Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eating New York, Part 1

To me, New York represents the eventual destination for those of us seeking out America's culinary treasure trove. With so many restaurants, so much food history, and so many options for avant-garde cuisine, it was only a matter of time before I found myself eating away at the Big Apple. It’s where I wanted to go--where I needed to go--to fulfill my desire of sampling iconic New York style pizza, Shake Shack burgers, crusty bagels, and perhaps a Michelin 3-star sit-down. After spending some quality time on Yelp, Chow, and a few blogs, I crafted a restaurant plan tailored to cover some of New York’s finest and most unique culinary offerings during a five-day visit. Five days isn’t exactly a long time to tackle any city, especially one as diverse and dense as New York, but I was very happy with the amount grub we were able to taste.

With my ambitious restaurant plan in hand, we depart LAX on our red-eye flight, leaving at midnight from LAX and landing at 8am in JFK. (A red eye flight maximizes the eating time. Smart, huh? Actually we did that to save on vacation time.)

Our first order of business is of course to feed ourselves after the long cross country flight. We jaunt over to Shake Shack in the theater district and met up with a friend who happened to also be visiting Manhattan.

I’ve read so many write-ups about Shake Shack and its deliciously juicy cheeseburgers and “concrete” shakes thickened with mix-ins that might otherwise be meals at other eateries. Some say this place even rivals our beloved In and Out, while others preach not to waste any time standing in the potentially hour-long lines. Well I’m happy to report there was no wait whatsoever when we arrived at exactly 11am--opening time; in fact I think we were the first ones to order.

Shackburger, double cheeseburger, fries, pumpkin pie Concrete. My double cheeseburger was everything I could have hoped for: a soft and flavorful bun and crisp lettuce and tomatoes which were portioned perfectly to match the savory Angus patties. The Concrete--a frozen custard with chunks of real pumpkin pie swirled in--was equally satisfying though I wish there was more pumpkin pie involved. I enjoyed the crinkle-cut style fries and Shake Shack claims these have 25% less fat than average fries, so of course I just needed to eat 25% more than normal :)

With lunch aside, we walk around the theater district area and take in some of the sights. As you can see from the pictures, we brought some of LA’s sunny weather with us. Now I could only find a way to bring back some of these NY chefs.

After a quick nap, we strap on our Sunday’s finest and walk over to Le Bernardin to kick off our evening with an early pre-theater dinner. Executive chef Eric Ripert heads up Le Bernardin and you’ve surely come across the white-haired gentleman on Top Chef as a frequent guest judge. His theater-district establishment is one of only nine restaurants in the US to have the coveted Michelin 3-star rating, the highest possible, and it’s also a NY Times 4-star recipient. With those credentials you just know my expectations for Le Bernardin were set to stun, and our 2.5 dinner was indeed an unforgettable experience.

We both ordered the 4-course prixe fixe with each of us choosing different options for all courses. Every dish was a gastronomic experience, save for one dish, my crispy black bass-- a signature of Ripert--as it was sorely lacking that crispiness I saw when Ted Allen ordered the same dish on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I found myself tearing away at the skin and noticed another diner enduring the same struggle. Despite this misstep and some overbearing service at times (they removed my wife’s 2nd course before she was done--hey I’m the only one allowed to do that!), our dinner was otherwise superb. (No pictures here--I just wanted to fully immerse myself in the dining experience for tonight, sans camera)

We wave goodbye to Le Bernardin and trek along Times Square and over to the Shubert theater to see Memphis (a must see!)

Theater makes me hungry so of course after the show we seek out dinner #2: the famed Halal cart on 53rd and 6th. Yelp warned me about the block-long lines for this place so I was surprised to see only about 20 late-night grubbers waiting to get their Halal fix.

