Sunday, January 30, 2011

Truth Stranger than Fiction?

This recent article in the LA Times about Jo Stougaard's effort to taste every dish at Jitlada reminded me of JayMan and the Noodle House. You just never know what some bloggers will do.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Make the Pie Higher: Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop

I've been sort of ignoring the whole pie trend. In case you've been living under a culinary rock, there have been dozens of articles and blog postings recently about how pie is the new cupcakes. (As you may recall, about five years ago, cupcakes were the new tart yogurt, which was the new boba tea, etc.)

Don't get me wrong, I like pie. I mean, what's not to like? I just can't get that excited about it. I've always been a fan of Sweet Lady Jane's fruit pies, and I like a good, gooey coconut cream or a nice custard pie at Dupar's. I still haven't found a good chocolate cream pie in this town and would be excited for any tips, but pie just doesn't hold the excitement for me that cake or chocolate desserts do.

I stopped by Simplethings, on Third Street, to see what all the fuss was about. While they have three sizes, the most popular pies at Simplethings are about 3 inches in diameter. They are the cupcakes of pie. I tried a variety of everything they had when I stopped by.

Overall, I was underwhelmed. The fruit pies (apple, cherry and lemon bar) were disappointing. The lemon wasn't lemony enough and the cherry had no zing. But the real disappointment was the crust, which in many ways is the essence of pie (and what separates it from a compote or custard). It was doughy, chewy and lacking in flavor, almost as if it had been a mere afterthought.

The non-fruit pies were a bit better. The Missouri Mud was a nice chocolaty pie with a marshmallow center; sort of a play on s'mores. French silk was banana cream were pretty average versions. My favorite item was not a pie at all but the Boston Whoppee Pie, a whoppee pie with chocolate frosting and a creamy filling.

Simplethings also has breakfasts, sandwiches and savory pot pies, none of which I sampled.

If this is what the pie trend has to offer, I may go back to cupcakes.

Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop

8310 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, cA 90048
(323) 592-3390

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Usuikyou - The World's Worst Whisky?

We continue our series of the world's worst whiskies with a Japanese Single Malt. Now Japan has been making single malts in the Scotch style since the 1920s, and I have generally found their malts to be of excellent quality, rivaling those of Scotland, but that's not to say that there aren't a few bad apples in the barrel, and in this case, some totally rotten, maggot-filled apples.

Usuikyou is an independent bottling by the Tokuoka Company of malt from the little known Monde Syuzou distillery in Yamanasi, Japan. According to Nonjatta, the best on-line English language source on Japanese Whisky, Monde Syuzou is mostly produced for blends. As far as I can tell, the Usuikyou, a 25 year old, cask strength(64% abv) malt distilled in 1983, is the only single malt bottling from this distillery, though Nonjatta reports that they may be considering a distillery bottling of the single malt (if Usuikyou is at all representative of their style, I implore them not to do so!)

How to describe the aboslute horror of the vile liquid that is Usuikyou. The nose gives you metal, some sherry and old garbage left out in the sun. The flavor is distinctly that of burnt rubber, like when a semi slams on the breaks. The finish is bitter and metallic and lasts seemingly forever. Even after having another whisky, I could still taste this wretched spirit. It's just horrifying, cringe-worthy stuff. One of my fellow tasters at the Los Angeles Whiskey Society (who I gladly shared a sample with) asked, "Who was the demented person who bottled this stuff?" Who indeed?

Move over Loch Dhu, there's a new king of nasty in town.

Next week we continue our parade of bad whiskies with a look at a distillery that somehow puts out some of the greatest and some of the worst whiskies around.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

NoHO Thai: Swan

I used to go to NoHO for Thai quite often in the days of the great Wat Thai Temple food fair. Once the Temple shut down its weekend food stalls, a few years ago, I spent some time looking for NoHo alternatives, hitting Krua Thai and Sri Siam, but since then, I've stuck closer to home. Finding myself heading to the Valley, I asked my colleagues at Chowhound for a recommendation, and they did not disappoint. From their recommendations, I chose Swan Thai.

Swan Thai on Sherman Way just east of Coldwater, was my latest NoHo try. This is one of those places where pretty much everything is great. Chinese broccoli with crispy pork was better than most I've tried. The pork was fried up to chewy, crispy little chicharrones, the sauce was rich and porky, my only complaint was that there weren't enough of those addictive little pork pieces. Papaya salad was a fine specimen, as was the Thai sausage. The stir fried morning glories, one of my favorite dishes but one that is sometimes mostly garlicky, had garlic but also a real rich meaty flavor. One of my favorite dishes was the oxtail soup, a super-beefy, super rich and spicy beef broth.

