Sunday, December 15, 2013

Holiday BItes: Edible Gift Ideas for Your Fav Foodie 2013

The foodie gifts list is always my favorite, and the most agonizing at the same time.  How to edit all the amazing stuff I love out there into one short list?  Well here goes my attempt at it.  I have here both high and lower priced options - but all $80 or under!

1. Better Than Wine Bottled Balsamic

The Giusti family has been custodian for centuries of an invaluable patrimony, the largest antique collection of rare barrels dating back to the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. Hence, at the heart of Giusti's balsamic vinegar is the repose of the product in precious barrels infusing aromas and flavors created centuries before. Conscious of this, the Giusti family has throughout the centuries carefully maintained the collection in order to keep intact the delicate characteristics of the celebrated "Giusti bouquet of aromas." 

Buy from: Taste Arts Giuseppe Giusti Balsamic Vinegar Set $45.90

2. Birds, Bees, and Monkey Pick Teas

Honey can be amazing when it's not the mass produced, super sweet, sticky kind that comes out of a plastic bear (however cute that packaging is).  One of my favorites is a white, rare, raw organic Kiawe Honey that comes from an isolated forest on the island of Hawaii. Love the description that the Kiawe trees grow in a desert fed by an underground aquifer of fresh water that has filtered down from the volcanoes. 

This honey has an incredible creamy texture, know how wine enthusiasts talk about terroir (how you can taste the climate and environment of the place where the grapes came from)?  That's how I feel about this honey - you can taste the purity and bounty of the flora in the relatively untouched Hawaiian tropics.

You can also get a great gift set of three 8 oz jars of Rare Hawaiian honeys (your choice) packed in a handscreened natural wood keepsake box, with a pair of candles made from organic beeswax.
Or, make your own 'Birds and Bees' gift basket with the honey plus Bird Pick tea in Premium Taiping Monkey’s Pick Green: I love food with a good story behind it, and this one is fun. Folklore says the name originates from the use of trained monkeys to pick tea leaves from hard-to-reach trees, in the Anhui province of China. Presumably, no one actually uses monkeys to pick this tea nowadays, but the name is still associated with the finest quality in tea. If you shop at one of their store locations, Bird Pick also offers great glass jars for their teas which would make a nice gift set with the jar of Hawaiian honey.

Buy from: Rare Hawaiian Honey White Kiawe Honey $17 Large Gift Box $80 Bird Pick Premium Taiping Monkey's Pick Green Tea $24.99

3. Money CAN now Buy Handmade Gourmet Foods from Around the Country

Ever been tortured by something you read about some amazing culinary creation from across the country, that you can't access because you don't have an upcoming trip there, don't know anyone who lives there, and/or they don't have an online shop or any plans to ship their products?

Yeah, I went through that too, many a time.  Well now a brilliant service, Goldbely, is offering the chance to get your hands on these gourmet goods in limited quantities.

Cronuts: this weekend only at : they will randomly issue limited amounts for purchase with free shipping!  This may be as frustrating as waiting in line in real life at Dominique Ansel's bakery though - because the cronuts are gone pretty much within split seconds of the flash sale popping up.

Other items don't make you jump through ridiculous hoops like that:  you can just order the 'traditional' way online:  like Momofuku Milk Bar's compost cookies.

Now if only they would add Laduree macarons to their list of offerings!!!!

Buy from: Goldbely $12 per tin (but over $20 for shipping to CA... :( )  Order by 12/17 for delivery by Christmas

4. Sugar & Salt Makes Everything Nice

Instead of a standard issue box of some mall-based chocolate store, check out these handcrafted salted caramels that will literally make it impossible to go back to mass produced candy ever again.

Le Caramel: Support local business, these guys are based in San Diego, but have a passion for recreating salted butter caramels, slow-cooked from a traditional french recipe handed down by the best caramel maker in Isigny, Normandy. Super soft, creamy, and well balanced between salt and sweet.  These also come in a chocolate flavor, but I liked just the Sea Salt Caramels best.

Buy from: Epicure Imports warehouse sale (last one before Christmas is Dec 20 & 21!!) if memory serves correctly, $6.25 a box, or local stores listed on Le Caramel's site.  

5. Tis the Season for Santa Barbara Sea Urchin

If you have friends who love those delicacies of the sea (*cough* *cough*), any time of year, Maruhide Uni Club has them in shippable form: fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin preserved with a kelp-based soy sauce in a delicious bottle in various flavors (my fav is the Yuzu Chili!).  Known as 'shutou' - you can buy these at their restaurant / marketplace in Torrance (and grab an awesome deal of an uni meal while there), or order online.

These shutou are served in first class on Japan Airlines as an hors d'oeuvre, so they make a perfect gift for your VIF (Very Important Foodie).

Buy from: Maruhide Uni Club in Torrance or their online store $42 for four bottles of Uni Shotou minimum when ordering online.  Can buy in single bottles at restaurant.

