Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sushi Gen: the Zara's of Sushi?

I will probably never in my life be able to afford a Urasawa dinner, or a Birkin bag. But that doesn't mean I have to resign myself to a life of grocery store sushi, or disposable fashion from Forever 21.  Cue Sushi Gen, the Zara's of sushi - to the rescue.  A place that serves up well made fare, at unexpectedly high quality for the price.

I can't believe it took me this long to make it down there - I had heard so many good things and never went. Finally, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to head in the direction of downtown LA on a weekday holiday - thinking that no one goes downtown area/ Little Tokyo on a weekday when they don't have to work, right?  

Apparently Sushi Gen is busy every.single.day.365.a.year.  I got there at 1:30pm, they are supposed to close at 2pm and there was a line out the door and a mob 8-10 deep around the tiny hostess stand, with an agitated host repeating over and over what he knows no one wants to hear - two hour wait for a table, and that's with a reservation.  Don't even think about it if you just walked in.(Don't go by the photo of the deserted entrance - this was hours later, after the lunch rush) One of the beautiful things about dining by yourself is that when you encounter a situation like this - you can just slide past the crowd and into a seat at the bar instantly.  Which the host was more than happy to let me do - one less irate customer is one less person to get in his face every five minutes for the next two hours.  I was duly warned though, "no lunch specials at the bar" - which explains the legions of Asians willing to wait for 2 hours for a table.
I would normally be among them, but I was starving and glistening panels of fish beckoned me from behind the glass.  As soon as I was seated I received a slip of paper listing all the available fish - no prices, but you could basically use that menu to guide your requests to one of six sushi chefs along the wall to wall bar.  Sometimes it's nice to save the best for last, but that day was not one of those days - I wanted my favorites, in my mouth, ASAP.  So I started with Uni (sea urchin, always a favorite), which was plump and one of the freshest I've had in the city in recent memory (huge caveat of course, my experience is colored by price and as I stated, having never been to the lets-mortgage-the-house-I-don't-have-pricey-dinners where the fish would of course be in a whole different, transcendent, league).  Toro is a great staple roll, but not one that normallly blows my mind - these ones at Sushi Gen did.  They were a gorgeous, lush deep pink, beautifully fatty - a perfect amount of fat - and absolutely glides in your mouth. I had two sets of these.
I followed that with another favorite: Ama Ebi (sweet shrimp) - this sort of is a test for the quality of ingredients and skills of the chef - almost every sushi place will have this, but the quality of the shrimp will be immediately apparent and speak to the quality you can expect with the rest of your meal.  Sweet shrimp is raw shrimp - too often, with places where it's not super fresh, the meat will be sort of flaccid.  Sushi Gen's is nice and structured, not firm because the beauty of raw shrimp is that great, unique smooth texture midway between jelly and the bursting-at-the-seams quality that's reminiscent of lobster, of cooked shrimp meat, but is smooth and soft while giving a beautiful crunch.
With sweet shrimp, comes the shrimp heads - and I was offered a choice of having them put into miso soup, or served deep fried.  I went deep fried - and they came beautifully fried to a crisp golden color, with the 'candy striped' legs in graceful arcs overhead.  Friends who have seen me eat these shrimp heads always get creeped out by the sight of the decapitated creature - and wonder how I coud eat it when it's shell and 'hard' legs.  I actually think these look gorgeous but did feel a little guilty with the beady eyes glaring at me - luckily the crunchy, fragrant fried bits (which tasted like shrimp chips, ha!) provided delicious distraction.

Then there was the Yellowtail Belly, a lovely cut of the mild fish which serves as nice palate cleanser in a way. 

I was really excited to see quite a few items that I hadn't seen at other sushi spots before - one of these was Gizzard Shad.  The name sounds so exotic!  I somehow thought it would be some kind of organ (maybe I was thinking chicken gizzards) - but it's actually a North American fish with silvery skin.  Really beautiful to look at, a little oily - not bad tasting but not one that I would crave. 

Engawa was another one that caught my eye on the menu - turns out it's fatty meat from the dorsal fin of halibut.  According to the Sushi-pedia, the word engawa usually refers to the exterior hallway on the side of a traditional Japanese home, which I guess is what the dorsal fin reminded people of on this fish.  It's got sort of a unique looking structure, with flesh and fat interlacing to form open ridges and valleys in the flesh.  It's muscular yet deliciously fatty at the same time - chewy yet lush - and incredibly fresh: I LOVED it!!!  Actually ended up getting 3 orders of this and wish I could have eaten more.  Will be looking for this at every sushi place I go to from now on - knowing I may just have to go back to Sushi Gen, and soon.

