Saturday, December 31, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun: Day 5: Snorkeling with Whale Sharks and Fresh Ceviche Over the Caribbean

My new year's resolution is to be more expedient in capturing our travel adventures, so on this NYE, I'm going to finish out 2016 by recapping the long overdue last chapter of our epic summer trip to Mexico.

On our final day in Cancun, due to scuba safety guidelines, we were not able to dive (24 hours before flight) - but even on the surface there was a lot of marine life fun to be had, and the snorkeling tour we took turned out to be one of my favorite vacation memories ever!

It was a super early pickup at the hotel, then to the marina for a 7:00am meet.  At the dock, you can rent shortys and other equipment for an extra fee, or bring your own*.

While waiting for everyone to figure out their gear, our guide went over rules of engagement with whale sharks using a clay figure, which I loved and found out he'd bought from an artist at the marina. Their booth was closed at the time, so he very kindly sold his to me for 50 pesos (and it's now one of my favorite travel souvenirs ever).

Then it was a long and very choppy - both hands tightly gripping railings - hour boat ride (remember your dramamine, people!  Definitely very rough on those with motion sickness or back issues) with breathtaking, well worthy ultimate payoffs of up close encounters with whale sharks as well as crystal clear blue sea and whitest sand at Isla Mujeres:

So first, whale sharks.  Since we were in prime season in the region (June-September), we were treated to many sightings up close, even before we got in the water, from the boat!

Whale sharks are amazing, gorgeous creatures whose name can be a little confusing: they are not whales, and not a predatory type of shark that hunts and feeds on meaty fish like most other species that people are familiar with, but are a filter feeding type of shark that is really more a massive docile fish - the largest fish in the world, in fact at up to 40 feet or more - that likes to scoop up plankton at the surface of the ocean with giant flat mouths (and no sharp teeth that are visible to passersby).  So despite their size, they are no threat to humans at all - but just very beautiful gentle giants!

Of course we also got to jump in and swim alongside them. The process was exhilarating: with a very small but agile boat, and us chasing very large creatures who will definitely outswim us - in order to see them up close, our captain had to bring the boat perpendicular to the whale shark as it's swimming towards us.  Swimmers sat literally on the edge of either side of the boat with all our gear on, ready to go.

Once the whale shark was within reasonable distance  - our guide would shout "go, now, go go go!" and we'd jump in immediately and swim in the opposite direction than the whale shark is going - jumping in near its gaping mouth, and swimming towards its tail, to give us the best chance of seeing the whole animal before it passes us by in stride.

Our guide joked that it's ok, the whale sharks don't view us as food - the last time he had a tourist accidentally jump into a whale shark's mouth, it 'gummed' the tourist, thought 'yuck' and spat the human out. Hilarious.  But in any case it was one breath taking, beautiful encounter after another.

Tour guide jokes aside: the whole time, we had to be careful as our guide instructed to keep at a distance for the safety of the animal - we're strictly prohibited from touching them, as they have a gel-like substance that protects their skin, and human touch with all our microbes would damage that substance and expose them to infections - which none of us want!

Here's a short video of the swim (made using Replay app):

Fun fact: spot patterns on the whale shark are unique to each individual, like fingerprints to humans - and scientists can examine photos and videos to help catalog different individuals.  Everything happened too fast for us to try to do anything other than try our best to keep up this time - but all the more reason to revisit / do whale shark swims elsewhere to learn more about these beauties.

It was such an amazing experience and privilege to be able to swim next to these majestic, lovely gentle giants - it really inspires us to think more deeply about everything that we do in our daily lives that could put whale sharks, other creatures around them, and their home, at risk - and creates greater urgency for us to make changes.

After the rigorous exercise of chasing massive, magnificent 30-40 foot whale sharks, we had all worked up an appetite, and our boat crew whipped up, right on the boat, the freshest, most delicious fish ceviche we'd ever tasted, for us to enjoy on deck or in the shallow water (and yes, made with local fish, NOT the giants we'd just been swimming with).

