Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Enigmatic Comme Ça

Robert Louis Stevenson would have loved the strange case of David Myers’ Comme Ça. During the day, when Dr. Jekyll inhabits the restaurant, it is a convivial brasserie with quality French standards, adjusted to the Los Angeles diet, with few discernible sacrifices aside from the Restoration Hardware aesthetic. Plentiful sunlight enlivens the main dining room’s dark colors and creates a leisurely atmosphere. The usual crowd of failed Queer Eye auditioners and ladies all gussied up with collagen and faux sophistication is more amusing than grating.

The food is very good during lunch service. The parentals and the now Ever Sagacious Primipara delighted in the lemony smoked salmon tartare. Served on a thin, crispy potato galette, i.e., a latke, the salmon had a bright taste and a subtle smokiness that compelled my parents to order a second helping. My father and I split the mustardy, caper-laden steak tartare, a particular treat because of the beef’s rich texture.

I ordered the moules frites as a main. The mussels and frites were satisfying if less than masterful. The broth revealed David Myers’ sophistication, or perhaps my idiosyncrasies. The kitchen spiked the light, creamy broth with a dose of pastis, specifically Pernod, which provided a welcome nuance. Pernod seems to be the only pastis seen stateside, and it is drunk less as an aperitif than used as a cooking additive, and then with such infrequency that it must be listed defensively, like an adequate warning of anise flavor to unwitting diners under a product liability standard. (For what it is worth, its manufacturer, Pernod Ricard SA, claims that Pernod is not a pastis because it is does not contain natural licorice extracts like Ricard. Pernod has a milder or at least less strident flavor, which may account for its greater prevalence in recipes relative to other anis-based spirits.) For example, on the menu’s description of the dish, “Pernod” appears even before “pomme frites,” when the only question concerning the broth that warrants an answer in print is whether the broth is based in cream, butter, or some other substance. We finished with a delectable tarte tatin from Comme Ça’s sibling and neighbor, Boule Bakery.

Mr. Hyde stalks the restaurant during dinner service when Comme Ça transmogrifies into an echo chamber-cum-nightclub. The half-hearted welcome at the front desk is as gracious as the greeting from the burly doormen at Bardot’s shrine to meretricious phoniness. The sound system broadcasts the pulsating noise euphemized as “techno music,” which irritates regardless of the decibel level. (There must be some middle ground between hearing “La Vie en Rose” on an endless loop and ripping off the soundtrack from O-Bar.) Worse, the restaurant succumbs to the great plague afflicting restaurants popular among Los Angeles Caucasians wherein management’s attention to the food is subordinated to its attention to the scene.

The kitchen demonstrated a perplexing lack of confidence in its brandade de morue gratinée, the timeless purée of salt cod, olive oil and milk. Served in a casserole, the brandade itself was delicious. The cod’s creaminess and salinity were in perfect equipoise, and the zesty, gratin crust was well executed. So why would David Myers, in his infinite wisdom, choose to smother the brandade in a superfluous, scarlet purée of piquillo peppers that seeped its way into the cod, imperiling its consistency? I was forced to use our bread to scrape the piquillo purée off the cod and then conceal the detritus from my vision in the breadbasket’s cloth folds. However, once I finished off the brandade, my own disgusting indiscipline forced me to scarf down the bread, replete with that cloying piquillo gunk.

The Primipara, then still gravid, wanted the aforementioned salmon tartare, which was the impetus for our quick return for dinner. But after dark, the salmon was insipid, its natural richness muted. Marisa’s incisions into the potato galette required the use of a steak knife, as the regular knife simply wouldn’t cut it. To exacerbate matters, Marisa’s “crispy” skate grenobloise was a wholesale disappointment. Sautéed for well beyond the filet’s level of resistance, the skate, like Burger King’s old Whaler sandwich, was ugly, brown and desiccated. At the very least, the kitchen displayed consistency, as the dish was just as bad as when I ordered it several months ago.

My loup de mer, literally the wolf of the sea, or as I later learned, the farm, is a Mediterranean sea bass prized by restaurateurs for the stability of its pricing and the yield of its usable meat. Italian restaurants refer to the same fish as “branzino.” Roasted with lemon and tarragon and served alone, the fish was as dry as the Mojave and was so compact that it could have been the victim of an unattended sandwich press. In fact, the only moisture on the table was from the non-Gallic side of mostly pureed white corn, prepared simply in butter.

We eschewed the desserts in favor of Comme Ça’s most serious endeavor, the cheese course. David Myers dedicates an entire station to its cheese counter and gives it a prominent location—opposite the bar and behind the front desk. Comme Ça may be the only restaurant in Los Angeles that employs a full-time fromagier, effectively a cheese sommelier. After we informed our actor that we wanted the cheese course, the fromagier took over service. She introduced herself and surveyed our tastes. We advised her of our obsession with Epoisses, the runny and deeply pungent proof of continued French culinary preeminence, and entrusted her with the rest.

At least for the cheese, Comme Ça’s perfectionism and sensibilities yield wonderful results. The fromagier brought out five cheeses, each from a different region, and astutely paired four of them with balancing flavors. The cheeses were served in order of ascending astringency and at the appropriate temperature which brought out each cheese’s essential qualities. Indeed, the plate was so intriguing that I finally managed to block out all the cacophony. For the record, we had the Norman brillat-savarin, a triple-cream brie with a flavorful rind, brought out by dried mission figs; the Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees with marcona almonds; the Pico, a goat from the Ardeche and Drome regions in the Alps, accompanied by sun-dried tomato (the most harmonious of the pairings); the Burgundian Epoisses, wisely served unadorned; and at last a raw Roquefort, the famous blue made from Lacaune ewes’ milk in the caves of the mountainous Aveyron region, served with sweet honeycomb.

After the cheese course, the dining room’s unsettling acoustics returned. The waiter by now had switched tacks on the loup de mer, blandly describing the beleaguered farmed fish to incoming patrons with unintentional aptness, as “a Mediterranean whitefish.”

Comme Ça
8479 Melrose Ave.,
West Hollywood
(323) 782-1178

Sunday, October 26, 2008


With the Ever Sagacious Gravida clamoring for a spicy dinner before the Mad Men finale but not in the mood to leave the house, let alone abide my wishes to go to Park's Barbeque, it was time to give KyoChon a shot for some take-out. KyoChon is the KFC of South Korea where it has over 1,000 locations. It has expanded to the U.S. in recent years with a location in Queens and four in Southern California.

I ordered the whole chicken, half with a sweet hot sauce and half flavored with garlic soy. KyoChon carves the chicken into bite–sized pieces, but leaves the chicken affixed to the hacked up bone. They then fry the chicken pieces twice in a manner that "renders out the fat in the skin" and brush the pieces with the sauces somewhere in the process. Everything is made to order at Kyochon, which led to a 20-minute wait even on a quiet night.

The end result of what must be the most laborious recipe in fast food history is that the chicken fat and skin turn into some of the crispiest and tastiest fried fry around, while the meat remains juicy and tender within. The sweet hot flavor, with its red pepper base, is closer in style to the cayenne-dominated sauce accompanying Buffalo wings, and the garlic soy's flavor is self-explanatory. The dark meat, as always, was better than the white (though the ESG doesn't necessarily agree with that statement), and the hot sauce’s moderate fire was just what we wanted -- though it wasn't enough to put the ESG into labor, as she'd hoped.

The biggest surprise of the night was the moderately spicy chicken fried rice. This was straight-ahead comfort food, consisting of rice, tiny nubs of moist chicken, onions and peppers, bound together with the same delicious spicy sweet sauce from the fried chicken. It made up for the mayorific cabbage slaw that came with our dinner and was too vile to ingest and the alien cubes of white radish pickles floating in an unidentified liquid. But the chicken and rice, followed by a bowl of deliciously sweet grapes from the Hollywood Farmer's Market, made for a perfect pre-baby Sunday night dinner.