Another item not often seen on sushi menus: Abalone, which I expected to be that brown, thick seafood-steak like presentation you normally see in Chinese banquets - but perhaps thinly sliced.  These were light in color - almost like the inside of octopus tentacles - and were crunchy around the edges as well.  It wasn't as flavorful as I expected either.  Glad I got to try these but probably wouldn't order again.   
It just so happened that I had been seated directly in front of several rolls of fresh monkfish liver, wrapped in tinfoil - but which looked so smooth and perfect I had to try one.  I've had the infamous one at Toranoko, and thought it was a bit too firm, without a lot of flavor, and didn't love it.  But the chef who was assigned to me recommended that the Ankimo would taste better in an appetizer versus as a sushi course.  And I found that Chef does know best - Sushi Gen's ankimo appetizer was gorgeous - with an almost origami-like structure made of red onion atop roe atop the silkiest, softest, most tofu-like rounder of monkish liver, all sitting in a light soy sauce strewn with green onion for flavor.  Delicious.  Mark that moment as the one I really fell in love with monkfish liver. 
Then, back to one more item I've never had before, that I can remember at least: Half Beak.  I let my imagination run wild again, and had a half-macabre vision of some tiny beak of a sea bird (what that has to do with sushi or fish, no idea). 
Image source: Sustainablesushi.net
But it was simply an odd name for a fish that is long, narrow, also known as needlefish - that has silver skin which is hand stripped from the pieces beore serving.  It's rich with omega-3s, which while good for you (supposedly cleans out bad cholesterol from your body) makes it a very oily fish in texture/taste.  The chef served up the pieces with ginger to break up the grease.  I didn't love this one as I like my fish / sushi clean, but thought it was interesting to serve it up with Chinese style chopped ginger root.
I also of course couldn't leave without getting Mackerel - and these pieces were perfect - just the right size and thickness, and degree of tartness.  Loved the skin as well. 
I don't typically do dessert at sushi places as it's usually something generic like green tea ice cream or slices of orange.  In this case I wouldn't have had any stomach capacity left anyway. 

All in all, my total bill with 13 'courses' of sushi and a drink, came to just a little over $100.  Much more than I would normally spend on lunch - but for the quality of sushi, and the number of rolls i had, that price is well worth it.  The focus is unostentatiously about the food here, there are no frills, no catchy taglines and gimmicks built on being anti-gimmick - and it's really just letting the beautiful, fresh and flavorful ingredients shine. (Just like Zara is with clothes, it's just great quality for the price - its not the ultimate word in luxury, but it was never meant to be.) It's no wonder they are constantly packed.

Nothing will compare to fish from Tsukiji market, the largest fish market in the world, in Tokyo - but in my mind this is probably as close as I can get, where I live, without blowing my non-existent-life-savings on one meal. I am grateful for places like Sushi Gen, for people like me whose palates do not match their wallets - this gives you an option for great sushi at an affordable price.

If anyone needs me for anything, I'll just be over here plotting my next visit and insidious slide into Sushi Gen...

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Sushi Gen 
422 E Second St., Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ph: 213.617.0552

Parking:  Park in strip mall lot attached to restaurant or meters on 3rd

Sushi Gen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 26, 2012

1MB Travels: Miami: Tudor House

It was my first time to Miami, courtesy of a business trip.  I was going to miss the South Beach Wine and Food Festival by a week, but I was grateful to have the opportunity to experience the city at all!
I had an amazing view of South Beach (well, "mid-beach" according to Google Maps) from my hotel room - it was incredible to wake up to rolling waves, blue sky and white sand every morning...

And if I took a few steps to the other side of my balcony, I had a view of a marina packed with stately multi-million dollar boats (there preparing for the annual boat show which was also to happen after the end of my trip). 
 Our hotel had private access to the beach, and I had just enough time to take a few short walks - it was too cold in February to actually lay out or swim, but the view was breath-taking.  Loved the perfect little cottonball clouds that sat so low in the sky it felt like you could almost reach up and touch them - and clear, clear blue waters lapping lazily up to shore.

Our primary purpose for the trip was business, so we didn't have a lot of time to wander around the city (very sad I didn't make it to Little Havana)   I did convince a coworker, who I will call "Hawaii Issue", to go with me to Michael's Genuine Food and Drink one night. 

