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 maƮtre 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.