Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mo-Chica: A flavor of Peru in Downtown

I've been meaning to hit up Mo-Chica after meeting Chef/owner Ricardo Zarate at the Breadbar Hatchi Series with Marcel Vigneron, and because Jonathan Gold declared their ceviche to be the best he's had outside of Lima.

Mo-Chica is located at the Mercado La Paloma (Dove Market) by the USC campus. The market is a community development project that looks just like a mini Farmer's Market. I was glad to see a parking lot because you sure don't wanna park your car on the street in the evening in Downtown. When I first walked into the Mercado, I was surprised to see that it was rather clean. It was also rather dead and empty, not as bustling as the larger mercados that I've visited in Latin and Central America. Like I said, it's the mini version. Mo-Chica's cuisine is Peruvian Japanese fusion. Sounds like a interesting combo but there is a very high Japanese immigrant count in Peru, and a Japanese (Alberto Fujimori) served as president of the country for a decade. Chef Zarate also owns Japanese joint Wabi Sabi in Venice Beach. The staff is mainly Japanese and our waitress had a little trouble understanding English.

Although Mo-Chica is merely a small stand (one of four) in the Mercado, it's gained a lot of buzz in the food community. Just yesterday, EaterLA reported that Zarate is planning to open up a more upscale Peruvian restaurant by LA Live. The menu is simple with a handful of dishes and daily specials. They also offer a tasting menu once a month. The only MAJOR downfall is that they do not serve booze, and it's not a BYOB joint either.

Chica morada which is purple corn ice tea. It was very sweet, perhaps a bit too sweet for my taste. It looked deceiving like a sangria because of its rich color and fruit chunks. Oh what I would give for a sangria right now..

Cebada which is Barley tea with ginger and herbs.

Our waitress brought by toasted corn nuts. Very crunchy and lightly salted.

You have to order the ceviche when you dine here. The special of the day ceviche del dia was made with sea bass, seaweed, Peruvian corn and leche de tigre. Fresh chunks of fish were lightly marinated in lime juice and was fresh and tasty. I liked the mutated large Peruvian corn, and the onions which really added a sharp bite to the dish.

Causa del dia- potato salad with crab and avocado
I was expecting a potato salad that looked like one you would find at a BBQ. This dish was so much more elegant. The mash potato sat atop the mixture of crab. They didn't skimp on the crab and added a bit of spice to it.

Seco de Cordero- lamb shank in cilantro beer stew, Peruvian canary beans and salsa crilla.
Nice portion of lamb. The part I got was tender and fatty but apparently there was another portion that was tough and drier. What a pity. I also thought there were too many beans. I felt like I was eating a cassoulet without the duck/goose/sausage (yum). The salsa with onions were a nice addition and cut through the heavy meat and sauce. The sauce was delicious. I kept scooping it all over the plain rice and it made me forget for a second that CARBS ARE BAD not!

Another special- Lingcod with barley risotto, braised green beans
I liked the way the cod was cooked with a nice crispy skin attached to the meat, however the cod was lacking in seasoning. The braised green beans were salty and had a lot of flavor so perhaps we had to eat it together with the fish. The risotto had an odd taste, perhaps barley does not pair well with Parmesan cheese.

Quinotto - Peruvian quinoa grain, wild mushrooms risotto
I've only had quinoa once (at Akasha) but have been quite intrigued by it lately and have been looking up on some recipes. I really enjoyed the quinotto. It had the richness of a risotto, the flavors were concentrated and there was a generous amount of mushrooms in the dish. I liked the texture of quinoa and that it tasted less starchy than a traditional risotto.

The food was tasty except for the fish dish and a 1/4 of a dry lamb. I liked that the dishes was casual yet modern. The ingredients and preparation were finer than what I had expected. The service was friendly although there was definitely a communication barrier. The Mercardo closes at 8pm on Mondays. No wonder our waitress came by to ask us if we wanted dessert when we were still eating our entrees. Mo-chica is also a great dining deal. The bill totalled $50 including tip for three people (after a 30% Blackboard Eats discount). Even without a discount, the bill would have been less than $70. Mo-Chica is the type of place that you hope succeeds because the food is simple, rustic, exotic yet affordable. In a city where a lot of dinners can cost a minimum of $50 per person, it's refreshing to throw down a $20 and still get change!

