Monday, November 30, 2009

Pizzeria Mozza can convert a cheese-hater

It's a miracle that I made it to Pizzeria Mozza at all. After losing time while surfing in the OC, I made my way back (with a sliced toe), got lost looking for the freeway, charged through traffic (thank goodness I had my trusty iPhone that told me to avoid the 5, so I expertly traversed from the 5 to the 22 to the 405 to the 110 to the 10), my friends begged the hostess and managed to circumvent Pizzeria Mozza's reservation policy that they would give up our table after 15 minutes. Someone must have really wanted me to make it to the restaurant. After all, this dining experience could potentially transform me into a pizza-lover, or at the least a pizza-tolerator.

So yes, I have a major cheese issue. No it's not lactose intolerance. I ate cheese that had been sitting out in 100 degree weather many years ago and ever since then, I've had problems eating cheese, especially if it's melted and gooey. It's not like I don't try. The last time I had pizza, it was takeout Papa Johns on a late working night. I took a couple bites and automatically had to barf it out. I had the same gag reflex with lasagna and grilled cheese. However recently in the last week, I have been pleasantly surprised by pizzas. I had a slice at Bottega Louie and at Jones. It was then when I came to the realization that Pappa Johns had screwed me for over 5 years. After that bad pizza, I shunned all other pizzas without realizing that if the mozzarella was fresh and not greasy, I *might* be able to eat a slice. Now mind you, I was going to take baby steps. Only good quality pizza and only 1-2 slices max. So, where would one go for the best pizzas in town? Pizzeria Mozza or course! I've deliberately stayed away from the Pizzeria but have enjoyed the Osteria. Not any more; I made the 1st reservation I could get for Pizzeria Mozza which was Sunday lunch at 2pm.

Pizzeria Mozza first opened in 2006 and the brand expanded to include the more formal Osteria and delivery takeout Mozza2Go. Mozza is owned by Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and prior co-owner of Campanile and ex wife of its chef Mark Peel, Mario Batali of Babbo in NYC, Foodnetwork, PBS and buddy of Gywneth Palthrow, and Joseph Bastianich who is Batali's long time Babbo partner. But this is really Silverton's project; you'll rarely see Batali and Bastianich on the premises.

Thankfully, the hostess arranged for another table given that I would arrive 30 minutes after our reservations. I'm glad that despite the popularity of the place, they were very cooperative. While waiting on me (sorry friends!), they ordered wine at the bar. The bartender was great; he gave tastings to my friends when they didn't like the 1st glass that they had ordered. A+ for effort but unfortunately my friends still didn't like any of them. I have to say that they are not high-maintenance wine drinkers, but apparently the wines they sampled had a watered down taste. But I understand, it's all about preference and I appreciate that the bartender tried to find them the right glass.

The menu includes pizzas, salads, panini and a variety of antipasti. I love small plate dining and if I had my way, I would fill up on the antipasti including bone marrow, corn and Brussels sprouts with prosciutto breadcrumbs. But not this time, I was here to experience the Mozza pizza.

The main dining room was smaller than I had expected, no wonder reservations are hard to come by. The tables were close together and it was loud and bustling at 2.30pm on a Sunday. When I finally arrived with wet/salty/kelp in hair (yes girls, that's the new look these days), we were seated in the private room that looked like a cellar lined with bottles of wine. Don't try to steal any of the wine, we saw some security cameras pointed at the bottles. The space was intimate and private enough that I didn't feel bad about taking photos and distracting diners.

Staircase lined with candles

Our waiter recommended a bottle of wine (Costa d'Amalfi "Furore") when we asked for something a bit more heavy bodied. The wine was one of the priciest at $46 (which isn't that pricey at all) but was just alright. We've been having quite some issues with the wine.

Bread sticks came wrapped in paper; rationed one for each of us.
I was a little disappointed that we just got bread sticks instead of bread. After all, Silverton is the queen of fresh artisan bread.

