Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Sazerac Rye

Sazerac Rye comes from my favorite American distillery: Buffalo Trace. Primarily known for bourbon, this Kentucky distillery also makes rye. Their Sazerac line includes a six year old and an 18 year old.

I tried the six year old, known affectionately as "Baby Saz" to admirers, and as I have come to expect from anything made by Buffalo Trace, it was fantastic. This is a very understated rye. The rye spice is subtle and lurking beneath a smooth veneer. It's quite a contrast to the Old Potrero I sampled last week with its strong spicy rye flavor. Sazerac is much more approachable and probably a good rye to start with as a beginner. (Extra points for a cool bottle with the long neck).

Like most Buffalo Trace products, it's hard to find in California. I stumbled on this bottle at Bristol Farms, for $26.99, but it was the last one on the shelf.

Next Wednesday: Rittenhouse 100

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Who's Your Papa: Beard Papa

The Japanese chain Beard Papa makes some great cream puffs. At their numerous locations around town, they squirt heavenly, fresh custard into crisp pastry shells to order. The custard is fantastic, thick and creamy. They have other things too, but don't bother. Beard Papa is a one hit wonder.

In a truly just world, there would be a Beard Papa on every block and only a handful of Pinkberries.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hidden Gem: Square One

So, as I mentioned earlier this week, I spent much of the last two weeks at the giant Kaiser Permanente facility on Sunset Boulevard. My two culinary saving graces while running back and forth from the various rooms we were stuffed into were Yai on Vermont and Square One.

Square One sits in the shadow of two colossal motherships, the aforementioned Kaiser complex and the Los Angeles Scientology Center which takes up a full city block between Sunset and Fountain. Undaunted by these vast institutions, Square One has a distinct philosophy: locally sourced food done well. Like a little, casual Chez Panisse right in our backyard, the produce is from local farmers' markets and the meat is from places like Niman Ranch and Nueske's meats which offer grassfed beef and heirloom pork. Don't believe in their commitment, just take a look at the creed etched on the specials board.

At Square One Dining, we believe the highest quality meals come from the freshest local ingredients. By taking care in sourcing our ingredients, we hope to connect our customers, purveyors, and staff through the most basic of human needs: food. We utilize organic, local, and small farm produce when possible. All of our meat products are hormone free. Natural is always best and basic is not a trend.

As a polemical ideologue in my non-food life, I must admit that I love the idea of a a restaurant with a creed. Even if you're not into creeds though, you can be sure that Square One is not part of some fleeting culinary trend or another LA cult. Rather, this humble, casual eatery which doesn't even serve dinner is one of the most consistently excellent restaurants in town.

In my experience, nothing on the Square One menu disappoints, but the breakfasts served all day (well, for breakfast and lunch, which are the only meals they serve), are the highlight. The baked egg dishes, which change regularly, are cooked in mini-cast iron skillets with flavor combinations like mushrooms, garlic and rough ground grits. The bourbon french toast is to-die-for, with big, rich slices of soft french toast buried in pecans and whip cream.

But my favorite dish is the salmon eggs benedict. The eggs are served on crisply fried potato pancakes with Square One's fabulous home cured salmon, which has a fresh and clean taste to it, much less salty than commercially cured salmon. It's topped with a light hollandaise and comes with a choice of sides, but get the grits or cheese grits if they are offered.

And of course, I love the sweets, so I have to give a shout out to Square One's excellent desserts. The cookies are as big as your head and almost as thick; be warned, one cookie is definitely enough for dessert for two if not three hungry diners.

The delightfully chewy peanut butter cookie explodes with buttery goodness, and I usually don't even like peanut butter cookies. The chocolate chip cookies have so much chocolate that one wonders where the line between chocolate chip cookie ends and cookie dough flavored chocolate bar begins, and the slightly smaller chocolate brownies are likewise rich and chocolaty. The only cookie I didn't care for was the oatmeal, which was dry and bland.

