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