Monday, July 26, 2010

Anniversary in Vegas

What is about sweltering hot weather that appeals so much to my wife and I? Let’s see, we got married during the summer in the San Gabriel Valley on what ended up being the hottest day in recorded Los Angeles history. We then later honeymooned in Morocco for two weeks--where I don’t think the temperature ever dipped below 95°F night or day. And so what better way to celebrate our anniversary than with a mid-week trip to another hot climate destination--Las Vegas.

Being the early risers we are, we packed up and left our west side dwelling around 7am, and after a few stops in Baker and Primm, we arrived at our hotel, aptly named THEHotel, just after 2pm on a 112°F afternoon. First order of business: EAT!

Of course I had every eating arrangement well planned in advance, including having multiple reservations at different restaurants at the same time just in case our plans got sidetracked. I know my readers have done the same ;). Not to worry though, because I made sure to cancel my reservations for when plan A fell into place. OpenTable on the iPhone makes that too easy.

We’re both famished from the long drive and so we head over to RM Seafood. Located near the entrance of the Mandalay Place Shops, RM Seafood is the creation of chef Rick Moonen who was a finalist during last season’s Top Chef Masters. My wife goes for the daily special of pan-fried swordfish while I opted for this lobster roll:

The lobster is both plentiful and flavorful with the tangy dill sauce adding a wonderfully creamy contrast to each bite. And instead of your typical Hoagie roll, RM Seafood uses a thick piece of toasted and heavily buttered white bread which was split open like a book. The house-made chips were addicting and seasoned nicely. This easily held me over until our dinner at Fluer De Lys, a Michelin star restaurant helmed by another Top Chef Master’s finalist, Hubert Keller.

We each settle on the 4-course Elegance Tasting and we picked different dishes for each course, thus providing 8 different dishes to try and each dish was generously portioned. In summary, the food was amazing as was the service. Below is my 3rd course--braised short rib with root vegetable puree and a Guiness reduction.

Fleur De Lys serves an amazing bread selection of Challah, focaccia, honey wheat, and pretzel. I gave in to the carb temptation and downed 6 pieces of bread, as well as my 4 course degustation and about half of my wife’s. Needless to say I had to be fork-lifted out of the restaurant.

The next morning arrives and we’re off to check out the newly-opened City Center complex. City Center’s beautiful architecture with gleaming new walls of steel and glass do little to distract me from my breakfast destination, MOzen, nestled inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The early reviews of MOzen are off the charts, and after our incredible breakfast of pulled pork and crab cakes, I’m proclaiming MOzen to be a closet Michelin star restaurant.

My dish of pulled pork with poached eggs over home-made biscuit and a maple BBQ sauce was quite possibly one of the best breakfast dishes I’ve ever had. The service was as if we had our own butler peeking from the kitchen. Our "butler" kept refilling my $8 Illy coffee at just the moment where I finished my last sip, and my plate was cleared as soon as I placed my utensils on the plate.

With breakfast out of the way it’s time to satisfy our post-breakfast dessert fix. We walk across from Mandarin Oriental to Amore Patisserie, located near the entrance of City Center. After sampling generous portions of the different gelato flavors, I go all-in for a two scoops of pistachio and stracciatella shoved inside a cone with dark chocolate and coconut.

Meanwhile my wife goes with her usual of red velvet cupcake, though this one was a bit smaller than your Sprinkles variety. Both desserts were very good but this place wasn’t cheap; I think the damage was $15 for both items.

After a full day of lounging in and around the Mandalay Bay pools--which would easily make it to Travel Channel’s Top 10 places to see train wrecks--our appetite is back and so we’re off to an early dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab in the Forum Shops. Years ago we went to Joe's Stone Crab in Chicago and absolutely loved it, especially the desserts and the ambitious cuts of beef. This place isn’t exactly Twist or Joel Robuchon, but the food at Joe’s Stone Crab is of extremely high quality and the restaurant itself is just so comforting and uncomplicated.

Joe’s Stone Crab is famous for, well, stone crabs. We order a pile of select crab claws served chilled with a savory butter dipping sauce. I was worried that the recent BP disaster would hamper the quality and availability of these Gulf region delicacies, but fortunately for stone crab seekers that hasn’t been the case.

For my entree I selected the 16-oz bone-in prime dry-aged filet, medium rare of course. Joe’s Stone Crab signature teaks are on par with the likes of Fleming’s and Ruth’s Chris though with prices to match. It’s cooked ever so perfectly with a solid layer of deep red running throughout the steak’s thickness. I’m eating this, chewing away at the meltingly tender beef, while at the same time wondering just how the hell this massive cut of bovine was cooked with a solid charred crust on the outside and yet remain so uniformly red on the inside. This signature filet is $46 and it’s a bargain at that price.

