Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Take a Picture – It’ll Last Longer…

It’s not often that I am so enthralled by the fare brought to me at a restaurant that I abandon all interest in the things around me. Under normal dining circumstances, I would have popped my head into the adjacent bakery, meandered over to the bar space inside and critically analyzed the menu for hours to come after I had ordered, regardless of how tasty my choices turned out to be. But not this time. There was no possibility that I would move myself from the perfect place I was seated on the private sidewalk patio, no way that I would gaze stealthily at what others around me were eating, and no chance that I was interested in drinking anything other than what was sitting in my wide-mouthed wine glass. No, there was not a single reason for me to be green with envy or purple with rage – tonight, I was a bright and blissfully orange, all thanks to the newest outpost of La Grande Orange in Santa Monica.

Perfectly placed on the corner of one of Main Street’s charming blocks, lined with iron lampposts, twinkling string lights and inviting eateries, La Grande Orange is slated to become the place for trendy, social locals to see and be seen – all while eating impressively flavorful and seasonal food and selecting libations from a California-bent wine list. While the season- and local-driven menu is no stranger to the LA dining scene, LGO creates a truly unique compilation of Asian, Mexican and California-cuisine dishes that somehow all complement each other and play their own distinctive melodies. Take, for example, my selection from the other night: the two of us ate a progression of Sweet Potato Sushi, followed by Brussel Sprout Salad, and capped off by Salmon Au Poivre – all washed down with a bottle of Qupe Syrah from Santa Barbara.

The artfully arranged pieces literally popped with the contrast of the bright orange flesh of the tempura-fried sweet potatoes, creamy green slices of avocado and almost metallic quality of the Japanese barbecue sauce drizzled tastefully over the top of the rectangular platter. Served alongside an identical plate furnished with two pairs of smooth wooden chopsticks stacked neatly aside two smaller rectangular bowls holding soy sauce and a creamy, slightly smoky and sweet sauce; the rolls disappeared so quickly that, by the time I remembered to take a picture of this appetizing masterpiece, there were only two pieces left to document.

Next up was the Brussel Sprout Salad, undeniably one of the best salads I have ever eaten (and if you were sitting anywhere close to me, you would have heard this coming from my unfailingly full mouth for the rest of the evening). Its inventiveness astonished and delighted me; single leaves of brussel sprouts were piled high onto a perfectly suited large round saucer, punctuated by small gems of dried cranberries and whole roasted, slightly glazed marcona almonds, and topped with razor-thin sheets of manchego cheese and a honey-mustard vinaigrette that defied its every heavy, overpowering stereotype.

Our final dish for the night, the Salmon Au Poivre, can only be described as charming. As we had mentioned that we were sharing everything, we were delighted when two beautifully arranged, oval-shaped plates were set before each of us. Carefully set on top of each bed of not-too-wilted (as often happens) baby spinach sautéed in a refreshing lemony vinaigrette, was a half-filet of some of the most flawlessly prepared salmon I have ever seen. I have heard that restaurants and at-home cooks alike too often overcook salmon, but impeccably seared, leaving a trace of rich pinkness in the middle, this beautiful, just-flaking piece was without blemish. Topped with a black peppercorn crust that was just enough to give you a kick without making your eyes water and throat burn, this glowing, golden-brown-crusted filet lingered on my plate for much longer than I anticipated, simply because I did not want to lose its presence to my greedy tastebuds. The Syrah paired effortlessly with our choices, transitioning flawlessly from one course to the next and providing a rich yet refreshing taste whenever we need to sit back and take in the visual power of the meal before us.

Every tiny detail works to make the everyday diner feel at once pampered and peaceful, and the meticulous attention of the LGO team to each element of the dining experience truly leaves each visitor wonderfully appeased and delightfully important. From the European carafes filled with flat water, the generous amounts of space between tables, and the translucent screens subtly separating the patio from the main dining room, to the friendly, watchful and knowledgeable service of the newly-minted wait staff, my entire time at LGO was spent not only marveling over my delicious (and promptly delivered) fare, but also quietly appreciating the pleasant, respectful and helpful presence of our table’s servers. The pops of sunny color coming from the orange-hued chairs and glowing votive candles offset the smooth, linear qualities of most all of the décor, reinforcing the message that this LGI outpost is the trendier, more nightlife-friendly sister of the two locations in Pasadena and Phoenix.

La Grande Orange has not only made me change colors, but it has also transformed my tastes as a diner. Not a typical enthusiast of modern décor, I found myself murmuring about how much I loved the ever-so-subtle, square-shaped silverware, and how appealing the alternating angles of the patio tables were to the eye. Reluctantly removing myself from the heated bench on the patio that had served as the foundation for my exhilarating experience, I realized that I had already decided on sampling the “Surfer Style” Tuna Soft Taco Platter and the Del Mar Seafood Salad with Iceberg Lettuce. Mexican food?? Iceberg lettuce?? Two culinary components that I faithfully dislike and discuss with disdain were now the two things I wanted most desperately upon my return to LGO. This, I consider the mark of a truly innovative and unique establishment, one that draws its diners out of their culinary comfort zones by offering them menu creations they enjoy, then tempting their tastebuds with other items that might be just as good. I have yet to visit LGO again and satisfy my curiously out-of-character cravings, but I can confidently assure you that when I do, I’ll be that much more of an ever-maturing seasonal fare foodie.

La Grande Orange
2000 Main Street
Santa Monica
(310) 396-9145

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kogi BBQ: A Cultural Experience of Interconnectivity and Consumption

It seems today that everyone from local newscasters on the 11 o’clock news to university professors is clinging to the catchwords associated with Twitter: tweet, follow, trending topics, etc., etc., etc. However, looking back several months to when Twitter was veritably mocked as a useless social networking tool (I mean, 140 characters, really?), there were few companies, let alone dining institutions, that were harnessing the ever-increasing power of this tool for interconnectivity and information exchange. Truly visionary in both its use of social media and its creative fusion of Korean barbecue flavors and taco truck culture, Kogi BBQ has become a true icon in the LA social scene, and I couldn't have been any more thrilled to finally participate in the cultural experience of hunting down that flame-decorated truck than when I tracked it down in the heart of Mid-Wilshire a few weeks ago.

Today was the day, and I could feel it coming. I had woken up and stumbled over to the computer with my fresh cup of coffee and my steaming hot bowl of cooked rolled oats blended with a hint of cinnamon and topped with a poached egg, salt and pepper (don’t dog it until you try it!). Groggily logging onto my account to get an idea of what tweeps were taking about already for the morning, I was immediately shaken out of my sleep-induced stupor when I spotted the stop that Kogi would be making later that evening to start off its night-long tour around LA: “ROJA: 6PM-8PM@Miracle Mile - Wilshire & Cloverdale.” Yes. Suddenly, my day supernaturally rearranged itself to fulfill my long-held foodie fantasy, and hours later, I found myself antsy, eagerly anticipating the turn of the trance-inducing taco truck around the corner of La Brea with my fellow social networkers. While none of us knew each other, we immediately bonded over worries that Kogi was late. Would it arrive in half an hour? Would it ever come? Where will it be next if it doesn’t make it to our destination? Where will it park if it ever shows up? The man next to me asked if I knew what the truck’s update was, so my boyfriend whipped out his Blackberry and suddenly, on the corner of Wilshire and Cloverdale, we all became best friends, bonding over our quest for cultural participation and consumption of creative street food.