Chicken liver bruschetta with capers and guanciale
I've heard many raves about this dish and I concur. It was delicious and I'm glad I got my own piece. The liver was not too creamy and had a bit of texture. Everything worked so well in this dish. The capers were embedded in the liver and you could barely taste it (which was good for me). I love the guanciale that was fried and crispy which I thought was a nice touch. The crostini was toasted and drizzled with good olive oil. Absolutely amazing bite.

Chopped salad which included lettuce, radicchio, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, provolone, peppercini, garbanzo, salami. The peppercini lent a nice spice to the dish. I don't particularly care for salads so I wasn't in love with this but it tasted fine.

Pizza with squash blossoms, tomatoes and burrata
This was a unique pizza that came in a beautiful presentation. I'm glad we ordered it because we wanted something different from what you could normally get elsewhere. The pizza had a bit of a bitter flavor from the squash blossoms and the burrata cheese was creamy and rich. It was a good first step to a pizza for me because the cheese was a small portion and did not taste overwhelming. One of the key factors of a great pizza is the dough and Mozza delivered. The crust was fresh, crispy, light and not too doughy.

Pizza with fennel sausage, panna, onions and scallions
I had heard that the fennel sausage pizza was overly greasy but we quickly realized that there was another fennel sausage pizza (with bacon, salami and guanciale) on the menu that might have been the greasy one. This pizza was really good as well. It smelt amazing when it came out and had a sweetness from the onions and saltiness from the sausage. The sausage was flavorful and supposedly homemade. I thought the pizza would be rich from the panna (Italian cream) and mozzarella but I didn't even notice they were in the pizza. The cream and cheese were both mild and worked well with everything else in the pizza. Apparently the cheese is delivered daily which is why it tastes fresh and of good quality. Believe me, I know. I am a cheese critic.

There was no room for dessert and can you believe that we had leftovers? I think we were all overstuffed from our weekend thanksgiving binge.

I really enjoyed lunch at Pizzeria Mozza. The service was very efficient (lunch took 1 1/2 hours) and accommodating. Our waiter was very amicable and gave good food recommendations and the bartender was patient with my friends' wine selections. The food was excellent. Yes it's not the cheapest pizza meal at around $170 including tax and tip for three diners. Most pizzas cost around $13-18 and $22 for the burrata pizza, and they are about four slices each. However the dough was delicious, the ingredients were fresh and they all worked really well together, as though Nancy Silverton had experimented tirelessly until she found the right combinations for each of her dishes. The presentation was simple yet lovely. Yes, Mozza has turned me to pizza, although that liver bruschetta still has my heart.

Hits: liver crostini, pizzas, service
Misses: still popular so make reservations, not the cheapest meal
Rating: ****

Pizzeria Mozza
641 N. Highland Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 297-0101

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Barhopping in Santa Monica

Everything in Los Angeles is pretty spread out, which is why most people dislike the city, the driving and the traffic that comes with it. Yes, I do agree that we are missing the convenience of Manhattan or San Francisco but it isn't all that bad here. There are a few spots where you can bar hop. You've got Main Street SM, Cahuenga Corridor, SM Promenade and the South Bay. We decided to head over to Third Street Promenade.

First stop: Copa D'oro, cocktail lounge
They have happy hour till 8pm, numerous cocktails for $5 and a couple paninis. Their cocktails are fun, fresh and generally very tasty. The bartenders can also custom make your cocktails.

Moscow Mule: vodka, fresh lime juice and ginger beer. Very delicious. I always love the ginger and vodka combination.
Clover Club: gin, raspberry syrup, lime juice and pasteurized egg white. The egg white sounded odd but you could even notice it in the drink.

For the next non-happy hour round, we got the bartender to concoct something with vodka, cucumber and berries. He used raspberry, elderflower, simple syrup and cucumber. Another amazing drink and our bartender did a really good job with this. The cucumber essence was strong and refreshing. In fact, another bartender attempted to make the same one for us later but his version was too sweet. It's interesting that mixologists can really add their own spin to the same cocktails.

Charcuterie and board with goat, gorgonzola, Manchego, chorizo, salami and Prosciutto with toasted baguette
We substituted the gorgonzola for brie. I obviously didn't eat the cheese but I did have a bite of the chorizo which was delicious.