It was a bit of a mad rush at 3pm back to the hotel to rendezvous with @jennybawel (who had completed her whale shark tour the day before), since our flights out were that evening - but international travel meant we had to meet our shuttle at 4pm. But we made it, and were glad to have been able to maximize the last day.

At the airport, we had time to grab a bottle of Xtabentun (~$35 USD)  - liquer made in the Yucatan region from anise, fermented honey made by bees with pollen from xtabentun flowers, and rum, which may have its origins dating back to a Mayan ceremonial liquor - from duty free...
...and one last meal of guacamole and chips (guac made tableside!  At the airport!), steak fajitas and pina coladas at Air Margaritaville, before heading out. 

All in all, Cancun / Tulum was a bucketlist trip that fed our minds, bodies and souls with cultural / historical adventure from Chichen Itza to Mayan ruins, to fantastic food ranging from the deck of a small boat to the middle of a jungle to gorgeous Mayan themed setting in a fine dining restaurant, to water adventures above and below from cenotes to whale sharks.

Definitely one of our most epic vacation destinations of all time. Can't wait to go back soon!

Looking for more activity ideas for Cancun / Tulum / the Yucatan? Check out how we maximized our trip in my recaps of Day 1Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4. For more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog or search with #onemorebiteblog_cancun and #onemorebiteblog_tulum


Cancun, Mexico

Cancun Scuba Center
Boulevard Kukulcan Km. 6.5, Hotel Zone – Cancun (77500) – Quintana Roo – México
Ph: +52 (1) 984 106 80 02

Happy Shuttle Cancun
Ph: 1 800 818 9821

Air Margaritaville
Cancun Airport
Terminal 3; 77515 Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico 
Ph: +52 998 193 0380

Day 5 costs breakdown:

  • Snorkeling: $145pp USD includes transportation from hotel to boat, boat with guide, water, snacks and ceviche
    • Crew tips: $20 per person
  • Shuttle to airport ~$20 USD ($10 per person)
  • Souvenirs: 
    • 1 clay whale shark figurine 50 pesos (~$2.33 USD)
    • 1 bottle of Xtabentun ~$35 USD
  • Lunch at Air Margaritaville, Cancun airport 945 pesos total ($70 USD), $35 USD per person
  • Total: ~$247 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here, Day 2 here, Day 3 here and Day 4 here.  To see more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)


*Tip for those who are not athletic and possibly only exercise once or twice a week like yours truly: definitely use a "shorty" (a short sleeved, knee length wetsuit), which helps you float so you can rest on the surface as needed between vigorous swims, and use a life jacket for the same reason.  You won't need to dive down to see the whale sharks since they feed near the surface.  

Also, having the right fins made all the difference when trying to keep up with large marine animals.  I love my split fins which were super energy efficient and helped propel me forward with a minimum of kicking. I bring these on all my trips as most dive shops don't have split fins for rent.  These split fins are not great for cenote dives though, when you want to be slow and steady in staying in single file formation with your group - so if you dive cenotes in Tulum then you may want to use rental fins which are shorter and not split in the middle.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Bites: Top Gift Ideas for Your Fav Foodie / Jetsetter 2016

The holidays are officially upon us again. If you procrastinated like I did and are now scrambling wondering what to get the food / drink lover in your life, here are some ideas that may have you going PayPal credit to enable double-downs (my gifting philosophy when it comes to cool foodie items seems to default to: one for you, one for me ;)).

All gifts are under $150, and where scaled options or deals / discounts are available, I have noted them below each product description.

1. For the Multi-tasking Overachiever / Cocktail Enthusiast / Closet Alcoholic

Photo credit:
For the overachiever never content with focusing on 'one thing at a time': give the gifts that do double duty: decorative and functional at the same time, like these ornaments filled with craft / high end spirits that are sure to lift theirs.

Bonus tip:  if your recipients are local, bring them a mini Rosemary tree from your local tree lot or grocer, to hang their ornaments on, and they will be able to use the tree to enhance their mixology experiments this holiday.

