Thursday, February 28, 2008

Semisoft Cheeses

I spend much of my cheese-time on the soft, drippy, pungent French cheeses, but there is something wonderful about a truly good semisoft. The sometimes neglected semisofts can really pack in the flavor without over-doing it. It's especially surprising to bite into something that looks like your average Monterey Jack and find an explosion of pungency. Here are a few I've been enjoying lately.

Herve Mons Gabietou, French, Cow/Sheep Blend

This lovely cheese from the French Pyrenees is buttery, salty and ever so slightly-sheepy, the sheepyness tempered by the seemless blending with cow. This is one of my new favorites. Find it and eat it!

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Cow
Uplands Cheese Co.
Dodgeville, Wisconsin

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a two time winner of the American Cheese Society Best of Show award (Did you know there was an American Cheese Society?), was one of the cheeses that taught me how good a semisoft could be. I still remember my first taste. It was full of wine flavors and had a good zing to it. The flavors washed over me and I was sold on semisoft.

Lately, however, I've been disappointed with it. The flavors seem dimmer and less pronounced. Like wine, good cheese is very sensitive to its environment. Flavors can change based on what the cows are eating, what season they are milked and the profile of the herd. It could be that this is just part of that variance, but I must admit, I've been passing up PRR for other things.

Midnight Moon, Goat Gouda
Cypress Grove Dairy
Arcata, California

Another legendary American artisanal cheesemaker is Cypress Grove, Northern California makers of goat cheese. Their lovely Humboldt Fog goat cheese was one of the early small-producer cheeses to gain popularity. Midnight Mood is a goat Gouda, which has been around for a few years now, and is actually made in Holland.

While Gouda is usually considered a hard cheese, unless it is super-aged, it is much more similar to a semisoft. The Midnight Moon has a subtle Gouda flavor with a bit of fruit. It is milder than the other semis listed here, but still full of flavor, and more interesting than most Dutch Goudas I've had. This is a very easy to eat cheese and one that I often use for cheese plates because of its mass appeal.

Most of these cheeses will be available at a good cheese store, though Herve Mons Gabietou is a bit harder to find.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: The Doctor is In

We are taking a break from our series on blended Scotch to wish a hearty congratulations to Dr. Whisky, a.k.a. Sam Simmons, who is the recipient of this year's Drammie award for Best Book, Resource or Website.

For the past year, the good Doctor has been on a Malt Mission, tasting four to five whiskies per week and reporting tasting notes on his website. He does two tastings of each whiskey, one first thing in the morning (yikes!) and one in the evening. While his bailiwick is Scotch, he occasionally ventures out of that box and tastes other whiskies, including samples from such far flung locales as India and Kenya (in fact, he's tasted more Kenyan whiskies than American whiskies). While he sometimes ventures into the obscure, most of the whiskies he tastes are fairly available.

My favorite thing about Doc's site though, is his tasting notes. Tasting notes are a lot like abstract art. Everyone thinks they can do them, but it takes a true artist to really make it appealing to the public. There are lots of very popular whiskey writers whose notes are nothing more than a string of flavors or scents which seem linked together by nothing more than free association. This can go on for whole paragraphs, and the more obscure the reference, the better e.g., "unripe Haas avocados, Havana cottonseed, kyoho grapes, spring butter, cold-pressed grapeseed oil, etc., etc., etc." As I have often complained, these types of notes are of little use to the reader. Knowing that someone thinks the finish of a certain whiskey has a dash of French summer peaches doesn't tell me anything interesting or help me make a decision about whether to buy the bottle.

The great thing about Dr. Whisky is that his tasting notes are both entertaining and helpful. He starts each review by giving specific information about the whiskey being tasted; this sounds obvious, but it's a rarity in tasting notes and information about specific bottles can be surprisingly hard to find.

His tasting notes eschew the obscure and embrace the familiar, often in whimsical fashion which inspires a chuckle. Some of the flavors he's noted in whiskies are green gummy bears, sweaty pencil after an exam, matzoh, roadside construction, wet bathing suits and, unfortunately, flatulence.

Lastly, he concludes with a summary of his thoughts on the whiskey. This too seems obvious but is often lacking in tasting notes or signified simply by a numerical rating which is of little use unless you are very familiar with that taster and his or her preferences. (It also gives you something to skip to if you're feeling lazy...sorry Doc, it happens.)

The bottom line is that Dr. W is a great writer with a good sense of humor...the exact type of person who should be writing tasting notes. Now, while I don't begrudge him a celebration, he may have taken it a tad too far, but maybe that's what 253 malts will do to you.

