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From My Taste Buds To Yours

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Joe’s Restaurant

Posted by Austios on November 26, 2010

For over 20 years, Chef Joe Miller has brought the people of Venice, particularly in the Abbot Kinney neighborhood, a casual yet refined take on California-French cuisine with dishes and tastes that have patrons returning time and time again. Over the years, while the neighborhood has apparently transformed into its now indie, trendy self, Joe’s has remained true to its original form.

I had the privilege of dining here not too long ago and was treated to an 11-course dinner alongside a handful of fellow food and writing enthusiasts. We were presented items from their new fall menu, and both Joe and his Chef de Cuisine, Kris Tominaga, both came out for each course to explain the dish in detail. Well, apparently Kris was a little shy and maybe came out twice during the entire meal.

One nice touch of the evening was that our menus were personalized, with a “Welcome ____” and signed by both Joe and Kris.

Glancing over the menu, it definitely did feature a lot of seasonally fall ingredients and all sounded quite enticing.

Starting our progression off was a charcuterie platter of pork, rabbit, duck, proscuitto, and chorizo with pickled vegetables and purple mustard. Between 4 people on my side of the table, I managed only a couple of small nibbles of the pork, chorizo, and proscuitto, but they were all quite good.

Our amuse bouche arrived: chestnut soup with parmesan froth and guanciale. For those of you who don’t know what guanciale is, it is an unsmoked Italian bacon made from a pig’s cheek meat. The flavor and texture of the soup was spot on and the parmesan froth lent out its natural saltiness to balance the subtle sweetness of the soup.

1st course was an Eastern fluke crudo with finger lime, radish salad, salted grape, and saletta. Some sort of 1-2 bite sashimi dish with citrus seems to be a more widely practiced opening course, especially since fresh local fish seems to be more readily available for restaurants. Also, a light fish such as this paired with citrus is just about a near perfect combination. The radish salad and salted grape provide wonderful herbaceous and sweet, respectively, contrasts.

Next came pan seared foie gras with persimmon prepared 2 ways, pistachio butter, brioche, and huckleberry vinaigrette. The piece of foie gras was seared wonderfully, and just being 1-2 bites, I attempted to get everything into one single bite. I will have to tell you, the way each element worked with each other, it just, well…. worked. I personally LOVE foie gras, so even this small 2 bite nugget was such a treat.

Next in the progression was pan roasted dayboat scallops, braised artichoke, sunchoke puree, cauliflower mushroom, and yuzu kosho butter. I personally LOVE scallops, so I was excited to see this dish. The other elements definitely brought a sense of the autumn season onto the plate, and the flavors were complimentary.

Staying in the ocean, we moved onto a grilled Fijiian escolar, with parsnip puree, local squid, crisp pork belly, fuyu persimmon, okinawan purple sweet potato, and pink peppercorn vinaigrette. Yes, quite a bit going on this plate. The fish was perfect, the parsnip puree had good flavor, however I wasn’t able to much of the other elements on the plate. Not because I don’t feel the flavors were prominent enough, but again, I was sharing the family style dishes with 3 other people.

Next course featured slow roasted jidori chicken breast and pistachio roulade, served with chestnut and foie agnolotti, Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and rutabaga puree. The chicken was nice and the pistachio added a wonderful nutty balance. The agnolotti was quite flavorful with the chestnut and a touch of foie gras. However, the brussel sprouts and rutabaga puree seemed to be lost in this dish.

As for a finale of our savory dishes, and what ended up being probably one of the favorite dishes of the evening: Sonoma lamb sirloin, served with a beet risotto and lamb ragout, with bulls blood greens. The lamb was absolutely cooked perfectly with no gaminess (several “Oh my God”s were said between I and one of my fellow diners), and the beet risotto had nice flavor and seasoned well, which was a little surprising because I was expecting the beet flavor to overpower a little. The bits of lamb swimming throughout added further subtle richness to the dish.

For dessert, we were offered 3 different dishes, all served simultaneously. The first of these was a pumpkin crème caramel, or flan, with pumpkin seed streusel, caramel, and chestnut ice cream. The custard had good flavor, but I couldn’t get over an apparent grittiness, however, the streusel and ice cream were wonderful texture and flavor contrasts.

Next dessert I tasted was a warm baked apple, with cranberry-caramel sauce, and allspice crème fraiche. While the flavors and textural contrasts were there (which I look for especially in dessert, I will be honest and say this was my least favorite of the 3. I hate to speak rather unfondly of dessert, especially being a pastry chef myself, but even those with a sweet tooth do not like everything in the dessert world.

The last of the desserts, and definitely my favorite of the 3, mascarpone cheesecake, with figs, candied pistachios, honey-cinnamon sauce, and vanilla ice cream. The cheesecake had great flavor and texture, and the other elements paired with each other quite nicely. I definitely may need to “steal” this idea for potentially future work.

While I heard my fellow diners mention that there were definitely some hits and misses throughout the progression, we all came to an accord that the meal was wonderful and that we all enjoyed it very much. I can now see why Joe’s has been around for such a long time, especially in these trying times and the way our economy has unintentionally forced other restaurants and food establishments to close their doors. Chef Joe’s loyal fans will probably never stop coming back, and I hope to soon dine here once again.

Joe’s Restaurant
1023 Abbot Kinney Ave.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 392-5655

Joe's Restaurant in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Joe's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Searsucker: What San Diego Needs

Posted by Austios on August 13, 2010

For those of us not in the San Diego area or necessarily enveloped in the food and/or restaurant scene on a national level, we first became beknownst of Chef Brian Malarkey on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Season 3, specifically for his tongue twisting, longer than Padma’s beautiful hair, description of an elk dish in the elimination challenge that would have sent him to the 3 way finale. At the time, he was the Executive Chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego, CA. I had made a mental note to try the restaurant when I was in San Diego. Unfortunately in August of 2009, Malarkey vacated the helm of Oceanaire and in subsequent months, began revealing plans for another project.

The said project being Chef Malarkey’s first restaurant, Searsucker, which has been quite highly anticipated especially by San Diego locals.

A native of Oregon, Chef Malarkey grew up being exposed to his grandmother’s cooking, who coincidentally had James Beard often as a guest. That led him to enroll in the Western Culinary Institute’s Le Cordon Bleu program in Portland. After graduation, he has held various positions in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, before ultimately relocating to San Diego in 2004 as Executive Chef of the Oceaniare Seafood Room, in which in a mere 6 years, has won over 60 industry awards, including Malarkey being named San Diego’s Best Chef in 2009.

When talk about his new restaurant arose earlier this year, being from Los Angeles and not San Diego, there actually wasn’t that much I was hearing about it. I do follow him on Twitter, but there wasn’t much going on with that either. Then I believe randomly one day, I get a follow from “Searsucker” and I soon realize Chef Malarkey is attached to it and I realize that is his new restaurant.

Last week when I decided to go down to San Diego on one of my days off as a mini vacay as well as a personal retreat. Long story short, I had a relatively rough week piled on with a few things on my mind, so a little mini getaway was well needed. Plus, it had been several years since I have been to San Diego and I absolutely love it down there, so it was a natural pick. When I was deciding where to go for dinner, this place almost immediately came to mind because I had been seeing numerous tweets talking about the food and whatnot, so it was a clear sign that it was now open for business. I actually made a reservation for myself (though I probably didn’t need it) through Open Table and was set.

After spending a majority of the afternoon in Point Loma and enjoying relaxing at Cabrillo National Monument, I made the 20 minute drive, with a tiny bit of traffic, to the Gaslamp district of San Diego. The neighborhood is actually quite reminiscent of Downtown Long Beach, with a eclectic mix of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and pubs, and other miscellaneous stores and shops. The restaurant is right on the corner of 5th and Market, so it is quite hard to miss. Well, there is no signage outside, but the valet right outside is a good indicator. If you wish to skip out on the $15 valet, there are other options, such as one of the many parking lots and/or structures scattered throughout the area, or if you’re super lucky, manage to snag a spot on the street.

