Friday, May 27, 2016

How To Be a Less Frazzled Traveler

Hours-long TSA lines, missed flights and delayed baggage have been the stuff of legend as of late.

Having recently encountered some missed connections / flights, some of my own doing, some not - I thought this would be a good time to share some of my learnings about minimizing risk and preparing for the unexpected when traveling.

1.  Take redeye flights whenever possible

Taking less popular times means you get to avoid traffic getting to the airport, and lines once you arrive.

You also save on one night's hotel while being able to arrive early in the day at your destination, which allows you to maximize your vacation.

A side benefit is also that you don't waste any precious PTO stuck in a plane cabin: if able, sleep on the plane and then you're ready to go sightseeing or anything else on your To Do list, as soon as you arrive at your destination.

2.  Invest in a known traveler program that lets you go through shorter security lines: TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear

Skip the longer lines for security by signing up for a program that essentially 'pre-clears' you to be a known traveler so you can go through 'express' lanes when going through airports.  There are various programs out there: take your pick from those that best suits your needs:
  • TSA PreCheck: if you plan to mainly travel within the U.S.
  • CLEAR: if you plan to travel a lot between Canada and the U.S.
  • Global Entry: if you plan to travel internationally as well as within the U.S.
Below is a quick table showing the differences and benefits of each:

3. Always keep a miniature personal care kit in your carry on 

Some people are fantastic at traveling light, and never need to check a bag in the first place. I'm more  prone to overpack in efforts to be prepared for every possible need - but this approach backfires if the airline loses, delays delivery or otherwise separates you from your luggage. And, you don't want to be forced to purchase overpriced staples at the airport / hotel gift shop, nor to have to cab out to a local store especially if the airline puts you in an airport hotel which typically doesn't have anything walking distance.

So, in your carry on, aside from the essentials like your phone, charger and earbuds :) always have a complete personal care kit including TSA friendly travel sized products so that you won't be left hanging should you be separated from your suitcase. Great items to include:
  • At least one spare pair of underwear!! 
  • Spare contacts / glasses (these are the hardest to replace while traveling!)
  • Facial cleanser & moisturizer (if hotel bar soap doesn't do it for you or you have skin sensitivities)
  • Shampoo & Conditioner (yes hotels provide this, but if you are particular about your products - E.g. no sulfates, then it's a good idea to bring along your own)]
  • Shave kit
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste (though hotels will usually provide spares on request) 

4. Invest in a "travel bungee" to keep bags in order

In the event of a rebooked flight, you may have to haul your carryon gear long distance through the terminal whether to reach another gate or to exit altogether for a forced overnight stay.

As a chronic overpacker, I've found this very affordable Travelon travel bungee ($15) to be an absolute lifesaver in keeping my roller bag and giant purse in tidy order (and so that I don't have to lug the purse on my shoulders at all).  This bungee is great for any Duty Free or other purchases you make while at the airport too, to just add on to your roller and keep hands free for passports, boarding passes, IDs etc.

5. Store airline and hotel loyalty phone and member andnumbers in your phone before you travel

In case of delayed or cancelled flights, you are likely to be waiting in a long line at customer care (ironically named because most of the time it feels like they don't) - you'll want to feel like you're doing something to find alternatives and more in control of next steps.  Contacting airline call centers directly is a good idea (both the one you were traveling with, in hopes of waived / reduced fees, and other airlines if getting on with your travel is more important to you than costs) - but internet connections at airports are often the most questionable at the time when you most need it, so instead of wasting time trying to look up phone numbers when you're battling possibly hundreds of other passengers to secure alternative solutions, have the numbers pre-stored in your phone so you can get right on with hopefully productive conversations.

Having your frequent flyer number handy as well would help to identify you as a loyal customer in hopes that they will provide a bit better service (yes, ever the optimist).

I also like to have my hotel loyalty phone and membership numbers handy for those times when you're forced to stay overnight - the central call center can both help you locate the closest and best options to fit your needs, as well as check your points status to see if you are eligible to redeem for the stay vs. paying out of pocket.

Best of luck in your travels and have a great Memorial Day weekend everyone!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hamasaku: One Who Creates Food from the Sea: Smorgasbarachirashi and Uni Udon Carbonara Extraordinaire

Sushi lovers on the Westside have plenty of great options, many of them on or near Sawtelle Japantown.  So when I first heard about Hamasaku a few years back, that it was owned by Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, and a 'celebrity hotspot' complete with rolls named after stars who frequent the place - it immediately became associated in my mind with 'probably overpriced', and 'probably packed with trendy over-sauced rolls with playful names'.

But one visit to the secluded, surprisingly serene spot in the back corner of a strip mall on Santa Monica, and I became a fan in spite of that all. 

The heavy rustic double doors shield the bustle of two of the busiest thoroughfares in LA (the mall is located by Santa Monica and Sepulveda) away from a peaceful, bright, airy space inside.

Though the menu is indeed full of specialty rolls, yes, one even named Rick Castle, after Nathan Fillion's character on the namesake TV series - they are actually good quality, clean and tasty, and prices are affordable.  Sashimi dishes are gorgeously plated.

