Thursday, October 30, 2008

The First Rule of Halloween

With Halloween begins my fall/winter bacchanal. Halloween candy followed by Thanksgiving turkey, Channukah latkes, and the many sweets and treats leading up to Christmas and New Year's (ah, to be a polyreligious eater). It's a fun time, but these are important traditions, and gosh darn it, there are rules.

Rule Number One of Halloween: Give chocolate. I know you see that pack of 5,000 Dum Dum Pops sitting alluringly on the shelf of the 99 Cent Store, but come on. If you were a kid would you want to end up with a bunch of Dum Dum Pops? It's only once a year, cough up the dough for some Snickers, mini-Hersey's or M&Ms. Even one of those micro-sized half-bite Snickers is better than a Dum Dum.

Okay, I'll give you half-credit for Skittles, Starburst, Milk Duds, Juji Fruit, candy corn and Tootsie Rolls because at least they are real candies, but it still ain't chocolate.

And remember kids, do what this guy says and stay safe:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Smoke-Free Islay

Islay, of course, is an island off the west coast of Scotland, known among malt fanatics as the vaunted producer of such peated Scotches as Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Caol Ila. But Islay has always had a less smoky side, represented chiefly by Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain. Caol Ila, as well, is now making a delightful non-peated malt.

Lately, however, the formerly non-peated Bruichladdich seems to be vying for the title of master of peat. First they issued the peated 3D, then their well reviewed Port Charlotte series, and now, they are on the cusp of releasing Octomore, billed as the most heavily peated Scotch ever.

With all of this smoke (mirrors anyone?), it's sometimes hard to remember that Bruichladdich used to be known as one of the lowest peated whiskies on the peatey island of Islay. Indeed, this prolific distillery still produces a number of low-peat items, and we will try one of those today.


Bruichladdich 15 years old, Second Edition, non-chill filtered, no color added, 46% alcohol ($79.99).

This is a rockin' good malt. I thought it would be milder, blander, but it's rugged and complex, with good wood, malt, a pinch of salt and just the slightest trace of smoke...very maritime. I'd compare it to Old Pulteney. The mouthfeel is heavy and dense, in an interesting way. This stuff is anything but light, but it's darn good. I may have to dig deeper into the vast selection of 'Laddies.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Stuffing the Chili at Babita

The beautiful thing about Mexican stuffed chilis is biting into a pepper and getting something unexpected, be it cheese, meat or, with my favorite chilis en nogada, sweet nuts and raisins.

Much the same could be said for Babita restaurant, which, from the look of its exterior, seems an unlikely venue for one of the most creative Mexican kitchens in Southern California. Babita is housed in a dumpy little house on an unassuming stretch of San Gabriel Boulevard north of the I-10 freeway in San Gabriel. But open the doors and you see white table cloths, a sophisticated menu and a dedicated and enthusiastic chef who will seat you and take your order before the waitress has a chance to say hi. ("I'm always too late," she noted when we told her that the chef had already taken our order).

Chilis and refined sauces are the emphasis at Babita - nuts, moles and the interplay between sweet and spicy are recurring motifs. Two of the best dishes we had were daily specials. A soup duo of carrot and pecan soups, served elegantly with sour cream and chilis en nogada was rich and showed a wonderful contrast between the ingredients. "Don't eat the soups together," the chef cautioned, "because that would be a soup that doesn't exist." On second thought, he added, "but when I give it to you it's yours and you can do what you want with it." We tried them both together and separate. He was right, they were better separate.

I was pleased to find that one of my favorites was also on special. Chilis en nogada is a chili stuffed with raisins and nuts, topped with a walnut cream sauce and tangy pomegranate seeds. The version at Babita, fresh and clean tasting without being too sweet, was on of the best I've had.

Not every dish we had was a winner, but they all had glimmers of brilliance. My fillet mignon was unimpressive, but the pool of tamarind tinged mole poblano it sat on was delicious, and the tiny chili relleno and fried quail eggs that topped it were superb.

