Friday, January 28, 2011

dineLA: Joe's Restaurant

dineLA Restaurant Week started this week and runs for two weeks. Over the years, I've had some impressive meals (Spago, Michael's, RH at Andaz) and some very disappointing ones (Asia de Cuba, La Cachette Bistro, La Cachette (closed)). The thing about dineLA that I've come to realize is, you need to do some research. You have to review the online menus and do some back of the envelope math. Don't pick a restaurant if the dineLA menu offers dishes that aren't appealing to you - you might as well just order what you like from the regular menu. Do some quick math. Some places aren't really offering you a real deal (i.e. a couple bucks less than if you were to order each course separately).

To kick off dineLA week, we started off at Joe's Restaurant on Abbot Kinney in Venice. Joe's has been around for two decades and earned a Michelin Star, back in the days when LA was "worthy" of the guide. When I think of Joe's, I think California French cuisine, focusing on fresh, Farmer's Market and seasonal ingredients. They also offer a great $19 three course prix fixe lunch which I'm sure will be popular with the Google folks that will be moving into the area.

For a restaurant that's been around for a long time by restaurant standards, it still managed to feel very modern and classy. We were seated in the covered patio area.

Our waiter offered us the menu which had the dineLA menu on the left and the regular menu on the right. I like it when restaurants embrace the restaurant promotion instead of discouraging diners from participating. I've been to a few restaurants where the dineLA menu was only offered upon request and the waiters had not been apprised of the event (ahem La Cachette Restaurant back in the days).

The menu featured three courses for $44, and all items were offered on the regular menu. That's important because it means that they weren't trying to stick you with crappier dishes that they wouldn't normally offer to full price diners.

Warm bread was served with a choice of brioche, walnut and olive. The brioche bread was buttery and soft so you could eat it plain, without butter or olive tapenade.

Pear Salad, Spicy Greens, Pecorino Tuscano, Huckleberries, Pickled Red Onion, Walnut Vinaigrette
A very fresh and nice salad with a combination of sweetness from the huckleberries and tang from the pickled onions. The sharp pecorino was a well selected cheese for the salad. This is the type of dish that rings California cuisine.

Tuna Tartare & Smoked Salmon with Sliced Cucumbers Diced Tomatoes & Lemon Oil
The tuna was fresh and the tartare was well seasoned. Surprisingly, the crostinis were quite delicious. The bread was soft in the center with a nice toasted exterior.

Di Stefano Buratta Panna & Beet Salad, Jamon Iberico De Bellota Upland Cress, Aged Balsamic, Leek Vinaigrette
I don't usually order salad but this was a winner. The burrata was creamy and mild, and kind of melted with the beets. It paired well with the sweet beets and sauteed leeks. The latter added an onion flavor to the salad. The beets themselves were absolutely delicious, something you would expect had been freshly harvested. The salty crispy Jamon Iberico was well balanced with the rest of the components of the dish.

Grilled Fijiian Escolar, Local Squid, Crisp Pork Belly Parnip Puree, Fuyu Persimmon, Okinawan Potato, Citrus Vinaigrette
Whenever I see escolar on the menu, I have to order it. Just like a perfectly cooked cod, it was buttery and literally melt in my mouth. I was quite surprised with the very large portion of escolar. The citrus vinaigrette was light and didn't detract from the flavor of the fish. The escolar was served with pork belly and potatoes which seemed like hash (i.e. breakfast food, not drugs).

Prime Pork Tenderloin Crepinette with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Garlic and Potato Puree, Roasted Garlic Jus
The beautifully cooked pork tenderloin was pink in the center and juicy. We all took a bite of the pork and were amazed at how tender it was. I also enjoyed the selection of earthy mushrooms that were sauteed to a point where they were soft and moist but not greasy. This was a well executed dish where every component of the dish left you wanting another bite.

Chocolate Crunch Cake, Hazelnut Praline, Coffee Crunch Ice Cream
A very rich dessert with flavors that were similar to the ferrero rocher candy. If you love chocolate, you'll find this dessert heavenly. A layer of ganache lined the bottom of the cake, then topped with smooth chocolate mousse, a layer of chocolate wafer that added a crunch, another layer of chocolate mousse and a final topping of chocolate ganache. The cake was also served with candied nuts and ice cream.