Being a Friday night right at the peak early dinner hour (6 PM), the streets were crawling with people. Upon entering the restaurant, I was greeted by 4 lovely young women. Well, there were 4 of them but I actually only really spoke to 2 of them. Behind them was the restaurant and the space that was inspired by Chef Malarkey’s childhood. This space actually used to be the retail store Z Gallerie, so it’s always impressive to see a restaurant be made out of a non-restaurant intended space. The bar area and lounge occupies about half if not a little more than half of the 7,000 square foot space, while the dining room and completely open kitchen occupy the other half. The transition from one side to the other is relatively seamless, as the only “divider” really is the lounge furniture. I checked in with one of the hostesses with my reservation and I was immediately led to my table, located near the far corner from the kitchen, which actually was ok because allowed me to observe the entire place and people watch. I mean, I was dining by myself, so what else is there for me to do?

Within a quick couple of minutes, my server, Laura, came by to introduce herself and let me know about any menu specials as well as take my beverage order. Looking over the menu and thinking about Malarkey’s concept for the food, his approach is a “twist on classic New-American dishes”. There was also a simplicity that exuded from the words on the menu. “Less is more” I guess you can say. I told Laura that I would just take water and look over the wine menu.

There were no wines, however, that really stuck out to me.

I had previously looked at the website (in which the menu actually was just posted a couple days prior) and 2 items in particular that stuck out to me: duck fat fries and bacon grits. The duck fat fries were an appetizer and the bacon grits were one of the a la carte sides dishes. I also read that one of their signatures was the pork butt. While waiting for Laura to return, I noticed the 2 Caucasian ladies in their 30s or 40s sitting next to me were having these little doughy bites. I looked the menu and I determined they were the cheese puffers, $2. I kindly asked if they were any good and one of them said it was “like a cheesy croissant” and she said they just sent it out and they didn’t order it. I figured for $2, why not. Laura returned and I told her I would definitely be getting the duck fat fries and the bacon grits. I told her I was thinking about the cheese puffers but wasn’t sure, to which she said they would be sending them out compliments of the chef anyway. That was easy. I then told her I was leaning towards the pork butt, but she went right ahead and said it was a very good choice. Again, her confidence in my selections made my life easier.

After a quick couple of minutes, the complimentary cheese puffers arrived. 4 pillowy sand dollar sized discs of cheesy goodness. I suppose aesthetically, when I hear “puffers”, I would imagine these to be, you know, “puffier”. Regardless, they were good and I almost ordered another.

Next, my duck fat fries arrived. Topped with crispy proscuitto “powder” and served with a side of sun-dried tomato jam, these were perfectly crispy on the outside and perfectly cooked on the inside. There actually wasn’t much presence from the duck fat, but the salty bits of proscuitto were nice. The tomato jam was good as well even though it was not really needed.

While I was still working on the fries (I told her to bring them as they came), the pork butt and bacon grits came out. Both looked and smelled absolutely wonderful.

I took my spoon and mixed up the grits. How can you go wrong with anything that has bacon in it? These were really good. Not life-changing good, but really good. I do have to say they were a little underseasoned, but luckily there were salt and pepper shakers on the table. I will have to also say that throughout my meal, as the grits continued to sit, it began to gelatinize a little. Not in an unpleasant way, but by the end, the consistency was close to what would be considered a medium polenta. I mean, yes, it’s cornmeal, it will continue to absorb any moisture even after you’re done cooking it, but I think its still something that can be fine-tuned. I’m just saying.

I didn’t waste any time digging into my braised pork butt. Served with grilled peaches and a bacon emulsion, I was ready to devour the plate. The pork easily pulled apart with slight effort from my fork and I kid you not, upon taking that first bite, my first reaction was “wow”. It was incredibly flavorful, tender and moist. I enjoyed every bite of it. The grilled peaches were a great accompaniment and I loved the touch of fresh thyme on top. Laura later told me the braising liquid contains both peach schnapps and peach brandy, further accenting the summer flavor. The bacon emulsion was great as well, but in all honesty, was not really needed. Laura even admitted the emulsion was not necessarily needed. I hope that comment didn’t just cost her her job.

At this point, I was incredibly full, but earlier that week, I had responded to one of the restaurant’s tweets (which apparently are tweeted by Chef Malarkey himself) that I would try their cinnamon sugar donuts, commenting that we have a similar dessert at the restaurant I work at, so I was determined to stick to my word and order the donuts. I ordered a cappuccino to go along side that.

The cappuccino came first, and was nicely presented alongside a small cast iron pot with cubes of sugar and sugar packets. I thought that was a nice little touch. I’m no coffee expert but the cappuccino was good. There was A LOT of foam though

The donuts finally arrived and while I was probably expecting something along the size that our restaurant serves (a little smaller than a tennis ball), these were actually donut holes. Served alongside a small ramekin of malted chocolate cream, the donuts nice crunchy, bit size pieces of sugary goodness. Because of their shear tinyness, it’s nearly impossible for the middle to be soft and pillowy as you would normally imagine from “normal” sized donuts, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, right? The malted chocolate cream appeared to be partially whipped so it had a thicker consistency than what we have at our restaurant, but I was actually really good.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. Throughout the night, Chef Malarkey took the time to personally go to different tables to check and see how everything was. He also was fulfilling requests for those who wanted to speak with him and/or take a photograph. I actually took advantage of that and got a chance to speak with him briefly and introduce myself. He’s genuinely a really nice guy and doesn’t have any air of arrogance or anything. Not that he has ever gotten that rap, but I’ve met a couple of chefs who I thought were really cool but when I met them, seemed a little arrogant. But then again maybe I just caught them on a bad day. Chef Malarkey left me saying “Tell everybody in LA to come check us out!” really enthusiastically. I love that.

While I am not a San Diego native nor have I frequently any of the surrounding businesses, I can definitely see why some of the buzz surrounding this place claims that this is the type of eatery that the Gaslamp district needs.

I definitely cannot wait until my next trip to San Diego, because yes, I will definitely be making reservations here again.

Thank you Chef Malarkey!

Searsucker
611 5th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 233-7327

Searsucker in San Diego on Fooddigger

Searsucker on Urbanspoon

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Hatchi Dinner Series: Chef Walter Manzke

Posted by Austios on July 21, 2010

Last time I went to a Hatchi Dinner Series dinner at Breadbar in Century City, (now former) Chef de Cuisine of the Dining Room at The Langham in Pasadena and yet to be Top Chef 6 winner Michael Voltaggio wowed us with an array of textures and flavors while delving into his expansive knowledge of molecular gastronomy. I was thoroughly impressed that evening and I will admit, that is when I started having a chef/man crush on him.

I was also supposed to go to Marcel Vigneron’s Hatchi dinner in December of ’09, but I ended up having to work with Chef Ludo at Ludobites 3.0 at Royal/T in Culver City, so I was forced to give my spot to a friend.

Then back in January, I was introduced to Walter Manzke, who at the time was the executive chef at Church & State Bistro in Downtown LA, when I had lunch there with Nicola, Andee, and A.K courtesy of a 30% off lunch coupon from Blackboard Eats. I was quite impressed with the food overall and having a brief chance to meet and chat with Chef Manzke, he quickly became a chef I look up to and began to follow.

Finally a couple months ago when it was announced that Chef Manzke would be the guest chef in the Hatchi Dinner Series for the month of June, there was a scramble to secure a reservation within the 4 hour time frame. I actually will admit that I did not find out about the dinner until it was already too late, but fortunately for me, my eating partner of sorts, Felicia, threw out a blast and asked if anybody wanted to jump in on her party of 6, which I was quick to snare up a spot.

The anticipation leading up to the evening was definitely buzzing. It turns out there were going to be A LOT of folks from twitterverse there that evening. After a few minutes of minor confusion and waiting, we finally were situated on the outskirts of the outdoor patio, RIGHT next to the hostess stand. I might as well have been sitting next to the escalator.

We were presented with menus and asked for water. Upon looking at the menu, the theme of the Chef Manzke’s menu was “Around the World in 8 Dishes”. I believe the Hatchi guest chefs usually have a theme with their menu. Michael Voltaggio’s theme was “An Experience of Textures & Flavors”. Usually the menu is posted up several days prior to the evening, however, I normally avoid looking at the menu prior to going in because I feel that takes away from any anticipation for the food I have. It’s one of my few rules I have when it comes to these kind of things.

At the great deal that is $8 per dish, with the exception of Ivan and Laura who shared, we all decided to get all 8 dishes. The only potential problem with that, as we learned first hand at the Voltaggio dinner, is that they might try to bring out all 8 dishes at once. We made sure to tell our server to space out the dishes, which she said of course she would. Maybe in these 11 months, they learned their lesson.