Congrats Doc!

Next Wednesday: The Blends are Black

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mozza, Hold the Pizza

I'm not one to flock to the latest big restaurant on opening night. I avoid crowds and celebrity chefs. Sure, in the first month or two when Tom Colicchio is babysitting Craft or Wolfgang Puck is running the grill at Cut, the food will be great. But after they get their three stars from Miss Irene at the Times and the hubbub dies down, then what happens. Do they keep producing quality food or do the rest on their laurels? The true test of a great restaurant is whether it can produce high quality food over time.

This is why I had so far avoided Pizzeria Mozza and its cousin Osteria Mozza, the product of a collaboration between Iron Chef Mario Batali and local bread-winner Nancy Silverton. The restaurant opened to rave reviews from Virbila, Jonathan Gold and the like, some calling it the best pizza in LA, but that was last year, and now Mario has gone back to New York and it's just another restaurant, one that I decided it was time to visit.

Of course, it's still impossible to get a reservation, unless you like booking dinner at 3:30 (am or pm), but when I walked into the Pizzeria at 6:00 on a Wednesday evening, there were a few spaces at the bar and a pretty good turnover.

We had an appetizer, two pizzas and dessert. The funny thing is than while the appetizer and dessert blew us away, the pizzas, while good, did not seem all that special.

Our appetizer was bone marrow al forno, consisting of ovenbaked beef bone marrow, served with toast, roasted garlic, sea salt and a microscopic micro-greens salad. The marrow, served in three sections of a cow femur, was luscious...fatty, tender, beefy, garlicky, rich and served so hot that I burnt a finger grabbing the piece of bone. The salad, which really should have been larger, had a nicely acidic lemon dressing which cut perfectly through the grease and richness of the marrow. The roasted garlic was superfluous.

The two pizzas were the Gorgonzola dolce, fingerling potatoes, radicchio & rosemary and the "meat lovers pizza" with sausage, salami, bacon & guanciale. These were both good pizzas. The crusts are big, fluffy...nice and chewy, and the toppings are well done, but they just didn't live up to the hype. Frankly, I'd just as soon eat a good ole' Casa Bianca sausage and green olive pie.

Much has been written about the butterscotch budino dessert, and it did live up to the hype. A rich, creamy butterscotch pudding, topped with salt and whipped cream, the budino joins my custard hall of fame. I briefly considered ordering a second, but decided better of it. The accompanying rosemary cookies were not to my liking, but I was a bit over-rosemaried from the pizza.

I may go back to Mozza, if I hear the siren song of marrow or butterscotch pudding, but it won't be for the pizza.

Pizzeria Mozza
641 N. Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 297-0101

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

BonBonBar's Scotch Bar: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

As I think about the beginnings of my new favorite candy bar, I envision two people walking down a busy street. One is sipping a dram of Talisker, the smoky single malt from the Scottish Isle of Skye; the other is eating a piece of dark chocolate. Suddenly, the two become distracted by a passer-by and, as they are looking away, they collide and lose their grip such that the chocolate falls into the glass of whiskey.

"Hey," cries the chocolate eater, "you got your Scotch in my chocolate."
"Hey," yells the tippler, "you got your chocolate in my Scotch."

They contemplate the combination, taste it, and their expressions of anger give way to delight and then ecstasy..."It's good." "Really, good!"

Well, maybe I watched too much television in the 1970s, but how else would someone think of combining one of the smokiest of Scotches with chocolate, which is the exact premise of the new Scotch Bar from BonBonBar.

BonBonBar, a one-woman operation, is the recent creation of Nina Wanat, an LA refugee from New Jersey via the Culinary Institute of America in Napa who also blogs about her candymaking at the Sweet Napa blog. Her mission is to bring candy bars to a new level using fresh, local ingredients, innovation and great care, and although she only started her company last fall, she may well change the candy bar as we know it.

She makes a small variety of chocolate bars and handmade marshmallows, but being a chocolate and whiskey fanatic, I was immediately drawn to her new Scotch Bar.

Now, I must admit that, at first, I was skeptical of the Scotch Bar. I don't even like ice in my Scotch, but chocolate and caramel? I also feared that it was a gimmick without much basis in flavor. I'm happy to report that I was wrong.

The Scotch Bar contains a chocolate ganache made from a combination of Cacao Barry Mi-Amere chocolate (58% cacao) and single malt Scotch (Talisker's 1992 Distiller's Edition). The Scotch ganache is topped with a layer of perfect, thick caramel; the whole bar is coated with chocolate and sprinkled with a few gorgeous crystals of Maldon sea salt.

