Thursday, August 22, 2013

Food Fest Season! The 411 + Ticket Deals

It's the latter half of summer, which signals the start of a specific season for food and drink enthusiasts in the city: Food Festival Season! (So excited!)

Today marks the kickoff of the first of the highest profile festivals; check out the 411 and how to score ticket deals for each below! Have a blast and maybe I'll run into you at one of these events :)


Los Angeles Food & Wine

What: Four day, "epicurean extravaganza" that draws some of the top chefs and stars to events from cooking demos, tastings, book signings, seminars to live entertainment and more, all over the city.  Now in its third year!

When: August 22-25, 2013

Where: Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Downtown LA (see website for details)

How much: $50 and up for individual events; $150 for Lexus Grand Tastings GA / $195 for VIP (see website for details)

[Deal alert: Lexus owners get 15% off tickets to the event - see Lexus offer page for details]

Anticipated drool-factor?: 100% with the Food & Wine connection, an All-star lineup of chefs/ stars from and visiting LA will be in abundance, from the Thomas Keller, to Grant Achatz to Scott Conant to Charles Phan & David Myers.  Food Network fans can also get their fill of Giada de Laurentis and Curtis Stone in multiple events.

The Lexus Grand Tastings especially are always fun, AYCE and drink extravaganzas, and there are specialty themed events to appeal to your interests whether it's food, wine or cocktails.

Check out my recaps of events from previous years: Lexus Grand Tasting 2011 and Lexus Grand Tasting 2012 + Richard Blaise Cooking Demo

Also: the live auction will benefit Share Our Strength in their efforts to end childhood hunger.

Event website:

Los Angeles Times The Taste

What: Three day series of events celebrating food and drink, in that quintessential Hollywood backlot venue at Paramount.

When: August 30-September 1, 2013 (Labor Day weekend!)

Where: Paramount Pictures Studios 5555 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038

How much: $65 for most events if you purchase by August 29 ($85 and up thereafter - see website for details).  Opening night event $125. 

[Deal alert: 
  • LA Times members save 20% off tickets via this link here 
  • Everyone else: buy a ticket at $55 from LivingSocial for any single event on Saturday or Sunday (save $10 off early bird price! deal ends 8/23) OR get your tickets by 8/29 to get the early bird rate of $65 for most events  ]
Anticipated drool-factor?: 100% great staycation option for Labor Day weekend, and very affordable as food fests go. It's fun to be on the backlot of an iconic working Hollywood studio, and you know Pulitzer prize winning food critic "The J Gold" will have the best curated collection of Flavors of LA in one evening (Sat 8/31 7:30-11:30pm), and you'll have a mind-blowing experience as always with cocktail chef Matt Biancaniello in the event he is co-hosting, Cocktail Confidential (Sun 9/1 7:30-11:30pm)! My recaps of events from past years here, here and here.

Event website:


Sunday, August 18, 2013

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Tai O Fishing Village Adventure

Once in a while, I have an experience so great that I simply *can't* write about it...there are no words that can possibly do it justice.  Or I keep waiting for inspiration to hit, and end up 'saving' it for another day, a better day. 

But several things that happened to friends / acquaintances recently really put things in perspective - don't put off to another day, what you could do while you have the time and ability. 

So here's my attempt at retelling one of my favorite travel experiences ever.

When describing Hong Kong to people who have never been, I usually find it easiest to compare it to NYC - in terms of being beyond-fast-paced, gorgeous skyline, incredible dining, packed so solid with people that you can easily develop pedestrian rage.  But with a lot more Asians.  And of course the meeting of two predominant and vastly different cultures - where relics of tradition can exist side-by-side with glossy icons of modernity and ostentatious capitalism.

But there was a hidden gem that I hadn't experienced until my most recent visit - a fishing village just under two hours outside the city center, often referred to as the "Venice of Hong Kong".

On a less frequented edge of Lantau island, accessible by a combination of MTR (Hong Kong's uber efficient subway system) and bus / taxi up a windy mountain road - Tai O sits as a vestige of nostalgic Hong Kong.  Back before the skyscrapers and hustle-and-bustle, before shopping malls and neon signs. Where houses on stilts still jut with proud romanticism out of the sleepy river that provided livelihoods to fishermen who have been there for generations.  There are not very many places in Hong Kong that still feel 'untouched' by mass commercial interests - and Tai O is that rarity that has, for better or worse, attracted many visitors over recent years.  Since it was kind of a spontaneous trip, we had arrived in the evening just before sundown - so the first thing we did was jump on the boat tour, since they stop running after dark.