3833 West 6th Street
(213) 739-9292

Monday, October 13, 2008

Eating Animal

Fairfax’s evolution has accelerated in recent years with the Orthodox ceding territory to the peculiar phenomenon of the Turtles. A multiracial niche of young consumers, embodied by the Entourage schnorrer, they ritualistically queue outside designer haberdasheries on Saturday mornings in anticipation of the latest fad in “urban” wear. The result is that Fairfax’s sense of style is disjointedly informed by both the ghettoes of Prague and Watts.

It is no surprise then that, in this Los Angeles mishmash, a restaurant called Animal shares a valet parking stand with its glatt kosher neighbor, Schwartz Bakery. What remains unclear is whether our subject’s name, “Animal,” refers to its food’s principal ingredient or to the co-chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the self-proclaimed Food Dudes. This is a compliment, mind you. These are guys who adorn the bar with a lunchbox depicting Animal, the classic drumming Muppet.

One day after our seriously enjoyable meal there, we could not figure out if Animal was a stoner’s paradise or an absurdist, Norm McDonald-esque joke. (I’m not referring to a stoner’s paradise as a commune in Mendocino, but as a den in a Sigma Chi house, say, in Ann Arbor, circa 1994, with a subliminal penis painted on the ceiling.) After all, Animal is the restaurant equivalent of a fraternity party. On a recent Friday night, the scene inside was frenzied, while supplicants outside, like freshmen, smoked cigarettes and tried in vain to finagle a table.

To wit, Shook and Dotolo are positively gleeful about stacking a Brobdingnagian hunk of sautéed foie gras on top of a johnnycake, ham, bacon, and cheddar cheese and then pouring maple syrup all over it. This is not refined food. There are few subtleties, playful nuances, or rethinking of anything. They are not challenging us to eat some esoteric, but rewarding piece of offal. The whole thing may be a joke to them with the diner as the fool, just as Mikey from Top Chef Season Two, enjoyed watching Suzanne Goin eat his “Cheetos Dick,” (made with Cheetos, Snickers and Corn Nuts.) I couldn’t distinguish one ingredient from another, and yet this artery-closing mess tasted really good. It shouldn’t, but it did. As annoyingly earnest as I can get about food, I was disarmed in one bite.

Then these guys served up a pungent crock of hot, melted petit basque cheese with sliced chorizo and shallots. This undisciplined dish is practically an insult to the cheesemaker. The essential attributes of petit basque are lost in a blunt hammer of richness, and the fancy Fra’Mani chorizo is indiscernible. Nevertheless, the temptation was too potent, and I could not stop shoveling in this wonderful, gooey mess. The dish does put into perspective the true achievement of the similar queso fundido con chorizo at La Casita Mexicana, which is a great success on textural and flavor grounds. But Animal’s version is nothing if not fun, and the burnt crust of cheese and shallots proved irresistible to the Ever Sagacious Gravida.

Shook and Dotolo show some touch with their tender pork ribs. Roasted for ten hours, the meat literally fell off the bone when I brought a rib to my mouth. Since we weren’t in Hill Country, I used a knife and fork, perhaps betraying the animalistic element, but then again the restaurant provided the utensils. The ribs were sweet from their balsamic glaze, though not cloyingly so. Consequently, the heirloom tomato and bread salad accompanying the ribs was superfluous, even if the seasonal tomatoes possessed a robustness of flavor that allowed them to stand out among the fat and pork of these appetizers.

The supposed complement to the farcical level of pork and force-fed duck’s liver on our table was a plate of grilled romano beans, which are longer and wider than the basic green bean. Yet the kitchen must have felt that beans lacked cholesterol because they saw fit to throw in a poached egg and shaved grana. They dressed the dish with a “pancetta vinaigrette,” which consisted of vinegar and scores of pancetta microcubes. If anything, this dish proved Nate’s adage that everything is much better with bacon.

As is so often the case, the entrées lacked the appetizers’ vitality, though they were enjoyable. The Ever Sagacious Gravida and Nate ordered the deep-fried quail, with grits, chard, and what the menu calls “slab bacon,” in yet another maple jus. While the quail was tasty— it was deep-fried, after all—the grits were unremarkable, and the several pieces of “slab bacon,” which I define as a bold swath of fat, were too rich to eat. Like flourless chocolate cake 15 years ago, one bite (albeit delicious) was enough – and I am one who enjoys putting away saline, deliquescent lardo.

My flat iron steak was the generic centerpiece of a conservative meat-and-potatoes dish. Served in a bordelaise not enlivened by the supposed addition of oxtail, the inclusion of delicious grilled torpedo onions in a potato and corn hash saved the dish. But unfortunately, neither of the two entrées we ordered demonstrated the appetizers’ humorous outlandishness nor their flavor.

The desserts were a return to appetizer form. A tiny jar of chocolate pudding was a pleasant tip of the hat to the Old School, and the bacon chocolate crunch bar was a whimsical success. It was a restaurant-quality version of Vosges’s Mo’s Bacon Bar, layered with dense ganache, topped with delicious bacon bits that had the subtle texture of toffee, and sitting in crème anglaise. The people of Schwartz Bakery next door must not know what to do with themselves.

The wait staff set an affable, informal tone through their relaxed demeanor, which bordered on insouciance. But their quiet attention to polite and efficient service never wavered. For example, our waiter, pondering Nate’s request for a cup of coffee after dinner, answered honestly: “I’m not sure if we have clean mugs or espresso cups. But I’ll bring you something.” The waiter returned a minute later with a coffee in a discolored mug lacking a handle.

A restaurant in the ‘hood like Animal—with its irreverent fun and good food—is always welcome, especially since, in Oliver Schwaner-Albright’s words, the “nameless neighborhood . . . is emerging as the culinary heart of Los Angeles.” Albright’s assertion is correct, but sometimes we want to forgo the culinary ambition. Sometimes we’d rather be tipsy while getting down on some tender ribs and foie gras-topped johnnycake with ham, bacon, and cheddar.

Animal Restaurant
435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 782-9225

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace: In Memoriam

David Foster Wallace's untimely passing is a great loss. The title of this blog is a Yiddishe trencherman's homage to his magnum opus's title, Infinite Jest (which in turn is taken from Hamlet). As his loyal readers, we have been touched, inspired, entertained, and challenged by his work. He will be missed. So, dear readers, when you sit down to a good meal this week, think of David Foster Wallace and, in addition to considering the lobster, raise your glasses in memory of one of the most important writers of our generation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Choke on This: A Tale of Two Coffees

On the L.A. coffee scene, there are two lesser known establishments of interest. We are not talking about the Chicago interloper that is a spider web for scruffy late twentysomethings wearing clunky spectacles (regardless of medical need) and are always toiling in futility on their annual submissions to USC Film School. Nor are we talking about L.A. Mill Boutique, its $15 cups of coffee, or its array of “slow extraction” techniques. No, today we are talking about Choke Motorcycle Shop, the zenith of East Hollywood douchebaggery, and Cafecito Organico/Coffee Cellar, Angel Orozco’s labor of love.

Choke is buried deep in East Hollywood, near L.A. City College on residential Normal Avenue, just east of Virgil Avenue. While I can't speak for the location's crime statistics, the general aura of seediness and lack of other obviously licit commerce must intimidate more than a few would-be customers. From the outside, Choke gives the appearance of a ratty repair shop. Its filthy squared windows mute the view into the interior and the connected, adjacent lot is a caged junkyard of a dozen or so aging mopeds. I'll give Choke the benefit of the doubt that it repairs mopeds even if I didn't exactly see any working mechanics on my two visits.

Upon entering, I noticed that the establishment betrays some interest in dispensing espresso-based beverages. There is seating in the form of a single sofa that could incommodiously seat three and a coffee table where a beverage could be placed if the clutter on top were redistributed. Patrons also have the option of playing pinball on one of the vintage machines, assuming they are in fact operable. The espresso machine is partially concealed by the assortment of moped accoutrement and other junk including an old Dr. Pepper vending machine. In a nice touch, Choke makes a box of Lucky Strikes available to the coffee-and-cigarette purists. Luckies may not be Chesterfield Kings, but I appreciate the gesture.