6. DIY Urbani Truffle Trifecta Basket for the All Day Truffle Lover

Urbani is the Tiffany's of truffles...but if like me you can't afford top of the line 'black diamonds', give the gift of truffles 'all day' with other Urbani products they can use for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner with the essence of quality truffles Let them start their day off right with Black Truffle Butter. 

Lunch: A trio of jars of truffle deliciousness: white truffle fondue, black truffle sauce, black truffle carpaccio - that they can add to their own favorite culinary 'canvas' from toasted baguette for dipping, over scallops, or add to polenta or their favorite pasta.
Dinner: Speaking of pasta, a perfect pairing with truffle: Urbani has super fragrant Truffle Tagliatelle (for under $20!) that your fav truffle lover can simply toss with some butter, salt and pepper to make for a luxe pasta dish.

Buy from: Urbani Black Truffle Butter $30.80 Tris of Jars $49.90 Truffle Tagliatelle $17.90 

7. For the Coffee Lovin' On the Go - The Humble Cup Single Serve Pourover Coffee

I don't usually drink coffee, much as I love the scent and taste - as I often get caffeine headaches.  However, a friend recently introduced me to The Humble Cup instant pourover coffee, which appealed to me in its ingenius design, ease of use, and that it's actually good coffee that didn't give me a headache!!  (It's single origin, not that I know enough about that to speak intelligently about it - but all my knowledgeable coffee friends love the coffee at Taza, where the whole The Humble Cup business started so...)

They come in these tear packs that you just open the top, pull out the paper wings on either side, slip them over the edge of your cup - to create a disposable, single-serve, instant pourover device.  Pour in hot water and let it drip through the paper filter into your cup, and that's it! No mess to clean up after either - just throw the whole paper device out like you would with a tea bag.

These are perfect for people who are always on the go, and not often to places where they can access good coffee.  Or just those who want a 'grab n' go' but good brew to start their day at the office.

(These were lifesavers on our recent trip to Vegas - a place where amazing food, but not amazing coffee, abound.)

*Full disclosure: The owner of Taza Coffeehouse is a friend. 

Buy from: Taza Coffeehouse in Arcadia, $15 for pack of 5 (from a variety of origins including Costa Rica, El Savador...) or $20 for pack of 12.

This is just a start.  Got any cool edible gift suggestions? Send 'em my way or post in the comments!

Separate post on more durable gift ideas here!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Local Peasant - Bread Pudding Worth Sneaking Out of the Palace For

The SFV generally gets a bad rep for suburban quality everything.  But if you take a closer look, there are more and more neighborhood gems springing up here.

The Local Peasant is one of them - I love that it doesn't aspire to be anything other than what its name evokes - an informal gathering place for those in the community.  There is, however, one menu item  that should draw even culinary royalty - whether or not they feel the need to be incognito, visiting this plebeian part of town - more on this later in the post.
On the less hip stretch of Ventura (West of the Studio City, in Sherman Oaks), a stone's throw from other popular brunch spot Sweet Butter, The Local Peasant has a laid back vibe, with its rustic wood paneled decor and giant frosted windows that on a warm day opens out for great people watching.  They serve beer, wine and Pre and Post Prohibition cocktails.  Always down for savory drinks, I loved the Basil Pepper Martini ($10) which was a gorgeous golden color, light, and refreshing.

Then there was the Rainbow Heirloom Salad ($12) with Santa Barbara heirloom tomatoes, red & yellow beets, burrata cheese with balsamic-lemon vinaigrette.  I didn't like this the first time I had it, as I made the mistake of ordering it when tomatoes were not in season, and I found the giant wedges awkward to eat - and I was not happy with how expensive it was for a salad.  My second visit was at the height of summer, and as I went with a friend who loves fresh in season veggies, we gave this salad another try.  Second time round I fell in love with this salad - it's all about the ingredients with this one, and we happened to catch them when the tomatoes and beets were at perfect ripeness, luscious and deliciously, subtly sweet.  That second time made me recognize that Santa Barbara was more than just amazing sea urchin, spot prawns, and wine.  Their heirloom tomatoes are incredible as well.  And that time I didn't mind the plating as the portion size for the farm fresh fare felt like it gave us our money's worth.

Then there was the Fish & Chips ($14) beer battered red snapper with housemade tartar sauce.  The fish was fresh, though the batter was on the soggy side.  We liked that the malt vinegar on the side was presented in a little spray bottle, the better for even distribution on fries without causing them to lose their crunch.
I was in the mood for - and loved the price of - The Peasant Burger ($10) grassfed beef patty with cheese, onion, fried egg and 'special sauce'. A tasty, juicy burger, not mind blowing but good enough that you don't even care if sauce and egg yolk gets all over your face.
And for the grand finale: Chocolate Chunk Bread Pudding ($8) with booker bourbon cream sauce.  This might be the best bread pudding I've tasted in the city!

Served in a giant ceramic...tub...this bread pudding is hefty yet light, packed with chocolate flavor without being overwhelming, served steaming hot (the only way to do bread pudding properly!), topped by a beautiful crust dusted with powdered sugar, that could reduce anyone to tears.  All that and it would be easy to miss the adorable little jar on the side, of booker bourbon cream sauce (that is more the consistency of milk) which sends this way, way over the edge, in the best way.

