Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chef vs. Critic. The pen is mightier than the toque.

I like reading restaurant reviews. Some, because the writing is so bad that it makes me wonder why the writer is still employed. Others more because of the writer's style and use of prose paint an enticing picture of a restaurant. Then there are those that give insight into the restaurant's approach, the plates, the flavors. Then there are pieces that really don't fit into any of these categories.

Instead of painting a picture of what someone might expect to find, enjoy, eat and experience at the restaurant, a local food critic embedded this data in a critique of what the restaurant's owner should have done. He griped about the architecture, how the place wasn't "Bohemian" enough, how the chairs were funky. Thus, I read the piece as more an attack on the restauranteur's failure to conform to the reviewer's expectations than a fact-based review of the establishment.

In the context of the review the dishes seemed disappointing, even though the reviewer apparently liked them. So, the overall review - although it got enough stars - seemed negative. Like the place was somehow a failure in the critic's view: too-serious waiters, predictable, just not fun enough.

Even with great food, who would want to dine in a stodgy, predictable restaurant run by someone who abandoned his vision, to eat food and quaff drink served by pompous waiters? Would you go, knowing it to be cursed with bad architecture and infested with ugly chairs?

I have no quibbles about the part where the critic actually reviews the food, despite a minor glitch over an ingredient. So it wasn't orzo. No big deal.

Understandably, the restaurant's owner did not take kindly to the review. So he replied, using Facebook. He made a lot of good points - notably that the restaurant is successful, he likes it the way it is (so do a lot of other people, apparently). There was a bit of an attack on the reporter of the "who is he to criticize, anyway?" variety.

Many people commented. Most, if not all, were supportive of the restaurant. Some went so far as to lambaste the reviewer, thereby incurring his wrath.

A few days went by, and the reviewer - who never bothered to reply in Facebook - wrote another article, this time expressing surprise at the reaction at the rancor over his review. A review he believed to be positive, in fact.

I didn't read it as especially positive. I thought it was strange to attack a restaurant based on what direction its owner did not take, setting the food reviews in a bed of criticism. I thought reporting was based on facts: interviews with the owner, direct tasting, all that stuff. This read more like an editorial piece, advocating change.

The critic's second piece devoted over 800 words explaining what critics do, what they know and how many restaurants they've been to. Apparently becoming a restaurant critic involves nothing more than being a reporter who gets the critic job. No culinary arts training, no superior knowledge of food origins, process or preparation. No experience working in an actual restaurant. I don't expect food writers to attend chef school, but what exactly is their path from no clue to Expert Critic? Taste buds and a nose? Read a few cookbooks and you, too, can be a Revered Critic (B.A. in journalism required)? That's it?

Isn't that like a science writer who can't tell a photon from a prion? Yes, a reporter can theoretically write an excellent piece using investigative techniques. But when something is set down in front of you for your dining pleasure, shouldn't you have some prior knowledge of how it's typically prepared, so you can better communicate the restaurant's style of preparation, its choice of ingredients? Saying something is yummy, tasty, bad or heavenly is not, after all, great journalism. More must be said, vivid descriptions of the presentation, flavors, balance; in short, make the reader experience what it's like to savor the food and revel in the atmosphere (or lack thereof) of the restaurant.

Before writing about what was presumably in the restaurant owner's head several years ago versus now, wouldn't it be better to interview said owner after all your tasting was done and your food reviews written? Find out what he's thinking, where he's going, what he loves and hates, why things are the way they are?

Yet, who am I to question established wisdom? Another journalist wrote that bloggers are not journalists. We're something else. Not necessarily bad, just not bona fide journalists. So I'm just an outsider howling in the wilderness. Ignore my questions, since they're from Outside the System. But I still think I'm right. Knowing a subject gives more insight, doesn't it? Interviewing the owner and chef would give insight, wouldn't it?

After the War of the Pens, the critic and chef allegedly talked on the phone for about an hour. The critic deleted some offending text that apparently was not kind to the chef. The chef deleted his entire original Facebook post (even the valid, non-insulting parts), then apologized in Facebook for things he said that were less than flattering to the reviewer. All is well. They're friends again.

Personally, I think the chef lost. I think that the critic, with free access to publishing to a large number of people, convinced him that argument was not in his best interests. Force won, again.

The critic also managed to promote a local blog that agreed with his review on all but two points. Not exactly neutral. Will he mention this blog although I'm critical of the style of the review?

The critic, who seems just as thin-skinned as the chef about people demeaning his skills or qualifications, managed to insult all who comment from the online community by calling them insincere and not credible. If the online community is not worth bothering with, why do they have a feedback/comment function on their web site? Oh. I'm not a journalist, so I have no right to question Established Wisdom. But still...

The moral of this story? If you're a restaurant owner and victim of a strange and perhaps unjust review, just let it slide. The critic has the entire power of the press to attack you. He may not be especially fair about it, either. Your defense will probably be quixotic at best; remember that Most Chefs Are Not Writers, and you're probably no exception. You're going up against Dirty Harry with a pop-gun. Give up now, unless you consider that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Another moral would be as a reviewer and critic, wouldn't it be normal to expect scathing attacks (or counterattacks)? Isn't that part of the process of free speech? Shouldn't staying calm when people query your competence be part of your professional demeanor? Wouldn't the weapons of sharp wit and scintillating prose work better than anger and revenge, if those emotions were indeed present?

