Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unplanned Hiatus

Hey everyone,

Just popping in quickly to let you know that a potentially big and important (to me) project has come up (sorry, can't really talk about it yet), and the time I would be able to devote to blogging is probably better spent focusing on writing that, instead. It won't be forever. I will return. Just don't think I've forgotten you.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

PSA: Tangled Is Much Better Than You Think It Will Be

Ok, full disclosure - I work for the Walt Disney Company. That said, I work in television, and how a film does at the box office has little or no bearing on my job. I am an unabashed fan of Disney, but I don't blindly love everything they put out (I haven't enjoyed a CGI Disney animated film that wasn't made by Pixar, for example). There. That's out of the way.

I'll start with my point - Go see Tangled. Seriously.

Now the details. Melissa and I got the chance to see a preview screening of the movie last weekend. Neither one of us was all that interested in the movie based on the trailers. I was sure it was another attempt to feel "hip" and "young," the exact kind of thing I hate in cartoons. There is no surer way to make a bad movie than to try and make something specifically for kids. Look at Pixar - kids love their movies, but they are truly aimed at adults (except maybe Cars; I don't know many people over the age of 10 who got much out of that one). Kids may enjoy a hip, loud, "in your face" movie in the moment, but like everyone else, it's emotion and character that they really connect with. From what I'd been shown, Tangled looked like a movie that kids would forget five minutes after they left the theater. I am here to tell you I was wrong.

Tangled feels so much like a classic Disney musical that it's hard not to love every minute of it. When I first learned it would be a CGI project, I was bummed out because the hand drawn concept art had been so damn gorgeous. Well, it turns out CG (and even 3D) are used downright beautifully and I never found myself wishing it was a traditionally animated movie. The main characters are rich and lovable and the villain is a masterpiece of passive-aggression that evolves into true aggression. The two animal "sidekicks" effectively steal the show (in the best way possible). The story is a nice twist on a classic fairy tale and engaging throughout. And the songs! I enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, but Randy Newman's lackluster music held it back from being a great movie. Alan Menken is in classic form. Melissa and I recently saw his adaptation of Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson and were mostly disappointed. Clearly his creative efforts went into this movie. I left the theater dazzled and enchanted.

So, if you've been watching the commercials and writing Tangled off as another Shrek clone that will make you cringe with every attempt to cram a catchphrase down your throat, trust me - you couldn't be further from the truth. Tangled is a kind of movie that I haven't seen from Disney (again, excluding Pixar) in a long time - Magical. Go see it. Now.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Keep On Truckin' (Yeah, That's the Best I Got)

If your city is anything like LA (and if you live in LA, it is very much like LA), then it has recently become infested with gourmet food trucks. I follow about a dozen trucks on Twitter, and if any of them are near somewhere I'm planning to be, I'll go check it out. And if you're here, you're curious what I think about them, so buckle up!

The Flying Pig Truck:
This was the first truck to catch my attention, largely because they serve pork belly sandwiches. Pork belly is what they use to make bacon, so I support it fully. After several false starts when they were supposed to be at my office (leading me to fruitlessly scour the neighborhood), I caught up with them at the Unique LA arts & crafts fair. Unfortunately, being an indoor event, the truck wasn't there, just a table. The truck and I crossed paths at the fantastic Meltdown Comics in West Hollywood.

On the left is the aforementioned Pork Belly Bun sandwich. The flatbread is a very nice touch, and I highly recommend anything you find that uses braised pork belly. To your right is the duck taco. The flavors are somewhat Asian inspired, with a hint of Mexican fusion. In short - delicious. They use something that they call Death Sauce and I want to put it on everything I eat for the rest of my life. It's not as spicy as its name would imply, but it bursts with flavor and really compliments the food. I have been to several trucks since the Flying Pig and it remains in my top two or three. Rating - Always Visit When Nearby.