For dessert we opt for this chunk of Boston cream pie. It’s good, though not as memorable as the one we had in Chicago. Another layer of custard filling would have done wonders to help the overall moistness. After our 2-hour dinner we walk over to the Mirage hotel to see the Beatles LOVE Cirque Du Soleil performance. The Thursday 9:30pm showing was completely filled; check out the madness after the show as we exited the theater:

After the show we head back to our hotel and of course my appetite is calling, again. All the foodie restaurants in our hotel were closed for the night, but that really didn’t matter because I was distracted by a walk-up bar in the casino named Evening Call. I don’t know what the Las Vegas city symbol looks like, but I’m guessing it contains one of those yard-long slush drinks because every time I visit this town, I see people bearing these iconic drinks in the streets and in the casinos. Evening Call was serving up slush drinks and so I do my honor to the city and order this watermelon slush with Citron vodka:

I paid the one dollar up-charge for an extra shot and I noticed that the server didn’t measure the shots, rather he simply filled the entire bottom quarter of that hourglass with vodka. Oh baby!

My wife takes a few sips but I made sure to pound this $15 drink before night’s end. So how did I sleep that night? Ugh don’t remind me.

The next morning arrives, eventually, and despite the wayward sluggishness in my step, I’m up early and yearning for some artery-clogging breakfast before our drive back to LA. We venture over to THECafe, conveniently located in the lobby of THEHotel. THECafe serves a gauntlet of breakfast treats but I narrow in on a 4-egg omelet with ham and Gruyere. My better half orders salmon with cream cheese and a bagel, which was served “constructed” because the salmon was wrapped around the cream cheese. It reminded me of a Philly sushi roll, not that I’d ever order one :). We also split a pecan sticky bun which helped ensure our stuffed status.

And with that our Vegas anniversary trip is complete. We’re already planning for our big 5-year deal for next year and of course our ideas include some hot desert destinations (huh? middle-east?) Well, you’ll find out in about a year from now.

RM Seafood
3950 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89119

Fleur De Lys
3950 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89119

4882 Frank Sinatra Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89119

Joe's Stone Crab
3500 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Evening Call
3950 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89119

3950 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89119

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I discovered Nook when we moved to the West LA area about 5 years ago and since then it has been a go-to restaurant for whenever we want to dine out and don't feel like driving beyond Bundy drive or the 405 freeway. It's literally just a few blocks from our house and even when we've been careless with not making reservations, the wait times have usually been under 30 minutes. More importantly, the food and service here have been excellent and even on par with some of the 1-star Michelin restaurants I've visited over the past year. I would even say that some of my all-time favorite dishes have come from Nook; more on that later.

Last Friday my cousin-in-law and his girlfriend were visiting from Toronto and we decided to treat them to a fabulous dinner at Nook to show them what our favorite neighborhood bistro has to offer. We arrived a little past our 6pm reservation and headed straight to the large booth in back of the dining room. Nook is usually quite busy on any given night and it's not exactly a sprawling bistro as there are maybe 6-8 tables, a long communal table, and a bar with a few stools. Our server checks with us to take our drink and food orders and then we proceed with our dinner.

They were out of the Farmhouse Ale from Ommegang Hennepin--my favorite brewery--so I went with something similar, this La Fin Du Monde. 9% ABV. Yum. This was such a smooth and drinkable beer that I hardly noticed the higher alcohol content. The beer list is impressive for a small restaurant, and even more impressive is the small but smartly designed wine list with offerings from Italy, Spain, South America, and of course northern California. The markup on some bottles is the lowest I've ever seen in a restaurant. Case in point, a 2007 Fritz Pinot Noir on the wine list goes for $38, while the same bottle from the Fritz winery is $30. Good luck finding another restaurant in LA with such a small markup.

Instead of the usual bread and butter service you'd find at just about any other restaurant, Nook serves complimentary boiled peanuts before your meal. Served unseasoned, they're delicious despite being messy to crack and eat. Add salt if you must but I enjoyed the pure flavor of the peanuts with their earthy taste and slightly mushy texture. But just as with bread, one has to be careful not too fill up on these; good food awaits!

Crab cakes with macque choux and Tobasco vinaigrette. Nook's crab cakes are something that I've ordered during previous visits and I've always enjoyed them to the last bite. Delicious and perfectly seasoned and cooked with a meaty interior and crispy, fried exterior. They're fried just the right amount to hold them together while still allowing the fresh crab meat to softly fall out after a few cuts. A spicy Tabasco vinaigrette adds some heat while the macque choux--a southern dish of corn, bell peppers, and tomatoes--was so tasty that it could have easily stood on its own.

