Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Church Key: Fun Brunch Spot on Sunset

Sundays.  For some, it's the 'day after', when you pull on your darkest pair of sunglasses to cover up the bloodshot eyes from the so-good-you-almost-can't-remember-a-thing night before, and drag yourself to the nearest feeding station for sustenance.  For us, Sunday IS our Fun day - brunch being a meal to look forward to, our last bit(e) of carefree indulgence - in the culinary sense - before we gear up for another hectic work week.

So my brunching BFF, Curses, and I were excited to get an invite to check out The Church Key, on a sunny afternoon, in a fun WeHo space overlooking Sunset Blvd.  With all the buzz around the dim sum inspired cart service at dinnertime, and creative offerings like Pig's Ear Cheetos - we couldn't wait to see what they would bring to the table for brunch.

As soon as we sat down, we were greeted by the cocktail cart, complete with vintage-inspired PanAm wrap and 'stewardess'. 

The cart was loaded with what looked like hotel shampoo bottles, but were actually single serve drink mixes - to be combined with sparkling wine to create your brunch cocktail of choice.

Just like dim sum carts do, there is a log sheet, which each cart's server marks with their own unique stamp, to track your orders.

Unlike the throwaway tear sheets at dim sum houses, The Church Key prints theirs on card stock with their logo - and you can keep the final sheet as a souvenir if you want. 

And yes, that means there are more brunch carts to come - they roam around the restaurant and you can flag them down if you see something that catches your fancy - more on that later!
We enjoyed our St Germain elderflower sparkling wine cocktails.
Food at brunch is not limited to what's served on the roaming carts - there is a full made to order menu as well, of entree sized offerings.  Our first was the Grilled Asparagus with Sunny Side Up Egg, Smoked Tomato Hollandaise and Crispy Shallots ($15) because Curses loves veggies and I love eggs benedict, so this was our way of meeting in the middle.  Loved the crunchy crispy creamy textures here, punctuated by the smokiness and slight heat of the hollandaise sauce.
Next up was Jeffrey's Biscuits and Gravy ($18) with housemade chicken sausage, sunny side up eggs, and American cheese.  This was tasty, and the portion size was very generous - but was a bit too heavy for us and wasn't a standout in terms of flavor - it wasn't one that we left raving about.

Then came the showstopping Toad in the Hole "Croque Madame" ($18) - with Gruyere fondue and smoked bacon. Every element of this - from the bread sliced to perfect thickness, perfectly buttered and toasted to a golden brown, to the cheese sauce at just the right consistency - light enough not to overwhelm, substantial enough to mark its presence, sprinkled with finely chopped chives for visual and texture contrast - to the strips of bacon skillfully cooked to be crispy yet still juicy, tensile yet not overly chewy...
...all yielding to the beautiful egg cooked right into the center of the toast, with its gorgeous, sunny, runny yolk.

This one made me want to lock down our next brunch excursion to The Church Key before we had even finished eating.
Throughout our meal, the carts kept roaming around (all carrying off menu items for that fun element of surprise!), and we had spied lovely pastries that we definitely needed to try.

I love cart service in that you get to 'browse before you buy' and you feel like you get to choose 'the best one' of whatever it is that your heart desires. It's also a great conversation piece, especially helpful if you're eating with people you don't know very well - note to self for the next Meet Up.

After our savories, we were finally ready, and flagged down a friendly server to guide us through the offerings.

There were pain au chocolate, cinnamon buns, all fresh out of the oven.  But I'm a sucker for Monkey Bread, which you don't see all that often on LA menus.

This version is nothing short of fantastic.  It's served hot, pillowy, and despite the delicious all over glaze of caramel and cinnamon, the different sections pull apart very easily.  So incredibly delicious, and another item that I would say is a 'must get' at The Church Key.
Aside from the food and service, we loved the ambience as well.  The design aesthetic kind of reminded us of Hamptons meets Restoration Hardware.  It's airy, bright and cheery in the front dining room...

...with a lovely communal table for those in a big group, or just feeling social.  Definitely some great people / car watching as well over the Sunset Strip.
In the back area, the refined whimsy is more pronounced, with leather couches where you would normally expect chairs, and a random vintage telephone booth in the very back.

Mismatched dishware add pops of color to the design scheme to keep things from appearing too serious.

Sometimes, when a place is known for introducing a relatively new way of doing things (western food served up in carts), people worry that the food becomes secondary to the 'marketing hook'.  I would say that The Church Key strikes a balance here: fun dining experience, paired with some really good food!

All in all, a great new brunch spot that we hope to visit again very soon!

*Disclaimer:  This meal was hosted.


The Church Key
8730 W Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069
Ph: 424.249.3700
OpenTable: Look for reservations (and points!) here


Church Key on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kali Dining: Dinner Party with Patina Group Alum Chef Kevin Meehan

Imagine an intimate dinner party, with no more than 20 people, in a chic but unpretentious private home in a nice part of town...but instead of your friend the-good-amongst-your-friends-cook preparing your meal, it's a former Patina Group (Cafe Pinot) executive chef in the kitchen.

