Sunday, November 30, 2008
Baby Ian plots his escape.
We're back. Again.
Ever since my last visit to Scoops a year ago, we've been thinking about their ice cream. Specifically, their Brown Bread ice cream. That odd combination of vanilla ice cream and Grape Nuts that we can't seem to get enough of. Who are these people and what kind of Black Magic are they putting into that bread?
The Brown Bread Ice Cream.
Mom and Dad at Scoops.
712 North Heliotrope
Los Angeles, CA 90029
House Shrimp Cake - Deep fried shrimp paste mixed with house spice.
Thai Sausage - Grilled Thai sour pork sausage with cabbage, fresh ginger and peanut.
Papaya Salad - Shredded green papaya with peanut, tomato, green bean and dry shrimp.
Fresh Squid in broth.
Crispy Pork Belly Basil - Crispy pork belly stir fried with onion, bell pepper and sweet basil.
Panang - Thai chili paste with chicken, bell pepper and basil in coconut milk.
Pla Rad Prik - Deep fried whole fish topped with house garlic and chili sauce.
Tom Yum - Spicy and sour soup with shrimp, mushroom and tomatoes.
Thai Patio Hollywood
5273 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Friday, November 28, 2008
Chocolate topped Vanilla cupcake baby with flower.
I always find myself in this predicament: walk into a shop and wish that I had done this.
After cruising around Abbott-Kinney and exploring the bakeries there, Mom, Polly and myself headed onward to Santa Monica to visit Vanilla. Cupcakes are a side project at Spro and Mom does 80% of the baking for the shop. Our adventure today was part reconnaissance, part education and part nutrition.
I think it's important to see how other people do things and taste their offerings. It educates both the mind and the palate and, hopefully, gives one insight into how things might be done better. It's a major reason why I spend so much time traveling and write so many words on merely visiting places and eating.
Cakes and desserts
There's only one way to describe Vanilla: cute. It's such a cute little shop and bakery on Wilshire. I loved the decor and the little VBS baby jumpers that were for sale. The decor and the presentation is so well thought out. Where Chantilly's presentation was for the Japanese crowd, Vanilla's is decidedly for rich, white people - er, people from Santa Monica. It's the kind of place that garners media attention. The kind of place celebrities are spotted and chased after. And while typically, that would be a bad sign, Vanilla's just too cute not to visit.
In the case, they've got baby cupcakes and regular cupcakes, and at $3.25 per cupcake (3 babies for $5), they're not cheap. They're downright nouveau riche.
Little desserts to tempt you.
At The Spro, we sell our handmade cupcakes for $2 each - and I still have customers who complain that it's "too much." Never mind that we use the best quality ingredients we possibly can source and it costs us a lot more than Tastykake to make - sometimes I'd like to choke these people who protest too much.
But that's neither here nor there. Although, I always wonder just how many people come into places like Vanilla to complain about their prices...
To be honest, the 2000s hype over the cupcake has me a bit baffled. They're not impossible to make, and so many of them are kinda meh. I can't tell you how many have actually disappointed me - and these were from some of the most famous of cupcake bakeries. Dry, crumbly - one was even undercooked. While I'm not as weary of cupcake bakeries as I am of coffeeshops, the alert meter is on the rise.
A Box of Babies.
Vanilla's cupcakes are like the shop: cute! Very cute. I like the molds they're using to bake them in. They stand high and vertical instead of the wide and flared like typical cupcake molds. Most of the icing is merely piped on the cupcakes out of a bag. And while it is pretty and attractive-looking, I find it disappointing. It takes real time and skill to apply icing on individual cupcakes with a spatula and create designs and patterns. Simply piping on icing and adding a topping is cute and attractive but it doesn't take skill or craftsmanship.
Inside the display are full sized cakes. They are gorgeous. They are expensive ($55 for a 9" red velvet), but they are quite pretty. Vanilla also offers parfait kind of desserts. Basically big mason jars (with flip top lid) filled with parfait. It's attractive, amazing and enticing all at once. I think we bought one but I don't think we ever ate it. It must have gotten pushed to the back of the fridge. Damn.
Little Gingerbread Man about to die.
