December 26, 2007

Josie's Restaurant [Santa Monica]

About a year ago, I recommended Josie's to a friend who wanted to talk business with some execs over an LA restaurant with some meat behind it. I did my due diligence and came back with Josie's.

I've since kept Josie's on my radar, though the past year has kept me occupied with other endeavors (namely izakayas, Japanese fusion, and ethnic eats). And really, the only thing that caught my attention was a reminder that Josie's does a Farmer's Market prix fixe on Wednesday nights--at $35 for 3-courses, I can justify fine dining.

The night started young at an early 6:45pm and with only one other group sitting amongst the tables, banquettes, and booths lining the restaurant walls. The restaurant is long, narrow, and divided into two seating areas. Intimate and warm for a night out with your parents, but evenly cool and professional enough for dinner with your boss. The look is versatile and the food, universally appealing for most audiences.

The winter menu was skewed in favor of heavier preparations, which wouldn't have been appropriate for the LA heat except on this particularly chilly night. We started off with a less-than-amusing amuse of a Gruyere and mushroom quiche, which reminded me more of this morning's leftover brunch than of the dinner to come.

While everyone else at the table opted for the Farmer's Market menu, I decided on 3-courses of classics for the night: Pear, Endive, and Stilton Salad ($15) + Salt-crusted Jidori Chicken Breast ($25, entrees average $30) + Lemon Cheesecake ($10).

I had opted for the Endive Salad because I was looking for a play of bold flavors that didn't come from my lettuce leaves being doused in a liquid mess. Josie's version was solid with crisp delineations between the bitter endive, sweet pears and pecans, peppery watercress, and a pungent aged blue cheese. Presentation, however, was a whole other story.

I hadn't notice at first, but the precariouosly placed cheese and walnut in the hollowed peach was more than suggestive in all the wrong ways. The innuendo wasn't meant to be satirical and I doubt that coincidence had much to do with the fertile womb of my baked pear. It takes a lot to shock me and I'm gonna have to play prude on this one and say that I felt mildly offended in the aftermath.

After devouring my salad with blind voracity, I proceeded to tackle bountiful plate that was my rustic Jidori chicken breast. This would officially be the third time that I've ordered chicken at a restaurant, since I usually find it too humble for a restaurant portion. The best part about the chicken was, of course, the salt crust. The meat closest to the surface was moist and succulent, though the thicker cut left a dry, though quality cut of meat on the interior. I didn't care too much for the accompaniments of polenta, carrots, and parsnips, which were haphazardly strewn about the plate, but the dish was satisfying overall, if not a little boring.

The Autumn Cheesecake really knocked my socks of with its creamy and ethereally light texture. The lemon added just enough zing to keep the cheesecake from being overwhelming and I only wished that the gingersnap crust had more of an edge to really make the lemon pop.

To be fair, I took mostly unthoughtful nibbles from my companions' plates, but overall, here was my impression: I felt that the $35 prix fixe was a good deal and prepared with quality ingredients. The chunky Chestnut Soup was earthy and fragrant with the subtlety of mushrooms. The Scallops were fresh, though they were dowdily dressed in dull flavors and the Gingerbread Cake Roulade was a play on your traditional Bouche de Noel with fresh cranberries and apple ribbons for added festiveness.

Josie's has confirmed what I have suspected about fine dining establishments for a long while now--that the food is often good in a pragmatic way, but seldom of interest otherwise (though I'll make an exception for tasting menus).

Josie Restaurant
2424 Pico Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 581-9888

Tabento [Costa Mesa]

Another holiday season spent in the OC and another unassuming Japanese sushi joint in a nondescript strip mall--a fairly uneventful holiday, but also a new interesting find.

The short story on Tabento is that it offers your typical sushi rolls with an added wow factor and some atypical creations that are a cut above the rest. While our albacore nigiri warranted an instantaneous mmm and a raised eyebrow in delight, the hamachi was a tad fishy and probably less fresh than it should have been. Over the course of three days and two meals here, this was the extent to which I delved into the nigiri choices.