And on the last day, since we had a little bit of time before we needed to head out to the airport, I dragged him out to a Guiness-Book-of-World-Records-fast lunch in South Beach.  A fellow food blogger (and cook) Christine Guzman from Miami, had recommended Tudor House as one of her favorites via Twitter. 

Being Type A, I had it all planned - since we had to go direct to the airport after, and Tudor House was part of a hotel (Dream South Beach hotel), I arranged for us to leave our luggage with the bellhop there, so that we can grab lunch and walk around for a few minutes before heading out.

Dream South Beach Hotel's aesthetic embodied everything we thought (non-Miami Vice) South Beach was about - very sort of laid back, beach resort-like but in a sleek, sophisticated way.  All staff were dressed in immaculate whites.  Decor around the hotel was very beach-life inspired, with ocean and earth colors.  Tudor House was sort of unusual with a bright, bold, orange themed Moroccan inspired front waiting room, leading to a sleek looking Art Deco style dining room with dark woods and and airy space - leading to an outdoor patio seating area that was quintessential South Beach...
...complete with vintage outdoor fans that say "tropics", teak furniture and palm trees everywhere.  All lit up to great effect by the beautiful Florida sun.
We had technically arrived too early for lunch - they were still serving their breakfast menu.  But our super friendly server kindly asked the kitchen for a favor, hearing how we were from LA and so excited to try their lunch menu - this being our last meal before returning home.  I asked what items would really be a local offering - and was immediately advised to try the Florida Stone Crab (market price) - the season was coming to an end and we are just catching likely the last of it. 
So of course I then had to try the crab!  It came as a platter of gigantic claws with a small bowl of additional meat in the middle.  Our server explained that the crabs are very muscular and there's a cartilege in the middle of the claw, so we should try to bite around it.  I'd never seen these crabs before - they had interesting black tips and reminded me of parrot beaks, huge and indeed very musular - the claw meat is slightly tougher than I'm used to but very flavorful and tasty.
I actually enjoyed the knuckle meat (in the bowl) the most - this was incredibly tender, sweet, juicy and delicious.  Possibly one of the best crab I've ever had.  I was glad I got to try the claws though (until at least, I got the bill - should have asked what market price meant - but these turned out to be $31 EACH CLAW!!!) Ok my fault for not asking up front.  But it was the last meal in Miami, so...splurge it was.  And I really was glad I got to try it.
Hawaii Issue got a rec for the Tudor House Ugly Burger  bread & butter pickles, fries ($16) - apparently the executive chef here - Geoffrey Zakarian, was featured on Iron Chef America, Chopped (and recent winner of The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs), and this is one of his creations, that he named after a customer made the cryptic comment: "This burger is so beautiful, it's ugly!".  Normally it's not served stacked like this with a pickle speared on top, but apparently the brunch crew decided that's how they wanted to serve this lunch item.   
We were almost out of time when we finished our entrees, but I couldn't leave without trying the cool-sounding Popcorn Milkshake salted brown butter, chocolate hazelnut crisps ($10) - so I got it to go, to down in the cab on the way home.  This was an awesome shake made with caramel popcorn flavors and sea salt for a savory meets sweet blended drink that was refreshing in the now sunny and warm weather.   And it came with two housemade chocolate hazelnut crisp bars which were like kit kat bars but a million times more delicious!!!  Loved this creative shake with the fun snack bars on the side!!!

All in all, a great time at Tudor House, albeit with the one very expensive splurge.  Loved the casual chic ambience and modern American fare, well executed  (thanks Christine for the truly lovely rec! :)) Would definitely go back next time for brunch or less spendy menu items.

[For other photos and stories from my trip to Miami, check out the album on my Facebook page.]

Note for tourists: Tudor House builds in a 20% gratuity to the bill, so no need to write in extra unless you received exceptional service or feel like being generous. I didn't notice and ended up leaving too much (double) tip! Oh well, our server was pretty fantastic!!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%



Tudor House (at Dream South Beach hotel)
11111 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139
Ph: 305.534.8455

Website: tudorhousemiami.com

Tudor House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 25, 2012

1MB Travels: Miami: Michael's Genuine Food & Drink

On my first business trip with my new job, I got to go to Miami!!!  It was a week before the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, but it was for the best, as there was no way I would have been able to concentrate on the work at hand!
In any case, with only a few days - most of which would be occupied by work functions - there was one place at the top of my list that I resolutely would not leave Miami without grabbing at least one meal at: Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District.  