If memory serves correctly it was like $10 HKD / ~$1.40 USD per person for the half hour ride, where you get to see the original stilt houses - where people still actually live - this was no theme park recreation - as well as some natural formations in rocks sloping down the mountainside into the water.
But it was strolling through the quaint, narrow alleyways that was my favorite part of the visit.  As a fishing village, it comes as no surprise that there was lots of seafood for sale - but prepared and presented the old school Chinese way - dried and hanging in plastic bins or hanging from open street vendor stalls.
It was a treasure trove of delicacies from the sea, from salted fish, geoduck, sea cucumbers, scallops, shrimp, and abalone to seahorses.
A signature product made from their marine bounty is a pungent shrimp paste, which is added to seafood dishes to kick up the flavor.  Also sold at some stalls were 'fish powder' and XO sauce (a Hong Kong invention - and one of my favorite condiments of all time - made with various dried seafood, chili and spices).
With the 'Travel Channel'-like experience thus far, we were already having a great time, when we turned down another alley that opened up to a small plaza and it got even better.  There were street vendors with hibachi style grills that almost looked homemade - and they served up all kinds of delicious seafood from skewers of giant scallops with or without beautiful orange gonads included...'s a close-up... the 'goldmine' stall that blew my mind with MULLET ROE BOTTARGA, such an expensive delicacy elsewhere in the world, grilled on the street over stone bowl charcoal hibachis!!!

They clamp the gorgeous orange slabs of roe in between open metal wire grates to allow it to heat evenly.

The delicious smoky char was intoxicating, and completely irresistible.  My parents are always worried about the cleanliness of street food, especially seafood, but I was absolutely not going to leave Tai O without trying the grilled bottarga.

They actually had several different kinds for people to choose from, at different grades of quality - that they will grill to order.  As with all the other amazing seafood here, very unceremoniously presented in plastic bins.  The cheapest grade was $20HKD/ >$3USD per pair, and went up to $40HKD/ ~$5.70USD on the 'high' end!!!!  I nearly died of happiness on the spot.  We ordered several rounds, which were grilled on the spot and placed in paper bags (!!!) for us to eat on the go while checking out the rest of the village.

The incredible find, and value, aside - what I also loved about Tai O was that the authenticity.  These vendors are not cast members hired to evoke an untouched, idyllic fishing village.  They actually live here - most upstairs from their food stall - and they are clearly proud of their village and their way of life.  They have tourists coming through, yes, but if that business is a necessary means to sustain their way of life - so be it. 
Next to the bottarga, a lady grills whole dried squid, carefully alternately holding it over flames and cooling it down as needed with a handheld electric fan.

We didn't end up trying the squid as we were so obsessed pre-occupied with the bottarga.  It was the first time my parents had tried it too, so it was a fun first for us to experience together.  I loved that they were game for it.

Further down the labyrinthine alleys, were other hot food vendors - one with some sort of dessert bun (lotus seed paste bao, I think)...

And my favorite street food snack growing up, the Hong Kong Egg Waffle!!!!  So crispy on the outside with warm, soft fluffy doughy interiors - perfectly formed for eating on the go since the individual egg-shaped 'capsules' help maintain the crispiness / doughiness balance.

There were also mom and pop restaurants with buckets and tanks of live seafood - where you can take your pick, and ask the server to prep it the way you like it.  This is not unique to Tai O though - there are several other famous spots in Hong Kong to get this type of experience, like Lama Island and Sai Kung - so we did not stop for a full seafood feast here.

Though, we couldn't leave without trying at least a bite of the local seafood prepared with their signature shrimp we stopped by the restaurant that looked like it had the most customers (always a sign that it's a good pick - an admittedly herd mentality that leads to long lines and waits at top restaurants in HK): Good View Seafood.  Despite its name, the place did NOT face the water and was a no frills hole in the wall.

We tried their stir-fried squid with vegetables in shrimp paste sauce.  I wanted to love it but to be honest it wasn't that memorable.  But we had our fill of grilled bottarga earlier, and that was what mattered, and made our day / trip.