The Shrimp Boat first caught our attention in the picture menu before captivating our taste buds with its textural combination of creamy quail egg and crab and crunchy mentaiko (cod roe) and ama ebi (raw prawns). The tangy piquantness of the ponzu sauce is a welcome surprise for your taste buds, since you almost expect the combination to be sweet and mellow.

The Soft-Shell Crab Roll ($10), Crunchy Roll ($8.50), and Caterpillar Roll ($10) were all similarly good, though not outside of the realm of what you'd expect. They are, however, visually stunning in their magnitudes and constructions with proportions that awe.

I didn't grab a photo from last time, but the Spicy Tuna Crunchy Roll was also a must-order, with spicy tuna piled atop a crispy rice onigiri ball and topped with a thinly sliced jalapeno. The heat was subtle, striking the back of your tongue in the most pleasant way possible.

Next time, I'll venture into the appetizer portion of the menu, where there are some interesting picks to choose from. Don't forget to flip through the photo albums sitting on your table, since it'll offer a lot of inspiration for your ordering.

This is what I miss most about moving to Northern California--there's nowhere near the same caliber of sushi restaurants and especially ones that are as off the radar as the places you'll find here in good ol' Orange County.

Tabento Sushi & Sake
1525 Mesa Verde Dr. #E
Costa Mesa CA 92628
(714) 545-0600

November 18, 2007

Operation Covert Trunk Full of Tamales at 11pm in the Walmart on Story Road's Parking Lot [San Jose]

It was nearly 11pm when we walked into the parking lot of the Walmart on Story Road. We were up to our ears in bags and ironing boards, but my dad still found the time to make a joke, "Hey, do you want a tamale?"

My patience had been tested all night and while I was grateful to have my parents in for the weekend, I was soon reminded of why I now live alone. I threw off his gesture with a scoff and kept walking, until he asked again.

This time, I entertained his jests: What are you talking about? He points to a parked car about 50 feet from where we're parked and says they're selling them out of the trunk. I confirm his claims and after seeing it with my own eyes, nod with enthusiasm. He drops his bags, takes some orders, and before we know it, money is exchanging hands in Operation Covert Trunk Full of Tamales at 11pm in the Walmart on Story Road's Parking Lot.

We waited until morning to re-steam our breakfasts of beef, cheese, chicken, and pork tamales and though my stomach wasn't so happy with such a fiery start to the day, they were some of the most delectable morsels of masa that I've had yet. Simple and homemade, they were petite and had a good ratio of filling to masa. All of the tamales had a good kick of spiciness and would have done well to be served with some acid to cut the heat (probably salsa). My favorites amongst the four were the chicken and pork, which were the mild choices compared to the beef.
I have no idea what other times the tamale car makes an appearance at Walmart, but it is as authentic of a street food experience as you can find in the suburbs of the South Bay.

Operation Covert Trunk Full of Tamales
Walmart Parking Lot
777 Story Rd
San Jose, CA

September 25, 2007

Egg Heaven Cafe [Long Beach]

Egg Heaven Cafe is a little mom and pop shop located on the street corner with its unassuming green awnings. I arrived for Sunday brunch and the wait list wasn't long at all -- although, I believe that this is the type of place with a long wait at an earlier time. The restaurant itself offers bar and booth seating but both are rather limited.

Even though it's called Egg Heaven Cafe, there are dishes other than eggs: sandwiches, pancakes, oatmeal. I'm not usually an omelette gal but it dominated a major portion of the menu and compelled me to order one. My Vegetarian Exotic omelette consisted of lentils, rice, cottage cheese, sour cream, Jack cheese. It also came with a size of potatos and toast. The omelette was a little large for me but the hodgepodge of ingredients worked well together and it was rather tasty. Another plus is that I felt healthy eating it. I was extremely surprised with the wheat toast which was unlike any i've had at any breakfast joint. It was thick, and buttered, and even though it was toasted, the center was amazingly soft.