A third moral is that you apparently really don't need to know anything specialized to become a journalist in that field. One size fits all. Know the right people, get the job, eat some food, start writing. You're now an Expert Critic! No wonder people frequent all those public review sites - the public may have greater knowledge than the professionals in many cases!

This could have been less rancorous on both sides, but maybe that wasn't the intent. Maybe rancor means excitement. Excitement means sales. Sales mean staying employed in difficult times.

Note: Any remarkable resemblance between the people in the illustration and the real people I'm writing about is just proof that I'm psychic. I don't know what either of them looks like, except that they're both male. I think.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Come for the patio, stay for the food

Is this a great space, or what?
Crispy Barramundi
Journeyman's lunch
Bourbon Chocolate Cake
Sometimes a place just grabs you and pulls you in. I was minding my own business, when I happened to smell something enticing, and this after I'd finished a filling lunch. Then I saw the space: an open, modern patio with a linear concrete fountain, bocce court, fire pits and tables arranged around the perimeter. At the rear of the patio, a modern structure with floor to ceiling windows showcased the kitchen, its staff busy prepping dinner. The main restaurant building stood to the left, housing the wood-burning oven from whence emerged that enticing fragrance of woodsmoke.

Today, when the question of lunch came up, an image of this place appeared. Never refuse a vision, especially when it might lead to an interesting meal. I didn't even know the place's name. There was no sign on the building, anywhere - a true Restaurant X.

I was expecting something Italian, after seeing that Bocce court. So, when the menu arrived, it came with a side of cognitive dissonance. Duck confit? Crispy barramundi, chicken with polenta... wood-fired pizza... Yeah, it's Italian, but a bit French, with a good helping of contemporary American in there, too. And I now knew the place's name: Union on Yale. Hmm. I almost liked Restaurant X better.

With choices like that, choosing something would be difficult. Confit, flatiron steak, wood-fired grilled scallops... I chose the barramundi. My companions chose the journeyman and a turkey avocado bacon sandwich.

The barramundi was as described: a perfectly seasoned fillet, topped with crispy skin, lying on a bed of greens surrounded by bean-turnip purée. Simple, elegant and tasty.

I had no idea what a ploughman's was. I thought it was a kind of sandwich, but instead it was a mix of clams and mussels in a tomato sauce. I thought the sauce tasted more French than Italian, maybe built on a base of mirepoix and stock, without the Italian basil-oregano flavor profile. I managed to steal a spoonful for a taste, but I have expert testimony for the freshness of the seafood. At the end of the meal, nothing remained but the shells; no piece of toast, no sauce.

On the sandwich side, the turkey-avocado arrived amid a mass of golden brown potatoes. They looked like half-length julienne fries, until I tried one. Instead of solid slices of potato, they were somehow formed from a purée, light and airy but less substantial than strips carved intact from a mother spud. The sandwich lived up to the turkey moniker, but the avocado was more a thin green line spread onto the bread than the expected generous slice that would stand up and proclaim its identity as co-flavor. The sandwich worked, due in large part to the support of crispy bacon slices and the full flavor of the turkey breast, brined and roasted on the premises.

They only had one dessert. Chocolate bourbon cake. "How chocolate is it," I asked. "Very," the waitress replied. It was. Flourless, with a deep chocolate flavor and a bit of sour-sweet crunch thanks to a liberal sprinkling of translucent pomegranate seeds. All that work on plating, a beautiful, edible piece of art wiped out in a rush of spoons.

Wine - any wine - is currently $10 per glass. They're working on getting their cellar up and running, move on to sell bottles, but for now they're working it out. The current wine list may or may not work; some wines are still around, but others aren't, but they did have substitutes for what we wanted. They're still learning about flavor profiles, so hopefully by the time their wine cellar is stocked they'll have someone who knows them well.

If you're more the cocktail type, they do have a full bar. During our lunch, it seemed that margaritas were the thing to get.

You can eat, hang out or perhaps even play a game of bocce at Union On Yale at 232 Yale Ave in Claremont. Just look for the place with a great outdoor space, at least until they get their signs installed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rosetta Stone Required

Order here.

New year's specials (I think)

Your order, confirmed

Success! Food arrives, and it's what you wanted!

Dessert. I'm already craving more of these things.

Some restaurants just aren't for dabblers. This place is as hardcore dim sum as it gets. Once you're seated, you'll get a menu sheet where you mark your selections. In Chinese. Only in Chinese. I think the sole Roman letters were "X.O.", presumably for a dish made with X.O. sauce. They do, however provide all the pieces you might need for this puzzle. There's a booklet with photographs of the dishes, each numbered and given a brief description in English that usually works. If not for this Rosetta Stone, you would just have to guess which Chinese characters look appetizing. Once you've found your siu mai, har gow, etc. you just find the number on the order sheet and check it off.

