June 26, 2007

Mo-Bay [Jamaica]

We chose Montego Bay, Jamaica for our second annual three-family trip, where we breezed by at the all-inclusive Holiday Inn Sunspree. The first day was painstaking—the heat and humidity were strangling and to top it off, our flight arrived seven hours before our rooms were ready. When we finally checked in, the bathroom light flickered and we nearly slid off our hinge-less toilet seat. We slept off the nightmare in a dazed 15-hours.

Renewed, we awoke to the promise of a new day and to an entirely new foreign cuisine to explore. Across our various excursions, street vendors and from the restaurants at our hotel, here's what we managed to gather:

The street foods we came across most often were either fried or seasoned in jerk spices. One of our favorite snacks was the Festival, which tastes like corn dog batter except that it’s sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. Festivals are eaten as appetizers or snacks and come with a chunky sauce that is tart and spicy all at the same time.

Jamaica’s national dish is ackee and salt fish. The ackee is the national fruit and belongs to the lychee family. The fish is flaked and then both ingredients are sauteed with onions and scotch bonnet peppers, which are also local to the area. Red Stripe is the local Jamaican beer, though I didn’t get around to tasting it for myself.

The Jamaican jerk preparation is not the saucy mess you come across in the States, where the proteins come smothered in a BBQ-sauce-like pool. Instead meats (most often pork or chicken, your choice of white or dark meat) are rubbed with jerk spices, whose most prominent ingredient comes from pimento. The result is a deep, smoky grilled meat that is served with a kick of Jamaican hot sauce on the side. Most commonly, meals are served with rice and peas, which is like Cajun dirty rice with beans. Jerk huts can be found street side throughout the country and most meals are under $4.

Other popular Jamaican dishes include curried goat, conch stews, and braised oxtail.

Street vending is illegal in Jamaica, so aside from the stray mango stand here and there, you’ll have to venture to the farmer’s market to pick up jackfruit, bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruits. Jamaican mangoes are sweeter than their Mexican counterparts (what we get in California), though they are also more sinewy and juicy, which make them messier to eat.

Marijuana is, in fact, illegal in Jamaica. It is permitted only in two places where Rastafarianism is practiced: Rasta churches and the Bob Marley Museum. Though you will find no shortage of marijuana dealers, I found them to be a friendly lot.

Some helpful phrases while you’re there:

Yeah mon – “I agree in earnest”

Irie mon – “Everything is okay/good/awesome”

No problem – said when a problem/situation arises to quell the panic

Overall, a very successful trip after we managed to get out of our crappy hotel room and enjoy the warm Caribbean waters and white sand. Though all-inclusive vacations tend to limit your cultural exposure to the confines of your resort property, they are convenient when you’re booking a trip for 12 people and want to limit the messiness of dealing with shared expenses. Aside from tanning and partaking in water sports from our resort, we also rode horses bareback into the ocean, lumbered our way up a waterfall, and dove from a 50-foot cliff.

June 25, 2007

Tea Upon Chatsworth [San Diego]

While my experience at a busy noontime seating wasn’t as magical as having the tea room all to myself in the late afternoon, I still have to bestow the honors to Tea Upon Chatsworth, which ranks as my favorite afternoon tea parlour from here to the Bay.

The seasonal menu changes monthly and includes an assortment of tea sandwiches, scones, and desserts. The High Tea also comes with a quiche, additional dessert, and while I could do without the previous, the chilled soups are to die for.

The savories from the June/July menu were good as usual, while the scones were forgettable this time around. I like that the seasonal menu allows for more surprises and variation outside of your usual chicken salad and cucumber sandwiches. The homemade rose jam and rosewater-infused water are some of the details that really make Tea Upon Chatsworth stand out.

Tea service is excellent with about 20 choices at your disposal. The featured tea on this occasion was a Mutan white tea, although you are can try as many pots as you can finish during your two-hour seating. Our progression included the Peach Oolong and Chocolate Mint, which are brewed behind the counter and brought to your table when ready.

Owner Joy Chance quit her day job to pursue her dream of opening a tea parlour and while she says business can be rough, you’d never notice in the sanctuary she has created.

Tea Upon Chatsworth
2180 Chatsworth Blvd
San Diego, CA 92107
(619) 858-2848

June 24, 2007

Opus [Koreatown LA]

Our night at Opus began even before we slid into one of the sleek, freestanding booths lining the kitchen wall. It actually started with a 2004 Santa Barbara Winery Zinfandel, which we procured from our wine cooler for the momentous occasion that was my birthday.

