Friday, January 29, 2010

dineLA: Cafe Was (decent)

My friends K&B tasted a bacon wrapped date from Cafe Was at LA Magazine's Food Event in Malibu last year, loved it and insisted that we try the restaurant proper. Fine by me, it's close to work. It's French food, I can never decline. The dineLA menu and prices looked reasonable so we decided to check it out last night.

The restaurant is owned by Ivan Kane of burlesque show Forty Deuce. The name of the restaurant stems from a neon sign "Always open" that only had the W, A and S letters working. That same sign now lights up the entrance to the restaurant.

The decor is very bohemian and moulin rouge with its dark setting and red booths. Live music starts at 7pm which includes a guy playing on a revolving piano. The crowd is young, Hollywood and trendy. It was fairly empty around 7ish but it appeared that every seat in the main room was filled by the time we left at 9.30pm.

Champagne Suzy with St Germain Elderflower, Mumm Cuvee and lemon twist.
It was served in a huge glass. I usually down bubbly drinks pretty quickly but this lasted me a good 30 minutes. The drink was lovely: bubbly and sweet.

While waiting (alone) for the rest of my party to arrive (20-30 minutes late), I decided to order a canape to hold me over.

Quiche de Canard which is duck confit with herb creme served in a crispy pastry shell. The duck was tender and shredded. The herb creme was rather subtle so the quiche wasn't too heavy. A perfect $4 bite. My guests arrived in time to steal a bite of this.

Gougeres were served in a paper bag and were fresh and airy with a hint of cheese.

Amuse Bouche which included bacon wrapped date with Roquefort and tuna tartare.
Greasy fried bacon with the sweet date and surprisingly mild cheese was a perfect amuse bouche. The tuna tartare was served on a homemade potato chip with a bit of avocado cream and cubes of fresh tuna.

Next up were appetizers. A choice of the soup du jour, beet salad or escargot. The soup didn't sound appetizing (roasted tomato) so none of us ordered it.

Escargots with garlic confit, European butter, capers, lemon confit and brioche en croute.
I liked the portion and the presentation. The snails were soaking in butter and garlic, which is a good thing but I didn't like the addition of capers in the sauce as it added a tartness to the dish. The pastry needed some salt and butter. It wasn't rich and flaky and instead tasted doughy and bland. Such a pity because a good pastry would have made this dish exceptional.

Heirloom Roasted Beets with goat cheese, arugula and lemon oil. Simple and fresh ingredients.

Entrees were served after a unbearably long break. Perhaps I was anxiously waiting because I was a bit dissatisfied with the escargot dish.

Duck Leg Confit with forbidden black rice, heirloom carrot julienne, berry gastrique, hydroponic watercress.
The duck itself was cooked well. Not the most succulent and tender piece but at least it wasn't dry. I was excited to try the forbidden black rice but was disappointed to find that it was tasteless. Where's the salt again?!?

Vintage Natural Short Ribs with ox tail ragu, pinot wine jus, anson mills polenta, pea tendrils and onion confetti.
The meat itself was cooked perfectly. The short ribs were rich and tender. The only thing missing was, you guessed it... salt. I am just surprised by the lack of seasoning. Braised short ribs are usually on the saltier side because they have been simmering in sauce for hours. With the addition of salt, the dish was much improved. In fact, I really enjoyed it after that. Flavorful, satisfying, comforting dish.

Bouillabaisse with bouchet mussels, jumbo shrimp, lobster, halibut, fines herbs, saffron, aioli and fingerling potatoes.
Once again, this needed salt. To be honest, I've never ask for salt in a restaurant but this time, I had to. It would have been a waste of seafood if I didn't enjoy the dish. A couple taps of the salt shaker made the dish so much more flavorful. You really need to season appropriately if you are making a bouillabaisse because the seafood tends to taste mild and sometimes on the sweeter side so you would need some salt to balance it out. I liked the selection of seafood and it was cooked perfectly.

