Can We Talk?

March 2, 2018

Los Angeles is filled with chefs who are determined to reconsider the whole notion of what a restaurant might be.  Dining at all these experimental places – Vespertine, The Rogue Experience, Maude – has been exhilarating. Dialogue, the latest of the lot, was no exception. 

Dave Beran, who worked with Grant Achatz in Chicago (he was the executive chef at the brilliant Next) thinks about a meal as a conversation between chef and diner; he’s not just feeding you a meal – he’s telling you a story. Each dish is a segue echoing the one before and introducing the one to come.  Although the food is not remotely Japanese, this struck me as a Western version of a kaiseki meal.  Beran’s aim is to take you on a sensory voyage through the seasons.

 We began in winter, with an interactive version of the classic Canadian tire d’arable, where maple syrup is poured onto ice to become a kind of candy.  In this case you twirl it onto a stick of roasted burdock.  The temperature is hot and cold, the flavors sweet and slightly bitter.

Next up, maple again, this time paired with trout roe.  I first had this combination at a breakfast Jose Andres cooked (he served it on tiny pancakes), and I’ve loved the forceful dance of flavors ever since.

This innocuous looking little imp is called “crab in the parsnip snow,”  another textural tango of airy, soft, sweet and cold.

Fermented carrot with a little pillow of zabuton steak.The flavors, after so much sweetness, were a welcome jolt.

This candied leaf of shiso was hiding a little pillow of  rice with caramelized miso, a tender way to move us out of winter into a sprightly spring. 

It was followed by a completely kinetic dish: little mint candies buried in chocolate nibs came to sudden life as the bowl was shaken.  I was so busy laughing with delight I forgot to take its picture.

Mint again, this time with osetra caviar, smoked sturgeon and cucumber.  (I love caviar; not sure I love caviar with mint.  But then I’ve rarely found anything that can beat caviar on its own.)

 

 This lovely little bouquet contains razor clams, geranium, lovage and almonds.  A single refreshing bite; another way of thinking of surf and turf.

 

Another bouquet, another tangle of tastes and textures.  This is poussin, with all the classic herbes de Provence. I kept thinking of twigs breaking beneath my feet in a springtime forest.

The segue here is a leaf of tarragon.  The flavors are rhubarb and l’explorateur cheese.

What do you see here that you’ve seen before? What you have not seen before – and in my opinion do not see often enough – are lily bulbs. They have the most intriguingly gentle taste and seductively crunchy texture.

Crisp little black kale sandwiches filled with avocado.  The avocado toast of the future.

Sunchoke.  Artichoke.  Olive.

Lamb.  Fermented strawberries.  Nasturtium leaves. And on the side, pommes aligot.  Pure. Simple. Delicious.

From spring lamb to the strawberries of summer. One little bite of liquid strawberry and olive oil.  It looks – and tastes – like dynamite.

Have you ever seen anything lovelier?  All through dinner the chef has been plying his tweezers, carefully creating these little tarts of wild fennel and wood sorrel. 

High summer now. An astonishing fizz of raspberry and rose.

And finally a piece of cake.

You go out the door, dazed and dazzled by the journey.  And as you make your way out of this strangely hidden little restaurant (you need a secret code to gain entrance), you do truly feel that you’ve had an almost wordless conversation with the chef.  He’s discovering this new home of his, Los Angeles, and taking great delight in sharing it with you.

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David Chang in LA

February 23, 2018

Every time I texted my friends about our reservation at Major Domo, autocorrect changed it to “major doom.”

I hoped that wasn’t an omen.

But when we get there – a journey through a strange, empty industrial landscape that feels like we’re driving to the edge of the moon – we find the most amazingly vibrant scene. Big, buzzy, loud and filled with young energy, this is, instantly, a place you want to be.

Waiters push carts around, giving it a faintly street feel. This is the first flavor, a water kimchi so refreshing I find myself picking up the bowl and inhaling the brine.

Then there are bings – flat breads with various toppings you dip into or roll inside.

I love them all – the spicy lamb, the eggplant, but most of all the chickpea hozon, a smooth velvety variation on humous that puts all others to shame.

This is sliced kampachi. The fish is delicious. What is better, however, is the bonji that comes with it.  A variation on soy sauce, it’s made of fermented rye. I am deeply tempted to drink the entire bottle or – better yet – pocket it and take it home.  Look for it in your future.