We ended up taking an assorted box of cupcake babies with us. Happily, they were good. Moist cake and tasty. I think I ate three. I think I need more....
Vanilla Bake Shop
512 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
A very nice macchiato on the bar at Caffe Luxe.
Next up on our West Side Bakery and Coffeeshop Tour was Caffe Luxe. Over the past year, Luxe has been quietly making a name for itself within the specialty coffee community. The space itself is quite nice. Lots of white. Lots of black granite countertops. Low granite countertops, I should add. And the staff is quite friendly.
When it comes to Third Wave coffeeshops, Luxe has got all the factors down. Three group Synesso Cyncra, grinders and nice baristas making nice drinks. At a loss for what I should order and on the verge of heart palpitations due to over-caffeination, I went for a simple macchiato.
The Synesso Cyncra - the Third Wave espresso machine poster child.
We were only at Luxe briefly but the macchiato was good. The milk was a little bubbly but the espresso had a rich dark chocolate flavor with slight bitter notes. Wish we could have stayed longer but we had a nice time checking out their place.
925 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Number 84 Gets A Bird.
For many years I've been hearing about Urth Caffe in Santa Monica from coffee friends all over. "Go and visit Urth," they would say. But I never did. Just never did. Until now.
As we were making our way down main street, there it was. And it is huge. I had been expecting some sort of small, funky little coffee joint, not some huge, towering, atrium-esque kind of coffee palace. And it was jam packed.
In the world of specialty coffee, it's still unusual to find places that do the volume that Urth does. The line was easily fifteen deep - and it's the middle of the afternoon. Of course, Urth has been here for years, it's well established and it's a fashionable looking and fashionable place to be seen. Celebrities come and go. Bimmer owners come and go. Typical L.A. dickheads come and go.
In fact, one of those typical L.A. dickheads was there while we were there. Whatever slight the staff may have caused ended up with him shouting at the top of his lungs for a "manager." Evidently, a cake he ordered was missing and he wasn't getting satisfaction.
While I can sympathize with the Dickhead, looking around I can't help wonder why anyone would ever special order anything in a place that's as busy as Urth. It's absolutely crazy in there. The pace looks furious. Oh no, if I needed to special order a cake, I'd go somewhere where it was a little bit saner. Vanilla Bake Shop maybe?
Not feeling very hungry and not really knowing what to order, I went for something "safe": a cappuccino. For here.
At Urth, you fall in line, choose a pastry (if you desire) and tell the staff your order. It's busy enough that there's a guy in the line writing down your order so the cashiers can process it faster. Once paid, you're given a number and proceed to find an open table. Since we're just getting a drink and there's an Italian style bar by the espresso machines, I go there.
Obviously, it's not chic to stand at the bar and drink your coffee here at Urth (and possibly L.A.). The barista tells me that it's okay to find a seat and they'll bring the drink to me. I tell him that I'd prefer to stand (and gawk).
Throughout the restaurant business, Hispanics have been infiltrating the kitchens. Eat just about any cuisine at restaurants across America and chances are that it's being prepared by someone who was born speaking Espanol. Even in suburban Columbia, Maryland there's a kitchen full of La Raza preparing Vietnamese Pho that you'd swear came from some Vietnamese grandmother who lived through the French Occupation and Viet-Cong.
Los Hombres making Gringo Baristas look wimpy.
I've been wondering when we'd start to see Hispanics in the ranks of specialty coffee baristas and at Urth I found them.
Here were two Mexican guys (I'm presuming considering the accent of their Spanish) cranking out really nice espresso drinks on par with those Third Wave Baristas you read so much about in Barista Magazine. The difference with these two were that they were multilingual, dressed nicely, had no tats, didn't put a lot of "flare" in their technique, and didn't base their attitude and service on the amount you tipped or whether they thought you were a democrat or republican. in other words, these guys were professionals, and they were drilling out the drinks like nobody's business.
To be honest, Urth looked like a stylish indie coffeeshop. A coffeeshop built on style not substance. I wasn't expecting noteworthy coffee. I was expecting pretty much what you'd find at coffeeshops all across America. I was expecting dreck, or some form of dreck.
Instead, I was served a tasty cappuccino with latte art that even I couldn't produce. The milk was textured perfectly. The shots looked brilliant and they came together in that proper combination that baristas worldwide seek to create with the perfect milk foam Yin to the espresso crema's Yang.