I ate at Square One often during the last two weeks and I never tired of it. I can honestly say that Square One joins a short list of places I go in which I have never had a dish that failed to impress.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Old Potrero Single Malt Rye

A few weeks ago, I gave a brief introduction to American whiskies, including rye. Over the next few weeks of Whiskey Wednesdays, I will be sampling a number of ryes. We start in my home state with Old Potrero Single Malt Rye.

The story of this whiskey starts with beer.

Anchor Steam is San Francisco's beer. It is as much a symbol of that city as cable cars and sourdough bread. Some have called it the first microbrew, but that's not really accurate. It dates from 1896, when microbrews were really all there were. There were more than two dozen breweries in San Francisco at that time, but only Anchor survived. It survived and thrived until 100 years later, there was another microbrewery movement.

In 1993, the folks from Anchor, ahead of the curve again, founded Anchor Distilling Company to make small batches of premium spirits. Anchor distilling makes Junipero Gin, which has gotten good reviews, but we are here to talk about Old Potrero Single Malt Rye.

Unlike most ryes which are cut with corn or wheat, Old Potrero is made from 100% malted rye (hence the single malt designation). They currently have three offerings: (1) 19th century style; (2) 18th century style; and (3) Hotaling's, which they bill as the style of whiskey from the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In addition, I had previously tasted a version with no age statement or other designation, but that does not seem to be available any longer. Prices for these whiskies seems to range from $55 to $70.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I love the spiciness of rye, and it comes out in full force in Old Potrero. Be warned, if you are used to Kentucky ryes cut with corn and wheat, you may be knocked down by the strong rye statement in these whiskies. I loved both the versions of Old Potrero I tried and was impressed at the boldness and flavor intensity of OP's whiskies.

To sum up: I highly recommend these rye monsters for anyone who craves the spiciness of rye.

Next Wednesday: Kentucky Strikes Back - Sazerac Rye

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ai Yai Yai: Yai on Vermont

Living due south of Thai Town, I am within spitting range of some of the best Thai food in the US. When I first came to LA, I relied on the obvious picks of Palm Thai and Ruen Pair (then conveniently located in the same strip mall). Since then, I've branched out quite a bit. For a while, my loyalties were with the little known Hollywood Thai, but they took a turn for the worse...then I found the glory that is Yai.

I started out at the first Yai, in a little strip mall anchored by a 7-11 on Hollywood Boulevard, but earlier this year they opened a much larger space in the Jon's Market/Fatburger strip mall on the west side of Vermont, north of Sunset, known as Yai's on Vermont.

I've never been disappointed with a dish at Yai, but my absolute favorite is the roasted pork with Chinese broccoli or mustard greens. Succulent bits of fatty fried pork, like a Thai chicharron, are stir fried with chopped veggies and served in the most amazing broth of rich pork juice drippings. To top it off is the wonderfully spicy fish sauce with chilis that is the Yai house condiment.

Pad Thai khron khan is a spicy version of the Thai street food classic. It lacks the bright orange color and the sweetness of the versions you get most places, presumably meaning they hold back on the tamarind paste. Again, topping it with the house fish sauce does wonders, making a spicy, pungent pad thai.

They also do a great, slightly sweet deep fried pork and all the classic Thai soups and salads.

Having spent most of the last two weeks at the behemoth Kaiser complex on Sunset Boulevard, I was deeply appreciative of the proximity of this Thai great.

Yai's on Vermont
1627 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 644-1076

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Two Chocolateers: Boule and L'Artisan du Chocolat

I loooove chocolate. I mean, I really love chocolate. I mean, I love chocolate in a way that only women are supposed to love chocolate. I love to eat it in all its forms, from the humble Hershey's Kiss to the finest Ecuadoran, single farm, 68% cacao bar. I love to cook with it, from the humblest toll house cookies to the finest pot du creme.

But most of all, I love the truffle. The creamy chocolate ganache of a perfectly done plain chocolate truffle is probably one of the best single bites of food in the world.

Recently, I sat down with a selection of every truffle available from two of my favorite chocolatiers: L'Artisan du Chocolat, (on First Street east of Virgil) and Boule (on La Cienega).