Combination halal with chicken, beef, lamb, served over rice. What you see is the before "pre-sauce" picture; I drenched the whole pie with a creamy white sauce and then mashed it all together. This was damn good, and damn spicy when I added a vial of mouth-tingling hot sauce. The rice was a bit dry and overcooked, but the meats were tender, flavorful and not at all greasy. Eating scoopfuls of rice, meats, white sauce, and hot sauce was quite satisfying, even as I was perched on a stone bench overlooking 53rd street, doing my best not to spill sauce on my suit. I could have used more flat bread to make little flat bread wraps, but for $6 I won't complain. Heart burn later ensued.

The next morning greets us with breakfast at Sarabeth’s West, located to the west of Central Park. There’s also a Sarabeth’s East; you can guess where that’s located. Thanks to some ignorant transportation planning on my part, we arrived about 20-minutes past our OpenTable reservation slot, but the hostess was able to wedge us in--and I mean that in the literal sense--at a small table within minutes of arriving. My wife dives into the Goldie Lox--a dish of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and cream cheese. It was respectable. I opt for this:

Crisp potato waffle with chicken apple breakfast sausage, chunky Apple sauce and sour cream. There was only one truly bad dish during our 5-day journey, and you’re looking at it. The waffle wasn’t crisp and in fact was undercooked and gummy in the center, and the sausage had such little flavor and sawdust-like texture that I actually didn’t bother to finish it. My family and friends know that I NEVER leave food behind unless I deem it practically inedible. Disaster! Let’s move on.

The crowd outside Sarabeth's West on our way out of the restaurant. I hope they're not here for the sausage.

We walk through Central Park and over to the Metropolitan Museum for some cultural fulfillment.

My wife: “hey look this is YOU when you’re crouching!”

For lunch, we walk south to the Plaza hotel and attempt to dine at Todd English’s new Food Hall restaurant, but the 90-minute wait prompted a quick u-turn out the hotel’s beefy doors. Our backup plan--Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien as recommended by fellow foodie friend Daniel K.--served us no better with its entrance line pushing into the hotel’s lobby. Thus, we retreat across from Burger Joint and find hope at Norma’s, a bustling cafe serving upscale brunch fare. We’re seated immediately and promptly requested to order immediately as the kitchen was closing shop for the day. Two breakfasts in one day? Sure, why not? The first one really didn’t even count.

Yes that's a $1000 caviar frittata! I wonder how many of these are served each day? Oh wait, this is Le Parker Merdien in Manhattan--they had probably sold out for the day.

Eggs Florentine with sautéed Spinach, fingerling potato home fries and apple-wood smoked bacon. The fresh and lightly cooked spinach was the main star of this plate. I never knew spinach could taste THIS good. Thick, chewy bacon added a wonderful salty-savoriness between bites of the creamy egg and Hollandaise sauce mixture. Fingerling potatoes were hiding behind the pile of bacon, and I made sure to seek and eat every single one.

Super moist French toast with an orange infused honey drizzle. I’ll keep this short: it was the best French toast I’ve ever had and I've had me many a good French toast in LA. The honey drizzle was so aromatic and flavorful, and the French toast was just as the menu boasted. It's doughy and moist on the inside with crispy edges holding it together. Side note: it’s 4pm and we’re scheduled to meet up with friends for dinner at 5:30pm.

Those two hours seemed like ten minutes, and at 6pm we find ourselves at Spotted Pig in the West Village area. Our friends had arrived a little earlier and secure a wait list spot. There are no reservations at this Michelin-starred gastro-pub, and no reservations means you either need to get here early or attempt to shoe-horn yourself into the bar area. After an hour wait, we escape from the bar area and trot upstairs to the main dining room. It’s loud, packed, dimly lit, and chock-full of swine memorabilia.

Here's looking at me.

Deviled eggs. Spicy, tangy, and rich. These were so good we ordered two more servings. I like how the yolk mixture is piped to resemble a pig, or at least that's I wanted to think.

Chicken liver toast. Delicious and not too salty. The texture was creamy but held up well when eaten with the toasted bread.

Char-grilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese and shoestrings. A first-timer’s trip here wouldn’t be complete without an order of the burger. Mine was cooked to a textbook medium rare. The bun was supple, buttery, and moist. I read some reviews claiming the cheese was overpowering, and it was indeed full of pungent aroma and taste, but it worked well to counteract the savoriness of the thick patty. The fries, however, were messy to eat and had little substance or flavor to them. I kept mashing mounds of stringy fries together to get more of a bite with each chew.