Next stop: 5th Amendment Alehouse
A very different spot compared to Copa D'oro, 5th Amendment is very casual and mainly serves beer, a few wine selections and no liquor. But they offer more food options than Copa. There's a makeshift music area where the DJ spins music from his iMac. The music was unpainfully loud but you got used to it after a while. The 1st and 2nd time I was here, there were some service issues but things seem to be improving. Greg, the bouncer/server was a blast, was accommodating and he also recommended some good beers. The bar carries a nice selection of craft beers and carnivore grub such as unique sausages and burgers.

Sausages are $8 each
Venison with merlot and blueberries. The sausage was very flavorful, dense and the flavors were compacted in a small package. The sausage was intense and spiced well.
Pheasant and cognac. This was bigger and juicier than the venison. It tasted rather lean like chicken.
Personally I preferred the pheasant because it was less heavy but everyone else liked the venison which apparently is a crowd favorite. The hot dog buns were ordinary grocery-store and the sauerkraut was nothing special; perhaps it did not have enough time to marinate. Overall, the sausages were good but I think it would have been tastier if they used fresh rolls or homemade condiments instead.

We ended the night at The Yard, a gastropub with a new menu from ex-Top Chef contestant CJ Jacobson. This spot probably takes the best of the last two bars. Good drink selection and scene like Copa and good food like 5th Amendment. There was a good amount of people out but still many seats open. Not bad for a holiday weekend. A DJ was spinning music in the corner and projected the music videos on the wall. I think the videos are a good addition especially when they play old Vanilla Ice and Madonna videos.

The Yard has a few cocktail selections. We ordered a couple rounds of drinks including the backyard lemonade and cucumber martini.

Pulled pork Sloppy Joe sliders with crispy onions
The pork was juicy and there was a lot of sauce. I liked these little sliders in that glossy toasted bun. The fries were a bit on the soggier side but late night fries are always a treat.

Braised crispy beef cheek with celery root yam puree, haricot vert, pickled golden raisin spice reduction
The Yard offers small, tapas styled portions so don't expect an entree size. The beef cheeks were absolutely scrumptious. I've had many beef cheeks in my time but I thought the crispiness really elevated this dish and added a nice contrast to the soft, tender meat. The puree was amazing as well. I thought this was a flavorful and well executed dish and something I would definitely get again.

Sweet potato fries. Always a winner in my mind.

CJ came by to chat with us and he's funny and entertaining. When asked what his favorite dishes were, he said he liked the scallops and artichoke puree, and recent addition crispy pigs ear with date and cheese. The scallops were good when I had it last (it was cooked perfectly) but I personally dislike artichokes so I wasn't a big fan of the puree.

I've been to all three bars before and I thought I was most impressed this time round. The food and drinks were good and reasonably priced, the vibe was fun and laid-back, and although my previous experience with service at 5th Amendment (understaffed) and The Yard (service was slow and the waiter had an attitude) were poor, the service this time at all three bars were great. It was a fun night of barhopping. In fact, all three bars are no more than one block away from each other. There are also additional bars in the area including my go-to spot Bar Chloe, English pub Ye Olde Kings Head and wine bar Pourtal. Yes, we may not be a "city" and our public transportation may still not be the most efficient, but we can still have our convenient bar crawl nights.

Hits: crispy beef cheeks, sliders, cocktails at Copa, service at all 3 bars
Misses: nothing. it was a fun night
Rating: ***

Copa D'oro
217 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 576-3030

5th Amendment Alehouse
129 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 395-6351

The Yard
119 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 395-9037

Pre Thanksgiving fun @ Jones, WeHo

I love Los Angeles holiday traffic, or the lack thereof. People tend to leave LA for the holidays instead of come back for it. Such is the trend of a transient town. I decided to meet up with my good friend Heather who was in town for Thanksgiving and we ventured out into Hollywood for an evening. Took me 15 minutes from the Westside. Ahhh.. I could get used to this.

We decided on Jones which just celebrated its 15 years in business. The restaurant bar is laid back but still hip. It's loungey, dark with leather booths, an elevated wraparound bar and great rock music blasting. They even played my favorite and lesser played Beatles song "Here, there and everywhere". Just for that, I have to give them a thumbs up for being such a rock'in place.