The owner was sitting on the sofa, immersed in his Mac, (strange, considering that the shop’s ostensible purpose is servicing mopeds.) He eventually put his computer down and looked up. I was deeply alarmed, because this short, hirsute man revealed himself to be half-naked, dressed only in short shorts. Yet I knew this gent was the owner because there was no other male in the shop and certainly none fitting L.A. Weekly writer Linda Immediato’s obsequious description of "The alarmingly good-looking Jeff Johnsen, with messy black hair and heart-murmur-inducing blue eyes under thick black Elvis Costello frames." This little person and his Mac ignored me and swiftly departed for the vacant lot's heat and fumes.

On a second visit, I was dressed in my best corporate gear—tan corduroys and a blue, long-sleeved, button-down shirt—perfect for my prior engagement in Newport Beach. The owner wasn't there, so I wasn’t in danger of a heart murmur. But there were two heavily tattooed young women loafing inside. They ignored me for a long minute, as I, again the only customer, re-surveyed the surroundings. Only when it became painfully clear that I may have had some reason to be there did they feel compelled to interact. When I ordered an espresso, one of them welcomed me with the owner’s warmth, and snarkily spat “um, like how did you find us? On some, ugh, blog?” If nothing else, Choke Motorcycle Shop is praiseworthy in its commitment to barista hostility and to serving only hand-selected patrons.

The actual barista, who was only there on my first visit, was the de rigueur ingénue with a European accent, though in this case it was British. (Her picture is posted here.) She was armed with all sorts of homemade equipment, like a retrofitted fire extinguisher and what appeared to be an old nitrous tank. Using beans from Ecco Caffe, she drew a thick espresso that filled the demitasse with crema. But its flavor was steroidal and about as subtle as a Public Enemy anthem. It's still the best espresso in East Hollywood, save the rare day when Intelligentsia's is creamy and not burnt. Another irritating Choke affectation is to provide a napkin from the famed Sant'Eustachio Caffe in Rome, perhaps the ne plus ultra in Coffee Geekdom. But Choke’s espresso could not have been less Italian, which in my book has a subdued and sweeter flavor relative to Seattle-style espresso's sustained sensory assault. Good Italian espresso can be found at Euro Caffé, my favorite café in Los Angeles, and at the much improved Terroni.

For a purer experience, Cafecito Organico/Coffee Cellar makes a delicious cup of coffee. (The existence of the Spanish word "cafecito" demonstrates that language's superiority to English because, from what I gather, the word is a term of endearment for black coffee. English offers no such equivalent.) A native of Guatemala and a product of UCLA, Mr. Orozco taught himself the art of roasting coffee. From his Coffee Cellar cranny inside Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe, he roasts his coffees during the week to varying degrees of medium, understanding that dark roasts obliterate flavor. On the weekends, Mr. Orozco brews coffee by the cup at his Cafecito Organico stands—at the Silverlake Farmer's Market on Saturdays and the Hollywood Farmer's Market on Sundays. He offers a handful of roasts each week, and their origins fluctuate. He prides himself on sourcing quality beans from small growers with the usual “fair-trade,” “shade-grown,” and even “bird-friendly” designations.

I enjoy the nuttiness of his El Salvador blend, and Hans, Food Woolf's lesser half, likes the Chiapas. Mr. Orozco, who affects an earnest agricultural-intellectual look, also has to manage his own inner coffee snob. But he does so with grace and does not allow it to run amuck like Choke's Johnsen. Where Johnsen openly disdains the non-moped-riding population of the world, Mr. Orozco's response to violators of basic coffee etiquette, e.g., patrons asking for iced coffee even on a hot summer day, is to remonstrate politely that “ice will hurt the taste of the coffee.” (He does offer a cold-brewed coffee sweetened with sugar cane juice, the mordantly named Global Warming Special.)

I’m waiting to see what Cafecito can do with espresso. Orozco does roast beans for espresso upon request, and the website indicates that he is in the process of procuring a lever-operated machine. It may take Orozco some time to master the craft, but I know that he will. In the meantime, I will enjoy my cup of Salvadoran during my regular sojourn through the motley Hollywood Farmers’ Market.

Choke Motorcycle Shop
4157 Normal Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 662-4653

Cafecito Organico
Hollywood Farmers’ Market, Sunday mornings
Ivar & Selma Avenues
(213) 305-4484

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kindred Spirits: Four Decades of Chez Panisse and Steely Dan

Last month, we visited Berkeley to see Steely Dan stamp out any lingering idealism at the Greek Theater. Nevertheless, Chez Panisse (and the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective) demonstrated that Berkeley’s Sixties legacy is not dead; it’s just confined to Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto. In contrast, downtown Berkeley is still plagued with faux radicals who disregard their surreal inauthenticity and congregate along fetid Telegraph Avenue and in People’s Park, when not sitting in trees. These shenanigans helped elevate Kid Charlemagne that evening to an especial darkness.

As Chez Panisse celebrates its 37th anniversary, its cuisine feels as timely as ever, much like Steely Dan’s four-decade old brand of melodic sarcasm. Panisse’s once revolutionary philosophy has endured by continuing to utilize impeccably fresh, local ingredients for its deceptively simple preparations. Chez Panisse has sustained its reputation as the most influential restaurant in the U.S. in part through its ability to attract young talent drawn to the training, résumé enhancement, and dreams of grandeur associated with the matchless list of alumni. The larger names include Mark Peel and Suzanne Goin here in the ‘wood (our peeps), Jeremiah Tower (albeit controversially), Zuni’s Judy Rodgers, Mark Miller, Paul Bertolli, Joyce Goldstein, Cowgirl Creamery founder Peggy Smith—maker of the Red Hawk cheese, a veritable first cousin to our favorite, Époisses—and Fress-maligned but elsewhere acclaimed Michael Tusk. Prominent recent alumni include Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain of Camino who have already garnered praise in the Times and the Chronicle. It is no surprise that under Ms. Waters’s auspices, Chez Panisse's coterie of young chefs displays peerless technical competence, or at least fluency in the Panisse lexicon. Of major restaurants with kitchens visible to the diner, only the chefs at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris appear younger.

While the list is Northern California-centric, Los Angeles—at least between La Cienega and La Brea—is catching up, though at a glacial pace. Waters’s ideas have obviously found a home in feisty Portland where its chefs and obsessive foodies, having ditched the pretension, are trying to out-San Francisco San Francisco. (On the coffee front, the Portlanders have arguably out-Seattled Seattle.)

What about the provincial East Coast? With the ascendancy of Dan Barber and Blue Hill and the cute “Greenmarket” phenomenon (not to mention that French Laundry spinoff in the Columbus Circle mall), formerly rough-and-tumble New York has succumbed to the idealism of Berkeley’s Alice Waters, just four decades after the fact. The Gray Lady even lauded the Finger Lakes agricultural region of "central New York," which is supposedly somewhere between Rochester and Syracuse, whatever that means. What ever happened to the New York of Steinberg's "A View of the World from Ninth Avenue?" Apparently, that's pre-Waters New York. The new New York reads the United States of Arugula and might as well be called New Munich.

The Chez Panisse Café sits on the building’s second floor, and has an extensive à la carte menu that changes everyday. At a leisurely afternoon lunch at the Café before the concert, a few items stood out. The California Kid and the Ever Sagacious Gravida both ordered the heirloom tomato salad with “hand-pulled” mozzarella, basil, and a lively olive oil. While the dish was visually beautiful and abounded with flavor, it distinguished itself as a model of control and refinement. In a certain sense, the dish was a lesson, at once remedial or advanced, about how tomatoes, mozzarella, and olive oil are supposed to taste and why their flavors are harmonious.