I forget the name of this dish, but it was basically described as “deep-fried face cheese.” This was very good, albeit very heavy. Note to self: Tomorrow would not be a good day for a physical.

Walnut, chocolate and amaretto cake. A nutty cake with a chocolate frosting. My wife didn’t care for this, so guess who cleaned house?

We left Spotted Pig very full, very happy, and perhaps a few pounds heavier. I picked up a Spotted Pig t-shirt on the way out, perfect for the 75-degree weather back in LA. Our friends had to get back home, but my wife and I decided that being 110% full is unacceptable, so we walk a block over to Magnolia Bakery for a night cap.

We picked up a chocolate cupcake, a vanilla cupcake, and a Magic Cookie bar--a slab of packed walnuts, chocolate chips, shredded coconut and sweetened condensed milk. This was so amazingly good that I practically finished it before leaving the bakery, crumbing over myself, the wrapper, and probably the people waiting in line. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the cupcakes as we both thought there were dry and lifeless in flavor.

That concludes our second night of gluttony in New York City. At this point I was already planning my next visit as I was so impressed with what we had eaten. Coming soon: part 2 where I partake in more stars, pizza, "crack", and shiny bagels.

Shake Shack
691 8th Ave
New York, NY 10036

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019

Halal cart on 53rd and 6th
53rd St & 6th Ave
New York, NY 10079

Sarabeth's West
423 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024

119 W 56th St
New York, NY 10019

Spotted Pig
314 W 11th St
New York, NY 10014

Magnolia Bakery
401 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014

Monday, October 25, 2010

The California Roll burger at 26 Beach

Recently I had the pleasure of devouring the colossal California Roll burger from 26 Beach in Venice. This ninth wonder of the foodverse came loaded with avocado, real crab meat, ginger, wasabi mayo, lettuce, tomato, an Angus 1/2lb patty, and is served with thick-cut fries which were like chunkier versions of In and Out's fries.

When this behemoth landed in front of me, I wanted to pick it up and just go all out Man vs. Food on this thing, eating it with no regard to burger spillage or, um, personal appearance. So as to not embarrass myself in front of my coworkers (or least keep it to a minimum), I cut it in half, then cut one half in two and repositioned the skewer to keep the other half in tact while leaning the other cut quarter against the skewered half to keep this leaning tower of burger from becoming a Hindenburg. I then grabbed a quarter of the California Roll burger and compressed it just enough so I could get my jaws around it, and guess what? It worked and I was able to get all of the flavors and textures with a well placed chomp.

The mingling of flavors of beef and crab and mayo and bun was something I had never experienced before with any meal. The deep beefiness of the Angus patty--cooked to a perfect medium rare--was counteracted by the creaminess from the crab and wasabi mayo mixture. Heat from the wasabi lingered for a bit but the avocado made for a cool finish to each bite. Expansive sheets of ginger added an interesting, snappy texture, while the house-made, pillowy soft bun did its best to bookend the ingredients. See that layer of lettuce and tomato on the first level? The 26 Beach chefs placed those there so as to provide a level foundation for the massive quantities of protein resting on the higher levels. And sure a few bundles of crab sneaked out during mid-chomp, but I was quick to shovel them back in to the burger with the provided eating utensils. Within ten minutes or so, this burger was out of sight and in my belly. A messy albeit delicious lunch experience.

So how much for this pylon of fusion goodness? 26 Beach charges a very fair $19 with fries, which for me was well worth the experience of consuming a burger topped with basically a California roll. My coworker ordered the Texas Burger with chili and said it was good but that the chili needed more spice, and another coworker ordered the Kobe burger and gave it high praise.

Do yourself a favor and head over to 26 Beach to try a truly unique burger. Just don’t try this on a first date; I mean at least wait until the third date.