The four of us had settled on the famed four-course spontaneous tasting menu ($10 each course), which has had the foodie community buzzing for months. It is said that every meal comes with extras, which often makes for an additional three or four courses beyond what you actually pay for. In our case, the elusive myth proved true and our grand total came to six courses.

The food was some of the most innovative I’ve seen yet in LA, though I would be hard-pressed to pin it to a genre (New American melting pot, if I had to). Among the four of us, our favorites were the coddled egg and carrots with elderflower cream. It's rare to find eggs on a high-end menu (Manresa being the most memorable) and Opus’ was a melody of sweet honey, tart sherry and salty bacon that danced on our tongues. The carrots were the surprise of the evening and were a welcomed intermission to the heavier proteins in the rest of our meal.

Amuse Bouche: Sugar snap pea soup with mint, green onions, and cream of wheat crackers. I thought that the ingredients in the amuse would have made for a robust combination, but the soup was actually a refreshing palate cleanser for the start of our meal.

Course 1: Diced hamachi in a white soy vinaigrette with celery sorbet. The most surprising part of this dish was its portion, which could classify as a tapas dish meant for sharing. Nothing too exciting about this dish except for the exceptionally strong taste of celery which permeated the sorbet.

Course 2: "Breakfast in an egg." Coddled egg yolk, cream of wheat, applewood-smoked bacon, sherry creme fraiche, topped with honey

Course 3: Carrots with elderflower cream and soy salt.

--Brief introduction and appearance by Chef Josef Centeno, who had been looming near our table all night--

Course 4: Aji with heirloom tomatoes or hazelnut soup. Aji is a Spanish mackerel, which is imparted with a milder flavor than saba. The dish was good and the flavors were expected. The hazelnut soup was peppered by what deceptively looked like croutons, but were actually pork rinds.

Course 5: Lamb with fresh garbanzo beans and baby beets. The medium rare cook on the lamb left the meat fragrant and tender when it met our mouths. We all agreed that the dish could have used fewer garbanzo beans and more sauce or beets to balance out the dryness.

Course 6: Coconut tapioca with gaufre and strawberries. And when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, Chef Centeno delighted us with a dessert that was light as a cloud.

Service throughout the night was all-around stellar and when asked for a wine recommendation, our waiter enthusiastically suggested a 2005 German Bex Riesling priced at $40. His choice was spot on as the taste of crisp apples whetted our appetites for the meal to come. We also saved $20 on the corkage fee since you're allowed one bottle from home for each that you purchase.

I only regret not having discovered Opus for myself before it got onto the culinary radar.

Opus Restaurant
3760 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 738-1600

June 23, 2007

Otafuku [Gardena]

I'll have to admit that the exterior is deterring and doesn't look promising in the least bit. I was slightly put off but it had garnered rave reviews so I pushed ahead with the plan. Afterall, I had made numerous u-turns up and down Western, looking for the place.

After securing parking in the tiny lot behind the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the interior. It is drastically different from the drab-looking facade out front. There are two bright dining rooms along with a bar near the open kitchen.

The specialty at Otafuku is the soba which is available in two varities: zaru or seiro. I learned that while both types are made with buckwheat, the seiro is composed of only the inside of the buckwheat, leading to a white color, as opposed to the gray hue seen on zaru.

The seiro soba came was served traditionally with dipping sauce that was extremely light. There was hardly any flavor and often, I found myself re-dipping. At times, the soba was clumpy and it was difficult to procure a sizeable bite.

The fishcake tempura that came with my meal possesses a misleading name. It had a sightly gooey inside with lots of shrimp. The batter was nice and crispy but fairy greasy. It would have been more appropriate to name it shrimp cake tempura.

The oyako don was also very light and the flavor of the sauce was hardly noticeable. The chicken was nicely tender.

At the end of the meal, I was brought a red cup of steaming liquid. It was to be poured into the remaining soba dipping sauce and drank as a soup. However, I didn't try it as I was to full and the weather wasn't favorable for soup.

16525 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA 90247
(310) 532-9348

June 22, 2007

The Wheel of Life [Irvine]

I didn't know many places with spring rolls in Irvine and found this place after some scouring. Some loved it, others didn't and I figured that the only way I'll really know if it's good or not is to go try it out myself.

