Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hey, Umami Burger, I want my calories back.

Marisa, a little over one month ago:

Getting ready for our first trip east with the Belle, we decided that Steve would pick up a quick lunch for us. For the last two weeks, I've been feeding the family a steady diet (as Steve would say, emphasis on "diet") of fresh fish and very, very fresh farmers market produce. (N.B., if you live in Southern California, get thee to a farm stand tout de suite and stock up IMMEDIATELY on fresh asparagus, Harry's Berries strawberries, and some purple ass potatoes. They're all, like, negligible points and beaucoup de delish.) Anyway, we keep hearing about this damn Umami Burger -- from such varied sources as people on Facebook and noted Brentwood potheads. If those bastards know a burger joint in our 'hood before we do, then clearly something strange is afoot at the Circle K. So I dispatched my man-servant to South La Brea while I changed the bird's fifteenth soiled diaper of the day. He returned with burgers, fries, onion rings, and sweet potato chips. The minute they hit the counter in our kitchen, I felt the need to reach for a mop and a bucket o' Lipitor. The waxed paper containing these items could not contain the oil slick within.

Steve and I bit into our burgers with the glee of exhausted new parents who forgot to eat breakfast (oh, wait, that's exactly what we are). I had the So Cal burger (Umami Burger's riff on a basic cheeseburger), while Steve smacked down on a Port Stilton. As we recoiled from our first bites, we looked at each other, perplexed. "Do we like this?" we kept asking ourselves as we ate our lunch, occasionally swapping burgers in the interest of science. Hours later, with the overwhelming fifth taste haunting me with a shimmer of nausea, I think it's safe to say the answer is no.

Steve, present day:

The Umami experience was so traumatic for the Primipara that she cannot countenance eating another hamburger, let alone finishing this blog. Now Marisa is a burger girl at heart and has always loved herself some In-N- Out and Carney’s. So for her to desist from eating burgers, for more than a month after the Umami debacle, is a testament to how bad the place is. Of course, this has made my life difficult, because I do enjoy a burger and have been really into 8 Oz. lately. But the Umami burger was so repugnant that Marisa’s seemingly rash response is, in fact, quite reasonable.

Umami Burger wants to impart the so-called fifth taste into its hamburgers. The question of what “umami” actually is remains outstanding and perplexing. Harris Salat, writing in the Times, tersely defined umami as “the taste of mouthwatering savoriness.” But this definition is less than helpful, since savoriness, even intense, “mouthwatering” savoriness, would seem to have a home in one of the four other “tastes.” (This taste classification system feels as crude as the five Classical elements.) The umami inquiry veers off into peculiarity because of the allegation that the fifth taste was somehow discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. I would not expect a particular sensory experience to be a candidate for discovery, like some rare species on the Galapagos or an esoteric element with a minuscule half-life on the frontier of the periodic table.

Perhaps Dr. Ikeda actually identified the chemical composition of the so-called umami flavor such that when a given food consists of at least these chemicals, it has the umami flavor. Along these lines, the Umami Information Center, a marketing group, defines the fifth taste as a “pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.” I’ll concede that salty foods include NaCl, just as--I have long (and geekily) joked-- organic foods contain carbon. But the Center’s description of umami as having glutamate (such as MSG, which Dr. Ikeda invented) and ribonucleotides is too clinical for me. (I’ll concede that a technical definition of umami may be warranted, but it vitiates the romance associated with food.) As a result, describing umami to non-chemists may be akin to Potter Stewart’s famous legal definition of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . .”

If umami can naturally occur in meat, it certainly does not do so in the Umami burger. Accordingly, the chef saw fit to use tamari sauce, which is a thicker version of soy sauce (itself a flavor-emasculating grotesquerie) and anchovies, normally one my favorite fishes to eat. But it is a mystery, on a Lynchian scale, why anyone would mix a very astringent soy sauce and loads of anchovies with quality ground flap meat, as if it were some perverse East-Meets-West version of Hamburger Helper. Thanks to Umami Burger, my wife may never want to go out for burgers again.


The wife was so totally disgusted by Umami Burger that she refused to finish her blog AND took forever to edit my own portion of this entry. As a result, we were scooped by our homie TC at Sinosoul. Not only did Umami Burger ruin our lunch, its mere existence silenced our blog for far too long. Umami Burger, you can suck it.

