Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Costco Goes Macallan

Recently, while shopping at my local Costco (Los Feliz Blvd.), I noticed that they are now selling an 18 year old Macallan under their Kirkland label. The Macallan, which was going for $60, was bottled by Alexander Murray & Co., the same bottler which bottles for Trader Joe's. As you may recall, I was not a fan of the Trader Joe's bottlings by Alexander Murray, so I passed, but it peaked my interest about this independent bottler who seems to only bottle for American supermarkets.

Anyway, if you've tried the Costco Macallan let me know, because at $60, if it's good, it's still a good deal for an 18 year old Mac.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Instant Fondue: Petit Sapin

Petit Sapin is a soft ripened cheese from the Jura area of Comte, France. It comes in a small wooden box a la Epoisse.

And when I say soft, I mean that at room temperature this stuff is instant fondue. Crack open the rind and just dip small pieces of bread as you would a fondue pot. It has a mild but ripe and complex taste and a wonderfully runny texture, one of the best new cheeses I've had in a while.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Indo Cafe

If you live in southern California, you have a choice of hundreds, maybe thousands of Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Salvadoran, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout the city. Not so with Indonesian food. I can name all the Indonesian places I've heard about in LA on one hand, but luckily, Indo Cafe, an Indonesian gem in west LA, will give you an excellent Indonesian sampling.

Gado gado is probably the most known Indonesian dish. It consists of a salad of veggies, egg and tofu covered in a peanut sauce. Indo's sauce is thick and rich and the veggies are crisp and fresh. Gado gado is popular, but their other dishes are more exciting.

One of the best dishes I've had anywhere is Indo's lamb satay (satay kambing) with lamb chunks marinated in a sweet soy sauce to awesome effect. The little black lamb chunks become flavor bombs, sweet, tangy and savory. This is a fabulous dish and one I keep going back for...it makes me salivate just to write about it. (Okay, too much information, I know).

Also excellent are the pan fried noodles (kwetiau goreng), fried fish cake with noodles in a sweet sauce (empek empek) and the various curries, especially the lamb, and the amazing fried rice (nasi goreng). Meals are served with a pungent and essential fermented fish condiment which is thicker than Vietnamese nuoc mam.

There is an intriguing list of desserts including various concoctions containing avocado, jackfruit and durian, none of which I've yet tried.

So, if you are interested in trying Indonesian, you can't do much better than Indo Cafe.

Indo Cafe
10428 1/2 National Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 815-1290

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Ichiro's Malt

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, thanks to a friend who travels regularly to Japan, I have been able to sample a number of Japanese whiskies that are not available in the US.

Other than the Suntory Yamazakis that are available in the States, two of the most common whiskies in Japan are Nikka Yoichi and Suntory Hakushu. I tried the 12 year old Hakushu and a Yoichi without an age statement. The Yoichi was good with a similar flavor profile to the Yamazakis (malty, a bit smoky) but was a bit less smooth.

I didn't care as much for the Hakushu which was a lighter style whiskey, similar to a Glenlivet or other typical Speysider...just not my cup of tea.

Most recently, my pal was able to snag me a couple of Ichiro's Malts, which he found difficult to acquire even in Japan. Ichiro's Malts, according to the label, come from the Hanyu distillery in the town of Hanyu on the Tone River. The distillery was closed in 2000 and dismantled in 2004, but the founder's grandson is apparently trying to start it back up.

These whiskies were on par with the best of Scotland. The 15 year old was bold and smoky with subtle fruity notes. The 20 year old was extremely complex and well balanced. There was light smoke, fruit and just a lot going on flavor-wise. It's an enchanting and intriguing whiskey, one of those that you look forward to tasting again and again because, like rereading a Tolstoy novel, each time you do, you find something new and interesting.

If you're ever lucky enough to get to Japan, get some Ichiro's Malt.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Donuts and Mariscos in Moorpark

We headed to Moorpark this weekend for our annual visit to Underwood Family Farms to pick out a pumpkin. Sure we could have bought a pumpkin at any number of LA spots, but the farm is similar to the LA County Fair in that it is a place for urban kids who think of feral cats and pigeons as wildlife to see livestock, hay and people in cowboy hats.

I was skeptical of the chance for reportable eats, but there are actually a few good finds in the MP.

On the Underwood grounds, hungry pumpkin pickers can snack on Tia's Fresh Mini Donuts. The popular stand fries bite-sized donuts to order, topped with either powdered sugar or sugar/cinnamon. There's just nothing like fresh donuts and these have a nice little kick of nutmeg. They also cook up fresh potato chips that look good, but the donuts met my fry quotient for the day (see Mom, I have a fry quotient), so I abstained.