We were able to grab seats at the bar. The place got pretty packed at 11.30pm so our seats were prime spots. The crowd was pretty friendly and non pretentious. A girl gave up her seat for me when our food arrived and some guys came over to to give us recommendations for their favorite dishes. I've heard mixed reviews regarding the service but personally, I thought it was great. The bartenders were fun and attentive, the waiter came by to chit chat throughout the night. We were always served almost immediately but I saw many people frantically flagging down bartenders, shouting out orders and waiting impatiently to order. In fact, one girl got pissy and argued with the bartenders when they apparently missed her order.

The Hendrix
It tasted like a margarita but fresher and better; made with tequila, lime juice, pear juice and basil.

Most of their drinks are named after rock artists or songs. The food menu included a couple pasta dishes, meat entrees and pizzas. I liked their spaghetti and meatballs and apparently the pizzas and chopped salads are pretty good.

Cheese and charcuterie plate
I liked that the cheese was blocks of Parmesan Reggiano instead of smelly cheeses. The Parmesan was sharp and salty. There were three cuts of cured meat. I liked all the components of the plate including the juicy grapes although some of the grapes were a little squishy.

Pizza Funghi
The waiters recommended the pizzas. This was a pretty large pizza with thin crust, san marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a variety of mushrooms such as crimini, shitaki and oyster mushrooms. The ingredients were all fresh and of good quality. In addition, the pizza wasn't too greasy. I am slowly getting over my cheese issue so much that right on the spot, we made reservations for Pizzeria Mozza for the weekend.

Single gals, if you are looking for some eye candy, Jones is the place to be. I didn't even realize until I looked around and noticed the guy to girl ratio (something ridiculous like 5:1). Perhaps it was just the holiday crowd, perhaps girls tend to go home to spend time with the family while the boys like to kick start the long weekend at the bars. I don't know. All I know is that it was a fun night at Jones: the food, the drinks, the staff, the people watching.

Hits: pizza, service
Misses: gets crowded
Rating: ***

7205 Santa Monica Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA 90046
(323) 850-1726

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Turkey Day

Thanksgiving home cooking has slowly been deteriorating in my family. We gave up making our own turkey years ago. And until recently, we would still make our own sides. This year however, almost everything came from Ralph's, except for the pumpkin pie that I baked. Based on our ongoing trend, I'm sure next year Ralph's too shall provide our thanksgiving dessert. I did like the idea of making our own sides but after my massive stuffing failure a few years prior (dry, overcooked, salty), I was demoralized. At least if we complained about store purchased sides, no ones feelings would get hurt. So this year, we're giving thanks for the convenience of grocery stores.

The main star of the night: turkey

I know I'm generalizing but typically Asians love dark meat and Caucasians prefer white. Think it has something to do with the texture or grizzle. So you would think that it'd work out perfectly in a multi-racial household right? Not in our case unfortunately. Everyone was grabbing for the dark meat.

The rejected white meat

Thankfully, no one cared for the bones so they went to my sister and I. Cleaning out the bones, getting every piece of meat and connective tissue off the bone is the fun part but you'll need patience for that.

Candied yams
Stuffing, much better than the last one I made

Mashed potatoes, this was gone in seconds.

I totally recommend the pre-cooked turkey dinner if you don't have someone in the family that is dying to cook the feast. It saved us a lot of time, really took the pressure away from Thanksgiving day, allowed us to spend more time in the living room catching up and drinking Champagne instead of in the kitchen, and ultimately the meal turned out well. Yes, I know it's not that traditional but I'll take good food over ritual.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Very Happy Hour @ Gyenari

My ideal happy hour joint has to meet various criteria. It has to be decently located (with relatively easy parking or valet), it should end no earlier than 7pm, offer good prices and have an extensive food menu. As such, Gyenari is the poster child for my idea of a good happy hour. House wine is $3, food prices range from $4-5, and the happy hour food menu includes possibly everything on their regular bar menu. I love it when the happy hour menu offers all that variety instead of three of the lamest dishes from their regular menu.

