February 28, 2015
"Here?" said the Uber driver. "You sure?"
From the outside N/Naka does not look like a restaurant. It's just another nondescript building on a nondescript stretch of Overland Avenue in a nondescript section of West L.A. Inside, however, is one of the most luxurious restaurants in the city, a simple but serene setting where some twenty lucky people are treated to an extraordinary experience.
Niki Nakayama creates a long, languorous meal of modern kaiseki, a ritual meat of seasonal dishes intended as a kind of edible poetry.
Sakizuke (something common and something uncommon):
A single kumamoto oyster with a bit of uni, cured salmon roe, a bit of fennel from the chef's garden.
Zensai – main seasonal ingredients served as appetizers:
Fried lotus root at the top, very rare duck on the right. But the most exciting part of this dish is the squiggle of squid ink that, mixed into the quail egg yolk, becomes an intensely delicious sauce for the octopus hiding beneath that nasturtium leaf.
Hokkaido scallop and a bit of pomelo strewn with leaves and flowers from the chef's garden.
Owan – still water
Served on top of a flame, this little bit of sea trout slowly heated in its white miso sauce. A lovely play of temperatures, the fish still cool in the hot sauce.
Tsukuri – sashimi
Many delicious little bites here, but the special treat was that Alaskan crab leg on the left: translucent, tender and sweet. It did not resemble, in any way the stringy frozen crab legs you may have tasted elsewhere.
Yakimono – traditionally a grilled dish, although this fish was fried int he most ethereal manner, along with a single fat fried ginko nut.
Mushimono: steamed dish
Crab chawan mushi, rich with uni.
For me the most astonishing dish of the evening. This pasta was perfectly al dente, vibrant, almost alive in the mouth. The pickled cod roe was a perfect textural contrast.
Niku – meat course
Wagyu cooked on a hot stone. The evening's least interesting offering.
Sunomono – vinegared salad
Firefly squid, sliced kumquat, flowers.
Followed by a rice dish.
The sushi, tonight, is:
Sayori, giant clam
Ama ebi, uni.
Matcha– green tea
Mizumono – dessert.
A tart, icy granita, and
This little cannoli.
February 25, 2015
When we pulled up for dinner at Alma last night, I went to park the car in the lot next door. Meanwhile Michael sat on a bench outside, having a chat with a man who hit him up for enough to buy a bowl of chili. "I gave him ten bucks," Michael said, "and I bet he's going to enjoy his dinner more than I enjoy mine."
Although Alma is aimed at adventurous eaters, even a reluctant gourmet like Michael is bound to come away happy. When the dishes hit – which they do most of the time – they're really delicious. And when they don't, they offer very interesting food for thought.
These were the hits (at least in my opinion) of our dinner.
Uni on a teensy english muffin with a bit of caviar and a few leaves and petals. How could this be anything but fantastic?
It was followed by a lovely little tofu and seafood beignet, which I gobbled up while it was still warm, neglecting to photograph it. I liked that beignet a lot, but I wished it had been a little less timid. Seaweed is such a fine, forceful flavor, and here it seemed muted.
Ari Taymor is fond of surf and turf combinations, although he always does it his way. Here the surf is trout and trout roe, the turf asparagus and nasturtium. These flavors did a little tango together, weaving in and out, hitting new flavor notes I didn't know any of the ingredients were capable of. Total hit.
The first time I tasted frozen, shaved foie gras was at David Chang's Ko, and I was totally smitten. Foie gras does something amazing when it melts in your mouth, becoming even softer and richer than it is in its native form. Taymor pairs the frozen foie gras with coffee granola – which gives it both flavor and texture contrast – and a splash of maple. I loved that combination. Not sure those carrots were absolutely necessary…..
Bad picture of a totally great dish. Sunchoke soup, which has its own intensity, paired iwth date puree and an egg yolk cooked until it's practically taffy. This is a little symphony of soft textures, and completely appealing. I'll never look at sunchokes the same way.
Sturgeon and black truffle. Need I say more?
The simplest dish of the evening, and for me, the highlight. This was the most delicious duck; if we'd had nothing else I'd go back just to experience it again. The skin was crisp, the meat as funky and metallic as the best aged beef. But what put it over the top was the bitterness of the endive, and the gentle citric zing of the poached kumquats. (The little duck boudin, up top, was also a treat.)
It was followed by a few interesting desserts – more savory than sweet – and a finale of chocolate-covered, salt-sprinkled mentholated marshmallows. A fine way to end a really wonderful meal.
February 24, 2015
Perfect little meal sitting at the bar at Osteria Mozza.