Finally, on to desserts. You can't under season desserts, can you?!? As a mater of fact, yes you can!

Lavender Crème Brûlée with spring berries and rose essence ice cream.
Tasty dessert but not one of the better ones I've had. The custard was a bit thick. I could barely taste lavender in the creme brulee. The original dineLA menu listed a pumpkin creme brulee which would probably have turned out better.

Gâteau de Pain. Warm valrhona white and dark chocolate bread pudding with six-spice ice cream and turkish espresso dressing.
This needed some salt as well because it was bland. I don't think I've ever tasted a bland bread pudding. This did not have the rich, soft, moist consistency of a bread pudding. Good effort on the presentation though. Like the espresso dressing on the side.

Apple Caramel Beignets
Huge triangular pastry that was buttery and delicious. The pastry was fresh out of the oven and the chunks of apple in the filling were warm and sweet. The vanilla bean ice cream had a crunch to it.

Overall, I thought the food was decent. It wasn't great by any means but it wasn't a bad meal. It was also a good deal at $34 for three courses. I really enjoyed the Champagne Suzy. The ambiance at Cafe Was was fun and unique. It'd be cool to have a party there perhaps on the second floor balcony overlooking the dining room and pianist. Dining at Cafe Was is a different experience, something that fits very nicely in with Hollywood. With the right amount of seasoning in their food, the night would have been better.

Hits: duck quiche, gougere, beignet, dining deal, ambiance
Misses: under seasoned food
Rating: **

Cafe Was
1521 N. Vine Blvd.,
Hollywood CA
(323) 466-5400

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Old school Italian (Dan Tana's) with new school rock (Airborne Toxic Event)

Dinner and a concert is my favorite combo. So when I was going to a concert at the Troubadour, Dan Tana's next door seemed the logical option. I called a couple days prior and they only had 6.30pm and 9pm reservations open. Damn, that's popular for a Wednesday. Makes sense since there are only 20 tables. The restaurant is a celeb hangout. Apparently Clooney loves it and Ryan Phillippe was just there last week. Phil Spector dined there right before he allegedly shot actress Lana Clarkson. We weren't there for the celebs though. And it won't be the most amazing dinner you'll ever have but it's still good and it's convenient. The restaurant closes at 1am so you can valet you car with them until the concert is over.

The place looks exactly the same as when I was last there about five years ago and I'm sure it's been the same for the last 40 years. Interestingly enough, owner Dan Tana isn't an Italian chef. He's a soccer player from Yugoslavia. You wouldn't know this from stepping into the restaurant. The place is old school Italian and looks the part from the red walls, to the red leatherette booths, red checkered table cloth and empty bottles of Chianti hanging from the ceiling. It's homey, casual and filled with regulars who know the staff by name.

The menu includes pastas and meats and it's not that cheap. Pastas are around mid $20s while chicken starts at $25. Don't expect fancy cocktails or for the bartender to whip up that cucumber mojito.

Bread and wine.

Caesar Salad
I really enjoyed the salad. The ingredients in the dressing were fresh and you could taste and see chunks of anchovies. The salad was topped with fresh cracked black pepper, croutons and Parmesan cheese. Simple but delicious.

The salad was prepared old school-style with dressing made table side. Since there wasn't much room for that, the waiter actually prepared it in the corner.

Homemade Lasagna
Delicious. The meat wasn't too oily and you could tell had been simmering for a long time. I loved the crispy burnt cheese edges. The portions were rather generous given that the dish was heavy.

Veal Scaloppine, Karl Malden
Three portions of veal were pounded thin and topped with breaded eggplant. The veal was very tender and the eggplant was well seasoned and a bit mushy in the breading. The sauce was lemon, caper, butter and wine. I liked it because the sauce was rather thin and not heavy. And ohh you could most definitely taste the butter. Cardio doctor will not be happy with me :(

As if three pieces of veal wasn't sufficient, entrees come with a side of pasta with choice of tomato, meat or garlic sauce. This was great as you could also satiate your pasta fix.

