Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Test Kitchen w/ Adam Horton

As a avid meat eater (I tend to shun anything veggie and "healthy"), I've always wanted to dine at Saddle Peak Lodge. I've heard about their exceptional game dishes. In fact, SIV recently wrote a rave review of the restaurant. Unfortunately, it's location (Calabasas) has always thrown a wrench in plans to visit. It's not like its that far away. 20 miles from Brentwood. It's just that a memorable meal at Saddle Peak would have to be paired with a lot of fine wine, and unfortunately wine + PCH really don't mix. So when I saw that Executive Chef Adam Horton was cooking at Test Kitchen, I immediately made a reservation. I was excited that he would be cooking 6 miles from my place, with no windy freeways with poor lighting en route. I was even more stoked when the menu was released. The anticipated game dishes (boar, elk, buffalo) were mixed in with some lighter fare (fish, chicken).

Horton has accomplished a lot in his 26 years. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, spent some time working in Europe and at LA's Melisse before settling in at Saddle Peak Lodge. The restaurant is a dining establishment and has been around for over a century. The menu is sophisticated yet rustic and very classic. As such, Test Kitchen is the perfect avenue for Horton to explore molecular gastronomy and creative modern styles in his dishes that might not necessarily be in the same vein as the cuisine at Saddle Peak.

The theme of the night was rightfully "The Modern Face of Saddle Peak Traditions", a young and talented chef's spin on classic dishes.

Seven courses were priced at $58 per person, which is a steal considering that the four course tasting at Saddle Peak costs $85 (and eight courses for $135).

A wine list or pairings were available.

Cocktails were mixed by Saddle Peak's sommelier/mixologist Chris Barragan and resident Test Kitchen mixologist Joel Black (Cana, Comme Ca)

My Darling Clementine (Vodka, tangerines, lime, cilantro, ginger elixir, pineapple juice)
I loved the combination of the various citrus flavors with a touch of cilantro that wasn't overwhelming.

Pearl Jasmine (Vodka, Vintage Tea Leaf Jasmine tea, agave nectar)
Very herbaceous and quite concentrated in flavor.

En Fleur (Gin, St. Germain, Sauvignon Blanc, thyme, lime)

Wild boar “spread” with grilled toast

This was sort of a rillette but confit and tender, almost like pulled pork. The meat seemed like it had been stewed for hours and was juicy with a flavorful sauce. It was served with crusty grilled ciabatta.

Heirloom tomato, buffalo and it’s cheese
I wasn't expecting such vibrant colors, somehow I was expecting the somber dark colors of a classic American restaurant. I really enjoyed the tomato and cumin paste that was smeared on the plate. It had an intense flavor with a bit of smokiness. The buffalo carpaccio was delightful- so tender and melt in your mouth. The basil seed gastrique, stewed tomatoes and reduced balsamic sauces really added varied flavors to the mozzarella.

Escolar with sumac, edamame, horseradish, uni, flavors of pho and puffed rice
Escolar is also known as white tuna or butterfish. I've had it on several occasions but this version actually kind of tasted like butter. No kidding. You know that layer of fat that encases a piece of pate? Well, the escolar seemed very similar in texture to that. I only wished that the fish was served a little colder (I get weirded out by raw fish at room temperature). What I loved about this dish were the condiments. The intricate selection of horseradish foam, dollops of uni sauce and a mould of concentrated reduced pho really worked well with the blank canvas that was the fish. There was the right amount of cracked black pepper that gave a spice to the dish.

Our waiter was kind enough to give us a little tasting of both the Firesteed Pinot Noir and the Atteca Garnacha. We settled for the latter as it was smoother, less watery and less acidic.

Pork belly with vadouvan, apple, yogurt and cucumber
The pork belly was braised for 6 hrs, then pressed for 24 hr, cut then fried. It was fatty in the center although not completely fork tender. It reminded me of char siew, Chinese pork belly. I really enjoyed the yogurt purée and the braising liquid which was reduced with vadouvan. I was excited to see the use of such spices, which really goes to show Horton's modern influences in this preparation.

Elk with almond, bacon, brandied cherries and squash
The elk was perfectly cooked, tender and medium rare in the center. Once again, Horton's sauce work really excelled. On this plate was a duo of almond and bay leaf, and bacon with macerated cherry and brandy sauces. I also really enjoyed the pureed squash which was cooked with maple syrup and cooked almost like scrabble eggs. The fried salsify strips that sat atop the elk were crunchy and similar in taste to plantains.

