Saturday, April 23, 2011

Recipe: Salted chocolate caramels

A few weeks ago I discovered the much-hyped salted caramels at Huckleberry in Santa Monica. Buttery. Salty. Silky smooth.  I couldn't stop thinking about it after having just one bite, so naturally I decided to make my own at home using this recipe from Epicurious. Dare I claim that my home-made version turned out tastier than Huckleberry's? Well, let's just say that they were addictive to the point where they became a part of my morning breakfast ritual. 

And how does one top a salted caramel? Why, with a salted chocolate caramel, of course. This recipe also comes from Epicurious and can be found here. Here we go:

First, prepare an 8"x8" pan with parchment paper; it doesn't have to be perfect but make sure the sides are covered at least 1" high:

Cut the butter into small pieces, and measure 10.5 ounces of good bittersweet chocolate. I used Ghiradelli 60% cacao baking chips which are perfectly fine for this recipe. A better quality chocolate like Valrhona would make this more special, but of course Valrhona is a far pricier product.

Heat 2 cups of heavy cream until tiny bubbles appear along the edge, then add the chocolate. Lower the heat and let the chocolate sit for a minute, then stir until completely smooth.  Resit the urge to take shots of this velvety chocolate mixture.

Heat the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a separate pot, swirling every few minutes, until the caramel achieves a deep golden copper-like hue.

This takes about 10-15 minutes to get to the right color as seen on the right. Actually a little darker would be nice to really get that deep, intense caramel flavor.  When you're happy with the color, carefully pour in the melted chocolate and heat the mixture until a thermometer reads 255°F.

Speaking of thermometers, I highly recommend using a deep-fry thermometer for this recipe.  Its large display makes for easy reading from a safe distance and the pot clip provides hands-free operation. 

When the mixture reaches 255°F, add the butter and stir until completely melted, then pour into the prepared pan.  Wait ten minutes, then sprinkle the salt over the finished caramel. Make sure you use a good flaky salt to give the caramels a nice crunch and subtle salty taste.

Allow to cool for 2 hours, then pull from the pan using the parchment paper and place onto a cutting board. Flip the slab so the salted surface is facing up.

Cut the caramel into 64 pieces; I measured 1" segments on all sides, then lightly scored the caramel with a knife tip to create guidelines.  Cutting this slab is optional.  Feel free to grab with both hands and just go old-school on this.
Wrap each caramel in 4" square pieces of wax paper, then twist the ends to seal. Repeat 63 times and you'll end up with a pile of goodies like this:

These make great edible gifts for your friends, family, co-workers, and people willing to take care of your dog while you leave the country for weeks at a time, etc.  And how is the taste? A rich, intense chocolate presence hits you followed by a salty finish while the buttery sweet undertones remind you all along that these are caramels. And although firmer than regular caramels (perhaps due to the chocolate addition), the chewiness just slows you down, forcing you to appreciate the salty, buttery taste. Think of these as grown-up Tootsie Rolls.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Son of a Gun

It was back in 2009 when I made a visit to Animal and fell in love with the place at first bite. Pork belly sliders. Biscuits with foie gras and sausage gravy. The best damn tres leches cake. Animal could do no wrong. Since then I've returned several times, marking the Fairfax-area eatery as my favorite restaurant in all of LA. So when news surfaced that the Animal owners--Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo--were planning to open a new restaurant nearby, I of course made it my mission to pay a visit.

Son of a Gun is the second restaurant from the two Animal owners and its focus is heavily geared toward seafood preparations, versus the meat-tastic dishes served at Animal. But like Animal, the new place is small, cramped, and loud (more on that later). Menus change daily and are simply printed on single sheets of paper.  I had a tough time securing a table for 5 people several weeks in advance; the buzz from this place is not going anywhere soon . Nonetheless, my friends all arrived in time for our reservation and we proceeded to begin with with a few drinks.

Manhattan. It was a bit too sweet for me, though that's probably because I'm just so accustomed to drinking straight bourbon or Scotch at home (or Glenlivet 18-year with a dash of bitters and some lemon peel -- oh yes). 

Maui CoCoNut porter.  I didn't try this but my friend enjoyed his can of beer. Love the Pittsburgh Steelers color scheme.