This place is definitely going on the must-return list.

Swan Thai
12728 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 764-1892

Thursday, January 20, 2011

RIP: Ortolan

Yet another restaurant closed its doors recently. Ortolan, on Third Street, was a temple of high cuisine, the aesthetic and presentation was probably the closest thing we have to places like Joel Robuchon. I only made it to Ortolon once a few months ago, I guess I was right under the wire. I'll be sad not to be able to dream about returning for the seared foie gras in mushroom soup, a fatty-fungus combo that showed that foie gras need not be paired with something sticky-sweet to work. That, along with one of the smoothest, creamiest panna cottas I've ever are my best memories of that meal.

Fly away little ortolan, hopefully you will land on your feet.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Worst Scotch Ever?

Ask a panel of whisky experts what their favorite Scotch is and you will hear nothing but equivocation. You will be told that there are too many to choose from, that each is right for a different mood and other non-answers. One brand ambassador compared it to having to choose a favorite among his children. But ask the same group about the worst single malt they ever tasted and you will almost always get a quick, two word answer: Loch Dhu.

Loch Dhu is the Edsel of Scotch malt whisky; it is famous for being a complete and utter failure. A ten year old product of the Mannochmore distillery, it is widely known as one of the worst Scotch single malts ever released. Nearly black in color, which some have speculated is due to a massive infusion of caramel, Loch Dhu was known as the "black whisky" and its name is Gaelic for "black lake." The whisky was released in 1996 and its notorious reputation has only grown since then. In fact, strangely enough, it is considered a collector's item and goes for hundreds of dollars at auction, even though no one recommends drinking it. It is a true whisky oddity.

So what was so bad about Loch Dhu? Well, I now have the opportunity to find out. A few stray bottles recently showed up at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys. You may still find some on the shelf...for $300 per regular bottle or $80 for a 200 ml.

Loch Dhu (Mannochmore Distillery) 10 yo, 40% abv

Given that it's the "black whisky," it's hard not to comment on the color which is dark brown, resembling a cup of French Roast coffee. The nose has malt with a strong balsamic vinegar element, very unpleasant. As it first hits your tongue, the stuff seems okay with a malty flavor, but then there is an unpleasant rush of prune juice. It ends with a really strong bitterness which settles into a long bitter finish. How to describe this stuff? It tastes like Scotch mixed with prune juice and a dash of balsamic vinegar. It really is pretty horrible.

Well, I'd have to say that Loch Dhu deserves its wretched reputation. It is truly awful and I don't know what I'm going to do with the 190 ml I have left. It is certainly one of the worst single malts I've tasted, but not the worst. For that, you will have to wait until next week.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Affogatos on Hillhurst - Gelato Bar

Gelato Bar, one of my favorite gelato destinations, opened a branch in Los Feliz last summer. Tragedy of tragedies, though, they did not have an espresso machine when they opened. This is tragic because Gelato Bar's Studio City location makes the best affogatos in town (see my LA Gelato Tour). The affogato, as you hopefully know, is that sublime combination of gelato and espresso. At Gelato Bar it's topped with a bit of whipped cream and some chocolate crunchies. (While I preferred their previous style of topping the affogato with cacao nibs, it's still great).

I don't know how long it's been there, but I'm happy to report that the Hillhurst branch now has an espresso machine, perfect not just for affogatos but for expertly prepared espresso drinks using coffee from Sonoma County's Ecco Caffe. This move, by the way, has immediately catapulted Gelato Bar into the title of best coffee in Los Feliz.

Gelato Bar (Los Feliz)
1936 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 668-0606

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheese Report - Capriole's Sofia

If you're a fan of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, you must try Sofia, a goat cheese from Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese in southern Indiana. Sofia is similar to Humboldt Fog in that it's a bloomy rind goat cheese with layers of ash in the middle. It develops the same luxuriously creamy texture as Fog as it ages and warms. I actually liked it better than the Fog; it was a bit sharper tasting. Available (when they have it) at Surfas or, if you want to buy a whole pound, the Capriole website (picture is from the website).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Weirdos Wallow in World's Worst Whiskeys

It is time again for the Whiskey Weirdos awards tastings. As most of you already know, Whiskey Weirdos is an international tasting group dedicated to finding the absolute worst whiskey in the world. After our extensive blind tastings, we average scores and group them into medal categories for Lead, Uranium and our vaunted Plutonium Medal. Aside from our medals, we give out specific awards, such as the Worst in Show, the Foulest New Make and the Daily Dreck award, for those of you who want to drink plonk but can't afford the more exclusive bottlings.

