Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spago, Beverly Hills

As much as I try to believe my adopted hometown is burgeoning with sophistication, Los Angeles sometimes just fails me. Or perhaps the whole process of burgeoning has failed to take root west of Doheny.

There is no other way to justify the continued existence and popularity of the self-caricature known as Spago. Wolfgang Puck was once lauded (along with Alice Waters) as a being a “seminal influence” in an “entire cuisine . . . a still-evolving culinary style that can sampled from one of [California] to the other.” (I’m skeptical that an entire cuisine can be founded on a menu whose principle innovations include smoked salmon on baked, flattened dough and the intermixture of Shun Lee-style “Chinese” food and French technique, but I’ll indulge the fantasy for a few minutes. Of course, the logical conclusion of such madness is CPK, the smooth jazz of cuisine.)

Despite Puck's contributions and skill, he is now content to meander around the large dining room and prattle on with patrons for hours on end. Accordingly, the Puck evolution has come to a halt. With its staid and virtually unchanging menu, Spago has morphed into a Cheesecake Factory in a suburb that is inexorably morphing into an ersatz Caruso lifestyle center. Bizarrely, it is the original Cheesecake Factory, established in 1978, that appears to be the anachronistic holdout in the Beverly Hills retail corridor. To exacerbate matters, Puck’s sole recent contribution to the culinary world, or perhaps it was Barbara Lazaroff’s investors’, is the $160 steak.

Teeming on a recent Monday night with businessmen , tourists and cougars, Spago is much more of a banquet hall than a quality restaurant. For a wedding or, better yet, a rehearsal dinner, the food would have been solid. Other than that, I saw an expensive menu littered with “fusion” items and a few Austrian standards, e.g., wiener schnitzel, that while tasty and fun, were of middling quality and would not be served by a Kurt Gutenbrunner kitchen.

My veal sweetbreads had that off-putting texture of soft chewiness that originally soured me on this offal. (I have been craving sweetbreads ever since savoring the rustic brilliance of Ali El-Sayed's version at his Kabab Café in Astoria.) The pan-roasted duck breast, served in slices, simply lacked flavor. I can’t point to anything that was objectively wrong with it, but I also can’t cite any quality that distinguished it, aside from forgettableness.

A dessert of unwieldy fried dough and out-of-season strawberries lacked sweetness and would not have passed muster at the Geauga County Fair.

A few comments from the wife:

First of all, I had to change the stupid title of this entry, which was in no way reflective of my otherwise adorable husband's brilliance and wit. When Steve writes about Beverly Hills, he immediately gets his panties in a bunch -- which is absolutely hilarious because we'll probably end up living there someday. (Ha, ha! Suck it, Steve! You know it's true!) Anyway. Steve's perspective on things is skewed by an existing bias against anything west of Doheny, which makes him a total fraud because he's fancier than H-bomb in Marc Jacobs at Blue Hill. While I am happy with a big salad or a burger or a spicy tuna handroll at the local sushi bar, Steve actually has to fly to San Francisco to eat at Gary Danko on his birthday or he whines like a little girl. Clearly, his vitriol is completely misplaced. Don't we seem to despise most in others what we unconsciously recognize in ourselves?

But I digress. Enough about Steve's hypocrisy and back to Spago, which is, admittedly, as The Trusted Arbiter of Style once decreed, over. The decor is straight out of Cleveland, the menu never changes, and the crowd is just a shade younger and hipper than the pre-dead patrons of the Hillcrest Country Club Grill Room. But I will give Spago this: It is consistent. You can count on a number of things at Spago: It will take hours. A nip-tucked Wolfgang Puck will work the room like a pro, shaking hands, kissing babies, acting like he knows who you are, and pretending that he cares. And the food will be good. It won't change your life or even challenge your assumptions about cuisine (that was 25 years ago), but it will be totally serviceable and often terrific.

For my appetizer, I ordered lemon-herb blini topped with creme fraiche, red onion, and, alternately, smoked sturgeon with black caviar or smoked salmon with red caviar. The pillowy blini were light and delicious, while the smoked fish and caviar combo delighted me to no end. Was it innovative? Not a lick. But it was exactly what I wanted, and the dish was absolutely delicious. For my main course, I ordered the striped bass with lobster and roasted root vegetables. It was great; just really well-cooked with balanced flavors. Moreover, in deference to my irrational and paralyzing fear of fish skin/scales, the kitchen removed any trace of the dreaded stuff -- how awesome is that?

I will concede that the desserts were uncharacteristically lame on our recent visit. My mother, whose birthday we were celebrating, was psyched to throw dietary caution to the wind and get down on her birthday -- especially since she'd just run into Sherry Yard at the Beverly Hills Sunday Farmers' Market stocking up for the week. The fact that Ms. Yard was purchasing grapes should have been a serious red flag as none of the selections really floated the birthday girl's boat. So we opted for two desserts to share as a table: a mediocre strudel and the doughy thing to which Steve referred. The doughy thing -- not fried, more of a pancake-souffle hybrid -- was actually somewhat addictive, reminding me a bit of a poor man's Bistro Jeanty clafoutis. Sprinkled with powdered sugar and studded with sweet strawberries and grapes, it was kind of awesome in an inelegant, dude-have-you-got-the-munchies-too? sort of way.

Overall, we did have fun at the dreaded Spago, which seemed to please everyone at the table --except for the grumpy, implacable Wolverines, who groused after dinner that they needed to go to In-n-Out, even though they both cleaned their plates.

176 North Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills
(310) 385-0880

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Brunch at Jar

After an evening of fancified sushi, I needed a Sunday morning of serious fressing. So we went to Jar, which has a reputation as a foodie’s steakhouse despite this description’s oxymoronic implications. As a rule, I avoid steakhouses because I’d rather go to Soot Bull Jeep or Fatburger than drop a bill on an overcooked steak in a stuffy room filled with the usual assortment of country clubbers, white-collar criminals, yachtsmen, syndicators, and corporate drones. But Jar’s executive chef, Suzanne Tracht, comes from that royal Waters-begets-Silverton/Peel/Goin lineage, and with the lovable and genetically hungry Artie in town, I had a good opportunity to return to another quality restaurant in the neighborhood.

Jar began the brunch with a large wedge of coffee cake for the table. The cake was denser than I expected, topped with nuts and very good. Artie thought it needed more cinnamon, perhaps because the familiar swirl didn’t traverse the wedge, or maybe it just needed more cinnamon. Regardless, I liked the cake’s moist consistency.

We had a tacit agreement with the affable waiter: he would recommend the better dishes, and we would tolerate his confusing us for Georgianne Walken. So Artie and I split the corn pancakes, chilaquiles, and pot roast hash, while Marisa got the lobster benedict.

I have asked my wife to share her thoughts on her brunch:

In an effort to balance the scales of kashrut and make up for other nice neighborhood Jewish girls who, unlike me, don’t have the presence of mind or fortitude of spirit to enjoy a little traif, I ordered the lobster benedict, sans the lobster béarnaise. (I maintain that béarnaise is an utterly repulsive concept, though excellent fodder for Mel Brooks jokes). The lobster benedict came in its usual form atop an English muffin with a poached egg. But where most restaurants use Canadian bacon (or what I call “ham”), Jar uses Cantonese-inspired Char Sui pork as well as some “pea tendrils,” or soggy greens. Sweet and smoky, the Char Sui has a flavor preferable to the favored meat of Saskatoon; but unfortunately, it dominated the dish’s other, milder flavors. I ended up taking the dish apart, forsaking the desiccated English muffin and grazing on the eggs, Char Sui, lobster, and pea tendrils. I could barely muster more than a few bites. Despite the glorious self-righteousness that comes along with a low-carb breakfast, I felt somewhat cheated by the whole experience. Thankfully, Stevie and Artie were happy to share their bounty, leading me off the path of virtue and down the road of excess, right to the palace of wisdom where there are platters of absolutely delicious corn pancakes waiting for the hung-over glutton in all of us. I do loves me some Jar. You know you love me. XOXO, Gossip Girl – ahem, I mean, Marisa

The pancakes were not only the first serving of such that I’ve found edible in years; they were actually very good. Owing to their excellent batter, the pancakes were light and had a fresh baker’s quality. The kernels of corn were inside the pancakes and added an element of sweetness which obviated the need for maple syrup. These pancakes bore no gustatory resemblance to the thin starchy bricks served in homes and diners that had previously soured me on the Sunday staple.

