engineer’s accuracy.

They served several variations of dough - buttermilks, classic white, stuffed donuts, and fritters  - providing a blank canvas for multiple techniques and their extensive pantry, which churned out recipes as involved and thought-provoking as any entrée.

This included options like Marionberrry pepper jam with peanut butter powder, hard apple cider fritters, blueberry bourbon basil, and crème brulee puffs adorned with an injection of Cointreau to squirt into the center – welcome to adulthood!

Chocolate almond ganache
You could never go wrong with chocolate and nuts, especially when it involved quality chocolate spun into a thick ganache and chopped, roasted almonds transformed into a buttery topping.

This was a finger-licking, face-muddy-ing kind of donut, where a bite into its center led to a nostril full of chocolate for both a satisfying and playful experience.

Raspberry/Rosemary Buttermilk
I made the mistake of involving the kid behind the counter in my Sophie’s Choice of donut dilemmas when it came to which buttermilk I should choose - lemon poppy or plain? What I wasn’t expecting, was for him to come out of left field with a third (unmentioned) option of raspberry/rosemary. “It’s my favorite. You’ll love it.”

As far as Sophie’s Choice, it was pretty much like saying, “Forget the kids, and take the dog.” But even though I knew it wasn't the right decision, I listened to his suggestion - and regretted it immediately. Its explosive, hot pink hue practically flashed a neon sign that read, “high sugar content” and the cloying raspberry glaze was like a needy girlfriend that you couldn't escape.  

But the actual donut itself was perfection – rich, moist, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. It was a thing of buttermilk beauty and the best base dough by far...though I still regretted my misstep of not going with my gut (why did I forsake you, lemon poppy, why??!!).  

Biting into a beignet was like having a pillow fight with your mouth, but instead of feathers flying around the room, powdered sugar billowed above in candied clouds.

These were pretty big for beignets, but they still remained light and airy, though they didn’t have that fried, funnel cake quality that I craved from this donuty delight.

Meyer lemon/ Key lime curd donut
*We have a winner! And a new cham-peen!* This curd-filled donut curled my toes. I always thought I hated jelly donuts, but what I realized, was that I just hated that they were filled with (usually cheap, corn starchy) jelly.

When pregnant with the love child of what tasted like lemon meringue and key lime pie, I realized it was all about conception and choosing the right parents for the pairing. This little bundle of joy deserved congrats. It’s a…winner!

Final Judgment:
Best base dough:  Buttermilk (Blue Star)
Best bacon maple donut: Voodoo
Best donut overall: Meyer lemon/ Key Lime curd (Blue Star)

Overall winner: Blue Star = gold star!! (Sorry Voodoo, don’t hex me!)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Father’s Office (Santa Monica)

Father's knows best?

Welcome to the land of ketchup exile. Chef Sang Yoon enforced a strict code of, “You’ll eat it and like it.” As in do not touch, sully, or sabotage. Yoon fitted Father’s burger to his exact specifications and that meant no ketchup on the premises. Inserting that type of personal perspective was akin to adding a blob of paint to a Degas or editing a piece by Vonnegut. It just wasn’t done.

Actually, it was almost as if Father’s Office was daring you to give him lip about the way he ran things – starting out with getting physically barred at the door by a bouncer’s stiff arm until your ID was checked (21 and up, even during the daytime) or ordering food through the bartenders, who were already busy slinging beers, so you’d have to wait until they got to you.

If you didn’t like it, then leave. They dared ya.

But it was obvious there was heart beneath the tough bravado and a homespun intimacy to the place - bare bones with a handful of wooden tables and chairs; a raw plank designated as the bar. I think the idea was that if you were willing to stick around through a little abuse and minimal fanfare, then Father’s would agree to feed you. We came for the much talked about burger, but I was already coveting other items like the lamb skewers with Japanese eggplant, goat cheese gratin, and spicy, oatmeal stout ribs with orange blossom honey glaze.

Burger (and frites served with garlic, parsley aioli): Caramelized onion, applewood bacon, Gruyere, Maytag blue cheese, arugula

I ordered my burger medium rare, but would probably go for medium next time – a little bloody for my liking, but the quality of beef was so extraordinary that I didn’t mind. A thin patty of caramelized onions seated itself atop the meat like a sweet and savory settee, making it clear why the synthetic sugars of ketchup weren't necessary. Peppery sprigs of arugula blossomed between sticks of bacon and pungent blooms of blue cheese for a bouquet of bold flavors, thoughtfully arranged with all the spontaneity of an English garden.

My only complaint was the choice of bun - some type of French roll that dissolved into a soggy wet-nap due to the burger's juicy center. Besides that, I had to admit it was one damn, good burger. The best burger? I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to call Father’s daddy just yet.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Dede’s Teajuice City (San Diego)

Getting Schooled on Szechuan

I had to admit, I got a little nervous when I heard we were having cold, pigs' ears. All I could picture was gnawing on a chewy piece of cartilage and looking for the closest napkin to discreetly spit it out in. But to my surprise, when the ear appeared in a pickled pile of mismatched meats and greens, it ended up becoming my favorite plate of the night.

My culinary guides knew exactly what to order at Dede's, including this concoction from "the cold box", a refrigerated display case, flaunting its wares and offering an assortment of paper thin slices of pigs’ ears, tripe, spiced brisket, and housemade pickles, along with some sort of chopped greens that were snappish, stemmed and leafy (but not bok choy). It was all tossed together in a meaty salad of vinegar and greens, a Szechuan specialty that immediately became my favorite.