Buy from: 
  • Gin filled: 30 pounds
    Photo credit: BoozyChristmas' Etsy page
  • Bourbon: Woodford Reserve, Bulleit and many others by BoozyChristmas from $14

2. For the Cubicle Warrior Foodie

Add a little bit of fun to any office setting, with items sure to get foodies over their morning - afternoon slumps and into the bright beacon of lunch hour / dinner time.

Mix and match the below according to your recipient's fav cuisines and to fit your budget.
Bonus tip: Papyrus has this amazing birthday card topped by pieces of 3D plastic nigiri that you could repurpose with a little bit of craftiness as a holiday card to complete the set!

Buy from:

3. For the Coco for Coconuts / Fresh Fruit Fanatic

Love fresh coconut water straight from the shell, but afraid of hacking off a finger or two with that meat cleaver? With this brilliant tool kit, you can gift that coconut fan the gift of DIY, safely - just place the round shaped metal tool over the top of the coconut and mallet it down to break through the shell, in a shape perfect for putting a straw (and maybe an umbrella) through and also to scoop out that luscious coconut meat after. And save them from having to feed their addiction at Whole Foods with their whole paycheck (and waiting for someone from the produce department to open the coconut for you).

Buy from: 
  • Deluxe pack: $88.95 includes complete kit of everything you need to serve up a freshly cracked young coconut: one each of Coco Jack, mallet, scoop tool, noodler tool, mat, baby brush, sack and two coco sippers.
  • Coco Jack pack: $49.95 includes base kit of one Coco Jack, mallet, scoop and sack
4. For the Jetsetting Foodie Always in Search of Next Taste Adventure

Pull together a travel / food themed care package to fuel that wanderlust throughout the year with inspiration.

  • Lonely Planet magazine - one year subscription to stories from the most adventure filled locations in the world to give them ideas for their next trip
  • World Map necklace - let them wear their heart (and mind) on their sleeve close to heart with a lovely world map silhouette cast in gold
  • Scratch off map - for the globetrotter to mark where they have been, and easily see what remaining ground they need to cover
  • Try the World - subscription box off food finds from a new country every month.  Can include ingredients with recipes, gourmet snacks, drinks - whatever treasures their curators find and pull together for your lucky recipient that month.  Occasionally they will even have special edition releases where highlights from different countries on the same theme will be offered, like this month's holiday edition with buttery toffees from South Africa and date spread from Israel.

Buy from:

5. For the Black Truffle Enthusiast

What's more beautiful in this world to a foodie than a fragrant black truffle? 

Pair it with dark chocolate and you have this pun-and-foodie worthy treat from Urbani, the most esteemed and prolific distributor of European truffles and truffle products in the world.

And if you have the gumption to chase it down, there is an all natural Périgord-truffle infused vodka that is distilled five times and triple filtered, very elusive in the US that could be amazing for a truffle lover to add to their collection (see buy from details below).

Buy from:
  • Black truffle chocolate truffle: Eataly $14.80
  • Black Moth truffle vodka: extremely limited distribution in the US, currently only noted as sold at Pemberton Fine Wines & Spirits in Vegas (contact them directly for details, or ask your local fine wines & spirits store how to get a hold of this)

6. For the Holiday Enthusiast Foodie (Who Just.Can't.Wait.For.Every.Day.In.December.)

Let them countdown to Christmas...with a daily dose of their favorite food or beverage from wine to beer to chocolate.

These lovely gift boxes have a compartment to be opened for each day in December til Christmas, with a surprise behind each. (Because I was so late to finish this post, at this point these gifts are probably on sale price which means your recipient gets to drink / eat a LOT all at once :P, or savor it past holiday as the gifts that keep on giving)

The Vinebox is an especially fun one for single wine enthusiasts who want variety but don't want to open and waste good wine in giant bottles that can never be finished on their own: their brilliant 12 Day *by the glass* advent calendar includes:
  • 12 individual glasses of wine hand-curated for the holiday season
  • Includes Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux and more
  • Holiday-themed tasting notes and pairings