This is not a candy that tastes like liquor. The whiskey flavor is quite subtle and understated. What comes through is just the faintest bit of smoke from the Talisker. Along with this subtle flavor, the whiskey adds a smoothness which balances well with the caramel and salt. The combination of the four flavor elements is sublime.

I was impressed that Nina used a bold Talisker in this candy as opposed to a more approachable malt and asked her how she arrived at that choice. She replied:

I specifically avoided really smoky or peaty malts for a long time. I tried my best to make Balvenie work, but no matter how much I put in, the flavor was barely coming through in the ganache -- and didn't stand a chance against the caramel or chocolate coating. Finally, I went to Wally's on Westwood Blvd with a couple samples of what I'd made and an attitude of "give me the strongest you've got," and the staff immediately took the project to heart and enthusiastically made recommendations. I added "even if it's smoky" to my attitude, I took home a 200ml bottle of the Talisker to try out, and then returned for more. I liked the way it tasted on its own and in the bar, and I figured that Single Malt Scotch drinkers would want all the flavors that they love in Scotch in the candy bar -- smokiness and all.

You've got that right!

BonBonBar Scotch bars, along with other delicious treats, are available on the website in boxes of 3 for $15 or 6 for $30. And be sure to also try the phenomenal Caramel Nut Bar, a chocolate bar filled with gooey caramel and a mix of nuts and cacao nibs...many great tastes that taste great together.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Fowl of Renown - The Famous Grouse

For the second in our three part series on blended Scotch, we turn to the Famous Grouse. Johnnie Walker may be the world's best selling Scotch, but the best selling Scotch in Scotland is Famous Grouse, and that's gotta' count for something.

Famous Grouse is owned by The Edrington Group. While their distillery profile is quite modest compared to Diageo's massive collection, they do own two of the most wildly popular single malts around: The Macallan and Highland Park. Of course, blends aren't just comprised of malts owned by the blending company; they buy other malts for blending as well, but Macallan and Highland Park give them a good start.

I sat down with the standard issue Famous Grouse which runs about $20 per bottle (duck not included).


You can immediately taste that Grouse has no small amount of Highland Park in it. It's hard to mistake the complex flavor of malt and straw with a touch of smoke. In Grouse, there is a lighter, less rugged touch to it than you would get with straight HP, which gives it a good balance. Of the basic-level blends I've had, I definitely think Grouse is the best. It's not afraid to give you strong Scotch flavor, even if it is less bold than a single malt. And for the price, it's hard to beat. Hmm, an affordable, flavorful blend that outsells every other whiskey in Scotland, seems that those Scots know their stuff.

Next Wednesday: Back in Black

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Something Fishy Going On: Kiriko

I am lucky to have a good friend who is fluent in Japanese. Not only does he ply me with hard to find Japanese Whiskey on his frequent trips overseas, he brings me to his favorite ramen, sushi and other restaurants in town. I don't know if his chatting with the sushi chef gets us better food, but hey, it can't hurt.

His latest favorite for sushi is Kiriko in West LA, which lies at the southern tip of Sawatelle's Japanese commercial strip. Recently, he took me there and we enjoyed an appetizer/sushi omakase (tasting menu) sitting at the sushi bar.

I like sushi, but I'm all about the big, bold and complex, and fine sushi is a subtle undertaking. I can get excited about monk fish liver, roe and uni, with their richness and deep flavors, but I have to admit, the mere presence of raw fish on rice, even a fine toro, while good, doesn't really get me that excited. That all changed at Kiriko, but we'll get there.

The appetizers were non-sushi dishes. I loved the salted ginko nuts, soft, warm bright yellow nuts topped with sea salt, which we washed down with sake. These were the perfect bar snack, warm, nutty, salty...the flavor was similar to a chestnut but without the sweetness. I could get really addicted to these.

The nuts were accompanied by a piece of mango wrapped in a home-smoked salmon topped with caviar. The salmon was wonderful, having a real smoky taste; the taste of the char was in it, like a good Islay Scotch. The mango was a great counterpoint...a simple but well executed dish.

In terms of the sushi courses, all of it was very good, and I especially liked the toro (fatty tuna) and the uni. I'm a big uni fan, and Kiriko served us fresh uni caught at Catalina Island and dabbed with a drop of lemon juice...near perfect.