We actually started with the Breadbar Epi with foie gras butter. Yes, foie gras butter. The butter was well balanced with the honey geleé while the flecks of gold leaf provided for aesthetic luxury.

After a few minutes, we were presented with what we thought was the first dish, but it actually turned to be an amuse bouche. A grilled shrimp skewer with ceviche “sauce”. Presented playfully as a shot, the shrimp was cooked just right and the sauce added a subtle acidity.

For the first course, we were brought a dish that was inspired by Mexico. Yellowtail Ceviche with jalapeno and tomatillo sorbet. The yellowtail was really fresh and had it’s subtle richness. I did not get too much jalapeno, but the tomatillo sorbet as well as the avocado puree were both great contrasts to the fish. The bits of citrus added a pleasantly visual contrast as well as a touch of acidity.

Next we visited Thailand courtesy of a white corn curry soup, with mussels and coconut tapioca. This dish was very balanced and full of flavor. The corn definitely was able to stand up to the subtle curry while the texture was silky smooth. There were more than just a mere 3 or 4 mussels, which were cooked perfectly. Finally, the coconut tapioca provided a gentle textural contrast as well as impart a hint of coconut, rounding out the authentic flavor that the country is known for.

Moving along to Spain, we were brought a Santa Barbara Spot prawn, with garlic and sherry. A single prawn cut in half, was cooked just perfectly and the tapenade on top added a bright brininess to the dish. I personally love any kind of shrimp (or shellfish for that matter), so it was definitely nice to see Chef Manzke’s interpretation of a classic tapas dish utilizing this ingredient.

Returning to Southeast Asia, this time Vietnam, the next dish was a modern variation of a rather classic dish of the country: the banh mi. Pig’s Feet slider to be exact. Well, I take that back. I mean, sliders are not necessarily “modern”. But I digress. I will admit the crust on the trotter was maybe a little too thick, but the flavor was definitely there. The pickled vegetables were the only element that actually lead the mind back to a classic banh mi sandwich, but it definitely did help. The two accompanying sauces were good, but were not necessarily needed in my opinion.

Our next stop, Italy, brought forth a pasta dish: English pea ravioli with a soft egg and parmesan. While I appreciate the use of the ingredients (including a perfectly slow cooked egg) and the good execution of the dish, it just didn’t really do it for me. Luckily I was not the only one at our table with these sentiments.

Continuing on to France, the next dish was a dish reminiscent of his days at Church & State, a flatbread pizza. More specifically, a “tarte flambé”, with caramelized onions, bacon, and gruyere cheese. Um…. Did someone say “bacon”? Why yes, yes I did. I am also a lover of all forms of pizza, so this dish really was quite comforting to me. There was a wonderful balance of tastes with the sweetness of the caramelized onions, the saltiness of the bacon, and the subtle tanginess from the gruyere cheese. The outer edges of the crust did seem to be a little overdone, but that fortunately did not hinder the dish.

Making one more stop in Southeast Asia, we next visited the Philippines via a leche flan with pandan and coconut ice cream. The flan was delicious and silky, yet seemed kind of dense. We conceded that given the presentation, having a denser flan would help prevent breakage when transferring the sliced from pan to plate. The pandan was subtle and the coconut ice cream brought a nice balance and coolness to the dish.

Our final destination took us to Japan. For our 2nd dessert, as well as the final dish of the evening, was chocolate fondant with bing cherries, black sesame ice cream and green tea. The chocolate fondant itself was not necessarily my favorite, but the bing cherries brought nice slight tartness while the black sesame ice cream brought a pleasant level of nuttiness to the dish. The green tea, which actually was slightly reminiscent of a smoothie, was quite nice in serving almost like an aperitif.

Service was much better than our other Hatchi experience. Our server made sure to space out the dishes. Whoever had brought out our dishes were able to explain what we were having, which is a good managerial move. Just because some of them are getting paid only to bring out food and clear dirty dishes and not necessarily take orders doesn’t mean they shouldn’t know what they’re bringing out.

While there were lots of hits mixed with a few misses, overall I thoroughly enjoyed my meal. I think Chef Manzke definitely knows what he’s doing and has no problem delivering on the ever-increasing buzz surrounding his food and his cooking. While he is a chef that doesn’t necessarily delve into contemporary practices such as the use of liquid nitrogen, he definitely has done quite a good job in keeping up with what the people enjoy as well as mainstream food trends. I am highly anticipating the opening of his own restaurant, whenever and wherever that may be.

Bravo, Chef, bravo.

Hatchi Dinner Series
@ Bread Bar, Century City
Guest Chef, June 2010: Walter Manzke
10250 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90067

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Grace: Revisted

Posted by Austios on June 30, 2010

On June 19, 2010, I had the privilege to have been invited by Kevin of Kevin Eats, joining Mike of Right Way To Eat, Darin of Darin Dines and Darin’s friend, Diana, for Grace Restaurant’s final night of service, before they permanently shutter their Beverly Blvd. location for a larger space in downtown. It has been reported that the space will be renovated and be reborn as “R26”, John Sedlar’s (Rivera Restaurant) apparent current project.

I have had dinner here once before, coming for DineLA in October of 2009. While that dinner was not a mind-expansion worthy experience, I was still quite very impressed with the caliber of Chef Neal Fraser’s cuisine and bold yet held back approach to the dishes. One of my favorite dishes that night was a heirloom tomato terrine with an herb salad, burrata cheese, and a passion fruit vinaigrette. Very crisp and refreshing flavors.

This meal, in my mind, was going to be a treat to myself for having just recently gotten a new job as well as taking advantage of having a Saturday night off, which most of you should have an idea is quite rare for someone who works in a restaurant. When I arrived at the restaurant, Kevin and Mike were standing outside as we were still waiting for Darin and Diana. Upon their arrival, we went inside to our table ready and awaiting us.

After some brief deliberation, in honor of their last night of service, we all decided to go big and get the 7-course Chef’s tasting menu for $100. At $60 per, Kevin and I split one wine pairing while Darin and Diana split another. As surprising as this sounds, I have to admit this is the first time I have ever ordered the Chef’s tasting menu ANYWHERE. I know… I’m a horrible foodie, shame on me.

I will have to agree with Kevin from his post that a lack of an amuse bouche is quite intriguing, as it’s almost guaranteed that if you are having a tasting menu or multi-course menu anywher, there is going to be an amuse bouche. Even when I catered a 7 course tasting menu last Autumn as part of my time as a private caterer, I had provided an amuse bouche and intermezzo, essentially making it into a 9 course meal. But I digress.

The first course started us off with sashimi of Japanese hamachi, or yellowtail for those of you who don’t know Japanese or sushi terminology. With fennel, radish, California olive oil, and sea beans, this was a rather nice and clean start to the meal. The fresh fennel and radish provided a bright contrast to the subtle fattiness of the fish, which was ever so slightly accentuated by the fruity olive oil. It was paired with a NV (non-vintage) brut rosé from Roederer Estates in Anderson Valley, CA. It matched the fruitiness of the olive oil.

Second course was Sautéed Day Boat Scallops, with English pea risotto, morel mushrooms, asparagus, and basil nage. The scallop was cooked perfectly, however, I don’t know what made the English pea risotto a risotto because I did not see, taste, or find any Arborio rice. The vegetables added a nice earthy balance to the dish. I do have to agree with Kevin in that the lobster sitting underneath the scallop was a little unnecessary and overcooked. This was paired with a 2006 Chardonnay “Acero”, from Marimar Estate Family in the California Russian River Valley. The moment the scallops hit the table, I could see why they brought out a Chardonnay.

Next course: Olive oil poached halibut with brandade, horseradish cream, and sherry gelée. The halibut was nice, but like Kevin, I actually enjoyed the brandade a little bit more. The horseradish cream provided a smooth and cool yet subtly spicy tang as the gelée offered a slightly sweet and sour note. Paired with a 2007 Gewürztraminer “Estival,” from Viñedo de los Vientos in Atlantida, Uruguay, I actually was not terribly impressed with how it went with the food. Not to say I could do better because I have the utmost respect for sommeliers and their finely tuned palettes, but it just didn’t work for me.