If the salad was a showcase for the state’s summer produce, the pan-fried California sea bass was a revelation. Chez Panisse sautés a grayish hued fish so that it takes on the coarser texture of swordfish while still retaining its moisture. The lean fish has a natural richness, yet the preparation is the embodiment of restraint. There are no superfluous sauces; the only accompaniments were halved cherry tomatoes, small spherical potatoes, and a handful of ridiculously good green beans. The California Kid pronounced the bass the finest he ever tried. Strictly speaking, the "California sea bass" is not a bass at all, but a member of the croaker family of fishes. If Panisse were more faithful to its sustainability principles, its menu would use the fish's true and much less marketable name, not the euphemism.

While The Kid was enthralled with Panisse, he was still reeling from the peculiar genius of the Cheeseboard pizza where we noshed before lunch. The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective makes only one type of pizza a day and is operated by the 12 most rugged kibbutznick-pizzaiolos in the East Bay, who make fine companions to the laboratory workers of Forno Campo de' Fiori. (To be fair to the employees of the famed Roman bakery, it may take a dose of alchemy to create pizza that divinely good.) How this Collective coaxed so much great and interesting flavor out of July 26's improbable combination—zucchini slices, cilantro pesto, olive oil, feta and mozzarella on a vibrant pizza dough— is beyond me. All these old school and New Wave pizzerias in more traditional pizza locales can just step aside, with the exceptions of Una Pizza Napoletana and Geraci's.

We finished with an exquisite Ruby Grand nectarine tart and vanilla bean ice cream. Nectarine and peach tarts were ubiquitous in the Bay Area all weekend long. It’s a shame that Los Angeles chefs aren’t featuring them, a disappointment exacerbated by the superiority of the stone fruit available at the Hollywood farmer's market. Waters sends her people even further south to the cultish Chino Farms market in Rancho Santa Fe. The Hatfields also make the schlep, which makes for great Wednesday dinners at their eponymous restaurant.

Later that evening, Steely Dan's sly and pristine musicianship was on full display. Waters and Fagen/Becker showed that they are in many ways kindred spirits. Both Steely Dan and Chez Panisse demonstrate a great commitment to technical acumen, the effective and prolific use of young musicians and chefs, and, through food and music, social critiques as relevant as ever. (Steely Dan may have sets its sights too high with its rendition of Godwhacker, which is clever, but not as funny as Hitchens' God Is Not Great. Also Becker cannot sing.) Ultimately, Steely Dan and Chez Panisse, from their respective perches of East Coast irony and West Coast idealism, offer up refined and thoughtful sensibilities for the ears, mouth, and brain.

Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Ave.
(510) 548-5049

The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective
1512 Shattuck Ave.
(510) 549-3055

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Kareem’s Restaurant

Southern California’s endless contradictions make it the country’s most interesting metropolitan region, if also the most frustrating. Take, for example, the mythology of Orange County as corrosively artificial and the spiritual home of the subprime mortgage.

On one hand, the O.C.’s most popular restaurant, at least among its coastal, pre-recession glitterati, may be Mastro’s Ocean Club. According to Irene Virbila, the Ocean Club’s “concept is so simple” that it “doesn't need a high-end chef to execute its menu. Line cooks will do.” (Actually, they won’t do, as the food does not approach even the most liberal definition of “edible.”) On the other hand, Kareem’s Restaurant in inland Anaheim is a bastion of traditional Lebanese cooking, emphasizing quality ingredients and painstaking preparations. In Kareem’s 12 years of operation, Mike and Nancy Hawari, the co-owners, co-chefs, and sole employees, have not served any dish that they did not make or prepare completely, the very antithesis of the “collateralized” debt obligation.

Anaheim’s contradictions are staggering; David Addington would consider them Manichean. The suburb is the home of Disneyland, which is ludicrously marketed as the Happiest Place on Earth. Yet the uber-American theme park shares a freeway exit (the Ball Road exit off the 5) with Kareem’s and its menacingly named neighborhood, “Little Gaza,” whose referent could be the Least Happiest Place on Earth and where an apparent majority of the storefronts have signage in Arabic script.

A seemingly ubiquitous contradiction, Southern California has relegated yet another sophisticated practitioner of a traditional cuisine to the sterile, rootless home of the strip center. At least Kareem’s shares this dubious distinction with such gastronomic stalwarts as Jitlada, Park’s Barbeque, and Kiriko. Unlike those establishments, Kareem’s tiny and sparsely decorated dining room has little physical charm, though it is too clean to be a dive. Still, the owners provided a gracious welcome which was all the charm we needed.

While Ed and I waited for AO to navigate South L.A. County’s smorgasbord of freeways, we noshed on a delectable order of falafel and hummous. Kareem’s falafel is crispy and moist, its interior green from fresh parsley. The hummous is creamy with spicy undertones. Mrs. Hawari told us that she makes the hummous twice a day, beginning on the preceding evening when she soaks the beans, and then finishes the recipe with onion, garlic, and spices. Circular pitas accompanied the platter, and though fresh and fluffy, their spartan flavor made them not worth the precious stomach space. (If I learned anything in Texas, it is not to fill up on irrelevant carbohydratic foodstuffs.)

AO eventually arrived, and we got down to the business of eating. For his part, AO was totally useless. He ordered a beautiful dish of sautéed sirloin steak diced with onions and tomatoes and just inhaled it. Ed and I got bupkis, no samples, nothing—just AO’s excuse that he was ready to eat that day and that he loved it.

Tempted by the sautéed lamb liver, I asked Mrs. Hawari what to order. Her only counsel was that everything is good and that if it weren’t, they would not serve it. Kareem’s may be the only restaurant where that reply is justified, but it was less than helpful. So I pressed further, and she confessed to a predilection for the kufta kabob.

Kareem’s kufta consists of two long grilled sausages made of ground lamb and beef, onion, parsley, and other spices. Served with rice, they are tender and have a rustic spiciness that I really enjoyed. They are not unduly moist or geysers of fat like those Texan links. Mrs. Hawari told us that they make the sausage with their own grinder and source the meat from a trusted local halal butcher, insisting on low fat quantities. I couldn’t resist ordering it again the following day, postponing the lamb’s liver to a later date.

Not until the end of our meal did Mrs. Hawari serve our plate of glistening baba ganough. But we quickly realized there was no delay or miscue in the kitchen. She made it from scratch for the order. Her baba is intensely flavorful. It has a rich, creamy texture and a nuanced spiciness that reveals itself a few seconds into each bite. For Ed, the experience was epiphanic as he now, quite understandably, braves the Santa Ana Freeway once a week for baba and kufta.

The only misfire at Kareem’s is the fuul, a plate of diced favas mixed with garlic and lemon juice. The languid favas aren’t bad, but they lack the farmer’s market freshness that the rest of our meal had.

After this gem of a lunch, I wanted something sweet. But the Hawaris do not make dessert and thus they do not serve dessert. This rigor, while laudable, is also annoying; I don’t think they even serve coffee. All they could offer were recommendations for their favorite local bakeries. But after a three-hour lunch break, the bakeries would not be in the cards.

Kareem’s Restaurant
1208 S. Brookhurst St.
(714) 778-6829

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hill Country Correction

Gregg informs me that every establishment we visited served shoulder clod. Yet there was some concern that it was a leaner cut and so we avoided it, which in retrospect was a mistake.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hill Country, Day Two

We began the second day in Lockhart’s Kreuz Market, which has to be one of the few remaining American restaurants founded in the nineteenth century. A victim of too much success, in 1999 it moved from the downtown smokehouse that it made historic to Lockhart’s outskirts. Kreuz is now housed in a giant red shed of a roadhouse that, like many of its Texas barbeque brethren, could well suit a putsch. Patrons order meats by the pound inside the cavernous pit – and just like at Meyer’s, they may not enter until summoned.