As usual, this year we are allowing each distillery to submit three bottles to the competition. I know there are some strong competitors out there and look forward to seeing what they have to offer. The award winners will be announced on-line and will be followed by the customary articles in the whiskey press.

Okay, okay, there are no Whiskey Weirdos, though there really should be, don't you think? But over the next few weeks, I will be tasting some of the worst whiskeys around. I've searched high and low for the dreckiest dreck, the plonkiest plonk I can find. And this won't be your simple bottom shelf Bourbon, Canadian handles or off-brand Blended Scotch; this will be only the rarest, most exclusive and most vile dreck! Dreck that is truly worthy of a Whiskey Weirdo!

Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Breakfast Pork - BLD

I've long heard about BLD (short for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner) and its massive pancakes and other breakfast treats (I've mostly heard about the B as opposed to the LD). I finally made it over and was very impressed with the food, if not the rather lackluster service.

This place has been thoroughly reviewed, but I wanted to highlight the braised pork and poached egg breakfast. A Benedict type dish, it features braised pork with hollandaise on toast. The braised pork is fantastic with lots of red wine and caramelized onion notes. The hollandaise is subtle and not at all heavy, which makes it a good complement to the richenss of the pork.

A side of Nueske bacon (what better to accompany pork than a side of pork) was thickly cut and cooked to perfection with nicely caramelized edges.

I'm looking forward to trying the rest of the BLD menu, if I can ever order anything other than the braised pork benedict.

7450 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 930-9744

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Third Wave Coffee Comes to Koreatown - Bourbon St. Cafe

Koreatown may be the LA neighborhood with the most coffee shops serving decidedly lousy coffee. There are coffee bars on every corner, most of which seem to mostly do business in smoothie type drinks along with everything from waffles to pretzels. Universally though, the coffee is an afterthought.

I'm hopeful that as really good coffee continues to catch on, that will change. A good sign came recently when Bourbon Street Cafe opened at Seventh and Vermont (on the NE side of the street in the same strip mall as Kobawoo). Bourbon Street Cafe is a Koreatown rarity, a cafe that seems concerned There are no pretzel-dogs, waffles or sweet potato lattes, but there are Intelligentsia coffee espresso drinks, individually made cups of drip coffee and affogatos.

The coffee at Bourbon Street may not rise to the level of Intelligentsia, or even some of the other places that serve it, like Square One, but in a sea of mediocrity, it still stands out. My cappuccino had a bit more milk than I like, but was solidly made and had good flavor. A straight espresso had good flavor but lacked any crema at all (I also noticed a fair amount of inconsistency among the different baristas). Affogatos were made with supermarket ice cream (Thrifty) but had good flavor and good proportions.

Overall, Bourbon Street is a good edition to the neighborhood and I hope it portends a shift in Koreatown coffee culture. They are making coffee at a higher level than anywhere else I've been in Koreatown, and while not in the same league as the city's great espresso bars, there are definitely days when I will walk there instead of driving to Intelligentsia or Cafecito Organico.

Bourbon St. Cafe
698 South Vermont Ave, Suite 103
Los Angeles, CA, 90005
(213) 388-7888

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Your Flamin' Heart

I wanted to open the year on a high note by reviewing a great whisky. The third edition Flaming Heart is the latest brainchild of John Glaser at Compass Box. I have to admit that I have not always been as big of a Glaser acolyte as some in the whisky world. While I admire his innovative streak, his whiskies haven't always lived up to the hype. But this edition of Flaming Heart, released as a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of Compass Box, won me over.

Flaming Heart is a vatted or blended malt, meaning it is a blend of single malts from different distilleries. One of the great things about Glaser is that he is pretty open about the composition of his blends. According to the fact sheet on Compass Box, it is composed of:
Single malt whiskies from seven distilleries located in the northern Highlands and Islands. Primarily whiskies from distilleries located in the villages of Brora (Highlands), Port Askaig (Islay) and the Isle of Mull (Islands).
This means that the whisky is primarily made from Clynelish, Caol Ila and Tobermory (which could be the basic Tobermory or the peated Ledaig). The label give us the additional information that 61% of the blend is from the seven Highland malts.


