Friday, April 30, 2010

Three Flavor Sizzling Ice: Nights With Neve @ Osteria La Buca

Michel Dozois doesn't just enjoy ice. He is a true believer and an ambassador for the frozen stuff. His passion for ice led him to create Neve Ice, his firm which supplies high end ice to several top restaurants & bars around town. I first met him last year when he ran the bar at Church & State Bistro downtown.

Tuesday evening Michel hosted the second in his series of events "Nights with Neve" at Osteria La Buca. He partnered with Steve Livigni, General Manager of the amazing Cuban rum bar La Descarga, to create cocktails which showcased the ice and used Italian liqueurs in keeping with the Italian cuisine of Osteria La Buca.

This special event was held in a "secret room" adjacent to the restaurant that was accessed through an alley and then a backdoor. It added an element of mystery and surprise to the evening. More on this room at the end of the post.

The first cocktail of the evening was the ELoper, which contained Dimmi Italian Liqueur, Vodka, Lemon Juice, Cantaloupe & Prosecco. No, those are not flowers used as garnishes- Steve used prosciutto to add a bit of savory to the drink and play off of the classic slice of lemon draped in prosciutto. This drink featured Neve's Collins Ice.

Aside from the cocktails and snacks, the company included many fellow bloggers who enjoy a fine beverage or some tasty bites. Pat Saperstein from Eating LA, Daniel from Thirsty in LA, Josh from FoodGPS, Javier from Glutster and Caroline from Caroline on Crack were some of the many bloggers in attendance.

The next cocktail of the evening was Michel's Italian Stallion (pictured above) which featured Neve's Rocks/Old Fashioned Ice, Cynar (an Italian bitter liqueur derived from artichoke), Carpano Antica red vermouth, and Scotch. This drink was a significant contrast from the sweetness in the first cocktail and showcased the slow melting property of the huge block of ice. Smaller surface area lowers the dilution rate while keeping the drink cold. Dozois mentioned that the block of ice does not take up more volume than several smaller cubes would, and although it can seem to leave less room for the liquid to be drunk, that is an illusion.

The final two cocktails of the evening included Steve's Silenzio Dolce (named by a Caroline on Crack reader) which rum, amaro, blood orange juice and walnut liqueur. The blood orange juice gave the drink a dramatic red color and it was nicely balanced. The last drink was Michel's I Luv Lucy, which included Carpano Antica vermouth, whiskey, lemon juice and egg white. This drink was light and frothy and had a sweeter profile than the two previous drinks, the Silencio & the Stallion.

During the course of the evening, Graham Snyder sent out a variety of passed hors d'oeuvres from the new chef Alberto Lazzarino including ravioli with figs, smoked salmon pizza and gnocchi with gorgonzola (my favorite). Chef Lazzarino joined Osteria La Buca in November, succeeding longtime chef Filippo Cortivo.

Along with the new menu in place, Synder announced that he will be expanding the restaurant by 25 percent and the room we all stood in would be the new entrance, which would provide a more comfortable environment to wait for a table and display the many ingredients that go into the cooking. The designer for the renovation is new to LA transplant Brendan Ravenhill who spoke about his vision for the space. The renovation/expansion will be done in stages so that the restaurant will not have to close down while the work is going on and the change will feel more organic.

The artwork above was created by artist Champion Grubbs who created this image of the ELoper while the party swirled on around him.

One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer: Thirsty Crow Bar Lands in Silverlake

At the Thirsty Crow two trends converge to create something unique. The single spirit focused bar - Las Perlas etc and the adjectively named animal establishments - Lazy Ox I am thinking of you - come together to create the Thirsty Crow, a bourbon focused bar on Sunset Blvd in Silverlake. The Crow has been fully renovated by the 1933 Group, the team behind Bigfoot Lodge and Saints & Sinners. The 1933 team replaced what had been Stinkers with a beautiful looking space that looks like it could have been there for years. The U-shaped bar with plenty of stools is right in front, highlighting the wall of spirits behind the bar. One of the best features of the room is the most beautiful antique/vintage jukeboxes I have ever seen. The wood exterior and the sunburst of silver inside is something to behold.

