Monday, February 6, 2017

SHARE by Curtis Stone: Top Chef Dining on the High Seas

Whether you're a food lover who has followed Curtis Stone from his first incredible tasting-menu based restaurant Maude, to the debut of his meat-focused restaurant / premium butchery Gwen, or a wanderer who looks for quality in all  your travel experiences, SHARE by Curtis Stone should be on your radar as one of the most exciting things to alight the cruise industry.

In exclusive partnership with Princess Cruises, SHARE is a fine-dining concept that represents the respected chef Curtis' first restaurant at sea. 

Bringing together chef Curtis' love of food, travel and the ocean, SHARE serves a 6-course dinner that is a game changer for the cruise industry: a top chef designed menu full of fresh ingredients and flavors reflecting some of the ports along the ship's itineraries - in a sunlit, spacious, chic space - in contrast with the typical hi-low options typical to a cruise ship where you either have cafeteria style buffet dining or over-the-top opulence - that is tasteful and would make any foodie feel at home.

Chef Curtis also made the dining room feel more cozy / intimate with eclectic personal touches including souvenirs from his own travels.

And the best part?  The meal costs only $39 per person, and offers several options per course to accommodate different tastes.

We were excited to get a preview of the new menu, on a day when the Ruby Princess was docked at San Pedro en route to Santa Barbara.  

course one STARTER: Charcuterie whole 18-month aged San Daniele prosciutto sliced thinly with pickled onions and Castelvetrano Olives. On a regular night, cruise ship travelers would get a choice of fennel infused finocchiona, garlic dusted Hungarian salami, or spicy soppressata.  We got to try all three, and I loved them all - but the main attraction was definitely that flavor packed, incredibly smooth and perfectly sliced prosciutto.

The other option that would suit non-meat eaters: Pantaleo cheese with accompaniments
course two SALAD: Little Gem baby romaine leaf salad tossed in a caraway buttermilk dressing complementing grapefruit and nasturtium flowers.  This was edible art, with gorgeous colors, super fresh ingredients and a perfect balance of textures and bright flavors: savory, tart, and sweet - I loved it even as someone who is not typically a fan of salads.


course two SALAD (alternate option): Lemon Poached Prawns paired with a turnip cream, crispy brioche and finished with raw radishes.  This one was unanimously a showstopper for all our fellow diners: the prawns were perfectly cooked, with beautiful structure and spring. Counterbalanced by crisp pieces of brioche lightly garnishing the dish like butterfly wings, and soft clean crunch of radish.  This dish was not just 'good for a cruise ship', I would happily order it at any restaurant on-shore.

course three PASTA Ricotta Cavatelli highlighting roasted sunchokes, pickled beets and brussels sprouts leaves. SHARE offers handmade pasta dishes and this one is a decadent one again with beautiful plating - the red beets can be swirled into the cream sauce to turn it a lovely magenta color.  Nice control here of savory, acid, sweet and subtle bitterness.

course three PASTA (alternate option): Pork Ravioli a green curry filling coated in a lemongrass cream and topped with crunchy chicharrones. This was a creative and playful dish that takes Thai flavors into a classically Italian dish - something unexpected especially for cruise dining.

course four SEA Butter Poached Lobster Tail resting on roasted potatoes and crispy pancetta covered in a white onion soubiseWe tried to order different dishes per course in order to sample more, but couldn't resist the poached lobster tail, which was delicately poached and the simplicity yet subtly sophisticated sauce let the freshness of the lobster take center stage.

If we ever get the chance to take a Princess Cruise, we'd love to check out the other options in the "Sea" course: from day boat scallops with sesame and chickpea puree and Za'atar spice mix, steelhead trout in white wine beurre blanc, or white corn veloute.

course five LAND Strip Loin Steak a charred and sliced New York steak on top of a sunchoke puree, braised leeks and crispy onions. 







course five LAND (alternate option): Lamb Loin paired with harissa scented couscous coated in spiced almonds and lime yogurt.  I don't recall seeing lamb loin on many menus, so it was a treat to taste this on chef Curtis' menu.  Makes sense that even the Land section of the meal is exciting, since he just opened the meat-centric restaurant Gwen not too long ago, and can make use of well sourced premium cuts of less ordinary proteins.


course six DESSERT Dark Chocolate Cremeux a chocolate hazelnut custard with crispy mousse and a burnt vanilla bean ice cream.  This was the best of three desserts we tasted - so good we almost licked the plate.