The place used to be more of an upscale Korean BBQ joint but ever since Debbie Lee (Next Food Network Star contestant) came on board, the menu has transformed into something much more interesting and exquisite. The dinner menu includes Korean BBQ fare, hot pots, other interesting dishes such as stews and galbee pot pie as well as various tasting menu options. The bar menu includes small plates with Korean influence; mini sliders, lettuce cups, tartare, dumplings, kimchee fried rice among others. With a vast bar menu like that, I doubt I'd ever actually try the dinner menu.

Gyenari is located in the trendy district in Culver City that houses many restaurants and bars. The interior is modern with exposed brick walls, high ceilings and wooden frames. The bar area looks like it could belong in Hollywood. There is ample seating at the bar counter, chairs and tables, and leather booths which we managed to snag. Although the happy hour menu listed that it ends at 7pm, it actually ends at 8pm. SCORE! But you should check with the waitress because you don't want to be unpleasantly surprised at the end of the night.

We waited over 15 minutes while out waitress came by to wipe down the table but never returned to take our orders. We eventually had to approach the hostess to take our orders. We started with a round of cheap drinks and ordered a couple (or many) small plates to share.

Simply saam: Lettuce wrap with glass noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber and a choice of meat (Spicy pork, bulgogi, chicken or tofu)
The meat was good but it wasn't as juicy or as spicy as I had hoped. Still, it was a fun dish to assemble and was substantial for $4.

You put together a bite that has a bit of everything. I liked the glass noodles and the marinated bean sprouts.

Curry turnovers
It was a pretty big turnover with flaky crust and a choice of chicken or vegetable filling. The chicken curry filling wasn't spicy. Somehow I was hoping it would pack a punch like the Indian samosas. Some at the table said that the turnovers were mediocre but despite the lack of heat, I really liked it as it reminded me of the curry puffs that I used to eat in Singapore.

Dumplings/Mandoo with choice of kimchee, beef & pork or shrimp & scallop.
We went with the kimchee which was a vegetarian option that included glass noodles, vegetables and tofu. The mandoo was good but did not have that strong pickled and spicy Kimchee flavor. In fact, you would probably not have known that it was filled with kimchee. It was still delicious especially with the thick salty dipping sauce.

Duo of Sliders, choice of Bulgogi, Curry crab cake or Spicy Pork
We got two orders of the bulgogi which is Korean short ribs. It was tender, a bit fatty in a good way and came with kimchee mayo, balsamic soy onions and cheese. I liked how the ingredients were all unique. They could have slapped on regular mayo and grilled onions but instead added additional Korean touches to the dish. The bread was soft and slightly toasted. Also a good deal at $4 per plate.

Closer look of the mini slider

Kimchee fried rice
Not once, but twice fried pork belly and a runny fried egg that oozed all over the rice. This was my favorite dish of the night and we ordered two plates. There was a nice amount of spice and strong Korean flavors in the dish. I liked that it was not your typical bar food. I mean, who serves rice for happy hour? But it did the trick; starch is always good to soak up the alcohol. And $4 per plate? Sign me up for more!!

The bill came up to $66 including tax and tip; that's for six drinks and nine plates of nibbles. What a good deal! Even the $3 wine was very drinkable. What I liked most about the happy hour was that the food was unique compared to regular watering holes and they offered many options. The flavors were good and satisfying, although besides the kimchee fried rice, the spice factor was on the milder side. I suppose the food is more Americanized and toned down a little. There were a hand full of items that I'd still like to try including the chicken wings and ribs. Besides the food, this place really rises up on my list of favorite happy hours because it ends at 8pm. I didn't feel rushed as I made the 45 minute drive from Hollywood. The dinner menu is pricier so if you are looking for a good deal, head over to the bar area instead. Also you have to keep in mind that the food is a bit Americanized so you aren't going to experience the strong, spicy Korean spices. On the other hand, it'd be a good primer for your friends that haven't been exposed to the cuisine. And as I have mentioned a thousand times, at $4 a plate, it sure beats many other bars.