Finally, to our long-anticipated delight, the Kogi truck pulled around the bend of the heavily congested La Brea-Wilshire junction – and this was when our short-lived camaraderie on the corner of Cloverdale ended and panic ensued. Which corner was Kogi headed toward? In what direction should we line up? Is it rude if I run to get a better place in line? It was apparent that no one wanted to wait thirty minutes for their tortilla-wrapped handfuls of Korean barbecue, and as soon as the truck’s reverse lights shut off and the counter folded out like a medieval drawbridge from its side, the small groupings of hungry foodies anxiously swarmed the stretch of sidewalk like hungry honeybees arriving upon a fresh field of budding flowers. After a few pushes and shoves, the line materialized down the sidewalk and civilized itself as first-time neighbors began exchanging words of excitement and newcomers pleaded with experienced Kogi customers for ordering advice. Feeling like a tourist but not really caring whatsoever, my boyfriend and I took pictures with thumbs-up in front of the flame-painted silver truck, preserving our excitement for years to come and trying to distract ourselves from the savory and spicy smells wafting from the Kogi kitchen several yards ahead of us. After what felt like eternity, but in all fairness, was probably only twenty minutes, we valiantly reached the front of the line. Not knowing what to order, but only knowing that we did not have to re-enter the queue that was now winding hundreds of feet down the street, we gleefully celebrated our patience and success by commanding two of each of the four varieties of tacos, along with an order of Kogi sliders (although I must admit, I was devastated that there were no kimchi quesadillas…). Moving to the side to await the glorious combination of Korean flavors and hand-held convenience, I stood on my tiptoes to peek into the mysterious inner workings of the Kogi truck. I saw bottle after bottle of sweet chili sauce, piles and piles of flour and corn tortillas, and juicy piles of sizzling meat searing on the long metal grills, hissing and spitting droplets of spice-infused oil. When our small paper baskets appeared through the open window on the sidebar, we eagerly snatched them up and set off toward a stone ledge in front of an apartment building on the other side of the street to enjoy our long awaited freshly prepared fare.

Out of the spicy pork, chicken, short rib and tofu tacos, the short rib were by far the most flavorful and juicy. Oozing drippings of Korean marinade and steaming smoky aromas from the hot grill, the two- or three-bite taco was filled with just the right amount of shredded meat, strips of lettuce and a sprinkling of unidentifiable cheese. An added squeeze of a fresh lime wedge added an essential splash of citrus zing that balanced the deep savory and spicy tastes of the tacos. Though not kimchi, the toppings were ideal to accompany the meat selections by subtly accenting the intensely flavorful protein offerings rather than matching or overpowering them. While the chicken and spicy pork were equally savory and delicious, the tofu taco lacked the texture and substance that the meat varieties possesses, and while it presents vegetarians with the opportunity to partake in the Kogi experience, the tofu itself really should be baked with seasonings or marinated to intensify the added flavor it really needs to have. The sliders themselves were a delight – a hint of a mayonnaise-based sauce on the top half of the bun melded the spiciness of the shredded seasoned meat with the cool lettuce with the perfect touch of creaminess, and a touch of cheese again left an anonymous impression of hushed nuttiness. The bun was almost too fluffy, but was undoubtedly light enough to make the Korean barbecue flavors the lasting impression of each bite-size burger.

What is great about Kogi is that the process of acquiring its tasty Korean taco fare is in itself an incredible cultural experience, one in which every diner is invited and empowered to participate in tracking down the truck and interacting with fellow pop culture enthusiasts and tech-savvy Angelenos. The power of alluring fusion street food and far-reaching tweets should not be thoughtlessly dismissed as a short-lived foodie fad like smoothies, bagels and low-carb diets; rather, this phenomenon should be regarded as the mark of the beginning of the intersection and developing symbiotic relationship of online technology and in-person interaction. The process of change in cultural trends is steadily moving into the Web-based realm, and it is institutions like Kogi that will take care to ensure that, as communication and relationships progress into the digital world, we still live and participate in the unplugged community. And to make things that much better – thanks to Kogi – as you learn to skillfully span those two social spheres, those little bundles of Asian barbecue goodness practically melt in your mouth at the same time.

Kogi BBQ

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hats Off to Hatfield's...

I'm by no means a fine-dining foodie. To me, a fancy restaurant necessitates a stiff atmosphere, snobby service and saturated fat-laden staples like over-sized steaks and innocent vegetables drowning in pools of butter. I'd much rather enjoy a fresh, market-focused meal of lean meat, creative sides and a modest-sized dessert in an environment that is welcoming and friendly. Never did I think that I would find an upscale eatery that gave me the healthy seasonal fare and comfortable feel of a neighborhood bistro - that is, until I made my first visit to Hatfield's Restaurant on Friday night.

Stepping out of the car in front of the quaint space on Beverly Boulevard, I was immediately drawn to the covered front patio that beckoned me to enjoy its inviting rattan seats with a Limonocello Collins and meander toward my table whenever I so pleased. Naturally, I was visibly thrilled when our party was seated by the front window that peeked out into this appealing, sanctuary-like enclosure. Our table being between the window and bar, I was invited for the evening to feast my eyes upon the subtly shaded tile-laced bar, elegant yet hip vintage-looking glass chandelier, and the multiple parties of friends and families leaning in toward one another in intimate conversation and pleasant jesting. The incredibly amicable and impeccably trained wait staff entered into each scenario ever so discreetly and pleasantly; the attentive yet unobtrusive visits to our table were professional yet personal, and we never ceased to smile at each other out of sheer appreciation after each interaction.

Typically, dealing with an uninventive menu that fails to offer me any fresh and seasonal options is what I dread most about fine dining establishments. However, at Hatfield's, I was faced not only with delightful options for each of the three courses on the $49 prix-fixe menu (a great deal!), but with veritable indecisiveness over what I should actually order. Before our party even ordered, we were brought small angular plates with delicate Deviled Quail Eggs with Trout and Creamy Potato and Leek Soup. Served in miniature spoons and shot glasses, we immediately were impressed by such hospitality and attention to detail, and the warm cheeses gougeres and chive butter that followed solidified our impressions. Eventually, I settled on the Pan-Roasted Diver Scallops with Marinated Artichoke, Artichoke Puree, and Saffron Vanilla Emulsion for appetizer and the Branzino Filet with Roasted Haricot Vert, Red Onion Soubise, Dried Apricot, Crispy Almonds, and Caper Crunch for entree. The scallops practically melted in my mouth upon the first bite; perfectly seared and not a bit overdone, these tender morsels' delicate taste were delightfully contrasted the rich smokiness of the meaty artichokes and, simultaneously, artfully paired with the aromatic sweetness of the saffron and vanilla. The sea bass filet was everything I could have asked for; rather than saturating the mild layers of white flesh with heavy cream or butter, it was subtly grilled and brought to like by the popping of accents like tangy reduced red onions, chewy sweet apricots, smoky toasted almonds and salty crisp capers. What is more, the portion sizes were obviously very intentional, and each plate was presented with such artistic skill and intentional consideration that, at each course, I was left at once sentimental and salivating at the sight of my plate set before me.

My fellow diners covered many of the other dishes on the menu, all with rave reviews of their choices' presentation, taste and overall appeal. For appetizer, the Housemade Corn Agnolotti with Dungeness Crab, Cherry Tomatoes, Hon Shimeji Mushrooms, Fava Beans, and Sherry Beurre Fondue - served in a spaceship-looking plate with a bowl-like indentation in the middle - elicited oohs and aahs for its tender half-moons of sweet filling and artful accompaniments. For entrees, the Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Quinoa and Maitake Mushrooms, Butternut Squash, and Whisky Prune Smear was juicy and striking with its rich maroon wash of whisky prune reduction holding the components together; the Date and Mint Crusted Colorado Rack of Lamb with Potato Chive Puree, Saute of Heirloom Carrot, Turnip, and Kohlrabi was an artful contrast of encrusted flavor on the exterior and envy-inducing softness in the interior (though a touch too raw, perhaps...); and the Braised Pork Belly with Curried Carrot Puree, Sauteed Pea Tendrils and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes proved to be a slow-roasted arrangement of well-paired items with the succulent pork, all cooked just right.

For the final course of our meal, we decided to order four different options and all take a fork to each one: the Baked Lemon Custard Tartlet with Huckleberry Compote, Shortbread Sable, and Cream Cheese Ice Cream; Chocolate and Peanut Butter Truffle Cake with Salted Caramel Ice Cream, and Roasted Peanut Toffee (baked to order!); Chocolate Chip Shortcake with Brown Butter Roasted Bananas, Whipped Creme Fraiche, and Cocoa Nib Chip Ice Cream; and Coconut "Tres Leche Cake" with Marinated Strawberries and Horchata Ice Milk. By this time, I was feeling tragically stuffed, but without fail, I held up my end of the table-wide bargain and endulged in each luscious creation. The lemon tart and the coconut cake were my two favorites: the first was citrusy and slightly tart, rounded out nicely by the richness of the cream cheese flavor and the fullness of the huckleberry sauce (sadly, the shortbread sable added nothing but a foam board-like crunch). The second was remarkably refreshing and light, with airy layers of cream between sheets of fibrous cake and accented with freshly preserved strawberries allowed to remain faithful to their natural form.