Smoked mahi fish dip, celery, radish, crackers.  We start our dinner with this simple preparation of a fish dip served with crackers. Spread the creamy dip over a cracker, top with a few sprigs of celery and then squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over for a very indulgent "snack".  I didn't get much smoky undertones from the fish, but it was delicious nonetheless. A great start.

Shrimp toast sandwich, herbs, siracha mayo.  Crispy and heavily buttered toast envelopes a choppy mixture of shrimp, herbs and spicy siracha mayo.  Herbs were a nice touch, contributing an earthy presence to the briny shrimp. I immensely enjoyed biting into the golden fried toast with its crackly exterior and soft, pliable interior.

Lobster roll, celery, lemon aioli.  With a size not much bigger than, say a lemon wedge, we each ordered our own serving of this creamy, buttery lobster roll.  I appreciated the acidic effect from the lemon aioli which helped to tame the overall creaminess.  There was a generous amount of lobster meat; just a few bites is all it took for me to enjoy this tapas-sized lobster roll.

Fried chicken sandwich, spicy pickle slaw, rooster aioli. Take the juiciest fried chicken you've ever eaten and serve it on a hearty, pillowy soft bun and you have this upscale take on your classic fried chicken sandwich.  A heaping mound of slaw was so vibrant, crisp, and tangy; it was perfect in taming the heaviness of the fried chicken. Messy to cut and eat and share, but so worth the extra TLC to make sure each well-positioned bite encompasses bun, slaw and chicken.  

Soft shell crab, pickled green tomato, bacon, aioli. I almost didn't notice the miniature bacon quietly resting the crab's extremities. By itself the soft shell crab was quite tasty though the coating was too thick for my liking, and thus masked some of the crab's flavor. Creamy aioli added richness to an already heavy dish, while the pickled green tomato cut in that richness. My friends didn't bother to clean up the tomatoes, leaving the pickled goodies all to me. Back to the miniature bacon, they reminded me of the tiny bacon served at Jack in the Box for breakfast. 

Alligator schnitzel, heart of palm, orange A few of us were really looking forward to this, but it was a letdown for me. Whatever alligator meat existed on this plate was completed drowning in overly thick breading, and so I couldn't quite discern the nuances of alligator meat. Jalapenos added a good amount of heat and I can only imagine how much better the schnitzel would be with a thinner breading. I did enjoy the hearts of palm served in a creamy dressing, and the zesty orange pieces.

King crab leg, tabasco butter. So often in my dining adventures have I come across king crab lags that were given complete injustice, whether they were overcooked, poorly seasoned, or lacking that fresh ocean-y flavor.  These crab legs however were absolute perfection and a must-order. Fresh flavors, pre-cracked, and cooked just right.  The boys at Deadliest Catch would be proud. Not cheap at $26 per plate, but each leg packed a wallop of the juiciest crab meat you'll ever have, and it's all spiced up with a vinegary tobasco butter sauce.

Hiramasa, mojo de ajo, red onion, sunchoke.  I wouldn't think to pair sashimi-style fish with mojo de ajo (garlic oil), but this worked and in fact was one of my favorite dishes.  Meaty hiramasa--or yellowtail amberjack--was delicious and as good as any yellowtail sashimi I've had in sushi restaurants.  It was nice to see seasonal sunchokes (similar taste to a potato) being utilized, though the effect was mostly textural.

Flour-less chocolate cake, banana, peanut, coconut ice cream.brulee" bananas, topped with peanuts and I'd be quite happy.

Frozen lime yogurt, graham crumble, toasted meringue.  Our second dessert and final dish of the night was this bowl of super tangy frozen lime yogurt. This had a key lime pie-like presence and taste with the graham crumble and toasted meringue.  I like how the meringue was "brushed" along the inside of the bowl. A nice, light dessert to end the night.

Overall I must say I was extremely pleased with our meal.  All of the dishes were seasoned nicely and plated beautifully. Courses were timed about right, and when multiples of a single dish were ordered such as with the lobster roll, all arrived at the same time.  I would pass on the alligator schnitzel for next time--and there will be a next time--but everything else impressed me. I might also pass on the desserts, instead opting to save room for the Magnolia Bakery just across the street.

So about that noise factor.  The dining room is small and lacked substantial fabric to soak up the rambunctious scene, making it a challenge to hear each other.  Shouting wasn't necessary, though loud talking was the norm.  Noise aside, I enjoyed the night and look forward to coming back very soon.

