Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Half and Half- Monterey Park

Half and Half.

Milk. Delish cold (occasionally foamy or warm) goodness from our moo cow friends, it can be flavoured or drunk straight, even added to other liquid goodness like tea or coffee. But the moo cow delight we speak of today is not actually half and half (the American name for half milk, half cream coffee creamer used to take that burnt taste off work coffee) but the name of an Chinese drink place that had just recently propagated their 3rd location in Rowland Heights, CA. (Recently named as one of the top places to live in the US for median household incomes. Go figure.)

It’s original two locations are both in more central SGV, the yellow tinted San Gabriel Valley. Both original locations are small, elongated in a strange long sideways hurdle. Trafficked by the young and trendy, with no less namebrand bags, cute flats and Ugg boots than a stroll through Bloomingdales, two things had been advised to us before we went to try the place. Skip the tea, (supposedly the origin of the name is the way their milk tea is created- half tea, half milk) it tasted not much more special than any other chain location. And beware the wait.

And boy was there a wait. Our first trek to H&H was at 8:30 at night, where we pulled up in front of the San Gabriel location. Snugged in a the middle of a tetris game shaped plaza with minimal parking, we hadn’t even made it all the way into the plaza before we noticed the packed crowd, blocking any view into the café. Time to try location number two. Located in a slightly bigger plaza in Monterey Park, which at least had subterranean parking, we hadn’t noticed a huge crowd from the front and were excited, that is up until we opened the door and walked in. It turns out the restaurant was long and skinny and completely packed with people all the way front and back, the ones towards the front all holding receipt tickets waiting for their order and the back line, which stretched to the back door, waiting to order and get a ticket. We joined the line, behind a group of identical Asian barbies with Channel bags, full make-up and who looked like they would have been more in place at a club than at a drink place. Was this place only a hyped up expensive hangout?

Deftly getting a menu from the front, we examined the options. There were blended drinks, teas and milks, even some small snacks, much the same offerings of drink places of the type. What was different was a section titled “Ice Milk”. Add-ins differentiated the milk drinks, with options like coffee jelly, egg pudding, strawberry and caramel flavouring, and honey flavoured boba. We decided to order three different drinks and take it back home to try, seeing as there were two tiny tables only and even had we gotten a seat, it would have been impossible to hold a conversation or drink without touching shoulders and elbows to others.

Milk with Caramel, Pudding and Honey Boba was my personal favourite for the day. The pudding was fresh and firm, not underdone. The caramel gave the strong enough flavor you need to keep the milk from becoming just …well, milk. The honey boba was delicious, squishy and bouncy, not old and hard in anyway, and sweet with the more aromatic sweet of honey rather than just normal boba. Wonderfully light but flavourful.

Milk with Caramel, Coffee Jelly and Honey Boba was a bit sharper with Coffee Jelly (which looks like a dark, semi-opaque pudding). It was good as well and for those who enjoy the taste of coffee, it gives enough, especially with the caramel adding the near-burnt hit of sweetness that was a bit more…masculine?

Milk with Strawberry, Pudding and Honey Boba is great for anyone who wants something more light hearted and sweet. Playfully sweet with its strawberry milk flavor and creamy pink colour, the pudding and boba just made it more rounded. It was the sweetest of the three drinks.

Priced at about $4 for a regular cup, which I found was an excellent size or you can upgrade to a huge large cup for 98 cents more, a good deal if you’re sharing. The drinks come uniquely served in a wide fat cup and a boba straw. The wait for the drink was nearly unbearable though. After standing in line for 10 minutes to order, we then sat about waiting another 20 minutes for the drinks to be made. All in all, 30 minutes for three drinks that required no heating or extensive processing. The good news though was we saw that they have a To-Go menu and took phone orders. You would still have to line up to pay but saved on the rest of the wait. Definitely a recommended course of action.