Hotel Chocolat Advent calendar in dark, milk and white chocolate:  yes, there are hotels built entirely built around the celebration of chocolate, and yes, they sell chocolate advent calendars.  Sweet dreams... :)

Buy from:

Happy holiday shopping!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Lao Tao Street Food: Modern, Tasty Taiwanese in the Heart of Chinatown

Food lovers have been flocking to Far East Plaza for Korean/Asian fusion bowls or Nashville style hot chicken, and now they have another reason to visit: it's called Lao Tao Street Food, a serene nook of a space upstairs from Chego, and serving fantastic Taiwanese street food inspired fare that lives up to its name (which translates to foodie, and has its origins in an ancient, mischievous creature who ate everything he could find).

It's been soft open since mid-September, just for lunch...

...and I was impressed with everything I've had.

One of my absolute favorites by first time professional Chef David Wang so far has been the Century Egg Tofu Salad ($6): it's a very simple yet well balanced and super satisfying dish made of century eggs (preserved duck eggs), soft silky tofu, pork floss to add textural contrast and bit of sweetness, chopped scallions for crisp crunch and pops of color, and hong you (Sichuan chile oil) for hint of heat and to tie all the ingredients together.

For eggs that are essentially black/grey in color from the preservation process, I know it sounds weird to describe them as super fresh, but the best ones really are the ones that taste 'fresh': the yolk is creamy/buttery, full of luscious umami, and the parts formerly known as 'whites' are translucent and like a medium firm gelatin that is still structured and springy to the bite.

I was so excited to be able to have this dish since I don't remember having any century egg dish this eyes-rolled-back good since Yung Kee in Hong Kong. A definitely must get on any visit.

Taiwanese street food  chicken neck roll
Then there was the curiously named 'Chicken Neck' Roll ($7) - which is not actually made with chicken neck, but pork and fish paste stuffed into fried tofu skin.  A nice delicious balance of crisp crunch outside and a fish-ball like consistency inside.

Lao Tao beef noodle bowl
Lao Tao offers a number of far too easy to eat bowls on their 'mains' section.  My favorite so far is Beef Ban Mian ($12), made with wide flat noodles that are coated with 8-hour bone marrow broth.  It's inspired by Nou Rou Mian, or beef stew noodle soup, but instead of putting the noodles and beef shank in a heavy broth / stew, the noodles are generously coated in a sauce made with broth, concentrated with flavor after hours of slow-cooking.  Pickled greens add nice touch of acidity to cut through the umami / fat, and cubes of tomatoes add nice juicy bursts of color and texture contrast.  Again this bowl is remarkably well balanced in flavor, texture and presentation.

As if there weren't already enough things to love about the place, they also offer my favorite tea: osthmanthus oolong on their drink menu.

You almost can't tell that this is the product of first time restaurant chef-owners - if not for their pure heart, love for food, humility, (FOH staff led by partner Ying Xie's) friendliness and eagerness to seek feedback.

Definitely wishing this neighborhood gem much success. And excited to see how they evolve the menu.  Lao Tao's grand opening is coming up October 4th - check them out soon!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


Lao Tao Street Food

727 N Broadway #207, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ph: 213.372.5318
Parking: underground structure below Far East Plaza (1 hour free with validation)


Saturday, September 10, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 4: Downtown Cancun, La Habichuela and Night Time Beach Swings

After a few days of underwater adventure, we were ready to have a more low-key day on land, exploring the city (plus, @gourmetpigs was leaving the next morning and we needed to observe the no-diving 24-hours prior to flying safety rule).

We set out in search of local spot Loncheria El Pocito, in a working class neighborhood in Cancun.

It was off the beaten track, and no English was spoken by restaurant staff, which is just how we wanted it.
Though, this meant we were to do our best with our limited vocab, to decipher the menus.

But everything we ordered was fresh made and tasty - starting with these tamales ($16 pesos ~$0.85 USD).
And cochinta ($85 pesos ~$4.50 USD) pulled pork plate with pickled onions and plantains.

Loved that the fresh made flour tortillas were served in a coconut shell.
The dish that most surprised us was the Pollo Horneado ($85 pesos ~$4.50 USD) baked chicken served with spaghetti in tomato sauce, an interesting mashup of cultures, origins unknown.

To walk off our lunch, we drove to Mercado 28, an outdoor marketplace with stalls of souvenirs and street food.

Of course we had to stop by the elote cart!
It was a sweltering day, so a refrigerated case of ice cream stopped us in our tracks. And in it, was this awesome find of Pela Pop, a vanilla ice cream bar in the shape of a banana, with a jelly/doughy wrap carefully formed on the outside to create a soft, yielding edible peel!  So much fun, and delicious too!

Apparently this frozen treat is made by Nestle, so I'm sure it's a commonly available product, but it was the first time I'd ever encountered it and I was in love!!

Made a note to self to look for this treat in Mexican markets when I returned to LA.

We couldn't leave without some margaritas, and chose to get the BOGO deal at happy hour at The Alley/El Callejon bar at the entrance of Mercado 28, and as indicated in its name, in an alley.

The Alley has signs everywhere that markets their margaritas as the best in Cancun - we hadn't imbibed enough to know whether this was true, but the portion sizes are definitely generous.  We would recommend selecting one of the other fruit flavors that isn't lime though - we wanted to stay away from far too sweet, but the lime one went the opposite direction and was extremely sour.

We did love the ambience of the semi-hidden away, sunlit, serene alley-way setting though.

After a power nap, we headed out as was becoming our dive-vacation tradition, to have one fine dining dinner on the final night.

@gourmetpigs found an amazing Mayan-themed place that felt like a hidden gem in plain sight on the hotel zone strip, with its archaeological inspired interiors, and lush jungled sculpture garden patio: La Habichuela.

The receptionist greeted us with free necklaces, as if these were portkeys to another time and space (yep, had to throw a Harry Potter reference in there).

This may read like it's a gimmick as a part of a theme restaurant, but the design of the space and experience is so artful that it didn't feel like a 'theme' restaurant in the way that it would in the U.S.

The back garden patio, with its ornate white-washed wrought iron chairs, strung lights, and dock overlooking yachts, created a quietly magical ambience that made it easy to see why La Habichuela is a popular place for special occasions including weddings.

While the decor was Mayan, the menu took inspiration from Caribbean and Mexican cuisine.

We started with a trio of tamales.
Then the showstopper: Cocobichuela ($504 pesos or ~$27 USD): chunks of lobster and shrimp in curry sauce, served in a coconut shell with rice and tropical fruit.

La Habichuela had another dramatic offering to close out the meal in an unforgettable way: Cafe Maya ($110 pesos or ~$6 USD), made with Xtabentun, brandy, cream, and ground cinnamon.

Xtabentun is a liquer made in the Yucatan, that may have taken its inspiration from a ceremonial spirit produced by Mayans, now made with anise, honey made by bees feeding on the nectar of xtabentun flowers, and rum.  This liquer added depth and a sweet / licorice-like flavor to the coffee, which was served in a Mayan inspired stone chalice - and lit on fire.  (Yes, I'm a sucker for drinks crowned with blue flames first.)
We couldn't leave without doing one shamelessly touristy duty: visit the vibrant "Cancun" sign at Playa Delfines for a photo opp.

But one of my favorite moments from our trip was actually also from that beach, a short walk from the colorful beacon...there was a playground/gym that was made of rustic logs, and a thatched cover, which came with swings - right on the sand, overlooking the water.

It was an incredibly simple joy, propelling ourselves high into the air, to the sound of ocean lapping, white sand beneath our feet, under the open star-filled sky - swinging like pendulums between kid-like glee and cynics'-reprieve gratefulness for all in our lives, good and bad, because everything led to us all arriving to that moment.  Definitely felt more than #blessed for one of the best trips ever, and to be able to share that with the most amazing friends.

And then to be blown away the very next day, that I couldn't even imagine would be able to even top the already amazing days that we'd spent in the area.

