Monday, August 30, 2010

Graduate School

My how time keeps flying by. You'll have to forgive me for not posting a real post in some time now. It seems a real post may not happen in the near future, for I have just started graduate school (again).

Last time graduate school was related to the topic of food. This time graduate school is not specifically targeted to food but if I get my way it eventually will be. Kinda like this blog post...

What I'm hinting at is that there are readings to do. And papers to WRITE. And I'm here to tell ya this woman can only write so much :). I fear that school—and the return of the prime time television season—will hinder my allocation of time for blogging. Instead, I offer excuses and ideas for the future.

But first, a quick digression to my employer and school's official mascot, Tommy Trojan. His statue is located on campus and looks like this:

During the big enemy, I mean, rivalry game of USC vs. UCLA each year, Tommy gets covered up with garbage bags and tape while couches are set up on all sides so young students can watch guard. This is so the UCLA students don't ravage Tommy. Last year we (when I say we, I mean a USC student I am not associated with) spray-painted the Bruin Bear statue across town with red paint. It was a big deal. Thankfully, there was no revenge taken on Tommy. He still looks like this.

What is cool is when Tommy is at a football game, he magically comes to life! And he looks something like this:

I love when Tommy stabs the field ceremoniously before kick-off. It's one of the most exciting times of the game! Missing this part of the game because you're waiting in line for a turkey dog really stinks. Last year Tommy had a goatee, which I thought worked, yet Tommy himself posted an online poll for students to vote whether or not he was misrepresenting USC tradition by having a goatee. I voted "keep it!" however the majority voted "shave it!" And he did.

Now there are other Tommy's in Los Angeles, specifically this one (see I told you we'd eventually get around to food again):

The original Tommy chili burger is aMAZing. The fries are great too! When you're in Los Angeles, don't be fooled by any Tommy's restaurant that doesn't look like this. Because there are MANY imitations and you have been warned!

See, it's not as if there aren't things to talk about in the days and months before another real blog post occurs! Here are some ideas for future posts:

1. "The new mysteries of soy milk!"
You know, this would be about my recent discovery of soy milk and the differences of the brands and flavors and what about almond milk... Eh, that sounds dull, yeah?

What about...
2. "Why I still love McDonald's!"
A true story, and one that I've been longing to tell, about how working at McD's as a teen influenced my love of food and friends (and Chicken McNuggets).

There is also this one I've been meaning to write for at least four years:
3. "Danish Danish"
This one would be about the time I once read how incredibly different Denmark's real Danish pastries are from what we call Danish pastries here in the states. The reading of the article spurred on a pilgrimage to Copenhagen in 2005 and life hasn't been the same since. It's as if you lived your whole life without Santa Claus, then one day as an adult you found out there is a Santa Claus! (Does that analogy work at all?)

And there's so much more! But for now my hands are tied and tired from typing a public relations paper due tonight and from the words I've written here (don't say I never did anything for you).

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chicken Scarpiello Recipe Redux!

It's here! Per my last post, the fabulous reworked Carmine's chicken scarpiello recipe has arrived. My sister, D, had to do some serious detective-like reworks to get the recipe just so. Why? Because some important steps and ingredients were left out of the cookbook version, and now with the mystery solved we can all sleep again at night.

Chicken Scarpariello
(from the Kitchen of Michael Ronis, with D's moderations)

Servings: 4-6
Difficulty: Moderate
Cook Time: 30-60 min

1 3-4 lb. fryer chicken, cut into 12 pieces (2 wings, 2 legs, 2 thighs, each breast cut into thirds)
3 large lemons
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves
2 large heads of garlic
2 teaspoons fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Splash white wine
1 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon shallots, finely chopped
1 cup of chicken stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cooked linguine and/or a loaf of thickly sliced Italian rustic bread

Begin by washing and patting dry the 12 pieces of chicken. Place the chicken pieces into a large bowl that will both hold it and allow for mixing. Chop half of the herbs and mix with the chicken. Cut two of the lemons in half, squeeze out all of the juice, and throw the squeezed lemons in with the chicken and herbs. Add olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, garlic cloves and mix well.

Cover at least 24 hours although 48 hours will make it even better. Between two and three times a day, unwrap the chicken and toss thoroughly; return plastic wrap to cover.

Take a 12" saute pan and add the vegetable oil. While the oil is heating up over medium heat, take the chicken out of the marinade and shake off as much of the herbs and liquid as possible. These herbs will burn during cooking. Reserve the garlic cloves for later. When the oil is just about smoking, add each piece of chicken slowly, sliding them into the oil and cooking all of the pieces of chicken at one time. Squeeze the remaining lemon’s juice and reserve for later.

Make sure to use a pan large enough so that the chicken can sit in the oil without overlapping another piece. Do not turn the chicken over until it is very brown and crusty; this can take at least 10 minutes to 12 minutes. Once the chicken is very brown and crusty, turn the pieces over and continue cooking the other side until once again, all sides are all very brown and crusty. While the chicken is browning, throw at least eight cloves of the marinated garlic with the chicken into the oil, cooking them until they are brown and tender. Take out the garlic pieces and reserve. Remove the chicken pieces and place onto a bake-proof dish. Once the chicken is very brown and crusty, place into an oven and either continue cooking or keep warm on a low heat. With the saute pan that was used for browning the chicken, empty the oil or discard. Toss in one tablespoon of butter and slowly cook the chopped shallots.