The small fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice is quite a generous serving and topped off my meal quite nicely.

My company ordered the Eggs Benedict but it didn't blow his socks off. Personally, I've had better Hollandaise.

If the restaurant were around the corner of my house, I would stop by occasionally but I don't think it warrants a special drive out to Long Beach.

Egg Heaven Cafe
4358 E 4th St
Long Beach, CA 90814
(562) 433-9277

September 23, 2007

Elise's Tea Room [Long Beach]

After conning Jun into a furniture run in the Valley, she graciously treated me to tea on my last weekend in Orange County.

At 3pm in the afternoon, we were the only patrons still left at Elise's Tea Room. The menu offered a variety of small entrees in addition to the standard tea sets, so we did the smart thing, which was order sparingly to share.

We started with chocolate chip and lemon scones, which may have been a haphazard decision on my part. While I had no objections to the chocolate-flavor, it wasn't the best choice for a tea pairing, let alone a first course. The flavors of both scones were unpronounced, though the texture was right on--served warm, they were crumbly without being overly dry. Jun and I both agreed that yellow food coloring did not make our lemon scone any lemony-er. The Devon cream, jam, and lemon curds were straight from your standard commercial vendor.

Our lunch consisted of two sets of sandwiches. The first was your standard tea fare of finger sandwiches. Our cucumbers were sliced so thin that we couldn't identify the staple at first, the apple-pecan could've been a dessert course for being so sweet, and the remainder were filling, though forgettable. We also opted for an order of the novel Salmon Pate Sandwiches, which would have been better if they were toasted for one minute less. Salmon pate is surprisingly light and un-fishy.

By the time we got around to choosing dessert, we could barely stomach the sight of chocolate cake (they were out of the lemon), let alone consider it for consumption. As such, we opted to try the petits fours and ended up scraping off the sugary fondant dressing. Even then, the layers of sponge cake and buttercream were nothing to write home about.

The tea room itself is large and airy, which has the benefit of keeping you from feeling trapped by the cluttered frilliness commonly found in tea rooms. There was a large assortment of loose-leaf teas to choose from, though you're limited to one selection per pot.

Elise's Tea Room
3924 Atlantic Ave.
Long Beach, CA 90807
(562) 424-2134

September 14, 2007

Leda's Bake Shop [Sherman Oaks]


So I know I've been on quite the hiatus, but I will be going on a blog tirade just after getting settled into my new apartment this weekend. I'm gonna attempt to get some posts up by not being so meticulous. Let me know if you like the style better.

We popped into the vegan bakery after consulting Yelp for places to find snacks in the Valley.

The best part of the cutesy store are the samples of scones, cookies, and other baked goods for your enjoyment. Across-the-board, the scones ranked highest with flavors such as ginger, cranberry-orange, and black currant. They were crumbly and not too dry. The vegan brownies also seemed to be a hot item and I could see why, given that vegan chocolates tend to be very rich (if that's your style).

We couldn't resist the cupcakes, which were displayed as the tour de force of the store. We ordered both the Velvet and the Strawberry (vegan), though both were a bit sugary for being so tiny. The Strawberry vegan cupcake was a bit denser than the Velvet and we were disappointed that the latter wasn't a red velvet cupcake. Also, you have to let them sit for about five minutes, since the icing hardens in the refrigerated case. Five minutes is 300 seconds too long for instant gratification.

Leda's Bake Shop
13722 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
(818) 386-9644

September 12, 2007

Daikokuya [Little Tokyo LA]

Nothing sounded better than a steaming hot bowl of pho after a hilarious performance of Avenue Q at the Ahmanson. Since pho was closed, we visited what some consider the holy grail of ramen in Los Angeles, Little Tokyo's Daikokuya.

The JPop-vintage paraphenilia was complemented by a spattering of alternative LA hipsters and normal people keeping their cool. A refreshing departure from the traditional and a little raw on the edges.