4th Course was a Sautéed Channel Island White Sea Bass with white beans, artichokes barigoule, and pistou. The fish was done just right and it’s light flakiness with it’s slightly salty and crispy skin was a nice balance with the creamy white beans and earthiness of the artichokes as well as taking a bit of herbiness from the pistou. This was paired with a 2007 Alvarinho from Aveleda in Monção, Portugal.

Our 5th course progressively moved onto land creatures, however this dish was a little off than something more straight forward. A slow cooked egg with spring onions, pork belly, chanterelle mushrooms, and white asparagus. It is naturally hard to imagine an egg as the focus of a dish when it is roommates with something as incredibly delectable as pork belly, but the piece of pork belly was rather small, intentionally, so that it would not overtake the egg as the “star” of the dish. The vegetables on the plate rounded out the subdued earthiness of the dish. This was paired with a 2008 Zweigelt from Umathum in Burgenland, Austria. I wasn’t a big fan of this pairing either. Again, it just didn’t do it for me.

For our last savory course, what is better than some sort of pork product? Well, perhaps some sort of beef dish, but once again, I digress. For this “entrée”, we were presented with an oven roasted suckling pig, served with potato gnocchi, chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus and pork jus. The pork was well cooked with crispy skin, having great flavor and was seasoned well. The gnocchi were pretty standard and at least to me, seemed to be a little dense. I haven’t really had enough gnocchi to consider myself an “expert”, so perhaps that is just how they are supposed to be. I was however disappointed to see chanterelles and white asparagus make a curtain call appearance on consecutive dishes, no less within the same menu. I thought it was a “tasting menu faux paus” to use the same ingredients in more than one dish. When I used to do private catering, I rarely used the same ingredients in my dishes. I wanted to provide my clients with different flavors and textures, so using the same ingredient in different dishes would only hinder that goal. Regardless, this was still a solid dish. This was paired with a 2007 Zinfandel “Dry Farmed,” from Rancho Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo, California. This pairing worked quite well for me, as the pork helped bring out the stone fruit notes of the wine.

For dessert, which was a little bit of a surprise, actually was a selection of desserts, as opposed to all of us getting the same dessert. We were presented with a 2001 Semillon “The Straw Man,” from Sine Qua Non Mr. K in the Central Coast of California, which threw me off because the fruity notes of the wine made me to believe we were going to receive a fruit themed dessert. Instead, we had received the following:

Buttermilk Toasted Coconut Doughnuts – I have had a few of the doughnuts here at Grace before and they are quite good, so it is no surprise to see doughnuts as part of this selection of desserts. The doughnut itself was pretty standard with a rich, sticky glaze, but the toasted coconut brought the dish to a whole new level. The mascarpone ice cream was good, but I felt was unneeded in this dish

Salt & Pepper Caramel Doughnuts – These are the particular doughnuts I’ve had before. The combination of salty and sweet is just wonderful. If you have never had these doughnuts before, you can still experience Grace’s “Doughnut Shoppe” on Wednesdays down the street at BLD. Served with mascarpone ice cream, it again seemed unnecessary.

Sticky Toffee Pudding – I have previously had this dessert as well and it was just as good as the first time. The flavor reminded me of the toffee cake we have where I work, but this was more subtle and more simple. The toffee brought out a different level of richness to the cake, and the bruléed bananas and hazelnut gelato were perfect accompaniments.

Honey Pain Perdu – with lavender ice cream, meyer lemon curd and pistachios. The honey was quite subtle, as was the ice cream, while agreeing with Kevin, the lemon curd did seem to be prominent flavor of the dish. The pistachios provided a nice textural contrast to the fluffy pain perdu.

Chocolate Soufflé Cake Affogato – with vanilla malt ice cream, toasted almonds, espresso syrup. The cake was delicate yet rich and was wonderfully accented by the espresso syrup, which the ice cream brought forth a balancing creamy aspect. I again agree with Kevin and did not get much of the almonds. Actually, looking at the photo, it looks like they forgot the almonds completely.

When the night was complete, we were quite satisfied and overall very pleased with our meal. While there were some lowlights throughout the progression, there were definitely enough standouts to take center stage. While I am a bit saddened to see Grace close its doors on this location, I am very much anticipating it’s revival in its historic new space in Downtown LA.

Grace Restaurant
7360 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 934-4400

Grace Restaurant in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Grace on Urbanspoon

Posted in food, Restaurants | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

A “Lighter” Side to Soufflés

Posted by Austios on June 1, 2010

There aren’t many dishes more classical than the French soufflé. I mean, the French have been cooking for longer than the United States has been a country, so what does that tell you?

To this day, a lot of people, chefs, and restaurants have their variations and own take on soufflés. While I am no expert at making soufflés nor a connoisseur, this post is just simply to bring a lighter side to a dish that a lot of us have probably attempted before and have either been lucky and had come out right, or utterly fail and fall faster than the Berlin Wall.

The word “soufflé” is actually the past tense of the French verb “souffler”, which basically means “to blow up”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souffl%C3%A9, yes… I had to wikipedia it and wasn’t something I knew off the top of my head). But what makes a soufflé rise? I’ll get to that in a second.

In case you don’t know, a soufflé basically consists of 2 components: a base and your levening agent. 110% percent of the time, your levening agent is going to be whipped egg whites. No, not magic or the free will of person who made it.

Once you figured out what your base is going to be, now comes the technical aspects of making the most beautiful highest rising soufflé. However, I’m not here to bore you with tips or a step by step instruction. I’ll let you figure that out your own.

First you have to whip your egg whites. Be careful not to overwhip your egg whites, as that will lead to a non-optimal rise in your soufflé. I’ll admit I have been guilty a number of times of slightly overwhipping my egg whites, but I have always still managed to make it work. Other tips include not slamming the oven should you feel the urge to check your soufflé. This is what ovens with windows were made for. If you don’t have a window in your oven, then you need a new oven. Don’t argue with me, just replace it.

One piece of intangible advice that I have been told over the years that I can also pass on to you is, “do not be afraid of the souffle”. It’s all in your head. If you think you’re going to fail at making soufflé, then chances are you’re going to fail at making soufflé. I’m not saying you have to bitch slap your soufflé and scream “who’s your daddy?!?!”, but just be confident.

I remember the very first time I attempted at making soufflé was backing college. Without any knowledge on intermediate to advanced techniques, it goes without saying that that soufflé failed miserably. And I’m talking about crashing and burning worse than the Hindenburg.

My 2nd attempt did not come until years later in culinary school, where I finally learned the proper way to treat and make a soufflé. I unfortunately cannot recall how that soufflé was in terms of taste, nor the grade I got. However, I did graduate so that should at least say something.

Another soufflé I have worked with was at my first job out of culinary school, at the now shuttered Mirabeau French Bistro in Dana Point. The place and kitchen was small, but quite popular because it was in the uppity area that is Dana Point. The view though was spectacular, as the Gelson’s Market shopping plaza the restaurant was in was naturally elevated above PCH, overlooking the ocean as well as catching views of both the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis hotels. Going in to work there in the mornings was quite refreshing. But I digress.

The soufflé, being in a French bistro, was obviously the most popular dessert on the menu. I would whip those to order, which sometimes sucked because if I had tickets for 5 souffles, it wasn’t like I could whip them all together in one batch because our recipe only made 2 souffles at once. The chefs were pretty anal about keeping it like that, so my hands were tied. The soufflé was very good though. It was served with a housemade vanilla bean ice cream and crème anglaise and was broken table side.

My next run in with a soufflé on the job was when I was the pastry chef at Scott’s Seafood. I went in executing the previous chef’s recipes and while I wasn’t there long enough to see any of my ideas be introduced to the menu, the desserts we had were still pretty good. The production of the soufflé here was the complete opposite than at Mirabeau. I would have to make a large batch of soufflé batter every 2-3 days, as the recipe had so much flour in it, it was basically a cake. Taste wise, you could even tell there was a ton of flour in it. That thing was never going to fall.

The last soufflé I’ve come in contact in terms of production for a restaurant was at Ludobites 4.0, at Grams & Papa’s in Downtown LA. As some of you know, I was asked to go work for a weekend just to fill in for someone who was out of town on vacation. It just so happened I was put on desserts, one of them being his chocolate soufflé. I had just had this soufflé as a diner a week prior, which I thought was awesome, so I was especially excited to see how it all came together.