This life-changing appetizer was followed with a hot pot of seasoned beef, scallion pancakes, leek dumplings, and dan dan noodles (squat noodles covered in a thick, fiery paste with a texture similar to peanut butter). Every selection was a success, and somewhat unexpected coming out of this nondescript kitchen planted in a square plot of strip mall; its dining room wallpapered in plastic menus and outfitted with uncomfortable, metal-framed chairs.

Our meal ended with a complimentary plate of melon and it was a gesture that matched the mood of the meal - a refreshing surprise. Especially when it came to that cold, meat plate. I never imagined that pigs’ ears and pickles could have such a symbiotic relationship (now I knew why pickled pigs' feet were so popular!). 

Besides performing phenomenal food feats, the tangible enthusiasm of the staff transmitted like radio waves through the kitchen to its dining room, and Dede's taught me two very important lessons:

1) Pigs' ears were perfection at any temperature.
2) Never judge a Szechuan by its strip mall.

Monday, September 28, 2015

STK: Meat Market (Midtown, NYC)

This love child of the classic steakhouse and swanky nightclub was hip, but definitely not hipster. In fact, STK seemed to represent the "anti-hipster" with its gleaming fields of clean-shaven faces and tucked shirts; professionals arriving fresh from work, dressed up to get down.

A Kendrick Lamar number was playing…kind of. His remixes were getting remixed with a remix, so there was no steady song. Old classics were spun with disarming, jarring techno beats (I think Otis Redding might have opted for jumping off the dock if he heard this rendition) and our twenty-something waiter perfected his role of the annoyed and aloof server, probably because he knew we were nobodies. 


Bread: Popover with blue cheese and side of chive oil

Whether it was bread, or chips and salsa, or a saltine for God’s sakes, I was always happy to see some type of complimentary nosh arrive to tide me over before the actual meal. But when it appeared in the form of a savory muffin-cake puffed out with hunks of blue cheese melting down the side, there was another level of excitement all together! Popovers ‘bout to pop off, son!

Chive oil glistened as a liquid emerald of minced herbs and oil, which was a welcome addition since the the bread was somewhat dry, but that didn't mean I hadn't been impressed and pleased by the overall presentation. 

Entree: 10 oz. Filet mignon with bernaise sauce and side of Yukon mashed potatoes

Simple dimple - meat and potatoes. This was perfectly cooked and plated nicely, but nothing to jump up and shout about. Tasty, but not memorable, which was fine. We knew what we were getting into. We weren't there for the steak or the scene.

We were drawn in by STK's gigantic, outdoor plaza on this rare City night, 75 degrees with no humidity, and we were determined to take full advantage of it...even if that meant swatting away techno beats like mosquitoes throughout our meal - it was worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Snacks and the City: Pig’s Head, Crack Pie, and Cantaloupe Juice (NYC)

Greeley Street Park
First order of business: Greeley Street Park. We’d discovered this path of gourmet food stalls too late the previous summer, when we were already on our way back to the train station after a day of gorging. It had been absolute torture to discover this culinary Xanadu with full bellies, like Hansel and Gretel stumbling on the witch’s candy compound and not being able to take a bite. But today, we came prepared…to eat freely at Greeley!

Cannibal: Pig's Head Cuban (pig's head, Vermont ham, pickles, gruyere)

Got head? Definitely a greasy handful, but the layers of toasty bread, ham, head, and melted cheese sealed it all together in one drippy, fatty, indulgent experience.

Red Hook Lobster Company: “The Connecticut” Lobster Roll (butter, scallion, lemon)

I considered “The Tuscan” (lobster/ basil vinaigrette), but couldn’t have been happier with “The Connecticut” - a quarter pound of lobster doused in citrus-soaked butter. Served in the traditional, hot dog-esque bun, its usual white bread ways instantly dissolved beneath the weighted luxury of lobster and melted butter, but that was ok, Red Hook's Maine focus was the lobster, and they succeeded in getting the point across. Claw meat for one and all! Let the good times (lobster) roll!

Momofuko Milk Bar: Crack Pie

I ripped into the miniature, cardboard package I’d purchased for $5.50 and wished they included a magnifying glass so I could find my piece of pie. I was a little disappointed about the size until I chomped a bite and all the air went out of the room as my mouth filled with a balloon of butter and sugar. It coated the entire surface area of my palate like a thick Vaseline of baked euphoria sealing in a million motes of decadence. I tried to identify the flavor, mumbling to myself, “It tastes like, like…” 

“Pecan pie without the pecans!”, my mom blurted out. She was right. Though, the filling was more solid than wiggly. There was a buttery chew beneath its thin coat of caramelized armor that gave way to a rich, rounded denseness that tasted somewhat molasses-y. Its deceiving simplicity had so many layers that I kept searching for answers as I devoured it…just one more bite.

I had to admit that my itsy-bitsy portion was enough, but I was considering going back for a second slice to take home. Because really, when would I be able to get another? And it only made sense to buy two since they were so small…

And that was how they got you hooked.  Crack pie, indeed.

Streets of SoHo

Jack’s wife Freda: Cantaloupe juice

A wise man named Pee Wee Herman once said, “If you love it so much, then why don’t you marry it.”

But you can’t elope with a cantaloupe…

Let me start from the beginning. Summer in the City = back of my neck feeling dirty and gritty. We were parched and sweaty, so this open-faced eatery shone like a beacon. I loved Jack’s Wife Freda immediately, not only for her welcoming, intimate interior which felt like a classy, charming, and modern European aunt who openly swaddled you against her breast in a gigantic hug of tastefully upholstered booths and tiny tables, but for the few seats outside that made for excellent people-watching while dining al fresco.