I enjoyed the food at Dan Tana's. It's not fancy or unique in any way, but it's comfort food. You don't go there for the best Italian food of your life. You go there for the ambiance, a bit of that Old Hollywood that you never got to experience. You also go there because it's right by the Troubadour. P.S. Reality "star" Kim Kardashian was there last night. Doubt she was headed over to the concert afterwards though.

Hits: veal, Caesar salad, lasagna, ambiance
Misses: gets crowded so make a reservation
Rating: ***

Dan Tana's Restaurant
9071 Santa Monica Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(310) 275-9444

We were done with dinner in an hour and the bar was getting really crowded so we walked over to The Palms Restaurant (another "old" joint). It's a classic steak joint that's decorated with caricatures of people (famous and not) on the walls and ceilings. It's a little kitschy. Apparently if you shell out $25K, you too can have a drawing of yourself at the restaurant. We grabbed seats at the bar and yay, they have fancy cocktails!

French Twist and Ruby Slipper
The Ruby Slipper was made with cucumber, gin and grapefruit. Sounds like a good mixture but it had an overbearing tartness from the grapefruit. The french twist was made with champagne, Elderflower, lemon juice and soda. This was the winner. It was refreshing and delicious.

After a couple drinks, we made it back to the Troubadour for more drinks and just in time for the concert. The show was to benefit charity Friendly House which offers a place for women who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The purpose was meaningful as the lead singer's brother is recovering from heroin addiction. The Troubadour is one of my favorite LA concert venues because it's intimate (holds about 500 people) and very casual (yay, flip flops). The concert was a success as I've never seen the Troubadour that packed before.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

dineLA: Petrossian

dineLA Restaurant Week is upon us once again, this time very soon after the last. But the restaurant business needs some influx of business so as usual, I am there to support the economy. After I forgot to follow my own dineLA restaurant criteria last year and had an unsatisfying night at Asia De Cuba, I made sure that I did the necessary research this time round. The criteria is simple. #1 The restaurants have to offer you a good deal. If you add up average prices of appetizer, entree and dessert on their regular menu and it's about the same price or lower than the dineLA prices, don't bother with it. You are better off just ordering from the regular menu #2 If the restaurants offer dishes on the menu that you would actually want to eat. This requires doing some menu research. After all, would you really want to pay $44 for a green salad, salmon and sorbet?

After doing some research, we decided on Petrossian. I had read some positive reviews during the last dineLA so I was excited to try. Additionally, the regular menu prices are pretty steep so I knew we'd be getting a deal during this promotion. Petrossian is a specialty market/restaurant that is known for its gourmet food, specifically caviar. The restaurant is separated into the dining room and the marketplace that has casual seating and a communal table as well as a food section that offers whole foie gras, caviar, chocolates for sale. The marketplace would be a perfect spot for an upscale happy hour.

Even though it was a Monday, I was surprised to see that it was empty since it was Restaurant Week. Perhaps a lot of people do not realize that Petrossian offers dining in addition to specialty items. There's no valet which can be a problem but it wasn't for us on a Monday.

The West Hollywood outpost is less stuffy than its NYC sister. Petrossian was renovated last year for a more modern update. The decor is what you would expect: fancy, classy yet simple. The black and white walls are decorated with pictures of old Hollywood stars, menu and table tops are leather. They also have a sidewalk patio area.

For dineLA, $44 gets you a starter, entree and dessert. Most of the items on the dineLA menu are new, things that the chef newly created. The chef is Benjamin Bailly who has worked at a couple of Joel Robuchon's restaurants and most recently was sous chef at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. With this exceptional resume, you know to expect exquisite food.

Bread was served upon request and we ordered a glasses of champagne each.
There were three choices for each course and thankfully we were a party of four so we were able to try all the choices between us.