After observing livestock (emus, who knew?), eating mini doughnuts and picking out some good pumpkins, we set out for food and stumbled upon Mariscos San Felipe at the corner of Moorpark and Los Angeles Avenues in "downtown" Moorpark. The homey restaurant shares a building with a psychic, which I assume means they knew we were coming.

Mariscos San Felipe was a pleasant surprise in what we had feared was a culinary wasteland. It's a great little Mexican seafood joint with a similar rural/country feel to Mexican seafood joints I'd been to in east Texas. The place has only been open for about a year, and the staff had a down-home friendly feel that also reminded me of Texas.

I ordered octopus, scallops and shrimp al ajillo, which were sauteed with dried red ajillo peppers. The tangy, smoky ajillo skins combined well with the seafood, especially the octopus, which soaked up all of the ajillo flavor. The richness of the seafood and tang of the dried pepper was a perfect counterpoint. The seafood medley was served over rice, which further soaked up the rich ajillo. All courses were started with a vegetable soup in a succulent chicken broth.

In December Underwood Farms switches from pumpkins to Christmas trees. I've never been for that, but I may head up, just to get another meal at Mariscos San Felipe.

Mariscos San Felipe
50 Moorpark Ave. (at Los Angeles Ave.)
Moorpark, CA

Happy Birthday Mom: Organic Brown Rice

My mother, who is a semi-regular reader of this site, is constantly horrified by my diet. Well, let's face it, my food pyramid pretty much consists of fried foods, pupusas, cheese plates and butter, washed down with whiskey.

This may not be what the nutritionistas consider "healthy" but you have no idea how much will power it takes to maintain a high fat/high carb diet. I mean, sometimes I just want to splurge and have a celery stick or something.

So, in honor of my Mother's birthday, I excitedly tore open a package of frozen organic brown rice from Trader Joe's. Mmmm, so brown, so organic, so ricey...of course, it would be really good with some butter, or maybe deep fried.

Happy Birthday Mom!!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Buttering Up Local Restaurants

My recent pontifications on butter have led me to wonder whether it's time for a change in butter service at LA's finest restaurants. Usually, along with some very fine bread, you get a plate of unidentified butter plopped down unceremoniously. There is little commentary around it, and, in my experience, you almost always have to ask to find out what type of butter you're eating. (And more often than not it is something acceptable but unexciting, like the European style Plugra that is available almost everywhere now).

Given that there is a new crop of fine artisanal butters available as well as plenty of wonderful European butters which now appear regularly in gourmet stores (butter apparently freezes well for transportation), it's high time that fine restaurants put more of an emphasis on butter.

Why not offer a choice of butters as an alternative to the standard? In fact, in a town that has seen water bars and oxygen bars, why not a butter bar...selling great bread with an option of different butters?

Now, I know that in a city in which the cheese spread is so often lacking, even in the finest establishments, butter appreciation may be asking too much, but this is something that people eat everyday, and damn it, it should be good.

So come on all you fancy-dancy restaurants, you Patinas and Providences, Spagos and Bastides, butter us up.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Suntory Yamazaki

As I explained last week, the only Japanese Whiskies I've seen for sale in the US are two expressions of Suntory Yamazaki. Suntory's Yamazaki (Suntory is the parent company, Yamazaki is the distillery) gained some fame in the US as the whiskey advertised by Bill Murry in the popular film Lost in Translation.

I have long enjoyed the 12 year old Yamazaki, which I find to be a good middle of the road, sippin' whiskey. It has a nice malty flavor but has some meat to it as well, so it's not as light as, say, a typical Speysider, but more in the vein of a further northern Highlander, to put it in Scotch terms.

I recently tried, for the first time, the 18 year old Yamazaki and really enjoyed it. It has a nice malt flavor and some understated smoke. If I were to compare it to a Scotch, I would say it is similar to Highland Park, one of my all time favorite whiskies. Too bad no other Yamazakis are available here as I have been really impressed with their output.

I hope the Japanese Whiskey industry will eventually start shipping more varieties to the US. They are making excellent stuff and I would love to have an opportunity to experience more of it.

Next week, I will describe a few of the most recent bottles brought to me from Japan.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Isigny Ste. Mere Butter

Among my favorite butters is Isigny Ste. Mere, cultured butter from Normandy. Normandy butter is the creme de la creme of butter, and among those available in the US, Isigny Ste. Mere is the best I've had.

I've tasted a number of their varieties, including a special butter made in spring, when the cows of Normandy apparently feast on flowers. I wouldn't say the result tasted floral, but it certainly had grassy components.