L'Artisan is a hole-in-the-wall chocolate store in an unlikely little strip of First Street just east of Virgil. They make only truffles and have a wide variety set out in a traditional chocolate store setting. You can often see them making the truffles in the back of the little storefront while you order.

Boule is less a store than a museum, with truffles, pastries, tarts, macaroons and gelato carefully displayed as if they were part of a special exhibit at a new branch of LACMA. Everything is presented and packaged beautifully, making you feel as if you were buying jewelry instead of chocolate.

Well, it was quite a burden to wade through the entire truffle offerings of each store, but I managed to shoulder it. I have to say that both of these purveyors make fabulous, though very different styles of truffles, and if you are lucky enough to happen upon either one, you will not be disappointed.

L'Artisan creates a dense, super-chocolaty truffle. They have many variations on the plain chocolate truffle and it hits you with that strong dense wallop of chocolate that every chocoholic seeks.

They are also flavor experimentalists. Sometimes the products of their flavor lab don't work so well (I wasn't thrilled with the garlic [yes, garlic] or tomato truffles), but sometimes they do (kalamata olive is surprisingly good). Either way, however, I enjoy the whimsy and creativity that goes into the flavorings.

Where L'Artisan is about super strong chocolate, Boule is about light and creamy. Their beautifully adorned truffles have a lighter than air quality. You bite in and you get a silky smooth, almost foam like lightness that you want to hold in your mouth and savor, but before you can, it has evaporated, so you take another bite and hope to experience that sensation for a little bit longer, an on it goes.

Boule's flavorings are subtle, not overpowering. Pistachio is one of the best, creamy and nutty all at once, I wanted to bathe in the filling.

I did a few side by side tastings of my favorite truffles made by both chocolatiers.

Plain Chocolate

I'm something of a purist, so I am drawn to the plain chocolate truffle, a ball of dark chocolate ganache (i.e. chocolate mixed with cream) rolled in cocoa powder. This truffle is about chocolate, pure and simple. No flavors, no shell, just show us your best take on the primary ingredient.

In this case, I think L'Artisan wins out. This is really their home turf, dense, strong, chocolate. Boule's was good, but Boule's trademark lightness just doesn't work as well on this type of purist chocolate truffle. If chocolate is a drug, then L'Artisan's truffle is pure heroin, while Boule is what you get at the methadone clinic...you get some of the feeling of the strong stuff, but not enough to satiate.

Salty Caramel

Salty caramel has been a fad for about ten years now. A chocolate coating filled with caramel with just a touch of sea salt (usually some fancy fleur de sel). Like many, I've totally fallen for this mixture of sweet, rich and salty.

Boule and L'Artisan, true to their styles, make totally different salty caramels. L'Artisan's is characteristically dense, a rectangular chocolate with a rich caramel flavor and just a touch of salt, enhanced by a few sprinkles on top. Boule's is characteristically light and creamy, a soft, luscious caramel filling with perhaps a bit less salt than the L'Artisan version.

In this case, I'd call it a draw. These are two very different but very good caramels.

So, if you need a gift for that special someone (even if that special someone is you), check out one of these two fine chocolateers. All for one and one for all!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Nose of Cow

Can you imagine what life would be like if we tasted everything the way that the experts taste whiskey....

Daisy Dairy, Lowfat Milk, 1% mbv (milkfat by volume), homogenized and pasteurized, 2007, aged in metal tanks.

The new Daisy Dairy 1% Lowfat joins the existing DD expressions (Whole, 2%, Skim and the Herders' Edition, Utter Strength). In addition, the milkmaster at DD tells me they will be issuing a new series of Single Cow expressions sometime next fall (Bessie is reputed to be the best).