After coming straight from Greeley Street, we were only interested in drinks, but they welcomed us anyway. We glugged down water by the glassful like thirsty horses at a trough, as the poor waiter repeatedly returned with his pitcher to try and keep up with our emphatic gulping. Also, when we asked if it was ok to only order “drinks”, they probably thought we meant cocktails, but our scorched, sandpaper tongues sought out the unique offering of cantaloupe juice.

And well, I don’t want to over exaggerate here, but it might have been the best decision of my life!

I couldn’t believe how cantaloupe-y it was! I mean, I’ve bought cantaloupes before and they were always hit or miss – some with barely any flavor at all. But this juice, this nectar of the gods, this beautiful miracle fruit, multiplied cantaloupe’s usual silky sweet nature by a gigafruit (yes, gigifruit) as if they discovered some ultra-concentrated formula in a lab. But the way it slipped softly over the tongue, I couldn’t imagine that they added anything artifical. It was just cantaloupe, on a pedestal, naturally. Its velvety afterglow washed over the tongue in a cleansing wave. This was 16, portable ounces of magnificence.

I was in love.

But you can't elope with a cantaloupe...
So I'd have to settle for our summer in Soho.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Children of the Corn (New Jersey)

I spent a good amount of my summer childhood in Jersey shucking corn. All year long we waited for our famous, “Jersey sweet corn” to arrive, so almost every night, my mom would hand me a paper bag to take outside and shuck however many ears we needed.

The problem was, in the Jersey humidity, that corn silk would stick to every inch of you. It was like being covered in a head of fine hair that would inevitably get in the mouth, all over the legs, and usually a good amount would still be on the corn.

But I just recently found out the most amazing trick EVER!!!

1) Take the corn, still in its husk, and put it in the microwave - four minutes an ear.

2) Remove from the microwave and cut about an inch off the fat end with a sharp knife.

3) Squeeze from the skinny end and the ear shoots out without any hair on it!!

The heat must bring the fibers together, creating some type of slippery, silky net that allows the corn to slide out completely bald! I can’t imagine how many hours this could have saved me as a kid.

But then again…

There was something about having to help out with the meal and work a little for your food that was character building. Those times where I sat covered in corn weave were also peaceful, thoughtful moments; calming and methodical; comforting in the sounds that went along with the job - the freeing pop when pulling the husk away from the cob, the white noise of traffic; the blinking, neon flashes of the evening's first lightening bugs. I wouldn’t take that away from them….every kid should give a shuck.

But as for us adults – use the microwave! It’s a lifesaver.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tostadas: Fresh Fruit & Seafood Bar (San Diego)

Sibling Rivalry: City Tacos’ Little Sister 

City Tacos has a sister!!

The proud papa and owner, Gerry Torres, was present as usual, cleaning and working as hard as everyone else, in his (and chef/ partner Eduardo Baeza's) newly opened ceviche bar, Tostadas.

Walking inside felt like crossing the threshold into vacation and evoked the sense of a savory, ice cream parlor - gleaming white with swirls of green and pink; the signature, seahorse symbol scattered here and there. Sunlight streamed from floor to ceiling windows, bouncing up to the rafter’s exposed, raw beams before drawing the eye to succulents sprouting from wooden pallets hanging as living art just a few inches below.  A communal table's log-like structure was planted in the center of the dining room and a few four-tops were scattered along the side (also some sidewalk seating).

Shelves of produce were set up behind the counter like a miniature market, reminding me of grade school where you could make believe you were visiting the post office or grocery store while still in the classroom.  Not only was it playful and clever, but fresh and functional in the best possible way.


Auqachile: large Mexican shrimp, lemon juice, red onion, chile serrano, cilantro, cucumber, garlic ($6)

The tostada’s shell strained like a professional weightlifter under the massive shrimp that lay on top in abundance.  So much shrimp! The nearly raw, butterflied shellfish was woven between noodles of cucumber, the subtle heat of chile serrano, and chopped leaves of cilantro. This summed up summer in one, crisp bite – so fresh and so clean.

La de Pato: duck meat, red onions, carrots, pear, green olives, habanero chile strawberry sauce ($5)

"La de Pato" pictured without the strawberry/habanero sauce
I was a little worried when ordering the duck in a fish place, but I couldn’t resist the combination of flavors! And it didn’t disappoint. First of all, there were about six slices of perfectly cooked duck breast on my crispy, corn wheel (aka, the wheel of fortune). Pear punched crunchy and sweet, as did the carrot, so I was a little worried that the strawberry sauce would be too much, but the berry was balanced so well with the spice of habanero, in what looked like a vinaigrette, that I ended up asking for extra. They originally forgot to add the sauce and I realized later that they forgot the olives too, but I didn’t mind. I knew they were still working out a few kinks and I would order this again in a heartbeat.

Caramon: shrimp, olive oil, sesame seeds, red onion, parsley, tomato, clam, orange and lemon juices, cilantro mayo ($6)

This would be skipped on my next visit. Besides seeming somewhat run of the mill with its pico de gallo-like flare, it had a strong bitterness that lingered. I’m not sure if it was the sesame and orange combo, but either way it wasn’t my favorite. 