Next, add the roasted browned whole garlic cloves, previously reserved, and add the remaining chopped herbs; lightly saute for one minute over low heat. Add a splash of white wine and cook for 30 seconds over high heat. Add the chicken stock and reduce until the liquid becomes dark and the taste is strong. At this point, on low heat, add the remaining butter, lemon salt and pepper to taste. Add more lemon according your palate.

Place the chicken onto a platter one piece at a time and then pour the sauce over the chicken. Recommend serving over linguine along with Italian rustic bread for dunking up the sauce.

Voila! I hope you try this corrected recipe, because this version of chicken scarpiello is one of the best chicken dishes out there! Thanks Carmine's and D.

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tidbits: A few recent food adventures

1. Minneapolis/St. Paul visit

Izzy's Ice Cream

The "Izzy Scoop" is a baby scoop of ice cream on top of a regular scoop, and to me it's kinda like an alien scoop. And not only that! Their flavors are modern and experimental, for example they had five types of strawberry the night we were there plus a few exotic chocolates, including Umeshu Chocolate made with Japanese plum wine. I couldn’t decide, so ordered a 5-Izzy scoop sampler of Mexican chocolate fiesta, cream cheese, coconut, graham cracker and the amaaazing salted caramel. When I was done with my 5 Izzy’s I did indeed want another scoop of salted caramel and my local friends (bless them for taking me here) talked me out of it. Balderdash! Not to torture you but here, take a look at the current flavor list and next time you're in the Minneapolis area run, don't walk, to Izzy's.

The Juicy Lucy

Another fantastic thing in St. Paul was the Juicy Lucy (a.k.a. Jucy Lucy) burger at Matt's bar. This discovery shared by a local friend made me pretty happy. It's basically two McDonald's-sized burgers sandwiched around a liquidy cheese sauce. No, not a gloppy Cheddar ooze as some photos suggest, but a nice mellow cheese sauce. The servers and the menus both warn to let the burger cool before chomping down, since that cheese sauce is molten and it wants to spurt all over your face! We waited a few and blew on our burgers then took a bite. Sure as heck if that cheese sauce wasn't dying to come out! It had a bonefide lava-like propulsion factor, and it was really yummy. Thank goodness the burgers weren't too big either, since too much meat-to-cheese ratio would have made the Juicy Lucy less humble, obnoxious even, in my opinion. This way was just right.

2. Carmine’s Chicken Scarpiello – cookbook vs. restaurant showdown

In my January 8, 2009 blog post “I heart Carmine's, and now you know,” I wrote about one of my favorite NYC restaurants and a fantastic dish there that I order all the time, chicken scarpiello. Many Italian restaurants make this but at Carmine's it is very unique and outrageously delicious. In my blog entry I described it as “heavenly, different from any other, with a sweet & sour brown lemon rosemary garlic sauce and caramelized garlic cloves.”

The reason this was written about in January 2010 is because my family and I had visited the Atlantic City Carmine's in December 2009, and there lo and behold I noticed the new Carmine's cookbook for sale. Celebration! Now the chance to make chicken scarpiello at home was mine!, especially necessary since Carmine's, for me, was no longer just a subway ride away.

A month later my friends came over for the recipe unveiling. Well it didn't turn out well at all :(, though my friends were pretty polite about it. The official planetmarly blog rating was, on a 1-3 scale: “1: bad recipe”. In the history of this blog, nothing's ever turned out THAT bad. Frustrated over wasted money – this was the main reason for my purchase of the cookbook – I slid my new Benedict Arnold hardcover onto the cookbook shelf and there is has remained. Until last week.

See my sister -- another fan of the chix scarpiello magic -- recently discovered an online recipe for the dish associated with the restaurant's chef. She made it and wanted to compare the recipe in my cookbook with hers to see if a match. Turns out my sister's version came out just fine, but that's only after she improvised. And when she sent me her online version of the recipe with notes, it became clear that the cookbook’s version was filled with errors:
  1. Garlic – Cookbook said crushed garlic, which was awful on the finished dish and covered the chicken like little balls of soft tapioca. In the restaurant, the dish is known for its browned garlic cloves. No garlic cloves in the cookbook's recipe, a major faux pas which honestly I should have caught.
  2. Recipe Liquid – This dish is also known for its lovely brown gravy. My cookbooked dish had none. My sister decided to up the wine quotient a little and also add a cup of chicken stock. Genius. There was only a 1/4 cup of wine in her recipe and no stock. This is why I’m more of a baker. I follow directions to a T and this recipe really needed some intuitive (and obvious) improvisation.
  3. Laziness – My sister felt the recipe I emailed her from the cookbook was lazy. It often said to use the “remaining” of this and that (lemon, herbs and butter), without being clear of how much that would be, which would have helped out the home cook tremendously.
All in all, this episode reminded me that we shouldn’t automatically trust cookbooks just because they're published, since some of them are simply not good. I recently finished reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” and that chef took great pride and many years in the proofreading and testing of her recipes. I probably won’t make any other dish from the Carmine’s cookbook. But the Ghirardelli or Tom Douglas cookbooks? Oh yes indeed I will go to them over and over again.