But what really got me going was kinmedai, or golden eye snapper sushi. This was the first time I'd had this red-tinged white fish. The taste was was so much more than raw fish. It had some of the fattiness of toro but also, a deep creaminess, a smoothness that was countered well by both rice and soy sauce.

The flavor was subtle but inherently attractive and magically enticing. We asked for another piece after our entire omakase was done.

I am, finally, a fish and rice convert.

11301 W Olympic Blvd # 102*
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

*While the address is Olympic, Kiriko is actually on the west side of Sawtelle, just north of Olympic. Parking is available and validated at the Banquet Center parking on the northwest corner of Olympic and Sawtelle.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Big Doughnut in the Sky: Randy's Donuts

You've seen it a million times. Perched on the northwest corner of Manchester and La Cienega, there lies the big doughnut that beckons all comers to Randy's Donuts. This 24 hour doughnut stand with a drive-thru window is a celebrity in its own right, having made cameos in any number of movies and television shows, and no early morning trip to LAX is complete without paying tribute to the giant doughnut.

The plain, raised glazed doughnut (my favorite type, as you know if you've read my doughnut reviews) is Randy's best offering. A flattish, disc like doughnut, it is light, with a nice yeasty flavor. It is nicely glazed and is not overly sweet. It may not rise to the level (no pun intended) of the glazed beauties at Stan's in Westwood or the airy lightness of Bob's at the Farmers Market, but it comes in a close third.

Randy's Donuts
805 West Manchester Avenue
Inglewood CA 90301
(310) 645-4707

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Taste the Rainbow -- Johnnie Walker

When it comes to Scotch, I'm a single malt drinker. I love tasting the different distilleries from different regions and of different ages. But something like 90% of the Scotch that's consumed in the world is blended Scotch, composed of a mixture of single malt whiskey from different distilleries and grain whiskey.

While blenders dominate the market, single malts are chipping away at the higher, premium and super-premium ends. In addition, new blenders, like Compass Box, have come on the market with more refined and creative blends. As a result, some of the bigger blenders have begun to release premium, cask strength and other blends intended to appeal to the single malt crowd.

With this new offensive by blended Scotch, I thought it would be a good time for me to try a few blends, and what better place to start than Johnnie Walker.

One of the foremost blended Scotches in the world, Johnnie Walker is ubiquitous and its color code is well known to drinkers of blended Scotch. In ascending order, Walker offers a basic line of Red, Black, Gold and Blue.

Johnnie Walker is produced by liquor giant Diageo. In making its blends, Diageo has at its disposal an amazing profile of 29 active single malt distilleries, including such luminaries as Lagavulin, Talisker, Caol Ila, Dalwhinnie, Oban, Mortlach and Linkwood as well as the legendary closed distilleries of Brora, Rosebank, Dallas Dhu and Port Ellen among others. There is no other company with as impressive an array of single malts at its disposal, so one would expect a lot from its blends, especially from the higher end of the color spectrum.

While I had tried the common JW Red and Black before, this was my first go at the much heralded Gold and the legendary Blue. The prices listed below are approximate for a standard 750ml bottle, though they come in various sizes; you can even get a sample pack with 200 ml bottles of all four expressions for about $100. All of the JW colors are 40% alcohol, and only the Black and Gold include age statements.

JW Red

Red is the lowest end of the spectrum, available at conventions and weddings everywhere. It is the world's best selling Scotch.

Red is light on the nose though it has a pleasant malty aroma. The lightness continues in the flavor, almost to the point of inconsequence on the palate. The first taste is a nice malty flavor, but then it is drown out by an unpleasant finish consisting of soap and straw.

JW Black
, 12 years old ($25)

Black is an affordable but slightly higher end brand than the JW Red. You'll find it in first class instead of coach.

A nice smoky aroma, maybe some of that Caol Ila in this one. Once again, though, the taste doesn't live up to the nose. The complex aroma yields to a lightness and a lack of complexity on the palate.

JW Gold, 18 years old ($60)

Gold is the sleeper of JW. Overshadowed by its Blue brother, it labors in relative obscurity but is praised by critics, many of whom think it is the best of the Walkers. One of the chief components is said to be Clynelish, which is a fabulous, uber-malty single malt.

Gold opens with a beautiful aroma of malt and fruit. Again, however, it's light on the palate. I can taste the Clynelish and there is a bit of oak on it. But rather than impressing me, it really made me yearn for the fuller taste of straight Clynelish in all its woody, Highland maltiness touched by smoke. And the Clynelish 14 year old is some $20 cheaper than JW Gold!