Initially, I thought the sign out front said Vietnamese Cuisine but it actually says Vegetarian Cuisine.

I was greeted warmly upon arrival but after seeing that credit cards are not accepted for orders under $20, I had to make a detour to the ATM and come back. Five minutes wasted.

Most of the dishes on the menu are around $8 and are meant to be served family-style. They also offer a "lunch special" of food from the steam table -- i.e. combination plates of 2 or 3 at $8 or $9, respectively. I deterred from that because of the fast-food like appearance and got what I came here for along with a Thai iced tea ($2.50).

The iced tea was extremely sweet. I don't have Thai iced tea often, because the color stirs me, so I'm not exactly sure if they're all supposed to taste like this. I got my four spring rolls ($8.00) after a little bit of wait and dug in. The rolls were tightly tucked and looked appealing but my tongue says differently. I found that there was a blatant lack of fillings and not like the spring rolls I've had in Westminster or Garden Grove. Is it because this is a Thai/Chinese restaurant and not a Vietnamese one? The rolls had dark-leafed lettuce, cucumbers, fake chicken and nothing more! Where was the mint? Where was the crunchy stuff? The vegetarian chicken was decent -- I've had better fake chicken elsewhere. The sauce it same with was topped with chopped peanuts and had a spicy kick to it.

Even though I only had an appetizer for lunch, it was filling. But, I do feel that I was grossly overcharged for the quality of food I received. Their other dishes may have more potential -- I see that many other reviewers favor the pad thai.

The Wheel of Life
14370 Culver Dr., Suite 2G
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 551-8222

Bistro Beaux [Torrance]

We came here with my SO's parents, so my foremost criteria in restaurant choice was one that could accommodate both conservative and bolder tastes. I figured that Bistro Beaux' selection of familiar pastas, risottos, and Italian items would make the fusion restaurant appear more approachable for the timid. Our bill for five came out to be a little over $100 [we had leftovers].

The Baked Eryngil Mushroom with Sea Urchin came with King Oyster mushrooms, which were deeply fragrant and perfumed every bite with notes of vanilla bean and butter. While our waitress gave a less-than-flattering description of the gratin as "cubes of bread in a Gorgonzola sauce," our mouths watered at the delicate flavor, smooth creaminess, and crunchy baguette slices. We found the Seared Albacore Sashimi under-seasoned, though it was served with some good vinegared onions.

We ended up ordering three pastas, which allowed us to assess the kitchen's range. There were three different sauce bases, flavors, and proteins across our creamy-sweet Crab Mayonnaise, traditional meat sauce (not pictured), and spicy Mediterranean spaghetti dishes.

Each person at the table had their own favorite with mine being the Spicy Scallop Spaghetti from the special menu. The very light olive oil sauce got most of its flavor from generous slices of garlic [the precise knife work on the garlic was very impressive] and dried pepper pods. Across the board, the spaghetti noodles could have been thinner. We also tried the Salmon Cheese Risotto, which took 20 minutes to prepare and was our least favorite dish.

For dessert we had the forgettable Tiramisu (available Fridays only) and the Catarana, which can best be described as a frozen custard with the velvety texture of cheesecake and creme brulee top. It was unique and I can't say I've ever had anything quite like it.

Despite its C-grade from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, Bistro Beaux is a restaurant we look forward to coming back to. The menu is large, the choices are diverse, and the full bar keeps the restaurant open till 1am.

Disclaimer: There is nothing bistro-like about Bistro Beaux, which resembles an industrial warehouse, complete with security grates, sheet metal, and chain-link fences.

Food update July 29, 2007

Ume is an acquired taste, but if you're unaccustomed like we were were, your mouth will pucker at its sourness and then cringe at the salt. The daikon itself is similar to jicama, but while the Ume Daikon received rave reviews on Yelp, its "uniqueness" was far beyond the comprehension of my palate. The Chili Bamboo Shoots were an excellent okazu (side dish) from the special menu.

I stand by my claim that anything with mushrooms on the menu is excellent at Bistro Beaux with the Scrambled Eggs and Mushroom being no exception. As humble as it may be, the eggs were incredibly moist with the soft curds intermingling perfectly with the chewy button and king trumpet mushrooms. The scents released into ours mouths were mesmerizing.