Looking for more activity ideas for Cancun / Tulum / the Yucatan? Check out how we maximized our trip in my recaps of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 5. For more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog


Cancun, Mexico

Ontime Car Rental
Blvd. Kukulcan, Km 11.5 Loc. 101-B
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77500
Ph: +52 998 883 0160

Mercado 28
Xel-Ha 28, 77509 Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Supermanzana 28

Loncheria El Pocito
31 Norte Lte 23 Mz35, Sm 63, 77513 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Ph: +52 998 252 2654
Facebook page 

The Alley/ El Callejon
Avenida Xel-Ha, Plaza Bonita, Xel-ha, Cancun 77500, Mexico
Facebook page

La Habichuela
Calle Margaritas 25, Centro, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Ph: +52 998 884 3158

Playa Delfines 
Boulevard Kukulkan | Zona Hotelera, Cancun 77500, Mexico

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400

Day 4 costs breakdown:

  • Car Rental: $40 USD per day = $10 per person per day including mandatory liability insurance
    • Gas: 200 pesos per day = 50 pesos per person per day (~$3 USD)
  • Lunch at Loncheria El Pocito ~$185 pesos per person (~$10 USD)
  • Mercado 28 ~$25 pesos (~$1.32 USD): 
    • Elote
    • Pela banana ice cream pop 
    • Margaritas
  • La Habichuela:  ~$583 pesos per person (~$31 USD)
  • Hotel: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$60 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here, Day 2 here, Day 3 here, and Day 5 here.  To see more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Countdown to Los Angeles Food & Wine, Tomorrow Through This Weekend!

The 6th annual festival, presented by FOOD & WINE and Lexus, features four days of events held at iconic venues in LA (from just outside Disney Concert Hall and The Broad Museum downtown, to the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica) and highlighting some of the finest restaurants from around the country.

If you're into celebrity chefs, there will be over 100 at the event, from Hugh Acheson to Jet Tila to Nyesha Arrington; Food Network stars Tyler Florence, Emeril Lagasse and Robert Irvine are also on the roster, and there are always opportunities at these events to get up close and personal.  Enjoy cooking & mixology demos, sit down dinners, grand tastings and even a concert by De La Soul this year.

For highlights the event from last year, see below!

When: Thursday August 25- Sunday August 28, 2016

Where: Various venues in Downtown LA, Beverly Hills (see event site for details)

How much: $115-$175 general admission, $175 VIP (see event site for details)

[Deal alert: 15% discount for Lexus Preferred Drivers via this link]

Event website:


One of my favorite events from last year was the Lexus Live on Grand Saturday night.  An outdoor event held on Grand Avenue in presence of the breathtaking Disney Concert Hall, even more impressive lit up under the DTLA night sky, and and The Broad Museum (which hadn't at the time opened to the public yet - but drew even more wonderment from the crowd with its mysterious design that to me looked like a giant eye in the center of an almost benign reptilian inspired exterior), it was a night to remember.

At LAFW events, it's always fun to discover samplings from new restaurants you hadn't been to yet.  My first stop was at Hot's Kitchen's station, which featured Seared Foie Gras with Pig Ear Crisp and Cara Cara Orange by Chef Sean Chaney.

One of my other favorite bites of the night also came from a restaurant I'd never been to before, this time up in San Francisco - Mourad, a Moroccan fine dining restaurant with a California twist.

Chef Mourad Lahlou himself was there plating up tartlettes with smoked salmon, dill, cucumber and lebni.  It was so delicious I went back shamelessly for four.  (And on a subsequent trip to SF, based on this unforgettable bite I actually stopped in to dine at Mourad - post on this to come.)

The Strand House's Chef Greg Hozinsky offered an incredible Spicy Rock Shrimp & Chorizo Broth dish.

Then there were the familiar and beloved stations like Hudson Valley Foie Gras, where Chef Michael Ginor served up a decadent Torchon of Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Caramelized White Chocolate.

We chowed down on this one to the sounds of The Roots perform live on the Lexus stage!

As us Food-Obsessed finished our rounds collecting luxe bites and sips, we started to check out the fun stations like Joe's, where chefs were rolling with the spirit of the outdoor street market style set up by pressing cubanos with actual clothes irons!