The chilaquiles, essentially Latino matzoh brie, were infinitely better than the Jewish version. Serving a dressed up version of the classic dish, Jar fried and then layered strips of tortillas with eggs, salsa, shredded roasted pork, and crème fraiche. Why Jews have excluded roasted pork from the Passover standard (and then served it only once a year) is an enduring mystery. Suffice it to say, once roasted pork and salsa are added to the recipe and matzah is replaced with tortillas, the outcome is bound to be good. And it was.

The star of the brunch was the pot roast hash, a jumble of brisket, eggs, potatoes, onions, mushrooms and served with superfluous coffee gravy in a gravy boat. Jar annoyingly anointed its pot roast a “signature” dish, a conceit that I would expect only from eateries listed on the NYSE like Morton’s. Hash is leftover meat sautéed with vegetables, potatoes--whatever is around really--and in the hands of Suzanne Tracht, it was delicious. The brisket was most flavorful, much more so than the pork in the chilaquiles, and there was no sense that it was sautéed. It was soft and tender as opposed to the traditional crispy, and thus retained its essence as a pot roast. The eggs were intermixed into the center of the large portion, and it all blended together messily, which is to say seamlessly. The dish was a hash after all, not an omelet, and it impelled our enjoyable visit to Jar the next week for dinner to try the actual pot roast.

Jar has an impeccably designed dining room and bar which captures its modern steak house raison d’être. (Even when I was a just barely more pretentious undergrad studying philosophy with a bad habit of mining the depths of the thesaurus, I was self-conscious about using such an obviously heinous term like “raison d’être” in a paper. Not anymore, especially since I am Heinous. Just try to confute my views on Jar.) Jar’s designer, Brett Witke, raided one of those retro-modern furniture galleries along Beverly and imposed a great clean look on the place. The room’s walls consist of polished brown wood paneling which give the room a sense of tradition. They link Jar to proud, if mediocre anachronisms such as Taylor’s Steakhouse, and forewarn that creamed spinach will be served. But the wood paneling’s lighter tone and variations, the modern decorative artwork affixed thereto and the dark and wide hanging convex lamps splayed throughout the ceiling signify an updating of the whole steakhouse concept. While the muted light and lack of windows can induce mild claustrophobia during the dinner hours, the natural light at brunch was quite pleasant.

8225 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles

(323) 655-6566

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Little Next Door

On Saturday afternoon, we walked over to the Little Next Door, a busy French café which tends to be overlooked by the herd of trendsters who graze at Toast across the way. Little Next Door has a large attractive patio where it serves an array of omelets, savory tarts, charcuterie plates, salads and French sandwiches such as a croque madame and ham on a buttered baguette. But since the café saw it fit to turn on the hot lamps despite weather supporting wildfires, we sat inside in the colorful room with the its high, cobalt blue ceiling and plentiful copper accessories, including a stunning Elektra espresso machine which lords over the entire room. The staff spoke French to one another, and in the quest to preserve some Gallic authenticity, the waiters carried around circular trays like an extra appendage, just as they do in Paris. I am naturally taken by all of this, as I suffer from such an acute case of naïve Francophila that Sarko jokes irk me, at least when uttered by known Republicans.

We enjoyed a leek and gruyere tart which was rich and balanced and had a tasty, buttery crust. The tart was small enough to fit on a salad plate, though quite filling, and the accompanying salad was fresh and not over dressed, a rarity. The croque madame, if not quite on the level of Campanile’s Thursday night version, was very good. A large bottle of Badoit washed it all down nicely. In keeping with the season, we also enjoyed a spicy pumpkin tart though such was the quantity of pumpkin filling that management could have sold it as a cookie. The crust had that subdued buttery flavor that I really love.

The barista drew a solid shot from the Elektra, and we were then on our way.

Little Next Door

8142 West 3rd Street

Los Angeles

(323) 951-1010

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sapp Coffee Shop: The Vampire Lunch

Eating at Sapp Coffee Shop in Thai Town has loomed as a requirement for the aspiring foodie ever since Anthony Bourdain dined there on No Reservations. So on a Saturday afternoon, I dragged Marisa to the Thai lunchroom, though I forgot to inform her why Sapp has such a forbidding reputation. To wit: Sapp Coffee Shop, which must inhabit the sallowest dining room in any building not serving a penal function, is best known to food geekdom for offering a blood-thickened broth of Thai boat noodles with beef tendon, tripe, liver and testicle, which the menu dubiously translates as “meat ball.” We stayed clear of the offal and ordered the version with beef brisket, which was topped with cilantro and chicharrones. The savory brown broth was thick, moderately spicy and had an undercurrent of sweetness. Another blogger claimed to smell “soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, cilantro and green onions” in the broth, and I’ll just take this person’s word for it. The blood-and-testes option notwithstanding, the soup’s flavors were straightforward, i.e., much less exotic than expected, and could be easily bowdlerized by the Campbell’s Soup Company. The otherwise hospitable staff was remiss in not forewarning us that bovine cruor is a soporific, as a coffee on the drive home would have been useful.

We tried three other dishes, most disappointing of which was the som tom or papaya salad. At its best, a salad of grated fresh green papaya with lime and dried shrimp can be refreshing and spicy, but at Sapp the papaya was foul and depressing, the lime absent, and the dish inedible. A plate of fish balls in a green curry sauce and spirals of languid noodles wasn’t bad, even if the sauce had the consistency of mud.

The most interesting dish of the day was the crab fried rice with crab paste, Chinese broccoli, and scrambled egg. A burly crab flavor dominated the dish, and the freshly scrambled eggs' richness stood up to and complemented the crab. However, the rice itself was served at too high a temperature and thus had little taste and insubstantial texture. The kitchen bizarrely served the fried rice alone and last, like a main course, an unwelcome way to conclude a misfire of a lunch.

Sapp Coffee Shop
5183 Hollywood Blvd.
East Hollywood
(323) 665-1035

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A.O.C.: The $100 Blog

A.O.C. is a frustrating restaurant, one that we primarily visit with out-of-town guests. Its popularity makes it difficult to get a table on short notice during prime hours, and the bar always appears at least two-deep on the many occasions that we have driven by. On top of that, the food can be inconsistent when the dining room is full. Nevertheless, the wine list is solid, the small “Cal-Med” dishes tend to be thoughtful and vibrant, and ultimately, we're always up for a plate of prosciutto and cheese. And in all of our visits dating back to New Year's Eve 2002, we've had several outstanding dishes from A.O.C., including, among many others, seasonal offerings and specials such as the lobster salad, soft-shelled crab, and sheep's milk cheesecake.

So over the past few years, our occasional visits by ourselves have been spontaneous -- and on the early side, in order to avoid the crowds and an overly taxed kitchen. Last Thursday, after a late afternoon appointment in Century City in which we suffered the indignity of sharing an elevator with Michael Bolton of all people (whom Marisa had to recognize), and spared by geography from another Ashkenazi-driven Rosh Hashana assault on my gustatory sensibilities, we sidled up to the wine bar at A.O.C. for an early dinner.