"To Do" Tostadas

Plus, I’d spotted two other tostadas I was dying to try -

1) Sandia: ahi tuna, watermelon, red onion, jimaca, apples, cucumber, mango, peanuts, soy, lemon juice, orange chipotle mayonnaise ($6) 

2) Snapper: Red snapper fish, cucumber, tomato, red onion, parsley, serrano chile & clamato ($3.50)

The best part was that you could pick a few items to sample and it still only cost around $20. 

Tugos (16 oz) $3.95

Tugos were fresh fruit and veggie smoothies made to order. We went for Tropical Rainbow (pineapple, papaya, peaches, strawberry, raspberry, mango, yogurt, and honey) and the Clockwork Orange (pineapple and papaya). They were still frothy from the juicer; velvety, pink and orange waves of euphoria. I couldn’t think of a better pairing for summer, seafood, or the ninety degree heat.

Just the Tip of the Tostada

They were working on getting an alcohol permit, as well as planning a fresh fish/ceviche market for to-go items. Tostadas more than measured up to its sibling, City Tacos, in every way – quality, price, cleanliness and creativity. The real triumph of both restaurants was the number of ingredients on each dish - usually around eight to ten components.

The plethora of toppings almost seemed nonsensical at first, like some wild crap shoot, as if the chef was some twisted, ingredient hoarder and the kitchen sink was about to be thrown in next, but then you took a bite and it all made sense. Everything was there for a reason; a well thought out plan of genius amongst the chaos.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Flying None (Coast to Coast)

Snacks on a Plane

It’s kind of like the Magnificent Seven or the Fantastic Four, but not really. I’m the Flying None. Namely, because I give zero fucks and take no shit when it comes to transporting my favorite East Coast snacks across the country. 

What I mean is, I’m often stopped at airport security for the five pound log of pork roll in my purse. Or for my coat containing eight, back to back slices of Vic’s pizza, triple-wrapped in plastic - its neon, orange, grease often thought to be some type of radioactive liquid. My bags are scoured by security guards who look up with questioning stares when unearthing tubes of Hartmann’s liverwurst or getting caught in a poppy seed rainstorm after upending a satchel of hard rolls.  Homemade lamb barley soup balks in frozen form, and will be called a casserole if anyone asks – “no liquids”, no problem.

And it goes both ways. I humped a backpack of homemade tamales from Cali to Jersey last Christmas. I’ve smuggled salamis, stowed sandwiches, hidden hummus…there’s no boundaries when it comes to having a piece of home in your pocket (or in the overhead compartment, which doubles as an amazing mini-frig for the six hour flight!). It’s all about commitment to the cause.

Take the pork roll. Stuff your pockets with pizza. Leave your pride at home. You have none.

You are, The Flying None.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Just a Victim of Circa’s Stance (San Diego)

Sold on California Soul Food

The dude with white hair down past his shoulders motioned to us from behind the bar, asking if we had a reservation since the place was packed on Friday at 8:30pm. Even though we shook our heads, he gave us a friendly nod and worked his way through the crowded dining room, proudly waving us towards the only remaining table.

Circa looked like a working, shoebox diorama of a restaurant. Seating was almost too close for comfort, eking by with only an inch of elbow room in between tables. But this community of close eaters was about to teach me an important lesson: how to love thy neighbor’s dinner.

Circa's Stance
Circa claimed to have “California soul food”, conjuring images of fat-free chicken and gluten-free waffles or whole wheat “faux” mac-n-cheese or something equally gag-worthy. But instead, Circa delivered a magical mash-up that blended farm-to-table freshness and comfort food favorites (i.e. Green Bean Casserole: organic brown beech mushrooms, goat cheese cream, fresh oregano, crisp onions - $8).

Cast Iron Fried Jidori Chicken: duck fat roasted fingerling potatoes, bacon braised collard greens, blonde ale gravy ($17)

My decision was easy enough since the woman at the table to my left ordered the cast iron fried chicken and I thought, “I want that.” It came wrapped up in a neat package with lots of moving parts, all fitted together in a well thought out plan of edible engineering. Every element was more than I’d hoped for: golden coins of potatoes were fork tender, yet still firm, crisped with duck fat. The bacon waved in identifiable slices amid a pile of rich, collard greens, stewed and lush, but not mushy. The chicken’s skin came off in crispy pulls to expose the tender flesh, ripe with natural juices, and bright notes from the blonde ale gravy brought a bouncy bite to a potentially heavy dish. The portion was on the small side, but enough to sooth the beast (= my appetite) and I truly enjoyed every bite.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Won’t you be mine? Won’t you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

I felt like Mr. Rogers as my gaze gallivanted around neighboring tables, winking hello and studying every dish that put down roots in my area. I longed to make friends with them all. And I went for awkwardly gawking at the couple on my right while they plunged into their desserts, and I nodded admiringly, knowing I would soon follow suit by ordering the same.

Cast Iron Skillet Apple Pie: spiced date vanilla bean ice cream, caramel ($10)
I felt like Laura Ingalls celebrating some special occasion where Ma busted out the cast iron skillet for a personal-pan-style apple pie, and its novel presentation and flaky top crust were praiseworthy.

Berries & Cream: fresh berries, lemon lavender anglaise, pistachio ice cream ($7)  
The lemon, lavender anglaise daintily fluffed itself beneath a skirt of fresh berries, leaving behind a perfumed trace of lavender and the clean cut of citrus = a palate’s happy ending.