Hits: ceviche, quinotto, prices
Misses: no booze
Rating: ***

3655 S. Grand Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90007
(213) 747-2141

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Santa Barbara Vintner's Festival: not so much fun when you're DD

I was recovering from a throat infection and unfortunately Z-pack didn't take my infection away. Well, I guess it didn't help that I went surfing within 48 hrs of a rainstorm but I wasn't gonna let runoff come in the way of fun! Anyway, a sick person can be your best kind of companion, barring that they don't cough all over you and aren't still in the contagious stage. We can be your designated driver for the day. So I graciously offered my driving services for our trip up to Santa Barbara for the Vintner's Festival. The festival ran from April 16-19, with the main event on Saturday from 1-4pm.

The festival was held at River Park in Lompoc which as it turned out was pretty darn far! It's a good 30 miles past Downtown Santa Barbara and the last stretch included a drive through windy roads. Because I've had lots of practice passing cars on the way up to Mammoth this season, I expertly did so on the 2 lane windy road. The drive was a gorgeous one, ranging from coastal scenery to mountainous greens.

When we got to the festival grounds, parking was a bit painful and disorganized. You would think they'd have this down by now. But once inside the parking lot, things ran pretty smoothly. Admission isn't cheap especially for a DD at $75. There were over 130 wineries represented as well as food and entertainment.

When you first enter, you'll receive a wine glass and a booklet with vendor information and maps. This was lacking at last weekends LA Beerfest where we didn't have a map or know which brands were represented at the festival.

The band played some good ole tunes.

Because I was barely drinking, I spent most of my time sampling food from local restaurants and companies. Don't worry, I didn't eat everything that I photographed. I surprisingly exhibited a bit of self control.

A variety of sausages from Kiwani's club. Pretty delicious and juicy.

Pasta with prosciutto, pine nuts and goat cheese from The Willows.

Cantaloupe aqua fresca with crispy prosciutto and creme fraiche from The Willows. I liked the sweet refreshing fluid with the salty crunchy prosciutto. Definitely something unique.

Penne with andouille and chicken from Chef Rick's. Salt overload. I could only take a bite and had to throw the rest away.

Beef sliders from Root 246. There was a long line for this when they were firing up the grill because the aroma was undeniable. The line moved pretty fast as the guys were pretty efficient in doling out the burgers. A pickled cucumber garnished the top of the slider.

Lobster bisque from Enterprise Fish Company. I enjoyed this a lot. There was a generous amount of lobster in the bisque and it was well seasoned and hearty.

From Penelopes Teas and Gifts- turkey with apricot and apple chutney, and cucumber with cream cheese. One of my favorites of the day because it was simple and not salty like some of the other dishes. The apricot and apple chutney worked well together and added a lovely sweetness to the turkey.

Citrus salad from Panera Bread.

Strawberry scone, also from Panera Bread.

Pork and beef taco from Starting Gate. Delicious. The shell was warmed, lightly oiled with a little crisp to it. The meat was well marinated and served with onions and cilantro.

Greek meatball and spanakopita from Petros. Spanakopita is basically a spinach and cheese mixture layered in between phyllo dough.

Thai coconut soup with serene vegetables (beans, peppers, mushrooms) from Pearl Catering. I liked the coconut broth which was flavorful but the vegetables, specifically the beans, were hard and undercooked.

Freshly cooked plantains from Pearl Catering had a nice sweet glaze.

The food lines were short and surprisingly efficient. I do appreciate the variety of free food, however most of them weren't that great although they did serve the purpose of simply lining your stomach. My favorites were the sausages, lobster bisque, tacos and tea sandwiches. I liked that the wine booths were arranged in alphabetical order so they were easy to find. The wine overall were OK, there were some good brands but lots of other mediocre ones. The $75 fee can be pricey if you are not drinking or eating a lot. The drive back was fine, I love driving on the coast although I get easily distracted by the waves. Unfortunately we hit major traffic (accident on freeway that delayed our arrival by another 45 min!) so that put a damper on the trip. Overall a fun day trip but I doubt I'd be back unless we plan on staying the night, making it more of a weekend trip, or if I wasn't DD..

Monday, April 19, 2010

Upper West: Your new neighborhood bar that will hopefully break the curse of its location

We decided to happy hour at the new Santa Monica bar Upper West before an art show in West LA. Upper West is located by the 10 freeway in a cursed spot on Pico by Centinela. I remembered when it used to be a myriad of failed restaurant/bars including Flints, 310 and Santa Monica Bar & Grill. The shuttered restaurants were always empty but ironically, the Trader Joe's across the street was always packed. Somehow the only restaurant in the neighborhood that could stand the test of time was Michelin starred Valentino Restaurant.