Salted Caramel Panna Cotta, Sticky Toffee Cake, Brown Butter Caramel, Whipped Cream
The panna cotta was silky and creamy, a tad lighter than the chocolate dessert. The toffee cake was a bit dry and should probably have been eaten in conjunction with a spoonful of panna cotta.

Joe's has restored my faith in dineLA. Service and quality of food at some restaurants have been known to suffer during dineLA Restaurant Week, but every aspect of our meal at Joe's was impressive. The dishes were executed perfectly and the flavors were clean and simple. Joe's has an air of refinement with its elegant dining space and exquisite menu, yet the service was very welcoming. Our waiter was attentive and even came back to confirm when I had ordered a different glass of wine from the first. This is exactly what dineLA is all about. The goal is to attract (or re-attract) diners to restaurants, with hopes of winning them over and drawing them back again. I know for sure that after this meal, I've rediscovered Joe's Restaurant and look forward to my next meal, most likely a post surf brunch.

Hits: beet & burrata salad, pork, escolar, chocolate cake, service, price
Misses: this great restaurant deal will end next week
Rating: ***1/2

Joe's Restaurant
1023 Abbot Kinney
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 399-5811

Monday, January 24, 2011

Scoops Westside: where I polished off a pint all by myself in 2 days. It's that good!

I'm not even really an ice cream kind of person. You'll rarely see a tub in my freezer. But I've heard so much about Scoops at Heliotrope for a while now. Owner Tai Kim is known for experimenting and introducing unique ice cream flavor combinations such as pandan, foie, truffle, saffon, wasabi among others. I really wanted to try it but I rarely leave my westside bubble. (BTW I just googled Heliotrope. Somehow I always thought it was somewhere far east, like Eaglerock or Glendale. Turns out, it's a mile from my work in hollywood. I'm a dork!). When they started to offer Scoops at The Golden State, this was my chance to try the popular brown bread ice cream. But parking on Fairfax is a bitch and they don't have valet, so I never motivated. About a month ago, Scoops opened up an outpost in the Westside, brought to you by food blogger Matt Kang of mattatouille. With a parking lot and ample street parking, and located within a 10 minute drive from my home, I had no excuse not to check out the ice cream shop.

When I visited the shop over the holidays, it was rather bare bones with just a couple chairs and tables, and the ice cream display separating you from Kang who eagerly tries to offer you samples. I like that he opened the shop even before finalizing paint colors. It's an ice cream shop. He's trying to sell you on his selection of delectable ice cream, not try to win you over with over-the-top ambiance.

There were seven flavors available which Matt decides on the night before and picks them up from Kim in the morning. The flavors change almost daily. Scoops Westside also offers the ever popular Intelligentsia coffee. Matt also talked about potential mash up collaborations with Asian dining options such as Starry Kitchen and Manila Machine. Sounds like a perfect pairing.

When I visited, the flavors available included ginger ginger snap, pecan nutmeg eggnog, bacon peanut butter, apricot ume, pandan cashew, salty chocolate and their popular brown bread. One scoop (which equates to two flavors) is priced at $3.50 which is a damn good steal.

Since I was a Scoops virgin, I had to try the brown bread ice cream which is made with caramel ice cream, grape nuts and brown bread. I can see why this is such a popular flavor. It was creamy, smooth with the occasional crunch from the grape nuts.

I bought a pint of the pandan cashew which was the flavor that brought me to Scoops that day. I had every intention of sharing the pint with my family but after a scoop, then the next, I knew that this pint was going to stay in my freezer. To my surprise, the pint only last two nights. The ice cream at Scoops is so light that you can really just keep eating one scoop after another without feeling the need to keel over from an upset stomach.

The ice cream at Scoops are creamy, light and the flavors are inventive and fun. They do a great job of introducing new flavors or bringing back familiar ones from childhood. Whether it be Asian ingredients that I grew up on (pandan), seasonal flavors (pumpkin eggnog), interesting combinations (hazelnut cream cheese) or a flashback of dad having breakfast (yes, he did eat grape nuts every morning), there's a flavor (and most likely more) at Scoops Westside for everyone.