The Grilled Cheese Truck:
This is almost certainly the most popular truck I've encountered. I've been twice and both times waited nearly an hour in line to order (Melissa went once with her sister and apparently the line wasn't as bad, but that was a weekday). Once they were part of a food truck event on the Disney Lot where their line was twice as long as everyone else's. The second time was at the anniversary party for Noho Scooters, which is literally two blocks from my apartment (and has vintage arcade machines including Tron, and I NEVER KNEW! How does that happen?), making it the closest one of these things has ever come to home. Somehow, I've managed to avoid taking a picture of the truck itself, but here's my sandwich of choice, the Cheesy Mac and Rib:
That's a grilled cheese, with mac & cheese and barbecue pork ribs. I posted this to Facebook at the time saying, "I waited an hour and a half for this, it better be the best sandwich I've ever got lucky." That pretty much sums it up. It's like this truck took everything good in food and put it in one sandwich. It's greasy and probably terrible for me, but I love it. Their dessert grilled sandwich (banana and Nutella) is worth ordering, as well. Find them. Wait in line. Eat it. You're welcome. Rating - Will Go Out of My Way to Eat There

The Slice Truck:
The Slice Truck is a pizza truck. I ate there when they came by the office as a thank you for Camp Rock 2 doing well or something. I had a good slice of pepperoni and an excellent thick slice of kind of a white pizza white heirloom tomatoes. Very good, not much to write home about. Rating - If I see them 20 feet away and was hungry, I'd go again.


I've been following Frysmith for quite a while, and I ran into them at the Farmer's Market at the Americana in Glendale completely by accident. As you can see, it's cool that they run their truck on their own fry oil, which seems like both good for the environment AND good business. Good for them. I had the special, which was a Canadian specialty called a poutine. I think a poutine is basically fries and gravy with cheese curds. This one had a burgundy wine gravy and bacon in addition to the cheese.
If that doesn't sound and look delicious to you, you are wrong. You should probably just find another blog to read. I think there's another one or two out on the internet. I can't speak for the rest of the Frysmith menu, but this was one hell of a dish. Rating: Would like to try again.

Border Grill Truck:
See the previous post. It was great, but I don't feel like talking about it again. Rating - Would Go To Some Length to Hunt Them Down.
The Greasy Wiener:
Man, these guys love the pun in their name and they play it up. I found them down by Warner Brothers one day at lunch. You guys know I love hot dogs and I'm incredibly picky about them. The dog here was pretty good, but I buried it in a heart attack of toppings. I had the chili cheese bomb - a hot dog wrapped in bacon, covered in chili, and essentially dipped in melted cheese. Hard to argue with that. The highlight, though, was actually the sliders, which they called Iggys.

I've had plenty of sliders in my time, and these were very high quality. No White Castle paper thin cardboard patty here. These reminded me of tiny In N Out burgers, nice and thick and very flavorful. Rating - Oh, Are They Nearby? I Guess I Could Go For That.

KO Taco:
I saw KO Taco once at Meltdown. I tried three or four different things. They were essentially just tacos and taquitos. Meh. Rating - Don't Care If I See Them Again.

So you can get an idea of some of the variety of truck that's out there. And in a city like LA, many of them (like the Border Grill Truck) are run by actual gourmet chefs. I know it's kinda hipstery and lame to follow a food truck, but the food is really worth it. It's a little pricey for fast food ($10/person on average) but that's damn cheap for true gourmet. So check it out sometime; try something new and different without breaking the bank. That's all I've got. I'm out 'til next time.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Susan Feniger Fiesta

Ok, I'm done with catching up with my cooking. I do have a bunch of other food pictures on my computer waiting to be uploaded, but it's not gonna happen. Waiting to upload these is just another excuse to not update the blog. So, I'm moving forward. Highlights that I won't be covering - a beautiful cold avocado and cucumber soup served in a red bowl with sour cream and hot sauce (probably the prettiest picture I've taken, and I loved the flavor, too) and Tom Colicchio's sirloin steak (which is a pretty picture, but that's because you can't tell I overcooked it by trusting cooking times in the recipe more than my sense of touch). So let's just put it all behind us and enjoy reading my blog again.

I mentioned in my last post (when was that, 1996?) that Melissa and I have been going to a lot of fancy-type restaurants. Well, I may have found a favorite local chef (my favorite chef overall is Rick Bayless. The meal I had at Frontera Grill in Chicago was life-changingly good, and his Red O here in LA is a favorite, as well). Susan Feniger (who you may know from Top Chef Masters or Too Hot Tamales) has several restaurants in LA, and I can now say I've been to all of them. Each was a delightful experience in its own way.

