Friday, July 31, 2009

Spanish tapas near the Pacific Ocean: Bar Pintxo

Each summer Thursday, the Santa Monica Pier hosts free concerts from 7-10pm. Bands jam on the pier while spectators either watch from the pier or on the sandy beach below. Last night was African themed and the band showcased was Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. We went to a brief wine tasting on the Pier (sponsored by Wally's Wine in Westwood with wines from Kunde Sonoma, Zamora Spanish wines and Yellowtail. $2o gets you 5 tastings, one full glass of any wine that you favor, a cheese and cracker spread, and a nice cordoned-off-area to hang out).

After wine tasting, we wanted to grab a light dinner and more drinks. Spanish tapas came to mind. Bar Pintxo on Santa Monica Blvd by Ocean Blvd. is the perfect place. The restaurant is owned by Chef Joseph Miller, who also owns Joe's Restaurant on Abbot Kinney. I've walked by Bar Pintxo a couple times last year when it first opened and it was filled to capacity (apparently, that's 30 people). You can't make reservations so your best bet is to get there before happy hour, or after the happy hour crowd has dissipated. When we arrived at 8.30, there were still four spots open at the bar. The space is small, which is similar to the tapas bars in Barcelona.

There is a jamon carving station at the side of the kitchen.

Our seats were facing the small kitchen, with a display of tapas in front of us. There was also a blackboard with specials written in chalk. We ordered two items from the specials (octopus and paella), and a few other plates of tapas. All the items on the regular menu, except for the jamon iberico, were priced under $10. All the tapas except for a select few (the foie and the bluecrab) are served with two pieces.

Sangria. Tasted good and refreshing.

Olives were served.

Our first dish was Jamon sofrito and fried leeks. The menu listed leeks, but as it turns out, the leeks looks like they were more for decorational purposes. You couldn't taste any of the leek flavor in this dish. Instead, the stewed tomatoes seemed to be the main component, even though it wasn't listed on the menu. In any case, I thought that this was a nice little bite but I don't think it was anything exceptional.

Parfait of Foie, caramelized onions and apples. This came with one piece and is perfect to share as there was a lot of foie on the bread. OMG, the foie is absolutely rich and divine. The only downfall was the bread; it was over-charred and you could taste the burnt flavor.

Another from the specials: Coca pintxo. This is octopus with potatoes and a light salad. The octopus was cooked perfectly; it had a clean flavor and was not at all chewy. The potatoes were firm, freshly fried and well seasoned. They had a little sweet taste, similar to that of a sweet potato. The aioli on the side had a good flavor as well. This was an excellent dish and probably our favorite of the night.

We watched closely as the cook prepared our paella.

Paella with bacon and scallops. This was another item from the specials. The rice was flavorful and the scallops were plump. If you got a piece of bacon in your bite of rice, it would taste magnificent. However if you didn't have bacon in your bite, it would seem to be missing some salt. The crunchy pieces of rice on the bottom of the paella skillet was absolutely delightful.

Last but not least, Tocino con melocotones; crispy Pork belly with grilled peaches and peppers. We watched as the cook seared the pork belly on all sides, and prepared the accompaniments. The pork was succulent and tasted sweet, like it had been stewing in maple syrup. The fatty pork went well with the frisee that was tossed with a light dressing. The heat from the pepper/pimentos gave this dish a little kick. I also liked the grilled peaches; sweet with a grilled flavor. We did notice that the grill needed to be scrubbed because you could still see the buildup of burnt remnants from prior items on the grill.

Bar Pintxo is really a little gem amidst the tourist trap that is 3rd Street Promenade. The food is authentic and tasty, and the setting is intimate.

Hits: The Specials, octopus, paella, foie, ambiance, walking the cooks do their magic, location
Misses: besides the dirty grill, nothing at all!! A+
Rate: ****

Bar Pintxo
109 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 458-2012

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Heavenly Variety meats at Church and State

Church and State has been on our list for a while. It's just hard to get me to Downtown LA for anything. I suppose on a weekday, its about 8 miles from work: still outside of my 5-mile-radius-bubble but oh well... it better be worth it! The restaurant is owned by Steven Arroyo of hip Spanish tapas joint Cobras and Matadors. The chef is Walter Manzke, from the recently shuttered Bastide. I had just read up on Jonathan Gold's review on their pig's ears. He said it was the best he's ever had. This is reason enough to make the trek.

