Sunday, January 31, 2010

Steak in the Jar

Chef Suzanne Tracht has been tirelessly putting her spin on traditional American dishes and comfort food at Beverly Boulevard's Jar for the past decade. While other restaurants rise and fall, explode in brightness and flame out, Jar just keeps on ticking, the Energizer Bunny of lA fine dining.

The menu is haute steakhouse, with an emphasis on traditionally prepared beef and fish. Cocktails are classic but refined, lacking the sweetness that is so typical in many sidecars and Manhattans. The fried clams, one of the signature dishes, were delicious with a light, flaky, batter, but they weren't much more exciting than a well executed calamari. Fried seafood is nearly always good, but rarely breathtaking.

We ordered a porterhouse for two. The steak arrived cooked perfectly to order (between rare and medium rare). I'm most familiar with the porterhouse at Matro's, so it was hard for me not to compare the two. The Mastro's porterhouse is a giant, Flintstone sized slab of steak which explodes with flavor from its butter bath and the bold, salty Mastro's rub. The Jar steak was a more subtle affair, a slightly smaller steak (though still more than enough for two - you just may end up taking less of it home) with a more delicate flavor and the tang of the peppercorn crusted rub used at Jar. They are two extremely good but very different versions of a classic steak, neither better than the other.

Jar allows you the choice of a side sauce for the steak, we picked the buttery Bearnaise and the horseradish sauce, both well done versions of steakhouse classics. I can't bear to sauce a good steak, so these were used primarily as dipping sauce for the excellent french fries.

While high end American comfort food isn't one of my favorite genres, Jar executes it with finesse and a light touch that shows a respect for its patrons, not a thing to be taken lightly in a dining scene that can have all of the flash of a Hollywood set.

8225 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 655-6566

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ask Mr. Pyrite Returns

Nobel Prize winning food critic Jonathan Pyrite has graciously agreed to join us again this week to answer more reader questions about the Los Angeles food scene. (Thanks to our readers for the huge outpouring of questions; I promise that if we didn't get to your question yet, we will try to in the future).

Dear Mr. Pyrite:
Is there any good Thai food, either Isaan or Southern style, in East LA?
--Irene V., L.A.

Dear Ms. V.:

When I was a fledgling music writer, I told a then-unknown Kurt Cobain who had crashed on my couch after a particularly energetic gig at Raji’s in which his transcendent punk/metal riffs had washed over the audience to a crescendo not unlike the gradual attack on your sinuses when you squeeze an excessive amount of mustard on your French Dip at Philippes, that my goal for the year was to eat at least once at every restaurant on Sam Yorty Place. Sam Yorty Place, as it happens, is thinly populated cul-de-sac inhabited by a Carl's Jr and a taco truck. After accomplishing this task, I rewarded myself with a satisfying swig of Dom Perignon from an oversized champagne flute that I keep on hand for just such occasions. Kurt was so inspired by my success that he decided, at that very moment, to look for a deal with a major label.

But in terms of rock stars, even of the flannel-shirted, angst-ridden variety, there is no bigger celebrity in Thai cuisine than Lotus of Thailand. Simply put, there has never been, and until Nancy Silverton opens a Thai spot adjacent to Mozza, there will never be a better Thai restaurant in the history of the universe than Lotus of Thailand. Lotus of Thailand is, of course, the Vegas branch of the second best Thai restaurant in the history of the universe, Renu Norwalkian, which achieved a sort of culinary cognitive dissonance by serving Thai royal banquet food in a small, brick enclosure studded with travel posters. But at Lotus, you get the best of everything, from the rather simple fare that you might find in Bankok's floating markets to the street food along the bustling thoroughfares of Chiang Mai to royal cuisine, as subtly flavored as any dish you would find at one of the city's many temples of fine dining. The pepper tinged sauces sing with a piquancy reminiscent of a Maylay influenced Burundian sambal, the type of which can be cooled only with a bite of the cornmeal ugali, that near universal Central African starch. And if what you crave is the true taste of Central African food, you owe it to yourself to take leave for Burundi and experience that majestic combination first hand.

Lotus of Thailand, 953 E. Mojave Ave., Las Vegas, NV. Burundi, Central Africa.