Perhaps it is unfair of me to compare a blend to a single malt. Is it the very lightness I find unappealing that the blended Scotch drinker seeks? Am I the wrong audience because I'm used to the bold and distinct flavors of single malts?

In any case, I can only taste what I taste, but if you are primarily a drinker of blends and have an opinion, please drop me a line or leave a comment.

JW Blue

Few whiskies have developed the mystique that surrounds JW Blue. JW Blue is a Robin Leach whiskey, a whiskey of the rich and famous. It's what you give to the firm's new partner or (in LA speak) the actor your agency has been trying to woo.

While the Blue label means status in some circles, it is routinely trashed among Scotch aficionados as a victory of style over substance and marketing run amok.

When it first came out, Blue claimed to include 60 year old malts, though I haven't seen that claim made recently. Many have noted the inclusion of Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar in the blend as well as the legendary Port Ellen.

Blue has a complex aroma, strong with dried fruit and subtle with malt. The fruit fades in the flavor as the malt takes center stage with some smoke in the distance...silky smooth, balanced to a tee. Nicely done.

Despite the critical acclaim for Gold and disdain for Blue, I have to say, Blue won me over. When I think about Walker, I yearn for the Blue. Mind you, that doesn't mean that Blue (or Gold, for that matter) is worth the big price tag. At $60 I would highly recommend Blue, but at $150, you're paying too much.

The Other Walkers

Aside from the four blends I sampled, JW has several additional expressions. JW Green is a vatted malt, meaning a blend of single malts with no grain whiskey ($50). JW Swing is a blend with a light and sweet flavor profile that differentiates it from the standard Walkers, and it comes in a weeble inspired bottle (it wobbles but it doesn't fall down) ($65).

In addition, there has been an expansion of the Blue label for those who think that the regular Blue is just too darned affordable. The new JW Blue - King George V is allegedly loaded with Port Ellen and goes for over $500 a bottle. The new 200th Anniversary Cask Strength Blue goes for (gasp) $3,000. Needless to say, you won't be seeing any tasting notes here for those whiskies.

Next Wednesday: A Renowned Fowl

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Coffee Talk: Which LA Coffee is Like Buttah

Mid-city Los Angeles is in the midst of a coffee renaissance. In the new world of LA coffee, every counter has several Clover one-cup brewing machines, every cappuccino is served with a dainty milk design and the prices make Starbucks seem like the corner cuppa' joe. ("You crazy kids. I remember when you could get a latte for just $4.50").

Possibly the most distinctive element of the new coffee bars is the level of the roast, which is decidedly light. This, I must admit, is not a development that pleases me. I grew up in Northern California, and as such, I am a devotee of the darker than dark, smoky roasts that were made popular there. I worship at the altar of Alfred Peet, founder of Peet's Coffee and the modern American coffee culture. I tend to find light roasts overly acidic, so if you like light roasts, keep that in mind.

The second thing you need to know about me is that I drink decaf. I worked as a barista in my 20s, and at some point, after countless quadruple espressos on the early shift, I developed an enhanced sensitivity to caffeine. So I still drink coffee, but I almost always drink decaf. I've done numerous side by side comparisons, and with modern decaf technology, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference, though some swear they can. In any case, all of the reviews below (except for one, which I will explain) were done with decaf.

Alright, I've laid my biases on the table. If you are a light roast fan or look down your nose at the caffeine-averse, keep that in mind as you read on.

For this review, I included some of the new heavy hitters and mixed in some old favorites. At each of the below listed cafes, I had an espresso and a cappuccino, and reviews are based on those two drinks.

LA Mill

Since the new LA Mill store opened on Silverlake Boulevard, Silverlakers have engaged in a bout of public hand wringing about what has happened to their formerly funky neighborhood and whether it can still be cool to live someplace where you have to pay $5 for a plain cup of coffee. In fact, one of the days I visited LA Mill, a woman was arguing with the barista (who I'm guessing made a small fraction of her income) about how the Mill was ruining the neighborhood with its bougieness. While the politics of gentrification are something that merits serious discussion, I'm guessing the working class Latinos who the hipsters displaced from that same neighborhood 15 to 20 years ago aren't shedding a lot of tears for them now, but hey, what do I know, I just drink the coffee.

For all the hype, the Coffee at LA Mill really didn't impress me. The espresso and cappuccino were both competent, but nothing to get excited about. The espresso was the better of the drinks. It had a nice crema and a good flavor. The cap, on the other hand, was weak and watery tasting. The coffee was perfectly drinkable, but nothing special.