The restaurant is located in an industrial area; I had mistakenly thought that it was in the center of Downtown, near the Staples Center. If you are not paying attention, you might miss it. It is in the loading dock of a biscuit factory. As I drive by the building, I am wondering.. Where is the valet? We are in LA after all.. Ok, I guess I'll have to park on the street and there aren't any open spots around the entrance. I'll have to park further down. Hmm, kind of dangerous for a female to be walking on a secluded street in Downtown. Quick, scuttle to the restaurant. The neighborhood is kind of dead, but the restaurant inside is the exact opposite. It is a lively, bustling bistro with an open kitchen concept.

I had reservations for 7pm. When we arrived, we were seated right away. I ordered a glass of sparkly (Francois Chidaine Brut) and LB ordered the French Maid; cucumbers, mint, brandy, fresh mint and sweetener. We had thought that the brandy would be too overpowering, but you could not really taste it in the drink. That's a good thing!

Bread was quickly served. It was fresh: nice crust and warm inside. The butter was soft as well. I thought this was excellent, in fact, I ended up eating 3 pieces throughout the course of dinner. In addition, the busboy would bring us additional bread without being prompted.

Our waiter brought over our amuse bouche: gougere. Simple, airy, delicious.

The menu is more extensive than the online version. Thank goodness, because the pig's ear wasn't on the online menu. LB and I decided to forgo entrees and instead, ordered a bunch of appetizers to share. In hindsight, this was an excellent choice because we were able to taste most of the items on the starter menu.

First up, Oreilles de Cochon (Crispy pig's ear with a bearnaise sauce). I had imagined that the pig's ear would be chewy and crunchy, like cartilage. Instead, it was cooked for a long time and as a result, it turned a little soft and gooey. I loved the contrast: crispy on the outside, and soft in the inside. You really didn't need the bearnaise sauce; the ears were rich enough as is. It was delicious and I wished there was more than two pieces each.. I think this was my favorite dish of the night because it was unique and mouthwatering. It's a pity most people are turned off by the thought of eating pig's ear, because they are really missing out. Oh poor pig's ear, you are so misunderstood.

Our next dish was also pork-based. Pied de Cochon (Pork feet, shoulder, cheek). This was yet another excellent dish. The pork was mixed together, similar to a crab cake, covered with panko and fried. It is topped with a poached egg and sits underneath a frisee salad with lentils and lardons. We burst the egg and the yolk started to bind everything together. When you take a bite of the pork cake, all you can taste is a soft, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth explosion of pork. This dish was well executed. The frisee was lightly dressed, the lardons were chunky, and the lentils were firm and gave the dish a nice crunch. Another novel dish.

We also ordered two glasses of wine, recommended by the sommelier who was trying to pair them with fried, fatty appetizers. Domaine Jomain Bourgogne Chardonnay and the Reisling Domaine Roland Schmitt Glintzberg.

Escargot de Bourgogne. They are usually served in an order of 5-6, however we asked if we could only get an order of 2, since we only wanted a taste of it and would rather save our stomachs for other dishes. Our waiter was very accommodating. The escargots are served in a ramekin (one snail per ramekin), sauteed with butter, parsley and garlic, and topped off with puff pastry. Alongside was a tiny fork and spoon. I liked how they included the spoon as well, which came in handy when scooping up some butter over the puff pastry. The snails came hot out of the oven, and they smelled and tasted buttery and delicious. One ramekin per person is sufficient because it is rich with butter; although for a brief second, I had hoped there were more.

Next up was the Santa Barbara spot prawns. It came with cucumber, olives and some gunky thing on the prawn which looked like sun dried tomatoes. Although the prawns were cooked well, I did not like the nicoise. The olives lent a sour taste to the dish and I don't like mystery ingredients on my plate.

Ahh.. redemption.. Roasted bone marrow. The bone marrow was split lengthwise and served marrow side up. The presentation was simple, but lovely. It came with a side of radish and crostinis. I initially thought that the radishes were more of an afterthought, however it work really well with the marrow because it added a crunch and bitterness. I pretty much order marrow whenever it's on the menu and I thought this was one of the best that I've had because it was seasoned well. You could taste the beef flavor, the fattiness of the marrow and a little salt. I swear, if I was in the privacy of my home, I would have licked up the crevices of the bone. So good and yeah, so rich...

Bone marrow, gone.