The smell of smoked meat was so intoxicating that it was difficult to focus on the menu. We entrusted the ordering to our expert, Gregg, who was rendered powerless by the glorious smoky aroma. In his BBQ-fueled stupor, he failed to order the shoulder clod that we saw only at Kreuz’s, leaving us just with a pound each of beef brisket, ham, beef and pork ribs, prime rib, pork chops, and sausage. I love my younger brother, but I remain bitter.

Kreuz, in spite of its reputation as a purist’s redoubt, was the only establishment that sold legitimate side dishes; nevertheless, they were segregated and sold in one of the large dining rooms flanking the pit. The exemplary side dishes included a vinegary German potato salad (which is to say, one not tainted by that culinary ejaculate, mayonnaise), a hot and zesty sauerkraut concoction, and satisfying baked beans.

Kreuz's brisket was the best of the trip. It had a great crust and smoky ring from the post-oak, and was tender, though not meltingly so. Both sets of ribs were delicious. Ironically, in the heart of beef country, the pork chop may have been the best thing of all. Of course, I didn’t have the clod so I can’t say with certainty. (Thanks, Gregg.) The pork chop stands out and was transcendently good with its deep smoky flavor and meaty texture. (OK, so “meaty texture” isn’t exactly the most evocative description, but dude, IT WAS MEAT AND ME LIKE MEAT.) It alone would warrant a return trip to the reddest of states. Kreuz forbids the use of forks, but this “rule” seemed more a physiological response than a normative obligation. Passing it around and eating it with our hands was totally apropos, and I was proud of any similarities to the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only drawback: Kreuz’s sausage, much like every other smokehouse’s (save Mueller’s), tasted like a greasy, unprocessed Dodger Dog.

We then moved on to Smitty’s, which is located in Kreuz’s original (and comparatively compact) location. We were somewhat nervous about going there because it had to follow Kreuz’s wild success. But Smitty’s aroma swept through its corner of tiny downtown Lockhart, its adjacent lot enticingly filled with rows upon rows of chopped post-oak. We entered directly into the hot, smoky pit, its exposed flames licking the air around the door. (There is no way this degree of danger would be tolerated in risk-averse California. I thought that it would be illegal in Texas, until I read that Texas does not even regulate its crane industry.) I could only imagine how many careless and drunken fools have fallen into the fire.

Despite its sterling pedigree and colorful setting, Smitty’s food was a disappointment. The brisket was exceedingly greasy and salty, as were the pork ribs and pork chop. The Sterns, writing in Gourmet, aptly described the sausage as “so succulent that if you plan to snap it into two pieces, you must treat it like a bottle of Champagne you are about to uncork.” However, this statement should not be construed as praise. The sausage tasted like liquefied fat. I could not swallow more than one bite. Incidentally, Smitty’s was the most racially integrated of any of the smokehouses that we visited on our trip. That was its only plus.

Our last smokehouse of the day was Black’s, a real oddity. Toward the end of the corridor where patrons enter was a pathetic salad bar of items that didn’t belong in a salad and looked like they could have prepared when Black’s opened, in 1932. My interest in eating was crushed by the salad bar's wan potato and macaroni salads and oleaginous agglomerations of beans. The interior wasn’t charmless, but after the Smitty’s fiasco and this “salad” bar, we didn’t want to stick around. So we confined ourselves to the outdoor picnic table and noshed on a pound of brisket. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, the brisket was pleasant, if somewhat greasy.

After these disappointments, T2P wisely demanded a return to Kreuz for one more pork chop. Naturally, we obliged, devoured the chop and then traveled to San Antonio for a dose of traditional tourism. We have vowed to return to Lockhart to correct Gregg’s error and try the shoulder clod.

Kreuz Market
619 N. Colorado St.
(512) 398-2361

Smitty’s Market
208 S. Commerce St.
(512) 398-9344

Black’s Barbecue
215 N. Main St.
(512) 398-2712

Monday, July 7, 2008

Le Pigeon

With the corporate expense account on its final gasp for life, AO and I hopped a plane to Portland on the flimsy pretext of transacting business. From Le Pigeon we expected a small, serene setting and a shrine to gastronomic excellence (or, at least, ambition). Instead, we found a tiny but boisterous bistro packed until midnight with a crowd of young foodies.

AO began with a nice rendition of foie gras accompanied by mashed, dried mission fig and pine on a superfluous triangular buttery pastry. The pine was the principal ingredient signifying unconventionality or “innovation,” and its mild flavor provided a soothing presence to the richer foie and sweeter fig. I loved my appetizer of warm lamb belly, which is “the meaty flap that surrounds the front ribs of the lamb” now in vogue with trailblazing chefs. It was served with a salad of asparagus, spring peas (as the meal actually took place in May), and a dab of a mint salsa verde catalyzed by pecorino. New York Times critic Merrill Stubbs is correct in arguing that lamb belly “offers a more nuanced mouthful than its porcine predecessor.”

I envied every bite of AO’s beef cheek bourguignon. Chef Gabriel Rucker’s take on the classic dish was modern but in perfect harmony with traditional recipes. The preparation consisted of succulent beef cheeks, a few carrots, and a robust sauce which deftly used salt to balance the red wine sauce. Plus, the beef cheeks were delicious.

Rucker has a reputation as an aficionado of tongue. I eschewed eating the organ until four years ago, when Babbo’s warm lamb’s tongue with a two-minute egg proved so revelatory. El Taurino/King Taco continually reinforces the Babbo experience with its brilliantly sapid taco de lengua, the best of its kind in my experience. Accordingly, I was eager to see what Rucker could do with tongue. I was concerned that the only beef tongue on the menu was mixed in with the spätzle that accompanied the flat iron steak; while I tend to enjoy spätzle, I generally do not like to order steak. Nevertheless, I put myself in Rucker's hands and, to my delight, the steak was excellent. Le Pigeon respected the cut of meat and served it rare, allowing the steak to retain its flavor. Moreover, the creamy, mustardy spätzle with the tongue was a luscious complement to the steak. It was no surprise to learn that Rucker, a native Californian, also enjoys tacos de lengua and cabeza.

My praise here is getting uncomfortably fulsome, and I admit that by the time the steak came around, AO and I were at the bottom of a second bottle of wine with one to go. But, even as we started plowing through a Vouvray Trie de Vendange—striking a minor blow against the dwindling balance sheet of my former employer—my sensory perception remained intact.

The desserts were not as successful as the savory portion of the meal, though they were good. Most enjoyable was the profiterole filled with foie gras cream and dressed with sea salt and caramel. It traversed the familiar terrain of the salty/sweet juxtaposition— and much like the bourguignon—the pendulum was set firmly, but not excessively on the salty. Less successful was the coffee pot de crème, served with crème brûlée. The pot de crème was boring, and the brûlée repeated the very same salty/sweet interplay that was in the profiterole. It was a better version of the basic, cloying American crème brûlée with its thick shell and incandescent yellow crème. The pastry chef’s inexperience here showed, and she should take a lesson in making the standard from Astier.

An exemplar of the new Portland dining scene, Le Pigeon is refreshing and exciting precisely because it is not a temple of refinement or elegance as found in New York or San Francisco. It is not even a finished product. But it exudes the freshness and exuberance that are lacking in larger cities with their Zagat scores, older clientele, and bourgeois posturing. At Le Pigeon, the artifice yields to a genuine and unpretentious desire for good and thoughtful food in the setting of a vibrant bistro.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
(503) 546-8796

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hill County, Day One

As I discovered over a two-day tour of Texas’s Hill Country, one of the larger frauds perpetrated on the American culinary scene is the existence of a debate about which region has the best barbeque. The loudest, if not all or even the best, claimants would be Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina (though the state is itself divided on methodology), and the towns circumscribing Austin, Texas. I’ve had the good fortune to visit Kansas City and Memphis on a few occasions, and Gregg, the true barbeque aficionado and a practitioner in his own right, has spent considerable time in the self-anointed barbeque meccas. In the final analysis, Texas smokehouses are peerless for the quality of their barbeque and—to choose a despicably and unacceptably heinous term that I just cannot resist—their overall mise en scène.