Other options were citron tart and toffee cheesecake 

Overall, love that on Princess Cruises we now have the ability not to simply 'make do' with dining available but to actually look forward to dinner.

Satiated after our lovely meal, we took a quick tour around the ship before it starts its voyage up the coast.
















There was the gorgeous atrium...a casino area, a full on theater for nightly entertainment.







And of course, pools on top deck for travelers to have a great hang out while enjoying sun and sea - they also have giant screens in the pool area for movie nights under the stars, as well as concerts.

The visit definitely made me want to work on planning my next vacation - with the rate 2017 is going already, we're all going to need to get some quality R&R.





*Disclaimer: this meal was hosted.

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SHARE by Curtis Stone
On board Princess Cruises: Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess and Sun Princess
Website: princess.com/curtisstoneshares
Ph:  1-800-774-6237


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Monday, January 23, 2017

Somi Somi: Taiyaki Sundaes in Koreatown

Growing  up in Hong Kong, one of my favorite memories was after-school treats at the wonderland of a food hall, below an iconic Japanese department store called SOGO.  Among gleaming cases of artfully wrapped cookies, boxes of perfect rice cracker snacks, and stalls serving steaming bowls of ramen - was a magical grill from which they pulled out a fish shaped 'pancake' stuffed with red bean paste, and awarded it to my eagerly waiting chubby little hands like the greatest treasure in the world. I couldn't have made this analogy at the time, but looking back they were like dessert hot pockets, but fish-shaped on the outside with sweet filling on the inside

For many years as an adult in LA, I couldn't find this beloved snack ('taiyaki' in Japanese) anywhere - until I spotted it at a stall in the food court at Mitsuwa Torrance a few years back, only to have it abruptly replaced with takoyaki. Then, by some foodie wizardry it seemed, several dessert houses resurfaced taiyaki in a different form around the same time: as a base 'cone' for sundaes - maybe we have Instagram to thank for the quick proliferation of photogenic foods such as this - but several I tried were more about the photo opp than taste / texture. 

Then came Somi Somi, and their Ah-Boong ($5.95) served in made to order taiyaki cones. You can make your own sundae by choosing from organic ice cream flavors like True Milk, Green Tea, Banana, Chocolate, then selecting from filling options like red bean, custard or Nutella; or choose from set combos for the same price.

As a green tea fan, but also wanting to try their 'true milk' ice cream, I went for the preset Greenpuccino Boong with a swirl of green tea + milk ice cream, and red bean filling inside the 'fish cone'.  I also added Nutella, because who can resist Nutella ever?

Once the foundation is finished, you'll also get your choice of toppings from a tray of 4 (sprinkles, colorful cereal flakes, graham cracker crumbs, oreo cookie pieces), and the server will top the whole thing off with a bamboo skewer of strawberry and marshmallows.

The verdict?  It's always tough for modern versions of nostalgic foods to measure up to romanticized memory, but Somi Somi did a good job with the taiyaki - the dough is flavorful, but not too sweet, just the right balance of density 'chew' (possibly from mochi dough?) with lightly crispy exterior, and at the right size so that it's satisfying but not an overwhelming amount to work through - and it's easy to grab-and-go. 

The ice cream itself was smooth, light yet creamy and structured, so the texture was a thumbs up for me - but as for the flavor, I would have liked the green tea flavor to be more pronounced - though that's a matter of personal preference as I love green tea, with intensity.

