Wednesday, January 30, 2013

N/Naka: eat/give/hope Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Benefit Dinner

As something that is a necessity for survival, food and consumption in its basest form is primal instinct.  At the other extreme are chefs who perhaps over-intellectualize in attempt to elevate the culinary arts.  Somewhere around the pivot point, in perfect balance - is N/Naka. Chef Niki Nakayama takes the Japanese tradition of kaiseki (seasonal small exquisite dishes in perfect balance) and seeks to create an experience, a 'narrative', for her guests that is artistic and accessible.

I'd always wanted to experience N/Naka, but they offer tasting menus only, and the lowest priced one that isn't vegetarian costs $110 - though 9-courses are involved, it was still out of my price range.  Then N/Naka announced that they were doing a series of Sunday dinners at $55, 6-courses, to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and I knew that was divine intervention: finally a price point I can afford, and all to go towards a good cause.  Yes, dineLA is still happening, and I'm still recovering from a long holiday trip - but there was no way I was going to miss this event at N/Naka. 

As soon as my friend Teach and I set foot in the space, we fell in love with it immediately - it was small and cozy with a mere handful of tables - but had a very serene, soothing vibe with minimal but tasteful decor, including a zen pebble garden in the middle of each table.
What's clear from the menu for the night, is the thought Chef Nakayama puts into her concept and execution - while at the same time taking care to make everything very accessible and enjoyable. It's not about ego or show-womanship here, but genuine passion that goes out with each plate.  The first course, Sakizuke is described as "(a pairing of something common and someting unique) bigeye tuna, avocado dashi, jalapeno, cilantro, tempura soy paper".  Fish and avocado are a common match in sushi, but this execution is refreshing and new - I don't want to use the word 'deconstruct' which is implicitly obnoxious and that is not what Chef Nakayama's food is about, but this is sort of a new way of preparing and pulling together elements normally found in a sushi roll.  I liked the balance of different textures flaky, creamy, crunchy, density (fish) and levity (accoutrements) and the bit of heat and herbaceousness added by the jalapeno and cilantro. A nice tease for the rest of the meal.
Zensai: (main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer) "san ten mori" pan seared beef teres major, mixed baby greens, miso pepper dressing; baked fanny bay oyster, sesame aioli; hamachi carpaccio, sweet sesame ponzu.  Loved every bite on this plate - I normally like my oysters naked so I can taste pure ocean in them, but the sesame aioli was light enough in flavor and consistency that it worked with the oyster, and did not overwhelm it  Loved the brush of wasabi aioli to go with the beef as well - the Japanese take on horseradish cream served the American way with steak.
Mushimono/Agemono: (steamed dish/fried dish) steamed lobster chawanmushi, black prince tomato, lobster glaze; vegetable "kaki-age" tempura with gobo, maitake, carrots and onions. You know that scene in Runaway Bride where Richard Gere's character accuses Julia Roberts' of not knowing who she is, so much so that she doesn't even know what kind of eggs she likes, and so she spends a morning with plates of every possible preparation of egg to taste test until she can determine which is her favorite?  Yeah so that's not me at all.  I KNOW I love eggs in multiple forms, in this order: 63 degree, soft boiled, scrambled, AND as chawanmushi (steamed). I haven't encountered too many places that serve it steamed (FarmShop, Torafuku, The Coop pop-up, and now N/Naka are the only ones I know...)

So I was excited to see N/Naka serve this.  And of course with their own touch - topped with rich tomato based lobster sauce and a tender, juicy piece of the crustacean, plus crumbled pieces of what I thought was ground beef for textural contrast.  Here's a gratuitous close up of the steamed egg - super light and smooth.  I loved the tempura on the side too, as a sort of foil for the smoothness and levity of the chawanmushi.  Everything in balance. I'd read that Chef Niki grows her own vegetables in her organic garden - and though not a big fan of veggies in general, preferring seafood or better quality cuts of meat, I appreciated the freshness of the veggies used for the tempura, which came through clearly even past the batter.
Shiizakana: (chef's choice dish not bound by tradition) mentaiko pasta with italian summer truffles.  I love Japanese style pasta, which is generally much lighter on sauce and sweeter.  Chef Nakayama breaks tradition beyond the Japanese style of handling pasta, by adding mentaiko (marinated pollock roe), usually served in rice balls or on its own as a side dish, into the sauce for the pasta. Then topping it with Italian summer truffles so fragrant it turned heads the minute it left the kitchen.  So in a way, a sort of Japanese meets Italian interpretation of 'surf and turf', with fish and fungi instead of traditional proteins, in a bowl. One of my favorite dishes of the night.
Shokuji: (rice dish- sushi) "chirashi-zushi" a beautiful jewelry box-like presentation of gems from the sea.  There is nothing ground breaking about this chirashi course - just amazing cuts of incredibly fresh and flavorful fish over rice.  But as sushi lovers will tell you, the rice is just as important as the fish - and N/Naka gets a perfect 10 for the quality of their rice - it's at a perfect consistency where each grain is distinct but meld into a coherent whole.  Perfectly balanced sweetness with just a little bite from mixed in vinegar.  Fresh grated wasabi on a shiso leaf takes this over the top as possibly the best affordable chirashi I've ever tasted in LA (i.e. Urasawa and others of that several hundred $$$ per head class will certainly beat this, but I wouldn't know as that's completely not affordable for me)
 
Mizumono: (dessert): sesame panna cotta, okinawan black sugar syrup, black sesame paste, sesame tuille.  A gorgeous and dynamic, yet very simple dessert gave a photogenic finish to the fantastic meal.
Chef Nakayama is offering two more of these benefit dinners, Sunday February 3rd and 10th.  At last check she is already completely booked, with long waiting lists, but you can always try your luck for cancellations or see if she will offer more dates.
 
Can't make it to dinner but still want to make a donation?  Go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society site or give to Team in Training.


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 - $ (1 bite mark for this special menu)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
______________________________________________________________________

N/Naka

3455 S. Overland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034 
Ph: 310.836.6252

Parking: Valet $5 at restaurant, or street parking (hard to find at dinnertime, check signs)

Website: n-naka.com
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N/Naka on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 27, 2013

dineLA Winter 2013: Caulfield's at the Thompson Hotel Beverly Hills

For my first dineLA meal of the year, I knew I had to try Caulfield's, the newly overhauled restaurant in the Thompson Hotel in Beverly Hills - aside from new interiors by HD Buttercup to new leadership in the kitchen by Chef Stephen Kalt who has previously served in Daniel Boulud's kitchen at famed NYC icon Le Cirque - the menu just looked like fun, and a good deal at just $25 for 3-courses, practically surreal in most parts of Beverly Hills.