Probably one of the great things about Ludo’s recipe is that it is literally 3 ingredients. I think the soufflé I made at Scott’s had like 7 or 8 ingredients. The soufflé at Mirabeau had 5. The next best thing was that I could make all of the soufflés ahead of time, so the only thing I needed to do during service was just pop them in the oven and keep track of them using a system I developed for myself utilizing Chef’s 4 timers and a sharpie. I’ll leave it up to your imagination just exactly what the sharpie was for.

This has to easily be one of my favorite if not the favorite soufflés I’ve had. So much that I couldn’t help but it order it again the second time I dined at Ludobites.

While I’ve probably had other soufflés elsewhere, I can really only think of 3 souffles that I’ve recently had at various restaurants that have been memorable.

The first that comes to mind, is the soufflé at Gary Danko in San Francisco. While I am not a close follow of Gary Danko, I have heard many praises about his restaurant, so when I went to spend a few days in the bay area back in February, I decided to make reservations. Actually let me back track here. I personally had ordered the Louisiana butter cake as my dessert, but my dining companion had ordered the soufflé, so I was able to have a couple of bites. It was an orange soufflé with raspberry sorbet and raspberry sauce. The soufflé itself was incredibly airy and soft, which tells me there were more egg whites in it than base. It was almost like a knife through butter. The 2nd clue was that the orange flavor was VERY subtle. It still, however, was a magnificent soufflé. This was almost like the Rolls Royce of soufflés.

The 2nd soufflé I can think of that I’ve had recently and I consider one of the better soufflés I’ve had, actually coincidentally came just the day before I had dined at Gary Danko. The prior day on my bay area trip, I spent the day in Berkeley, walking and eating my way through town and UC Berkeley, finishing the day with dinner at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse. And I dined downstairs in the restaurant and not upstairs in the café. As some of you know, Alice Water’s whole deal is slow food and sustainability, so the menu changes daily. That particular day, the dessert was a Meyer lemon soufflé with candied lemon slice. This soufflé was spectacular with a well balanced and slightly subdued citrus tang.

The last soufflé out of these 3 that have been memorable was a Gran Marnier soufflé at Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas. I was in town for a friend’s birthday and she made reservations here on the Sunday night we were there. I am a big fan of Hubert Keller and have always wanted to try Fleur de Lys, so when our group was talking about where to go, this place had gotten my vote. It also happened to be restaurant week in Las Vegas, so that was a little nice. This soufflé was a little more on the cakey side, but it was still much better than the soufflé I used to make at Scott’s. I do have to say, however, between this soufflé and the ones I had at Gary Danko and Chez Panisse, this was probably my least favorite of the 3, but again, still much better than some soufflés I’ve had elsewhere. Consider it the Acura of soufflés, still nice, but not quite like a Rolls Royce or Aston Martin but definitely better than a Camry.

Hopefully this has brought a “lighter” (no pun intended… ok, maybe a little) side to soufflés but also give you a glimpse of some of the soufflés I’ve come across and dealt with. Again, I am no expert in executing the perfect soufflé, as I’m the type of person that would rather eat them than make them.

Posted in food, Miscellaneous | 1 Comment »

Ludobites 4.0: Grams & Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag

Posted by Austios on April 16, 2010

Naturally, when we all heard the announcement of Ludobites 4.0, then the location, then when the reservation system came open, the Ludo faithful (myself included) couldn’t help but involuntarily jump up and down for joy. Call me biased, but ever since working for him at Ludobites 3.0, I have been following as closely as I can and literally within 5 minutes of the reservation system going up, I had secured 2 for myself. Good thing I wasted no time, as Krissy had proudly posted on Twitter a couple days later that they had sold out the near 2 months worth of reservations in a record 18 hours.

The first of my reservations was for this past Tuesday, April 13. I intentionally did not book a reservation for the first couple of days because even though Ludo is no newbie to opening a restaurant and running a kitchen, with essentially half of his staff being new on top of being in a space they are not 100% familiar with, I wanted to give all of them a few days to acclimate themselves and get into a rhythm. Actually, the few days leading up to this reservation posed to be quite interesting. Last Friday, I received an email from Krissy asking if we could move our reservation from 7 PM up to 6:30, saying that she had a VIP wanting to come in at 9 PM. 5 minutes later, I get another email from her saying that now that VIP wanted to come in earlier at 6, asking if we could move back to 8:30. After confirming with my party about the change, I gave Krissy the green light to move us back to 8:30.

I suppose now that its after the fact, the VIP that she was frantically trying to accommodate was none other than Gordon Ramsay, to which I just laughed. She told me she’d make it up to me for being so understanding.

Upon pulling up to Grams & Papas in a relatively quiet and unsuspecting intersection of Downtown LA, my friend and I managed to find a parking spot right out front. I took that as a sign that tonight was going to be a good night.

The space itself is indeed quite small. The kitchen alone took up maybe a third of the space out front. Looking up at the far wall, it appears Grams & Papas is a sandwich shop of some sort. Their chalkboard menu looked enticing enough to want to try the place once Ludo leaves. Plus, any place willing to let Ludo come in and utilize the space after hours is my new friend. I looked around and tried to see Gordon Ramsay, but didn’t notice him anywhere. After a few minutes, Krissy came up to say hi, saying, “Gordon Ramsay was a no show, but we’ve got Graham Elliot (Bowles) back there”. In case you have no idea who that is, he, like Ludo, was on Top Chef Masters Season 1 and is one (again, along with Ludo, this time the same episode no less) of the 6 returning chefs for Season 2. He is the Chef/Owner of Graham Elliot Restaurant in Chicago.

As we were waiting, I saw Matthew of Mattatouille dressed in a Ludobites shirt and pinstripe apron, surprised to see him working as a server. I know he’s a big foodie and blogger like most the rest of us are, but I didn’t know he was going to be serving for Ludo. We briefly chatted before I let him resume his duties. It was also nice to see veteran Ludobites server, Daria, working the floor.

The party that was at our projected table were taking their sweet time and we actually were not sat closer to 9 PM. No biggie though. As we were sitting down, Chef Bowles and his party were leaving and he happened to be standing right next to us amidst the commotion, so I took the opportunity to meet him and chat him up. It was actually then when Virginia asked him for a photo, in which Ludo got in on as well (photo to come). He was in town on some business and the brief few minutes chatting with him I was able to realize he’s just an all-around awesome guy. He’s now one of my favorite chefs and it will be hard to root for both him and Ludo when they compete next week on TCM (well, I’m still rooting for Ludo but let’s just say I’ll also being rooting that Bowles is the other chef to advance)

With a New York minute, Daria came by (to which I was glad she was our server) to give us our menus and take our beverage order. We unfortunately made the mistake of not bringing any of our own wine or whatever, a mistake I will not make again when I return on May 14. Looking over the menu, as Ludo has done every other time, there was a completely different set of dishes. The only returning dish was the brought back by popular demand foie gras croque-monsieur. Actually I take that back, it just so happened THAT particular night, it was NOT on the menu. But more on that later.

We started off with several of the tartine plates, which was simply a warm salted baguette with a beautiful lavender honey butter. The butter was magnificent and the lavender further permeated once spread on the warm bread.

Between the 6 of us, we decided to pair up and get our own appetizers and entrees, however, Allen and Virginia talked Jacqueline and myself into sharing all 4 entrees. Between Jacqueline and myself, we decided to order the burgundy escargot, pork cheek terrine, and the brie chantilly.

The brie chantilly was really good. The brie was so smooth and creamy. Of course, that’s what happens when you whip it for 2 hours. The honey comb and balsamic added just the right amount of sweet and acidic, respectively, balance to the dish. I probably could have had a whole bowl of the brie.

The burgundy escargot was really great as well. The escargot was crispy on the outside but pleasantly chewy on the inside. The garlic flan was nice, though Jacqueline and Angie thought it was too rich. I didn’t think so. The green jus seemed to be spinach and rounded out the dish. The presentation was just as stunning.

The pork cheek terrine, I have to grudgingly admit, was probably the least impressive dish of the night. I mean, normally any part of the swine is enough to send my mouth into gastronomical bliss, but overall, this didn’t wow me like all of the other dishes. Don’t get me wrong, it was still good, and the smoked mayo, apples, and German butter ball potatoes were cool, but yeah….