But the thing that really sealed the deal for me: they also offer elegant, inventive takes on Japanese dishes, raw and cooked - that are some of the most creative and beautiful I've seen and tasted.

Let's start with the visual smorgasbord that is Bara Chirashi ($34) - served at lunch only, this is Hamasaku's beautiful take on the classic chirashi, where cuts of fish and other seafood are 'scattered' (the literal meaning of the word chirashi) with veggies and egg over a bowl of sushi grade rice.

And it's not all looks - there are treasures to be found with every bite from sea urchin to briny bursts of salmon roe, to yellow tail, snapper, bits of tamago (egg omelette) and other deliciousness.

The portion may not look gigantic, but an average sized person would definitely leave satiated without ordering anything else for lunch.

Then there is the unique dish I dream of and now crave on the weekly: Uni Udon Carbonara ($20) udon, uni, butter, shallots, shiso, seaweed, lime zest, egg white.  Definitely a contender for Best Drama of the year in terms of presentation - waves of sea foam like egg whites awash over a half sea urchin shell, crested by two orange tongues of uni for powerful contrast.

I love the skillful balance of levity and decadence here: the airy egg white counters the substantive bites of fresh, springy udon noodles in rich, creamy yet somehow still light and clean tasting carbonara sauce below. 

Definitely one of my new favorite uni dishes in LA, and one that I wish would be served not only at dinner (as I would happily feast on this three meals a day if I could).

As mentioned earlier, Hamasaku's specialty rolls are not ones that sushi lovers would find unpalatable: the Asylum roll ($25) for example, with toro, lobster, avocado, asparagus, cilantro aioli was fresh, only lightly sauced and delicious.  Is it the best sushi roll I've had in the area?  Not by a long shot - I would head to Kiriko down the street if looking for high grade rolls - but I would say Hamasaku exceeded expectations, and is a good option for client or group meals, where you need the whole experience package of upscale ambience, good variety of options for people who may have different levels of preference for level of raw / austerity in their sushi.

And speaking of variety, Hamasaku also offers charcoal grilled skewers at affordable prices: I'm a fan of the Duck breast robata yaki ($4) with yuzu kosho, and they also have everything from chicken to salmon skewers. 

Many Japanese restaurants focus more on the savory, so that when it comes time for dessert you are often faced with standard mochi  or ice cream or some combination thereof. 

I love that Hamasaku offers a delicious Green Tea Budino, that is so smooth and flavorful, I would count it amongst the reasons to return to Hamasaku soon.

One other thing of note, they do have counter seating, and I appreciate that the staff are very solo diner friendly, as someone often in need of places to have dinner while waiting for rush hour traffic to die down.  And you never know who you're going to meet the next seat over, and I don't just mean celebs: on my last visit, I met an awesome UCLA doctorate professor who often dines there solo as well, and had an enlightening conversation about chemistry and diet.

All in all, a great spot for power lunching, and solo dining. Despite the stars.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 



11043 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ph: 310.479.7636
Parking: valet, in attached strip mall open air parking

Look for reservations, and points, at OpenTable

Hamasaku Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, March 6, 2016

SHIKI: Affordable Fantastic Omakase and Washoku in Beverly Hills?!?

In the zip code synonymous with luxury, is not the place where you would most expect to find affordable and authentic ethnic cuisine.  Yet there it is, against the odds and expectation: SHIKI, helmed by talent from the kitchens of two of the sushi spots most beloved by those in-the-know in the city from Asanebo to Sushi Gen.

I have a fateful visit to the dentist in the area, and a combination of slowly-fading anesthetic and increasing hunger pangs to thank for motivating me to wander into SHIKI.  Seeing their emphasis on "washoku" (literal translation: Japanese food, but apparently references traditional Japanese cooking emphasizing harmony, respect for nature and balance in satisfying all senses) featured on their menu was the first sign that this would be a 'hidden gem' - but I had to do a triple-take when I saw that the omakase was 'only' $60 - astounding for any higher end place in the city.  It would include two appetizers, and 10 pieces of sushi of the chef's selection.

There was a moment when I worried that it would be the standard, snooze-inducing roster of yellowtail, salmon, tuna, etc. etc.  But at $60, and with my love and trust of Asanebo and Sushi Gen, I decided it was worth a try.  And it turned out to be one of the best omakase I've had in the city, especially for this price.
Appetizer #1: Agedashi tofu with tempura - every bite here is prepared with care and pride, and it shows from the start.  This tofu is perfectly silky smooth inside, and nicely fried outside, placed into the most elegant dashi (broth) and topped with two pieces of (eggplant?) tempura and shaved radish and ginger.
Appetizer #2: Seared Snapper and Barracuda with vegetables this dish too, embodied the Japanese pursuit of perfection in every detail: sweet, flaky snapper and barracuda were enhanced with the smokiness (and structure) from torching, and again the refreshing, light yet complex dashi, and chilled bites of boiled eggplant, juicy earthy mushrooms, and bright leaves of perfectly cooked spinach.