Green Bean Salad with burrata, marcona almond and caviar
You HAVE to order something with caviar when you are at Petrossian. This plate looks simple but it was actually more delicate than meets the eye. The chef really took the effort to slice each green bean lengthwise. The burrata was fresh and mild and the caviar added a nice saltiness to the salad. Everyone really enjoyed this starter because it was simple but yet delicious.

Shrimp Papillotte with passion fruit, chilli ginger sauce
The shrimp was wrapped "in paper" and deep fried. There were three plump shrimp pieces which is a decent sized starter at a fancy restaurant. The chili sauce tasted like Thai chili sauce that you would find in a Thai restaurant. I enjoyed this dish but I didn't think it was anything unique and felt that you could get something similar at any Asian restaurant.

Tsar Cut Salmon Sampler
There were two pieces of each style: Classic, dill and black sea spice
The salmon was fresh and very good quality. It was served with creme fraiche and dill on the side. If you like salmon, you'll have to order this. You're at Petrossian after all.

Bottle of Macon Village White Burgundy.

Halibut Brandade with sunny egg, piquillo pepper and black olive oil
The fish was basically mashed up with potatoes and pepper, then topped with an egg. Lovely presentation. I thought the dish was interesting but the flavors didn't win me over. However I have to caveat that it's a personal preference. I don't like olives and I thought the olive oil had a very strong flavor.

Braised Pork Belly with soft polenta and balsamic relish onion
Initially no one at the table wanted to order this dish because pork belly is so rampant in restaurant menus and so 2009. Thankfully Dilu decided to take one for the team. As it turns out, we all felt that this was the best entree of the night. The skin was seared with a coating of caramelized sugar, the belly was fatty and tender and the polenta was creamy and delicious. This was the type of dish that you couldn't stop yourself from taking more bites. Very well executed and the flavors were amazing. I would definitely be back for this and thanks to Chef Bailly for making me fall in love with pork belly again.

Crispy Peanut Egg with white asparagus veloute, caviar and mache
I had to order this because I was intrigued by the crispy peanut egg. It's basically a soft boiled egg that was coated with peanuts then fried for a quick second. The veloute was a puree of asparagus and was creamy and satisfying. The caviar was salty and added a fishy essence to the veloute. I enjoyed this dish and thought it was unique, however it seemed more of a starter than an entree.

The crispy peanut egg with yolk oozing into the veloute. Gorgeous.
Next up was dessert. Unfortunately, everyone was eyeing two of the three items so no one ordered the panna cotta which I'm sure would have been good.

Petrossian Chocolate Moelleux
Moelleux means soft or moist in french so we were expecting a molten lava cake of some sort. Unfortunately the cake was a bit overdone, was not moist in the midden and was a little dense. Still delicious but it could have been so much better.

Sicillian Pistachio creme brulee
Creamy and rich custard with an amaretto flavor, topped with a very thin layer of caramelized sugar. Very tasty.

Our waitress was nice and accommodating especially when one of our party was running 20 minutes late. However she did not refill our wine glasses on three occasions which was surprisingly as there were no other guests in the restaurant at the time. The food was good and inventive. It really lives up to its brand of decadence, indulgence and elegance. I thought the dineLA menu was a great deal. Our bill came up to $100 each including tax and tip, but half of which was for the two bottles of wine and 4 glasses of bubbly. I am glad that I finally got a taste of Petrossian which really whet my appetite. I already know what I'd like to order during my next visit: wild mushroom cappuccino, foie gras creme brulee and black truffle mac 'n' cheese. dineLA Restaurant Week is a great opportunity to check out new restaurants. Just make sure you do the necessary menu research before hand or you might be disappointed.

Hits: pork belly, shrimp, green bean salad, creme brulee, good pricing for the restaurant
Misses: brandade, dry cake
Rating: ***

Petrossian Boutique & Restaurant
321 N. Robertson Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA 90048
(323) 271-6300

Monday, January 25, 2010

Samosa House: this really sucks for the Vegetarians

I had read on CH about two competing vegetarian Indian joints in Culver City. The chef from Samosa House went to open up Bawarchi. I diligently read up about the two to see which was better but it seemed that ultimately they were fairly similar. I'm not a vegetarian but I'm fine with consuming only veggies for a meal if it is flavored properly. I flipped a coin and Samosa House was it.