By the way, the photo of the dish above is from “,” and the authors had a pre-theater dinner at Carmine’s. They wrote why this is a special version of the dish too, and I agree because it’s why I only order this dish at Carmine's and no where else. “The chicken is covered in a lemony, garlicky sauce that is flavored with rosemary. It’s different from other versions of scarpariello, which usually feature sausage and peppers, but I vastly prefer this version.” Exactly! So after my sister puts the final touches on her recipe redux, I’ll try again and also post it on the blog if everyone wants it.

That's it for now blog peeps. Next week I'm off to Orlando for a conference and will be dining at the San Angel Inn in EPCOT Mexico. This beautiful "Mexican village at night" pavilion within an Aztec pyramid is one of my favorite places to visit, cheasy like a Juicy Lucy and oh so festive. I ate my first molé there during a college spring break road trip. Let's see if the restaurant stands up to the test of time.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Food Friend or Foe

Rather than Italian or Sushi, my favorite cuisine has long been New American. Ever since my first time at Gramercy Tavern (or maybe even earlier), enjoying simply prepared, homestyle food from local sources has become a dining priority for me. In my opinion, restaurant items prepared in this style simply sing brighter.

Several chefs adhere to this type of cooking, including the now TV-star Tom Colicchio (who was the original chef at Gramercy), my favorite Seattle chef Tom Douglas, and Chef Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Café in San Francisco. According to her website, Chef Judy “has been a pioneer of simple and casual American fare...” She once worked as lunch chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (an excellent thing), and in 2004 she was named outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation for her impressive Zuni Café cookbook. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Zuni was a place I wanted to dine at for ages, especially to try the chef’s acclaimed raison d'être, the roast chicken with bread salad (pictured above, oh and here's the recipe).

Probably around 2002, I visited San Francisco for a reason I can’t recall (oh well!). A few weeks before the trip I set up a night to see my pal Ed, formerly of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Ed and I met ten years earlier in NYC, where he was one of my clients during the Broadway days and we became friends. He’d recently moved to San Francisco so I looked him up.

Back in the day, Ed and I always had a grand time hanging around "the slope" and the city and going to parties with our mutual friends. He and his friend Dan were even the only two people to complete my last New York City clue hunt, “The Subway Hunt,” in its original form. These hunts usually took place above ground whenever I moved to a new neighborhood, but I hadn't moved in awhile so this one was in and around the subway system in two boroughs. Ed and Dan gave it a dry run for me on September 8th in 2001 since they’d be busy on the official hunt date of September 15th. The test went really well, they had fun, however since one quarter of The Subway Hunt was in the World Trade Center, the official hunt on September 15 was of course canceled; the route was reworked and occurred the following spring. But Ed and his friend Dan did run the hunt in the World Trade Center on September 8th three days before its demise, which we all thought was pretty interesting.

So when I flew out for a visit to San Fran about a year after Ed moved there he seemed quite happy to make a plan with me for dinner with his new California boyfriend. When we spoke I made one request: since they live in San Francisco, can we possibly have dinner at the Zuni Café because they have this chicken dish I really want to try….? Sure!, Ed said. Excellent, I replied.

We met at Zuni and had lots of long-lost hellos and hugs. The restaurant was lovely too, very inviting and open, modern yet homey. They sat us in one of the small rooms tucked away up some stairs so it felt like we were dining in someone’s House Beautiful beach house. The menus were dropped and there it was, the roast chicken with bread salad… for two? Oh. It’s a whole chicken for two people, hmm. And $45, woop! So I casually asked if Ed or his boyfriend would possibly be interested in splitting the dish with me, since it's for two, and since it’s amazing and the restaurant's signature dish and I’d heard about it forever, and I don’t live here and didn’t realize it was for two people. Ed looked at his boyfriend without missing a beat and said, “I’m going to have the halibut.” The boyfriend looked at Ed and said, “I’m going to have the halibut too!”

My incredulousness suppressed to a tic, I responded gently, “Really? If you both want halibut can’t you split one halibut entrée and then someone also share the chicken with me? I won’t have a chance to come to this restaurant again because I live in New York…” Ed's facial expression looked sort of like one of Cinderella's evil stepsisters when he said, “Why don’t you order the chicken for yourself and take home the leftovers? You can eat it on the plane tomorrow (chuckle).” “But I’m staying at a hotel. I don’t have a refrigerator.” He looked at the menu again and said regally, “Well I’M going to have the HALibut.” Ed’s boyfriend agreed.

This lead to some quick contemplation on etiquette and friendship and kindness. If the situation had been reversed, I would have automatically assumed that a friend of mine is also a food friend. However, if that friend turns out to be a food foe, doesn’t that mean that person isn’t your friend so much after all? I mean, without any explanation or attempts at trying for a middle ground. For instance, was the dish I wanted to share liver and onions, was it pickled pigs feet? No. Were these people vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians? Not at all. Did they just not like chicken, or me? Maybe all I needed was a little compassion or explanation, which did not come. Or could I have ordered that dish on my own for $45? I suppose, but I don't believe in egregious food wasting. Plus $45 for an entrée was a bit extravagant too.

