Sunday, April 17, 2011

Artisanal LA - Rockin' Locavores' Worlds Oceanside

On a weekend when most Los Angelenos have left the city en masse to answer the desert call of music mecca Coachella, foodies were drawn to the beacon of budding culinary rock stars, by the beach in Santa Monica.

A fan of Artisanal LA since its first pop-up last year, the Spring Show at the top floor of Santa Monica Place represents my third foray to the ever impeccably curated indie event supporting local food producers, artisans and educators.  This is one show that always has me excited, as a place of discovery - walking down the aisles gives me the same thrill I get when travelling, and wandering around the city, knowing what areas I wanted to visit but then letting places, people, amazing things reveal themselves by happenstance. 

There were a few must-stops on my event itinerary of course, but for the most part I went in (with 'Designer Cyclist', her hubby and crew for the first time) open to new experiences.  One of the reasons I love Artisanal LA so much is because every exhibitor seems selected because they are passionate about their craft, and about their part in the community as well as being conscious of their responsibility to the environment.  It feels great to be able to chat with them to hear their stories of how they came to do what they do, inspiration for their products, and often personal recommendations on how to use them.

Here are some of the highlights from the first day of the show:

The first stop was the perfect start to the show. Le Bon Garcon offered samples of their small batch, handcrafted french style caramels that were incredibly buttery and nuanced in flavor.  Our group unanimously nominated the Mango-Passion as our favorite, and three of us left with bags/boxes ($5 bag / $10 box).
Greenleaf Chopshop apparently has two fast, casual-dining restaurants in Beverly Hills and Century City, but this is my first experience with them and they definitely left a great first impression!  On offer were several market fresh, handmade vinaigrettes - and Jon's Citrus Basil Vinaigrette was a clear winner.  The fresh Basil was intoxicatingly fragrant - and I'm not a big salad eater, but had to grab a bottle to bring home.  After tasting this, the next time I eat salad at home, I'm not sure that I can go back to shelf-stable dressing from the grocery store! (Greenleaf reps also recommend using it to marinate chicken/fish)

Another highlight: Bangers & Smashed - gourmet mashed potatoes sold by the pint.  They didn't have the black truffle flavor to sample, but had 5-6 others including goat cheese and sage, which was rich, creamy and delicious.  Loved their bold British theme, union jack and all.  Also loved owner-chef Jill's title:  "Food Anarchist"!  When asked what this involves, she said a food 'revolution' - changing the way people think about a traditional, simple, comfort food and taking it to a whole new level!
SQIRL was a must-stop for me, for their handmade jams, jellies and marmalades made from locally sourced fruit with unique flavors like Kumquat Chamomile, Moro Blood Orange & Tongo Vanilla Bean (I was curious to see if this tasted like a more sophisticated Dreamsicle!).  At first $16 a jar may seem pricey, but when you hear that owner-chef Jessica slow cooks everything over 3-4 days, uses minimal organic cane sugar and natural pectins, and sources everything she uses locally from fruit to copper cookware, and after you take one taste, it will all make sense!

I bought a jar of Kumquat Chamomile marmalade for its unique flavor profile - and was pleasantly surprised when Jessica said every purchase comes with a free tote bag, designed and screened by a local artist!  The bag definitely came in handy for carrying all my purchases from the show.  Don't leave without stopping by this booth - after one taste of Jessica's jams, jellies and marmalades you will want to squirrel some away back home as well!

Plush Puffs all-natural gourmet marshmallows wins for most fun interactive booth - you could roast your own marshmallow samples over burners right at the table!  I LOVED the Maple Bacon marshmallow (maybe it's the 1/3 Canadian in me - maple brings back great childhood memories.  And of course I love bacon almost-anything!).  Other delicious sounding flavors also on offer ranged from Chocolate Chipetta to Strawberry Hibiscus.  Plush Puffs was recently featured on Kids in the Candy Store on Food Network (I think it actually aired Saturday night?) - so Plush Puffs is definitely one to look out for, they will be the next big breakout stars!  Score their marshmallows at special show price $6 per bag / two for $10.

AF2 / Auntie Fruf's Aahsome Fudge - I normally associate fudge with crumbly, dense bricks of sugar without very much actual taste, which was why Auntie Fruf's velvety, relatively light, bite-sized fudge made with flavorful ganache came as such a pleasant surprise. 

Also loved the simple but cute packaging.  I left with a combo pack of the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate Espresso flavors (Pack of 2 =$3). 

Curase as a concept didn't sound appetizing to me at all - raw chocolate remedies sounded medicinal, and to me chocolate by nature should be left as an indulgence, not made to serve any function other than pure enjoyment. 

Also, pretty much the only time I am turned off by the word "free" when it comes to food, is when the word comes after a critical ingredient that makes it good (e.g. "sugar free", "fat free", "dairy free") - so when I read that Curase chocolates are "sugar free" and "dairy free" I really read that as "taste free".

However, it was an interesting concept, and as they were sampling at the show - this would be the time to try it.  So I kept an open mind and stepped up for a taste.  Turns out the remedies are more like 'stress relief' (lavendar), 'guilt release' (pine) and not less appetizing things like fight congestion, or osteoporosis.  The chocolates came in sophisticated shapes, and didn't taste at all herbal - the sample was actually pretty delicious!  Also, something about chocolate as 'cure' made me think of Harry Potter.  So, I liked the chocolates, and bought a small box.