They will ask what kind of tea you want the instant you arrive at your table - choose from a list on the front of the Rosetta Book. Yes! You can have Chrysanthemum tea, and you should. Although some say it tastes like water left over from boiling artichokes, it really compliments the food and is less intrusive than the typical jasmine. There is also asphodel, sounding like some Elvish concoction from the Lord of the Rings. Not to worry; it's a form of Oolong tea, not miruvor.

Mark your choices in the first column. I'm assuming that the second column is for a second plate of 燒賣 for example, if you're in the mood or perhaps didn't order enough in the first place. Once you've made your selections, someone will come to take away the paper - and the Rosetta Book! Noooo! They will kindly leave the order form, so memorize the characters or write the number for anything you might want to order in addition to your first round.

Once they've processed your order, they'll bring a printout in clear, easy to read Chinese characters to confirm that you did indeed order one plate each of 蝦餃, 蛋撻,  蛋撻...

Then the food will arrive, and they'll cross out the delivered items from your printed receipt. If you're quick, you might even see which characters went with which dish.

Our first dish to arrive would be the last eaten: 蛋撻, daan taat - sweet yellow egg custard nestled in airy puff pastry. We set it aside.

Other dishes began to arrive, burning hot out of the steamer. 蝦餃, har gow, shrimp dumplings.  燒賣, siu mai, another dumpling normally made with pork - but these tasted more of fish and shrimp and were topped with some orange roe. Then the lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, three small pieces with a bit of meat, some Chinese sausage keeping the rice company. Fried eggplant topped with a kind of seafood mousseline. Chive dumplings. Fried something or other with shrimp in it. Cheong fan, rice rolls filled with barbecued pork and a wonderful light brown sauce poured over the top. The best thing to do was attack the things that cooled first, like the cheong fan, giving the other items time to cool down to where they could be tasted. As plates empty, the staff efficiently whisk them away until only the daan taat remains, a sweet ending to a great flock of dim sum.

When you're done, wave someone over or gesture with the receipt book. Pay at your table, leave a nice tip, smile and leave.

If you love great, freshly prepared dim sum from a place that immerses you completely in Chinese culture, you'll probably be happy here. Everything we ate was top notch. No soy sauce or chili oil on the table, either - everything came out of the kitchen perfectly seasoned. We saw no forks, no English anywhere but the Rosetta Book. Some of the staff spoke English; others not.

Since they don't do carts, you might not be tempted to taste new yet enticing items paraded before your eyes. They might bring some char siu bao, BBQ pork buns by your table in a tray, but those things are filling, and I prefer to save room for variety.

Ordering is intimidating unless you're literate in Chinese. Prior experience in dim sum is a definite bonus here, but you only need one seasoned dim sum aficionado per table. Otherwise, you will have to either know what you want or dive into the deep waters of gastronomic adventure. Pick things at random from the menu if you dare, but remember that many things in that kitchen really require a guide.

But fear not! You can indeed choose well to emerge well-fed with a smile on your face. You could meet your new culinary best friends, their flavors forever etched into your brain. Dim sum is like that. You might even utter "mh goi" as you leave.

Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant is located at 3939 Rosemead Blvd in Rosemead. You can't turn left into their lot from Rosemead Boulevard, so plan to arrive from Valley Boulevard (or the side street) so you can easily enter the parking lot.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thirty-three years of burritos

All that fancy gourmet stuff is fine, but sometimes you just have to go back to your roots, bathe your tongue in thirty year old memories, remember the times you spent in that very spot, and wonder what happened to the people you knew back when...

We'd stop by El Tepeyac on the way back from school in 1978. I'd just started college, and my friend Mike decided to give me a valuable education in burritos. We'd go in his beat-up gold Chevy Nova, its black cloth seats smelling of time in the sun, early morning fishing trips and stale tobacco smoke. We'd inch forward in line, awaiting our turn at the order window, then the pick-up window. With a shout of "Hollenbeck! Machaca!", our burritos were handed out, creaking on sagging cardboard trays, rapidly passed out the window in a frantic moment where the price of failure would be the splat of several pounds of burrito hitting the concrete. Balancing them as best we could, we'd return to our table to devour them in the reddish-gold light streaming through the colored glass of the patio. All this fit well within a student's budget at around four bucks per burrito.

Phil and I loved the Hollenbeck, even though it made his forehead drip sweat. Mike's favorite was the machaca burrito, from which he'd carefully remove every trace of green lest a fiery jalapeño leave him gasping. We even tried a Manuel's special, a sleeping bag sized invention of the restaurant's owner. Once. One burrito, three people. I think we might have even finished it. Maybe. Then there was the machaca burrito. Shredded beef, eggs, sautéed onions, cheese and chunks of those incandescent jalapeños, now bred out of existence.

My friend Mike is now departed, but Manuel is still at the door greeting people. There have been some changes at the restaurant, too. The menu is a bit longer, and the Hollenbeck burrito is available with chicken and asada along with the traditional pork. The Hollenbeck runs almost ten bucks, the machaca a bit more. The silly little pile of lettuce no longer comes with the Hollenbeck. The machaca burrito now adds rice and beans to its former meat, onions, egg, fresh jalapeños and cheese. Those screaming hot peppers are but a memory.