On a side note, we tried the newest location in Rowland Heights as well. It’s parking lot was strangely located, behind the café and hard to turn into from the main street Colima, but its location was a tad bit wider than the other two. Still a trendy young crowd, but the line and the wait was considerably shorter by about 10 minutes total. The taste was pretty similar although I thought it was a little lighter in taste than the first time I got it. Perhaps it was my imagination. Regardless, you’ll definitely see me back to order again and perhaps next time I’ll try the milk teas that give the place its name.

Tip to the wise, all three locations are cash only and if you wish to use the restroom, there’s a key to ask for from the staff. Enjoy!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bouchon - Beverly Hills

Bouchon, don’t ever leave me.

Those were the only words I could think of after I finished eating Bouchon’s, the glorious Keller rendition of a homestyle classy Lyonnaise restaurant café. But I’m skipping to the very end of the post already. Let me start at the beginning.Seperated from the Mandala hotel by a café tables sprinkled park, the Bouchon is the closest thing that So Cal will have to a French Laundry. Unlike say, Wolfgang Puck who believes expanding restaurants is like buying a new pair of shoes, Thomas Keller invests his restaurants in new locations like a starving college student with his last dollar- with caution, with great thought, and to get the most out of every venture (or $1 burrito). But back to the restaurant.

My co-horts and I booked for a reservation for Saturday brunch at 12:15 through OpenTable (which is so convenient by the way). The restaurant called, apologizing because a private event had the place monopolized on that date and would we mind changing to the following weekend? Sure, I thought. I’ve waited this long, what’s another 7 days? Parking in the convenient Beverly Hills lots just diagonally across from famous names like Spago’s and Maestro’s (free for the first 2 hours yay but they’ll bleed you if you park for longer than that, sob). We took the exit after we got off the elevator and wound up walking in a circle around but managed to find our way past the Bouchon Bar with cute young couples, their cute babies and their cute $600 strollers. Taking the stairs rather than the elevator to lose weight (haha, the irony) we let the hostess know we were here for our reservation. They were very polite and cheerful and the horrors of Bouchon’s reputation for being crowded and crazy with people were nowhere in sight. Yay.
Beautiful Saturday sunlight streamed in through large French pane windows and we were seated. Cursive specials were written on two big boards on either side of the room and a clean and bright seafood bar was attached to a regular bar, tempting our eyes. We glanced through a fantastic looking brunch menu with classics like Croque Monsieur, a French open faced ham sandwich and of course the specials’ board had Quiche. But armed with an iPhone and the wonders of online reviewing we knew there were certain things that came well recommended.
The Eggs Benedict, titled Le Pouche Royale here were famous, a replicate from Keller’s culinary headliner in Napa Valley, the French Laundry, the waiter informed us. The Beef Short Ribs Hash and a recommended Roast Chicken were our other two entrees. We moved off the regular menu and into the specials. Our server, Todd, had this flair for stating descriptions, making me ready to order just about everything he said. (My enabler foodie companions were no help in holding me back.) In the end we had a Dungeness Crab Salad, Toad in the Hole, and Prince Albert Mussels. Greedy? Maybe. Justified? Completely.

First came the Prince Albert Mussels in a wine broth with “more fries than you can possibly eat” and what can only be described as a stick of mini bread loaves baked together.

The broth was too flavourful to be called light and the mussels were delightful. We had fun pushing the shells open and getting into the quarter sized morsels of mussel inbetween bits of lightly salted fries and dips of bread into the broth. 1 pound is a lot of mussels though, so beware if you’re dining along or with only one other person. It’d be a shame to waste.The next two appetizers came together.

The Dungeness Crab Salad was plated artistically, with baby shallots and a creamy avocado sauce that was as far from guacemole as a smart car is from an Maserati. Light, fresh, an uplifting and light mix of seafood salad, the sauce, and the baked crisps that stuck out from the salad like the Kraken’s last attempt at stopping us from devouring the dish. As if it could. The other dish, Toad in the Hole, is actually a Toasted Brioche with what I think is hen or quail egg, I can’t remember. Light and wonderfully warm, with a consistency lighter than bread pudding, I wasn’t paying attention when the description came but I can tell you I was all tongues with taste.

Onto entrees! K’s chicken addiction called for of course, the chicken. A glistening half chicken perched in an au jus pond, steamed corn and herbs forming a pretty little bed.