26 Beach
3100 Washington Blvd
Venice, CA 90291

Friday, October 22, 2010

DineLA at The Foundry on Melrose

The DineLA event may have already passed but I was able to sneak in a few weeknight outings to take advantage of the special deals being offered by many of LA's finest restaurants. One such restaurant, The Foundry on Melrose, had been on my radar for some time, especially after seeing its chef and owner, Eric Greenspan, compete on Food Network's The Next Iron Chef. He may have lost--eliminated during the first round in fact--but that certainly didn't distract me from recognizing his many achievements in the culinary arena. From being executive chef at Patina to working alongside super-star chefs David Bouley and Ferran Adria, chef Greenspan has certainly established an esteemed reputation for himself.

For the DineLA event, his restaurant The Foundy on Melrose was offering a fantastic 3-course dinner for $44 and that included a complimentary mid-course, essentially making this a 4-course meal. I quickly made a reservation and summoned a few friends to partake in this deal with me.

We arrive to a packed scene on a brisk Thursday night and took our seats across from the quaint bar. All of us were prepared to order from the DineLA menu, which listed several options for each of its four courses. The full regular menu was available as well and I was tempted to supplement our meal with some of chef Greenspan's famous short-rib grilled cheese sandwiches. Maybe next time.

We placed our orders and then proceeded with satisfying our thirst with some BYOB wines.

My friend has been sourcing some excellent wines lately for our dinners, such as the 2007 Caymus at The Gorbals. Tonight she brought a wonderfully crisp 2004 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon, a well balanced wine that played nicely with our savory dishes. It was easy on the palate with light tannins but presented just enough enough complexity to hold your interest even after several pours. Not only was the corkage service very professional, it was free, making our DineLA dinner all the more sweeter.

Amuse bouche. I couldn't hear our server as he explained this dish, but it tasted like a puff pastry with a tomato sauce topping. These were quite small--even for an amuse bouche--but they were tasty nonetheless.

For my first course I opted for the Albacore Tartare with sunchokes, grapefruit, soy. The albacore has a slightly fishy taste to it but the consistency was nice and creamy and I liked the pairing of the albacore with the salty soy and fresh grapefruit. This fusion of saltiness and bitterness helped to mask said fishiness and in the end I actually enjoyed the overall experience of this course.

My friend went for the Lobster Salad with mushrooms, lime, cilantro, coconut as her first course. Along with a beautiful presentation, all the flavors and textures worked well together. I especially enjoyed the fresh lobster and the sauce which helped to heighten the flavors from the vegetables. The lobster was cooked perfectly and delicious on its own.

Bread service of rosemary focaccia was brought to us during the first course... were these biscuits with soft butter.

I chose the Celery Root Risotto with orange, Gruyere cheese, celery as my mid-course. The risotto was delicious and its creaminess was balanced nicely by the orange sauce which had just a hint of acidity. I love Gruyere by itself but here it was slightly dominated by the heaviness of the risotto, though the cheese did add some interesting texture. This was was one of the better risottos I've had in any restaurant.

For her mid-course, my friend went with the Mustard Glazed Pork Belly with Brussels sprouts, candied quince, manchego. On paper this dish looks and sounds amazing, but the pork belly was, unfortunately, overcooked and tough and nowhere near that dreamy slab of pork belly I had at Park's or the maple-braised variety from Cube. Some relief came from the mustard glaze which was very creamy and seasoned nicely, though it wasn't enough to distract my attention from the dryness of the pork.

Diners have three options for the third course and I gave in to this Miso Honey Glazed Duck with pears, eggplant, red peppers. The duck was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the eggplant and peppers added some great earthiness to the dish but, as you can see from the picture, there was very little meat compared to the amount of skin. And while I do relish in succulent fatty duck skin, I was hoping for a meatier presence from this dish.

Perhaps I should have went with my friend's dish, Beef Tenderloin with shallots, potatoes, bordelaise sauce. Of course I got to try a generous piece and this upscale meat-and-potatoes plate turned out to be my favorite dish of the night. The meat was expertly cooked and I loved that the sauce wasn't overpowering but rather complimentary to the juiciness of the tenderloin. Both the shallots and potatoes were nicely cooked and not mushy. A superb dish in every aspect.