Colour: White, but as with most milks, artificial colouring may have been added.
Nose: straw, grass, honey, a touch of Bovine Growth Hormone, then a big blast of cream followed by mild cheddar cheese.
Taste: Like non-dairy creamer, but richer, thicker, coats the tongue, then unsweetened ice cream, but less thick.
Finish: Sort of phlegmy.
Balance: A nice evening dram, good for the fox hunt or a leisurely smoke in the study, overall could benefit from a higher milkfat content. Would do very well accompanying a sandwich of sweet, partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils on chocolate flavored biscuits. A touch of water makes it watery.

This is a very young milk, and older is, of course, better so I aged mine in the carton for six months. (I stood it up and left the carton two-thirds full to avoid oxidation.) The change was palpable.

Score: 88.684758

Next Wednesday: A vertical tasting of Los Angeles County municipal tap waters.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Master of its Domain: Dumpling Master

One of the best things, culinarily speaking, about living in the Los Angeles area is the great diversity of Chinese cuisine. Historically, Chinese food in the United States has been dominated by the food of the southeastern provinces, Guangdon (Canton), Hunan, Fujian and Jiangxi. These provinces are closest to the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, in Guangdon, where most emigration from China occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The great Chinatowns of the US were founded and grown by Southeastern Chinese settlers, and the cuisine of this region, or a Westernized version of it, came to be known generically as "Chinese food" to Westerners.

Starting in the 1970s, the center of the Chinese community in Los Angeles moved from downtown's Chinatown, to the vast San Gabriel Valley in east Los Angeles County. Cities like San Gabriel, Monterey Park and Alhambra became centers of more recent Chinese immigrants. Cantonese, for sure, but also people from Sichuan, Jiangzhe/Shanghai and the vast plains of northern China, including the Islamic community with its own style of Chinese cuisine. With them, came a more diverse Chinese cuisine which more accurately represented the great diversity of China. (For the best available compliation of San Gabriel Valley restaurant recommendations, get a copy of Carl Chu's Los Angeles/San Gabriel Valley Chinese Food Finder).

Dumpling Master, a northern Chinese dumpling house in Monterey Park, resides, like most great LA restaurants, in a strip mall. Dumpling master makes wondrous, juicy dumplings (boiled, steamed and pan fried), succulent scallion pancakes and deliciously chewy hand pulled noodles (I prefer their noodles to those of well-regarded competitor Heavy Noodling). They cook pork, chicken and beef, but the highlight of dumpling master is the lamb.

Lamb is a staple of northern Chinese cuisine and is especially popular in Islamic cuisine in which pork is not an option. There is something great about Chinese food with lamb; its pungent gaminess provides the perfect foil to some of the more familiar Chinese seasonings.

At Dumpling Master, I get a combination of dishes that I have lovingly named, lamb three ways: lamb chow mein, lamb noodle soup with cabbage and boiled lamb dumplings.

Lamb chow mein with hand pulled noodles is a delightful stir fry of noodles cabbage and strips of marinated lamb. This is lamb put into a traditional Chinese favorite familiar to Westerners and it works so well you wonder why it hasn't popped up at Panda Express.

Lamb noodle soup with cabbage, a popular northern dish, is a sour cabbage soup with lamb and noodles. The sourness melds well with the pungency of the lamb. If you take the leftovers home and put them in the fridge, the noodles will absorb almost half the broth and their chewiness will give way to a deep sour lamb flavor...I always make sure to have some to take home. (For some reason, this item seems to have dropped off the menu, but if you order it, they will make it).

When you bite into boiled lamb dumplings, the third dish of my trio, the dumplings explode with juice which sends a strong lamb flavor to the core of your soul. The filling exudes lamb, juice and spices in a way that make me always come back for more.

This lamb trio, an order of the thin, scallion pancakes called scallion pie and a bonus of pan-fried pork dumplings is one of the more satisfying meals in all of Los Angeles County.

Dumpling Master
423 N. Atlantic #106
Monterey Park, CA
(626) 458-8689

Saturday, July 14, 2007

$50 Lagavulin

Run, don't walk to Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa which has announced a weekly special of Lagavulin 16 year old for a mere $49.99.