What's in a Hollenbeck? Mass, and lots of it. Take a tortilla big enough to cover your entire head and face. Throw in some slow-cooked chili verde pork, then some freshly made guacamole, some rice, some beans. Wrap everything up like a small pillow, then pour some tomato-chili sauce over the top and drop some more chunks of the pork on top. Serve steaming hot. Eat fast, before your stomach realizes what you're up to. Don't drink large amounts of fluid for at least an hour - your stomach needs to work uninterrupted.

As for the Manuel's Special, just imagine the Hollenbeck. Double it. No, bigger. Triple it. This burrito is indeed larger than the average human stomach. The last time we ate one, it took four people. Just seeing a burrito that large is something that should be on everyone's bucket list. Put it last on the list if you plan on eating the whole thing at one sitting.

When we go, we look at our shadows, reaching back thirty years across the worn concrete of the patio. We have wives, families, responsibilities, retirement. We talk about old friends who've disappeared from sight. Mammon is more likely to be the focus of conversation than Venus. We think of playing outside under the sun instead of on computers, talking instead of texting; of times when driving a car meant freedom instead of obligation.

We don't bring our wives. They don't approve of this kind of mass consumption.

El Tepeyac Cafe is so famous that I probably don't need to even list the address, but journalistic integrity requires that all the information be here: 812 North Evergreen Avenue, Los Angeles.

In through the Open Door

Do the words, "Berkshire Pork Fat Mochi" give you any instant cravings? Or do you wince in disgust, thinking that only a pork-addled fool would even consider ordering such a thing? I hope it's the latter, because that leaves more for me!

The pork fused with the mochi by some alchemical magic, creating a smoky, umami mouth bomb accented with confetti-like nori. That shishito is more for looks than heat, since this is December after all: the plants need heat for heat. Dribbled over and around this marshmallow-shaped ball of doctor-scorned wonder lies a light ochre sauce. Maybe it's miso based. Maybe not, but it's the grace note that really makes the dish happen. This is not a regular menu item, so if pork is your thing be sure to order some while you can.

The scene is the Open Door Restaurant, a tiny izakaya nugget encrusted in a thick vein of mini-mall. Their take on this cuisine is fusion French-Japanese-everything else. You might find bone marrow logs sliced down the center and roasted. Perhaps duck confit tacos. Maybe something involving foie gras, maybe paired with sea urchin. You never know, but the odds are that the dish will indeed work, no matter how strange it may seem.

Whatever isn't on the menu gets scrawled in multicolored chalk on a large blackboard. Right now, Christmas lights provide most of the illumination, so diners would cross the dark room, squinting, to find their amuse-guele nirvana. Like those pork fat mochi balls. Heaven.

Adventures with small plates is what this place is about. Go ahead, mix it up. Everything is à la carte. Take some risks. If you don't like something, odds are someone else at your table will. There are twists on Japanese street food. Truffle butter edamame, takoyaki, inari... but they're elevated to fine dining status by an inventive twist where a sauce drizzles in, an extra step is applied. Often they pair ingredients, juxtaposing something unknown to your typical Samurai with something his obaa-san would have served.

We typically start with our favorite sashimi, white fish yuzu. They don't specify the fish - a wise move allowing them to pick the freshest white fish for their menu without getting locked in to a particular variety. The plate is a simple fan of thinly sliced fish, dabbed with something green, drizzled with yuzu, accented with a shiso leaf and a pickled cherry. At least I think it's a cherry. It's red, sour, and has a pit.

Then something perhaps a bit bolder, building up to bigger flavors. Chawanmushi arrives in a heavy bowl heated hot enough to burn Asian symbols in your arm, the custard inside heaving like something from Yellowstone. Hints of fish and vegetables infuse the soft custard. Another bite, a piece of shrimp this time, another.... shiitake. Another? Nope. Empty.

More food arrives. Takoyaki: little balls of something resembling pancake batter, topped with a bit of sauce, bits of seafood inside. Spicy weiners, really spicy. Hotter than those shisitos. Then eggplant miso cools things down again with simple eggplant rounds tossed in some kind of miso-based sauce and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. Then the yaki onigiri, triangular rice balls, fried, sitting on a sheet of seaweed (nori), topped with ume (pickled plum), shredded salmon or nothing at all. Break off a piece of the rice, wrap it with nori and enjoy. Yes, you need to eat the nori or the thing will taste flat. Besides, nori is good for you.

They don't stop with the food, either. Japanese micro-brews? How about a beer made from rice, like a gently bubbling very light sake? It's here. If you can pronounce it, it's yours for the tasting: koshinikari echigo. Say it just like it's written and you'll do fine. Don't expect big, bold flavor. It's extremely subtle, light and ever so sake-like. Some fools have called it bland, but pair it with delicate food and you'll find that it's the perfect foil to something like sashimi where you don't want an Arrogant Bastard who will grab all the glory.

Or, if you'd like a white ale that's a bit more Belgian, just say Hitachino Nest White Ale, o kudasai. There's even a cute red owl on the label. Sugoi!

