Sunday, June 27, 2010

One Hot Tamale: Susan Fenniger's Street

Susan Fenniger is as much an LA institution as any chef. Teamed with Mary Sue Milliken, she opened City Cafe on Melrose nearly 30 years ago. They followed up with the casual-Mexican Border Grill in Santa Monica a few years later. In the '90s, the duo became early Food Network celebrities with Too Hot Tamales and added Ciudad Restaurant downtown, a pan-Latin spot. No Art Garfunkle she, Fenniger has lately been defining herself in the absence of her longtime culinary partner. She appeared on this season's Top Chef Masters and opened Susan Fenniger's Street, a Highland Avenue restaurant dedicated to international Street food.

I'm a fan of Border Grill (though I wish they would change the menu more) but lukewarm to Ciudad, so it's fair to say I'm Fenniger neutral. While I didn't rush to try Street, I was interested to check out the new digs, just a block north of the Mozza Metroplex.

I have to admit I was alarmed when I first perused the menu. Could anyone pull off this variety of food? There were Argentinian gnocchi, Ukrainian dumplings, down home southern, Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian and of course, Latin American. It just seemed like too much. I also thought the concept was a bit stretched. Sure, some of the dishes could qualify as street food, but most of them seemed to simply be international dishes that perhaps appealed to Fenniger.

We started with Street's signature app, the Kaya Toast. You may also recall this dish as the one that got Fenniger kicked off of Top Chef Masters after a strong run. It's a Singaporean snack consisting of a coconut jam sandwich with a "soft fried egg" in soy sauce. The concept is to dip the sandwich in the egg and soy and get a sweet and salty mix. I put the quotes on soft fried egg because ours was beyond soft. A perfect fried egg should have a soft but firm white and runny yolk, but this one had slimy whites. The sandwich itself was nice enough and the flavor contrast of egg, soy and jam did work nicely with those parts of the egg that were cooked. I assume, since Fenniger herself was cooking on Top Chef, that the egg she used was cooked correctly, but I have some empathy with the critics who make her pack her knives; I mean, it's a jam sandwich and a fried egg, hardly the stuff of culinary masters.

Spinach Varenyky were Ukrainian fried dumplings with sour cream and fried onions. I thought the tastes were a bit subtle for Ukrainian and would have liked a bolder use of the sour cream and onions.

The Blueridge Chicken and Spoonbread Dumplings was a southern-style chicken and dumpling soup (now come on, where is that served as street food?). The broth had a nice chicken flavor but was too heavily salted. The dumpling, though, was a delightful, yellow, matzoh ball sized thing with lots of fresh, sweet corn flavor. It reminded me more of the sweet corn tamales at Border Grill than any southern dumpling I'd had, but it was tasty.

The best dish of the night was the Beef Tenderloin Schnitzel. The order included two pieces of pounded, breaded beef steak, covered in gravy with a stewed red cabbage slaw, parsnip puree and deep fried cornichon. By this time, I'd stopped wondering on what street you could purchase this and just enjoyed it. The schnitzel was well fried and tender; the brown gravy, with it's deep, rich flavor, gave the dish some heft, and all of the sides were spot on. The parsnip puree had the texture of mashed potatoes, but with that nice, more interesting rooty flavor of parsnips. The slaw added some acid, and I could eat a dozen of the deep fried pickles (why those aren't their own appetizer, I don't know).

While Street had some definite high moments, the food was uneven. It's not bad, but I won't be rushing back.

Susan Fenniger's Street
742 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 203-0500


Diana said...

I've read so many similar reviews of Street - that the food is very uneven. Sorry to hear that the Kaya toast wasn't a winner. That was actually the one dish I wanted to check out there. But slimy whites are not for me -- I have a hard enough time swallowing the runny yolks!

SinoSoul said...

how does the saying go: jack of all trades? Oddly, we've had great brunches there. The chilaquiles has unsogged chips which makes the chickie very happy...

sku said...

Diana - it was definitely slimy, but I'm hoping it was an aberration.

Tony - I'm a huge chilaquiles fan. Maybe I'll go back for brunch. Of course, I would expect her to do Latin American well. I purposefully stayed away from Latin American dishes since I figured I could go to Border Grill or Ciudad to get those, but maybe it makes more sense to stick to her strengths.