Hits: kimchee fried rice, curry turnover, sliders, great prices, happy hour ends at 8pm!
Misses: can get crowded so get there early to secure seats, dishes could have been spicier
Rating: **** (for happy hour)

9540 Washington Blvd.,
Culver City CA, 90232
(310) 838-3131

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dumplings in SFV at Tampa Garden, Reseda

I came across this Chowhound thread about a place in the San Fernando Valley that serves xiao long baos. I had gone to the popular Din Tai Fung in Arcadia two months ago and really enjoyed the dumplings but was not feeling the 30+ mile drive. But I can sure make the 18 mile drive to Reseda. Hounds were going on about how they enjoyed the food so I was optimistic.

I was taken aback when I arrived. The restaurant Tampa Garden Chinese Delight looked like a cheesy strip-malled Chinese fast food joint. There was a huge banner that said there was a buy three lunches get one free special when the Dow got up to 10000 points. Didn't anyone catch up on MSNBC in the last month? Also there was the restaurant website embossed on the door so I googled it but the website doesn't exist. I got there a bit before 11am when it opened, so I peered at the menu taped on the door and it looked like normal take out food like sweet and sour chicken.. No dumplings? Ugh, not authentic things that a Chinese would order. In fact, my sister pulled up beside me and suggested going somewhere else. Let's just give them a chance, I said as I convinced her to stay.

The place is run by a mother and daughter duo. I was relieved when the mother brought over another menu that listed dumplings and more authentic Chinese food. This was what we had come for. None of that mu shu pork, please. The mother only speaks Mandarin and I don't think she noticed the confused and frantic looks I was giving her. Thankfully my sister was there and somehow she retained all that Mandarin that we learnt as kids. Have no fear if you don't have a sister that understands sufficient Mandarin to get by; the daughter speaks English. The mom is such a sweetheart though; very friendly and smiling all the time.

We decided to share a couple dishes between the two of us.

The mother hand made the dumplings on the spot.

Side of pickled cabbage which was very spicy.

Short rib, veggie and vermicelli noodle soup
This was a last minute add-on when the mother mentioned that we should start with a soup.

Serving of the spare rib soup
The pork was tender and each piece had a lovely piece of crunchy cartilage and fat. I liked the addition of the vermicelli noodles. The broth was soothing and flavorful.

Pancake with egg
The pancake acted like a pita bread that held the fried egg filling. I liked the outer crust of the pancake but I thought the middle section was a bit too doughy. This came with two pieces and was very filling.

Pork and chive dumpling
The green chives were colorful and added that mild onion flavor to the salty pork. I have to mention that the dumpling skins are on the thicker side. In fact, we had to adjust our strategy a bit if we wanted to get to the XLBs. We didn't eat all the dumpling skins because we did not want to fill up on the starch.

Xiao long bao
These dumplings were huge and coarser than the ones I had at DTF. The filling was bigger like the size of a mini meatball and the skin was thicker. Don't get me wrong, bigger is usually better, but sometimes too much meat can, well, be too much. Come on boys, get your head out of the gutter. In any case, the dumplings were still delicious and the hot soup filling was tasty.

This place is rather charming, mostly due to the mom who kept coming by to chat with us. The dumplings are huge like they were made for the land of Brobdingnag. All that food for $27 which could have easily fed another person. The mom hails from Northern China so the food is starchy, more filling and with bold flavors. You can tell by the large portions and the rough around the edges dumpling skin. I like to call it rustic. Don't expect the fragile dumpling skin or the delicate portions like those of the Shanghainese version. This is the type of food that a Grandma would make at home. There was a durian boba drink that was calling my name but there was no way I could stuff anything else in my stomach. Next time, I'd invite more people because there was way too much food for two people but yet we wanted to sample a variety of dishes. I walked away full and with a valuable lesson: Don't judge a restaurant by its ordinary exterior.

Hits: dumplings, short ribs, not too far away
Misses: starchy pancake and dumpling skin
Rating: ***

Tampa Garden/Chinese Delight
8241 Tampa Ave.,
Los Angeles CA 91335
(818) 349-2221