Friday, December 30, 2016

Son of a Gun – (Los Angeles, Ca)

The Young Men and the Sea

The swordfish pointed the way into this life-sized diorama of, The Old Man and the Sea - a nautical wasteland of anchors, thick, frayed rope, and rusty compasses, now navigating Son of a Gun’s (SOG’s) walls, washed in a crisp, soft blue to brighten what could easily have steered towards a musty motif, and instead sailed into “fancy fisherman” waters.

SOG was the sister restaurant of Animal, where I had enjoyed a BOAT (Best of All Time) meal a few years back. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo had won me over about a decade ago as shaggy-headed, easy-going, hard-working, twenty-somethings with their short-lived, Food Network show, "Two dudes catering". Since then, they had taken over the LA food scene with their own ventures, along with a couple of collaborations with Chef Ludo Lefebvre.

SOG’s seafood-driven menu was a bit more demur than Animal, but the family resemblance was undeniable. Each ingredient was treated as an individual, stripped down to exemplify its genuine essence, dynamic complexities, and integrity.  But it was how these individuals worked in a choreographed union with one another that cranked up the assembly line of olfactory senses to maximum capacity. “Food Whisperers” was the term that came to mind when dealing with Shook and Dotolo, as if every morsel they touched, gladly bent to their will.


Raw Hamachi, Galbi Vinaigrette, Pink Lady Apple, Radish Sprouts ($18)

Unexpected euphoria arrived in this pristine plate of pale, pink fish with a Mardi Gras party of garnish. Flavors shifted like an edible kaleidoscope, giving new shape to the dish with every bite, flowing seamlessly, yet all remaining singularly identifiable – the delicateness of the Hamachi, the striking sour of apple and vinaigrette, the bitter crunch of radish sprouts – all somersaulting into endless, taste-bud, twisting configurations like the Kama Sutra of cuisine. I swallowed. Contentment…followed with an unyielding desire to recapture its swift, elusive magic immediately.

Lobster BLT, Pain de Mie, Nueske Bacon, Potato Chips ($32)

“Ms. Vanilla Milquetoast, party of one.” I was kicking myself for being such a bore, and felt like I’d wasted my entrée order. Of course this lobster BLT was decadent, chock-full of fat-clawed crustaceans, and the golden doubloons of crisp potato accompanying it, still warm from the fryer, coated my fingertips in a lustered sheen of glistening oil. But…I’d had this dish before. Many times. I’d grown up on the east coast, and this was nothing new, although done flawlessly. I’d safe harbored it, and missed the boat on sampling SOG’s five-star, select eclectics like octopus salad, mirepoix, chile ($18) or lemonfish poke, black radish escabeche, citrus, crispy sunchoke ($18). Don’t make the same mistake I did! Take the plunge!

Fish and Chips, Malt Aioli ($16)

Replicating, while elevating, and not dumbing down this iconic, greasy, pub fare was a further testament to SOG’s abilities. Breading was a barely-there corseted nuance of crunch that lovingly held the fish’s flesh in place like a flawlessly tailored gown. Red carpet worthy and a rarity in LA as the unpretentious, talented, deep-fried, stunner.

SOG and Sensibility: It sounded corny when people proclaimed they, “Cooked with love”, but what else count account for that intangible, cosmic thing which transformed meals into revelations? Shook and Dotolo had found this hidden vortex and created what I called, “Morsel Code”  = tapping into the tongues’ alphabet through an emotionally triggered taste spectrum. Notes of vulnerability, respect, love, commitment, hard work, fun, invention, and individuality were on the plate - the deconstructed human condition. The real deal. An honest-to-goodness, Son of a Gun, in the best possible way.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Herb and Wood (San Diego, Ca)

A Tale of Restaurant Redemption

I arrived wearing my favorite, steel-studded sneer; my shoulder adorned with a chip larger than the Hope Diamond. This was yet another venture by Brian “Mediocre” Malarkey, the former, Top Chef contestant who traded his culinary soul to any investor looking to make a buck off his newfound celebrity. But every layer Malarkey piled on his fabric-themed, restaurant empire (including Gingham [CLOSED], Gabardine [CLOSED], Seersucker), exposed one common thread - the Emperor had no clothes (aka full of Malarkey).

But my judgmental dress made me look a fool, as Herb and Wood (H&W) emerged the stunning fashionista, subtly dressed to the nines, in classy grays and museum-like lighting dimmed over vibrant canvases; the front bar, sleek and glittering like a crowned jewel, beckoning us in…or out (seating for both), to this forgotten warehouse transformed into a larger-than-life, Pinterest wet dream of design, art, and space.