Just when we though our three-course extravaganza had ended, we were hand-delivered bite-size Brownie Cupcakes with Espresso Buttercream Whip. The dollop of maple-colored coffee cream was far from overpowering, the hint of espresso powder being just strong enough to linger on your tongue for a few seconds to complement the rich chocolaty sensation of the cupcake itself. Though only one mouthful of sweetness, it was perfectly satisfying, and I would have completely satiated my sweet tooth with this tiny treat in the event that of not ordering dessert beforehand.

Truth be told, I have been converted to the belief that fine dining can be market-driven and flavorful by Hatfield's and Hatfield's alone. My faith in the upscale establishment has been restored (or in this case, instilled) by the wonderful offerings on the prix-fixe market menu, the impeccable service and the peaceful luxury of the Hatfield's space. I truly mourn the news from the LA Times Daily Dish that the eatery is moving to a new location, but have no doubt that I will return to dine in its new outpost. I am completely confident that this restaurant will only get better as it expands, and I am eternally grateful for the unforgettable experience I had at my college graduation celebration dinner on that fateful Friday night. So, hats off to you, Hatfield's - you are heads above the rest of the fine dining destinations.

Hatfield's Restaurant
7458 Beverly Boulevard
Between Fairfax and La Brea
(323) 935-2977

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Have You Seen Me?: Missing Person…errr…Month…Report… (Part 1)

Have any of you looked around lately and wondered where on earth April went? I could have sworn that only yesterday I was being pathetically duped by The Rundown’s (still) painful April Fool’s Day prank that left me longing for a veritable eatery that lets you barter prices with servers wearing wooden barrels. Someday, maybe someday… Well, now it’s May – believe it or not – and I have yet to run through the mind-blowing assortment of restaurants I visited over the four fleeting weeks that have only just passed us by. Here are a few bites of my impressions from each establishment to tease your taste buds and whet your appetite – and please, try not to be jealous of the fantastic, culinary-rich month that has come and gone. As a fair warning, you just might want to hang out with me for all of May after you get through this killer line-up:

1. Urth Caffé
I was beyond thrilled when I discovered the new outpost of this fantastically natural yet trendy eatery in the Downtown Arts District. After helplessly driving back and forth over the LA River bridge in desperation and frenetic panic that I might not find this hidden gem after all, I was relieved and elated to drive up to the regal, castle-like structure that is beautifully tiled in cool shades of blue and boasts a welcoming, sprawling patio complete with heat lamps and iron-wrought tables and chairs. The sight nearly reminds me of a certain scaly reptile’s castle in an all-too-familiar childhood video game (Bowser’s Castle, anyone?). Walking inside, I was almost overcome by glee when I spotted all of my familiar favorites from the Santa Monica and West Hollywood outposts. Mediterranean plate, chicken pesto salad, crunchy fruit and nut bread crisps and delightfully refreshing tropical iced tea; they have it all, and almost too dangerously close to my USC digs. Feeling sluggish and gluttonous from a weekend trip, I decided to order a bowl of vegan broccoli coup with a soft hunk of nine-grain bread. I couldn’t have made a better choice – the soup was perfectly velvety and smooth, tasting of beautifully roasted broccoli with a hint of oregano and garlic, and the bread was noticeably fresh and absorbed the thick grassy green puree like a generous grain-filled sponge. To be said, Urthh Caffe is undoubtedly a valuable addition to the fresh and healthy downtown dining scene, and I am impatiently anticipating the next time I can visit my favorite new castle, so I can pick up a beautiful cup of artisanal caffeinated artwork and maybe a sweet baked treat or two.

Urth Caffé – Downtown
451 South Hewitt Street
Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles
(213) 797-4534

2. The Lab
I’m definitely not the first LA foodie to write about this increasingly popular new gastropub adjacent to the USC campus. The Lab has taken the Trojan Nation by storm, luring students away from the all-too-familiar 9-0 and 29th Street Café by promising hungry and, truthfully, thirsty co-eds carefully thought-out and deliciously prepared offerings, an impressive selection of well-chosen beer and wine, and an attractive communal space to socialize and speculate. Think back to The Max from Saved by the Bell; this neon-hued, multi-functional burger joint was the “it” place for Zack Morris and his posse of big-haired, high-riding classmates to see and be seen while enjoying the best burgers and fries that the neighborhood around California High School had to offer. The Lab enjoys many of these same features – a hot crowd of extroverted and educated socialites, newly-minted favorites such as Grilled Salmon with Middle East Couscous, Artichoke Fritters and Beef Sliders, and a centralized location to tantalize even the students hailing from North University Park area. My recent visits have seen samplings of Seared Ahi Salad, Caprese Flatbread, Stir-Fried Shrimp and Eight-Grain Salad, accompanied by the likes of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, Trojan Blonde and Samuel Adams Seasonal Ale. All were surprisingly inventive, satisfying flavorful and modestly portioned for pub fare, and everything was pleasantly well priced for those of us on a limited, pathetically self-funded budget. However, in a battle of the educational eateries, The Lab takes the cake for two all-important reasons: drinks and “discresh.” The fact that you can drink your discretionary funds away with the Red Trolley Ale – all thanks to your USC student ID – is revolutionary enough to send The Max back to the 80’s. Sorry, Zack, there’s a new hangout in town, and while it doesn’t have a jukebox, it’s got something your all-of-seventeen years have yet to see: lots and lots of alcohol.

The Lab Gastropub
3500 Figueroa Blvd. • Los Angeles • CA • 90007
Information 213.743.1843
The Classroom 213.743.2011

3. Larchmont Grill
For many of us, Easter is synonymous with a bonafide basketful of traditions: egg hunts, church services, too much time with estranged relatives and, of course, an embarrassingly gluttonous showing at mid-day brunch. Naturally, I am no stranger to this last, guilt-inducing event, done, of course, in the name of religious respect and springtime celebration. After several weeks of conducting extensive online and personal research, my boyfriend and I deduced what we thought would be the perfect place to fulfill this important duty of over consumption. Enter Larchmont Grill, a charming renovated house in the neighborhood surrounding Larchmont Village, which is without a doubt my absolute favorite nook in all of Los Angeles. Friendly coffee shops, a green-minded farmers market, quaint boutiques, one central street with crosswalks where cars actually stop to let you pass – this place is everything that LA isn’t. So, the two of us dressed in our Easter best, mentally preparing each other for what would be the most epic Easter eating session of our lives to date. Greeted by an incredibly warm and cheerful host, we were seated, immediately ordered two flutes of tangy Prosecco to prime our already-anticipatory palates, and grabbed our plates to do some damage on the wrap-around patio where the buffet was awaiting our presence. The spectacle was at once overwhelming and inviting: a salmon and lox station, a ham carving station, an omelet station – and these were just the savory stops! Spread as far as the eye could see were Monte Cristo Sandwiches, Chicken Apple Sausages, Brioche French Toast, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Short Rib Hash, Caesar Salad, Turkey Bolognese…in all honesty, I’m convinced that I blacked out shortly after realizing what was in front of me. Perhaps 30 minutes later, I awoke to find myself sitting in front of three empty plates, and greedily casting my gaze toward the dessert bar to my left. Having reached the point of no return, I piled my poorly sized saucer high with Larchmont Grill’s famous Carrot Cake, fresh berries and an embarrassingly oversized dollop of whipped cream, and returned to my table ready to finish the final miles of this marathon meal. While one might have expected my taste buds to have been numbed by the countless flavors and textures they had already endured, the incredible combination of earthy layers of shredded carrot and golden raisins and sweet creaminess of buttery white frosting played the perfect performance to end my feasting festival. At the end of the afternoon, I felt no regret, no shame, no humiliation for my gluttonous greed as I was rolled out of the dining room and down the stairs to my car, which was waiting at the valet. All I felt was intense satisfaction and the incredibly powerful urge to sleep for the rest of the day in my comfy sweatpants. If this glorious meal didn’t encompass the idea of Easter festivities, well, then I’m not sure what does.