Coming Full Circa
Bratwursts, pork belly, lamb shanks, pork and beans, burgers – Circa had comfort food covered. Their beer menu had a bounty of microbrews and desserts were given the same attention to detail as dinner. I was also interested in checking out their brunch menu for the Chilaquiles Skillet: corn tortilla chips, pork chorizo, stewed white beans, poached eggs, red chile sauce, cilantro, pickled radish, farmer’s cheese ($12.50) and BBQ Benny: slow-cooked bbq pork butt, poblano cornbread, cilantro, poached eggs, hollandaise, homefries ($13), along with the $5 Happy Hour menu during the week.

Although I hated the idea of trendy, niche markets, I had to admit that Circa pulled off their concept of “California Soul Food”. Their sunny disposition worked like enchanted chlorophyll nourishing the food, the staff, and the even the stifled surroundings. In fact, their cramped quarters only added to the experience and made me realize that the world would be a much friendlier place if everyone was Circa-sized.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tourists in Tinseltown (LA)

I was always puzzled by the duality of this dog eat dog city curled like a cat amongst the California hills, built up towards the sun and shrouded in smog. Hollywood was Jekyll and Hyde: the bad boy that charmed one minute and caused heartbreak the next; the mean girl who gave an unexpected invite to her party. 

You didn’t want to entertain this “too cool for school” smugness, but at times it was hard to resist. My relationship with LA was one that I didn’t reminisce over often, but once in a while, the romance of this city snuck up on me.

Elan Hotel (8435 Beverly Blvd)
I couldn’t rave more about the Elan Hotel than if I had glow sticks in my hand and techno music blaring in the background. The staff was a delightful and accommodating band of brethren from the time we checked in to our (free) late checkout the next day at 2pm*. Elan held the charm of a boutique hotel, while remaining surprisingly affordable, offering free continental breakfast in the sunny lobby (as well as wine and cheese at 5pm), free wifi, parking ($23 a night), and my AAA card saved me $43! Elan was also within walking distance from stalk-worthy restaurants like Bazaar, Animal, Son of a Gun, and LA’s famous Farmer’s Market.

Farmer's Market window shopping within walking distance
*We were there on a Monday, so the same flexibility might not apply on weekends.

Runion Canyon (2000 N Fuller Ave)
Only about a 10-15 minute drive from the hotel, we easily found free parking about a half a block from Runion Canyon’s entrance. Several trails were set before us like a choose-your-own-adventure book and we decided to take the high road. Admittedly it was quite the climb, but our trek was worth a glimpse of the smog-snuggled city and a level gaze with the Hollywood sign.

Quality Food and Beverage (8030 W 3rd St) 
The place was pretty much empty, except for one regular who was chatting up the waiter about how good his granola was. Jazz was playing, but not that horrible Muzak junk. I’m talking soulful rhythms that lulled me into past decades and a quiet trance of comfort, similar to the ease of relaxing in a favorite relative’s kitchen. 

Quality was the classic luncheonette’s modern sister: clean, straightforward and confident in her skin with the simple, classy appeal of wood trim and crisp, green awnings.The menu was fitted with homemade breakfasts, sandwiches, burgers, and a couple of chalkboard soup specials. 

I went for a cheeseburger (feta), medium rare. Quality came through, not with a brick-sized, pre-formed patty, mind you, but a nice, thin, equal opportunity burger that allowed all of the ingredients a fair share of the spotlight. There was nothing I hated more than a “fat guy in a little coat” burger = a gigantic wad of meat on a barely-there bun, blocking out any other topping with its burly beefiness. But here, a solid foundation was layered with equal parts beef, bun, and cheese, creating a burger worthy of the name, Quality.

Fonuts (8104 W 3rd St) 
How very LA. Baked and steamed donuts. And vegan, no less. But the whole “never judge a book…” and all that nonsense. Plus, I’d read an article a while back on Fonuts’ owner, Waylynn Lucas, so we when we came upon her miniature dollhouse of a space, fitted with only a tiny, vintage stove masquerading as a coffee station and a few trays of wayward donuts, my curiosity was peaked.

Normally, I wouldn’t use the word “curiosity” to describe vegan food. It was usually more like, “suspect” or “disgusting” (especially when it came to ruining a perfectly good donut!), but I was about to eat my judgmental words.

I chose two Fonuts: one sweet (chocolate/hazelnut) and one savory (rosemary/olive oil). Ok, so first of all, there was a reason why the word “moist” was still around, even though it was kind of disgusting because sometimes there was no better way to describe something so juicy and flowing and lubricated, and ok, you get the point…but OHHH SOOOO MOIST!! When broken in half, the chocolate/hazelnut looked like well-watered, nutrient rich soil sowing seeds of toasted hazelnuts. And the rosemary/olive oil was an unctuous, herbaceous masterpiece. Hands down the best olive oil cake I'd ever tasted.

I noticed they’d sidestepped the vegan vendetta in a couple of options like the maple/ bacon and chorizo/cheddar, but even these members of the line-up had me suspect. There was no way these Fonuts could be healthy. Baked? Steamed? Good for you donuts? I wasn’t buying it. They were just too tasty, too special, too decadent…there had to be something like ground up babies in the batter. But I guess that was the east coast cynic in me, because in reality, wasn’t a vegan donut the epitome of LA? Fonuts were a tangible version of LA’s dueling dichotomy, a town of juxtapositions. Healthy Donuts ; Tinsel Town and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams; Jekyll and Hyde. 

And the city I hated to love (because I had to admit it…Viva Las Vegan!).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

To SUR, with Hate (LA)

I’m not proud to say I have a weakness for most of the Housewife mayhem that spouts from the blowhard mouth of Bravo, sucking me and many of my unassuming friends in for the train-wreck. This included my east coast pal, Taryn, so we agreed that the next time she visited San Diego, we’d road trip to LA and eat at (Beverly Hills Housewife) Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant, SUR.