Son of a Gun
8370 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles CA, 90048

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Sang Yoon, the restaurateur who brought us the wildly successful gastropub known as Father's Office has thrown us all a curve ball with his latest venture, Lukshon. A sit-down, somewhat upscale restaurant just a few doors down from the Culver City Father's Office, Lukshon is Mr. Yoon's elevated take on Southeast Asian cuisine, served in a glamorous dining space with probably the most open open-kitchens I've ever seen.

Last week my wife brought us to Lukshon to celebrate my birthday, and she booked us right at the chef's bar area with a commanding view of the gleaming new kitchen. You are quite literally just a few feet from the chefs preparing your dishes. I'm telling you, the entertainment value alone of these seats is worth the effort to book early.

Best seats in the house. Any closer and I'd be getting a W-2 from Mr. Yoon.

Lukshon has a very good beer and wine list augmenting a small but smart list of house cocktails. I start with this:

Fujian Cure. Isle of skye 8yr scotch, lemon, galangal, lapsang souchong black tea. Herby, not too strong, and with a nice sharp flavor from the lemon. I'm so used to just drinking straight Scotch and Bourbon that these specialty cocktails rarely ever do it for me, but this was quite nice.  We also requested a bottle of flat water, which was clearly labeled as such:

Beef tartare - Pickled cucumber, chiles, onion, herbs, aromatic rice powder. Our dinner kicks off with these small "open face cucumber beef tacos."  It starts out velvety smooth with the creamy and generously seasoned beef, then the chile heat hits you followed by a refreshing presence from the cucumber.  Herbs added a contrasting texture.  So do you eat these in one bite or two? I suggest one, unless you are more articulate with your chewing skills that I am (not saying much).

Spanish mackerel. Coconut vinegar, jalapeño, lemongrass, green papaya.  Sashimi-style Spanish mackerel was exquisite in taste.  The vinegar added a slight acidic taste to compliment the fresh fish.  I couldn't get much from the green papaya; its effect was more texture than taste.

Baby monterey squid. Chiang mai pork sausage, candlenut, mint, rau ram. Our favorite dish of the night. Squid bodies cooked and stuffed with pork sausage, topped with the fried squid legs. The rau ram herbs gave the dish a delicious earthy flavor while the fried squid legs added a nice crunch. Slice off a piece of squid with pork sausage intact, swirl that in the pool of mint and oil and consume with a fried leg. Perfection.

My second drink was this sochu barrel aged ale Hitachino XH. This drank easily and paired nicely with the remaining dishes.

Another view of the counter action.

Chicken pops. Shelton farms drumettes, garlic, kecap manis, spicy Sichuan salt. Spicy, salty, crunchy.  Like bar food taken to new level. The saltiness was almost overbearing, prompting me to chug more of that NOT SPARKLING water. I'm thinking that a creamy dipping sauce would pair well with these to help tame the saltiness. I found the meat to be slightly on the gristly side with a few of the pops being mostly fried skin with trace amounts of meat.  But don't get me wrong--I finished these in no time and would order these again post-haste.

Prince Edward Island steamed mussels.  Green chile rempah, coconut, tapioca, Thai basil, lime. As good as the mussels were, the best part of this dish was the savory brith with its deep coconut-y flavor with strong hints of lime. I also ordered a side of Jasmine rice, as suggested by our waiter, to soak up every last drop of that tasty broth.  That was probably the best food-ordering decision I've made in recent history.  I couldn't stop stuffing my face with the soaked rice!

Jasmine rice with the curry sauce. Who wants some?! And see the lone mussel in the bowl? He never opened up to us.

DanDan noodles.  Kurobota pork, sesame, preserved mustard greens, Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts. Greasy but good is how I'd describe this. The noodles paired with the ground pork and peanuts made this a heavy, comfort-food like dish that hits your stomach like a brick.  Sichuan peppercorns added a blast of quick heat and left a slight tingling sensation on the lips (but not to worry, it fades quickly).

Dessert is complimentary and changes regularly.  Here we have a mini-chocolate cake, a meringue, and a shot of mango sorbet over raspberry jam and yogurt (I think). It was commendable but tough to share.