We began Gregg’s carefully plotted barbeque tour in Taylor at Louie Mueller Barbeque in a setting that is as rustically American as Chez L’Ami Louis is Gallic, if not more so. Since 1959, Mueller’s has been housed in a cavernous edifice that lays deceptively within the shops on Taylor’s main drag. The engulfing scent of the smokehouse sets the scene and radiates throughout Taylor's small downtown. On the morning we visited, an American flag and a Harley Davidson were planted in front of the restaurant and provided the heartiest of welcomes. Taylor, however, is hardly a nativist’s utopia, as a mom-and-pop across the street was selling piñatas to the growing Latino population.

We entered the dim, large hall which houses the main dining room, service counter, and various smokers and pits. (It was once a ladies’ gymnasium.) The paint on the walls is so dark from smoke and rust that it is impossible to ascertain the original color. The only sources of light are the handful of half-open window panes at the nexus of the high ceilings and front walls. But the ceiling's dark wood cannot refract the meager quantities of rust-tinged sunshine that penetrate the panes; it's just as well because our gustatory and olfactory senses were all that we needed.

Gregg ordered beef and pork ribs, sausage, and of course brisket at every establishment we visited -- and as is the custom, he ordered by the pound. (We supplemented this basic menu at Mueller’s with a bone-in rib eye.) We quickly learned that silverware, plates, sauces, and side dishes were all extraneous on this BBQ tour. The only necessities? Butcher paper, fingers and thumbs, and the occasional raw onion and sliced pickle to cut the palate when the meat flavor became excessive.

Mueller applies a rub to its meat that consists exclusively of salt and pepper. All of the various meats thus have a peppery taste, and virtually of all of them are delicious. (I thought the pepper inundated the nevertheless overcooked steak.) As it turned out, Mueller’s meaty and succulent beef ribs, a carnivore’s fantasy, and the well-done, peppery pork sausage were probably the best of the weekend for their respective genera. In fact, the sausage proved to be the only edible version as every other establishment, including the several self-proclaimed specialists in sausage, sold coils of encased grease, surpassing the beleaguered Dodger Dog as the zenith of treyf cuisine.

After a freight train temporarily blocked our way out of Taylor and forced us to have a decent enough intermezzo of brisket at the ancient, but not yet dilapidated Taylor Café, we hurried to Elgin for two more lunches.

Elgin is privileged to be the home of Southside Market and Meyer’s Smokehouse. Southside is a barbeque and butcher shop that dates to 1882, though it moved to a large sterile facility on the edge of town some 16 years ago. Southside is notable in that it uses no discernible rubs on any of its meats, which allows for a much more natural flavor than at Louie Mueller’s. Southside’s brisket is deliciously tender and better than Mueller’s in my book, as it lacks the taste of strong black pepper. The baby back ribs are unique in that Southside emphasizes their essential porkiness; in fact, they taste almost like ham. I enjoyed them, though I would not be surprised if others did not. Southside wishes to be judged on its “Original Elgin Hot Sausage” but it is overwhelmingly greasy and foul tasting. I could not ingest more than a few bites before experiencing revulsion. Nevertheless, the natives love it, a mystery as perplexing as their habit of eating hunks of incandescent orange cheese with their barbeque.

The day’s penultimate lunch was Meyers’ Elgin Smokehouse, which similarly has a smokehouse and market, and touts its beef sausage. Potential patrons followed the Soup Nazi methodology of customer service. We were stationed in the adjacent room behind a line that was some 15 feet from the counter. Once summoned, we ordered, paid, and received our lunch. The next customer was not summoned until we exited the counter area.

Running out of intestinal capacity, we only tried the brisket, the sausage of which Meyers is so proud, creamed corn, and a pit-smoked baked potato. Once again, the brisket was outstanding and had a nice smoke ring. Meyers uses a spicy and smoky rub that is not as strong as Mueller’s, though much more pronounced than Southside’s elusive rub. The creamed corn is sweet and tasty and, though we had high aspirations for the pit-smoked potato, it tasted like an ordinary baked potato. Once again, we were not charmed by the sausage’s fat and grease.

Meyers was to be the final lunch of the afternoon. But on our drive back to Austin, we drove through Bastrop where Gregg spotted a trailer on the side of the road with a pit beside it. Actually, his nose detected a great smoky scent permeating the air, and he demanded that we stop. We found an aging King of the Hill inside waiting for customers for his barbeque “made the old fashion way!” Open only Friday through Sunday, we figured one more pound of brisket and a seat at a filthy picnic table wouldn’t hurt anybody. This gentleman’s brisket was just as good as his more famous competitors who are open more than his allotted 18 hours per week. This was straightforward brisket with no concealing rubs or spices.

While we waited for our food, Gregg snapped a few photos of the trailer for posterity in plain view of the nervous proprietor. When I returned for some napkins, the owner raised the issue of the photos and asked, “Are y’all a part of some kind of con-cern?” I assured him that our intentions were entirely benevolent.

As great as the barbeque is, the local cuisine is otherwise mediocre at best, and often inedible. Contrivances like Frito Pie and hunks of what could be government cheese simply do not pass muster. On Day One, at least, supposedly urbane Austin’s attempts to sophisticate local Texan cuisine were embarrassing and literally forgettable.

Louie Mueller Barbeque
206 West 2nd Street
(512) 352-6206

Southside Market & Barbeque
1212 Hwy 290
(512) 285-3407

Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse
188 Hwy 290
(512) 281-3331

Lost Pines Bar-B-Que
1106 Chestnut St.
(512) 321-8551

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Barney Greengrass

With a daytrip to decidedly un-Semitic Greenwich, Conn. imminent, the ever sagacious gravida thought that pre-eating at Barney Greengrass might fortify the soul against any preppers. She also had a craving for a bagel and smoked salmon. While I normally eschew Ashkenazi food for its stagnancy and lack of freshness, there may be no type of food I love more than effluvial fish. Moreover, I had never paid a visit to the Sturgeon King, which is so venerable that it is the setting for a scene in Roth’s Operation Shylock.

Greengrass’s smoked sturgeon is certainly very good. I did not expect its mild flavor and creamy texture and am glad I tried it. But the true revelation was the soft, smooth mound of chopped herring, which I spread onto a crusty bialy. Greengrass’s traditional recipe calls for mixing the cured herring with vinegar, white wine and apple sauce. The latter ingredients provided a flavorful and balanced zestiness. But more than that, the chopped herring simply had an abundance of herring flavor and brought to mind one of my favorite dishes anywhere, the Chez Georges bowl of marinated herring filets submerged in oil and herbs. Considering my usual antipathy to the Chicagoland of the Upper West Side, if it weren’t for the ersatz New England town, I might never have gone.

Barney Greengrass
541 Amsterdam Ave.
New York
(212) 724-4707

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tere's Mexican Grill

Cater-corned from the garish Brothers Collateral Cash Loans pawn shop and a long block from Los Angeles’ best restaurant, Tere’s Mexican Grill is a charming, textbook example of a great neighborhood eatery. Tere’s has an extensive menu of Mexican specialties with a few standouts and standbys -- as well as a few items to be avoided. (This is to say, it’s not a taqueria.) It has a loyal clientele of locals, families, laborers working in the area, and, thankfully, not too many hipsters. Mexican folk art adorns its walls and ceiling, accompanied by the de rigueur American flag and portrait of Zapata. And fortunately for waiting patrons and breaking employees, the television always seems to be tuned to Primera División soccer.

The owner and his lieutenants are friendly and efficient. The constant flow of business and a lingering language barrier tend to prevent much banter, at least with the gringos. But the staff is always quick to offer a salsa bag if they detect any take-out patron struggling at the salsa bar with too many containers, a regularity considering how tasty the three salsas and pickled carrots are.