Parmigianno Nero with apple, hibiscus, white chocolate and olives
This was sort of a cheese and fruit plate. I usually shudder at cheese plates (especially when they offer up stinky cheeses) but thankfully the chosen cheese was Parmigianno, one of the three cheeses that I can actually eat. The chocolate and cheese surprisingly paired perfectly together. The white chocolate was infused with hibiscus, while the olive was caramelized, dried then reduced to powder form. In fact, it didn't even taste like olives (that's a good thing, for me).

Dessert- “Thai green curry” with chicken, lemongrass, cilantro and lime
When I scoped out the menu online a few days ago, I was certain that this was a typo. Chicken for dessert? That'd be brave. And Horton is just that. I was blown away with this dish. The lemongrass custard and drops of coconut curry foam was intense in flavor. The chicken was in the form of fried crumbled chicken skin that was littered over the custard. This is way cooler than the bacon in dessert trend of last year. In the same vein of showcasing Southeast Asian flavors, he used Indonesian kecap manis, a thick sweet sauce, to accompany the dessert, and served it with dehydrated candied carrot, cilantro and reduced kaffir lime. I found it very smart and a great way to present such flavors, which are normally served in a savory dish, in a dessert.

The service was excellent from our very knowledgeable and enthusiastic waiter Aaron, to the front of the house and the mixologists who made dangerously good cocktails. The food was really exquisite. I loved that he played with Asian spices, and not with the usual soy sauce but with more exotic ingredients. I was thoroughly impressed with the menu, the bold flavors and the plating of the dishes. They were intricate with so many components, and we were shown things that we'd never seen before. Given that Horton's really not able (yet) to fully experiment with such flavors and techniques at Saddle Peak Lodge, it's impressive that he has been able to executed such unique dishes so successfully. And that's the beauty of Test Kitchen. It really allows chefs to experiment with concepts, and to see what works. It's a great platform to showcase talents that you normally would not get to experience firsthand. That is.. unless you decide to hire a car to take you to Calabasas for dinner. I just might have to do that..

Hits: food was top notch esp. the dessert, elk, rillette, service
Misses: you'll have to travel far to taste more of Chef Horton's foodCheck Spelling
Rating: ****

Test Kitchen w/ Adam Horton
9575 West Pico Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Monday, September 27, 2010

Recipe: Grilled Asian Fish Tacos

What do surfers do when the surf is flat? They do dorky things like...

1) Watch surf videos all night...

and talk about how we wish we could surf like these guys do. Sigh..

2) Wax the boards...

Oh man, after stripping off coats of wax, this board's looks brand new! Ready to take it out once I get the stitches removed.

3) Drink lots of brewskies...

or make a delicious Moscow Mule.

4) And the smart Bettys rope their friends into installing surf racks in their new garage.

Check out my awesome racks! *snicker*

To feed 5 hungry surfers and thank them for their labor, I decided to make some grilled fish tacos for our movie night. There are many recipes online but many of them include the addition of a cilantro lime dressing (two of us hate cilantro). To switch things up a bit, I decided to make Asian inspired fish tacos which I found online.

You can choose any type of firm white fish which you can purchase from the fish department at your local grocery store, or frozen from Trader Joe's. Just be sure to defrost if it's frozen. I went with mahi mahi which held it's shape on the grill.

Marinate the fish for at least 30 minutes. Yeah, that's a lot of fish (2 lbs) but there was barely any leftovers.

You can grill it out on the BBQ but I opted for a grill pan and skillet.

The most important part of any fish taco is the condiments.

Asian slaw added freshness and crunch to the taco.

Spicy sesame chili sauce

I also made a chili cream sauce which had a nice zing to it.

This was such an easy recipe, and something that I'd definitely make again. I liked the Asian flavors which packed a lot of heat. It was light and healthy, especially when substituting with low fat mayo and low sodium soy sauce.

And for dessert, an awesome Opera Cake from Trader Joe's. Sorry dudes, I ain't baking for anyone.

Asian Fish Tacos
from Week of Menus
Serves 6

Fish 2 lbs of firm white meat fish
2/3 cup of mirin
2/3 cup of reduced sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon grated lime zest
3 tablespoons grated ginger
Flour or corn tortillas

30 minutes before cooking, mix mirin, soy sauce, lime zest and ginger all together. Pour over fish and allow to sit. After 30 minutes, remove fish from marinade.

Heat grill to medium high. Using cooking spray or oil, grease the grill so as to prevent fish from sticking. Cook for 4 minutes on one side and then turn. Cook for an additional 2 minutes until fish is firm and opaque. Remove from grill.