I still liked the ice cream anyway, and all the components of the sundae worked well together - though if comparing to other green tea (and matcha in particular) ice creams around town it is not my favorite.  But I love that they do also offer the option to get the taiyaki without it (since taiyaki is really my first love from my childhood): Hot Fish Cone with Filling ($9 for 4 or 1 for $2.50). Somi Somi makes them in very small batches when customers come in, so that they pretty much always have fresh ones for you.

I've already been back twice in a week and will definitely be back again soon for both the sundae and the taiyaki on its own!


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience -  4 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


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Somi Somi
620 S Manhattan Pl #208-A, Los Angeles, CA 90005  (inside Madang Mall, 2nd Floor)            
Ph:  213.568.3284

Instagram: @somisomiicecream

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

INTRO: Creative, Intimate Chef's Table & Art Gallery Secret Supper Dining Experience in North Hollywood

With three of Hollywood's biggest powerhouses - Disney, Warner Bros and Universal - and their resident creative communities within miles of each other, it's been shocking that we haven't seen more innovation on the dining scene in the surrounding neighborhoods to pique imaginations and expense accounts.

 So it was extremely exciting to hear about INTRO, a brand new, secret supper club that's just landed in a former dance studio just down hill, in a non-descript stretch of Lankershim.  The concept is a Chef's Table tasting menu served in an intimate art gallery space, paired with eclectic music for a dining experience unlike any other in this part of the valley.

As befitting a secret club, the entrance is unmarked, but after double checking the street address, and pushing cautiously through the door, you step inside a cozy space with brick walls painted a dark bluish grey, adorned with contemporary art pieces,

Photo credit: acuna-hansen
and rustic chandelier casting a warm glow over the beautifully decorated table, and reflecting off glasses of champagne over which flows the casual chatter of strangers getting to know each other - all adding to the feeling as if you're part of the opening scene of a movie, ripe with anticipation of what's about to unfold.

We kicked off with a personal introduction from Chef Paul Shoemaker (with an impressive resume of service at Michelin-starred Bastide, Providence, Alain Ducasse, French Laundry, and Water Grill as well as local favorite Firefly), and curator / co-owner Rob Ciancimino, speaking to their respective passion for local sourcing (for Chef Paul including foraging in Malibu hills, and showcasing the essence of California’s agriculture and resources through dishes with casual sophistication, made with playful techniques and flavors, for Rob to find the best of local artists to highlight).

Then a trio of cocktails in creatively presented form made its way to us - these weren't regular drinks though, but crafted to be eaten!

  • Bourbon Cider Liquid Rav
  • Oyster, Champagne, Beet Juice Caviar, Passion Fruit Fizz: this was a fun take on the oyster shot, but with a sweet / tart twist
  • Cold Fever, Gin Tonic


Then came the Pre-Amuse that blew many at the table away. Foie Gras Truffle Mac Daddy and Foie Gras "Dime Bag".  As regular readers know, I'm a huge fan of foie so I may be biased - but it also means I've had a LOT of it in various forms - but never like this.  Taking a risk with a nodd and a wink to what food lovers often reference as addictions to ingredients they are partial to, Chef Paul has creatively come up with foie powder wrapped in a transparent 'dime bag'.  At first even seasoned writers and food bloggers at the table were pleasantly surprised by the execution on this, and chuckles were heard around the table as we bonded with our neighbors over how to approach this - whether the bag was to be opened and poured into our mouths, or...?  Turns out the bag is made of edible rice paper, and the powder inside, mixed with crisp, crunchy pepitas was subtle sweet meets savory, earthy and nutty.  I 'inhaled' the bag in no time - addictive, indeed.  Consider my bouche very amused.  Haven't had this much fun at any restaurant in a long time, valley or otherwise.

The macaron, though in more familiar form, was also mind-blowing in flavor - intoxicating with the fragrant of truffles and decadent earthiness of foie cream between fluffy cloud like cookies with a crisp exterior - texture very much in Parisian style.
 
After that platter I knew I would love the journey of the unexpected at INTRO.  And the main portion of the meal hadn't even started yet.