As the setting of Vamperpump Rules, SUR buzzed like a hive of iniquity where the pretty and privileged, degenerate, worker bees (and self-perceived queens) pollinated all the drama you could stomach.

Vanderpump’s Vibe
But this hive was a heap, and my first thought upon entering was that of a basement/ warehouse turned restaurant. The purple, velvet curtains shuttering the entrance were heavy, but cheap looking, like the kind you’d see in some high school stoner’s bedroom. Light was scarce. We were seated right next to an enormous, concrete planter, which looked more like a lawn ornament from an English estate than indoor décor, especially since it cut into my side like an oversized man spilling from his seat on a plane.

We weren’t given any menus, so I asked the kid filling our water, and he looked at me like I was nuts. He paused then said, “Let me see if we have any.” He came back with only one menu. For us to share? Was this an LA thing? (Menus are soooooo 2014!!)


Apps: Fried goat cheese balls, cucumber salad, mango sauce
But in fact, there was one item which we already knew we wanted - fried goat cheese balls. In one particular episode, the show’s evil queen, Stassi, raved about them. I'd pictured finely sculpted orbs, rolled lightly in breadcrumbs and herbs, but I should have known better than to trust that lying trollop! Three deep-fried, teeny tiny balls, no bigger than a marble, arrived masquerading as mozzarella stick’s ugly step-sisters. The only thing that could cut through their inch-thick breading was the mango slime that drenched the limp bed of grated carrots and cucumbers beneath.

Entrée: Roasted rack of lamb, rosemary red wine sauce, two side orders
SUR’s selections read like a cafeteria menu – pick a side and a veg - was that served on a metal tray? We kept trying to decide on entrees, but between the four chicken dishes, meatloaf, and pasta, it was slim pickings. The only thing that caught my eye was the lamb, and I paired it with a side salad and mashed potatoes (yawn). At this point, Taryn looked over in disappointment and said, “Do you just want to split an entrée?” I mean, it only made sense to order one meal, since we only had one menu, and after the cheese ball blunder and the lackluster list before us, I readily agreed…and we couldn’t have made a better decision.

First of all, the SIDE salad was served on the same plate as the lamb and potatoes, which meant that all of the balsamic vinaigrette and the lamb’s watery, red wine sauce ran together, until there was no separating the two. And could there be anything more unappetizing than warm, wilted lettuce? I think not. I’ve seen Lisa Vanderpump’s house; her closet was bigger than most apartments. She could afford to spring for a few salad bowls.

The lamb was under-seasoned, but decent. The four, petite chops were cooked to the correct temperature and had enough of their natural juices left to wash away the gluey after-paste from SUR’s extra starchy, mashed potatoes.

Dessert: Crepes with dulce de leche and whipped cream
Dessert was the only highlight. Delicate crepes, thinner than the tablecloth, came folded and filled with the caramelized, creamy decadence of dulce de leche, and topped with homemade whipped cream. Tasty, but definitely not worth the trip. 

Boulevard of Broken Dinners
What was worth the trip was our “celebrity” sighting of Katie (the girl next door who finally found her voice). And Peter (the "I want to be Rico Suave” manager, but just a goofy guy [with great abs]), who was nice enough to take a picture with us.

And in reality (TV), that’s what we were there for: the cheap thrill. The fact that dinner was a disaster only made sense because we had ditched our integrity for a quick dance with celebrity, and our palates were punished for such shallow sins.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Feasting Flashbacks: A December Night at Nougatine at Jean-Georges (Manhattan)

Who knew that our little legs would carry us from the theater on W. 45th street to Central Park West in such a hurry? Maybe it was the sea of holiday traffic propelling us forward, our feet barely touching the pavement (unlike the few poor fish struggling upstream), that had us knocking on Nougatine’s door at 5:30 pm, even though our reservations weren’t until 7 pm.

Nougatine, Jean-Georges’ sister restaurant, or should I say Siamese twin, shared the same location and was separated only by a wall…and atmospheric conditions - Nougatine as the laid-back lounge vs. the elite sophistication of Jean-Georges.  Ninety minutes was a long time to spend at the bar, but once we realized we could order the entire menu bar-side, we decided to get dinner cracking.

We got cracking alright, even though a nut cracker wasn’t needed for the fanciful array of bar snacks spilling over in silver bowls - wasabi nuts, cinnamon almonds, seasoned popcorn = one posh nosh.

Mental note:
1) Coming here for drinks would include access to these snacks.
2) Come here for drinks.

Drinks – Such Great Heitz
Wait, I was confused. The Heitz Cellar cabernet I wanted was…$29 a bottle? That seemed kind of low, but there was a glass for $15, so that had to be the bottle price, right? My brow creased in confusion until I figured out that it cost $15 for a tasting, and was $29 a glass!!

Nurse! Nurse! Someone call a nurse because that’s what I’d being doing with this glass for the entire meal – talk about savor the flavor. But just when I had one sip left, a couple came up to the bar in search of two seats. There was one on either side of my mother and I, so even though we were right in the middle of dinner, I asked if they wanted us to move down so they could sit together.

They couldn’t thank us enough and as we slid our plates down (with the help of the attentive bar-back), the bartender came over and said, “That was really nice of you.” And with that, he took out the Heitz Cellar bottle and poured me another full glass! YES!!! Now, that’s what I call instant karma cabernet.