The menu offers both a large selection of sipping bourbons, ryes & whiskies curated by Brandon Ristaino (pictured left) and a cocktail list created by Cooper Gillespie (pictured below). The bourbon/rye list has a large variety, of both rare finds and more familiar choices to ease yourself into the whiskey universe. At a pre-opening event, I had the opportunity to sample the Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey thanks to Josh from FoodGPS asking to try it. It was rich but not too sweet and the flavor benefited from the aging in barrels. This was a whiskey to savor, especially at $40 per pour. Although it has some rare and pricey bourbons available, the the Thirsty Crow is an unpretentious environment and has many reasonably priced options on their list as well. On Sunday evenings from 9 pm onward, the Crow hosts a Whiskey Education program in which you can sample several bourbons and ryes for around $5 per. Its a good way to learn what your taste preferences are or just a chance to enjoy a bargain beverage in a fun atmosphere.
The cocktail list is divided into three sections: Classics, Manhattans & Sparkling Cocktails. The choices include a Mint Julep, an Old Fashioned and their signature Thirsty Crow cocktail (pictured below left). The Thirsty Crow is served in a mason jar and includes rye whiskey, citrus juices, bitters, and ginger beer in a glass with ice and a sprig of mint and a lemon wedge to garnish. This drink is worthy of being the signature drink as it is tasty and refreshing and my favorite of the drink list. The Manhattan section of the cocktail list includes several variations on the classic version as well as their their "traditional" made with rye, vermouth and bitters. The marmalade manhattan blended together much better than I was expecting, although of the manhattans I found the traditional to be the most delicious.

The Thirsty Crow successfully threads the needle between upmarket cocktail bar and unpretentious local bar. They have five beers on tap, but they are from microbrewers, and if you absolutely have to have them, Bud, PBR and Corona are available in bottles or cans. Four of the five beers on tap are from California (two each from Napa Smith and Anderson Valley). The bartenders are knowledgeable about the beverages on their menu and can help you navigate the choices to find something you will be sure to enjoy. The Classic cocktails and Manhattans are $12 each and the pours of ryes, scotches and bourbons are mainly in the $8 to $16 range with a few rarities priced for special occasions of any sort. No food is served but they welcome you to bring in your own. The Thirsty Crow opened last weekend and is now fully up and running.

Thirsty Crow: 2939 W Sunset Blvd, just West of Silverlake Blvd. Telephone: (323) 661-6007. Website: Follow on Twitter here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Grilled Cheese Invitational - 2010

This is the last cheese related post of the day. This past weekend about 8,000 Angelenos lined up to attend the 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational. Unlike at the innagural LA Street Food Fest, the lines to get in moved very quickly. Admission was $10 and entitled attendees to a sample of a Tillamook grilled cheese sandwich and the opportunity to purchase mini grilled cheese sandwiches from a variety of vendors.

The lines for purchasing sandwiches/food was frequently very long, a consequence of less than 10 vendors selling grilled cheese sandwiches and the capacity crowd of 8,000 excited fans and judges.
The best of the sandwiches I ate was the fresh burrata with cherry tomatoes and salsa verde from the Campanile/Point booth. It was $4, double the price of the other sandwiches. Spendy but tasty. Chef Mark Peel was there in person working the grill.

Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry on Melrose and the upcoming Grilled Cheesery was also there grilling up with his staff. His line blended in with the Hot Knives folks, making it confusing.

It was fun and a good vibe but it was too hard to actually get some of the product. Waaaay better than the LA Street Food Fest, but there was still room for improvement if your goal was to sample several grilled cheeses that you couldn't normally get. I skipped the Grilled Cheese truck as their product is available all the time - why wait an hour in line in the heat for something that I can get another day without the wait?

Also sampled the Greenspan sandwich and one called "band Camp" from the Hot Knives folks which included cheddar and apple butter. I found it way too sweet - the apple overpowered everything else. The lines at Hot Knives were also the worst and most confusing as there was one line to pay and another to get your sandwich. As the lines were so long and the Hot Knives folks changed their offering each hour, when you got in the ordering line there was no way to know what sandwich you were likely to get when you finally made it to the front of the food line.

The photos to the left are of Mark Peel at the griddle and Eric Greenspan at his tent.

The End of Grilled Cheese Month approaches

Reminder to all cheese fans that tomorrow (Friday) is the last day of April and hence the last day of Grilled Cheese Month. If you want to celebrate properly, make your way to Clementine and get a sandwich.

This week's selection includes Charo's Chicken Chipotle Cheese, the most popular sandwich of the first four weeks. This "hometown favorite" is grilled chicken breast marinated in smoky sauce, with organic Jersey Jack, avocado and cilantro on a country wheat bread. The basic grilled cheese with Tillamook white sharp cheddar is also available. The photo above is of the turkey meatball melt from last week.