Scoops Westside
3400 Overland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(323) 405-7055‎

Todd English's P.U.B, Vegas: You give pub a bad name

When I walked out of the Aria Hotel where we were staying, the words P.U.B etched along Todd English's restaurant immediately caught my eye. I love pubs. I love their casual feel and friendly service. I love hearty pub fare, preferably English or Irish. Unfortunately, Todd English's P.U.B (which stands for Public Urban Bar) was anything but. The food was dismal and the service was lacking. This was not something that I expected of Todd English, a James Beard winner and celebrity chef.

Even though the bar was too lit and the decor too trendy to be considered a traditional pub, the ambiance was the only thing I liked about the place. It's a fancy pub, really. The restaurant bar has high copper plated ceilings, marbled tables and a raw bar.

The “Henry Moore” (Bombay Saphire Gin shaken cucumbers, mint and mint flavored simple syrup)
Todd’s Margarita (Herradura Tequila, Combier Orange Liqueur, Pineapple juice, and a splash of Chambordan)
I should have stuck with beer because the cocktails were pretty bad. It seemed like P.U.B was trying to get creative with cocktails by offering more than just standard cocktails, beer and wine. However their cocktails were not very good. The margarita tasted more like a mai tai, and the Henry Moore was not chilled enough. The latter also lacked balance and was heavy on the elderflower. It just seemed like an ordinary bartender had prepared these drinks instead of a trained mixologist. Perhaps they should have just stuck to making Manhattans or Cosmos instead.

Complimentary popcorn in tin bucket was a nice start. It had a nice combination of salt and cayenne spice.

Moules Frites ~ spicy tomato braised P.E.I. mussels, garlic aioli, crispy cherry peppers
The mussels were cooked fine but I didn't care for the cherry peppers.

Duck Buns ~ shredded duck, hoisin sauce, chopped scallions
The duck was shredded and tender, but was over sauced with sweet hoisin sauce. The bun was also a bit doughy but at least it was warm and soft.

Lobster Poppie ~ yorkshire pudding, creamy corn, brown butter lobster
There was a nice amount of lobster however it was a little rubbery. The yorkshire pudding was prepared well and was fluffy and light. I liked the rich creamy sauce with sweet corn however I think the sauce could have been served warmer. It was lukewarm so it felt like the dish had been sitting out for a while.

Apart from the decor of the restaurant, I don't think there was one thing I enjoyed about P.U.B. I thought the food was mediocre considering it's attached to an award winning chef. This is what I dislike about celebrity chefs opening up restaurants all over the country but not ensuring that the quality of the food is up to par with their flagship or best restaurants. Perhaps we ordered the wrong dishes but I would think at least one of the three might have been decent. Service was also disappointing. We were there mid afternoon so it wasn't even busy. We waited about 15 minutes before anyone came by to drop off menus or take drink orders. This is a pub for goodness sake. At least get a drink in our hand. Water glasses were not filled even after I had asked a few times. You could see the staff just hanging around chitchatting and joking around, with no sense of urgency to check on diners. I really wasn't expecting much when I sat down, but when I left, I felt a little cheated. I had hoped to get the good comfort food and warm service of a pub. That was not the case at P.U.B.

Hits: decor
Misses: food, cocktails, service
Rating: *

Todd English P.U.B
3720 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 489-8080

Friday, January 21, 2011

Spanish tapas @ Julia Serrano, Vegas

The truth is, I didn't know who Julian Serrano was. I didn't know that he had helmed the kitchens at Masa in SF and Picasso at the Bellagio. I didn't realize he was native to Spain despite his focus in French cuisine. Over a year ago, Serrano opened his namesake restaurant at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. We only decided to pop in for a quick bite because we were staying at the hotel. I was hesitant initially. The glaring color scheme, fake lacquer trees and Alice in wonderland feel threw me for a loop. I was expecting glitzy, flashy, mediocre Vegas food. Instead, his food was simple and tasteful, yet relatively affordable.

A large part of the menu comprised of Spanish tapas but they also offered larger dishes such as paella and entrees. Since we were only looking for a small bite before bar and party hopping, we opted to share a few tapas.

Tuna Raspberry Skewer - ahi tuna, molecular raspberry, wasabi, sesame seed

This was listed under the "New tapas" section. The presentation was modern and elegant, something you would expect from a fine dining establishment. The raspberry was formed into a gelee and the tangy sweet flavor combination really popped. The tuna was fresh and raw on the inside with a sear on the outside. I liked the texture of the sesame seed and the clean flavors of the dish.