Raspberry Lychee Bellini : Drusian Prosecco, Raspberry, Lychee
The cocktails weren’t much cheaper, since the Bellini was $18, but then again, we were at a Jean-Georges joint, so I guess that was to be expected. Plus my mom loved their bend on a classic Bellini - switching the peachy for lychee – nice twist!


Amuse bouche: Chestnut broth with spinach/cheese ravioli
Of all the infectious olfactory senses Manhattan could extract, there was one which I loathed: roasted chestnuts. It was impossible to escape the fuel-filled force field surrounding these vendors and their suffocating stench, choking the throat and nostrils. So when our amuse bouche of chestnut broth was placed before us, I was still stuck on that street stank, but then poof:

Nat King Cole appeared in a cable knit cardigan, his crooked arm resting languidly on a mantle above a roaring fire, before slowly turning and belting out, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

Besides my mental crooning, I was making noises that were bordering on inappropriate every time I had a sip. I couldn’t control the guttural grunts that spewed from my mouth as I downed this magical elixir.  The pillow of mini-ravioli fluffed nicely on the tongue, but in reality was just a distraction from my broth. Oh, my beloved broth!!!  My biggest regret was not asking for an entire bowl of you!!

Lobster burger with Gruyere cheese, green chili mayonnaise, yuzu pickles

Step over SpongeBob because crabby patties ain’t got nothing on Nougatine’s lobster burger. This compact cutie was succulent and full of hunky lobster, which paired well with the subtle tang of Gruyere and though it worked as a sophisticated snack, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a memorable dinner pick. 

As usual, my mom and I agreed that there was just nothing better than lobster au natural with drawn butter (note: as an admitted lobster purist, I’m not the most objective).

Veal Milanese – parmesan, pecans, lemons, capers, escarole

Boy, was it chilly out, and whenever I visited the East Coast, all of my wintery, comfort food cravings came back with ferocity. My usual go-to was some type of burger* or pasta dish, but the idea of thinly sliced medallions of lightly fried meat was exactly what I was looking for.

 Lemon led the way, popping up like spring flowers for a perpetual brightness in a somewhat heavy dish, and a smattering of chopped pecans added somes unexpected woody undertones. My veal: like velvet. It became the supple, paper-thin lining in a cape of beaded breadcrumbs, the craggy surface catching all the salty bursts of capers and freshly grated parmesan.

Dessert Amuse: Truffles to go

nou·ga·tine(ˈno͞oɡəˌtēn/) noun
1. nougat covered with chocolate.

We were handed two shiny bags, each containing a small box big enough for a pair of earrings. And indeed, it was a matched set…of house-made truffles! Tiny squares covered with sheer, dark chocolate dissolved into the airy, homespun nougat that gently tousled the tongue before waving good-bye.

*How big is your burger?
When I was still debating what to order, I considered checking out their cheeseburger. But I needed to see how thick their burgers were because I’m not a fan of biting into a giant wall of meat, so I figured I’d ask. Simple question, right? Not so much. Since my karma-pouring pal was busy, I asked the second bartender, who I will nickname Snotty McClure (SMC) and this was the conversation that followed:

Me: Excuse me, could you tell me how thick your burger is?

SMC: The usual thickness.

Me:  So would you say it’s a big burger?

SMC: There are bigger burgers.

Me: Um, so is it thick or thin?

SMC: Relatively thick.

Me: *moving thumb and index finger up and down to mimic its possible thickness* This big? Or this big?

SMC: Well, how are you going to have it cooked?

Me: Medium rare, medium.

SMC: Then yes, it would be a relatively thick burger.

Me: Okkkkkkkk, thanks.

Besides that, service was impeccable, especially the bar-back who helped us move down when the couple arrived and gave us our parting gift of truffles.  And of course, the St. Peter of Pours, my favorite bartender, who saw to it that a second coming of cabernet passed through my pearly whites.

Spies like Us
Also, the couple who we moved down for ended up being some sort of super connected, Nougatine know-it-alls. Besides calling everyone by their  first name and having the bartender prepare his “usual”, the man started ordering dishes that were nowhere on the menu! Of course, as a Grade A eavesdropper and unapologetic, staring champion, I watched with mouth agape as suspicious sauces and incognito entrees were laid before them, course after course.  

Nougatine’s narrative
What I learned from my night at Nougatine was that sometimes you needed to take the table less traveled, and sit bar-side.  It might just end up being the best seat in the house. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice…and sometimes that karma came back immediately in the form of free wine and secret menus of Manhattan's restaurant world.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Animal: Man’s Best Friend (Los Angeles)

If you’re looking for a sign - don’t.

There isn’t one.

Animal was the Katherine Hepburn of restaurants – a plain face that eventually took your breath away. At a first glance, unnoticeable, but within minutes her comfortable spunk unraveled into a contagious, atmospheric smile that crackled through the air. I felt an automatic sense of kinship in a space that boasted maybe 20 tables and a back bar that squeezed in six or so. There was a certain comfort that laced itself around the room like a favorite pair of Chuck Taylors, which probably made sense as a shoe choice here, considering whom the owners were.

I’d taken a liking to Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo from the time they had a short stint on the Food Network with, Two Dudes Catering, where they showed up as wet behind the ears, long haired kitchen punks making their way in the culinary world. Now about a decade later, they were big wigs (hair pun intended) in the LA restaurant scene with hits like Animal, Son of a Gun and their collaboration with Chef Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec (where admission tickets were taken instead of reservations).