Lots of great vegetables here; I especially like the raw sugar snaps with horseradish and fried shallots.

Black cod is the silkiest, richest fish I know. It’s so filled with fat it’s almost impossible to ruin. Still, I really love this version with noodles, daikon and chilies.

Boiled chicken always looks so pathetic and vulnerable, and the whole one at Major Domo (it easily feeds three) is no exception.  Carved and plated with those two sauces it becomes a lot more attractive.  I especially like the ginger-scallion concoction, which reminds me of the one at New York Noodletown that was so wildly popular with French chefs in the early nineties.

Whole chicken, round two: made into soup with hand-torn noodles.  Simple and totally satisfying.

There are only two desserts: This is the ying, an utterly irresistible mountain of shaved ice, fruit and meringue, a take on a Japanese kakigōri.

And here is the yang: smaller, more compact, and equally appealing, this is a kind of Korean hotteok, little cakes stuffed with a rich mixture of dates and sesame.

As we sit there, eating dessert, we watch enviously as whole plate short ribs – great big bones – are wheeled across the room. They look so delicious.  So does the braised boneless short rib as it is dramatically finished at the table with gooey scrapings of melted raclette cheese. And why didn’t we order the signature Chang spicy bo ssam?

I’ll just have to go back.

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A Trip to Rioja (Without Leaving LA)

February 22, 2018

Suppose a friend, who happened to be a terrific chef, went off on vacation. Suppose that instead of boring you with photographs you’d rather not watch, he came home and described the trip by feeding you a slew of delicious dishes?

That’s pretty much the premise behind Maude.  Curtis Stone and his chef, Justin Hilbert went off on a chef’s tour of Rioja a few months ago.  You can read about their trip here.  Or you can go to the restaurant and eat it.

Frankly, I’ll take the food route.

The  voyage begins upstairs in the wine cellar, a comfortable romantic little room where you sit sipping Spanish vermouth, eating olives, almonds and soft rosy slices of jamon iberico.

Then it’s downstairs to dinner.  If you’re lucky you’ll be sitting at the counter, where you can watch Justin painstakingly plate the first dish of tiny vegetables.  An ode to the garden at Venta Moncalvillo, this isn’t really food – it’s a painting on a plate, just a little something to whet your appetite.

But this journey is as much about wine as it is about food; if you’ve ever craved a Rioja seminar, sommelier Andrey Tolmachyov is your man. The first wine, new to me, is Palacios Remondo Placet 2015, which has a lovely edge of bitterness at the back.

It’s followed by a tempranillo blanco- a grape of which I have remained ignorant for my entire life.. The Ad Libitum is lovely – and what’s even lovelier is that these clams are cooked in the same wine (along with oranges, bergamot and a sofrito). You’ll want the bread to dip up every bit of the delicious broth.

Next up, this very cheffy version of the classic Catalan tomato bread: meringues, roasted garlic and just the faintest rumor of tomato.

“When we went foraging with Francis Paniego,” says Curtis, “we got so many mushrooms. But we didn’t even try to bring them back with us; we were sure customs wouldn’t let them into the country. These are California mushrooms.”  Still, when he lifted the lid from the pot, the aroma  took me straight to Spain.

I love old white Riojas because, unlike most white wines, they aren’t afraid to show their age. The Marques de Murieta Castillo Ygay Gran Riserva is a grande old dame, and also one of the most appealing white wines I’ve ever sipped. Still lithe and graceful, it has the special dignity of its many years.

Next up, a couple more aged creatures:  bonito and carrots, cured to mimic classic Spanish conservas.  And a fascinating wine from one of Rioja’s most modern winemakers, Tentenublo Xerico, 2015.

Do you ever dream of  beans? I could not forget this classic Rioja stew – the local red caparron bean cooked with chorizo. To the chefs it  recalled a dinner with Juan Carlos Sancha.  To me it was a journey to a wonderful place, layers of fat and flavor that reverberated through my body.  It arrived with a misty coat that slowly melted away to reveal the beans. I loved the respect the chefs showed this humble dish: the caparrones were served with a truly majestic wine – C.U.N.E Imperial Riserva 1981.