While some of the other dishes we tasted were good, this bread pudding IS.IT.  If you are ever find yourself this side of town, and at The Local not leave without trying this bread pudding.  I think I just triggered a craving while writing this...the place IS open til 2am daily...tempted to get dressed to drive over...

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience -  5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


The Local Peasant
14058 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Ph: 818.501.0234


The Local Peasant on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 29, 2013

Holiday Bites: Top 10 Gift Ideas for Your Fav Foodie 2013

Happy Black Friday! While the deal chaser in me is tempted to brave the crowds, the other part of me that likes to give more unique gifts than what you can find at the local mall would rather focus on scouting the best gift ideas from my couch.

So here they are, my picks for your fav foodie in your life this holiday... (edibles to come in separate post). There are options at various price ranges, but I upped the self-imposed upper limit this year to $250 as there were some things that were too cool not to include!  Where deals are available, they are noted under each product listing.

Happy holiday shopping!

1. For the Baker and Egg White Hater: Yolk Separator 

Yes, you did first see the idea for this in that video with the water bottle (and using suction to separate an egg yolk from egg white).  This is that idea come to life in a way more stylish and giftable form.

As someone who'd rather have an all egg yolk scramble anyday than a bland, boring egg white one - I think this lightbulb-shaped gadget is a brilliant idea.  I don't cook much if at all (though I do find creme brulee super fun to make), but these Yolkrs are so fun looking and seemingly easy to use, I kind of want to find more things to cook/bake just so I can justify buying one of these...

And btw, love that this product was a Kickstarter project that met its goals, so apparently enough people thought it was a good idea too, that it got the funding to move forward!

Check out the video...

Actually, put 1 or 2 of these in a gift basket with a creme brulee torch and/or ramekin set and your foodie friend just may become your BFF :)

Buy from: Yolkr £18 (~$24.50 USD)

2. For the Food Pornographer: iZZi Orbit Rotating Lenses for iPhones

Friends don't let friends take bad foodporn.  Trick out their iPhone with pro-grade, rotating lenses that will help them take better shots.

The Orbit 5 iPhone case features 4 different camera lenses: 
  • 180-degree fish-eye lens
  • 0.67x wide-angle lens
  • 2x telephoto lens
  • macro lens (located under wide-angle lens)
The case is also made of aircraft-grade aluminum so it's  lightweight and sturdy!

This one is also launched by a successful Kickstarter campaign - love crowdfunding that allow good ideas to get to market!

Buy from iZZi Gadgets $239.99

[Deal Alert: BOGO Orbit 5 on Black Friday between 6am-6pm PST, or save $50 on one from 6pm-midnight PST]

3. Flask Bangle by Cynthia Rowley

Yes, you read that right. It's genius, really.  Style meets function for those who don't have time for Happy Hour, but bring Happy Hour with them everywhere they go.  This one is totally out of the regular budget but is just so cool that I had to include it on the list.

Buy from: $225

4. For the Forgetful Foodie: Rococo Chalkboard Decal

Beautifully designed decal beats post-it notes or messy notepaper tacked on their fridge with magnets. Chalk included and the decal is removable and reusable!

Buy at OpenSky $36

[Deal alert: $28.80 sale price if you buy by 12/2]

5. Food + Art + Info Fans

Know someone who loves food, art and infographics? Combine all three in one perfect gift with these awesome prints featuring fun and informative designs covering everything from cheese to varieties of fruit to martinis!

Buy from: Pop Chart Labs $28 print only / $73 print mounted on panel (options for hanging rail or framed available as well at higher prices)

6. For the Foodart Fan: Salvador Dali Cookbook

The charismatic/enigmatic artist...was also a chef?!!?

Makes sense as food can be like art that appeals to more senses than visual, presents more of a challenge to control many 'live' variables, and can also create deep emotional connections / responses.

[Apparently Michael Voltaggio hosted a dinner at ink. one NYE inspired by this book, which I will be eternally sad that I missed!]

Buy from Amazon $140 for hardcover

[Deal Alert: Get $25 statement credit when you spend $75 or more at Amazon: just sync your American Express card to your Twitter account, then tweet out @AmericanExpress with #AmexAmazon to enroll in the offer.  See Amex terms and conditions for details here.]

7. Dominique Ansel Cookbook

From the super creative inventor of Cronuts (in case you've been living under a rock: that ingenius mashup of croissants and donuts which caused a frenzy of hours long queues at his shop in NYC) and magic frozen s'mores...Chef Dominique Ansel's first cookbook. It's not releasing til October 2014 - but like Cronut-fever, the book has already commanded 'lines down the block' with pre-orders already being taken a little less than a year out from release.  For those who don't live in NYC or can't spend hours in line for a chance to taste the now infamous original cronut...maybe the recipe and DIY route may be easier once the cookbook is out.