Octopus - cachelo potatoes, spanish paparika
This is a more traditional Spanish tapas dish, which was rather hearty. The octopus was sizable in portion and was cooked tender to a point that it almost seemed like a piece of fish. The potatoes was well seasoned and crumbled easily. I really liked the simple and rustic preparation.

Imported Serrano Ham, aged 18 months, garlic tomato sauce
The Serrano Ham had an intense flavor and was a bit on the greasy side. Personally, the cured flavor was too strong for me, I much prefer Prosciutto over Serrano. But that's just a personal preference. You can make your own Pan con Tomate with the crusty bread and tomato garlic sauce.

Rosselat - Shrimp, monkfish, angel hair pasta, paella pan style

This was by far one of the priciest dishes of the night at $40 but it was served in a huge paella pan and was quite substantial. I am obsessed with Fideau which is a form of paella that is prepared similarly but with noodles instead of rice. I prefer fideau over traditional paella because it's lighter and less starchy. The pasta was toasted on the outside yet moist in every bite. Each thin strand of angel hair pasta completely absorbed the rich seafood broth. The seafood was cooked perfectly and well seasoned. Every bite was so flavorful that even the creme fraiche with a tinge of garlic might have been unnecessary, although was a nice addition.

The menu at Julian Serrano was rather extensive. I liked having the opportunity to choose from an array of dishes, prepared both traditionally and nouvelle style. I thought tapas style dining was the perfect choice for us since we had been grazing all day and really just wanted a light meal to hold us over. When we first arrived at 7pm, the restaurant was empty but it quickly filled up at 9pm. I guess Vegas goers like to dine later. I personally prefer the early bird special. There were some service hiccups such as the tapas coming out even before the wine was served. But overall, the meal was satisfying. And the rossalet really brought it up another notch.

Hits: rossalet was the winner
Misses: got real crowded
Rating: ***

Julian Serrano
3730 S Las Vegas Blvd.,
Las Vegas, NV 89115
(702) 590-7111

Thursday, January 20, 2011

China Poblano, Las Vegas: Jose Andres's successful new dining concept

As someone who doesn't like gambling much or hitting the hot night club until 4am, Vegas has never appealed to me. Thankfully during my last trip, I came to realize that Vegas could be done the right way especially when you threw in dinner at some good restaurants. So when I was making dinner plans for a business trip to Vegas during CES 2011, I did some research on hot new restaurants in town. Jose Andres' two new restaurants Jaleo and China Poblana at the Cosmopolitan were top on the list. It was an easy decision because I'm a huge fan of Andres's The Bazaar at SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Andres brought the Jaleo branded Spanish tapas restaurant (with locations in the East Coast) to Vegas just a month ago. China Poblano on the other hand, is a brand new concept which features a mix of Chinese and Mexican cuisine. I just had to check out this new restaurant.

The two cultures are clearly segregated in both decor of the restaurant and on the menu. One side of the restaurant is decorated with an Asian theme and showcases Chinese chefs preparing dim sum. On the other side, Mexican cooks are making tortillas from scratch.

I was surprised at how small and intimate the restaurant was, compared to the oversized seating capacity at most Vegas restaurants. China Poblano was also rather casual with simple furniture, communal tables and metal napkin dispensers on the tables. This is definitely less swanky than the Bazaar. The space is accented with Chinese masks and digital portraits of Chinese and Mexican people on the walls, and Chinese bicycle wheels on the ceiling.

The menu is served tapas style and reasonably priced for an upscale establishment. Tacos are mostly under $10 and larger plates are in the mid-teens. The most exciting items on the menu were the unique tacos (duck tongue, tendon).

Salt air margarita is a popular drink at The Bazaar. The drink was strong in alcoholic content and topped with a salty foam. Expect a foam mustache after taking a sip. There's no way around it.

Silencio - duck tongue, rambutan fruit

I really enjoyed this taco. I've had beef tongue before, but never duck. The texture was different - the duck tongue was essentially a large piece of cartilage. It was crunchy and well seasoned. I loved the pairing of rambutan which is a sweet tropical fruit that I grew up eating in Singapore. I thought this was a great way of showcasing Asian ingredients and flavors in a Mexican package.