Yes, they have sake. Probably more kinds than the beer, so if sake adventure is your thing, you'll be happy. But you get more beer for your buck.

Service is very attentive, and they will happily tell you of their current favorite dishes. You could get a comment like, "not many people dare to order that." Don't worry - if you like the main ingredient, you'll probably love the dish. My wife still talks about that bone marrow log, months after the meal (it's off the menu now, alas).

They don't allow photos of their food. There's a big sign on the door, then a notice in bold on the menu. No photos of any kind, not even blurry low-light grainy out of focus horrors snapped by cell phones. I would think that photos posted all over the place would be free publicity, but since those photos rarely if ever look appetizing they may have a point. They didn't say anything about doing an illustration afterwards, so hopefully they won't send Hideo* after me for retribution.

The Open Door sits in the back corner of a mini-mall at Atlantic and Garvey in Monterey Park (on the southeast corner if you're approaching from the South on Atlantic). Their address is 122 South Atlantic Blvd, but that may not help much unless you're just using it to program your GPS.

* Neuromancer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Greek, but not as you knew it

serious chops!

the moussaka

The Great Fry Mountain!

Greek food's on the foodie map. Hot new cookbooks, restaurants that move away from soggy gyro sandwiches into things you might really find in Greece. Variety, freshly prepared ingredients: fish, lamb, beef, chicken. Grilled, baked, braised. Time to find out what all the fuss is about.

The Los Angeles Times wandered into Orange County and found Kentro Greek Kitchen. I followed a few weeks later.

This restaurant is a bright, modern space painted black and white instead of the typical blue and white. You order at the counter, take a number and they bring your food. Like the space, the menu is no-nonsense. Simply grilled meats, copious sandwiches. Salads, including beet.  Appetizers, even charbroiled octopus. Greek wine, Greek beer, Greek coffee (more on that later).

Yes, they have pita bread sandwiches, in new guise. Gyro sandwiches are gone, replaced with charbroiled pork, roasted and pulled chicken, braised lamb. I didn't eat one, though.

I didn't eat the flatbread, either, kind of like Greek mini-pizzas with things like arugula, figs, honey (all on one pizza).

I did taste the faques soup - lentils, tomatoes, celery and carrots punctuate a light herbal tomato-based broth. The lentils support the overall flavor; they're not the central focus here, so you get a progression of flavors as each vegetable gives a nod as it passes.

The loukaniko sausage - available as an appetizer or on a flatbread - comes sliced on a platter, grill smoke mixing with the meat and herbs for a savory bite just waiting for a dip into some fresh tzatziki sauce. The mezzedaki (appetizer) plate adds kefalotiri cheese and a couple of lamb chops. And that wonderful, tangy dill-infused creamy tzatziki sauce.

I suppose they'd lose their Greek cred if they skipped the moussaka. You can lose the gyros, but axe this dish and Helen of Troy will roll in her grave. This version is lighter, airier than most. Its flavors mingle, yet remain distinct without collapsing into a dense mass in the oven. It builds on thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom, adds eggplant and tomato sauce, then a thin layer of béchamel over the top. You can pick and choose between layers. You can have one bite dominated by eggplant and tomato; the next thinly sliced potatoes lightly graced with the béchamel. Or, you can try to smash three inches of moussaka layers into one all-encompasing mouthful and hope for the best.

I didn't go there. It wasn't my moussaka, and a containment failure would be embarrassing, to say the least.

My choice was lamb chops. They arrived in a generous pile, nestled next to a virtual mountain of fries, accented with a dollop of that luscious tzatziki. Ah, that was a marriage made in heaven: bistro-style fries flavored with kefalotiri cheese, dipped in olive oil infused yogurt tzatziki with its hints of dill and cucumber. Then a bite of the lamb, rubbed briefly in that sauce so its rich herbal flavor could counterpart the acidity of the sauce. Then a sip of Amethystos red wine.

They were out of galaktobouriko. Wait. No, we were in luck, a fresh batch was just coming out of the oven. Dessert would make an appearance after all. After allowing fifteen minutes for the dessert to cool, it arrived at our table. Flaky phyllo over yellowish custard, with not-so-flaky phyllo on the bottom that worked hard to prevent cutting the dessert. Despite the bottom phyllo layer, the dessert was a success due to the great job they did on the custard. Again, light and well-seasoned.

The final dot at the end of the meal was the coffee, Greek style. Elleniko, to be exact. Kind of redundant, like Greek Greek coffee. Interesting. Like espresso with sugar, but made differently. Somehow the grounds, a bit of sugar and water are combined in some brewing device, heated in a manner involving a bubble, then served in a small cup, like espresso. Except for the flavor, and the quarter inch of coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Brewing coffee this way really changes the flavor profile, not at all like adding sugar to already-brewed American coffee. Kind of a surprise on the first sip, then a bit of doubt: "do I like this". Another sip. Well... Another sip. Yeah, I think I could get used to this stuff.

There are still a lot of things waiting for me on the menu, calling my name in seductive Helen-like voices. Flat breads, octopus, dolmades, spanakopita, grilled fish with dandelion greens...