Kurobuta Pork Belly with tomatillo, black-eyed peas and shitake. It seems like pork belly is everywhere these days but I know that Nook has had this on the menu for quite a while. If you check the Yelp reviews then you'll see that this dish has become a favorite of the Nook faithful, and after taking just one bite, it was easy to see why. It's savory, smokey, fatty. It's everything a 2" thick cut of bacon should be. A pool of tomatillo sauce was brimming with intense flavors and nicely complemented the rich pork belly. I could have ordered a bowl of the sauce if it were offered.

Burger with Sterling Silver beef. Nook's burger is outfitted with Gruyere cheese, red wine-onion jam and baby arugula and sits between grilled rustic bread as opposed to a typical hamburger bun. I've had this burger several times and the meat has always been cooked perfectly to showcase its rich and beefy flavor, but tonight it was well below Nook's standards. The meat just wasn't that flavorful and the texture was rubbery--it's as if the chef worked the beef too much when forming the patty. It was also slightly overcooked, though I don't think less time on the grill or pan would have helped. Everything else about the burger was good, however, especially the hearty read, and both the fries and the home-made pickle were excellent as always.

Here's some obligatory burger porn for you. As I mentioned, this is normally an incredible burger but tonight it wasn't quite up to Nook's usual standard.

Spicy Gulf shrimp with Falls Mill Stone ground grits and linguisa sausage. Plump, giant shrimp were swimming in a delicious broth with long slivers of very spicy linguisa sausage. The heat really intensified with each bite and by the end of the dish my mouth was nearly on fire. The shrimp were cooked perfectly and tasted very fresh. Creamy grits added a nice texture as well as helped to cool down the dish.

For dessert we settled on this Key lime pie with blueberry compote and whip cream. We've ordered this before and here we are ordering it again. The lime filling is smooth, rich, and subtle in lime flavor--it paired perfectly with the sweet berry compote. A magnificent crust completes the package. I've had many Key lime pie desserts at other restaurants and this one is by far my favorite. This dessert is so simple and yet so good; there's no foam, no gelee, no deconstruction. It's just a damn good tasting dessert.

Despite the burger letdown which was a first for us, I enjoyed the other dishes, especially the shrimp with grits and the wonderful Key lime pie. The service was prompt and polite and our dishes came out rather quickly. I've lost count of how many times I've dined at Nook and I think I've now tried about 90% of the menu. The menu hasn't changed drastically since my first visit, although for some reason they stopped serving the dreamy braised short rib a few years ago. I'm not sure why, but they really need to resurrect that dish as it was one of my favorite meals from any restaurant.

Nook accepts walk-ins but I strongly suggest you make a reservation to avoid any long waits. With the reasonable prices, the fantastic wine and beer offerings, and the solid service, Nook earns a high recommendation from me.

Afterward we drove our visiting guests to the 3rd-Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier. I hadn't been there in a long time and I forgot just how unbelievable packed this place is on a warm Friday night.

11628 Santa Monica Blvd. #9
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Gorbals

Top Chef season 2 champion Ilan Hall opened The Gorbals in downtown LA last year and it has been on my radar since then, especially after reading about the culturally diverse menu chef Hall has created. More on that later.  Located within the lobby of Alexandria Hotel near Spring and 5th streets, The Gorbals is a cozy restaurant with an open kitchen and a small bar.  

A large communal table dominates one side of the dining room, with a dozen or so smaller tables occupying the remaining area. The entire restaurant is sparsely decorated and the acoustics make for a loud room, so be prepared to raise your conversational voice a little if you come on a busy night. 

My friends brought a few bottles of wine for the table, including a fantastic 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon which was quite possibly one of the best red wines I've ever enjoyed.  The Prisoner, a blended wine that's somewhat hard to find, is certainly no Two-buck Chuck and deserves high praise. Corkage here is only $15 although don't expect the sommelier service you'd find at Providence.

We glance over the one-page menu and I take notice to the wide variety of different cultures represented in the dishes, from pork ribs to matzoh balls to naan; there's even whole bone-on pork loin for $47 which would server 6-8 people. Our server stops by to take our order and we proceed to order a bevy of different plates, starting with this incredible fried broccoli.

Crispy broccoli, soy, chilies. This was our first plate of the night and it turned out to be the table favorite. I’m not sure how they cooked this, but it was if they blanched the stems and then quickly fried the heads. The texture was so wonderful, and with the spicy and savory flavors from the soy and chilies, the resulting taste made for one of the best broccoli preparations I’ve had. We quickly consumed this, and then quickly placed another was that good.