The interior design to me kind of had a Manhattan vibe, softened by SoCal sun streaming through huge windows.  It was well designed, yet comfortable, my fav combination in a restaurant.  The unpretentious space was well paired with an unpretentious staff - on the day of my visit there seemed to only be one server for four to five tables, all dineLA customers - but he was equally attentive (as much as he could be spread so thin) and friendly to all of us.

Where many others defaulted to boring salads or tuna of some sort as a starter, Caulfield's offered options like Rabbit Terrine, Latke with creme fraiche and salmon caviar, and one of their signature dishes, House Smoked Trout in a Jar ($12 on regular menu) with creme fraiche, egg, pickled veggies and toast.  I have a dear friend who adores rabbits and reads this blog (thank you for your support!!!) so I skipped the terrine and went for the trout.  LOVED the presentation (beautiful salmon-colored flakes in a mason jar, served on a wooden cheese board with perfect little toasts and small mound of veggies) backed by skillfully balanced flavors. I normally don't like my eggs hard-boiled, but I think it serves as a nice counterbalancing texture to the light flaky fish here, and its mildness a counterpoint to the sharp acidity of the pickled carrots, radish and brussel sprouts.
Intrigued that they have a whole section of Binchotan Charcoal Grilled proteins, for my main I went for the Binchotan Charcoal Grilled Marinated Skirt Steak with fingerling yams and antichucho sauce ($25 on its own on the regular menu, meaning for dineLA you would have gotten the starter and dessert free!) - this had a nice smokey crust outside, with an incredibly tender and flavor-rich inside.  The finely chopped buttery garlic and parsley mix reminding me of the sauce you usually get with escargot (I love French food so this is a + to me).  For those not into red meat - ladies at the next table over raved about the trout as the best they've ever had, and in talking with them they are well-travelled and know their food.  I just didn't want to do trout on trout over 2 courses though.
I had high hopes for the dessert, given the elaborate description: Frozen Milk Chocolate Souffle, Dark Chocolate Pearls, Orange Toffee, Coffee Caramel, Blood Orange

The other option was "doughnuts with pastry cream and jam".  The ladies who lunched at the next table had both, and said the donuts are better by far.  But, I had just met them for a few minutes at that point, and couldn't pass up what sounds far more exciting - so, I went with the souffle option.  I should have listened to them.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words - and it's very true in this case.  The presentation definitely evoked something that could occur in nature, and not in a good way - not very appetizing to look at, for sure. And in terms of taste and texture: though chocolate and orange are a common flavor pairing, the execution of the various elements just didn't come together coherently for me.  If I were to go back I would definitely want to see how the donuts are done.

But, two fantastic courses that saved me $12 regardless of dessert, made me a happy customer.  Also, if you don't have time or are unable to find street parking - valet parking here with restaurant validation comes out to just $4, much more affordable than other hotel valets in the area (*cough* Beverly Wilshire *cough*).

To check out my other dineLA picks, and tips on deal stacking, see my post here.

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

Caulfield's at the Thompson Hotel

9360 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Ph: 310.388.6860

Parking: Valet $4 with validation

Website: caulfieldsbeverlyhills.com

OpenTable: Look for reservations and points here

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Caulfield's on Urbanspoon

Neveux Artisan Creamery & Espresso Bar: Where You Need to Go for Great Ice Cream Mid-City

I haven't really shopped on this stretch of Melrose since college. Nowadays, though the budget hasn't much improved since then - I'm more likely to be closer to the less...edgy...side, not at all shopping for designer-wear - but for farm fresh eats or amazing food by artisanal producers like bacon bread pudding by Creme Caramel LA at the Melrose Farmers Market. 

But there is a hidden gem for foodies here on the 'grittier' side of Melrose: Neveux Creamery serves up some fantastic ice cream in unusual flavors like Cinnamon Date Tahini, Rosemary Butterscotch, Blueberry Chevre, Honey Lavendar, Strawberry Balsamic, etc. 

Made from Straus Creamery ice cream base, but baffling-ly not a fact that's promoted anywhere on their site or in their PR efforts back in 2011 when the store opened (the only vague reference is to owner Leo Neveux being inspired by popular artisanal ice cream shops Bi-Rite and Humphrey Slocombe in San Francisco, which also use the Straus Creamery base).  

Given the high quality, artisanal production and fresh flavors - I actually think Neveux would have been more at home on the stretch of Melrose that's closer to Sweet Lady Jane, ink. and ink.sack.  It would fit right in if they had ever wanted to host a stall at Melrose Farmers Market.  But possibly because it's in a more...grungy...part of the neighborhood, I feel like unfortunately it gets a little lost with its immediate audience. 

I don't really know much about the science or technique behind good ice cream - but what I do know is that Neveux ice creams taste to me smoother and creamier than most in the city. I'm still partial to gelato and addicted to Gelato Bar & Espresso Cafe in my own neighborhood, but when it comes to ice cream Neveux is a new go to for me.


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
______________________________________________________________________

Neveux Artisan Creamery & Espresso Bar

7407 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046
Ph: 323.951.1002

Parking: meters on Vista St.

Website: neveuxartisancreamery.com
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Neveux Artisan Creamery & Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 21, 2013

ROC Kitchen: Taste of SGV in WLA

Let's address the proverbial elephant in the room, right now: ROC is not Din Tai Fong.

But it's damn good XLB of a quality that is hard to beat, for Westsiders unable or unwilling to trek to the SGV (before you get all up in arms, yes, there are in fact people whose offices are on the Westside who cannot take 3 hour excursions in the middle of the work day to eat in the SGV - it is not always a matter of ill-informed choice or 'poor value judgment' of traffic avoidance vs amazing authentic eats for cheap). 

For us pitiful, 'real Chinese food' deprived, Westside-bound souls - ROC Kitchen is a g*dsend.  Yes, it is. Their metal steamers full of every-flavor-Xiao Long Baos (aka XLBs or Shanghai Dumplings) are plump, souped up, with meat/seafood fillings are smooth, tender and well portioned, enfolded in nice, fresh, not too chewy dough wrappers.