Then the sushi started arriving piece by piece, traditional style where you can tell the chef respects every beautiful cut of fish he puts in front of you.  Sushi #1: Snapper
I was lucky enough to be placed in head chef Hiro's care, and I need not have worried about the faux omakase some other popular sushi spots serve, where the courses are the same every day, to every diner. These would be the freshest cuts of the day, and I like to think, served based on the chef's interactions with you (he watches your reaction to each piece for feedback before serving the next one).

Here's what I got for the rest of my omakase rolls:
Sushi #2: Squid with ginger and ponzu.- loved the fresh crunch and well balanced savory/sweet with a kick from the ginger and wasabi
Sushi #3: Tuna
Sushi #4: Seared toro (one of my favorite bites of the meal, decadently fatty with just the right amount of smokiness and the whole thing just melts in your mouth and makes your eyes roll back as a gentle moan inadvertently escapes from your lips)
Sushi #5: Barracuda, gorgeously seared and sliced / shaped in such a way that it was somehow evocative to me of an origami armadillo
Sushi #6: Baby toro with ponzu jelly, scallion and ginger
Sushi #7: Sea perch torched for smokiness in perfect balance with the natural sweetness of the fish (chef described it as 'like white fish toro')
Sushi #8: Ikura (salmon roe) marinated in sardine dashi and steamed.  This was another creative departure from the traditional roll - the process of marinating and steaming both pulled back the bright brininess typical of salmon roe, and intensified the umami by introducing another fish element.  Delicious.
Sushi #9: Octopus brushed with a sauce made from tea, lentils and gyoza sauce - this one really exhibited the creativity of the team - they do traditional sushi really well, but also will do some creative things I've never seen at any other sushi spot.  Chef Hiro explained that with this one, they do cut the octopus a little bit thicker, intentionally so that as you bite into the piece and the 'meat' breaks apart, it releases the aromas upwards into your palate.  A fantastic piece to experience!
Sushi #10: Uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara, of course one of my favorite bites as an uni addict!!!

I would have been satiated just with the $60 omakase, but I was enjoying the meal so much that I went for the add-on (which by the way was only $20 for an extra 5 pieces of sushi!!! Amazing deal!) 

Extra sushi #1: Amberjack
Extra sushi #2: Shima aji

Extra sushi #3: so, I loved the seared toro so much that I decided to ask for another piece within my extra 5, risking the chance at trying one more type of fish that I might have also fawned over - because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night without having another bite of that proof of divine design. 

Extra sushi #4: chopped toro with pickled radish  this was an interesting one without rice, and a lovely crunches of radish sending bursts of acidity to cut through the fatty fish.  Tasty.

Extra sushi #5: sea eel - from Japan; this is not the oversauced eel that you get at lesser sushi spots - but a fresh one, lightly sauced so that you can still taste the eel itself, and served hot.

And as a reward for my seemingly endless stomach, Chef Hiro also gave me a block of tamago (sweet egg omelette)

Although all that sushi was a lot of food already, I wasn't ready to leave without tasting a few bites from the washoku menu.

Not having known that the first appetizer of omakase was going to be tofu, I also ordered the Goma tofu: unfortunately turns out this was a bit too dense and 'sticky' for me.  I definitely preferred the agedashi tofu.
Momotaro with blue crab, in ume dashi dressing with ohba leaf (half portion $3 + $6 supplement for crab).  a beautiful perfect tomato - jewel toned inside - is served with fresh bits of blue crab in a vinegar-based dressing.  Momotaro is a Japanese tomato that is less acidic than the ones served in American salads, and only slightly sweet. This was a lovely way to feature the humble tomato, but I didn't find this dish as mindblowing as the next one (hmmm, no ingredient based bias there...;))

Then there was the show stopping Uni Shiokara sea urchin brined, then steamed and made into a paste and served with neat, crispy strips of toasted seaweed, and fresh wasabi.
You put a bit of the uni paste inside the seaweed, add a bit of wasabi, then down it goes like a Japanese taco.  The brining, steaming and pasting technique is interesting in that it made the texture more dense, and amplified the natural funk of fresh uni and made it more pungent (in the best way).

Serving it with toasted seaweed to add crisp crunch to counterbalance the richness of the uni paste was perfect.

Loved this dish!!!!

There were so many more washoku dishes I wanted to try, including a few A5 wagyu ones, but I'd tested the limits of my stomach capacity, and by this time I'd also pushed past their official closing time.  But I vowed to be back again soon!

(And for sake / Japanese whiskey fans: SHIKI also serves tasting flights of sake for $18, as well as award winning whiskeys like Yamazaki, and interesting ones like Akashi White Oak.)

All in all, omakase at SHIKI is a fantastic deal that I would definitely return for, even without a dentist visit as my excuse to be in the area - I would drive out for this, one that I now consider among my favorite sushi (and washoku) spots in the city.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 7 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 



410 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Ph: 310.888.0036
Parking: lunch: free for first 2 hours; dinner: $5 flat fee for entry after 6pm, in public structure below Crate & Barrel (short walk)


Shiki Beverly Hills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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