Pre-order now from Amazon $12.74 on Kindle
8. For Foodies Who Appreciate the Beauty of Seafood Marine Life On or Off The Plate

Sea urchins are a bit of an obsession lately...and this extends to their beautiful form, captured here in lovely serving bowls.

Buy from Michael Aram $59

9.  For the Easily Bored: AdNArt Flavour It Water Infusion Bottles

I.hate.water. It's a necessary part of life, yes, but I don't actually enjoy drinking it - it has no flavor!  So I was excited to see these infusion bottles - perfect for gifting to SoCal residents, who are blessed with amazing farmers markets.  So they can fill the infuser with the latest organic, seasonal, farm-fresh fruits and/or veggies and make their water taste good and deliver healthy vitamins, antioxidants etc. etc. And change it up whenever they want.

Love that this version is made of glass as well, so no worries about any flavors lingering in the plastic...and it also means this bottle can withstand hot or cold fill.

Buy from Amazon $13.05

10. For the Impatient Wine Lover: Corksicle

For those who (maybe have had a really long day and) can't wait for their wine to chill out. This is basically an icicle-shaped freeze gel rod attached to a cork, that they can keep in the freezer and when needed, simply stick into their wine bottle when they want cool wine, fast.

Buy from Amazon $24.95 (Prime eligible)

Daydreaming / If Money Were No Object...

Cirrus Ice Ball Maker
For cocktail / spirits connoisseurs.  You've seen all the A-list bartenders / bar chefs do it: use one giant ice cube / sphere vs. the traditional multiple ice cubes: the better to chill the drink without diluting it.

This kit makes it simple for your fav cocktail / spirits fan to make a pro-grade drink at home without having to get a 'lake ice' making machine and chainsaw.

  • Press produces one perfectly formed ice sphere at a time.
  • Small press makes 2" diameter ice sphere

Kit includes:
  • Cirrus ice ball press.
  • Drip tray.
  • 3 cup molds.
  • Tongs.
  • Premium die-cut storage and travel case.

Buy from Williams-Sonoma $699.95 for small set

Have fun, and good luck with the holiday shopping!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thanksgiving for Procrastinators Who Don't Cook (Where to Pick Up Dessert to Take to Dinner...)

If you're like me and waited til last minute to plan what you're going to bring to Thanksgiving dinner, and cooking is not part of those plans...

Here's a quick guide to where you can pick up some tasty desserts that will score you points and great conversation with your fellow diners...

Photo credit: Creme Caramel LA Facebook page
Creme Caramel - order by Sunday 11/25  

Lovely single-serve portions of creme caramel (like flan) and the fluffiest bread pudding with classic to playful flavors / toppings:
  • Pumpkin Creme Caramel 
  • Pumpkin White Chocolate Bread Pudding 
  • Caramelized Bacon Bread Pudding
  • Caramelized Spam Bread Pudding 
  • Holiday Spice Bread Pudding
Flavors above only available in 6-packs when you order online.  48 hours notice needed for deliveries.
See menu here

Crème Caramel LA
14849 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91411
Ph: 818.949.8352

Photo credit: Sweet Rose Creamery
Sweet Rose Creamery - order by Saturday 11/23 pickup Tuesday 11/27 after 5pm

Pie and ice cream go together cream pie.  For a fun twist on traditional holiday pies, check out Sweet Rose Creamery's ice cream versions of classic flavor combos:
  • Apple Pie: apple pie  ice cream, walnut crumble topping, caramel sauce, graham cracker crust.
  • Pecan Pie: Brown Sugar ice cream, topped with buttered pecan halves, chocolate cookie crust.
  • Spiced Pumpkin: spiced pumpkin ice cream, whipped milk topping, pumpkin seeds, ginger cookie crust. 
All pies listed $35 each

See menu here
Sweet Rose Creamery
225 26th Avenue, Suite 51 Santa Monica, CA 90402
Ph: 310.260.2663

Photo credit: Craft LA
Craft - order by Sunday 11/25
email Pick up 11/27 after 5pm or 11/28 8am-12pm

If you're in the mood to splurge, hit up Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio's reliably good restaurant in Century City, and pick up one of Chef Shannon Swindle's amazing desserts:
  • Pumpkin Pie $45
  • Pecan Pie $55
  • Apple Cranberry Crisp With Oat Streusel $55
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter S’mores Tart $65

Craft LA
10100 Constellation Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90067

Du-par's - pre-order or walk-in!

If you really, really just left things til the very last minute and missed all the pre-order deadlines, Du-par's is here to save your life:  while the most popular pies are sold out via pre-orders (I was told they moved literally thousands of pies the day before Thanksgiving!), they know how it goes and always have a batch of extra pies handy for walk-ins on turkey day.  I've been able to pick up my 'spare' pies last minute at the Studio City location.

  • Pecan pie
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Cherry pie

12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91602

Happy Turkey Day everyone!!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

1MB Travels: Vegas: Raku - What Happens In Vegas...