The Roast Chicken with Chicken Jus was tender, the deliciously dark brown of the roasted skin of chicken balanced against the white meat underneath, not dry in anyway. It was followed by the Short Rib Hash.

It was served in a shallow saucepan with double handles, carrots, potatos mixed in with what looked like moist, falling apart generous pieces of meat. A perfectly circular hen egg, made with a mold no doubt, sat on top, flakes of parsley decorating the top. It looked like it was made for a warm winter dinner at some ancient inn on the borders of Bordeaux perhaps. It tasted wonderful, the rib meat cooked soft, the fat having half melted into the meat and flavouring all the vegetables it was mixed in with. Accompanying it were two slices of multigrain toast which tasted fresh and healthy. I loved it. The only thing that could have made it better would probably have been a glass of red wine to go with the slightly heavier entrée. I think I’d have preferred to order this for dinner next time, if only to keep from falling into a happy food coma afterwards. And the last but by far not the least…

This is the Pouche Royale, the crowning breakfast dish of eggs benedict smothered with hollandaise sauce from Keller’s own French Laundry, smoked salmon slices peeking out teasingly from underneath all atop a Bouchon baked english muffin. The hen egg was perfected poached, the yolk just runny enough to soak into the toasted muffin as you cut through the grapefruit sized Pouche Royale, fresh parsley and the salmon adding a smoked savoury flavour. Excuse me for a second as I wipe the drool off my touchscreen. Did I mention it came with two eggs benedicts? Both sides of my muffin perhaps?

Ahh…my stomach was full and happy but a trip here would not be complete without dessert as the tables that neighbored us throughout our meal suggested. We received a metal dessert menu holder, the Bouchon name engraved in its back and a straight forward paper menu slid into the front.
A list of desserts ranging from Lemon Tart to Dark Chocolate Mousse was followed by a small collection of Fromages, dessert cheeses on the bottom. We decided to follow our quite large meal with a shared dessert though, perhaps hoping sheepishly to not seem so…overindulgent. (We seem to get this reaction a lot. The waiter actually agreed when we joked about this. Sadness.)The dessert was delicious and light, three chocolate cake shaped like cartoonishly overlarge winecorks from which the restaurant took its name, topped with a ball of malt ice cream and a large piece of malt chocolate, dark on one side and off white on the other standing between the trio of les bouchon.

The taste of malt was obviously prevalent, a little too strong for me since I would have preferred to enjoy the balance of the malt chocolate with vanilla ice cream instead but it was still delicious. I wouldn’t mind stopping by the Bouchon café/bakery downstairs if I were in the area to have the dessert by itself.
All in all, Bouchon has more than satisfied whatever expectations and indecisiveness I’ve had about trying a Thomas Keller establishment. The price was justified by the quality, the dishes were not pretentiously tiny as some places (Ortalon, its Beverly Hills neighbor comes to mind) and I felt relaxed and well taken care of there. I would definietly go back and in fact hope to make a return trip…just after I make a much anticipated trip to the Providence for New Years.
235 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, California 90210
(310) 271-9910

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bottega Louie - Downtown LA

Bottega Louie. With a name like a well-oiled Italian handbag, it’s exterior also has the aura of a Louis Vuitton store. With tall open windows, bold crown molding and white with gold accented faux-euro architecture reminiscent of ancient east coast banks, it’s no wonder the bakery restaurant (or as some call it, gourmet market) captures your attention. Standing like a lioness on the corner of 7th and Grand in Downtown Los Angeles, it has a reputation for good dinners, pricey but delicious desserts and a loud andcrowded youthful atmosphere after work hours. Luckily for K and myself, we had Columbus Day off and indulged ourselves by traveling to this recommendation from M. Parking in downtown is always a pain just two levels short of pulling teeth, but thank God fthe parking lot located just behind the restaurant on Grand has $3 parking after 4PM on weekdays. Win.