For the dessert course we selected each of the three available desserts plus one that wasn't on the DineLA menu.

Apple Raisin Cobbler with marscarpone, honey ice cream. A great combination of textures with the crumb topping, tart apples, and soft ice cream. As the ice cream melted, the soupy mixture of melted ice cream and crunchy crumb toppings made for an explosion of comfort food goodness.

Lemon Meringue Pie lemon curd with lemon segments. Everyone's favorite dessert was this take on a traditional lemon meringue pie. The lemon curd was bright and full of flavor and the "crust" was very flavorful and crispy. Some caramelization on the meringue added a bit more interest and texture while the lemon pieces brought a slight acidity.

Peanut Butter Bread Pudding with peanut butter ice cream, grape sauce. As I'm a huge fan of bread puddings, I wanted so badly to fall in love with this dish but the bread pudding was a little dry and the taste was underwhelming in peanut flavor. The ice cream--house-made of course--was delicious by itself and made up for some of the pudding's dryness.

Roasted Strawberry Shortcake with vanilla whipped cream, lavender ice cream. This was our non-DineLA dessert and I really enjoyed the light, flaky cake and fresh strawberries. Carving out a chunk of shortcake with a spoonful of strawberries and vanilla ice cream was a bit of challenge, but the resulting taste was worth the careful process. I cleaned this plate in short order.

And with that tasty shortcake dessert our DineLA dinner is complete. Overall I felt that this was a good meal and about what I was expecting from this establishment. Sure, the pork belly could have been more flavorful and the duck less fatty, but the excellent risotto and tenderloin made up for those shortcomings. Throw in the free corkage (and the excellent Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon) and a solid dessert showing, and you have yourself a satisfying dining experience.

As we wrapped up our dinner service, chef Eric Greenspan stopped by chat with us and even posed in a group picture.

Good times indeed. My other DineLA outing was a gastronomical feast at Craft which left everyone in awe. I don't have many pictures from that dinner as I was too busy relishing in the night's activities, but I do plan to return to Craft very soon for their tasting menu.

The Foundry on Melrose
7465 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Test Kitchen with Shelley Cooper

Arguably the hottest restaurant right now in Los Angeles isn't even a restaurant by the traditional sense. With a name like "Test Kitchen", you can probably guess that this is a place for chefs to test their dishes with the general public, most of whom are obsessed with food like yours truly. On a regular, almost daily basis, a new chef and his or her crew is brought in to showcase new or experimental dishes that might not otherwise be available in the chef's regular restaurant. Recently, for example, John Rivera Sedlar--who is the executive chef and owner of Rivera in downtown LA--helmed Test Kitchen to preview the menu at his upcoming establishment, R26. Top Chef season six winner Michael Voltaggio was also present a few weeks ago to showcase dishes for his new restaurant opening soon somewhere in LA.

For tonight's meal, chef Shelley Cooper was leading the kitchen to cook her style of southern comfort food with a tasting menu of five dishes. Chef Cooper was the executive chef of the newly-opened First and Hope restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, but she abruptly left the restaurant for undisclosed reasons. Since then she has not landed at any other eatery, but with her guest appearance at Test Kitchen, one can assume she is probably very close to doing so.

We begin the night by going over the menu which lists the tasting menu along with optional side dishes. Regardless of the chef, there is only one meal option for the diner, and that is the full tasting option which can range from 5 to 10 or so courses depending on the chef and the price. There are no substitutions or vegetarian options, nor are there modifications allowed. This is part of the philosophy behind Test Kitchen as it allows the chef to focus on small set of dishes that he or she is testing with.

As you can see, this tasting menu has five courses for $55; also note the mandatory 18% gratuity. There is also a small wine list as a well as a specialty cocktails menu meant to compliment the chef's cuisine. We decided to bring our own wines, a pair a reds from Paso Robles, and pay the fair corkage fee of $20. Let's move along to the first course.