I had seen it on Travel Channel, on the first season of Anthony Bourdain's The Layover - where he said their fried pig ears were "A bar food unimprovable by man".  Big statement - and I love fried pig ear, so I was excited when a coworker "Hawaii Issue" agreed to go with me to check it out (I'm still a little nervous when travelling on my own, to wander into certain areas by myself - call me chicken).
We were staying near South Beach, and although Design District, where Michael's was located, sounded safe enough to me - all the cab drivers I talked to said it was best to stay in South Beach at night if on my own.  So happily with Hawaii Issue on board, we were able to take a 10 minute cab ride into Miami proper.  Michael's, as it turns out, is in a chic little shopping complex called Atlas Plaza.  It was a charming space with dark interiors with a gastropub feel, and a cute patio area that was laid back and in my mind very Miami with crossbeams opening up to the beautifully blue Florida sky filled with impossibly perfectly fluffy clouds, framed by silhouettes of tall palms. So naturally I chose to sit outside - it was a little chilly this time of year, but they had plenty of heat lamps to keep us warm.
First order of course almost before we sat down was for Crispy Pig Ear ($6) - I was actually really proud of Hawaii Issue, who is more of an American/Italian chain restaurant fan, for diving in to try this. They were thin fried ribbons pungent with seasoning that somehow reminded me of fritos.  A really original bar snack that I thoroughly enjoyed yes.  Was it the most amazing thing we've ever eaten?  I preferred the taste and texture of crispy pig ears at Lukshon back home (part of lunch entree).  But I was glad I got to try Michael's, and as a bar snack I agree is the best ever.
(A close up shot of the crispy pig ear!)
From the small plates section, I went for that which features a local ingredient: Cobia & Shrimp Ceviche papaya, avocado, citrus, cilantro ($11) - cobia is a local white fish, which when served in ceviche has a pleasing texture that is soft and supple but structured, with a subtle sweetness.  I liked it! The shrimp was also incrediby fresh and delicious, especially when mixed with papaya perfectly ripened avocado pieces.  This starter was light, refreshing and a great way to kick off the meal - it also lived up to the name of the place with clean flavors, letting the high quality ingredients shine.
Hawaii Issue chose something unexpected for his starter: Spicy Octopus chorizo, crispy fingerling potatoes, saffron aioli ($11) - this was a hearty dish that was all kinds of meaty, crunchy, juicy deliciousness, topped with a bright, smooth yellow saffron aioli to temper the heat underneath.  Really great choice by a self-proclaimed non-foodie!
Next up for me from the medium plates: Crispy Rice Cake chorizo, Florida rock shrimp, manchego, chili aioli, pns farm egg ($13) the theme for me was local ingredients!  Got this so I can try the Florida rock shrimp - the 'rice cake' turned out to be a crab-cake like patty made with chorizo, shrimp, cheese and a rice crust, topped by a perfectly fried egg with a side of not-overly-spicy chili aioli.  Loved this as well, the original combination of ingredients - the feeling of breakfast for dinner - and the presentation with the relatively bold colors on the plate.
I didn't grab a bite of Hawaii Issue's Linguini Niman Ranch lamb bolognese, housemade ricotta, basil ($19) but our server said they make their pastas fresh in house every day, and Hawaii Issue really enjoyed it.
Though pretty full at that point, apparently Michael's has a famous pastry chef who churns out very creative pieces, so we couldn't leave without dessert.  The one that came highly recommended was the Banana Peanut Butter & Bacon Panini chocolate caramel ice cream sundae ($10) - bacon in any form of dessert is always a good idea, and though we weren't sure that a panini for dessert sounded appealing, the rest of the description drew us in and so we went for it.  I think if we weren't already so full, we might have enjoyed this more - and I appreciated the originality, but the hefty chunks of bread were a bit too much for dessert (though I loved how the smokey char from the grill balanced nicely with the light sweetness of the other ingredients).  The peanut butter was too 'chunky' for me as well (I don't like having to work around 'pebbles' of nuts in my dessert) but Hawaii Issue liked that element.  The bacon was a bit crusty and hard as well where I wanted more juicy, softer pieces.  The sundae on the side, in a shotglass was a cute touch and I thought made the dish like a reinterpretation of french toast a la mode.
Our second dessert on the other hand was phenomenal - one that Hawaii Issue actually noticed first (I think there's a dormant foodie in there somewhere!) Tangerine Creamsicle Pot de Creme warm doughnuts tarragon blackberry jam ($10) - this was a fantastically light, beautifully citrusy and creamy creme in a ramekin, served with freshmade sugared donuts served warm, and a little side of tarragon blackberry jam.  A little plate of heaven that I wish I could fly back and eat, very soon.