The French canneles on the other hand, dark little pastries with a crunchy exterior and an amazingly light and creamy cake contained within, were amazing. Okay, okay, this is supposed to be about coffee, but if I come back to LA Mill, it will be for the canneles. Try them!

Intelligentsia Coffee

Intelligentsia Coffee at Sunset Junction (Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevard) preceded LA Mill by about six months. Like the Mill, this Chicago-based chain, opened to much fanfare and high expectations. Six months in, there is still a substantial line pretty much any time of day.

Itelligentsia is probably the foremost advocate of lighter roasts, and that philosophy came through in its espresso which was too acidic for me. Even on the spectrum of light roasts, I found the espresso harsh and caustic. If you are a true believer that lighter is better, maybe you would like it (and I'd love to hear from you if that's the case) but I found it difficult to finish the drink.

The cappuccino was an entirely different story. The milk adds the perfect counterpoint to Intelligentsia's light espresso. The acidity is tempered, and the true flavor of the coffee really does emerge. Suddenly, I feel like I understand what Intelligentsia is all about. The drink is smooth as silk and has a pronounced, rich coffee flavor without any harshness. And their milk designs are better than anyone else's, though I give no extra points for such frivolity. Despite my aversion to light coffee, I find myself going back, over and over, for this drink, the best cappuccino I've found in LA.

Groundwork Coffee

Groundwork Coffee has been around for years now and has a number of locations from which it serves organic and fair trade coffees. I usually go to the Hollywood location, at Cahuenga and Sunset, which is convenient to the Sunday Hollywood Farmers' Market.

I've had great drinks at Groundwork, but they are, at least at the branch I frequent, inconsistent. Sometimes the cap is rich and wonderful, other times it's watery and loose, and the same goes for the espresso. I like Groundwork, but it's been around long enough that they should be making a consistent cup. I know they can make a great drink because I've had it...they should make it every time.

Peet's Coffee and Tea

I grew up on Peet's and the Peet's-inspired dark roasts that are so predominant in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I lived in New York, I would mail order Peet's beans, and when Peet's opened its first LA stores, I would drive all the way to Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach just to get coffee. Back then, they were purists. They didn't offer syrups or frozen, frothy drinks; they aimed to serve coffee to coffee purists (much like the new generation does today). Now, there are over 20 Peet's shops in the greater LA area, and they offer every manner of hazelnut-vanilla-peppermint frappes. How times have changed.

Still, as a dark-roast lover, they know what I want. Their espresso is dark and creamy (though lacking in crema) and has the thick, smoky flavor I crave; it's still my favorite espresso in town. Their cappuccino is rich and milk designs here...but they know how to steam and they do it well on a fairly consistent basis, which is impressive considering their size. My Peet's of choice is the Larchmont store, just based on location, but I haven't found a lot of variance between the different stores in LA(I still think the Bay Area locations are better).

Choke Motorcycle Shop

Located on Normal Avenue just east of Virgil, Choke Motorcycle Shop is by far the coolest espresso bar in the city. This is no gimmick. It's not an espresso bar pretending to be a motorcycle shop, but a motorcycle shop which happens to have an espresso machine. The shop, smelling of gas, is cluttered with motorcycles and oil cans. Whenever I've come in, there has been motorcycle business going on. I wait politely and then meekly ask if I can interrupt them and get a cup of coffee.

The pickings are slim here, espresso and milk mochas, no tea, no pastries, no decaf (Born to be Wired?), but the quality is high. The espresso had better form than any other I tried. Espresso is really all about the crema, the oils that form the light colored froth on top of your espresso. It should completely cover the coffee and not disappear on the first sip. Choke is the only place that consistently delivered a beautiful, thick crema. The espresso was still on the light side for my palate, but I know when I taste a perfect form of something, even something I don't prefer, and this was it. The cap was well done, milk design and all, and a close second to Intelligentsia, but not quite up to their level.

As I said, this is primarily a motorcycle shop, so don't go expecting your quick morning fix. They don't seem to open until around 10am or whenever someone comes in, and they make coffee for fun, not for business. In other words, be cool.

To sum up

Best espresso: Choke Motorcycle Shop & Peet's Coffee and Tea

Best Cappuccino: Intelligentsia Coffee

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Michel Cluizel Single Origin Chocolates

Michel Cluizel is probably my favorite maker of chocolate. The French chocolatier's dark chocolate bars have a richness and smoothness that is really amazing and hard to beat.