Enter modern, trendy restaurant bar Upper West. I liked the way they renovated the space. It has a very New York feel to it, with high ceilings, dark wood walls at the bar, exposed wood beams, covered patio with huge projector and doors that opened out to the sidewalk, communal tables where diners can dine and mingle.

After chatting with co-owner Elad Benisti, it was clear what his focus was for the restaurant. His intention is to open up a modern, upscale, classy, sophisticated, place but yet casual enough where it could be somewhere you could walk in for brunch in your yoga outfit. After all, this is the Westside. We don't like waiting in lines, we hate red velvet ropes, we don't want to pay $20 for valet, we don't want to get dressed up in a tight mini dress and heels for dinner, we want something that we can walk to or take a short cab ride to, we are casual yet chic. We're not Hollywood. And that, Benisti and partner Eyal Raziel have accomplished. The place was packed in both the dining room and the bar area.

Happy hour is from 5-7pm, offering select beers and wine for $4, PBR on tap for $3, cocktails for $6 and some bar food items for $6-8. They had a ginger cosmo with my name on it (Ginger vodka, elixir g, lime juice, cranberry juice and a ginger candy garnish). Their regular dinner menu includes American comfort fare such as burgers, meatloaf, steak and fish, all done in an upscale fashion but at reasonable prices.

They have a couple good beers on tap including Allagash Curieux and Blanche de Chambly.

We made it just in time for happy hour for a cocktail.

Calamari from their happy hour menu, served with mint chili sauce, slivered carrots, sesame vinaigrette. I liked that this was a large portion for happy hour prices. The calamari wasn't greasy, and was served with an Asian inspired sauce which I thought was a nice change from tartare sauce.

Ahi tuna crispy tacos from the dinner appetizer menu. Sushi grade ahi tuna loin, crispy plantain shell, rice crackers, sprouts, orange chipolte vinaigrette and jicama cucumber salsa. The fish was of good quality but I thought the taco was over sauced with the sweet vinaigrette. I liked that they switched it up and used plantain leaves as the taco shell. It's interesting that there are so many components that went into what would normally be a simple dish, such as the tiny rice crackers.

Braised lamb crepes also from the regular menu. Port braised leg of lamb, crunchy russet potato, madras curry crepes, garlic spinach, Israeli feta and lavender demi. The crepe was spongy and had the same texture as the injera that you would find at an Ethiopian restaurant. It was a good choice of crepe as it absorbed all the sauce and flavor from the lamb. The meat was tender, had a lamb flavor but not too gamy. The potatoes were seasoned well and gave the dish a bit of a homey, comfort-food feel. This was like a lamb stew wrapped in a crepe.

The service was great, from the friendly owner to the thoughtful hostess who tried to find us a spot at the bar. The staff seemed to be excited about working there. There's no pretension here. They are all very welcoming. And although I only sampled the menu, I liked what I ordered. They are currently working on a brunch menu with bottomless mimosas. Hello! I'm soooooo there. Upper West is really what this neighborhood was missing. It's really what this neighborhood wants. No hassle, great ambiance, food's decent, the prices are reasonable, there's ample street parking, it's a spacious spot great for happy hour or dinner. Here's hoping that they succeed because I need my neighborhood joint. that serves mimosas. bottomless.

Hits: ambiance, calamari, service, prices reasonable
Misses: location
Rating: ***

Upper West
3321 Pico Blvd.,
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 586-1111

After our time at Upper West, we went to the opening night of a photo exhibition at 5th and Sunset Studio in West LA.

The exhibition I Spy with my Plastic Eye features works by various artists, photographs taken with a plastic camera. The photos were simplistic, there were some lovely scenic photographs including one of Venice Beach, unfortunately the collection wasn't that vast so we were out of the studio in 1/2 hr. Back to Upper West? Sigh, so tempting, but I had to catch my Zzzs. Maybe another time. Upper West will be always be there. I hope.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ribs & Suds @ The Surly Goat & Baby Blues BBQ

Finally, I was going to make it to The Surly Goat, a newish pub in West Hollywood. And even better, I was going with my friend J who is a beer expert and brews his own beer at home. I had been awaiting for the bar's opening but when it finally did, somehow I got distracted with dinners and BlackboardEats promotions. Unfortunately they currently don't have a kitchen at the bar but you are welcome to bring in outside food. Baby Blues BBQ is located right by The Surly Goat so we decided to combine beers and ribs for a night of fun. The original location of the BBQ joint is in Venice Beach.