Hooked on Hook's 15 Yr Aged Cheddar

I'd been hearing great things about Hook's Cheddar from the Hook's Cheese Company of Wisconsin for a while and finally got to try their 12 year aged Cheddar on New Year's eve which I enjoyed very much. At Surfas in Culver City this week, I saw they had the elusive 15 year cheddar which is only made and released in small quantities. Despite the cost ($95/lb) I gulped and purchased a quarter of a pound in the name of research and to further celebrate the wonders of cheese during grilled cheese month.

The Hook's 15 year cheese is a sharp cheddar that is crumbly (this is not a cheese you can expect nice and even slices from), salty and has a lot of calcium crystals which give the texture an extra oomph. It has a very strong cheddar flavor and unlike some of the cheese you can find that is labeled sharp (I'm looking at you Trader Joes), this cheddar cheese lives up to its description.

Hook's Cheese is a family owned and operated small business based in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, about an hour Southwest of Madison, in the Southwestern corner of the state. Tony & Julie Hooks are the owners/founders/operators and have been making cheese since 1976, winning many awards over the years.

Hook's also produces 10 and 12 year aged cheddars, which can be purchased locally in Los Angeles. Their blue cheese is especially spreadable. The 15 yr can be purchased less expensively at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills for $75/lb. They also carry the 12 yr for $50/lb. The CheeseStore of Silverlake carries the 10 yr for $35/lb and the 12 yr for $50/lb.

Cheese Store of Beverly Hills: 419 N Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Phone: 310.278.2855, Website:
CheeseStore of Silverlake: 3926 W Sunset Blvd (sunset junction), Silverlake. Phone: 323.644.7511, Website:
Surfas: 8777 W Washington Blvd, Culver City. Phone: 310.559.4770. Website:

Monday, April 26, 2010

BLD - Tweet a Dish

Last week BLD restaurant began a promotion in which each week chef Diana Stavaridis asks for people to tweet in their ideas for a dish to be featured on the menu that Thursday and the author of the the winning idea is invited in for dinner for two. BLD (named for breakfast, lunch and dinner) is Neil Fraser of Grace's more casual/approachable restaurant, serving American food in an open space on Beverly Blvd near CBS Television City.

I was the inaugural winner of the BLD "Tweet a Dish" contest and so two friends joined me for dinner at BLD last Thursday evening. (Two of the three meals were comped as the prize for winning.*) My suggestion had been lamb with herbes de provence, grilled asparagus and purple potatoes. When we received the menus, there under the specials list was the Plat du Jour: Tweet-a-Dish "Braised Lamb Shank with Herbes de Provence, Potato Lemon Puree, Grilled Asparagus, Sauteed Fennel, Lamb Jus. It was priced at $21.

I had been curious to see how Chef Stavaridis would interpret my idea and it came out looking and tasting much better than I had envisioned. The meat was braised for 12 hours and so the lamb was falling off of the bone. The grilled asparagus was there and instead of purple carrots she improvised some potato lemon puree. Lamb and asparagus are such spring ingredients, it was nice to have such a seasonal meal. The lamb jus had a great flavor. The whole dish was just bursting with flavor.

Two of us had "my" lamb special and the third member of our party had the lamb burger. He enjoyed his burger very much. What I tasted was good and the fries were nice and crunchy, but he looked at our lamb shanks with envy. We shared as there was plenty of food for all of us.

We began the meal with a vegan tomato soup and a spanish tuna tartare. The tuna tartare was served on bagel crisps, a creative touch in keeping with the neighborhood. Sometimes these tweaks come across as forced but this worked even better than the common wonton like cracker frequently served with tuna tartare.

Dessert was a banana cream pie. The three of us were unable to finish it as the slice was large and although it was delicious we were stuffed.

It was fun to see my dish and my name on the menu that night. I guess you can call it my first time as a menu consultant.

You can follow Diana's twitter account here. Each week you can tweet in your ideas to @BLDChefD for a chance to win. She came out to chat with us when they brought out the lamb dish and my advice for future tweeters is to suggest seasonably applicable dishes (i.e. now is not the time for a hearty & heavy winter dish).

BLD restaurant is located at 7450 Beverly Blvd at the corner of Vista. Phone: (323) 930-9744. Website:

* People, please tip on the full non-discounted amount when you are comped something.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pizzeria Mozza - an enduring hit

When Pizzeria Mozza opened in late fall/early winter of 2006 the buzz was deafening - a collaboration between hometown favorite baker and author Nancy Silverton (La Brea Bakery, Campanile) and television personality and New York restaurateur Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich, riding the first wave of thin crust pizza momentum. Reservations were hard to come by and the line to eat at the wine or pizza bars was long at all but off hours.