Drinks: Mocktails
Non-alcoholic drink menus were usually absentmindedly thrown together, similar to the way vegetarians were endlessly offered the same, generic option of pasta primavera. There wasn’t much thought put into these elixirs, which only seemed to exist out of an exhausted politeness for the dry duds and former drunks, who wouldn’t be bulking up the tab with booze. But this mocktail menu was surprisingly thorough, and my concoction of pineapple juice, soda, lime, and cinnamon syrup doled out a heavy-handed, fizzy, brain buzz. Cinnamon syrup = my new obsession.

Eats: Small Plates/ Entrees

Wood-fired pizza: Pesto, Cippolini Onion, Escargot, Bone Marrow

Let's be honest. Bone marrow had become the Justin Beiber of the restaurant world. It was everywhere - annoyingly so - though you still couldn’t help but love it, no matter how hard you tried.

Especially when it sprang up in an extra catchy version of wood-fired pizza topped with pesto, escargot, Cippolini onions, and a bone sawed in half, left open-faced, and brimming with gelatinous globs of grandeur. Wait, was that a miniature spoon for scooping?! So dainty! A schmear of marrow as a pizza topping?! Genius!! I had to admit it…they “Beibered” the shit out of this one.

Gnocchi, Oxtail, Roasted Garlic, Parsley, Chive, Sherry, Parmesan & Horseradish

The fine dining world had learned long ago that they could charge big money for cheaper cuts of meat like short ribs and oxtail - the ones that most home cooks weren’t willing to take on because of the extensive amount of fatty tissue woven throughout. But when braised long enough, every inch of their fatty highways melted away, bathing the meat until it morphed into a succulent, shreddable, treasure.

H&W's oxtail wafted nostalgic notes of grandma’s pot roast, but with heightened luxury from a potent, sherry-infused influence and horseradish kicker. My guess was the gnocchi was homemade because it squished like a bite of Play-Doh in a subtly, soft pillow of pasta = worthy of a reorder.

Crispy Potato, Lemon Vinaigrette, Black Pepper, Fresh Horseradish, Parmesan

Ah, here was the "mediocre" Malarkey I knew. I'd imagined the preparation much differently than a stark plate of whole, red potatoes topped with Parmesan and thrown in the oven. Just sub-par enough to bring back those resentful feelings of Malarkey’s past.

Dessert: Twix (Caramel, Crème Friache, Milk Chocolate & Lava Salt)

I felt like I was eating the back of a particle board shelf from Ikea. Grainy, chalky, chokingly dry. Need I say more? Fix your Twix!

H&W Earns an A
But as bitchy as I was, I couldn’t deny my obsession with H&W and my plans to return whenever I had the chance. H&W’s taste left its mark on both the eye and palate in a way that hit all the right olfactory senses and left you wanting more. I hated having to eat my words, but it was a little easier with a mouthful of bone marrow pizza.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tally Ho(tel)-ing in Tahoe

Lapping waters and an air quality shaped by pine trees and high elevation was my first mental snapshot of Tahoe. It was summer. There would be a wedding. And I was able to breathe it all in, even if the altitude made that a bit difficult at times (elevation level: 6,224 feet).

Hyatt’s Lows (Incline Village, NV)

Room without a view: This Hyatt definitely topped one of my lists, but not one that anyone’d want to be on. Our room was chokingly overpriced and had no admirable amenities worthy of the cost. Just an ordinary room…with an empty mini-fridge, the in-room menu missing, and one, tiny, windmill-shaped window, which looked out on to the parking lot and allowed us a glimpse of the Lake, if we craned our necks enough.

For the birds: The Lone Eagle Grille was one lame duck - this menu was a real snoozer. My tomato salad looked like a mother bird had regurgitated it onto the plate. Red and yellow tomatoes were mercilessly tossed around with fresh mozzarella, until they were all soggy, splintered, and spent. But even more offensive were the box croutons. Really? At these prices, the croutons should have been sculpted in the shape of the Lake by in-house, bread artisans. Mushroom soup, mediocre paninis…zzzz.

Pool shade: Even our poolside play was overwhelmed by a black cloud. Our waitress’ standoffish sneer was only outdone by her skull and crossbones, neck tattoo - a tangible foreshadowing of the amount of shit in her britches that she was ready to dole out to any Ned or Nancy that looked at her sideways…or ordered a drink from her. Yikes.

What’s up? Dock Bar:  Weathered planks extended over a watery walkway and ended at a gently bobbing raft of wood, equipped with a full bar. Watching the mountains swallow the sun, cocktail in hand, made for one solid afternoon (its one Hyatt point).

Sunnyside’s Ups (Tahoe City, CA)

I have an affinity for charming dumps. Hotels which have held up over time and maintained their original character. Good bones. Comfortable in their skin. A fixture from a former era whose genuine sense of self casually waltzed their way into the present. Sunnyside fit that bill almost better than any I’d ever seen.