We sauntered over to the restaurant and immediately the bright boxes and culinary equipments in the open bakery (the restaurant also has an open kitchen and pizza bar) excited us. (Or me. If you want to excite K, just hand him a bottle of Peruvian aji sauce to eat with anything and you’ll see excitement.) Ahem. Anyways, there’s a side door to go to the bakery and a small opencooler area with premade foods, not unlike at Fanima or 7-11, probably for the grab-n-go lunch crowds. We went around to the front of the restaurant, in through the large heavy double doors, ready to be awed. The interiors were very nice, high super-vaulted ceilings, a lounge/bar area and behind that, the main restaurant. We’d arrive at 4:40 and were informed that due to Colombus Day, they were on a limited café style lunch menu and the dinner menu would not be available till 5. Boo. On the other hand, our suave good looking waiter did mention that the much heralded Portobello Mushroom Fries were off the menu but available. Yeeeeees. [insert fistpump here]

We peeked through the regular menu but were relatively hungry enough that we decided to try their lunch one and then add on more if still hungry. We had the Club Sandwich and a wood fired pizza. I wanted to try more than one flavor for the pizza so went half and half with Burrata, which included burrata, proscuitto, rapini and granna parmesan. The other half was Sausage, fennel sausage, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. We also clung onto the dinner menu is anticipation of the so-close-yet-so-far 5 o'clock.

After getting a nice glass bottle of chilled tap water which the water left with us after serving our glasses, we sat looking outside the restaurant. This is in the heart of downtown and it shows. Security kept walking by our window seating along with businessmen, the homeless, and the "casual crowd". Our mushroom fries came before long and boy, were they delicious just like we'd heard. Thickly sliced portabello mushroom dipped in a light batter and fried, I could see the mushroom through the fried outerskin and also the salt and seasoning dashed on lovingly. Served in paper in a metal cuplike container, what made it just right was the aioli dip served with it. Creamy with the flavour of classy mayo, it gave the light salted batter exterior and the meaty tender interior of the mushroom a nice pair of handcuffs to tie together and swim straight into my tummy. Not too greasy at all for a fried dish, this is a must order uniqueness at Bottega Louie.

After gobbling up our fries and making a crumbling embarrassing mess on the table paper, our water informed us the kitchen was ready for dinner orders so I added on a French Onion soup. (I adore soup.)

Our pizza holder was delivered with standard cheese and pepper bottles. (Oh, how I miss the fried garlic bottles of Il Chianti.) When the pizza was served, it looked yummy and Italian and not unlike Italian style pizza I've had before. The sausage pizza was my first taste and it had a nice meaty flavour, a good pairing with the mozzarella although I felt they could have put a little more cheese. In major chunks of slices, there was just marinara with a dash of spices-no meat or cheese. Maybe it's the style, but if you're eating the combination of sausage, cheese and sauce, you should be able to taste all three in every bite. The prosciutto burratta was good too, K liked this one more although I found the rapini to be a tiny overpowering and the arrangement only one slice of prosciutto for each slice to be disappointing. As Oliver Twist said, "Might I have some more, sir?"

All in all, true to the taste of Italian pizza making although not my favorite rendition. The crust was a bit thick and neither of us ate more than a bite of it, leaving a sad little mountain of discarded crusts sitting on our plates.

Next was the club sandwich with French ham, turkey, tomato, gruyere, avocade, watercress and slices of hardboiled egg. Apple smoked bacon hide out somewhere between all that, somewhere between all the healthy stuff. Served with a side of thick cut potato chips, the chips werely inedible in my view. Flavourless, dry with a oily touch, I recommend asking if you can substitute for something else. The sandwich, which comes crustless and quartered was Meh. Not mindblowing considering the ingredients had given it at least a decent palatte to work with, it is nothing more or less than an okay club.

By now we were full so the soup was a good ending. Served with a square of bread and cheese baked over, it looked really really good.

It wasn't. It was on the bland side, the simple onion soup just a little too late, the cheese not able to bring out it's flavour fully with it's onion soup partner floundering in the tastes department. The bread, which looked really pretty actually hurt the soup. Because it took up such a large space in the soup, there wa not too much soup to begin with. And because slices bread suck up liquid much the way my Dyson sucks up cookie crumbs, what was limited became less. Hardly $8 worth of soup in my opinion.