I was surprised that there were only two ramens offered amongst a menu mostly of rice dishes, so of course we opted for the Daikoku Ramen combo with chicken-egg rice.

The broth was salty, mellow, and cloudy in appearance--exactly what I was looking for in a late-night snack. The noodles were thick and chewy and of course, you can never go wrong with an egg. Overall, the ramen was very satisfying and though I wouldn't be that quick to call it the best, it sure was damn good. The chicken-egg bowl didn't fare too poorly either.

327 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-1680

September 9, 2007

Fraiche [Culver City]

My first encounter with Fraiche on OpenTable revealed a curious fact: tables seemed to be booked out a week in advance. Though it had recently received a favorable review from LA Times critic Irene Virbila, even restaurants that are heralded nation-wide aren't that hard to get a table at.

My impression was that the restaurant was a humble bistro, but I soon learned the reason for its liveliness: Downtown Culver City. As I walked from the parking lot to the restaurant (no valet, free 2-hour parking), I realized that even lesser known restaurants were brimming with people who worked only a stones-throw away.

I started with a pale Beet Salad that was visually off-putting. I enjoyed the beets' muted sweetness played against the mature bitterness of mache and toasted hazelnuts. The bed of house-made ricotta lent a lightness to the dish and formed a backdrop for the other flavors to shine.

The remainder of the menu is universally pleasing, though options err on the side of tried-and-true classics. Entrees and pastas encompass a wide variety of proteins and preparations, ensuring that there is something for every palate. Both AH and I opted for dishes on the heavier side with him choosing the Steak Frites ($22) and me, the Braised Short Rib Pappardelle (~$15).

Of the two entrees, the steak fared better with a succulent cut of flat iron that was perfectly seasoned, marinated, and grilled. It was well executed, though only exactly as you would expect for steak frites. The pappardelle had good texture and the arugula made for an interesting contrast in the ragu. However, it also added an unpleasant aftertaste that tainted the otherwise fine braised short ribs. The waitress warned me that the dish would be salty and while it wasn't that bad, it was somewhat one-dimensional.

For dessert, we followed the crowd and ordered the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta. The citrus granita and fresh raspberries punched up the flavors in the creamy panna cotta providing a crisp contrast in both flavor and presentation. Very good, highly recommended.

Overall, Fraiche is a good value, serving up solid food at reasonable prices, unseen in any restaurant that's located in a downtown. It lives up to its name, serving food with flavors that are simple, delineated and distinct.

9411 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 839-6800

September 4, 2007

Some SoCal Updates - Il Chianti, Park Ave, Cream Pan

Thank you Il Chianti for another stellar meal. Our choices this time leaned towards Southern Italian-Mediterranean preparations and seemed lighter on the whole. See the following montage of photos and accompanying descriptions below.

The Caribbean Salad was your standard green salad with a variety of cold seafoods. It was nothing spectacular, though the miso hybrid was a touch more interesting than your average dressing.

The Tuna Tartar initially elicited a sigh of resignation from me. While the concept is quite stale, Il Chianti does a fabulous interpretation, macerating the tuna into a puree and pairing it with fresh green onions and a light lemon-scented olive oil.

The Fried Octopus in a Balsamico Sauce was excellent as well.

The Crab Pilaf was a spin-off of the popular Squid Ink Risotto with the addition of a gigantic crab leg and clams and minus the fancy sizzling clay pot. Without the table-side presentation, the rice is as good as ever with the seafood adding even more flavor and interest.

The Fresh Tagliatelle with Pancetta and Paprika was the star of the night. The chewy tagliatelle was made in-house and easily one of the best pasta choices I've had yet. The sauce was tart with an earthy savoriness from the pancetta.

The Bouillabaisse was a cornucopia of shellfish with a broth spiked with sundried tomatoes and olives. Even after our server told us, we still couldn't identify the fish, which was chewy like calamari and flaked like black cod. The fish didn't work for us, though the rest of the dish was conceivably good.