Actually, in fact, all of us had ordered the pork cheek terrine, but Daria soon returned to unfortunately report that there was only one order left, so I took it upon myself to order the ham soup for me and Jacqueline. We were both very happy I did. The soup was slightly reminiscent of the bread soup from 3.0, but this was more complex and more sophisticated. With croutons, swiss cheese, radishes, cornichons, and a guiness caviar, there was a lot going on in a spoonful of this dish, but none of it got lost amongst the other ingredients. This was one of my favorites of the night.

Next was a real treat and honestly, made me feel like I was a VIP. I just so happened to look at the menu earlier that day and noticed that there was NO foie gras croque-monsieur on the menu! Playfully, I immediately tweeted my utter dismay, but when Laura and I first arrived that night, I think as sign of appreciation for changing our reservation time because of Gordon Ramsay, when Krissy came to say hi, she said “I saved a couple croque-monsieurs for you” to which I literally jumped up and down in joy for. When it was brought out, I was so ecstatic that I yelled across the room to Ludo, “Merci Chef!”. As we all know, the foie gras croque was brought back by popular demand, and I cherished EVERY bite of this. I think Virginia got a picture of that and I’ll post it once she does.

Moving onto the entrees, first to come was the monkfish. Simply presented with Jardiniere de Legumes and vadouvan, the monkfish was cooked perfectly and was simple in flavors but was still really solid. I personally love monkfish and was not disappointed in this.

Next was the steak “au poivre”, which was grilled hangar steak with bone marrow polenta, shallots, white asparagus, and a black pepper coulis. The steak was a perfect medium rare and the polenta was so rich with the most ever subtle touch of marrow flavor. I have to tell you, Ludo makes THE BEST polentas I’ve ever had (Cantal cheese polenta at 3.0 that he paired with his LFC)

Our third entrée was a squid “carbonara”. Sauteed squid with pancetta, poached egg, parmesan “snow”, and sage. The squid was really great, the pancetta added that much needed saltiness in a carbonara. We collectively were disappointed when I broke into a yolk and we were all expecting a runny yolk to run over the dish, but alas, the yolk had coagulated to what’s similar to a medium boiled egg. Despite that, this was another top dish of the evening.

It was at this point when Krissy came to us with 2 bowls of what apparently was a misfire of the white asparagus veloute. Basically, we were becoming the beneficiaries of a mistake by the kitchen. A couple people at thought this was a little rich, but I thought it was just right. With mozzarella, shaved fennel, candied olives, and salmon roe, I think it was a well balanced dish and the pop of the roe added a nice salty balance.

The 4th and final entrée of the night was the rack of lamb with fresh goat cheese, smoked eel, artichokes, potato mousseline, and mint. The lamb wasn’t gamey and cooked perfectly, however, nothing else on the plate wasn’t much of a huge wow factor, but again, a very solid dish. I could probably have an entire plate of those lamb chops though.

Finally, for dessert, as a table we ordered one each of the dark chocolate soufflé and the caramel religieuse. I don’t even want to attempt to pronounce that last one. The religieuse came out first and was basically a large ball of pate a choux with an “a tete” (“with head” in French). Breaking into it, there was a burnt caramel cream. So essentially, this was a glorified cream puff, just 100 times better than what you would find at a place like Beard Papas. With salted butter topping and caramel sauce on the side, this was really good. Some may not like that burnt caramel taste, but I loved it.

And last but not least, the dark chocolate soufflé. I couldn’t tell if they were making these to order or if they had the batter premade and only baked them to order. I mean, when I was at Scott’s Seafood Costa Mesa, our soufflé batter had so much flour in it that a large batch would last about 3 days and we just were simply baking them to order. Regardless, this was a good soufflé. It was served with vanilla black pepper ice cream and chocolate cream. The ice cream was different but good. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like soufflé and this was the perfect way to end the evening.

When all was said and done, we actually ended up being the 2nd to last table in the restaurant. Of course it was about 11:00 and we took the opportunity to chat up Ludo, as I invited him to sit down with us. We chatted about this and that and our conversation, thanks mainly to Angie, consisted of some dicey topics. I hope Ludo doesn’t think all my friends are weirdos. Just kidding, I love you guys. Ludo proudly showed us his latest tattoo, the “raging coq” that we all have now come to associate with Ludobites. Krissy apparently has one as well on her back.

We ended the evening taking group shots with Ludo, Krissy, and Daria.

Once again, Chef Ludo has not fallen short of wowing us with his simple yet creative and at times, whimsical dishes. And yes, you can probably say I’m a little biased because I’ve worked for the guy, which I’ll admit is maybe partially true, but having gotten to know him a little bit and his style of food, he just loves to cook and puts out really good food. That right there wants me to go back time and time again, regardless of who’s behind the stove.

Actually, in fact, I am going back for part deux next month 😉

Ludobites @ Grams & Papa’s
227 E. 9th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 624-7272

Ludo Bites 4.0 at Gram and Papa's in Los Angeles
Ludo Bites at Gram & Papa's on Urbanspoon

Posted in Restaurants | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

My Last Meal

Posted by Austios on April 12, 2010

“If you were to pass away tomorrow, what would you want for your last meal?”

That is a question we are beginning to hear more and more often. A great book titled “My Last Supper” authored by Melanie Dunea, asks master chefs the question with surprising and imaginative answers and actually in fact was the inspiration for this post.

Usually when we hear the term “last meal”, it refers to someone in death row being given their last meal prior to their execution. This practice actually dates back to pre-modern Europe, and was meant as a mutual understanding between the workers of the prison and the prisoner, that in death he would not haunt his executioner or anybody responsible for him being there, or vow vengeance against them. It was a superstitious precaution. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_meal)

As someone who has chosen to cook as a living, I have been asked an abundance of culinary related questions ranging from recipes and cooking tips to my favorite restaurants. But rarely (in fact, never) have I been asked “what would be your last meal?”

My last meal will start with a simple salad. Specifically, an arugula salad with fresh strawberries with candied walnuts and a light balsamic vinaigrette. The peppery arugula paired with the slight tartness of the berries, the sweetness and nuttiness of the candied walnuts and the acidity of the vinaigrette would be a wonderful marriage of flavors and textures.

Next course will be the appetizer. I absolutely fell in love with CUT’s maple glazed pork belly, cooked confit style for 3 days. Yes, I said 3 days. It was magical pork heaven. The sweetness of the maple was in euphoric harmony with the saltiness of the pork belly and it just melted in my mouth.

For an entrée, there are not many things better than the classic surf and turf. For the turf, a 16 oz. Japanese Wagyu ribeye will be my choice, well seasoned and cooked to a perfect rare-medium rare but with a nice crust. I had the privilege of having ONE bite of this well treated cow at CUT and I now see why Japanese Wagyu is a flavor and texture that should be left unadulterated by the addition of a sauce, but should I feel the need, I would have a side of truffle demi-glace. As for the surf, what can top lobster? A gently butter poached jumbo lobster tail with nothing but a couple of lemon wedges to be squeezed over, to be exact, would be bliss.

The perfect accompaniment to this wonderful pairing of proteins will be nothing but a mound of perfectly smooth, perfectly seasoned roasted garlic mashed potatoes, made with lots of cream and butter. Not many things say “heaven” like smooth and buttery potatoes. Actually, not many things say “heaven” like butter.

For dessert, there are lots of choices and while death by chocolate would be a magnificent idea, I am opting for bread pudding. But not your traditional bread pudding made with brioche and raisins, but it will be made with buttery and flaky croissants, chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts. Baked to perfection: the inside remaining soft and delicate but the top being crunchy, served alongside vanilla bean ice cream and rich chocolate sauce, I could not think of a better way to end a meal.

A master sommelier will pair each course with a fantastic wine that not only compliments each dish, but tickles and intrigues the senses. My guests and I will continue our conversation into the late hours of the night. I cannot think of anything more satisfying than sharing a perfect meal and fantastic wine amongst wonderful company.

Speaking of companions, I would love to dine with Mario Batali and Jean Philippe Maury, currently the Executive Pastry Chef at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Chef Maury is a master with chocolate and as a pastry chef myself, he is one of the many chefs that I look up to. I would also want chefs such as Michael Voltaggio, Ludo Lefebvre, Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless, and Tyler Florence at the table as well. I expect that our conversation would revolve around topics such as the simple nuances of our meal as well as other topics and stories related to food.

Who would cook this meal? As I have many choices, at least one of them would be Bryan Voltaggio. His display of cooking proteins on the 6th season of Top Chef was virtually flawless.