Larchmont Grill
5750 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Fifth Sense: Umami on the Brain…

It's been almost two weeks since I set foot in this high-end burger hot spot that seems to have all of the LA foodie community buzzing about its handcrafted patties, brioche-like buns and creative combinations of condiments and accompaniments. I had just finished up a long day on the beach with a bunch of friends, playing volleyball, catching up on chit chat in the sand and drinking a simultaneously refreshing and dehydrating elixir of VitaminWater and alcohol. Delicious, might I add...Left feeling faint from the sun and famished by our consistent liquid intake over the past six hours, we decided that we needed some food. Good food. But not just any good food - we wanted the satisfaction of something a little greasy, but also the pleasure of eating something wholesome, fresh and flavorful. In my sun- and vodka-induced delirium, I suggested the green-leafed outpost on La Brea Ave that had me waiting for weeks to find the perfect opportunity to go. That time was now. That place was Umami Burger.

After reading about this new burger joint for weeks in every possible e-newsletter including Thrillist, Daily Candy and Eater LA, I knew that I had to give Umami Burger a try. Every time I drove north up La Brea to my internship in West Hollywood, my eyes would inadvertently stray to the right as I approached the 8th Street crossing, gazing curiously into the glaring glass-paned box that sticks out like a sore thumb underneath the unnecessarily obnoxious COPY USA sign. Inside, I could see straight lights, and lots of them – sharp-angled tables, perfectly upright chairs and minimalist décor at all once turned me off to it and beckoned me closer. Finally, a couple of Saturdays ago, intrigued and slightly intoxicated, I begged that we visit Umami Burger and finally size up this well-received newcomer to the fickle La Brea dining drive. I already knew what I was ordering when I stepped inside the avant-garde take on a neighborhood burger bistro – the Mideast Burger with Sweet Potato Chips. I’d been staring this menu down for weeks…I was ready

I could barely sit still waiting for my luscious lamb burger and crisp sweet potato slices to be set before me. This is what I had been waiting for – to try a burger from the up-and-coming, party-crashing establishment that has unassumingly rocked the LA food scene blogging world. Around me, I could feel the energy of fellow foodies who had read about Umami Burger’s special freshly handcrafted patties on LA’s endless supply of food and dining blogs and were also reeling in anticipation and excitement for the moment when they, too, would enter into the community of Umami Burger tasters. I could hardly contain myself.

My savory-smelling burger and sweet-scented chips arriving, I needn’t wait any longer. I was thrilled to find before me a perfectly-proportioned stack, artfully arranged on the bottom half of a fluffy yet sturdy bun that almost looked and tasted like it was pulled from the basket of freshly-baked, delicately sweet brioche in an artisanal French boulangerie. Slathered carefully with a spattering of tzaziki laced with wide ribbons of cucumber and harissa sauce that was just thick enough to not drip out of the burger, the bun beautifully withheld the heftiness of the two near-round lamb sausages nestle under the cap of the dessert-like bread set. The texture of the sausages was almost indescribable; no where near finely-ground, the meat inside the crisp casing was ground just like the leftovers from my family’s Christmas ham are done, like little savory pellets of slow-roasted protein. The lamb was moist, well seasoned with spices from the East, and incredibly balanced with the subdued heat of the harissa sauce and the obvious coolness of the tzaziki spread. Little did I know, the sweet potato chips I had ordered as my burger’s partner-in-crime complemented the savory, brothy and meaty taste that the Japanese meaning of the word “umami” encompasses. While the menu claims that they are “lightly seasoned,” these deep-fried slices of sweet potato heaven were reminiscent of the Crustos I used to get in my kids meal at the Seattle-area Taco Time chain with my bean and cheese burrito and Mexi-fries. Tortilla chips coated in cinnamon and sugar and fried to sweet-tooth perfection, these tasty triangles were a treat to me then, and it dawned on me there at Umami Burger that these sweet potato chips were the grown-up version of the objects of my beloved sweet-and-crunchy crush. They almost tasted like they had a tinge of caramelized sugar or maple syrup to them, which might seem like an odd partner to my Mediterranean-inspired main course, but in fact rounded out my meal quite nicely.

Recovering from my post-Umami ecstasy in the next few days following my first of an already-foreseen many trips to this hip burger hotspot, I discovered on The Daily Dish that Umami Burger had added new items to their menu mere hours after I stepped out of its door. WHAT?! New items?! I had to know. Furiously navigating my way through the various links that eventually took me to the original report, I found out that among Umami Burger’s new items were a scallop burger and eggplant fries. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized just how soon I would be reunited with my new favorite eatery for sinfully delicious burgers and fries. We shall be together again soon, Umami Burger. Better get that grill fired up, that fryer crackling with oil, and that scallop burger lovingly formed in the kitchen. I’m going to be back before you know it.

Umami Burger
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
850 S La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 931-3000

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Owned by April Fool's...

I tend to be a little foggy-headed first thing in the morning when I wake up. My early-morning routine consists of a healthy dose of exercise to shake me out of my hazy stupor, followed by bright and sunny breakfast fare like whole grain and fruit pancakes, luscious berries enveloped by Greek yogurt, nuts and honey, and yes, occasionally a poached egg on top of oatmeal (see post from February 4th). This winning combination gets me feeling like a champion, ready to take on the daunting worlds of school and work, knowing that I am chipper, alert, and best of all, extremely well-fed.

Only this morning, I forgot one minor, teensy little's April Fool's Day. Imagine my delight this morning when I open an email from The Rundown, one of my favorite daily email services, and read about this fantastic restaurant on Wilshire called "Gratis," where customers can name their own prices for incredibly gourmet-sounding edibles. Tender Kobe beef sliders, and I get to decide how much I want to pay for them?? Amazing! A few minutes after I gleefully forwarded this little electronic ray of sunshine to all of my friends, asking them to join me for a night of carefree culinary revelry this weekend at a fantastic diamond-in-the-rough dining destination, I was confronted by a rude awakening. Delightfully surprised by a quick response from my boyfriend, I was instantly disheartened by the three painfully obvious words glowing on the screen of my glossy white MacBook before me: "It's April Fool's." My immediate thought? No, it's not... followed by, oh is... Panicked, I scrolled down to re-read the editorial scoop on this ground-breaking eatery, only to find that, yes, it was in fact a joke. A very cruel, harsh and inhuman joke, might I add...

Thankfully, while this depression-inducing ruse put a minor damper on my morning, I had unknowingly softened this terrible blow to my happiness by whipping up some of the best muffins I have ever tried. Strikingly similar to the consistency and texture of a crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside cornbread muffin, these palm-sized pastries achieved the perfect balance of sweet, spicy and savory, thanks to dried cranberries, grated cheddar cheese, sauteed green onions, and a mix of thyme, oregano and sage. I adapted this recipe from the Whole Foods market recipe database with a few changes of my own, and eschewed the suggestion to make them in the mini-muffin size. My scientific formula for a successful meal of muffins? Bigger muffin = better morning. If you, too, have fallen victim to an unjust April Fool's Day prank today, join with me and throw together a batch of these tasty tin-cakes. Take my word for it - they'll give you a more positive perspective and remind you that there are better (and more delicious) things in life than the embarrassment you're feeling from that salt-switched-with-sugar act.

Savory Cheese, Cranberry and Herb Muffins (adapted from Whole Foods Market)
Makes 12 regular-sized muffins


1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup green onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup almond meal (easy to find at Trader Joe's)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup liquid egg whites
1 cup non-fat milk


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add green onions, thyme, oregano and sage. Cook for 2 minutes, until fragrant. remove from heat and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour and almond meal with baking powder, salt and cayenne. Stir in the cranberries and cheese. Set aside. In a second bowl, whisk together egg whites and milk. Add green onion mixture, including all of the oil, and whisk well.