They arrive with the requisite shredded ginger and vinegar.  They're so juicy they squirt on cue when you bite into them.  Mims and I had the Pork XLB (8 pcs. for $7) and Shrimp & Pork XLB (8 pcs. for $9) - both were excellent. Next time we need to try the ones with Dungeness Crab & Pork, and Fish (I've never seen XLB with fish filling before, but apparently those who have had it at ROC Kitchen love it)

For variety, there are other dishes besides the Shanghai Dumplings like shao mai (dim sum dumplings with shrimp & pork or pork & rice), scallion pancake, noodles, and rice cakes.  We tried the ROC Rice Cake with Chicken, Napa Cabbage and Spinach ($10) which had a self-explanatory name.  I would NOT recommend this dish - it was pretty single note in flavor (like the generic "brown sauce" too often used in westernized Chinese take-out quality food), and the rice cakes were rubbery.  And the fact that it cost more than the far more delicious XLB honestly kind of pissed me off.  It's possible that the kitchen was just having an off day, but at $10 I'm just not going to risk it again.

As another signature dish, ROC puts their own spin on jiao zi (aka potstickers or gyoza), with the Crispy Shrimp & Pork Dumplings with Ginger Chili Dipping Sauce (8 pcs. for $9.75) - which is essentially 8 whole dumplings, which are usually pan fried individually, fried on top of a wafer-thin disc of dough so that they become attached to the crispy circle: the whole thing is then served with the dough disc side up for maximum drama.

Everyone at the next few tables turned to see (and ask) what that dish was as our waitress brought it over...

I flipped it over halfway so we could see how it looks underneath - the dumplings are fried whole, fully formed.  You might think this is just a gimmick, which it is, and it's funny that no one else has thought to do this before - but the dough disc doesn't just add to the theatrical presentation - it's pretty tasty as well, and adds crispness and crunch as you're eating the dumplings.  The only thing to note on this dish is that it's marked "Limited" on the menu, and you have to allow 25 minutes for them to make it for you.  We put our order in right away, but for some reason they took so long to bring it out that we almost overshot our lunch hour.  But, it was delicious, we did make it back in time, and it was all worth it. 

All in all, the dumpling dishes were all very tasty and well crafted. True, it's very expensive compared to most SGV eateries (but pretty much on par with Din Tai Fong in terms of price) - after drinks, tax, tip were taken into account Mims and I each paid close to $30 each, which was painful.  But, remember that the restaurant has to deal with Westside rent, which is much higher than SGV.  So, the price we pay is for the convenience of having close access to at least authentic and good quality XLB and dumplings.  Will I be coming back every day for lunch?  No, I can't afford it.  But when I get that inevitable craving during a week day?  I'm very glad ROC Kitchen is there.

So, is it a destination, say - on the weekend? I live in the SFV, almost equidistant from West LA/ROC Kitchen and Alhambra/Monterey Park. On any given weekend, when I'm not working - would I drive back to West LA just to go to ROC Kitchen? It's a no-brainer - I would drive to the SGV.

But on a weekday, when I only have an hour for lunch on the Westside? Bring it on, ROC Kitchen - as in, another steamer or two full of XLB, please.


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 90% 
______________________________________________________________________

ROC Kitchen

2049 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles,CA 90025
Ph: 310.235.2089

Parking: free valet on Mississipi Ave.

Facebook: facebook.com/pages/ROC-Kitchen
_____________________________________________________________________

ROC Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Hart and the Hunter: Bountiful Brunch at the Palihotel

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was the name of the pop-up in Venice, now closed (not to be confused with the recently opened permanent restaurant of the same name), whose chefs birthed The Hart and the Hunter.

Both restaurants' names seem to have their origin in Aesop's fables. I have not had the opportunity to get the scoop from chefs Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor on how these intriguing fables apply to the culinary realm  - so I may be completely over-reaching here.  But the fable of The Hart and the Hunter is about a deer who was admiring his own reflection: in particular, his 'noble' antlers, and despising his unsightly legs, when a Hunter approached and shot an arrow his way. While the Hart's legs nimbly carried him nearly out of line of fire, his antlers got caught in some low hanging branches, which allowed the Hunter to catch up with him. The moral of the story? We often despise that which is most useful to us.

My guess as it applies to food: in an uber-image-conscious town, where often (for non-foodies anyway) it's more about what NOT to eat, could the guys mean that we often despise ingredients (like animals with fat, butter, etc.) that make food not just something you consume to be alive, but a reason to stay alive, and to enjoy it?  And that basically, we should be celebrating, not despising because it is what fuels our lives (and souls)?

On a sunlit Sunday before the holidays, dorkyfoodie and I decided to go check out The Hart and the Hunter for brunch, which they had just started serving that weekend.

Nestled inside the chic-lodge-style Palihotel on Melrose, The H&H is a tiny nook of a space whose layout is more laid back cafe than buzzing hotspot of a restaurant that it is. There is the counter in the very back where you place your order, then go to seat yourself in the front dining room,
whose walls are covered in pale blue tiles, in a yet airy space awash in sunlight, with a few carefully decorative items to evoke the hunting theme - like the bronze deer centerpiece at the communal table, and the 'gold' rabbit statues at each of the 'booth' tables.  
I rarely drink coffee (love the smell and taste, but unfortunately prone to caffeine headaches) but couldn't resist when I saw Handsome Coffee Roasters beverages being served...by the barista from Handsome Coffee Roasters.  Dorkyfoodie got a mocha, and I got the Eggnog Latte - both delicious, and served in massive bowl-like mugs. 
The food here has been described as Californian meets modern Southern fare.  At brunch you can order from either the Breakfast or Brunch menus: both feature a few fan favorites from dinner, so if you're not one for crowds or long waits, brunch may be the way to get your fix of select signature items.

We started with the Smoked Trout ($5) a perfect example of how the dish titles here may be deceptively simple - while the food is anything but. Incredibly fresh, tender smoked fish is layered with fresh avocado, capers, herbs and pops of pink pickled onion for a complex yet unfussy interplay of smokey, salty, sweet, sour, juicy, crunchy deliciousness - on hefty pieces of bread.
This dish is held up as a crowd favorite, and justifiably so - it's also a great portion size for $5.
Next up was something from a category I normally despise: salads, but ended up like The Hart, learning otherwise. Thankful dorkyfoodie was there to school me. Roasted Cauliflower & Brussel Sprouts, Arugula, Golden Raisins, Turmeric Vin ($8) - which was supposed to be served with almonds, but the chef wasn't happy with the almonds they had that day, so they asked if they could substitute hazelnuts instead, which worked perfectly. There was slices of radish in there too for a different type of crunch.  I was so in love with this dish I couldn't believe there was no seafood or meat in there. It really just tasted like The Best of Mother Nature - every element tasted like it was just plucked from the ground moments before it ended up on your plate - elevated with skillful hands, playing with textures and flavors until the perfect balance was achieved.
Then another crowd favorite and The Dish that You Cannot Leave H&H Without Trying: the again simply named: Biscuits and Condiments ($6).  These might be the best (buttery-est, golden-brownest, flakiest, lightest yet most substantial, most flavorful) biscuits I've ever had.  And the accoutrements that come on the plank with them are also fantastic - pimento cheese, persimmon preserves and honey/maple butter.  Of the three, my favorites were the honey/maple butter and persimmon preserves. Everything though again tasted farm fresh.