Next up was the 'formal' Amuse, of salmon skin chicharrone, smoked salmon roe, creme fraiche and salmon cone. Classic and a tasty, refreshing kickoff to the courses that follow.

Bone Marrow / Truffle Ravioli  with parmesan reggiano - rich and decadent spoonful of meat butter meets culinary gold with the super aromatic truffle shaved over the top of a mushroom stuffed raviolo.


Scallop elicited audible moans of pleasure around the table - no exaggeration.  A perfectly cooked scallop with unusual accompaniments was responsible: Chef Paul served it up a baked avocado mousse that was rich and luscious yet full of levity, yuzu ponzu for just the right amount of acidity to balance the richness, caviar for burst of brininess that takes you back to the ocean, and smoked sesame as the finishing touch.  Many diners said this was their favorite dish of the night - I would as well, if not for the foie dime bag which is still top of mind and palate.


Butter Poached Maine Lobster coral nage, basil soil








Variation of Beets goat cheese crumbles, mello, candy walnets, beet macaron, passion fruit










Pate A Choux Gnocchi smoked maple gel pork belly, honey poached cranberries, pine nut soil, pig skin.  The pork belly just melted in our mouths.

Pasta with Truffles truffle fondue, espuma and fresh truffle - simply prepared with just a few ingredients, but so fresh and delicate yet satisfying at the same time. 

Our fish course was Monkfish persimmons, bottarga, reduction of coca and ginger.  The monkfish was so perfectly cooked that we involuntarily sat back, eyes closed for a brief moment, just taking it in.










Then came the meat course: Prime  Hanger epoisses, potato fondue, potato chip, pistu, sauce bordelaise.  The use of luscious, pungent epoisse cheese was brilliant - I never wanted to eat another piece of steak without it again.  And the potato chip, also not usually seen with steak, helped add bit of crisp to counterbalance the decadence of the creamy cheese.

Here's a shot from the other side, as I loved the presentation of the leeks so much as well.















Then as pre-dessert, a shimmering plate was placed in front of us called Gold Mine - a golden nugget with gold dust burst around it, as if it were a meteor-like treat that landed in a desert of edible gold sand - the plating was so beautiful it should qualify as #foodart.  Chef Paul explained that it was meant to be a high end version of a nostalgic childhood treat - like laffy taffy flavored and presented for adults: passion fruit, macadamia, strawberry saffron fluid gel.  Delish.


For our last dish, pastry chef explained the inspiration came from something he spotted by the side of the road while he was driving: a beautifully gnarled, very dead tree, but which had a bit of green peeking through the soil beneath it.  The death and rebirth, and concept of from ashes will come renewal, left a strong impression, and from that memory came Dead Tree made with gianduja ganache, brown butter, chocolate trees.  Beneath the chocolate soil, chef had even buried a green colored piece of white chocolate to represent that glimpse of hope and renewal that he saw in nature.  I couldn't think of a time when we needed that message more, than at the end of 2016.  True artists capture the zeitgeist, and food artists translate that beyond the visual to a multi-sensory experience that resonates with your palate as well - and chef has accomplished that nicely here.

All in all, an amazing experience and very good fine dining deal, and I would definitely return again soon, so excited for this side of the Valley to have a tasting menu of this caliber!  

This supper series is by special engagement only - while Chef Paul and the team wait for their permanent space to be built out next door, in the space formerly occupied by Osteria Firenze. The full fledged restaurant will serve a la carte as well as tasting menus sometime in 2017.  Til then, INTRO will be serving their creative tasting menus, which will change seasonally, Friday and Saturday nights only, starting at 7:30pm with bubbly, first course served at 8:00pm.  Every month will also feature a different fine artist, and their art will stay up throughout the month for guests to view and purchase.

Check it out soon!


*Disclaimer: this meal was hosted.
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INTRO Art Gallery & Chef's Table

4200 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91602
Email: rob@verse.la

Friday and Saturday nights only, starting at 7:30pm.  $125 per person, prix fixe 12-courses

Website: experienceintro.com  
Parking: street meters on Lankershim

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