I recently picked up a tub of their standard unsalted butter. It is as creamy and rich as any butter I've had. I enjoyed it on crusty bread topped with a few sprinkles of Maldon Salt or as my daughter calls it, the salt that Daddy gets in the mail. The wonderful crunchy flakes and light saltiness of Maldon goes perfectly with the crusty bread and silky smooth butter.

Bread-butter-salt, is there any better combination?

Isigny Ste. Mere butter is sporadically available at the various gourmet stores in Southern California. I've seen it at Whole Foods, Surfas and Bristol Farms though it does not seem to be consistently in stock at any of those stores.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Snap Happy: Nueske's Hot Dogs

For hot dog lovers, it's all about the snap. The snap is the feeling you get when you bite into a natural-casing wrapped hot dog and the casing pops open to a cascade of juices and spice, not unlike the sensation of biting into Xiao Long Bao at a Shanghainese dumpling house.

The best hot dog stands in LA, Pink's Skooby's, Carney's, all have the snap, but finding it in the supermarket dog you cook at home can be a problem. Most mass market dogs have artificial or, worse yet, no casing at all. They are just a mush of who knows what kind of entrails, beaks and hooves, molded into a hot dog-like shape.

The hands down best packaged hotdogs I've ever had are Nueske's Applewood Smoked Wieners from Wisconsin. These pork/beef dogs have the feel of hand made sausages (lacking the standardization you get from the weiner mold) and, of course, they use natural casing.

These babies cook up beautifully on the grill and make hot dogs that rival any of my favorite stands. In fact, I daresay they are better than some of my favorite dog stand dogs...and they have great snap, which yields to an exciting rush of porky, garlicy juice that floods the mouth a most satisfying way.

As with many great things, however, they are not easy to find. I have occasionally seen a 1 lb. package at Surfas in Culver City, or you can order them on-line from the Nueske's website, but only in the 2 lb. size, which is pretty pricey, and a lot of dog, but oh, so good.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Japanese Whisky Part 1

If you are mostly a Scotch or Bourbon drinker, you might not know that there are some great whiskies being made in Japan. Yes, Japan.

Japan has a whisky tradition going back to the 1920s. Japanese whisky is in the Scotch style, meaning it is generally made from 100% malted barley and has a taste similar to Scotch.

The only downside to Japanese whisky is that very little of it is available in the US. In fact, the only two bottles I've ever seen here are the 12 and 18 year olds from Suntory's Yamazaki distillery. Both are excellent and I will discuss them more next week, but they only scratch the surface of what's available.

Lucky for me, I have a friend who visits Japan often and supplies me with a fairly regular supply of Japanese whiskey (at least a few bottles per year), which I'll also discuss in the next couple of weeks.

If you are interested in Japanese whisky and especially if you have a contact in Japan, you must, must, must check out Nonjatta, the Japanese whiskey blog. There is simply no better English language source for information on Japanese whisky.

Next Wedensday: Suntory's Yamazaki

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mid-Town Mole: Beyond Guelaguetza

As residents know, Koreatown is also Oaxacatown, and includes a large concentration of immigrants from that Southern Mexican state. For most people who frequent Chowhound or Yelp, Guelaguetza is the go-to place for Oaxacan, both the original storefront on 8th Street and the grander restaurant in the pagoda roofed building on Olympic. Guelaguetza, which also has a westside outlet under different ownership, is the standard by which most Angelenos judge the wonderfully complex cuisine of Oaxaca.

But there is a whole world of Oaxacan cuisine beyond the now legendary Guelaguetza, mostly made up of small, family-owned dives which serve excellent food. And that's the thing about Oaxacan cuisine...I can't say I've really had a bad meal at any of the places I've gone to. The places, which all have similar menus, uniformly put out good food with complex spicing and tasty results.

Mole is, of course, the most known of the Oaxacan specialties (and other states of Mexico have their own moles as well). In its chocolatey black form or its nutty red, it coats chickens and tortillas in various dishes. Meats tend to be heavily spiced like cecina (spice rubbed pork) and chorizo, and are served with the salty string cheese quesillo on so many botano (appetizer) plates. And then there are the Clayudas/Tlyudas, giant pizza-like amalgams of refried black beans, cheese and one or more of the aforementioned meats baked together with sliced cabbage on a crisp tortilla.

So, what is there beyond Guelaguetza?