Several months later its grown-up sibling the Osteria opened in spring 2007, and amazingly for a fickle town, both restaurants are still packed and serving quality and delicious food. The Mozzas have the staying power of Balthazar, Keith McNally's New York City restaurant that redefined the bistro and has been perennially packed since it opened more than a decade ago.

Some friends were visiting from New York post-Coachella and we made our ritual stop for pizza at Pizzeria Mozza on Monday. I had the Margherita pizza with mozzarella, tomato & basil and added an egg because isn't everything better with a runny egg? (as a non pork eater I have made runny eggs my substitute.) I began with the bone marrow because it was on the menu. My dining companions ordered the brussel sprouts, the Burricotta and the Fennel Sausage pizza. The sausage pizza looked like a meat lovers pizza - heaping portions of sausage on the pie. The burricotta had buratta cheese with ricotta cheese within it. I tried a piece of the cheese and it was rather good but I may prefer the traditional burrata.

The bone marrow was very rich and came as 3 cylinders, served with greens, salt, garlic and 2 toasts. A third toast was ordered (not sure why it doesn't automatically come - it should). It was good, very rich and better with the accompaniments but not as good as the bone marrow at some of the french bistros such as Church & State and Comme Ca. The marrow, while rich, was just not as flavorful as at those other restaurants.

The pizza however was top notch. The margherita (pictured) was a thing of beauty and the egg yolk ran over the pie in a very appetizing way. The crust was blistered but not burned and the ratio of sauce to cheese was to my liking as neither overwhelmed the other.

Service at the bar was knowledgeable. We were never rushed and the bartender brought over several wines to taste before we selected a carafe.

We arrived at 1:30 pm and were able to get seats together at the bar, but every tables was occupied. Note that although the brother of one of my dining companions is an investor in the restaurant, Mozza did not know of this connection. Disclosure: I once worked for a very brief time in an Italian wine shop in Manhattan owned by Batali & Bastianich.

Pizzeria Mozza is located at 641 N Highland, at the corner of Melrose. Phone: 323. 297.0101 Website:

Animal Restaurant - Cart for a Cause

Animal Restaurant has been all over the news & blogosphere this week. The New Yorker magazine profiled Animal chefs/owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo in a four page article by Dana Goodyear. (you have to be a subscriber to read the article online). It was also announced that ex-Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox will be doing a one week residency in May at Animal, serving vegetarian food in the house of meat and bacon. Lastly the Animal partners-in-crime were the chefs for the weekly Cart for a Cause, to benefit St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels, today outside the Roll International bldg on Olympic Blvd in West LA.

Today's Cart for a Cause menu had a choice of Hamachi Tostada or Chorizo Frita. The truck was running ~30 minutes late and when it arrived there was a long line of hungry folks. I did not sample the chorizo but the hamachi was good with fresh fish on top of avocado puree (some might call this guacamole). Chefs Jon & Vinny were in the cart-mobile dishing out their food to happy folks. "Fire one hamachi and one chorizo" could be heard as I approached to order my lunch.

If you are interested in the Jeremy Fox week (May 17 - 23) at Animal, call for a reservation at 323.782.9225 after 2 pm. More info at their website here. The cost is $70 per person prix fixe with the option of wine pairings for an additional charge of $35 or $70 depending on the level of grape juice you care to drink with your veggies. There have not been any announcements of V8 juice pairings, but anything is possible at Animal Restaurant.

Follow Cart for a Cause on Facebook & Twitter to learn about the chef creating the dishes available for $10 each Tuesday.

Learn more about chefs Jon & Vinny in their profile in Food & Wine when they won Best New Chefs last year (2009). Both photos are of Vinny in the Cause-mobile today. The other picture is of the hamachi tostada.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Grilled Cheese Month @ Clementine

April brings thoughts of spring, the farmers market produce you have been waiting for all winter, the first beach day of the season, and of course Grilled Cheese Month. Many of you no doubt are excited about the Grilled Cheese Invitational on April 24th , the Tillamook Loaf Tour, and the potential grilled cheese pop-up night from Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry on Melrose. Clementine on Ensley Avenue in the Century City/Westwood border is celebrating Grilled Cheese Month with 5 weeks of signature grilled cheese sandwiches.

Click on the picture of the menu above for the full menu, or click here for a pdf.

I am particularly looking forward to next week's Ensley Avenue Cheese Steak with annie's cheesy meatloaf grilled with peppers, onions, sonoma hot pepper jack and 10,000 lakes dressing on a toasted french roll. The Turkey Meatball Melt the following week with provolone, arrabiata sauce and turkey meatballs, also sounds particularly tasty. The basic grilled cheese with grilled white tillamok cheddar on country white bread is available every day of the month.