The first we tried (also really the start of the whole fancy-type restaurant thing for us) was Ciudad. Ciudad doesn't exist anymore. Just last month it transformed into a new Border Grill location (more on BG (Border Grill, not Battlestar Galactica (that parenthetical defeats the purpose of abbreviating)) below). But while it existed, Ciudad was a fun, quirky place to try some unique, modern Mexican-inspired dishes. We went on a Sunday, which was tapas night. Basically the menu was reduced down to tasting plates. The memorable dishes for me were my first ceviche (later eclipsed by the divine ceviche at Frontera Grill) and the local farmer's market salad. The salad was watermelon and mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and some kind of green. I wouldn't have expected the flavors to go together, but it was fresh and sweet and wonderful. Honestly this dinner was long enough ago that I couldn't tell you much more about it, other than that I enjoyed it.

Much more recently, we tried Street. Street is Feniger's tribute to world-wide street food. It has an eclectic menu of dishes you'll probably never see anywhere else in this country. The menu changes quite a bit, but when we were there we had a great spicy sashimi and a Thai coconut soup that I liked a lot. The restaurant's signature dish, and easily my favorite, is the Kaya Toast. This is toast spread with coconut jam (kaya, a Pacific island staple, if I'm not mistaken - no, I'm not going to look it up), then dipped into egg yolk and soy sauce. It's impossible to describe how good this is. Find it somewhere and try it. Trust me. I also discovered my new favorite drink - The Sazerac. This is a New Orleans classic and a favorite of several authors from the turn of the 20th Century. Because it's made with absinthe, it was hard to come by until recently. Essentially, it's the same as a Manhattan, but with absinthe instead of vermouth. Rye/bourbon, absinthe, and bitters - it's smooth, it's sweet, and it feels damn classy. I ordered three (which was expensive, and I didn't care). Speaking of expensive, like Bazaar, Street focuses on small plates. We ordered WAY too many of them. Everything on the menu looked good, so we just kept ordering. I was overstuffed and broke by the time I left. Still, this was my favorite Feniger experience and I will go back frequently.

Our next stop was the Feniger Flagship - Border Grill (or as I like to call it, Battlestar Galactica (if you don't get that joke, you should probably read this more carefully). Honestly, it was my least favorite of the three. Not that it was bad, by any means, but it was the one I tried most recently, and nothing about the meal really stands out in my head. Everything was good, but I guess it wasn't as unique as I had hoped. It should be noted that we visited for DineLA week and were ordering from a limited Prix Fixe menu, so we may not have had the best the restaurant could offer. I'll try it again, probably at the downtown location that used to be Ciudad sometime before I see a show at the Ahmanson or the Disney Concert Hall. If nothing else, the atmosphere was fun and festive.

Finally, just this past weekend, I finally got to experience the Border Grill Truck. Cashing in on the food truck craze in LA (more in a future post. Possibly...TOMORROW???), this is a scaled-down version of the Border Grill that travels around the city. Oddly enough, I liked it WAY more than the actual restaurant. I had a cone of ceviche (the cone was crunchy tortilla) for $5 and an avocado taco (don't know what spice it was covering the avocado, but I loved it). Melissa had a poblano quesadilla and I take her word for it that it was delicious. The ceviche was very flavorful and served with black bean dip. It's hard to remember that ceviche, fancy fare in the states, is actually a street food in most parts of the world. But if you need a real reason to hunt down this truck, I give you two words: Churro Tots. That's right, little tater tot shaped churros. And they're filled with dulce de leche. And with fresh whipped cream for dipping. And coated in cinnamon. And they're all chewy in the middle, instead of crunchy like you usually get (this is either Spanish or Mexican style, I think, I don't know which is which). Delicious. I also had a mango soda, one of those Mexican sodas that you always see and never drink. You should drink them. They're good.

And that's all the time I have for today. I'll be back (...TOMORROW??? Maybe).