La Morenita de Oaxaca
3550 W. 3rd St.
(3rd and New Hampshire-SW Corner)

La Morenita cooks up a spicy mole. Their red and black moles are much less sweet and thick than what you may be used to. They opt, instead, for some heat, which is a nice change of pace. But my favorite thing at La Morenita are the Tlyudas, which are the best I've had. Smaller than the behemoths available at Guelaguetza, La Morenita's Tlyudas are crisp, with wonderfully smoky/porky beans and can be ordered con todo, topped with tasajo (a dried beef), cecina, chorizo and quesillo, the Tlyuda equivalent of a Pizza Hut Supreme. The flavors meld beautifully and the final product is a good step above the typical LA Tlyuda.

Flor de Piña (Rio Cajonos)
834 S. Vermont Ave.
(South of Wilshire)

The name on the outside says Flor de Piña, but the name on the menus is Rio Cajonos. Black mole was good, though not the best, but the accompanying chorizo was fabulous. Emptied from its casing, the chorizo was crisp on the outside and had great flavor. Excellent homemade corn tortillas to accompany.

Antequera de Oaxaca
5200 Melrose Avenue
(at Wilton - SW Corner)

I've been going to Antequera de Oaxaca since it opened several years ago. This small, family run joint in a high ceilinged room which looks like they never quite converted it from whatever it used to be (furniture store? lamp shade emporium?) has never disappointed. The meats and moles rival those of the big G, but most people seem to order the botanos...combo plates of thick corn memelas topped with beans, well executed guacamole, the standard Oaxacan meats and maybe even an enchilada or two.

All in all, the state of Oaxacan cuisine in mid-City LA is good. So, enjoy the music, dance shows and mezcal at Guelaguetza, but venture out as well. You won't regret it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Autumnal Pie

For some reason, when the air starts to chill and the summer heat begins to recede, I start thinking about pie...especially creamy pies, and I go searching. Dupar's may not be the best pie in LA, but it is among the most comforting and traditional.

Yes, Dupar's, the last great diner in LA...home of great pancakes and perhaps the best Monte Cristo sandwich outside of Disneyland's Blue Bayou restaurant.

But I go for the cream pies. Coconut Cream, though the custard is a bit lumpy and the cream a bit sweet, makes me feel at home. The vanilla and coconut and flaky crust meld together to create the perfect comfort food.

The various cheesecake pies really are among the best in LA, with the sweet, smooth, creamy and distinctly non-New York style that melts in your mouth.

Chocolate cream pie is one of my favorite things, but alas, the Dupar's version does not measure up with a chocolate filling that is insufficiently chocolatey. For that, I must venture elsewhere.

Years ago, they used to have a toffee pie, made with Littlejohn's toffee from the Farmers' Market. This was a sweet, creamy dream of a pie, but I haven't seen it in years and the pie clerk gave me an empty look the last time I asked after it. Perhaps one day it will return, but until then, I will indulge in coconut.

Dupar's has two locations
3rd and Fairfax Farmers' Market; and
Studio City at the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Highland Park

Way up north, I mean way up north, like Santa Claus north, on the remote Orkney Islands Northeast of Scotland lies one of the world's finest whiskey distilleries, a distillery that makes some of the most complex, balanced whiskey there is: Highland Park.

In these days of experimentation and outside the box whiskey, there is something reassuring about Highland Park. Despite all of the trends out there, they have refused to budge. The good folks of Orkney aren't releasing super-peated versions, 4 1/2 year old bottlings, burgundy wood finishes or special bottlings to be drunk on ice or with milk or bananas or whatever. While they did recently revamp their label and bottle, they have been pretty good at sticking with what's inside. They have stuck by the basic lineup which includes 12, 18, 25 and 30 year olds (and a soon to be released 40 year old), with an occasional anniversary edition and a number of limited releases.

In addition, HP seems to be one of the most prevelant whiskies among independent bottlers. This allows the HP fan the ability to taste all manner of single cask and cask strength versions and compare them to the distillery bottlings.

My own favorite HP, and possibly my favorite whiskey of all time, is the Bicentenary Vintage 1977 Reserve. Distilled in 1977 and bottled in 1998 to mark the distillery's bicentennial, the Bicentenary is a masterful whiskey. I have never tasted a whiskey with this type of balance. All of the flavors are in harmony, the peat, the malt, the spice...it's all in there at the right levels. There is a reason Jim Murray refers to this particular bottling as "truly fantastic, to the point of flawless."

The Bicentenniary was a "limited release" but seems to still be around, though I hear it's getting harder and harder to find. Last time I checked, it was running around $140 at your better liquor stores. Now, I am quite careful about dropping that kind of money for any beverage, but this one is worth every penny. So if you see it and you can afford it, buy it.