There is no need to run across town to catch the Grilled Cheese Truck this month when you can head over to Santa Monica Blvd and Ensley (next to Johnny's Pizzeria) and enjoy Chef Annie Miller's hospitality all day all month long.

Clementine is located at 1751 Ensley Avenue (immediately North of Santa Monica Blvd). Parking can be difficult. Phone: (310) 552-1080. Website:

Monte Alban - Oaxacan on the Westside

Monte Alban is a Oaxacan Mexican restaurant in a strip mall on Santa Monica Blvd in West LA that has long been known for its selection of moles. I have consistently found it to be the best place for mole on the Westside. The various branches of Guelaguetza have an even more extensive menu but I have long preferred the mellow vibe and the tasty moles at Monte Alban.

The strip mall in which the restaurant is located suffered a fire in August of last year which shut down the restaurant for a month. They were able to reopen in mid-September and is operating the same as previously. The exterior of the restaurant is quite nondescript but the interior is painted with colorful murals.

The prices at Monte Alban are quite reasonable and the menu includes negro (black), coloradito (red), amarillo (yellow) and verde (green) moles. There are other oaxacan specialties such as clayuda and barbacoa de chivo (goat stew). On a recent visit I tried the green mole (pictured) which along with the barbacoa ($10.75) has been my favorite dish on the menu. In the green mole ($7.75), the large chicken breast is served on a plate alongside rice, sitting in a generous pool of green mole sauce. The chicken is falling off of the bone tender and the mole sauce is infused throughout the meat. The rice also soaks up the sauce nicely.

The service is capable and helpful. Note that Monte Alban serves beer but does not have a hard liquor license so no margaritas. They also have a large assortment of typical mexican non-alcoholic beverages such as horchata, agua de frutas etc in addition to the standard soft drinks.

Monte Alban is located at 11927 Santa Monica Blvd (@ Brockton Ave). Phone is (310) 444-7736. Website is

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Dalmore Whiskey Tasting

Richard Paterson, the 3rd generation Master Distiller for Dalmore Scotch Whiskey, came to Los Angeles last week as part of a San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas west coast tour and I was fortunate to be able to attend a tasting he hosted at the Varnish in downtown LA of various Dalmore single malts.

The afternoon began with a round of Penicillin cocktails featuring Dalmore that bartenders Eric Alperin and Devon Tarby mixed. The Penicillin is a great drink, originally created by Little Branch and Milk & Honey bartender Sam Ross. The penicillin includes fresh lemon juice, honey, ginger and scotch whiskey and was garnished with candied ginger. The cocktails were refreshing and it was a good introduction to the Dalmore by demonstrating that single malts can have a place in mixed drinks.

Paterson, the author of Goodness Nose, is an engaging and charismatic speaker/performer. He has a shtick down and got the audience involved in the tasting beyond the rote routine. He stressed the importance of smelling the whiskey before you drink it and of letting it stay in your mouth so you can fully taste the nuances of it before you swallow.

The Dalmore is produced in the Highlands of Scotland, in a distillery north of Inverness. Paterson brought 4 single malts to sample: the 12 year, the Gran Reserva, the 15 year, and the King Alexander III. The 12 year was a lighter scotch and was aged in 50% American oak and 50% Oloroso sherry casks. The Gran Reserva is aged in 60% Oloroso sherry casks and is described as being a great whiskey to drink while smoking cigars. In fact this scotch used to be known as the Cigar Malt but some confused people actually thought that this meant that tobacco was an ingredient in the whiskey. It had a rich and slightly sweet flavor and does seem suited for a postprandial treat.

The third Dalmore we tried was the 15 year. This was my favorite of the tasting. The citrus flavors that are a signature of the entire Dalmore line came through along with a light spiciness. I found it to be exceptionally smooth and balanced. It was aged in Matsusalem, Apostoles and Amoroso sherry casks. I tend to favor citrus, so perhaps that is why I preferred the 15. The final whiskey of the day was the King Alexander III, named for the Scottish king whose life was saved by the Mackenzie clan and who in exchange gave the clan the right to use the stag as their emblem. The King Alexander was aged in six different casks including french wine, Madeira, Sherry, Port, Marsala and Kentucky bourbon. This whiskey also had a little bit of sweetness in the flavor, perhaps because of the port and bourbon casks. A complex flavor that held less of the citrus than the other Dalmore single malts we had sampled.