Sunnyside was a wilderness lodge on the Lake with only 23 rooms, all named after the surrounding area (we had the Emerald Bay suite). Our room resembled a small apartment with a living space and separate bedroom, along with a private patio that opened out onto the water. Hotel guests also had access to a secluded deck on the second floor (ideal for soaking up some sunny silence).

But if it was a party you were looking for, the restaurant downstairs was hopping all day long. Sunnyside's deck had been a landmark since the 50's and was famous for the way the expansive, wooden structure hung over the water, along with the endless stream of flawless food pumped out of the kitchen with the consistency and quality of a four star restaurant. Fresh fish tacos and crisp salads loaded with hunky salmon fillets, perfectly cooked burgers, chicken wings worthy of awards - casual fare done at its best. Whether you came for lunch or an overnight stay, anywhere on the property would land you on the Sunnyside of the street.

Casino Row (Crystal Bay, NV)

Southwest Airline’s system crashed on the day of our return flight, so we were forced to spend a couple extra days in Tahoe. Not too shabby! Until we realized that every decent hotel was sold out for the weekend. No problem, there was a Biltmore on the Cali/Nevada border.

The Filthmore: An omen of rotting wood, 20 feet high, bearing the name, “Biltmore”, rocked unsteadily like a roach-filled pinanta waiting to fall from the sky. 40 years of nicotine and mildew infiltrated every mote of my nostrils. Musty, dusty, and crusty. Our cottage at the "Filthmore" was the equivalent of indoor camping. Raw, exposed beams of plywood, which looked as if they’d been salvaged from a pile of garbage, framed windows that let in just enough light to see whether anything was about to crawl across my face while I laid in bed.*cue Beastie Boys* “No. Sleep. At Biltmore!" One star, one eye open, and one foot out the door.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Tasty and Alder (T&A): Portland, OR

T&A is the Tits

Tasty and Alder (T&A) stretched itself out on the corner like a fully, splayed skeleton with windows nearly as large as its walls. This loft of bare bones hugged itself in raw, crisp minimalism and drew the eye to a ceiling of exposed duct work, before dropping down into the full view of an open kitchen, whose chronic clank of cast iron mimicked an “order-up” bell that melodically dinged with outgoing, brunch orders.

Radicchio salad: bacon lardons, manchengo, 6 minute eggs

Radicchio, aka Ricci, was like an obnoxious younger cousin that you couldn't help but have a soft spot for. Ricci came on strong and wasn’t easy to miss with his frigid frame splattered in violent purple over stark white. Sometimes you loved him, sometimes you hated him…and some days like today, you realized Ricci's underestimated ability to come forward as lovable front man.

I guess Ricci’s shining moment was heavily dependent on the symbiotic relationship with the other ingredients. These key players turned down Ricci’s brassy, bitterness and amped up his deeper, earthier self, while highlighting their own strengths. It was like the perfect jam session. Each had their own fine-tuned singularity; their own presence. But when this foursome came together, they became greater as a whole. They were The Beatles in a bowl. Please, welcome to the stage:

Bacon lardons: thick-necked and burly like a lumberjack, smelling of campfire. Dense, but exhibiting a complex tenderness that accepted Ricci’s bite.

Manchego: though this Spanish cheese wasn't as well known as his Italian cousin, Parmesan, once you met "the Man", he was a welcome guest at any table. Here, he showed up shaved and softly stacked like a fresh blanket of snow, but his brash brand of saltiness was noticeably ingrained beneath the clean composure . 

Six Minute Egg: Talk about six minutes of pleasure - yowy!! This educated egg’s precision and technique split seamlessly into a great white shock of savory protein and oozy yolk, which melded with the lardon drippings and Manchego to create the first notable sequel to Caesar’s reign in the dressing world.

Until T&A, I’d never seen such depth or potential in Ricci’s character, and instead of leaving his usual bad aftertaste, he only left me with afterglow.

Pan Fried Halibut Sandwich: served with fries

I hated to compare T&A’s sandwich to the likes of Chic-fil-a, but this halibut came coated in some cosmic batter that brought me back to that first recognizable moment, when a piece of protein I’d consumed a million times before was elevated to VIP status - all because of a simple, lightweight coat.

But forget about the likes of Chil-fil- a, or about any other coat you'd seen before! You thought, Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, was impressive?!

Well check out, Halibut and the Technicolor Trench Coat! Because this little fishy was still quivering with freshness, all but naked - aside from the two pickle pasties peeking out from a potato bun, and a burlesque showing of batter that stayed swathed in a thin sheath before it gave way to the goods – buttery, lush, fresh fish that made me weak in the knees.

What can I say?
I like big halibuts, and I cannot lie.