Flaming Heart was bottled in September 2010 at 48.9% abv. It goes for around $90.

Peat dominates the front of the nose, followed by malt, hay, and grass in the background. The palate starts with sweet smoke, then picks up some of that rich malt that likely comes from the Clynelish.

This is a wonderful whisky. Combining the peatiness of Islay and the islands with the richness of Clynelish gives an almost Brora like profile, or as close as you can probably get today. The peat is a little more dominant than I'd like and you have to concentrate to get the rich maltiness out of it, but it's all there. Probably the best Compass Box whisky I've had. A good one to start off the year!

One note regarding the packaging. The Flaming Heart has a lovely label and comes in a striking, clear plastic box, but I wish they hadn't used so much plastic. There is enough waste in whisky packaging without adding a bunch of plastic where they could use cardboard or nothing at all.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Pal Cabron and His Cemitas

Back when I was first learning Spanish and working in Dallas, I was intending to order tacos al carbon but instead ordered "tacos al cabron" which led to a laugh riot among the restaurant staff and my co-workers. Cabron, as I later learned, is a sometimes-curse word in Spanish. It's one of those words that is hard to translate, but the polite translation would probably be something akin to macho man or, really, macho shit-head. The cabron is the guy with more machismo than sense.

Pa'l Cabron, near as I can tell, is an abbreviation for para el cabron, a restaurant for the Macho shit head. The restaurant was founded by the owners of the popular Oacacan mini-chain Guelaguetza and originally opened in Huntington Park but has migrated to the location of the original Guelaguetza on 8th Street west of Irolo.

The cabron theme is apparent in both the decor and the cuisine. The walls are decorated with mini-comics, sort of like the bottom of the page illustrations in Mad Magazine, showing the bearded, pot-bellied cabron in various absurd situations, like running over pedestrians in his car while he day dreams about cemitas. And while I tried to ignore the sketches of absurdly large breasted women, it's hard not to like the portrait of the cabron wrestling two donkey piñatas, a painting that is flanked by two mounted donkey piñata heads (presumably showing that the cabron won that fight).

The cuisine is casual food. Tlayudas, the Oaxacan pizzas, are offered here as they are at Guelaguetza, but the highlight at Pal Cabron is the cemitas. Cemitas are Mexican sandwiches, much like tortas but served on Mexican sweet bread instead of a white roll. The cemitas at Pal Cabron are unbelievable good, and once I started going there for a cemitas lunch, it was hard to stop.

La Muy Muy, a pork milanesa cemita (all of the sandwiches have cute little names) was probably the best milanesa sandwich I've ever had and I'm a huge fan of milanesa. Pounded, breaded, deep fried pork with queso fresco, avocado, quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), papalo (a Central American herb with a sort of arugala like bite) and a choice of the sweet chipotle ketchup like sauce or tangy pickled jalapeños (both are great). The pork cutlet was painfully good, with the right balance of crunch and tenderness...I wanted another one right away! Mark my word, this is one of LA's greatest sandwiches.

The La De Barbacha is advertised as a lamb sandwich but tastes more like goat; perhaps it is mutton. Stewed in a red sauce, it has a nice gamey taste similar to the popular Oaxacan goat soups.

I also enjoyed La Cabrona, a sandwich which combines a beef milanesa and a few slices of head cheese. While the beef milanesa is not quite as rich as the pork, the head cheese gives it a nice smoky, ham flavor.

As anyone who loves Langer's or Bay Cities can tell you, a sandwich is only as good as its bread, and the bread on these cemitas is part of the beauty of the sandwich. They are made on huge, round, sesame studded rolls baked fresh at the restaurant. The rolls are crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft within. The crunch of the crust is an essential part of the gestalt that makes these sandwiches so amazing.

While they didn't all reach the heights of the pork milanesa, every sandwich I had at Pal Cabron was great. I'm not kidding, the first time I went to Pal Cabron, I felt compelled to return the next day. The place is addictive, and I can see how you could end up with a belly like the pictured cabron.

Pal Cabron
3337 1/2 W. 8th Street (where the original Guelaguetza was)
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 427-0601