A highlight of the tasting was when the gentleman seated next to me got to sample a small amount of the most expensive single malt whiskey in the world, which combines 6 different vintages of Dalmore. A bottle retails for $175,000 according to the Nose. Online research indicated that the Dalmore 62 has sold for 32,000 GBP, which is approximately $49,000 at current exchange rates. I am not sure whether the price we were quoted was off or whether this was a different offering. In any case my table-mates and I got to sniff the glass which held the whiskey and it smelled wonderful. I'm not in the market for a bottle of spirits which costs as much as a luxury car, but if I was, this would be a great place to begin.

Dalmore has an illustrious history but had been owned for a number of years by Jim Beam, the American based bourbon producer (largest in the world) who seem to have had a policy of benign neglect. Beam sold the company in 2000 but retained North American distribution rights until the end of 2007 when producer Whyte & Mackay bought back the rights. Since then Patterson has been crossing the globe raising the profile of whiskey and of The Dalmore in particular to build up brand recognition and move the whiskey further upmarket.

Dalmore 12 year $35-49, Dalmore Gran Reserva, $49-75, Dalmore 15 Year $80-99, Dalmore King Alexander III $249
In Los Angeles, Dalmore is available at K&L Wines, Bevmo, Wally's, Wine Expo etc. note that in my quick online search, K&L wines had the best prices

You can follow Richard Paterson online & on twitter

Sushi Gen - classic lunchtime bargain

Some compatriots and I tried and failed to eat dinner at Sushi Gen prior to the Radio Room at the Edison on Tuesday night as they were booked solid the rest of the evening. We made do with a very eh meal at Manten, a Japanese take on Chinese cuisine, across Honda Plaza, which I recommend be avoided.

This reminded me of Sushi Gen's well known Sashimi Lunch Special: a platter of sashimi, a bowl of miso soup, a dish of sunomono a bowl of rice and a bowl of tofu in a beef broth all for $15. I had not had this deal in a few years and was curious to see if it was still good or was coasting on its reputation so stopped by for an early lunch on Friday.

The menu was on the menu when I sat down and a waitress came by to take my order within two minutes before I had even had a chance to look at the menu. Fortunately I knew what I wanted - the sashimi lunch special. After ordering the lunch special ($15) and a hot tea ($1.50) the waitstaff set a land speed record for delivering waiter ordered food to the table. Not two minutes later the sashimi platter, miso soup, sunomono and tofu all arrived at the table, followed by the bowl of rice a minute or two later.

The sashimi platter is generously portioned and included tuna, yellowtail, toro, spicy tuna, diced yellowtail with scallions and cooked salmon among others. While the fish is plentiful, some of it is cut more like scraps than like sushi, so purists be aware. The toro was rich and buttery, full of fatty flavor and mouthfeel. Toro is not something I expect to see on a combination or special plate, let alone one priced at $15, so that is even more of a special treat.

The tofu is cubed and cooked and arrives in a broth in a bowl, like Agedashi Tofu, only not fried. It is a fine prelude to the main event but not especially flavorful or interesting. The miso soup was piping hot.

The overall verdict was that the sashimi lunch special at Sushi Gen is not only a great value but a great lunch. The deal is no secret so crowds begin to form from 11 am onwards through the end of the lunch hour and expect a wait of ~30 minutes or longer at peak times and ~15 minutes early or late. They turn the tables quickly here, so this is not the place for a leisurely lunch to catch up with friends you haven't seen in a while. I was probably at my table for about 30 minutes and when I left the line to get in was longer than when I had arrived. The fast turnover accounts for both the fresh fish and the lickety-split arrival of the food.

Note that the sashimi lunch special (and all lunch specials) are only available at tables, not at the bar. The bar requires a minimum of four orders of sushi/sashimi.

Sushi Gen is located at 422 east 2nd St @ Central, in the Honda Plaza minimall. Parking is available for $1.50 with validation at lunch time ($2.50 at dinner time). Telephone: (213) 617-0552

First Look: Chego

The Kogi BBQ food truck fleet (they have expanded to 4 trucks each named after a color in Spanish) has now spawned its first stationary restaurant, Chego. It is a small restaurant in a minimall on Overland and Rose in West LA that focuses on rice bowls.

Founder/Chef Roy Choi was there when I stopped by on Thursday, the 2nd night of their soft opening, greeting guests and hugging regular customers of his trucks. Note that Chego is currently open for dinner only. Tonight (Saturday) will be the last night of the "soft opening" period.

Chego does not offer beer or wine and does not permit corkage. According to their website, "You’re not allowed to [bring in your own wine, beer or liquor]. Undergrads like to sneak them in soda bottles, while the sustainable-friendly use their stainless steel SIGG bottles. The classier sort resort to the good ole flask. But just know that if you’re caught, your actions will be FROWNED UPON."