We began with a regular item on the A.O.C. menu, the roasted dates with parmesan wrapped in bacon, a stalwart dish for us in our date-obsessed household. While delicious as usual, the roasted dates betrayed Suzanne Goin’s “farmer’s market” philosophy to such a degree that she rendered the cover of her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques pure puffery. The artful cover has a photograph of a cluster of fresh yellow barhi dates, a paradigmatic farmer’s market item, since they are available for a few weeks toward the end of summer (i.e., now). Last week, the barhi dates at the Bautista family’s date stand at the Hollywood Market were at their finest: the golden clusters were fresh and plump, just like on the cookbook’s cover, but lush with a sweetness that no photo can convey.

So at the height of barhi season and with the promise of the cookbook cover and Goin’s fancy James Beard award, what does A.O.C. have to offer? Niente. Zero. Just the standard roasted date with bacon and cheese that they always have (and we always order). There would be no thoughtfulness on display at this assembly line. It’s a good thing Yom Kippur is around the corner, because deception and complacency warrant serious atonement.

We also had the fried tetilla, a soft Galician cow’s milk cheese and, like the dates, another standard appetizer for us. The tetilla is served thinly and in portions not much larger than a silver dollar along with a smidgen of quince paste and the spicy romesco sauce However, this time, the fried tetilla was a greasy mess. While it looked crispy and brown, the nasty taste reminded me of the fried mozzarella sticks I used to get in my fifth grade bowling league.

The next disappointment was a salad of eggplant, essentially baba ghanoush, served on a piece of thick toast and accompanied by a sizable cube of smoked ricotta, roasted peppers, and soppressata. The dish exemplified incoherence as the four ingredients bore no ascertainable relationship to one another, and I was uncertain about whether I should put any of the accompanying items on top of the baba ghanoush. I can speculate that there are two reasons why these ingredients were served: there is no way to justify the $11.00 price tag on a miserly portion of otherwise unaccompanied baba, and the kitchen knew it was bland and had to compensate. It would be unthinkable for Marouch to serve its brilliant smoky version with all of this clutter. Even the eggplant bhartha at nearby Electric Karma is better -- and that's just when it's delivered.

The best dish of the meal was the salad of corn and shrimp with green harissa and lime for $12. The lime and green harissa were a great complement to the market fresh corn, and the type of dish I come to A.O.C. to eat. But the portion was not large and the shrimp were not especially flavorful. The corn would have been fine sans shrimp, but then $12 for a small bowl of corn would not be appealing to diners. But neither is bland shrimp and corn for $12, which felt like petty larceny.

The menu advertised a tantalizing sounding market fish with "yellow tomato, pancetta, and opal basil." What arrived was a downright Dali-esque serving of sea bass over two slices of red tomatoes, a salsa of small Gerberesque roasted stone fruit, and flavorless pancetta resembling red dental tape, all under a glop of creamy sauce that Marisa surmised was yogurt-based. Like the baba before it, the dish was a mess and I was unsure how the ingredients corresponded to one another. The kitchen did prove that bass can be overcooked.

The final dish was a small bowl of clams with garlic and amontillado sherry. For $15, I expected an outsized portion, but there were less than a dozen clams. The broth was inert and the garlic undetectable. The sheep's milk cheesecake was very good, and a whole other animal from the standard "New York" cheesecake that my arteries and tongue dread. If it weren’t for the cake and the outstanding braised veal cheeks with risotto carbonara that I had at Lucques a month ago, I’d write off the whole Goin franchise. I am still a Frida Kahlo fan, though.


8022 West Third Street
Los Angeles
(323) 653-6359

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Discovering the West Village: Bleecker Street Pizza

Beside espresso, the other serious flaw in New York’s Italian food is its corner pizza shop. There is plenty of quality gourmet pizza to be found in New York, and no other American city can boast a pizzeria like Una Pizza Napoletana. (From my perspective, the widely lauded Pizzeria Bianco is not a meaningful alternative because it is in Phoenix, and even if I deigned to visit, I refuse to queue for several hours in the searing heat behind the legions of retirees who, by virtue of living in such a wasteland, have become impervious to the elements.) But the corner shop selling slices has lapsed into mediocrity with its industrialized ingredients and its audience of tourists and inebriates.

When I complained to Justin, he brought up the relatively new Bleecker Street Pizza as a good alternative to the various permutations of Famous Original Ray's, et al. As the proprietor recounted to Justin, he was searching New York for a location to open his shop and found a storefront at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street. Skeptics advised him to look elsewhere because of the stiff competition offered by the nearby venerable pizzerias, John’s and Joe’s. But the proprietor, after trying -- and dismissing -- their wares, knew his enterprise would be successful. Incidentally, I’ve long thought that John’s and Joe’s are as much an affront to pizza as Pink’s is to hot dogs. It comes as no shock that Joe’s is opening a location for the formaggio at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

We ordered two slices and had a few bites each as an appetizer to our upcoming Bar Pitti lunch and a dessert to the sandwich we'd just shared at Sant’ Ambroeus. We tried what I believe was the “Grandma,” a square-shaped slice with a delicious homemade sauce made with actual tomatoes, as well as mozzarella, parmesan, olive oil, and fresh garlic. The chewy crust was moderately thick, but the sweet tomato sauce really made it.

The second slice was the “nonna maria,” and it had a thin crust and came in the traditional wedge-of-a-pie shape. The pizza had a patina of fresh mozzarella along with parmesan and basil, but with less sauce than the other nonna. The flavorful mozzarella was the dominant and winning ingredient in the nonna maria.

Unlike every other pizza slice shop that I’ve tried in recent memory, Bleecker Street emphasized ingredients and preparation and deserves a description of “artisanal” even if it is just a guy selling pizza to passersby and locals with no evident pretensions. Since the West Village has not been immune from the City’s metamorphosis into an overpriced version of the Grove, it is heartening to see quality mom & pop pizza shops open and succeed in what may still be Manhattan’s most charming neighborhood.

Bleecker Street Pizza
69 Seventh Ave. South
New York
(212) 924-4466

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Discovering the West Village: Sant’ Ambroeus

As great as some of the Italian food is in New York, there are a few notable deficiencies in the local Italian offerings, namely the city's espresso options. New York’s notorious espresso and coffee is too often bland or burnt, and generally foul. (If I am unable to find potable coffee by 9:30 am, then the entire day is certain to be cephalalgic or riddled by Starbucks.) Perhaps New Yorkers are indifferent or commercial rents are too high for a good café to be economically feasible. But in a city that otherwise demands culinary perfection, its cafés, including those with pretensions to quality, are awful. For New Yorkers, Starbucks’ ubiquity has never been a cause for alarm. To be sure, I have been able to find fair espresso in good Italian restaurants like Bar Pitti, the Batali Empire, and pre-corporate 'ino, but never anything to get excited about.

J-Wy finally found a nice and relaxing place in his West Village neighborhood to have a coffee and look at the Times, namely Sant' Ambroeus. Located at the picturesque corner of Perry Street and West Fourth, this café makes a nice espresso with an attractive crema. The staff is friendly and breezy; they do not appear to be under pressure to turn tables. Either the margin on a $3.50 coffee is sufficient, or the servers realize that it should be. The espresso would not win many plaudits in the intense Portland scene. But in New York, Sant’ Ambroeus is a pleasant neighborhood café. It also makes a small, tasty bresaola sandwich, on its menu of paninetti all’Olio, that it serves on a sweet roll with lemon zest and arugula. Now that La Colombe has opened in Tribeca, forever changing the coffee equation in New York (and yet another import in a city increasingly dependent on Californians, Parisians and now Philadelphians for its finest food and drink), I am unlikely to be back. But Sant’ Ambroeus is the place to go when strolling around the Village.

Sant' Ambroeus
259 West Fourth Street
New York
(212) 604-9254

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Absurdities of Taqueria Los Barrigones

After the spiritual evisceration I received after a morning in Irvine, I needed to cleanse myself and return to bodily equilibrium. So my colleague and I sojourned down the 105 corridor and then through Lynwood and its graffiti-laden garage doors to try the new Taqueria Los Barrigones, whose proprietor earned a measure of infamy by denigrating King Taco, perhaps the benchmark of tacos in Los Angeles.