With the score at 3 for 3 'on target' thus far, we couldn't wait to try the Grilled Steak Bowl, Roasted Vegetables, Arugula, Salsa Verde ($12) - which closed out the meal in top form.  It was a celebration of nature's bounty, in a beautiful real china bowl (have I mentioned how much I loved the very southern formal diningware?).  The steak was perfectly cooked (medium/medium rare), super flavorful, and in perfect proportion to the amount of roasted veggies. Underneath them was a bed of farro and super juicy mushrooms : grains to catch the rich juices from the steak and veggies, and mushrooms to add element of earthiness and sweetness. We almost wanted to lick the bowl clean.
Unfortunately we loved the main meal so much we didn't leave enough room for dessert, but H&H does have a nice selection of pastries which I would love to try when I go back - from apple dumplings (with option to go East Coast style with cheddar!), lemon bars and more.


We walked off our meal - no, not in the nearest forest, but the jungles of Melrose vintage boutiques and wildly festive Christmas sweaters -then swung back to hang out and chat on the narrow but relaxing open patio outside H&H for a while, glutted and self-satisfied that we (at least for the time being) can keep ourselves from bemoaning what's perceived as lacking, but revel in all that we have, and are.  Awesome time and I hope to be back again very soon!!!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 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% 
______________________________________________________________________

The Hart and The Hunter

Palihotel 7950 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles,CA 90046
Ph: 323.424.3055

Parking: Street meters

Website: thehartandthehunter.com
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The Hart and the Hunter on Urbanspoon 


dineLA Winter 2013: Kickin' Off This Monday! 1MB Picks

Overspent during the holidays? Need time to recover and catch up on your bills? Missing the reckless abandon with which you indulged in shameless culinary decadence while on vacation?

Welcome to the club.  While I'm trying to stay in as much as possible to prevent myself from spending money I don't have...the food lover in me is itching to get back out there to do what I love best: live to eat, be inspired, and share my finds.


Just in time to save the day is dineLA - with hundreds of restaurants across the city offering prix fixe menus for lunch ($15, $20, $25) and dinners ($25, $35, $45).

Below are my picks of menus and/or deals that I find exciting. Due to time constraints I have not gone through every last menu of the hundreds posted - check out the bottom of the resto picks section for other disclaimers.  To avoid repetition for regular readers (thank you for reading!), I've listed perennial must stops at the bottom of each section.

Tips for deal stacking as usual are at the bottom of the post!

DINNER                                                                                                                                   

**PRICE TIER: $25**

Lukshon
Menu $25 (3-courses + standard free dessert)
3239 Helms Ave. Culver City, CA 90232 Ph: (310) 202-6808
Why?: If you're in or near Culver City, and (a) have always wanted to check out this place or (b) want to go for a nice night out without blowing a lot of $$$, this may be the time to do it.  Some have described this place as an "Asian tapas" place, and the dineLA dinner does offer up a selection of small plates - you can choose any 3 for $25. Plus, as with every meal at Lukshon, year-round, you get a free dessert.  Where else are you going to get this quality of food in a 'hotspot' place for $25?
Estimated Savings: ~$13pp* depending on what you choose.  Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: Tea Leaf Salad/Pork Ribs $11 + Steamed Cod $15 + Crab Fritters $12 = $38 - $25 = $13


***PRICE TIER: $35***

Rays and Stark Bar
Menu $35 (3-courses)
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90036 Ph: (323) 857-6180
Why?: Starter options at this Patina Group (need we say more?) resto (at LACMA!!) include octopus with burrata or pig ear kale salad, and an entree that makes my mouth water just reading: agnolotti (with magic word "truffle" rice filled pasta, hen of the woods mushrooms, porcini sauce, hazelnuts and garden arugula), and award winning pastry Chef Josh Graves' desserts - sounds like a great deal for a gourmet meal in an beautiful (cultured) setting and a nice night out.
Estimated Savings: ~$6pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: octopus $14 + agnolotti $17 small portion + chocolate dessert $10 = $41 - $35 = $6

Buffalo Club
Menu $35 (4-courses)
Why?: Starter options are amazing, especially house charcuterie plate (with truffled duck pate, chicken foie gras and rabbit persille) and parmesan crusted farm egg with niman bacon. Entrees include cassoulet and scallop options. Mac & Cheese is its own course.  LOVE their garden courtyard at night when it's all lit up.
Estimated Savings: ~$15pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: appetizers $15 + scallops $15 + mac&cheese $8 + dessert $12 = $50 - $35 = $15

Waterloo & City
Menu $35 (3-courses)
12517 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066 (310) 391-4222
Why?: One of my fav spots on the Westside for Happy Hour, and reliably tasty food (especially for carnivores). dineLA dinner menu has Salmon Tartare, Chicken Liver Mousse, Sunchoke Soup w/ TRUFFLE and pigs-in-a-blanket, as starter options, and roast prime pork chop for entree choice (with "Cock-a-Leekie" Sausage).
Estimated Savings: ~$12pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: salmon tartare $12 + pork chop $26 + dessert $9 = $47 - $35 = $12 (if you are willing to eat early and order chicken liver mousse/salmon tartare which are both usually offered at HH for $6 and Sticky Toffee Pudding for $5, then you could say you're just saving $2 overall) 


****PRICE TIER: $45****

Caulfield's Bar and Dining Room
Menu $45 (4-courses)
9360 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 90212 (310) 388-6860
Why?: This place has been buzzing lately, and the regular menu is 'Beverly Hills pricey', so dineLA may be the time to give it a try. You do get 4 courses, and if you choose wisely you can save $31 per person! Delicious sounding options include Smoked Steelhead Trout in a Jar, rabbit terrine w/ tomato jam, mackerel crudo w/ pear, coconut milk, finger lime and ginger, and scallops as entree option served with clams and chorizo.  The frozen chocolate souffle with blood orange also sounds interesting. Plus you can add a glass of Prosecco for $10.
Estimated Savings: $31pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: trout in jar $12 + Little Angels pasta $24 + skirt steak/scallops $31 + dessert avg $9 = $76 - $45 = $31