Thanks again to Mr. Pyrite, and readers, keep those questions coming!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Van Winkle Rye

It's time for some rye! Van Winkle rye, made by Julian Van Winkle in conjunction with the Buffalo Trace distillery, is a popular rye whiskey that has been hard to find in Southern California. Lately though, there is some Van Winkle on the shelves at premium liquor shops. I'm a big fan of Buffalo Trace's other ryes: Sazerac, Sazerac 18 year old, and Thomas Handy, so I figured I would try the Van Winkle. Julian Van Winkle sources his own whiskey, and this is thought by many to be a blend of ryes from two distilleries: Bernheim and Medley, though we don't know for certain and it could also be made by Buffalo Trace. (Note to whiskey geeks, this is one of the new "A" series bottles).


Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, 13 years old, 47.8% alcohol ($70)

The first whiff of this stuff is Bourbony sweetness, they you get flooded with the strong rye spice. The flavor flips that formula on its heads with rye spice in the forefront and a bit of bitterness, followed with some sweetness that lasts into the finish, hand in hand with the bitter. This is a bit less rounded than Buffalo Trace's other ryes and the sweetness and spice feel less integrated, but it gets points for a solid and complex rye flavor. If they could tame the bitter edges, this would be amazing stuff.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dim Sum, Art and Animals with Ken Tanaka at King Hua

Last weekend, my good friend Ken Tanaka, YouTube celebrity, artist, animal lover and otherwise renaissance man, accompanied me for dim sum at King Hua in Alhambra. King Hua is one of my current favorites for dim sum. Their food is fresher and sharper than your standard dim sum. I also appreciate that you can choose from a wider selection of teas than at most dim sum houses. Dim sum is so much better when enjoyed with a deeply earthy cup of pu-erh tea than the usual swill.

And unlike me, Ken photographs food (and animals). See his excellent report on our meal here. As for King Hua, it was excellent as usual. I especially liked their fried rice, which I hadn't tried before. It was well balanced with just the right amount of oil to give it that slightly glistening look.

King Hua Restaurant, Inc.
2000 W. Main St. (between Fremont and Atlantic)
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 282-8833

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Brandy Friday: Germain-Robin Apple Brandy

In all of my Brandy Fridays, I have never reviewed an apple brandy. Apple brandy is probably the most popular brandy variety after grape. The French apple brandy Calvados has long been well known and loved, but of late, American apple brandies have been making a comeback.

Apple brandy, and more specifically applejack, was one of America's original spirits. You may remember the legendary Johnny Appleseed whose apple planting exploits are a staple of American elementary school curricula. Let's just say that there is a good reason that Johnny was so beloved, and it's not because people were excited to have more apple pie.

Germain-Robin, the Ukiah based microdistiller known for their fantastic California brandies (see reviews here and here) now has an apple brandy. It's made from a variety of apples from the nearby Anderson Valley and rounded out with some pear. The fruit is crushed into cider and then distilled (it isn't frozen first as with applejack).

Germain-Robin apple brandy sells for around $65, but there is also an XO that goes for $95, and they are working on a series of heirloom apple brandies using more obscure varieties of apple. According to Germain-Robin's production director Joe Thomas Corley, the trick of apple brandy is balancing the fresh apple flavor with those good, aged brandy characteristics. The standard apple brandy includes brandies ranging from five to seven years old with some older spirit added to give it some age. Corley says that the older XO includes some much older brandies but, consequently, less of that fresh apple flavor. I tried the standard apple brandy.

Germain-Robin Apple Brandy, 40% alcohol ($65).

The nose on this is of Cognac and fresh apples. Talk about fresh apple; close you eyes and see the orchard. On tasting it, I find it surprisingly dry. The first taste is a burst of apple flavor but without the sweetness you might expect. Instead it is soft and dry and has many commonalities with Germain-Robin's Cognac style brandies, but with a hint of apple. The apple, itself, which is big in the nose and first taste, recedes some and takes its place with some vanilla and caramel notes and, yes, some sweetness at the end. The finish is sweet and delicate with only the slightest hint of apple.