Carnitas - braised baby pig, pork rinds, spicy salsa verde cruda
I liked the tender carnitas with the crunch pork rinds, which made this a very greasy dish. The acidity from the lime was essential to cut the fattiness of this dish. The carnita was tender and moist, and was served with a smokey chipotle salsa. This was definitely a very heavy dish.

Viva China - soft beef tendon, kumamoto oysters, scallions, Sichuan peppercorn sauce

Kudos to our waiter for mentioning that we were ordering tendon, not tenderloin. I knew that, of course. Apparently some diners were mistaken. I'll take tendon over tenderloin any day. The tendon was prepared perfectly, just the way my mom makes them. It was cooked to a point where it had a gooey and fatty consistency. The tendon was rich and topped with a raw oyster that had a strong oceanic taste. I didn't think the oyster and tendon would go together but it was a perfect union. I liked that the first bite sans oyster had a very Asian flavoring, but the next bite with the oyster gave a completely different taste where you felt like you were experiencing a completely different taco.

Lamb pot stickers Stuck on You - vegetables, crispy lace

I thought the presentation was lovely, with the pot stickers covered with a thin, crispy wafer. The pot stickers were tiny and delicate, however I thought the lamb was a bit gamy. This was probably my least favorite dish because of the strong cumin flavor in the lamb.

Dan Dan Mian - hand cut wheat noodles, spicy sauce
I know critics will try to compare this to an authentic Chinese restaurant and may be disappointed but personally, I enjoyed it. It was a nice dish that balanced well with the heavy tacos that we had selected. The noodles were fresh and didn't stick together. They were topped with minced meat that were salty and had a spicy kick.

I was really impressed with China Poblano. Jose Andres has continued to surprise me. You won't find fancy molecular gastronomy here (unlike at The Bazaar) but you'll find a lovely but subtle marriage of Mexican and Asian concepts. He did an excellent job of blending two cuisines by offering Asian ingredients with Mexican seasonings in a taco. The flavors were bold and some of the dishes we selected were unique and interesting. For a restaurant that had only been open less than a month, I was pleased with the service which was knowledgeable and friendly. The tacos were also made to order but were zipping out of the kitchen. Once again, Jose Andres proves that he can create a inventive and delicious menu, which is yet another reason why Vegas ain't that bad after all.

Hits: duck tongue taco, tendon taco, service
Misses: tacos were a bit greasy
Rating: ***1/2

China Poblano
3708 N Las Vegas Blvd.,
Las Vegas, NV 89115
(877) 893-2001

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Discovering SaMo's Mexican Bakery La Monarca

I was excited to hear about a new bakery in town since the recent demise of my favorite croissant go-to place, Bite Bar & Bakery. La Monarca is a Mexican bakery located in Santa Monica, with two other locations in Huntington Park and Commerce. They must be a very successful company to secure a spot down the street from Rustic Canyon and Melisse.

La Monarca has a rather large selection of goods, ranging from sweet breads, croissants, cream rolls, cookies, cakes, bocadillos (pastries with ham, cheese and jalapeno) and ice cream. The best way to tackle the selection is to grab a tray and start dumping items on top.

How can you not love a place that has a variety of croissants including plain, dulce de leche, guava, chocolate and cream cheese.

If you can't decide between their wide selection of baked goods, they offer some samples at the counter.

I went crazy and picked up a few items including croissants (plain, dulce de leche, and guava & cream cheese), tres leche cake, tiramisu and sweet roll.

The lady that rang me up also included a complimentary slice of chocolate cake that was freshly baked.

I've noticed that the croissants that I sampled were flaky but less buttery than the French ones that I'm used to. That's actually not a bad thing. It's more of a preference. I do miss the oily fingers that I get from merely holding a croissant, but on the other hand, I feel that at Lar Monarca, I'll be able to have more than one croissant without running off to the gym to burn off the guilt. Personally, I thought La Monarca excelled more in their sweets than in the savory pastries. Their dulce de leche croissant and tiramisu were my favorites. With such a large offering, it'll take me many more weekends to put a dent on the menu, but I'll definitely try my best.

La Monarca Bakery
1300 Wilshire Blvd.,
Santa Monica, CA 90403
(310) 451-1114