Dinner was a success and I'm anxious to return to try many other dishes.  Our server was friendly and very knowledgeable of the dishes; food came out and nearly the perfect times just after we had finished the previous dish.  As we watched the kitchen staff hustle about in their respective stations, it was very evident to me that this place has already found its rhythm. When we left at around 8:30, the restaurant was completely filled.  I have no doubt that Lukshon will be a hot restaurant for some time.  Now for the tough question: When I'm in this area again, do I go to Father's Office or Lukshon?  

3239 Helms Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034

Monday, March 7, 2011

Brunch at Huckleberry Cafe

Huckleberry Cafe has been open for nearly two years and it's hard for me to believe that I haven't tried anything from their full menu. Sure I've dropped in a few times for cinnamon sugar donuts and berry crostadas, but never for a sit-down breakfast or lunch.  That all changed this past weekend when my wife and I and a friend made an afternoon visit to this extremely busy Santa Monica cafe. When we arrived, the order-line was quite long and snaked all the way to the back door, but somehow we managed to grab a prime indoor table after we had placed our order. On to the eats:

Fried egg sandwich with sunny side up eggs, Niman Ranch bacon, Gruyere, arugula, aioli on country bread.  I know what you're thinking: sunny side up eggs within a sandwich, isn't that going to be an epic mess?  Yes, and that first bite had better be carefully navigated to encompass at least some of the yolk to blanket it from exploding out and over your hands.  But not to worry because whatever yolk spills onto the plate--and trust me there will be yolk--is just an excuse to tear off some of the country bread and scoop up a serving of silky deliciousness.  I tried my best to make this a clean, gentlemen-like experience. FAIL. Thick cut bacon is salty and slightly crispy, while a copious amount of arugula adds a tangy, zesty snap to each bite and also rightly justifies this eating episode.

And what better way to compliment the fried egg sandwich than with a trio of house-made delights?

Starting at the top left we have coffee cake, maple bacon biscuit, and a salted caramel bar.  Yes, a biscuit that's made with two of my favorite food groups: maple and bacon.  It was undeniably tasty with a great crumb texture but needed a little more maple as I found the pork fat to be almost overpowering. Wait. I should not and shall not complain about pork fat, especially when it's baked within a biscuit--another one of my favorite food groups.  The salted caramel bar was super sweet and a bit chewy with a dash of crunchy salt to really bring out the caramel's depth.  My favorite though was the coffee cake.  Moist, delicious, buttery, and appropriately messy like a good coffee cake should be.  Next time I'll get one to go.

My better half dove into this Marinated peppers and burrata sandwich with La Quercia prosciutto:

She kindly donated some of the hearty, seedy bread so I could be absolutely sure to scoop every last drop of egg yolk from my plate.  Oh and she quite enjoyed the sandwich, making note of the generous amount of creamy burrata. Slathered on the bread was a spicy pesto spread that added some good heat to the sandwich. Delicious. We're coming back and hopefully soon.

Huckleberry Cafe
1014 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica CA 90404

Monday, February 21, 2011

Two amazing sites on the way to and from Palm Springs

As my three-day Presidents Day weekend comes to a close, I'd like to share with you two amazing sites that I passed by on the way to and from an overnight stay in Palm Springs.  One of course is the vast farm of windmills that line the stretch of highway 10 as you approach the general Palm Springs area.

There are hundreds if not thousands of these Terminator-looking structures, and I suppose you need this many to re-charge all the golf carts in this area. On the way to our hotel, all the turbines except for a few outcasts were spinning with a clear purpose of powering said golf carts, but on the way back, not a single turbine showed any sign of life. It's as if they all took the day off to honor President's Day.  Maybe one of my astute readers can explain this?

Another site no less amazing that the windmill farm is--if you haven't figured it out already--The Donut Man in Glendora.

While not exactly within our direct path to or from Palm Springs, The Donut Man--perhaps the most famous donut shop in southern California--is just a quick detour and thus a stop here was imperative, if not mandatory.