And finally the classic chuleton of Spain: a righteous piece of meat that had been beautifully aged.  With this, a wine that is Rioja in a different mood: Artadi Pina El Pisan, 2006.   Don’t miss the wine. Don’t miss the meat. And don’t miss them together.

By now I was so happy I forgot to shoot the first dessert: sheep’s milk curds with cherry and salted almond.  But by the time the classic crema catalana came around I had recovered. Served with a rare sweet Spanish wine, Bodegas Tritium Mercator, it was a lovely final flavor.

And should you be interested in a bit more of Spain…  I was in nearby San Sebastian last year, where I had some of the most wonderful food of my life.  You can read about it here.

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Going Rogue

February 17, 2018

Getting a seat at Wolfgang Puck’s Rogue Experience isn’t easy.  There are only eight seats at the experimental laboratory counter, and when I tried to snag one it turned out they were taken for the foreseeable future.

But I was really curious, eager to find out how this venture into the future of food stacks up against other LA places  like Vespertine and Dialogue (going next week). And I’m not beyond begging. The fact that I’ve known Wolf for almost forty years (I spent an entire year writing  about the opening of Chinois for New West Magazine), undoubtedly helped. A seat was found for me.

It certainly doesn’t look like any other restaurant in the world. Hidden inside the Puck corporate offices in the Pacific Design Center, you are led through a labyrinth of designer shops into a cozy den that might belong to anybody. Behind the bar a mixologist stands shaking drinks with manic energy. The Rogue 35 (this is the restaurant’s thirty-fifth week), a mad combination of Scotch, honey, pomelo, grapefruit juice (even ice cubes made from grapefruit water), is the opening shot.

Nearby a couple of earnest young chefs ply their tweezers, and after you’re introduced to your fellow diners you stand around the counter casually eating their offerings with your fingers.  First up is this fantastic corn concoction, a kind of fresh polenta topped with chicharron and aji amarillo.

This spot prawn, fresh from Santa Barbara, is set on brioche along with its roe and a little hit of kumquat. Still, it’s the head that knocks me out.

Now we’re led through a large kitchen filled with space age tools that look like they’d be more comfortable in a science lab than a kitchen.  It’s a wonderland of centrifuges and anti-griddles. Then it’s on to the counter, where still more chefs are busy at the stoves.

Despite its name, Rogue has an overarching sweetness; it seems to be Wolf’s way of giving the people who work for him the ultimate cooking experience.  He invites chefs from his far-flung empire to come for a week and gives them a single mission: find great ingredients and use them in innovate ways.  The catch: each dish has to be something they’ve never cooked before. Money, it seems, is not an object. And a  professional photographer’s on hand to catalogue each dish.

The menu changes weekly, but tonight the first dish is this take on steak tartare, the coarsely chopped beef rolled up in daikon and topped with dry-fried seaweed.  The seaweed is a truly inspired touch.

Oysters are next, little gems set in a puddle of pancetta stock and topped with a green garlic mayonnaise. I’ve always thought oysters Rockefeller ought to be retooled for the 21st century: now it’s been done.

The next dish is greeted with oohs and ahs.  Then an awed dead silence ensues.  Yes, it is truly that delicious.

Sea urchin, yuzu mousse, caviar… But the truly elegant touch is those sweet-sour little red dots dancing around the edge. A mixture of umeboshi and beet puree, it frames the flavors in the most intriguing fashion.

Black cod, the most luxurious fish, is simply served on a puree of parsnip and miso, garnished with sprouting broccoli.

“This,” says Chef Joel as he plates the next dish, “is my version of ramen. The noodles are made of fish cake, there’s egg yolk jam, and be sure to eat the crispy fried egg before the broth is poured over.”

The little lace cap of egg is a treat. And that deep, rich broth! I taste chicken, pork, bacon, roasted onion, scallion, a hint of ginger. More please.

Chef Jenny calls this “accidental pasta,” and it is like none I’ve ever tasted.  The texture reminds me of dried tofu, and the entire flavor profile – dashi, bamboo, spiny lobster – is more Asia than Italy.

Back to Mexico for the quail, with its cake made of masa, its queso fresco, its garnish of corn silk.