I saw Ed with new eyes that night while eating some other entrée I don't remember. He must have stopped being my friend somewhere along the line, perhaps before that night--then why meet at all?--and I’ll never know why.

Even a year or so later back on Broadway at the end of the the Patti LuPone "Sweeney Todd" revival, guess who filtered out onto the street behind me: Ed and his boyfriend! How weird is that? In a happy sort of shock I introduced my friend to them, chatted away and oh no it took too long to realize that both Ed and his boyfriend wanted nothing to do with me. They seemed almost offended I talked to them at all! Once the new truth became obvious I said bye (which was ignored) and left promptly, promising myself to never make the same error in judgment again.

A few months after that I moved to Los Angeles, where I started working at USC. Four years after that, or last month in April, I flew up to San Mateo, CA to attend a conference with a colleague. We decided to take an evening train trip north to San Francisco one night. During the conference my colleague said, “I don’t know what you had in mind for dinner in San Francisco, but there’s a place you might like called Zuni Café…” Do you know I hadn’t thought about Zuni since; probably blocked it out to keep some internal peace. I was thrilled to hear the suggestion, said as much to my colleague and set the record straight! “If we go, there’s this menu item I need to try, but it’s for two, the roast chicken and bread salad. Would you be open to splitting that with me?” He said yes. We booked a reservation.

At the restaurant, the official menu item is written as thus: “Chicken for two roasted in the brick oven; warm bread salad with red mustard greens, scallions, currants, and pine nuts 48.00 (approximately 1 hour).”

Bring it ON! We ordered the moment we sat down in that lovely space on Market Street, you know because it takes an hour. What to do while awaiting our masterpiece? Eat. Yes I ordered some oysters and we each had a salad. And what a big and filling salad! My scrumptious Caesar was much bulkier than my colleague’s delicate micro-greens since several long and garlicy crouton planks were not included in his.

I’m mentioning this only because when the chicken came, I was full. It was a lot of food yet, no surprise, it turned out to be better than I could have hoped for. This famous restaurant dish not only looked great, it tasted like your Mom's best chicken in a Thomas Kinkade painting on a cloud-train express to where all food dreams come true. The chicken was extra flavorful and tender due to brining, and the skin was crisp and sprinkled with herbs. The warm bread salad soaked up all the chicken’s savory juices, and tasting that soft artisanal bread with chicken gravy and greens mingled with the other accoutrements, I can’t tell you how good it was. Let’s just say it was definitely worth the wait.

Now at first when the dish arrived I believe my colleague took a chicken thigh, and I started with a piece of breast and a leg. Me already full does not compute! But post-chicken thigh and a bite of bread salad later my colleague announced HE was full! Ok see I am the Energizer Bunny of food-in-front-of-me-deliciousness-cannot-be-denied and can keep on going. But to him, full means full. Done! Done? With "the chicken”?! Hey dude that just means more for me, so I forged on, eating more chicken and more bread salad on and on. I wished my little glass of white wine would have magically broken down the proteins in my stomach quicker, but it didn’t do that, it just tasted good and lent a nice tough of acidity to the meal.

Ok, ok after a few more pieces I was done too. We sat, we smiled. There were two small pieces of chicken left, along with a big dab of sultry bread salad. We sighed. I felt guilty looking at the leftover chicken. I encouraged my counterpart to eat more, but he wouldn’t. Then the flashback came, the burning memory of my first visit to Zuni with Ed, that OTHER visit. It moved me to feel a bit petulant, that I had to wait all that time for this grand fabulous wunderbar chicken meal. All this time, all this travel. Well I couldn't stand it and refused to leave a piece of chicken, especially not two pieces of chicken, behind. And with that, I finished it. Every bite. We confirmed later that my colleague really did only enjoy one piece of that bird, which means I in effect ate the whole chicken (and warm bread salad, and a Caesar salad, and oysters, ok and a little bit of chocolate pots de creme). And I would do it again, damn it!

Second chances are interesting things. The weird part? The colleague who dined with me at Zuni last month was named Ed too. So I went to this restaurant twice with two different Ed’s, and with two very different results. This year the universe gave me a replay. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.

Until we eat again,

Monday, April 12, 2010

It's Tiki Time!


This June I will be celebrating four years in Los Angeles. Wow! Time really does fly. Turns out sometime last year I stopped feeling the zing of being out here, until a dose of summery spring weather mixed with a box of See's chocolates and Saveur magazine’s “Special Edition: Los Angeles” reignited the spirit of this town for me and my excitement to live here was revived.

Sure, one of the coolest parts of being in LA is the weather (right by cool I didn't mean cold ;). That's only one of the joys. The west coast, particularly southern California, is also home to a slew of all things tiki.

Within the last ten days I've had the pleasure of revisiting the first bar I went to as a native Angelino: the Tiki-Ti, LA's most awesome tiki bar on Sunset Blvd. An ex-pat colleague in NY sent me and then how about that, the people I became friends with out here were already loyal "Ti" fans. A few nights after a recent visit there, I dined at a new Trader Vic’s up the street from my apartment in downtown LA. It's true, any time I have a chance to visit a tiki-themed place – with its exotic retro vibe, gigantic (and potent!) tropical drinks and enchanting music – I go.