While this place stocks all the archetypal varieties such as chocolate cake, maple bars, and twists, The Donut Man is ultimately famous for this, the fresh strawberry donut:

Pictured above is a glazed yeast donut filled with fresh strawberries and a strawberry glaze with just enough sweetness to tame any bitterness of the locally grown strawberries.  This is a seasonal donut. Yes you read that correctly. A seasonal donut. You can only get these when the strawberries are readily available.  Food enthusiasts like myself make the pilgrimage from all over SoCal to lay their teeth around one of these monstrosities. A fork is provided, but why bother? Impress your date by skillfully grabbing the yeasty-berry behemoth with both hands and proceeding to take successive bites that encompass both yeasty goodness and fruity deliciousness. If a stray berry happens to find its way in the cardboard trough (that's why it's provided), do what I do and pause during mid-chew, pick up the stray and re-insert into the sandwich, then proceed with the chewing motions, focusing on the area where the stray left its place.

You want proof that Donut Man uses fresh strawberries? Here's a behind-the-scenes picture, brought to you exclusively on

The price for several minutes of sugary yeasty fruity contentment: About three bucks. Go there. Now!

The Donut Man
915 E Rt 66
Glendora, CA 91740

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Arsenal reloads and delivers

Last Thursday my coworkers and I stopped by Arsenal to check out its happy hour. I had been to Arsenal a few years ago and wasn’t too impressed with the food or the place itself. But that was then. A few months ago Arsenal closed for a several weeks to re-invent itself with a classy new look and an updated menu. It was time to give this place a second look.

We arrived at Arsenal around 5:15pm to a mostly empty scene, in fact we basically had the venue to ourselves. The interior is definitely several steps above from the aged, outdated decor of yesteryear. A smartly decorated lounge area splits two dining rooms; it actually reminded me of the lounge bar at Tavern. If you’ve even been to Tavern then you know what a compliment that is. Parking is plentiful along Pico boulevard at this hour, though a valet service is available for those of you who insist on being dropped off in front of the restaurant. Once inside, we proceeded to the lounge area near the front and starting ordering our libations and sustenance.

Happy hour Scotch on the rocks. $3. I’m not sure of the particular brand of Scotch, but the taste was mellow and quite smooth with a subtle smokey finish, and there was no skimping on the portion. I enjoyed four of these over the course of our happy hour outing and I can say I was well satiated by night’s end. My coworkers went with the house red wine and I couldn’t help to notice that their glasses were about three-fourths full with each pour.

Poutine fries with horseradish cheddar and gravy. $5. I’m no expert in the Canadian specialty that is poutine, but that certainly didn’t hinder me from truly enjoying these crosscut fries smothered in cheese and gravy. What’s not to love here? And for $5? We ordered two of these. The fries were crispy on the outside with fluffy centers; the horseradish cheddar was a nice touch that added a bit of sinus heat after each bite.

BBQ chicken pizza. $5. There were two varieties of pizza on the happy hour menu--BBQ chicken and margarita. You would never mistaken this pizza for one of my homemade pies, but at just $5 this pizza is undeniably good and a must order. The crust was nicely seasoned and crispy the outside with a nice spongy center; it also appears to be hand tossed and not cut out from a rolled sheet of dough. I commend Arsenal’s chefs for balancing the BBQ sauce flavors with the perfectly spiced and cooked chicken; the sauce wasn’t overpowering like it has been on so many other BBQ chicken pizzas I’ve had.

Chicken tenders. $5 (or $6?). Giant pieces of white meat chicken were juicy and very flavorful. The crunchy breading was light albeit delicious. These were so good and juicy that the provided ranch and BBQ dipping sauces were barely touched.

Beef slider trio. $6. My favorite dish of the night. Each slider was prepared differently with one being a basic burger, another with grilled onions and pesto, and the third with more of that sinus-clearing horseradish cheddar. The downsized patties were juicy and cooked just above medium rare, and the soft buns were soft and perfectly sized to the amount of meat. These tasty mini burgers warrant a return visit to try Arsenal’s full-size version.

Cheese quesadilla. $3. Yes it’s a flour tortilla wrapped around cheese and then grilled. There’s nothing fancy about this $3 dish, but it was tasty and bursting with cheese. I would order this extra crispy for next time as I like my quesadillas firm :).

When we left at around 8pm, the place was completely full and bustling with activity. As soon as we dislodged ourselves from our comfortable chairs, several people dropped in as if they had been clinging to the ceiling watching us from above. Happy hour was already over but that didn't seem to matter to those waiting. With the tasty food, good service, and outstanding prices, this turned out to be one of the better happy hours I’ve been to and there’s no doubt that I’ll be returning to Arsenal to try more of their food.

12012 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles CA