Foie gras mousse with strawberry glaze and litchi.  Need I say more?Let me just add that the little fortune cookie made of dried strawberries is a fine surprise.

What is this strange wiggly black thing? An egg rolled in burnt brioche crumbs! The pork jowel on the side has been zapped with gochujang. Absorbing and delicious.

 

“Were an amusement park,” says Chef Micah as he helps compose the next dish.  “We’re trying to give you a roller coaster ride of flavors.” This must be an e ticket: spoon-soft beef cheeks with truffle, peas, pea leaves and carrots of many colors.

On to dessert.  Can I eat another bite?  This treatise on coconut, all texture and temperature, proves irresistible.  Tapoica, young coconut, and coconut ice in a chocolate shell. On the side, a roasted banana.  To my astonishment  I inhale every morsel.

And finally the single most seductive strawberry shortcake I’ve ever encountered. Strawberries frozen into ruffles, cooked into gelee, served with sheep milk sorbet. It’s like shy little Cinderella after she’s been touched with a magic wand.

There’s more.  A trip back to the den, for more drinks and this little parting gift of  pineapple, brown butter and pecan.

One of the qualities I’ve always admired about Wolf is his unerring talent for management. People stay with him for years, sometimes their entire careers.

As the team – Joel, Micah, Jen, Jett, David, Erik, Jay, Jenny, George and Alan – wave a cheerful goodbye I suddenly get what is unique about Rogue. It’s the first restaurant I’ve ever encountered that isn’t about you. It’s about them. About encouraging them, about giving them a chance to develop their talents.

But if we’re very lucky, we get to go along for the ride.

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Massimo in Los Angeles

February 16, 2018

Among today’s hero chefs – and they are a growing group – two people really stand out.

Jose Andres, who’s showing the world how private citizens can deal with disaster if they have the heart, the will and the energy to do it. His work in Puerto Rico makes me proud to be human.  And Massimo Bottura, who’s making it his mission to enlist fellow chefs to feed the hungry all over the world.

Massimo was in Los Angeles last night, raising money for his foundation, Food for Soul (and also the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank), and to celebrate his new book, Bread is Gold.

This is what we ate – described in the chef’s own words. (Please forgive the photography; the lighting was romantic, which was lovely but all those candles made shooting food very difficult.)

Insalata di Mare

“The classic Italian antipasto reinvented like a game of hide and seek where octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, calms, oysters, mussels, bottarga, yuzu, seaweed and aromatic herbs delight and surprise.”

A perfect description of one of my favorite Massimo dishes.

Maine Meets LA

A playful take on the East Coast lobster roll puts tradition on the back burner.  The hot dog roll is substituted with a Chiense steamed bun filled with fresh Maine lobster and dressed with crustacean sauce and marinated vegetables.

Autumn in New York: Winter in LA

“This dish is a tribute to Billie Holiday’s infamous rendition of the jazz standard. The main ingredients are apples prepared according to diverse culinary practices.  They are glazed with red beet juice and smoked, pickled in apple cider vinegar and warming spices, roasted in pork fat, pureed with red wine and onions and served with a green apple gel, and finished with a cream of Campanine apple mostarda and burnt apple dashi.”

(You’ll find my notes on this dish – and others – here.)

Riso Arancia

“Centuries ago, Caterina de Medici brought the original Tuscan recipe ‘anatra all arancia’ the celebrate her union with King Henry II and the recipe has been traveling ever since. This version, with duck, orange and spices bridges the cuisines of Europe and Asia.  Vialone Nano rice is cooked in a fragrant broth of burnt oranges and served with a hand chopped duck ragu and a coriander Peking sauce.”

What you’re missing here is the fragrance; the scent of oranges went wafting across the table in the most seductive fashion.

In the Cherry Orchard

“An edible landscape celebrates ingredients from the Modenese countryside. Three DOP cherries: ciliegia, duroni and amarine are blended into a deep cherry sorbet.  Crumble from a local chocolate and coffee delicacy called Torta Barozzi represents the rich agricultural soil while an almond infused ricotta from the foothills of the Apennines covers the dish like an Emilian fog.”

Popcorn

“A sweet and salty dessert becomes a celebration of the small and simple pleasures of life.”

Cracker Jacks on a visit to Antartica. Cold, warm, sweet, salty. Very fun.

 

 

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