A little mozzarella. One perfect bite.
A few sprightly greens…
….and what may be my current favorite dish in LA
Tripe, stewed until it's soft, tender, almost silken, to scoop up with slightly charred toast. The best kind of peasant food.
February 23, 2015
My friend Margy told me that the last time she ate at Maude the woman the counter next to her confessed she ate there once a month. Margy looked at her in surprise; she didn't seem like the kind of woman who'd routinely spend a hundred bucks on dinner.
"The rest of the month I eat mostly at Souplantation," her neighbor admitted. "But I like to treat myself every once in a while, and I really look forward to my dinners at Maude."
I like that story, because it pretty much says everything you need to know about this restaurant. It's a special occasion. It's unpretentious. It treats people well. It's something to look forward to. And on top of that, it's a bargain. You will never spend a better hundred dollars on a meal.
When Curtis Stone decided to open a restaurant, he followed his passion. He's one of the few chefs I know who really enjoys cooking. For him this is not a business; it's a labor of love. Feeding people makes him happy. So he opened this little place with just 25 seats and an ever-changing seasonal menu.
Please forgive the photographs; the restaurant is candle-lit. Excellent for romance. Terrible for picture-taking. But here's a course by course depiction of this month's theme, parsnips.
A single delicious little bite, parsnips on homemade shrimp chips.
Curtis's idea of a bagel: a filling of smoked salmon and cream cheese is hiding inside that little puff of pastry (which in no way resembles the tough chewiness of the classic). In the front, a kind of "everything salt," a jumble of flavors.
Parsnip gazpacho – an irresistible puree hiding little guanciale cracklings that served to beautifully underline the delicacy of parsnip's flavor.
Curtis, as you can see, makes very pretty food. This is a single bite of lobster in a garden of grapefruit and herbs, sitting beneath a little cap of watermelon radish.
Bay scallops adorned with an entire flower shop's worth of foraged petals and herbs in a little puddle of whey. The sneaky flavor here was smoked anchovy, which should have been too strong…. but wasn't.
For me, the most memorable moment of the evening. What you can see are little curls of parsnip gnocchi, a few leaves of spigarello, a heap of beet and some foam. What's harder to see is the marrow, which has been cut into little squares, breaded and deep-fried so that it turns into a version of cromesquis. When you pop that into your mouth you get a deep, loud crunch, and then your mouth is flooded with liquid richness. It's a bit like xiao lung bao; liquid encased in crunch.
I love the simplicity of this version of shrimp and grits, and I love the fact that it was served with cured duck egg, a subtle nod to Chinese New Year. (See previous post.)
Foie gras is legal again. And it has rarely been so happily served as in this presentation of pear, endive and the surprise of burnt brioche crumbs. Which reminds me: I suspect that burnt offerings are going to be a new trend. I'm starting to see burnt toast cropping up as a new flavor.
Rabbit in two forms. One is a bit of boudin. The other is a few bites of tender, moist loin. That striated little leaf in the front? A very peppery nasturtium.
The cheese course: curls of Tomme in a kind of deconstructed salad. And parsnip.
The meal ended with a succession of desserts that started with that airy cupful of bubbles at the top and ended with this adorable plate of cookies.
If I lived in LA I'd try to stop in every month too. I wish there were more restaurants like it.
The wines we drank:
A rich and wonderful Portuguese Espumante
Domaine du Pelican Arbois, 2013
Verdelho Madeira from the Rare Wine Company
Domaine du Viking Vouvray 2011
Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur, 2012
Ferrandes Passito di Pantelleria 2006
February 21, 2015
They're called hundred year old eggs, and they look the part. But although pidan may look like scary eggs from hell, when you take a bite you discover something remarkably delicate. I love them.
See that flash of amber light on the plate? That's the sun from the garden, reflected through the beautiful eggs. I bought them last night in Chinatown, at what must have been the last market open. The place felt deserted; New Years is best spent at home.
These spooky duck eggs are often made by mixing tea, lime, salt and wood ash into a paste, wrapping it around each egg and leaving it to harden. After allowing the eggs to ripen for at least a month you crack away the hardened clay to unveil this otherworldly delicacy. This ancient method is still practiced all over China, but there's also an easier way: today lime and sodium bicarbonate are used to make commercial century eggs.
They're wonderful eaten on their own, or sliced into a bowl of congee. They're great on tofu. And if you want to punch up their gentle flavor, cut them into wedges and brighten them with a bit of sesame oil, soy, and a splash of black vinegar. Happy year of the ram!