Warm tortilla over low heat. In a warm tortilla, add a nice chunk of fish. Top with the slaw, cilantro sprig and a few sprinkles of sesame chili sauce.

Asian Slaw
1/2 head of cabbage, thinly shredded
1 bunch of scallions finely chopped
1/4 cup of low fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon soy sauce (reduced sodium)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
a good dose of black pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and pepper. Toss together with cabbage and scallions. Set aside.

Sesame Chili Sauce
1/4 cup Sambal Oelek with garlic
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Mix all ingredients together. Set aside.

Chili Cream Sauce
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup of low fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon hot sauce
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together. Set aside.

Larchmont Bungalow, where lunch doesn't have to suck

I don't get out of the office much for lunch. With all the heavy eating that I do for dinner, I usually try to hit the gym or eat my homemade turkey sandwich at my desk for lunch. But once in a while, I venture out of the office to treat myself to something that isn't packaged cold cuts. When I do get out, I like to visit Larchmont Bungalow.

Part coffee house, part tea shop, part cafe, Larchmont Bungalow is quaint. Almost like a little cottage.

They offer up amazing colorful desserts from cupcakes to cakes.

They also have various baked goods.

Their food menu is rather extensive- you could spend many lunches here and still barely scratch the surface. There are so many salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers options. They also have breakfast all day long - apparently their red and blue velvet pancakes are killer. They are definitely next on my list. In looking at the menu, you'll notice that the dishes all look interesting (jerk chicken wrap, bison chili burger, hummus club), fresh and relatively healthy.

Southern fried chicken wrap with peppers, onions, lettuce, tomatoes in southern BBQ sauce
The wrap was enormous and filled to the brim with a generous amount of chicken. The meat was tender and the fried skin held its crunch within the wrap. The mango, papaya and cucumber salad was a refreshing side to the filling wrap.

Lobster and crab Sandwich, tossed in truffle oil, celery, dill and basil
This is as indulgent a lunch sandwich can get. Lobster, crab and truffle oil. The truffle was aromatic and really richen the flavors of the sandwich. The lobster and crab were fresh and in nice large chunks. There was a bit too much dill for me but that's just a personal preference. For the side, I opted for the poutine with cheese on the side. Yes.. french fries are good, but french fries AND gravy is even better. You would think that you'll curl over with a tummy ache and regret eating all of this for lunch, but in fact it didn't seem too heavy.

Chocolate cigar was right at the counter and I couldn't resist. It's OK, I'll save it for the evening, perhaps for dessert.

With chocolate chips in the center and chocolate drizzled exterior, this puppy didn't lasted a couple hours. I devoured it in my office in between meetings.

The thing I like most about the food here, is that you'll walk away without feeling gross. Even the french fries don't leave you with a greasy lining in your stomach. That's key especially if you have to head back to the office and actually get some work done. Larchmont Bungalow shows you that lunch need not be depressing. You don't have to be stuck with a crappy sandwich of processed meats. In fact, you can have the option to choose from many tempting items. You can have lobster for lunch. You can have a healthy yet satisfying meal. And you can have a chocolate cigar at your desk afterwards, if you'd like.

Hits: decor, extensive menu, healthy
Misses: no booze (yet)
Rating: ***

Larchmont Bungalow
107 N. Larchmont Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 461-1528

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gjelina: Worth the hype (and the pizzas)

Gjelina, Venice Beach's golden child, is still popular after two years. It's still on many Top Restaurant lists, you'll still need a reservation to score a table and it's still crowded on a regular weeknight. Even though its located on Abbot Kinney alongside a stretch of restaurants, Gjelina still shines. There's no famous Batali-like chef in the kitchen. The service isn't known to be impeccable (in fact, some claim the front of the house sometimes borders on rude). They're strict on their no-modifications-to-the menu policy. They don't serve up an exotic, sexy menu. They just serve really darn good food with local and seasonal ingredients. That's it. That's the secret to Gjelina's success. And they can actually get me to enjoy pizza.

The restaurant is easy to miss. There's no valet out front and no signage.

The main dining room is lively and dark, almost like a cool, trendy bar. Communal tables are set up in the center so you can be seated beside the Venice hipsters or the wealthy couple with the house on the canals. That's how Venice Beach is. It's a very eclectic neighborhood. If you're loving the casual industrial room, wait till you see the back patio with it's funky chandeliers, couches, fire pit and views of the open kitchen.

They have a respectable wine list, a couple craft beers and two cocktails.