Samosa House not only offers cooked food, but is also a convenience store. There are rows of various instant curry in a box, snacks and spices.

You select food items from the display section and can opt to take-out or consume either at the indoor seating or outside patio. The menu is all vegetarian food and served with recyclable plates and utensils. I decided to order two samosas, the lunch combo and also grabbed a couple boxes of curry and biryani.

I was quite disappointed with the service. The guy at the counter was obviously new but he really messed up on a couple of notes. Firstly he forgot to put in my samosa orders. The customer who ordered after me got his samosas after 10 minutes (since they were frying it up fresh) whereupon the cashier looked at me with an "oops" look and went to the kitchen to put my order in. That led to another 10 minute wait. Secondly, when the kitchen handed him some naan wrapped in foil, he asked me if that was mine. I said it would be mine if it was tandoori naan. He put it in my bag. Turns out, it was plain naan, not tandoori. Thirdly, he set the boxes of curry that I wanted to purchase aside and forgot to ring me up for them until I reminded him. Last and most unforgivable, he did charge me for the groceries but never ended up putting them in my bag. I was upset when I got home and found that they were not in the bag.

Well, hopefully the food could make up for it.

Two orders of Samosa. I liked the filling of the samosa (the usual potato and vegetables) but the samosa tasted like uncooked vegetable oil. In fact, I could only stomach a bite, proceeded to spit it out, attempted again to no avail, then had to trash the rest.

Lunch Special for $7.99 which includes three items, rice and naan. Portions are decent and I like that they offer brown rice basmati as an option. Hey, every bit helps! I got the kathal jackfruit, aloo curry potatoes and soy tikka marsala. The food smelt great.

I was disappointed with the plain naan instead of the tandoori naan that I had ordered. The soy meat tasted like mock meat and was very chewy. I don't know why they didn't use fresh tofu instead. The jackfruit had an interesting texture and was a bit stringy and chalky. I didn't mind it but I don't think everyone will like it. All the sauces at Samosa house were not very flavorful, were a bit too viscous and had a sour taste. I was very disappointed with the marsala sauce which was made with soy coconut milk and tomato sauce because it's usually rich and flavorful. The only thing I really enjoyed was the basmati rice and potatoes.

Is this really what vegetarians are subjected to? You always hear chefs speak about how you can make healthy food delicious if you pack in great flavors. I didn't get that at Samosa House. The food was bland and very mediocre. I have had much better Indian food at the $14 Sunday buffet at Clay Oven in Sherman Oaks (which includes unlimited sparkling wine). Service was horrible and it wasn't even a busy day or during lunch/rush hour. I'm bummed that my groceries never made it into my bag and I had to wait about 20 minutes for samosas, at a "takeout" joint no less. The guy at the counter was obviously new, so I guess I allow him some concession. But the food at Samosa House won't draw me back either.

Hits: brown rice basmati, potato aloo
Misses: service, samosa, tofu curry
Rating: *

Samosa House
10700 Washington Blvd.,
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 559-6350

Friday, January 22, 2010

More Pig than Ox @ The Lazy Ox Canteen

The Lazy Ox Canteen is a new gastropub located in Little Tokyo, Downtown LA, brought to you by chef Josef Centeno of Opus. It's pitched as that casual neighborhood joint with a sophisticated yet affordable food menu. The word canteen reminds me of school because that's what we called our cafeteria. Like my grade school cafeteria, Lazy Ox is small, casual, comfortable, loud and most importantly, a place where you can gather with friends for a good meal and conversation (my school canteen actually offered pretty darn good food).

The space is small so I'm glad they took reservations. The place was fairly packed when we first arrived. Love the open kitchen and the trendy, bustling vibe of the restaurant. I was also head bobbing to the tunes they were playing which included Coldplay, The Verve and Lou Reed's Satellite of Love.