According to Wikipedia, “Tiki culture refers to a 20th-century theme used in Polynesian-style restaurants and clubs originally in the United States and then, to a lesser degree, around the world...inspired in part by tiki carvings and mythology.”

Well for some reason I’ve always been tickled by Polynesian Pop culture. This may have started as a kid while excitedly sharing a pupu platter at a loosely-Asian NJ restaurant with my family. But I know it especially gained steam when my dad took my sister and I to Disney World for a stay at the still-awesome Polynesian Resort hotel. That über-themed fortress is listed as one of the top tiki destinations in the country, complete with authentic luau dinners on the lovely artificial lake's shores. However, for the purposes of this blog – and selfishly because I live out here – the listing of top tiki places to eat, drink and shop contained in this post are well, all out west too. The destinations are listed in order of proximity to downtown LA (timed without traffic), and each place is linked to its own website.

So please enjoy this list, and feel free to add comments if I’ve missed any important place in the vicinity. Then I invite you to try one of these gems or try them all. Some serve food but all serve drinks. Some are better than others. I’ve tried a few as noted below, but certainly not many. And heck, discovering that "Don the Beachcomber" is still alive and well (even if not a true original location), and that it's only 36 minutes from home, means that particular stop on my tiki trail will soon be checked off that list.

1. GET YOUR TIKI DRINK ON ... and sometimes food too
(All locations are in California unless otherwise noted, distance is from downtown LA)

Location: Downtown at LA Live, our pre-fab Times Square • Distance: 0 min.
Great atmosphere. Food and drink are hit and miss, with the hits being very good. Now a nationwide chain, the music piped into the dining room is more Applebee's and less Tahiti.

Location: Hollywood (per them; I say they're in Los Feliz or Silverlake) • Distance: 10 min.
Open Wednesday thru Saturday only, cash only, smoking allowed. No wine or beer. Profiled in the Saveur March issue. Don't let the rules scare you, it's a treat and an honor! The original proprietor, Ray Buhen, was one of the original bartenders at Don the Beachcomber. His son Michael and his grandsons Mike and Mark run the Tiki-Ti in Ray's memory today.

Location: Glendale • Distance: 15 min.
I was quite psyched to visit this restaurant in sleepy Glendale for its reputation of tiki decor and steak. Both were just okay.

Location: Rosemead • Distance: 22 min.
With a name like that, how can you not visit! A real trooper since 1967, when I visited two years ago their bar was cozy small, their decor looked a little worse for wear, and my friends as usual adored their baked ham steak.

Location: Long Beach • Distance: 22 min.

Location: Huntington Beach (a.k.a. Sunset Beach) • Distance: 36 min.
"If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you," Donn Beach – the founding father of tiki restaurants, bars and nightclubs – always said to his customers. His first venture was a bar in Hollywood in 1934. After an expansion of 16 locations, the original restaurants all closed and this lone location was repurposed in 2009 from an unrelated seafood restaurant. It serves only a handful of the 84 tropical drinks Donn Beach invented.

Location: North Hollywood • Distance: 22 min.

Location: Las Vegas, NV • Distance: 4.5 hours

2 Locations: Santa Cruz + Monterey
2 Distances: 6 hours, 2 min. + 5 hours, 51 min.

Location: Alameda • Distance: 6 hours, 6 min.

Location: Oakland, CA • Distance: 6 hours, 5 min.

Location: San Francisco • Distance: 6 hours, 18 min.
Not your average tiki bar, this place is fancy and located in a Fairmont Hotel. It's practically Disney-esque! And that's okay, because the Tonga Room was one of the nation's first tiki palaces. It opened in 1945 and has since been refurbished. It looks amazing, and I definitely need to go there!

Location: Tuscon, AZ • Distance: 8 hours

Location: Portland, OR • Distance: 16 hours
Looks like a place I would visit once and never leave! Next trip north, I am there. Oh and I'd be flying there, btw, not driving.


Location: Hollywood • Distance: 11 min.
This is a very fun store! Besides random tiki items, other wares include art books, crazy handbags and bacon-scented band-aids.

Location: Santa Monica • Distance: 16 min.

Location: Whittier • Distance: 25 min.

Location: Huntington Beach • Distance: 43 min.

Location: San Clemente • Distance: 1 hour, 14 min.
Location: Palm Springs • Distance: 1 hour, 50 min.
Opening May 8, 2010! This is great news for fans (like me) of this retro tiki-inspired art master.

All right now, that’s a lot of tiki! Enjoy it responsibly.

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Europe Food!

Bonjour and Hallo!

Last week I returned from my 8th trip to Europe, and I wondered... Why do I keep going back to that part of the world? Well, it is awesome, but one of the main reasons is I’ve always had amazing experiences and discoveries centering around the food.

While I think my next trip may be to some new place, it’s always a treat to be in Europe, where the food is so fresh and less processed that it simply tastes better than food I experience day-to-day here.

So here is a list of some of the cool food we recently ate in Europe. If something is available in the U.S. I’ll mention it, otherwise you’ll just have to book a flight soon!

The List (with matching photos!):

1. Haggis – Pork parts, potatoes and spices finely mashed up like corned beef hash. Tastier than expected, my brain still couldn’t fully release the reality of my consumption, so I ate only a little. Or maybe I wasn't feeling too bad about it until the LAX customs guys forced me to a read the ingredients from a souvenir can of haggis brought back for a friend. That I could definitely have done without. Yes, ignorance is bliss!