Welsh rarebit, fried egg. I remember having Welsh rarebit when I was in London many years ago, and this rendition brought back pleasant memories of this savory dish. Quite simply, Welsh rarebit is toast with a Worcestershire-style sauce and melted cheese. Chef Hall raises the ante with a big fried egg on top; think of this as an English version of the Singaporean kaya toast. I’m not sure if my friends were as crazy about this as I was, but I loved it.

Carolina pulled pork sandwich, celery slaw. Delicious and tender shreds of pork were piled high in between a soft bun with a tangy celery slaw. It was, as you might expect, very messy to eat but was nonetheless a tasty experience, despite the thick layer of sauce coating my fingers. The slaw itself was delicious and bright with tangy-ness that helped cut into the richness of the pork.

Burger with bacon, cheddar, fried egg. I’ve read about The Gorbals’ burger in other reviews and about how good it is, and I can say for certain that it was indeed one of the best burgers I’ve had, and I can’t begin to tell you how many burgers I’ve tried. The bacon was crispy, the beef beefy, the bun pillowy, the cheddar sharp, and the egg fried to golden perfection. Everything in this plate worked in harmony to make for a one hell of a fantastic burger. Chef Hall has real winner here. This and the broccoli are worth the trip from the west side.

Marrow with mushrooms, malt vinegar. With this dish you might start to see some similarities to the menu at Animal, and that’s not a bad thing :). Marrow has a wonderful meaty and buttery taste to it, with a texture that’s somewhat similar to jelly--a very savory jelly.  The vinegar was strong and nearly overpowered the fatty marrow, but the two flavors worked out just fine, especially when eaten with the hearty toasted bread.  Not to be overlooked were the delicious, earthy mushrooms.  I made sure to scoop them all from the plate.

Bacon wrapped matzoh balls, horseradish mayonnaise. Bacon and matzoh? I know what you’re thinking, that those two shouldn't belong together, but yet they are as chef Hall is clearly showing his take on an Israeli and American fusion dish. I enjoyed the bacon (who wouldn’t?) and the matzoh on their own, but the combination of the two didn’t work for me in terms of texure or taste. The bacon simply overpowered the mild matzoh, and the ball itself could not hold its shape when you took a bite and it fell to a mess after the first taste. I’ll admit I’m a horrifically messy eater, but I’ll blame the dish this time and not the eater :).

Grilled octopus, green peppers, crispy beans. The octopus was cooked nicely, not too firm and not too soft, but the taste was a bit underwhelming. I think the issue was with the seasoning because the other components--the peppers and the beans--were also mild in taste. This was probably our “lightest” dish, and seeing that all other dishes were quite heavy, this turned out be a nice break in our service.

Pork spare ribs, brown sugar, chipotle. Here we have another American-themed dish and it was an excellent one at that. The meat was juicy, fall-off-the-bone tender, and flavored nicely with the sugar and chipotle sauce. I did my best to fork-and-knife the meat away from the bone, but I eventually gave in to caveman tactics. Thankfully I had plenty of extra napkins on hand, especially since we had a few no-shows for our group dinner.

Twice fried chicken. This certainly looks good but it was probably my least favorite dish of the night. The breading was very thick and too sweet in my opinion. When I finally broke through the outer crust of fried breading, I was treated with just a few decent pieces of chicken meat. I enjoyed what little meat there was, but the breading was simply too thick and too overwhelming in taste. I think we all liked the mashed potatoes and I found myself pairing it with the sweet breading for a savory-sweet mouthful of flavor. Did I just make my own dish?

Sticky toffee pudding, nutella buttermilk ice cream, maldon salt. For dessert we ordered the only dessert offering, this sticky toffee pudding. The pudding itself was very sweet and very rich, but just a tad dry in the center--if this were cooked a little less longer then it would haven perfect and probably on par with the heavenly toffee cake at Westside Tavern. The ice cream was delicious and I’d love to see that offered on its own.

And with that toffee pudding we ended our dinner. I noticed only two servers were tending the entire dining room and so it took quite a while to resolve the check. Our service otherwise was good; the dishes came out in a nice progression at about two to three at a time, with ten to fifteen between each serving. The lively dining room was mostly full from when we sat down to when we left, and the smallish bar was packed the entire time. I’m guessing The Gorbals was busier than usual on this night due to the monthly Art Walk taking place in downtown, so it would probably less hectic on a regular night.

Overall I immensely enjoyed our night out at The Gorbals, and while there were some hits (especially the burger) and misses (the fried chicken), this place is worth the trip to downtown. I’m still thinking about that burger and that amazing fried broccoli and I’m definitely making a return visit soon. 

501 South Spring St.
Los Angeles CA, 90013