Our last savory dish was the Fried Cod, with potato gaufrettes and saffron aioli. We liked the potato waffles because it was crispy, delicate and salty. In the words of LB, the cod on the other hand tasted like a heavy, doughy fried ball of filler. All you could taste was potato; I could barely taste any cod. Furthermore, it was not particularly well seasoned, which is incongruent with the rest of the flavorful dishes that we have had. We didn't even eat all of the cod balls, which is very unlike us. It was a little disappointing to end our meal with the cod balls; I would love to have ended a plate prior, with the scrumptious bone marrow.

Lastly, dessert. Although the chocolate desserts are always appealing, we decided on the Fig Tarte du jour. Something different, and I love figs. The tart was served with a honey and muscat sabayon, and the crust was buttery and tasted like shortbread. The tart filling was dense and the figs were sweet and a little gooey. A good dessert and it wasn't too rich an ending for the night.

Overall, a great dinner at Church and State: well worth the drive to the obscure part of Downtown LA. The dishes that we selected were definitely on the fatty side. Thank goodness I surfed and went for a run this morning... I can see why they have received rave reviews. I would definitely come back again, perhaps try something off the entree menu but will definitely get the pig's ear and trotters again.

The service was good as well. Our waiter came by occasionally to ask how our food was, the sommelier/manager gave good wine recommendations and the busboys promptly cleared our finished plates and refilled our water glasses. The dishes were paced well; we never had more than one plate on our table.

Hits: All the pork dishes, marrow, fig tart, warm bread, great ambiance, open kitchen concept, dishes were paced well
Misses: No valet, seafood dishes fell short
Rate: *****

Church and State
1850 Industrial St
Los Angeles, CA 90021
(213) 405-1434

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Singaporean Food: Mom's home cooked food

Although I rarely get to eat Singaporean food, I had two Singaporean meals in one day. I must be the luckiest gal. Following the Singaporean cooking class at Rocksugar, I went to hang out with my mom. She had invited a bunch of people over for dinner: well, actually she didn't invite any of her friends, the guests were all my sisters' friends and mine. I tried to offer my cooking services, but she had it all down. My only responsibility was to refill her champagne glass.

Fried rice with egg, chinese sausage, mushrooms, bbq pork and mixed vegetables. Ok, so this isn't Singaporean, its Chinese. But it's close enough. I really like the corn in the rice, because it adds a sweetness to the savory rice dish. The fried rice was mainly an accompaniment to the other dishes that had sauces to it.

My mom made a Singaporean dish Mee Siam which is thin rice/vermicelli noodles, topped with shrimp and hard boiled eggs. First she fries the noodles in a wok, with the asian trinity: oil, garlic and shallots. The noodles are lathered with a spicy-sweet sauce. My friends (who have never tried Singaporean food before) loved this dish. I don't think its often that you see spicy gravy slopped over noodles.

One of Singapore's famous dish is Hainanese chicken rice. Anthony Bordain concurs. The chicken is simply boiled and served with rice. My mom also made another version: soy sauce chicken. Although this dish looks simple, I have not tried any other versions in the States that taste as good. The chicken was tender and juicy, and the soy sauce gave the chicken a salty taste.

The rice is cooked with the chicken broth and some garlic. I love this rice. You can eat it plain because it is already infused with great flavors. But of course, it tastes even better with the chicken, some dark soy sauce and a little chili.

The other Singaporean dish was rendang. I believe this dish originated from Indonesia and is commonly cooked with mutton. The sauce is thick and spicy, and my mom added some bay leaves for flavor. I remember that in primary school, we would buy a plastic bag of pipping hot mutton rendang for lunch at the school canteen. Because rendang is typically cooked for a good amount of time, the meat is always tender. My mom, being the forward thinking person that she is, cooked two versions for the guests. Beef rendang and tendon rendang (for us). I was so happy when LB told me that the tendon rendang was her favorite dish. It really isn't as scary as you'd imagine. The texture is chewy, but tendon is relatively tasteless. In addition, after being stewed in delicious curry gravy, you wouldn't even know that its tendon...

Sometimes, its more fun having friends over for dinner, instead of going out to a restaurant. It also helps if you have a good cook at home. Everything was delicious and I was glad to share this cuisine with my friends. Some day, I hope to be able to cook up a feast like my mom does.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Singaporean Food: Cooking class at Rocksugar

You'd be hard pressed to find Southeast Asian food in the Westside, and my friends all know that I don't travel outside of my 5 mile radius, unless its for snow. Therefore, when I read up that Rocksugar was going to have a Singaporean cooking class, I signed up immediately. The cooking class covers 4 items on the menu, and wine pairing. I was so excited when LB wanted to attend as well. She did not have an inkling of what Singaporean food was, so I was excited for her to get a taste of it.