In addition to the rice bowls, Chego serves dessert in the form of a take on the classic rocky road ice cream, and several appetizers including a caesar salad, and a "$12 salad" for the bargain price of $7. Much of the menu is cheekily named, in keeping with the lighthearted spirit of the restaurant and Kogi phenomenon.

At Chego you order and pay at the counter where you are given a number and then waiters bring your food to your table. Both the bowl of pickles and the "Tiny's Prime Rib Rice Bowl" (pictured) arrived at the table within five minutes of ordering. Talk about fast service. The beef bowl also included a fried egg with a runny yolk, chili, water spinach, creamed horseradish, and fried shallots.

The food is served on disposable plates and the silverware is also disposable/plastic. Plastic silverware and paper napkins are available alongside the counter where you order.

Chego is open Tuesday - Saturday 6 pm - 12 Midnight. Telephone: (310) 287-0337. No reservations accepted. Website:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Umami Burger - Santa Monica edition

The 4th location of Umami Burger opened last Thursday in Santa Monica, bringing new twists to the year old Umami Burger empire. The salad section on the menu is unique to Santa Monica.

The first UB opened on La Brea in February 2009, the 2nd Umami Hollywood opened in October 2009, and the 3rd - Umami Urban on Cahuenga in November 2009. Then the temporary Umami Burger truck parked at Fred Segal in Santa Monica in December, which was replaced by the 4th permanent outpost - Umami Broadway in the Fred Segal Santa Monica store at 5th and Broadway. It is amazing to see a restaurant go from one location to four in little over a year from when the first location opened.

I had only been to one Umami location, the original, last year and had the signature Umami burger, fries and a Mexican coke. I did not care for the burger as I felt the seasoning/sauce overwhelmed the burger flavor, as if it was doused in Worcestershire Sauce, and the bun was too wimpy for the burger. The fries were also less than tasty. So I had stayed away from the growing chain despite the continual buzz.

But as the new Santa Monica location was so convenient, I decided to check it out and order something different. I had the truffle burger ($11), which comes with italian truffle cheese and a truffle glaze. This was a much better hamburger. The truffle flavor was noticeable but didn't overpower the burger. A nice balance. The bun was better able to handle the burger juices this time. I also learned my lesson and ordered the thin fries ($3.50), which I don't think had been an option on my prior La Brea visit. These were crispy and came with a choice of sauce. I picked their take on ketchup. It was a nice savory ketchup they call Umami ketchup. It was portioned out in a dainty chinese style soup spoon. I was not charged for refills on the ketchup, although the menu notes that additional servings are $0.50. I am a big ketchup user for both my burger and my fries so one spoonful is not remotely going to meet my needs....

I had a root beer float, made with Margo's Bark root beer. This was a great and refreshing root beer float. Both the vanilla ice cream and Margo's are of high quality. Perfect on a hot day. The Santa Monica location has both indoor and outdoor seating and also does a bustling takeout business.

I was glad to have a significantly superior experience at this location. Service was also very pleasant. The waiter was helpful, continually refilling my water glass and making sure I had everything I needed. His positive attitude and excellent customer service made the good food an even better experience, especially considering how many restaurants & bars have poor service.

The space feels airy and open and has lots of windows.

Umami Santa Monica will be hosting a wine/beer & burger pairing with local sommelier David Haskell on April 7th with three courses of burgers/sliders and 3 paired beverages for $35, according to Feast and Eater.

Umami Burger Santa Monica is located at 500 Broadway @5th St. Phone: (310) 451-1300. Website:

Bastide - comfortable luxury

The latest incarnation of Bastide opened in December for lunch and in February for dinner. Bastide has been a revolving door of chefs and concepts since it opened to the public in 2002. Owner Joe Pytka has been described as very demanding but someone who gets results, which is why he has been a go-to director for difficult and creative comemrcial shoots for years. The 4 previous incarnations of Bastide have all been different, ambitious, expensive and formal.

Joseph Mahon is the 5th chef to helm the jewel box of a ship and he occupies the captian's chair with self assurance and confidence. He has evolved his menu over the past 3 months, with a strong emphasis on the seasonal and fresh. The plates are beautifully arranged but not overwrought, no Sona daintiness here. He has supplemented the printed menu with a series of specials reflecting ideas he is working on or great meat/produce he got his hands on in limited quantities.

