Recipes for restaurants

Children of the Clouds – And Other Wonders

March 1, 2017

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Fresh sea cucumber.  Hairy crab. Cod sperm. Huge live shrimp, legs wiggling. Marinated mackerel. Fresh bamboo shoots…

Yesterday I had a truly memorable meal at the venerable Kiriko in L.A.  It’s the kind of meal I wish I could go back and have again today. And I would – if I weren’t on my way to the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.

The Japanese call shirako – which is milt, or the sperm sac of the male cod- “children of the clouds” a euphemism that always thrills me.  The substance itself also thrills me.  It has an extraordinary texture – pillow soft, tender, almost liquid but yet not – and a rich, gentle taste.  That’s it in the bowl above, lightly poached.

Kiriko also sets it on sheets of kelp and grills it.  The result is a kind of savory marshmallow; utterly irresistible.

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But everything we ate was memorable, from this fresh hairy crab

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to these crisp, slightly crunch slices of lotus root

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and these firefly squid – no bigger than a fingernail but packing big flavor.

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I love the giant shrimp, the flesh translucent, the flavor clean, bracing and yet sweet…

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And it’s head, fried, all crackling tentacle and soft fat

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Fresh sea cucumber is quite a change if you’re accustomed to the dried version served in Chinese restaurants.  This has the most astonishing texture, simultaneously soft and chewy.  (It’s all texture, very little taste.)

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And if you’re a lover of saba – Japanese mackerel – don’t miss Kiriko’s version.

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We had some traditional sushi as well.  Wonderful uni.  And this sparkling kohada, all shiny silver scales and deep, full flavor.

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To finish up?  You might opt for the traditional tamago.  As for me, please give me a handroll with cucumber, shiso and umeboshi.  The perfect finale to a pretty perfect meal.

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My Dinner at Michael’s

February 28, 2017

FullSizeRender (21)“I want to knock your socks off!” Michael McCarty declared  when he opened his restaurant in 1979.

I have a special place in my heart for Michael’s in Santa Monica: before it made its debut I persuaded my editors at New West Magazine that it was going to revolutionize restaurants. It was, I insisted, brash, exciting and utterly new.  I then spent a few days a month for almost a year hanging out with Michael and his chefs as they built the place.

It WAS revolutionary: the chefs were all American (unheard of in those days), young (they were all under 25, equally unheard of at the time), and college educated. On top of that they were using American ingredients and showcasing American wines.

There were other innovations: Michael was one of the first restaurateurs to computerize his kitchen. He filled the dining room with great modern art (still there), and dressed his waiters in Ralph Lauren.  He created a garden so lovely that eating among the plants was reason enough to entice many people through the door. But the food was the main draw. Michael had an eye for talent: the first chefs – Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, and Mark Peel- all went on to distinguished careers.

I’ve been back many times over the years, but my last visit left me with a sinking feeling. Nearing forty, the place felt like a tired old star limping along on its last legs.

So I was thrilled to walk in a few nights ago and find the place packed to the rafters and filled with energy.  I was even happier to look at the menu and find that I was eager to taste every single dish.  This is the old age we all yearn for: the rooms have been spruced up, but the basic bones are so good they don’t need a face lift. As for the garden – it has only grown more graceful over time.

The energy comes from the new chef, Miles Thompson (he worked at Animal, opened Allumette and then went north to work at Shed).  His menu is pure fun.

Consider that barbecued quail up above, the flavors amped up with tangerine, miso and plum vinegar. Plain delicious.

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Octopus with lime curd, chrysanthemum and a shrimp vinaigrette: a few irresistible little morsels.

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The most wonderful squid, the flavor underlined by a devilish smudge of burnt eggplant puree and the gentleness of maitake mushrooms.

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Chawanmushi – but a bracingly clean version – flooded with the voluptuous flavor of crab and sea urchin and sparked by a flash of ginger.