2. Kouign Amann – The reputation of this Breton butter cake entered my consciousness before I even tasted it. How could a cake made with mainly sugar, butter and pastry baked into a caramelized crunchy buttery mass not have that effect on the human brain? Now I’ve had the pleasure of eating this twice. Once at BLD in Los Angeles, where it’s offered at brunch (I got it to go and ate it cold, not smart) and then in Paris again last week (hallelujah!). I found it peering out from behind more aggressive treats in a bake shop window and whirled in with my Euros. It took me three days to eat it due to its sultry artery-hardening richness. Yes, it was worth the wait. If you buy one at BLD, make sure to eat it there and ask for it warmed.

3. A non-continental complimentary hotel breakfast – That’s right, the breakfast that is included has serious meats and cheeses, soft-boiled eggs, country breads and apricot juice to go with the standard orange and grapefruit. This is what I want for my country! Real food in this scenario, with less crappy carbs and more protein deliciousness. Thank you.

4. Classic, simple French crepes – Made to order from a street vendor and handed over soft and steamy, the minimal additions of butter and sugar are the way to go here. Forget the Nutella or ham and cheese options (or save that for your second one). As a first taste, the most true to form is having it this way. It's all you need in the crepe department.

5. Eggs Benedict sandwich – Imagine an English muffin of sorts with herbed hollandaise-infused scrambled eggs and an unprocessed, fantastic slab of country ham. This was only $4 and didn't contain a tower of eggs to over-fill me before a flight. Original in flavor with great ingredients, this was a big fat yes.

6. Fun-flavored potato chips! – The people from Great Britain have always had it right. Instead of the typical BBQ, cheddar, and sour cream and chive, flavors include lamb with mint sauce, roast beef with mustard, smoked ham and pickle, prawn cocktail and the hysterical haggis.

7. Amazing chocolate – Beyond the Swiss brands of Cailler, Lindt and Frey selling specialty bars at the supermarket, the fresh chocolate from Läderach is saturated with whole caramelized almonds or hazelnuts. The Zurich-bought stash hidden in my desk is almost gone and I may have to wear black tomorrow to mourn it.

8. Interesting foods at the market – At M&S Market in Edinburgh, they had pretty ingenious fresh meals to go. They also had some frozen items I’d never seen, specifically international take out dinner kits. You could pick Chinese Favourites or Indian Takeaway, all filled with six different items from appetizers to mains, for about $15. Talk about a dinner time saver! Why didn’t we think of that?

9. Better tasting, more natural yogurt – Oh my in Switzerland and France you cannot imagine how much good yogurt is available. There are tons of flavors to choose from, with less processed sugar and more purposeful probiotics. At the Basel train station I picked up a cup of Nestle passion fruit yogurt, which was so tasty when finished I had no choice but to get every bit off the lid (see top photo). Christy said the vanilla yogurt made by Emmi tasted like custard. Emmi yogurt is for sale in Los Angeles at The Cheese Store of Silverlake at Sunset Junction.

10. French macarons from the source – When I first tasted a chocolate-passion fruit macaron by Pierre Hermé in 2005 (check out his new book, Macaron), I had no idea that every macaron-maker in the world would be copying his flavor combos and selling them off as their own. French macarons have become known in the U.S., but you have to be careful of bakers over here who use too much sugar. Plus, the flavors are often the same: chocolate, lemon, raspberry, pistachio, vanilla, coffee, strawberry. In fact, macarons have become so ubiquitous here that I even noticed my local Starbucks selling a pack of them for $10. Well, at Pierre Hermé this year they sadly didn’t have my favorites from 2005: the apricot or the olive oil. But they did have the rose and the chocolate-passion fruit, AND they had weird new flavors which boggled the mind: wasabi and balsamic vinegar. I feared these macarons, but I shouldn’t have. Where was all that Pierre Hermé trust? The new macaron flavors were phenomenal. The wasabi was subtle and had a dab of a mysterious red in the middle (see photo). It was divine. And the balsamic vinegar was just as subdued. This man is the master and I hope more area bakers will start mixing up the flavors to be a little more exotic, too.

11. Rösti with fried egg – This Swiss specialty is basically just shredded potatoes sautéed into a cake, and in this version topped with two fried eggs. We ate it as an appetizer to cheese fondue and it is always a simple, delicious treat.

12. Ham and cheese sandwich (on baguette or pretzel roll) – This is tasty simplicity at its finest. Why? Because here is what’s on the bread: butter, ham and cheese. That’s it! Who needs tomato, lettuce, mayo, onions, peppers and some sort of globby dressing. You don’t need all that on a European sandwich. Why? Because the main ingredients are of such a high quality and taste so good, that’s why! And don’t you forget it!

13. Fondue – Yes you can get this in LA (Morels @ the Grove), though the perfect fusing of cheeses along with the right kirsch vs. white wine ratio is too important to ignore. Fondue in Switzerland tastes amazing, with a smooth (not gummy), somewhat gritty consistency. It’s solely served with day old rustic bread. And it was worth the cholesterol, trust me, which is probably why I inadvertently ate this twice and have dreamed of it ever since. Enjoy it with some hoppy beer, or with a local Swiss white wine like a Fendant.