Mahon most recently worked at the undistinguished 208 Rodeo, but previously worked at Sona in Los Angeles and Cafe Boulud and Bouley in New York, an impressive resume. David Bouley is a great chef but is also notoriously difficult to work for, so Ptyka is not the first tough boss that Mahon has had in his culinary career.

Over the course of eight meals in the past three months I have had the opportunity to sample many dishes on Manhon's menus. I have been there more often than not for lunch on Tuesdays since the new year. The service started out fine and has improved over time. Sommelier/manager Dario Dell'Anno is an excellent host and knows his list inside and out. He is often looking to introduce his customers to wines they haven't had before or wines from unusual regions, whether a white wine from Croatia or a smooth Zweigelt from Austria. The price point on the wines is also very approachable - unlike many of its peers, you will not struggle to find a wine for less than $50 at Bastide. There is not a wine by the glass list but Dario is always eager to find a glass of something that will work with what I have ordered when we are not up to a whole bottle.

Hands down my favorite dish on the menu is the Yellowtail, simply described on the menu as yellowtail, shaved vegetables. I have had this dish perhaps four times as I find it hard to resist. The vegetables usually include radish, green string beans, and asparagus and some individual green beans, with some diced nuts on top. The presentation is beautiful and the barely seared hamachi is just beautiful; something a sushi restaurant would be proud to serve. At $14 this dish is a great value and one of the chef's signatures.

Risotto is a tough dish to get right as it is so easy for it to become gloppy. The red wine risotto with mushrooms is a rich and hearty dish. I have had it several times as it is one of my favorites on the menu. I believe it has recently been cycled off in favor of the more seasonal Champagne Artichoke risotto, which if it is in the same league as the red wine risotto, I recommend.

Soups have also been a strong point. The winter onion soup with beef shank has been cycled off in favor of a potato soup. Recently a special of corn soup was on offer. The soup was sweet but not cloyingly so and had little bits of orange in it as well as a small amount of basil. It had a thinner consistency than I was expecting and hinted at the bounty of summer to come.

Hiding amongst the composed salads section of the menu is a Frisee salad with bacon, poached egg, crispy chicken thighs, shallot vinaigrette. I had this dish without the bacon. The poached egg sits atop the frisee salad with the fried chicken thighs to the side on the rectangular plate. The poached egg yolk gooily coats the salad once the egg white is pierced. Unlike Jonathan Gold who recently mentioned in an NPR interview that the only thing he does not eat is eggs, I love them, especially runny yolks. The fried chicken is crispy but not too salty. My only fault with the dish is that it feels like two pieces rather than one unified whole.

The baby lamb dish is very good. It includes loin cooked medium rare into slices, a large raviolo with forcemeat, ground shank and shoulder, peeled baby tomatoes, sliced cucumber, cooked greens and fried polenta. I was told that the raviolo component of the dish may be shrunk, to greater emphasize the lamb itself. The meat had a lot of "lamby" flavor, just a hint of gaminess. The polenta was the only part of the dish I did not care for. It was just an odd consistency.

Another favorite is the beef tenderloin tartare tartine (now thats an alliterative mouthful). The beef tartare is served on a flatbread open faced sandwich. The beef flavor comes through and the other components play a supporting role. (N.B. the beef tartare at the Tar Pit on La Brea is ill conceived as the Worcestershire sauce is all you can taste, so avoid that dish and get your tartare fix at Bastide, or the excellent version at Church & State). I have also tried the Smoked Salmon tartine, but it is rather boring and seems designed for those looking for something light and inoffensive, a sop to the ladies who lunch.

The only dish I have not enjoyed at all is the burger, which was just too rich and didn't really taste like a burger should. I have seen people at other tables order it and devour them, but it is not a dish I can recommend.

One last dish to think about is the foie gras special, which is almost always available off menu. He sources his foie from Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, which is run by the Gonzalezes, a couple from El Salvador. Outstanding. After the hamachi, this is among the best dishes. You can see it pictured here.

Chef Mahon has a blog at which he updates his weekly specials. Check it out here to find out what tricks Joseph has up his sleeve this week.

Bastide is located on Melrose Place, just off La Cienega. It is only 2 blocks long and is quiet, a retreat from the hustle and bustle just around the corner. When it is warm enough, you can't beat the seating in the patio, which is right off the street. The main dining room only has 6 or so tables, so it has an intimate feeling, like you are at a dinner party at the home of a wealthy friend.

Pictures are top to bottom: Bastide exterior, the housemade butter served with radish, the yellowtail appetizer, corn soup, baby lamb entree, beet salad, lemon custard dessert.

Bastide is located at 8475 Melrose Place @ La Cienega. Phone: (323) 651-5950. Website: