Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A bit of an upper scale gem on Sawtelle: Restaurant 2117

Sawtelle is the mini Japan town located in the Westside. There are numerous Japanese restaurants lining the short stretch of Sawtelle between Olympic and Le Grange. Some of my favorites are FuriaBo, Orris, Blue Marlin and of course Nijiya Market where I purchase all my favorite Asian snacks. Restaurant 2117 is a little more expensive than the other restaurants on the row. It focuses on Japaneses/French/Italian cuisines and on organic and fresh ingredients.

On their website, they listed a prix fixe dinner menu for $38. You get two small plates or salads + one entree + dessert, and the entire table has to order the prix fixe. What's so good is that there are about 20 choices for small plates/salads so you aren't limited to a tiny menu. Appetizers range from tempura, to tuna tar tar and sweetbreads while the entrees include fish, steak and a myriad of pasta dishes. That sure sounded like a lot of food but it's French fusion right? I'm thinking that the portions would be small.

When we got there, I grabbed a seat outside on their patio. The prix fixe menu wasn't on the menu but they still offer it if you ask. There is a surcharge if you choose appetizers greater than $7.95 or entrees over $19.95. Not a problem, most of the items fall within the range. We were definitely going to partake of this.

Amuse bouche. Aww.. I love amuse bouche and was surprised that they brought it over.'s French fusion. How quickly I forgot. This was fried zucchini and eggplant, served with a marinara sauce. The veggies were fried crispy and the tomato sauce was mild and lightly salted. Not too heavy at all. This definitely whet my appetite and I was looking forward to my two appetizers, entree and dessert. Oh, and two glasses of wine as well.

Homemade bread, as our waitress mentioned. I wouldn't have even realized that it was homemade; it was nothing special.

Organic vegetable kakiage tempura. Wow, that's a huge plate of fried veggies. The tempura was well breaded and crispy. Yummy and what a good way to get in your greens.

Fried calamari with garlic parsley sauce. I loved the sauce; it reminded me of the bath that escargots swim in. The calamari tasted like it had a bit of black bean sauce drizzled on top. The breading was a little dense and filling. This was one of our favorite dishes. The flavors were there and it wasn't just a regular calamari dish that was salted with salt and pepper.

Half Duck confit leg with ravigote sauce. The duck was tender and the skin was crispy. The only issue I had with this dish was the ravigote. It was mushy, sour and tasted like sauerkraut. I think I would have preferred a drizzle of honey or red wine sauce instead.

Sauteed Sweetbread with arugula and port wine sauce. I thought that the sweetbreads were over peppered and the breading on the sweetbread was a little soggy.

It's interesting that the two better appetizers were the less extravagant ones. I really liked the flavors of the tempura and the calamari. I thought they were both well executed. The duck and sweetbreads were good but not memorable. I suppose it's because I've had many exceptional and unique duck and sweetbread dishes so these did not standout.

Rack of lamb with pasta in tomato sauce. This was from the specials so it was over $19.95 (about $23). The pasta was el dente and thick enough to grab up all the sauce in each bite. The tomato sauce wasn't runny; it was thick and felt like it had been simmering and absorbing all the goodness of the lamb. There were three lamb chops and they were fork tender. It was such a rich and comforting dish; the type that you'll want to eat in the winter, or if you are sitting out on a patio in the crisp L.A. evening. It was such a generous portion so I packed half to go for lunch the next day.

Crispy cilantro crusted fresh soft shell crab with tahini risotto and greens with spicy ginger sesame vinaigrette. This was a seasonal special and came highly recommended on Yelp and CH. The crab was crispy but a tad salty. The sesame dressing added good flavors to the deep fried greens. The risotto was just alright, though. I did not even realize that there was tahini flavors in it. Also, it had more of a rice texture instead of that creamy risotto texture. Apart from the risotto, everything else on the plate was amazing.

Last but not least, dessert. We were not given a choice so I was expecting a scoop of sorbet or a mochi ice cream. Instead, my eyes lit up when I saw our waitress bring over our individually sized ramekins of creme brulee.

What a perfect end to the meal. Ahh.. vanilla, custard, creamy, caramelized sugar goodness.

2117 is a fancier Japanese restaurant. The portions were big and the food, for the most part, was flavorful. The service was also attentive. They changed plates and utensils at each plating and the female owner/manager came by a few times to check up on us. Although some reviewers complained that it was too expensive, I thought that the prix fixe is a good deal if you are hungry. I liked that there were so many options and you weren't stuck with some boring salad or chicken. Besides, if you are hoping for a cheap meal, hop over to all the other restaurants on Sawtelle. You can get your bowl of curry or ramen for less than $10. But if you want a fancier meal with attention to detail, you know exactly where to go.

Hits: $38 prix fixe, calamari, crispy crab, lamb pasta, creme brulee
Misses: sour ravigote sauce,
Rate: *** (for prix fixe deal)

Restaurant 2117
2117 Sawtelle Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-1617

Monday, September 28, 2009

If you want Thai noodles, go to Malaysian Restaurant, Belacan Grill

Driving in the South Bay on my way home from Huntington Beach, I passed by Belacan Grill, a Malaysian restaurant. Even though I just had lunch, I could not resist stopping. After all, its hard to get Southeast Asian food in Southern California. Besides, I could just buy takeout and have it for lunch the next day.

The restaurant is decent sized with a full bar and adorned with promotional articles for Malaysian Airlines. I examined the menu. Hainan chicken, rendang, fish head curry. I decided to order something that wasn't too pungent that would offend my colleagues if I heated it up in the microwave.

Curry puff came with two pieces. Curry puff is somewhat similar to cornish pasties in the U.K. Yes, I said that I was full, but it was freshly fried so I had to have one on the ride home. Curry puff is filled with spicy potatoes and onions, fried in pastry dough. There was a delicious place in Singapore called Old Chang Kee that served the best curry puffs and spring rolls. From what I remember, it was merely a stand where you would watch as an elderly gentleman would freshly fry up your order. Wow, looking at the website, the price is now $1.20. I think it was 50 cents back in the day. Belacan Grill's curry puff was delicious and very similar to the ones served in Singapore.

Char Kway Teow, a classic Malaysian/Singaporean dish. This is stir fried flat noodles with chicken, shrimp, eggs, bean sprouts in spicy dark soy sauce. My mom used to take us to Outram Park (in Singapore) for the best kway teow that I've ever had. Their version had cockles, fish cake and little chunks of lard. The kway teow at Belacan Grill was not authentic, in my opinion. Kway teow has that sweet flavor, most likely from the dark sweet soy sauce. I was disappointed with this dish because it did not taste one bit like the original. Instead, it tasted like the type of flat noodles you would order at a Thai restaurant. Except that at least at a Thai restaurant, their noodles are flavored with delicious fish sauce. Some reviewers online said that this dish from the restaurant was delicious, authentic and salty. Mine didn't have much flavor so I reckon that they must have left out the main ingredient. The dark soy sauce that gives kway teow that distinct flavor was likely missing in this version.

I'd really like to give Belacan Grill another chance. If it was an honest mistake, I can overlook it. But if they honestly believe that this is what char kway teow tastes like, then perhaps I've been eating something completely different my whole life.

Hits: curry puff
Misses: kway teow not the real thing!
Rate: **

Belacan Grill
2701 190th Street
Redondo Beach, CA 90278
(310) 370-1831

Brunch in the O.C at Cucina Alessa

Before the popular High School and Housewives TV series, Orange County was a little known area outside of Southern California that is mainly known as home to Disneyland. These days, most know of the O.C's blond babes and sandy beaches. Huntington Beach is about 40 miles from the Westside, but it only takes about 30 minutes if you are zipping on the 405 on a early weekend morning. I was impressed with the clean streets and modern houses in the O.C.- very different from LA. It's no surprise that most people move south when starting a family.

For Sunday brunch in Huntington Beach, we decided to find a spot away from the pier. We stopped in at Cucina Alessa, an Italian wine bar/restaurant that is located on the part of Main Street that is away from the pier and its crowds. The restaurant is fairly new and it's original location is still in Newport Beach. The place is modern and trendy; and you can sit in their booth seats or outdoor tables. The latter was all snapped up given that the sun was out. Although I felt a bit under dressed here (we were in our grubby post surf outfit and covered in sand), no one gave us a dirty look.

They were still serving breakfast at 11.30am and most of the breakfast items were priced at less than $10.

Glass of Mimosa, of course.

"Illegal" French Toast: thick slices of french toast dipped in vanilla and cinnamon egg batter, grilled and topped with bananas, strawberries, marscapone cheese and toasted almonds. When I first saw it, compared to the guys' omelet, I was envious. Mine looked tiny compared to theirs. I had a feeling I was still going to be hungry after this. The sauce also looked really rich and creamy. Will this give me a tummy ache?

Thankfully, the french toast was absolutely delicious. It was soaked in lots of butter and cream, and was sweet but not overly. And if that wasn't enough sweet, the powdered sugar that topped the french toast was good as well. The toasted almonds gave a nice crunch to the rest of the dish. In hindsight, this was the right portion because the dish was so rich and I would not have been able to have an additional bite after I was done with my plate.

Bologna Frittate. Omelet, Italian sausage (substituted tomatoes for mushrooms), onions and provolone cheese. The omelet was good and the sausage was spicy and flavored well. The portion was also generous.

Sicilia Frittate Omelet with spinach, shrimp, onions and smoked mozzarella. The potatoes were delicious: crispy and cooked all the way through with the right amount of salt and pepper

The waiter forgot to bring out the side of toast that came with the omelets. When it arrived, it was only one measly toast each. Also, where's the butter? When we asked for something (butter or jam) for the toast, they brought over Kraft grape jelly that was so generic.

The food was actually pretty good and well-priced for a nice restaurant. Apparently it's a fancy dinner restaurant as well. I enjoyed my French Toast. It was an elegant and unique version of the traditional French Toast, but I was secretly wondering how many calories I had consumed.

Hits: french toast, away from beach crowd
Misses: forgot toast
Rate: **

Cucina Alessa
520 Main Street
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
(714) 969-2148

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sake House Miro and some Autolux

I had tickets for art rock band Autolux at the El Rey Theatre on Wilshire, by La Brea. The band was set to go on at 10.15pm so I had more than sufficient time to have a leisurely dinner. There are a few restaurants by the theatre; some upper scale (Campanile, Luna Park) and some casual (Shabu Shabu Ya, Sake House Miro, Unami Burger, Busby's East Bar). I was leaning towards casual and just wanted small bites instead of a full-on meal. Sake House Miro was the winner because of the option to dine tapas style. Besides little plates, the menu also includes sushi, sashimi and teppanyaki. There is a small parking lot adjacent to the restaurant that fills up quickly but I was able to find metered parking on the street when I got there at 8pm. I wasn't as lucky with the seating. There were already five parties ahead of me on the list. Don't forget to write your name on the list or you'd be waiting for your phantom table.

I waited about 25 minutes while two parties were seated and was surprised when they called my name next. Thankfully a table for two opened and the others in line ahead of me were parties of four or more. The restaurant is fairly small and is charming with wooden tables and chairs inside and lanterns outside. Japanese posters lined the walls and gave this place an authentic Japanese pub feel.

Complimentary side of cucumber with a spicy miso sauce was served. They make their sauces in house and the recipes are "secret". I liked the refreshing slices of cucumbers which is a healthy alternative to edamame or bread. The sauce was good and tasted a bit peanut. I wanted the mini uni bowl. At $3.95, it would have been a nice bite but they ran out.

Gizzard skewer (served as a pair). The gizzards were chewy and lightly salted. Satisfaction.

Sashimi carpaccio of fish; tuna and yellow tail in yuzu dressing. The fish was sliced thin and tasted good with the seaweed sauce that was citrus and salty. I am not into raw fish but this version was marinated in salty goodness.

Butter fish (miso cod) that came recommended in customer reviews. I always have to get miso cod if I see it on the menu and it did not disappoint. The plate came with three pieces of cod and the fish was buttery, soft and melt in your mouth. I also liked the side of seafood and cucumber salad as well.

Karage. You can never go wrong with fried chicken. The chicken itself was delicious and seemed to be marinated in something sweet, and the breading was crispy. The chicken was served with two dips; an aioli and a sweet chili sauce. These little nuggets were so addictive and wasn't too greasy.

Buta kimchee: thin pork slices with kimchee. Kimchee is Korean pickled cabbage and is intensely sweet and sour. As such, you would expect this dish to be very flavourful. Instead, I felt that although the kimchee was well seasoned, it was not married with the pork. The pork was a bit bland and was dry.

Dinner was satisfying and not too heavy a meal before a concert. After dining, we walked a couple blocks to the El Rey. Autolux is working on their new album to be released next year. Although they haven't released an album in five years, there were still hoards of fans who came out to see them. The theatre is a historical landmark that was initially a movie theatre and was converted into a music venue in the 90's. It is an intimate space with a ballroom and balcony, and vintage decor. The concert was off the hook and Carla Azar rocked it on the drums.

Hits: cod, karage, casual atmosphere
Misses: restaurant gets crowded
Rate: ***

Sake House Miro
809 La Brea Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 939-7075

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unfortunately, 5 great chefs, 1 not-so-special meal @ 5X5 Collaborative: Angelini Osteria

Monday night marked the last dinner of the 2009 5X5 Collaborative series. In each of the dinners, the same five chefs come together at one of their restaurants and each prepare a dish for the night. The chefs include Josiah Citrin (Melisse), David LeFevre (Water Grill), Michael Ciramusti (Providence), Neal Fraser (Grace) and Gino Angelini (Angelini Osteria). I went to the last one at Water Grill and really enjoyed myself. Going in on Monday, I knew that it would be a little different. After all, Water Grill is a fine dining/Michelin starred establishment which menu focuses on seafood. Angelini Osteria on the other hand, is a homey Italian restaurant that serves Italian comfort food. It's been a while since I've had Italian food, which is one of my top favorite cuisines, so I was looking forward to the meal. The price tag for the event was $150; $215 including wine pairing. A portion goes to the Southern California Special Olympics but I was surprised to see that only $25 per person was donated to the cause.

The restaurant is small, intimate and loud, and there were already a lot of diners by the time we arrived at 6.30pm on a Monday.

Basket of bread including bread sticks that were delicious. I asked for balsamic vinegar, waited over 10 minutes for it before asking again. There appeared to be a shortage of waiters as ours was bustling around and rattling off menu items before speeding off.

While scanning the menu, the 1st course already drew a smile to my face. Polenta with the highly-sought-after white truffles. Italian food can sometimes include very casual dishes, but the truffles would elevate this.

#1 Polenta with white truffles (Gino Angelini) Ruggeri, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene "Gold Label", Veneto NV

This was actually a stuzzichini. The polenta was gummy, like it wasn't stirred enough or it had been sitting out for some time. On a positive side, at least the flavor was good and there was a generous serving of shaved truffles. The prosecco was good as well.

It's interesting that Chef Angelini had allowed these plates of gummy polenta to be served since he is a highly regarded Italian chef and this was his restaurant that we were dining at.

#2 Grilled Octopus with pickled watermelon and Persian mint (Neal Fraser)
Colternzio, Gewurztraminer, Alto Aldige 2008

The octopus was rubbery, and once again I suspect that it had been sitting out as well because it wasn't warm and did not seem as though it had just come off the grill. Also when they describe the watermelon as pickled, I was expecting some strong flavors. Instead it tasted just like a normal watermelon slice. The Riesling gelee was interesting: it had a strong aftertaste. Another complaint I had was that the wine was not chilled enough. I swear it was just a few degrees cooler than room temperature. Ugh. There's nothing worse than lukewarm white wine.

#3 Sicilian Amberjack with wilted radicchio and anchovy sauce (Paul Bartolotta)
Renzo Sgubin, Friulano Bianco, Friuli 2007

The fish was dry and just overall boring, and the radicchio was horrendous. It was too bitter that I wasn't even able to finish a bite. Yes, I know the vegetable is bitter by nature, but I doubt the chef meant for it to be THAT bitter because it was absolutely inedible. I thought the anchovies made the dish. It was a bit clumpy and pasty and some may complain that it's too salty, but I thought it gave at least some flavor to the fish.

At this point, three courses were done and they were all mediocre. I was a little disappointed. I recalled that at the 5X5 dinner at Water Grill, almost every plate that came out was exquisite and interesting. Also our waiter at Angelini Osteria did not even know anything about guest chef Bartolotta when we asked and did not know what restaurant the chef worked in. This was an extremely different experience from the Water Grill, where our waiter knew the background of each of the chefs and was also knowledgeable about the food and wine.

#4 Heirloom squash agnolotti with guanciale, ricotta salata and brown sugar (David LeFevre)
Filippo Gallino, Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Piemonte 2007

Ahh... this course saved the night. The pasta which is a form of ravioli, was excellent and by far the best plate of the night. It was served with figs and squash. The squash was deliciously coated with sage butter sauce, the sage was aromatic and even the fried sage leaf was lovely. There was also guanciale or unsmoked Italian bacon. It was cured and had an intense pork flavor. It was also chewy and was a nice textural contrast to the smooth and creamy pasta.

#5 Grilled New Zealand John Dory, Tongue of Fire beans, calamari, mussels, clams and pistou (Michael Cimarusti)
Colterenzio, Pinot Nero, Alto Adige 2006

This dish was uninspired and was served lukewarm. Although it was flavorful, there was nothing unique about this dish. I have tasted Michael Ciramusti's cooking on various occasions and he has never disappointed. I know that he is an amazing chef so I am left to believe that any missteps had to be due to the logistics of the kitchen. Since it is a small kitchen, perhaps they had to prepare many components beforehand instead of firing up the grill when order was up. This just seem like a dish that you could get at any other restaurant.

#6 Wood roasted Venison loin, celtuce, peach, rosemary and pistachio (Josiah Citrin)
Caprai, Sagrantino di Montfelco "Collepiano", Umbria 2004

The waiter poured the sauce table side which was a nice touch. The venison was cooked perfectly and the eggplant with foie was delicious. I asked the waiter if that was a quail egg yolk on the plate and he said yes. It was not. It was a pseudo quail egg in the form of peach gelee. He obviously did not know what was on the plate. Despite the error in service, I did think that the food was delicious, the presentation was lovely, and the peach gelee was playful.

#7 Cannoli of ricotta and toasted almonds with vaniglia sauce (Pastry Chef Azael Morales)
La Montecchia, Moscato Passito "Donna Daria", Veneto 2006

Hmm.. no palate cleanser? Oh well..
The dessert was served with a little citrus zest which was refreshing. The cannoli was delicious and I loved the ice cream which tasted like ferrero rocher. And vaniglia is exactly what you think it is: vanilla.

The wine pairing was good but most of the food was nothing special. And the service was appalling. Our waiter was a nice person, but I felt that he did not know what was going on. He did not know anything about the guest chef nor ingredients on the plate. I feel that these are the type of information that should be covered in a staff briefing before the night started. I also felt that the service was not attentive when compared to our lovely waiter at the Water Grill. One of the servers plopped a dish in front of me and then walked away, without even telling us what it was. Presenting a plate is customary in a reputable restaurant that is serving a tasting menu.

Call me an elitist, but if I'm paying $215 sans tax and tip, I expect a special dining experience, with more thoughtful service. At the last 5X5, all the chefs came out to talk to every table when their courses were served. This time, we barely saw two making their rounds. The chefs are supposed to come out to present their dishes. Instead, the waiter (who didn't even know what was on the plate and was frantically looking through his hand written notes) did it, if at all. I suppose it was a blessing in disguise that the only chef that came to our table was Chef Lefevre, and we raved about his pasta dish. I don't know what I would have said if some of the other chefs had come over to ask how things were. Is it rude to say "Your dish was ordinary"? I suppose I was expecting more exuberance in their cooking since it was the last one of the series. Instead, I did not feel much heart and soul in the food that was served.

I felt a bit cheated with this experience. A large part of a memorable dining experience is the service and feeling welcomed as a diner. I did not feel that way at all, given that this was a fairly extravagant event. The service was similar to that at a regular restaurant and I felt they were trying to herd customers out of the restaurant like cattle. It was a less than 2 hr dinner even including waiting the first 30 minutes for the 1st plate to arrive. So essentially, we had 7 courses in almost 1.5 hrs. There was nothing special to the night and most of the food was not exciting at all. Please guys, it's for charity (well, $25 of it is) - can you at least put a little more effort into the meal? I left the restaurant almost $300 poorer and unimpressed.

Hits: pasta, wine pairing, venison, dessert
Misses: service, many of the dishes were not warm, seafood a bit overcooked (perhaps b/c they not served immediately), bitter radicchio
Rate: **

5X5 Collaborative
Angelini Osteria
7313 Beverly Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 297-0070

Monday, September 21, 2009

Morning fuel @ Terrace Cafe, Venice Beach

Morning surf always makes me ravenous. Unfortunately after walking around Venice Beach, I noticed that most of the food stores on the boardwalk were closed at 9am. We made our way over to Washington Blvd., hoping for just anything to eat. Thankfully, the Terrace Cafe was open. It looked quaint and a bit kitschy, and would do just fine.

We were seated in the patio area that was already full with diners.

Mimosa from champagne split

I ordered the Eggs benedict that came with hash browns, ham and a watermelon slice. I liked the hash browns but I thought it was a little too greasy. The english muffin was also a little soggy. The watermelon however was a good addition- it was good to have a refreshing sweet bite to cut the greasiness of the hash browns.

Darren got the 3 eggs, with hash browns, turkey sausage and choice of toast.

Allan got the Omelet with 3 toppings (ham, onions and avocado). It was huge and the omelet was exploding with ham. I actually thought that the wheat toast was delicious because it was thick, a little airy and nicely toasted.

The prices were reasonable and the portions were generous. But it was a perfect serving for three starving surfers that had worked hard all morning. As such, I didn't feel guilty at all for cleaning out my plate and even stealing two pieces of Allan's toast.

Hits: large portions, location
Misses: soggy muffins
Rate: **

Terrace Cafe
7 Washington Blvd.,
Venice, CA 90292
(310) 578-1530

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Septemberfest: LA's answer to Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest is an annual festival held in Munich, Germany and celebrates with 16 days of beer, bratwurst and lederhosens. If you don't have the luxury of flying across the Atlantic for this tradition, you can hop on the 101 and head for Hollywood for Septemberfest. This version was held at Paramount Studios' backlot and hosted by event planner DrinkEatPlay. The studio lot is glamorous with its palm tree-lined driveway. The festival was set in the part of the lot known as New York Street because the buildings on the set look like mini replicas of those in New York. The event is by no means trying to replicate Oktoberfest. There was no German food or beer and I didn't hear the chicken dance being played by the band. Instead you will find BBQ fare and American rock music.

Tickets were $40 if pre-purchased, $50 at the door. However you are able to buy tickets at Goldstar Events for $31. With admission fee, you get a small beer mug and unlimited pours. There are numerous selection of beer; German and non German *gasp*. Brands include Unibroue, Newcastle, Spaten, Pyramid and Strongbow. My favorite was Xingu, a Brazilian black beer that looks like Guinness. It was full bodied and creamy but not bitter.

Apart from beer, there were a few food options: burgers, tacos, roasted corn and the Border Grill food truck. I opted for the corn. Unfortunately, they do not serve any other alcoholic beverage so beer is all you get.

The service was so slow; we waited for 25 minutes! There was a lot of corn that was already roasted and waiting in the tin bucket, but the lady basting the corn with butter was holding the line up.

If you weren't too impatient and was lucky enough to receive a corn, there was an array of condiments in a DIY setting.

Mine was simple: garlic salt and parmesan cheese. The corn was simple but delicious.

Polish hot dog. Plump and juicy sausage. Delicious as well.

Italian sausage hot dog. The sausage was a little dry and not as scrumptious as the polish dog.

The cover band was great. The music was tight and the band was playing Tom Petty and Johnny Cash songs, which got the crowd to shake and move.

Septemberfest is a one-day event that is great if you were looking for something fun to do this weekend. They should probably expand it so that the festival spans for a couple weekends. I know I'll be down for going again.

Hits: variety of beer, great music
Misses: long food line, just beer, no wine

Paramount Studios
5555 Melrose Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90038