There is something so endearing about this place. I love the creativity and energy of Babita as well as the unassuming nature of its exterior. I'm already thinking about what I'll get when I return.

Babita Mexicuisine
1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-7265

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Books for the Baby Foodie

Looking for a perfect gift for your foodie friends who have a young child? Want to give your own little kids some early culinary education? Check out the works of Amy Wilson Sanger.

Sanger has written and illustrated a number of kid's books about great food. Each little board book is a poem dealing with a style of food cleverly illustrated with paper cut-outs.

For my own little one, I've got the First Book of Sushi:

Ikura, squishy salmon roe
like dabby dots of jelly,
salty on my lips and yummy in my belly

and Yum Yum Dim Sum

Why, oh why, my little siu mai,
why do I love you so?
What treasure hides,
jing cha siu bao,
pillowed in your dough?

Other titles available include Chaat and Sweets and Hola Jalapeno. Each book goes for just $6.95 on Amazon. It's the perfect gift for the 0-4 set at the sushi bar near you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Three Old Broras

Wow! Today I review Broras, and not just one Brora, but three Broras. I feel like Serge over at Whiskyfun. Maybe I should start including concert reviews.

Why Brora and why now? Well, it's depressing economic times, so I decided to reach back into my closet for some of the most expensive stuff I own. Consider it a sort of goodbye to the luxuries we may not be able to enjoy for a while.

To the uninitiated and unobsessed, Brora is one of the fabled shuttered distilleries of Scotland. Opened by the Clynelish distillery in order to produce a more peated malt, Brora operated only from 1969 to 1983, and the peating level became lower in the '80s. Now, Brora is an obsession with malt-heads and collectors. Among the shuttered distilleries, only Port Ellen rivals its popularity, which is pretty impressive for a distillery that was around for less than fifteen years.

Most Brora on the market is from indie bottlers. Diageo, which owns Clynelish, inherited the old stock of Brora and annually releases some as part of what it used to call its Rare Malts series; they usually make it to the US just in time for Christmas. Today, I'll be trying two indie bottlings (both by Douglas Laing and one of the Diageo releases.

Since the distillery closed 25 years ago, all Brora is old Brora. And, as a corollary, all Brora is expensive. The cheapest one I've seen was about $165 and the Diageo bottlings go for $375 to $400.

Could Brora possibly be worth the hype? I tried a Signatory Brora years ago and found it fairly unexciting. When a whiskey makes it big on the collector's market, it's hard to tell how much of its popularity has to do with flavor and how much has to do with scarcity. On the other hand, I love Clynelish, so I'm excited to see what these three are like.

None of these bottlings uses artificial color or chill filtering.


1. Douglas Laing's Premier Barrel Brora, 23 years old, single cask, sherry cask matured, 46% alcohol ($214.95).

I'm not sure if the kitschy look of the Premier Barrel series of Douglas , with its ceramic bottle, is intended to be tongue in cheek or not, but it certainly is interesting. (The series also includes bottlings of Port Ellen, Springbank and Macallan). The bottle text is full of playful alliteration. To wit, the Brora is described as:

Prodigiously provisioned to purveyors and proprietors of probity, for an absolute appreciation in abundance. It is ablaze with abiding acceptability within this dazzlingly delicious delectation of the delightful distillate!

Okay, I suppose it is tongue in cheek, but how does it taste? Good. Rich, malty, woody, with that Northern Highlands ruggedness and a bit of sweetness and vanilla as well. The smoke comes out late in the palate and a bit on the finish. Very similar to a Clynelish, but much more expensive, so I can't say that it is worth the price tag.

2. Douglas Laing's Old Malt Cask Brora, 23 years old, distilled 1982/bottled 2005, single cask, 50% alcohol ($193.95).

Douglas Laing's Old Malt Cask is a reliable independent bottling series. They are all non-chill filtered with no artificial coloring and all are bottled at 50% abv.