Fold the flour mixture into the egg and milk mixture, mixing until just combined. Scoop batter into a lightly greased muffin tin. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before taking muffins out of the tin. Serve warm.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

FOOD+LAB = Scientifically-Proven Deliciousness

My dining to-do list in LA is long...really long. For every restaurant I attempt to cross off of my list, I add at least three more - a vicious yet delightfully delicious cycle. However, this past Monday, I was able to cross off a long-time lingerer on my list of intriguing LA eateries, and faster than you can say "YUM!", this charming little European bistro sits near the top of my (other) list of favorite joints for tasty, fresh lunchtime fare for a reasonable price.

Although I still can't quite figure out how I am supposed to pronounce its name, FOOD+LAB is a scientifically-proven success for incredibly scrumptious, Austro-French bistro bites that feature fresh, local ingredients and a truly incredible combination of succulent ingredients in every item it serves. For lunch, we ordered the Roasted Vegetable Salad with Pesto, Fresh Goat Cheese, Baby Tomatoes and Baby Spring Greens, as well as the Turkey Sandwich with Brie, Pear, Fig Compote, and Honey on Wheat BREADBAR Bread (A side note: as you may recall, BREADBAR is my favorite LA hotspot for the absolute tastiest artisanal bread; this fact alone already makes FOOD+LAB a winner in my book!). The amazing charred texture of the roasted veggies was breathtaking; each vegetable remained completely flavorful and soft despite its being thoroughly grilled (Anyone who knows me well, knows that I like my food with grill marks...dark grill marks). Combined with the tangy creaminess of the generous clumps of goat cheese, the garlic-infused freshness of the vibrant green pesto, the crispness of the marble-sized tomatoes, and the tenderness of the baby lettuces, this salad was both visually stunning and satiating to the point that I never wanted to eat anything else ever again...that is...until we moved on to the warm, sweet-smelling sandwich also sitting before us. The simplicity of this perfectly sweet sandwich combined with the succulent richness of the pure and fresh fillings made this lightly toasted stack the perfect delicacy to follow the garden-fresh salad we had just consumed. The slight saltiness of the soft oven-roasted turkey made it the ideal candidate to nestle between layers of translucent, warmed pear slices, creamy French brie, aromatic local honey, and grainy, molasses-like fig compote, and the two perfectly-proportioned sliced of toasted buckwheat bread lovingly cradled each component, giving the sandwich an earthy taste without overpowering the natural sweetness of this artful creation. All I can say now is...I'm really craving FOOD+LAB again...

Aside from the incredible edible offerings, which also include breakfast items like European-inspired muesli with cream and berries, artisanal soups and side salads, and take-away items such as the house-made salad dressings and juices, the charm at FOOD+LAB stems from its soul-warming ambiance, situated right in the heart of the dining haven that is West Hollywood. Walk past the humble scattering of iron patio chairs and tables on the small sidewalk space, and enter into a Euro-style deli where delicacies await you on the glass counter, and where you can see the delightful creation you chose from the chalked-up blackboard menu be made before you as you wait in anticipation. Grab a seat on the picturesque back patio, where the high walls are consumed by eagerly-climbing greenery and where each table greets you with a beaming sunflower and a cozy spot to chat with a friend, loved one or client. Another perk: the fare-free parking lot sits on the other side of the towering walls of the patio...cha-ching!

In my honest and humble opinion, FOOD+LAB is unarguably one of the best eateries in LA to find quick, delicious, healthy and well-priced bites, and to enjoy those munchies in an environment that makes you forget that you live in one of the most fast-paced, busiest cities in the world. Looks like I'll be stopping by there on my way back from work tonight. There's a quiet corner of the sunny outdoor patio and a Chicken and Arugula Salad with Edamame, Candied Pecans and Cranberries that are calling my name - it looked incredible as a fellow diner dug into it at the table next to me...

FOOD+LAB Cafe & Marketplace
7253 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90046
(323) 851-7120
Open daily from 8am - 8pm

P.S. FOOD+LAB does catering, too...double YUM!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Whirlwind Weekend Of...You Guessed It...Sampling More Sweet Potato Fries...

These days, it's hard to believe that there are still burger joints out there that have not jumped onto the sweet potato fries bandwagon. Those delightfully crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, melt-in-your-mouth matchsticks of orange-y bliss are enough to make even the most faithful of french fry-eaters crumble under the pressure of the much more flavorful, more colorful and (questionably) more nutritious side dish. However, you're not going to find these beta-carotene bundles only at your trend-savvy sandwich shop or burger bistro; today, even the most sophisticated of establishments are tuning into the sweet potato trend. My quest over the past weekend, to find some of the more atypical restaurants serving up SPF's, yielded a surprisingly delightful variety of upscale eateries that are attempting to appease my ongoing obsession.

Friday Night: The Must (Downtown)
At this few-months-old wine bar on 5th and Spring in the heart of Downtown, The Must is quickly creating a buzz in the foodie world with its incredible $3 happy hour, upscale decor and pleasantly pulsating yet subdued energy. Highlighted by the LA Times Daily Dish blog for its sinfully delicious Fluffernutter sandwich, which simultaneously evokes overwhelming guilt and bone-chilling satisfaction with its buttery seared brioche bread, rich roasted almond and peanut butters, braised bananas, gooey marshmallow fluff and thick chocolate ganache, The Must is faithfully filling the monstrous hole of well-priced, classy hangouts in the heart of LA's business district. Among the $3 happy hour nibbles are the Sweet Potato Tots; while they are adequate at best, it is likely that with The Must's growing popularity, these decent sweet potato digits will (hopefully) also improve.

Final Grade: C+; these tots are noticeably over-greasy, even after taking down several generously-sized glasses of happy hour libations. There is definite room for improvement. BUT, everything else at this relative new-comer to the wine bar scene is delicious; try the Pretzel Balls with Dijon Dipping Sauce and the Lemon Zest-Topped Olives (both for $3) to munch on with your wine, and you (and your palate) will be pleased you did.

118 W. 5th St., Los Angeles
(213) 637-1162

Saturday Night: Akasha (Culver City)
I had been reading about this Culver City hotspot for months when I finally had the opportunity to try out Akasha for the first time on Saturday. As I entered the dimly-lit yet lively space, I felt at once incredibly soothed and amazingly energized by the linear booths, chalkboard bar menu and flurry of conversations that were taking place all around me between the patrons at the bar, the diners at the tables and the groups on the patio. I fell in love at once with the all-natural cocktails selection, the friendliness of the maître d' and the overwhelmingly hunger-inducing menu that was set before me, which included everything from wonderfully tender, juicy Lamb Sliders and succulent Seared Scallops on a bed of sauteed kale with eye-popping green edamame puree, to delicate Ahi Tuna Lettuce Wraps and a frosted paper cone overflowing with my favorite appetizer (ok...all-purpose dish...), Sweet Potato Fries. Dressed with "pink sea salt," I was uncontrollably excited to try this "exotic" take on a typically simple appetizer, but to my dismay, they tasted quite ordinary. Don't get me wrong; they were delicious, as all sweet potato fries are, but something didn't sing to me when I popped that first hot fry into my mouth. Maybe I was simply expecting too much from this elusive "pink sea salt." So, while I respectfully admire Akasha's commitment to sustainable ingredients, free-range meats and natural, healthy takes on some of our favorite familiar food dishes, and while I plan on returning to eat here again, I will not go to this eco-conscious eatery to specifically satisfy a hankering for my beloved sweet potato fries.

Final Grade: B-; good, but not great. I was supremely let down by tantalizing promises of "pink sea salt" to give a new flavor to traditional SPF's.

