Monday, February 18, 2013

1MB Travels: New Orleans: Commander's Palace

Funny thing, how perception of the passing of time is relative - mere seconds can feel like a lifetime to an Olympic diver, especially as they wait with bated breath to see the results that are the culmination of years of their lives spent training; years can feel like mere moments to a parent of a grown child they will see as their baby forever (so I hear :P).

But on a more everyday and personal level...It's been just over a year since I started my new gig, and it feels simultaneously like it was yesterday, and a lifetime ago. It feels like a blur, for the flurry of new experiences I've been lucky enough to have, especially being able to see parts of the states I never would have otherwise had occasion or funds to visit. But also like a lifetime, for the things I've learned about this business, and myself, within this year.   Two of these trips brought me to the Big Easy, and I managed to squeeze in a few tastes of soulful southern food and hospitality - my favorite of these experiences was at Commander's Palace, winner of multiple James Beard awards including three Lifetime ones, and most recently a semi finalist for Best Chef: south 2012. So good, in fact, that I found myself there twice: for lunch and brunch. Below are the highlights from each.  

LUNCH: Commander's Palace is located in the Garden District, a slow paced neighborhood that lives up to its name. The famed Bourbon Street is not my scene for many reasons - so it was good to get to see a more serene, genteel side of NOLA, when I ventured out of the French Quarter to lunch here. There is a more formal dining room with country-style decor, or you could choose to sit on the garden patio out back. For lunch, I stayed inside - but definitely choose the patio for brunch as they have live jazz on weekends!   The menu was one that could cause serious whiplash for adventurous foodies: my eyes roamed all over the page of creative and delicious sounding dishes, willing my stomach to be tested beyond all human limits to accommodate a taste of each.  

With sympathetic looks and some help from my lovely server, I finally decided on the 3-course prix fixe special, an awesome deal at $32, with my own added supplement for soup. Even the amuse bouche was exciting: Boudin Blanc Rillette Croquette with Jack Daniels Relish.    
Then, the truly foodgasm inducing Oysters & Absinthe in Pastry 'Dome', with Gulf oysters poached in cream, bacon, artichoke, tarragon and yes that previously illegal alcohol that was a favorite of artists, poets, authors, and rebels, absinthe. It essentially resembled in texture like a light chowder, but the layers of revelatory flavors were like nothing I had ever tasted.

The puff pastry 'dome' is a technique I'd seen before, which keeps the soup hot, while providing flaky, buttery accompaniment. Perfection in a bowl. I had to have this again on my second visit too (in fact, it's what drew me back).
The soups on offer all sounded so intriguing that I wanted to order them all, including: Snapping Turtle with splash of sherry (which takes 3 days to make!), Chicken & Andouille Gumbo... Luckily, my server was incredible and let me know that as an 'off menu' service they can create a soup sampler, so that I can try 3 soups in small teacup sized cups. I got the two named above plus Lobster Bisque. My favorite of the three was definitely the snapping turtle soup - they add the sherry tableside - its fragrance is intoxicating on its own, but in taste it really adds a whole new dimension to the soup. I can only describe it as 'opening up' the flavors of the soup, the way adding drops of water to whiskey breaks up surface tension and allows the lovely complexities of flavor in the drink to be revealed.

Of course, I couldn't leave without trying the Crispy Alligator Grillades with cracked corn grits, Louisiana hot sauce and sweet chili gastrique! Yes, alligator meat does look a bit like chicken, but much richer in flavor. Loved this dish as well - I gotta get my grits too!

I don't know how I found room for dessert, but got the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé which is served with a warm splash of whiskey sauce tableside - and apparently they are well known for, and it did not disappoint - if I could have brought 10 of these home I would have!