All in all, a great time at Michael's Genuine Food and Drink.  Some fantastically fresh, original but unpretentious dishes, and love the laid back ambience and outdoor dining option.  Can't wait to go back hopefully soon!!!

[For other photos and stories from my trip to Miami, check out the album on my Facebook page.]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%



Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
130 Northeast 40th Street, Miami, FL 33137
Ph: 305.573.5550

Website: michaelsgenuine.com __________________________________________________________

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

1MB Savvy Saveurs: Savings & Sweepstakes 2/23/12

Deals and sweepstakes uncovered this week! (Sorry a bit late, life has been crazy lately!) Click here to follow me on Twitter for instant updates on the latest discoveries :)

Happy grazing!

  • The Gorbals - $40 for $70 of food & drink and/or $59 for $95 pig's head dinner +bottle of wine.  Deal at Bloomspot (ends 2/27)
  • Le Palais des Thés - $34 for $50 Tea Collection - deal from Lot18 (ends 2/27)
  • Susan Feniger's Street - $40 for $72 brunch for 2 w/ bottomless champagne cocktails (ends 2/25)

  • Bloomspot Hawaiian Getaway - Enter for a chance to win 5-night trip for two to Hawaii - stay at the Four Seasons, Dinner and spa day at Grand Wailea and Molokini snorkeling excursion! (ends 5/1/12 11:59 PM ET) Official rules here.
  • Scoutmob / Tasting Table Ultimate Progressive Dinner Sweepstakes - Vote for the ultimate cocktail, appetizer, entree, cheese and dessert in the city for the chance to win the Ultimate 5-course progressive dinner for two, and a ride to all those restaurants around town for dinner (ends 3/30/12 11:59pm ET) Official rules here
  • Seagram's Smooth Vegas Weekend Sweepstakes Enter for a chance to win a trip for two to Vegas (requires 'like'ing Seagrams' Smooth's Facebook page) - ends 4/30/12. Official rules here.


This is meant to be an easily digestible (yes, I did) report of third party offers - I am not the sponsor. I do not receive any payment for these listings. Please read offer details / official rules carefully before deciding whether to submit your information.


To get more mileage for your money everyday - see Get More Bites Outta Your Budget. Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

LudoBites 8: Lemon Moon: Out of this World

The announcement of LudoBites is that event each year that has food lovers quivering with excitement, like the promise of a new food frontier - so many unknowns, in unchartered culinary territory, in the best way possible. (If you don't want to spend the next few minutes reading the ravings of yet another LudoBites fan, now is the time to turn back.)

This year, the surprise element extended even to the reservation process itself - instead of an 'open the virtual floodgates' moment on OpenTable, which had caused site crashes and record-breaking sellout times (weeks of bookings for the pop-up in under a minute!) - this time reservations were done through a lottery system via Urbanspoon. You submit the dates you want, cross your fingers, and hold your breath for a rose...erm, I mean, confirmation email.

Though I was disappointed when I didn't manage to get a booking, I was hopeful, based on the experience with LudoBites 007 that I might be able to score a walk-in, if I go early enough.  And as luck would have it, just a week or two before the start of LudoBites 8 - I sealed the deal on a new job in West LA, a short hyper-drive to the (Lemon) Moon!

So it was that I pulled up to the bar one night after work, for the only thing that is predictable with LudoBites - for my mind to be blown.

It started with the Chicken Tandoori Crackling ($5) - a specimen that has most explorers asking: why has no one thought of this before?  The concept is fantastic - quenelles of creamy chicken liver mousse dropped on landing pads of crisp fried chicken skin. With a bit of heat from tandoori spices.  And the slightest crunch from beautiful salt crystals.  In texture sort of like a super gourmet cheese and crackers combo...The concept and presentation were both breath-taking; in taste, I liked the dish but personally would have wanted the mousse to be a little more delicate and not quite as dense and pungent.
Celery Root Soup, Foie Gras, Mushrooms, Ash ($22) - this one blew my mind on all fronts, immediately.  Foie gras, in soup? Genius.  And the presentation was like a work of art - with layers of sliced mushrooms blooming out from a gentle smattering of breadcrumbs dyed with squid ink and charred to an 'ash'-like texture.  In the lushest, creamiest soup. 