Inn of the Seventh Ray
Menu $45 (3-courses)
128 Old Topanga Canyon Rd., Topanga, CA 90290 Ph: (310) 455-1311
Why?: Their samplings at past food shows intrigued me, and it sounds like a destination spot that would involve a fun little 'nature' filled mini getaway to Topanga Canyon. What they're offering for dineLA sounds delicious: I always love a 63 degree egg, and their starter option is topped with (magic word) truffle potato foam and toasted bread crumbs. Another option is Smoked Yellowtail Spread which sounds tasty as well.  Second course option of Short Rib mixes Japanese and Korean flavors with miso and kimchee.  Not sure how that would work but interested to try, given the level of skill exhibited even in samples produced for food shows at mass quantities. Panna Cotta is one of my fav desserts and they are serving it up with a twist: gingerbread and vanilla flavor with burnt cinnamon ice cream, persimmon and popcorn.
Estimated Savings: $13pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: potato & egg jar $12 + miso braised short rib $36 + dessert mostly standard price $10 = $58 - $45 = $13 

Piccolo Venice
Menu $45 (5-courses)
5 Dudley Ave., Venice, CA 90291 Ph: (310) 560-3594
Why?: One of the best values during dineLA Summer 2012 with 5 courses , featuring decadent ingredients (including SHAVED TRUFFLE!!!) that had even the most jaded of dineLA diners/foodies excited. This time round they have: the fantastic scallops with parmesan-truffle fondue again, or beef tongue to start. 2nd: gnocchi with lobster sugo, spaghettini with oxtail ragu, garganelli with rabbit ragu. 3rd: ravioli with real shaved truffle and parmesan truffle butter sauce. 4th options include monkfish, veal and kobe steak. 5th: six dessert options!
Estimated Savings: $41pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: scallops $17 + pasta w/ ragu $25 + truffle pasta $25 + australian kobe ny steak $48 + dessert mostly standard price $12 = $127 - $45 = $82 That said, portion sizes are small like a tasting menu so probably not the sizes you would get at full price a la carte - so let's say for estimates' sake it's half portion size: $82/2 = $41.  The next best comparison might be the 4-course tasting menu for $50, but you're saving much more than $5 as you get TRUFFLE and an extra course. And I'm not sure what you would get in the tasting menu so it's hard to know if it really would compare. So your actual savings will fall somewhere in between those two extremes...

Fig & Olive
Menu $45 (3-courses) NOTE: they already extended the deal to run through 2/8 (except not on 1/26)
8490 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, CA 90069 Ph: (310) 360-9100 
Why?: Starter options include TRUFFLE mushroom croquette, Northern Italian Mushroom and TRUFFLE soup, and main options include Seafood Paella and TRUFFLE Risotto.  Need I say more?  Yes, love the interior design here. And, the $ you save on dinner can go towards the Jamon Iberico Bellota order as an add-on (yes, I am suffering from jamon iberico withdrawals...)  
Estimated Savings: $13pp* Based on items from regular menu: salmon ceviche crostone $16/truffle croquette $13 + paella del mar $32 + dessert $10 = $58/$55 - $45 = $13/$10

Stefan's at L.A. Farm
Menu $45 (6-courses)
3000 Olympic Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90404 Ph: (310) 449-4000
Why?: SIX courses. Yep.  Plus, any place that has Top Chef klout and puts duck on the dineLA menu is like putting out a 'welcome foodies' sign. The halibut with zatar spice, edamame, chanterelle and shimeji, fingerlings and pancetta sounds fantastic.   
Estimated Savings: $34-$53.50pp* Based on next closest items or course averages from regular menu: cali crudo $15 + ravioli $24 + soup $10 + fish course $27 + duck $28/beef tenderloin $34 + dessert standard price $9 = $113/$119 - $45 = $68/$107 Disclaimer: not sure if portion size would be at all similar to regular menu - assuming half portions due to 6 courses, savings would be $34-$53.50pp

Drago Centro
Menu $45 (3-courses)
525 South Flower St, Los Angeles, CA 90071 Ph: (213) 228.8998 
Why?: Starter options include magic words "lobster", "smoked sturgeon", "caviar"; mains include branzino, guanciale (pork cheek) and rabbit fettuccini. Dessert options like lemon panna cotta with citrus and rosemary puff pastry sound tasty too! Plus, 3 hours free valet parking with validation in structure under building.
Estimated Savings: $12pp at least* Based on items from regular menu / menu course averages: "to begin" dishes mostly $13 (though dineLA options contain seafood while regular menu starters don't) + branzino $34 + dessert $10 = $57 - $45 = $12

Oliverio at the Avalon Beverly Hills
Menu $45
9400 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212 Ph: (310) 407-7791
Why?: Options sound mouthwatering, from wild mushroom souffle with parmesan fondue, to burrata with caviar and bottarga to start, to spaghetti with langoustine and roasted tomatoes as entree, to a lemon polenta pudding cake w/ lemon sabayon for dessert!
Estimated Savings: Unknown if you get the items listed above (the burrata w/ caviar and bottarga is not on regular menu). $12pp* if you choose the filet mignon - Based on next closest items or course averages from regular menu: cauliflower parmesan truffle fondue $10 + steak (rib eye from regular menu, so not sure how this compares to filet mignon) $38 + dessert standard price $9 = $57 - $45 = $12 

Kiriko
Menu $45 (3-courses)
11301 West Olympic Boulevard #102, Los Angeles, CA 90064 Ph: (310) 478-7769
Why?: Their omakase sashimi is normally $46 on its own even at lunch, and the dineLA menu offers sashimi with WHITE TRUFFLE as a starter (another option is 'chef's choice of 3 delicacies' which sounds exciting, knowing anything the chefs here choose will be fantastic), then entree options that include omakase sashimi or halibut tempura and grilled 'iberico' pork! The only thing that I'm going to stay away from is the Blue Fin Tuna starter, even though I love it and there's truffle involved, as their numbers are getting dangerously low.
Estimated Savings: Unknown since prices are not published online, but given that lunch portion omakase is already $46 normally and did NOT involve truffles, not to mention white truffle which is more expensive...I'm listing this one as a deal. If I go will post on Instagram so you can see what you're getting!

dineLA best deal, every time dinners:
  • Craft - THREE appetizers for the table to share AND a take home treat in addition to 3-courses of fabulous, reliably delicious food and first class service.  All for $45. Estimated savings: $22.50pp.  See my recaps from 2012 and 2011
  • The Capital Grille - The giant Bone-in Kona Crusted Dry Aged Sirloin alone is $45 on the regular menu, so it's like getting 2 other courses and sides for free. Estimated savings: $39pp. See my recap from 2012