I could not think of a better meal to be shared with such culinary masters, prepared by well-seasoned technicians.

Today, with international cuisines becoming ever more accessible and the raised interest in food as an art form, the term “last meal” has become a passionate topic of discussion.
So, again, I ask you, “If you were to pass away tomorrow, what would your last meal be?”

Posted in food, Miscellaneous | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Joan’s on Third: Love At First Bite

Posted by Austios on March 18, 2010

Do you believe in “love at first sight”? I personally don’t, and I can’t think of anybody I know who does. But I’m sure there are people (maybe you) that do believe in it, maybe not for themselves, but of its existence. As a God-fearing human being, I just simply don’t believe it for anybody. But I digress.

I am, however, the type of person, that when it comes to lots of foods, just the mere mention or sight (i.e. a photograph), I get an instant craving. Well, mainly at the mention of a food. At the sight of a photograph, especially if I read up on it and find out that the restaurant that produces such dish is local, I begin to covet. Yes, my religion forbids me to covet, but what’s the harm in coveting food? And I’m not talking about gluttony. There’s a fine line between loving to eat and gluttony. I fortunately fall into the former category.

Such is the above case with this bad boy:

That, my friends, is the grilled cheese and short rib sandwich from Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles. I subscribe to Bon Appetit and once I saw this cover and what page it was on, I immediately flipped to said page (as well as almost drool on my fresh magazine). Bon Appetit had this section which is basically a reader recipe request, in which they send in a request for the recipe of something they had and loved at a restaurant they went to and BA will respond by posting it in the magazine. So yes, this means I do have the recipe of this sandwich and technically can make it at home.

Once I realized this was from Joan’s on Third, I immediately made note of it to come in one day and have this sandwich.

Just the other day I had decided I was going to go in this week for lunch for the sandwich as well as go down the street to Kiss My Bundt for dessert. Long story short, I was able to get Andrea from LA Easy Meals to join me and decided to meet her for lunch today, of all days, St. Patrick’s Day.

After parking in the surrounding residential neighborhood *cough* 2 hours 8AM-6PM *cough*, and walking up, there was quite a bit of outdoor seating. Walking in, to my pleasant surprise, this place is more than just a restaurant. It’s also a food boutique with a bakery counter, small gourmet foods market, as well as a charcuterie and cheese counter. They also had an assortment of confections, chocolates, and candy for the Easter season. I arrived before Andrea did and walked around the for sale items while I waited. This area reminds me of Nicole Gourmet Foods in South Pasadena.

I really liked the minimalist decor this place had. The tables on the inside were marble top, the floor was bathroom-esque tile, but beyond that, pretty simple. The place, while not insanely crowded, was still hustling and bustling during the mid-week lunch hour. When Andrea arrived, we went up to the sandwich/deli counter. They actually had a moderately sized poster of the Bon Appetit cover hanging from the ceiling. I though that was cool. When I got to the front, the guy asked me what I wanted

“I want that” pointing to the poster. The guy just smiled and put it in. I also ordered a side of the bocconcini(?), which was basically little balls of fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, chiffonade basil tossed in olive oil. I personally love fresh mozzarella so it was a no brainer. Andrea apparently ordered a sampler of salads. Well, not like leafy salads, but I one was like some curried chickpea salad? *shrug*

She also got an order of roasted vegetables.

My bocconcini was simple but good. Same profile as a caprese, but this is just a simple way of doing it.

However, I finally took a bite of my sandwich and immediately was transported to degustational bliss. Yes, I probably just made up that word. Wait no, I’ve used “degustational” before. As Krista, the owner of Kiss My Bundt just down the street told me via twitter, the bread was perfectly crispy and not too greasy, and the entire sandwich just worked so well. The caramelized onions are actually pickled, which simply vinegar and sugar are added to the caramelized onions in the pot until all of the vinegar is absorbed. The short rib was moist and tender and there was just the perfect amount of melty cheese. I will have to say the arugula got lost amongst the other ingredients, but it’s cool that its there.

Within just a couple of bites, I had already determined this was probably one of the top 3 sandwiches I’ve ever had. Actually could arguably be THE best sandwich I’ve ever had. The Godmother from Bay Cities Deli in Santa Monica is definitely up there. And then there’s the bbq pulled pork sandwich from The Oinkster in Eagle Rock. Yes, definitely top 3.

Though unlike other grilled cheese sandwiches, this one was still REALLY REALLY good at room temperature. Natassia of Let Me Eat Cake, who apparently is a manager here at Joan’s on Third, had come by to chat it up and talk. We hadn’t met in person so it was cool to finally meet. But again, allowing my sandwich to get “cold” after our chatting, the sandwich was stilll AMAZING. And also, as Krista and I had agreed when we went in to her shop that the bread was still crispy after sitting for so long and did not get soggy from the short rib or the cheese. THAT, my friends, is a result of good toasting.

Damn, just writing this up makes me want another one of those sandwiches. I seriously was *THIS* close to going back and taking another sandwich to go after our visit to Kiss My Bundt. It is seriously to die for!

I am VERY happy to know that the sandwich was as good as it looked.

Joan’s on Third
8350 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Joan's on Third in Los Angeles
Joan's on Third on Urbanspoon

Posted in food, Restaurants | 6 Comments »

Gary Danko

Posted by Austios on March 2, 2010

When I was planning my trip to San Francisco, I had turned to some fellow foodies and bloggers about which fine dining restaurant I should go check out. While Gary Danko was the only one really off the top of my head that I had heard about, I received some very good recommendations that I will definitely check out in future visits up to the bay.

Someone had suggested Fleur de Lys, and while I love Hubert Keller and would jump at the chance to meet him or dine at his restaurant, I have already been to both Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar in Las Vegas (on separate visits), so while a small part of me wanted to go there and compare the 2 locations, I opted to go for something different.

I went ahead and made reservations at Gary Danko about a month in advance, not knowing how much of a demand there were for reservations there. They called a couple days before my reservation to confirm it. I love it when they do that, it gives you a brief sense of importance, that THEY are calling YOU, only to immediately come to the realization that they do that with everybody. Hey, no one says you can’t pretend, even for brief moments.

Located on a non-descript corner of what seems to be the “border” of Fisherman’s Wharf and Russian Hill, you would relatively have no idea it was there if you didn’t know where it was or were looking. I, however, was looking for it and spotted it right away as I was walking up the street. Yes, I walked. Nothing like getting in some exercise before I high end meal. Before stepping in, I shot this video.

Upon walking in, I was greeted by a bright smiling hostess. She informed me I could be sat until my friend had arrived and offered to check my camera bag and to wait at the bar. I did so and ordered water. The bartender and I made small talk while I waited. My friend arrived and we were taken to our table. The other host pulled out the table and my friend were “forced” to sit on the same side. Almost like we were on a date, but it wasn’t. *shrug*

Our server, Darrin, shortly showed up to give us our menus and took a beverage order. He explained the menu, stating a set 5-course menu on the left or the option to customize a 3-, 4-, or 5-course menu on the right. Considering we needed to be elsewhere at 2.5 hours and some recommendation and accommodation from Darrin, we opted to both get 4 courses. My friend ordered the wine pairing but I didn’t.

While all of the dishes sounded exquisite, we both decided to get the lobster risotto with shimeji mushrooms and butternut squash. For a 2nd course, I ordered the pancetta wrapped frogs legs with garlic puree, potato, lentils, and parsley and my friend got the branzini with cauliflower, orzo, butternut squash and pumpkin seeds. For the main course, I ordered the roasted pork belly and tenderloin with brussel sprouts, bacon, parsnip puree, and a maple cider glaze while she got the foie gras stuffed quail with mushrooms and Quinoa, yams, salsify and a pomegranate gastrique. For dessert, I ordered the warm Louisiana butter cake with caramelized apples, huckleberry compote, and vanilla ice cream while she got the orange soufflé with raspberry sorbet and raspberry sauce. I will have to say that first 2 and 4th courses were recommendations from a friend, but I trust her taste and judgment in good food.

Before our first courses came out, one of their sommeliers came by to introduce the first wine that he paired for my friend. He was very nice and very concise in his descriptions. I actually have since forgotten all the wines that he had paired with each of her courses.

Then came out an amuse bouche. I have since forgotten what this was, but it was pretty good.