Umami Burger
850 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 931-3000

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Don't Hock at Lu Gi: A Tyro’s Guide to Hot Pot

I have long struggled with Chinese food, the only national cuisine to which I took a visceral disliking. My opinion changed after experiencing the spicy complexities of Chung King, but I’ve never been taken by any other Chinese restaurant. So I cannot dismiss Chinese food altogether, and the San Gabriel Valley’s rich dining scene is just too alluring. Still, it can be so inaccessible, and virtually every one of our adventures in the SGV has been met with failure. (Thanks, J Gold.) As it turns out, all I need is a guide. (Not J Gold.)

Ergo, we met SinoSoul and his fiancée, Hayon, at Lu Gi, a Taiwanese hot pot joint in San Gabriel. When we sat down at our cramped booth, I was totally overwhelmed. There was a bifurcated cauldron of two broths cooking on the table-top burner, one glowering with all of its dark redness and another more docile looking one, tranquil and clear. Lu Gi, according to SinoSoul’s footnotes, does not have a “ma la” pot, which I understand is exceedingly spicy. Lu Gi offers only a “la” pot. The white broth, the yuānyāng, was decidedly un-medicinal relative to Sichuan hot pot.

There was an array of ingredients on the table: platters of thin slices of raw beef and raw lamb; a tower of quivering tripe; assorted mushrooms, tofu, and taro; various dumplings made of squid, shrimp, and K-crab; squid noodles which somehow replicated the shape and texture of calamari; long, grassy noodles; leafy greens, including those from a chrysanthemum; and finally, a fish cake, a supposed specialty of the house. After surveying the table, I realized that these items would be going into the broths. There was also a delightfully garlicky seaweed salad with a spicy kick for everyone to nosh on.

As for the hot-potting procedure, Tony C. explained that we were to take our small bowls over to the salsa bar of debatable hygiene, mix in a few sauces, add a pinch of some satay sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce and then start loading up on all the good stuff boiling in the broths. If there is an art to the hot pot, I did not master it. But I did manage to make quite a mess. We ate for over two hours and had a great time doing it. But with my inelegant blending of all the sauces and inability to maintain the segregation of the two broths, I couldn’t really discern anything from any other, with one exception. I really liked the fish cake, which pre-boiling was a gray shapeless mass of fish paste with corn starch and whatever else. The only thing it resembled, if remotely, was truly gelatinous gefilte fish. Tony C. broke the mass into smaller pieces and boiled them in the two broths. I was taken with its inherent fishiness; underneath the multiple layers of clashing sauces and broths, I could somehow still taste the sea in it. Granted the volumes of MSG in the spicy broth helped elicit this effect. But maybe what I tasted was that umami thing that is infecting hamburgers on La Brea. In any event, two hours of chazering this stuff kept us up all night, chugging from the large, cold bottles of water the ESP had the foresight to place at our bedside. While Lu Gi was absolutely terrific in the moment, I’m not sure I’ll return soon. But I will absolutely return to the SGV with SinoSoul for some more fressing.

Lu Gi
539 W. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 457-5111

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Tricky Subject of American Pizza

A case can be made that the best pizza in Los Angeles is the unlikely creation of a Jewish woman dedicated to Italian cuisine. Her restaurant is located on a stretch of Melrose Avenue best known for its retail shops specializing in teeny-bopper fashion, drug paraphernalia, and second-hand apparel. I'm talking, of course, about Evan Kleiman's 25 year-old Angeli Caffe. Kleiman is a pioneer in what was once known as "Cal-Ital" cuisine, which is essentially the marriage of Italian food and California produce. In Angeli's case, the "Ital" is both traditional Italian and Red Sauce cuisine, and the "Cal" includes a penchant both for great, locally sourced produce and a sliver – just a tiny, tiny sliver – of the California loopiness ridiculed in Annie Hall.