9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City
(310) 845-1700

Sunday Afternoon: The Farm of Beverly Hills at The Grove
Let's be honest - nothing feels better in a stomach that's been ravaged by alcohol the night before than a little bit of grease. Even the most fresh-toothed of foodies, like myself, acknowledge this as an immutable fact of life. That being said, after a night out in Hollywood, all I could think about while trolling around The Grove with my sunglasses on and my water bottle in tow was how good sweet potato fries would taste in my parched mouth and would feel in my slowly recovering stomach. Stumbling past the awe-inspiring fountain show, spouting in tune with some of Sinatra's most beloved tunes, I happened to catch a glimpse of one of the outdoor tables at The Farm, where a pair of shoppers were taking a break to snack on a glistening silver pail of sweet potato fries. Score. I immediately sat myself down to order a bountiful bucket for myself, and at once was able to nurse my pitiful condition with a refreshingly crisp glass of tropical ice tea and a giant helping of greasy goodness. These fries were just thick enough, a happy medium between matchstick fries and wedge potatoes, and while they would be a tad too salty for the average eater, they were perfect for me as I attempted to reintroduce electrolytes and sodium into my worn body.

Final Grade: B+; very delicious but overly-salty and a bit too greasy. These are great for the classic hungover state, but not so satisfying for a completely sober fresh-toothed foodie.

189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles
(323) 525-1699

Sunday Night: Rock'N Fish (Manhattan Beach)
For being a city so close to the ocean, LA gives me a lot of trouble when it comes to finding a good, reasonably-priced seafood dinner. Sure, I wander to Little Tokyo for the occasional spicy tuna roll and I muster up the courage from my wallet to order an appetizer with scallops at higher-end establishments, but if I want a fresh, grilled fillet of salmon for the focus of my dining experience, there aren't many places I can go without shelling out more cash than I do to fill up my little silver Scion XA with unleaded gasoline. Thanks to a good friend's recommendation, I ventured out to Manhattan Beach to give Rock'N Fish a try...and boy, am I glad I did! For your entree, you can choose from at least six kinds of freshly caught fish, from salmon to ahi tuna to halibut, and have it oak grilled and served plainly-dressed and gimmick-free, just the way I like it. It gets even better; with each plate, you get to choose two truly rockin' sides, ranging from Grilled Vegetables to Macaroni and Cheese guessed it...Sweet Potato Fries. These slightly-thinner takes on steak fries are amazingly crunchy on the outside, almost like they've been battered or double-fried (maybe both?), yet are electric-orange and near-creamy on the inside. YUM. Don't expect to down only a few of these little fried fingers; that "Rock'N side" of fries is more like a gigantic boulder, and you definitely won't be debating whether you should order another round.

Final Grade: A-; sure, they're really good, but what good would it do for my unending quest for the best sweet potato fries if I dishes out an A or A+? So, the search continues...

120 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach
(310) 379-9900

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

These are a few of my favorite things...

As much as I have valued getting the most bang for my buck in the past, I love it more than ever now. Living in LA, being a college student and standing helplessly in the middle of a murky economic puddle, I've become a frugal, frugal way-too-quickly-approaching, totally-in-denial graduating college student who can no longer spend a lot of money on frivolous amenities and activities. Forget the ten-dollar cocktails, forgo the appetizer, entree and dessert, and, without a doubt, flee from anything that resembles cute shoes or clothes in any shape and form. Thankfully, we still have a place where tasty, healthy and affordable food can be found; to you, Trader Joe's, I owe my still-stable credit and my slightly-wavering sanity.

A throwback to the days when I would go grocery shopping with my mom after school, Trader Joe's is a dream of an establishment for the working mom and the reality-fearing college student alike. Awaiting you among the floral Hawaiian button-downs, Pavlov-dog-like tinkle of the samples bell and hooks carrying colorful canvas grocery bags is aisle after aisle of enough amazingly well-priced and delightfully delicious produce, dry ingredients and prepared food to make one weak in the knees. Here are just a few of my (countless) favorite project currently camping out on a TJ's shelf near you:

1. Trader Joe's Light Feta Cheese: Is this creamy block of Greek-style cheese for real? With half of the fat but all of the sinfully salty and moist flavor of authentic feta cheese, this slab of dairy decadence weighs in at just 40 measly calories for a 2 ounce serving. It melts like nobody's business, fooling even the savviest of cheese connoisseurs and can play the starring role in any meal production from a veggie-filled omelet to a warm orzo salad with ground lamb and Greek olives...mmmmm...

2. Trader Joe's Nuts Unsalted Dry Toasted Sliced Almonds: The perfect topping for every entree imaginable, these perfectly roasted slices of rich-tasting California almonds are truly the best way to add a decadent crunch to your dish. In the morning, sprinkle them on top of your oatmeal, yogurt, pancakes and waffles to add a crisp contrast to the softness of the main event. At lunchtime, throw a handful into your salad or soup instead of soggy, flavorless croutons. When dinner rolls around, top a couscous, quinoa or brown rice pilaf with a medley of these almonds and some golden raisins or cranberries for the quintessential sweet and salty accent. You can't go wrong with these all-purpose toppers.

3. Trader Joe's Greek Style Nonfat Plain Yogurt: No matter how much honey and fruit you add to them, some brands of Greek yogurt just leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth and a bummed-out feeling in your stomach. Sulk to more; this line of creamy, thick yogurt has an astounding balance of sourness and sweetness that makes it ideal for sweet breakfasts, savory dips, meat marinades and everything in between. Also available in 2% and whole fat, and in various flavors including Honey, Fig, Apricot Mango, and Pomegranate, this milk-based miracle will wipe away any ill feelings toward this European-style export.

4. Trader Joe's Chicken Sausages: What source of filling yet healthy protein comes in over ten varieties and is already cooked to make your life so much easier? The answer is Trader Joe's own line of lean chicken sausages infused with various ingredients, herbs and spices. Ranging from Apple Chardonnay, to Sun-Dried Tomato and Basil, to Spicy Jalapeno, to Mushroom and Asiago, these filler-free fidos (a.k.a. dogs...sausages...get it?) can go from the fridge or freezer to your favorite dish in no time flat. Chop one up and throw it into a salad, or slice one down the middle and grill it as the perfect side to scrambled eggs and toast at sunrise. Just don't be surprised when the pack of five delectable and convenient sausages disappears within a matter of days.

5. Trader Joe's Boxed Soups: Eating healthy and hearty meals on cold winter days has never been this easy. Pop a bowl of Trader Joe's fantastic pureed soups into a bowl in the microwave or into a saucepan on the stovetop and heat. That's it. Personally, I like throwing in some canned cannellini beans or a sliced sausage (see above for recommendations of sausage) and top it with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (again, see above) and a generous sprinkling of toasted almond slices (see a pattern here?). Voila, instant light meal or side to a good sandwich or salad. My favorites are the Carrot and Ginger, the Low Sodium Butternut Squash and the Sweet Potato Bisque, but there are more kinds on the shelf to choose from. Another great use for these smooth and creamy purees is to use them as a base for sauces to go on pasta and meat-based main dishes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

See You at Ciudad...

For my roommate's 21st birthday celebration last Saturday night, a bunch of us made our way downtown to...well...initiate her into the world of the late night happy hour. A beautiful, amazing thing, the happy hour that starts after the sun goes down is truly a gift to those of us who sadly do not get to end the day at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. These days, it's hard to find a restaurant, bar or lounge that indulges in the night owl's desire for a few hours of reasonably priced drinks and creative small plates; fortunately, there's Ciudad.

Sitting right on Figueroa between 4th and 5th Street in the heart of downtown LA, Ciudad is a gem for upscale, trendy Latin American food made with the freshest, most local ingredients - a true model for the fashionable Angeleno cuisine that so faithfully fuses sensual flavors, sophisticated style and seasonality with sustainability to create dishes that are delicious and in tune with nature. Aside from its fashionable food, the ambiance created within Ciudad's walls reflects the intimacy and energy of Latin American cuisine; sharp angles, straight lines and lots of warms colors outline both the artfully-placed bar at the center of the lounge area, and the geometric spacing of small tables in the rear dining room encourage close dining with friends and family.