It's really too bad stomachs don't hold more food.

Kentro lives in a kind of "restaurant mall". Parking is strange - the closer you park to the restaurant, the less time you can stay in the space. Not a problem if you don't mind walking across a parking lot as a price you pay to enjoy a more leisurely meal. They're at 100 South Harbor Boulevard  in Fullerton. If you're coming from the 91 freeway up Harbor, turn before your GPS tells you that you've arrived. If you go straight, you'll miss the parking lot and have to circle around. The Amtrak station is across the lot from the restaurant, so you could even arrive in style by train.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Banh Mi!

It was a long, hungry drive from Sacramento to L.A. Although it's great getting here early, it also means no In-N-Out stop for lunch, since they don't open until 10:30 am. Nobody would likely call glass of orange juice and a banana hearty fare for the road, healthy as it may be.

So, upon arrival I headed to Banh Mi My Tho in Alhambra for a very tasty grilled pork sandwich. In case you've never heard of them, banh mi are a Vietnamese-French hybrid sandwich: French baguette, Vietnamese grilled pork, fresh hot chili slices, cilantro, shredded carrots, green onions, cucumber, vinaigrette. They're a great deal - a sandwich maybe six inches long won't even cost you three bucks.

These guys make the sandwich to order while you wait in a crowded, tiny market-like space, surrounded by Asian language newspapers, a large refrigerator full of all kinds of drinks, packaged foods, a display case full of egg rolls and some kind of meatballs, and other people waiting for their orders.

There's nowhere to eat inside, although there is a bench outside, more for waiting than eating, I'd guess. So, away we went, a sack full of sandwiches in hand.

After starving half a day, I grabbed my sandwich at the first red light and took a bite. The baguette crunched, yielding to softer dough, then the chewier meat and fluffy veggies. I took another bite, as the banh mi's mix of sweet-sour and savory flavors filled my mouth. Hunger began to abate. Another bite - this time with a big hit of fresh chili flavor, then feel the burn. Then cilantro... A very interesting sandwich and a great way rescue myself from the clutches of road trip hunger.

In case you're in the area with some cash money (they don't do plastic) you can visit Banh Mi My Tho at 304 W Valley Blvd in Alhambra.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Branzino dinner

Amazingly, one of our local supermarkets had fresh, reasonably priced branzino. Better yet, this is a farmed, sustainable fish - called striped bass in English. For some reason, the Italian name for the fish passed over the French and English versions.

By encasing the fish in a salt-egg white crust, you can bake it without the worry of pulling fish jerky out of the oven 30 minutes later. All the fish's moisture will be sealed in. The crust is a mix of egg whites and Kosher salt: 3-1/2 salt to one egg white by weight if you're someplace humid, 3-1/4 salt to one egg white if you're somewhere dry. I start by weighing the egg white in grams, then multiply to find how much salt I need. Don't worry about saltiness - you're using the whole fish, skin on. The skin will keep the flesh and salt separate. Stick some fresh thyme and bay leaf into the cavity of the cleaned fish, place it on a bed of Kosher salt, make the crust with some more Kosher salt, place it in a 375° convection oven for half an hour, peel off the salt (the skin will come off, too), fillet the fish and serve. Simple!

The velouté sauce is a bit less simple: blond roux, mushroom stock, some vermouth, some salt, some Pastis, some fresh thyme and bay leaf, strained.

The Israeli couscous is also simple - sauté some garlic in oil, toss in the couscous, stir it a bit, add mushroom stock until it's absorbed and you're ready to go.

The persimmon mousse needs some work - it was good, but it needed more persimmon, less cream, and more gelatin. The sugar content was about right - not too much but enough to avoid going too acidic. Luckily, our neighbor gave us a lot of persimmons so I can experiment.

After the Scary Cake Test

This is it. The Cake of Doom. The Cake of Judgement. My grade depends in part on the perfect execution of this amalgam of sweet, sour and technically difficult. Scoring the cake is apparently like Olympic skating, where degree of difficulty comes into play somehow. I'll never know what points were good and which were bad; all I'll receive is a final grade for the class. I will have the satisfaction that comes from inventing something and managing to turn the idea into something not only edible, but enjoyable. If you don't count the stress involved with 25 people all writing little notes about every aspect of the oeuvre.

The idea came from a question: why don't cakes use seasonal fruit, so they taste fresh instead of fake? So what if you can't make this cake in June. That just makes it that much more worth waiting for. So, although there's a bit of orange marmelade (and it could also be a tangerine purée simple syrup), all the fruit flavor comes from fresh, mostly uncooked tangerines.

It's not too sweet, either. It's not supposed to be a rich, heavy thing, but a light fruity interlude before taking a brandy and a fine cigar and heading away from the table.

If you're brave enough to try all this, please keep your common sense. I already found one mistake that would have transformed the thing into a vanilla cake - so think things over before you start. The ingredients are more or less in the order they would be prepared. The Bavarian cream has to be done as one of the final steps just before assembling the cake, since it needs to chill to set. The genoise, chocolate wafer and buttercream can all be made in advance.