Two affable fellows were behind the counter and, observing my blue blazer and gray slacks, suggested tacos de pollo. Not seeing the pastor spit, I should have been wary and taken their suggestion. But the jefe did publicly lambaste King Taco, so I ordered four tacos: cabeza, lengua, and dos tacos al pastor.

The tortillas were made of maize, an act of genius, since they were also the color of maize, which is (self-evidently) one of the two finest colors in the entire spectrum. They were most flavorful.

However, the pastor consisted of cubes of fried pork, i.e., it was not the Mexican take on a döner kebab and could have been spam for all I know. It is the height of absurdity for this insolent owner to criticize King Taco’s pastor when he does not even serve it. His lengua was also cubed and wet, a far cry from El Taurino’s breathtaking shredded variety. Taqueria Los Barrigones obtained partial redemption from its meaty cabeza. I’m still unclear if cabeza is actually head or beef cheeks, and I don’t really care.

The garnish of grilled onions was deceptively bland. The chalky and watery horchata was the final disappointment in a horrendous day that started in Orange County.

Taqueria Los Barrigones
4070 Tweedy Blvd.
South Gate
(323) 569-8200

Monday, August 13, 2007

Two of Portland's Finest: Park Kitchen and Wildwood

Everyone in Portland seems to be either between the age of 21 and 35 and tattoo-laden or homeless with a fondness for opiates. “Hipsters” toil as bellhops, cabbies, and convenience store clerks, and know where to go for great espresso and experimental cuisine. I knew I was not in Los Angeles when our cabbie asked about the quality of the escargot at Paley’s Place. (I replied that Paley’s felt tired and its French food not as good as last year.)

Central Portland is compact, eminently walkable, and teeming with rebellious and surprisingly unpretentious young creative types, many of whom have escaped the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Everyone seems to be a budding rock-n-roll musician and has a passion for food, wine, and coffee. In this environment, there is no shortage of idiosyncratic restaurants and cafés to try and following Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps here did not lead us astray, excising of course his weekly foray into every city’s catacombs.

The Portland dining scene is exemplified by a great respect for quality local ingredients and experimentation. But when the subject turns to wine, Portland becomes provincial and manifests a bratty inferiority complex relative to its much larger southerly neighbor. To wit, Portland restaurants will not serve domestic reds other than Willamette Valley pinot and some Washington cabs and syrahs. However, in the quest for (self-)respectability, Portland restaurants seek the approval of the avuncular French, and offer a broad array of Burgundies and other regional wines.

Park Kitchen

On a recent Wednesday night, we enjoyed the youthful Park Kitchen, which is in a former garage across NW Eighth Avenue, a misnomer, since it is actually a boulevard whose wide median is the verdant North Park Blocks, which makes for a picturesque setting. Park Kitchen is an attractive restaurant with large glass front windows, leading in to a bar behind which is a comfortable dining room and an open kitchen. The restaurant’s walls were painted a breezy light green that Marisa found compelling. Not a single employee appeared to be over the age of 30.

Park Kitchen was not afraid to exercise its creative license and for the most part also exercised restraint. Its chef-owner, Scott Dolich, and chef de cuisine, David Padberg, both had stints at Wildwood, perhaps Portland’s version of Chez Panisse, which as I discovered, gives its cooks plenty of room to stretch out as long as they have the requisite chops. These apprenticeships clearly paid dividends, and I could tell just by watching these chefs that they relished cooking with the Northwest’s agricultural bounty, a terrific platform for their recipes.

Park’s dinner menu offers several small plates and half a dozen larger plates. Among the smaller plates, we enjoyed a fresh salad with grilled flank steak, blue cheese, and best of all, sherry roasted onions. I typically avoid the oxymoronic “steak salad,” but our waiter recommended it. The flank steak was good, but the combination of the blue cheese and robust sherried onions made the dish a standout. I also liked the anchovies served with “new wheat” that was purposefully picked before fully grown, squash and walnuts. The dish was less than coherent, but I love anchovies.

Best of all was the moist, delicious roasted sliced duck with cherries and pan-fried spätzle, which we enjoyed watching the chef prepare. The flavor combination of salty and sweet made this dish the hit of the evening. The only real misfire was the tempura of green beans and bacon, served to resemble Belgian fries in a paper cone. Greasy and starchy, every bite tasted fatty. The crisp green beans would have been delicious on their own; there was no need to gild that lily. Moreover, the fried morsels of bacon tasted like a full-on cardiologic meltdown. I could feel my arteries clogging. We skipped dessert in favor of a walk through Portland’s red light district for the black magic of Voodoo Doughnut’s bacon and maple glaze.


After the fiasco at Paley’s, which I had foolishly hyped as Portland’s Bistro Jeanty, my ingenious wife, took over the reins and chose a late lunch at Wildwood, a 13-year old specialist in the “cuisine” of the Pacific Northwest. We sat at end of the long counter in front of the wood-burning oven and watched and conversed with an assistant chef, a 28-year old army vet from Porterville, Calif. with tattoos of cutlery on his arms.

Our Wildwood lunch was great because the restaurant employed an Alice Waters approach and somehow obtained guttural Mario Batali results. This success is a testament to the restaurant’s founder and head, Cory Schreiber, who provides a technical foundation to his less experienced, but gifted assistant chefs, collaborates on recipes and dishes, and then puts them on the menu. It is also a testament to the Portland foodie culture, which has growing centripetal force on the west coast. Wildwood’s confidence extends to its wine, and it has no problem selling California wine. So after three days of much Willamette pinot noir and gris, I was relieved to have a glass of Qupe marsanne.

We started with two well-proportioned salads with outstanding local produce. Marisa’s salad, my favorite, had a foundation of mizuna greens and Cypress Grove goat cheese, and two items that distinguished it. Sliced baby fennel, a terrific supporting actor, was small and had a fresh, subdued flavor relative to the adult variety which tends to dominate. The baby fennel provided excellent balance to the lead, which were fresh local apricots roasted in a skillet in the wood burning oven. Their warm succulence and sweetness made the salad a hit.

I usually avoid gazpacho, because it ends up being cucumber-heavy pico de gallo. But as the other assistant chef dispensed a most tantalizing bowl of gazpacho, our interlocutor noticed our malevolent leering and quickly brought us a sample to prevent a scene and our disgrace. The gazpacho was outstanding for its freshness, balance of flavors, and smooth texture. A final touch of cayenne pepper on top enlivened it nicely.

Upon arrival, we watched the chef prepare a very colorful skillet of vegetarian risotto for roasting in the oven, and of course we inquired. The chef with pride claimed the dish as a collaboration between Schreiber and himself. So now I had to order it, despite my scepticism about risotto dishes and their notoriously high failure rate. The vegetables were local carrots, squash blossoms and summer squash along with some walnuts. The chef roasted it all in a skillet with white wine and toward the end added some mascarpone to give it a light creamy texture. The dish was a beautiful, resounding success.

While I defensively ordered the risotto to avoid any guilt and awkwardness since we were within three feet of the chef who claimed the dish as his own, Marisa asked the guy to recommend his favorite item on the menu. Skillet-roasted mussels was his answer, or to be specific, a large order of fresh small mussels from nearby Olympia, Wash. served in the skillet in a pungent muck of garlic, white wine, and saffron with plenty of grilled bread to sop it all up. This dish was the tipping point when all the pedantic talk about local produce terminates, and you put your head down and do not come up for air until it’s over. This is when a meal becomes guttural and Wildwood’s dainty Alice Waters veneer is stripped off. And this is Wildwood’s singular achievement.

Park Kitchen
422 NW 8th Ave.