This one is pure and powerful. Syrupy sweet at first with fruit, then smoky. The flavor is more pronounced than the Premier Barrel version, both in the sweetness and the smoke.

3. Brora Official Release, 30 years old, bottled in 2007, cask strength, 55.7% alcohol ($374.99).

This is both the only Diageo bottling of Brora I've tasted and the only Brora from the 1970s I've tasted. Seventies Broras have the reputation as being peatier than those bottled in the '80s and are much sought after.

Wow! Huge flavor. Dense with smoke, this is far peatier than its brethren. It is more akin to a southern a blind tasting, I'd probably guess Lagavulin. Water produces a beautiful nose, hearkening back to Clynelish again, and additional flavors of evergreen and other woodsy things.

This is a truly wonderful whiskey. The good news is that now I get what all the fuss is about. The bad news is, it will cost you.

Next Wednesday: Islay Lite

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Holy Mackeral: Aburi Saba at Musha

LA is in about year five of a massive gastro-pub fad. A gastro-pub, of course is a bar offering excellent eats. The fad blew in with Father's Office in Santa Monica, famously doling out burgers and sweet potato fries along with their large selection of brew.

The izakaya is the Japanese version of the gastro-pub, which accompanies your drinks with tapas-sized plates of fish, tofu and other Japanese and Japanese-Western fusion dishes. The LA izakaya fad came in on the heels of the gastro-pub fad and both remain strong.

Musha was one of the early izakaya in Torrance which then expanded to Santa Monica. I headed to the Santa Monica branch and was not disappointed.

There was so much good food at Musha that it's hard to know where to start. Thin strips of beef tongue, Korean BBQ style with a sesame oils sauce were beautifully beefy and lacked any of the negative textures I associate with tongue. MFC (Musha Fried Chicken) had a light, crunchy batter and a tangy (yuzu?) sauce. Anago rice was served out of a hot pot that created a mash-up similar to bi bim bop dol sot. There was even a tribute to Father's Office in the sweet potato fries with ranch dressing, though they weren't as good as the spectacular FO fries.

But my favorite dish was the aburi saba, or flamed mackerel, a side of mackerel seared table-side with a blow-torch. Mackerel, in my experience, is a risky order. Handle it poorly and it becomes oily and develops a strong fishy order, but fresh, well-handled mackerel is something to behold. This mackerel was fresh and firm with a wonderfully subtle taste; the skin-side was seared but the bottom of the fillet remained cold. The flavor was strong without being fishy. Certainly one of the best mackerel dishes I recall having anywhere.

The desserts at Musha were also notable. Their selection is a mix of preprepared dessert from a distributor and desserts made especially for Musha by a pastry chef who apparently goes only by the name Carolyn (you know, like Cher or Madonna). We stuck with the specially made desserts (tiramisu, apple tartin, creme brulee and chocolate souffle), which were quite good, though only the creme brulee was exceptional--thick and creamy with an excellent custard flavor. Creme brulee may be ubiquitous, but it's still surprisingly hard to find a great one, so I'm always happy when I do...and both the brulee and the apple tartin are torched table side, a la the mackerel (okay, so these guys are a bit pyromaniacal).

Prices on the dishes are pretty reasonable. Most things we ordered ranged from $6 to $8, but as with any small plates establishment, they add up quickly.

424 Wilshire Blvd. (just east of the Third Street Promenade)
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 576-6330

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dim Sum Elitism

The last five years or so has been a real renaissance for dim sum in LA. It started with Sea Harbor, the Vancouver import that opened a more refined style dim sum restaurant in Rosemead (with another location in Rowland Heights). At Sea Harbor, you order from menus, not carts, and it's a regular-sized restaurant as opposed to a grand palace like NBC or Ocean Star. It's emphasis on fresh cooked and innovative fare (goose liver dumplings anyone?) quickly moved it to the top of my list of dim sum, and I eat a lot of dim sum (like, at least once per month).