Every so often, I fantasize about being someone who treats rules as something to be broken.  The imagined freedom of being carefree, of doing what you want to do without the chains of obligation, fear, worry.  But thoughts of risk, consequence, damage - always rein me back in.  And then I realize I am someone who is sadly more often broken by rules, versus the other way around.

I guess that's why I have developed such a passion for food: it's an area that allows you to be adventurous, a risk-taker, but to do it all safely.  Within bounds.  Without consequence.  For the most part.  Call me a walking Lifetime special.

So it is, that when in Vegas, the kind of debauchery I allow myself to indulge in is not of the sort that would be fodder for a female version of Hangover - but more of the literally culinary kind.

The first time I ventured to famed and foodie-beloved Aburiya Raku, every moment felt like an adventure.  Everyone else wanted to stay on the strip, many within the hotel we were staying in - but thanks to gourmands who love to eat and share - I knew that amazingly tasty and affordable foods were to be found off strip.  And the 'getting there' would be much more exciting than walking downstairs to the nearest glitzy new restaurant downstream from the lobby.

I convinced a friend to go with me - and after an only-in-the-movies sort of cab ride where we were given a dissertation on the types of people who come to Vegas and exactly why they each make our driver angry - we arrived at the back corner of the non-descript strip mall, one amongst many in Chinatown, that Raku called home.

We pulled up to the bar, great for line of sight at what's happening in the kitchen and at the counter - and proceeded to drool over the blackboard and regular menus, packed with delicious sounding creatures of land and sea.  I remember laughing at my friend, who is over 6 feet tall, trying to find a comfortable place to put his legs at the bar built for smaller people.  I remember charcoal grilled wagyu, skewers of foie, and a blur of great conversation touching even on evolutionary psychology, punctuated by unctuous plates. I fell in love with Raku in that first visit - so much so that I didn't even take notes about the food - I was so in the moment enjoying it.

It was difficult to leave it behind and I wished we could have this experience back home.  Luckily, I was able to return on the next Vegas visit.  Here's the report on highlights from the meal: 
Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe ($9) - this was egg-on-egg-on-egg action at its most luscious.  A perfectly poached egg, with its liquid sun yolk, connected all the other elements in the sea glass style bowl - creamy uni (sea urchin gonads), a food group in itself for me, brought its trademark funky flavor, while ikura (salmon roe) offered lovely bursts of brine, skillfully counterbalanced by the mild-mannered crunch of finely chopped white mountain yam, sweet juicy earthiness of adorable mini honshimeji mushrooms, and the clean crisp slices of raw okra. Perfection.  How is it possible that no one else thought to put these ingredients together before?!

Then of course, a trip outside of California is a wasted trip, if I do not get my fill of the now-banned foie gras. And with a fantastic robata grill, I had to get the Grilled Foie skewer.  There was a little too much sauce on it which made it a bit too sweet, but I was happy to get my hands on any amount or preparation of foie at all.
Then there was the famed Agedashi Tofu (half $7.50) - everyone's recommmended 'must get' dish at Raku.  It was pretty transcendent.  Not sure how they managed to keep the fried skin of the silky housemade tofu clean and crisp while soaked within the richly flavored, yet light and clear dashi (broth).  The baby mushrooms again make an appearance here and serve to add textural interest.
Spotting quickly another foie dish, again at a very reasonable price - I had to get the Steamed Foie Gras Egg Custard ($10).  I loved the soft, smooth texture of the chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), with the umami, earthy decadent flavors of foie striking the perfect balance between the two of levity and depth.  All topped by a rich, flavorful piece of duck.
I finished out the meal clean, with the Kanpachi Special ($12) off the blackboard.  It was one of the most beautiful, artful presentations of both the fish and the plate.  There wasn't any mind-blowingly unique pairings of ingredients here, but sometimes when the ingredients are pristine the best thing to do is not to mess with it too much, and just let nature be the star.  The presentation of course adds to the enjoyment of the dish though and they pulled that off perfectly here.

Although every time I leave Raku, I wish they could have a branch in LA - I realized that it's better that it stays in Vegas.  It's human nature to want what we can't have - and maybe its inaccessibility on an everyday basis is what helps it sustain that pedestal status in my mind.  Maybe it wouldn't feel or taste the same at all, if I had access to it in LA.  It definitely gives me something to look forward to next time I'm in town again - and perhaps will even be a reason for another visit.

Raku: I will be back for more shameless indulgence. Calories be damned. Til then, this is me, encapsulating you, into a beautiful memory.


5030 Spring Mountain Rd, Ste. 2, Las Vegas, NV 89146
Ph: 702.367.3511


Raku on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mo-Chica: "OG" Tasting Menu Tuesdays: 5-Courses, $27!

If you've been reading this blog, you know I love a good dining deal.  Sometimes I depend on it, to get me through the week.  Often though, 'deal' also disappointingly equates to 'lowest common denominator' - where restaurants default to the standard, safe, chicken or beef meal.
So I was excited to hear that Mo-chica is breaking out of the clutter - where others may take that predictable approach - with its "OG" Tasting Menu of Peruvian offerings, that are still hearty and filling.