Update 4/22/11: In the spirit of full disclosure, at the show the samples were chip-sized and were fairly tasty.  I just opened and tasted the box of full sized chocolates, and am disappointed to report that they were simultaneously waxy in texture and hardened, bland and did taste like health-food-flavored-as-chocolate (similar in concept to flavoring cough syrup to get kids to drink, but the kid can totally tell it's cough syrup made to taste a bit better than medicine, but still not something they would crave or choose to drink).

At past Artisanal LA events, speakers / demos have been a highlight, with a track record that includes caviar tasting by Petrossian, and an impressive live demo of how to butcher an entire pig featuring dynamically paired Chix with Knives and Lindy & Grundy (who have since successfully launched their own butcher shop!).  This one was no exception - we were torn between the Market Fresh Cocktails demo with Matt Biancaniello of Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and a Bread Making workshop, which were unfortunately held at the same time.  With many drinkers in our group, we decided to go with the cocktails, and it proved to be an excellent choice.

Matt is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about his craft, and shared his approach to creative bartending - shopping at and being inspired by farmer's markets, his philosophy is similar to top chefs' - the drink menu, like a chef's menu, should be seasonal and take cues from the freshest ingredients available.  Accordingly, he doesn't really have a set menu at the Library Bar.  Matt mixed a few samplers live for us that involved kumquat / lavendar / heirloom tomato syrups, and tepin pepper infused liquer / stinging nettle gin - all were amazing.  He also showed how you could get creative with presentation - hollowing out a strawberry to use as shot 'glass' for liquer. We all wanted to head straight from the show to the Library Bar (and I wanted to move into it immediately).  For those who want to go when Matt is mixing - he is usually at the Library Bar Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

On the subject of alcohol, VeeV was on hand all day to pour a very refreshing alcoholic spa cooler, that tasted market fresh as well, and a cranberry lemonade. 

Green Bar Collective is a returning vendor that provided samples of their organic liquers from spiced rum to those infused with jasmine and hibiscus.

As for non-alcoholic drinks, Intelligentsia hosted a hot & iced coffee bar (loved the brew that didn't even require any sugar - and I ALWAYS put sugar in my coffee!), Honest Tea provided free bottles of their white peach tea, and Dry soda sampled their gourmet sodas like Blood Orange, Rhubarb, Lemongrass and Lavendar.
One of the other highlights of the show was the chance to preview the eagerly anticipated, Le Grand Epicerie inspired, The Market at Santa Monica Place scheduled to open May 20th.  We got to see the interiors which was under renovation, and to experience some of the eateries / vendors who will be featured at The Market when it opens, from L'Artisan du Chocolat (who sampled their chocolates and macarons at the show), to Primi Al Mercato / Norcino (who offered a jar of White Truffle Honey for $6!  I think I'm going to be a big fan of The Market!)

With so many great eats / products to check out, it can be a bit of sensory overlod for one day, so I'm going back to check out the ones I missed - but on my way out on Saturday, I nearly got whiplash when I saw Pig Candy at Cakes Suzette's booth - baked strips of bacon dipped in chocolate, on a stick. They offered milk chocolate ($4 for two) or dark chocolate with pralines ($4.50 for two).  So, though my shoulder was almost about to snap with the weight of all my purchases for the day, I couldn't leave without grabbing one of these.  Cakes Suzette also has a Mallomore, their original creation made of organic graham cracker crust and homemade marshmallow, that they offered in Maple Bacon flavor.

Almost last but definitely not least, I had to stop by best-of-show Creme Caramel LA to have Designer Cyclist try their bread pudding and creme caramels, and to stock up on their amazing bacon bread pudding (with crunchy crust drizzled with sweet caramel sauce, balanced by savory / salty bacon pieces, yielding to soft, fluffy bread pudding below).  All served up by lovely owner-chef Kristine De La Cruz. They were sold out of almost everything by mid-afternoon, so those going today, hit up this booth first!

Another booth I stopped by at the end of day, only because I already know I love their products, was Cast Iron Gourmet - Rashida's bacon chutney continues to be amazing!  And now they are also selling Bacon Fat in a jar (by popular demand)!

Aside from great eats, Artisanal LA also had great body care products that smelled good enough to eat (e.g. Klean Spa's Yuzu / Pomegranate-Fig body scrubs / lotions and Fern 'N Fig body polish), and wine bags with attitude by Saucy Sacks.
All in all, another rockin' event and a great deal - full weekend of entertainment / good eats for $18 (presale weekend pass price).  Those who didn't plan ahead - you can still check out the show for $15 at the door Sunday, as long as tickets are still available.

And, on Sunday you can save on parking as most streets are free to park in Santa Monica (of course, check signs in the specific area to be sure).  Valet is also offered at the mall, for your car or your bike (bike valet is free, car valet is only available for 3-hours free with restaurant validation).

For a helpful real-time parking availability tool, check out the free Parking in Motion iPhone app.


Artisanal LA Spring Show
Saturday April 16 11am-8pm and Sunday April 17 11am-7pm

Santa Monica Place Level 3 Dining Deck – Event Space
395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, CA 90401

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