Sea Harbor was followed by similar restaurants Mission 261 and New Concept. These followed the Sea Harbor pattern, but I've never really cared for either of them. They seemed more concerned with being new and different than making great food.

Now comes another entry, Elite Restaurant in Monterey Park, just a block south of my favorite palace, NBC (which was recently sold and is currently closed). Elite lived up to both its name and my expectations. At Elite, you order from a menu, but fresh cooked portions are also offered as the come out of the kitchen.

The food was fresh and wonderful. The lotus wrapped sticky rice was most and saturated with the juice of its various meaty contents, some of the best I've had. Chinese pancakes, both sweet and savory, had a pleasant gelatinous chew, and short ribs were all juice and flavor. We had a lovely plate of deep fried chicken bits with garlic and chili. They were perfectly fried and tasty, though the actual meat was something in the tendon or knuckle family which was largely inedible.

Elite's take on the cream bun, was probably the best dessert I've had at a Chinese restaurant. The outside was smooth and flaky and the filling was an almond flavored cream. I could have eaten a dozen of these babies.

It also has a nice looking regular menu with tasty sounding dishes like spicy pork shank, frog with pumpkin, smoked bacon roll with broccoli and three types of abalone (Japanese, Mexican and Middle Eastern).

Elite sometimes has a long wait, though when I arrived at 10:00 last Saturday morning, there was plenty of room.

Elite Restaurant
700 South Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 282-9998

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Born in the USA--Epilogue

I thought I would take some time to reflect on my recent American Whiskey series. It started as an opportunity for me to taste some of the great Bourbons I've read about but never tried (as well as some new versions of old favorites) and grew into a ten part tasting of 8 Bourbons, one rye and one Tennessee Whiskey.

I have to say, looking back at the ten week venture, I am floored at the great quality of Bourbon that is available today. So much of what I tasted was fantastic, and so much of it offered unique flavor profiles - Bourbon is anything but a one-note wonder. The prices on these whiskies ranged from $13 for Very Old Barton (if you're lucky enough to live somewhere where they sell it) to over $150 for A.H. Hirsch, but the vast majority of these were in the $30 to $50 range. In a world of whiskey inflation, Bourbon remains a very reasonable drink, even for the high falutin' ones.

After opening and tasting all of these (per usual, I buy my own bottles...except for the Stagg, a sample of which was generously provided by my brother), the ones I keep returning to are Parker's Heritage, Pappy Van Winkle, Very Old Barton and A.H. Hirsch. Rock Hill Farms and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon were good whiskies, but didn't live up to the others. The only one in the series that I genuinely disliked was Jack Daniel's Single Barrel.

So, drink Bourbon. There is so much out there to enjoy that is so affordable, it would be a crime not to. And if you find something great, let us know.

Next Week: Back to Scotland

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pretty at Pink's

There may be no beloved LA institution that is more detested by the fooderati than Pink's, the famous hotdog stand on La Brea and Melrose. I may be the last foodie to defend Pink's but defend it I will. The meat, while good, may not be as good as Carney's, the fries not as good as Skooby's, but the overall dog experience is grand.

The Pink's dog has a nice, mild flavor with an excellent snap. The buns, steamed in their bags, cling to the dog in a way that a toasted bun never does. In fact, the steamed buns may be the thing that makes the Pink's dog what it is. I always think toasted hotdog buns taste stale and don't sufficiently mesh with the dog, but with the steamed Pink's bun, the dog and bun combine into a single, glorious meat-bread entity.

Pink's may be known for its wide variety of add-ons and weird celebrity influenced dogs, but when it comes to dogs, I'm all for simplicity...which means no guacamole, chili, bacon, pastrami, cheese or other non-dog indulgences. Maybe kraut, maybe onions, but more often than not, only mustard graces my dog, and that is the proper way to enjoy Pink's.