The menu has a number of small plates and a few entrees, with a wide selection of items priced under $10 and even some as low as $4-5. The menu included pasta, salads, steak and fish. What was noticeably missing from the menu was ox but there were many tempting pork dishes. In addition to the regular menu, they post specials on the board which change often so unfortunately they were not serving the oxtail pappardelle or pork belly skewers that night. As I scanned the blackboard and menu, I was overcome with excitement. This is exactly the kind of food I'd like to consume with a good glass of wine.

We started with drinks. They have about over twenty beers, half of which are on tap. I ordered a canteen white Semler from Saddle Rock, Malibu to support a friend and local wine production. Nice stemware.

The entrees looked heavy so we decided to order a few small plates to share between the two of us.

Crispy pigs ear with lime and horseradish aioli
For $5, I'd love to make this a part of my regular diet. I thought the citrus from the lime worked really well with the fried pigs ear. The horseradish aioli wasn't strong and overpowering. The pigs ear was crispy and chewy but soft and buttery inside. Although it (and nowhere else can) compare to the pigs ear at Church and State, I thought that Lazy Ox's version was notably better than the other ones I've tried, including at Animal and FIG. Animal's and FIG's seemed to be just crunchy all around without the contrast of the soft and mushy center.

Pig trotter and gooseberry, mash potatoes and wine sauce
OMG, this was one amazing dish. The pig trotter was shaped into a cake and breaded. The meat itself was rich and buttery and reminded me of the mouth-watering pied de cochon I had at yes, once again, Church and State. The mash potatoes were creamy and buttery and added another layer of decadence.

Don't be scared of pig trotter, it's not gross. See the inside of the breaded cake, the trotter looks exactly like shredded/pulled pork but more tender and delicious.

Buttermilk fry Quail with pomegranate
The quail was tender and the breading was not greasy. Perfectly done. I liked the citrus salad which was refreshing from the mandarin orange segments and apple slice. The quail was drizzled with molasses so there was a nice sweet and acid contrast.

Cod brandade fritters with yuzu aioli
I really enjoyed this, in fact I preferred this to the one at Church and State because you could actually taste the cod and it was of good quality. The inside of the fritters was soft and airy, and the batter was reminiscent of Fish and Chips.

Cancha. Crunchy nuts, seasoned with lime salt, which is very popular in Peru and Ecuador.
Apparently this was supposed to be an amuse bouche or starter but they had forgotten to serve it to us. They only brought it over when we were on our last plate. Better late than never but the table beside us did not even receive this. I liked the crunch and tart flavor from the lime. Wonder if I can buy this in bulk and serve it for Superbowl; I'm sure it'd be a hit.

Hand torn Pasta with sunny side egg, brown butter and citrus vinegar
Sunny side eggs are my favorite- I am a runny yolk lover. This dish sounded so rich, flavorful and promising. Unfortunately, it turned out to be lighter than I had hoped. The sauce was a bit watery and I thought the dish needed a bit more seasoning. Perhaps the sauce needed to be a bit thicker and have more substance because it did not hold well with the soft pasta. Despite it all, I still enjoyed it. If I had ordered salad and ended on this, I might not have been happy but because we had an array of dishes with heavy bold flavors, I wasn't bothered that this dish was milder than expected.

I really liked The Lazy Ox Canteen. It reminded me of Church and State, not only because it's located in Downtown, but also because the menu boasts a lot of really good small plates, the food was well executed, flavorful, hearty yet delicate, prices were very reasonable for the quality, and the restaurant has a warm and casual feel to it. We chatted with the couple beside us at length and traded dining stories. That's the type of energy that The Lazy Ox exudes. It truly is that neighborhood joint.

Hits: trotter, pigs ear, quail, prices, ambiance
Misses: pasta a bit bland
Rating: ****

The Lazy Ox Canteen
241 S. San Pedro St.,
Los Angeles CA
(213) 626-5299