The real standout is the pork con chile verde, which provokes a feral response. The pork, which comes in three or four chunks to the order, has a tender consistency and occasional crispiness on its exterior. The kitchen simmers the pork in a sophisticated, deliciously piquant chile verde sauce, which has ample, but not immoderate, fire and a welcome lemony undercurrent. The manager confessed that he will put the chile verde on basically anything, but the pork is really the only appropriate vehicle for such a magisterial sauce.

I also like Tere’s mole which is unlike the thick, lumbering sauces I normally see. Ground chiles are its chief ingredient, chocolate is excluded (for the record), and it accordingly has a reddish orange color. But its appealing, spicy taste is unmistakably, if unconventionally, mole. Served over a platter of stewed chicken or a pair of chicken enchiladas, the mole tastes best when I wash it down with a cup of horchata.

Befitting its proximity to Providence, Tere’s showcases a commitment to fresh produce and quality preparations. It makes its own tortillas which are always served hot and perfect for sopping up chile verde, mole, or any of the homemade salsas from the bar. Its modest mixta salad—an assortment of chopped lettuce, red cabbage, cilantro, onions and a few wedges of avocado lightly dressed in lemon juice and salt—is always a success . Guacamole and chips are a consistently good starter, though the guacamole could use more fire and exclude the diced tomatoes.

Tere's Mexican Grill
5870 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 468-9345

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Osteria Mozza

Recently, we returned to Osteria Mozza for the first time since Marisa somehow snagged a reservation on its opening weekend, when we had an enjoyable dinner (though one with justifiably mixed results). After frequenting the pizzeria regularly after its opening weekend, we ended up ignoring the Mozza twins for the last several months because reservations were impossible to come by and fighting the crowds for bar seating was as pleasant as a morning at the DMV. Then, we received a tip that the frenzy had moved west down Melrose to Comme Ça, where it is possible to reserve a table, but not secure a good meal, or even a table.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2004, I have managed to suppress my urges for pasta because Italian food here is an object of my personal frustration and resulting derision. As much as I love Italian food--and I truly do--the whole Bill Buford cult of regional Italian cuisine and authenticity is as annoying as pretentious Silverlake espresso shops. (I'm talking to you, LA Mill.) Not only is French food infinitely better, homier, and more interesting, but Joël Robuchon’s Atelier in Paris may be making the best spaghetti carbonara these days. A week ago, though, I wanted some pasta. And going to JR's place in Paris is a hell of a commute.

We took a seat at the mozzarella bar, in direct view of the diffident celebrity chef. Silverton is a marvel to watch. She constantly examines, sniffs, and tastes, and is a model of efficiency and intensity in her preparation of mozzarella bar dishes. She devotes precious time to instructing the younger chefs, stopping often to issue seemingly inaudible diktats to her assistants who miraculously absorb every word. Unlike her extrovert of a partner, she is not interested in superficial banter with her customers, though she seemed happy to discuss the nuances of Italian and Californian burrata. Overall, she, like Quinn Hatfield, and, for that matter, Suthiporn Sungkamee (whose moo nua mae chan Silverton reportedly favors), is a throwback to the pre-Food Network days when chefs focused only on food while big personas with middling talent and creepy laughs did not win made-for-television competitions.

We began with a simple preparation of four deliciously tender pieces of grilled octopus accompanied by a salad of celery and potatoes dressed in lemon. This is a dish I absolutely love. It was great on opening weekend and was just as good on this particular night. It is also superior to Craft’s roasted octopus and Greek yogurt appetizer which does not have the same tenderness or flavor.

From the unwieldly large mozzarella bar menu, we had a less successful take on Campanile’s brilliant pressed autostrada sandwich. Silverton’s adaptation substituted scamorza (a mozzarella cousin, for all intents and purposes) for Peel’s aged provolone, Armandino Batali’s mole salami for Peel's assorted cured meats, and pickled cherry peppers. Silverton’s scarmorza sandwich, like Campanile's, used the device of embedding slices of salami on the exterior of the sandwich (which for all I know Silverton may have actually originated). However, the Silverton/Batali offering was a model of disproportion. Marisa felt that the mole salami, which has a distinctive, spicy taste and is a star in any platter of charcuterie, overwhelmed the sandwich. I arrived at this conclusion from the opposite direction: I thought the cheese smothered the salami and peppers. It’s worth noting that Peel charges $16 for an entrée-sized sandwich that comes with an always excellent salad of greens and frites for the table, while Silverton/Batali charge $14 for a much smaller sandwich accompanied by a tasty, well-dressed arugula salad but sans frites.

The two pasta dishes we shared were solid and faultlessly prepared. At their finest, the Batali pastas are both refined and exquisitely guttural, but Osteria Mozza’s lack this latter element. Marisa had the mezzalune, half-moons filled with butternut squash, topped with crumbled amaretti, and served in a brown butter sage sauce. I had the tasty francobolli di brasato, pasta filled with braised beef and served in a gray butter sauce with thyme. Francobolli are literally translated as “postage stamps,” though the spatial dimensions of the diminutive first class U.S. stamp bore no resemblance to the slightly larger filled pasta. There is no doubt that this pasta was the best I have eaten in Los Angeles though I cannot say that it triggered the desire to eat pasta here with great frequency. What we had was too luxurious and lacked rusticity. On our next visit, I’ll try the amatriciana again (which I struggled to enjoy on the admittedly challenging opening weekend) with the goal of proving myself wrong.

For an entrée, we shared the crispy duck which I devoured. It was the unquestioned highlight of the evening. The kitchen confited and then grilled a breast, thigh, and drumstick under a brick, which allowed the skin to crisp. It was like being back at the old Phil the Fire on Shaker Square, a chicken & waffles joint. The breast was as tender as a confit should be, i.e., not preciously tender, and with the advertised crispy skin. The drumstick may have even been better on account of its greater fat and the ease of eating the meat and skin together. A side of pear mostardo delivered some complex sweetness punctuated not only with a rich pear flavor, but also a little spicy kick moments later. A ramekin of leafy, vinegary brussel sprouts negated the theory that there can never be too much garlic. I would never have expected this theory to be tested in almost an afterthought of a side -- especially considering that the sprouts were cooked in the duck and then in sherry, two dominant flavors. This stuff was acrid.

The espresso was barely potable and had no crema. An expensive 250 ml carafe of a Soave was uninteresting and bland. On the plus side beverage-wise, I discovered the joys of Averna, a Sicilian digestif so fruity, herby, and delightful that I rushed home to order some from K & L (who refers to it as a "bitters"). As long as the Batali chain retains its silly policy of all-Italian wine lists, I’ll gladly pay the corkage fee.

Osteria Mozza
641 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 297-0101

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

San Francisco & Gary Danko

To celebrate my birthday, I planned a day of culinary hedonism, namely flaneuring around some of San Francisco’s most celebrated eateries and hoping for the best. We began with coffee at Ritual. While Marisa, a non-caffeine addict, found its cappuccino epiphanic, Ritual’s espresso was completely lacking in restraint. The barista appeared to employ a lot of technique, but the intensity was completely overwhelming, the caffeic equivalent of the dreaded California fruit bomb. We then strolled to Tartine for pastries and the requisite second morning espresso, all of which were outstanding.

We moved on to the venerable Zuni Cafe for a leisurely lunch. With rare San Francisco sunshine radiating through the restaurant, our table on the second floor overlooking Market Street provided privacy and views. We split a deliciously simple plate of black spaghetti with clams, garlic, olive oil and red pepper flakes and the justifiably famous roasted chicken with bread salad. As the fat from the chicken drained onto the warm bread salad, I became excited and erroneously pronounced Zuni’s chicken better than the smoky classic at Pollo a la Brasa in Koreatown.