The soup came with instructions: "let it sit for a few minutes, so the foie can 'cook' a bit in the soup".  It was definitely worth the wait - each spoonful was a revelation: black, earth, liquid gold, cream, crumbs, crunch, broth, lush, buttery foie, upswell of beautiful purple port wine hidden just below the 'crust' of mushrooms.

This was a madly ingenious creation - a definite fav 'best of' dish that I couldn't resist repeating on a second trip! If I could I would eat this every day for the rest of my life and be happy.

One of the things that I admire most about truly creative and passionate chefs is the risks that they are willing to take - they really put themselves out there, reclaiming / reinventing our preconceived ideas about and experiences of food. 

Sometimes the alchemy of their brilliance with the right ingredients, preparation and setting produces proof of divine design - like the foie gras soup - but sometimes the results of the gambler's toss is not as ideal.

Personally I thought the Squid Ink Rice Pudding, Squid, Lardo, Kumquats ($14) belonged to the latter group - the concept absolutely blew me away, and I wanted to love it - but in terms of taste it just didn't keep drawing my fork back to the plate.  What was it?  The only way I can describe it is sort of like a giant dumpling filled with what looks and crunches like slivers of squid - but are really pieces of rice pudding made to look and feel almost indistinguishable from squid - spiced with some red/orange flecks that might be chili powder and/or powdered kumquats, and made to sit on top of a sludge of squid ink dyed...squid ink pudding?  This was an alien form that I wanted to love, as it was SO 'out there' - my brain was teased and I loved it - but my taste buds unfortunately didn't.

On Steamed Foie Gras in Apple Cider, Apple Tapioca, Buckwheat ($34) - as soon as I sat down, I had pretty much asked the server to bring me every dish containing foie (we only have til July until a ridiculous law banning sale of foie in California will be enforced, effectively cauterizing the heart of french cooking).  In the meantime, I was glad I got to taste the divinity that was in this bowl - the most perfect lobe of gorgeous, decadent foie, in an essential cold 'soup' of apple cider that though just a little too tart, cut through the richness of the liver nicely.  Throw little soft orbs of tapioca into the mix along with toasted buckwheat rounds for crunch and counterbalance, and you have a very original way to serve foie.

I had just enough room left by that point for one more dish - and asked for help with picking among the amazing options, it was too hard to choose on my own!  I had painstakingly narrowed it down to the Monkfish Liver dish and the Thai Snapper, Eucalyptus Oil, Leeks, Potato, Manzanilla ($26)- after all that lush goose liver, I was advised to go with the fish for a little something different, and that way also the monkfish liver doesn't pale in comparison to the foie.

I definitely appreciated the recommendation as soon as the plate of fish was within sight. The plate was in a word - art.  It looked like something that had washed up on the beach, exactly like this, but you know that can't be true because all the ingredients besides the fish itself, came from the ground.  So your brain and eyes go back and forth like this for a while, and you admire the beauty of the presentation - before setting out to explore what lies beneath the waves of apple and topping of fried fish skin.

So below was another surprise - thin, fresh made potato chips.  No, not as in the British-reference - real, thin, crunchy ovular petals of fried potato. A brilliant play on the ole fish 'n chips - well played, Ludo, well played.

And if you had to look up manzanilla - I did too - it's apparently spanish for chamomile. I couldn't see anything floral on the plate, but overall the fish had nuanced flavors that were clean and simply amazing. Especially when you make sure to grab a little bit of every element on the plate in each forkful.

This turned out to be one of the best tasting and most creative serving of fish I have ever had.  Loved it so much it would rival for my affections for foie.

On the night I went the first time to LudoBites 8, they were not serving the much raved about Uni Creme Brulee, Coffee - which meant I *had* to go back another night for it (twist my arm, not!).  This one was every bit as extraordinary as everyone said - and on the second visit, even more so as Krissy mentioned they had to source their uni from Japan (which pushed the price up to $34, but well worth it!). 
Uni (sea urchin) was worked into a creme, which was then topped with sugar syrup and torched for a nice, caramelized crust and smokey flavor, topped by delicious pearls of salmon roe (ikura) that exploded in your mouth like mini supernovas of fresh brine.

Then the whole thing was topped by frothy cappuccino foam.  It was all kinds of umami and sweet and subtle bitter all at once.