It's not possible to talk about Peruvian food in LA without talking about Chef Ricardo Zarate - he pretty much put it on the map here.  The Food & Wine Best New Chef 2011 is the creative mind behind three restaurants showcasing his country's cuisine - including the latest 'Peruvian Izakaya' concept at Paiche, where it was fun for me to try preparations of its namesake prehistoric Amazonian fish recently.

Mo-chica is Chef Zarate's second restaurant, and he has been celebrating its first birthday with a 'throwback' menu that pays tribute to its humble origins in Mercado La Paloma (South Central) food court (though these dishes had never been served there).

The "OG Tasting Menu" is a very generous offering of 5 courses of food at a price that instinct says must be a typo, but isn't (just $27 before taxes and gratuities) - and is homey/hearty - if those are words that can be used with such an exotic cuisine.  It is only available on Tuesdays - and if you swing by between 2:30pm-5pm, during their regular happy hour, you get 20% off drinks as well!

I kicked off the meal with a signature The Doggfather/Pisco Sour (NOT included in the OG Tasting Menu) $11 regularly - a light, refreshing drink made with pisco porton, egg white, fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice, evaporated cane syrup, angostura bitter, cinnamon tincture

Course #1: Heirloom Tomato Salad - this is a delicious take on the classic caprese salad: heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella are expected: crispy red quinoa and huacatay (Peruvian black mint) pesto are not.  I liked how the quinoa added a surprise, clean crunch (along with the asparagus), and mint to replace the usual basil.  

Course #2: Ceviche Trio: Tuna Sashimi, Diver Scallop and Hamachi. As I learned with Paiche, there is apparently a huge Japanese population and influence over food in Peru, so the inclusion of sashimi in the tasting menu here is not out of place.  But it's done with a twist.  The tuna sashimi was served with yuzu miso, green shiso, and mountain yam.  The diver scallop was served with aji amarillo (a Peruvian yellow chile pepper) aioli, wasabi and tobiko. The hamachi was served with jalapeno ponzu, nori lettuce, and garlic crisp. 

Course #3: Roasted Striped Bass with aji amarillo choclo pepian, English peas, thyme tomato escabeche, mint chimichurri.  We didn't get Amazonian fish with this one, but the bass was lovely, tender and flaky, and interesting with the corn stew punctuated by the light acidity of the tomato escabeche.

Course #4: Braised Short Rib rocoto yam mash, Kennebec fries, huacatay demi-glace. This one did feel the most 'common' of the dishes in the menu.
Course #5: Chocolate Tres Leches Cake chancaca sauce, blueberries, mint syrup.  Yep, I had to look up chancaca too - it's apparently a sauce made out of raw unrefined sugar and crystallized with honey.  A 'rustic' dessert that is a nice way to finish out the meal after the richness of the preceding dishes.
Although I had to look up a lot of the ingredients used in these dishes, overall the meal again felt very...comforting.  Which maybe goes against our general notion of comfort foods as being dishes that are familiar, and simple.  But it feels like these dishes would be soul soothingly familiar, to someone from Peru.  Definitely tame compared to the bolder, more flavorful and playful cooking at Picca or Paiche.  You get the sense that Chef Zarate is sharing a taste of home here. 

I personally prefer the more vibrant and thoroughly unfamiliar dishes at Paiche or Picca, which feels more like event dining / a meal and entertainment in one. But if you haven't tried Peruvian cuisine yet, and not sure you're ready to go 'full adventurous' both with your tastebuds and wallet - Mo-chica's OG Tasting Menu might be the one to get you started as your beginner's intro to Peruvian food, without a huge investment. It's also a good option for those who work downtown, and just want to grab a nice weeknight meal at a reasonable price before heading home (the portions are definitely so generous that you'll want to roll out of the place and straight into a nap after).

*Disclaimer: This meal was hosted.


514 W 7th St., Los Angeles, CA 90014
Ph: 213.622.3744
OpenTable: Look for reservations and points


Mo-Chica on Urbanspoon

For more prix fixe dining deals like this one, for every day of the week - see my post here.

1MB Travels: Chicago: Epic Eats & River Architecture Tour

Where there's a river, take the cruise.

That seems to have served me well in the cities I've been lucky enough to visit, that feature a watery jugular: Paris, Singapore, Chicago.  A great way to get a quick survey of the city's landmarks and history, within a limited time - from there you can choose which sights you want to explore further up close / more in depth.

My first time to Chicago was for another work trip, and I only had a few hours before the start of a conference, to take in what I could of the city.  So I headed to Navy Pier, where I was excited to find that the river architecture tour was available just in the time that I needed - the cruise was just an hour long, and would leave in 15 minutes.  Perfect!