Our spaghettis were less successful this time with uneven execution across the three varieties. Some of the dishes were too oily, others too buttery, and the pasta not cooked al dente. The Seafood Spaghetti with tomato sauce was the only winner, piled high with sweet shrimp, calamari, and clams. The Carbonara was tossed with fatty bacon pieces and the Mentaiko (pollack roe) Spaghetti with Mushrooms tasted stale.

Dinner was a steal with three small dishes and three spaghetti plates coming only to $8.60 for each of our five table members.

Bistro Beaux
21605 S. Western Ave, Ste. A
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 320-5820

Try: anything with the mushrooms in it, Crab Mayo Spaghetti, Catarana, Bolognese, Spicy Scallop Spaghetti
Skip: Pollack Roe Spaghetti, Ume Daikon, gratins, Carbonara

June 21, 2007

Best of...

LA/Orange County Area

Paella: La Paella [Mid-City West]
Blue crab handroll: Sushi Wasabi [Tustin]
Sushi: Katsu-ya [Studio City]
Japanese izakaya: Ikko [Costa Mesa]
Bakery: Cream Pan [Tustin], strawberry croissants
Afternoon tea: Tea Upon Chatsworth [San Diego]
Mochi: Sakura-ya [Gardena]
Margherita pizza: Pizzeria Mozza [Hollywood]
Fine dining: Saddle Peak Lodge [Malibu], Providence [Hollywood]
Indian [casual]: Bukhara [Huntington Beach]
Tasting Menu/Prix Fixe: Opus [Koreatown LA]
Desserts: Beach Cities Frozen Yogurt & Gelato [Huntington Beach], Patisserie Chantilly [Lomita]
High-end egg dish: Opus' [Koreatown LA] "breakfast in an egg"

Bay Area

Sushi: Sushi Ran [Sausalito]
Vietnamese: Slanted Door [SF Embarcadero]
Japanese izakaya: Gochi's Japanese Fusion Tapas [Cupertino]
Desserts: Ici [Berkeley]
Pizza: Lanesplitter's [Berkeley], Dopo [Piedmont], Pizzeria Picco [Larkspur]
Pasta/Italian: Delfina [SF Mission], Oliveto [Berkeley]
Fine Dining: Cyrus [Healdsburg]
Takeout: Taxi Brousse [Berkeley]
Indian [upscale]: Junnoon [Palo Alto]
Afternoon tea: Rose Mountain Manor [Colfax]
Tapas: Cesar [Berkeley]
Tasting Menu/Prix Fixe: Cyrus [Healdsburg], La Folie [Russian Hill SF], Ad Hoc [Yountville]
High-end egg dish: Manresa's [Los Gatos] soft-boiled egg layered from sweet to salty

Best of the Rest

Brunch: Hell's Kitchen [Minneapolis]

Casa de Tree [Torrance]

My recent vegetarian lunch trend brought me to Casa de Tree, a Japanese vegan/vegetarian bakery and cafe. In addition to daily lunch specials, sandwiches, and salads, Casa de Tree also sells baked goods such as breads, donuts, cookies, and an occasional fruit tart. On top of that, everything is organic.

Though I was tempted by the plump, decadent carob donuts, we opted for a more sensible lunch of the corn-mayo bread, curry bento box, and a small serving of the kiriboshi daikon w/potato salad. The bread bun was chock full o' corn with a hint of mayo to set off the sweetness. It was light, though it would've gone better with a soup to offset the dryness of the bread. We couldn't finish the salad, but only because the potatoes were overcooked and covered everything else with an unpleasant grainy starchiness.

We were impressed with the accuracy of the katsu in the bento box, which came complete with the fat marbled in. The curry had notes of coconut milk in it and was thus more Thai than Japanese. The flavors were subtle and the dish as a whole was a little more sweet than it was savory.

Pullman loaves of white bread are sold in halves or wholes and sliced to order. I chose slice width #3 and found the bread too dense for my pb&j. The dough was dry, which made the eating the crusts feel as if we were chewing on cardboard. We also tasted a sourness, which is uncommon in white bread. Not recommended.

Our experience at Casa de Tree was hit-or-miss, though you cant help but feel good after eating vegan, vegetarian, and organic.

Casa de Tree
2543 Pacific Coast Hwy, Suite E
Torrance, CA 90505
(310) 784-0455