Of late, Cluizel has introduced a group of single-origin bars. Often, I like blended origin bars better than single origin, though I really enjoyed the Amedei and DeVries bars I've reviewed here. In general, blended bars seem to have more balance and smoothness than single origin bars. If anyone could make me appreciate single origins, though, it would be Michel Cluizel. On a recent trip to Surfas, I picked up a $10 single origin sample pack, which included 16 little 2.8 oz. bars representing all five of different lines of single origins.

It's amazing how different these chocolates taste. All of them contain the same simple ingredients (cacao, sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla), but the difference in flavor demonstrates that origin matters.

Los Ancones, Dominican Republic, 67% Cacao

Los Ancones is one of Cluizel's most heralded chocolates and probably my favorite of this very good bunch. The chocolate is dark and edgy, with some strong flavors like olive and salt (in a good way). The finish is silky smooth and exhibits the deep darkness that I've come to expect from Dominican chocolate.

Concepcion, Venezuela, 66% Cacao

Venezuelan chocolate is some of the most sought after in the world. This is a very fruity and aromatic chocolate. The flavor is bright and so full of fruit, it almost makes you wonder if it has added fruit (which it does not).

Vila Gracinda, Sao Tome, 67% Cacao

The island of Sao Tome, situated near the equator off the west coast of central Africa, was one of the first places in Africa to grow cacao. The Vila Gracinda was smooth and balanced, similar to a blend but not quite as distinctive as the other bars reviewed here.

Mangaro, Madagascar, 65% Cacao

They call this chocolate Mangaro because the plantation sits on land previously occupied by mango trees. Despite the mango connection, the biggest flavor I get from this is a strong coffee bean taste, with some fruit as well.

Maralumi, Papua New Guinea, 64% Cacao

Maralumi is another fruit monster, strong tastes of raisins and dried fruit turning to port or sweet red wine.

As I noted above, the Dominican Los Ancones was my favorite of the bunch, but none of these were slackers. Michel Cluizel chocolates are available at Surfas or on-line at

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Grand Old Pub -- Seven Grand

Last year, an amazing thing happened. A whiskey bar opened in LA. For years, I've wondered, what do we have to do in this town to get a decent bar or restaurant that carries more than five single malts. My yearning was heightened after I visited the Brandy Library in New York with its amazing Russian novel-length menu of single malts.

My prayers were answered with the opening of Seven Grand, downtown at...wait for it...Seventh and Grand Avenue (Actually, it's closer to Seventh and Olive, but I suppose "Seven Olive" didn't have the same ring to it). To boot, the bar is easily accessible by metro, situated a mere two blocks from the 7th and Metro station, so you don't have to drive home.

Now, as a father of two small children, I don't spend a lot of my evenings at bars, so it took me a while to get to this place, but I recently was able to log a couple of trips and give you this report.

Seven Grand is located upstairs on an unassuming and commercially sparse block of Seventh Street. The decor is a funky hunting lodge-chic, complete with mounted stag heads and other hunting kitsch. A few pool tables are lined up in the back of the relatively compact space.

The menu is certainly the most comprehensive selection of whiskey I've seen at any bar or restaurant in LA, with a good selection of Scotch, Irish Whiskey and especially Bourbon and other American whiskies.

That being said, this is no Brandy Library. Most of the offerings, particularly of Scotch, are fairly basic and there is not much in the way of hard to find or rare bottles on the menu. There do appear to be some off menu choices. The helpful bartender found a Cragganmore Distiller's Edition on the shelf that was not listed, so it pays to ask if there is something you want but don't see.

There is also a cocktail list with a dozen choices, including sours, Irish coffees, mint juleps and other traditional whiskey drinks. Though I snub most whiskey cocktails, watching the bartender carefully make them with fresh ingredients almost had me wanting one.

As a certified whiskey geek, I must point out that the drinks menu contains some inexcusable inaccuracies. Highland Park is listed under the Islay section, when it is actually from the Orkney Islands. Stranahan's, an American single malt from Colorado, is incorrectly listed under the heading of blended whiskey. Tsk Tsk Seven Grand.

Still, it's good to see a watering hole for serious whiskey drinkers in LA. It's my hope that Seven Grand will expand its repertoire with some rare and hard to get bottles that will make it a true whiskey-lovers paradise. For now, it's still the best game in town.