14. Raclette – You can buy this cheese at Trader Joe’s, or be invited to a Swiss person’s house for a Raclette party (this has happened to me). It’s sort of like fondue but more straight-up: there are no ingredients except CHEESE. It’s tasty. You eat it with something sturdy like potatoes or cornichons.
15. Spätzle - Literally translated from German as "little sparrow," this is a dish of tiny dumplings forced through a sieve and boiled before being tossed with butter and sometimes sautéed. (Appears in the right background in Raclette photo.)

16. International McDonald's – Whenever I’m overseas, I always stop into a local McDonald’s. Some things are the same, and almost always some things are different. Years ago in Vienna I remember a McPork sandwich, which was like a grilled chicken sandwich made with pork. Why do we have the need to cover up our pork in the U.S. with fried breading or McRib sauce? Over there you get the real deal. Now a few years ago in France I noticed more international flavors and breads brought in, with for instance an Italian burger on a ciabatta roll, and an Indian burger on a naan-like roll. Speaking of which, in Edinburgh I found an Indian twist on the snack wrap: the chicken tikka snack wrap. And in Zurich I had the pleasure of buying 6 whole, large fried “shrimps” with a mayo-based cocktail sauce and it was a nice addition.

17. Tattie scones – OMG, I’ve been dreaming of this breakfast wonder since first trying it in Belfast in 2000. As part of any respectable Irish or Scottish full breakfast, the tattie scone is simply a potato scone, looks like a pita but is heartier (at 12:00 on the plate), and is sautéed in the pan. I have no idea where to get this in Los Angeles, so I guess I’ll just have to make some myself. It sure won’t be the same, though, as enjoying it as part of a full Scottish breakfast in a sleepy pub on a chilly Edinburgh morning.

Until we eat again,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Road Trip

Ever since my first trip to Seattle I’ve been inspired by local foods, as unique menu treasures from non-ubiquitous local restaurants are hard to come by in the urban centers I’ve long lived in.

Right now I’m thinking about Seattle chef Tom Douglas’s triple coconut cream pie, from Dahlia Lounge, a dessert epiphany that I was lucky enough to experience for the first time years ago while exploring that fine food city.

The small successes you encounter in faraway restaurants are the parts you take home. Once you get back to your roost you’ll very likely share those discoveries with friends and colleagues, and if anyone hits the road themselves, if they don’t track down that wonderful place or menu item you found it’s easy to want to hurt them!

These thoughts have come to pass because a few weekends ago to ring in the new year I had the pleasure of driving up the California coast with Christy. What a wonderful reminder of why I moved to this great state. There is so much beauty to see, and it’s all so accessible.

We started in Pismo Beach with a pre-“Avatar” dinner at a local seafood spot called Steamers. My shrimp scampi was quite good, refined and flavorful and for the right price. Christy’s linguini with clams tasted great, although it took her a good 20 minutes to dig 100 tiny clams out of their shells before digging in.

The next day we couldn’t get into a sold-out Hearst Castle, so instead – since there were two full days left in the holiday weekend – we set our compass north. I imagined the map of the state in my mind, searching for a fun locale due north. Suddenly the Napa Valley exploded into my consciousness. It’s so close! And I’d wanted for a long time to visit the Oxbow Public Market, a fairly new food hall similar to the luminous Ferry Building in San Francisco.

We called en route and found out the market closed at 7:00pm, so we hauled ass. Even though we got there at 6:45pm, most of the food stalls were already closed, but that's okay. At least we got to see the place. It's nice! And this was very cool too, right next door to the market was a new branch of Taylor's Automatic Refresher—also in the Ferry Building, also in St. Helena—that fantastic local retro hamburger stand.

Next up, it was time to finally check out the Bounty Hunter, a hot wine bar that had just opened in downtown Napa back when I was taking a one-week course at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. That was in 2004, and the course was called the Professional Business of Wine. I went with the intention of seeing if this was a career path I should consider more seriously, and also thought it would be a fun way to explore Napa with my classmates.

No such luck, on both fronts:
1) I enjoyed the class, yet couldn’t wrap my head around the growing principles of vines and grapes. Then in the tasting portion of class, I couldn't shake my Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Wine School training, which taught me to lose all pretention about wine and simply know what I like vs. what I don’t in the most general terms. Here, my classmates imagined tasting things I couldn’t imagine! They took a sip and in one wine tasted McIntosh apple and Greengage plum. They tasted fancy things in other wines like lemongrass, papaya and black pepper, even hybrid fruit like pluots. Poppycock! I tasted… grapes! Rich, jammy, bitter, tannic, dry, berry, smoky, apple, lemon, butter, caramel… in the wine. I was not able to taste Greengage plum in the wine. Come on!
2) My class was very small, with about seven people, and they didn’t care to have group activities after class. Except one lady said I could join her cadre at the then new Bounty Hunter, but it felt like a pity invite only, so I declined.