A lot of the experience of these cruises depends on the quality of your tour guide.  And ours really made the whole experience amazing - he clearly loved the city, and its history, and sharing it with us tourists. The River Architecture Tour ($35/ adult) gave us great views of the city's iconic skyscrapers from the Willis (formerly, and forever to Chicagoans: Sears) Tower, Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, to Trump Tower.  Our tour guide explained the different styles of architecture, and the care architects paid to every detail to ensure the city's buildings had a cohesiveness, and/or worked with the river (e.g. angling a building and 'squiggling' its balconies, to allow a good view of the river from any unit).  I'm not normally a history buff, but loved hearing about the origins of some of the city's landmarks - like the expansive old Chicago main post office, that was built largely to service Montgomery Ward back in the boom of America's oldest mail order business - it was also used in the filming of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises! 

One of my favorite buildings from the tour were the Marina City "corn cob" towers - you can see where their nicknames came from, from the photo!

It was also interesting to learn more about the river itself: apparently a century ago, it became so polluted that the natural flow of the river endangered the city's drinking water supply (and the pristine Lake Michigan), so a multi-million dollar civil engineering project was put in place to reverse the flow of the river. Apparently the river flow can now be re-reversed as needed in response to severe weather (floods / drought); it's also dyed green for fun on St. Patrick's Day.

Our tour guide was also big on Chicago pride, which is an awesome thing to behold: in telling about the great fire, and rebuilding efforts thereafter, he said that it's part of the DNA now of Chicago, that phoenix-like strength of character and fortitude: that Chicagoans will take a challenge head-on, and not let anything dissuade / discourage them - not even utter destruction.  Some may take that as dramatic, but I liked to see that Chicago pride.

After the tour, my next priority of course, was to go on an expedition for foie gras. Chicago being hopefully a role model for California, where foodies are still reeling from the law banning sale or production of foie gras going into effect.  Chicago was able to overturn the ridiculous (and what I view as culinary censorship!) law - hopefully California will as well.

My only meal that day where I could 'get away' and do my own thing - was at lunch.  And lunch menus often service the office crowd, so are not that adventurous or decadent as to feature foie.  But luckily, one of the places sinosoul recommended was able to make an exception to serve up a dinner menu item for me at lunch: GT Fish & Oyster in the River North neighborhood, a spot that feels in decor a lot like Caulfield's in Beverly Hills back home, but with a bar that's easy to sidle up to.  Hearing that I am from California elicited an immediate look of sympathy from my server, and she was very kind in coaxing the kitchen into bringing out early their Foie Gras & Shrimp Terrine with apricot chutney, pickled onions and szechuan peppercorns for me. Loved the vibrant colors on the plate, and they were generous with the ratio of foie to shrimp.  Textures and flavors were also skillfully balanced as well, with the smooth, dense earthy richness of foie balanced by the lighter, yet robust crunch of firm slightly sweet shrimp, the bright acidic crunch of pink pickled onions, tender juicy bursts of sweet apricot punctuated by ground up szechuan peppercorns.  So happy to have foie at all, any time I'm out of state - but I so appreciated the creative fun delicious prep / presentation of foie here. 

On recommendation, I also went for the Clam Chowder ($11) with nueske's bacon, house made oyster crackers. Presented in a mason jar.  This may have been one of the best clam chowders in recent memory, for texture as well as taste - actual whole clams in here, and I loved the drizzle of Serrano pepper hot sauce on top which gave it a nice kick.

Finished lunch off with a Lobster Roll with pickled vegetables and fried onions.  The chunks of lobster were generous, and the pairing with fried onion strings and pickled veggies for contrasting crunch was brilliant.

Girl and the Goat

On another trip, I was able to get in the night before, in time for dinner at the much raved about Girl and the Goat.  (Though Alinea and Next are both on my bucket list, unfortunately the ticketing system requires that I find at least 1 other person to dine with - unless I wanted to pay double, when I can barely afford my own way in...and there were no other foodies on my trip :(.  But I was glad to be able to check out some of the other amazing restaurants in the city.)  I actually made a reservation in advance, but opted last minute to sit at the communal table at the bar, the better to meet hopefully interesting people (which I did, a doctor visiting from NYC for a job interview) and scope out other dishes even if only visually.

Though the menu was relatively limited, there were many decidedly not-run-of-the-mill items that made it difficult to choose (drat human limitations on stomach capacity!).  I finally went with the Goat Carpaccio with smoked trout roe and olive-maple vinaigrette, which was one of the best sliced raw meat dishes I've ever had!

The texture of the goat was smooth and felt fatty, so that you could almost mistake it for toro sashimi (fatty tuna) - except that it tastes, of course, meaty.  This made the addition of smoked trout roe, totally make sense - the little orange orbs looked like salmon roe, another staple of Japanese cuisine.  Who would have thought to pair goat with roe?  But it works incredibly well -loved the fatty sashimi-like texture of the goat, punctuated by delicate burst of brine from the caviar.  The other toppings also sent this experience through to foodgasm - the counterbalancing crunch of greens and fresh fried chips was perfect with the other elements of the dish.  Olive made me think Italian and Maple pointed to Canadian - the two together added a nuanced sweet-savory that worked surprisingly well with everything else on the plate.  If I had had time to get away for another dinner, I would have gone back for this.