Hendricks Gin had an awesome steampunk-esque booth with a 'curious' contraption that enabled hand-cranked mixing of a gin cocktail.

At other stations, they also served craft cocktail shots on a wooden plank, so that you had to line up with other friends you'd just made while queuing up for drinks, and down the shots at the same time.  Definitely great insta-bonding station!

Be sure to explore every station and duck into all areas of the venue - if we hadn't stopped by the Lexus Lounge last year we would have missed out on the fantastic Summer Peach Tres Leches with Tokaji Gel (Tokaji being my recently discovered favorite, amazingly balanced sweet wine from Hungary known as the "elixir of the tsars").

(And at the Friday night event, it was in the Lexus Lounge that Chef David Lefevre from my favorite restaurants in Manhattan Beach - Fishing With Dynamite, MB Post and Arthur J - was there to shuck oysters to order and hand fed them to guests!!!!  Talk about a bucketlist moment! And no I am NOT sharing that photo of my #cryface)

All in all, LAFW is always an unforgettable time from the decadent food, free flowing drinks, face time with amazing chefs, to fantastic entertainment.

Looking forward to the start of this year's festivities tomorrow!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Alexander's Steakhouse: A Best dineLA Deal and Fine Dining Experience in Pasadena

It's been a while since there has been a dineLA menu that has really been surprising to me, that is both an exceptional deal and with exciting dishes.  Alexander's Steakhouse did that and more, and is now one of my favorite restaurants in the city, both for and beyond dineLA.

But let's start with the dineLA dinner - as this is the last day of the Summer rotation of dineLA, and you still have a chance to experience Alexander's fantastic six-course prix fixe! (It was so epic that I've already repeated a visit within two weeks.)

The fine dining experience kicks in right from the start with an amuse bouche of uni dashi panna cotta topped with negi (a Welsh onion).

Course 1: the first of two options is their signature Hamachi Shots with smooth clean slices of sashimi in shot glasses, with dashi gelee, avocado, thinly chopped radish for light crunch and ponzu. A refreshing and tasty start, especially on a hot summer night.

Option two is the Passmore Ranch Sturgeon terrine, with dash buttermilk, and dollop of caviar.  Decadent, but the terrine is a bit firm.  I definitely preferred the hamachi shots.

Course 2: option one was the incredible Tartare of Beef with marrow cream, smoked carrot and bleu cheese. If this wasn't a fine dining establishment I would have picked up my plate and licked it: every element was the definition of luxury: from the rich, flavorful beef to the luscious cream made with bone marrow for maximum umami.

Option two was Dry-Aged Beef Tataki with barley miso, argan oil and horseradish.  Though I loved the beef tartare, the tataki held its own as another starter option as well.

Then came the bread bowl.  I've always thought that what a restaurant puts into their bread bowl speaks to the core of their passion for their work.  If they don't treat this as a token, obligatory thing - if they put care and heart into even this detail, then you can expect them to put heart and care into every other aspect of your experience as well, from food to service.  And Alexander's bread bowl is one of the finest I've had in LA - so much so that if they opened a bakery tomorrow, I would readily commit to frequent visits even just for their bread (and #foodgasm worthy trio of butters).

In this bowl: hokkaido brioche, squid ink bread, caramelized onion and garlic cheese rolls.  The hokkaido brioche was a warm fluffy cloud of deliciousness that brings me back to my childhood fav (Hong Kong natives may get the reference to Panash's hokkaido bread).  The rolls had just the right amount of cheese, at just the right balance of chewy and crisp.

Then there were the butters, in order of our unanimous favorites: Italian beef fat whipped butter with pieces of dried beef mixed in; honey butter served in a bone segment; Straus butter with sea salt. I wish they would sell the whipped beef butter to us by the tub because I would just spoon it all day.