I also like the fries and onion rings which, reconstituted from their frozen state by the frier, have a nice crisp skin.

Is it worth the giant lines you'll find on a Friday night? It is definitively not. That's why I typically pick up a 10:00 am breakfast dog, barely any wait at all. Breakfast of champions, indeed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hanker for a Hunk of Cheese

I'm pretty sure this guy is at least partly responsible for my cheese obsession. These PSAs were a regular fixture during Saturday morning cartoons in the '70s.

Mmmm, I'm hankering for an Epoisse wagon wheel right now!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Born in the USA Part 10 - Old Forester Birthday Bourbon

Well, we made it to number ten. The final (for now) whiskey in our Born in the USA series, which turned out to be mostly Bourbon. And for number ten, I've picked a Bourbon I had been wanting to try for sometime.

Since it's introduction in 2002, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon has been one of the most widely acclaimed Bourbons on the market. The Birthday in question is that of George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman, the liquor giant that now owns Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve, Korbel Champagne, Herradura Tequila and Finlandia Vodka as well as Old Forester.

This was the 2007 Birthday Bourbon, a thirteen year old which is still available at some on-line retailers, but the 2008 should be out any day now.


Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, distilled Spring 1994/bottled 2007, 47% alcohol (owned by Brown-Forman), $38.99.

Beautiful aroma exuding toffee, honey and other sweet things with a bit of a floral scent, with water it becomes more of a Cognac scent. The taste is less sweet than you'd expect from the nose, though it definitely has an underlying sweetness, including some tropical fruit(pineapple). Almost Scotch, like; it has some of the rugged notes of a Dalmore, some real savoriness there that comes out more with water. On balance, a very nice Bourbon, but I would say it didn't quite live up to the high expectations I had for it. Very good, though, for the price range and certainly one that would make a find gift for a birthday or otherwise.

Next Wednesday: Born in the USA Wrap Up

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Burning Down the Haus: Haus Dessert Boutique

If you call something a dessert boutique and open it in my neighborhood, you know I'm going to go. Haus Dessert Boutique opened about two months ago right across Sixth Street from KyoChon Chicken.

A Korean establishment featuring continental desserts and coffee roasted on site, I thought it might have potential. The dessert menu, though, is pretty standard: tiramisu, creme brulee, various cakes, chocolate souffle, chocolate fondue. There are also a few entrees and appetizers for people who need something savory before their dessert. The decor is typical hipster Koreatown coffeehouse chic. It's open late (midnight on weekdays, 1:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday) and has free WiFi.

The dessert selection immediately struck me as odd. All of the Korean coffeehouses have something similar to this display of desserts (minus the fondue); what is it that made Haus a "dessert boutique" as opposed to just another of the 5 million coffeehouses in Koreatown?

Unfortunately, I still don't know the answer. It's true that they make these desserts in-house, but most of the things I sampled fell flat. Tiramisu was dry and uninteresting as was the quattro-berry cake. I did enjoy the cheesecake, which had a nice, tangy flavor with an Oreo cookie crust. All of the portions, however, were quite small, though nicely presented. Alas, I left unimpressed - a good concept poorly executed.

Haus Dessert Boutique
3826 W. 6th St. (between Serrano & Hobart)
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 388-5311

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Left Behind

It's happened to me numerous times at my local farmers' market. I'm juggling my wallet, bags of produce and one to two children. I pick out some delectables, submit them for weighing, pay...and leave the bag sitting there. Only later, when I get home, unpack, and find I'm missing valuable items, do I notice.

I've done it so many times I can't even begin to count. Possibly the most disappointing was when I left a bag of two excellent balls of my favorite buffalo mozzarella which was to go into a sandwich that very night.

Somewhere, I imagine, there is a heavenly place for the produce that was left behind, a cozy little kitchen stuffed full of all of the forgotten items that have been left over the years. A place where you could make a really good sandwich.