We started off with happy hour drinks at the bar, and were more than pleasantly surprised to find that our drinks were $4.50...$4.50?!?! On a Saturday night in downtown LA?!?!? We were stunned and thrilled all at once. I ordered the house red wine, a smooth Malbec red from Argentina that was all at once rich and refreshing - a real treat for such a great price! The one down side to these late night deals is that they only apply to drinks, not the bar food that is available at the happy hour earlier in the day. Having come before, I know just how flavorful and juicy the fish and carnitas tacos are, so I made a mental note to return at an earlier time in the very near future. Sitting down in the dining room, we were brought some delightfully crispy cracker bread seasoned with nice smoky spices and toasted seeds, as well as a duo of dips - a savory olive tapenade and a freshly whipped hummus - that perfectly complemented the sweetness of the mojitos and margaritas that we had also began to drink, and that were also only $4.50...such a deal! Ordering the Pervian Ceviche was the best decision one could ever make; the generous chunks of mahi mahi sat perched atop a pile of fresh lettuce and tomatoes, marinating in a tangy, acidic pool of lime juice infused with ginger and chile, with two paper-thin slices of plantains that were lightly fried and crunchy. This dish practically melted in my mouth on the first taste. Others at my table ordered up the Roasted Poblano Chile Relleno, an appetizing-looking blackened pepper stuffed with delightfully salty cotija cheese and papas bravas, garnished with an assortment of salsas and a chewy, well-seasoned quinoa salad, and the Spinach Empanadas, little pockets of golden-crisp dough bursting with the dark greens, savory pine nuts, sweet raisins and fresh manchego cheese, and topped with eye-popping salsa verde. Both looked so good, but sadly, I did not get to snag a bite from either plate (the "mmmmm's!" from their seats spoke more than enough to the great taste of these dishes). To finish, the birthday girl was toasted with a complementary slice of the Goat Milk Cajeta Flan, whose milky-smooth texture was matched with the tang of the goat cheese base, topped with a buttery caramel sauce and that's my kind of dessert!

All in all, Ciudad is the perfect place to go if you are looking for a dining experience in downtown LA that is well-priced and well worth the typical suit-and-tie crowd. Whether you are looking to drink, eat, have a business meeting or just catch up with friends, Ciudad excels at bringing the beloved flavors of Latin America into both a menu and an ambiance that fosters a good time and a great meal.

445 S. Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 486-5171

Happy Hour:
4 p.m. - 7 p.m. Monday - Friday Happy Hour
4 p.m. - 9 p.m. Sunday Happy Hour Drinks

Happy Hour After Dark:
Wednesday & Thursday: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 9 p.m. to 12 midnight

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Messob, Will You Be My Valentine??

When that all-too-romantic holiday rolls around the corner in the middle of February, most couples feel the need and pressure to dine in one of the swankiest restaurants in town, order the most expensive, sensual-sounding dishes (i.e. caviar, steak, lobster champagne, oysters...)and, before you know it, you've blown hundreds of dollars on a night that will - gasp! - invariably and inevitably roll around again next year...and the next...and the next. Eschewing trendy LA standards and embracing our love for worldly fare, my boyfriend and I have been celebrating the unfailing day of love with a tasty visit to our favorite Ethiopian joint on South Fairfax Avenue, a friendly little enclosure called Messob. Not for diners with shy taste buds and utensil-less inhibitions, Ethiopian food is actually a very romantic cuisine in both its savory flavors and its hands-on serving style. The technique that embodies Ethiopian dining culture, gursha, is essentially hand-feeding your partner-in-crime by placing bits of food into his or her mouth; the word itself means "mouthful," and is known as a gesture of affection, exchanged between both romantic loves and family members.

Now, this may sound nice and easy, but for the Ethiopian food amateur - and the very, very hungry and impatient eaters - it's anything but a leisurely meal. The enormous combination platter brought out to our "table" (a very authentic tray nestled into a colorfully woven, tall basket) looked and smelled absolutely amazing. Although we had ordered the very same thing last year, our eyes and noses were tantalized by the incredible mixture of sweet, savory and smoke spices and smells that practically jumped off of the platter and into our anxious mouths. Truth be told, neither one of us knows what is actually on this plate, the "Super Messob Exclusive." What we do know, however, is that everything on that tray tastes of smoky chile, savory garlic, sweet cardamom, and a zing of ginger. Wrap up a morsel (of whatever it is you pick up)in a piece of spongy, slightly sour yet delightfully aromatic injera bread and pop it into your (or sadly, not yours, and instead your dining companion's) mouth and experience a sensational and perfectly overpowering melange of the balanced earthy and spicy flavors of Ethiopia.

But don't be discouraged because Valentine's Day doesn't roll around for another 360 days or so; a night of Ethiopian dining can be enjoyed at any time of year and for any occasion thanks to the refreshing singularity of the cuisine and consistent delicious taste of its dishes. Perfect for a group of several friends or a romantic night with your loved one, Messob is a stop in Little Ethiopia that cannot be missed, no matter what holiday is just around the corner.

Messob Ethiopian Restaurant
1041 S Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 938-8827

Friday, February 13, 2009

I am Bacaro's boomerang...

Being an SC student, I'm constantly looking for ways (and excuses) to get off-campus. Don't get me wrong, USC is great and I love every minute I spend here, but sometimes, you've just got to escape and retreat to (one of) your happy place(s) - the farther away, the better. I used to relish in sitting down at a restaurant far, far away from the hub of campus life, from the Row and from all of my classroom buildings, just to enjoy a glass of wine and unwind from my life within the Trojan bubble. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could have the best of both worlds - this same feeling of escapism, without the hefty toll on my gas tank and wallet. That day, that was when I discovered Bacaro LA.

A stone's throw away from my cozy home north of the USC campus, Bacaro LA is truly in a class by itself, especially considering the (depressing) caliber of restaurants and establishments that surround it. This place is truly a breath of fresh air for foodies like me who prefer to savor a Thursday night by sharing a bottle of wine and delicately-crafted, Venetian-inspired small plates with a close friend or loved one, rather than sipping on mysterious "jungle juice," choking down shots of nameless liquor and ending my night with a tummy full of Jack in the Box "tacos" (apparently, no meat in these "meaty" tacos...). The first time I ever stepped foot inside Bacaro, the co-owner Daniel greeted us warmly and encouraged us to ask questions and explore his impressively cultivated menu that pulls from local artisans like BREADBAR (my personal favorite for all things bread), sustainable farmers and authentic, indigenous wines. While Bacaro is committed to using local ingredients, I really appreciate the philosophy behind their decision; using organic and sustainable products as often as possible, but particularly when the ingredients are the stars of the cichetti (tapas), the minds behind Bacaro strike the perfect balance between environmental consciousness and the reality of attempting to run an all-organic restaurant from the ground up.

One of the many great things about Bacaro is its versatility. I can take anyone here - my boyfriend, my parents, my best girlfriends - and have completely different, yet incredibly enjoyable experiences that leave my guests wondering, "Why haven't I come here before now?" and before you know it, they, too, instantly begin to formulate their own lists of companions to bring along on their next visit to Bacaro's small, dark and intimate setting. With no more than ten tables, Bacaro's ambiance softly whispers of sophistication that is neither stiff nor overly-serious. Rather, Bacaro fosters quality conversation, along with delighted outbursts at every first taste of the next tapas to come out of the back kitchen and always, always, the request for more little dishes than simply the three you ordered when you first sat down. Among my (numerous) favorites are: the crispy polenta squares with roasted market eggplant: the roasted rainbow beets with chevre and tarragon: the Gorgonzola, date, walnut, and orange honey-draped crostini; the hot artichokes with Parmigiano Reggiano; the pan-seared scallops with melted winter leeks and spicy crostini; and the very sinfully delicious nutella panino with strawberries. WHEW. If you think that sounds amazing, just wait until you cast your fascinated foodie-eyes on the sprawling wine list scrawled out in chalk on the far right blackboard of a wall. Along with tantalizing your tummy with advertisements of $1 nibbles like almonds, figs and apples, an assortment of fine cheeses, and baskets of tender, crisp slices of BREADBAR bounty, you'll find an impressive compromise between offerings by the glass and libations by the bottle from all around the world. Bacaro's special focus on Old World wines is a refreshing departure from the blase trendiness of Australian and New Zealand wines, and the friendly wine experts are more than heplful in helping you pinpoint what exactly you are hankering to enjoy with your over-indulgence in their sensational small plates.