Angeli Caffe reminds me of Donald Fagen's uber-Eighties Nightfly album: at first, the menu and the room feel dated, but upon reflection, it is evident that Angeli is a gem. For example, the menu includes dishes such as fried calamari, spaghetti aglio e olio, spaghetti burro e parmigiana – all classics, but currently (and unjustly) unfashionable in Los Angeles. Then there's the dilemma of the ridiculous, Benes-esque "Insalata Californiana" in which Woody would get his sprouts (though not any mashed yeast). Nevertheless, Angeli exudes hominess in part due to its genuine, hospitable staff, but also because it possesses a muted stylishness that recalls the Italian trattorias of New York, if not Italy itself. Thus, Angeli has aged gracefully. I was only mildly surprised to learn that Thom Mayne's inimitable architecture firm Morphosis designed the place.

Angeli's particular genius is its bread. The small spherical loaf has a soft interior and crusty exterior that is at once rich-tasting and austere. When sliced horizontally, the loaf is put to good use with the panino grosso; with its Italian meats, cheeses, marinated onions and roasted peppers, this artery-clogging boat of deliciousness is an excellent riff on the Italian sub. But the dough, with all of its taste and texture, is put to much more productive use in Angeli's pizza. Lately I've been alternating between the workaday margherita, the basic mozzarella cheese pizza, and the spicier and more interesting puttanesca, which is tomato sauce-driven, gently accentuated by shards of black olives, red pepper, anchovy, garlic, and capers, though no cheese. On a few recent occasions, we've also ordered their utterly delicious pizza with pepperoni and caramelized onion. With its basic tomato sauce, Angeli has the chops to be a great Red Sauce joint. This sauce has a pleasant sweetness and textural plumpness that makes it a joy to eat with ravioli or even vegetarian lasagna. (If I had to be vegetarian, but wasn't allowed to kill myself, I could survive well on a diet of Angeli's vegetarian offerings. I'll go so far as to say their meatless Lasagna Angeli is superior to their Bolognese version.) At this moment in time, I'm compelled to order dinner from there at least once a week, so it's a good thing that prices are quite reasonable. The wife wants me to point out that they also make a decidedly solid Caesar salad, thereby disproving my theory that such a salad should not be ordered in an L.A. Italian restaurant. This week, I was especially delighted to learn that Angeli also makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. (To our devoted Tribeca readership, I apologize. I started going to Angeli a few weeks after your visit. A certain small red-headed Red Sox fan and his parents may have enjoyed Angeli more than a La Brea Avenue competitor.)

Invigorated by my discovery of great local pizza, I decided to take my show on the road and revisit some old favorites in the Cleve. (If nothing else, our recent Passover visit to the Cleve provided me with an excellent opportunity to throw my people's daffy dietary dogma about dough to the wind.) So for a pre-Seder nosh (oh, suck it, my fellow Jews), I ordered a large pepperoni pizza from Geraci's, the beloved University Heights institution, which opened in 1955. (For you investment bankers out there, Geraci's is in its 54th year of operations.)

Geraci's is an old-school red sauce joint, famous for the thickly sliced, charred pepperoni that adorn its pizza. This type of food, basic and sentimental, never truly found a home in L.A., which is all more the reason that it was my first stop in Cleveland. What I found was tasty, but hardly a revelation. Those pepperoni were as good as ever, but the surfeit of melted cheese and oily, spongy dough overwhelmed the sauce, diminishing the pie's overall quality. (Still, I ate half of it before Seder and snuck into the kitchen for another few slices during Seder.)

H-Bomb and J-Wy of the West Village, who graciously flew to the Cleve to meet the Fress's most recent collaboration, accompanied us to Justin's and my longtime favorite, Presti's Bakery, in caricatural Little Italy – "on the Hill," as they say. Presti's is famous for its pizza. They also used to be famous for late-night doughnuts, but they went out of business shortly after I left Cleveland. (Connect the dots as you will.)

As the legend goes, Rose and Charles Presti Sr. opened Presti's Bakery in 1903 using recipes that were codified on the family's journey by boat from Sicily to America. The bakery moved around and, by 1943, settled into a tiny storefront on Mayfield Road on the east side of Cleveland. In 1999, Presti's moved out of the old storefront and into a modern, antiseptic café on the same block. All of a sudden, Presti's had this expansive space with a massive kitchen and plentiful seating. With a lot more money at stake, the dictatrix who ran the joint was relegated to the back, and customer service became the province of middle-aged moms and even a nose-ringed CIA student or two. Presti's offerings naturally expanded, though without the benefit of those mythical Sicilian recipes. For example, on this particular visit, I observed a croissant, sliced horizontally, with a slice of desiccating melted American cheese inserted in the middle. Somehow I don't think this creation is central to the Sicilian tradition.