I've only had a few Calvados, so I'm no expert on apple brandy, but this certainly ranks among the best I've had. I'll be excited to try more of our American apple brandies both from Germain-Robin and elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Storage is Overrated

Many whiskey lovers have elaborate shrines to display their wares. They often refer to their collections as the "bunker," which has a rustic connotation, but if you surf on-line whiskey forums, you will see pictures of beautiful, antique, polished wood cabinets, custom-made closets with special lighting and temperature control, wine-like cellars and caves and other special storage devices.

Not for me. I squirrel away the whiskey wherever it will fit, which tends to mean that any drawer or cabinet you open will include a bottle or two. The above picture is my main storage area, my bedroom closet. As you can see, while my collection is largely mixed in among clothes and shoes, I do have a vicious animal guarding the stash.

And this is a utility cabinet, including light bulbs, plastic wrap, cat food, and yes, whiskey. I guess I fall more on the utilitarian side of the whiskey storage spectrum, though I do have an unused closet space...hmmmm. How about you?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Smokin' Good Fish at Dacha

The only time I visited Russia and the Ukraine was back in the old Soviet days. Everything was heavily regulated, including where student tourist types like myself could go and what we could eat, which consisted mostly of cucumbers, borscht, sour cream (in a jar, to be eaten with a spoon) and the occasional really good, home cooked meal in the more remote areas of the Ukraine.

Dacha, in the San Fernando Valley, offers much more and without the Party propaganda of old. Located on Laurel Canyon, all of the seating is indoor/outdoor, in an enclosed but open to the outside patio-type set up.

Dacha has a sizable menu, but as in the Soviet days, not everything is always available. My advice would be to get the cold fish appetizers, and lots of them. The herring is delightfully pickled, less salty than typical and with lots of sour, fishy goodness. The smoked fish plate comes with salmon, sturgeon and sea bass; all three of these were great, but I especially liked the deep smoke that permeated the sea bass.

Another highlight was the stuffed cabbage which was one of the best versions of this iconic Eastern European dish that I've had. The cabbage was firm, the filling was nicely spiced and the sauce, so often a weak tomato water, was tangy and lively.

There are many other dishes on the menu, but none which I found exciting. Borscht, boiled dumplings and chicken Kiev were all competent but fairly standard and a bit bland. As I said, it is a big menu, so there is more to explore, but if I go back it will be for the smoked fish and stuffed that would make any old Bolshevik's mouth water.

5338 Laurel Canyon Blvd
Valley Village, CA 91607
(818) 509-5828

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Guest Blogger: Ask Mr. Pyrite

We have a real treat for Sku's Recent Eats readers this week. Esteemed food critic Jonathan Pyrite, the only food critic to have been awarded a Nobel Prize, has agreed to answer questions from our readers. I'd like to thank Mr. Pyrite for taking time out of his busy schedule of Tweeting in order to do this.

Dear Mr. Pyrite:

Where can I find a good bowl of oatmeal in this town?
--Ken T., Culver City

Dear Mr. T.:

In the S├╝khbaatar district of Ulan Bator there is a stand that sells steaming bowls of cat livers in a porridge made from a reduction of the cat's own blood, urine and vomit. Sluiced in the viscous, bloody porridge, each liver has the tender texture of a snail in utero. The crush of patrons wrangling to get a bowl of this offal surprise before dawn is reminiscent of the 2:00 am line at Oki Dog after an X concert in 1982. Speaking of urine, in the outskirts of Marseille, the local townspeople feast on dehydrated tortoise kidneys rolled in sugar as a late night snack, a ubiquitous dessert as beloved in the French countryside as candy corn on Halloween.

But until Nancy Silverton opens an oatmeal shop, I'm partial to the porridge at the old Oh's Diner in West Covina with its succulent version of this staple, glistening in the bowl under a tangy melange of milk and syrup and just a dash of heavy cream from the metal counter pitchers which when cool, stood regally on their saucers, studded with tiny beads of condensation. Oh's was the standard for porridge in West Covina until it closed in the late 80s, but its memory is undeniably delicious.

The Aaruul & Cat Livers Shack: Bumbugur Market, S├╝khbaatar, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Oh's Diner: 4522 Merced Ave., West Covina, circa 1986.