I wasn't in the mood for martinis that day, but tip for those planning a visit - they have a 25 cent martini special!
BRUNCH: On my brunch visit, it was charming to sit outside (you get to walk through the main kitchen to get there!) and hear the live jazz band.  
For brunch, you pick your choice of entree and the price marked next to it includes your choice of appetizer and dessert. I got the snapping turtle soup again to start, and bread pudding for dessert. for the main I went for their interpretation of a southern classic this time with Louisiana Shrimp and Grits ($36 for 3-courses), which was fantastically well balanced between the bold flavors of the wild local white shrimp and fiery "sauce forestiere" with melted leeks, roasted mushrooms and concasse tomatoes, and the comforting mildness of the goat cheese stone ground grits below.

Both visits to Commander's Palace were unforgettable, and great value especially for the quality and portion sizes - and whenever it is that I return to NOLA, I will most certainly be passing some of my time at Commander's Palace!

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% 

Commander's Palace
New Orleans
1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130
Ph: 504.899.8221
Website: _____________________________________________________________

Commander's Palace on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 3, 2013

dineLA Winter 2013: El Caserio: Ecuadorian Italian in Silverlake

I have a confession to make.  When dineLA first launched Restaurant Week, I was super excited on two fronts: getting deals to dine at top spots around the city that may not be normally affordable to me, and being able to check out new places with reduced monetary risk (thanks to the prix fixe menus!).  But over years with this event I've subconsciously veered my focus more towards the deal aspect.  I'd become comfortable, and complacent - I had the restaurants picked out that I knew I could rely on for a great meal, experience, and at a great price, and my choices became cookie cutter.  I forgot my sense of adventure and taste for culinary roulette.

So I want to thank Beauty Jones for being the amazing friend who gently steered me back, without judgment - just a friendly suggestion of some place new that neither of us had ever tried, but that she had wondered about as she passed by on the way home every day.

I knew this would be a fun culinary adventure when I heard that it featured 'Ecuadorian Italian' fare.  I didn't realize the venue itself would be transporting as well.  Though in Silverlake, it's off the beaten path in a more reclused area - the restaurant seems to rise out of nowhere in a remote part of Silver Lake Blvd, in the shadow of the freeway.  The first thing that greeted me was an ancient, ornate door that looked like it weighed 2000 pounds, and wouldn't be out of plce at some remote ruins of a castle.  Once inside, there is the bar, then a charming dining room and mosaic patio strung with lights and a 'Secret Garden'-like spiral staircase that in the dark seemingly led to nowhere.

We were distracted away from the setting by some bread served with fiery-red 'aji' dip, which was super spicy but delicious (and I usually can't handle that much spice!).  On to the dineLA offering then: it was to be a 3-course dinner for $35 per person.  But the dishes were so generous each meal could easily feed two average sized ladies.  Course 1: Appetizers - a mini assortment from Los Andes: Locro de Mote (soup), Ensalada de Melloco, Papas con Queso - this was an amazing appetizer platter that was anything but mini - it could almost have been a small meal in itself, and we each got our own platter! And it all tasted amazing. The four quadrants were like a study in what you can do with the same ingredients.  All contained either potato or corn.  The salad was of pickled potatoes (first time we'd encountered that preparation of spuds) that were perfectly cooked - crunchy but soft at the same time, I think pickled onions, on a bed of greens with a light vinaigrette dressing.  The lovely soup was made with potato and mote (giant corn kernels typical to South American cooking - Ecuadorians boil and peel before serving them) and was beautifully smooth, served at just the right temperature.  Then there was the dried corn that reminded us of corn nuts, but a million times better (no smothered in artificial powders, and much lighter, with an airy crunchiness).  Lastly, the trio of different types of potato served on a spicy cheese dip that had a texture like smoothed out cottage cheese, with a bit of heat.  We'd come back just for this platter alone.
Course 2: Mote con Fritada corn and garbanzo bean served with tender roasted pork garnished with plantains.  Again mote is featured in Beauty Jones' chosen dish, mixed with garbanzo beans this time to accompany roasted pork and fried plantains (for a bit of sweetness to go with the protein).