We were full and not thrilled but surely Bottega Louis could not let us down in their speciality, desserts. The waiter recommended the Le Grande Macaroon, two large Italian macaroon cookies with ice cream sandwiched between and fresh berries. The macaroon was very hard, the taste sweet but the consistency of hard cookie cake, the bite sticky as if there were jam mixed into the cookie. I admit, I'm not familiar with much macaroons but this was not my idea of a to-die-for dessert. Nevertheless, the fruit was fresh and the ice cream at least was good.

I hear their dinner menu is good but to be honest, I have yet to see any example of exemplerary cuisine. However, a large variety of desserts still await testing along with a reasonably sized lounge area, not too expensive pricing (except for the disappointing soup) and a late closing time. If I'm feeling snacky for mushroom fries while in downtown LA, I just might come back.

Bottega Louie
700 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(866) 418-9162

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Nobu - West Hollywood

Our dineLA pick of the year to try was the well-known, celebrity owned (Robert DeNiro is co-owner) and applauded, Nobu. Located in West Hollywood, it’s directly across from a Domino’s pizza and a 24 hour dry cleaning. Hm. Very LA indeed. We saw it but the street and even valet area was so packed there was no real way to stop without blocking traffic so we proceeded to pull a left. And then a right because it’s impossible to pull another left. And then a very smooth, fast U-turn (thanks to the polished asian driving skills of K, honed through his years of driving around UCLA and the SGV) landed us in front of a debonair white building with an understated NOBU scripted along the left side of the wall. Hello sushi.

Now for those that may not understand the way that dineLA works, a prix fixe menu (a set number of pre-arranged courses) is available at a number of participating restaurants, a lure to natives to venture out and try what restaurants tout as their classy equivalent of a Costco tasting stand (albeit for money). The nice part of course is the price. With three price tiers for the restaurants (fine dining, family dining, and more casual in my eyes), it gives a nice chance for simple commoners as myself and co. to have a taste of these uber expensive high-end culinary fixtures the media raves about. At a much more mid-level price.

Nobu was rated at the highest tier, $44 per a person. Not too bad considering the median price of an entrée is about $25 and up. Anyways, onto the food. My fellow foodies K, M and I chose the recommended Family Style prix fixe consisting of 5 courses, including a dessert. Not bad for $44. Checking the menu and seeing that the 4th course was a meat course (Black Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Teriyaki) I requested a change to the Black Cod instead, a dish I’d heard was pretty good. (Plus this is a sushi restaurant. I would much prefer to eat my beef elsewhere.) The waiter suggested the Seabass instead. No problems there.

Before the food came, water and alchy. Now I don’t see the point of ordering anything but tap usually but this night I was so entranced by menu-reading, I didn’t realize the server heard “Flat” instead of “Tap” and we wound up with a bottle of Fiji poured into our glasses before I noticed. Don’t get me wrong, I like Fiji water. Just not at $9 a pop. Ow. At least they didn’t automatically bring another bottle when we finished and I politely requested refills of “Tap” in a much clearer voice this time.

As for alchy, M and I decided to try two cocktails, an Acai cocktail and a Pina Martini. ($14 each) The Acai (which tasted almost with a hint of ...guava?) was served with a flower and the Pina with a slice of starfruit. Both drinks were relatively light and fresh with a nice clean presentation and flavor. For a trendy seen and be seen place, the price was steep but passable. I’m not a heavy drinker though and I can imagine for those that may down more than just one cocktail at dinner, be prepared to pay for your alchy, especially since the drink itself, though flavourful, didn’t seem very strong.

About now the first dish arrived. A long plate of 9 translucently thin Yellowtail Sashimi with a circlet of jalapeno on top, the lemony taste of the ponzu sauce was clean and flavourful, not too strong but with just enough of jalapeno tickle on your tongue when you ate the whole piece. However, it was hardly amazing, just good.