Normally you wouldn't think that Rocksugar would be an authentic Asian restaurant, after all, it is part of the Cheesecake Factory family that is known for its huge portions of all-American fare. I've had dinner at Rocksugar when it first opened, and I was pleased to have Singaporean and Malaysian food available in the area.

Rocksugar is located at the Century City Mall. When you first enter the huge wooden doors, you are welcomed into an outdoor patio. Perfect place for grabbing drinks or a small bite. The patio is absolutely trendy.

The decor of the dining room is gorgeous. It is ethnic and you feel transported into the dynasty times.

We were guided into one of the dining rooms, where a portable burner and cooking prep area had been set up. Chef Mohan Ismail is standing by to greet us. We will quickly discover that Chef Mohan is an entertaining and comedic performer. He is a Singaporean, who has worked with many famous chefs including Danny Meyer and three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges Vongerichten. While cooking, Chef Mohan would share little anecdotes of life growing up in Singapore, and how food is such an important part of Singaporean culture. He also provided us with numerous cooking tips.

LB and I were a little surprised though, when we realized that this wasn't a hands-on cooking class. It was mainly the chef cooking, while the rest of us sat by watching. We were slightly disappointed because we were expecting to get our hands dirty. Perhaps this is what cooking classes are supposed to be like, however when we took a french cooking class a year ago, we were actually doing a fair bit of cooking. This seemed to us, more of a "cooking demonstration", rather than a cooking class.

When the waiters brought us each a blood orange sangria, our eyes lit up. The color was beautiful and the glass had a rim of sugar with dehydrated kaffir lime. The sangria was absolutely delicious and refreshing. There was also a kaffir leaf in the sangria, which gave the drink a unique Asian touch. I'd love to make this for one of my summer parties.

Chef Mohan started the cooking class by showing us how to make sambal chili. Sambal is a chili paste that is served as a condiment in Southeast Asia. I remember topping sambal on almost anything imaginable. It tastes delicious with white rice and a fried egg.

The Sambal shrimp was delicious, especially with a squeeze of lime over it. The shrimp was plump and the sambal was spicy. The presentation was simple but beautiful; the shrimp sat on a banana leaf. I also liked the tang of the rice vinegar in the sambal. This was such a familiar flavor that brought me back to my childhood.

Chef Mohan proceeded to make another version of sambal but with a thicker consistency. It had the same base, but he added more ingredients. I really liked this version. It included fish sauce which smells a little funky but the salty taste adds some depth to the sambal.

He used the sambal as a coating on the Chilean seabass. Boy oh boy, the seabass was delicious! It was so buttery and you could really taste the garlic in the sambal. I really enjoyed this dish because it was simple to make, but the flavors were incredible. He also made a side of pickled cucumbers.

Throughout the cooking session, we were served wine pairings. The Vionier (2007 Alban) was served with the shrimp and a Pinot Noir (2006 St. Innocent) was served with the seasbass. Both very light and smooth.

Next up was Tea Tarik, which is pulled tea. The ingredients were simple: tea and condensed milk. The challenging part was the pouring process. The fluids are poured back and forth between two tins. As a result, the tea mixture is frothy and light. I love condensed milk in anything, so I really enjoyed this drink. It is a little on the sweet side but is just a perfect drink to kick start your morning.

For our dessert, Chef Mohan made Bubur cha-cha, which is coconut milk with tapioca pearls and various root vegetables such as sweet potato and taro. The dessert was refreshing and milky, and the pandan leaf was aromatic. I also loved the tapioca pearls and am glad to have seen it recently in Western cuisine. You can customize this dessert by adding any type of ingredients such as red bean, jackfruit (photo below), jello and melons. This is a great summer dessert because it can be served cold: ours was served in a bowl of ice.

The bubur cha-cha was served with a glass of Moscato (2007 Saracco Moscato d'Asti). Dessert wines tend to be too sweet, so I was surprised that this was just right. It had a little fizz to it.

After our cooking session, Chef took us on a tour of the kitchen. It was nice to see that there was good rapport between the chef, the wait staff and the cooks. They acted like they were family and throughout the course of the day, I noticed that they were working very well with each other.