Readers, if you have questions for Mr. Pyrite, send us an email.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Copper Fox Rye Whisky

Last week, I sampled Wasmund's Single Malt Whiskey from the Copper Fox distillery in Virginia. Wasmund's Single Malt has been out for a few years but Copper Fox has a new rye whiskey on the market, and given how much I like rye and how interesting I found the Wasmund's malt, I had to try it.

Like their single malt, the Copper Fox rye is different from any other rye on the market. It's not a straight rye whiskey as it is aged only 14 months (straight ryes must be aged at least two years). Copper Fox Rye is made from a grain recipe of two-thirds rye and one-third barley. Most straight ryes include a fair amount of corn, and while Anchor's Old Potrero is 100% malted rye, I'm not aware of any other whiskey with a pure rye-barley mash bill. As with the Wasmund's single malt, the rye is aged with applewood, cherrywood and oak chips. The whiskey is aged in used Bourbon barrels.


Copper Fox Rye Whisky, 14 months old, 45% alcohol ($50)

The nose is similar to Wasmund's with the fruit wood in the forefront. There's also a fresh leather scent (new couch?). There's only the smallest hint of rye on the nose. I have to admit that I cringed a bit upon tasting this. There is a flat alcohol note that is unpleasant. It's not harshly alcoholic, more on the bitter side. It may be that the rye simply doesn't blend with the fruit woods as well as the malt, or at 14 months, it may just be too young, or both. The rye flavor doesn't arrive until mid-palate and then on the finish, but the bitterness stays on my tongue for longer than I'd like. You can feel the hints of rye and malt as if they are struggling to get out and be heard among the acridity, but sadly, they don't make it.

Note to Rick Wasmund: I'm afraid you should go back to the drawing board on this one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bacon Cubed

Cube is a cute little restaurant and gourmet store on La Brea just a few blocks south of Pink's. I stopped by for lunch the other day and had a variety of dishes, most of which were fine, but I must sing the praises of the maple braised bacon, served with roasted cipollini onions and spaghetti squash. More a pork belly dish than a bacon, though it was cured, this sumptuous beast had a tasty layer of fat over the pink, transcendentally smoky meat. The sweet, maple glaze was perfect for cutting the fat. My latest pork passion.

Cube Marketplace & Cafe
615 N. La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 939-1148

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pre-Colombian Chocolate: Taza Stone Ground Chocolate

Massachusetts chocolate maker Taza Chocolate is part of a new wave of chocolate makers, making stone ground chocolate. What makes Taza's bars fundamentally different from many other chocolate bars is that they aren't conched. Cacao, as you may recall, is a bean or more precisely, a seed. Prior to the advent of conching, the combination of cacao, cocoa butter (the oil from the cacao bean) and sugar led to a grainy, rather gritty dessert. It would be similar biting into one of the chocolate tablets used for Mexican hot chocolate, and in fact, was mostly taken as a beverage.

In the late nineteenth century, Rodolphe Lindt, whose name is now synonymous with Swiss chocolate, invented conching. The technique is a sort of super mixing that can take place over a period of days to fully integrate the cacao solids and butter and produce the smooth substance that we think of today as chocolate.

Among domestic artisan chocolate makers, Taza is the first I know of that eschews conching. Instead, they use traditional Oaxacan stone mills to grind their chocolate. They source all of their beans from the Dominican Republic and sugar from Brazil, they include no additives and all of their chocolates are organic. Taza makes both bars and flavored discs for Mexican hot chocolate. I sampled a 70% bar.


Taza 70% bar, Dominican Republic ($7 for a 3 oz. bar at Cube on La Brea or $6.50 on line)

The 70% bar has a deep, chocolate and fruit nose, with the type of cherry scents you get in a many Dominican bars. If you haven't had this before, you might be shocked at the first bite. The texture that results from the stone grinding process is far different than the texture of other bars. It is grainy and you feel the gritty crunch of cacao and sugar in the bar. It takes some getting used to, but after a while, I found myself craving that unique mouthfeel, that crunch. The texture also makes you chew this chocolate and roll it around in your mouth more than you might normally do, which increases your exposure to the flavor.