Seven Grand
515 W. 7th Street, 2nd Floor
Los Angeles, CA
Mon-Fri 4pm-2am
Sat 8pm-2am
Closed Sundays

Whisky Magazine Loves LA

...and speaking of the LA whiskey scene, you may recall that, last fall, I made a plea to Malt Advocate magazine to hold one of their whiskey conventions (WhiskyFest) in LA. I have always wanted to attend a WhiskyFest, which includes seminars, presentations and, best of all, samples from hundreds of whiskey distillers, domestic and international. Malt Advocate had just expanded their WhiskyFest to San Francisco, which is why I targeted them, but they gave us Angelenos the cold shoulder.

Now it appears that Malt Advocate's British competitor, Whisky Magazine, is willing to show us some love. Whisky Magazine produces its own whisky convention, Whisky Live, and the list for 2008 shows a new Whisky Live in Los Angeles in October.

And to that I say, all hail the British invasion and God Save the Queen!

Sku's Recent Eats will monitor and keep you updated about developments in Whisky Live LA.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Indian in Artesia

As part of my New Year's resolutions, I vowed to venture down to Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia and try some of the Indian cuisine on this strip.

Well, it's February, so I figured, let's get down to knocking off a few of those resolutions. The Pioneer commercial strip is only a few blocks long, filled with sari shops, jewelry stores, video stores specializing in the latest Bollywood hits and, of course, food. I took a few trips there over the past month, but there are many places I didn't yet get to, so consider this a preliminary report.

Surati Farsan Mart
11814 E. 186th Str.
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 360-2310

Of all the places I visited in my first few trips to Artesia, the sweet and snack shop Surati Farsan Mart was easily the best. Surat is, of course, a large port city in the Indian state of Gujarat which is famous for its sweet and spicy snacks.

Surati Farsan Mart is a lively shop which seems to always have a line. They have a wide selection of barfi and other milk-based Indian sweets. I must admit, though, that I don't favor Indian sweets, so I went instead for the snacks, and I was not disappointed.

Delhi Chaat is a bowl of fried crackers mixed with potatoes and beans and covered with a sweet, spicy yogurt sauce and chopped cilantro. The flavor of this dish is incredible. There is hot spice, cool yogurt, crunchy crackers and a sweetness that makes it hard to put this dish down. I ate this after having a full South Indian meal at another spot and, full as I was, I couldn't stop eating it.

Chole Samosa is sort of an Indian equivalent of chili fries. Traditional samosas are cut up and drenched with a spicy chick pea mix. The sauce is extremely rich and addictive. I shudder to think how much ghee, Indian clarified butter, goes into this, but it is another one that I couldn't put down.

What distinguished Surati Farsan Mart for me was the distinct and powerful combinations: sweet and spicy, cool and hot, crunchy and chewy. Each of these dishes was its own revelation.

Udupi Palace
18635 Pioneer Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 860-1950

Tirupathi Bhimas
18792 Pioneer Blvd.
Artesia, CA
(562) 809-3806

Of the South Indian outposts I tried, my favorite was Udupi Palace. I enjoyed the giant dosas, the Indian crepe stuffed with potato and spices, uthappam, an Indian vegetable pancake which was rich and chewy, and a traditional thali with its curries, pickles and spicy soups. I think my favorite dish of the night was probably the uthappam, but everything was good.

After seeing a review by Jonathan Gold, we also went to Tirupathi Bhimas, which has a similar menu to Udupi, but I found almost everything to be better at Udupi. That being said, I loved the freshly cooked dahi vada (lentil doughnut), though I liked it less in a dish which drenched it with yogurt, making it damp and soggy.

Saffron Spot
18744 Pioneer Boulevard
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 809-4554

It turns out that the best thing about Tirupathi Bhimas was its proximity to the Saffron Spot, an Indian gelato shop on the bottom floor of the same strip mall. Run by a physician, Saffron spot makes amazingly creamy gelato in traditional Indian flavors like saffron, rose and kulfi as well as a damn good vanilla.

The kulfi ice cream was amazing, the kind of thing you dream about. In fact, I liked Saffron Spot's kulfi ice cream much more than I like actual kulfi, a sort of milk pudding flavored with cardamom, saffron and other spices.

Saffron Spot had numerous flavors I'd never heard of and was generous with the samples. When I asked what the purplish, brownish gelato called Chickoo was, the scooper did not skip a beat, saying, "It's zapote." Zapote is a Nahuatl word for a sweet, vanilla-flavored Central American fruit. In LA, you can find it in liquados in Salvadoran restaurants or in ice cream at the Salvadoran ice cream shop Helados Pops.

Only in LA would you have an Indian ice cream shop worker trying to describe a flavor to an Anglo customer by translating the word into Nahuatl. I love this town!