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Bazaar

For my birthday, Melissa took me out to a restaurant I've wanted to try for a while - Bazaar by Jose Andres. Jose is a kind of a big deal in the restaurant world and I've heard a lot of good buzz about Bazaar. Mostly I was intrigued at the prospect of molecular gastronomy - using science and chemicals to create new and interesting flavors and textures. This is the kind of place that would probably close within five minutes of opening in Iowa and the townspeople might accuse the chef of witchcraft.

The restaurant felt maybe a little too hip inside. It was Beverly Hills, after all. There was quirky art and statues displayed in unexpected places and most of the customers felt like they were trying to be something. You get used to this in LA. Upon being seated, we were presented with rather large menus and wine lists. I went straight for the craziest drink I could find. I don't recall the name, but it was a rum-based drink, inspired by a Cuban classic (not a mojito, but it tasted a bit like one). Not crazy, you say? Just wait, says I! The drink was frozen with liquid nitrogen, making it more like an alcoholic sorbet. On top of it all, they prepared it at your table.
Sitting at the table and looking up at the guy making this thing, it was like having a mad scientist for a bar tender. The smoke (steam? what is it that liquid nitrogen makes?) pouring over the counter was enchanting. The drink? Well, a little strong, but pretty tasty and refreshing.

The main menu was basically a series of tapas. It was divided into two sides - traditional and new. The traditional side was, as you would expect, traditional Spanish-inspired dishes. We had a few of them and they were quite well done. None of them stand out in my mind nearly a month later, though. It was the New section that I had come to try and it was those dishes that really stood out. We ordered in about 3 batches, five or six tapas each.

The first batch had an order of sweet potato chips with a whipped yogurt dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was absolutely phenomenal. I wish I knew what else was in it because it was the perfect compliment to sweet potatoes.
The little waffle cones in the above picture contain, if memory serves, a small amount of ceviche. It was nothing compared to the ceviche we had at Rick Bayless's Frontera in Chicago, but it was still quite good. The only complaint was that there wasn't enough of it. The giant Q-tips are something that everyone had recommended, but no one could describe - foie gras cotton candy. I didn't really know what to expect, but no phrase could better describe molecular gastronomy for me than "foie gras cotton candy." Essentially, it was sugar spun around a hunk of foie gras. The cotton candy itself was very sweet, though mostly flavorless, and the foie gras was so rich and was a very nice compliment. It was an odd taste sensation, but very satisfying.

Another standout in my mind was the "Caprese Salad" pictured at left. That looks pretty typical, but the experience was anything but. You see, those balls of mozzarella are not what they appear to be. They're not just little hunks of cheese. They are some kind of thing that Bazaar calls a "Spherification." It's some kind of chemical gel formed into a ball that will burst in your mouth. These were filled with a molten mozzarella that just oozed into your mouth as soon as it hit the tongue. It was sort of what they referred to on The Simpsons as "a tasty fake." Your eyes expect one texture and it sucker punches you with liquid cheese. Very cool. There were also a lot of "re-imaginings" or deconstructions of dishes. We had an order of the "Philly Cheese Steak." These were thin slices of wagyu beef (the American version of kobe) on top of what the restaurant called "air bread." Essentially, this was a crusty, pastry-like bread puffed with air, sort of like an un-filled, high-end Hot Pocket. Inside of this bread was a very sharp cheddar cheese, once again, liquefied. The way that cheese poured out of the bread into my mouth was strange and wonderful.

Of course, sometimes it really felt like the chef was trying to hard. Most notably, the shrimp cocktail. The menu described the dish as "Just a Shrimp Cocktail (Yeah, right!)." Naturally, I wanted to see what this snide menu item was. Well, here you go:
What you are looking at is 2 individual shrimp (it came with 4 total) skewered on a pipette filled with cocktail sauce. The waiter instructed us to put the shrimp in our mouths, then squeeze the pipette. Really? That's your "new take" on the shrimp cocktail? Don't get me wrong, the cocktails sauce was spicy and some of the best I've tasted, but just give it to me in a dish with a handful of shrimp like a normal person. Paying $10 for 4 shrimp is just insanity.