Later than afternoon, we went down to the Ferry Building to check out the scene. After scoffing at the Slanted Door and its dumbed down “pan-Asian” selections, we saddled up to the bar at Hog Island Oyster Company. (New York has also succumbed to the same anglicized pan-Asian blandness in the form of Momofuku with its false shrine to pork. Once one eats at Chung King, Jitlada and the like, there is no going back.) There, we split a dozen sweetwater oysters and kumamotos from HIOC’s renown farm in nearby Tomales Bay. We then tried, and I ignored, an overcooked cheeseburger from the southern outpost of St. Helena’s Taylor’s Refresher. I’m glad the burger was bad, because I doubt I could have eaten it.

The coup de grace to this entire day of arterial destruction was a 9:00 pm reservation at Gary Danko, a titan of San Francisco dining. Gary Danko, after earning a sterling reputation at as a chef in Bay Area restaurants, opened his eponymous restaurant in 1999 and it became an instant classic. The San Francisco Chronicle has ranked the restaurant in its “Top 100” ever since it opened, and the painfully democratic Zagat Survey named the restaurant the most popular in San Francisco and as having the best food and service. Yet the controversial Michelin Guide awarded Gary Danko only one star, an outstanding accomplishment, but inconsistent with its local popularity and status. In comparison, Michelin gave two stars to competitors Michael Mina and Aqua.

We loved a dinner there two years ago, and I wanted to return again with Marisa. What we discovered on our return was a dated, one-dimensional restaurant with uncomfortably solicitous service.

Danko’s vision is a hollow triangulation of a cuisine that is neither progressive nor timeless. The middlebrow menu of vaguely French-inspired dishes with scattered elements of seasonality and Asian spices constitutes a reconfiguration of the old continental formula that was swept out 25 years ago by Puck, Waters, etc. I’ll list a few items:

Beef Tenderloin with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Potato Gratin, Cassis Glazed Shallots and Stilton Butter
Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing

Beef tenderloin, or filet mignon, is the hallmark of 1970’s continental food, which is not surprising since it is famously expensive and bland. With the side of potatoes, a substitution of mushrooms for corn and a cheaper cut of beef, the dish could be sold as a Swanson Original TV dinner. Seared ahi tuna,--a locution that is either misleading or vague and redundant depending on whether yellowfin, bigeye or some other tuna is being served-- has long been a favorite of whites in flight and hit the Ohio exurbs in the mid-Nineties. (I still shudder from those lengthy drives with the family through Republican precincts to the old Market Square Bistro in Bainbridge where I first developed my hatred of the dish.) The avocado accompaniment is even more embarrassing, as the fruit must be served with 80% of tuna hand rolls in California sushi bars. The only constants here are the luxury ingredients, which are perfect for Danko’s hugely marked up wine list and conservative clientele, and the kitchen’s anachronistic inclinations.

As for the actual experience, we sat on the perimeter in the restaurant’s smaller dining room, leaving us in earshot of the room’s center table and any reverberations. When one member of the party at the center table turned out to be the loud personification of what Eric Cartman detests about San Francisco, I knew we were in a bit of trouble.

Considering it was my birthday dinner, I went with the seared foie gras appetizer with caramelized red onion and apples that was served in an undisclosed lake of sweet red wine sauce. The dish was tasty, but a harbinger of mediocre things to come. Whatever amount of street cred I had is now being relinquished: the foie gras’s texture was slightly languid for my taste. Marisa tried the lobster salad with persimmon, chestnut mousse, and pomegranate seeds, and it was as bland as Mitt Romney.

After the richness of the foie, I wanted a change of pace and ordered the “Moroccan-spiced” squab with chermoula and orange-cumin carrots. I have an affection for practically all things Moroccan, and frankly couldn’t resist. Marisa, enticed by the side of chestnut spaetzle, tried the venison with braised red cabbage. Both dishes were, for all intents and purposes, submerged in the same sweet red wine sauce as the foie gras. I wanted to try Marisa’s venison, but my palate lay in ruins and I was unable to differentiate Marisa’s venison from Manischewitz. While I am amenable to criticism that I ordered foolishly, the menu’s description of these dishes did not mention sweet red wine sauce.

Danko is known for its traditional cheese course. For this food geek, it is immensely exciting when the old-fashioned wooden cart of esoteric cheeses is wheeled up to the table. On this evening, however, the assortment of cheeses underwhelmed. It could have been the absence of epoisses--Marisa’s favorite dairy-based substance--the overrepresentation of the quotidian cheddar, or the fact that Bristol Farms and La Brea Bakery carried most of the selections. Worse yet, none of the cheeses stood out, another disappointment.

We did end on a high note, because the baked chocolate soufflé, our shared dessert, was great. The soufflé had the requisite fluffiness and the chocolate had a welcome sharpness that I very much enjoyed. Two sauces accompanied it, but they weren’t needed.

Gary Danko
800 North Point Street
San Francisco
(415) 749-2060

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Solar de Cahuenga

For the minority uninterested in paying $10.00 for a cup of coffee in a coffee “boutique” frequented by 40-year old white men wearing “God is Dead” shirts and Doc-Martens--whether ironically or not--and located in a neighborhood best known for its admixture of Upper East Side levels of pretension and Los Angeles levels of stupidity, I suggest giving Solar de Cahuenga a chance. Maverick barista Donny Morrison has recently taken over the reins of its espresso machine, and good things are bound to happen.

Solar de Cahuenga
1847 Cahuenga Bl.
(323) 467-7510

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Tartine Bakery, San Francisco

I am going out on a limb and pronouncing Tartine Bakery the finest bakery in the Western world. I freely admit that I base this opinion on only a few sampled items and on two visits that were separated by one year. I understand that Tartine only opened in 2002, lacks charm and comfortable seating and has long lines of insufferable San Franciscans. But I am also basing this opinion on visits to such celebrated establishments as Maison Kayser and the ever precious Gérard Mulot, as well as the inferior quality of bakeries in Los Angeles and New York. (When Bread Bar, the local branch of Maison Kayser, is properly managed--and it is a rare occurrence--it is the best bakery in L.A.)

I became hooked on Tartine in 2006 when its lusty croque monsieur ended a painful hangover. Not surprisingly, Tartine served its croque as a tartine, i.e., open faced. The bread was thick and crusty, the ham smoked, and the béchamel and gruyere in perfect, if slightly indulgent, proportions with thyme and pepper. Tartine’s accomplishment was that it made a sandwich that clearly benefited from its originators’ technique, experience and access to impeccable ingredients, but would not be out of place at a Philly cheesesteak tasting or on a taco tour of central Los Angeles. The sandwich is ultimately about pork and cheese and should cure a hangover, which it did.

In our recent trip to San Francisco, we had an hour to kill between having coffee at Ritual in the Mission and going to lunch at Zuni for my birthday, and so we wandered over to Tartine. As the line was not yet Soviet in scale though still out the door, we thought we'd try a few items, which restraint quickly dissipated under the pretext of birthday exuberance. We loved the ham and cheese croissant, which Tartine served warm, and also bridged (and negated) the false gap between food’s supposedly high and low bandwidths. The gougere with gruyere and fresh herbs was a revelation because of its ineffably addictive texture and peppery kick. On the sweet side of things, a thin and crunchy hazelnut biscotto with anise was a perfect complement to Tartine’s near perfect, restrained espresso that was not hyper-concentrated or over extracted, like at Intelligentsia. We could not resist the fresh “morning bun,” practically the Platonic form of a cinnamon roll. It was both light and substantial and had a thin layer of orange sugar to provide sweetness and balance.

We ended with the finest chocolate chip cookie this side of my mother’s. The thin and tasty cookie and had an undertone of saltiness and masterfully worked the classic salty/sweet combination. The cookie was like a cohesive, well-practiced quartet: the chocolate had the freedom to solo, but used its discretion to collaborate smartly with the dough’s tight rhythm section.

The upshot of eating before Zuni is that we were forced to order their venerable roasted chicken and bread salad and wait the hour, a period for which I otherwise would not had patience.

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco
(415) 487-2600