This will make two, six inch diameter cakes. I like small cakes; they seem more chic and European that way. I suppose it could also be modified to work in a square pan, although the corners would be tricky.  To assemble, just read the assembly instructions and follow the diagram above. Then do it again, and again and again until it's all just a piece of cake.

Tangerine Dream Cake

Components per cake
  • White chocolate for drizzling   
  • Swiss meringue buttercream, Dark Chocolate   
  • Orange genoise    2    pieces
  • Orange (tangerine) Bavarian Cream   
  • Tangerine slices, seedless   
  • Simple syrup w/Cointreau (or equal)   
  • Orange marmelade   
  • Chocolate wafer (base)    1    piece
Yield: Two, 6” cakes.

Cake assembly
  1. Spread orange marmelade on the chocolate wafer, very thin.
  2. Measure a piece of acetate so that it is just wide enough to cover the fruit layer, but leave the top layer of the cake exposed.
  3. Spread orange marmelade on top of the chocolate wafer.
  4. Place the chocolate wafer in a 6” charlotte ring. 
  5. Spread tangerine-flavored syrup on top of one piece of the genoise, and place it on the wafer.
  6. Arrange tangerine slices around the perimeter, against the acetate, flat  sides down.
  7. Fill with  Bavarian cream to the tops of the tangerine slices.
  8. Add another layer of tangerine slices along the perimeter, rounded sides down (between the other slices)
  9. Fill just over the top of the tangerines with orange Bavarian cream.
  10. Spread flavored syrup on top and bottom of the other piece of the genoise, and place it on top of the buttercream.
  11. Chill until the Bavarian cream is completely set.
  12. Spread the chocolate buttercream over the top and sides of the cake.
  13. Carefully remove the acetate, and pipe buttercream to cover the lower, exposed, part of the cake. Decorate with crushed leftover pieces from the chocolate wafer mixed with a bit (careful!) of instant coffee.
  14. If it can be done without messing up the cake, place an acetate strip over the fruit layer, and place the cake in a refrigerator to chill and set the buttercream. If not, coat the tangerine slices on the sides with the apricot glaze.
Orange Genoise
  • Sugar    3.75    oz
  • Eggs    3    ea
  • Yolks    3    ea
  • Cake flour    4    oz
  • Sugar    1/2    oz
  • Butter, clarified, warm    1/2    oz
  • Orange extract    1/2    tsp
  • Tangerine zest    1/4    tsp
Two, 6” round cakes.     ± 1 lb 2    oz
Pan preparation
Parchment on the bottom, very lightly grease the sides.
Scale 6 oz batter into a 6" cake round, bake about 20 minutes at 375°F.
The cake will spring back when touched; the cake edges will just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan if the pan has been greased.

  1. Heat sugar, eggs, yolks over bain-marie to 120° F, whisking constantly. Transfer to mixer, add orange extract, whip on medium speed until the foam is pale and thick, and increases 3 times in volume, and holds a ribbon.
  2. Sift flour twice with the sugar. Sift one quarter of the flour over the egg foam, fold in quickly and gently with a spatula, repeat three more times. Stop folding when the last portion of flour is not quite fully folded in.
  3. Fold a small amount of the batter (one spatula full) into the butter, then fold all the butter into the remaining batter.
  4. Divide batter into two cake pans, pan and bake immediately.
Chocolate wafer
  • Unsalted butter, room temp.    4    oz
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder    2    oz
  • Granulated sugar    7    oz
  • Eggs    2    ea
  • Vanilla extract    0.2    oz
  • A.P. flour    4    oz
  • Salt    0.1    oz
  • Water    0.3    oz
  • Baking powder (very small amt)    0.1    oz
  • Yield: makes two, 6” rounds    1 lb 5    oz
  1. Preheat an oven to 350°F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
  2. Put the butter in a large saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir with the whisk just until the butter is melted.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cocoa powder. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and no lumps remain.
  4. Add the sugar and continue whisking until well blended.
  5. Let the mixture cool for 2 minutes.
  6. Add the eggs, water and vanilla and whisk until well blended.
  7. Add the flour and salt. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  8. The batter will be fairly liquid. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly with an offset spatula. Spread it about 1/8 thick.
  9. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the wafer comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
  10. Cut the wafers into 6” rounds before completely cool (don't wait or they’ll crack). Mark the dough with an upside-down cake pan. Cut with a paring knife or small pizza cutter - or use a charlotte pan the same diameter as the cake pan.
  11. Let cool completely. 
  12. Break up remainder and use as crumb decoration for lower part of cake.
  13. You can also crisp the cake up by putting it in a low (200° F) oven.
Tangerine-infused syrup
This is for dabbing into the cake to give it more flavor.

  • Tangerine pulp    4    oz
  • Granulated sugar    4    oz
  • Yield    8    oz
  1. Place all ingredients in a stainless steel pan. Heat until mixture thickens.
  2. Remove from heat, strain through a chinois.
  3. Dab into genoise cake to give it moistness and flavor before assembling the cake.

Orange Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream

This works with Italian meringue, too - just use the type you're most comfortable with.