LUNCH                                                                                                                                 

**PRICE TIER: $20**

One Pico at Shutters on the Beach
Menu $20 (2-courses)
One Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405 (310) 587-1717
Why?: 3 courses for $20 involving flatbread with prosciutto burrata and padron peppers, seared tuna nicoise with quail egg and mascarpone cheesecake with huckleberries and meyer lemon. AND a ocean view.  What more can you ask for?
Estimated Savings: $28pp* -Based on next closest items from regular menu: flatbread $15 + tuna nicoise $25 + dessert not posted, estimating $8  = $48 - $20 = $28
 
Breeze
Menu $20 (3-courses)
2025 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067 (310) 551-3334
Why?: Calamari Po Boy, choice of any dessert on their menu, big savings and eat in fancy Hyatt hotel fine dining setting for $20? In.
Estimated Savings: $20pp* - Based on same items from regular menu: chicken al pastor $16 + calamari po boy $18 + dessert standard $6 = $40 - $20 = $20

Bar | Kitchen
Menu $20 (2-courses)
819 S Flower St., Los Angeles, CA 90017 (213) 784-3048
Why?: Shrimp & Grits as one of the entree choices!!!
Estimated Savings: $8pp* -Based on same items from regular menu: butternut squash salad $10 + shrimp & grits $18 = $28 - $20 = $8
 

**PRICE TIER: $25**

Caulfield's Bar and Dining Room
Menu $25 (3-courses)
9360 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 90212 (310) 388-6860
Why?: Have seen a lot of buzz around this place lately, and the regular menu can be pricey, so dineLA may be the time to give it a try for those who live/work close by enough to pop in for lunch. You do get 3 courses for $25 at lunch in Beverly Hills, almost half off regular menu pricing*, which is borderline insane. And a lot ofthe same items from the dineLA dinner menu make an appearance on the lunch one, so it's an even less expensive way to check this place out: Smoked Steelhead Trout in a Jar, rabbit terrine, trout. skirt steak with anticucho sauce, and same desserts as dinner. If you like to live like Mad Men once in a while and go for the drinking lunch: you have an option here to add a glass of Prosecco for $10 as well.
Estimated Savings: $21pp* - Based on same or next closest items from regular menu: trout in jar $12 + skirt steak $25 + dessert avg $9 = $46 - $25 = $21

Fig & Olive
Menu $25 (3-courses) NOTE: deal extended through 2/8 (except not served on 1/26)
8490 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, CA 90069 Ph: (310) 360-9100
Why?: Some of the same items from dineLA dinner menu are offered for lunch! Starter options include TRUFFLE mushroom croquette, Northern Italian Mushroom and TRUFFLE soup, and main options include Seafood Paella. So you can have the same stuff but much cheaper (obviously at lunch portions though)  
Estimated Savings: $33pp* Based on items from regular menu: salmon ceviche crostone $16/truffle croquette $13 + paella del mar $32 + dessert $10 = $58/$55 - $25 = $33/$30

Oliverio at the Avalon Beverly Hills
Menu $25
9400 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills, 90212 Ph: (310) 407-7791
Why?: Four courses for lunch that involve octopus, ricotta beef ragu ravioli and branzino before you even get o dessert? For $25?  Wish I worked closer.
Estimated Savings: ~$24pp Based on next closest items or course averages from regular menu: pasta first course $12 + fish second course (salmon) $28+Dessert standard price $9 = $49 - $25 = $24 (They also offer a business lunch normally for $30 3-courses - so if compared to that, you'd save $5 on dineLA)


Menu watch: Some restaurants do not have menu prices posted online so I have to double check before assessing whether it's a deal: like Livello at the L'Ermitage BH, Aburiya Toranoko, and Obika Mozzarella Bar.

Honorable mentions: Some restaurants have attractive menus and/or great deals, but were not listed here as they already have regular prix fixe menus you can access outside of dineLA, like FarmShop (3-course dinners averaging $45-$48 nightly), Papilles (whose entire restaurant concept is a single prix fixe dinner menu for $35-$37 every night they're open) and Mo-Chica with lunch special for $15 (main +2 sides and dessert).

Dishonorable mention: The BLVD at Beverly Wilshire Hotel lunch for $25 is only 2 courses, and at first it looks like a great deal to be able to add the caviar pasta for only $10 more (the dish normally runs you $26 on regular menu) - BUT beware if you're going to drink anything besides water (and even then I would double check the price) - I ordered an Arnold Palmer without thinking that I would need to confirm pricing for such a basic drink, and was charged $8.  I did a double take just to make sure maybe it wasn't refillable and they charged me for 2?  Nope, it was $8 for one Arnold Palmer. And don't think you can get free Wi-Fi here for your tablet, just because it's in the lobby level of the hotel - they'll hand you a card with a passcode, but they won't tell you first that there's a $5 charge - the first time you'll become aware of it is when you see it added to your bill. Also, valet parking here even with restaurant validation is $12 - but it is good for all day use, so if you plan to spend the day walking around Rodeo / Beverly and leaving your car there then you may get good use out of that fee.


***********************************************************************************

Note: I have not dined at all of the places above - picks are based on menu descriptions and pricing info listed. Estimated savings are best guess only based on available info. Does not account for variance in portion sizes etc. Total estimated savings will vary depending on items ordered.


*****I will continue to update this as more menus post. Let me know if you find any good ones I've missed. Follow me on Instagram @onemorebiteblog to check out my latest dineLA meals!*****

Contest alert: Dine. Snap. Win. Instagram Enter for a chance to win a 1-night stay at the Thompson Beverly Hills hotel + dinner for 2 at Caulfield's Bar and Dining Room + weekend use of a 2013 Cadillac ATS. Just capture a picture of your fav Restaurant Week dish and post with the hashtag #dineLA for a chance to win (awesome as this was something I was going to do anyways!). Multiple entries allowed. At the end of dineLA, the 25 most popular eateries with dishes featured on Instagram will win Diner’s Choice. Ends 2/1/13. See official rules here.