That is the basic concept of Kali Dining, my favorite not-a-pop-up pop up this year.

With an impressive resume that counts a Michelin starred restaurant in Brussels as well as local former temples of fine dining L’Orangerie and Bastide, we knew we were going to have a memorable experience.  Sneak peeks in Chef Meehan's Instagram feed for foie gras dishes of course only heightened our anticipation (*understatement of the year).

This particular iteration took place in Marina del Rey.  We were given an entry code to let ourselves in at the main gate - adding to the feeling of us going to a friend-of-a-friend's place.

Though it might feel a bit awkward for some, going to a dinner party where people didn't really know each other, Chef Meehan immediately put everyone at ease - multi-tasking to play host while finishing up prep in the wide open kitchen.  He guided us to the BYOB wine table, where dozens of welcoming bottles served both as topic of conversation and liquid encouragement to help break the ice with other guests.

When he heard how much Gourmetpigs and I adore and miss foie, Chef Meehan pulled out an off menu snack for us to taste:  something he created just for the heck of it.  That membrane you usually pull out and discard from a lobe of foie, when making torchon?  He took that and cured it with a blend of secret herbs and spices.

The taste and texture reminded me of the fat from duck proscuitto, fatty with a bit of resilience and toothsomeness, but next level delicious.  This was the way to start an underground supper club meal. 
After some time for guests to mix and mingle, Chef Meehan rounded everyone up to be seated at the communal table.
The 5-course prix fixe menu (set up as a 'donation' with minimum of $65 per person) kicked off with two amuse bouches.  The first was Egg Yolk Poached in Ash Oil, topped with a generous dollop of creme fraiche and sprinkle of chives.  This was beautifully served up in a delicate brown egg shell.

I loved how the oil helped the yolk glide into your mouth, to burst in an elegant release of liquid sunshine perfectly balanced by the other creamy / crunchy / granular ingredients.
Amuse Bouche 2: Foie Gras Truffle we loved this one before we ever met it.  Served up artfully on a smooth black pebble, the exterior of the truffle had an almost Oreo cookie crumb-like quality that yields to a luxe, super smooth interior of foie mousse, with satisfying depth of flavor (it had been way too long since we had been able to savor a professional prep of this in California, thanks to the ridiculous foie ban).

I could have sat there all night popping these by the dozen, cholesterol / calories be damned.
Abalone with basil, kumquat and virgin oil the element and art of surprise when it comes to food is not always easy to find, even in the Spring of LA's culinary landscape.  Chef Meehan achieves this multiple times throughout the dinner, but this was the dish that drew audible gasps around the table.

We'd had abalone the traditional Chinese way, braised whole in starchy oyster/soy/chicken broth sauce; the modern Chinese way, double boiled in broth in whole papaya shell; the Korean / Japanese way, sliced raw and served sashimi style.  I've never had it with citrus, kumquat, a creamy sauce, and edible flowers before.

The acidity lent brightness to the otherwise barely flavored gastropod; the cream based sauce was a nice counter foil to its chewy-crunchiness, while the flowers added nice visual and textural contrast.  I would have wanted the kumquat to be served with more of a delicate touch though - in its entirety, it was a little too bulky and didn't really flow with the rest of the dish.  But otherwise, a nice 'surprise and delight' course.

Where typically bread would be one of the first things on a dinner table, the fresh baked baby loaf of rosemary buttermilk bread with rosemary butter came in between courses, like a warm, pillowy, comforting palate cleanser.

Tuna beets vanilla celery leaf the sous vide fish course came with beautiful colors from ingredients handpicked from the chef's own garden.

For the meat course, what was on the preset menu was beef tenderloin, but during his intro, Chef Meehan mentioned that he happened to have two servings of squab available, that could substitute in for the beef.  My trusty arm shot up before my brain even had time to register the meaning of the words: so we were lucky enough to check out the Squab with burnt onion jam smoked potatoes parsley cooked sous vide for an amazingly tender, juicy piece with perfectly even flavor.  The burnt onion jam honestly looked like an oil slick, but added a nice savory-sweet punch to the squab and crispy stalk of spring onion.
Since we liked our new friends around the table, we shared tastings of the squab and traded for bites of beef tenderloin.
Throughout the dinner, those who have attended Kali Dining dinners before raved about Chef Meehan's White Truffled Truffles, so we were primed and excited to see it make an appearance just before dessert.  They may look like standard issue potatoes, but trust me these are actually weapons of mass destruction (of everyone's ability to enjoy a non-truffled white truffle ever again).

Apparently the 'simple to make' (by Chef Meehan's definition) nuggets-o-delicious were white chocolate truffles infused with white truffle oil, and rolled with cinnamon and other spices that I can't remember because I had endorphins mad-raging through my brain from how delicious these little insanely fragrant nuggets were.  Whatever you may usually think of truffle oil, it works here to spectacular effect.  If Chef Meehan had made these available for sale I would have gladly emptied my bank account to fill my open palms with whatever inventory he had.