Instead I did my own thing and wandered into Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, located, um, actually on a backstreet parallel to the main street of St. Helena. This place was wonderful, in a converted two-story house, and I grabbed a seat at the bar. The bartender was a fantasy version of a man, a guy you'd want to talk to every day from now until forever, although an hour on that evening was good enough for me. All the food I ordered tasted perfectly amazing, yet the wine business not being for me really hit home that night when my appetizer order of a pan-sautéed artichoke with a glass of Trimbach Gewurtraminer to start was rejected by the bartender because “the artichoke is going to kill that wine.” I love sautéed artichokes, I adore Trimbach’s Gewurtraminer which is rarely on a restaurant menu by the glass, and I did not want to annoy this handsome bartender. But I held my ground and ordered it anyway. Of course he was right, as were the teenage weaned-on-wine busboys who giggled when I went ahead with the order and painfully realized my mistake. It’s ok though, my basic grilled chicken BLT with spiced fries was the best sandwich I’d had in years and years. So flavorful! And the campfire pie for dessert was so original, so incredible. Sure I lived in the great restaurant town of New York then, but finding a place like Cindy’s there was next to impossible because restaurants like that are only found on the road.

The next day after class I was invited by a cute blonde classmate to join him in Calistoga, up Rt. 29 by bus, to kick around a bit before he headed off to a softball game with his Calistoga friends. We perused a market in that town while discussing cheeses and local potato chips, bought fun sodas and finally walked to his friend’s place after openly dreaming of owning our own wine stores. This was the kind of post-class day I’d been looking for, though it ended too soon. He and his friends had to go! They told me to hop in the jeep and they’d drive me back to St. Helena, I could have dinner while they practiced, then they told me where to find them later to watch the game.

We hopped into the jeep with the top down and sailed south on the Silverado Trail, passing field after gorgeous field of grapes, where they and their vines lived in peace. The sun was shining on pretty green landscape as I’d never seen. When the guys dropped me off at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher I was pretty happy since they’d talked it up a lot and I’d never heard of it. Turns out the jeep driver used to work there, and he went up to the counter and ordered for me before waving goodbye and driving off with my classmate. My cheeseburger with sweet potato fries and a glass of red wine were not only of the highest quality, they were also on the house. I wandered over to the softball game about an hour later, and the experience was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This world was so serene and strange. I loved it, but it was also a bit lonely since I was there on my own and at this point doubted my ability to make a living there in the Napa Valley wine world (Greengage plum??).

So a few weeks ago, I was taken back to all this as Christy and I drove to dinner at the Bounty Hunter, although we didn't end up eating there and that's okay with me. See our trip to the wine country was an impulse and we never expected to find ourselves up there dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. From the moment we entered the Bounty Hunter bar there were looks and stares from the help, and it wasn't pleasant. We left without sitting down and drove up Rt. 29 to find another place, anything, and we drove past the Oakville Grocery, past the standby restaurants Brix and Mustards, past the flagship Dean & Deluca, and past all the wineries with their trees still wrapped in tiny glowing Christmas lights. We passed a new place I hadn’t seen before called the Rutherford Grill, from the Houston’s folks which I will plan to visit some time in the future. And finally we came upon the original Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, at which I’d had that delicious gourmet burger meal in 2004, and once you hit that you know you’re in St. Helena.

St. Helena was a bit too sleepy at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, so we decided to keep driving for our dinner. In the car I pointed out where Cindy’s was, along with the expansive Beringer winery, and finally we drove through the line of old oak trees that lead up to the majestic Culinary Institute of America. Five minutes later we arrived in the quaint western-style town of Calistoga, and it looked so charming at night that we decided to dine at the lovely Calistoga Inn.

Our repast complete, we drove through Healdsburg at around 10:30pm, home of the Kendall Jackson Winery tasting room. What an amazing town this was! Hadn’t been that north before. It was late, so we decided to come back the next day to walk around. The next morning we drove through California’s southernmost redwood forest park. We proceded south along the foggy Pacific coast winding down through Mendocino. The coastline sure is a sight to see.

Back in Healdsburg we ventured into the Kendall Jackson tasting room because KJ's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay was the first wine I tasted and loved as an adult. We sampled some interesting wines not available in Los Angeles stores, served to us by "Uncle Bill." Throughout the tasting I threw out some wine facts from my wine school days and Uncle Bill was impressed. Maybe I was too hard on myself in 2004. Maybe it was a matter of simple intimidation, since the people in Napa seemed to know so much more than me. Now I realize I know enough to get by in that world; the key is to forget all pretention and just keep on tasting.

Now it was Sunday early afternoon and time to head back to Los Angeles. We drove south and decided to have lunch in Hayward, California, just south of Oakland, to hit up Buffalo Bill’s Brewery. I've had their excellent beer in LA, and imagined lunch at the brewery would be an amazing foodie adventure. Actually the food was kinda bleh, but let’s face it, we were there for the beer. Pity they were out of their fantastic orange blossom cream ale. Instead we ordered the renowned pumpkin ale (still have some bottles in my fridge from October) and that was good yet it was the unfiltered Hayward Hefe on tap that rocked our world. For a repeat of that experience, we will indeed have to drive back up to Hayward.

Which we may get to do this weekend. We’re heading up to Oakland to explore the foodie-dom of that little gem of a town. Ok, it’s a big and sometimes rough city, however its growing food offerings should not be ignored, and there are little restaurants popping up that I'm fairly confident don’t exist in Los Angeles. Yep in order to find those, we’ll have to hit the road again.