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Hiding somewhere under all that greenery are light little ricotta gnudi

The entrees are more straightforward – although they do their best to startle with strangeness.  This tiny, juicy little chicken – beautifully cooked –  arrives embellished with both head and feet.

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A righteous steak: big, bold, meaty.  Something for everyone.

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This branzino was delicious – but that black carrot puree?  Over the top. Addictive. Enough, all by itself, to bring you back.

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The excitement over the food has also infused the staff: they’re young, pumped, eager to make you happy. It’s really good to see Michael’s come roaring back.

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The Three T’s of Ink.

February 23, 2017

Here’s the problem: the first courses at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink. are so sneakily delightful that by the time the steak arrives, you’re unable to give it the respect it deserves.

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For this is a great piece of meat, beautifully aged and gorgeously seared, filled with that elusive primal beef flavor.  (That little frill of puffed tendon is a nice touch.)

I was also taken with this Japanese red snapper, cunningly peeking out of the mushroom pepper pancake in which it was swathed. The flavor was intense, the textures exciting.

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But alas, I could not do justice to either dish; I’d been too excited by everything that came first.

Voltaggio treats temperature as the third element in his cooking (along with taste and texture). His endive and blue cheese salad is a perfect example:

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This is a simple dish, a familiar combination, but in Voltaggio’s hands it’s entirely new. He’s frozen the cheese, and as it slowly melts in your mouth, you experience the flavors in entirely unexpected ways.

He does something similar with foie gras, freezing it into lovely little curls, then setting it atop radishes and setting it on hazelnut butter.

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Served like this, you experience foie gras as if you’ve never encountered it before.  At first you taste only the hazelnut, but as the foie gras warms up, its flavor leaps forward. There’s a similar textural effect when the crisp crunch of the radish is overtaken by the increasingly soft and seductive foie gras.

The chef also has his way with fried calamari, which arrives looking like some sinister sea monster. But this is the crispest calamari you’ve ever eaten, and after one bite it becomes so irresistible you simply keep on eating.

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Voltaggio’s signature dish is the egg yolk gnocchi, another textural tour de force that goes somersaulting through your mouth, changing with each bite.

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There’s so much here – melting onions, tiny crisp croutons, shaved appenzeller, and then those little gnocchi, which evaporate as your mouth closes around them. This is like onion soup gratinee on steroids – and very hard to stop eating.

Ink. serves exciting food, and it’s a  perfect place to consider when you’ve got a group that includes people with traditional tastes (those steaks!) along with extremely adventurous eaters. The room is dark, casual, and a bit noisy – but the service could not be sweeter.

 

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A Small Bite of LA

February 19, 2017

IMG_9511You’re unlikely to find prettier food than what they’re serving at  the ultra-hip Destroyer in Culver City; it’s a true feast for the eyes. Whether you will consider it an actual feast is another matter.  The chef Jordan Kahn (his previous restaurant was Red Medicine), likes to introduce odd ingredients to one another, and my own sense is that they often don’t get along.  English peas, job’s tears, gooseberries and frozen cream made an exquisitely interesting salad, but I found his take on the now-ubiquitous steak tartare, despite its delicate airs (that’s it down below)…

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rather heavy.  Beneath those feathery vegetables was ground beef (along with a fair amount of naked beef fat), blobs of smoked egg cream, oddly slimy pickled mushrooms and radishes. 

Here’s how he serves roasted baby yams:

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wrapped up in lettuce, with avocado, yogurt and lemon and dusted (like so many dishes) with tarragon powder. 

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To be honest, my favorite dish (the one that seemed most conventional, and most like a meal), was the least photogenic: a big bowl of riced potatoes with chicken confit, roasted lettuce and hazelnut splashed with yuzu. I will leave it to your imagination: it was both delicious and substantial.

Had a really wonderful dinner at Wally’s in Beverly Hills, that began with these adorable mini-bagels (the bagels were remarkably light, and spread with sprightly lemon ricotta rather than cream cheese), and smoked salmon.