(503) 223-7275

Wildwood Restaurant
1221 NW 21st Avenue

(503) 248-9663

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Coffeehouse Northwest, Portland

Portland’s coffee culture is serious, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters is its mainstay. Stumptown operates a handful of Dwell­ified cafés and roasts its own beans which have won awards from such wonky outfits as Roast Magazine. By contrast, Starbucks shops are present in the high-rent, high-traffic corridors, but appear to serve only Portland’s small population of automatons.

I visited the newest Stumptown branch, near the famous Powell’s bookshop. For all of Portland’s alleged progressivism, a labor union was striking in the rain against Stumptown’s landlord for what it alleged were poor wages and benefits, but inside, with Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man on the sound system, the customers offered only impolite jokes and indifference while awaiting their latte art. I didn’t expect anyone to march in the rain, but at least feign some interest. (My own excuse is that I am a heinous sell-out reduced to seeking $2 fancy coffee and then blogging about it.)

There must be at least one independent café on every commercial block in Portland, and those with any pretense to quality use the Stumptown beans, which the locals prize as much as they do their Willamette Valley pinot noir. Among this bunch is Coffeehouse Northwest, located on Burnside Street between the 21st/23rd avenue corridors and downtown.

Coffeehouse Northwest is a small café in a charming old brick building and has coffeeshop-brown wood floors and bad local art on the walls with comfortable, but not too cozy chairs and tables conducive to conversation, reading, and writing. The sound system, administered by its highly tattooed employees-cum-aspiring musicians, is vintage rock 'n' roll.

The baristas at Coffeehouse Northwest might strike Al Yeganeh as anal. They will not serve a shot of espresso unless they have tasted one first due to the pernicious threat of minute interior atmospheric change on the grind which they treat as so constant and subtle as to be Heisenbergian in nature. The manager even commented that after serving consistent, great espresso on a recent Tuesday morning, the atmosphere abruptly changed at 10:30, rendering the grind imperfect and him on the verge of tears.

Coffeehouse Northwest serves fresh Stumptown beans. The lead barista explained that the beans are best on the fourth and fifth days after roasting, with contrasting flavors on each day. After that, the espresso tends, with some exceptions, not to be potable.

I fortuitously visited on the fourth day after roasting and the barista served up one of the more unorthodox espressos I have ever seen. A neat, dime-sized circle of espresso shimmered from the center of the cup, surrounded by the coffee's crema, a concentric circle of dark cappuccino-style foam around the perimeter. (Usually, the crema covers the entire contents of the cup.)

This fourth-day espresso was browner than it was black and had a soft delicious taste that, in the Coffeehouse Northwest spectrum (and lexicon), was closer to caramel or a tawny port than chocolate. I returned the next day of course to sample the fifth day espresso, which was blacker in color and had the same peculiar crema but much more of the darker “chocolate” flavor. It was just as delicious, but I have to say, if given the choice between the four or the five, I’d take the four.

Coffeehouse Northwest
1951 West Burnside Street


(503) 248-2133

Monday, July 16, 2007


I had foolishly avoided Providence since it opened in 2005 despite its proximity to our Beverly-La Brea neighborhood and its intense focus on fish, which I always prefer to meat when dining at a fancier establishment. I had looked askance at it because the positive reviews commented on its high ambition and a few acquaintances who went found the food to be precious. Moreover, I distrusted its boxy building as too large to permit exceptional quality or intimacy, feared the prices and then lost interest. In short, I prejudged the place.

So on the occasion of the annual parental visit, my father, having read about Providence in pitiful Los Angeles, asked me to make a reservation. I demurred, offering up such local gems as Soot Bull Jeep, Chung King, and La Casita Mexicana, the likes of which cannot be found in the Midwest. (Needless to say, I lost the argument though on the following day we enjoyed the barbecued quail at Marouch and the southern Thai cuisine at Jitlada.)

At the risk of exaggeration, Michael Cimarusti’s Providence is as good a restaurant as I have been to in a long time. His ideas are as original as his execution is deft. His thoughtfulness goes well beyond the mere use of “new” ingredients or the unorthodox melding of various ingredients, although he does employ these tactics. Cimarusti, with great success, also applies traditional techniques in unorthodox ways to standard ingredients. But not once did I feel his dishes were somehow contrived or precious. It goes without saying that Cimarusti believes in fresh produce and fish. This is California after all.

I was nervous at first. The amuse was a shot of watermelon soup with lemon foam. The soup was fresh and flavorful, but the foam lumbered on top and could not be swallowed concurrently. It was also foam. I will say that Cimarusti’s attempt to pry the maligned substance from the Vigneronian bearhug was admirable if futile.

For an appetizer, I ordered the roasted spot prawn and Japanese sword squid with “provencal flavors,” a dish that immediately reminded me why I love the simplicity of southern French cooking. The kitchen placed two spot prawns at the center of the plate around which it interspersed tiny cuts of the squid. The Provençal flavors consisted of an intensely fresh tomato sauce darkened with capers and a minor chord of spiciness. The spot prawns could have been as succulent and tender as those miraculously good prawns served at L’Astrance, where only a dull spoon was really necessary to cut them. The sword squid was also very tender and delicious.

As a second appetizer, Big City and I split Providence’s foie gras parfait with gewürztraminer gelée, puréed red beet and freeze-dried cherry powder. My father chazered the powder so all I can report is that he really liked it with the foie. Cimarusti whipped the foie gras and served it vertically though not in a superficial west-of-Doheny kind of way. As a result, the texture of the foie gras “parfait,” which was served room temperature, resembled gelato (or the great ice cream at Milk). It was among the best foie gras I have ever eaten. I am sure the gewürztraminer gelée and beet puree were interesting and intelligent, but I was too focused in keeping the five other persons at my table from bogarting the foie.

For a main, I had a great roasted snapper served with roasted sweet peppers, chorizo that was served on a short bed of crushed potato with capers and olive oil. The snapper was thin and delicate though not flimsy, and had a fresh, rich flavor. Its skin was just as crispy and delicious as I would expect in a well-prepared duck dish. The snapper was so good that I paid little heed to the potato and chorizo until the fish was gone.

Marisa had the equally delicious striped bass with pistachios, porcini, carrot mousseline and wedges of mission figs. In an interesting twist, Cimarusti dusted the mission figs with salt, thereby amplifying their natural sweetness with the most basic complement.

For dessert, we liked the saffron rice pudding with Harry’s Berries strawberries and a few interesting gelati such as corn and salt & pepper. The décor was unobtrusive, as I had no clue that the following day's episode of Entourage was set at Providence until my mom called to tell me. The service was formal, even aloof.

5955 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 460-4170

Sunday, July 8, 2007

La Gelateria, Cleveland

After a meekly executed meal at Lola in downtown Cleveland, we wanted to satisfy our collective sweet tooth and honor our longstanding tradition of completing a night on the town by eating fresh, warm doughnuts late at Presti’s eastern bakery in Little Italy. But since Presti’s mysteriously changed its name to Gilly’s of all things and then quickly closed, we stopped by La Gelateria in the adjacent Cedar Hill neighborhood.

La Gelateria is doing its utmost to make me forget about Presti’s, at least during the summer. Operated by Valerio Iorio, who reputedly learned his craft at the renown Il Gelato Vivoli in Firenze, La Gelateria is a small shop that makes splendid gelato. His gelati are very light due to the lack of cream in the recipes. He uses three basic ingredients--whole milk, sugar and water --and he keeps the gelati at a temperature slightly warmer than the typical ice cream parlor. As a result, Iorio achieves a smooth and creamy texture without using cream.

I ordered the tartufo and espresso which were especially good because of the purity of their respective flavors. For this coffee lover, the espresso gelato was notably excellent because it tasted like undiluted espresso though its basic recipe called for what is normally a perversion: the mixture of coffee, milk and sugar. The robust espresso flavor was front and center while the milk and sugar's sweetness was self-effacing, just content to let the espresso shine.