Initially we had planned to get takeout and eat at The Surly Goat but I was pleased to see that Baby Blues had its own bar section, so we decided to dine-in. They also have a sit down restaurant area if you prefer not to dine at the bar.

I knew I was going to be consuming a lot of beer after dinner so I started with a glass of wine.

To start, we shared the tackle box which included 2 grilled shrimp, 2 hush puppies, 2 fried green tomatoes and 4 wings. It's a great way to sample a bunch of appetizers. The hush puppies were delicious and were even better when paired with the honey butter and cinnamon dipping sauce. I could have popped a bunch more in my mouth. The grilled shrimp was also delicious with a squeeze of lime and the creamy sauce that was to die for. The wings were pretty good too and were smoked and grilled.

1/2 rack of Baby back ribs and a side of fried okra.
One portion of the ribs were actually pretty good, tender and had a nice fatty piece to it, however the other portion was dry. You can see, left = juicy, right = dry. So it was pretty inconsistent. Not the best ribs I've had (I like Houston's and Bandera's) but decent. They offer homemade BBQ sauces in plastic squeeze bottles. I really liked the fried okra which was breaded in cornmeal and seasoned with spices.

Ace in the Sleeve: Memphis ribs, catfish and shrimp combo with sauteed okra, cole slaw and cornbread
This was like the mother of all combos, you get your meats and seafood all in one. The catfish was perfectly cooked. The fish itself wasn't dry and it was breaded and fried crisp. The sauce was rich and delicious. There was more grilled shrimp like the ones from our starter so my fork made its way over to the plate to snag some. Love that creamy sauce on the shrimp. Wonder if they would package and sell it because I'd spread it over everything. The cornbread was interesting, it had an odd consistency. The okra was spicy and tasty. Unfortunately the ribs weren't that juicy although they were more tender than the dry half of my baby back ribs. The cole slaw was fresh but not standout.

It's interesting that for a place that has the word BBQ in its name, the ribs weren't that great. The sides and seafood rocked though. We also liked the ambiance. It was a fun, casual, southern bar. I'd return for a plate of hush puppies and honey butter sauce in a heartbeat.

Hits: fried okra, hush puppies, shrimp, catfish, ambiance
Misses: ribs
Rating: ***

Baby Blues BBQ
7953 Santa Monica Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA 90046
(323) 656-1277

After our meal, we walked a few steps over to The Surly Goat.

The Surly Goat is brought to you by Ryan Sweeney (Verdugo) and Adolfo Suaya (Boho) who carefully select and rotate unique craft beers and many local microbrews. Sweeney isn't just a self proclaimed beer expert, he's in fact a certified cicerone. Unfortunately, I wished he was working the bar because the two female bartenders didn't seem to be passionate or knew a lot about beers. They looked like they belonged in a scene-y Hollywood club.

They have 27 beers on tap and a cask TBD.

Stuffed goat head on the wall.

J got the Pliny the Elder from Russian River because he likes IPA, I went for the Craftsman Saison.

Next round, we ordered the Kern River Class V Stout and Lips of Faith Transatlantique Kriek (New Belgium Cherry Lambic). I sampled the Taps barley wine. Yuck, I didn't like.

After a string of sweet beers, I went for the Wienstepaner Hefe and J got the Speakeasy Public Enemy Pilsner.

They had foosball and shuffleboard tables. Danger!

We ended the night with another round of drinks (I ended with a glass of wine, probably shouldn't be mixing drinks which explains the headache this morning). The Surly Goat is a fun bar. It's a great spot for beer lovers. I liked that there was a good representation of Cali beers. There were so many beers to try but so little space in the belly. We agreed that the beers at The Surly Goat were far more superior than the ones that were served at last weeks Beerfest. The prices were reasonable ($6-$8) given that they were offering high quality, artisan beers. I'd definitely be back although maybe next time I won't be playing shuffleboard until 1.30am on a school night.

Hits: beer selection, prices
Misses: bartenders weren't knowledgeable
Rating: ***1/2

The Surly Goat
7929 Santa Monica Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(323) 650-4628

Baby Blues BBQ in Los Angeles on Fooddigger