A last-minute detour sent our lunch club packing and on our way to Park Ave for round two.

The two of us decided on a comfort food favorite: the Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Tomato Soup. The Grilled Cheese was sweetly served in the shape of a heart, though the flavor were nothing to write home about. The Tomato Soup ranks up there with the best. We were surprised the chewy bits of cottage cheese interspersed in the creamy soup broth. It was perfectly seasoned, while the cottage cheese was an unexpected and ingenious touch.

While perusing the dessert menu, our waitress came back to announce the Strawberry Shortcake special. A symphony of Ooohs and Ahhhs followed and we were met by a pretty presentation that had too few strawberries and too much whipped cream. Meh.

Voila Cream Pan's latest addition: the Katsu Sandwich Lunch Box at a hefty $5 price tag. It's a welcome change-up to the usual egg salad, tuna salad, and ham combo and is a great choice if you're looking for something more substantial at lunchtime.

September 1, 2007

Mimi's Cafe [Fountain Valley]

The recent heat wave has taken its toll on my appetite. Last week, I passed up an opportunity to visit the much buzzed about Fraiche in Culver City. Yesterday, I threw away my rice bowl in lieu of gelato for lunch. A few days ago, I was so fed up that I was indifferent about a lunch at Mimi’s Café.

I’ve been avoiding protein, veggies, and generally anything that’s cooked. I feast on Ritz Crackers and to fuel my carbohydrate cravings, I looked forward to Mimi’s bread basket, complete with sweet carrot bread. I hadn’t noticed it before, but the bread is really oily, which does not meld well with the hot weather.

Despite my protests, I opted for the creamy Corn Chowder, which I had also remembered as being better. I figured that though it was a hot dish, at least I wouldn’t break a sweat from having to chew. It was too rich and one dimensional.

The Turkey Pesto Ciabatta was surprisingly acceptable bordering on good. The crispy lettuce and the bite of the pesto kept the melted cheese from overwhelming my already sweaty palate. Regardless, I only managed to eat ¼ of the sandwich before passing it onto my SO.

Lunch for two, under $10. Score.

Mimi's Cafe
18461 Brookhurst St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 964-2533

August 26, 2007

Taxi Brousse [Berkeley]

Though African food sounds as though it would be very exotic, it is more familiar to the Western palate than you would think. It's similar to Mediterranean cuisine in that the preparations are often light, though the spices and marinades are distinctive.

There's no shortage of Ethiopian food in Berkeley, but after I had one taste of the sour, spongy injera bread, I knew I wouldn't be coming back for more. My quest to explore the continent's cuisine first lead me to the meat-heavy Tropical Paradise on University (which was pretty decent) and then to Taxi Brousse when it recently opened last year.

My first brush with the restaurant was the Dibi Fish, served with a salad, plantains, and your choice of rice or couscous. The tilapia is simply grilled and marinated in a slightly pungent onion sauce that makes all the difference. Though it is traditionally prepared with lamb, the fish has been excellent on every occasion that I've had it. The plantains are great for playing down the robust onions.

The Yassa Fish is very similar, though it doesn't come with plantains. The onion-mustard sauce it is served with is slightly tangier and spicier than the Dibi, while the sauce actually makes an appearance on the plate instead of just in the marinade. Between the two, it's just a matter of preference on whether you're looking for a drier or wetter preparation.

Service was excruciatingly slow and flustered on this particular night that we went. The crowds at the restaurant are never steady and it has hard to predict capacity from one week to the next. However, the owner is very jovial and you can't help but smile when the Berkeleyans bust out their African drums and start jamming. Another reason why I loved going to school here.

I prefer Taxi Brousse to the original Bissap Baobab in the Mission. My experience is that the fish at the former tends to be fresher.

* I apologize for the less than appetizing photos

Taxi Brousse
1101 San Pablo Ave
Albany, CA 94706
(510) 558-0939