During my formative years, Presti's sold loaves of bread, slices of pizza, and little else of note out of this storefront. The presiding figure was a short, slender elderly woman with Mussolini's temperament. She brooked no dissent and wasn't exactly giving the customers a hearty welcome. I once saw her threaten a rowdy toddler with a rolling pin. This utter charmlessness was her charm, and she neither noticed nor cared that we found her antics entertaining. We'd order a few slices, perhaps a stromboli, and when weather permitted, sit on the rough-hewn wooden bench out front. Then we'd enjoy our pizza while watching the neighborhood drama. The stage was set by the large storefront across the street whose unavoidable sign read "Brotherhood Loan Company." Such a blatant disregard for contemporary mores and laws against loansharking was just priceless. J-Wy and I would watch the locals do their best to act like Scorsesean wiseguys. My favorite was the gentleman wearing the black satin baseball jacket emblazoned with Giorno Di Paga on the back. I also particularly enjoyed a debate between two goombas about whether Phoenix was in Colorado or Arizona. (In my mind, the argument has yet to be resolved.)

During our Passover visit, J-Wy and I returned with our ladies for our beloved pizza. Presti's sells a handful of varieties, but I'd be unable to name a single one other than the cheese. (Though I will admit to a dalliance with the artichoke pizza around 15 years ago, and would place a small wager that that artichoke pizza is still served daily.) For the record, the pizza is kept at room temperature in large rectangular sheets and is cut into rectangular slices. The pizza is better when it is still hot from the oven, but I never mastered the timing necessary to get it. Suffice it to say, it's well before lunch time. Presti's sadly dispensed with its fascistic tendencies when it moved, and now it even asks customers if they want their pizza warmed in a microwave. Not only is this practice pathetic, but the staff never warns that a microwave would only vitiate the dough's texture. They might as well ask people if they want mayonnaise on their pizza (or anything else for that matter.)

Presti's cheese pizza is of historical interest because it provides a link, however legendary, to 19th century Sicily. But its enduring greatness owes to its kaleidoscopic unpredictability. The thin-crusted dough is delicious, but it varies in taste depending on what section of the sheet it is coming from. On the rectangle's periphery, the dough is crusty and has a more pronounced crunch, while the interior slices are much softer. The tomato sauce varies along the spectrum of sweetness and spiciness, but it is always delicious. It could be cigarette ashes that provide the occasional bite. The quantity and configuration of the mozzarella cheese also varies; it can cover most a given slice, or sometimes just a small portion of it. The most flavorful slices are always the middle slices, which have no crust whatsoever. Somehow they have a little more sauce and absorb a little more olive oil. They're definitely heavier than the peripheral slices and infinitely more delicious.

Presti's pizza represents a Spartan style, suitable only as cheese pizza for a tiny bakery. No restaurant could serve it and hope to pay the rent for more than a few months, which is why today's Presti's offers such a gallimaufry of comestibles. That said, it's easy to see how Geraci's with its pizza pies became popular when I was growing up. Geraci's pizza is much more accessible and can adapt to any number of toppings, which is what most people want. It's like Domino's, except that it's good. Still, as I contemplate the evolution of American pizza, it seems as though something was lost in pizza's journey from a traditional Italian staple to an American ubiquity. Thankfully, Evan Kleiman reinvigorated the genre back in 1984. Her pizzas share a lineage with Presti's because of their mutual emphasis on quality dough, and the purity and simplicity of traditional flavors. But Kleiman is not tethered to the distant past. Twenty-five years after opening, Angeli Caffe continues to make a consistently revelatory pie. In a neighborhood that boasts Nancy Silverton's über-hyped – and admittedly delicious – Pizzeria Mozza, Angeli makes the only LA pizza that I actually crave.

Angeli Caffe

7274 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles

(323) 936-9086

Geraci’s Restaurant

2266 Warrensville Center Rd.
University Heights

(216) 371-5643

Presti’s Bakery

12101 Mayfield Rd.
Little Italy

(216) 421-3060