But, don't just take my word for it. Give Bacaro a try soon (actually, now), and you'll be pleasantly surprised at your amazing dining and drinking experience at this dimly-lit, street-side wine bar. The more I go to Bacaro, the more often I go back, and naturally, the more people I introduce to Bacaro's refreshing, alternative offering on a Thursday or Friday night at a university known for its extremely localized night life. Each time I end my night at Bacaro, I promise them that I'll be back soon, and soon enough, there I am again, asking for wine recommendations and greedily eying every cichetti I cast my eyes upon. Maybe I've come with a new friend, maybe I've come looking for red wine instead of white, but one thing about my experience at Bacaro LA always remains the same: before I've even left, I've already decided that I'm returning soon, very soon.

Bacaro LA
2308 South Union Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90007

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Coffee addiction's (a) bitch...

Being a native Seattlite, transplanted into the concrete jungle that is LA, I have steadily remained loyal and true to my hometown hero and my long-time caffeine companion, Starbucks Coffee Company. Yes, despite the temptations at every corner, despite the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf's seductive beckoning, with their tantalizing Ice Blendeds and pretty purple straws, I have managed to withstand the calls of numerous Starbucks-imitating sirens and continued to patronize that magnetic coffee mega-chain for my early-morning java jolts and my late-night library companions. I thought I was strong and faithful, and would be to the very end, until a few weeks ago, I met my match. All of a sudden, just by ordering one simple cafe au lait and fatefully selecting one brew out of an impressive variety of roasts, I have been forever changed, my coffee loyalties turned upside down by LA-native Groundworks Coffee Company.

I credit my penchant for artsy, independent-looking coffeehouses to my Pacific Northwest roots (hey, the first Starbucks in Pike Place Market looked pretty homegrown back in the day...). So, when I spotted the inviting, community-friendly cafe that is Groundwork's Hollywood location on Sunset and Cahuenga, I was drawn like a magnet to metal, hell-bent on finding an artisanal cup of coffee that stimulated both my senses and my mid-day energy level. Walking in, I was greeted right away by an artsy-looking, young guy who appeared to genuinely appreciate my first step into the neighborhood hot spot. What?! You mean I'm not another double tall half-decaf two-pumps-of-sugar-free caramel macchiato with no whip and a sprinkle of cinnamon, with a Hawaiian bagel toasted with cream cheese on the side? Nope...crazy. I ordered my cafe au lait and cautiously approached the table stocked with numerous carafes of organic, fair-trade and shade-grown roasts, and I could tell that this was no marketing ploy. Scanning the labels on the admittedly intimidating selection of brewed coffee, my eyes were drawn to the tag that read, "Organic Bitch's Brew," and instantly I knew that I had found my inaugural roast of choice.

Boy, did I make the right decision. A deep, darker roast that was unexpectedly free of any bitter aftertaste, the Bitch's Brew is a perfect choice for those who enjoy the depth of a strong, dark cup of joe and want none of the harsh aftertones of an Ethiopian or Yukon blend at that "other" coffee chain I used to solely award with my pocket change (What's its name again? Carmucks? Blartucks?). Faithful to my palate that I am, I have not yet sampled Groundwork's other roasts, but I caught a good, long whiff of the Organic Angel City blend when picking up coffee for a co-worker. Bright, medium-roast, and wonderfully floral-scented; while I'm sure this one is a winner, too, I just can't stray from the Bitch's Brew. When it comes down to it, I guess you could say that now I'm the bitch...Bitch's Brew's bitch, that is.

Groundwork Coffee Company
1501 N. Cahuenga Boulevard
(@ Sunset Boulevard)
Hollywood, California 90028

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fresh Tooth Goes Frozen...Sort Of...

Now, if anyone is against eating a lot of pre-made, over-processed and tasteless frozen food, it's me. I'm a firm believer that what we put into our bodies should be as freshly plucked from the earth's soil, the trees' branches and the rural farms as possible. I mean, the fresh taste you get from a crisp salad made of tender baby spinach, crunchy Fuji apple slices, freshly grilled and juicy chicken breast, and tangy clusters of goat cheese - that scent sensation, that visual experience and that satisfying feeling of eating something wholesome and earthy cannot be replicated, especially not by a "meal" that comes wrapped in plastic, complete with microwave instructions.

Well...I was wrong...sort of. The other week, I was half-ashamedly scanning the frozen food section (gasp!) for quick, cheap and nutritious options for my lunch when I intern in West Hollywood a couple of days each week. In my defense, dining options in that part of town fall under two categories: cheap and dubiously nutritious; and expensive and delicious; thus, my dilemma. So, I search high and low in the natural foods section, crossing my fingers and muttering under my breath, "Yellow tag, yellow tag..." in hopes that I could find something inexpensive, tasty, and yes, FROZEN. I was about to give up hope, when I spotted a glorious, glowing beacon proclaiming "2 for $4" under a product I did not recognize, but would soon come to love. Meet Cedarlane Natural Foods' Burritos and Wraps. Ye, they are fatefully frozen, but wow, are they good! I've tried the Low-fat Couscous and Vegetables and the Veggie Pizza varieties, and both are surprisingly delectable! The Couscous Burrito is loaded with perfectly moist grains, wonderfully gooey mozzarella cheese and a proportional spattering of various vegetables, the Pizza Wrap tastes like a piece of thin crust, veggie-based pizza folded into a neat little package, and both crisp up wonderfully in the oven! Paired with a chicken breast or a cup of low-fat cottage cheese, these little bundles of beauty are truly one of the best choices for a cost-effective, taste-effective and happiness-inducing lunch break, no matter how stressful your job or how little your budget.

Cedarlane Natural Foods
Available at natural food stores and selected grocery stores throughout the U.S.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Sweet It is...To be Loved by Sweet Potato Fries...

Does anyone remember how the trend of sweet potato fries even started?? One minute, I'm a strict "no-fried-food" adherent, and then next, before I realize what has happened, I'm scanning menus and websites, looking for those magical three words. I'm not even really sure how it all began, but these days, I just can't get enough of them. That tell-tale bright orange hue, that satisfying crunchy yet soft bite into that crispy strip of beta-carotene-loaded heaven; somehow I feel so good after eating these deep-fried finger foods, even though I know that I am merely blinded to the truth by that orange-y glow that draws me in like a neon bug-zapper on a warm summer's night.

Seeing as I search high and low for sweet potato fries on LA restaurant menus, here's a list of some of the establishments whose scrumptious sweet potato sticks have won my heart:
1. Breadbar in Century City
2. Jack n' Jill's in Santa Monica
3. Mayberry in Pacific Palisades
4. The 29th Street Cafe (a.k.a. the 2-9 to us Trojans)
5. Eat on Sunset in Hollywood
6. On occasion, my sorority house for lunch (thank you to our amazing chef, Gary!)
7. Library Alehouse in Santa Monica

Some shout-outs to restaurants outside of LA that get my "sweet-potato-fries seal-of-approval":
1. Cafe Flora in Seattle, WA (referred to on the menu was "yam fries" but oh-so-good, especially with the vegan garlic aoli)
2. Herb Box in Scottsdale, AZ (they make sweet potato chips with a secret seasoning that is TO DIE FOR!!!)
3. Fish on Fifth in Sidney, a small town outside of Victoria, British Columbia (that's Canada a.k.a. up north for all you geography,'s worth the trip just for a maple-glazed grilled salmon salad and a side of delicious sweet potato wedges)

In addition, here are some places that I know serve my little fried friends, but have yet to try them:
1. The Corner on Highland and Lexington
2. Nick & Stef's Steakhouse in Downtown LA
3. Father's Office in Santa Monica and Century City
4. The Counter in Santa Monica
5. Blue Plate in Santa Monica

Now, I've never met a sweet potato fry I didn't like - let's face it, this is one thing that my palate is not too discriminating about...BUT I'd really like to know where truly the best sweet potato fries are served. Consider this your mission, should you choose to accept it (but please do - I'm hungry I sit here in my room eating glorious, sorority-house sweet potato fries).