Deal alert: Below are some easy ways to stack your deals, most free to sign up (see websites for details):
  • OpenTable - register and make reservations online. When you check in at the restaurant, earn points towards a gift certificate redeemable at any OpenTable restaurant!
  • Use credit card with a rewards program:
    • American Express
      • This time, there is no $5 statement credit offer with $21 minim spend.  But you can still register with Amex iDine, then use it to pay for your dineLA meal to get up to 15% statement credit (% differs by restaurant; % back available year round.  See site for details)
    • Use airline/hotel credit cards to earn miles/points for every $ spent during dineLA and year round.
  • Upromise.com: College students / those saddled with college loans: register credit card with their dining program. Cross check database with your chosen dineLA restaurants, dine, and pay with that card to automatically get up to 8% of your bill towards repayment of student loans!
  • United Mileage Plus: register credit card with dining program, get up to 5 miles per $ spent on meals year round including tax and tip
  • Mall Rewards - leverage year-round programs during dineLA to stack rewards (bring receipts to mall concierge for registration):
  • Dine on Sunday 1/27 when street parking is free in most neighborhoods to save on valet.
Got other tips to share? Please post in comments section below!

Bon appetit!

P.S. - In years past some restaurants offered dineLA deals outside official dates, or extended them past official dates.  Check with your favs to see what they're offering!

Where will you be going for dineLA?

_____________________________________________________________________

dineLA (Winter 2013)
January 21-February 1, 2013
Lunch: $15,$20 or $25
Dinner: $25, $35 or $45
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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Porchetta Truck: Best Thing to Happen to Ciabatta

I wish I never tried the porchetta sandwich by chef Evan Funke.

Now I can't stop thinking about that little sandwich - and craving it like that perfect stranger that you've only met once, but had such an intense 'moment' with (which may or may not have been completely arbitrary) and who you wish you would have held onto because you're more sure than anything you've ever been sure about in your life, crazy as it sounds, that you're meant to be.

Fresh back from a cruise around Europe/ the Mediterranean with my family, I found myself:
  • Going through Post Foodgasm Depression (miss the fast and furious amazing foodie experiences we had while on vacation)
  • ...made worse by the fact that I had depleted my already meager bank account on the trip, meaning no mind blowing food excursions for the foreseeable future
  • Quickly and necessarily ramped back up to the daily grind (love my job, but hard to go back to 50-70 hour work weeks after living in foodie fantasyland for 'so long')
Then I somehow came across articles on the Porchetta Truck, a temporary mobile kitchen for chef Evan Funke and his partner until they get the necessary permit to open their highly anticipated restaurant, Bucato, at the Helms Bakery in Culver City. Chef Funke had previously headed up kitchens at Rustic Canyon and Milo & Olive - unfortunately I had never gotten around to visiting either one. But I was intrigued by this pork sandwich (they had me at fried pork skin) that was getting so much buzz - it's apparently the only thing sold from the truck besides sodas, it's only $5, and this week it was going to be right down the street from my office!!! So I grabbed a food-loving co-worker and set out to chase it down.

The white, barely marked truck (only identifiable by the red pig silhouette that I'd seen on Instagram) was near the end of food truck alley, and Chef Funke was there personally to greet guests.  You could smell the deliciousness as you approach the truck.

And then there it was...in our eager hands - the Porchetta Sandwich ($5) perfection between crusty pieces of locally baked ciabatta - juicy, flavorful 'Umbrian style' roasted pork (apparently, made from the belly and loin), thinly sliced with gorgeous streaks of fat, fragrant with pesto 'modenese' (paste made of lard!!! garlic and rosemary), counterbalanced by lemon juice, arugula, and this amazing, crisp, super flavor-rich piece of chicharron (fried pork skin).  The only way I could describe the porchetta is with an analogy to beef...you know when you've been eating mass produced steak forever, and then the first time you bite into a grassfed steak, it feels like every other piece of beef you've ever had before was not even....real? That's what the porchetta tasted like - except it was pork. Mmmmmm.....instant addiction.

Probably easily the best pork sandwich I've ever had in my life, and my coworker loved it too.  We just wish we had bought two (while an amazing deal for the quality of food you're getting, portion size is not enough to be a filling lunch even for average sized Asian girls). Apparently you can get the sandwich topped by an egg fried in duck fat too.  I'm so trying that next time.

Thank you, Porchetta Truck, for saving this foodie back on a budget from the everyday mundane.
Today is Saturday, and the truck is not out and about.  Not until Tuesday, I think.  I will be in absolute agony in my cavernous need until then (yes, I am in fact a bit of a food geek, if you didn't know that already).

Can't wait til Bucato opens so that there will be a permanent space to get my fix!  (I hear it will be a matter of 6-8 more weeks, and that this sandwich will be served there!)

Update: Had the version with duck egg (+$2) and it was even more mind blowing!


_____________________________________________________

Porchetta Truck
All over LA - check Twitter or Instagram for latest location
Twitter: @bucatola
Instagram: @evanfunke @bucatola

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sun Ha Jang: DUCK Season 365 on the KBBQ

As a massive fan of every part and preparation of duck - it was exciting to read TheJGold's review of a place that served it BBQ'd, Korean style. With the abundance of korean barbecue spots in Ktown, grilling up not only your standard issue protein (beef) but squid, tongue & innards, this surprisingly may be one of the few to serve duck meat...

I knew the minute I saw this unrepentantly evil banner, with flames crowding in on an adorable little innocent, that I would love this place (sorry, Donald/Daisy...RIP)


As advised by the Pulitzer-winning one, I got the roast duck ($23.99), which came in beautiful round slices with a plate of salad greens, scallions, pickled radish, kimchi, bean sprouts, sliced cabbage with (miso?) sauce, and shredded radish.


There was a special pan used just for the duck, which cooks in its own fat - there's a 'drain' at one side of the pan, but that is plugged with a bunch of kimchi to prevent the delicious fat from escaping. My server threw the discs onto the pan with tons of whole garlic cloves - when these two started to sizzle on the grill together, the smells were intoxicating (like any other kbbq joint, definitely do not wear any dry clean only clothing...). Though the duck was fairly thinly sliced, it took way longer than I was used to, with bulgogi or even galbi beef. Trying to be self sufficient, I used the tongs to spread the pieces out so they each had their own surface area of the pan to cook on - and was promptly chastised (in a friendly way) by my server. Apparently with duck you should keep it in a sort of pile to avoid burning the pieces? So once the duck is nice and browned with bit of caramelization, I was instructed to throw it into the salad greens, pile some scallions and pickled radish on top, and eat together in one bite. Loved how the sweet/gamey juiciness of the duck is counterbalanced by the crunchy mildness of the greens, subtle bite of scallions, with the sweet/tart pickled radish crunch & juice to cut through it all. I also had some Korean raspberry wine, which went fantastic with the duck.