Oh, almost forgot to mention, if you visit in the early evening, don't miss the chance to catch the sunset by the docks - it's pretty breathtaking.

Though the whole place shuts down - literally, with metal gates coming down over once lively storefronts - pretty soon after dark - nothing can beat the feeling of strolling through the 'night market'-like alleys just around dusk.  Be sure not to be swept up in the mass exodus of the crowds and miss out on that small window of opportunity. 

Definitely one of my favorite travel experiences of all time - and not sure if it will still be the same next time I'm back.  (I read recently that real estate developers are setting their sights there, and a government ban on commercial fishing has pushed villagers to seek other means of income which further erode their traditional, nature driven way of life.)  I hope so, and I hope that the bottarga, hibachi and the villagers' untainted ways will be there waiting for us for many years to come.


Hong Kong
Tai O fishing village
Lantau Island, Hong Kong
How to get there: MTR Tung Chung + cable car and/or bus or taxi


Sunday, August 11, 2013

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Balls - Literal Hole in the (Mountain) Wall (CLOSED)

"Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness." - Carl Jung

Sometimes, I get sidetracked by what's of the moment - what other people want / need / demand - and I forget what's important to me.  (The rest of the time I might have become a bit unapologetically self-centered...).  Which is my round about way of coming to the point of why I'm writing about a place that has already closed - sorrow. For a place that brought such happiness - and the post that I meant to get to, celebrating the insanely good find that everyone in Hong Kong already knew and loved - that kept being superceded by 'more urgent' ones until I realized that I had waited so long, the place had ceased to exist.  And that it's a place that I can return to, nevermore.  RIP, Tse Kee - this is my remembrance of you.

My mom loves wandering Hong Kong (and other cities) in search of new eats - and 'saving up the good ones' for when I visit for the holidays.  On one such trip home, she brought me to a famous and hole-in-the-wall place in Aberdeen that purported to serve the best fish balls - a Cantonese specialty that do NOT have anything to do with sea creature gonads - ever.

There was a story behind the restaurant's curious name as well - it literally started out as a food stand in front of a cave, in the early days of Hong Kong history.  Word spread quickly of the quality of the family's handiwork, and the business rapidly grew into a full fledged restaurant - full fledged meaning a dai pai dong style, tiny hole-in-the-wall spot in Aberdeen.

They kept the phrase "Shan Loon" (Cantonese for "cave") in the name as a tribute to its humble beginnings - and because it was such a unique trait that the place became known for.  Everyone referred to it as the 'cave' fish balls.  In modern day Hong Kong, the family still kept the place old school style, with tables split amongst strangers, and non-nonsense, rushed, loud service - which far from turning off the locals, made them line up for hours each morning, noon and night for a taste of the famous bowls of fish ball noodle soups.  It goes without saying that no reservations were offered - definitely a first come, first served - fight to seat yourself wherever a spot opens up kind of place.

After about 45 minutes and shameless hovering over anyone who looked like they might be nearly done with their meal - my parents and I snagged seats at a shared table.  We quickly exchanged shouted orders and confirmations with the waitress, and our food came within minutes.  It's kind of like the In N Out method of fast, good food - keep the menu offerings focused to make it easy to order and easy to deliver.  It was all about fish balls, fish balls, and more fish balls.  With a smattering of other signature dishes for good measure.  We wanted to try the fried fish skin with the famous fish balls - but they were already sold out of it by the time we sat down (like at 11:15am!).  So I got my Schweppes cream soda...
...tried a bite of my parent's fish balls (fish meat ground up, emulsified and shaped into orbs, then fried for a chewy outer layer) with ho fan (rice noodles) served in pork rib broth and pretty much died of happiness.  Tse Kee makes everything from scratch and unlike most Chinese restaurants, do not use any MSG.  Yet the bowl was packed with amazing flavor, the fish balls were sublimely balanced between soft and resilient (al dente is not exactly the right phrase to describe it, but it would be in the right direction), and the fresh made noodles were the perfect, tender and smooth yet lightly springy consistency.

I also had to try the fish skin wontons, which were basically pork meatballs wrapped in fish skin and boiled in pork broth.  AMAZE-balls.  Yeah I went there.  And I had the flat rectangular sliced version of the fish balls (I guess you can call them fish cakes instead) again in that incredible pork rib broth that had such soul-soothing clarity and warmth, and the amazing fresh made ho fan noodles that served as the perfect foil for the textures and rich flavors of the fish cakes and wontons.