As he was pouring the milk, the design looked a bit sloshy. Oh well, I thought, everyone messes up their latte art pour every once in a while. What I didn't realize then was that the pour wasn't a mistake, it was by design. And that Pinche Loco Hombre topped my cappuccino off with a fucking bird! Gracias, mi amor.
A bird. damn bird. I've seen birds on the Internet but never in real life. Birds were something that a guy in Japan screws with and puts up a video on YouTube. It's something that these guys do for fun. For show. Something that's done in a lab or afterhours as a party prank or way to show your balls.
Oh, but these guys weren't pouring birds afterhours. No. They were pouring birds ON THE LINE in the middle of service while drilling out hundreds of drinks.
La Raza has finally infiltrated our ranks.
I must recruit them for The Spro.
2327 Main St
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Chicken Curry Pasta - Thai Red Curry simmered with chicken breast, peas and linguini.
It shouldn't surprise me, but it does. Every time I visit Los Angeles I'm continually amazed by the breadth of food this metropolis has to offer. Maybe I'm "too mainstream" but when I think of "L.A." the "hip" places come to mind. Places like Providence, Mozza and Spago. Luckily, Al, Polly and my friends live here so I get to experience an L.A. removed from the hype.
With Mom in tow, we're cruising around Venice Beach visiting more pastry shops, like Jin Patisserie, and seeing just what else L.A. has to offer. It's about 11:30am, which means it's time to each lunch.
Me? I would have gone to places that I know about. Places like Father's Office in Santa Monica or Lilly's on Abbott-Kinney. I never would have thought about the place Polly took us: 26 Beach in Marina Del Rey.
Located on Washington Boulevard, getting into 26 Beach's parking lot can be a bit tricky. As you're approaching the restaurant (by car, with the restaurant to your right), the entrance to the back lot is immediately to the right of the restaurant - which means for us, it's NOW. A hard and quick turn to the right and you squeeze your car down a very narrow lane to a small parking lot in the back. Don't come in too fast because some fool might try to come out the way they came in (wrong), or some L.A. soccer mom is sitting in the middle of lane just because, and you don't want to hit any of the kitchen help as they schlep bags back and forth from the dumpster.
Squeeze into a space and you're good to go. Walk around to the front entrance and all is good.
Polly's Ginger Salmon Salad - Fresh Sauteed Salmon with asparagus, mushrooms in a soy dressing on a bed of greens and cilantro.
The restaurant is divided into two main sections, the sort-of outside part and the inside. The sort-of outside part features ceiling height walls with overhead coverage but is otherwise open-air. The set up and decor is eclectic and funky. To the right is the inside part of the restaurant. It's much more chic looking with supple fabrics, wood furniture, soft lighting and a small bar. Surprisingly, Mom chose to sit in the pseudo outside part of the restaurant.
With a name like 26 Beach, you'd think the name has something to do with the restaurant. Maybe it's on the beach? No. Maybe the address is 26? Nope. I checked their website, but there's nothing there either, but it does state that they're celebrating their 26th year in business. Maybe in 2009 the restaurant will be called "27 Beach."
Once seated, service starts out a bit on the rocky side. Where's our waitress? Maybe a drink order? Who knows what's going on but we sit for at least ten minutes before our waitress comes to greet us and take a drink order. Normally, I'd be a bit perturbed but I'm technically on vacation and I supposedly work in foodservice - I really don't want to get worked up unless something really egregious happens. Plus, I'm with my Mom and I just don't want to make an issue of it. But certainly ten minutes is beyond reasonable.
Finally, our waitress comes and she's nice. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and guess that perhaps they didn't assign her to our table but she did greet and take the order of the two ladies seated next to and after us before getting to us.
Mom and PB&J Burger - Creamy Skippy peanut butter & Knott's Strawberry Jam.
The menu, like the setting, is eclectic. On the menu are eggs, burgers, salads, Asian noodles and chilaquiles. God knows I would never begrudge a restaurant for offering chilaquiles but to my East Coast eyes, it's kinda odd. But the word is that the food is good so I'm game.
As we look over the menu, Mom surprises me asking about the chilaquiles. I know I have to have them but the only small order of chilaquiles they offer is the sinister sounding "Chilaquiles Diablo" where the menu states: "...if you are afraid of heat, stay away!"
My Mom isn't one to tolerate much in the way of spicy foods. Even black pepper can be too powerful for her. With such a message about the chilaquiles, I'm not worried about her handling it as much as I'm worried about whether or not I can handle it. I decide to go for it anyway and if it's too much, we can order the other chilaquiles that's not as hot.
When it comes, I tentatively give it a taste. It's good. The Diablo Salsa is light and delicious, but there's no heat. I'm sitting there waiting for the late onslaught of heat, pain and endorphins but it never arrives.
Years ago, during one of our paintball trips to win the Canadian National Stockgun Championship, we ate at a Mexican restaurant where we mindlessly ordered the Camarones Diablo. The heat was so intense and searing that I couldn't finish one shrimp. The pain was excruciating and the shame lives with me until today.
I was expecting that level of fire and pain from the chilaquiles but it just wasn't there. I asked Polly to try it. Nothing. Even my Mom, who cringes at the sight of Tabasco from a distance tasted it. Nothing. In fact, she really liked it. It wasn't just me. If my Mom could chow it down, there was no heat in this Diablo Salsa.
We asked our waitress if this indeed was the right order. She assured us it was. Stumped, I reflected back to a dinner we had in the summer at Thai Landing in Baltimore. We ordered some dishes "Thai Hot" just to prove we could but the owner stated up front that he doubted they could deliver because the chiles they had in stock just didn't have the heat. Their kitchen loaded up our dishes with the chiles but in the end, the heat never rose to uncomfortable levels. Tabasco would have been hotter that day.
And I suspect that's what happened with the Diablo Salsa on that day. Devoid of the fatal heat, the flavor was delicious. Mom loved it. It surprised me because I had made chilaquiles on a number of occasions and she never liked it before. Maybe it was too hot. Whatever the case, these chilaquiles were truly delicious with the right amount of crisp offset by the permeation of the salsa.
Moving onto our main courses, Polly had campaigned hard for me to try the Chicken Curry Pasta and I'm glad she did because it was damn good. And I do mean damn good. Rich, nutty tasting red curry on top of pasta with chicken - who would've thought? Oh, it was good. So good. It's thick. It's rich. Oh, heavenly. But there's never enough curry sauce. I had to ask for more. Some to finish the dish and the rest to drizzle over my body and absorb the tasty goodness through as many senses as possible.
Chilaquiles Diablo - tortilla chips pan sauteed in Diablo Salsa with queso seco, mozzarella, red onion, cilantro, guacamole and sour cream.
Polly went for the Ginger Salmon Salad, of which I had a bite (or two). It was good but I've been a bit fatigued with salmon over the past year so I find it hard to get enthusiastic about it.
Mom, swayed by my "suggestion", went with the Peanut Butter and Jelly Burger. It sounds odd. It sounds weird. It even sounds nasty but it's quite unbelievable. Peanut butter, strawberry jelly and a hamburger patty. You need to try it for yourself. Words fail. Sweet? Yes. Savory? Yes. Tasty? Oh yeah, baby.
The rest of our time at 26 Beach went by nicely. Our waitress took care of things and there were no more glitches in service. Sometimes you'd wonder just where she was - especially when I needed a side of the curry sauce, but it wasn't too long before she'd reappear.
Back out onto the parking lot, we were on our way to check out the bakeries of Abbott-Kinney and beyond.
26 Beach Restaurant
3100 Washington Boulevard
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Ah Choux! - a selection of cream puffs for your gustatory pleasures.
After feasting for Thanksgiving, we're back on the streets again today to eat more. This time, Polly has taken us to a little Japanese pastry place called Patisserie Chantilly.
Over the years, I've come to love French Pastries. But, truth be told, there's always a sweet spot in my heart for Japanese-style French Pastries. Typically, they're good. Quite delicious. And while the French know how to indulge in the finer things in life, leave it to the Japanese to refine it slightly, add their own twist and present it in beautiful packaging.
While a simple sheet of wax paper might me enough for the Frenchman, the Japanese will have it giftwrapped - and that's just for lunch.
Parisian style Macarons a la Pierre Herme.
Patisserie Chantilly is a small, boutique kind of bakery. It's located in a strip shopping center in Lomita, a somewhat sleepy-looking part of Southern California. From the outside, it looks rather plain and innocuous. Inside, however, and you see what most people miss.
The decor is simple yet modern. Clean lines, bright finish and a cheery Japanese staff that makes you think that perhaps you've landed in Kanazawa instead of Lomita.
Caramel Macchiato - not Starbucks.
Hiding in the lighted bakery case is the reason we've trekked this far: Black Sesame Cream Puffs. A little baked Pate Choux, sliced and filled with creamy, buttery black sesame goodness. My Goodness, it looks quite nice!
Some of you might have heard of that imported Japanese phenomena called Beard Papa (not "Bearded Papa"), let me tell you now that these two are not one and the same, nor are they remotely similar - other than the fact they're both "cream puffs."
No, no, these are light, airy... "puffy." The black sesame cream is rich, buttery and well, kinda odd. I'm not used to the black sesame thing, but I can certainly see it going places. For me, it's relatively new and I'm liking it. Liking it enough that I'm tempted to order more en masse.
Mont Blanc a la Angelina.
The rest of Chantilly's offerings are just as good. There's Parisian Style Macarons, like you'd find at Pierre Herme except without the shiny satin finish Herme has mastered (along with the bazillion flavors they offer). I also spied the Mont Blanc - a pastry that I've only seen in one place (and the same place that made it famous): Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. I should have tried one here but didn't. Mainly because I didn't find the Mont Blanc at Angelina to be that earth-shattering.
There's also a selection of other fine pastries and baked goods, along with a selection of wrapped cookies and other delights.
Our cream puffs are offered for Final Inspection before being packaged.
Patisserie Chantilly offers some truly delicious stuff but it caters mainly to its' local, Japanese clientele. The staff all speak Japanese and most of the patrons were Japanese. If this were a white owned bakery in a hip part of L.A. it would be as famous as places like Magnolia or La Brea. But these guys crank it out for their loyal following, and the "in the know" gaijin who, reportedly, drive all across SoCal just to have their cream puffs.
2383 Lomita Boulevard, Suite 10
Lomita, CA 90717
Pie shells cool while Dad does sudoku.
It's Thanksgiving in America. Our holiday to celebrate the bounty of the fall and the decimation of the native population. With that in mind, I have to wonder how Native Americans have come to view this national holiday. Is it seen as the joy of bounty that everyone else does? A day to kick back with family, friends and an overcooked turkey, or is it a reminder of a stolen nation that once was theirs?
Ingredients for Cranberry Sauce.
Yukon Gold Potatoes ready for mashing.
For this holiday, I'm at my brother's house in Hermosa Beach. The weather has been mild with a little bit of rain and we've spent the day shopping at places like Marukai, Von's, Sur La Table and Whole Foods for our supplies. Our Thanksgiving feasts are a mix of friends and their dishes. For our part here's what we're planning:
- Fried Turkey
- Homemade gravy
- Fried Duck
- Spiral Ham
- Macaroni and Cheese
- Garlic Mashed Potatoes
- Pumpkin Pie
- Leche Flan
- Roasted Bone Marrow
- Cranberry Sauce
- Banana Bread
Last year, Al and Polly lured me out to L.A. with my bullying them and our friends that "we must source everything local." Admittedly, I was almost tyrannical in my demands about the provenance of our food last year. Happily, our friends stood up to the challenge admirably. This year, I was a bit more relaxed about things.
After a big shopping excursion yesterday, a blizzard of cookery started today. So many items to prepare for dinner and such a small kitchen to prepare it in. I took up my post at "The Pass" and barked kitchen orders in German to my brother, sister-in-law and poor mother. Never let it be said that I'm easy to work with!
While there was a lot to prepare, we methodically chopped our way through the list and kicked out what I'd like to think was some kick ass food for Thanksgiving. Al made his usual garlic mashed potatoes - a sinister blend of butter, cream and a mountain of garlic mashed with yukon gold potatoes. Aunt Josie had sent out her award-winning Banana Bread and Mom tried her hand making her leche flan in a new kitchen.