This is one of the world's great whiskies, an Islay giant with a peat punch and an underlying flavor complexity so vast that it's hard not to take another sip to keep the experience going. (see my review here)

Of late, a shortage of the 16 year old has driven up prices so that it usually goes for $70 or more. So, at $50, it is a steal and probably the best non-sports related thing to happen in Orange County since, well, ever...

Hi-Time Wine Cellars
250 Ogle Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Favorites: Gioia Burrata

There are few things that taste as luxurious as burrata. What is burrata? A fresh Italian cheese in the mozzarella family. It looks like a lump of fresh mozzarella, but when you slice it open, out comes a primordial ooze of filling, a dreamy mixture of mozzarella curd and cream.

When you eat burrata, you get the guilty, pleasure-inducing essence of cream.

I've tried burrata in a salad with heirloom tomatoes and basil, on sandwiches and drizzled with good balsamic vinegar. All of my burrata experimentation however, has led me to a realization. The best accompaniment to burrata is a knife and fork, maybe sprinkled with a few flakes of sea salt. I don't like anything to get in the way of the pure creamy experience.

My favorite burrata and the one which is most available locally is from Gioia in South El Monte, which you can get at Bay Cities Deli, Bristol Farms and other gourmet stores. You should eat it within three or four days of purchase.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Whiskey Wedensday: Peat Monster or Peat Puppy

Compass Box, that independent champion of blended scotch whiskey, must have the best press operation in the UK. Over the past couple of years, I can't count the number of glowing puff pieces I've seen about the greatness and integrity of Compass Box and their innovative whiskies. CB chief John Glaser has practically been anointed the patron saint of blended scotch whiskey.

Jon, Mark & Robbo's Easy Drinking Whisky Company does almost, though not quite as well. They are often mentioned, along with CB, as being on the forefront of a new wave of blends.

There is a lot to like about these companies. They both have elevated blended scotch, long ignored by connoisseurs, and reminded everyone that there is more to life than single malts. CB eschews chill filtering and artificial coloring and uses attractive, very wine-like labeling. JMR creates distinct flavor profiles and approaches its craft with an amused jocularity.

It was with that background that I picked up two signature offerings. CB's Peat Monster and JMR's The Smokey, Peaty One.

While each was enjoyable, I have to say that I was disappointed with both in that they just weren't that peaty. I mean, when you call something Peat Monster, you set up a certain expectation, an expectation that one sniff will knock you over with smoke. Peat Monster was a nice scotch, but the peat was understated.

Now, when you go to the CB website, they have a more accurate description, describing PM as "balanced and approachable." But does the average person who buys something called Peat Monster want balance and approachability? No! They want a big snarling, drooling abominable smoke-man of a scotch, a combination of equal parts Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Talisker and Laphroaig...in short, a monster. What they do not want is a rather pleasant mix of Caol Ila and Ardmore, which is what Peat Monster actually is.

JMR was similarly unsmoky. Fine, but not one I'd describe as The Smokey Peaty One, more like The Slightly Smokey One.

Now, if you want a scotch that lives up to its name, find yourself some Smokehead, an unnamed Islay single malt produced by Ian MacLeod. This stuff will bowl you over with smoke! It has the pungent stench of a young Islay and a smoky bite that doesn't let go.

Plus, with Smokehead, you get to play the guessing game. Is it a young Lagavulin? A stowed away batch of Bruichladdich's PC5? One of Ardbeg's line of young whiskies?* Whatever the composition, this is good, smoky stuff.

I have discovered the peat monster, and its name is Smokehead. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a bottle of the stuff in California, but if you find it, drink it and know that you have tasted a true peat monster.

*By the way, I'd love to see a distillery come out with a three year old (the minimum age for scotch) called Barely Legal Whisky. Contact me at sku2sku@yahoo.com to remit my royalties for the idea.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Did I do in the best pupusas in LA?

Last month, after several months of research at great cost to my cholesterol level if not my wallet, I published my LA Pupusa Roundup and named La Nueva Flor Blanca's amazing pupusa revuelta as the best pupusa in LA.