No gelateria in Los Angeles is this good though there are certainly some interesting gelati available at Pizzeria Mozza and Providence. H-Bomb and J could not think of a gelateria in their West Village neighborhood that matched La Gelateria. It just goes to show that there are some venerable treasures remaining in Cleveland, and with La Gelateria even some newer ones.

La Gelateria
12421 Cedar Road
Cleveland Heights
(216) 229-2637

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Harold's Barbecue, Atlanta

After 24 hours in the capital of the syncretic “New South,” namely Atlanta’s Buckhead and Midtown sections, I felt hollow. Save their accents, the locals had excised virtually all traces of their region from the landscape and created a veritable Irvine. South of downtown, I was able to find some traditional southern charm and hospitality in the form of Harold’s Barbecue where the pleated-khaki-&-striped-blue-polo set was nowhere to be found. However, (as AO pointed out) the haggard conditions of the fences and guardrails alongside the roads leading to Harold’s Barbecue were circumstantial evidence that MADD was not particularly effective in south Atlanta.

Harold’s is set in a large shack with two no-frills dining rooms and a traditional lunch counter, which is where we sat. Anxious to try as much as possible and prodded by our affable waitress, I ordered the combination plate which came with chopped beef, chopped pork, a half dozen ribs, slaw, and as an appetizer, Brunswick stew. The stew, a cousin of American-style chili and my favorite item at Harold's, was made of pork and chicken, kernels of corn, and small shreds of tomato. The deliciously spicy and rugged pork was nicely offset by the sweet and sturdy smattering of corn. How the chicken contributed or why it was a participant in the stew are questions not easily answered.

As for the barbecue, the chopped pork was shorn of its fat and, hence on the dry side. The beef was somewhat fattier but still dry. The much more successful pork ribs were meaty and cooked with sauce on top and had just enough fat to bolster the flavor while avoiding the risk of turning into the infamous lardo pizza.

I belatedly observed that the most popular item was the sandwich of either chopped pork or beef. Harold’s Barbecue had a small smoky grill with low heat in front of the lunch counter that was dedicated to grilling the white sandwich bread and warming the chopped meat and over which the restaurant’s paterfamilias presided (though I’m not sure if he was Harold and I was too lazy to ask). The sandwich meat was chopped to order: it was taken from the kitchen, chopped at a station next to the small grill, and then placed on wax paper and onto the grill to prevent the meat from falling in the fire. With optional coleslaw, these sandwiches looked beautiful, and though I am sceptical of how the problem of dryness will be solved, I will certainly order one should I suffer the misfortune of returning to Atlanta. Harold’s homemade hot sauce was similar to a Tabasco sauce, but sweeter and more robust though its utility was to saving the dry chopped pork.

Harold’s Barbecue
171 McDonough Blvd., SE
(404) 627-9268

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Real Chung King: J. Gold’s Redemption

I owe my non-minyan level readership an apology, as I posted a scathing review of the wrong restaurant. There are two small restaurants with similar Sichuan menus bearing the name “Chung King” in the San Gabriel Valley. Only one has been heralded, and I, relying on the poor fact-checking skills of paid critics Jonathan Gold and Mark Bittman, went to the wrong one. In their respective reviews, Bittman and Gold incorrectly listed the heralded restaurant as being on Garfield Road in Monterey Park, which is actually the location for the outrageously bad restaurant, and not on San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel, which is where I needed to be. To exacerbate matters, both critics inexplicably included a sentence on the doppelganger’s Monterey Park environs. This sloppiness led directly to my nausea and burnitz. However, Gold, in his summer survey of Los Angeles restaurants, quietly overruled himself by imploring his readers to “[m]ake sure you end up at the San Gabriel restaurant, which is vastly superior to the Monterey Park imposter of the same name.”

So Marisa and I ventured back to the San Gabriel Valley, and are now, only belatedly, on the Chung King bandwagon. We stuck to familiar territory and ordered three dishes: the fried cubes of chicken with dried Sichuan red peppers; stir fried pork with several types of pickled peppers, garlic and green onion; and the rice crusts with chicken, seafood, and vegetables in a viscous lemony sauce.

Served first, the pork was shredded and had an unexpectedly soft texture that was delicious. The different types of pickled peppers and their varying degrees of fermentation presented a continuum of flavors between fire and tanginess. Our waitress then served the fried chicken, which was served in a sea of dried red peppers and struck like a bomb. All of the Peruvian aji sauce and salsa roja in my regular diet was no preparation for the Sichuan peppers, which were so different and are as intoxicating and addictive as they are delicious. Fifteen minutes into these dishes, my entire body was stunned and in a frenzy. I felt high. Yet there would be no way I would pull away from the ever changing flavors and the fire. The rice crust was supposed to be the counterpoint, but instead intensified the heat and pushed me back to the peppers.

I hereby renounce my skepticism of Chinese food.

But Bittman can still suck it.

Chung King
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 286-0298

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Stonehill Tavern

A Wednesday night dinner in Dana Point compelled my trip through the netherworld of Orange County, which has been criticized on so many more important fronts that its lack of culinary ambition and quality seems like an obvious logical deduction. My primary hope was that by virtue of being located in a St. Regis, Stonehill Tavern, which is part of Michael Mina’s chain of hotel restaurants, would have more in common with its praised flagship in San Francisco than the chain’s four Las Vegas restaurants or--and this is a new one--its outpost in Atlantic City. My secondary hope was that Stonehill Tavern would be immune from the garishness of, say, Mastro’s Ocean Club in Newport, where the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste, pace Mr. Hitchens, clearly gained ascendancy.

Upon entering this attractive restaurant, guests encounter dramatic, almost labyrinthine rows of sleek wine storage that rise up to the ceiling and yield to the compact bar. A long and comfortable dining room dining room lies just beyond and perpendicular to the bar. There are also tables on a veranda that offer ocean views during daylight.

After an unappealing and over-conceptualized amuse bouche of chilled marble-sized heirloom tomatoes, watermelon geleé and balsamic vinegar, Stonehill Tavern brought out my favorite: warmed Alpine rolls from Bread Bar, heretofore served only at my home away from home, Hatfield’s.

Stonehill Tavern has a smart menu that is at once ambitious and offers rarefied technical dishes such as pig cooked sous vide and, befitting its resort setting, sells a hamburger and fried chicken (albeit for $28 and $30, respectively). Stonehill Tavern categorizes its appetizers by culinary phylum: lobster, duck (pardon, Liberty Farms duck), tuna, shellfish, greens, and for SEC-violating expense accounts, osetra caviar. There are three preparations of each, and diners can order one or a tasting trio.

We liked the butter-poached lobster in a bisque of nettles with ricotta ravioli. With the pink lobster perched on top of the vernally green soup, the dish was very pretty. However, there was slightly too much butter in the lobster, which concealed its flavor and the ravioli were submerged and lost in the bisque. The seared foie gras with a strawberry-rhubarb relish was flawless: the foie gras was served at room temperature, maybe even a bit cool, and was so smooth and delicious that I wonder if the unconventional temperature was by design. If it were any warmer, the foie may have melted. Another success was the duck thigh with apple and a shallot jus. I only had a single bite, and while the menu advertised the dish as crispy, this usually compelling adjective did not serve the creation justice. While the skin was moderately crispy, this quality was beside the point, because the meat was tender, moist and full-flavored, which is not easy to pull off in my experience.

I then mistakenly had a lobster salad with grapefruit and avocado which was nice and light, but after the heavier appetizers got lost in the shuffle. A traditional salad--and Stonehill Tavern’s caesar and watercress salads both looked good--would have been a smarter interlude. The caesar consisted of hearts of romaine, which are smaller and more inviting than the standard romaine lettuce one finds in the majority of caesar salads.