I knew as soon as I read the next item that I could not leave without trying it: Duck Tongues with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons.  The prep of this was a really interesting, almost rebellious mash-up of different cuisines: the duck tongues were lightly fried, but super juicy and tender inside, so that the texture reminded me of mongolian beef; the tuna poke had American Japanese influence, while the black beans with crunchy 'chips' made of fried wonton skins for some reason made me think Tex Mex.  But this too, all worked together.  I couldn't stop eating.

Their menu apparently is constantly changing - so not sure if these dishes will be available again - but given my limited taste of the menu, I will definitely head back to Girl and the Goat the next chance I get!


One of the best meals I had in Chicago was squeezed in last minute - literally before I left for the airport. I had to get another foie fix before returning to draconian California.

But where to find foie at lunch, besides GT Fish & Oyster?  The bartender at Henri saved me (I heart you food-loving Chicagoans!) by being yet another friendly force that convinced the kitchen to serve me a dinner menu item at lunch. The Roasted Foie Gras ($28) with burnt peach panna cotta, foie gras mousse, pecan butter, gooseberry, and currants was not only beautiful, with creative pairings of textures and flavors, but pretty much so foodgasm-inducing that had I not been sitting among reserved corporate power lunchers, I would have picked up the plate and licked it clean (blame my near lack of decorum on PETA and spineless California lawmakers).

Out to maximize on every bite of foie I could get my hands on, I also 'found' an item from their lunch menu that allowed diners to add "cured foie" to it as a topping. The Stone Oven Pissaladiere ($14) with Salt Roasted Pear, gruyere, lardon, pistou (add $16 for cured foie gras) was one of the best pizzas I'd ever tasted, mainly because the toppings wre so amazing together.

I was so engrossed in the foie filled meal that I ran out of time to check out Millennium Park, which was right across the street. 

As someone who normally doesn't like to bring leftovers to the airport, especially while trying to get through security - I had to make an exception with this one as I couldn't bear to part with any morsel of this.  I savored the rest on the plane, on my way back to foie-less California, while brushing back salty wistful angry tears.

Rick Bayless' Frontera Fresco

Sometimes, good food is found at the top floor of a department store, in a gourmet food court.  In this case, the top of a historic building housing a giant, 7-story flagship Macy's.  For some reason Rick Bayless' endeavors in LA did not really hold that much appeal for me - but while in Chicago, I was glad that a colleague led us on a quick excursion out of the conference venue to check out Frontera Fresco, which had an awesome casual vibe befitting the venue.
I immediately liked that they didn't take themselves too seriously here, but they took the quality of food seriously. We started at the fresh guac bar - where you could choose toppings (as if this was a sundae!) - for your bit of 'butterfruit' heaven.

We opted for no toppings though as we expected the rest of our meal to be super flavorful.  The avocados in the guac were absolutely flawless.  None of us enjoyed the chips though - which were too thick and too salty for our tastes.  We wanted a light, crispy, crunchy chip to just be a vehicle to showcase the fabulous guac.

The Handmade Chipotle Chicken Tamale with stone ground corn and chipotle chicken served with chipotle salsa ($4.50) was delicious - it was good that they put the salsa outside the wrap so that it wouldn't soak into the tamale before you were ready to eat.
Cubana Torta ($8.95) Roast pork, Chihuahua cheese, applewood smoked bacon, black beans, cilantro crema, chipotle mustard and avocado.  We might have just been starved for non-conference food, but this was one of the best sandwiches we thought we'd ever had! Bread perfectly panini-grilled, yieldy warm cheese, super tender roast pork, flavorful crema and chipotle mustard.

I had wanted to try the Roasted Corn and Poblano Chowder too, but they had already sold out of it by the time we arrived.

If you miss out on the chance to eat at this location, FYI they have a counter at the American Airlines departure terminal at the O'Hare airport!!!

Definitely need another fix next time I'm in town or on layover.

Willis Tower 103rd Floor Deck
We also got a chance to make it up to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) tower one night - the view was definitely spectacular.

But the coolest part is the glass bottom observation deck, where you can stare down the side of the tower to the buildings and street below, and grab your photo opp for your souvenir from the Chicago architectural icon.

More to come: recaps of my meals at Blackbird, The Publican, and other Chicago greats from subsequent trips!



Shoreline Sightseeing
River Architecture Tour
Get tickets from booth at Navy Pier (Ph: 312-222-9328)

GT Fish & Oyster
531 N Wells St, Chicago, IL
Ph: 312.929.3501
OpenTable: Look for reservations and points here
GT Fish & Oyster on Urbanspoon 

619 West Randolph. Chicago, IL 60661
Ph: 312.715.0708

Girl and the Goat
809 W Randolph St, Chicago IL, 60607
Ph: 312.492.6262
Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Frontera Fresco
111 North State St., Chicago, IL 60602
Ph: 312.701.4483
Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

18 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60603
Ph: 312.578.0763
Henri on Urbanspoon


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