By this time in the evening, our waiter had literally disappeared. He had been all over the table for most of the evening, but he was gone. He even forgot to bring out one of the plates we had ordered. I didn't care. I'd ordered my second drink and was feeling pretty full, anyway. The drink was a Dirty Martini, Bazaar-style. Ketel One vodka (my personal choice), topped with an olive foam and garnished with a spherification of olive (much like the mozzarella cheese mentioned above, kind of like a melty gummy olive). Nice, but heavier on olive flavoring than I usually prefer. My fault for ordering a dirty martini. Anyway, the waiter showed up and we asked for dessert. We were led away from our table and into a dessert lounge, where we could choose from any number of candies and cakes. Melissa had a cupcake and we had an interesting passion fruit jelly, but the candies were the most fun and fantastic. There were lemon lime rocks, which had a delightful sparkle and texture and, my favorite, chocolate covered Pop Rocks. I think they were raspberry flavored. They looked like Cocoa Pebbles but exploded (chocolate covering does not stop the Rocks from Poppin') with a berry flavor. Combined with teas and coffee, it was a nice way to end the meal.

Bazaar provided me with an eating experience I'd never had before. For the most part, the flavors and textures I tried were exciting and delicious. However, I'm not sure I would want to eat this style of food very often. I got pretty bad heartburn that I blame on the chemicals used to create the mad genius on the plate. Plus, so much of the food is foamy and liquefied that it doesn't feel terribly satisfying (though it is certainly filling). I think everyone should try a place like this at least once, but most of the time I'd rather have more "normal" food.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Catching Up With the Chef (Part 2)

Ok, once more. With feeling.

As I've mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I'm a big fan of (Top Chef producer/head judge) Tom Colicchio. At least, I'm as much of a fan as you can be of a chef whose food you've never eaten (his restaurant Craft is at the top of my "fancy restaurants to visit next" list). I like his demeanor on the show and thoroughly enjoy his blog on the Top Chef official website. He's smart, well-written, and funny when he wants to be. I also adore the approach of his cookbook - Think Like a Chef. It's designed to train a person in the basic techniques of cooking and how to pair foods based on the freshest ingredients available. It's a fantastic text book that reads more like a friend giving you advice.

The first section in Tom's book is all about roasting. He tells you the basic steps (brown on the stove, cook in low heat, baste, rest) and then presents a few recipes to show how those steps are adapted for different dishes. The first recipe was a chicken. I've covered roasting chicken before, and this method didn't provide many new experiences, other than learning how to truss a chicken (note - if you are looking for butcher's twine at Target, it is in the automotive section for some reason). Next up is a roasted bass. Now, bass apparently isn't in season because I can't seem to find it anywhere around here (not even Whole Foods, which does have Chilean Sea Bass, but that's not REALLY bass, it's Patagonian Tooth Fish), but Tom says any firm fleshed fish will work. I went with salmon because it was the only one of his suggestions I could find. I got one of the thickest salmon filets I've ever bought (I admit, I often buy frozen, not fresh) and seasoned it as suggested. One of the revelations I've had from Tom's book is kosher salt. I'd always used iodized and upgraded to sea salt for the fancy stuff. Now, almost every dish I serve contains coarse kosher salt. It's like a magic potion that makes things delicious. It adds a crunch and the flavor is perfectly suited to classy cooking - salty without being overpowering. The fish came out wonderfully rich and oily to the point of literally melting in my mouth. Fish is touchy, but this one came out perfect:
I also used a recipe from later in the book for pan-roasted asparagus. I didn't follow it too carefully, just got the gist of it and seasoned it with what I had on hand. That happened to be sage. In case you were wondering, sage and butter go VERY nicely with asparagus. The roasting softened the vegetable but kept it firm enough to still be pleasant. I was very proud of my ability to not stay married to a recipe and create something that was quite delicious using my own instincts and experience.