The second appetizer was the Salmon New Style Sashimi. Thicker than the yellowtail but not by much slices of salmon were again plated, this time with a sesame seeds and a light oil and yuzu sauce. The fish was warm, lightly seared on one side and raw on the other. Interesting concept but I’ve been taught to distrust the taste of warm sashimi so it was bit…disconcerting. Good fish quality but not my favorite dish for personal reasons.

At this point a bowl of rice arrived mysteriously at our table. One bowl. For the three of us. We inspected the rice with the confused yet good humour of a school teacher at a homework excuse. Why was there only one bowl? Why was there rice, period? Personally, I’d rather have received soup. Upon glancing around, there was only one other table with rice- a table where an asian couple was seated. K jokingly claimed that it was because we looked so asian, they assumed we needed to eat Chinese-style. I tasted the rice out of curiousity but it was exactly that. Boring, white rice and not particularly the best cooked.

The third that arrived was Peruvian Lantern Scallops Tempura with Yuzu Koshio and Roasted Garlic Aioli. M immediately said the aioli was a very nice complement and I agree. The scallops were not overly fried and the quantity was ample enough that we all got some and more. The slightest hint of spiciness only made it better.

Chilean Seabass with Japanese Miso was the star of the night and probably the saving grace of Nobu for us. Served with 5 good portioned slices on spinach and sliced mushrooms sprinkled with bold fried onions. I love well-cooked mushrooms and these were wonderful- tender and flavourful, yet with enough snap in them to break apart cleanly when you bit them. Delicious. The fish was good, very good and the miso glaze was an excellent fool-proof complement. M & K gobbled this up in no time.

Onto desserts! Because of the prix fixe, we had a nice trio to sample from.

Banana Caramel Soy Tabanyaki, cooked with roasted peanuts in a round clay pot. A small scoop of Malaga ice cream was scooped in when the dish was un-lidded. Presentation here was definitely nice although taste fell a little short with M and me. Too sweet and might I say, too banana-y? (Is that a word?) K on the otherhand, really liked the peanuts and finished this one off. The ice cream was quite good though.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Green Tea Ice Cream was simple and yet very yummy. I like simple, not too sweet things and the warm melting chocolate that oozed out of its soft exterior paired with cold mellow green tea ice cream made me a happy eater. M made a face at some decorative crumblings on the side of the plate. Dark chocolate? Espresso? No idea, but she says they were very bitter and not complimentary in taste at all.

The last dessert was a simple Froyo with small black sesame garapinado clusters, tiny fresh strawberry pieces and a bit of blueberry coulis. The Froyo was just that, frozen yogurt, but to be honest, it tasted like perfectly good ice cream to me. (Possibly because every other dessert dish had ice cream too). K, the ice cream junkie had no complaints on this.

All in all, final total for 3 people, 2 cocktails, 1 bottle water, 3 appetizers, 1 entrée, and 3 desserts to share? $222 including tip. (plus valet parking which is $8 +tip)

Nobu is pretty but not extravagant to the point of ooing and ahhing, tasty but not to where you would rave about the exquisiteness of the dishes. Call my taste buds spoiled but I’d rather treat this as more of a trendy, hip lounge (and get a 30% off discount if you’re a Facebook fan) than come and throw down all that money for their regular menu prices. The food just wasn’t off the wall. Even the star dish, the Miso Seabass didn’t taste all that exceptionally different from the Miso Black Cod recipe by Iron Chef Morimoto- which you can cook at home for a fraction of the cost. (Although I had the occasion to eat their miso-marinated Black Cod with butter lettuce at PbB's Food and Wine Tasting and I thought it was really great.) Fantastic? No. Interesting and worth a try? If there’s a special menu such as dineLA, yes. Plus it’s a nice excuse to dress up in WeHo (West Hollywood's moniker, so M tells me). Otherwise, I’d rather take my money and go eat Spago’s delicious tasting menu again. Mmm…truffles.

903 N La Cienega Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90046
(310) 657-5711

[Additionally, due to the super dim lighting, none of my food shots came out very nice. An iPhone only food blog is going to be harder than I thought. :/]