Once you get over the mouthfeel, you can start to taste the chocolate, and boy is there a lot to taste. The cherry nose gives way to a deep, only slightly acidic taste with less fruit and more pure chocolate goodness. If you hold it in your mouth after crunching, it feels like the sugar granules dissolve first, giving you a burst of sweetness followed by a very pure chocolate explosion.

Taza is on to something very profound here. They have taken artisan, bean to bar chocolate making in a new direction and in doing so, created a truly unique and excellent chocolate.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Wasmund's Rappahannock Single Malt

The second in our series of Virginia whiskies is a microdistillery single malt. Even with new microdistilleries opening every day, there are only a handful of microdistilled whiskies that are available on local liquor store shelves. Rick Wasmund's Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, was one of the earlier micro start-ups and has been producing one of the more available and more unique American whiskies. Copper Fox's Wasmund's Rappahannock Single Malt (Rappahannock is the county where Sperryville is located) is a four month old, pot distilled, non-chill filtered malt aged with apple and cherrywood chips. The use of these alternative woods is unusual in whisky. But at four months old, can there really be any impact on the flavor? We'll see.


Wasmund's Rappahannock Single Malt Whisky, 4 months old, 48% alcohol ($40-$50).

On the nose it actually smells a bit more Scotch-like than other American single malts I've had. There is sweetness, fruit and a bit of smoke, though not a peaty smoke that you would encounter in Scotch. The flavor is a bit harsh, moreso than it should be at this alcohol level. There is some interesting stuff going on in here though, with the continuing intertwined dance of the fruit and smoke, which make come from the use of fruit wood in the kiln which dries the malted barley. And in the back of the palate, there is still a clear malt that links it to Scotland.

This is a fascinating and unique malt with a lot of character for something so young. There is an intriguing flavor profile here that could really be amazing, perhaps with more time in the barrel.

Copper Fox is definitely a micro distillery to watch. In the coming weeks I'll try their new rye whiskey.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Beyond Skewered Genetalia at Feng Mao

Lying on a fairly empty stretch of Olympic in Koreatown is an only-in-LA rarity, a northern Chinese skewer house aimed at a Korean clientele. Feng Mao looks like any other Korean restaurant with table-top charcoal grills, fairly typical panchan and a TV tuned to the Korean language channel, but open the menu and you enter a worm hole which brings you to the northern plains of China.

Skewered meats are the specialty here, and pretty much any meat can end up on the skewer, including lamb, beef and plenty of innards; a cumin-heavy spice mix is provided as the condiment for the skewers. The skewers are cooked on the stove top and, as with the real charcoal BBQ houses, will leave you feeling (and smelling) a bit smoky after the meal.

As the cuisine hails from the mostly Muslim areas of China, lamb is the first thing listed, and something to definitely get. The basic order is ten skewers. Small lamb cubes are separated by chunks of pure fat. Eat the two together and it's the perfect mouthful of lean mean and juicy fat. Beef skewers were also excellent and a bit less dry than the lamb. If you like chicken hearts, you should get an order as they crisp up nicely over the coals and give you a good juicy pop when you bite into them.

Most reviewers have been excited by the bull penis, but other than the chance to have an Andrew Zimmern moment and/or make a series of juvenile jokes, I don't see any good reason to order it. It's thinly sliced, width-wise and is mostly cartilage, so while it has a bit of a nice crunch, there's not too much flavor.

There are lots of other enticing skewers on the map, including various liver and kidneys for which I will definitely want to return, not to mention the chance to taste fake dog meat, if that's something you've been dying to do.

We also ordered dumplings and pork buns, both of which were good. I especially liked the buns, sort of a hybrid between Chinese pan-fired buns and Korean mandoo. Scallion pancakes were fairly standard. In the end, though, this place is really about the skewers.

Feng Mao is one of Koreatown's more unique eateries, so go, skewer and be happy.

Feng Mao
3901 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 935-1099

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year...and Brunch

New Year's brunch: Eggs Benedict on homemade rolls with hash browns (and homemade Hollandaise - natch). A yummy start to the decade.