After you're done with the meat - while all the delicious duck fat and slightly charred meat bits and garlic cloves are still sizzling on the grill - your server will add purple rice, chopped up kimchi, sesame and bit of salt and pepper, and stir fry up a batch of fresh fried rice for you, right on the same pan. This results in the most fragrant and beautifully crusted kimchi fried rice ever.

After the heat of the kbbq meal, I was presented with a free bowl of cooling bean sprout/spring onion broth as chaser.

Others have commented on the lack of good service here, but on my visit, I felt well taken care of - almost like having a home cooked meal hosted by a Korean friend's mom. There was a language barrier, but we still managed to communicate well enough to get through the meal, and all of it was friendly.

The only drawback to all this is the price - it's quite a bit more than your average kbbq joint, so not an everyday kind of place, but the duck was decadent and delicious.

As a duck (for dinner) lover, it's great that I can now have it prepared on the Korean barbecue grill, year round. 

Will definitely look to be back soon!!


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

__________________________________________________________________________

Sun Ha Jang
4032 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90006

Ph: 323.634.9292

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Sun Ha Jang on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Starry Kitchen Nights at Tiara Cafe: Singaporean Chili Crab in DTLA

One of my most memorable meals of 2012 was at a restaurant that wasn't really a restaurant (I know you've lost count by now of the number of times this year you've read that on any given LA food blog).

I had long read of the underground kitchen turned legit operation serving interesting pan-Asian fare (with a side of bold, quirky, costume-loving personality via owner Nguyen) - and had been mad at myself for missing it while it was at its original location, just a block from the courthouse in downtown LA where I spent three weeks in jury duty

So when they opened up a not-a-pop-up-pop-up at Tiara Cafe, and started serving Singaporean style Chili Crab (I had just fallen in love with the dish during a visit to Singapore the previous holiday), I knew I had to pay a long overdue visit. I cruelly convinced miffyeats to go with me even though she is allergic to crab (which I had forgotten until the very last minute...bad, bad, bad friend...) - being an amazing friend, she rallied a group together so that we can try more different dishes. In more poor form, knowing that the chili crab has been selling out like crazy, my type A self had to tweet Starry Kitchen to ask them to reserve two crabs for us...because if I was going to venture to DTLA at night (which usually freaks me out due to a past bad experience), I'm making damn sure I'm getting that crab, dammit.

We started with a comped plate of their signature Crispy Tofu Balls ($6.50), which I'd sampled at The Gold Standard previously - and like the last time, it was more tasty than a vegetable-hater would expect (and yes, despite the innuendos in the marketing of this dish so bold as to be against the very nature of innuendos). Crispy with puffed glutinous rice on the outside...    

...with the texture of the tofu inside like a firm cream cheese. The balls themselves are very mild in flavor, it's the sriracha mayo dipping sauce that gives it a nice and necessary kick.
 

Then came the Double-Fried Sweet Ginger Chicken Waaaaaaaaangs ($7.50) - which were "finger-lickin' good" and seriously addictive. Super crispy from the double fry, juicy dark meat inside, sweet with a bite from the ginger - these were a great way to whet our appetites for the meal ahead.

We knew we had to get the Grilled Fish "Heads+Tails" with Viet Fish Sauce ($11) as soon as we saw it on the menu - as expected, it was a show stopper - a very dramatic presentation of alternating fish heads and fish tails, with a crisp and lovely char, with that amazing sweet/tangy fish sauce.

Then there was the Pork Chili Oil Wonton + Szechuan Style Shredded Potatoes ($7) - the shredded potatoes were an interesting twist on the usual accompaniment for wontons: noodles.  

My favorite dish of the night, before the much-anticipated crustaceans ever hit the table - was the Claypot Caramelized Striped Bass+Pancetta (aka "Ca Kho To") ($22.95).  This was a perfect melding of two of my favorite styles of Cantonese cooking: steaming (of fish) and claypot stewing.  The fresh, skin-on striped bass (and broth) were delicate and light, tender and evenly infused with perfectly balanced sweet/savory flavors, punctuated by juicy cubes of pancetta (the western kind isn't an ingredient you see much in Cantonese cooking, but its distant umami inducing cousin, yunan ham is).  I loved this preparation - its flavors and presentation brought me home, if only temporarily.
Almost as a reprieve from all the stimulation, we had just before the crab, Japanese Garlic Noodles w/ Confit Garlic ($9).

And then...what we came for: Singaporean Chili Crab (Market Price) - whole crabs in all their glory, bowl piled high with french bread. So the moment of truth: was it what I tasted in Singapore?  I've only had it once, at one location in Singapore, so I don't have any real sample base for comparison, and I'm not sure that Starry Kitchen intended theirs to be an exact replica of however Singaporeans typically prepare theirs. The 1.5kg-er I inhaled in Singapore was a Sri Lankan crab in a very creamy, smooth thick orange colored sauce that was sweet and spicy, seamlessly blended together; the one at Starry Kitchen was a Dungeness crab in a more liquidy red sauce with chunks of tomato, that was primarily tart with strong garlic notes. In consistency only, if compared to pasta sauces I would say the difference was like vodka sauce vs marinara. And at LB Seafood I had loved sopping up the leftover sauce with fried mantou, which went perfectly with the sauce, with its slightly sweet pillowy doughiness offset by the crispy exterior that allowed it to hold up even with the sauce. But all I knew was that everyone at the Starry Kitchen table dug in with abandon - even with its differences, Starry Kitchen's version of chili crab is not something you can easily find in LA (if it can be found at all?), tasty and well worth a trip downtown to check out.

Nguyen was kind enough to comp us a plate of desserts: Osthmanthus Panna Cotta with Poached Pears ($5) Salted Plum Lychee Panna Cotta ($5) 5-Spiced Apple Fritters with Honey Bourbon Cream Sauce ($6) - I'd had the salted plum lychee panna cotta at another food fest, and still loved its unique blend of flavors every bit as much as the first time.


Hats off to chef Thi (aka "Kitchen Ninja" and wife of Nguyen) and of course Nguyen for a fantastically fun dinner!  Not sure how long the pair will be at Tiara Cafe, but try to catch them if you can - check their Facebook or Twitter for updates on their latest R&D creations, and make reservations in advance for their chili crab which sells out quickly!

[Deal alert: And oh, coincidentally, you can get $20 off dinner at Starry Kitchen Nights with the $20 for $40 worth of food & drink deal running at Bloomspot right now til around Saturday 1/12 - click here for details.]

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

Starry Kitchen at Tiara Cafe 

127 E 9th St., Los Angeles, CA 90079

Ph: 213.623.3663
Website: starrykitchen.com
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Starry Kitchen Nights @ Tiara Cafe on Urbanspoon

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