If hard booze was your bag, then you needed to grab a cocktail at The Dime across the street because Animal only served beer and wine, which meant a light, fruity bottle of Beaujolais for my mom, Edna (aka Eddie) and I.


White nectarine, radish, agretti, local goat cheese, almond vinaigrette ($8)

Eddie had an unhealthy obsession with goat cheese, so we’d made it a rule that whenever it appeared on a menu (which was a lot), we’d order it. This time, I was definitely taking one for the team, since the idea of a fruit salad didn’t exactly make my mouth water.

But in one trippy mouthful I was out of my seat and in my head, churning through my brain’s nostalgia. I think it was the agretti - a Mediterranean succulent (not often seen in the US) – with its lightly bitter, refreshing aftertaste that conjured up memories of freshly cut lawns on a summer evening.

Mixed with the fragrant, silken texture of rose petals, discs of raw radish, and the nutty grit of almond vinaigrette, my palate plucked at more memories of loam, and grass, and flowers.  The earthiness was countered by the sweet squish of ripe nectarine and threw me back to Jersey circa 1980’s - Matthews fruit stand, where we’d stop most days on the way back from the beach.

Summer. Youth. Innocence. Happiness.  

Poof! I arrived back at my seat disheveled, still trying to wrap my mouth around the complexities that had just torn my brain in two. There were no words. Just admiration and awe.

Roasted figs, hazelnut, buttermilk, blackberries, crispy ham ($12)

*Pursed lips* Hmmm….this wasn’t what I’d pictured at all. It arrived foaming at the mouth and I hadn’t prepared for that, but I guess I’d let it slide since this foam was of the buttermilk variety and wasn’t much more than a visual effect anyway. The real feat was the figs, and I assumed the foam was used as “edible fog” to pull off the trick that was about to be played on the senses.  

A small amount of crispy ham brought an underlying salty component (though actual ham was scarce) and released some of its flavor into the figs. The addition of hazelnut added another layer of hearty, protein-like depth and however the figs had been cooked, they had an almost meat-like quality to them (in the same way a Portobello could seem meaty).

I was reminded of a science experiment back in grade school where a student was blindfolded and the teacher held a slice of apple under their nose, while they bit into a piece of raw, peeled potato.  The mind, sensing the apple’s scent and similar texture, fooled the palate into thinking an apple was being eaten instead of the potato.

Here, the ham’s essence was transfused into the figs and invoked a similar illusion. It reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein bringing life to the monster – “It’s alive!” – turning fruit to meat! But just because you could build a monster, didn’t mean it always made the most sense after it was completed. The experiment was impressive, but I probably wouldn’t order this again.

Chicken wings, orange gastrique, mango amba, cilantro ($11)

I was always a little gun-shy when it came to ordering wings. I'd been there before. Hung my heart on a wishbone and had it broken to pieces. The heartbreak came when the promise of crispy skin and succulent meat was met with flabby, undercooked outer-parts and dried up, inner tendrils. It was almost impossible to get the right equation of crunchy skin + moist meat, but Animal knew how to handle these birds – ain’t no thang.

Wet naps appeared as a prelude to the sticky, orange glaze that glued my fingers in place for precise crunching into a translucent, candy shell, giving way to plumped, succulent chicken meat that still had a ton of integrity…so much integrity,  I would still respect this chicken in the morning. And ask for more.

Pig ear, red chili, lime, maple, duck egg ($16)

Eddie was a little worried when she heard me order the pig’s ear…and then she wouldn’t stop hogging it! This was hands down, my new favorite version of bacon and eggs. Crispy slivers of pig’s ear were wound like brambles of bacon sticks beneath the white cape and golden emblem of a sunny side up, duck egg.

My knife and fork went to work shredding it to pieces, letting the yolk flow as a gooey, viscous sauce around the browned, salty edges of sliced ear. Thin lines of Sriracha and maple syrup encircled the bowl’s interior, so that when the egg and ear were lifted out, it bumped a bit of heat and sweet. I can’t tell you how much I loved this dish – its look; its feel; its interactiveness – this was worth coming for alone. Forget the silk purse, I’d rather keep the sow’s ear.

Balsamic pork ribs, crispy potato, lemon chili vinaigrette ($26)

These ribs were teeth-tender (who needed a fork?) slabs of cooked perfection, but unfortunately the “acid trip” I experienced here was nothing like the out-of-body epiphany I had with the nectarine salad. The balsamic wasn’t fully cooked out of the ribs, so a strong, vinegary steam rose up to clog the nostrils and taste-buds with a bitter cloak.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the beautifully crisped, coin-shaped potatoes beneath weren’t drenched in lemon as well.  But even though it contained more acid than Timothy Leary, I’d probably give it second chance since I truly believed in my heart, it had been an accidental overdose.

Bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream ($9)

Hunks of bacon flexed in wavy curls like meathead versions of chocolate chips between layers of dense dark chocolate – I was smitten. The salt and pepper ice cream also intrigued me, as my mind imagined all of the toppings I could pair with this: nuts, fruit, candy, jams, use it as a daily condiment for pies and cakes!!

My only issue was that it became salty squared (and I love my salt!) when both the ice cream and bacon bar were eaten together, but as separate components, their novelty was an endearing end to a noteworthy meal.

Service with a smile

Easily, some of the best service I’d ever had.  There was a genuine, unadulterated enthusiasm from all of the wait staff, hostess, runners…every single person we encountered. There was nothing but good vibes and pride flowing through the room. Our table was visited by multiple people, multiple times, but we never felt rushed or intruded upon. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. We left feeling well-cared for, well-fed and frankly, loved.