Last week, I went by, hoping for some of those porky, cheesy treats and...it was closed, newspaper over the windows, gone. I feared the worst. I drove by all week long. Nothing changed and no one was answering the phone.

Then, I dug into the Health Department website, and sure learned that LNFB was closed for:
Gross contamination of utensils/equipment
Prevention of entrance and harborage of vermin
Vermin infestation

Now usually a place that the Health Department closes will open back up in a few days after a good cleaning and a visit from the vermin control guy, but for some businesses that operate on the edge financially, a closure spells doom. LNFB closed over a month ago and shows no signs of life.

I still hold out hope, maybe the family took the opportunity to take an extended trip back to El Salvador or Guatemala, where they are from, and will reopen their delightfully vermin-free pupuseria any day now. But each day the newspapers pasted over the door grow a little more yellows as my heart grows a little bit smaller and my arteries slowly unclog.

This raises for me an uncomfortable question, did I jinx La Nueva Flor? Am I the kiss of death? Will all of my favorites slowly whither and die?

If so, can I use this unholy power for good? Maybe I'll print some rave reviews about Pinkberry or the Cheesecake Factory to see if reverse psychology works on this otherwordly mojo.

My biggest problem now is where to go for pupusas, a staple of my diet. Luckily, I found the excellent La Pupusa Loca during my roundup (the picture atop is a few of their pupusas), but they still don't quite hit the high notes of La Nueva Flor.

So, if you know of a pupuseria I missed that should be taken seriously, drop me a line by email or in the comments. Meanwhile, I will keep everyone posted about any activity at La Nueva Flor.

And no Atlacatl recommendations please!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Favorites: NBC Seafood

Dim sum is one of my passions. Everywhere I go, I try the dim sum. I love pork buns, roast duck, suckling pig, sesame balls, sticky rice, custard cups, rice noodles, all the various dumplings and fried bits, and the occasional pair of chicken feet. I probably average ten to fifteen dim sum meals per year. In the LA/San Gabriel Valley area, I've been to: Empress Pavilion, Ocean Seafood, Ocean Star, Empress Harbor, 888, Mission 261, New Concept, NBC and Sea Harbor.

Sea Harbor is probably my favorite of the new school, more haute dim sum. For the old fashioned, bustling carts and busy tables, though, I always come back to NBC. Plump shrimp, a wide variety of fried dumplings, succulent roast duck, all the traditional dim sum done superbly. I've found that 10:30 is the ideal time to arrive on a weekend for maximum cart and food access.

NBC Seafood, Atlantic north of Garvey, Monterey Park.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Have a Happy Fourth

Whiskey Wednesday is taking a holiday break for American Independence Day.

We will be back next week, examining the truth behind tales of a legendary Scottish monster.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Favorites: Luckiest of Devils

Lucky Devils, on Hollywood Boulevard east of Highland, is a regular spot for me. I love the kobe bacon blue burger, the nicely browned fries laced with big salt crystals that I eat without condiments, the homemade breakfast sausage and creme brulee french toast on the brunch menu, the great selection of microbrews on tap and the flavorful veggie burger.

The Luckiest thing, though, is the marvel that is the Lucky Devil's toasted pecan milkshake. Now, let's start by clearing things up. This is not a milkshake. Yes, it comes in a big metal milkshake cup with a straw, but the straw is useless. It's a giant cup of LD's homemade vanilla frozen custard mixed with toasted pecans, topped with a generous squirt of whipped cream.

It reminds be of the "concretes" I used to get at the great Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard on Route 66 in St. Louis. A cup of custard mixed with toppings so thick (thick as concrete) that the server turns the cup upside down before giving it to you...it's that thick.

The LD shake has an amazing flavor. The vanilla is subtle and you can really taste the toastedness of the pecans, and the shake is so large it should qualify as an entree.

There are other great desserts at LD's. You can get the plain custard, also excellent, on a delicious fruit cobbler. Kentucky cream cake is a giant slab of spice cake with a wonderfully creamy frosting and nuts, but I seldom get past the shake.