Buttermilk biscuits, pat o foie gras butter, Tennessee country ham, fig jam. First course for this evening was this biscuit sandwich with ham, foie gras butter, and fig jam. I wasn't sure if I should cut this half before eating or just go at it with my hands. Utensils be dammed; I attacked it post-haste. The biscuit was a little too crunchy for my liking and it was slightly burnt on the bottom, but the taste was buttery, delicious, and with a wonderfully flaky texture. I loved the pairing of the ham and fig jam, with the sweetness of the jam counteracting the savoriness of the ham. None of us could taste much foie gras in the butter, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Scott Street Lunchable with grilled bologna tea sandwich, pimento cheese & crackers, spicy pickles. This wasn't part of the tasting menu but was actually one of the optional side dishes. Chef Cooper's take on the Lunchable is this assortment of finger sandwiches, pimento cheese with crackers, and pickled vegetables. I can't remember the last time I had a Lunchable--probably when I was a chubby teenager in high school--but it certainly wasn't anything like this! The star of this plate was clearly the tea sandwiches with their thick-cut bologna slices, which were very meaty and tasty. I enjoyed sampling the pimento cheese with crackers as well as the pickled vegetables.

Soft shell crab with corn pudding, licorice, corn relish. This was my favorite dish of the night and I hope chef Cooper makes this a permanent addition to her menu if and when helms another kitchen in Los Angeles. The crab was utterly delicious and cooked to perfection. A few of us claimed it was on the salty side, but I thought it was perfectly seasoned. As for the corn pudding and corn relish, I simply could not get enough of them, making sure to scoop every last trace of said items from my plate.

Frog legs with creamy grits and red eye stew of craw fish tails. It should be obvious by now that this clearly a southern-inspired tasting menu. After all, First and Hope's cuisine represents an upscale take on classic southern dishes. Here we have battered and deep-fried frog legs served over a craw fish broth with pearl onions and green beans. The legs were juicy and flavorful and I made sure to gnaw every morsel of tender frog meat from the bones. Our server instructed us to eat these with our hands and did I ever. I loved the creamy grits, too. They made me want to ask, "can I get some grits with that cream?" A delicious course all around. This dinner is turning out to be one of the better meals I've had in recent times.

Kentuckyaki pork osso bucco with Carolina gold rice, southern style kim chee, benne seed cracklins. Our final savory course is this Asian-inspired dish of pork osso bucco. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the pork is bone-in and it's HUGE. The ladies at our table couldn't finish this, but you can bet the boys licked this plate clean. The pork was fall-off-the-bone tender and extremely juicy. Small bits of pork and the juices was fall into the stew and made for a deliciously porky and chunky soup. I'm not sure what the "cracklins" were, but they definitely added a loud crunch to the soup.

Sweet potato fried pie with toasted marshmallow, ice cream, bacon-butterscotch sauce. Our final course was of course a sweet one, and it doesn't get much better than what you see here. A flaky, deep-fried pocket filled with sweet potato and drenched with ice cream and bacon-butterscotch sauce was like nothing else I've had. A piece of candied bacon lies in back adding to the bacon theme of this dessert. The sweet potato was delicious--it's one of our favorite vegetables--and it was actually a great counterbalance to the heavy sauce. My wife didn't care for the toasted marshmallow--house made of course--but I was a fan and proceeded to stab at her piece.

And with that our dinner at Test Kitchen was complete, and I must say it was absolutely fantastic. The service, which from what I've read has had its rough patches--was nearly flawless and attentive. Multiple servers brought out each course so that we could all receive our plates at the same time. Our server corked and poured our wines. Our plates and utensils were cleared after each course, and our water glasses were topped off throughout the night. The only hiccup was that our osso bucco course was brought out while a few of us were still enjoying the frog legs.

Chef Cooper has overwhelmingly won our palates with her upscale southern cuisine. I am so looking forward to her return to the LA dining scene. Thumbs up all around.

Test Kitchen with Shelley Cooper, Sept 17-18
9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles CA