Then came the dish, course three, that really distinguishes Alexander's from all other steakhouses: many would just focus on the quality, cuts, and cooking of their steak, and push out the standard sides with a few other appetizers on their menu.  Alexander's positions themselves as a fine dining steakouse with Japanese influence, and their pursuit of perfection shines through not only in the decidedly far from standard dishes on offer beyond steak, but their creativity in taking even those dishes to the next level.  Course three was between corn soup and chawanmushi topped with sea urchin - so we pretty much all chose chawanmushi.  Not only was it one of the smoothest, lightest steamed egg custards in recent memory, I loved the combination of corn puree in the egg itself, as well as kernels on top for bursts of juicy crunch and sweetness; the bright orange tongue of uni adding mouthwatering brininess; and sorrel gel for hint of herbaceousness.

Course four was the salad course, and we chose between Heirloom Tomato and Little Gem & Romaine.  Even with the salad courses Alexander's chooses not to slack, but to innovate:  The tomato salad came with melon, goat milk, makhani sauce and toasted bread.  The Little Gem was made with anchovy miso dressing, furikake and fennel for umami and fresh crunch.

then came the star attraction: course five was a choice between quantity and quality: Dry-Aged Greater Omaha Prime T-bone at 18oz, or Kagoshima A5 Wagyu at 3oz?

For me, it was wagyu or nothing.  With all the preceding courses and dessert still to come, I didn't need to go for quantity as steak doesn't taste good the next day anyway - and the last time I had been to Alexander's, their Miyazaki A5 was the best steak I had ever tasted in my life.

Plus, the same size of Kagoshima on the regular menu runs for $98 - so getting this same dish for dineLA ($115 for 6 courses total including the steak) is an incredible deal.  This was perfectly marbled, exquisitely flavorful steak and one no foodie should miss especially during dineLA.

 Our server let us know that the steak is purposely underseasoned, to allow us to custom salt it to our individual tastes.  They dropped off a lovely wooden square containing 6 artisanal salts.  Of these, Kala Namak was the most intriguing, as it somehow evokes flavors of steak and boiled eggs (triggered by sulphur???)

As palate cleanser: compressed watermelon with mint and cantaloupe granita.  Super refreshing and one I could picture being a massive hit at any summer/ bbq party.  If only they sold this to us too!!

Course six was dessert: Sweet Corn Brulee with blueberries, cornflake crunch and creme fraiche ice cream.  While I appreciated the unusual combination of corn with a classic french dessert, the execution was lacking for me.  Overall it felt a bit more heavy than I wanted - it would have been more on point if the creme were slightly less dense, the torched sugar crust a bit more delicate, perhaps the whole portion size scaled down - but tasty nonetheless.

Just when we were rubbing our bellies and loosening belt buckles with satisfaction, more tasty treats arrived to close out the meal: the first was a playful tower of cotton candy. 

Then a tray of mignardises including macarons, truffles and pastry puffs rolled in rice puffs.  

Aside from the main menu, some optional add-ons that I would recommend (if your stomach capacity allows, for you will be full just on the dineLA menu alone): Alexander's creative take on the classic Mac 'n Cheese, using udon noodles, four kinds of cheeses in a decadent Mornay (manchego, cheddar, camembert and parmesan), and truffled panko crumbs.

Or go for the Truffled Potatoes for your carbs.

Also, I should mention that Alexander's is one of few steakhouses in LA that has an incredible craft cocktail program, headed by Erik Lund at the attached Bull and Barrel bar. Celery is my favorite so far, made with tequila, celery, lime, serrano, with a salt rim: a refreshing savory / spicy drink that exemplifies the creativity that runs through every plate but through every glass.  Arrive early for dinner, and hang out at the bar if you are into whisky - Erik will likely have a bottle or three of hard to find whiskeys for you to taste.  As in, he actually goes to invite only whisky barrel auctions to score spirits you may have never even heard of.

All in all, an amazing experience and deal, and I would definitely return again soon, for dineLA or any other special occasion!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (4 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


Alexander's Steakhouse

111N Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101
Ph: 626.486.1111

Parking: valet $8, or park in public structure at Union & Euclid across from City Hall: $4-$5 flat rate depending on day and time of visit

Look for reservations, and points, at OpenTable

Alexander's Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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