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