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

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