The entrées were excellent. I enjoyed the dover sole, which the menu described too fancifully as being in a phyllo-crust and with crab and Dijon-butter. In actuality, the dish was simple: namely, fresh fish, expertly cooked with a little butter. From what I understand, the sole is a Mina staple and justly so. I sampled the roasted lamb, which was accompanied by braised artichokes, and it was equally delicious and simple.

The beef filet, the first steak I’ve sampled since celebrating Marisa’s birthday at Chez L’Ami Louis, served medium rare or medium proved decisively that “saignant” or underdone is the only way to eat it. I have long eschewed ordering steak, and now I know why. For restaurants not to cook steak rare (while getting away with serving raw fish) is offensive, and insofar as restaurants have adopted this policy out of a fear of liability, our system of torts has run amok and our health codes have become too stringent.

Stonehill Tavern unexpectedly had an excellent personality and was by no means a mere Orange County outpost of a successful San Francisco restaurant. It was not just an overpriced, vacuously formal restaurant at the St. Regis. Stonehill Tavern was very busy and I observed only one septuagenarian with an ingénue. The restaurant showed off its insouciance by playing, however softly, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on its sound system. Our waiter respected the niceties of the business dinner, but was pleased to interject his opinions in an appropriate and personable fashion. He was neither aloof nor ubiquitous.

Living in a geeky post-Sideways world, we tried our hand at pinot noir tasting. We stared with the 2005 Sea Smoke Ten from Santa Barbara, followed with the 2005 Beaux Frères "Beaux Freres Vineyard," a favorite from the Willamette Valley, and concluded with an anonymous Nuit St. Georges selected by the sommelier. I liked the Sea Smoke the most, though the Burgundy didn’t get a fair shake because of my excessive tippling which by the end nullified any sensory discernment. Since writing about wine seems to be a futile exercise for those not capable of authoring The Last of the Savages, I will only say that the Sea Smoke was like Miles Davis in that it had a sense of style and was tight. The Beaux Freres was the rock-‘n’-roller, and the Nuits St. Georges was much subtler, the Bill Evans of the group.

Stonehill Tavern
1 Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point
(949) 234-3318

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Intelligentsia Coffee: As Overrated as Chicago

With Los Angeles blogdom all agog about the imminent arrival in Silverlake of Intelligentsia Coffee*, the pretentiously named Chicago café-cum-roaster, a weekend sojourn to the Second City was the perfect time to preview its espresso. After walking around Lincoln Park, a section of Chicago that only P.W. Botha could appreciate, it was time to return to a semblance of civilization and caffeinate.

Intelligentsia is a nice café, and for north Chicago probably the most similar in personality to the old Coventry and Shaker Square Arabica locations (Arafreaka and Arachica, respectively) which, with their brown clunky mugs, remain the ne plus ultra of Midwestern coffee houses. On a Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed and spacious with comfortable, but not sloth-inducing chairs, and tables with diameters sufficient to pour over the Gray Lady. People were reading, discussing, and catching up. The café, for the half hour we were there, was spared the nuisance of excess laptop-wielding solipsists.

The espresso was good and while I would return if in the neighborhood, it did have a harshness that undermined my overall enjoyment. This harshness is too common in U.S. espresso with high aspirations and good publicity. Alphabet City's Ninth Street Espresso, which was lauded in the New York Times last September, has the same problem. Intellgentsia's affable baraistas drew good looking and tasty shots with nice crema, but they inartfully suppressed espresso's intrinic sweetness. In my estimation, the Italophilic Euro Caffé remains the standard bearer for espresso in Los Angeles, and Intelligentsia's arrival will not dissuade me from continuing to redline Silverlake.

Intelligentsia Coffee
3123 N. Braodway St.
(773) 348-8058

opening at Sunset Junction (3922 Sunset Blvd.) at some point this summer

* “We are absolutely stoked beyond exuberance to report that the Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee is slated to initiate what EaterLA is calling their "West Coast domination" at an outpost in the Sunset Junction part of Silverlake in April.” Lindsay William-Ross of LAist.com.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Ulysses Voyage Greek Restaurant

For a Monday night dinner, Ulysses Voyage is a solid taverna in the overrated Farmers Market, which whatever the natives say of its history, is beset by the metastasizing Grove. On Monday night, the absurd trolley that runs from Nordstrom to the Farmers Market, passing in front of the Ulysses Voyage patio, does not spark the usual outrage or contempt. On a clear evening with 70 degree weather, Ulysses Voyage grills octopus and shrimp with some competence and makes a spicy feta cheese that bears more than a slight resemblance to creamed cheese, but no matter. Ulysses Voyage is not going to serve a zesty whipped feta; it won’t even regale its saganaki-loving customers with a cry of “opa!” But after a stroll through Pan Pacific Park on a pleasant Monday night, Ulysses Voyage does the trick.

Ulysses Voyage Greek Restaurant
6333 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles
(323) 939-9728

Saturday, May 26, 2007

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Paris

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is above all fun. On Sunday night at 10 pm, the place was packed with the usual assortment of foodies from all over the world and a few would-be models struggling to find a seat. My neighbors to the left and right, struggling in English, urged us to try a glass of the 2003 Segla Margaux whose double magnum our server was proudly parading around the bar. The first sip revealed that classic Bordeaux taste coupled with an element of spice.

We enjoyed a most delicious brandade, somehow eclipsing Le Comptoir’s masterpiece from the previous day, and a platonically good green asparagus veloute soup rivaled only by the chestnut veloute we had there in December 2003. Also outstanding was a variation of the Alsatian La Flammenkuche, a pastry cooked to a crisp in a waffle cooker with shaven old parmesan and young julienned onions. As delicious as it was, without ever having the regional standard, one cannot have a full appreciation of it. I will just have to add Strasbourg to the list.

What is amazing about the place is that with the exception of the manager, a JR lieutenant for at least a decade, not a single employee was 30 years of age, and only one employee’s tenure exceeded nine months. For chefs and servers, the job is highly demanding, both physically and mentally, and 17 hour days are commonplace. With the restaurant’s turnover and stringent hiring requirements, it is a mystery how the restaurant has improved over the past five years.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
5, rue de Montalembert
Telephone :

As a postscript, on a recent return visit to the Las Vegas branch for a business dinner, I can report that there has been significant improvement due to a less ambitious menu which is not so reliant on technical bravado. For example, l’oeuf cocotte and its concomitant pyrotechnics were gone. Most dazzling was the poached baby Kussi oysters served on the half-shell in a small dose of butter. The dish was visually indistinguishable from a plate of raw oysters, which is what I then expected upon being served. The dish, like a great comedian, took me in another direction, and captured so much of the oyster’s plump flavor. Overall though, the restaurant’s atmosphere is still like an assembly line, much like the “city” that is its home.

Friday, May 25, 2007


Astier is a warm neighborhood bistro in the Eleventh which features daily preparations of the house specialty, rabbit, and an affordable 26 € menu for an appetizer, entrée, cheese and dessert. Thanks to Patricia Wells, I also knew that Astier serves that most magical and sapid creation, les filets de hareng, pommes à l'huile, a bowl of herring fillets bathed in olive oil, served here with onions, carrots, peppercorns and fresh thyme, and of course accompanied by warm, olive oily potatoes. My introduction to the dish was in a most memorable meal at Chez Georges when the PM and I shared it. Two years later (and ago), back at Chez Georges, it was equally good and memorable when split with a Nation dead-ender. That les filets de hareng, while not offal, retain the capacity to scare the timid only bolsters their appeal. Astier’s version was not too salty; it did stink, and it was delicious. I ate three fillets, and then yielded the bowl to the adjacent table.