Things rolled smoothly and as dinner time approached, we kicked it into high gear. Three gallons of peanut oil to fry a five pound duck. The oil boiled angrily but promised delicious goodness from within.
Anna's Caesar Salad
A Tray of Stuffing
The beautiful thing about frying a duck is that you always get more than you bargained for. After the duck emerged from the oil fried crisp to golden goodness, the oil in the fryer had increased by about an inch. The fat in the duck had rendered out into the peanut oil and now our turkey would be fried with the delicious essence of duck fat. It was enough to make any food lover giddy with excitement.
At 350F, poultry will cook in three minutes (per pound). It would be a half hour before our turkey was ready. Time to raise the alert level upstairs.
Soon, our friends and family would gather around the table for another delicious meal.
Pumpkin Pies fresh out of the oven.
Mom's Leche Flan
Roasting Bone Marrow.
Al carves the Fried Turkey.
The Full Spread.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Polly and Mom choose baked goodies.
Despite what I might say in person, I like living in Maryland. It's where I grew up and for all its' faults, there are a lot worse places I could live - never mind that Baltimore is one of the most crime riddled cities in America.
The problem with Baltimore is its' lack of a proper Japanese market. Sure, we've got a lot of "Asian" markets, but they're mainly Korean centric markets featuring Korean product. Maybe it's because I lived in Honolulu for so long but nothing beats a proper Japanese market.
Portuguese Sausage, Saimin and More.
There are lots of similarities between Japanese and Korean markets but the Korean ones never seem to be on par with the Japanese in terms of presentation. Stuff just looks better in the Japanese markets and the City of Gardena has these in spades.
How I dream about the Japanese style of white bread with its' fluffy white interior and square shape that toasts to a golden crisp perfection. Slather on some butter on that hot toast and it's just amazing. The Japanese are utterly obsessed with French style pastry, done with their own twist. There's a brioche stuffed with cod roe. Amazing. And the honey butter toast. Again, amazing.
The Holy Grail of Hawaii: Zippy's Chili.
Today we've made our usual stop at the Marukai Pacific Market. While Marukai is known for it's Japanese product, this part of Southern California is also home to large population of local people from Hawaii and this is reflected in their offerings.
Alongside the Ito-En teas are Hawaii classics like Redondo's Portuguese Sausage, S&S Saimin, and the Holy Grail of Hawaii foods: Zippy's Chili. And it's only $7.99 per box (a tremendous savings over the $70 I spent a few years ago to have the same chili airlifted to me from Honolulu).
Homewares for your kitchen.
There's even gallons of Aloha Shoyu and Diamond Bakery Soda Crackers nestled into the aisles. These people don't know how good they have it here in California.
In another aisle we find an amazing assortment of white rice in every shape, color, size and variety. In Maryland, we have Thailand Jasmine and Kokuho Rose. Here we find esoteric brands of rice like Matsuri, Tsuru Mai and Tamaki. In the frozen case we find Mochi Ice Cream, Melona bars and all the Japanese brands in the Kana that I can't even read.
A wide selection of rice.
Venture over to the fresh section and the assortment of seafood is dizzying. Beautiful cuts of O-Toro, Hamachi and Uni await your selection. As I spy the dried cuttlefish and rice crackers, I laugh giddily like a kid in a candy store.
The hard part about being in Marukai is restraint. I want to sample all of these foods that I can't get at home. In Maryland, there are no Japanese markets like this, we're extremely limited. The nearest proper Japanese market is in Edgewater, New Jersey across from New York City. Too far for a weekly shopping excursion.
Dried Cuttlefish for your snacking pleasure.
Fatty O-Toro in the fresh seafood section.
In spite of the fact that I can't try it all, our cart is getting filled. Filled with The Good Stuff. Later, as we cook the short grain California Koshihikari Tamaki Gold rice, my mom remarks that she hasn't had rice like this in a long time. The short grain is rich, flavorful, starchy and incredibly superior to the Kokuho Rose we get at home.
I will be back again to stock up before my trip home.
The new hotness in rice cookers: digital controlled induction.
Marukai Pacific Market
1620 Redondo Beach Boulevard
Gardena, CA 90247