The Visionary (Champagne, Sherry, Bitters) smelt stronger than it tasted, The Long Walk Home (Bordeaux, Bitters, Citrus) reminded me of a bubbly sangria, and the Maredsous 10 Tripel Belgian Ale (Belgium) at 10% ABV was strong.

We later ordered a couple glasses of wine throughout dinner. Antico Borgo Di Sugame, Sangiovese (Chianti Classico, Italy ‘08), Antoine Sanzay, Cabernet Franc (Saumur Champigny, France ‘08) and Chateau Guibot, Merlot/Cab Franc (Puisseguin Saint-Emilion, France ‘05). Surprisingly, the Chianti was the clear winner at our table.

Grilled Mission Figs with Prosciutto, Burrata, Radicchio & Arugula
This was the perfect marriage of sweet, caramelized figs with a soft chewy center, salty fresh prosciutto, bitter greens, creamy burrata and a nice drizzle of balsamic and a sprinkle of sea salt. You could taste the freshness of the ingredients in this dish.

Crispy Monterey Bay Sardines with peperonata
The sardines were fried with a crispy skin and flaky meat. Although it did have its signature fish flavor, it wasn't as intense flavored as some might fear. I liked the roasted stewed sweet peppers which was necessary to cut through the flavors of the fish.

Gjelina is known for their pizzas, but I was nervous to try it. It's no secret that I don't eat pizzas because I don't like cheese (especially gooey, melted, greasy cheese). In addition, I knew that they wouldn't let me modify it to a cheeseless or very-light-on cheese pizza. But I was ready to take a gamble. Maybe I'll only have one slice. Much to my dining companions' chagrin, I ended up eating every slice of my apportioned amount. It's that good.

Confit Tomato, Fresno Chilie, Garlic, White Anchovy & Arugula
I loved the cracker thin crust, you don't see that around much. I much prefer it to the thicker crusts that end up filling you up with starch. The confit tomatoes were sweet and worked well with the salty anchovies. The pizza also had a spicy kick from the fresno chile. I liked that the pizza has very little cheese, so the focus was really on the quality of the toppings.

Housemade Chorizo, Tomato, Cream, Fennel, Chili & Basil
This pizza had a bit more cheese but still wasn't overwhelming. I liked that the toppings were distributed judiciously. You really don't need a pizza littered with chorizo because it's very heavy and salty. The fennel was also scattered sparingly so you didn't get an offensive licorice flavor. Sausage and fennel work so well together.

Pizzas were served with oregano, fresh pepper flakes and parmesan. You gotta get down and dirty and use your fingers to grab some to sprinkle on the pizza. It's not for the OCD of diners. They had very intense flavors so even one tiny speck of pepper flake provided a fiery heat.

Hen of the Woods Mushroom Toast with Creme Fraiche & Truffle Oil
Best dish of the night. There was a generous amount of earthy mushroom that topped the toast. I liked the slightly crunchy texture of the mushrooms which were cooked in a creamy luxurious sauce that was infused with the slight restraint of truffle oil. The creaminess reminded me of an indulgent carbonara. I also loved as the toast absorbed the rich sauce.

Crispy Niman Ranch Pork Belly with Soft Polenta, Bitter Greens & Apple Cider
The pork belly was fatty but it could have been a bit more tender inside. With pork belly dishes being popularized on menus all around town, this didn't particularly stand out. The polenta on the other hand was buttery and rich.

Seared Jidori Chicken Livers with Concord Grapes, Sherry and Polenta
The livers were cooked perfectly, and not dry or rubbery. This was definitely a very heavy dish with the meaty livers, rich polenta and hearty sauce.

Dessert yogurt panna cotta with coffee macerated dates
The panna cotta looked plain but it was anything but. It seemed to resemble a few desserts. It was soft like burrata yet creamy like a very good creme brulee. It also resembled a flan with the syrup all around. I liked that the dessert wasn't overly sweet. In fact, I enjoyed the tartness of the yogurt and the slight bitterness of the coffee sauce. I also liked the crunch and the strong nuttiness of the pistachio.

I can see why this place was packed to the brim on a weeknight. The food's good! From the simple burrata and fig dish to the delectable hen of woods toast, every plate was delicious and done just right. They got me to eat and enjoy more than my customary one slice of pizza. I don't care if they have no menu modification policy. I wouldn't change a single thing. Except maybe next time, I'll order the mushroom toast all for myself.

Hits: food, patio
Misses: no valet, can get crowded
Rating: ***1/2

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.,
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 450-1429