If there had been any way to ship these back to LA fresh, I'd have spent my life savings to do it.  It was that good.  And now it's gone :(  I will always remember and miss you, Tse Kee - you have left a hole in this food lover's heart that cannot be filled by anything else.  I will try to think positively and be grateful that I had the chance to experience you before your unfortunate departure. I will take this as a reminder to appreciate what is and remains in my life.  But I still hope that someone from the family will open another incarnation of this place someday - maybe even by the time I make it back to Hong Kong again.  I promise, this time, I would celebrate you while you are here.


Hong Kong
Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Balls 山窿謝記魚蛋
80-82 Old Main Street, Aberdeen
Tel: 2552 3809

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cocktails: Next Incarnation by Matt Biancaniello

Matt Biancaniello probably singlehandedly got me into craft cocktails because of his culinary, farmers market-driven approach.

I was sad to hear when he left Library Bar , as that meant the end of a familiar schedule, a place I could refer friends to for a mind-blowingly fantastic drink after work. But I was also excited to see what the next chapter would bring for him, as his boundless creativity was sure to keep taking him to amazing places.

After some time behind the bar at Cliff's Edge, Matt had emerged with a first of its kind (as far as I'm aware) cocktail ice cream pop-ups at Scoops Westside a few months back - that were so incredible that I still think about and crave those creations now.

At these pop-ups, Matt was sort of like Willy Wonka - if Willy Wonka made treats for adults with finer palates - worked in a frozen, 'boozy' medium versus pure confection, and foraged some of his own ingredients.

Served at his first pop-up: 

Candy Cap Mushroom Bourbon ice cream with walnuts, homemade Nocino spray, and rosemary flowers

Coffee Infused Cynar with black sage & vanilla infused whipped cream

Stinging Nettle Infused St Germain & Pear Sorbet with pomelo infused St Germain air on top

Birch Liquer, Tangelo, Cinnamon with a side of either guava infused Dolin blanco vermouth or wild bay leaf infused cocchi Americano

You could get either a single treat for $8, or a sampler of all four for $25. I of course had to try all, waistline be damned!

I can't even pretend to understand the process that Matt's mind goes through to put these ingredients together - but they all worked to create possibly the most delicious ice cream treats ever.  I wanted more as soon as I finished my four scoops...

The second pop-up was even better.

Again at Scoops Westside, singles for $8, sampler of four for $25.

There was the returning crowd favorite, the Candy Cap Mushroom Bourbon, and his twist on the Coffee Infused Cynar this time with purple sage infused cream and dehydrated orange slices.

Then there were new, totally unexpected creations:

Curry Infused Campari with oro blanco pieces, arugula flowers, mug wort infused homemade beer, Himalayan sea salt, apricot pit infused aperol foam

This one has been haunting my dreams for months. Who would have thought to pair curry with ice cream, or Campari, or to use arugula flowers at all for that matter? And homemade beer on top of all that? And oro blanco too?  Mind. Blown. Even from the description of ingredients. And then the tasting: and here's the part where Matt's chef-like approach to cocktails comes in: you know how some so called 'tweezer food' is too cerebral, and fussy, where the whole thing is just lost in visual artistry and the actual flavors and textures are no longer enjoyable? That is what a skeptic who has never had the Matty B experience, and reading the menu might suspect this to be. But this one is genius AND tastes amazing - layers of different kinds of tart, bitter, sweet, salt and spice unfurl gradually, so that each spoonful is just a little bit different depending on how long you let it linger on your tongue. And it was such a beautiful shade of apricot. One of the best ice cream dishes I've ever had.

The fourth offering was also unusual, and delicious: Mochi Infused Sake ice cream with rice milk, kaffir lime zest, pistachios, wild bay leaf infused cocchi Americano, borage flowers

Loved the gorgeous presentation - and while more mild in flavor and less complex than the previous cup, no less delicious. I'd say this is also one of my favorite cups of ice cream ever.

At this most recent Matty B sighting, he mentioned looking into his own space, as well as exploring cocktail infusions of other foods.