I'm also a big fan of Jamie Oliver. His "Food Revolution" is a cause I fully support and I use his 20 Minute Meals iPhone app quite a lot. His recipes are simple, healthy, and still very flavorful. My first experience with his recipes came from a card I picked up during the Food & Wine Festival at Disneyland. Pretty basic - spaghetti and tomato sauce. I've been looking to move away from jarred, store-bought pasta sauces, so it was a natural choice. I was a little disappointed that the recipe called for canned tomatoes, but I went with it. I was also introduced to a Jamie Oliver favorite - the red chile. I have made five of his recipes so far, and they have ALL called for a sliced red chile. I appreciate the kick it gives to his food (especially this pasta sauce). This dish came out well enough that I made it twice. Fresh basil can really add a lot of flavor to anything.
One chef I know next to nothing about is Cat Cora. I know she's an Iron Chef America, but I've never watched an episode where the contestant chose her. I know she's supposed to be doing a series of web videos with the Muppets, but I haven't seen any of them released. Other than that, all I knew was that she had made an appearance at the same Food & Wine Festival I mentioned above. Obviously, someone who appears at Disneyland can't be all bad. I saw the recipe she had prepared for the festival online - Greek Sliders with Sweet Potato Fries. Sounds good to me!

Apparently Cat is a Greek Southerner and that inspires her cooking. I'm a sucker for Greek food, so I was already on board. I don't know where to buy slider buns, so I just cut up some focacia rolls:The burgers came out fine. I don't remember much about them, specifically. They were basically a smaller version of the burgers I've made and grilled many times before. The tzatziki was perfect. Greek yogurt and the flavors that it is infused with are just music in my mouth. I don't know why. I have no Greek heritage and I don't having any great memories of Greek food; I just love it. It was a nice twist on an American classic, and I devoured it.

I also devoured the fries. I've tried several recipes for sweet potato fries and they normally come out mushy and a little under flavored. The technique for these didn't seem that different than what I had tried before (season, coat in olive oil, bake), but these ones came out perfectly crispy, the way you would expect a french fry from a fast food restaurant to feel. I used to pepper to give them a little kick and for some reason they were absolutely perfect. Maybe I have to pay more attention to Cat Cora from now on.

That's all for now. More catching up soon.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Flat Bottom Tacos You Make the Rockin' World Go 'Round

Ok, a quick diversion based on my latest food revelation. For years, nay DECADES, one great problem has plagued our dinner plates. Too often we find ourselves trying to fill a hard shell taco, only to have it tip over and spill its contents mid-preparation. I don't need to describe the terror and utter dismay as you watch the intended toppings come spilling out from their fried tortilla bounds - The mudslide of ground beef, the cascades of cheese, and each piece of diced tomato tumbling down like a boulder crushing your heart. It's every home cook's worst nightmare and we've all experienced it. It's ok, you can admit it. This is a safe place. Now, enter our hero:

Old El Paso Stand 'n' Stuff Taco Shells (note - the official name is "Stand 'n Stuff," but that second apostrophe should be there, so I added it). I saw these perched upon my grocer's shelf and reached for them with trembling hand. Had they really done it? Was this golden box my holy grail? Well, Taco Fans (ie- everyone), I can proudly report that the good people at Old El Paso have indeed done the impossible. Taco night no longer must be a stress-inducing event. These shells have a flat bottom so they STAND UP ON YOUR PLATE. I filled four of them at the same time, and no tippage occurred. This great riddle of the dinner plate has at last been solved.

Sure, there have been solutions before. Stands and racks have been created to hold your taco as you prepare, but these devices were more at home in a medieval torture chamber than a respectable person's kitchen. They were clumsy and inelegant - the blaster to the Stand 'n' Stuff's lightsaber. These shells are a clean and easy solution to a problem as old as time itself (I'm pretty sure I saw a picture of Edward the Confessor spilling his taco on the Bayeux Tapestry).

And so I urge Old El Paso - release the copyright on these marvelous inventions. Let the rest of the world manufacture the miracle of the flat-bottomed taco. You can't cure cancer and then not share the vaccine with the rest of the world. It's just not the way things should be done.

Maybe one of your competitors could solve the nagging problems that the Stand 'n' Stuff currently presents. They're extra wide, so the temptation to fill with more toppings far beyond healthy is great. Also, the width and shape leave the taco more susceptible to splitting in twain and a little harder to eat from an ergonomic standpoint.

But these problems don't detract on the majesty that is the upright taco. Thank you, Old El Paso, for making the world a better place.