The lobster risotto came out and it looked and smelled so good. I don’t know anybody who isn’t a fan of risotto but if anybody reading this is not a fan, you are totally missing out. The texture of the rice was perfect as was the lobster with its flavor perfectly permeating throughout the dish. The mushrooms and butternut squash provided a wonderful earthy contrast to the risotto and lobster. I could eat a big huge bowl of this. Because this was the only dish we both ordered, I had a taste of my friend’s wine and it paired quite well.

Again, before our 2nd course came out, the sommelier paid us a visit to introduce the wine he paired with each of my friend’s dishes. He would do the same for each course.

When our 2nd courses arrived, literally the first thing that popped into my head was “Wow, it’s very green”. Once you see my photo, you’ll understand. 4 pancetta wrapped frog legs surrounding a molded cube of potato and lentil salad. This was really good. The frog legs were cooked perfectly and were well seasoned. The potato and lentil salad was a nice way to cut the richness of the legs and pancetta. My only gripe about the dish was that the pancetta seemed to overpower the frog legs. I mean that’s just me.

My friend’s branzini looked really good and was simple in presentation. I did not have a bite, but she said it was very good and everything on the plate worked.

Main courses then came out. Roasted pork belly and pork tenderloin. Pork 2 ways; how can you go wrong? The pork belly was so succulent and the tenderloin was cook to a nice medium (yes, that’s safe) and everything on the plate just absolutely worked so well together. I can’t comment where this ranks on the pork bellies I’ve had, because I’ve loved it all. Pork belly will NEVER go out of style. Or at least I hope so. Needless to say, I loved this dish.

My friend’s quail looked really good. A whole bird with nice browned skin, neatly presented atop the mushrooms and butternut squash. I unfortunately did not have a bite of it, especially being stuffed with foie gras, but she said it was really good. I could only imagine the balance between the richness of the foie and quail with the earthiness of the mushrooms and butternut squash.

Now, for dessert, I do remember the sommelier pairing my friend’s orange soufflé with a Riesling. Our desserts soon followed and they looked so good. As most of you know, I’m a pastry chef, so I have a particular affinity to dessert. Plus, the way I see it, dessert is usually the LAST thing a patron will be eating, so you want it to be good.

If you recall, I ordered the warm Louisiana butter cake. A warm cakey thing topped with caramelized apples and tasted SO good. The huckleberry compote was a nice tart balance and the ice cream added a hot/cold contrast into play. Loved, loved, LOVED this.

My friend’s soufflé was MUCH more airy than the soufflé at Chez Panisse the night before. It was ever so delicate with a touch of orange flavoring. Both being citrus soufflés, it was hard to decide which was better.

We finished the meal with assorted mignardise. I honestly was too full to eat any of these, but I still snapped a shot anyway.

Our server, Darrin, was just phenomenal throughout the evening. He was genuinely courteous, patient, and very attentive. Our waters were filled without request, and even the sommelier who helped us through the evening was really nice. We actually struck some small talk and I told him I was in the industry and he was saying that he’s in process of getting his Master Sommelier’s certification, just essentially is waiting on the invite. Yes, apparently sommelier’s have to be invited to take the certification. I thanked him for the service and wished him luck. They were also kind enough to call a cab for us, knowing that we needed to be somewhere immediately following dinner.

While there are many restaurants in San Francisco that I will be looking to try on future visits, I would welcome the opportunity to come back to Gary Danko.

Gary Danko Restaurant
800 North Point St
San Francisco, California 94109
(415) 749-2060

Gary Danko in San Francisco
Gary Danko on Urbanspoon

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Chez Panisse: Like Big Game Hunting

Posted by Austios on February 26, 2010

Before I begin, think about this question: What are some of the hardest restaurant reservations in the world? Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin or Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York? Thomas’ Keller’s The French Laundry or Bouchon in Napa? What about Ferran Adria’s El Bulli? I think El Bulli is arguably the hardest reservation to get in the world. There are some who will agree with me on that.

If you have been fortunate enough to have dined at one of these restaurants, you are in a select group of individuals who have experienced and tasted culinary greatness. I equate it to big game hunting. The aforementioned restaurants are like the most prized game animals and once you’ve eaten at them, you feel like you want a trophy you can mount on your wall or mantle. Now, before I continue, I personally have to say I am against game hunting. Unless you plan on eating the animal, I don’t really believe in hunting at all.

But for arguments sake, I make the analogy. But I digress.

While the above restaurants are near impossible to get a reservation to the point where you have to plan a trip around the reservation and not vice versa, there are a plethora of other restaurants across the country and around the world that are not impossible to reserve, but for a variety of reasons, can be difficult to reserve. Some of these places require a reservation several months in advance or always have the prime dinner times filled up very quick, so you are essentially forced to eat dinner early at either 5 PM or rather late at like 10 PM.

Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is considered to be in this category. They accept reservations up to one month in advance, so chances are if you make a spontaneous trip up to Berkeley and try to call for a reservation on the day of or a day before, they’re going to be booked. For me, I knew I was going to be in Northern California for a conference the prior weekend, and having decided to extend my stay a few extra days, decided to try and make reservations here. I called exactly one month to the day, so making a reservation for 8 PM on my desired day was not a problem.

If you knew anything about Alice Waters, you would maybe assume that this restaurant would be located on a more rural neighborhood or even on farmland (as I imagined it to be), but no, it’s located a less busy stretch of Shattuck Ave, about ½ mile North of Downtown Berkeley. I do, however, love the outside entrance of the restaurant, which does make you believe you are out in the countryside.

My dining companion was running late, so the host invited me to wait at the bar upstairs in the café. Even the café itself is really gorgeous with it’s own separate kitchen. I went up to the bar and ordered a glass of prosecco and texted my friend that I was upstairs.

Once she arrived, we went back downstairs and let the host know we were ready to be sat. The dining room is beautiful but not extravagant, which probably was Alice Waters’ intentions when designing this space. She wants the focus to be on the food and not on the décor. I mean, makes sense, doesn’t it? *sarcasm*

Our table was right next to the kitchen, so I had a great view of everything going on. We started with a nice crusty sourdough baguette and nicoise olives.

For those of you not familiar with Chez Panisse, the menu changes DAILY, a testament to Waters’ desire to find, cook, and serve only the freshest ingredients possible, getting all of their ingredients from farm fresh and local purveyors. For a chef, it’s quite a very bold practice to not know what you’re making until that morning, but all the more power to those who work there. I actually do appreciate the desire to put out only the freshest things you can find. Based on what they find, they will create a pre fixe 4-course menu for $75. Very reasonable for same day ingredients if you ask me.

There seemed to a seafood theme among the first 3 courses. The first course was a chicory (Annabelle’s chicory to be precise) salad with a creamy herb vinaigrette and bottarga. We initially picked out a seafood like flavor. I looked at the menu and I actually had to ask what bottarga was. He told us it was a cured fish roe, which explains the seafood flavor. The dressing, despite being “creamy”, was in fact quite light.

2nd course was Saffron tagliatelle with Dungeness crab, green garlic, and wild fennel. The tagliatelle was very nice yet I didn’t really taste much saffron, as it was overpowered by the delicate crab. The green garlic and wild fennel added nice earthy notes to the flavor of the dish. Only thing is my friend found a tiny piece of shell in hers. Oops….

Main course was grilled stripped bass with black truffle sauce, celery root and sunchoke puree, chanterelle mushrooms, and braised escarole. While everything on the plate was really great, the fish was DEFINITELY the star. Cooked perfectly, you know the fish is fresh if you can still taste the ocean. Yes, I could still taste the ocean on this sucker. I absolutely loved it and I wish I could have had another piece.

For dessert, meyer lemon soufflé. Simple, but very good. Garnished with a slice of candied lemon, the soufflé actually had bits of candied lemon mixed in throughout, so you got these little bits of citrus to texturally contrast the light soufflé. Great flavor and wonderfully executed. Though some sort of sorbet or sauce would’ve been nice, it didn’t need it.

We finished the meal with a pot of decaffeinated tea, which I forget the name but was good and a couple different mignardise.

Now that I have been to the famous Chez Panisse, I can essentially take this off my list of restaurants to try before I die and mount it up on the wall above my fireplace. Or maybe I should make myself a trophy and engrave it commemorating the evening.

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 548-5049

Chez Panisse in San Francisco
Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Posted in food, Restaurants | 5 Comments »