I followed with a solid rendition of sautéed whiting fish. (Deep-fried whiting fish is interesting because it is both Joël Robuchon’s signature dish and a staple of African-American soul food, which only shows that the great distance between “high” cuisine and “low” cuisine is an illusion.) Marisa had a tasty cauliflower mousse with beetroot and pieces of bacon. She then had an excellent preparation of rabbit, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with reblochon along with a side of potatoes stuffed with reblochon. If a dish this perversely cholesterolic is a standard, then there are going to be few compelling reasons not to conclude with a cigarette.

For the first time in years, I gambled on crème brûlée. I have long avoided it in the U.S. for the obvious reasons: the fossilized shells of sugar; and the bland, incandescent, yellow substance underneath. But Astier’s version was soulful, perhaps the best dessert on the entire trip. Its sugary “crust” was browned but by no means required a miner’s assistance. The crème itself had a muted sweetness and its color was a muted brown. The dish was the perfect coda, a delicious and a subdued bookend to everything preceding it.

44 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Gagnaire and Ducasse can suck it.

Gaya Rive Gauche

Pierre Gagnaire’s experimental seafood restaurant on beautiful Rue de Bac has all the charm of an underfunded government laboratory. Its primary dining room on the second floor has a low ceiling that cultivates a nauseating claustrophobia. Moreover, the food itself failed in dramatic fashion. An appetizer of a bed of crab topped with octopus jam tasted flat and forced. The mains—scampi in an esoteric green sauce and scallops in a red sauce—were disappointing, even if the seafood itself was cooked properly. A fruit-infused rice pudding was an unswallowable, visual pollutant.

Aux Lyonnais

As we took our seats and had to endure a waspy, Upper East Side ashkenooz discuss her struggles in freshman philosophy at Bryn Mawr and then debate Turkish entry into the EU, we knew we were in trouble.

Aux Lyonnais’ ersatz Belle Epoque décor and its bright, antiseptic vibe bore too close a resemblance to the Grove’s Morels or any of those Keith McNally theme parks with which New Yorkers are so inexplicably enthralled. Compared to the venerable Le Voltaire or Bistro Jeanty, Aux Lyonnais’ quenelles were Sederic. It is pretty clear to me that Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire can suck it. I am an ass for wasting our precious time and money.

Gaya Rive Gauche
44, rue du Bac
01 45 44 73 73

Aux Lyonnais
32, Rue Saint Marc
01 42 96 65 04

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Guy Savoy, Paris

A lunch at Guy Savoy ranks as one of the finest meals in recent memory. Savoy has a San Franciscan embrace of fresh produce and eschews the egg-and-cream focus of traditional Parisian cuisine. Lucky for Marisa and me, we were there in late March, at the tail end of the traditional black truffle season.

The restaurant has a few dining rooms of varying sizes that have a subdued and clean décor that is livened by colorful modern paintings. After sitting for five hours in Per Se’s arena-cum-boardroom the previous week, it was a relief to be somewhere with a sense of intimacy, style, and comfort.

The kitchen served two amuse bouches. The first, an unofficial amuse, the amuses’s amuse, was a miniature, thinly sliced, triple-decker foie gras sandwich with black truffles and a light truffle and pepper vinaigrette, all held together with a toothpick. The sandwich’s delicacy and those truffles made it a delightful and most propitious start.

The actual amuse was a double espresso shot's worth of fresh carroty, carrot soup. The soup was a textbook example of Joel Robuchon’s postulate that “[a]s chefs, we don't have a right to make a mushroom taste like a carrot. Our job is to make a mushroom taste as much as a mushroom as we possibly can.” Lifting the soup’s cleverly designed demitasse off its ceramic saucer revealed a deliciously sweet spoonful of crab salad.

Savoy’s next preparation or preparations, as it were, was tuna and asparagus served two ways, or “crus-cuits.” He served an impeccably fresh tartare with beetroot, olive oil, and a little black truffle. In his second preparation, the tuna was sliced and seared so slightly that the edges’ resulting fraying was barely detectable. While these two preparations were flawless, these staples of Los Angeles cuisine would have been just that if it were not for the dish’s counter-intuitive emphasis on the raw asparagus which showcased Savoy’s vision and his raw potential as a surgeon. He served three tall razor-thin slices of asparagus, which were cut vertically and appeared as an illusion in light of how asparagus is normally viewed. Savoy’s dexterity with a knife doubtless would have impressed an incarcerated Paul Cicero. More importantly, the raw asparagus’s intrinsic sweetness was so delicious that it rendered the tuna’s two preparations as the playful complements. One day after eating an entire bloody entrecôte and fried potatoes and drinking almost an entire bottle of Bordeaux at the venerable Chef L’Ami Louis, it seemed improbable that a veritable comrade, intentional or not, of Alice Waters was a premier chef in Paris.

More sliced vegetables followed, a mild disappointment in itself. Carrots, celeriac and others were served in concentric circles with the raw slices circumscribed around the roasted ones. The vegetables were dressed in a superfluous light (and slightly malodorous) oyster sauce that concealed the high quality of the vegetables and, frankly, made Marisa gag a little. Basically, Savoy’s dish was redundant.

Savoy’s grilled lobster claw served in two preparations also adhered closely to Robuchon’s postulate. He served it by itself and unadorned, which emphasized the purity of its flavor, and down-home succulence and tenderness. Its texture was critical: it was not so soft as to be flaccid, and allowed us to gleefully sink our teeth in it. The second preparation was with a panure d’herbes, or breadcrumb “dressing,” which was like a slightly spicy, even zesty purée made with tomatoes that had the consistency of a coarse hummus. The lobster was served in its own consommé, which tasted like unvarnished, undiluted lobster. Perhaps Robuchon’s postulate was a lesson learned from Savoy. In the rarefied world of “haute cuisine,” Savoy was not afraid to bring out raw food and was not afraid to provide some spice, in marked contrast to the Per Se scandal, which is as out of place in New York as Gay-rod, pre-April 2007. This grilled lobster was outstanding, as measured by the high and the low, and Marisa offered her first reprimand of the day for smacking in a three-star.

Shaking off the Alice Waters influence, GS now asserted his Gallic authority in the form of his signature item, a robustly flavorful artichoke soup brimming with black truffles and accompanied by a rich and thankfully not-so-light brioche feuilletée with champignons and still more truffles. Truffle season supposedly ends in March, and with this meal taking place on March 30, Savoy did not exactly mask his desperate zeal to cook every last truffle in France. Needless to say, Marisa and I were not going to complain.

The final savory course was a roasted veal so tender that I used to a spoon to cut it. Its complement was tiny cabbage and just enough foie gras not to overwhelm. In keeping with the afternoon’s theme, Savoy also served a demitasse of what was described as a veal consommé, but based on its consistency and flavor was more of a bisque.

The dessert courses were for the most part excellent. Rather than bring multiple separate course, the kitchen brought out a continual array of small desserts, starting light, moving toward the richer end of the spectrum, and then settling back down. Trying to provide symmetry to the meal, we first had a carroty, carrot ice cream that while interesting did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that a dish with a pure carrot taste does not belong exclusively to the savory realm.

A moist twin chocolate fondant with praline feuilleté and chicory crème was presented like corresponding halves of a candy bar, the richer chocolate counteracting the saltier, spicier chicory and praline. The texture had a certain graininess that prevented the fondant’s richness from overwhelming. For any lover of the sweet/salty juxtaposition in desserts, this creation was also textbook.

The desserts then ended with a kaleidoscope of small desserts: small portions of two types of rice puddings, and, inter alia, an absolutely divine chocolate mousse and crème caramel with caramel ice cream.

Guy Savoy made a brief appearance during the meal to greet our neighbors and check on things in the restaurant. After a minute or so, he scurried back to the kitchen. He possessed a jovial physiognomy and good sense of humor, but clearly wanted to be in the kitchen doing his thing. Which was good, because I wanted to be in the dining room doing my thing.

Guy Savoy
18 rue Troyon
Telephone 01 43 80 36 22.