I wish I could eat this every week...(Ludo when are you going to open up a restaurant?!)

Another thing I love about LudoBites that I only found out about firsthand, on the second visit, is that certain dishes will change out even during the same edition of the pop-up, to keep guests guessing.  On the second time round the new dish in was Scallops, Cauliflower Panna Cotta, Yogurt-Madras Curry ($19)I thought the cross sections of cauliflower were beautiful, and reminded me of paper-cutouts of trees used in shadow puppet play, or some fanciful pop-up book (could this truly be the inspiration?).  These lightly crunchy trees sat atop lovely rounds of scallop, ever so lightly cooked so that their centers are still sashimi-like.  Served with a dollop of cauliflower panna cotta on the side, and topped by yogurt-curry sauce for slight heat and a bold beautiful saffron color.  All on a bed of pommes puree.  Really lovely.

And of course, science has shown (not, but I think it's true anyway because you should believe everything you read on the internet) that there is a 'second stomach' for dessert, even after gorging on all those rich dishes, I still had room for the Lemon Meringue, Poppy Seed Crumble, Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($13).  Another artful presentation with a small 'castle' formed by 'towers' of meringue and lemon cream, atop crumbly sand made with poppy seed, with a wheel of orange rind.  A nice refreshing dessert after a decadent meal.
All in all, an inspired, epic, out of this world meal, one of the best I've had so far this year.

[On a side note, I've talked about my favorite things food-wise about LudoBites, but there's one other thing I want to note too - that after all their enormous successes, in and out of the kitchen and with their own TV show - Krissy and Ludo seem to have remained exactly who they always were, and in every moment effuse passion for and dedication to what they're doing.  Krissy's the one answering the phones for reservations, she's personally welcoming and seating guests, helping set tables during pre-opening, and wiping them down after. Expediting or serving plates as needed. Ludo's in the kitchen pretty much the whole time cooking unless accommodating excited guests' requests for photos with him.  This is just what I can see of them in the restaurant - don't know them personally, but love them for all the reasons above - in addition to the mnd-blowing food of course.]

And also true to Krissy's marketing genius, though their last service just happened tonight - they've already started promoting to their next pop-up, which will for the first time be in Hawaii.  Which yes will make it unfortunately hard for those of us who live in LA to get to - but that dangles the promise of possibility of things to come: foie outside the boundaries of the tyrant state and its foie-banning legislation.  And Urbanspoon is running a sweepstakes with them for a trip to Hawaii for two to experience LudoBites 9 - which will be held at the Four Seasons Resort:  Hualalai starting March 6th. All you have to do is "like" Urbanspoon on Facebook AND make a free reservation at participating restaurants in either LA, Seattle or San Francisco for a chance to win.  See details and official rules here.  Good luck!!!]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks mains)
Probability of return visit - 100% (if I can even get in!)


LudoBites 8 at Lemon Moon

12200 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064
Ph: 310.442.9191

Website: ludolefebvre.com/ludobites/lemon-moon

LudoBites 8 at Lemon Moon on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

CHAYA Venice: Oyster Food Fair

Did you know that the Japanese family who owns Chaya have been restauranteurs for nearly four centuries?  They started with a 'tea house' (apparently that's what Chaya 茶屋 means in Japanese) in Japan under a large shade tree, catering to weary travelers and their horses 390 years ago.  Today, we can experience a version of that hospitality in Venice, CA in a modern setting of a neighborhood hangout that gives off the vibe that it's there to serve the community.  Of traffic-worn commuters like myself and their metal stallions.  And apparently Venice loves Chaya back - the two times I've been there, it's always been packed.

With Chef Shigefumi Tachibe at the helm for the last 22 years, and his blend of "Euro-Asian" or "Franco-Japonais" fare bringing people back week after week to an area that doesn't have many fine dining stakes in the sand - Chaya Venice admirably does not rest on success, but continually tries to put forth new menus.

There is the unusual dual menu that customers have come to expect - sushi and European dishes with Japanese influence, but there's also special menus created around a theme, a main ingredient - rotating each year.

A few months back it was the Venison Fair.  This month brings the Oyster Food Fair - and I was excited to receive an invite to a media tasting kicking off the event on February 16 (the Food Fair runs through March 3rd!)