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Then there was this spectacular salad. The burrata, persimmon, beets and pomegranate were very content to snuggle up witheach other.

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I loved the pot of clams and spot prawns, roasted in a wood-burning oven and topped with curried lobster butter.  As you might imagine, Wally’s has a memorable wine list. (No wonder Beyonce and Jay Z like to dine in the private dining room!)FullSizeRender (15)

Had a lovely meal in the high airy atrium at  Spring.  It’s the perfect place to lunch downtown: I can’t get this textbook version of salade nicoise out of my mind.  Yes, it’s a simple dish, but it was in perfect balance, a tangle of  yellowtail tuna, olives, tomatoes, anchovies, green beans, tiny potatoes, celery and fennel that made each bite distinct and different from the one before.

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Lovely dessert too:

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Two more little tidbits.  I couldn’t stop eating the red endive and fennel salad I had one night at the counter at Osteria Mozza; A few shards of cheese, and then the sweet and sour dance of a date and anchovy dressing. I liked it even better than the endive and blue cheese salad at Flora in New York, and that’s saying something.

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Finally, I have to mention the completely appealing smudge of fresh English peas at Jar.  (I’m so partial to the restaurant’s  Jidori chicken, rich with lemongrass and garlic, that I dove in before I remembered to snap its picture.)

The peas reminded me of a dish the late Michael Roberts pioneered (at the LA restaurant whose name will now not be mentioned). Long before the current craze for innovative guacamole he was constructing his own sly version out of frozen peas. Jar uses fresh peas, which is even sweeter.

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Signor Pepe’s Pizza

February 13, 2017

FullSizeRender (9)Franco Pepe travels the world, preaching pizza.  He is an earnest man, a perfectionist, a control freak, who makes every chef he visits nervous. Every single ingredient must be up to his standards.

When he leaves his small Pepe in Grani pizzeria in Caiazzo, outside Naples he travels with his own wheat; nothing else will do. He’s fussy about tomatoes; they  must be Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes (he has them preserved in jars).  Anchovies, of course, will only do from Cetara and Signor Pepe prefers the olives from his hometown. As for mozzarella, here’s Chi Spacca’s chef, Ryan Denicola, on the subject. “We got buffalo mozzarella from four importers, and he rejected them all.  They were too soft inside. He won’t use mozzarella unless you can see the layers in the cheese, like rings in a tree.”

And when he’s mixed the dough, he runs around whatever kitchen he happens to be in with a thermometer, searching out the perfect place to let it rise.

The result?  The most perfect pizza you will ever eat.

Signor Pepe spent last weekend in Los Angeles, teaching pizza classes at Chi Spacca. He was a wonder to watch, deftly patting out the dough, covering it with cheese and putting it into the oven for less than a minute.  At the very end each pizza is hefted on the peel, lifted to the fire and toasted on top, much as you would a marshmallow around a campfire.

The result? Simultaneously soft and crisp, the crust bakes up into something very much like a cloud, cradling whatever toppings Signor Pepe chooses to add.

FullSizeRender (6)My favorite was Il Sole nel Piatto (sunshine on a plate) with buffalo mozzarella, anchovies, basil, extra virgin olive oil and olives. The flavors simply exploded on the palate.

Fried into calzone, the dough becomes crisp, fragile and  virtually greaseless; I had a hard time believed it had ever encountered oil.

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Pizza Scarpetta.  In Italian table talk, fare la scarpetta means “make the little shoe.”  It’s what you do when you tear off a piece of bread and scrape the last bit from your plate.  And this pizza, with is stunningly intense tomato sauce, insists you eat every last tidbit. Fantastic!

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Onions. Cheese. Cream  By this time I was in a pizza coma, eating blindly, unable to stop.

Sadly, I neglected to photograph the “wrong Margarita,” which the chef makes by cooking only the mozzarella, then adding squiggles of tomato sauce and basil oil after the pizza emerges from the heat. A challenge and an exclamation from the man who many think is the greatest pizzaiolo in the world: “I will make it mine!”

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