I had an enjoyable time at the cooking class. It was refreshing to learn about Southeast Asian cuisine, and to be brought back to my good ole days in Singapore. Two and a half hours later, we left with a slight buzz and a leather binder full of recipes from the day.

Hits: Blood Orange Sangria, the fish, Chef Mohan and his delightful personality
Misses: Should be promoted as "cooking demonstration" ("cooking class" can be a little misleading)

Flavors of Southeast Asia Cooking Class with Chef Mohan Ismail
RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen
10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 654 Los Angeles
(310) 552-9988

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Starting off the week right: Happy Hour at Fraiche

I love love love Happy Hours. There's no better way to blow off some steam after work, although who can complain, I have a pretty nice gig. An even better happy hour is one that ends past 7.30pm. During summer Mondays at Fraiche, happy hour runs until 10.30pm. A small selection of food is priced at $5, wine is $4 and beers are $3.

I used to frequent Fraiche when I was working in the area. In fact, I had my last-day-at-work party there last year. Fraiche is a Californian/French/Italian restaurant. It was really one of the first good restaurant in Culver City. Since its opening, Culver City has now flourished into a dining mecca with Akasha, Gyenari, Tender Greens and Le Saint Amour, all within a stones throw. The initial owners seemed to have figured out their game plan at launch: Thierry Perez ran the front of the house, and Jason Travi ruled the kitchen. When it first opened, the restaurant was on many critics' top lists, however the place was riddled with drama. Although most raved about the food, customer reviews were all over the board regarding the service. Fraiche was plagued with rumors of bad service and snooty attitude from Perez, which instigated an uproar on food blog Eater. The partnership recently ended and Perez is now planning to open a new restaurant in Culver City, called Ben Fatto.

The restaurant includes the dining area, bar area with tables, and an outside patio. We were able to procure couches outside.
My favorite drink is the Grape. The last few times that I had been here, they did not serve it. Apparently it wasn't in season.. Really??? When are grapes never in season? Oh well. Thank goodness it is back on! The Grape is made of vodka, crushed whole grapes and elderflower essence. It is delicious and can be dangerous because it is so easy to drink.

Monday nights = one free glass of sangria for women. Yay for me. Nice tall glass. The sangria was alright, a little lacking in the alcohol department. But good enough for a freebie.

They had a happy hour menu as well as a regular bar menu and a dinner menu. The Happy hour menu had select items (meatball sliders, shrimp cocktail, arancini, fondue and french fries). We ordered the sliders and arancini. Arancinis are little fried rice balls, usually filled with cheese or meat. This particular one have a little cheese in it.

The meatballs on the sliders were sitting in between a gougere puff. The meatball was a nice tiny size, cooked with some tomato sauce. The gougere was airy and delicious. This ranked pretty high on my list because it really hit the spot: a small bite size. Perfect snack food.

Our waitress named off some items from the Specials. Upon her recommendation, we ordered the gelee of tomato with mussels. We were a little disappointed with this dish. The mussels were a little flavorless, and the gelee tasted like tomato paste. Kindda taste like a jello V8. Yuck. Also, I think it should have been served with some bread, so that you can spread the gelee on something starchy.

We decided to order an entree from the dinner menu to share. Lamb spezzatino with ricotta gnocchi and gremolata was delicious. The lamb was cooked perfectly and the bland gnocchi was perfect with the tomato-based sauce. The flavors were very rich and the dish tasted just like a homecooked meal.

We also ordered a side of Pate, that came with crostini. The pate was rock solid. What's up with this? Shouldn't pate be somewhat spreadable? I could have done without this dish, which is disappointing because I typically love pate.

Our last dish was the Moules frites. The mussels were dismal and a little overcooked. The fries were not crispy. However the saving grace was the broth. It was delicious; buttery with a good seafood essence. I would order a bow of this broth if it was on the menu. It was also perfect for dipping bread.

We also ordered some additional wine and another cocktail, the Summer sage (vodka, sage sprigs and cucumber slices). The cocktail had cucumbers slices wrapped around the inside of the glass, which was a really pretty presentation.

Overall, decent bar menu. and a good after-work spot. Definitely not your typical hot wings and potato skins happy hour menu, which is a nice change. Out of all the menus, the dinner menu looked the best.

Hits: The Grape, mussel broth
Misses: Good happy hour deals although I wished there were more items on the happy hr. food menu, the mussels gelee, the pate
Rate: **

9411 Culver blvd.,
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 839-6800