I couldn't resist the Seco de Chivo ($16 on regular menu) goat stew slowly cooked with beer herbs, naranjilla and tomatoes, served with yellow rice and maduros.  Mainly because I had no idea what most of the words on the menu meant. Turns out naranjilla, which translates to "little orange", is a fruit that looks like a tomato but tastes like rhubarb and lime.  This is one of the ingredients used to cook the goat stew - which was foodgasm-inducing.  The goat was super tender, and the sauce was a supernova of sweet, savory, herbaceous, tempered acidity in your mouth.  The Italian influence came through on the tomato base of the sauce.  Maduros turned out to be sauteed plantains, and there was also an unnamed but delicious savory cake on our plates that was made with cheese and we think cornmeal.

Course 3: Tiramisu ($8 on regular menu) - the dessert options were less unique, and we both went for the Tiramisu over the "figs and cheese" (hate ordering things at restaurants that are easy to make/serve yourself at home). It was a classic but skilled execution, with pleasing levity all around and the ladyfingers were not soggy. 

Since the appetizer platter isn't on the regular menu, and there aren't any comparable dishes that I can see, it was hard to estimate the overall savings.  But knowing the goat stew was $16 + dessert at $8, that would leave $11 of the dineLA prix fixe for appetizer.  Taking portion sizes into account, and the great experience, we thought it was all worth it.  This one made us lean more towards 'new experience' versus the 'deal on paper' - but the end result is a lovely night out trying something new, and we each had enough leftovers for lunch the day after.

Overall, very excited to have discovered a new place and type of cuisine I hadn't experienced before.  I never would have put Ecuadorians and Italians together, but now know that there's a huge population of Italian immigrants in Ecuador leading to Italian influences in Ecuadorian cuisine - so I learned something new too. Thanks dineLA and Beauty Jones! 

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 95% 

El Caserio

401 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026
Ph: 213.273.8945

Parking: street parking

El Caserio on Urbanspoon     

Hide Sushi: A Gem of a Sushi Lunch Special

Hide Sushi is a not-so-hidden neighborhood gem for locals in the know.  It took me a year of working in the area to make it here and I'm kicking myself for losing all that time that I could have been having awesome affordable sushi for lunch!

An old school, cozy little place without any obvious signage outside, the best way to locate the restaurant is to head just across Sawtelle from the modern complex currently housing lunch hotspots Tsujita, Nongla and ROC Kitchen, then look for the traditional-style Japanese house facade, white-washed with brown tiled 'roof'.

It can get crowded at lunch, and when my co-worker and I went they did not have tables for us, but we were happy to slide up to the counter - you get faster service there anyways as the chef is right in front of you! We of course skipped the cooked foods (teriyaki, noodles) section of the menu, and dove straight into the lunch specials.

We both got the Nigiri special ($12.80) which had very generously sized rolls of mackerel, salmon, yellowtail, tuna, shrimp, egg, and (impressively considering the price and instinct of most other restaurants to cater to  the lowest common denominator with their lunch packages) surf clam and octopus.
Every piece was good quality for the price (obviously you're not getting Tsukiji quality in this price range - but it's very good compared to others in this tier).  I really loved the portion size as well - definitely a filling lunch for average sized ladies!

Though the special was satisfying in itself, I can never pass up ankimo (monkfish liver) - especially now with the foie gras ban in effect, this is kind of like my sea creature substitute (they do say ankimo is like foie of the sea!).  It was cool to see the chef's eyes light up when I ordered it too - perhaps the usual office lunch crowd doesn't always venture into this area of the menu. Hide Sushi does have a full a la carte menu of nigiri and hand rolls - unfortunately I was so excited I didn't take notes on pricing for the ankimo - but if memory serves correctly, these two massive rolls were under $5 total. 
All in all, a fantastic lunch spot - that, even with all the newer options constantly popping up on Sawtelle - we'll be coming back to often!!! (We'll just have to remember to bring cash, as they don't take credit cards - though there is an ATM machine right inside the entrance.)

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Hide Sushi

2040 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ph: 310.477.7242

Parking: free valet on Missisippi west of Sawtelle (behind Tsujita...for that complex ;))


Hide Sushi on Urbanspoon   


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