  • Egg whites    4    oz
  • Cream of tartar    1/4    tsp
  • Sugar    8    oz
  • Vegetable shortening    2    oz
  • Butter    12    oz
  • Orange extract    1/4    tsp
  • Chocolate, melted & cooled    4    oz
  • Yield:    1 lb 14    oz
  • Place the egg whites and sugar in a stainless steel bowl on top of a bain-marie. Beat with a whip until the mixture reaches 120°F.
  • Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a mixer, whip at high speed until stiff peaks form and the meringue cools to 80°F. This is now Swiss meringue, but it could be done with Italian meringue, too. At this point, either process would work - and the following steps will be the same.
  • Little by little, add the soft butter and chocolate and continue to whip. Add each piece after the previous one has been incorporated. In the same way, whip in the shortening.
  • Continue to whip until the buttercream is smooth.
Tangerine Slices

  • Clementine mandarins, whole    20    oz
  • Yield, peeled (85%)    17    oz
  1. Peel mandarins.
  2. Separate slices
  3. Cut enough slices to go around cake in half, exposing inside of fruit. Place cut side of fruit against acetate when assembling cake.
  4. Reserve 8 slices per cake for decorating the top.
  5. Press remaining tangerine slices into Bavarian cream layer or eat them. If you peel as you go, there won't be a lot of tangerine left over.
Tangerine/Orange Bavarian Cream
The tangerine pulp was unstrained, so it would add a bit of texture to the Bavarian cream. This was part of getting more of a "real fruit" feel to the cake, although there's no reason the pulp could not be strained. I think there's more flavor this way, though.

  • Gelatin, grains    1/4    oz
  • Cold water    2    oz (5 T)
Crème Anglaise   
  • Egg yolks    2    oz
  • Sugar    2    oz
  • Milk    4    oz
  • Vanilla    1/4    tsp
  • Orange extract    1/4    tsp
  • Tangerine (mandarin) zest    1    tsp (or orange zest, or omit)
 Whipped Cream
  • Heavy cream    8    oz (1 cup)
  • Mandarin purée    4    oz
  • Yield:    1 qt 1 pt (48 oz)
  1. Soak the gelatin in the cold water. Make sure you stir it into the water; don't just dump it in or you'll get a strange floppy gelatin disc and some turbid-looking water instead of well-hydrated gelatin.
  2. Prepare the crème anglaise: Whip the egg yolks and sugar until thick and light.
  3. Scald the milk and slowly stir it into the egg yolk mixture, beating constantly.
  4. Cook the crème anglaise over a hot water bath, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly. It should coat the back of a spoon, temperature 170°F. Don't get it hotter or it will curdle!
  5. Stir the gelatin sheets into the hot custard sauce until it is dissolved.
  6. Cool the custard sauce in the refrigerator or over crushed ice, stirring constantly to keep the mixture smooth.
  7. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Do not over-whip.
  8. When the custard is very thick but not yet set, fold in the whipped cream. Custard should more or less hold its shape when dropped from a spoon.
  9. Add the tangerine purée. Do NOT add this to the hot milk/egg mixture, as the milk will curdle instantly. Poof! Ruined! Start over! So, don't do it. Instead, add the purée only after the milk has been tempered into the egg mixture!
  10. Spoon the mixture between the tangerines in the cake. Add to just cover the tangerines, leaving a bit over 1/8” over the fruit. Shake the cake gently to settle the Bavarian cream.
Apricot Glaze
This is for coating the tangerine slices to preserve them a bit better and make them glossy. It could presumably be done with strained tangerine jam or jelly, if you could find it instead of apricot glaze. You can also mix apricot jam and simple syrup, although it will be clearer if you strain the jam first.

  • Commercial apricot glaze    1    oz
  • Water    1    oz
  • Yield    2    oz
Dilute glaze in water, bring to a simmer, whisking to prevent lumps.
Use warm, or at least while still somewhat liquid.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Before the Scary Cake Test

Tomorrow, my doom awaits. A cake must be made, to perfection. A cake perhaps never made since the dawn of time. My entire culinary future could rest on the successful completion of this dessert. Yes, that's stupid, but that's the way things are set up.

So, what to do while the stress mounts? Diligently study arcane tomes of cakery? Delve into the mysteries of gelatin-stabilized whipped cream and créme anglaise?

I think not.

Pan sear some excellent grass-fed beef, with a flavor of the fresh shoots of springtime, grassy, exuberant, bold. Add some lazy man's Bordelaise sauce - a pan sauce with a medium-dark roux, wine, fond, onions, celery, salt. A bit of tarragon-flavored beurre composé. A trio of artisan cheeses: Valsetz chevre, Twig Farms washed rind, Saint Nectaire. A wine worthy of the task: a Merlot by Solune in the Sierra foothills. Some sourdough baguettes an hour from the oven. Start with a fruity Garnacha for the first toast.

Add music. Sing in Portuguese and Spanish. Berekere, Barabare, O Vento, Depois os temporais, Los Ejes de mi Carreta, A Samba me cantou, Destillando Amor... Dance with the cat, too (he's amused).

Lie down and watch the lights of the room spin and twirl.


Perhaps not, but at least relaxed. Tomorrow is a good day to die!