The showstopping truffles almost overshadowed the 'official' on-menu dessert-proper: Bitter Chocolate Cremeaux with coffee cream, cocoa nib tuile.  But this was also every bit tasty: the intensity of great coffee flavor cutting through the chocolate and providing a bit of a wakening effect after the satisfying meal preceding it.

We were all sad when the meal concluded - and almost in spontaneous synchrony started to exchange contact info with other diners - almost as if we realized that we had been inducted into an unspoken club, ever bonded by our experience of something special.

All in all, one of the best dinner parties I've ever been to.  Sign me up for the next one (please).


Kali Dining
Supper Club: location varies monthly - sign up for their newsletter to get info on upcoming events


Twitter:  @kalidining


 Kali Dining Pop-up on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 25, 2014

smoke.oil.salt: Uni Flan !! And Spanish Seafood & Wine Mid-City

After his successes with 800 Degrees (revolutionizing the way and speed with which pizza is served, and making great pizza accessible) and the Umami Burger empire, it was exciting to get the chance to check out Adam Fleischman's next project.

smoke.oil.salt - the multi-sensory equivalent of an onomatopoeia - is concepted as an authentic Spanish seafood restaurant and wine bar.  Helmed by Perfecto Rocher (Lazy Ox Canteen), the menu features the flavors of Spain at a level that I haven't come across yet in LA.

To start our tasting, the deceptively simple Olives amb bitets ($6) olives, toasted almonds, Manchego cheese deftly combines three signature ingredients from Spain in a humble yet delicious plate, mixing briny crunchy nutty-sweet soft, brightened by just a bit of acidity from lemon and pickled onion.

No Spanish meal would be complete without a great tomato toast: and smoke.oil.salt. offers up their version Pa amb tomacca il llagonisses ($6) Catalan tomato toast with homemade white and red sausages.

Then there was the Truita de Carxofes ($11) artichoke omelet, meyer lemon aioli, in a lovely mini skillet.

When sitting at the communal table, the Salpico d'orxata i ostres, clotxines ($17) oyster and mussel cocktail, marinated in tiger nut milk will be an ice breaker / conversation starter for sure.  None of us had ever heard of "tiger nut milk" before, and wondered whether it was some sort of Andrew Zimmern worthy bizarre food, like 'milk' from a tiger's...nuts.  No reason for worry here, our server explained that tiger nut is a nut, and the milk we can think of like almond milk but just made with another type of nut.  Upon further research though, looks like tiger nuts are tubers, that grow in the ground like potatoes.

So I guess you can think of this as the lightest, broth-like cold 'chowder' with shellfish not usually found in soup.  In any case, this dish to me seemed to have thai inspired flavors - perhaps with a bit of lemongrass that did it? - and in looks alone resembled a coconut milk soup.  Very interesting dish, and great for those looking for the unexpected and for excitement in dining out.

Another signature Spanish dish is of course croquetas: smoke.oil.salt makes theirs with cod: Bunyols de Bacalla ($12) cod croquetas, citrus aioli

One of my favorite dishes of the night was the simple breakfast-for-dinner Bravas Trencades ($11) with fried potatoes, Serrano ham, chorizo, fried egg.  The potatoes were perfectly crisped outside and soft inside, served at a perfectly hot temperature, and the shaved-so-thin-you-can-almost-see-through-them ham was deliciously flavor-packed, while the fried egg lent cohesiveness to the whole thing with its lovely liquid sun.
And of course, my ultimate favorite of the night: Flam d'erico ($18) sea urchin flan, caviar, shrimp chili oil.  A gorgeous presentation of rich, smooth uni infused flan in a mason jar, and the shrimp chili oil very well controlled so that it didn't overwhelm the delicate ocean funk of sea urchin, but just gave it a nice bit of a kick, in addition to the briny bursts of caviar.
The Calamars amb mongetes ($15) Monterey Bay baby calamari, warm cranberry beans was addictive as well, and a nice play on surf and turf with the perfectly fried, crispy ocean creatures on a bed of earthy cranberry beans cooked, per our server, in chicken stock.
One of the major show stoppers came at the end: another Spanish meal staple is iberico pork, and smoke.oil.salt serves their Pluma Iberica ($35) as a wood-fire grilled butcher's filet Iberico pork, smoked green onions, with Xato sauce.  The slices shown were just sample size for our tasting, since we'd had so many dishes to try.  Everyone at our table unanimously said that they would without hesitation come back and pay full price for the full sized portion of this mind-blowingly flavorful filet.  It was like the pork equivalent of the best wagyu steak.
Can't wait to return to smoke.oil.salt soon!

*Disclaimer:  This meal was hosted.

7274 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046
Ph: 323.930.7900

Look for reservations (and OpenTable points!) here.


Smoke Oil Salt on Urbanspoon


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