The idea is there are many dishes created around the featured ingredient - oysters, and you can choose a la carte from the special menu.
We started with a round of Fresh Oyster on the 1/2 Shell ($14 for half dozen) - for the tasting we got both kinds of oysters: Hama Hama from Washington (the bigger ones shown on left in the photo) and Fanny Bay from British Columbia.  These were not the best oysters I've ever had (Monterey fisherman's wharf restaurants win on that one) but they went fast - there was nothing but empty shells left 60 seconds after they hit the table.

Baked Oysters Rockefeller ($19) spinach, bacon, cream, parmesan This one is a classic, well executed.  Even for someone who is really a purist with their oysters, I thought this was nicely done - I've seen so many places overdo it on the cheese so it ends up overwhelming the oyster, and/or overcooking the spinach so that it's a sloppy mess atop the oyster - but Chaya's is just right in terms of balancing all ingredients.

Baked Oysters w/ Nori Lemon Butter ($18) tamari, soy, chives.  I had to look up tamari - it's basically a soy sauce made with more soybeans than regular ones, so that it has a more complex, smooth and balanced flavor.  This was added with a deft hand as it was in perfect balance with the nori (seaweed) lemon butter - again as a purist with oysters, I normally prefer to taste nothing but pure deep ocean around the oyster, but this broth-like sauce was light and clean tasting and very enjoyable.  I did like this one more than the Rockefellers.
Angus Beef Tartare with Fried Oysters ($16) sweet potato chips.  When this dish came out, if you listened to the sounds around the table - you would just hear alternating sounds like this: "crunch", "mmm", "crunch".  The creamy, lush (and pink?) beef tartare paired and contrasted perfectly with crunchy panko-crusted deep fried oysters - and the fresh fried chips made with a Japanese sweet potato were 'favorited' by all around the table.  My only note would be to apply a slightly thinner panko crust so that the ratio of crust to oyster (as the highlighted ingredient) would be in the oyster's favor to allow a more pronounced flavor.
Oyster Citrus Cured Salmon Chowder ($20) Tokyo winter negi, yukon potato.  This one was another favorite for the night - the salmon is cooked sous vide with citrus, and has the lushest, smoothest texture and intense flavor, infused throughout the chowder.  There is also of course oysters in the soup along with a Japanese leek and chunks of potato for added texture and flavor.  Really gorgeous soup.  The portion size shown in the photo was just for the tasting, knowing we would be feasting on almost the entire menu - but the regular dinner size would be much bigger for the $20. How much bigger?  We didn't get to see so judge for yourself if you would spend $20 on soup as your entree.

Kobe Short Rib Pot Pie ($29) baked oyster zucchini champagne cream, caramelized sweet onion sauce.  Loved the description on this one, and it was a cute presentation with a bloated pastry puff topped by an oyster baked with zucchini champagne cream and cheese.  The contents of the pot pie were infused with rich flavor (interesting that the chef used a 'white' sparkling wine versus the expected red wine) with fairly generous large chunks of meat - though it was just a tad chewier than I expected for Kobe.  But overall very nicely done pot pie, and I loved the buttery flakey pastry puff.

Striped Sea Bass & Oyster Papillote ($29) celery root, shitake mushroom, tomato, black truffle vin blanc.  If there were Oscars for food, this dish would probably win for Best Drama - it arrived in a square, puffed up paper bag with rolled edges, and we all found ourselves waiting for the big reveal to see what's inside.  Our server tore into the bag to expose a delicately cooked filet of loup de mer, steamed inside the bag with a slice of lemon, celery, shitake mushroom, and tomato - and of course the pleasant 'surprise', creamy oysters.  The whole thing was then dressed with a black truffle white wine sauce that infused it with fragrant and unmistakeable truffle flavor. 

After the great meal (not sure if it was the aphrodisiac effects of oysters, but felt huge love for oysters!) we were treated to oyster-free desserts from the regular menu.  Chaya's signature dessert is their Milk Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding with Caramel Ice Cream ($9) which was delicious with its buttery, light, layered pastry a departure from the normally dense, heavy bread puddings at other restaurants. 

We also had Lemon Curd Cake ($9) - a light and refreshing finish with a cheesecake-like round topped by a cookie half shell filled with blueberries, and light, subtly tart lemon curd in between.

Oyster lovers can check out Oyster Food Fair at CHAYA Venice through March 3rd.

* Disclaimer: This meal was hosted

CHAYA Venice
110 Navy St., Venice, CA 90291
Ph: 310-396-1179

Parking: Self-park in structure $4 with validation

Website: thechaya.com/venice
OpenTable: opentable.com/chaya-venice


Chaya Venice on Urbanspoon



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