I was sad to have missed his pop-ups at Ramekin, but news broke recently that his next pop-up will be with chef Jason Park from Ramekin, at his new soft open sushi restaurant in Santa Monica - focusing on cocktails to pair with oysters! I love cocktails (now) and oysters are one of my favorite foods in the world so definitely count me in!!

Here's the 411:

Date: August 8, 2013
Time: 7pm-10pm
Location: Maru 12400 Wilshire Blvd Ste 150, Los Angeles, CA 90025

Can't wait!!!!!

Gorge: Fighting the Good (Food) Fight

A while back, Beauty Jones and I stopped by Gorge on Sunset.

It's got that perfect storm of elements that appeal to us: cozy, off the beaten path, unpretentious, stacking their investment where it really counts - in the kitchen, with owner/chefs of impressive pedigree - Elia Aboumrad (Joel Robuchon Paris & Las Vegas), and Uyen Nguyen (Guy Savoy, Le Cirque, Fleur de Lys). And it had a name with meaning: Gorge apparently comes from the old war expression, “A la gorge!”,  once an exclamation by French soldiers hurtling into battle, which literally means, “To the throat!”.  The expression was adopted by militant kitchen brigades preparing to give themselves to service. To us that read: thoughtful chefs in the kitchen, good food ahead!

As usual - I tried not to do too much more research beforehand so as to get an as unbiased experience as possible. So we were kind of surprised to step into a cozy little nook that felt in decor a bit like an Irish rural neighborhood pub meets mom & pop diner.  Loved it all the more for offering a casual, relaxed setting for the food that would not be out of place in the finest white-tableclothed, silver-utensiled, multi-award-winning restaurants in the city.

We were greeted by Master Sommelier Darius Allyn, who gave us a tour of the menu along with his recommendations, including wine pairings with each dish. I'm not usually into wine, but Beauty Jones takes annual trips to Italy's wine regions, was just about to leave for the Loire valley, and had just filled my head with visions of lush vineyards and liquid sun/ terroir captured in radiant bottles. And Darius made us feel at home right away, like we were his best customers here for our weekly meal, though it was really our first. There was none of the pretentiousness you may expect from other master sommeliers.  

So we started off with Chicken Liver Parfait ($10) accompanied by cornichons and country bread.  This was an incredibly light, smooth yet flavor rich spread that we didn't want to stop eating, ever.

This was paired (if memory serves correctly) perfectly with a pinot gris.

Then, because we couldn't, and didn't want to, limit our choices on charcuterie/cheese - we went for the platter: Saucisson Sec & Cheese ($29) House dried saucisson sec, Frommage de tete, House pickles, Country bread & GORGE Cheese selection
This was possibly the best charcuterie and cheese platter I've had in LA. Every bite was foodgasm inducing including the sides of pickled romanesco (a veggie that looks like some alien microbe lifeform under the magnifying lens of a microscope), almonds, and housemade strawberry preserves. And yes, you can tell our visit was a while ago, since we were able to get Mimolette on the board. 

For a change of pace, and honestly only because Beauty Jones wanted to try it:
Belgian Endives ($14) Poached in aromatic broth, Served warm, Vanilla bean sauce, Toasted almonds
This was food art - a gorgeous plate that tasted as great as it looks.  I didn't miss my proteins one bit.

Then a terrine for good measure (and because they had me at truffles): Pheasant Terrine ($25) Wild pheasant, Black truffles, Pecans, Potato puree, Organic baby kale salad
This also, like every bite we had before it, was perfect in flavor, texture, temperature, presentation. Taken to the next level with a pairing of Vouvray.

For dessert, there was a choice of different flavors of St. Honore. We went for the Pistachio St. Honore ($10) Pistachio pastry cream, Vanilla chantilly, Pistachio macaron
So deliciously light, with macarons in the true Parisian style - ones that have a crispy shell that yield to airy interiors, that do not collapse into a sticky mess on contact. And if we hadn't both been raised right, would have fought each other for the last bite. 

With the superstar team of women at its helm, it would be so easy and trite, to make this a 'Go Girls!' story - but that would be doing Gorge and its amazing team a disservice. Gorge is simply, the product of true passion and dedication by a trifecta of chefs and sommelier - an amazing still somewhat hidden gem that everyone who loves food and wine needs to experience, asap.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience -  5.5 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


8917 West Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069

Parking: Meters on Sunset Blvd.



GORGE Charcuterie & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon


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